dir. Nobuo Nakagawa
1959 / Shintoho Co. / 76′
written by Masayoshi Onuki and Yoshihiro Ishikawa
from the play by Nanboku Tsuruya IV
director of phogoraphy Tadashi Nishimoto
music by Michiaki Watanabe
starring Shigeru Amachi, Noriko Kitazawa, Katsuko Wakasugi, Shuntaro Emi and Ryuzaburo Nakamura
Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan is available for online streaming through the Criterion Collection channel on Huluplus
Before he shocked audience sensibilities with the bizarre and inimitably grotesque Jigoku in 1960 veteran Japanese director Nobuo Nakagawa sent shivers down their spines with this stylish tale of ghostly revenge. Early on a director of everything from comedies to war-time documentaries, Nakagawa is most remembered for a number of supernatural horrors directed for Shintoho Co. in the latter half of the ’50s. Among those films 1959’s Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan may well be the best. Adapted from the famed (and oft-filmed) 19th century kabuki by playwright Nanboku Tsuruya IV, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan tells the classic story of innocence tormented, only to rise up from beyond the grave to grant evil its just deserts.
The first half of Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan operates as a catalogue of atrocities perpetuated against a woman and her family from without and within. Central to the drama is ronin Tamiya Iemon (Shigeru Amachi), a samurai of ill-repute whose intentions of marrying Iwa (Katsuko Wakasugi), daughter of the Yotsuya family, are thwarted by his would-be father-in-law Samon. One dreary evening, enraged by the elder’s insults, Iemon slaughters both Yotsuya Samon as well as the father of Sato Yomoshichi (Ryuzaburo Nakamura), a talented young swordsman betrothed to Iwa’s sister Sode (Noriko Kitazawa). Witnessed by ne’er-do-well Naosuke (Shintaro Emi), who is himself obsessed with Sode, Iemon finds himself in an alliance of convenience, and following a plan by Naosuke to blame the deaths of fathers Yotsuya and Sato on a local rough who had troubled the families in the past. Yomoshichi quickly joins up with the two schemers, believing that they wish to help avenge the families by hunting down those responsible, only to find himself at the edge of their swords as well.
Some time later, all obstacles to their success seemingly overcome, Iemon and Naosuke each take up residence in Edo with their respective sister. While Sode refuses to marry Naosuke, demanding that her family be avenged before such can come to pass, Iemon settles uncomfortably into a married life with Iwa and has a son. It doesn’t take long for Iemon to grow tired of his pedestrian lifestyle, doing unsatisfying work to support his wife and child and losing most of his earnings to gambling. When a chance encounter finds him in the good graces of the wealthy Ito’s, and their beautiful daughter Ume, he sees a chance for escape. Soon Iemon, the Ito’s, Naosuke and even a local masseuse are scheming to absolve Iemon of his familial obligations, but when Iwa proves too devoted to her husband he takes drastic, irreversible action.
Convincing masseuse Takuetsu to seduce his wife so that he might have proper grounds to divorce her, Iemon secretly plots to kill the pair as adulterers – his right, by law. Knowing that Iwa will never willingly accept Takuetsu’s advances, Iemon instead guarantees her demise by feeding her a deadly, disfiguring poison. Iwa discovers too late her husband’s treachery, and the depth of his crimes against her family, but before throwing both herself and her child on a blade curses his name, vowing to avenge her misfortunes with nothing less than the eradication of the Tamiya family line. Takuetsu becomes collateral damage, killed to support the facade of adultery, and is dumped along with Iwa into a canal. Convinced that all obstacles have again been overcome Iemon commences with his marriage to Ume, blind to the possibility that his late wife’s spirit might seek revenge…
Adapted in a streamlined fashion by Masayoshi Onuki and Yoshihiro Ishikawa to fit the fiscal and temporal constraints of Shintoho Co.’s typically low-budget fare, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan nevertheless crams a lot of complex character-driven drama into its first few acts. Those unprepared for director Nakagawa’s brisk pacing may find themselves a bit lost in it all, as schemes build upon schemes and ever more outwardly upstanding citizens conspire against young Iwa. It can feel quite chaotic at times, though I dare say that was likely the point. As quickly as things develop it seems improbable, if not impossible, that Iwa could ever have understood the awful depth of human cruelty amassing against her until it was too late, something that makes her plight all the more sympathetic and her eventual revenge all the more satisfying. Katsuko Wakasugi (Ghost of the Girl Diver) lends the role a necessary frailty, seeming a truly helpless victim until the truth of things is revealed to her. From that moment her characterization changes into that of a driven monstrosity, the inhumanity pitted against her giving rise to a suitably inhuman instrument of vengeance.
The versatile and underrated Shigeru Amachi (Black Line, Jigoku), here appearing as the scheming Iemon, plays in pitch-perfect contrast to both iterations of the Iwa character. In the film’s early acts, when Iemon has the upper hand, Amachi is positively psychopathic, utterly remorseless in his actions and forever distant, cold, dangerous. In his day-to-day torments of Iwa he is wantonly despicable, but in his scheme to poison her, playing the dutiful and loving husband all the while, he disturbs, becoming nothing but a murderous beast masquerading as a man. Even the pretense of humanity is dropped once the tables ultimately turn, and the cornered Iemon reverts to a state of frightened, caged animalism. Only at death’s door does a glimmer of genuine humanity shine from within him, the damned Iemon praying too late for his slaughtered wife’s forgiveness.
Director Nobuo Nakagawa skillfully manages the film’s breezy but complex drama, complementing it with a variety of interesting visual motifs (like a recurrence of vertically striped imagery and a notable emphasis on the color red) and otherworldly compositions that often feel like paintings-in-motion. By contrast the latter half of Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan is positively alive with indelible fantasy imagery – a corpse carried across a field of yellow flowers, a body rising from a pool of murky red, Iemon lost on a sea of shutters, a man falling, slowly, onto the flooded floor of an impossible room-turned-marshland. At its height Nakagawa’s work here is absolutely haunting, glimpses of half-remembered nightmares obscured by shadow and punctuated with rich primary color. The style here is highly reflective of that seen in Jigoku and elsewhere throughout Nakagawa’s career, and this flair for the fantastic served the director well as he transitioned to the Toei Co. payroll following Shintoho Co.’s bankruptcy in 1961.
As could be said of so much of the great genre cinema, it would have been easy for Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan to be a mundane outing, another in a long line of adaptations of a story all too familiar, but a favorable confluence of just the right elements have conspired to make it something far greater than that. While Jigoku, with its abstract proclivities and abundant gore (a real rarity in 1960), remains the best known of his films in the West the more substantively accessible Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan may well be Nakagawa’s masterpiece, a classic tale retold in a manner that’s thrilling and unique and oh so spooky. This is vintage Japanese genre cinema at its absolute best, and a must-see for anyone keen on the same.
Though currently unavailable on domestic home video, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan is available for online streaming through the Criterion channel on Huluplus