Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan

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

The Third Shadow

a.k.a. DAISANNO KAGEMUSHA
Daiei Co., ltd. [1963] 104′
country: Japan
director: Umetsugu Inoue
cast: Raizo Ichikawa, Hizuru Takachiho,
Masayo Banri, Shigeru Amachi

Japan in the 16th Century. It is the Sengoku (which means “warring states”) era and the country is in a state of perpetual civil war between numerous warlords of huge ambition and dubious sanity. One of these warlords, Yasutaka Ikemoto (Raizo Ichikawa, star of the Nemuri Kyoshiro and Shinobi films), seems to be bound for greatness and already dreams of the whole of Japan united under his rule.

A man like him must be mindful of his enemies, though, and Yasutaka tries to prolong his life through the use of “shadows”, doubles whose honor it is to take his place when it comes to the unpleasant business of dying.

The young farmer Kyonosuke Ninomiya (also Raizo Ichikawa), a descendant of a line of impoverished samurai now earning their bread as farmers, has long dreamed of following the way of his ancestors to glory and money. His dream seems to come true when the First Retainer of Yasutaka lays eyes on him and proposes to take him into the service of his master.

Once in Yasutaka’s castle, Kyonosuke learns that his new job won’t be as glorious as he had imagined. The young man looks exactly like his new master and therefore makes an ideal third double. When he is not learning to act exactly like his master does, he and his two colleagues in the double business are hidden away from prying eyes.

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Well, at least the payment is good, and when the Lord of the house is unwilling to spend time with his once favorite concubine Kohagi (Masayo Banri), Kyonosuke’s double powers are put to the final test that is at once a rather cruel reward. Still, a shadow’s life doesn’t look too bad to him, until Yasutaka loses an eye in one of his battles. Obviously, a good double can’t keep walking around with two. This double business isn’t something you can cancel, either – the choice for the shadows is “lose your eye or lose your life”.

The same night when Kyonosuke and one of the other doubles lose an eye, and the first double his life when trying to escape, Yasutaka’s castle is attacked.

Kyonosuke escapes with his Lord, but when Yasutaka loses an arm, and tries to entice the freshly mutilated man into bringing him to the castle of the allied Miki, Kyonosuke’s desperation and bitterness explode and he kills Yasutaka.

On his flight from his former master’s land, Kyonosuke meets the First Retainer again. The crafty and power-hungry samurai coerces the young man into taking on the role of Yasutaka full time – well, that or dying – to continue the way to conquest the dead Lord once began. After a time, Kyonosuke begins to dare to develop his own dreams and ambitions, but does a normal human being with normal human dreams stand a chance against members of a ruling class without even a hint of a conscience?

I don’t know much about The Third Shadow’s director Umetsugu Inoue, except that he would leave Japan a few years after making this film and start work as a contract director for the Shaw Brothers and become somewhat famous for films in diverse genres that are often described with adjectives like “flamboyant”.

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This is not a film that foreshadows these future Hong Kong films much, though. Instead, it is very typical for the wave of excellent and pessimistic Jidai Geki and Chambara that started to conquer a certain stuffiness in both samurai film genres in the first half of the 60s.  Inoue’s directorial style here is an interesting mixture of lighting techniques usually found in stage plays, austere framing and extremely economic storytelling.

You won’t find a single superfluous cut here, no scene that isn’t exactly built as it needs to be; one could argue that the film could use some flourishes of colour, but its visual presentation and narrative flow are in exact correspondence to the bleak feeling of futility that pervades it. Poor Kyonosuke never has a chance for a better life, not as a poor farmer with illusions about the greatness of war, not when he is nothing more than another man’s shadow and not when he decides to try to become that man and fulfill ambitions that are not his own. Being himself is of course completely out of the question and once Kyonosuke tries to become himself, he is doomed to death and madness. Being human is just not something that is allowed in a time and place where a person’s status is more important than what a person truly is. The war machine of the Sengoku era just eats up everyone it can get ahold of to fuel more war. If you think that this could be a commentary on Japan, 1963, you are probably right.

It’s all exactly as depressing as it sounds, but I wouldn’t mind that in a Greek tragedy, so why should I mind it here? The Third Shadow gets more melodramatic in the effective way of Japanese movies of its time the longer the film goes on, but Inoue never lets his film drift into sentimentality or the uncontrolled flailing found in the bad kind of melodrama.

What isn’t achieved by the director is achieved by Ichikawa’s wonderful performance in a difficult triple role that is as intense and complex as any I have seen from him.

For more bizarre movie goodness, be sure
to visit Denis’ excellent review blog The Horror!?

Black Line

a.k.a. Kurosen Chitai / Black Line Zone
company: Shintoho Studios
year: 1960
runtime: 80′
country: Japan
director: Teruo Ishii
cast: Shigeru Amachi, Utako Mitsuya,
Yoko Mihara, Toshio Hosokawa
not on home video in the USA
order this film from
Amazon.co.jp

Anyone who knows anything at all about the history of cinema’s seedy underbelly should find the name Teruo Ishii instantly recognizable. He’s a legend among the pantheon of Japanese cult film directors [rightfully dubbed the "King of Cult" in his native country] and most famous for the ero-guro [erotic-grotesque] pictures he produced for Toei studios throughout the 60′s and 70′s. Those who know him only for that work may find his humble beginnings, directing low budget genre fare [most famously 6 entries in the Space Giants series, better known as the Starman chronicles here in the States] for Shintoho Studios, as something of a surprise.

In 1958, in the midst of making spandex-laden Tokusatsus and crowd pleasing romances, Ishii found himself directing crime pictures as well. The most notable of these, by far, belong in the director’s five part chitai [or line] series – which kicked off with SECRET WHITE LINE [SHIROSEN HIMITSU CHITAI] in September of that year. That film, concerned with an underground prostitution ring, was successful enough that Shintoho allowed the series to continue – the thematic sequel BLACK LINE [KUROSEN CHITAI] saw release in January of 1960.

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Jigoku

a.k.a. HELL / THE SINNERS OF HELL
Shintoho Co. Ltd [1960] 98′
country: Japan
director: NOBUO NAKAGAWA
cast: SHIGERU AMACHI, YOICHI NUMATA,
cast: UTAKO MITSUYA, KANJURO ARASHI

Contradictory to what a plethora of Chick Tracts and so-called “Hell Houses” (haunted houses featuring abortions instead of ax murders) may lead you to believe, the belief in hell by the various peoples of the world is in decline. A lot of that undoubtedly has to do with the dwindling popularity of a place of eternal damnation since the 18th century Enlightenment and the fact that people are, largely, becoming more tolerant of beliefs alternative to their own. Still, fictional representations of hell are quite popular in film and have been since the inception of the medium (George Melies offered early viewers a variety of amusing shorts on the subject, including 1903′s THE INFERNAL CAKE-WALK).

Produced in 1960 by the failing Shintoho Studios (it would rise again shortly thereafter as a producer predominantly of pink films), Nakagawa’s JIGOKU presents viewers with one of the most stylishly disturbing visages of the underbelly of the afterlife ever committed to film.

Shiro Shimizu (Amachi) seems to have a happy life ahead of him – he’s doing well in college and has just become engaged to one of his professor’s daughters. All of that changes after his supposed-friend Tamura (Numata) hits and kills a young yakuza while driving Shimizu’s car. Against his better judgment he says nothing of the accident to the police, but his guilt leads to a series of unfortunate incidents. First his fiance Yukiko is killed when her taxi, which Shimizu demanded she take, hits a tree. Her family is destroyed by the incident, which drives the mother mad and Shimizu to drink, leading to a fling with a stripper who just happens to be the lover of the yakuza killed in the earlier hit-and-run . . .

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