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Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Ghost of Oiwa (1961) review


Wakayama Tomisaburo (Tamiya Iemon), Fujishiro Yoshiko (Oiwa), Sakuramachi Hiroko (Osode), Jushiro Konoe (Naosuke), Sawamura Tosho (Yomoshichi), Mihara Yumiko (Oume), Fushimi Sentaro (Kohei), Atsushi Watanabe (Takuetsu)

Directed by Kato Tai

The Short Version: Toei's production of Japan's iconic tale of the macabre really goes for the throat in this unrelenting movie from obscure, but talented director, Kato Tai. His nominally faithful version features what is easily one of the most repulsive interpretations of Iemon put to film. Uncompromisingly brutal, flashes of gore intensify one of the unsung examples of vintage Japanese goosebumpers. If you are a fan of elder European horror, THE GHOST OF OIWA is an eye-opening alternative.

Iemon, a barbarous, destitute samurai is searching for his wife, Oiwa, who left him after he killed a man. Along with his greedy friend, Naosuke, the two vow to kill her father if he refuses to let her come back. Longing for the sister, Osode, Naosuke likewise plots to kill Yomoshichi, Osode's betrothed. The two men eventually realize their evil ambitions and feign a promise to avenge their deaths. A year passes and Oiwa has become ill after giving birth. Having lost interest in her, still poor and desiring money, Iemon sees opportunity when the well-off Ito family moves in next door. Having been entranced by Iemon since bumping into him on the street a year prior, Ito Kahei's beautiful daughter, Oume, wishes to be married to him. Both Iemon and the Ito family conspire to do away with Oiwa so he and Oume can marry. With so many lives unjustly felled, vengeful ghosts return to torture Iemon for his inhuman crimes.

Those who only know Wakayama as Ogami Itto, the Shogun Decapitator of the LONE WOLF films (SHOGUN ASSASSIN [1980]), should seek out this intensely faithful rendering of the oft-rendered play, Yotsuya Kaidan. Interestingly enough, Wakayama had already played the immoral Iemon once before in Masaki Mori's YOTSUYA KAIDAN from 1956. Unlike Hasegawa Kazuo's unnaturally good-natured Iemon in Misumi Kenji's same-titled interpretation for Daiei, Wakayama's second portrayal of the duplicitous ronin is so vile, it makes Shigero Amachi's venomous portrayal of Iemon in Nobuo Nakagawa's TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959) look cartoonish in comparison.

Wakayama owns the film from the first frame to the last. He plays the character with such an evaporated sense of humanity, one becomes transfixed to see the level of cruelty he'll resort to next. He murders assorted innocents without batting an eye; beats and berates Oiwa; pawns items needed to keep their baby safe; and he concocts an elaborate scheme to kill his wife and frame-up whoever is within distance. The definition of low life scum, there's not enough synonyms to accurately describe the famed actor's surly depiction of Iemon; and he's not alone in his murder plot...

Unlike other film versions of Tsuruya Nanboku's kabuki spooker, the character of Naosuke (Toshiro Konoe; also listed as Jushiro) is given more screen time. The medicine peddler's obsession with Osode is given greater emphasis; and despite being a murderer, there are a few fleeting moments that actor Konoe enables the viewer to momentarily forget his crimes. However, while Iemon just gets more devilish as the film progresses, Naosuke ultimately redeems himself. The reliance on their unholy partnership and the depths to which they sink is one of the scripting choices that makes this adaptation such a gripping piece of celluloid.

The catalog of characters seen in Misumi's deeply plotted version are either missing in Kato's film or reduced in narrative significance. The villainy is focused primarily on Iemon and Naosuke. Both of them devise an initial conspiracy to get their filthy clutches on two women--Iemon with his wife who left him after he committed a murder; and Naosuke with Oiwa's sister, Osode, whom he's lusted after for years. Iemon vows to reclaim Oiwa, citing he'll "never find a woman with such a beautiful body". Naturally, Iemon doesn't really mean this at all. He wants what he wants--and when he tires of it, he casts it aside when his attention is caught elsewhere. For the moment, he tries to persuade Oiwa's father, Samon, to coerce her return, but if that doesn't work, he has no qualms about killing the old man.

While this is going on, Naosuke learns Osode has been sold as an indentured servant to a brothel, but under the stipulation she won't be entertaining the clientele, so to speak. Of course, it's not long before that condition becomes null and void. Osode's fiance, Yomoshichi, is enraged by this. He intends to spend one evening with her before going off on some unspecified venture; presumably the same Yomoshichi of the wildly popular play, Kanadehon Chushingura (47 Ronin; which was often intermixed with Yatsuya Kaidan for the stage back in the day). He does so, but not before he and his friend insult Naosuke and run him off. This sets up a scenario that enables both Iemon and Naosuke to literally kill two birds with one stone.

Having gotten what both men wanted, Iemon and Naosuke vow, in front of Oiwa, Osode, and the corpse of Samon, her father, to avenge the old man's death--which neither will be doing since they are the killers. A year passes and Iemon and Oiwa have a child. It's at this point Iemon grows weary of Oiwa, noting that, since she's had their child, she no longer appeals to him; so it's time to get rid of her--much like you'd throw away your trash. But how to do it? 

Meanwhile, Osode, still mourning the apparent loss of Yomoshichi, steadfastly refuses to consummate her relationship with the sexually repressed Naosuke. So, even though both these despicable men have accomplished what they set out to do, they're as miserable now as they were from the start. Despite still being dirt-poor, Iemon's status as a manipulative, evil son of a bitch is about to have its bar raised. Once the much more comfortably living Ito family move in next door, opportunity soon comes knocking. From here, things turn even more disturbing and grotesque.

While there are some alterations, director Kato Tai's script is very faithful to the source material. One of the film's highlights is the protracted poisoning sequence. Lasting for what seems an eternity, Kato squeezes every drop of dread and horror out of it that he can. Unlike other silver screen adaptations, this cataclysmic scene plays with only the subtlest of musical accompaniment--maximizing its effectiveness. Further, Oiwa's facial disfigurement plays out familiarly, but in totally different fashion. The horror displayed is more stomach-churning than shocking. The makeup appliance is arguably the grisliest of all the mutilations of Oiwa's face in the numerous film versions. That Fujishiro Yoshiko's performance is so tortured throughout, her acting, as well as that of Wakayama, only reinforces the tragedy and human savagery, the black-hearted callousness present in the movie. But it gets even worse!

If you're familiar with the play, you know what comes next. Iemon wishes to be rid of his wife--permanently--though he can't simply divorce her over a mangled face. He needs to kill her, and quickly surmises the easiest way to do that is to frame her for adultery. To do this, he beats up, then forces Takuetsu, the old man who runs the brothel, to rape his wife. Oiwa dies after accidentally stabbing herself in the throat and Iemon intends to run his sword through Takuetsu. Begging for his life, Takuetsu reminds Iemon of Kohei, a neighbor he caught stealing medicine for his sickly mother, is still locked away in his cellar. Now possessing an alibi, Iemon then nails the two corpses to each side of a wooden frame and, along with Takuetsu, dumps them in the river.

The last 30 minutes (the film runs 94 minutes) is chock full of ghoulish camera trickery and spattered blood as the ghosts of Oiwa and Kohei return to drive Iemon even more insane than he already is. He ends up at a mountain hermitage where a group of monks attempt to provide the madman sanctuary from the vengeful spirits. But ghosts aren't all that are in pursuit of Iemon. Before the settling of accounts, there's one final twist. 

As faithful as the overall film is, the finale of THE GHOST OF OIWA follows suit with previous incarnations by deviating from the play, dropping an incestuous revelation, but retaining the sword duel that closes the other films.

The comb is once more significant as an instrument of death and revenge. Handed down from their mother, Oiwa uses it to try and make herself pretty before confronting the Ito family. As the scene unfolds, the opposite happens. The comb then acts as something of a truth receptacle. Its reappearance causes a horrified Takuetsu to confess his involvement and Naosuke to his crimes.

Just as the comb is an important accoutrement in this story, so is the use of a mirror. The classic scene where Oiwa sees her reflection has a bit of a spin added to it. In between her agonizing ordeal after taking the poison, we see the younger, beautiful Oume admiring herself in a mirror, anticipating her wedding day with Iemon. This contrasts with Oiwa staring at her deformed countenance in the mirror as she desperately tries to make herself beautiful.

Lacking the color carnage of Nobuo Nakagawa's famous rendition, Kato strikes an extremely visceral chord with the monochrome medium, garnering many benefits from its use. There are numerous instances of photographic brilliance spread throughout, but the B/W format gets an enormous amount of mileage during the last reel. The revenge is more expansive, and, especially during the last few minutes, gets a little too chaotic with the duel at the hermitage suffering slightly from some choppy editing. 

Takahashi Nakaba's music is subdued even if the violence is not. The lack of musical cues is an asset to Kato Tai's movie; but when it's required, it's effective.

Fans of this story should most certainly seek this version out. Those with a fondness for vintage B/W horror, particularly of the European variety, will likely find favor with Kato's film. The tone is so bleak and oppressive, this production from Toei would make a fabulously macabre comparative piece paired with Shin-Toho's TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959). Kato, a director known mainly for Yakuza movies, shows an incredible power in conveying horror with his low camera angles and prolonged scenes of despair and cruelty. THE GHOST OF OIWA (1961) should have a much bigger audience than it does.


Dr. Theda said...

a Villain named "lemon"... My last Name is Lemmon".... lol...
cool post good Sir...

Dr. Theda said...

and a very good read as well...
we were unfamiliar with the "Play"...
good story....

venoms5 said...

I probably should have posted it in there, but it's pronounced like I-yay-mon. First time I saw it, I kept thinking of 'Lemon'. By the way, Takashi Miike directed a version of it that was released last year. English title is OVER YOUR DEAD BODY. Thank you for the comments, Dr. Theda.

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