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Review: Kenji Misumi’s Yotsuya Kaidan (1959)

Updated: Mar 11

[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

Yotsuya Kaidan is Japan’s most popular and frequently adapted ghost story. While the core premise is basically consistent from version to version—penniless ronin Tamiya Iemon falsely accuses his wife of adultery as a pretext to divorce her and marry a wealthier woman, culminating in violence, regret, and vengeance from beyond the grave—the precise details of the narrative vary wildly between cinematic interpretations.

Shintoho’s 1959 film (helmed by Jigoku director Nobuo Nakagawa), for example, is a relentlessly dark (albeit vibrantly colorful) and bleakly cynical morality play; the protagonist is casually cruel and unrepentantly vile, with his grisly fate framed as karmic justice that the audience is intended to enthusiastically applaud. Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1949 duology, on the other hand, depicts Tamiya far more sympathetically; despite his (thoroughly reluctant) complicity in the terrible crimes committed against his spouse, he’s motivated primarily by economic factors beyond his control and the corruptive influence of his slimy, manipulative, verminous “friend,” Naosuke. Indeed, it is implied that the “haunting” is merely psychological—a subconscious manifestation of the central character’s guilty conscience. (Ironically, this “social realism” makes Kinoshita’s movie feel more subversive and revolutionary than Nakagawa’s comparatively lurid and gory effort.)

Kenji Misumi’s radically revisionist spin on the classic tale, however, probably takes the most liberties with the surprisingly malleable source material. Here, Tamiya (played by megastar Kazuo Hasegawa—which goes a long way towards explaining the particular “quirks” in his portrayal) is borderline heroic—an archetypal gruff-yet-chivalrous swordsman cut from the same cloth as Zatoichi and Tange Sazen. He’s also so passive and devoid of agency that he resembles the eponymous “specter” in Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera, remaining virtually blameless for the (unnecessarily convoluted) series of events that result in his tragic downfall. He’s totally unaware of Naosuke’s devious conspiracy to humiliate, defame, and ultimately murder his wife, and although he still participates in an extramarital affair, the relationship appears to be purely transactional (and may not be overtly sexual; the extent of the “lovers’” physical intimacy is left deliberately ambiguous)—driven to desperation by poverty, he only indulges his mistress’ affections in exchange for money and lavish gifts. The editing, in fact, at one point explicitly juxtaposes his infidelity with that of his sister-in-law, who works part-time as a “waitress” at a “bathhouse” in order to supplement her husband’s meager income. Naturally, Tamiya’s relative “innocence” completely recontextualizes the story’s climax and denouement; whereas the character usually suffers an appropriately shameful, pathetic, undignified demise, Misumi allows him to achieve a measure of redemption via his glorious, honorable, beautiful death—sprawled at the feet of a bronze Buddha statue, wrapped in his wife’s favorite kimono, bathed in heavenly sunlight.

Pulpy, unsubtle, and unapologetically melodramatic even by Daiei’s standards, Yotsuya Kaidan isn’t the “best” adaptation of the original kabuki production, but Misumi’s various audacious departures from the “traditional” formula certainly distinguish it as one of the most interesting, unique, and undeniably compelling. For fans of chanbara and J-horror alike, it is essential viewing.

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