"Samurai Horror Tales: Yotsuya Ghost Story": Better Scares if You Do Your Homework
One of the stories that shows up in nearly every human culture is the revenge ghost story. It may be a bit depressing to think that stories rooted in hatred or anger deep enough to last beyond death are a unifying human trait, but that shared concept may be why the revenge ghost story has so much staying power. In Japanese culture, one of the most enduring tales of this type is Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. While it is credited to the kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV, the play is based on older legends and some grisly real-life murders. The vivid and disturbing imagery of the tale has resonated strongly with audiences for more than a century, with near-continuous productions on stage and in films since the original play debuted in 1825. The Ayakashi Committee retold the story in animated form as Ayakashi: Yotsuya Kaidan, and Geneon has since brought it to the United States as Samurai Horror Tales: Yotsuya Ghost Story.
In Edo Japan, a masterless and penniless samurai named Tamiya Iemon is married to the Lady Oiwa, but the two have been forcibly separated by her father, Samon Yotsuya, who thinks Iemon is a scoundrel and a thief. Meanwhile, a love triangle involving Oiwa’s sister Osode reveals a deep rift between her competing suitors: Naosuke the medicine peddler and Yomoshichi the samurai. When Iemon encounters the elder Yotsuya on the road alone, their animosity soon ends with Yotsuya’s murder. Nearby, Naosuke murders Yomoshichi, disfiguring Yomoshichi’s face so badly that nobody will recognize him. The two murderers manage to convince Oiwa and Osode that the victims were murdered by bandits, and both make hollow promises to exact vengeance on the real killers. However, Iemon’s eye soon strays to his wealthy neighbor’s young daughter Oume. Before long, Iemon is getting married to Oume while a poisoned Oiwa is dying in agony with the right side of her face horribly disfigured. Before she dies, Oiwa pronounces a horrible curse which drags Iemon into madness and murder before ultimately pulling Iemon, Naosuke, Osode, and a seemingly returned-from-the-dead Yomoshichi into a bloodbath of Shakespearian proportions.
The impact of Yotsuya Kaidan on the Japanese psyche cannot be underestimated. Lady Oiwa is the archetypal onryo (avenging spirit). Her long, flowing black hair, physical disfigurement, staring eyes, and stark white gown have defined the visual appearance of many similar characters from other kabuki plays to modern Japanese horror movies like Ringu. Meanwhile, Iemon’s literary impact in Japan is comparable to Macbeth’s impact in English literature: the model figure of a villain haunted by ghosts that may be the product of his own guilty conscience. And whatever civilized veneers we put on, the heady mix of sex, murder, sordid deeds, and supernatural vengeance in Yotsuya Kaidan has always been a formula for guaranteed success that cuts across divides of culture and social class.
Unfortunately, the impact that Yotsuya Kaidan has on Japanese culture may be the undoing of Ayakashi’s adaptation of the story. The original story and its many variations involve multiple characters and subplots, and the Ayakashi Committee seems determined to incorporate the imagery and plot elements of as many of these versions as they can, even recruiting playwright Tsuruya Nanboku to serve as a narrative framing device. However, the movie seems to take too many shortcuts to fit the tangled tale into a 90-minute movie. The omitted material may be common knowledge to a Japanese audience, but they leave some disorienting gaps to non-Japanese audiences who approach the movie without any understanding of the original story. The pacing of the film also feels off: some events are drawn out interminably, such as Lady Oiwa’s death, while others seem rushed and underdeveloped, such as the entire Osode/Naosuke/Yomoshichi subplot. Even worse, the closing ten minutes of the movie are essentially a history of the play and the fabled curse of Lady Oiwa that trails productions of the Yotsuya Kaidan. This would have been a terrific DVD extra, but as it stands one can’t help but feel that this screen time would have been better used on the story itself.
Despite these flaws, the DVD succeeds more often than not in hitting our common emotional hot buttons for fear and horror. The filmmakers have a real skill in creating images that are sure to burn themselves into your mind, from the banshee horror of Lady Oiwa herself to the armies of rats that seem to be the instruments of her wrath. While there is plenty of blood to be found in the film, gore is generally eschewed for more psychological forms of horror, successfully tapping into deep-seated human fears of betrayal and death. Despite its reliance on a ghost to drive the story, it’s clear that the real monsters of the story are the people.
The characters in the film were designed by famed Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano, and his distinctive style can be seen throughout the film. For the most part, the animation is solid, although there are moments when the quality slips noticeably. The most charitable explanation would be that the animation is meant to mirror the stately, highly stylized movements of the original kabuki play, which would also explain the somewhat rigid staging and stiff acting, but it seems that a limited budget is more likely to be responsible. The DVD comes with Japanese and English soundtracks, and both are equally good, although the subtitle font will make Iemon’s name look like “LEMON” at first glance, which can produce an unintentional giggle.
As with the other DVDs in the Samurai Horror Tales line, the major extra on the disc is a glossary of terms that helpfully explains some of the more esoteric elements used in the story. There are also credit-free opening and closing sequences and trailers for other Geneon discs.
Ultimately, the paradox of Samurai Horror Tales: Yotsuya Ghost Story is that it becomes far more interesting the more you know about the background of the source tale. While the film may be somewhat confusing on first viewing, some time spent with Google and a second viewing will make many story elements much clearer. Unfortunately, this means that for non-Japanese audiences, it falls far short of a satisfying experience on its own. Even so, Samurai Horror Tales: Yotsuya Ghost Story is still quite striking and can really get under your skin. Those who push forwards to discover the story can reap multiple rewards as a result.