Sunday, February 24, 2013

Into the Shintoho Mind Warp: The Ghost Story of Yotsuya

When revenge is promised, revenge must be delivered.  One villainous samurai learns this the hard way in Tsuruya Nanboku’s classic Kabuki drama.  It was a lesson that would be repeated in thirty screen adaptations.  This one is considered the best, but it has not been widely screened in America, as is true for most of the upstart genre studio Shintoho’s late 1940s to early 1960’s releases.  In its New York premiere, Nobou Nakagawa’s The Ghost Story of Yotsuya launches the Japan Society’s 2013 Globus Film Series, Intothe Shintoho Mind Warp: Girls, Guns & Ghosts.

Iwa’s father is not about to let his daughter marry Iemon.  It is not just because he is a position-less samurai.  He can tell the man is a bit of a cad.  Unfortunately, the proud ronin reacts badly when rebuffed yet again.  Killing the man and a well heeled associate, Iemon finds himself beholden to the crafty servant Naosuke to back up his story.  Swearing to Iwa he will avenge her father, he instead dispatches her sister Sode’s intended, again with the help of the insidious Naosuke.

As the years pass, Iemon claims to be pursuing retribution in much the same way O.J. was searching for the “real killer.”  By now, the sociopathic ronin has tired of Iwa and the constant hassling to make due on his promises.  Instead, he covets Ume, the daughter of a wealthy clan leader and the position she would bring.  Of course, good old Naosuke has the answer: a poison that first disfigures and then kills.  Inviting over Takuetsu, her torch-carrying admirer, to complete the frame-up, Iemon completes the evil deed and embarks on a new life with Ume.  However, when Iwa pledged revenge from beyond the grave, she was not kidding.

Yotsuya probably should be classified as a horror film, but by the time Iwa and Takuetsu rise from the dead, viewers are ready to through in their lot in with the angry spirits.  In the tradition of E.C. Comics, Yotsuya is a case of bad things happening to bad people.  Nonetheless, it is all kinds of creepy and atmospheric.

Frankly, it is rather flummoxing that Nakagawa is not more renowned amongst genre cineastes.  It really ought to rank with Shindo’s Kuroneko and Onibaba.  While many focus on Iwa’s grisly transformation, Nakagawa’s patience introducing the supernatural elements, effectively cranks up the tension before the cathartic release.  Arguably, it is also a comparatively feminist genre outing, with Iwa’s sister Sode facing their nemesis in the climatic fight sequence, sword in hand, along with an ally making a surprise reappearance.

As Iwa, Katsuko Wakasugi has one of the all time great and gruesome death scenes.  She would also be quite scary as an angry ghost, were we not so primed for Iemon’s comeuppance.  In a way, the final third of Yotsuya is like a Grudge film in which viewers root for the supernatural force.  Likewise, Noriko Kitazawa is appealingly earnest and swings a credible sword as sister Sode.  Shuntarô Emi is hissable loathsome as Naosuke, in an enjoyable genre bad guy kind of way.  Oddly, Shigeru Amachi (whom Nakagawa would send to Hell as the protagonist of Jigoku) is a bit of a cold fish as Iemon.  It is hard to understand why Iwa or Ume would be charmed by him, but his karmic beatdown is certainly satisfying.

Filmed by cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto (a future Bruce Lee alumnus) in queasy hues of red and yellow, and accompanied by Michiaki Watanabe’s eerie kabuki-esque score, Ghost Story of Yotsuya is a quality production that holds up spectacularly decades later.  Recommended for fans of the supernatural who also appreciate psychological depth and archetypal resonance, it screens this Wednesday (2/27) at the Japan Society, with a party to follow featuring the music of Neo Blues Maki. The drool-worthy Shintoho Mind Warp retrospective continues with more screenings over the weekend.