Illusions of Blood: Classic Japanese Horror Films, Part 1

A woman clad in white kimono rises from the bottom of the screen, her long black hair obscuring part of her face. Her skin is deathly pale, visible on her face are her hands, which are clasped tightly. She stares forlornly at the man across the room, who erupts into hysterics at the site of her. He tries to run, but she appears suddenly in front of him, blocking any path to safety. She is a ghost and she has come back to haunt the man who killed her, to drive him mad with fear. She will not rest until she has her vengeance.

This is the basic template for the classic Japanese ghost story, or kaidan (and sometimes also written as kwaidan). Although there are many variations, the basic idea has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Whether the setting is modern Japan, a la Ringu (1998), or the feudal past, there’s always a marginalized person, usually a woman, who comes back from the grave to haunt those who wronged her.

The late 1950s and late 1960s were the golden eras of kaidan eiga, or horror films, in Japan. Although some were set in modern times, the vast majority were period films, what Colette Balmain calls “Edo gothic” in her book, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2008). These films were set during the peaceful Edo period (1603-1858), when Edo (now known as Tokyo) was the seat of the shogunal Tokugawa government and the once-proud samurai had become essentially bureaucrats. It was also a time of repression for women, who were at the mercy of men in almost all aspects of life. The victims in these films are almost always women and other marginalized members of society, such as those from lower castes (the samurai were at the top level of society and could kill anyone from a lower class with impunity). Many of the films were based on kabuki plays, written by and for the lower castes of society, so it’s not surprising that they would feature stories of the lower classes getting revenge on the samurai. That they had to do it from beyond the grave is very telling of the strictness of the system.

There is a religious precedent for this as well. In Japanese Buddhism, there is the concept of the onryo, the vengeful ghost. When someone dies in the midst of an extreme emotion, such as when one is murdered, the soul cannot be reborn in the normal manner, not can it rise to Buddha. It is reborn as a ghost, locked into a kind of existence of vengeance. Sadako from the Ringu movies is a classic onryo, her need for revenge so strong it permeates even modern technology. In Edo gothic films, the onryo are similarly persistent, sometimes haunting even distant descendents of the original murderer and his co-conspirators.

Along with vengeful ghosts, classic kaidan also feature what are known as yokai. This word is variously translated as goblin or phantom, but this doesn’t quite capture what they are. Yokai are folk monsters and run the gamut from small and harmless, like the wood sprites in Princess Mononoke (1997), to the playful and absurd, and also the terrifying. Often yokai and onryo become intertwined, creating hybrid, vengeful monsters.

Classic Ghost Stories

“Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” (“Ghost Story of Yotsuya”) is perhaps the most famous ghost story in Japan. The story of an ambitious samurai, Iemon (sometimes Iyemon) and his long-suffering wife, Oiwa, it’s been told and retold hundreds of times as kabuki plays, movies, and TV series. In a nutshell, Iemon, in a scheme to marry another woman and advance to a higher position, has his wife poisoned, disfiguring half of her face and driving her mad. Iemon cruelly kills her and her servant (or some other lowly person) and nails their bodies to a shutter in an effort to prove that they were lovers. As a samurai male, he had every right to kill them both, they being of lower status and guilty of adultery. Of course, there was no adultery at all, and soon their spirits are plaguing Iemon, their bodies emerging from the swamp in which they were dumped, still nailed to the shutters.

The film Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1959), directed by Nobuo Nakagawa for exploitation powerhouse Shintoho, is widely considered the best film adaptation. Awash with Nakagawa’s trademark surreal touches and unique camerawork, the film is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying. Nakagawa was a master of the horror genre, and his trademark rising ghosts and double-exposed spirits are all over this film. Iemon and his partner in crime, Naosuke, are particularly reprehensible and deserve everything they get in the end.

Yotsuya Kaidan, also released in 1959, came out of Daei, the other major studio making horror films in the late ’50s. In this version, Iemon is a stand-up fellow who gets caught up in the machinations of others. Convinced his wife is cheating on him, he allows himself to be led away from Oiwa, who he eventually kills accidentally. The film is fairly melodramatic and without any early scares, but the last 20 minutes really deliver, including a great sequence where a disembodied hand emerges from a bucket to grab the hem of Naosuke’s kimono.

Illusion of Blood a.k.a. Yotsuya Kaidan, a 1965 version of the same story starring Tatsuya Nakadai as a particularly nihilistic Iemon, reprises that bucket sequence but, as one would expect from a film directed by Shiro Toyoda (Yukiguni, 1957), the focus is on the acting more than the effects. And what acting there is, too. Aside from Nakadai, who makes a meal of the period scenery, there’s Mariko Okada playing Oiwa, and kabuki actor Kenzaburo Nakamura, who adds a touch of pathos to the snake-like Naosuke.

Another famous ghost story from the Edo period is “Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi,” alternately known as “The Ghosts of Kasane,” or the “Ghosts of Kasane Swamp.” Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1957 film of the same name, sometimes known as The Depths, is uncharacteristically melodramatic for both Nakagawa and Shintoho. In the film, a samurai kills a blind masseur when he comes to collect on a loan. Fast-forward 20 years, and the son of the samurai, who died after the ghost of the masseur came back to haunt him, unknowingly falls in love with the daughter of the masseur. As with Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, the film features another facial disfigurement of a woman as well as bodies being dumped in a swamp. Although a lot of Nakagawa’s later trademarks are absent here, Tetsuro Tamba shows up as an immoral ronin and keeps things watchable. Hideo Nakata, the director of Ringu, remade the film as Kaidan in 2007.

In part two of this piece (posted here) we’ll explore films featuring yokai and the bakeneko, or monster cat.