Chusei Sone’s Immortal Love is one of many versions of the Kaidan Botan Duru (the ghost story of peony lanterns). Originally imported from China and now one of Japan’s most popular traditional ghost stories, the tale has been adapted for page, stage and screen on hundreds of occasions, including Satsuo Yamamoto’s classic 1968 version, Bride From Hades, and Taichi Yamada’s best-selling 1987 novel Strangers, which weaves several different kaidan together and places them in a contemporary setting. Yamada’s novel was later turned into the award-winning film Ijintachi to no natsu (1988) by director Nobuhiko Obayashi.
At the core of the Kaidan Botan Doro is a concept that has appeared in many different cultures across the globe: a man falls in love with a ghost. In Immortal Love, it’s a penniless young samurai called Shinzaburo Hagiwara (Hajime Tanimoto). With no family fortune to rely on and no comfortable position, Shinzaburo is forced to make umbrellas to pay the rent on his furniture-free abode. While taking shelter during a rainstorm, he gives an umbrella to a beautiful young woman who is obviously wealthy, but also clearly sick. It’s only a momentary meeting, but it’s enough, for both of them.
The young woman is Otsuyu (Setsuko Ogawa), the daughter of a wealthy shogunate retainer. Despite their very different backgrounds, her life is just as empty as Shinzaburo’s. With her fragile health and no siblings, Otsuyu’s life consists of playing the koto and taking walks with her maid and companion, Oyone. Her few pleasures are complicated by the presence of housekeeper Okuni (Miki Hayashi), who is also her father’s mistress and plots with her secret lover to have Otsuyu and Oyone removed from the house. Otsuyu is in love with Shinzaburo from the start, but knows that her situation and their vastly differing status will make it almost impossible for them to find happiness together.
After a strange dream in which Otsuyu bequeaths to him a lock of hair and tells him to wait for her on August 13th, Shinzaburo hopes to see his love again. He should know better; August 13th marks of the start of the festival of Obon, when the spirits of those who have died in the last year can visit their loved one again for the last time before departing for the underworld permanently. Sure enough, Otsuyu returns and the pair finally consummate their love, but his neighbours soon realise that Shinzaburo’s relationship with his otherworldly lover is draining his vitality, and encourage him to seek religious protection before he goes too far.
The original title of the film is Seidan botandoro, which loosely translates as ‘sex story of the peony lanterns’, while it has also been released under the titles of Erotic Story: The Peony Lanterns and Hellish Love. Despite its classical origins, Immortal Love is one of many soft-core sex films made in the 1970s by Japanese major studio Nikkatsu. Following the declining fortunes of the Japanese film industry in the late 1960s, in November 1971 Nikkatsu shifted the organisation’s entire apparatus to the production of sex films, calling the series roman porno or ‘romantic pornography’. Their existing staff was offered the chance to continue in the new field, and while some stars and filmmakers agreed to do so, others left, prompting Nikkatsu to elevate or promote many of the studio’s trainees and juniors, including Chusei Sone, who would become one of Nikkatsu’s most important roman porno directors.
From the start, roman porno films were different to the typical low-budget sex films. Many of the cast and crew had experience working in mainstream film, contributing a high degree of technical skill and polish, which was augmented by higher budgets that allowed for complex stories, period settings and large casts. As long as the appropriate levels of nudity and sex were featured, the actual content was usually left to the discretion of directors and screenwriters.
Period settings were commonplace in roman porno, and although graphic violence did appear, few of the films featured horror or supernatural elements, making Immortal Love unique within the Nikkatsu canon. It’s to Sone and screenwriter Koji Toyoshima’s credit that the film is every bit as chilling and atmospheric as the more mainstream versions of the story. Central to the film’s otherworldly feel are the dream-like fantasy sequences peppered throughout; mired in unfulfilling, increasingly desolate realities, both primary characters drift into fantasy to escape. Otsuyu dreams of watching Shinzaburo chasing paper umbrellas as they float away on the breeze. In a stunning slow-motion sequence Shinzaburo walks forward in a daze while stacks of wood coming crashing to the ground behind him. The film’s centrepiece is a lengthy dream sequence in which Shinzaburo encounters Otsuyu while out walking. Accompanying her back to her new residence, the pair make love and she gives him a lock of her hair as a keepsake; then Otsuyu’s enraged father bursts in and slays the girl, and Shinzaburo wakes up. The lock of her hair is still in his hand however, further blurring the line between dreams and reality.
On a technical level, Immortal Love is consistently excellent, particularly the lush, naturalistic cinematography from Nikkatsu veteran Kurataro Takamura. Composer Naozumi Yamamoto (writing under the pseudonym he used for Nikkatsu’s less respectable projects, Sansaku Okazawa) provides an appropriately romantic score, mixing delicate traditional koto music with modern jazz and lilting acoustic guitar themes. The main cast are all drawn from the first tier of Nikkatsu’s roman porno regulars, especially Setsuko Ogawa and Miki Hayashi, two of the genre’s most popular leading ladies. Ogawa’s baby-doll features and big eyes make her naturally photogenic, but she isn’t just eye-candy. At times coquettish and playful, she also manages to convey with few words Otsuyu’s inner strength and her tragic determination to seize whatever happiness she can.
As well as showcasing the strengths of the best roman porno features, Immortal Love is a classic Japanese ghost story, produced at a time when the horror genre as a whole was in a steep decline. Stretching far beyond the typical ‘erotic horror’ movie, Sone’s film is a striking, engaging work of art that lingers in the memory for much, much longer than its 68 minute running time.