As a new stage production of Tsuruya Nanboku’s classic kabuki play Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost Story of Yotsuya) is working through its rehearsal process, its two stars partaking in an off stage romance. But soon the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred as the on-stage theatrics begin to inform the lives of its two stars. To tell you any more than this would ruin the surprise.
Takashi Miike’s latest foray into the world of horror is an adaptation of one of Japan’s most popular ghost stories. Retold too many times to count, influencing scores of horror films from the last century, the original tale is long and sordid, filled with all kinds of treachery, debauchery and of course ghosts. Each retelling usually adds its own twist, changing the tale to suit its needs, as the immensity of the original tale is too dense for a single theatrical film. Miike’s version, written by Kikumi Yamagashi, who also wrote The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) and Harakiri: Death of a Samurai (2011), creates a controlled, methodically paced and superbly crafted slow burn horror film. Using other regulars that include cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, editor Kenji Yamashita (who has only ever worked on Miike films), and Koji Endo, who has been doing music for Miike since Rainy Dog (1997), the director has amassed a stable of creatives whose collaborative skills he’s clearly refined. And much like the duality of the films narrative, it operates as a duality of Miike’s craftsmanship. On the one hand, it feels very much like a Miike film, but at the same time it feels fresh and original, and will leave you slightly confounded (in a good way) by the films end. With the exception of Audition (1998), very rarely does he make a film that is so deliberately paced.
Taking a cue from his stage work, much of the film is played out on stage as the actors rehearse the doomed kabuki play. The staging of these scenes, along with the beautifully choreographed cinematography, is worth more than the price of admission alone. And in another master stroke of plotting, pretty much anything you need to know about the play is provided for you in these scenes, so anyone unfamiliar with Yotsuya Kaidan need not worry. You could walk into this film knowing nothing about the tale and you would not get lost.
One of the things I absolutely love about Miike’s entire body of work is that, no matter the material given, he will always subvert all expectations. Sometimes its completely in your face, and in the case with Over Your Dead Body, much of it is subtle, which he uses in this case to create tension and a feeling of unease. The production design of the playboy lead actor Kousuke Hasagawa (played masterfully by famed Kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo XI) changes slowly, minutely, almost unnoticeably, as the lines between fantasy and reality break. Even something as simple as a rack focus from one actor to the next becomes slightly unsettling as the camera frames for the new actor but we hold for several seconds on the now out of focus subject before they shift into focus. The score is sparse but highly effective, and did I say the cinematography is spectacular? Because it is spectacular.
Of course, there are still moments in Over Your Dead Body that will probably shock the viewer as blood does flow. But really, with the exception of one act of violence which comes half way through the film, and marks the point where the fantasy/reality duality really shifts, a lot of it is played up theatrically. In fact, as the line shifts, the violence on stage becomes more realistic, and the violence in life becomes more absurd and theatrical. And then it ends, and you’ll be left craving more. Once again, Miike has made an expertly crafted film that adds to his ever-growing pantheon of cinema, one which continues to challenge and entertain.