The Ghost of Yotsuya (1949) poster

The Ghost of Yotsuya [Parts 1 and II] (1949)


aka The Yotsuya Phantom
(Yotsuya Kaidan)

Japan. 1949.


Director – Keisuke Kinoshita, Screenplay – Eijiro Hisaita, Based on the Play by Tsuruya Nanboku, Producers – Koichiro Ogura, Photography (b&w) – Hiroyuki Kusuda, Music – Tadashi Kinoshita, Production Design – Isamu Motoki. Production Company – Shochiku.


Ken Uehara (Iemon Tamiya), Hisako Yamane (Oume), Osamu Takizawa (Naosuke Gonbei), Keiji Sada (Kohei Kobotoke), Kinuyo Tanaka (Osode), Aizo Tamashima (Takuetsu), Jukichi Uno (Yomoshichi), Haruko Sugimura (Omaki), Ken Mitsuda (Kihei), Yoshindo Yamaji (Tatsugoro), Daisuke Kato (Shinkichi)


Kohei Kobotoke is released from jail where he was sent for petty theft. He seeks to reunite with Oiwa, the teahouse girl he was obsessed with, only to find that she has married Iemon Tamiya. Iemon is a former samurai who has been unemployed after an incident where his lapse allowed his master’s storehouse to be robbed. At the same time, Iemon is approached by Naosuke who urges him to divorce Oiwa and marry Oume, the daughter of a rich man. Iemon cannot bring himself to do so – Oiwa is fearful of abandonment at even the mention of a divorce. At Naosuke’s urging, Iemon gives Oiwa a medicine that facially disfigures her. He then murders her and Kohei, throwing their bodies into the river, while spreading rumours that they eloped together. Iemon is free to marry Oume but is haunted by the acts that he has done.

Yotsuya Kaidan (Yotsuya Ghost Story/Ghost Story of Yotsuya) (1825) is the most famous of all Japanese ghost stories. Originally it was written as a kabuki play and gained enormous popularity where it has been reinterpreted in different forms. There have been a substantial number of films adaptationss, including the silent Yotsuya Kaidan (1925) and New Version of the Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1928), as well as other lost silent versions in 1918, 1921, 1923 and 1928, and sound versions such as Yotsuya Kaidan (1956), Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959), Ghost of Oiwa (1961), Illusion of Blood/The Yotsuya Ghost Story (1965), The Ghost of Oiwa/The Ghost of Yotsuya (1969), a 1981 television adaptation and Crest of Betrayal (1994). Takashi Miike’s Over Your Dead Body (2014) is a horror film set backstage of the staging of the play version of Yotsuya Kaidan.

This version comes from director Keisuke Kinoshita (1912-98) who gained a reasonable reputation with dramas such as Twenty-Four Eyes (1954), You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (1955) and Times of Joy and Sorrow (1957), among others. The Ghost of Yotsuya was his only venture into genre material.

In its original theatrical release, The Ghost of Yotsuya was screened in two parts, the second part being released two weeks after the first. That has been preserved in the Criterion dvd restoration. The first part ends with the murder of Oiwa, while all of the ghost story aspect takes place in the second half. It may have seemed awkward for Japanese audiences at the time seeing one film of 85 minutes and then having to wait to find the conclusion with another shorter piece of 75 minutes. (Although this mimics the way that the play was originally performed in two parts over two nights). As both parts feature the same cast and crew, I have reviewed the two parts as one story for the simple purpose of not having to repeat myself.

Oiwa and Iemon (Ken Uehara) in The Ghost of Yotsuya (1949)
The disfigured Oiwa and Iemon (Ken Uehara)

The Ghost of Yotsuya taps the neo-realism that Akira Kurosawa and others patented around this time. That is to say, it makes a virtue of the black-and-white photography, is made with an historical realism and is shot in natural locations and outdoors sets, while the drama is very character and actor focused, unlike the Hollywood and European models of the day. This sense of sombre realism and the historic nowness of the period looks particularly good in the dvd restoration. This version of the story is rooted in its milieu far more than the other versions I have seen. Kinoshita does a fine job in bringing out Iemon’s honour as a samurai and Oiwa’s neediness and steadfast refusal to countenance any thought of divorce.

The ghost story element does not kick in until the second half – there is nothing in Part 1 that is not in a mundane, realistic vein. On the other hand, when it does appear, the ghost story element is disappointing, especially if you come to The Ghost of Yotsuya after seeing any of the other versions of the story. In fact, the film could easily work as a mundane story where there are no ghosts. All that we receive is a brief glimpse where Iemon think he sees their figures in the house and later the board is found washed up outside the house following a storm. In other words, this is a film where the ghost story element works in terms of Ambiguously Fantastic and could just as easily be imagined. Certainly, the second half is far more atmospherically directed but is a considerable letdown on the ‘ghost story’ aspect.

Clip from the film here

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