Kinoshita’s 1949 adaptation (one of very many) of a famous (in Japan) 1825 Kabuki play (by Tsuruya Nanboku), “Yotsuya kaidan,” is available (on Hulu) as “The Yotsuda Phantom” It came out in two parts of 84 and 72 minutes, with the last seven or so minutes of part one repeated (rather than part one being summarized) at the start of part two. Part One is almost as hard on the viewer as it is on the suffering, loyal, and luckless Oiwa (Tanaka Kinuyo).
The film begins with its biggest set piece, a prison breakout in Edo (Tokyo). The only escaped prisoners not captured and then beheaded were Kohei (Sada Keiji), through dumb luck and Gonbei Naosuke (Takizawa Osamu [Fires on the Plain]). The latter had snitched on the plan to the authorities, and is sought by a gang whose leader was among those betrayed. Naosuke might be the Japanese byword for “betrayal”; he makes Iago seem like a loyal friend!
Kohei was besotted by a teahouse waitress, Oiwa, and stole from the till, hoping to be able to afford her (to buy her release from indenturing?). His infatuation was not reciprocated, and while he was in prison she married Iemon Tamiya (Uehara Ken), who had lost his position as a samurai when the storehouse of his master was robbed. I don’t know how he was able to get Oiwa released from the teahouse, since his disgrace occurred seven years before the story…
Iemon seems to drink up more than Oiwa’s umbrella-making earns. She is more than devoted to him, though he does not treat her well even—or especially—after she has a miscarriage (just before the start of the movie).
Naosuke manages to arrange a match for Iemon with the daughter of a rich merchant. Though the town seems small, the father somehow is not aware that Iemon is already married. Naosuke plots to make Iemon single. He wants to show Iemin Oiwa entertaining Kohei, so that Iemon will either slay the lovers or divorce his wife, but Oiwa virtuously repels him. Then Naosuke supplied Iemon with poison, which Iemon is reluctant to use. It is not exactly honorable for a samurai to poison his devoted wife to be free to marry someone with money (and a father who can get him a job).
Oiwa’s death is hideous and Iemon slays Kohei for good measure. Naosuke helps him dump the corpses in a canal (not exactly a raging river that would carry the corpses far…). Though financially set, Iemon is haunted by guilt. Japan is supposed to be the prototype shame culture, but Iemon replaced the shame of being a masterless samurai (ronin) with guilt for having slain a virtuous and loving wife.
The ghosts do not take revenge as onryô do in some other Japanese ghost movies. Iemon imagines Oiwa, and when Oiwa’s sister, the hardier, Osode (also Tanaka Kinuyo)goes to see him wearing the kimono her sister was wearing when Iemon killed her, he flips out.
In part two, Naosuke proceeds with his plans to enrich himself through his hold on Iemon, commits some new crimes, and confesses to (well brags of?) some older ones before he went to prison. There is a closing conflagration.
Kinoshita’s brother-in-law, Kusuda Hiroshi, provided serviceable if not especially memorable studio-bound cinematography.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray