The Kinoshita Project: The Yotsuya Ghost Story (1949)

The Kinoshita Project is a chronological look at the films of Keisuke Kinoshita that have been made available on Hulu Plus from Criterion. This entry covers The Yotsuya Ghost Story, Parts 1 & 2. 

Despite its status as a national myth/legend, referring to this Keisuke Kinoshita drama as a “ghost story” is at least a little deceptive. Perhaps other versions (and there have been at least 30 Yotsuya films) emphasize the supernatural more, but Kinoshita’s two hour and forty minute epic (split into two, easy to swallow parts), greatly altered from the 1825 kabuki play it’s based on, has more to do with the psychological than it does the supernatural. There are ghosts, yes, but they appear not as spirits from the netherworld, but as apparitions born of a guilty conscience. And the fear they invoke is far more powerful for this reason.

Tamiya Lemon is an unemployed samurai. He’s a drunk, ineffectual to his neglected wife, and self-loathing to boot. But he has a 19 year old admirer whose family could raise him back to the ranks of respectability, out of the ronin class, if only he could marry her. In order to marry, he must first divorce his wife, Oiwa, which is something that she is too noble to grant, even though she has her own admirer and it would probably benefit her greatly to get Tamiya out of her life.

And here is a great place for evil to sneak in. This husband and wife are too cowardly to split and too deep into their own marital anguish to actually fix their problems. Without the help of any outside force, they are bound to live the rest of their lives in misery. The outside force comes in the form of one of the most evil film characters of all time, Naosuke, the gardner who lives next to Tamiya and Oiwa. Like the devil himself, Naosuke whispers into Tamiya’s ear, suggesting that he try to catch Oiwa in an adulterous relationship, divorce her, and then marry the young girl; and it takes us a long time to figure out what exactly Naosuke’s motives are. He doesn’t need any motives, though, because with or without them, he is treachery incarnate.

The pleasures of The Yotsuya Ghost Story are primarily in the unwieldy complexity of the plot structure, which constantly shifts our perception of its different characters and their relational difficulties. People in this movie reveal themselves and re-reveal themselves over and over, always acting out of heedless desperation. These characters all live on the edge of life, and it become’s the viewers parlor game to figure out not what will happen (that part is pretty obvious from title alone), but who these people will be when it is all over. Are there ghosts? Oh yes, there are.

I will leave the phantasmagoric pleasures for you to discover, dear reader. They are multitude, in the second part.

But before we move on, it is important to think about this movie in the context of Kinoshita’s films up to this point. And what becomes very clear right away is that nothing in his previous films points towards this, a rollicking piece of deadly entertainment, full of viciousness from beginning to end. The innocent of The Yotsuya Ghost Story are dead by the end of part one, which leaves us with a movie that bears almost no resemblance to the peons to purity of heart and honor that have come before. This is a cruel movie, one that destroys innocence and leaves nothing but terror in its wake.

And somehow that still seems appropriate to the world of Kinoshita. The violence and nihilism of The Yotsuya Ghost Story is the inverse of Kinoshita’s earlier poeticized tales of unbelievably honorable men and women. If The Girl I Loved is a fantasy vision of what the world could be like if everyone where honorable and pure of intention, then Yotsuya is a vision of the world without any purity or honor. The film isn’t scary in any conventional sense, but the world it presents us with is one of total horror, building to a climax comparable to Hell itself.

If Yotsuya is an anomaly for Kinoshita, then it is a welcome one. It is, if anything, proof that this director is more than capable of helming just about any sort of production.

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