Yotsuya Kaidan is among the most well-known and enduringly popular of Japanese ghost stories. Originating as a kabuki play first staged in 1825, it has inspired countless film adaptations though Tai Kato’s The Tale of Oiwa’s Ghost (怪談 お岩の亡霊, Kaidan Oiwa no Borei) from 1961 is accounted among the most faithful despite the variation in its title. Usually regarded as a cautionary tale about a man whose ruthless ambition destroys his humanity earning him supernatural retribution, Yotsuya Kaidan is also a tale of female vengeance as Kato’s slight refocussing makes plain. In this version of the tale, all of Tamiya Iemon’s problems are, aside from the offscreen murder for which he has already been exiled from his family before the film begins, caused by female subjugation.
Having married into Oiwa’s (Yoshiko Fujishiro) family, Tamiya (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is in a rueful mood even as the film begins. After randomly killing a man in a fight some time previously, Oiwa has left him because, quite reasonably, she does not want to be in a relationship with a murderer nor do her family wish to be associated with someone stained with such a serious crime. Noticeably ragged, Tamiya swears he’s going to get Oiwa back because he’ll “never find another woman with such a beautiful body”. He wants her firstly because she has rejected him and his pride is wounded, secondly to regain his status, and thirdly because for the moment she is a glittering prize though he’ll later come to tire of her.
Tamiya is hanging around because he wants to talk to his father-in-law about reinstatement but he is currently meeting with a “masseuse”, unbeknownst to Tamiya planning to sell his second daughter Osode (Hiroko Sakuramachi) to a brothel in order to pay a debt. He has been assured that his daughter will not be expected to participate in sex work but will be running a toothpick stall near the temple. Needless to say, both he and Osode are very much mistaken and once the money has changed hands Takuetsu (Atsushi Watanabe), doctor and owner of the brothel, can do whatever he likes. Tamiya doesn’t much care about Osode, encouraging his lusty friend elixir pedlar Naosuke (Jushiro Konoe) who declared her the more beautiful of the sisters to buy her body that very night. You wouldn’t think Naosuke could afford it but he decides to do just that, only to be gazumped by Osode’s conflicted fiancé Yomoshichi (Sawamura Sojuro) who is about to depart for Edo with the lord for a year the very next day. Rather than save her, Yomoshichi merely takes her virginity and asks her to wait for his return in a year’s time, leaving her in the brothel.
Both Oiwa and Osode are essentially made to pay for their attempt to refuse male subjugation. Naosuke has “bought” Osode’s body and feels entitled to have it, attempting to rape her while she violently refuses him. His resentment leads him to plot Yomoshichi’s murder, but he mistakenly ends up killing his friend instead while Tamiya takes the opportunity to kill his father-in-law and reunite with his wife under the pretext of revenge for a crime he himself committed, essentially gifting Osode to Naosuke as a kind of reward. But Tamiya isn’t satisfied because he remains poor and lowly. His wife may be from a previously well respected samurai family, but he’s having to resort to making umbrellas to get by and now that Oiwa has given birth to their child he no longer finds her so “beautiful”. Bearing out the misogyny in their society, the men joke that Tamiya had been hoping his wife would die in childbirth so he’d be free of her at last.
It’s at this point that he is offered an opportunity. Oume (Yumiko Mihara), the daughter of the wealthy Ito family of merchants fell in love with Tamiya when he returned her comb to her after a tussle in the square. Moving in nearby, the Itos are keen to persuade Tamiya to marry Oume but he has a wife and child already. The source of Tamiya’s heartlessness is it seems a kind of toxic masculinity, his intense sense of insecurity and a need to prove himself through promotion that fuels his obsession with advancing up the ranks to serve the shogun. As much as this is about inhumanity, it’s also about a society in flux. Unlike Naosuke, Tamiya is a samurai. The Itos are members of a new middle class whose increasing wealth is beginning to threaten the social order of the tightly regimented feudal society. Mr. Ito wants to make his daughter happy, or so he says, but marrying her to a samurai and therefore into the ruling class even if that ruling class is impoverished and possessed of only illusionary power is certainly advantageous. It is however somewhat irrational to encourage a man to murder his first wife so he can marry your lovestruck daughter, it does not bode well for her future safety. In any case, Tamiya is aware that “one’s reputation affects one’s promotion prospects” and so is unwilling to simply kill Oiwa without “a good reason”, later deciding to try and frame her for adultery which would make her death not only permissible but in fact socially mandated.
In this age a woman’s life has no value, as Oiwa eventually sees. Tamiya gets the adultery idea after catching sight of the bodies of a samurai woman murdered for having an affair with a servant, marking her double transgression against the social order in both advancing her own agency over her body and her love for a man who was not of her own social class (assuming of course that there was any kind of relationship at all and they haven’t simply been killed on pretext by a man like Tamiya). Oiwa’s ruined face, caused by poison disguised as medicine, is symbolic of her social disfigurement, turning her into a “monstrous” woman who vows revenge on the man who has so maliciously wounded her. She asserts her own agency only in her death, choosing to pursue her vengeance from beyond the grave.
Yet it’s not only Tamiya who must pay, but the Itos too for their attempt to cheat the class system. Unlike other retellings, there is little suggestion that Tamiya’s torment is psychological, he is quite literally haunted, taunted into ruining his bright future by exorcising the demon of crime. Unusual for a Toei programmer of the time, Kato’s camera has New Wave verve, replete with handheld photography and swooping zooms while making use of his characteristic low angle composition but the final confrontation precipitated by a literal storm and earthquake which implodes the transgressive world Tamiya and the Itos are forging, is realised with expressionist ferocity. Tamiya tries to atone by taking refuge in a temple, but is undone not perhaps by guilt but by regret in realising he has destroyed his much hoped for chance of advancement and thereby rendered his existence meaningless.
Returning the play to its roots, he dreams his relationship with Oiwa as kabuki dance until woken by the sight of her ruined face, demanding to be freed from his torment. Yet vengeance comes in realer terms and it is Osode who strikes the blow, striking back on behalf of her sister and herself as a representative of all wronged women, while Naosuke can only lament that “this life had nothing good in it” as he too pays for his transgressions. Osode reclaims her mother’s comb and with it restores the social order while simultaneously rejecting her subjugation at the hands of duplicitous men, laying Oiwa’s unquiet ghost to rest as she leaves the venal past behind for a (presumably) less inhuman world.
Original trailer (no subtitles)