22 January 2008

The Ghost Story of Yotsuya

The Ghost Story of Yotsuya or Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan is an old Japanese film produced in 1959. The story itself was written by Tsuruya Nanboku IV as a kabuki play in 1825. The film version was on screen here as part of the Japanese Film Festival 2008. It's the only horror film chosen to feature in this festival though and we had an almost full cinema.

The story is very simple: Iemon the samurai is unhappily married to Oiwa as they are too poor. Urged by his close friend Naosuke to take the hand of a daughter of a well-to-do merchant, Iemon decides to poison his wife, an atrocious act that not only deprives her of her life but disfigures her face in the process. Oiwa returns as a ghost to haunt Iemon and eventually causes his downfall. Despite this simple plot, it does entail a range of simple, yet universal and fundamental human emotions, such as greed, anger, jealousy, that result in a deep-seated need to plot revenge. A revenge that transcends life and death ...

My experience of watching this film may differ from other people who may have found that Iemon deserves this sorry end, but I am struck with the humanity of his desire, his wish to escape from his humdrum life, and his ambition. The Yotsuya ghost story may function as a morality play that teaches viewers to be happy with what they have and not to tempt fate. But once again I beg to differ. Iemon's own fighting at the end reminds me of someone who tries to fight off fate even though he knows fully well that he's going to be defeated. Even though a lot of people out there may think that Iemon has finally got his just dessert, I simply can't stop thinking: perhaps Iemon is a hero and in fighting so he's trying to negotiate with the rigid codes of being a righteous samurai that somehow gets into conflict with human nature.

Reading this far, you may have thought that I'm such a heartless person on the mission of redeeming a bad person and turning him into a saint. Of course I see Iemon's act as atrocious as he tries to get rid of his wife and his only child, but the whole film just makes me think further than that: in life who knows what the best deal is, or do we need to settle down with what we have at some point and be blind to what we might get or might have gotten. This just reminds me of Robert Frost's poem 'The Road Not Taken', as it's about choosing and being able to accept the consequences and implications of the choice you've made. Iemon simply can't tolerate this and he wants to climb the social ladder. In his case, it's even more special because he's granted a chance to do so. A sweet temptation perhaps, but again it's perhaps better not to be offered this privilege.

Another thing that I need to mention is how the audience received this film. There were laughs towards the end of the film, and they were probably something that were not originally intended by the director. The audience simply have changed; they were no longer terrorised by the film's ghostly elements. Does it mean that we are too hardened against them? Or does it mean that with the different group of audience, the film fails to deliver its moral messages? I'm not trying to answer these questions, but what I want to say is that the director's intention and the audience's reception need not be the same, especially in this case whereby it's shown to an audience of different time and place. But it does strike a more fundamental question: does it mean we are hardened against these moral messages too? Are we becoming too impervious to this catastrophe? Are we becoming more tolerant towards the crime that Iemon commits? Well, go back to read the previous paragraph carefully and you'll see what I mean ...

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