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The Haunted Lantern (Tsushima Masaru 1998)


The Haunted Lantern
[Otsuyu - Kaidan botan dourou]

Genre: Traditional Japanese Kaidan

review in one breath

This tale falls firmly within the classic Japanese "Kwaidan" genre, and is (one version) of a very well-known traditional Japanese ghost story. (For a little on the history of this story, see here.)

To this day, one of the most important traditional holidays in Japan is the Obon Festival during which kami (spirits) of dead ancestors are believed to revisit their former homes. In a society where one's home and property are generally passed down from eldest child to eldest through generations, this means you will likely have many ethereal guests arriving for the party! The title's reference to "lantern" is that of the Obon Lantern which was placed outside the home on this occasion as a welcoming invitation to ancestors and deceased loved ones. Given this background, is it any wonder its haunted?(!)

Our tale takes us through three tragic Karmic cycles intertwining three souls fated by love and betrayal. If you know anything about traditional Japanese intuitions, you know they don't discover the "happy ending" until the creation of "speed racer". So when I say this tale involves the inescapable tragic karma of three souls in love, you better expect the emphasis to be on the inescapable tragic karma part. Anyway, our story opens with a young samurai and his brave fiance cornered by a rogue band of samurai. When the young woman suggests the two commit noble suicide rather than succumb to the humiliation of the rogues, our samurai timidly nods and watches his fiance slit her own juggler in one of the movie's many notorious "spraying" scenes. As her life ebbs, she sees her coward samurai refusing to follow her stead.

[FADE TO RED] (definitely not a good sign...)

The great majority of our tale takes place within karmic cycle two, where the same two fated lovers meet in a later life. Here, as they stumble across each other through seeming happenstance, they find themselves strongly drawn to each other. Yet fate has ironically arranged for the young man, Shinzaburo, to be married to the younger sister of our heroine, Suzu, a scenario which soon involves all three in much tears and regret. During his flirtatious interlude with Suzu (while engaged to the sister, mind you!) Shinzaburo demonstrates his artistic manlihood by painting a red flower on a lantern for Suzu. (Bet you can't guess which lantern that will become....) The karmic (okay, lets just say sexual) attraction between Suzu and Shinzaburo is so great that Suzu confesses to her sister and then commits suicide in front of her. (The is the second "spraying" scene) Whereas nobility is overflowing in this particular prefecture (as usual) the sister would also rather commit suicide (the third "spraying" scene) than live in the cruel irony handed to her.

Oh by the way, all this is unbeknownst to Shinzaburo. Oh, and by the way, it is during the Obon Festival. (Hello?!?)

Let's just say that Shinzaburo's love life was nothing compared to what it will soon become, that a white lantern with a red flower painted on it is free-floating all over town in the wee hours of the night, and that his increasingly gray complexion is of no concern to him until an intuitive roaming monk informs him of an evil presence attached to him. (Note to self: always befriend roaming monks. They ROCK!) With the help of the monk, Shinzaburo (hesitantly) learns of his predicament and sets upon a course of redemption which involves camping out in a shrine, priestly graffiti, and a magical golden statue of buddha.

- Will the powers of the magical golden buddha provide safe passage from evil?

- Will our rockin' monk have a trick or two up his rockin' monk sleeve to defeat these curvaceous devils?

- Will the amazingly thin walls of the shrine withstand the diabolic forces of deceased Suzu (and her sister!)

- Will Shinzaburo, despite the karmic vortex he finds himself in, find salvation?

- And will Shinzaburo's sex life ever return to its former yet brief glory?

Spoiler Warning!!!!


Our tale ends (and then ends again - in karmic cycle three) in classic Japanese (non-Western) fashion. This, in my opinion, is wonderful, as it results in a much more profound and thought-provoking conclusion than if we answered "Yes" to all of the above. By thought provoking I mean you will be stunned, exclaiming "WHAT THE???"

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
As a traditional Kwaidan tale involving Japanese notions of Obon, karma and nobility, this provides a reliable window into traditional Japanese sensibilities. The infamous (3) spraying scenes are quite graphic and unexpected to Western audiences. This story makes much of noble suicides (which in the Japanese schema is related to the karmic fate). No nudity that I recall (and my memory of such things is pretty reliable). Nothing offensive. However, though poor Shinzaburo thinks he's getting it on with the sexy Suzu, viewers are more than thoroughly aware that what he's rubbing against is a few weeks ripe, if you get my meaning... Let's see... karmic cycles, wimpy samurai, enormous holy bonfires, sexy ghosts, floating lanterns, shinto hexes and demonic seduction. THREE GREEN SKULLS!

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