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Izakaya Yurei - Ghost Pub (Watanabe Takayoshi 1994)


Izakaya Yurei
[Ghost Pub]

Genre: Humanitarian Ghost Story

review in one breath

Sotaro (Hagiwara Kenichi) is a hard working owner of a traditional Japanese izakaya (pub) which nightly serves its neighborhood patrons his traditional style cooking, cold beer, and warmed sake. After every day's long, hard work, Sotaro retreats to his living quarters above the pub, where his deathly ill wife Shizuko (Muroi Shigeru) quietly lies. Through his gentle encouragement she is able to smile and chat, but she feels the inevitable approach of death encroaching upon her. Almost jokingly, Shizuko disapprovingly suggests that after her death, Sotaro will quickly find another woman. And though Sotaro adamantly swears to the contrary, Shizuko does not seem satisfied until she makes him seal his promise, warning that if he should break it, a haunting obake (monster) will surely come.

Shizuko's premonition of death was not imaginary, as Sotaro wakes the next morning to find that she has died in her sleep. In the midst of his grief, the long process of funeral preparations begin, while at the same time he tries to maintain a modicum of levity for his nightly customers. Only after several months do Sotaro and the pub slowly get back to normal. Long time patron of the pub and friend to Sotaro, Tatsuo (Miyake Yuji) eventually suggests that Sotaro seek another companion, and shyly hands him a photograph of Satoko (Yamaguchi Tomoko), an eligible young woman. Satoko strikes Sotaro as very beautiful, but he instinctively hesitates from imagining anything of the sort. Until, that is, he catches several glimpses of her here and there throughout the town. Before long, his interest has grown to the point of being formally introduced to her guardians in a traditional Omiai (match-making) ceremony, where the two immediately hit it off.

The two soon wed and Satoko moves into the residence above the pub. Throughout the days, she helps Sotaro serve customers, and soon the pub regains the full degree of lively banter it had prior to Shizuko's passing. Despite the new joy within the pub created by Satoko's presence, however, Shizuko is destined to remain a "living" memory to both Sotaro and Satoko when her ghost suddenly appears to them as the clock strikes midnight. Distraught at Sotaro's betrayal of his promise to remain only hers, Shizuko seems hell-bent on becoming an intolerable nuisance, interrupting both the stability and love life of the newlywed couple.

As time passes, the inital terror at seeing the ghostly Shizuko slowly fades as she gradually becomes a part of their lives. The ghost of Shizuko can be talked to and, at times, observed trying to live out the daily activities she once fulfilled. She has also gained a formidable tolerance for alcohol, which she tests frequently by imbibing in the pub's beer, sake and whiskey. As fear gradually gives way to impatience, Sotaro begins searching for a means to exorcise the house in order to regain the privacy and intimacy with Satoko he lost since Shizuko's appearance. A knowledgeable historian of the occult recalls a similar incident wherein a buddhist monk was once approached by a spirit with whom he shared a glass of sake. The monk skillfully introduced the spirit to a sumi (ink) painting of a peaceful waterfall passing through bamboo groves. The serenity of the painting so enthralled the spirit that she entered the painted, which the monk quickly sealed with a chant. As the historian opens and displays the scrolled painting to Sotaro and Satoko, they see the inked image of a ghostly, long-haired woman standing before a waterfall amidst bamboo. The historian recommends they hang the painting in their home in the hope of enticing Shizuko into the painting. That evening, after hanging the painting on their bedroom wall, they are shocked to find that the painting is now of only the waterfall and bamboo -- the ghostly woman who had been in the painting is no longer there.

Izakaya Yurei, based on the novel by Yamamoto Masayo, became rather popular with Japanese audiences and resulted in a Japan Academy Award for Muroi Shigeru and spawned a sequel Shin Izakaya Yurei two years later using most of the same cast. Although the story undoubtedly centers on the sudden and surprising presence of Shizuko's ghost and the disruption it causes in Sotaro's life, the majority of the plot involves the very skillful and entertaining development of the pub's many patrons. The film thoroughly establishes life's complexities and difficulties as faced by each. There is the previously mentioned Tatsuo, whose wife, we learn, has been swindled into an overwhelming debt which threatens to utterly ruin their lives. There is the young woman who timidly enters the pub on occasion in search of somebody she was told lives in the area. There is the lonely and quiet middle-aged business man, recently moved into the neighborhood, looking for new friends and a good sake pub. And so on. The situations and sadnesses of the pub patrons are as much a part of the story as the shock and disruption Sotaro is undergoing. It is within this context of life's difficulties that the emergence of Shizuko's ghost is given significance.

Izakaya Yurei successfully attempts to be a story about a deep humanitarianism, characterized by self-sacrifice for friends, through which many of life's more formidable obstacles may be overcome. For this reason, the Japanese public found in this film not only an often amusing and entertaining ghost story, but also an uplifting message of hope and humanity.

Side Note: Suntory Brewing Company was a primary financial backer of this film's production, so much so that the film's opening credits declare itself to be a (partially) "Suntory Production". Thus, Suntory brands of beer, whiskey and sake permeate this movie, as does the pub patrons' (and ghost!) gleeful and consistent consumption of said Suntory products. After the film's release, Suntory used its popularity in promotion campaigns, the essence of which still exists on the Suntory site. This promo's lead-off consists of the rather optimistic (metaphysical) claim that:

Ghosts love (our) rectangular bottles. Even after becoming a haunting ghost (yurei), you (too) can enjoy Suntory whiskey (with water) with your loved one!"

Now there's something I wish they had told me in Sunday School! I guess I don't mind drinking good spirits with dead spirits... as long as they are buying!

Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Traditional Japanese message of humanitarian optimism wrapped in an unorthodox ghost story. No violence, unless you count the new bride being tossed down the stairs by the ghost of the jealous first wife. Try as they might, poor Sotaro and Satoko are doomed to a life of coitus interruptus unless they can exorcise this ghost! Now we know that once you become a haunting spirit you will be able to drink Suntory whiskey by the gallon and then float in and out of paintings.

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