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Ceiling at Utsunomiya - Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo (Nakagawa Nobuo 1956)


The Ceiling at Utsunomiya
[Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo]

Genre: Tokugawa-Era Power Politics and Ghosts

review in one breath

While Tokugawa Iemitsu prepares to travel from the Edo capitol to the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, one of his astute spies discovers a possible assassination plot scheduled to take place during the Shogun's stop at Utsunomiya Castle. This is a wonderfully quaint historical piece and director Nakagawa Nobuo's first ghost tale.

ode to Nobuo

other films by Nakagawa Nobuo
The Ceiling at Utsunomiya Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo 1956
Ghosts of Kasane Swamp Kaidan Kasane ga Fuchi 1957
Mansion of the Ghost Cat Borei Kaibyo Yashiki 1958
The Lady Vampire Onna-kyu Ketsuki 1959
The Ghost Story of Yotsuya Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan 1959
Hell Jigoku 1960
Snake Woman's Curse Kaidan hebi-onna 1968
Quick-draw Okatsu Yoen dokufuden: Hitokiri Okatsu 1969
Okatsu the Fugitive Yoen dokufuden: Okatsu kyojo tabi 1969

There is something about Nakagawa Nobuo's films I really like. I own several and find them very easy to watch time and time again. They do not require a particular mindset to enjoy (as opposed to, let's say, most Miike or Kurosawa Kiyoshi films) but instead open a window into a rather distant and self-contained cinematic world. It requires no special effort to enjoy or appreciate them and for that reason, I believe, I find them so easy and comforting to watch.

And the current film is a prime example of this. Without flamboyant pretense or implausibly stoic heroes, A Ceiling at Utsunomiya simply ushers you into a very well-contained tale of Japanese history, political intrigue, fallible heroes, human emotions and yes, even the supernatural.


Director Nakagawa Nobuo (1905-1984) had an amazingly prolific career and was, in my estimation, one of Japan's truly remarkable directors. He directed nearly 100 films of which this is the 61st. The fact that this film is Nakagawa's first ghost tale is quite noteworthy, given that he is perhaps most remembered for his unique contribution to Japan's early horror genre through many important films which would follow.

This is NOT a ghost story, per se, and debuts a vengeful spirit as a peripheral means of meting out (perhaps otherwise unobtainable) justice. The style with which this particular ghoulie is depicted is undoubtedly the precursor for Nakagawa's later ghost-centric films.

This is, in fact, a jidai-geki (historical piece) based upon a very particular point in time, and wonderfully uses the historical realities of that moment to support a very dramatic (and fictional) narrative. Here's some historical background:

By now you know that Tokugawa Ieyasu was the first Tokugawan Shogunate whose unification of the various clans of Japan ushered in the "Tokugawa Era". (BTW: Tokugawa is the family name of Ieyasu and thereby the family name of the following two centuries of shogun, all derived from his lineage (either by birth or strategic adoption).)

In 1616, Ieyasu died and was entombed within the Toshogu Temple located in Nikko (in Tochigi prefecture), a Buddhist epicenter several days journey north from the capitol Edo.

In 1605, well prior to his death, Ieyasu had passed the shogunate mantle to his son (Tokugawa) Hidetada who himself held power until 1623.

Hidetada had two sons, the elder Iemitsu and the younger Tadanaga. Over the question of which son would succeed his father, a great rivalry within the dynasty broke out (see HERE for an excellent film based on this situation). In the end, the elder Iemitsu was chosen by his father and thus from 1623 the rule of Tokugawa Iemitsu was established.

(Here's a quick digression:)

Perhaps due to the dangerous rivalry through which he gained the shogunate, Iemitsu is historically remembered as a rather ruthless, even cruel, shogun. (And in that regard, note how he is depicted as utterly fearless in this film.) He is, for example, the Shogun who executed thousands, including Amakusa Shiro for their participation in the Shimabara Rebellion, which has been forever (and wierdly) immortalized in the myriad Makai Tensho / Samurai Resurrection films. Following this Christian-based uprising, Iemitsu officially forbid any contact between Japan and the outside world. This edict of separation, enacted in 1639, lasted 215 years until U.S. Naval Commodore Perry forced the shogunate to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854.

(end of digression)

In 1633, ten years after assuming power, Iemitsu commanded his younger brother to commit ritual suicide for the crime of conspiracy.

You got all that? :P

Anyway, here's what's going on in the short historical snippet depicted in Ceiling at Utsunomiya:

Tokugawa Iemitsu is in power, and yet clans allied with his younger brother Tadanaga are still plotting to kill Iemitsu in order to bring Tadanaga to power. Thus the historical setting of this films falls sometime within the 10 year period between 1623 (Iemitsu's rise to power) and 1633 (Tadanaga's forced suicide).

The plan to kill Iemitsu involves his scheduled trip to Toshogu Temple in Nikko, which you now know is for the purpose of offering sacrifice and prayer at the tomb of his grandfather, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

I used to live only a few minutes from Nikko and in fact worked in Utsunomiya. Even today, the quickest route from Tokyo/Edo (even via the Shinkansen Bullet Train) goes directly north to Utsunomiya. From there you must head west/northwest into the mountainous regions surrounding Nikko. (BTW: In terms of ancient Japanese Buddhist epicenters, only Kyoto and Nikko survived the bombings of WW2. Thus the architecture and landscape here remains as it has been for four centuries.)

Thus it is historically accurate that as the Shogun makes his way toward Nikko from Edo, that he stop and rest at the Utsunomiya daimyo's castle. And precisely here is where the assassination plot is brewing.

Can you guess what Iemitsu's rivals plan to use in order to kill him? (Hint: Read the title of the film slowly and out-loud...)

OKAY. So, that's my discussion of the setting. Hope you liked it. (got a little side-tracked there ...)

The primary storyline, however, is merely built upon this specific historical scenario and entails a tale of love, sorrow and sacrifice. The main character here is Ryutaro, a samurai spy of Iemitsu commissioned to make sure the Shogun's upcoming travel is safe. Ryutaro's accidental involvement in the relation between two otherwise unremarkable locals gradually opens his eyes to some suspiciously shady happenings. As he investigates further, he soon finds himself fighting for his life and the lives of those he has befriended in Utsunomiya. Despite the danger, however, he must warn Iemitsu who is already enroute to Utsunomiya Castle.


I realize we all have our own preferred style of film, and I do not presume to know what you (the enlightened SaruDama reader) deems your favorite. I do know that MY preferred style is precisely what Ceiling at Utsunomiya offers. I get accurate history, geography, politics, some pretty girls and flowing rice wine, a couple steely-eyed tough guys, and yes even a ghost or two. The only thing missing here is the car chase scene...

But WAIT!! Come to think of it, this film does have a couple high-speed palanquin chase scenes! Amazing!! Way to go, Nobuo!!

This film is wholly monochrome and lacks any semblance of "special effects". But it delivers a very cool jidai-geki which will only add to your estimation of director Nakagawa Nobuo.

Version reviewed: Region 0 DVD with English subtitles

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Very cool jidai-geki based upon a historical moment in time. Does Death By Samurai count? If so, you've hit the jackpot! Also one gruesome ghoulie and a Tokugawa-era lesson in pet discipline. Oh, and I almost forgot the mass o-bento incident! In days of yore, undergarments were apparently impenetrable. Another classic by director Nakagawa Nobuo.

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