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Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan
[The Ghost of Yotsuya]

Genre: Traditional Kaidan

review in one breath

Unscrupulous ronin Tamiya Iemon lies and kills to obtain the woman and future he desires, all the while feigning to be an upright and noble samurai. But when he causes the painful and sorrowful death of his once beloved wife Oiwa, her ghost vows justice and vengeance. This is a retelling of Japan's most classic horror tale brought to you by one of SaruDama's favorite directors, Nobuo Nakagawa.


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

The tale of Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan is ancient indeed. First written down by Tsuruya Nanboku in 1825, the story has held a central and hallowed place in Japan's collection of traditional Kaidan. The story itself is likely much older than Tsuruya's text, taking place in the early Edo/Tokugaawa Era. Oiwa, the woman whose vengeful ghost is at the heart of this tale is believed to be buried at Myogyo Temple in Tokyo. The date of her death is recorded as 1636.

Tsuruya's text was originally used as a Kabuki play staged as early as 1825. The play was immensely popular causing overflow audiences and extended productions. It was first adapted to film in 1912, making it one of Japan's earliest horror films. Between 1913 and 1937 it had been the subject of at least 18 subsequent films. In all there have been over 30 film adaptations of the tale.

This 1959 version by early horror director Nobuo Nakagawa is deemed one the the classic film representations. It sticks relatively closely to Tsuruya's text with only a few modifications in some characters' relationships and motivations. (The younger sister Sode, for example, is not a prostitute in the film nor does she fall in love with Iemon as she does in Tsuruya's text.) Nakagawa's film is the earliest color version of the film, a new media which Nakagawa started using with great success in 1958, just a year prior. (As far as I can tell, his 1958 Mansion of the Ghost Cat was the first color horror film he directed.)

The question has often been raised as to why nearly all of a certain subset of Japanese horror depicts its ghoulies as women (or girls) with hair over their faces. The standard answer is that traditional kaidan take place within an earlier era where a woman's hair was always well-combed in public, bundled with ornate combs and pins. At that time, the sight of a woman with disheveled hair would have meant at the very least that she is in great distress. Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan presents one of the earliest uses of this societal convention for the purpose of conveying horrific maelstrom. The tale also depicts the ghost of Oiwa in her white burial robes, making her the classic and original Onryou, those female spirits which will not rest until they have exacted some well-deserved retribution. These both became horror props which permeated a huge number of later horror films.

Another possible precedent set by ghostly Oiwa involves the deformation of her face, in which her left eye bloats and sags down her face. This combination of disheveled hair and evilly prominent left eye are used as the central horror props in none other than Hideo Nakata's Ringu with equally spooky success.

Although Tsuruya's original text was a stand-alone tale, it was initially staged as a "double feature" (two Kabuki plays for the price of one) alongside a retelling of the tale of the 47 Ronin (Chushinguru). As was the norm with such double feature Kabuki plays, the two separate plays were divided into parts and interspersed into one whole (first a couple acts from one play, then a couple from the other, then the next couple from the first, then back to the second, etc). This resulted in an overall tale consisting of an anachronistic amalgam of the two, in essence a ghostly version of the 47 Ronin with subplots pulled from Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. Interestingly, this amalgamated presentation is recreated by director Kinji Fukasaku in the (aptly named) 1994 film Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan.


Aristocratic Samon refuses to give "unemployed samurai" Iemon the hand of his beautiful daughter Oiwa in marriage, a rejection which enrages Iemon and leads him to secretly kill Samon. Iemon then presents himself to Oiwa as a protector interested solely in avenging the murder of her father, which he now accuses an innocent man of. Both Oiwa and her younger sister Oume are relieved and grateful for Iemon's generous offer and together set out with Iemon, his protege Naosuke and Oume's fiancee Yomoshichi.

During their week-long walk from Bizen, Okayama to Edo (Tokyo), the group stops at Shiraito Falls to pray for success in carrying out their plans to avenge Samon's murder. But while the women rest, Iemon and Naosuke secretly stab and throw Oume's fiancee Yomoshichi over the edge of the precipitous falls and return to again accuse the same innocent man of the crime.

Their arrival in Edo is followed by years of mundane living, with Iemon eventually marrying Oiwa and Naosuke settling in with Oume. In contrast to their prior situation, both Oiwa and Oume live in poverty while their spouses do nothing to avenge their fathers' death and instead whittle away their time at the local gambling den. By chance, Iemon stumbles upon and puts to an end a brawl over the lovely daughter of a wealthy citizen who unknowingly looks upon Iemon as a suitor for his daughter. The wealthy father's promises of his daughter, support money and employment as a samurai are too much for Iemon to pass up, and soon, with the ever-scheming Naosuke, Iemon plots to rid himself of his wife Oiwa.

What follows is the horrific murder of Oiwa, her infant son, and Takuetsu, an innocent friend. Insinuating the two were having an affair behind his back, Iemon nails their bodies to a large wooden panel and sets it afloat in the nearby river. Iemon then proceeds with his plans to marry his new wife and bask in the money he will earn through his father-in-law.

Oiwa's anger does not end with her murder, however, and Iemon, plagued with terror-filled visions, soon brings upon himself the worst possible outcomes.


Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan is a classic on many levels. In terms of story, it conveys one of Japan's most well-known ghost tales. It is directed by one of the exemplars in early Japanese horror, Nobuo Nakagawa, and is one of the first horror films to utilize color film and all the "new" visual/special effects this new media allowed.

Unfortunately, only a handful of Nakagaw'a films are currently distributed in the West, and Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan is not among them.This film was, however, distributed for a number of years via Eclipse Film and so there may be a few used copies floating around out there. If you run across a copy, I recommend you get it and keep it. It will make an excellent and now rare addition to your j-horror collection.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
A classic on several levels! This early color film utilizes "new" special effects to retell one of Japan's oldest ghost stories, all under the direction of the early j-horror maestro Nobuo Nakagawa Fairly standard 1950s depictions up until the poisoning of Oiwa. Then Nakagawa pulls out all the goopy stops. No Nubile Nudies and no Ghoulie Nudies. This is a great example of early Japanese horror and its easy to see why goopy, vengeful Oiwa sets the mold for later j-horror female Onryou.


Great website. Only just discovered Nakagawa and he reminds me of the poetry that is present in Mario Bava's works.

My problem is where do you buy Nakagawa's films? Have to see the rest.


hi, thanks so much for the review, im looking for this film for a really long time now
can you please tell me how to watch or get it?

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