Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ghost of the Well (1957)

aka Ghost Story of Broken Dishes at Bancho Mansion

Japan during the Shogunate. The samurai Aoyama Harima is running with a politically inopportune crowd. When the leader of the political group he belongs to is put under house arrest, and will probably soon be ordered to commit sepukku, it doesn't look too good for the young samurai's future either. The best that can happen is that he Harima will be stripped of his titles and lose his income, becoming another penniless ronin without a future. One of Harima's relatives is able to arrange a way out for him - he'll just have to marry the daughter of a very influential official and all will be forgiven. Harima agrees to the proposal, although his heart is not in it.

The samurai is very much in love with one of his servant girls, Kiku, and she is as much in love with him. Still, a man of Harima's standing can hardly be expected to throw away his honour and title for love, right? Kiku is as understanding as possible in a situation like this, which is to say she is terribly unhappy but knows no way out for herself.

Shortly before the marriage, catastrophe happens. In a moment between a Freudian slip and an accident, Kiku drops and breaks one of the immensely valuable family heirloom plates of the Aoyama, a crime so terrible it can only be paid for through her death. The emotionally very strained Harima and Kiku play a dramatic game of "kill me, beloved!", "I can't" etc, until Harima does in fact kill his beloved. The poor woman ends up falling into the house's well.

Harima doesn't gain much from his deed: the destruction of the plate alone shows him to be completely unfit for the husband role, and so he ends up as a poor ronin without anybody to love anyway.

Until one night, Kiku's ghost rises from the well to forgive him. Of course, a happy end for these two will only be possible when Harima dies, too.

Ghost in the Well is a typical kaidan movie of the late 50s. To the modern, Western eye, films like this play out more like jidai geki (= the proper and civilised type of samurai film) that just happen to have ghosts in them to demonstrate the characters' psychologies than what you'd expect from a "real" horror movie, but if one is able to adjust one's expectations appropriately there is much to love about these films.

With its 45 minutes running time, Ghost in the Well was probably the lesser part of a double- or triple-feature, made on a relatively tight budget but with the know-how and possibilities a studio like Toei could still provide even for its minor films. The movie's running time seems to be just right in any case. There's no filler, no slack, no mood-killing inappropriate comedic relief. Everything is very stark and concentrated, every frame, every gesture is important to the film's narrative.

The visuals are as assured and tight as the film's script. Again, director Toshizaku (or Juichi, depending on which source you want to believe) Kono is not a man for doing anything flashy, but everything we see on screen is at once meaningful and utterly controlled.

Strangely enough (yet again, very typical for a kaidan), this austerity in style is put into the service of a story that is quite melodramatic in tone, at least to modern and Western eyes and ears like mine that can't buy into the movie's concepts of honour and its idea of love as much as would be necessary to feel its full emotional impact. The film is putting a story before its viewers that can only work as it does under the specific moral and social circumstances of pre-modern Japan, it does however accept the temporal mores a bit too much for my tastes.

This is decidedly not a drama based on the idea of someone falsely forsaking love as my sensibilities would expect (or rather demand), but a drama of the destruction that arises from the divide between honour and love. Yet the film never directly criticises the concept of honour itself as responsible for the tragedy it shows, nor does it see Harami as the disgusting coward he is to my eyes. In a film made just five years later, when it became difficult to find films which weren't highly critical with the samurai ethos and all that comes with it, this would probably have gone quite a bit differently.


No comments: