Yotsuya Kaidan is one of the classic Japanese ghost stories. Written in the 19th century as a kabuki play, it has been filmed over 30 times. The tale centres on Iemon, a masterless samurai and his wife, Oiwa. When an opportunity to marry into a wealthy family appears, Iemon conspires to poison and then murder his wife, only for his guilt to mean he is haunted by her ghost. Finally, mistaking his new love for his wife’s ghost, he kills her, too and vengeance is served.
Over Your Dead Body sees a variant on the re-telling. The focus here is on actors Kousuke (Ebizo Ichikawa) and Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki), a couple who are starring in a play of you guessed it Yotsuya Kaidan.
As rehearsals progress, tensions raise between them and the story of the play begins to bleed and echo in real life. Miyuki suspects she is pregnant, while Kousuke starts an affair with their co-star…the actress playing his new love in the play.
Over Your Dead Body is directed by Takashi Miike, the enfante terrible of Japanese cinema who found global fame with extreme pieces like Ichi The Killer, Dead or Alive and Visitor Q. But Miike has always had many sides to him, directing everything from colourful childrens’ films to sombre introspective pieces like The Bird People in China.
This appears to be cut from the cloth of the latter, but in fact it is more like his classic Audition…a slowburn that erupts into blood and violence. This is, without doubt, a horror movie at the end of the day.
One of the most impressive things in Miike’s extensive resume is that while his films are often very stylish, he never settles on one particular style. Over Your Dead Body is another extension, the lavish production design of the theatrical sets and sleek, modern ‘real world’ houses creating space for the languid pacing of the film. The camera-work matches, all slow moves and deliberate framing. As reality and fiction wind together, so the filming becomes more unsettled as close-ups, hard cuts and off-kilter shot selection reveal the shakiness in the mental state of the characters.
The effectiveness of the movie lies in the subtle build-up of the character work. Miyuke’s mental state crumbles under the combination of her suspicions and seeing the possible result of these suspicions play out in the theatre. The problem is that this reservation carries too far when the impacts are required at the end, events feel somewhat distant.
The coldness comes from not only the shooting style, but also from Ichikawa’s impassive performance. It is so hard to see chinks in his emotional armour that the film loses the intimacy it needs to fully absorb.
The result is an interesting film with a lot to recommend about it. That it never fully hits home is the key element holding it back from real greatness and a place in the “best of” section of Miike’s filmography.
The extras are simply trailers for other Madman Eastern Eye titles coming out. Although it is testament to how prolific Takashi Miike is that two of the films promoted are also his!