There are few directors as prodigious and versatile as Takashi Miike. In a 25-year career of taboo-busting cinema, with almost 100 directorial credits to his name, it would seem there is little left for him to do. Yet with Over Your Dead Body, he breaks new ground by opening an old grave.
His source material, Yotsuya Kaidan, isn't just a Japanese ghost story. It is arguably the Japanese ghost story, as pivotal in its iconography and influence as The Turn of the Screw or The Monkey's Paw are in Western supernatural literature. The progenitor to Ring's Sadako and a thousand J-horror imitators, its tortured female protagonist – white robed, long-hair hanging, face deformed by inflicted cruelties and internal wrath – is the definitional stuff of nightmares.
At its heart is a disturbing love triangle: luckless ronin Tamiya Iemon marries nobleman's daughter Oiwa, but betrays her for the hand of a younger woman, Ito Oume, whose father promises him better standing at court. Oiwa is poisoned, deformed, and abandoned, but returns from the grave to pursue those that have betrayed her as an Onryō, a ghostly spirit of vengeance. She finally drives Iemon to madness, as he blindly slaughters all for whom he deceived her, and he only finds comfort at the end of a blade.
Miike doesn't just mount a filmed production of the story: After all, with dozens of plays, TV adaptations, and films already done, that would be a little redundant. Instead, he makes it a play within a play. Miyuki Goto (Kou Shibasaki) has been cast as Oiwa in a new production of the 1825 Kabuki version of the folk tale, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan by Tsuruya Nanboku, and has pressured the producers to cast her younger lover Kousuke Hasegawa (Ebizo Ichikawa) as Iemon. However, she is initially unaware that he is sleeping with another actress, Asahino Rio (Nakanishi Miho), who happens to be playing the part of Oume.
In a nod to its stage roots, the narrative is restricted to four locations: the elegant but lifeless apartment Miyuki and Kousuke share, Asahino's cramped apartment in which she and Kousuke meet and mate, the sound stage on which the play is being rehearsed, and the bridge that is the confluence of the roots between those three.
The question, of course, is which Miike has directed this? Is it the gonzo lunatic of Ichi the Killer, the witty action auteur of 13 Assassins, the cool creep creator behind Audition, or the doleful, cautiously paced late-career innovator responsible for Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai? Arguably, this is closest to Audition, in its calm, measured approach to character, interspersed with explosions of terror and blood. But it also seems a clear part of his more mature body of work trying to touch on, rather than subvert, classical Japanese drama.
That more delicate touch is essential, because full-throttle Miike would be too much for the sequences in the closed set. Instead, he lets the ethereal combination of Nobuyasu Kita's camera and Kenji Yamashita's editing bring out the calm dread. The tale of Oume, Oiwa, and Iemon merges into the modern day retelling of Asahino, Miyuki, and Kouseke. As they meld, the extraordinarily elaborate rotating set (covered in images of the infamous venomous Mukade) becomes more and more the center of their world, and the dreamlike pacing becomes coolly nightmarish.
I'll freely admit: When I first saw Over Your Dead Body at Fantastic Fest 2014, I found myself unmoved by its glacial charms. Yet in the quiet, attentive confines of a darkened living room, it somehow became infinitely more enthralling. A horror kin to Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes, its power is in its claustrophobic quietness. That is found most especially and most poignantly in Shibasaki's elegant and brittle depiction of two women doubly scorned, and the source of the (let's face it, inevitable) dose of Miike's signature body horror.
Over Your Dead Body (Scream! Factory) is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD now. Also out now:
Deathgasm (Dark Sky Films) is a deliciously ridiculous slice of heavy metal mayhem from New Zealand. Picking up from where the late, lamented, Canadian horror sitcom Todd and the Book of Pure Evil left off, it's both an homage to classic Kiwi splatter and a perfect, silly, pizza and beer movie. It's not the best thrash-loving film of the last year, because that title undeniably lies with The Devil's Candy, but for sheer goofy, splattery fun, it's hard to beat. Plus, it gets extra points for knowing exactly when to mock Poison's Look What the Cat Dragged In (read our original SXSW review here, and theatrical run review here).
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