Ghost in the Well (1957) review


Japan has a rich folkloric tradition, offering anyone who is interested a rich and never-ending tapestry of different legends. Many of these legends found their way in the collective consciousness via bunraku plays and kabuki performances. It is, therefore, not surprising that many of these engaging and often tragic stories find their way to the silver screen to reach new audiences. In 1957, for example, Toshikazu Kono realised his version of the famous ghost story Banshō Sarayashiki kaidan (Ghost Story of Broken Dishes at Bancho Mansion) to the public (General-note 1, general-note 2).


One night, a fight breaks out at Yoshiwara, the famous red-light district in Edo. Harima Aoyama (Chiyonosuke Azuma), who associates himself with the ‘almighty’ Shiratsuka group, feels no need to abide the orders of the city magistrate and pleases himself with causing, together with Lord Mizuno Jurozaemon Hatamoto (-), mayhem on the streets of Edo.

The same night, after being bandaged by Okiku (Hibari Misora), Aoyama confesses his love and attempts to gain some intimacy with her. Okiku rejects his advances due to the fact she is merely a lowly commoner, unworthy of him and afraid of the consequences. Yet, upon seeing her lord cry, she offers him the intimacy he so desires. Some time later, Aoyama’s uncle tries to force Harima to accept Senior overseer Tateaki Inaba’s marriage proposal in order to save the clan from being abolished by his misconduct.        

Ghost In The Well (1957) by Toshikazu Kono

Ghost in the Well is not a horror film in the strict sense of the word, but a tragic love story. It is not simply a story of two lovers who, due to a difference in class, cannot be together either, but a tragedy of a symbolic commitment unable to be given.    

Okiku, driven by the conviction that she cannot go on living without Aoyama’s love, wants him to promise her to marry her. Okiku’s demand is a simple demand for love, a demand to see Aoyama’s love proven by inscribing their love within the symbolic. The necessity for such demand us due to the nature of the gift of her intimacy. Giving him her intimacy was a radical act that put her own symbolic existence radically into his hands. In other words, beyond being the goal of her desire, Aoyama attained the status of a compass that determines her symbolic existence.    

Ghost In The Well (1957) by Toshikazu Kono

Yet, Aoyama is unable to give what she wants – he refuses his function as her compass, thus forcing her to drift into despair and ultimately into self-destruction. The impossibility of Aoyama to take up the radical position as her beloved is caused by the sudden offer of a marriage that would ensure the pristine nature of the Aoyama-clan’s image and undo the mess that he by his own reckless actions created. Such marriage would, in truth, not be a symbolic act to prove his love, but an act that utilizes the female other’s position to safeguard his own and the clan’s image within the political structure of the Edo-period. As Aoyama is blinded by the political dynamic of societal status within the Edo-society that foregoes the pursuit of his ‘rebellious’ romance and happiness with Okiku.  

The result of Aoyama leaving Okiku’s desire frustrated is that, while handling the marital gift (i.e. the family treasure, the Korai-yaki plates), she lets one of the precious plates fall. This act, as is beautifully highlighted within the narrative, is unconsciously overdetermined. It is not merely an act of revenge – a vein attempt to thwart her lover’s marriage with Chizuru and destroy the clan’s future, but also an act that expresses the pain that ruptures her as subject – she is as broken as the plate, and her wish to escape her radical subjective erasure she has been subjected to by arranging her own death-sentence (Narra-note 1).

Ghost In The Well (1957) by Toshikazu Kono

The composition of Ghost In The Well offers a pleasant blend of static and dynamic moments. Static concatenations, either to frame interactions between characters or bursts of sword-fighting. Dynamic moments within Kono’s composition (e.g. tracking movement, zoom-ins, …etc.) are either applied as decorations or as a visual highlighter – to visually add drama to the narrative.

What is instrumental in engaging the spectator with the narrative is the rich musical accompaniment. The music, which is lavishly applied throughout, does not only dictate the flow of the composition but also succeeds, by infusing a sense of drama into the unfolding of the narrative, in punctuating the emotions that are expressed through the face and that what, without being said, is suggested by those expressions (i.e. Okiku’s love for Aoyama). In fact, the perfect interaction between both functions of the musical accompaniment enables Okiku’s pain and vein romantic desire to touch the spectator profoundly.

Ghost in The Well might be a short narrative, but it hits all the right emotional notes for a tragic love story. Toshikazu Kono, in fact, blends compositional drama with musical drama so pleasingly together that the fate of Okiku, so brought to live by Hibari Misora, cannot but touch the spectator.


General-note 1: The same legendinspired the character of Sadako in Hideo Nakata’s famous horror narrative The Ring.

General-note 2: The real well featured in the original legend can still be visited today at Himeji Castle – the Okiku-Ido. And if you’re lucky, you might even hear Okiku’s voice counting the plates over and over again.

Narra-note 1: It is only after slashing Okiku down that Aoyama slowly realizes how important the subservient presence of Okiku as lover was for his own phallic position, how important being desired by her was to fuel his own body and subject with eros, the desire to life. It is this realization that compels him to orchestrate his own death. Moreover, it is only by dying that he can commit himself symbolically to Okiku.  


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