Toei Studios’ film output in the 1950s was a vast departure from its well-known Pinky Violence line of the 1970s. Usual Toei fare in the ’50s amounted to the most part crime and samurai pictures with occasional forays outside those genres. Toei in the 1960s wholeheartedly embraced the Yakuza pictures, which became their in-house specialty, lasting up until the reinvention and destruction of the Yakuza film by the famed director Kinji Fukasaku in the guise of jitsuroku films (true account) in the early to mid-1970s.
The film A Ghost in the Well, aka Ghost Story of Broken Dishes at Bancho Mansion (Kaidan Banchô sara-yashiki), is a 1957 production that runs only forty-five minutes and would have been included on a double bill with a feature-length film. While this film may technically be labeled a horror film, its classification is a bit more diverse than that simple heading. While its main narrative may run along the lines of a horror film, it also introduces romance, class status issues, and a samurai into the mix. It fits honestly more into the fantasy or romantic film genre, but does boast a few horror elements albeit those features are subdued and non-sensationalized.
The film is based on the Japanese folk-tale Bancho Sarayashiki. It tells a tale of a samurai and his love for a commoner, which violates the class statuses, and his repercussions for killing her when angered because of her breaking of one of his families valuable and sacred plates. The folktale has been recounted in numerous variations throughout its history in oral passages, written word, in its theatrical plays, Kabuki performances and filmed versions. In some versions, the young samurai is vindictive against the young woman named Okiku, whom he wants to become his lover and slays her after she rejects his advances. This happens only after he had tricked her and hidden a plate, accusing her of mishandling the plate. Other versions are more romantic with the plot threatening the plans of marriage between Harima and Okiku, and her breaking a plate as a bold move to see how her Lord will respond to her “test of love,” as she puts it. And Harima’s lashing out with his sword in anger and slashing her for her crushing of not only the plate but also his family’s financial security, which the plates secured them.
While A Ghost in the Well goes more for the romantic version in its production, the story has been imagined on the screen countless times and in various configurations going back as far as the silent films. The impact of the story has been carried forward taking the returning of the dead from its watery grave in the well to seek revenge countless times, but most recently popularized in the film Ringu (1998). There is no vindictiveness in either main character in A Ghost in the Well. They are young and impressionable people of different social classes who have fallen in love with one another, although they both realize that it is wrong. They can’t suppress their feelings for one another. The film mirrors some points of the William Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet including the opening brawl, the forbidden love, and a doomed forced marriage.
The film begins with a street fight among clans who will not relinquish the right of way on a busy street in Yoshiwara. The young Hatamoto Lord Aoyama Harima, a young samurai, follows behind and looks up to the Hatamoto Lord Mizuno, both belonging to the notorious “almighty Shiratsuka group.”  The opposing gang has an issue with Harima dating back to an earlier skirmish. A brawl ensues and after returning to his home young Harima, while having his injured forearm bandaged, is admonished by his retainer for his reckless behavior. Harima brushes him off telling him to deal with his Uncle Koishikawa who had expressed his concern over the fight. All Harima has in his mind currently is the beautiful Okiku who bandages his injured arm. At this point, the Lord proclaims his love for Okiku, but she at first resists his advances, leaving him reeling with insecurity and anger. She explains to him that the difference in their statuses cannot be overcome, and she wants to avoid entering something that will bring her grief later. He tells her that love has no status. These words unite the young lovers.
Lord Mizuno is called to the Edo Castle for his part in the brawl which caused trouble in the city and is ordered under house arrest. Harima’s Uncle visits him with the news that Mizuno will be ordered to commit hara-kiri. If they do not act quickly, by having the young Lord arranged in a profitable marriage, his part in the conflict may cause the distinguished Aoyama family to be abolished. Against his wishes, a marriage is arranged between the senior overseer Inaba Tataki’s daughter and Harima. This arranged marriage being quite possibly the only thing that can save the young Lord and the families name and fortunes. When Okiku hears from another servant of the household about the arranged marriage, she is heartbroken, becomes sullen and withdrawn. Okiku confronts Harima with her knowledge of the marriage and tells him that she can’t go on living without him.
The marriage is arranged with the priceless Aoyama “Korai” plates being the gift to Inaba for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Mizuno is ordered to commit hara-kiri, but young Harima is spared because of his impending marriage. Okiku and another servant ready the plates for the exchange. The “Korai” plates are very famous and are priceless. And if one was to break even one plate the sentence would be death. As the gloom-laden Okiku sits looking at the plates, she is told by a fellow servant that “we commoners, can’t become a Hatamoto Lords wife.” When Okiku sees the young bride-to-be of Harima, walking in the garden, a plate accidentally slips from her hands breaking as it hits the ground. When the despondent Harima is alerted to the broken plate he becomes overcome with anger, but can’t bring himself to kill Okiku. His bride-to-be tells Harima that “it’s his fault for allowing a woman like that to handle them” and rushes off to tell her father. Raked with pain and anger, Okiku throws another plate breaking it, causing the rage in Harima to boil over. With his sword in hand, he approaches her calling her a “mad woman” and telling her “You’ve just destroyed the 1,200 Koku Aoyawa family.” He proceeds to assault her with his sword saying that without Inaba’s help he will end up a destitute Ronin. He chases her about slashing away at her fleeing body, as she professes her love for him, until her body distorted with pain falls into the well. The Ghostly Okiku emerges from the well to continue to proclaim her love.
The ghost or yurei is presented as Okiku appeared in real life, which is a far cry from what the rival film studio Shintoho was doing with their grotesque apparitions about the same time in their Kaidan films: Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi AKA The Depths (1957), Kenpei to yurei (1958), and 1958’s Black Cat Mansion (Bôrei kaibyô yashiki). The depositing of a dead body in a water source was heavily realized in Japanese folk-tales, literature, theatrical presentations and most notoriously in the 1959 Shintoho filmed version of The Ghost of Yotsuya directed by the horror master Nobuo Nakagawa.
The victims of misdeeds, deposited into bodies of water, return most of the time from their watery graves to seek revenge against their assailant. A Ghost in the Well brings the dead Okiku’s spirit out of the well, but it’s not seeking vengeance – it’s longing for the love of Harima. Okiku in this form is strictly a specter who cannot, or at least does not, have the ability to physically manifest herself to her beloved Harima. He at first slashes at her ghostly presence, but comes to realize that she is a yurei which sets his troubled mind on a goal to be reunited with his true love. The use of the yurei seeking revenge was the most commonly used type of yurei in Japanese films. Taken from this world by treachery, shame, or unhappiness, their souls cannot rest peacefully until their vengeance is complete.
Hibari Misora, who plays the doomed Okiku, was one of the most popular Japanese singers of all time. She had a lengthy film career that included the Toshio Sugie directed comedy-musical masterpiece So Young, So Bright (Janken musume, 1955) and Lady Sen and Hideyori (1962), among others. Chiyonosuke Azuma, plays the young Lord as an arrogant, rash, immature and ultimately heartbroken man. Azuma appeared in numerous films including; Seventeen Ninja (Jushichinin no Ninja, 1963) and the amazingly bizarre Jipangu (1990). The film is directed in an economically brilliant way by the director Toshikazu Kono who directed many shorter “B” features for Toei before moving to feature-length productions.
What’s most refreshing about A Ghost in the Well is its directness. It’s presenting a film with horror tones that does not use typical tropes to present its story. It stages a beautiful story of a love – a love that is doomed to fail – all the while inundating the viewer with its class struggles, outdated Japanese traditions and its tract on love really lasting forever. One need only look at the “Yuki-Onna” episode in Kwaidan or the based on the same short story, Daiei films release of The Snow Woman to see other films based on Japanese folk tales that involve a broken promise and its tragic consequences. While A Ghost in the Well only runs forty-five minutes, it unfolds during that brief time an unencumbered tale of pure beauty and simplicity. An economic masterpiece of the pitfalls of love among the class divisions.
1. Hatamoto was a term for samurai who was in service to the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868) in Feudal Japan.