Nobody could ever accuse Takashi Miike of being a slouch, and his breakneck pace of film production continues here with a more classically subdued take on the horror genre than his casual fans may expect. It’s not the first time the director has dipped a toe into the world of kabuki theatre - indeed he’s no stranger to the stage and his most recent outing made sure to inject a little of his characteristic craziness including space aliens and references to Star Wars. Over Your Dead Body is much more in the vein of Harakiri than of Audition or Ichi the Killer, and despite its often grotesque overtones and suggestions of supernatural machinations its chief merit is in the beauty of its stagecraft rather than in its infrequent thrills.
Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki) is a successful kabuki actress and has landed a plum leading role in the classic play Yotsuya Kaidan. Using her status and connections, she’s been able to wangle the central male role in the piece for her boyfriend, Kosuke (real life kabuki superstar and previous Miike collaborator in Harakiri Ichikawa Ebizou XI), with whom she’d like to settle down and have a family. Kosuke, however, has a wandering eye and may not be quite as committed to the relationship as Miyuki. Before long, onstage and offstage events begin to blur as supernatural forces, mental illness and distorted realities begin to take their toll on this unlucky troupe of actors.
Yotsuya Kaidan is a true classic of kabuki theatre. Filmed countless times, it’s the story of a down on his luck samurai Iemon who’s in love with a young woman but denied by her father thanks to his lowly status. Eventually, Iemon murders him and hides the body so he can marry his one true love after an appropriate amount of time has passed. However, Iemon’s crimes begin to weigh heavily on his conscience and having got what he wanted he finds himself haunted and unable to live the happy life he’d dreamed of. His dreams of becoming a high ranking, respected samurai consume him, and when he’s offered the opportunity to marry into a more impressive family he makes a shocking and bloody decision.
The darkness of this stygian tale doesn’t take long to seep into the “real" world and it quickly becomes near impossible to distinguish between several different layers of reality. Wronged heroine Miyuki’s behaviour becomes increasing erratic as her rather cold and calculating boyfriend Kosuke gradually takes on the cruel persona inherited from Yotsuya Kaidan’s Iemon. Her elaborate revenge plot seems to go around in circles, culminating in an extremely bloody and completely insane set piece before heading off into the realms of the supernatural.
However, the real success of the film lies in the kabuki scenes themselves and some viewers may even windup wishing they were watching Yotsuya Kaidan instead. Having constructed an unfeasibly beautiful theatrical set utilising a modern, fully revolving stage, Miike blurs us seamlessly from the theatricality of the stage set into the world of the play. Always beautifully filmed, the world of Yotsuya Kaidan comes to life before our eyes whereas the regular “reality”, our world with its everyday demands, feels cold, sterile and emotionless. One actor even remarks that he wishes the world of the play were real - quite an odd thing to say considering it’s a morality play about the wages of sin which is soaked in blood, including that of a young infant.
Despite the committed performances of the cast, the off-stage antics which ought to be the focus of the film end up feeling superfluous. Ultimately, despite its relatively short running time Over Your Dead Body feels like a short story unwisely expanded into a novella which might have benefitted from stronger editorial control. The overall tone is one of unexplained mystery but its refusal to explain itself is more likely to frustrate rather than delight and something about its plot machinations just never manages to come together in a satisfying way.
Something of a mixed bag, Over Your Dead Body is not without its merits - it looks beautiful for one thing - yet never manages to engage. It lives and breathes in its kabuki scenes, and perhaps a filmed kabuki production of Yotsuya Kaidan may ultimately have proved more satisfying. Gore fans and lovers of the bizarre who stay with the slow burn approach will find a lot to like in Over Your Dead Body, but die hard horror aficionados maybe advised to look elsewhere for their supernatural thrills.
Over Your Dead Body was screened as part of Frightfest 2015 on 30th August 2015