The prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike is best known for his 1999 horror film Audition, in which a widower advertises a role in a fake movie production, intending to choose a wife from those who apply. The backdrop of the screen industry suggests that his casual misogyny is symptomatic of a wider social disease. Fifteen years later, Miike released Over Your Dead Body, a sort of companion piece, following a group of theatre actors in and out of rehearsals. Like Audition, the film – whose Japanese title is Kuime – explores deception and vengeance with slow-burning and increasingly grisly intensity. Amid its schlock and horror, it vividly retains a traditional theatricality that left me longing to see a proper production of the play at its centre.
That play is the ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan, about a ruthless samurai who is haunted by his rejected wife, Oiwa. The samurai is portrayed in the play by the cruel Kosuke who abandons his lover, the established stage performer Miyuki (who plays Oiwa in their production), and starts an affair with a younger actor.
When Yotsuya Kaidan was first staged, about 200 years ago, it was presented in a kabuki double bill with another play over two days: half of each play on the first day, the culminating halves on the next. Miike’s film itself entwines two narratives. We watch lengthy scenes of Yotsuya Kaidan in its dress rehearsals, using meticulously designed historical sets on a revolve stage. These are intercut with the actors’ dressing-room encounters and scenes in Miyuki’s sleek apartment. In most films about theatre, the offstage dramas are the real focus and we see only snippets of the show they are creating. In Over Your Dead Body, considerably more time is given to the play within the film.
There are some startling perspectives along the way – in one of the opening scenes, the camera looks out from inside a washing machine. Strikingly, the world of the play is presented as a linear, more straightforward narrative while the lives of the actors become increasingly surreal, merging reality and fantasy. In one disturbing sequence, Miyuki’s bedroom is dressed as if it was an outlandish set design, with blood pooling on plastic sheets covering the furniture.
The kabuki play’s plot is loosely paralleled by the offstage lives of its lead actors. “Sometimes I wish the play was my real life,” says one of Miyuki’s colleagues, who is unhappy at home. Miyuki shudders in horror at the idea. Several actors find themselves repeating lines from the play in the context of their personal lives. Ko Shibasaki and Ebizô Ichikawa expertly inhabit each of their roles as the central couple in both film and play.
The sumptuously staged rehearsals unfold in a cavernous modern theatre space and are captured elegantly, with the camera roaming among the action as if this was the slickest of NT Live productions. In one striking scene, the actors look like miniature figures lost in a model box. The audience for this play comprises the director and his fellow creatives, sitting behind separate desks lit with a table lamp and cluttered with notes. Miike’s decision to show a rehearsal period rather than a full public production creates a curious effect. It invites us to analyse each of its scenes more closely, questioning the purpose of each, in the spirit of a rigorous rehearsal.
It also emphasises the intense relationship between the actors and the characters they play. When the samurai in Yotsuya Kaidan decides to abandon Oiwa, he is supplied with poison by a scheming woman; the actor who plays that woman watches keenly from her desk as if she is personally complicit when Oiwa suffers. As Kosuke and Miyuki’s relationship is breaking down, he kicks out at her in a rehearsal scene and, instead of feigning violence, she is badly injured. Their private conflict is exposed to the rest of the cast by being enacted on stage.
Over Your Dead Body, as the title suggests, has much to say about ambition. But stardom is seen throughout as perilous not glorious: one recurrent shot, of Miyuki’s fish in a tank, emphasises the exposing nature of fame. If Miyuki feels jaded by celebrity then her younger colleague, played by Miho Nakanishi, is hungry for it. When she begins an affair with Kosuke, it is suggested that her real intention is to feel closer to Miyuki’s life and her stardom. This is pure All About Eve, whose plot haunts so many films about theatre.
In Audition, the widower decides he wants a performer for a wife because of the confidence she will have gained from artistic training; he chooses a woman who was once a ballerina. “When I danced, it purified the dark side of me,” she tells him. There is no such hope for the stars staging Yotsuya Kaidan, as the drama’s troubling darkness invades their own visions and nightmares, and the horror seeps off the stage.
Over Your Dead Body is available on DVD