(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the UK Guardian, 1/26. Photo:  Stage fright … Ebizô Ichikawa in the play within the film Over Your Dead Body. Photograph: OYDB Film Partners. )

Continuing our series on the best films about theatre, a 200-year-old Japanese ghost story takes centre stage in a movie merging reality and fantasy

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.

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