Okichi, a young woman and experienced geisha, befriends Aiko, a trainee. A sisterly bond develops between the pair as they grow closer, support each other and perform together. Okichi starts to form a connection with Takeda, a young samurai.
One day US Naval Officers arrive in their town escorting Townsend Harris, the first US Consul-General to Japan, and his young assistant Henry Heusken.
Caught between duty and opportunity, the Mayor arranges for Okichi and Aiko to be sent to the Americans. Aiko quickly develops a fondness for Henry, whereas Okichi tries to please Harris using her skills and training but he is uninterested and his frustration turns to aggression.
Dishonoured and ashamed, Okichi flees, overwhelmed by grief and disappointment. Feeling she has no other choice, she ends her life.
In the strange wilderness of the spirit world, Okichi joins the ghostly dead who have assembled for the Obon festival of the dead. She passes through the veil into the world of the living and seeks out Aiko who is enjoying her new life with Henry. She cannot see Okichi until suddenly, for a moment, the two girls’ hands meet, and a terrified Aiko is rescued by Henry.
Alone and angry, Okichi follows the samurai Takeda and incites him to wreak havoc on the Americans. In the chaos, Henry is assassinated leaving Aiko distraught. Okichi is appalled at the hurt she has caused and tries to grasp Aiko’s hand, but Aiko rejects its – she will never forgive her.
As the Obon festival ends, Okichi cannot return to the spirit world and waits for Aiko at Henry’s graveside. As time passes, Aiko returns each year to Henry's grave, but she never acknowledges Okichi who begins to fade.
Finally, now much older, Aiko returns with a single lantern but Okichi no longer has the strength to make contact. Aiko offers her hand to Okichi who meets it. Released, Okichi can finally follow her lantern down the river.
Photos Guy Farrow.