Illusions of Blood: Classic Japanese Horror Films, Part 2
The first part of this feature can be found here.
Despite its historical setting, the kinds of traditional Japanese horror films we’ve covered so far don’t really cause all that much culture shock. Even if you’re not well versed in Buddhist cosmography, the idea of the vengeful Japanese ghost isn’t all that removed from our own ghost stories, such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Creepy dead people come back to terrorize the living. What’s not to get? But when you bring yokai into the mix, those quintessentially Japanese folk monsters, you’re faced with a whole pantheon of mind-bogglingly unusual beasties.
Yokai are much too eclectic and varied to really cover here, but suffice it to say that they’re usually a part of the natural world. Trickster animals such as the tanuki (Japanese raccoon) and kitsune (fox) feature heavily in stories of yokai, while others are personifications of natural phenomenon, such as the Yuki Onna (Snow Woman). For a good introduction to this fascinating aspect of Japanese culture, I recommend Yokai Attack! (Kodansha, 2008), a book by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt.
In 1957, Shintoho released Kaidan Honjo Nanafushigi a.k.a. Ghost Story of the Seven Wonders of Honjo, a low-budget matinee quickie that attempted to tie all seven of the yokai stories related to the Honjo district of Tokyo into one film. These include Oiteke-bori, a castle moat that moans to fishermen to leave the fish they’ve caught behind; Tanuki-bayashi, a tanuki dance festival; Okuri-chochin, a lantern that floats along by itself; Kiezu no andon, or a lamp that can’t be extinguished; Kubiwarai no ido, a well with a laughing human head in the bucket; and the Ashi arai yashiki, where a giant foot appears, demanding to be washed. The story—in which a tanuki vows to help a noble samurai—is not particularly that interesting, and the special effects, it has to be said, are not all that special, but for an introduction to the world of the yokai it’s a knowingly silly good time.
Kwaidan, the 1964 film by Masaki Kobayashi, pretty much set the standard for kaidan films in the ’60s, and 1968’s Kaidan Yuki Jouro, a retelling of the classic “Snow Woman” story, owes as much to the folk story source material as it does to Kobayashi’s version. Two sculptors, a master and apprentice (upgraded from wood cutters in the original film) are searching for the right tree to use for a statue when they’re caught in a snowstorm. While sleeping in an old house in the woods, they are visiting by Yuki Onna, the Snow Woman, who kills the old man and tells the apprentice that she will spare his life, just as long as he never tells a soul about what he saw that night. Not long after, the apprentice meets and marries a beautiful woman with extremely pale skin traveling through his village. Made at Daei by Tokuzo Tanaka, who helmed a number of Zatoichi and Nemuri Kyoshiro films, the film is effectively scary, the Snow Woman herself being particularly terrifying. The film sags in the middle, changing from horror film to family melodrama, but redeems itself in the end with a satisfyingly “chilly” climax.
The bakeneko, or ghost cat, is the subject of a particularly popular sub-genre of kaidan, seemingly more popular than even the “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” story. There are many variations but they all involve someone dying in the presence of a cat, who licks their blood and is transformed, combining with the angry spirit of the dead, into a monster cat. This monster feline can appear as a regular human, possess people at will, and even pull people towards it with a kind of cat tractor beam.
Kaibyo Noroi Numa a.k.a. The Ghost-Cat Cursed Swamp a.k.a Bakeneko: A Vengeful Spirit (1968) was directed by Yoshihiro Ishikawa, who was the writer for many of Shintoho’s best kaidan, including Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1959). In fact, Kaibyo Noroi Numa features all the hallmarks of that famous film, including a swamp, lords slashing at ghosts that turn out to be innocent women, and of course lots of creepy scares. However, this being a bakeneko picture, there’s also that big, nasty cat running around. Ishikawa cranks up the gore, with severed heads and hacked limbs flying around. It’s also fairly artsy and of its time, and would make a fine double feature with Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, also a bakeneko film but one set in the Warring States period, the time of civil war preceding the Edo era.
Ishikawa also directed some pictures while still at Shintoho, including Kaibyo Otama-ga-ike a.k.a. Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (1960), which adds the element of bloodlines to the story. It’s the present day, and a couple, lost in the forest, keeps circling back to the same pond. Not knowing what to do, they follow a cat back to an old house, where the woman is menaced by visions of a scary old hag and falls ill. An exorcist is brought in and he explains that the two are descendents of samurai-era star-crossed lovers, forbidden to marry because of their feuding families. The film flashes back to this older story, where things go from bad to worse and soon blood is spilled, which of course the family cat just can’t resist. Kaibyo Otama-ga-ike is good kaidan fun, although when compared to our next film, it comes up a little lacking.
Borei Kaibyo Yashiki a.k.a. Mansion of the Ghost Cat, a Shintoho film from 1958, was directed by the incredible Nobuo Nakagawa and is my favorite bakeneko film. As with Kaibyo Otama-ga-ike, the film starts in the present day, with the female descendent of samurai being plagued by a creepy old woman. Again an exorcist is brought in, who explains that long ago, in that very house, people were killed and their spirits became entwined with that of a bakeneko. The film uses black and white stock for the present day sequences, uniquely presenting the samurai middle section in color. Although it’s nowhere near as scary as Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, Nakagawa’s kaidan apex, Borei Kaibyo Yashiki is one of the better bakeneko films.
For the purposes of space, I decided to confine the films featured here to ones that take place in the Edo period. There are many fine kaidan eiga, however, that are set in other historical periods. Among those is Snake Woman’s Curse (review here), Nobuo Nakagawa’s watchable if unremarkable 1968 return to kaidan form for Toei, which is set in the Meiji era, a time of modernization in Japan. Also set in the Meiji era is Empire of Passion (1978), Nagisa Oshima’s take on the kaidan genre. The Warring States period-set Ugetsu (1953), from Kenji Mizoguchi, although much more high-class than the other films mentioned here, is just as much of a kaidan.