This is the second time I've watched this film, actually. Last time, I quite liked it. This time, I thought that it was struggling under a bunch of bad choices. Admittedly most of them would have been perfectly normal for its era, but that doesn't make them any less obtrusive. Some things date better than others. This film isn't one of the lucky ones.
The story itself is fine, but only if you don't mind half the cast being stupid. You've got a present-day narrative (in black-and-white) and a samurai-era one (in colour). In the present day, a doctor (Tetsuichiro Kuzumi) is moving to the countryside for the sake of his wife (Yoriko Kuzumi)'s tuberculosis. Tokyo has poor air quality. They move into an old house that everyone says is haunted, whereupon Yoriko starts seeing people who aren't there. Tetsuichiro keeps laughing this off and telling her that she's imagining things, even though his dog and even his new nurse are supporting her story.
Tetsuichiro is an idiot.
The ghost, incidentally, is an old woman with shocking hair. You'll feel confident just from looking at her that she's a Japanese ghost story archetype, as iconic in her era as the Ringu long-haired girl of ours. She wants to strangle Yoriko and she slowly becomes sinister, e.g. when you discover that she can impersonate your husband's voice to get you to open the door and let her in.
We then go into the past. Granny's an onryou (a homicidal ghost who wants revenge), so we need to see her origin. This involves a samurai (Lord Ishido Sakon no Shogen) so short-tempered that he tries to decapitate a servant for asking him to calm down. The guy's mentally ill. He's also a rapist. He's due to play a game of go with another samurai, Kokingo, who's warned repeatedly to tread lightly because Shogen's an unstable nutter. They start their game. Shogen says he wants to play a proper match, not just have a lesson, but then repeatedly tries to take back moves after Kokingo's responded to them. Kokingo could have just said "no problem, it's a lesson after all, then," but instead gets all stiff-necked and starts calling Shogen a cheat.
Naturally, Shogen kills him. You'll have no sympathy for either man. Obviously Shogen's a drooling man-child who needs drowning in a ditch, but Kokingo's equally to blame. "You knew it was a snake when you picked it up", etc. I presume he also teases wolves and throws stones at bears. Samurai pride and dick-waving ended in a samurai getting killed. Sounds like a happy ending to me.
It's what comes next that makes Shogen evil. He orders his servant to report that Kokingo was so upset at losing the match that he immediately left on a long journey without telling anyone. "Do you doubt my word? A samurai does not lie!" A ghost then appears to Kokingo's mother, who goes to Shogen and tries ineffectually to kill him. (She's blind and he probably practices his swordsmanship on a servant every day before breakfast.) Shogen then decides to enjoy a bit of droit du seigneur, even though Kokingo's mother is, ah, the opposite of receptive.
A few minutes later, she's committed suicide and there's a cat licking up her blood. Before doing the deed, she swore vengeance not just on Shogen, but on all his descendants forever. That'll explain Yoriko in the 1950s, then. This probably sounds like overkill, but that's an onryou for you. Shogen's nice, polite, elderly mother? She's dead meat. His likeable son and the low-born girl who wants to marry him? They're in trouble too.
So that's the plot. An idiot moves into a house where, centuries earlier, an idiot killed an idiot. Does this work as a film?
In fairness, there's some good stuff here. Some of the characters are likeable, while the later onryou scenes have a memorable theatricality. I was impressed by the onryou's leaps, wire-work, trick shots and silhouette mime work. There's some vivid killing in the garden, which uses the film's old-fashioned qualities to achieve something you couldn't do in modern naturalism. That felt dated in a good way. Those are the best-looking scenes in the film.
However there's also lots of stuff that doesn't work today. The biggest problem is the music, which is heavy-handed and overdone. The soundtrack's not incapable of blessed silence, but quite often it'll make you want to scream. Admittedly the score feels very 1950s and I'm sure you'll hear this kind of thing in many films of this era, but it's still a pain in the arse. The storytelling's indifferent, so for instance I didn't realise initially that the blind mother was blind or that she was Kokingo's mother. (I'd been thinking she was his wife.) There's a puzzling shot with a yo-yo pendulum camera. Even the gore's poor, although I realise that's a silly thing to say about a film in 1958. There are killings where the sword's obviously not entering the body, while it would seem that stabbing yourself only produces a dainty trickle of blood.
Oh, and the onryou's pop-up cat ears might make you laugh aloud.
There's a good film buried in here, I think. Shogen really is an irredeemable human being and I haven't even mentioned the worst thing he does. The film's humanity is strong, even if the characters' stupidity undermines it. I also admire Nakagawa's theatrical horror visuals. You could watch a lot of cinema without seeing that kind of bravura. I'd almost suggest watching this film with the sound off, even if that might be a pain if you'd been looking for Japanese language practice.
Previous review: 27 June 2013
It's another theatrical horror film from Nobuo Nakagawa (Jigoku
, Snake Woman's Curse
). I quite enjoyed it, but it has some stupid characters and unintentional laughs.
It's a ghost story with a slightly unusual narrative structure. The A-story is set in the present day (i.e. 1958) and shot in black-and-white. A doctor (Toshio Hosokawa) is leaving Tokyo for a while because his wife (Yuriko Ejima) has tuberculosis and the change of scenery will do her good. They move into a run-down house far away from anywhere that's currently populated by crows and black cats. (Ejima hates cats.) Spooky things start happening and it seems that they're specifically targeting Ejima, with the phenomena disappearing as soon as Hosokawa shows up.
He keeps saying it's just her imagination. It's a tribute to what a sensible, thoughtful man he seems to be that this doesn't make you want to pull off his limbs and use them to beat him to death.
The B-story is a fat flashback dropped into the middle of the film. It's set in samurai times, but it's in colour. That's far more lurid than the contemporary story and will eventually explain why a cat spirit's haunting this mansion. In short, there's a murdering rapist idiot (Takashi Wada) who also happens to be the lord of the local area. He commits a bit of murder and rape, as is his wont. This ends in ghosts, bodies getting walled up and supernatural vengeance from Vampire Cat Granny.
The black-and-white stuff... okay, hang on a moment. It's strongly blue-tinted. I found this distracting, almost to the point of annoyance, but fortunately I didn't go so far as to turn down the colour on my screen display because then I wouldn't have realised that the samurai were in colour. Anyway, the monochrome scenes are naturalistic and capable of being spooky. The rocking mirror is a nice touch, for instance. I liked the fact that those Buddhist charms aren't really much cop. It's also unnerving to return to 1958 and see that that shaggy-haired old lady is indeed Cat Granny, unchanged after centuries.
The B-story is the real meat of the film, though. It's interesting, but I still had some problems with it. For starters, Takashi Wada is such a twat that I don't think he counts as evil, despite the vileness of his actions. No modern court would convict him; his lawyer would get him sent instead to the Institution of Sad Bastards as a textbook case of "diminished responsibility" and "bloody hell, what a loser". For example, our hero's booked a lesson with a Go master. The teacher's late. Wada flies off the handle so badly at this that two minutes later he's trying to kill a servant for trying to calm him down. Unbelievable. This isn't a functioning human being. His emotional intelligence suggests a mental age of three. He belongs in a medical facility, drugged to the eyeballs and probably soaked in his own wee.
This reduces the impact of his crimes. When Ryuzaburo Nakamura eventually turns up for that Go game, your main reaction when Nakamura falls foul of Wada is "your own stupid fault, mate". Nakamura was being stiff-necked, you see, which comes across as akin to finding a rattlesnake in the road and deciding to poke it with a stick.
Things spin out from there. Nakamura's wife does something that's understandable but, let's face it, a bit dim. You're blind, darling. You're not going to pose much threat to a samurai. Wada does something vile (again) and so the story takes us into the realm of Biblical-style blood curses to be visited upon Wada and all his descendants. This is in line with Japanese mythology, whose malevolent spirits aren't necessarily too picky about the guilt or innocence of their victims. However it does some counter-intuitive things to what's theoretically a revenge flick, since:
(a) Wada's son is a nice guy. You like him.
(b) Wada is an unbelievable bastard towards this son, doing something more appalling than the mere unleashing of a throat-biting cat demon. It seems unlikely that he'd give a monkey's whether his son lived or died, which undermines the point of generation-spanning vengeance.
(c) Oh, and what kind of person asks their pet cat to wreak bloody vengeance on their enemies? "Here, Tiddles, nice Tiddles. Play with the ickle wickle ball of string, Tiddles! Go kill that samurai and I'll give you a saucer of milk!"
It's not the most dramatic storyline in a Nakagawa film, to be honest. Cat Granny is cool and there's a ghastly fascination in seeing what Wada's going to do next, but to be honest I think the film's more interesting for Nakagawa's style.
I'm a Nakagawa fan, of course. This film isn't an extreme example of his style, but you can still tell he's doing the samurai section in theatrical mode. Realism isn't an overwhelming concern. Cat Granny is an amazing monster, realised in a way that seems designed to reach the back row of a live theatre. She's a granny in a shaggy white wig, sometimes with feline make-up. Cat ears can pop up from her hair, which looks hilarious. However as well as looking silly, she can also teleport, do Jedi leaps and reel you in at a distance with exaggerated puppeteer movements. Furthermore, when she drives you mad, you'll go in for bravura sword-brandishing in front of psychedelic disco lights that suggest that the 1960s have come early.
He also doesn't believe in subtle music.
Nakagawa's approach isn't flawless, mind you. It took me ages to decide that the blind wife was definitely blind. That samurai era make-up makes the men look as if they're in drag, while as always I found the ohaguro way creepier than any monster. Oh, and ghosts standing there doing bugger all gets old.
My favourite thing about the script is its coda. There's a little postscript that looks like a happy ending and has a kitten, so you're meant to go "aaah". Everyone likes cats now. That's nice, isn't it? Well, yes, up to a point, until you realise that "everyone likes cats" is an unexplained change of personality and that Cat Granny is (a) capable of possession and (b) might still be on her mission of vengeance. I don't know whether that was intentional, but I like it. It's a clever undertone.
Overall, it's not bad. It's entertaining and capable of getting pretty twisted. It has oddities and I have problems with some of the filmmaking choices (e.g. Wada's character), but none of that derails it. For me, it's supported by its eccentricities. It's also creepy in places (e.g. the door sliding open) and I enjoyed touches like the way that Nakagawa uses birds and animals to characterise the countryside setting.
Kaneto Shindo's Kuroneko
is classier if you're looking for Japanese cat-demons, though.