It's an old-fashioned, slightly stagey Japanese horror film from Nobuo Nakagawa, best known for his stylised 1950s/60s horror films, influenced by folk tales. I quite liked it.
It's a tale of nobly suffering peasants and vile landlords. Yukiko Kuwahara is a young girl who lives with her mother (Chiaki Tsukioka) and father (Ko Nishimura). Together they work on a small patch of land they lease from Seizaburo Kawazu, his reptilian wife Akemi Negishi and their rapist son Shingo Yamashiro. Anyway, Kuwahara's family is in debt to Kawazu. We're introduced to Nishimura as he runs alongside Kawazu's horse and cart, pleading for leniency and offering to work himself to the bone and eat dirt. Kawazu couldn't care less, of course. Soon afterwards, Nishimura's dead. Kawazu strolls in to pay his respects to the bereaved, tosses his mandatory funeral contribution on the table (with a casualness that if you did it today would have no one ever speaking to you again) and tells everyone that he's having their land repossessed and their home pulled down.
That's nowhere near the worst of it, though. Later we'll get to the truly loathsome stuff. The best I can say is that they don't actually commit murder, but it would make little difference if they were. When called in by the local police commissioner, Kawazu explains that the lives of his tenant farmers are worthless, as if they were earthworms. Tsukioka and Kuwahara discover that their father's efforts to date hadn't been paying off their debt, but on the contrary it's been growing with the interest that Kawazu's been charging them. They're put to work, with Kuwahara expected to get up at 4am under signs saying "if you work hard, you can endure shortage and discomfort".
Worst, I think, is our villains' sexual interest in our heroines. When Kuwahara gets lured away to be raped, afterwards she's punished for "escaping" and locked in a shed for days. When Negishi walks in on Kawazu molesting Tsukioka, she says nothing to her husband but instead attacks the peasant woman.
You get the idea. The good news for the audience though is that the film's not salacious. Nakagawa is a director who's looking back to the 1950s, not forward to the 1970s. The rapes are kept off-screen and then afterwards given their full psychological weight.
The last half-hour is what's interesting for a modern horror fan. You're expecting the film to let rip with a bloodbath as our malefactors reap their just deserts... but it doesn't. There are supernatural happenings, yes, but they're neither dangerous nor scary. Ghosts make fleeting appearances. People have hallucinations of snakes. That's about it. Someone with a clear conscience would just shrug it off and maybe offer the snakes a mouse, but these sons of bitches drive themselves insane and bring about their own downfalls. You could even suggest that nothing supernatural happens in this film and instead we're just seeing the unreliable first-person viewpoints of bastards self-destructing. I don't think that's the intention, but it's not an absurd reading.
Its politics is sledgehammer-like, in a satisfying way. Nakagawa's most famous film in the West, Jigoku
, wasn't subtle either. Heroines suffer and the rich are scum. However there are a couple of touches that add moral ambiguity, which I liked. The first is Kunio Murai's character, who wants to marry Kuwahara. He's another tenant farmer. He's on our heroines' side and when he comes to realise the full extent of what's been done to them, he'll attack Yamashiro in a murderous fury. However he's also an unbending puritan whose first reaction to anything is to tell people off. I can forgive his anger at the beginning for the sake of Nishimura, but look at what he says to his fiance on learning that she's been raped. This is essentially a good man who's on the side of the heroes, but there's a humanity gap. This film at first comes across as "evil rich vs. noble poor", but it's just as much about the difference between the genders.
The flip side of this is Negishi's performance as the landlord's wife. The character she's playing is pure poison. She makes Lady Macbeth look cuddly. However she's also giving a far deeper performance than Kawazu and Yamashiro's fairly formulaic evil. There's self-hatred, quivering malevolence and a desire to justify what she's doing to herself. She's playing a woman who's self-aware. Her cold, vicious aggression is in part a defence mechanism.
Negishi's is by far the most interesting performance here, but I was happy enough with everyone. Shunji Sayama is charming as Kame, who's effectively a Shakespearian Fool. Meanwhile the evil men are being made to look gently foolish, for instance wearing Western clothes that include a bowler hat for Kawazu and a straw boater for Yamashiro. They're in a historical Japanese setting. It's Laurel and Hardy plus Harold Lloyd!
The visuals intrigued me. Nakagawa isn't interested in naturalism, as you'll see if you look at the film's tiny quantity of gore. It's a couple of dabs of poster paint and that's it. However there are some magnificently theatrical visuals that I assume were a deliberate reflection of stage performances like kabuki. The lack of realism is the point. The white-faced ghosts, for instance, are far more interesting than a more literal interpretation would have been. We see the afterlife and it's fascinating to see how Nakigawa represents it. The shrine receding into the wall is glorious. Similarly there's a melodramatically evoked storm and some wibbly-wobbly eerie music for when we see a snake. In a normal film, it would be too much. Here, it's part of Nakagawa's stylisation.
This is a solid, workmanlike Japanese folk tale with some subtle touches that deserve greater critical attention. I like the way that most snake-like woman of the film is actually Negishi, for instance, who goes around pinning the name on other women instead. She's cursed too, in more than one way. It's also a tale of financial horror, with all these people's lives entirely dependent on an utter bastard. When he's gone, what will they do? Incidentally, I notice that Nakagawa directed 38 films, but only has his name on the screenplays of five of them. This is one of those, although it's only a co-writer's credit.
This kind of stylised horror was on its way out in 1968, but that doesn't make it without interest. I'll be watching more Nakagawa films. Jigoku
has been on my to-watch list for ages, but I also fancy Vampire Moth, just for the title...