Junzaburo BanSumiko SuzukiEigoro OnoeShozo Nanbu
The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen
Also known as: Kaibyou nazo no shamisen
Medium: film
Year: 1938
Director: Kiyohiko Ushihara
Writer: Kenji Hata
Keywords: historical, horror, ghost
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Tokusaburo Arashi, Shinpachiro Asaka, Yaeko Asano, Yuriko Asano, Junzaburo Ban, Mitsuko Gun, Matsuko Hidaka, Yasumasa Jitsukawa, Taisuke Matsumoto, Matsuko Miho, Yukiko Miyagawa, Mitsuko Mori, Shizuko Mori, Shozo Nanbu, Eigoro Onoe, Fujiko Suwa, Sumiko Suzuki, Masako Takamatsu, Hiroko Takayama, Mitsugu Terashima, Yoshiko Tomei, Yoko Umemura, Kinue Utagawa, Eiko Wakaba
Format: 73 minutes
Url: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0434117/
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 29 May 2019
It's interesting as a period piece from a mostly lost and forgotten era of Japanese cinema. It was only rediscovered quite recently, but it's not actually that good.
Firstly, it's a horror film. The 1930s were huge for horror (especially Universal in Hollywood), but wartime censorship was about to suppress the genre in Japan. This particular one involves a shamisen player (Seijiro) who's engaged to a rather unstable kabuki actress (Mitsue). She'll get shirty if her fiance so much as befriends someone, which might lead to death by hairpin. (The first victim is just an animal. The second victim, no.)
However those stabbings are only half the story. The victim was a nice person and she's less blindly bloodthirsty than many Japanese ghosts, but you still wouldn't want to go near that shamisen.
In principle, that story's fine. In practice, it's not very good. It lacks unity, it's bitty and it's neither tense nor scary. Scuzzy or horrible characters are fun, but the virtuous characters are pretty boring. It's a period piece (both in its setting and in when it was made) and it's hard to feel much life from someone who's dutifully adhering to social expectations for their gender, class, etc. (That's almost as true of non-evil men with samurai haircuts as it is of doormat-women.) There's emotional weight in the scene where Okiyo declares her love for Seijiro, but otherwise this film belongs to its villains.
The key performer is Suzuki Sumiko, aka. Japan's first horror star. You could call her a scream queen, except that she's more like Lugosi or Karloff in being famous for her monsters. Here she's playing Mitsue. She can do a feline look, or snake-like eyes. Here she's the main hate figure, despite being neither evil nor supernatural. She's just jealous and vindictive, in a rather oily way. She's rather good in the role and I'd be interested in seeing more of her work, but most of it was in the silent era, most of that is lost and she doesn't even have an English-language wikipedia page.
Similarly, the director (Kiyohiko Ushihara) was one of Japan's leading silent film directors and had spent nine months studying filmmaking in Hollywood under Charlie Chaplin. However he's little-known in the West and not much of his work has survived either.
Returning to the film, though...
There's a scumbag samurai lord who'll take a fancy to actresses in the play he's watching and will have you killed for disagreeing with him. There are some surreal ghost visuals. (Ushihara uses double exposures, slow motion sequences and specially developed lenses.) The kabuki performances are fun. On the downside, though, the copy I watched had no subtitles and poor sound quality, making it hard to follow all the dialogue. It made me want to watch other horror films of its era, but I wouldn't go so far as to recommend this one.