When is a ghost cat not a ghost cat? Drawing inspiration from classic folklore and kabuki theatre, the ghost cat movie had been a popular genre of pre-war cinema yet thereafter fell out of favour before a brief resurgence in the 50s and 60s. Inspired by the classic vampire cat legend, 1949’s Ghost Cat of Nabeshima (鍋島怪猫伝, Nabeshima Kaibyo-den) was part of a wave of post-war kaibyo yet in a slightly meta touch features no actual “ghost cat” leveraging instead the superstitious fear of their existence along with a mild prejudice towards otherwise supernaturally cute kitties.
Set in the feudal era, the central drama revolves around a weakened lord, a supposedly cursed Go board, and local hysteria about a dangerous ghost cat lurking round the palace that has the townspeople nervous enough to have organised a patrol on the look out for suspicious-looking felines. A store owner has recently taken in an ornate Go board which has sent his wife into a minor frenzy because it looks just like the one from the local temple which she knows to be haunted by the vengeful spirit of a man who was killed during a dispute over a particularly heated game. As such, she pushes him to sell it as quickly as possible which he does to a lower level samurai whose gaming companion is so weirded out by the bad vibes emanating from the board that he gives it away to villainous retainer Tanuma (Ureo Egawa). Tanuma then gifts it to the rather effete lord ignoring the advice of his noble rival Komori (Denjiro Okochi) that Go is bad for the lord’s health both mental and physical.
Komori may in a sense be proved right when, lacking a companion, the lord decides to summon Matashichiro (Haruo Tanaka) who is reputed to be a good player. Matashichiro is something of a Go obsessive and had been planning to leave for Edo in order to train with a true master partly it seems because he is carrying a chip on his shoulder as his family has been reduced in circumstances leaving him with few opportunities. On seeing the board, however, he appears to have something of an episode repeating the earlier tragedy in insisting the lord is playing “unfairly” before starting a fight during which the lord accidentally kills him, Matashichiro’s adorable black kitten Kuro leaving tiny bloody footprints as he scuttles away to relative safety glaring at the lord as he goes.
The lord thereafter develops an intense fear of cats, half-believing Kuro has become a bakeneko out to get him. All of this plays directly into the hands of Tanuma who is secretly plotting against the lord and hopes to capitalise on the ghost cat rumours while simultaneously making the lord seem mad in order to usurp and manipulate him. Tanuma had rejected concern over the cursed nature of the board insisting that “supernatural things don’t exist” while suggesting “weak government” is the reason such rumours were allowed to arise in the first place though it later becomes clear he too is manipulating them later sending out one of his minions in a ghost cat outfit with the instruction to cause trouble to keep the townspeople afraid. Komori, meanwhile, the good samurai later reminds the lord that he brought some of this on himself in his selfishness, failing to properly care for his subjects such as the rebellious Sanpei (Yataro Kurokawa) who openly disparages him while encouraging a peasant revolt in the face of samurai indifference.
In this, there is perhaps a message for the immediate post-war world in the peasants’ frequent mistaken assertion that greed is good and a necessary tool for survival, Sanpei and the others half-heartedly taking part in a cat cull ordered by the increasingly paranoid lord which creates further animosity towards the samurai authorities from local people who love their cats and won’t stand for their beloved pets being sold off and killed because of a bizarre rumour about a vengeful feline spirit. One of the reasons cited for the decline in popularity of the ghost cat film is that post-war audiences simply no longer took such things seriously and some of that flippancy is indeed seen in the attitudes of some of the townspeople who are quick to dismiss such ridiculous superstition. Yet there are ghostly apparitions only they’re very much human if perhaps mildly linked to feline activity, a dishevelled Matashichiro appearing in front of the lord to remind him of his crime while Tanuma does his best to cover it up. Here more than most, there’s a heavy implication that the spirits of the deceased are mere hallucinations of a guilty mind, but could the Go board really be responsible, it did provoke a violent rage in the otherwise dejected Matashichiro after all?
Then again, when the townspeople regain it, they realise the Go board is just a Go board experiencing very few supernatural incidents despite having it in their possession for over two months and as any cat owner knows, footprints on the tatami are hardly an unusual occurrence. “Did anyone actually see the ghost that everyone was fussing about?” a woman asks to confused silence before someone jokingly points at Matashichiro’s former girlfriend Otoyo (Michiyo Kogure) now guardian to the adorable Kuro looking like butter wound’t melt. Order has in any case been restored, the disruptive Tanuma’s schemes unmasked, the lord reminded of his proper responsibilities whether by supernatural intervention or not, and the townspeople laying aside their “greed” while rediscovering a sense of mutual solidarity not to mention affection for their feline companions. Playful to the last, Watanabe closes with a handheld zoom into the cute kitten sitting innocently atop the cursed board while the drunken townsmen snooze all around him in ominous tranquility.