Black Cat Mansion (亡霊怪猫屋敷, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1958)

A doctor and his wife find themselves at the mercy of an ancestral curse in Nobuo Nakagawa’s eerie gothic horror, Black Cat Mansion (亡霊怪猫屋敷, Borei Kaibyo Yashiki, AKA Mansion of the Ghost Cat). Most closely associated with the supernatural, Nakagawa’s entry into the ghost cat genre is among his most experimental outside of avant-garde horror Jigoku released two years later. Employing a three level flashback structure spanning the modern day, six years previously, and then all the way back to Edo, Nakagawa positions contemporary Japan as a kind of haunted house with skeletons in its closet which must finally be exposed and laid to rest if society is to recover from the sickness of the feudal legacy. 

Nakagawa opens, however, with an ethereal POV shot in blue-tinted monochrome of a doctor walking through a darkened hospital armed only with a torch while a pair of orderlies silently remove a corpse on a gurney right in front of him. A man of science, the doctor, Tetsuichiro (Toshio Hosokawa), confesses that he’s tormented by the sound of footsteps on this “evil night” which remind him of a strange series of events that took place six years previously while his wife Yoriko (Yuriko Ejima) was suffering from advanced tuberculosis. In an effort to aid her recovery the couple left Tokyo to return to her hometown in the more temperate Kyushu. Yoriko’s brother Kenichi (Hiroaki Kurahashi) expresses concern over his sister’s health, wondering if she wouldn’t be better to have an operation but Tetsuichiro explains that at this stage an operation might only make things worse so they’re hoping the quiet and fresh air will allow her lungs to recover more quickly. Kenichi has sorted out a place for them to live in an abandoned mansion but the house is extremely dilapidated and in fact barely habitable especially for someone suffering with a debilitating medical condition in which it might be sensible to avoid dusty environments. Nevertheless, the couple fix the place up and Tetsuichiro opens a surgery in the front room. 

For Yoriko, however, the house is full of foreboding. On their journey there, the driver had to swerve to avoid a black cat running out in the road, nearly careering off the side of mountain, while she is also alarmed to see a crow malevolently perching on a tree outside the mansion. Once inside, she glances into a storehouse by the entrance and thinks she sees a creepy old woman silently grinding corn. Tetsuichiro sees nothing when he checks it out, but is strangely unperturbed when Yoriko spots what seems to be a bloodstain on a bedroom wall insisting that they can paint over it while the footprints of someone walking barefoot through the dusty house are probably unrelated and belong to a homeless person who’s since moved on. For a man of science, Tetsuichiro is doing a lot of overlooking but seems to believe that his wife’s distress as she continues to complain of bad dreams featuring rabid cats and the creepy old woman is mere “hysteria” provoked by the mental stress and anxiety of living with a potentially fatal medical condition. 

Unfortunately for him, however, vengeful cat spirits don’t care if you believe in them or not, what sort of person you are, or even if you have any real connection to whatever it was that turned them into a vengeful cat spirit in the first place. A visit to a local Buddhist priest reveals, in a vibrant colour filled with kabuki-esque shadows on the shoji, the reasons everyone thought the house was haunted which stem back to the Edo era and an entitled samurai lord with anger management issues, Shogen (Takashi Wada). Shogen hires a local Go master, Kokingo (Ryuzaburo Nakamura), to teach him the game and is enraged by Kokingo’s lateness for the appointment which is attributed to the fact that his mother is blind but is actually more to do with his cat’s severe separation anxiety. 

Taking this as a personal slight to his position, Shogen attacks his loyal servant Saheiji (Rei Ishikawa) and is only prevented from killing him by his levelheaded son (Shin Shibata) who makes a point of asking his grandmother to keep an eye on his dad because he’s worried his famous temper will cause embarrassment to the family. He is right to worry. Shogen takes exception to Kokingo right away, insisting on playing a “real” game but asking for take backs every five seconds when Kokingo makes a winning move. Fed up with Shogen’s behaviour, Kokingo brands him a cheat and threatens to leave the game. Shogen is once again enraged and fight develops during which Kokingo is killed. Shogen threatens Saheiji into helping him dispose of the body by walling it up inside an adjacent room while telling his mother that Kokingo was so embarrassed over losing to him that he’s gone off  in a huff for additional study in Kyoto and Osaka. Shogen doesn’t even stop there, raping Kokingo’s mother when she starts asking questions after seeing her son’s ghost leading her to commit suicide after cursing his entire family and instructing Kokingo’s beloved cat to lap up her blood and imbibe her wrath to become a vengeful cat spirit. 

Shogen is all the worst excesses of the samurai class rolled into one, narcissistic, angry and entitled as he uses the exploitation of those below him to foster a sense of security in his authority. As in any good ghost tale, the vengeful spirits distort his sense of reality forcing him to destroy himself out the guilt he refuses to feel. His son, Shinnojo, meanwhile is positioned as a good, progressive samurai determined to marry the woman he loves even though she is only a maid and therefore of a lower social class while often transgressively denouncing his father’s bad behaviour. That matters not to the ghost seeing as the curse is to Shogen’s entire bloodline meaning Shinnojo must to die and most likely at the hands of his father caught in a delusion trying to fight the ghosts of his past crimes. 

Tatsuichiro and Yoriko are “innocent” too though as it turns out Yoriko does have a connection to the house and the crimes of the past. They are still, however, trapped within the embodiment of the feudal legacy that is the former samurai mansion. Tatsuichiro’s determination that they can simply “paint over” the bloodstain is in many ways the problem and one reaching a crescendo in post-war Japan as it struggles to deal with the trauma of the immediate past while freeing itself of the latent feudalism which in part caused it. Only by facing the ghost, unearthing the bodies buried in the walls and laying them to rest, can they ever hope to make a recovery both spiritually and medically. Tatsuichiro at least seems to have cured himself even if left with a lingering sense of unease while his apparently now healthy wife seems to have overcome her fear of cats in the relative safety of modern day Tokyo. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Lady Vampire (女吸血鬼, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1959)

Three years after the Vampire Moth, Nobuo Nakagawa returns to the realms of bloodsucking adventure with the misleadingly titled The Lady Vampire (女吸血鬼, Onna Kyuketsuki). The only “vampire” on offer here is male, though his victim is indeed a “lady” in being the descendent of a noble family apparently the subject of a mysterious curse which, along with her resemblance to a beautiful ancestor, makes her so attractive to the sensitive, artistic bloodsucker at the tale’s centre. Heavily influenced both by Hammer Horror and Universal’s monster films from the ‘30s, Nakagawa plays fast and loose with his mythology while indulging in a common though problematic association between vampirism and Christianity.

Beginning in high style, the film opens with a driver escorting ace reporter Tamio (Takashi Wada) to the birthday party of his fiancée Itsuko (Junko Ikeuchi) for which he is already very late. The driver stops the car believing he has hit a woman pedestrian, but she seems to have vanished. Later, Tamio spots her wandering around near Itsuko’s home, while Itsuko brings darkness into her party by accidentally cutting her finger and getting a suspiciously large amount of blood on her cake. This alarms Itsuko’s father Shigekatsu (Akira Nakamura) because it reminds him of something that happened right before his wife, Miwako (Yoko Mihara), mysteriously disappeared 20 years previously. 

Of course, the mystery woman turns out to be none other than Itsuko’s long lost mother who is discovered in a long disused room by her extremely confused husband. To everyone’s consternation, Miwako looks exactly the same as she did 20 years ago and for the moment is more or less catatonic. The doctors can’t explain it, and no one is quite sure what to do about this miraculous development. Itsuko stops to make sure Tamio isn’t going to put any of this in his paper, fearful that people will think of her mother’s condition shamefully as a disease or a deformity. Paying a visit to a local art gallery, the pair are shocked to discover that the prizewinning work by a previously unknown artist seems to be a nude painting of Miwako and begin investigating to find out if it has some connection to her disappearance and present vacant state.

Meanwhile, a “fiend” is making trouble in the modern city. The artist behind the painting, using the name Shiro Sofue (Shigeru Amachi), is a brooding, dapper young man in a dark fedora and sunshades with a white scarf fashionably tied around his neck. We learn that he has an extreme aversion to moonlight because it makes him go crazy, feasting on the poor hotel maid who was only trying to make his stay as comfortable as possible. Aided by his dwarf minion Tiny (Tsutomu Wakui), Shiro (not his real name), puts the body neatly outside like a room service tray and pleads ignorance when the police, and crime reporter Tamio, arrive to investigate the heinous murder. The same thing happens again in a Ginza bar where, for reasons not quite obvious, Tiny starts making trouble and smashes a window letting the moonlight in sending Shiro into a murderous rage where he slashes six women with Tamio watching from the sidelines. 

Shiro steals the painting back and delivers it to Shigekatsu where Miwako eventually sees it and regains her memories. At this point, Shigekatsu enlightens us about the “Matsumura curse” which dates back to the 17th century and the rebellion of Shiro Amakusa who led Japan’s secret Christians in revolution against the Shogunate but was defeated. His troops were massacred and he himself was beheaded as a traitor. The Matsumuras are apparently direct descendents of the Amakusa clan and so have “cursed” blood. “Shiro Sofue” is not Amakusa Shiro but a lovelorn retainer, Takenaka, who coveted the princess Katsu but was unable to have her. When she asked him to take her life to save her from the Shogunate forces he complied, but then drank her blood out of love for her and apparently became an immortal being with the occasional urge to sustain himself with the blood of other young women. 

How this became a “Matsumura” curse or really what the curse supposedly refers to is unclear, especially as Takenaka isn’t even part of the family but a lesser retainer damned by love for an unattainable princess. Like subsequent Japanese vampires, the “curse” is directly linked to Christianity. Takenaka’s sales patter uses heavily ritualised language he likens to a “baptism” . “Accept my love, and you will live forever in eternal, unfailing youth” he tells his victims after drugging them with sweet smelling flowers and dragging them back to his underground castle which is built in the Western gothic style and, ironically, filled with crosses. This vampire makes good use of mirrors and has co-opted religious imagery for his own ends. Later we see that he has attempted to find an eternal mate several times before, turning his victims into fleshy statues by placing a gold cross on their heads in the same way a Taoist priest might stop a hopping vampire with a Buddhist sutra. The final of these is a direct echo of the archetypal Virgin Mary statue found at Christian churches all over the world. 

Through this, the “curse” is rendered a foreign import existing outside of and presenting a direct threat to traditional Japanese culture, again aligned somewhat problematically with Christianity by way of an overly literal interpretation of ritual. The  settings too are predominantly Western – the European-style mansion, hotels, bars, and galleries, while Takenaka dresses in a billowing white shirt and cape, living in a stone “castle” built in a cave, and eventually fighting with a fencer’s rapier rather than a katana. His minions, however, have a slightly more diverse flavour in addition to Tiny with a giant mute bald man providing security and a witchy old woman looking like she’s just walked out of Throne of Blood dispensing advice with a seemingly more “Japanese” context. As usual, Itsuko becomes mere bait hysterically running around the castle chased by Tiny while intrepid reporter Tamio heroically battles both the bald man and Takenaka himself until the police finally arrive and bring “order” to this orderless place. The young free themselves from an ancestral curse and prepare to move on, no longer burdened by “bad blood” as they watch the past dissolve while preparing to move into a freer future. 


A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1958)

The term “dokufu” or “poisonous woman” dates back to the Edo era, but rose to prominence once again in the turbulent society of late Meiji in which such women became fodder for the growing penny dreadful industry. Unlike the later “bad girl” or contemporary examples of “bad women” from elsewhere, the problem with “poisonous women” is that they pollute society as a whole, corrupting those around them through their unbridled transgressions. These notions are of course as much about contemporary notions of femininity and a desire to preserve the social order at all costs as they are about conventional morality and the rule of law, but there are reasons that tales of such independent women incited such a frenzy among both men and women who found themselves floundering in a confusing and rapidly changing society.

Nobuo Nakagawa’s A Wicked Woman (毒婦高橋お伝, Dokufu Takahashi Oden) is inspired by the real life tale one particular “dokufu”, Oden Takahashi, who was in fact the last woman to be beheaded in Japan after being convicted of murdering her lover while suspected of poisoning her husband. Nakagawa does not particularly pay attention to the “real” details of her life but to her pulp persona, somewhat reclaiming her image as an ultra cool revenger who refused to be bound by the restrictive mores of her times or suffer at the hands of the feckless men she nevertheless falls victim to. 

When we first meet Oden (Katsuko Wakasugi), she is being pursued by a large number of policemen whom she manages to outrun, eventually tricking them and escaping by getting a lift from a passing rickshaw driver. The ride is tense, and we worry that Oden will encounter an accident that will bring her to the attention of the police, but the crisis is something quite different. In a staggering coincidence, the rickshaw driver is none other than Oden’s estranged first husband, Jinjuro (Akira Nakamura), once a samurai but now reduced to pulling a cab after ruining himself through drink and debauchery (apparently why Oden eventually left him). Though it’s not exactly a happy reunion, the pair part on good terms while he laments that their small daughter Omitsu still misses her mother, managing to extract a few notes from Oden supposedly for her upkeep.  

Oden meanwhile goes home to husband no. 2, Ryosuke (Asao Matsumoto), who is bedridden with TB and increasingly paranoid about what Oden does outside the house to keep them fed. Operating out of a remote cottage, she puts on a ridiculously elaborate Western outfit and heads to a jewellers where she pretends to look at precious stones for a ring, dropping one on the floor while the salesman’s back is turned and spiking it with the point of her parasol knowing that no-one is going to think of looking there. The assistants aren’t stupid, they know a stone is missing and Oden must have pocketed it but all they can do is search her person, calling in the local bobby, Kazuma. (Juzaburo Akechi), who thinks they may be going too far in forcing this upperclass lady to strip off to prove she’s not a thief. The owner of the store, Osawa (Tetsuro Tanba), looks on knowingly but is intrigued more than anything else, eventually content to let Oden go despite knowing she has the jewel concealed somewhere about her person. 

Disaster strikes, however, when Oden runs into Kazuma in the street and he spots her parasol sparkling. He tries to arrest her, but she pleads with him to let her change out of her extremely silly outfit first, playing the poor widow card and eventually seducing the naive policeman. What Oden didn’t quite bank on was actually falling for him for real, drawn in a sense to order and goodness, longing to be caught and restored to the rightful condition of womanliness but fearing she has lost all right to conventional happiness. 

Oden’s relationship with Kazuma is an example of the effects of her “poison” on society at large. Kazuma as we first meet him is earnest and good, a naive young rookie with a strong sense of justice who leaps to defend Oden thinking she is a maligned noble woman unfairly accused of thievery. His superior Kakunosuke (Gen Funabashi), has set him up with his innocent little sister Kozue (Minako Yamada) and it seems the pair will soon marry, but Kazuma is apparently not so much interested in sweetness as he is in Oden’s complicated darkness. He falls obsessively in love with her, perhaps partly out of a desire to save her from her criminal life by bringing her to justice, but also in attraction to all of her transgressive qualities which contradict everything he stands for. 

Nakagawa reframes Oden’s poisonousness as a consequence of her frustrated maternity and a continual failure of masculinity. After re-encountering Jinjuro, Oden finds it increasingly difficult to justify the act of abandoning her child and leaving her with a man she knew to be a violent and feckless drunk. Though Jinjuro appears to have reformed himself through the time-honoured devices of humbleness and hard work, we later find him extorting money from Oden to pay for Omitsu’s medical care only to drink it all himself. Oden tries to visit her daughter, but is after all a stranger in her life. Her attempt to reclaim her maternity, escape the trap of criminality and leave the city with her little girl is the primary motivator for all of her subsequent actions which culminate in an intense desire for revenge against Jinjuro, the architect of all her misfortune. 

All of Oden’s earlier crimes were in some way permissible, taking from those who could afford to lose and doing it with a degree of style. The botched job at the jewellers, however, sees her fall into the hands of Osawa, who turns out to be a violent and sadistic gang boss. Osawa keeps women captive in his basement and whips them for his own enjoyment, forcing Oden to become a procurer tricking vulnerable women into becoming sex slaves. Oden thinks nothing of this, smirking that there must be good money in selling women, willingly complicit in the oppression of those just like her. To free herself from Osawa, she uses Jinjuro, attempting to kill two birds with one stone and finding partial success only for the plan to fall apart when confronted by the face of order in the reappearance of a ruined Kazuma. 

Oden ends her journey in Yokohama, a bustling international port, where she’s the tattooed madame of the Osawa’s Chinese bar and a familiar face at the gaming tables. The suggestion is that this corruption is foreign in origin, Osawa’s top hat and smart suit not to mention plush Western-style bed, suggesting that his savagery is a facet of his seduction by Chinese hedonism and Western individualism. Individualism is again painted as Oden’s sin when she leaves the women locked in a jail cell to escape a fire while cradling her ill-gotten gains, only to tell Kazuma to man up and that money is what she truly loves. But Oden is also victim of her times, betrayed by a failure of masculinity in a patriarchal system. Jinjuro the drunken samurai, Ryonosuke the impotent consumptive, and Kazuma the conflicted young man. The last of these she refuses to “ruin”, setting him free because she truly loves him and does not want to see him dragged into her life of crime, intent on reclaiming her goodness by reassuming the role of a conventional mother living an honest life with her daughter somewhere far away. Her “wickedness” is only really her desire to survive but an independent woman, good or bad, is always a threat to the social order and so she must be stopped lest her inconvenient desire to live a life free of male control become a “poisonous” example to those around her.