The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

Crime does not pay for a series of conspirators at the centre of Nobuo Nakagawa’s supernaturally-inflected historical tale, The Ceiling at Utsunomiya (怪異宇都宮釣天井, Kaii Utsunomiya Tsuritenjo). As the title implies, Nakagawa’s ominous jidaigeki is inspired by a historical legend in which a retainer supposedly attempted to assassinate the shogun through the rather elaborate device of a mechanical ceiling designed to crush him as he slept. In actuality no such thing took place, the shogun changed his route and subsequent investigations of Utsunomiya Castle found no sign of a false ceiling, yet the story took on a life of its own as local folklore. 

In this version of the tale, conspirators Councillor Kawamura (Ureo Egawa) and local yakuza Kagiya (Masao Mishima) are conspiring to depose Tokugawa Iemitsu (Yoichi Numata) in favour of his brother, manipulating Lord Honda (Shuntaro Emi) of Utsunomiya Castle by convincing him that his clan will prosper when the other retainers fall in behind the new shogun. The pair have arranged for nine talented craftsmen to be shut up in the castle to install “the mechanism” in time for the arrival of the shogun who is due to stay at the castle on his way to Nikko. Meanwhile, Kawamura is also intent on sleeping with the daughter of head carpenter Toemon (Yoji Misaki), Ofuji (Konomi Fuji), whom chief minion Tenzen (Tetsuro Tamba) is supposed to kidnap once the workmen have gone into isolation in the castle. Righteous samurai Ryutaro (Hiroshi Ogasawara) however, an undercover shogunate bodyguard, begins to disrupt their plan saving Ofuji while bonding with a friendly bar hostess, Onobu (Sachiko Toyama), and secret princess forest woman Oshino (Akemi Tsukushi). 

The plot represents in itself a malfunctioning of the feudal order in the essential weakness of Lord Honda, the ambition of his underling Kawamura, and the cruel greed of Kagiya. As the two men conspire, Kagiya jokingly laments that he isn’t a samurai while Kawamura reminds him that if the plan comes off he’ll be fantastically rich. Kagiya, a yakuza who sends his thugs to extort protection money from the local market, is representation of the threat of the rising merchant class whose financial power presents a challenge to the authority of the samurai. Toemon, meanwhile, a master craftsman, is manipulated into participating in the plan because he is in debt to Kagiya, later promised that he too will be “promoted” in being given permission to carry a sword little knowing that Kawamura and Kagiya not only plan to kidnap and rape his daughter but never intend to allow any of the craftsmen to live because they simply know too much. 

The Ceiling at Utsunomiya is not a ghost story in the manner for which Nakagawa is best known but it certainly plays like one, Kagiya eventually haunted by the figure of a betrayed Toemon which in turn leads him to a self-destructive attack on Tenzen and his eventual demise collapsed over his ill-gotten gains, a koban falling from his hand. Greed and violence will only repay in the same, the weak-willed Lord getting his comeuppance from the ever confident shogun even if he himself coolly stands back while others risk their lives to protect him. Even so, the eventual operation of “the mechanism” is intensely startling, the ceiling abruptly collapsing with alarming ferocity though one wonders what the advantage is in such an expensive, elaborate contraption aside from its ironic symbolism when the point of a sword will do. 

Then again, the heroic Ryutaro is almost assassinated while crossing a river via zip wire later fished out of the river by sullen forest woman Oshino, first encountered hunting birds with darts but later revealed to be the illegitimate child of samurai parents who fell foul of political intrigue. In a sense this revelation emphasises the restoration of the political order, Ryutaro permitted to fall in love with Oshino because they are of the same social class, while the romance between Ofuji and craftsman Yoshichi (Kotaro Sugiyama) also comes to fruition eliding the minor class difference between them in allowing the boss’ protege to marry the now orphaned daughter. Onobu meanwhile pays heavy price for her misplaced love for Ryutaro, denied romantic fulfilment in her liminal existence as a bar hostess. In any case, the corruption is exorcised and the normal order resumes reinforcing the hierarchical shogunate society with each of the players back in their rightful positions and possessing new hope for the future as Ryutaro and the shogun continue their tour while their former comrades kneel at the roadside. 


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. 


Mr. Shosuke Ohara (小原庄助さん, AKA Ohara Shosuke-san, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1949)

vlcsnap-2016-09-25-01h34m07s636Ohara Shousuke-san (小原庄助さん) is the name of a character from a popular folk song intended to teach children how not to live their lives. The Ohara Shosuke-san of Aizu Bandaisan has lost all his fortune but no one feels very sorry for him because it’s his own fault – he spent his days in idleness, drinking, sleeping in, and bathing in the morning. The central character of Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1937 film has earned this nickname for himself because he also enjoys a drink or too and doesn’t actually do very much else, but unlike the character in the song this a goodhearted man much loved by the community because he’s a soft touch and just can’t refuse when asked for a favour. An acknowledgement of the changing times, Shimizu’s Mr. Shousuke Ohara is a tribute to the soft hearted but also an argument for action over passivity.

If you turn up one day and ask for directions to the Sugimoto household, everyone will look at you with confusion but if you ask for Mr. Shousuke Ohara everyone will gladly walk you over and introduce you. Saheita Sugimoto (Denjiro Okochi) is the head of a once proud samurai household but his fortunes are far from those of his ancestors. Despite his pecuniary difficulties, Sugimoto is good hearted man who wants to help everyone that he can (out of a sense of altruism rather than duty or vanity). Consequently he is deeply in debt and nearing bankruptcy yet he can’t give up any of his three vices – drinking, gambling, and generosity.

The nature of the changing times is at the centre of this 1949 film. As Sugimoto is fond of telling people, his noble house used to stand for something but all of that historical influence is next to meaningless now. Though Western dress is not uncommon, the village is pretty much as it’s always been – children play in the fields and Sugimoto travels everywhere by donkey. Other than the tale of Sugimoto’s fall from grace, the central narrative concerns an election for a new village chief. Yoshida, a youngish man, wants Sugimoto’s support for his election campaign. His main campaign policy is modernisation – the introduction of electricity, modern transportation and communications, as well as greater cultural involvement starting with opening Western style ballroom dance classes for the children. Unfortunately his policies are not that firm and his motto seems to be “I’ll do that first!” to all aspects of his plan which is not very encouraging but still the desire is very much to move away from old fashioned village life towards a more sophisticated urbanism.

This of course also means an end to the inherited influence of idle nobleman such as Sugimoto. Though he’s a kind man who likes nothing other than helping other people, Sugimoto has been a passive steward, more consumed with his own idle pursuits than with making an active attempt at leading the village. This passivity has contributed to his downfall as he’s neglected the business of maintaining his own fortune. After taking out numerous loans which he only ever uses to help the villagers, Sugimoto has let the estate which ancestors founded, and which he was supposed to look after in the names of all that have gone before and all were to come after him, slip away. The ultimate failure and a disgrace to his ancestors, this loss of the ancestral home is an unforgivable betrayal yet there is something in Sugimoto which seems to regard it as right and proper that it should go.

Change is coming to the village, even if it isn’t coming with the speed that a young man like Yoshida may be hoping for. Change is also coming to Japan which is in the progress of rebuilding itself anew following long years of folly followed by confusion. There is no room for genial idleness anymore. “If you can work honestly with your hands you can make a living”, Sugimoto tells two would-be-burglars that he invites in for a drink as a apology for not having anything left for them to steal, but means the advice more for himself than anyone else. It’s time to say goodbye to Shousuke Ohara and the burden of inherited privilege and chart a new course as Seihata Sugimoto. Finishing on another of Shimizu’s much loved road shots, Sugimoto, like his nation, walks confidently along the road to an uncertain future yet he is not alone as he goes and may make something of himself yet.