The Ghosts of Kagami Pond (怪談鏡ケ淵, Masaki Mori, 1959)

“How could you do this to me?” asks a wandering ghost in Masaki Mori’s 1959 Shintoho kaidan Ghosts of Kagami Pond (怪談鏡ケ淵, Kaidan Kagami-ga-fuchi). Based on a story by Kozo Hayama, Mori’s supernatural morality tale is in many ways fairly typical for the genre save that the vengeance wreaked by the wronged spirit is extremely targeted rather than the sometimes indiscriminate curses aimed more at a corrupt society than the figures directly responsible for the death and mistreatment inflicted on the now wrathful ghost. 

The good-hearted hero, Yasujiro (Shozaburo Date), was forced to move to Edo after his father fell into disgrace with the Shogunate authorities and is grateful to have been taken in by the owner of kimono shop Ejimaya. However, his presence is intensely resented by veteran employee Kinbei (Joji Ohara) who had been expecting to inherit the business. Overhearing the boss, Jiemon (Hiroshi Hayashi), and his wife (Fumiko Miyata) discussing a possible marriage between Yasujiro and his childhood friend Kiku (Noriko Kitazawa) reunited by chance in the city, Kinbei realises that he intends to make Yasujiro his heir and hatches a plan to ensure that doesn’t happen beginning with selling Kiku’s sister Sato (Reiko Seto) a knock off wedding kimono that tears during the ceremony leading her intended’s family to cancel the marriage entirely leaving Sato a shamed woman in an impossible situation. Wandering the streets in despair intending to throw herself into Kagami Pond and thereafter become a vengeful ghost cursing the house of Ejimaya, Sato encounters Kinbei again and is killed in the ensuing struggle only to tumble into Kagami Pond sinking without trace. 

“No one ever floats up out of there” Kinbei later insists suggesting the pond as a possible dumping ground for additional bodies of which there are a fair few. As kaidan villains go, Kinbei is of the one note variety in simply being evil for no particular reason the only justifications offered for his ill conduct being his previous devotion to the kimono store and the fear that all his hard work will go to waste if Yasujiro is allowed to inherit. Even so, this seems disingenuous given an early scene in which an angry customer brings a kimono back complaining of shoddy work and suggesting she’s been fobbed off with a substandard product. Kinbei blames the whole thing on new employee Yasujiro though it later seems clear that he probably sold her a cheap kimono and pocketed the difference in price. 

He even goes so far as to mug Yasujiro in disguise, stealing 15 Ryo which he’d been transporting on behalf of the store attempting to sink his rival in debt. When Yasujiro’s disgraced father offers to sell a precious family sword to pay back Jiemon, Kinbei kills him too while 15 Ryo is also the amount for which he indentures Kiku to a brothel after framing her for adultery (illegal at the time) with the help of his sex worker co-conspirator Naka (Keiko Hamano) who bumps off Jiemon’s wife and quickly takes her place. Jiemon, who had previously been kind and fatherly insisting that Yasujiro and Kiku are like his own children to him, undergoes an unexplained and abrupt change of character becoming cruel and greedy, loaning money to another store holder in the assumption he won’t be able to pay it back in order to get his hands on his business and eventually party to all of Kinbei’s scheming little realising he most likely intends to bump him off too after he’s married Naka so that they will have full control of the business. 

Kinbei is occasionally haunted by the rising ghost of Sato who chillingly repeats the phrase “How could you do this to me?” but carries on with his dastardly deeds anyway. As in most kaidan tales, she cannot hurt him directly but leads him to hurt himself by causing him to hallucinate, as do the ghosts of Yasujiro’s dad and the storeowner eventually calling him towards Kagami Pond and his watery fate. Some disjointed storytelling aside, the introduction of a potential ghost cat for example is never followed up, Ghosts of Kagami Pond is a fairly typical B-movie kaidan running a tight 60 minutes even if the effects and supernatural imagery are perhaps muted in comparison with Shintoho’s similarly themed ghostly morality tales. 


Clip (no subtitles)

Travelling Actors (旅役者, Mikio Naruse, 1940)

“You can’t have a horse without the ass” admits a travelling actor, inwardly preparing to meet his obsolescence. Anything’s an art if you care to practice it, but there is such a thing as taking yourself too seriously. A masterclass in tragicomedy, Naruse’s 1940 character study Travelling Actors (旅役者, Tabi Yakusha) finds two ends of a pantomime horse about to be torn apart when their act is unwittingly destroyed by a resentful punter whose drunken attempt to escape his sense of humiliation in being tricked by unscrupulous promoters leaves their horse without a head. 

Hyoroku (Kamatari Fujiwara) prides himself on being the “Danjuro of pantomime horses”, performing with the younger Senpei (Kan Yanagiya) who looks up to him as if he really were a great master of the arts. The guys are part of a group of travelling players touring rural Japan performing traditional skits for an audience starved of entertainment. The troupe is not, however, above exploitative business practices, proudly advertising the appearance of “Kikugoro” but neglecting to mention that it’s not the famous one, just another guy with the same name. Meanwhile, someone has to foot the bill for “producing” the show wherever the actors land, leading the exploitative producers to convince a local barber (Ko Mihashi) to invest, hoping to get a little free publicity because he’s known to be the town gossip and can spread the word through his shop. The plan backfires, however, when he travels to the station to see them arrive and immediately realises they are not a fancy acting company from Tokyo but a bunch of ragged bumpkins. Feeling thoroughly fed up, he demands to be allowed to perform in the show as the price of his silence before getting black out drunk and passing out backstage, crushing the papier-mâché horse’s head in his desperation to find somewhere soft to land. 

As “Kikugoro” points out, the “guy who plays the pantomime horse is really picky” so they know they’re in for some trouble as soon as he finds out what’s happened to his head. In fact, Hyoroku was just in the middle of some remodelling, trying to make the head look even more realistic to improve his art. While the barber is destroying his life’s work, Hyoroku and Senpei are drinking with a pair of geishas who are pretending to be interested in Hyoroku’s mini lecture about his process in which he tells them all about how he’s really captured the true essence of the horse through patiently honing his craft all these long years. 

There might be something in that, that Hyoroku is a workhorse of the theatre now more beast than man. Just occasionally, his horsey mannerisms come out in his offstage life, scratching the floor with his feet or pacing the room like a penned in pony. Though there are other sides of him which are painfully human. He makes a point of belittling Senpei in front of the geishas, insulting his art to assert his place as the teacher, always keen to keep his pupil in his place. But as Senpei points out, you can’t have a horse without the ass, and his “art” is no less important than Hyoroku’s. Continuing to take himself way too seriously, Hyoroku refuses to perform with the broken head, flatly objecting to the suggestion of substituting one from the fox costumes because he can’t get into character when his head’s in the wrong place. 

Faced with the prospect of cancelling the show, the producers come up with a radical idea – hiring a real horse. In a still more ironic touch, they even sell this horse who is making his stage debut as a star in his own right, only realising the dangers of their situation when it urinates right in the middle of the act. Weirdly, that only makes the horse a hit and convinces the troupe they’re on to a winner, which is bad news for the boys because who wants to see two guys in an ugly costume when they could be gazing at the real thing. The days of the pantomime horse are ending, but where does that leave a “great master” like Hyoroku who has spent his life becoming more horsey than a horse? Kicked out of the inn and forced to sleep backstage as non-performers, the guys eventually suffer the indignity of being offered jobs as stable boys, mere servants to the star who has replaced them. 

In an unguarded moment, Hyoroku and Senpei reflect on where they are as a young man in a soldier’s uniform leads a patient horse off to war. “That could be us” they sigh, though it’s not clear if they mean the man or the horse, before going back to horsing around eating shaved ice and flirting with the store owner. “I’m just the horse’s ass”, Senpei laments, secretly hoping to become a “real” actor at last, only for Hyoroku to uncharacteristically start encouraging him before dragging him off on another crazy adventure. Putting the fox’s head on to make a point, Hyoroku disappears into the role, chasing his rival right out of town, dragging his back legs behind him as he goes.