The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Hajime Sato, 1965)

The old, dark house fetches up in Japan in Hajime Sato’s slice of weird, gothic horror The Ghost of the Hunchback (怪談せむし男, Kaidan Semushi Otoko, AKA House of Terrors). Long in circulation only in an Italian dub, Sato’s B-movie romp owes an obvious debt to Mario Bava but also to similarly themed gothic chillers such as Robert Wise’s The Haunting somewhat repurposing the central nexus of the cursed mansion as a black hole of morality sucking into its orbit the sinners of the post-war society each it seems both victims and embodiments of their times. 

Opening in true gothic fashion with lightning and a full moon, Sato zooms in to a strangely creepy yet ordinary Western-style villa where the soon-to-be widowed Yoshie (Yuko Kusunoki) is woken from a dream in which she had a premonition that her husband, who we learn has been in a vegetative state for some time, had something he desperately wanted to tell her. Shinichi has indeed passed away while apparently imprisoned under the care of his father, Munekata (Kazuo Kitamura), a psychiatrist who seems less than moved by his son’s death describing it as the least he could do to repay the debt he owed to his parents. It seems that Shinichi had been in the hospital following an “incident” some time previously and though Munekata insists that his brain had been “destroyed”, younger doctor Yamashita (Shinjiro Ebara) echoes Yoshie’s dream in informing her that immediately before he died it seemed that Shinichi, who had long been mute, was desperately trying to tell him something. Meanwhile, Yoshie begins hearing strange noises emanating from the coffin and opens it to find a chrysanthemum clenched between her husband’s teeth. 

After the funeral, she’s visited by a lawyer claiming that Shinichi entrusted a key to him to be given to his wife in the event of his death along with the deed for a mountain villa where “the incident” took place. Later, everyone comes to the conclusion that what Shinichi wanted to tell them was not to go to the mansion, but of course what else was Yoshie supposed to do other than investigate. A classic gothic estate swathed in fog and hidden behind ornate iron gates, the remote country house also turns out to have a hunchback custodian (Ko Nishimura) as well as a weird, demonic statue standing inconveniently in the hallway. Soon after arriving Yoshie is attacked by a crow, told of “the incident” by the hunchback, and begins to hear strange noises including disembodied laughter before she is eventually joined by Munekata, Yamashita, and her niece Kazuko (Yoko Hayama).

Yamashita tries to rationalise that the noises are just the normal kinds of creaking born of “deformation” as a building naturally ages, literally becoming warped with time, while the stress of living in such an environment, he claims, can eventually drive one mad. He’s come along to investigate believing that Shinichi’s illness is connected to the mansion. Yet the old, dark house in this case is somewhat divorced from its gothic roots in being transported to Japan where it is in a sense “new” and “foreign” rather than an ancient relic weighing heavily on the shoulders of declining aristocracy. Even so we do indeed have something of that in the later revelations of previous owner Baron Tominaga and his particular grudges which, in this case, are if only partially rooted in wartime trauma, the mansion apparently also once home to an anti-aircraft depot the remains of which can be seen in the grounds. 

The war may not be the corrupting force in play but it’s certainly a factor, especially the surprising accusation thrown at Dr. Munekata that he participated in wartime atrocity in being party to vivisection, a claim he does not dispute but defends in insisting his actions were justified in the name of science. The house has not so much called them, but each of the “guests” is in their own way morally compromised, Munekata not only a war criminal but a venal, lecherous old man hoping to get his hands on the house to open a sanatorium by fulfilling his quasi-incestuous desire for Yoshie. Yamashita, meanwhile, is not exactly pure hearted either, using what he knows about Munekata to blackmail him into standing down so he can become the director in his place and marry his wealthy girlfriend, Akiko (Keiko Yumi), who has also turned up to join in the haunted house fun. As far as sin goes, Yoshie is largely without it but perhaps pays for daring to own her sexuality, rejecting Munekata’s advances but apparently having made a habit of getting into bed with her comatose husband despite knowing of his many affairs which may be the reason for his punishment by the house. Only Kazuko remains pure and innocent save her one-sided attraction to Yamashita, the only one of the gang to show any kind of compassion towards the admittedly strange hunchback. 

In keeping with the house, Tominaga and the hunchback are later revealed to be Christians, though in a gothic inversion they are also the source of the “evil” that infects the creepy old mansion once again positioning Christianity as a foreign corruption but also in this case punishing post-war moral failure. Sato conjures an atmosphere of pure gothic chill complete with oversize cobwebs, doors which open and close on their own, a crow infestation, and even a passing shinto priestess (Mitsue Suzuki) who just had to drop in because of the powerful emanations of evil echoing from the mansion but leaves his collection of extremely flawed humans very much at the mercy of their own demons as they desperately try to escape from the House of Terrors. 


The Dragon of Macao (マカオの竜, Mio Ezaki, 1965)

Dragon of Macao DVD coverNikkatsu’s “borderless” action was famously internationalist, but as Japan’s place on the world stage began to change in the mid-60s, it also betrayed a slight anxiety in the nation’s new status as a burgeoning economic power in the Asian sphere. The Dragon of Macau (マカオの竜, Macao no Ryu), while indulging in the genre’s characteristically xenophobic vision of China as an exporter of criminality, is another attempt to cash in on James Bond cool as its suave, British passport-carrying hero tries to wrestle a precious gem away from fiercely amoral “pirates” while protecting a betrayed young woman trying to avenge the death of her parents at the hands of duplicitous gangsters.

Set in the bustling port town of Yokohama, the film opens with the harbour patrol forcibly boarding a ship to look for smuggled gold. However, it turns out that the two men they’re searching are members of the patrol themselves on an undercover mission trying to expose organised crime while the guys dressed as policemen are actually members of a gang trying to steal a precious diamond. Fearing the operation blown, the gangsters’ plant offs the lot of them and makes off with the loot.

Meanwhile, “Dragon of Macau” Ryu (Akira Kobayashi) lurks about on the harbour while rival gangster Tsukada (Asano Sano) tries to get the police onside and convince them that someone else is targeting his operation though the police are apt to wonder if he staged the whole thing himself to get rid of the undercover agents. The truth, however, is that ambitious harbour punk Aizu (Jo Shishido) is after a precious diamond known as the “Himalyan Star” which is rumoured to be cursed seeing as everybody who’s come into contact with it has ended up dead.

Unsurprisingly, Aizu gets his hands on the gem from a Chinese broker, Chen, who warns him that two gangsters, Gordon and Boomerang, will do “anything” to get their hands on it. Ryu later turns up a bar run by Tsukada and gets into a bar fight with a series “damn foreigners”, sailors who’d had too much to drink and started hassling the staff. The “damn foreigners” quip is especially ironic seeing as we later discover Ryu is a British citizen who seems to have grown up in Hong Kong after being rescued by a British vessel when the boat he and his parents were travelling on was torpedoed during in the war. Introducing himself to Tsukada, Ryu says that he works for the aforementioned “Gordon”, presumably an imperialist Brit engaged in shady colonial shenanigans out of Hong Kong. The truth about “Ryu” at least turns out to be slightly different, but for the moment he’s a Bond-inspired unflappable agent of cool complete with a fancy white three-piece suit and a collection of gadgets (a cigarette lighter blowtorch, pistol that dispenses matchstick flares, and a tiny nail gun) that would be the envy of any cold war spy.

Not to be outdone, however, Aizu has his own share of surprises including the tiny dagger hidden in the cigarette which permanently hangs from his lip. Temporarily entering this land of intense amorality, Ryu plays along but retains his nobility and remains permanently one step ahead as he attempts to get his hands on the Himalayan Star and return it to its “rightful” owners. Aizu’s main gambit is weaponising women – Aizu’s sister is a plant working at Tsukada’s bar and apparently also his mistress, while he also makes use of another young woman, Nami (Yukiyo Toake), whose late father was a patron of his. She believes Tsukada is responsible for the deaths of her parents and is participating in the plan as revenge, but eventually falls for Ryu’s suave nobility and refuses to betray him when faced with Aizu’s continuing duplicity.

A few narrative machinations later, we’re told that Ryu is “a person without a motherland” but also that he has always been a force for “good” or at least order in that he wants the gemstone not for himself but to get it away from the gangsters and back to its “official” owners (which sort of ignores the fact that the stone was “stolen” from the eye of a Buddhist statue which is presumably why people think it’s “cursed”, and that his primary motivation is avoiding a giant insurance payout). Having fallen for Nami, he leaves her a message that he’d have liked to take her back to Macau but is unsure she’d be happy with someone like him, asking her to look after another young woman who came all the way from Hong Kong to warn him that Gordon and Boomerang have finally taken each other out.

Perhaps in contrast to Nikkatsu’s other international crime dramas, the “threat” turns out to be wholly homegrown in Aizu’s rapidly individualist stance that “life is cruel”, “mercy is for fools”, and those who stand in one’s way must be eliminated. The solution comes, paradoxically, from destabilising internationalism at the hands of a man who is both Japanese and not, speaks several languages, and works as an agent for colonising imperial powers to whom he eventually exiles himself, job done. A rip-roaring spy drama complete with modern day pirates and an extremely ineffectual police presence, The Dragon of Macau is a surprisingly complex effort from Nikkatsu’s “borderless” action strand which makes the case for Japan as a part of wider world rather than a isolated island fearful of losing out in an increasingly globalised environment.


Main Theme (メイン・テーマ, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1984)

main themeDespite being one of the most prolific directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the work of Yoshimitsu Morita has not often travelled extensively overseas. Though frequently appearing at high profile international film festivals, few of Morita’s films have been released outside of Japan and largely he’s still best remembered for his hugely influential (and oft re-visited) 1983 black comedy, The Family Game. In part, this has to be down to Morita’s own zigzagging career which saw him mixing arthouse aesthetics with more populist projects. Main Theme is definitely in the latter category and is one of the many commercial teen idol vehicles he tackled in the 1980s.

A tale of two intersecting love stories, Main Theme begins with nursery nurse Shibuki getting close to the father of one of her pupils, Omaezaki, who will shortly be transferred to Osaka. Omaezaki also has a long running thing with a cabaret jazz singer, Kayoko, which seems to be a messy situation to begin with. Shibuki then ends up running into magician with a pick-up truck Ken who drives her to Osaka where she’s set to meet up with Omaezaki to become some kind of nanny living with him and his wife. En route, the pair pick up Kayako little knowing of her relationship with Omaezaki. Eventually, everyone ends up in Okinawa where Ken lives and Shibuki has an older sister each hoping to sort out their romantic difficulties under the blue island skies.

Main Theme stars popular idol of the time Hiroko Yakushimaru (star of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and is, unsurprisingly, centred around her chart topping song of the same name. A neat, new Japanese arrangement of the classic jazz standard Sway, the song fits neatly into the movie’s soundtrack which also features a number of other jazz hits such as The Man I Love and most notably Bei Mir Bistu Shein (or Shoen, or Shön depending on which version you’re looking at) courtesy of our cabaret singer (and her rivals) but being an ‘80s movie there’s still a bit of pop synth in there too though our central couple do seem to have oddly sophisticated tastes.

Though it is, as it’s intended to be, a teen romantic comedy, Morita tries (not entirely successfully) to put a little more substance into the background by also showing us the unhappy romance of middle-aged jazz singer Kayoko and the non-committal Omaezaki. It seems the pair have had an entailment probably stemming back years, perhaps even before Omaezaki’s marriage. Mrs. Omaezaki is a fairly ditzy and neurotic woman who loves shopping and seems to be more interested in the appearance of things than the reality. The status of the marriage itself is difficult to discern and it’s not quite clear if Omaezaki’s problem is a lack of will to leave his wife or that he’s already “left” and is trying to find a way to support her. In any case, introducing Shibuki, a 19yr old with an obvious crush on him, to the household is not one of his better ideas.

Needless to say, Ken also ends up forming an attraction to the older, melancholy musician who doesn’t seem to know what it is she wants (or knows but chooses to run away from it) leaving us in an odd kind of love square with the couples really each wanting their age appropriate partners but getting distracted by foolish dalliances with age and youth respectively. It does feel as if Morita could have made more of this dramatically interesting idea as Kayoko in particular is drawn in by Ken’s youthful innocence, but this isn’t what the film is for so it remains an intriguing yet perverse addition to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative.

The “perversity” or strangeness of the film doesn’t end there as Morita has also added a number of quirky, absurd touches to offset the flatness of the teenage love drama. Perhaps because he’s a magician we get these odd flashes of Ken where he’s suddenly got crazy eyebrows (just for one 15 second shot) or crazy hair and there’s another charming scene where he’s pulling artificial flowers out of his suit only to have the magic bouquet suddenly droop as his heart starts to break. In another intriguing trope there’s also a strange illustrated map which lead’s Shibuki to her sister’s house by outlining common scenes from the area and when she gets there the gates are covered in light up ornamental tropical fruits. Add to this that the backing behind Kayoko’s final cabaret reads “Bates Motel Live” and there’s definitely a very strange mind behind the production design on this run of the mill, idol pop pushing rom-com.

Undoubtedly of its time, there is probably a reason Main Theme has not proved a big overseas hit though it seems to have been massively popular at the time and is fondly remembered for nostalgic reasons even if not particularly well regarded today. This is perhaps how the film is best approached – as a monument of its times and as a prime example of the 80s idol dramas studios such as Kadokawa put out to push their inoffensive pop music. However, Morita does add his own quirky touches to the film which does provide its fair share of youthful fun even if it isn’t always successful.


Unsubtitled trailer:

And a more recent version of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song: