Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenji Misumi, 1965)

An orphaned son’s attempts to overcome his cursed destiny are poisoned by the duplicities of the samurai society in third part of Kenji Misumi’s loose “Sword Trilogy”, Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenki). Perhaps unfairly dismissed by some as a mere genre craftsmen, Misumi was also an intense visual stylist, a quality very much on show in this vibrant drama which pits the beauty of the natural world against the samurai order but eventually finds its hero succumbing to cruelties of his age unable to outrun himself or his destiny. 

In the prologue which opens the film, shot in an arty theatrical style, a young peasant woman formerly a maid to the late Lady Makino gives birth to a “stranger’s” child after having been promoted and given a place in the women’s quarters as a reward for her loyalty in continuing to serve her mistress in the depths of her “madness”. Lady Makino claims that Kin’s kindness brought her back to reality and is keen to ensure she continues to be taken care of after her death, but also asks her to take charge of her precious pooch hoping that she will treat it “as herself”. This is perhaps why it is rumoured that the child, given the name “Hanpei” which ironically is in part inspired by the dog-like “Spot” coupled with a suffix which implies a lowly rank, is in fact the product of a taboo union between the maid and the dog (rather than admit he is almost certainly the illegitimate son of Lord Masanobu). For some reason this bizarre rumour persists throughout the boy’s life, cast out as he is from the palace and raised in an ordinary village as the son of a low-ranking samurai who appears to be kind and loving, worried enough about Hanpei’s (Raizo Ichikawa) future to advise him to find a special skill that will allow him to support himself and perhaps overcome some of the persistent prejudice against him after the old man’s death. 

The skill he perfects, however, continues to set him apart from his fellow men in that he chooses the cultivation of flowers. A particularly snotty neighbour describes Hanpei’s art as “annoying”, though others are impressed enough by his skill to marvel that they have such a man in their clan while also pointing out that in these times of peace becoming a samurai florist might be much more useful than perfecting the art of the sword. Ironically, however, it drags him back towards the court and intrigue when he’s invited to craft a flower garden to cheer up the present young lord who seems to be succumbing to the same “madness” as his mother. The trouble starts when the garden is completed to the lord’s satisfaction but marred by the sudden and apparently unexpected arrival of a bumblebee which damages the lord’s tranquility and provokes a violent outburst in which he begins to hack at the flowers hoping to punish the one which “rudely” invited the bee to the garden. Hiding behind a tree, Hanpei perfectly aims a rock at the lord’s head to prevent him destroying his precious work and is spotted by his chief retainer, Kanbei (Kei Sato), who earmarks him for future use in his nascent conspiracy. 

Hanpei finds himself at the centre of intrigue, increasingly seduced by promises of advancement that he might be “titleless” no more and perhaps in fact escape his lowly position as the son of a dog. He ingratiates himself by, like his mother, being one of the few servants willing to bear the lord’s violent rages in volunteering to accompany his horse even though he has none of his own and has to run along behind thereby demonstrating his slightly supernatural athletic ability that gives further credence to his canine origins. In similar fashion he learns by observation, captivated rather than appalled on witnessing an old ronin practicing his sword technique by cutting in half a butterfly in the forest. Preoccupied by his lowly status and consequent lack of sword skills, Hanpei is reassured by the man’s explanation that there’s nothing more to it than draw, strike, and sheath but takes yet another step towards the samurai dark side in accepting the gift of a sword. Later he breaks it, meaning to break with the cruel path on which fate has set him, only to pick up another, supposedly cursed sword to which he was attracted because of its “evil spirit”.

Osaki (Michiko Sugata), a kind and innocent woman seemingly attracted to Hanpei because of his difference in his gentle sensitivity in contrast to the rough men around her, refuses to believe the rumours he has become an assassin working for Kanbei because no one who loves flowers like he does could be a coldblooded killer. This is in fact what he has become, sent, like a dog, after Kanbei’s enemies killing without even knowing who it is who must die only to be remorseful on discovering he has killed someone known to him. There is division and sedition within the court caused by the lord’s madness, Kanbei and his associates keen to rule in his stead while keeping his mania secret from the shogun while others, a small group of lower samurai rebels, prefer to depose him in favour of his adopted heir. Hanpei is once again a pawn, taking no side in this debate but unthinkingly doing Kanbei’s dirty work in the service of his sword. He hopes that by taking the “evil” instrument in his hands he might double his bad luck to overcome his unhappy destiny, gazing at his distorted face in its reflection, but discovers himself merely outcast once again as the villagers begin to realise he is an obstacle to their rebellion and responsible for the assassinations of their loved ones. 

The ironic conclusion finds the hero’s planned flower garden, a shared endeavour with love interest Osaki, rendered a bloody graveyard, men cut down like weeds as Hanpei’s quick draw philosophy makes a mockery of their fancy samurai fencing. The poisonous samurai legacy, infected with madnesses literal and figural, destroys everything, all beauty and grace falling under Hanpei’s “evil” sword as he finds himself, quite literally, chased out of town like a stray dog condemned to wander exiled from human society. 


The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Umetsugu Inoue, 1963)

“In this world the weak are playthings of the strong” according to the hidden villain concealing himself slightly to the side in Umetsugu Inoue’s dark identity drama The Third Shadow Warrior (第三の影武者, Daisan no Kagemusha). Adapting a novel by Norio Nanjo, Inoue, most closely associated with sophisticated musicals, shoots in the manner of a ghost story adapting the trappings of a minor parable on the consequences of selling one’s soul for advancement in complicity with an inherently broken feudal order. 

Opening in 1564, the film wastes no time reminding us that the samurai were cruel and duplicitous, a troop of them riding through the contested mountain territory of Hida bearing the severed heads of their enemies casually insulting peasants as they go. Young farmer Kyonosuke (Raizo Ichikawa), however, can’t help but think that they’re heroic and dashing, longing like many young men as the voiceover explains to make his fortune as a samurai in this the age of war. Kyonosuke gets his wish when retainer Shinomura (Nobuo Kaneko) turns up and offers him a job at the castle, only it’s not quite what he expected. Bearing a striking similarity to lord Yasutaka, he has been hired as his third “shadow”, a decoy intended to shield the lord from harm. 

Sitting down with his two new brothers, Kyonosuke remarks how ironic it is that he’s here to escape the land but Kuwano (Katsuhiko Kobayashi) is patiently saving up his pay with the intention of using it to buy a farm and settle down with a beautiful wife. His is the most dangerous of doubling roles as the lord’s battlefield stand-in, while Ishihara (Yuji Hamada), a former actor apparently not much good with the sword, takes his place behind closed walls. Kyonosuke is quite taken with the world of the samurai, but Ishihara cautions that he’ll soon tire of this “phoney life”. In accepting this devil’s bargain, Kyonosuke has in essence consented to his own murder. A shadow man, he can no longer call himself Kyonosuke, but nor can he say he is Yasutaka. He has no fixed identity and is merely in waiting for a veil. Worse still as Ishihara has begun to suspect, they no longer have bodily autonomy because their physicality must match that of the lord. When he is blinded in a battlefield mishap with an arrow, so must they be. Deciding he’d rather not lose an arm, Kyonosuke finds himself in an altercation with his other self which leads to his demise. He intends to make a life for himself under his own name with another clan, but is forced to permanently assume Yasutaka’s identity after being cornered by Shinomura intent on manipulating him for his own ends. 

“I’m no puppet, I no longer need a puppeteer” Kyonosuke exclaims drawing strength from embracing his new identity as a samurai lord, but perhaps overreaches himself in ambitious desire failing to see the various ways he is still merely a pawn in a bigger game as Yasutaka himself once was because the lord is only ever an empty vessel and far more expendable than might be assumed. Princess Teru (Hizuru Takachiho), Yasutaka’s conquest bride, declares that she is “just a doll, the strongest will win me” but is of course playing a role herself, one which she does not desire but has been thrust upon her while her cousin, Sadamitsu (Shigeru Amachi), is engaged in a much more active piece of long form role play. Only the lord’s concubine (Masayo Banri) sees through him, falling for the gentle peasant after the rough lord who toyed with her, but their complicated love eventually seals his fate even as he believes it offers him victory. Kyonosuke became a samurai to escape his lack of agency but is arguably much less free than he ever was, driven slowly out of his mind by his fractured sense of identity and realising that in killing the only man who knew who he “really” was, he also killed himself. 

Quite literally imprisoned, Kyonosuke finds himself a shadow once again neither one man nor another, denied an identity and forever a puppet of duplicitous game players better versed in the realities of the samurai existence. “How ugly fighting over this transient kingdom” the princess disdainfully remarks while herself engaging this apparently meaningless foolishness, reminded by her cousin that a princess may hold the keys to a castle or even a nation even if he implies she is little more than his tool, a puppet to be manipulated if knowingly. Shooting with deep, expressionist shadows, chiaroscuro lighting, and a melancholy voiceover Inoue frames his tale as a parabolic caution against selling one’s soul for gold but also a crushing indictment of the inequalities of the feudal order built on wilful hypocrisy and cynical exploitation. 


The Snow Woman (怪談雪女郎, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1968)

snow womanThe Snow Woman is one of the most popular figures of Japanese folklore. Though the legend begins as a terrifying tale of an evil spirit casting dominion over the snow lands and freezing to death any men she happens to find intruding on her territory, the tale suddenly changes track and far from celebrating human victory over supernatural malevolence, ultimately forces us to reconsider everything we know and see the Snow Woman as the final victim in her own story. Previously brought the screen by Masaki Kobayashi as part of his Kwaidan omnibus movie, Tokuzo Tanaka’s expanded look at the classic tale (怪談雪女郎, Kaidan Yukijoro) is one of extreme beauty contrasting human cruelty with supernatural inevitability and the endless quest for compassion.

As in the original folktale, the film begins with two sculptors venturing into snow filled forests looking for the perfect tree to carve a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kanon, for the local temple. Having finally located the longed for tree, the pair spend the night in a cabin only to receive a visit from the Snow Woman herself who freezes the older man but is taken by the younger one’s beauty and spares his life, instructing him never to speak of these events.

Yosaku is taken back to the village followed not long after by the tree trunk. In tribute to his master, the head of the temple asks him to complete the statue himself despite his relative lack of experience. Later, a beautiful yet mysterious woman takes shelter from the intense rain under Yosaku’s roof and is taken in by his adoptive mother and wife of his former master. Eventually, Yosaku and “Yuki” fall in love and marry but the two quickly come to the notice of the higher samurai orders who seem determined to ruin their happy union.

Inspired by Lafcadio Hearn’s version of the story, this retelling adds a layer of social commentary with the constant interference of the higher echelons who exist solely to plague those below them with their petty games of subjugation. We first meet the local bailiff Jito when he rides into town trailing a massive entourage and immediately stars beating some of the local children who were playing with piles of wood. When Yosaku’s adoptive mother pleads with them to stop, he beats her too for having the temerity to speak to a samurai. Unfortunately, he has it in for Yosaku because he has another master sculptor he wants to use for the statue, and now he’s also taken a liking to the beautiful Yuki and will stop at nothing to have his wicked way with her. He is in for quite a nasty shock but even so, the higher orders remain the higher orders and those below them are left with no recourse but simply to follow suit.

The real villain of the film is this enforced class system which allows or even encourages those at its summit to run rampant over those below. The samurai will have their way and the people have nothing to oppose them with save their sense of personal integrity. The Snow Woman then becomes the film’s unlikely heroine. By the time we reach the film’s emotionally devastating finale, Yuki claims that she learned human compassion in her life with Yosaku and their child and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness to preserve that of her husband and son. Yosaku finds himself in competition with the other sculptor who manages to complete a beautiful statue but the temple priest finds it wanting, its expression is soulless and devoid of the sense of compassion he was looking for in the face of a goddess of mercy. Yosaku finds the very look he needs in his wife’s face, exhausted from lending her supernatural strength to save the life of a small child and her husband’s freedom, and in her eyes as she prepares to bid goodbye to him.

The Snow Woman is only obeying her own nature and cannot be blamed for merely being what she is, but the human cruelty and selfishness inherent in the feudal world is a matter of choice. Jito is an evil man, doubtless his world has also made him cruel and selfish but the choice always remains for him not to be – a choice which he is incapable of making. Men like Yosaku toil away endlessly and honestly but their rewards are fragile, personal things rarely recognised by the world at large. Only the Snow Woman, a cold creature, possesses the necessary warmth to breath life into a monument to mercy built solely by a pair of sincere hands.

Tanaka creates a stunning visual world using mostly simple effects and optical trickery to bring the Snow Woman’s icy domain into the ordinary feudal environment. The Snow Woman glides eerily through impressively layered snow scenes, dissolving from one world only to reappear in another. Beautifully filmed and filled with warmth and compassion despite its frozen aesthetic, The Snow Woman is deeply moving plea for empathy in a cruel world which successfully makes a tragic heroine out of its supernatural protagonist.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

 

The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1969)

haunted castle 1969These days, cats may have almost become a cute character cliche in Japanese pop culture, but back in the olden days they weren’t always so well regarded. An often overlooked subset of the classic Japanese horror movie is the ghost cat film in which a demonic, shapeshifting cat spirit takes a beautiful female form to wreak havoc on the weak and venal human race. The most well known example is Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko though the genre runs through everything from ridiculous schlock to high grade art film.

Daiei’s 1969 genre effort The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Hiroku Kaibyoden) sits towards the high art end but remains firmly within the realm of entertainment. Displaying the high production values the studio was known for, the film paints its 18th century tale with a plush opulence and makes fantastic use of the nighttime gloom to evoke a gothic, supernatural atmosphere which is at least extremely unsettling even if it stops short of actual terror.

As for the story, it’s another take on the classic Japanese supernatural tale The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. Events are set in motion when blind monk Mataichirou and his sister Sayo run into their lord whilst out walking one day. Lord Tangonokami Nabeshima takes a liking to Sayo and wants to add her to his collection of concubines. He despatches an underling to ask Mataichirou about it, but Mataichirou understandably refuses, offering the excuse that Sayo is “too awkward” and the the lord wouldn’t find her very good company anyway. Nabeshima is angry at this affront to his authority and summons Mataichirou for their regular round of Go where Mataichirou once more resolutely refuses to surrender his sister. When Mataichirou realises Nabeshima and his aid are cheating, the pair argue and Nabeshima loses his temper and kills him.

This is a big problem for several reasons so they pretend not to know anything about it and dump the body in a well. Fearing discovery, they also banish the sister, Sayo, but she opts to commit harakiri and begs the weird cat that had been attached to her brother to drink her blood and become a demon to enact their revenge! Soon enough, two maids are dead in the Nabeshima household and the lord’s favourite mistress is refusing to take baths and has developed a liking for fish which she previously could not stand….

Ghost cats mostly come at night (mostly) so the majority of the film takes place in the intense darkness of the pre-electric world. The cat begins to stalk its prey quietly with only the tinkling of its ghostly bell and then tiny, bloody paw prints left as evidence of a supernatural killing. Tanaka opts for a floating, dreamlike shooting style weaving a degree of hypnotic confusion into the proceedings which also manage to keep up a high level of tension as the demonic cat spirit goes about its bloody business.

Of course, the moral of the tale is to live your life in a more altruistic manner – stop trying to take things which aren’t yours, respect the views of others, and don’t lose your temper and rashly kill people for no reason at all. All good advice there. The “hero” of the story is the more sympathetic vassal, Komori, who is trying to broker a satisfactory outcome of this complex situation right from the start, but finds himself frustrated as the servant of an unreasonable lord whose will cannot be restrained. Komori can’t avoid the supernatural retribution but manages to ride the waves well enough to ensure a morally satisfying ending where corruption is exposed and the land returned to its rightful owners rather than remaining in the hands of a lascivious usurper. It’s an old story, but a good one, and is presented with such a degree of sophistication to make The Haunted Castle one of the better horror offerings of the late ‘60s.