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)

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. 


Death Row Woman (女死刑囚の脱獄, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

How far does freedom extend in the complicated post-war society? Best known for his eerie horror films, Nobuo Nakagawa takes a stab at B-movie crime in a tale of wronged femininity as a woman’s attempt to escape her father’s authority ends in a death sentence. Death Row Woman (女死刑囚の脱獄, Onna Shikeishu no Datsugoku) sends its wrongfully convicted heroine on the run, literally, from a cruelly patriarchal society, but there is something quite perverse in its ambivalent conclusion which at once frees and vindicates but also suggests that perhaps daddy knows best after all. 

As the film opens, patriarch Imai (Hiroshi Hayashi) is engaging in a bonding ritual with his prospective son-in-law, Aoki (Keinosuke Wada), teaching him how to hunt. Meanwhile, his daughter, Kyoko (Miyuki Takakura), has wandered off with another man, Soichi (Tatsuo Terashima), with whom she is in love. Soichi is obviously worried about Aoki, but she tells him that the marriage is her father’s idea and she’s no intention of going through with it, not least because she is pregnant with Soichi’s child. The pair embrace, engaging in a clinch in the woods, but are spotted by Kyoko’s step-sister, Minako (Yasuko Mita), who apparently doesn’t like someone else hunting what she’s got her eye on, pointing her shotgun right at the loved up couple before her mother (Fumiko Miyata) arrives and knocks it out of the way sending a shot into the air in the process. 

Soichi is a spineless sort of man, telling Kyoko that he “can’t talk to old people” and refusing to go with her to see her father. She’s confident Imai will have to give in seeing as her pregnancy makes this a fait accompli, but he tells her to get an abortion and if she doesn’t like it she can get out. Imai wanted her to marry Aoki because he picked him out as a son, an heir to leave his company to. As Kyoko points out, he never considered her feelings, only seeing her as a tool to be manipulated for his own ends in securing his business interests. Imai objects to Soichi not only because he resents having his authority undercut, but because Soichi is a “nobody” and he finds the idea of his daughter marrying someone from a different social class distasteful in the extreme. All of that is about to become moot, however, because seconds after Kyoko storms out vowing to marry Soichi even if it means severing ties with her family, Imai drops dead, not of an apparent heart attack as it first seems but of poison! As the last person to see him alive and with the entire household having heard their row, Kyoko is arrested for her father’s murder and sentenced to death. 

Jumping on over a year, Kyoko’s son is seven months old and apparently living in a children’s home rather than being cared for by any of her family while she languishes in prison still proclaiming her innocence. Nakagawa flirts with woman in prison tropes, putting Kyoko in a room of four women including a predatory lesbian, but eventually allows her to find female solidarity with a “habitual criminal” who helps her escape in order that she might prove her innocence and be reunited with her son. Kyoko’s decision to escape is prompted by an awkward visit from Soichi who has neglected to bring the picture of their baby he’d promised her while claiming to be working hard on her case. He tells her that he’s engaged a lawyer who has turned up evidence implicating Aoki who has made several attempts of his own to visit her all of which she has turned down. Unbeknownst to her, he’s even transferred to the town near the prison and is living in a company dorm not too far away. Coming to the conclusion that Aoki is the architect of all her misfortune, she determines to pay him a visit and either get a confession or take her own life. 

Aoki, however, turns out to be a good guy after all. He didn’t kill Imai and has been living near by because he’s sure Kyoko didn’t either and is determined to crack the case. Aoki helps her hide from the authorities and manages to get her on a train to Tokyo daringly defying the police dragnet, while the case’s original investigator begins to smell a rat in staking out the Imai home. Soichi seems to have become awful close with the two Imai ladies, so perhaps he really was the odious social climber old Imai feared him to be. So far, Kyoko’s attempts to take charge of her own future in rejecting her father’s authority have not gone well. She has ended up with a death sentence for daring to challenge the social order by advancing her own agency and has escaped from the literal prison, but is once again locked up for her own safety while Aoki does all the investigating on the outside. Her desire to reassume her role as a mother to a child technically born out of wedlock is what eventually gets her caught, leaving her at the mercy of the magnanimous police who, thankfully, decide that the duty of law enforcement is to act in the best interests of justice, admitting their mistakes rather than covering them up to save face. 

So, Aoki turns out to be good and Soichi bad. Kyoko is vindicated, proving herself innocent of the crime of patricide, but is punished fiercely for her attempt to escape her father’s control. It’s tempting to think that the message is that her father knew best after all and if she’d only done as she was told and married Aoki without making a fuss all of this could have been avoided. Amoral post-war ambition has been unmasked, everyone has been shuffled back into their original class boxes with order seemingly restored. Kyoko has “escaped” her imprisonment, but is she truly “free”? “That’s all in the past now”, Aoki reassures her, “but hang on tight anyway”.