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)

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”. 


An Inn at Osaka (大阪の宿, Heinosuke Gosho, 1954)

inn at osaka cap 2Heinosuke Gosho may be most closely associated with the Chekhovian interplay between laughter and tears, but what are you to do when life is so unutterably miserable that levity seems almost offensive? By 1954, many might have assumed that society was on the way to recovery, that the promises of the new democracy so proudly affirmed in the post-war constitution would be available to all paving the way for a freer and fairer society. Of course, that wasn’t quite the case and many found themselves trapped on the periphery of the burgeoning economic miracle in which unemployment was high and the bitterness of the times had led many to believe that human decency was a luxury they couldn’t afford.

Made a year after his renowned masterpiece Where Chimneys are Seen, An Inn at Osaka (大阪の宿, Osaka no Yado) is a much less cheerful affair in which suicide and degradation linger permanently on the horizon. The hero, Mita (Shuji Sano), has been exiled from Tokyo, demoted to the Osaka office after slapping his boss in argument over immoral business practices. Much reduced in circumstances, he has been unable to find a lodging house that suits his budget, the local barman lamenting that these days most of the hotels in the area have been co-opted by sex workers. Just at that moment, a dishevelled old man pops up and says he knows of a good place where the rent is reasonable and the innkeeper kind. As you might expect, it turns out that he works there. The innkeeper is his sister and though she is not particularly nice, the place is warm and friendly with three kindly maids – Orika (Mitsuko Mito) who is constantly pressed for money by her no-good husband, Otsugi (Hiroko Kawasaki) who is forced to live apart from her son, and “modern girl” Oyone (Sachiko Hidari) who is much younger and having a fling with the inn’s other longterm resident, Noro (Jun Tatara), a sleazy gentleman who likes to throw his weight around because he co-signed the loan on the hotel.

In once sense, the city of Osaka itself is being painted as a “fall” from sophisticated Tokyo, an earthier place where people do what they have to to survive. This Mita learns to his cost when drunken geisha Uwabami (Nobuko Otowa) picks up his “luxury English-made blanket” and peels off a thread which she burns to expose its smell. Wilier than the innocent Mita she tells him he’s been had, lamenting that it’s “Osaka’s shame” that they wilfully trick people from Tokyo. Mita is irritated, slightly hurt and embarrassed to have been deceived, but affirms that it hasn’t damaged his views on Osaka because in the present society everyone is being cheated by someone somewhere. In any case, he allows himself to be bamboozled by the innkeeper’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) into tracking down the teenage girl who sold it to him, Omitsu (Kyoko Anzai), who seems upset, explaining that she bought the blanket in good faith and has been tricked herself. During their visit, Mita notices that they’re in the middle of some sort of shamanistic ritual over the sickbed of her ailing father and feels pity for her but stops short of cancelling the debt there and then.

Not cancelling the debt even though he can see Omitsu never meant to trick him and cannot afford to pay him back, is part of his rather sanctimonious rebellion against the immoralities of the post-war society. He feels wronged and thinks that getting the money back for the blanket will somehow put things right, but like many of his attempts to help those in need it eventually backfires. Mita is a good man, compassionate and honest, but he’s also disappointingly conservative in ways he hasn’t quite realised. Uwabami, who has fallen in love with him, later chides Mita that he is like a star looking down on everything from above. He doesn’t quite understand what she means, failing to grasp that what she’s telling him is that though she can see that he cares, he has a tendency to view himself as somehow “better” than the world around him and lives in silent judgement of those he believes to be fundamentally different from himself.

After a brief argument, Uwabami confesses that she feels trapped and miserable in her impossible geisha existence, just trying to make enough money to survive when too old to ply her trade. She can’t quit because she’s responsible for her whole family – her younger brother has just been laid off from his railway job and his children will go hungry without her money. She provokes Mita a little, chastising him for not caring about her on a human level only for Mita to counter that he likes her but they live in “different worlds”. Disappointed, she laments that she thought they were the same, realising that Mita’s conception of the world is defined by ideas of middle-class respectability and that he views her as occupying a lower order, forever walled off from “decent” people like himself. Though he treats her warmly and regards her as a friend, there can never be anything more between them than that.

Omitsu later shows him something similar. Having scraped together some of the money to pay him back, she arrives at the inn only for Mita to try to refuse it. Otsugi offers her some sewing work for Noro who later takes advantage of her, gossiping with the maids that she was a “bargain”. To make matters worse, Omitsu gets caught on the way out and is berated by the innkeeper for bringing the hotel into disrepute. Mita starts to feel guilty. This is, after all, largely his fault – he pushed her about the blanket out of pettiness and brought her to the inn where she has debased herself to get back the money he took from her. He tries to return it but it’s already too late. “Why do you always insist on being good?” she asks him, partly offended that he won’t take her money because he now thinks it’s tainted by immorality. “I just want to trust in people” he tells her, beginning to realise that his ‘well-meaning” gesture is both patronising and futile because if he’d really cared about helping Omitsu, he could have done it before.

Mita is good person, but like everyone else he’s flawed and human. He genuinely wants to help, for the world to be better than it is, but in his goodness allows himself to be self-involved and insensitive. The reason he didn’t get fired from his job even for so great a transgression as slapping the boss, is that his grandfather founded the company. In an effort to break with the past, he decides to sell his grandfather’s expensive French pocket watch, but retains the chain as if unable to definitively sever the connection to his privilege. To prove that he’s done it for symbolic and not financial reasons, he spends the money taking Otsugi and Orika on a day trip to Osaka castle after Orika declines his offer of money of which she is in desperate need.

“Money’s everything, what happened to humanity?” Mita asks himself, still not quite aware of his position within the system. Mita refuses to conform to the demands of the post-war era as exemplified by his boorish boss who sneeringly asks if he’s a “socialist” while dismissing him as an “intellectual” and doing illicit backroom deals to get ahead, but he does so largely passively and with little more than resentment. At his farewell dinner, he reflects that had he not come to Osaka he might have quit his job but now he’s determined to stay and try to make things better. There might be something a little sanctimonious in his new found fire born of living among the poor now he’s on his way back to Tokyo, but he has perhaps awakened to his failings and is resolving to do better.

Meanwhile, the innkeeper finds the strength to break with the odious Noro, but unlike Mita decides to throw herself into the abyss of modernity by turning the hotel in a rent by the hour kind of place complete with Western beds and tacky decor. She too feels there are two kinds of people, refusing Otsugi time off to see her son, barking that “a dog doesn’t forget what is owes its master”, while Otsugi remains powerless, aware she’s entirely out of options as a young widow in the cruel post-war economy. Orika too gives up on changing her life after finding herself unable to separate from her no-good, drunken, violent, husband, while Oyone alone seems excited by the new job possibilities at the inn, and Omitsu, despite having coldly exclaimed that she’d do whatever it takes to survive, throws herself into “honest” work, unable to attend Mita’s leaving do because now her life is one of ceaseless industry which provides her no opportunity for rest. “None of us can say we’re really happy”, Mita laments, “let’s have the dignity to laugh in the face of unhappiness”. Everybody’s tired, everybody’s disappointed and afraid, but they haven’t lost their humanity and when there’s really nothing else, all you can do is laugh. 


Short clip (no subtitles)

The Shiinomi School (しいのみ学園, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1955)

vlcsnap-2016-07-09-01h53m10s460Hiroshi Shimizu is well known as one of the best directors of children in the history of Japanese cinema, equalled only by the contemporary director Hirokazu Koreeda. The Shiinomi School (しいのみ学園, Shiinomi Gakuen) is one of the primary examples of his genius as it takes on the controversial themes of the place of the disabled in society and especially how children and their parents can come to terms with the many difficulties they now face.

The Yamamotos are a happy family with two sons. However, their elation at the birth of their first child soon turned to tragedy as the boy became seriously ill with polio. Times being what they were, the treatment is not completely effective and although their son thankfully survived, he did so with a lamed leg. Now an older child, Yudo walks with a crutch and is constantly left out or bullied by his fellow children. After their second son, Teruhiko, also contracts the disease and is left even more seriously affected than his brother, the Yamamotos decide to open a school for survivors of polio where they can play together, learning how to live with the effects of the disease, free of the stigma which plagues them in their everyday lives.

Yudo just wants to play baseball and the other kids tell him he can if he brings a catcher’s mitt of his own but when he does they take it away from him and use it themselves while he sits and sadly watches them play. When his dad arrives and tries to tell them off, the kids form a mob and all leave together, fake limping as they go. Children are monsters, and often far less forgiving of difference than their adult counterparts (though it has to be said that the parents of other children are hardly blameless here). It’s not surprising that Mr. Yamamoto would want to protect his son by taking him out of this harsh environment where he’s constantly reminded of his disability and a target for the other kids’ cruel games.

The Shiinomi School may be at odds with modern thinking, but its heart is definitely in the right place. The Yamamotos are operating from a humanist perspective – they want to provide a place which helps the children to grow up strong and independent, fully able to cope with their various disabilities, where they can also escape the extreme prejudice which infects society in general. This prejudice is best brought out not by Yudo’s treatment by the other boys, but by the sad case of Tetsuo whose father had so little idea what to do with him that he used to tie him to a pole. Tetsuo’s dad has since remarried and his new wife has no intention of looking after a disabled child so they’ve brought him to Shiinomi with the intention of abandoning him there. Mr. Yamamoto is shocked and originally refuses to take the boy in protest at the idea of a father who wouldn’t want to try and do everything for his son, but eventually reconsiders when he thinks about what the boy is going back to.

Unintentionally segregating the children has some benefits in the short term but there are those who may feel that it sends a message that the problem is with the children and not with the society which rejects them. Perhaps by giving these children a happy childhood and protecting them from the cruelty of others it’s also leaving them unprepared to deal with that same cruelty once they come of age. In any case Shimizu shoots with his trademark humanity, valiantly showing the children singing loudly and learning to enjoy their lives despite their many hardships. From tiny acorns mighty oaks do grow, the Yamamotos want nothing more than to raise these children in love and acceptance and, if the final scene of the children walking down the lane alone with a song on their lips is anything to go by, you could say their efforts have been richly rewarded.