Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1968)

The landed gentry find themselves haunted by the feudal legacy in Nobuo Nakagawa’s Meiji-era ghost story, Snake Woman’s Curse (怪談蛇女, Kaidan Hebi-onna). Though the figure of the vengeful ghost is rightly feared, they are rarely directly dangerous pushing their targets to damn themselves as they rail against the manifestation of their deeply buried guilt, yet the guilt here is perhaps buried deeper still as those who once had power find themselves floundering in the death throws of feudalism. 

As the opening voice over explains, the screen oppressively letterboxed to an extreme degree, the tale takes place in Onuma, a small village yet to be Westernised where the ruling family brutally exploit the tenant farmers still regarded as part of their fief. Old Yasuke (Ko Nishimura) chases after the local lord Onuma (Seizaburo Kawazu) and begs him not to kick him off his land, vowing that even if he has to eat dirt he will repay his debts. Onuma pays him no attention and Yasuke is soon thrown by the wayside after trying to catch hold of his cart. Concussed, all he can do is repeat his pleas not to lose the farm, and though he seems to recover passes away some days later leaving his wife Sue (Chiaki Tsukioka) and daughter Asa (Yukiko Kuwahara) alone. Heartless, Onuma evicts the women and knocks the house down to plant mulberry trees in its place while offering them “jobs” in his household for which they will not be paid for at least 10 years while they work off Yasuke’s debts. 

In addition to terrorising the peasants on the land, we discover that the Onumas are also running a sweatshop, a sign on the wall of Asa’s new place of employment reading that she must rise at 4am and be at work by 5 where she must stay until 9pm. There is to be no talking between the women in the workplace. Sue meanwhile is enlisted as a maid, but Onuma’s wife Masae (Akemi Negishi) immediately takes against her while she is continually sexually harassed by Onuma. Like father like son, the young master Takeo (Shingo Yamashiro) has also taken a fancy to Asa, though he is soon to be married to the daughter of the local mayor (Yukie Kagawa), a match all seem to regard as auspicious. 

Immediately after his soul vacates his body, Yasuke fetches up to haunt Onuma who is perhaps more affected by his guilt than his feudal upbringing would allow him to admit. Questioned later, he likens the peasants on his land to worms in the earth claiming that the deaths of one or two are no real matter and in any case nothing at all to do with him. “You people can survive drinking water and eating anything” he cruelly snaps back seconds after exclaiming he will fire the entire weaving staff as if that would put an end to the curse, paying little consideration to the fact he’s likely just condemned them to starvation. An exploitative landlord, he cares nothing for his feudal responsibility and all for his privileges. He and his son reserve the right to do as they please, regarding peasant women as theirs to be taken and having no real right to refuse. They do not believe there are any consequences for their actions because they are in a sense above the law of the land. 

Yet modernity is coming. We see our first uniformed policemen descend on the village after Sutematsu (Kunio Murai), Asa’s intended before her virtual enslavement through debt bondage, creates a scene at Takeo’s wedding in protest of the family’s treatment of Asa. Onuma’s attempts to reject the authority of the police in refusing their summons, describing it as “rude”, roundly fail, as do his attempts to leverage his feudal privilege in threatening to have the police chief fired in order to avoid answering his questions. His grip on authority is weakening as power necessarily reverts to the mechanisms of the state rendering him in some senses equal with those who till the soil. 

Even so, it’s spiritual rather than Earthly justice which will eventually do for him. The ghosts, such as they are, are mere echoes of time repeating the essential messages of the moments in which they died. Yasuke pleads for his land, he does not harm Onuma directly but causes Onuma to harm himself as he thrashes around trying in vain to vanquish a ghost with his gentleman’s cane. The family is, essentially, crushed under the weight of their feudal injustices as their noble house collapses all around them with modernity knocking on the door. Shooting in unusually lush colour, Nakagawa makes the most of his famously effective ghostly apparitions, finally drenching the screen itself in blood, but closes with an image of serenity in which justice of a kind at least has been served leaving the wronged to walk peacefully towards salvation while their tormentors will perhaps be travelling in another direction condemned not only for their own heartless venality but for that of the system that allowed them so ruthlessly to exploit those they ought to have protected. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Glamorous Ghost (散歩する霊柩車, Hajime Sato, 1964)

Best known for Shochiku horror Goke the Body Snatcher from Hell, Hajime Sato spent the majority of his career at Toei which he joined in 1952 after graduating with an economics degree from Keio University. After directing his first film in 1960 he mainly worked on monster movies, sci-fi, and action while transitioning into television from the late ‘60s. 1964’s The Glamorous Ghost (散歩する霊柩車, Sanpo Suru Reikyusha), however, features no special effects at all and in fact no actual “ghost”, instead painting a dark satire of the increasingly greedy and consumerist post-war society in a nihilistic tale of crime and futility. 

As the film opens, taxi driver Asami (Ko Nishimura) is ostentatiously shadowing his wife, Sugie (Masumi Harukawa), whom he suspects of having numerous affairs, through a busy department store. He later confronts her, suggesting that she’s the mysterious adulterous woman pictured in the paper but she denies everything before suggesting that if he’s so suspicious perhaps they should split up. He doesn’t appear to like that suggestion and becomes violent. A fight breaks out during which we see Asami strangle Sugie before an abrupt cut places him in the cab of a hearse sitting next to the driver, Mouri (Kiyoshi Atsumi), dressed in his best suit. Strangely, however, they don’t go to a funeral, but to a wedding where Asami confronts the father of the bride, Kitamura (Meicho Soganoya), showing him Sugie’s body with a prominent scar around her neck he says from her suicide producing a note that says she took her own life out of shame in having betrayed the husband who loved her so very much. The letter is dedicated to a KY, and Asami wants to know who it was his wife was sleeping with though Kitamura is careful not to admit anything while subtly promising him money if he goes away. Asami and the driver then make a second stop at a hospital where he tries the same thing with dodgy surgeon Yamagoshi (Nobuo Kaneko) who admits that he slept with Sugie but says it was only one time a while ago and he’s not sure why he’d be in her suicide note. 

As expected, not everything is quite as it seems. Sugie is not really dead, they’re just running a scam to blackmail her former lovers in order to get money to make a fresh start, possibly with a pig farm in the country which is why they didn’t bother with gigalo Tamio (Jiro Okazaki), the apparently penniless yet sportscar-driving young man Sugie was canoodling with in the park. “5 million yen would turn anyone into a murderer” one of their marks later admits after the scam goes south in several different ways, laying bare their sense of desperation in their otherwise perfectly fine if unsatisfying lives.

Yamagoshi, a doctor so compromised his admin staff assume the unexpected arrival of a hearse means he’s made another mistake, is desperate for money because he wants to open his own clinic. Sugie, meanwhile, gives a series of contradictory explanations for having come up with the scam, telling her marks she wants the money in order to get away from Asami and telling him that it’s for their future so they can live a happily married life. Asami’s male pride had indeed been wounded by Tamio in several different ways, firstly by his youth and vitality, but later by his assertion that a “shorty like him” couldn’t satisfy his wife which is why she puts it about at the club where she has to work because Asami’s cabbing job evidently doesn’t make enough to support them both. 

Sugie’s “death”, leaving aside fact that he “killed” her which is never brought up again, apparently helps him remember what she means to him, that if she really had died he’d be “lifeless” like the empty shell of a cicada. Scamming Sugie’s lovers probably does help rehabilitate his masculine pride and even though she is the one running the show it also suggests that she’s in a sense chosen him and wants to escape their disappointing urban life for something more wholesome as a happily married couple unburdened by financial anxiety. Meanwhile, we see her embarrassingly continue to chase the vacuous Tamio, an overgrown man child with expensive tastes and a room full of toy cars who lusts after a Porsche and appears to have a more age appropriate girlfriend he’d rather hang out in it with. Money corrupts human relationships whichever way you see it, and in the peculiarly toxic marriage of Sugie and Asami we can never quite be sure who’s playing whom. 

Then again in a fairly ironic touch, it may be the blissfully ignorant Tamio who is the only real “winner” seemingly continuing to live his life of empty consumerist pleasures without ever noticing the corruption of the world all around him. Gleefully cynical and accompanied by a playfully ironic, horror-inflected score, The Glamorous Ghost is a pitch black farce shot in the half light with crazy film noir framing and extreme depth of field in which it’s less money everyone wants than a less disappointing future and it seems they’re literally prepared to “die” to get it.


Title sequence (no subtitles)

Station (駅, Yasuo Furuhata, 1981)

The thing about trains is, you can get off and wander round for a bit, but sooner or later you’ll have to go where the rails take you. You never have as much control as you think you have. The hero of Yasuo Furuhata’s Station (駅, Eki) is beginning to come to that conclusion himself, addressing the various stations of his life, the choices he made and didn’t make that have led him into a dejected middle-age, defeated, and finding finally that any illusion he may have entertained of living differently will not come to pass. 

In 1968, police detective Eiji Mikami (Ken Takakura) sends his wife (Ayumi Ishida) and son away for reasons which aren’t entirely clear. At this point in his life, he’s an aspiring marksman on Japan’s shooting team intensively training for the Mexico Olympics, which is perhaps why he felt he could no longer be a husband and a father, or at least not while also being a policeman. All that changes, however, when his friend and mentor is gunned down during a routine job, shot in the chest at point blank range by a man in a white Corolla while operating a check point to catch a killer on the run. In 1976, he goes to see his sister (Yuko Kotegawa) marry a man she might not love to escape a violent boyfriend and investigates a serial killer of women who rapes and murders girls in red skirts. In 1979, he’s haunted by the serial killing case coupled with his cool execution of hostage takers during a siege. Holing up in a small fishing village waiting for a boat home for New Year, he strikes up a relationship with a barmaid who is just as sad, lonely, and defeated as he is. 

When Mikami’s friend is shot, his wife tells the reporters that she thinks shooting at targets, which her husband had been training others to do, is a different thing than shooting at living beings. “One shouldn’t shoot at people” she tearfully insists, accidentally forcing Mikami into a double dilemma, knowing that his marksmanship skills were on one level useless in that they couldn’t save his friend while paradoxically told that they shouldn’t be used for that purpose anyway. But what really is the point in shooting holes in paper targets just to test your skill? Wandering into the hostage situation while posing as a ramen deliveryman, he cooly shoots the two bad guys without even really thinking about it, as if they were nothing more than paper. 

The Olympics overshadow his life. He gave up his wife and son for them, but no matter how hard you train, the Olympics eventually pass. Mikami is told he’s supposed to bring honour to Japan, representing not only the nation but the police force. He’s not allowed to investigate his friend’s death because they want him to concentrate on his shooting, but he is and was a policeman who wants to serve justice. While he’s waiting for the funeral, he sees a report on the news about a former Olympic marathon runner who’s taken his own life because he got injured and fell into a depression feeling as if he’d let down an entire nation. Mikami perhaps feels something the same, drained by responsibility, by the feeling of inadequacy, and by the potential for disappointment. After the Olympics he feels deflated and useless, wondering what the point of police work is while quietly rueful in suspecting the committee is about to replace him on the team after all. 

When he wanders into the only bar open on a snowy December evening, that is perhaps why he bonds so immediately with its melancholy proprietress, Kiriko (Chieko Baisho). The conversation turns dark. Kiriko tells him that a friend of hers who worked in a bar in the red light district killed herself last New Year, that it’s the most dangerous time for those who do this sort of work, not for any poetical reason but simply because it’s when their men come home. She tells him that she’s a lone woman, no virginal spinster but weighed down by the failure of old love. Swept up in the New Year spirit, Mikami starts to fall for her, but is also called back to the past by an old colleague who passes him his wife’s phone number and tells him she’s now a bar hostess in Ikebukuro. He starts to think about leaving the police and getting a local job, but fate will not allow it. Kiriko too sees her dream of love destroyed precisely by her desire to escape the pull of toxic romance. Back in 1976, Mikami had been party to a similar dilemma as the sister of his suspect kept her brother’s secret but secretly longed to escape its burden. Suzuko (Setsuko Karasuma) too lost love in trying to claim it and now works as a waitress in a small cafe in this tiny town, only latterly making an impulsive decision to try to leave and make a new future somewhere else. 

Mikami tears up the letter of resignation that declared him too tired of life to be a good policeman, once again boarding a train back to his rightful destination, knowing that a policeman’s what he is and will always be. He watched his wife wave goodbye from a station platform, saw a man betrayed on the tracks, and finally boarded the train himself, letting go of any idea he might have had about going somewhere else. Stations are after all transitory places, you can’t stay there forever. 


Original trailers (no subtitles)

Aki Yashiro’s Funauta which plays frequently throughout the film

Deep River Melody (風流深川唄, So Yamamura, 1960)

Deep River Melody poster 2An actor with a long and distinguished career, So Yamamura first stepped behind the camera in 1953 with an adaptation of the famous proletarian novel by Takeji Kobayashi, The Crab Cannery Ship (later adapted by Sabu in 2009), and eventually completed six features. Deep River Melody (風流深川唄, Furyu Fukagawa Uta), released in 1960 and adapted from a novel by Matsutaro Kawaguchi, was last among them and starred post-war singing sensation Hibari Misora in the leading role. Hibari Misora was a frequent presence at Toei through the ‘50s and ‘60s, appearing in a series of musical dramas both period and contemporary but Deep River Melody is among the small number of purely dramatic pieces in which she starred which do not feature any musical numbers even over the opening and closing.

Set in the early years of militarism, the story revolves around Setsu (Hibari Misora) – the daughter of a restaurant owner, and her head chef, Cho (Koji Tsuruta). Having grown up together, Setsu and Cho have quietly fallen in love but these are times in which it is difficult to state one’s feelings plainly. Luckily, Setsu’s father, Isaburo (Kan Ishii), and his warm hearted mistress (Isuzu Yamada), have noticed the growing affection between the pair and are only too happy for them. What could be better after all than the head chef marrying into the family? Despite some qualms on Cho’s side in breaking a class ceiling taboo, the matter appears to be settled and both he and Setsu are blissfully happy.

However, tragedy soon strikes. Isaburo unwisely agreed to become the guarantor of a loan taken out by Shunsuke Ohta (So Yamamura) – the leader of the communist party in Japan (not an easy thing to be amid the rising tides of militarism). He, of course, defaults on the loan putting the restaurant at risk. The other relatives, learning of the prospective marriage between Setsu and Cho are extremely unhappy, viewing it as improper for mere servant to inherit the restaurant. Isaburo stands firm, but matters are pushed to crisis point by grumpy uncle Koshikawa who is determined to act as a go-between for the wealthy son of a rival restaurant who has long had designs on Setsu.

Though this is definitively a pre-war story, many of the problems faced by Setsu and Cho are the same as those in Hibari Misora’s contemporary movies in that she, in particular, finds herself trapped by a series of outdated social codes in which her extended family expect her to consent to marry a man she does even like for money in order to save their “good” name. They believe Isaburo is a feckless fool who has lost the restaurant through a needless gesture of loyalty towards a man who had been good to him in the past and was now in trouble. Isaburo places human relationships above money and politics, remaining uninterested in the relatives’ insistence on class hierarchies and preservation of the family’s good standing. Though he may, to a degree at least, be sympathetic towards Ohta’s political intentions, he acts as guarantor out of respect and gratitude rather than deep belief in a cause.

Nevertheless, the barriers between Cho and Setsu are less physical than they are psychological. Cho, raised as a servant, feels himself inferior and has difficulty accepting Isaburo’s talk of marriage owing to their differing social status. Isaburo, somewhat embarrassed, has not yet spoken with Setsu, but then knows his daughter well and is right in assuming the pair will eventually sort things out on their own if given a gentle push. When the relationship is tested by the restaurant’s failure, Isaburo and Setsu stand firm. No one entered this relationship for the wrong reasons – Cho loves the restaurant and everyone who works in it, but he fell in love with Setsu independently and would marry her for nothing. He remains uncertain, however, if his devotion is selfish and if the best way to love her is to leave her and allow her to save her familial legacy by marrying a man with money.

Like many post-war films, Deep River Melody is essentially about learning to let go of outdated ideas and that the maintenance of tradition is less important than individual happiness. Setsu and her father are ready to let go rather than commit themselves to a course of lifelong unhappiness solely to please their snooty relatives. Cho, however, struggles to free himself of a feeling of social inferiority. His own family tell him that his desire to marry Setsu is not only wrong but dangerous, that they have built a life for themselves though being loyal servants and that crossing the class divide risks all of their futures. Conflicted, Cho remains unwilling to fight for his love because he does not believe he can win and not only that, he feels it would be inappropriate to even try. If the pair are to find true happiness, they will have to find the courage to move on from the past and build their own future free of feudal ideas but to do so will require both sacrifice and support in the belief that a better life is possible.


Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Shunya Ito, 1972)

scorpion-2Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (女囚さそり第41雑居房, Joshu Sasori – Dai 41 Zakkyobo) picks up around a year after the end of Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and finds Matsu (Meiko Kaji) tied up in a dingy prison basement, apparently left bound and in solitary confinement for the entire interval. Once again directed by Shunya Ito, the second instalment in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series is another foray into the women in prison field but Ito resolutely refuses to give in to the exploitative genre norms, overlaying his tale of individualistic rebellion with an arthouse sensibility that has a much wider scope than its ordinary vengeance driven narrative may suggest.

Matsu may have been lying bound and gagged in a dingy underground hole for the best part of a year but today is a special day and sadistic prison warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) is going to let her out to be shown off in front of a visiting inspector who’s paying a final visit before Goda is promoted to a top job in Tokyo. When Matsu makes a lunge for Goda, the inspector is so afraid that he wets himself, sending the other woman into a frenzy and resulting in a riot. Once again the entirety of the prison is punished, but this time Matsu is singled out for a public punishment gang rape by Goda’s goons. This kind of humiliation is too much for her fellow prisoners who instantly turn on her, but their violence provides an opportunity for escape and before long Matsu is on the run, again.

At the end of the first film, Matsu had accomplished her first round of vengeance – against the man who orchestrated her downfall and the men who secured it, but ultimately she wound up a female prisoner once again. Though Goda may have had her hidden away because of her habitual escapism, Matsu had not given up as we see from her attempts to scrape the floor away with her spoon held tight in her mouth. Barely speaking, Matsu is an unstoppable column of pure rage but an elegant one, supported by her self contained restraint.

Her anger this time is directed towards Goda himself, especially after his despicable organised punishment rape that was designed both to break her own spirit once and for all and also to damage her in the eyes of her fellow inmates who are intended to see her defeated and destroyed. The guards are a stand in for society at large, using sexual dominance and social position to keep their women in line. The visiting prison inspector makes a point of telling Matsu that “they” don’t hate her personally – they’re there for her, to help her “recover” and become a functioning member of society. Which is ironic because Goda does hate her personally as he holds her responsible for the damage to his eye sustained in the previous film. His last act before moving on is one against Mastu – an attempt by the forces of authority to crush her individual rebellion and use their victory as a coercive tool to force others to conform.

In this way, Matsu’s position as a member of a subjugated class is less important than her status as an agitator but these are women who have each suffered at the hands of men. As an extremely theatrical sequence sung in the traditional form informs us, the women who escaped with Matsu committed their crimes out of love or jealousy. Poisoned rivals, dead lovers, even children murdered to get back at their philandering father in some Medea level psychotic rage which ruins the perpetrator even more than the intended victim.

Later while the women are enjoying their brief taste of freedom, one of them is brutally raped and murdered by a troupe of feral men who boast about the wartime atrocities they committed before descending on a lone woman like a pack of rabid dogs. The others take their revenge for their friend, but also for all the women who have met a similar fate inflicted by a male dominated society which sees them as something to be controlled and then made use of, little more that cattle hemmed in and milked until dry.

As in the first film Ito makes use of expressionist techniques and strange angles to give his film a more elevated feeling that might be expected but this time he adds in a surrealist, spiritual dimension as with the old woman who sings the stories of our heroines and then dies only to bury herself in leaves and disappear into the ether, like some forgotten deity of misused women. Likewise, when one of the prisoners is raped and murdered, the men throw her body into a nearby river like an empty beer can but the waterfall behind her suddenly runs with blood as an expression of the violence which pollutes the natural world. A bus suddenly splits in two, separating our subjugated women from the violent men who mentally sentence them, given free reign simply because of their sex. Ironically enough, our last glimpse of of Matsu takes place in the reflection of Goda’s glasses and then in his false eye when she is suddenly rejoined by her compatriots for a triumphant dance of freedom on a city rooftop.

Even stronger than in the original Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion, Jailhouse 41 further advances its ideology of free individuals battling the conformist authority of the state all filtered through the prism of the patriarchy. Matsu’s vengeance is personal, she keeps her distance from the other women who do not seem inclined to band together to oppose the forces which oppress them so much as seek a wary, temporary alliance of necessity, but seeing them all reassembled in spirit at the end brings a larger dimension to Matsu’s victory which now seems much less like solving a practical problem than a deliberate strike at a wall which was solely designed to keep a certain group of people in their place. The jail is broken, all that remains is to choose to escape its restraints.


Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW/gore)