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)

Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Mikio Naruse, 1951)

1951’s Ginza Cosmetics (銀座化粧, Ginza Kesho) is often said to mark a kind of rebirth in the career of director Mikio Naruse whose output in the 1940s was perhaps unfairly denigrated not least by Naruse himself. As in much of his golden age work and in anticipation of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Ginza’s heroine is a resilient bar hostess whose brief hopes of escape through romance are doomed to failure, but it’s also, like the slightly later Tokyo Profile (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953) and Tales of Ginza (Yuzo Kawashima, 1955) an ode to the upscale district and all the defeated hopes of its illusionary glitz and glamour. 

Yukiko (Kinuyo Tanaka), the heroine, is a single-mother approaching middle age and working as a hostess in a Ginza bar. Her landlady who runs a nagauta school on the ground floor and constantly complains about her feckless though goodnatured unemployed husband seems to think she could do better, pointing out that she is an educated woman who seems slightly out of place in the rundown backstreets of this otherwise aspirational area. Even for educated women, however, there may not be many other opportunities in the straitened and socially conservative post-war economy especially for those without connections, and Yukiko also needs to provide for her young son Haruo (Yoshihiro Nishikubo), born out of wedlock after an affair with a customer with whom she had fallen in love but abandoned her when she became pregnant. 

As a slightly older woman who has been working at the Bel Ami bar for many years, seemingly from war to occupation, Yukiko is both looked up to by the younger women and resented as a stern older sister who does not approve of the way some of them ply their trade. She’s taken one, Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who often babysits for her, under her wing, cautioning her against making the same mistakes that she once made in taking the kinds of men that come into the bar at their word. “Men are all animals” she warns her, supporting her desire not to give in to her parents’ attempts to arrange for her not a marriage but a “position” as a mistress. Unlike Yukiko, Kyoko still has hope of leaving the Ginza bar world behind to become a respectable wife even if those hopes are fading with the relative unlikelihood of finding a “good” man with a salary good enough to support a wife who is not already married and can be understanding of her bar girl past. 

The bar world may be on the fringes of the sex trade, but the bar girls are not necessarily sex workers even if some of the younger women are clearly engaging in the kinds of casual sex work of which Yukiko clearly disapproves even while not against consensual romantic liaisons. For her own part, she finds herself in the awkward situation of a continuing non-relationship with a failed businessman, Fujimura (Masao Mishima), who was fairly wealthy during the war but apparently no longer. Yukiko attributes this to him being in someway too good to prosper, though having money in the war which disappeared afterwards perhaps implies the opposite. She does not love him and seems to find his presence a little irritating, but feels indebted because he stood by her when she was pregnant and alone. In any case, he has a wife (whom he apparently resents) and children (whom he claims to adore) and so she feels at best conflicted, especially as the tables have turned and it’s him now constantly asking her for money. Money is not something Yukiko has a lot of, but she isn’t mean and often consents to losing it with a resigned shrug as she does by taking on Kyoko’s bar debt after a customer runs out on the bill and then tricks Yukiko into buying more drinks while waiting for a “friend” to arrive. 

Men, it seems, will always be predatory and unreliable. On hearing from her boss and longtime friend that the bar is in trouble and may have to close, Yukiko ends up acting on an introduction from an acquaintance, Shizue (Ranko Hanai), to meet a “stingy” industrialist who had expressed an interest in her. Shizue has escaped the bar world by becoming a wealthy man’s mistress and with it has claimed a kind of independence. He splits his time between Tokyo and Osaka, leaving her free to do whatever she likes (including meeting other men) for most of her time with none of the strings that go with being a wife. Yukiko is perhaps too “pure” for that kind of arrangement, hinting at the Ginza paradox that only those who learn to accept a certain level of complicity can ever truly be happy there. She agrees to meet Kanno (Eijiro Tono), the businessman, in order to ask him to “invest” in the bar, suggesting they talk things over in a coffeeshop while he tries to pull her into various shady establishments before pushing her into a warehouse and attempting to rape her to get his money’s worth. Yukiko escapes and resolves not to see him again. After all, the point of getting the money to keep the bar open was precisely to avoid having to make arrangements with men like Kanno. 

It’s Shizue, however, who later gives her a last shot at escape when she introduces her to her “true love”, Ishikawa (Yuji Hori), making a brief trip into the city. Shizue can’t entertain him herself because her patron is in town and so entrusts him to Yukiko with the strict instruction not to try it on. Despite herself, however, Yukiko becomes fond of him, reassuming something of a past persona in engaging in intellectual conversation, once again an educated, middle-class woman rather than a bar hostess used to telling men what they want to hear. She has been warned, however, that Ishikawa hates anything “low culture” which is why Shizue has told him they are both war widows and discovers that he has a strong dislike for Ginza which sees him longing for the wholesome charms of home. 

The crisis occurs when Yukiko has to break a promise to Haruo to take him to the zoo in order to look after Ishikawa, causing him to go temporarily missing when he wanders off on his own roaming all over the endless construction site of the contemporary city standing in for the makeshift, in-progress reconstruction of the post-war society. She perhaps feels she’s being punished for choosing to disappoint her son in order to pursue a dream of romantic escape she might also feel is somehow undeserved, but pays in quite a different way after accidentally setting Ishikawa up with Kyoko whom she introduced as her “sister”. Originally angry and resentful, proclaiming herself disappointed with Kyoko in assuming she is the same as the other young women at the bar, Yukiko’s good nature eventually wins out as she realises that Kyoko and Ishikawa seem to have fallen in love in a single night. She has told him everything, and he apparently wants to marry her anyway. Kyoko, at least, is getting out, and Yukiko can be happy about that while privately internalising defeat. Acknowledging that Haruo is the only one on whom she can depend, she resolves to live on as a mother only, trapped in the deceptive diminishing returns of a Ginza bar life even while knowing it has increasingly little place for her.  


Dispersed Clouds (わかれ雲, Heinosuke Gosho, 1951)

Heinosuke Gosho made his name before the war as a master of “shomingeki” – often humorous but generally naturalistic portraits of lower middle class life. Becoming synonymous with a Chekhovian mix of laughter and tears later dubbed “Goshoism”, he continued into the post-war era as one of its most prominent humanists, less directly sentimental than Kinoshita but with no less faith in human goodness. Always ahead of the curve, he was among the first Japanese directors to break with the studio system, setting up his own production company (along with director Shiro Toyoda, cameraman Mitsuo Miura, and writers Jun Takami, Junji Kinoshita, and Sumie Tanaka), Studio Eight, after becoming embroiled in the industrial disputes which engulfed Toho in the late ‘40s. Gosho’s participation was apparently more out of a sense of loyalty to his mistreated colleagues than it was political conviction, but in any case he found himself unable to continue working in a system which prevented him from expressing himself to the fullest of his intentions.

1951’s Dispersed Clouds (わかれ雲, Wakaregumo) was the first film released by Studio Eight, distributed by Shin Toho (the “new Toho” set-up by those same colleagues Gosho had supported in the ‘40s). In a sense it addresses similar themes to other post-war films making use of the familiar “cloud” metaphor, but these clouds are dispersing in more positive directions in that they are wilfully floating away from the traumatic past towards a brighter, more compassionate future, as perhaps was Gosho as he embarked on a new phase of his career.

The heroine, Masako (Keiko Sawamura), is a woman caught between old worlds and new. Very much of the post-war era, she is a university student who intends to work after graduation and values her independence but nevertheless is also looking back towards a childhood she feels she was denied, gradually coming to understand that it was she who denied herself in her resentful mistreatment of her young step-mother in mourning of the birthmother she lost at only six years old. The cloud from which she originally disperses is a group of five fellow students with whom she has gone on a walking holiday exploring rural Japan – an increasingly common pastime in the post-war era but one perhaps still a little unusual for five young women travelling alone. Accompanying her friend into a local photography shop in search of an extra roll of film for her camera, Masako receives the unwanted attentions of the storeowner and makes a speedy escape only to fall ill outside the station and cause the gang to miss their train. Irritated, Masako tells the others to go on without her while she stays in a nearby inn convalescing from what is apparently light pneumonia but also, it has to be admitted, an intense bad mood. 

Masako’s friends are keen to help her, but also exasperated. “You never accept the kindness of others” they lament to her passive aggressive desire not to bother them on their trip, while later plotting how best they can help her seeing as she wouldn’t accept their money if they tried to give to her so she’ll be able to pay for the doctor after they’ve left. They never really consider waiting for Masako to recover, resolving to continue on with their holiday, but do check in on her from time to time from the road with the offer to join them later seemingly open. Meanwhile, they’re all swooning over the improbably handsome country doctor, Minami (Yoichi Numata), who swoops in to treat Masako with a no-nonsense yet caring bedside manner.

Only six years older than Masako, Minami is a certain young man who has found his forward path in life. He has his own small practice which is woefully ill-equipped to cater for the entire town (he can’t admit Masako because he is already overflowing with patients sleeping on the floor), but dreams of building another clinic in an even smaller village further up the mountain where they don’t even have electricity. Despite her friends’ giggling, Masako is in too much of a mood to notice Minami much from her sick bed but later takes a liking to him though mostly in flight when her hated step-mother Tamae (Taeko Fukuda) finally arrives to take her back to Tokyo.

While at the inn, Masako bonds with the kindly maid, Osen (Hiroko Kawasaki), who brought her to there in the first place after noticing her in distress at the station. The innkeeper, who has a flighty modern daughter of her own, is not best pleased that Osen has brought sickness into the house and even less so that it’s a young woman whom she is not convinced is the right kind of clientele (her attitude changes when Tamae arrives laden with expensive gifts). Osen, who lost a husband in the war and daughter in infancy, takes to the young woman with maternal warmth – something which Masako has been seeking ever since losing her birth mother. A woman without a child and a child without a mother easily slip into a familial relationship, but rather than jealous Osen is only sad when she sees how much Tamae is trying and failing in the same role while Masako resolutely rejects her out of nothing more than childish resentment.

Masako, self aware to a point, describes herself as “spoiled, nervous, and selfish” and seems to want to change without knowing how. She tells Minami that she dislikes people in general because they’re all liars and can’t be trusted. Nevertheless, she finds herself hanging around Minami’s clinic in order to avoid Tamae and half convinces herself she is in love with him. An ill-advised five mile hike to the next village to find the earnest young doctor provokes an awkward encounter between the two in which it becomes perfectly obvious that Minami is devoted to his practice, sees Masako only as a patient, and is not really interested in her newfound desire to pursue a deeper union. He tells her, politely, that she is too much trouble and would only be an inconvenience. He doubts that she, a middle-class woman from Tokyo, will be able to adjust to the privations of life in the mountains and is perhaps unconvinced that she has acquired the sufficient maturity to try after just one night of having fun “helping people”.

Masako is not wounded by his words but is enlightened by them on discovering that Minami has lost people too – his brother and friends in the war, but where her childhood loss has made her self-involved and resentful, his grief has made him generous and openhearted. Minami has dedicated himself to the wellbeing of all mankind, which might or might not mean that he has little time for deeper individualised connections, but in any case though she doesn’t realise it herself what Masako is seeking isn’t Minami or a romance but a path back into the world as someone less closed off and unforgiving. Thanks to Osen’s warmth and Minami’s generosity she is able to escape her sense of self-imposed inertia and let her mother go.

Because of this she gives to Osen the precious silver spoon she had treasured as a keepsake from her mother, remarking that she doesn’t need it anymore, while Osen then gives her the rather ironic gift of a spoon case she’d knitted as a present. Though the ending is positive with Masako preparing to leave the transitory space of the mountain town to return to Tokyo “healed”, it is also filled with a quiet anxiety for the older Osen who has, in a sense, been bereaved twice in losing another daughter and being left all alone, knowing that Minami will soon be off to his own bright future. Osen made her new start some time ago after reaching the forward-thinking conclusion that she wasn’t happy with the idea that women must have soft hands. She declares herself happy in a calm sort of way, but is also filled with regrets from the past in having chosen to marry the man chosen for her over the one she loved and finding only unhappiness. Her counselling of Masako not to make the same mistake is perhaps one of the things that sends her, mistakenly, off towards Minami, but unlike the younger woman Osen seems primed to remain in the liminal space of the mountain town unable to leave the past behind in order to move forward in a more positive direction. 

“This world is not so easy” Masako is repeatedly told, but in true Gosho style, it needn’t be so hard if only you learn to live generously with a forgiving heart. The rather mercenary relationship between the innkeeper and her flighty but shrewd daughter is directly contrasted with the innocent yet melancholy one between Osen and Masako, but perhaps neither is really more positive than the other only different. In any case, Osen and Masako, like any parent and child, must eventually part. Masako boards the train into the future smiling brightly, a cloud dispersing from the whole, unburdened by the traumatic past and floating defiantly forward on a path of her own choosing resolved to live for others rather than fixating on her personal pain.


Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Heinosuke Gosho, 1953)

vlcsnap-2016-07-07-01h01m06s792Where Chimneys are Seen (煙突の見える場所, Entotsu no Mieru Basho) is widely regarded as on of the most important films of the immediate post-war era, yet it remains little seen outside of Japan and very little of the work of its director, Heinosuke Gosho, has ever been released in English speaking territories. Like much of Gosho’s filmography, Where Chimneys are Seen devotes itself to exploring the everyday lives of ordinary people, in this case a married couple and their two upstairs lodgers each trying to survive in precarious economic circumstances whilst also coming to terms with the traumatic recent past.

Ryukichi Ogata (Ken Uehara) is our primary narrator, introducing us to his humble circumstances and, for the moment, happy home. He’s married to a cheerful and kindly woman, Hiroko (Kinuyo Tanaka), who was widowed during the war, and the couple rent out their upstairs to a man, Kenzo (Hiroshi Akutagawa), and a woman, Senko (Hideko Takamine) , who aren’t a couple but each rent a room separately. They’re desperately poor, so much so that they have complicated measures in place to try and avoid having any children – a luxury which they can in no way contemplate. However, unbeknownst to Ryukichi, Hiroko has taken on a part-time job outside the home by working at the bicycle races. He’s upset by this because he resents feeling as if his wife has been hiding things from him, though his pride is wounded too. The worry planted in his mind by the idea of not knowing everything there is to know about his wife’s past is brought to the fore when a baby is suddenly abandoned on their doorstep with a note claiming to be from Hiroko’s first husband which states this is “her” child and she ought to look after it from now on.

The titular “magic” chimneys belong to a large scale factory and, in truth, there are four of them, but depending on where you stand they blend into each other, increasing or decreasing in number. This rundown, backwater town is a three chimney sort of place – not quite rock bottom, but almost. All anyone can think about is trying to keep their head above the water and food on the table. Upstairs lodger Senko works as a public announcer in the shopping district along with another woman who has a rather different approach to life and is in some kind of compensatory relationship with a businessman whom she’s apparently going to marry. Senko is a little upset about this, possibly envious, but at any rate is going to lose a friend at work and in a way she doesn’t entirely approve of. At one point she declares that she envies the baby in one sense – children are allowed to cry whenever they want and make as much noise as they please, but adults are expected to grin and bear it no matter how painful it might be.

Kenzo, by contrast, is a government official in that he’s a kind of bailiff trying to enforce taxation fines and threatening to seize the property of those that can’t pay. This kind of work contrasts strongly with his sense of social justice as he can see that most of the people he visits just don’t have the means to pay but do have plenty of other problems of their own, what good will it serve turning them out onto the streets? Predictably he’s developed a bit of a crush on Senko though given both of their dire financial circumstances, he’s afraid to pursue it. His need for “justice” sends him out on a quest to track down Hiroko’s former husband and find out what’s really going on though his investigation takes far longer than expected and soon begins to depress him. When eventually uncovered, the facts of the matter shock and upset, leaving Kenzo wishing that he’d never bothered in the first place.

Having gone to so much trouble to avoid having children (they have a very prominently marked calendar hanging on the wall), that Ryukichi and Hiroko should be saddled with an abandoned child is especially ironic though the baby serves as more than a physical burden, becoming a manifestation of a hitherto buried past. Both of the women in the film have suffered heavily in the war. Hiroko lost her entire family and was reduced to stealing scraps of discarded food behind the evacuation centre. After losing everything she came to resent the whole of humanity for becoming involved in this senseless war and just wanted to live alone, but came to feel a life of mere subsistence was not worth living. She got herself a new family register and started again planning not to look back. She didn’t tell Ryukichi much about her former life because she wanted to forget it, it was painful to her.

Senko had similar experiences, losing family members in extremely cruel ways leaving her with a degree of resistance to forming new bonds. The baby, perhaps a temporary visitor, perhaps not, forces them to reconsider their choices, reawakening an emotional connection that had been severed due to the war’s hardships. The past is quite literally visited upon them, but how they decide to deal with it is very much a matter for the present. In the end, this extreme stress test on the various relationships of the central characters proves effective as their bonds eventually strengthen rather than break.

Using the four chimneys as an effective, if occasionally overworked, metaphor, Gosho remains resolutely non-judgemental, reminding us that things often look very different depending on where you stand. Everybody here is struggling, but everyone is trying to survive. If the film has a central message, it’s that you have to let the past go. The “right time” may never come, so you just have to make the best of things now. Happiness is fragile, but possible, if only you can learn to accept the various compromises which necessarily accompany it.