The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1957)

“Fear the hatred of the dead!” a blameless slain wife exclaims after being cruelly cut down by her deluded husband in Nobuo Nakagawa’s tale of karmic vengeance, The Ghost of Kasane (怪談かさねが渕, Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi). Then again, though cleaving close to the standard formulas of the ghost movie not to mention the famous tale, these fatalistic, generationally twinned tales of ghostly revenge have an oddly imprecise quality in which it is the innocent who are eventually made to suffer, caught between concentric circles of guilt and retribution. 

The tale opens in 1773 with a blind masseur/money lender, Soetsu (Yoji Misaki), leaving his home on a snowy day hoping to catch venal samurai Shinzaemon (Akira Nakamura) at home. Shinzaemon and his wife are hospitable, but a conflict soon breaks out during which Shinzaemon accuses the old man of disrespecting him as a samurai and generally getting above himself as a mere member of the peasant class. All Soetsu has done is politely ask for the money he’s owed while making it clear that Shinzaemon’s attempts to give him the run around are wearing thin, but he ends up with a nasty gash on his face after the enraged samurai throws a pot at him. Driven into a frenzy by this unwelcome class-based anxiety, Shinzaemon slashes Soetsu with his sword and kills him, instructing a servant to stuff his body in a case and dump it in Kasane swamp. Soetsu, however, does not rest easy, returning to taunt him, eventually causing him to murder his wife by mistake and thereafter drawing him to his death by drowning in the very swamp where he dumped the body. 

20 years later in Edo, Soetsu’s daughter Rui (Katsuko Wakasugi) has become a successful shamisen teacher, while Shinkichi (Takashi Wada), the orphaned son of Shinzaemon, was taken in by a merchant family who continue to treat him as a poor relation. While having internalised a servant mentality that ironically inverts his father’s anxiety in his samurai status, Shinkichi has fallen in love with the daughter of the house, Hisa (Noriko Kitazawa), who is about to be betrothed against her will to the horrible son of local merchants, Seitaro (Shuji Kawabe). Rui, meanwhile, an older unmarried woman, is desperate to fend off the violent attentions of rough ronin Omura (Tetsuro Tanba), eventually convincing herself she is in love with the mild-mannered Shinkichi who might well think a rebound relationship is a good idea if it clears the way for Hisa’s inevitable marriage. 

Oddly enough and somewhat incomprehensibly, it’s Rui who becomes the target of her father’s curse, perhaps for her unwitting affection for the son of the man who killed him though it seems insufferably cruel that a father would involve his own child, not to mention the blameless infant of his murderer, in his bid for vengeance from beyond the grave. For his part, Shinkichi pays a heavy price for his unmanly diffidence, brave enough neither to say no to Rui or to run away with Hisa, simply passive if kind in the face of mounting impossibilities. Yet as much as it’s her father’s resentment that causes her downfall, struck by the pluck from the shamisen which scars her face to mirror his, she adds her own share in the wrath of a woman scorned dragging Shinkichi towards the lake for his inability to let go of his love for Hisa.

Old Soetsu might have a right to be vengeful, but his curse has collateral damage, enacted on women in order to target men as in Shinzaemon’s unwitting murder of his wife and Shinkichi’s accidental violence against Hisa at the instigation of Rui. Only the two old servants are left behind to make peace and tell the story, united by their respective positions rather than divided by their conflicting affiliations. Studio-bound yet filled with a series of supernatural tricks, Nakagawa’s atmospheric adaptation of the classic tale once again features the bug-eyed deformity of the scorned female ghost as Rui’s initial injury eventually balloons as her “sickness” intensifies, later finding time to turn her rage on Omura who was not, it has to be said, on the original list of victims being simply an embodiment of the cruelty of the age. Nakagawa ends, however, not with darkness but with light, freeing the souls of the troubled lovers from the gloom of earthly torment in urging them to leave their hatred behind and return to Buddha in eternal peace. 


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”. 


Death on the Mountain (黒い画集 ある遭難, Toshio Sugie, 1961)

Death on the Mountain DVD coverThere can be few films with as accurate a title as Death on the Mountain (黒い画集 ある遭難, Kuroi Gashu: Aru Sonan) , but Toshio Sugie’s 1961 psychological melodrama certainly makes good on its promise. The Japanese title of the film is prefaced by “The Black Album” which is a title given to a series of novellas penned by one of Japan’s most prominent mystery writers, Seicho Matsumoto, whose work was frequently adapted for the screen including eight collaborations with director Yoshitaro Nomura of such well known mysteries as Zero Focus and Castle of Sand. Death on the Mountain was, like the others in the Black Album series, serialised in Shukan Asahi, in this case between 5th October and 14th December 1958 under the title “Sonan”. “Sonan” literally means “distress” or “disaster”, but it has another telling association – “Sonanshi”, meaning “accidental death” such as might occur while mountain climbing, sailing, or engaged in some other dangerous yet normalised activity. The death at the centre of Death on the Mountain is accidental in once sense, but very much not in another.

The film begins with a body being winched from a lower platform back up to a snowy ridge. Iwase (Kiyoshi Kodama), an experienced mountain climber, has perished in a freak accident. Packed inside his backpack, Iwase’s body is burned at the foot of his beloved mountains while his mother looks on sadly, his sister Masako (Kyoko Kagawa) angrily wondering how her brother, a true mountain man, could have died in such a bizarre way while a much less experienced climber, Urahashi (Takashi Wada), survived. The secret may lie with the leader of the expedition, Eda (Hisaya Ito), who has been looking sheepish ever since the incident but otherwise comports himself in a cool, detached manner.

Like many of Matsumoto’s mysteries, Death on the Mountain turns on a secret but Sugie’s adaptation never seriously considers that Eda is not in someway at fault or questions that Urahashi’s recollection of events, published in a popular mountaineering journal, is anything other than accurate. The facts, as laid out firstly by Urahashi’s article, state that Iwase had not been himself on the day of the climb. Eda had treated them all to first class sleeper cabins but Iwase spent the night drinking, chain-smoking and brooding, meaning he was tired before they even arrived at the mountain. He didn’t sleep at the inn either because of someone whispering all night long and needed to take frequent rests during the early part of the climb. Resting is, however, dangerous – as is excessive thirst, and Iwase spent a lot of time guzzling water and sitting down all of which made him even more exhausted. Coupled with a turn in the weather which left him cold and wet, Iwase’s exhaustion got the better of him and he finally lost his mind. At least, that’s the way Urahashi described it, and Eda seems not to dispute his version of events even if the failures – not bringing a map for both mountains they intended to climb but only one, pressing on despite the weather, and mistaking the trail back to the standard path, all rest squarely with him.

Japanese mysteries by and large are much more concerned with the how rather than the why, though in Death on the Mountain the how is a much greyer area than one might assume. As Masako’s cousin, an experienced mountaineer himself, points out, Iwase’s death was caused by a series of unfortunate circumstances but that doesn’t necessarily preclude that there was ill will or that someone didn’t help the “unfortunate circumstances” along in the hope that they would lead to the “accidental death” of the title. There was, therefore, not quite a murder but definitely a lot of ill will and gentle coaxing towards an act of guilty self destruction. As for the why, well that turns out to be far less interesting and suitably petty. Morally speaking, the act of “murder” becomes moot, though the “murderer” finally meets justice head on, only for the tale to end on a note of ambiguity as Masako, whose investigations have resulted only in further deaths, blames herself for daring to disturb the peace. If she’d only have let the “murder” of her brother lie, no one else would have died. Is Masako now an accidental “murderess” or a frustrated seeker of justice? Whatever the answer, all her efforts have been in vein.

Death on the Mountain was previously adapted as a TV drama shortly after the novel’s release, broadcast between 31st August and 7th September 1959, though presumably with lesser production values than Sugie’s admittedly minimal yet authentically detailed exploration of modern mountaineering. Shooting on location and making much of crunching snow, swirling fog, and pelting rain, Sugie runs high on atmosphere but fails to capitalise on the noirish sense of malevolence that lies at the centre of Matsumoto’s mystery, that evil can come dressed as kindness and the line between murder and accident is much thinner than might otherwise be presumed. Matsumoto seems to want to ask a few questions about causality and personal responsibility, the degree to which a man’s death is his own failing, how much the fault of “unfortunate circumstance”, and how much ill intentions from the world around him. Sugie, however, is content to let the suspense peter out with the solution offered in true detective style through a suppositional monologue delivered in front of the presumed murderer but for the audience’s benefit. Nevertheless, even if the mystery falls flat the mountain air rings true and Sugie has, at least, captured something of nature’s awesome power and terrifying beauty.