Friday, 30 August 2013

Nippon Horrors Interlude:
The Demon Samurai
by Clay Grant
(Belmont Tower Books, 1978)

Well after I read the back cover copy, I couldn’t leave this one on the shelf.

As it turns out, in spite of the loopy storyline, Grant’s prose is as clunky and long-winded as any other bottom dollar late period pulp, and – inevitably, perhaps – his tale of a macho American horror producer embroiled in a supernaturally troubled international co-production comes suffused with an atmosphere of alienating orientalism so thick that it often makes for painful reading.

Both of these flaws are perfectly exemplified by a page I flicked to at random, in which Grant describes his protagonist’s visit to a Tokyo doctor’s surgery. After several paragraphs of entirely bland description, our bold scribe concludes that “ would have been the same as a doctor’s waiting room anywhere else in the world, but for the fact that everyone in sight was Japanese.” Clearly, the editors at Belmont Tower must have been proud to have a writer of such rare insight on the payroll.

But, we shouldn’t mock too easily. Hasn’t crude stereotyping and rambling digression been the bread butter of pulp fiction since day one? And is the gratuitous other-ing of a foreign culture carried out by Grant here really much different from, say, the affectionate goofing on Chinese stereotypes seen in John Carpenter’s universally beloved “Big Trouble in Little China”? Is his vision of Japan through the eyes of an unsympathetic foreigner, with wizened old senseis, impossibly beautiful geishas and hyper-active computer whiz-kids around every corner, not just a light-hearted take on the same material explored in Paul & Leonard Schrader’s script for The Yakuza?

Well, whatever. Who cares. ‘Demon’s Samurai’ could be forgiven any number of sins if it was actually much fun to read, but the irony is that whilst Grant produced a pretty joyless novel, he similtaneously knocked out a plot line that could have made for one HELL of a fun movie. In my mind I’m seeing a Toho / AIP co-production circa 1980, with Kinji Fukasaku and Larry Cohen wrestling for the director’s chair…. ah, if only…

And whilst I drift off into reveries over that one, here are some other no doubt equally scintillating offerings from Belmont Tower’s 1978 line up. (And, I mean, say what you like about 'The Demon Samurai', but it's a screaming bonfire of risk-taking originality compared to these titles...)

Friday, 23 August 2013

Nippon Horrors:
Horrors of Malformed Men
(Teruo Ishii, 1969)

Although it has achieved a certain level of cult notoriety in the West following its release on American DVD, Teruo Ishii’s ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ remains largely unseen in its country of origin. Surprisingly, it is effectively banned in Japan to this day, with no officially sanctioned screenings or releases on the horizon.

From a foreigner’s point of view, the film’s continued suppression seems slightly mystifying, but most likely it all stems from the use of the taboo word kikei (translated as ‘malformed’) in the title. Direct reference to physical disability has always been a big no-no in polite Japanese society, and this word - perhaps roughly equating to something like ‘schizo’ or ‘spastic’ in English but with more of a sweary connotation - was considered extremely distasteful when used on a movie poster, particularly in conjunction with a storyline that touches on the idea of disabled people taking their revenge against the able-bodied world.

Presumably, such potentially offensive material made distributors reluctant to handle the film, and the ensuing negative publicity caused Eiran, the usually fairly relaxed Japanese censorship board, to single out ‘..Malformed Men’ for special attention, making it a hot potato somewhat along the lines of ‘The Devils’ or ‘Straw Dogs’. Quite how Toei (the studio who produced the film) reacted to this controversy, I’m unsure, but perhaps they simply chose to bury the damn thing forever, too resentful to bother opening old wounds again, in spite of the growing demand from cult movie aficionados for the film to be seen.

Anyway, regardless of the exact details, you’ll appreciate that I was pretty apprehensive about the idea of sitting down to watch a film that caused such consternation in a land that happily accepts the excesses of Norifumi Suzuki and Takashi Miike (not to mention those of Ishii himself, who came to ‘..Malformed Men’ off the back of such hits as ‘Inferno of Torture’ and ‘Orgies of Edo’). Believe it or not, I’m not usually someone who much enjoys excessively gruelling or icky cinema, and all signs pointed towards this one being a singularly grim experience. But nonetheless, reviews I’d read sounded intriguing, images I’d seen from the film looked fascinating, and it certainly seems to hold an exalted position within the pantheon of Japanese cinematic weirdness. And, well, y’know - no obscure movie fan ever gained anything by NOT watching a film, right? Taking a deep breath and preparing for whatever morbid insanity you’re about to witness is all part of the fun.

And to be honest, the first feeling that hit me once I settled into the flow of ‘..Malformed Men’ was one of happy relief. Whilst admittedly still stuffed with enough warped behaviour to keep a convention of mental health professionals busy for weeks, Ishii’s film is nonetheless a lot more fun than I had been anticipating – a colourful and vibrant work that often seems closer in spirit to the cracked surrealism of early 20th century pulp fiction than to the bleak travails of modern day Endurance Horror.

One of those movies that throws together so many different strands that trying to tie them all together in a few paragraphs is liable to leave one pretty breathless, ‘..Malformed Men’s pleasantly pulpy atmosphere is far from accidental when viewed in the light of a storyline that fuses a particularly disturbing variation on H.G. Wells’ ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ with a mish-mash of additional ideas taken from the writing of celebrated mystery writer Edogawa Rampo. And you guys all know what’s up with celebrated mystery writer Edogawa Rampo, right..?

Well, ok - time for another deep breath. A hugely popular figure in Japanese culture, Rampo – real name Tarō Hirai - began writing in the 1920s, taking his cue from Western weird tales and detective fiction, and in particular that certain, peculiar combination of the two perfected by Edgar Allan Poe (just try saying his pen-name out loud with a Japanese accent). Rather than simply rehashing the work of his inspirations though, Rampo refashioned the form in uniquely Japanese style, adding strong elements of the perverse and erotic imagery that fascinated him in his private life to create a new sub-genre of horror/mystery fiction, the ubiquitous ‘ero-guro-nansenso’ (yes, that’s ‘EROTIC GROTESQUE NONSENSE’ to the likes of us), that has gone on to exert an influence upon just about all subsequent horror-themed films and manga in Japan.

I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading Rampo’s work in translation, but I can easily believe that watching the opening half hour of ‘..Malformed Men’ gives a pretty good idea of what being thoroughly immersed in the world of ‘ero-guro-nansenso’ might be like, as a succession of bizarre and seemingly inexplicable incidents pile up at dizzying speed, pulling us into a macabre web of mystery, and establishing a pulpy atmosphere that Ishii cannily proceeds to cross-breed with a heavy dose of the kind of confrontational experimentalism that makes Japanese culture from the late ‘60s such a consistently wild ride, resulting in a cinematic experience that is, well… unique, to say the least.

Unsettling right from its opening seconds, ‘..Malformed Men’s credits sequence sees composer Hajime Kaburagi offering up a unholy mess of doomed choral bombast and crashing industrial noise, accompanying close-up nature footage of assorted poisonous spiders, broken up by bright blocks of primary colour. Following this, the first shot of the movie proper gives us a screen full of darkness and a deranged female shriek, before our gaze moves down across an unhinged woman’s face and a mighty pair of bare breasts, coming to rest on the blade of a nasty-looking dagger raised in her hands. As the camera pulls back, we find a lone male, trapped in a poorly lit prison cell, surrounded by a crowd of apparently insane women in torn red kimonos who cavort around him in uncoordinated and generally menacing fashion, drooling, cackling and writhing in erotic oblivion as they caress the bars of the cell and torment their male prisoner, the camera  leering at their distressed bodies in a decidedly distasteful manner. If there’s a more comprehensively ‘ero-guro’ way to begin a movie than this, I’d like to see it.

After a few minutes of this sort of thing, a doctor enters, calming the women down with a few blows from his bull-whip, and we learn that we are actually inside an extremely poorly organised lunatic asylum, where Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida), a former medical student and current inmate, has awakened to find himself mistakenly locked in the women’s cell. The doctor returns him to his appointed cell, but this does little to improve his state of mind. You see, Hitomi has completely lost his memory, and has no recollection of how he arrived at his current predicament. The only clues he can dredge up from the recesses of his mind are images of a rocky coastline, upon which a horrifying, androgynous figure dances, and the melody of a particularly haunting children’s nursery rhyme. Furthermore, a sinister bald man in the opposite cell seems intent on trying to assassinate him, which scarcely helps matters.

When the bald man attacks him during the night, Hitomi ends up killing his assailant in self-defence, and in the ensuing confusion manages to flee the asylum. Whilst making his getaway, he encounters a young female circus performer who seems to be humming the lullaby he remembers from his dream. Accosting the girl, Hitomi learns that she is an orphan, adopted by the circus with no memories of her childhood, but that she thinks the melody originates in a village somewhere along Japan’s Western coast. The pair meet again later, at the circus, but as the girl begins to tell Hitomi more about where she learned the song, she is struck down by a flying dagger. Seeing the bloody knife in Hitomi’s hands, the crowd assume him to be the murderer, and he’s on the run again.

And so things go on. Before long, Hitomi discovers that a man with an identical face to his own and an identical scar of his foot, an heir to the wealthy Kimodo family, has recently died. The dead man’s father, a somewhat feared and eccentric character rumoured to possess deformed, webbed hands, has apparently not been seen since he set sail for his private island, a rocky outcrop dimly visible from the mainland, announcing his intention to turn it into some sort of “pleasure island”. A spot of grave-robbing, a faked suicide and a surprise ‘resurrection’ later, and Hitomi has taken on the identity of the dead man and finds himself being alternately seduced by both his doppelganger’s wife Chioko, and his mistress Shizuko (Yukie Kagawa, whom we last saw making her mark on the pinky violence genre in Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack).

At this point, the film briefly threatens to become rather conventional, as the tale of Hitomi trying not to slip up as he impersonates his dead doppelganger rambles on to no great effect. But after Chioko is mysteriously poisoned, and Shizuko subjected to threatening notes and poisonous snake attacks, our hero(?) once again finds himself determined to unravel the mystery of precisely what in the hell in going on… and all clues point toward that mysterious island, where his “father”, the enigmatic Jagoro Kimodo (Tatsumi Hijikata), holds court.

If there is one image in ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ that viewers will never forget, it is that of Jagoro himself – stick-thin, long-haired, Rasputin-eyed – performing his near-inhuman dance of torment amid the crashing waves and jagged rocks of his island shore. The word ‘extraordinary’ scarcely does justice to this character’s physical presence, and, though I was surprised to find such a notable high-brow personage appearing in a disreputable exploitation film, it still made perfect sense when I hit up Wikipedia and discovered that Hijikata (who also appeared the following year in Ishii’s excellent ‘Blind Woman’s Curse’) was actually a Big Figure in the world of post-war Japanese art - the founder of the Butoh school of dance and performance art, no less.

One of the main themes explored by Hijikata’s dance performances is said to have been “the transmutation of the human body into other forms, such as those of animals”, and, as it turns out, that is a project that his character in ‘..Malformed Men’ has been undertaking in a somewhat more direct fashion, as Ishii proceeds to build Jagoro up into a truly terrifying villain – a sort of unholy amalgam of Dr. Moreau, Fu Manchu and Charles Manson, bent on wreaking cathartic destruction upon both the norms of the human body and those of the world in general, which he sees as having ‘wronged’ him and his deformed ‘people’.

As Hitomi and Shizuko arrive upon the island, greeted by Jagoro as heirs to his insane legacy, the film explodes into a kind of kaleidoscopic oblivion worthy of Alexandro Jodorowsky at his most unglued, as Ishii’s taste for cinematic grotesquery and the choreography and design of Hijikata and his fellow Butoh practitioners combine to summon up a harrowing circus of impossible, Heironymous Bosch-esque delights, in a series of  short sequences upon which the film’s reputation as a world class freak-out presumably rests.(1)

“Let me show you my ideal world”, says Jagoro. As if on cue, an army of slender, long haired figures, naked but for chains and red capes, crest the hilltop, headbanging on all fours like some otherworldly Slayer crowd, as whip-wielding hunchbacks goad them on. On the waters of a river beside a sylvan forest grove, a silver skinned woman sits legs spread on the prow of a boat, juggling flaming torches beside an artificial tree of bird cages. Covered in blood and sand, another naked girl writhes, apparently surgically attached to the rear end of a goat. Huge fires rage as more naked, chalk-covered women writhe in eerie silence… and that’s all before we hit the island’s mylar-sheeting bedecked psychedelic nightclub, to say nothing of the Bava-esque gel lit operating theatre…

Needless to say, once the narrative regains some ragged semblance of normality, there is a wealth of dark and dreadful family secrets to be revealed through the remainder of the film, acts of awful vengeance and twisted reconciliation to be enacted… but, out of respect for the spirit of mystery, I will leave you in the dark about these for the time being.

By this point this is going to sound like a fairly redundant observation, but ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ is a pretty strange business. In its top-heavy piling of mystery upon mystery, it reminded me a little of Kim Ki-Young’s extraordinary A Woman After a Killer Butterfly. But unlike that carefully controlled venture into labyrinthine gothic melodrama, Ishii’s film has a crazed and rather uneven feel to it. Whilst some sequences are bold and unforgettable, others are shoddy and unconvincing, betraying either an extremely stretched budget/production schedule or a variable level of engagement from the director (in reality a little of both, most likely), often attempting to save the day with ‘shock’ visuals that come across as cheap and prurient, undercutting the film’s stronger, more affecting, moments.

In its attempt to cram as many Rampo stories as possible into a single storyline, the narrative also becomes frustratingly digressive and episodic, failing to capitalise on many of its best ideas and refusing to let any of the characters (save maybe Jagoro) develop any personality beyond a cardboard cut-out level, meaning that, despite grasping at a grand emotional sweep for its suitably bizarre conclusion, it never really manages to transcend its origins as a gory comic book potboiler.

But since when did the weirdo horror warriors amongst us care about that sort of thing, right? Some films invite praise for their perfect conception and realisation, but everyone involved in this one hopefully realised they were competing in a different arena entirely. On a purely visceral level, ‘..Malformed Men’ is as imaginative, repulsive and rich in cognitive dissonance as the contemporary films of Koji Wakamatsu, and as feverishly unpleasant as the later works of directors like Kazuo Komizu.(2) A singular experience, whichever way you look at it, and as perfect an expression of the dictats of the ero-guro-nonsenso philosophy as one could possibly wish for.

(1) For what it’s worth, I think the inevitable influence of Erle C. Kenton’s ‘Island of Lost Souls’ can be felt heavily here too, from minor details such as the cave the visitors walk through en route to the rest of the island, to the disturbingly crude make-up effects used to realise the ‘malformed men’ and the incongruous jungle noises and animal calls that often dominate the soundtrack. I think it says a lot for the 1932 film that, in spite of ‘..Malformed Men’s myriad excesses, it is arguably still the more upsetting of the two.

(2) See Komizu’s ‘Entrails of a Virgin’ (1986) for a particularly mean-spirited cinematic kick to the face.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Deathblog Round-up:
Some Summers They Drop Like Flies.

Sadly, it has come to my attention that a number of people whose work has enriched the world we like to trample around in here at Breakfast In The Ruins have passed away in the past month or so. As is so often the case, I feel that the attention given to some of these deaths online and in print media has been somewhat scant, even in view of these men and women's relative obscurity, and as such, I thought it seemed appropriate to take time out for a quick round-up of slightly belated obits, if only to spread the news to those who may not have heard it elsewhere.

Karen Black
(1939 – 2013)

One of the most charismatic and capable American actresses of the ‘70s, and one of the busiest of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Karen Black is one of those names that always has veteran film-viewers exclaiming “hell yeah” when it appears on the lower reaches of some cast list or other.. and thankfully, it has found a place on many cast lists.

Mainly remembered for her early roles in such acclaimed/respected fare as ‘Easy Rider’, ‘Five Easy Pieces’ and ‘Day of the Locust’, or for her later “hit” with ‘Airport ‘75’, my favourite Black appearances are her turn as an aspirant country singer in Robert Altman’s ever-incredible ‘Nashville’, and her startling performance locking horns with Oliver Reed in Dan Curtis’s superior haunted house flick ‘Burnt Offerings’.

Beyond these highlights though, Black was clearly not a performer who saw her obvious talent as putting her ‘above’ the realm of pure entertainment. For this, we salute her, and her vast catalogue of appearances in genre / cult fare pretty much speaks for itself: ‘The Pyx’, ‘Capricorn One’, ‘The Squeeze’ (the Antonio Margheriti / Lee Van Cleef one, not the Brit Crime movie), ‘Killer Fish / Treasure of the Piranha’ (no, me neither, but it’s another late ‘70s Margheriti joint apparently), ‘The Last Horror Film’, ‘Cisco Pike’, ‘ The Outfit’, ‘Trilogy of Terror’, Hitchcock’s ‘Family Plot’, Deodato’s ‘Cut and Run’, ‘Savage Dawn’, ‘It’s Alive III’, ‘Out of the Dark’, ‘Evil Spirits’ (1990), three of Scott Shaw’s indescribable Rollerblade Seven un-films (the idea that someone who is actually a proper actor agreed to appear in those things boggles the mind), ‘Dinosaur Valley Girls’ (no idea, but give an empty couple of hours and I’d probably watch it), and more crazy/awful looking ‘90s/’00s STV flicks than can possibly be healthy, cruising into the 21st century with a couple of highlights like ‘House of 1,000 Corpses’, Alex Cox’s ‘Repo Chick’ and the recent ‘Some Guy Who Kills People’. Phew.

One of those people whose presence alone raises the quality bar of pretty much everything she appeared in, I think it’s safe to say Karen Black will be missed by just about everyone who watches these kinda films.

Mick Farren
(1943 – 2013)

Mick Farren, who died at the Borderline in London on July 27th shortly after coming off stage with a reunited line-up of his band The Deviants, was very much a jack-of-all-trades of 20th century counter-culture, and a key figure in the ‘60s UK underground in particular, in his multitudinous capacity as a musician, poet, political organiser, all-purpose rabble-rouser, journalist, editor, bouncer, concert promoter, polemicist, novelist and life-long advocate of the gospel of sex, drugs, rock n’ roll and proletarian revolution.

Though the circles in which he moved make Farren more deserving of an obit on my increasingly moribund music blog (a proper appreciation coming soon, honest), his work very much strayed into BITR territory too. An unashamed fan of pulp fiction in all its forms as well as an early adopter of the works of William Burroughs, Farren’s lyrics and rants overflow with reference to sci-fi, comic books and detective fiction, and in the early ‘70s he followed the lead of fellow Ladbroke Grove scenester Michael Moorcock, becoming a full-time(ish) SF scribe, with a catalogue of paperback epics that includes the heavily allegorical ‘Texts of Festival’ (1973), the proto-cyberpunk DNA Cowboys quartet (1976 – 89) and the doorstop-worthy ‘The Song of Phaid the Gambler’ (1981). Good reads all, Farren’s novels, as you might reasonably expect, tend to have a Moorcock-meets-Robert Anton Wilson kinda vibe to them, but more down to earth than that might imply, never losing the pulpy heart of Dan Dare or E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith.

As an outgrowth of his involvement in the International Times and other underground press ventures, Farren also edited and published the seminal underground comix title ‘Nasty Tales’, successfully defending it against obscenity charges in the UK courts, in a ‘freedom of speech’ type victory that makes an interesting parallel to the more highly publicised ‘Oz’ trial. (And if anyone’s interested, his memoir ‘Give the Anarchist a Cigarette’, though inevitably a little self-serving in places, is probably the best book I’ve ever read about London counter-culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s.)

Fiery, belligerent and often a little misguided, I think it’s safe to say that Farren probably made as many enemies as friends over the years, but it’s hard to deny that his heart was in the right place. Unlike so many of his generation, he stuck to his guns ‘til the end, living his whole life as a champion of what’s good n’ right in the world and a thorn in the side of the authorities who’d seek to oppose it… and I don’t know about you but I think that’s bloody brilliant. He’ll be much missed.

(1946 – 2013)

Another pussycat down. For those who’ve seen ‘Faster Pussycat… Kill! Kill!’, ‘Motorpsycho’ or ‘Supervixens’, Haji requires no introduction. For those who haven’t, what the hell are you waiting for – copies are out there (second-hand or bootleg for preference, the Meyer estate is still administered by swine as far as I’m aware), and a memorable triple bill awaits you.

Right hand girl to Tura Satana both on-screen and in real life (and if you’re gonna choose anyone’s shadow to stand in, etc..), Haji is portrayed in Jimmy McDonough’s Meyer biog ‘Big Bosoms and Square Jaws’ as a kind of hard as nails brain-fried hippie witch, and she seems to have played a big role on both sides of the camera, as a kind of benevolent earth goddess of the Meyer-verse.

As well as the aforementioned starring roles, she had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in ‘Beyond The Valley of the Dolls’, and outside of Meyer-ville, she hit the silver screen in ‘Bigfoot’ (1970), ‘Ilsa, Harem-Keeper of the Oil Sheiks’, ‘Demonoid: Messenger of Death’ and (how’s this for a curveball?) John Cassavetes’ ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’.

Few would deny that she was very awesome.

Michael Lemoine
(1922 – 2013)

An intense actor whose gaunt features, piercing gaze and oddly fragile demeanour will be familiar to anyone who has spent very long stumbling around the cobwebbed ruins of ‘60s/’70s European erotic horror cinema, Frenchman Michael Lemoine began his career in the late ‘40s, playing juvenile lead roles, and later straight lead and character parts, mainly in the Italian film industry (you may recall him popping up in Antonio Margheriti’s ‘Wild, Wild Planet’ and ‘War of the Planets’). But he is probably best remembered today for his appearance in Jess Franco’s seminal ‘Necronomicon’/’Succubus’ in 1967. Along with Franco and producer Adrian Hoven, Lemoine played a key role in the film's creation, most notably by bringing his wife Jeanine Reynaud on-board. This happy little gang went on to muddle through Franco’s two ‘Red Lips’ movies together, and, minus Franco, also completed ‘Castle of the Creeping Flesh’, a pioneering Erotic Castle Movie (full genre treatise coming soon – watch this space) with Hoven in the director’s chair… and all this before the end of 1968!

Lemoine seems to have found his niche in this particular fecund corner of European cinema, and, an extremely friendly and enthusiastic fellow by all accounts, he became a vocal fan and supporter not only of Franco, but also of Jean Rollin and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and appeared in films by Max Pecas and José Bénazéraf. In the early ‘70s, he turned to direction, helming numerous films over the next fifteen years, few of which anyone actually seems to have seen. Most of Lemoine’s directorial efforts were confined to the sex-film/porno ghetto (as Rollin fans will know all too well, this wasn’t exactly a choice for anyone trying to make low budget commercial films in France in the 1970s), but one notable exception is 1976’s excellently titled ‘Les Week-Ends Maléfiques du Comte Zaroff’, aka ‘Seven Women For Satan’, which enjoyed a very nice release from Mondo Macabro a few years back.

A definite weirdie with some extraordinary elements, and a strong late entry in the ECM cycle, ‘Seven Women..’ (also starring Howard Vernon and Joëlle Coeur!) wasn’t really a personal favourite of mine on first viewing, but thinking back, I definitely need to watch it again – the whole thing has the vibe of a kind of cracked, personal odyssey, and the image of a crazed Lemoine roaring around an unploughed field in a 2CV trying to run down some poor woman certainly stands out strongly in my memory. (Jeremy Richey has written a great appreciation of the film for the Mondo Macabro blog, which can be found here).

In the filmed interview included on ‘Seven Women..’s DVD release, Lemoine comes across as an effusive, elequent and genuinely lovely man, positively overflowing with memories and anecdotes on all of the antics referred to above. Following the deaths of Rollin, Franco and Bénazéraf in recent years, it is very sad to learn that another ubiquitous figure in this strange and fascinating netherworld of film-making has left us, his passing largely unheralded, and his wealth of memory and insight (as far as I know) largely unrecorded.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Nippon Horror Interlude:
Yokai Smoke.

 One of the best birthday presents I received this year was this set of authentic ‘Yokai Smoke’s. Apparently still available from shabbier newsagents and sweet shops in Tokyo, and featuring wonderfully vivid pop/folk-art style renderings of Japan’s legions of Yokai monsters, the reverse of each of these printed postcards bears a sticky strip of gum. By holding your thumb and forefinger against this strip, then rubbing them together, a small plume of smoke is created, rising magically from your hand to the amazement of, well… anyone who’s not seen any Yokai Smoke before, presumably.  

(Once again, I must thank Satori for this one.)

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Nippon Horrors:
The Woman From The Sea
(Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1959)

VIEWING NOTE: At present I do not own a copy of this film, and the review below is written on the basis of a screening that I attended as part of the BFI’s Nikkatsu centennial season in June. As such, no proper screengrabs I’m afraid, and my hazy memory may have injected some slight inaccuracies into the plot info summarised below. I’ve also been unable to locate an accurate / understandable cast list for the film, so character and actor names are scarcer than I might have preferred.

One of the key figures in the rebirth of Nikkatsu studios as a powerhouse of contemporary youth and crime films during the late 1950s was novelist and scriptwriter Shintarô Ishihara. Probably better-known in Japan today for his subsequent political career, which saw him championing a raft of disappointingly right wing policies during his thirteen year tenure as Governor of Tokyo, the ‘new wave’ sensibility of his early writing proved a great boon for Nikkatsu as they sought to engage with younger audiences, and Ishihara-scripted films such as ‘Season of the Sun’ (1956), ‘Crazed Fruit’ (1956) and ‘Rusty Knife’ (1958) (all starring the writer’s brother, teen heartthrob Yûjirô) proved to be huge critical and popular successes for the studio. A somewhat less celebrated work from the pen of Shintarô however comes in the shape of 1959’s ‘The Woman From The Sea’, a decidedly peculiar borderline horror / coming of age tale with an ethereal, seaside atmosphere that seems uncannily similar to that of Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, released two years later. (1)

Unobtrusively directed by one of Nikkatsu’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers, Koreyoshi Kurahara (‘Black Sun’, ‘The Warped Ones’), ‘The Woman From The Sea’ begins in a similar milieu to Ishihara’s “sun tribe” stories – an idyllic coastal retreat where idle rich kids while away their summer holidays, mamboing to swing records and engaging in sundry horseplay, whilst the adult world looks elsewhere. One of these youngsters seems a little more serious-minded than most however. Young Toshio (Tamio Kawachi) rejects the empty hedonism of his peers (and particularly his jock/sex pest brother), instead dedicating his time to strumming his ukulele, staring wistfully out to sea and pottering about in his modestly equipped sailing boat. It is implied that the two boys are adopted orphans whose rich new parents don’t really care for them – or I think that’s the case anyway, the dialogue is somewhat unclear. But whatever the case, affection of any kind seems very distant for poor Toshio, his only real emotional connection being with the kindly Nanny (Keiko Sumida) who is charged with looking after the boys in their beach house, and his only real ‘friend’ (well, sort of) a ‘touched’ beatnik writer whose not-quite-all-there babblings he blankly tolerates when the two bump into each other on the cliffs.

It is this writer character who provides us with our first inkling that something unusual is afoot on this stretch of coast, exhibiting the kind of foresight often attributed to artistic types and the mentally ill (so a double score for this guy) as he drags Toshio down to the shore one morning, insisting that he has seen a terrifying apparition – some kind of ghostly woman had who previously appeared to him many years earlier, trying to lure him siren-like into the ocean… or something. Understandably, Toshio ignores the writer’s ravings, just as he pays little attention to the surly local fishermen who subsequently accost him, complaining that some maniac has destroyed their fish-farms, slaughtering their stock.

Slightly harder to ignore however is the sight that greets Toshio when he heads back down to his boat at dawn the next morning: a voluptuous, muscular young woman (Hisako Tsukuba) clad in a skimpy, makeshift swimsuit, sitting on the deck, bloodily devouring a raw fish. As you might well imagine, Toshio’s initial reaction to this discovery is a combination of confusion, outrage and disbelief, especially when the girl casually tells him that she caught the fish with her bare hands, that she swam to the harbour from her home ‘nearby’, and that she lives alone, sustaining herself solely via the food she catches from the ocean.

Despite Toshio’s bewilderment though, his new acquaintance seems to have taken a bit of a shine to him, perhaps appreciating the gentle earnestness that sets him apart from his more obnoxious land-dwelling peers. Following their first meeting, she soon begins making unannounced visits to his bedroom at night, clambering up the rocks outside and sneaking through the window, prompting several laugh-out-loud moments as poor old Nanny intrudes on the pair, suddenly finding her shy and introverted charge in the company of a brazen, half-naked amazon.

Soon of course, Toshio’s initial reluctance dissipates, and he finds himself following the same path as any other lonely young heterosexual fellow suddenly confronted with such a fortuitous turn of events: namely, he falls head over heels for the nameless girl, cherishing their time together as he temporarily puts aside the vagueness of her explanations of who she is and where she comes from, and discounts any possible connection between her sudden appearance and the various rum goings-on that are now dominating conversation in the local village.

More fish have been slaughtered, and boats have been damaged. Sightings of a large and predatory shark have been reported, and a fisherman has gone missing (in fact, Toshio and the girl find his severed arm whilst out diving). Before long, we learn about how, twenty years previously, the men of the village hunted down and killed a giant shark that had been plaguing the harbour. It is whispered that this particular shark had the power to take on human form, and that it had taken a human woman as its lover, spiriting her away to the sea, from whence she has never returned, and…. well you can probably guess where all this is heading, especially once the superstitious villagers catch a glimpse of Toshio parading around with his mysterious new girlfriend.

Much like ‘Night Tide’ though, ‘The Woman From The Sea’ presents a far more ambiguous take on things than a standard “vengeful femme fatale from the ocean” narrative, down-playing the story’s potential supernatural aspects and instead focusing on the ontological uncertainties the previously apathetic Toshio is suddenly confronted with, and on the blink-of-an-eye ease with which the frankly insane beliefs of the villagers suddenly take precedence as the dominant belief system on this quiet corner of the Japanese coast - an explanation for their troubles that, for the lack of any alternative, is deemed solid enough to justify violent action against a flesh & blood woman.

And even if we – like seemingly everyone else around - accept the villagers’ supernatural hypothesis, Tsukuba’s shark-woman remains a very sympathetic figure, in spite of the destruction she may have caused. Her concerns are simple, and she acts impulsively, like a proud animal spirit, just going about her business. Certainly, she shows no sign of embodying any of the evil desires which the villagers project upon her. In all likelihood, she has simply returned to the harbour for much the same reasons a normal shark would - to find food and warm water, rather than to pursue any agenda of ghostly vengeance. And her affection for Toshio seems very genuine too – a source of companionship that connects her to her former human self, rather than some attempt to lure him to his doom.

Seemingly shot almost entirely in the very early morning or late at night, ‘The Woman From The Sea’ has a fresh, blinking-in-the-sun-at-dawn kind of quality to it that very much adds to the slightly unreal, daydream-like nature of proceedings. Led by the reserved Kawachi and the matter-of-fact Tsukuba, the drama of the film is handled in very ‘light’ fashion, managing to exercise a strange grip on the viewer whilst rarely resorting to melodrama or explicit displays of emotion. But what hasn’t come across thus far in this review is that, in spite of some potentially dark subject matter, ‘The Woman From The Sea’ is above all an extremely funny film. Rather than chest-beating emotion, the keynote of pretty much every inter-personal encounter here is an endearing sense of polite awkwardness. From Toshio’s disinterested tolerance of his writer friend’s outbursts, to Nanny’s utter bemusement at the unconventional behaviour of the scantily-clad new arrival in her household, the film achieves a kind of deadpan, goofball surreality that it’s hard not to love.

Japanese comedy, like that of many other countries, often doesn’t translate well when presented to the English-speaking world (2), but in this case I think it’s safe to say that the subtleties of the gags arrive intact, and there is a great deal of honest laughter to be had from ‘The Woman From The Sea’. Perhaps most interesting in this respect though is Kurahara’s knack for directly fusing this humour with the film’s more poignant and troubling aspects in a somewhat challenging fashion that perhaps prefigures the confrontational projects the director was to undertake during the ‘60s, creating odd juxtapositions of laughter and pathos that twist up the viewer’s emotions something rotten. Witness for instance the sight of Toshio earnestly practicing his ukulele after learning that his brother and lover have apparently died in a boating accident, tears running down his cheeks as he incongruously whistles a jaunty, Hawaiian melody; or the almost apologetic, ‘sorry-about-all-this-but-whatcha-gonna-do’ tone taken by the angry mob who turn up at the door to inform him that his girlfriend is a shape-shifting shark monster, their embarrassed buffoonery strangely undercutting the savage violence of their purpose.

Hand in hand with this tonal ambiguity and otherworldly atmosphere is the vague implication that Toshio is to some extent living out a fantasy, perhaps having ‘invented’ or otherwise summoned up the shark-girl to assuage his own loneliness – a notion that even seems to occur to him towards the end of the film, meaning that even in the wake of the crushing, all-too-real bloodshed that closes proceedings, he is still able to reluctantly shrug off what has happened like a lost dream, the supernatural atmosphere which now prevails allowing him to stumble forward into adult life without shedding a tear… but with the shadow of the haunted writer’s solitary existence nonetheless looming large in his future.

Prior to its horrifying conclusion at least, ‘The Woman From The Sea’ plays very much as a consciously light-weight film, but nonetheless it is one that lives long in the memory. Strange, funny, touching and genuinely haunting, it could easily sit alongside ‘Night Tide’, ‘Spider Baby’, ‘A Bucket of Blood’ or – particularly relevant here, perhaps - Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’ in the loose pantheon of emotionally resonant black & white horror favourites. If only it had been more widely seen, I’m sure it could have gained a measure of the same affection those films receive from their fans; though modest in both style and execution, it is a work that justifies the overused “undiscovered gem” designation as well as any other film I can think of at the moment.

(As a post-script, my Japanese friends tell me that this film’s story was reworked for a notoriously sleazy TV show in the 1980s, revelling in a slightly less subtle title that translates as something like ‘Terrifying Shark Woman: She Eats Human Flesh’. Still proudly bearing a “created by Shintarô Ishihara” credit, it’s easy to speculate that the exalted Governor of Tokyo’s embarrassment at such a connection may have played a role in the near complete invisibility of this apparently well-remembered series online - a circumstance that perhaps also serves to deepen the relative obscurity in which ‘The Woman From The Sea’ languishes..?

Whatever the case, it’s certainly a shame that the film didn’t make it onto Criterion Eclipse’s recent ‘The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara’ box set, despite it clearly being a very distinctive and enjoyable example of the director’s work. But the sub-titled print Nikkatsu provided to the BFI this year looked quite nice, so I suppose we can maybe at least keep our fingers distantly crossed for some kind of release at some point in the future..? Here’s hoping, because I’d certainly like to see it again.)

The pitchfork photo at the top of this post was uploaded to Flickr by PreviewF3C. Many thanks to Satori for helping me track down the other screen-shots used above.

(1) Seeing as how ‘The Woman Form The Sea’ was never released outside Japan and remains largely unseen in the English-speaking world to this day, I think the notion that Harrington took any direct inspiration from this film can probably be discounted; the similarities between the two works are likely more just a happy coinciding of eerie aesthetic sensibilities.

(2) A factor that perhaps serves to reinforce the slightly skewed picture we tend to get of their popular culture… but that’s another story.