Thursday 17 July 2014

Nippon Horrors:
Ghost Cat of Otama Pond
(Yoshihiro Ishikawa, 1960)

Thus far in this ‘Nippon Horrors’ strand, we’ve been looking at movies that are either modern style, Western-influenced horror films, or else just lunatic one-offs of one kind or another, but it is of course impossible to gain an understanding of Japanese horror without examining the more traditional k(w)aidan tales that comprised by far the most prolific category within the genre prior to 1970. And if we’re talking kaidan, then before long, we’ll be talking kaibyo, aka bakeneko, aka GHOST-CATS - a subject that the movie-going public in Japan apparently couldn’t get enough of, with a catalogue of titles stretching right back to the dawn of cinema.

If I started trying to run down the folkloric roots of these ‘ghost-cat’ stories, we’d be here all day, but needless to say, specific ghost-cat legends pertaining to such locales as Okazaki, Arima and (most pertinently in this case, perhaps) Kasane Swamp go back at least a few hundred years, and formed a cornerstone of the canon of supernatural kabuki plays, woodcuts and novels that fed straight into the earliest Japanese fantastic films.

Although most of Japan’s silent-era films are now lost, surviving records indicate that the Okazaki ghost-cat legend alone was filmed three times prior to 1917, once by the esteemed “father of Japanese cinema” Shozo Makino no less, whilst the first example of the ‘cursed wall’ variant, which appears to incorporate elements taken from Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ into the mix, appeared as early as 1918.

I have heard Kiyohiko Ushihara’s 1938 production ‘Ghost Cat: Haunted Shamisen’ referred to as the earliest surviving Japanese film to include fantastical elements, and, after the war, the 1950s seem to have heralded an unprecedented boom in ghost-cat pictures, with a few representative examples including ‘Ghost Cat: Cursed Wall’ (Kenji Misumi, 1958), ‘Cat Monster of Ouma Cross’ (Bin Kato, 1954) and ‘Ghost Cat of Yonaki Swamp’ (Katsukiko Tazaka, 1957), as picked from a list comprising many, many more titles.

Given all this, it is slightly ironic that by far the best-known ghost-cat movie in the West is Kaneto Shindô’s arthouse-horror classic ‘Kuroneko’ (‘Black Cat’, 1968), a film that domestic audiences must have seen as a nostalgic summation of a set of clichés endlessly reiterated over the course of the preceding fifty years, rather than the wild novelty it may have appeared to foreign viewers.

So, the Japanese like their ghost-cats – this much we know. Insofar as I can tell from online reading, the plots of these movies seem standardised to the point of complete uniformity, but I probably shouldn’t draw too many generalisations until I’ve at least seen a few more of them. So as such, let’s jump in entirely at random with ‘Ghost Cat of Otama Pond’, selected for no other reason than that I happen to have a copy, and watched it last week.

A relatively late entry in the ghost-cat cycle, this 1960 Shintoho production was the directorial debut of one Yoshihiro Ishikawa, striking out on his own for the first time after a lengthy spell working as assistant and co-writer to horror specialist Nobuo Nakagawa, on such films as ‘Black Cat Mansion’ (1958), ‘The Woman Vampire’ (1959) and ‘The Ghost of Yotsuya’ (1959) (hopefully we’ll get around to those here at some point). Like Nakagawa’s films, ‘..Otama Pond’ seems notable for combining a traditional kaidan storyline with techniques borrowed from contemporary Western horror films, and, unusually for a 1960 genre picture from the cash-strapped Shintoho, it makes great use of colour photography too.*

Things begin in the present day, where we join a neatly-attired couple in western dress who are in the process of getting lost amid a network of narrow, woodland paths in an area we later learn is “known for its thick fog”. They are en route to the man’s parental home, to seek his father’s blessing prior to their marriage, but unknown forces seem to be endlessly drawing them back to the same swampy-looking pond. “If we arrive after dark, my father won’t let us marry”, the man says. A curious notion, but, well.. let’s move on.

Right from the outset here, the atmosphere is incredibly spooky, with massively ominous, droning music (composed by Chumei Watanabe) and authentically muddy-looking, claustrophobic sets used to represent the woodland locale. It is difficult to pin-point quite how the film succeeds so well in creating a genuinely unnerving effect from such stock elements, but nonetheless, it does. Even the thunder-claps seem scary, and when was the last time you felt that whilst watching a horror film?

Of course, frequent cutaway shots to a mewling black cat lurking in the trees help, and when the couple eventually take shelter in a derelict house, despairing of finding their way out of this nightmare before morning, the woman drifts off into a tormented fever after encountering a terrifying vision of a white-haired witch archetype who will need no introduction to those familiar with Kurosawa’s heavily kaidan-inspired ‘Throne of Blood’. (The shot in which the witch appears to ‘reel in’ her fainting victim in slow motion is wonderfully sinister.)

Extensive use is made here of anti-naturalistic, Bava-esque gel lighting, with inexplicable green and red glows lurking around every corner, and indeed, just like the protagonists of a Western gothic horror film, this couple – their clothes and behavior coding them as ‘modern’ and ‘rational’ – seem to have found themselves trapped in a world that is entirely ruled by the more macabre elements of antiquity. (Even the doctor they track down the next morning immediately starts rabbiting on about ancient curses, and chooses to treat the lady’s fever by means of an elaborate Buddhist exorcism.)

Also recalling a Western gothic, it is our characters’ previously obscure family history that eventually proves responsible for subjecting them to such a weird fate… as gradually becomes clear when the doctor begins narrating the story which, via flashback, will comprise the majority of the movie’s remaining run-time.

Back to the days of the Shogunate then, where we find a pretty standard star-crossed lovers vengeance story unfolding, played out in a rigidly formal yet beguilingly beautiful manner. The lovers’ final meeting is a particular highlight in this regard, taking place against a nigh-on apocalyptic sunset in a desolate wasteland, creating a suitably expressionistic backdrop to their doomed farewell.

Interestingly, the in-fighting between the lovers’ rival clans here adds a slight twist of populist politics to the mix – something that seems to be a reoccurring theme within ‘ghost-cat’ stories. Viewers of ‘Kuroneko’ will recall that that film incorporates a pretty strident critique of those who propagate conflict to line their own pockets, and here, the catalyst for the destruction of the benevolent family comes when their patriarch publically speaks out against unfair taxes leveled by the corrupt local magistrate - thus prompting said magistrate and his evil brood of cronies to do away with him and his family in as disproportionately violent and generally dastardly a fashion as can be imagined.

As soon as the good family’s martially gifted son (the male portion of the star-crossed lovers) departs to pursue a career in Edo, the vultures descend, and, as is standard procedure in these supernatural vengeance stories, the family home is set ablaze and the patriarch and elderly grandmother cruelly murdered, whilst the noble daughter/sister chooses to kill herself with a hairpin (that ever-useful accessory of the virtuous Japanese maiden) when kidnapped and threatened with rape by the intruders.**

All of this is already somewhat grimmer business than you’d be liable to see in a Western film from 1960 not entitled ‘Black Sunday’, and, when the noble son returns home to learn of the destruction of his family, he meets his downfall by way of an unusually intense and sinister sword-fighting set-piece, full of bloody wounds, bulging eyes and jagged, kabuki-like choreography.

With ominous, post-massacre shots of blood red skies (echoing both the house-fire and the blood spreading across the waters of the pond where the bodies are dumped), and unspeakably eerie, metal-scraping fiddle music, the combined consequences of all of this villainy amount to strong stuff indeed, designed to have us almost crying out for the ghostly retribution we know is on its way.

And thankfully, it’s not wasting any time getting here, either. Following their crimes, the clan of baddies is almost immediately subjected to such a tirade of hair-raising supernatural phenomena, it’s a wonder they don't immediately go insane and flee straight for the nearest fortified town. Nocturnal visits from reanimated corpses, bleeding walls, ghostly tolling bells, sake turning to blood, giant cat silhouettes and unearthly red glows projected against screen-doors, sleep-walking possessed daughters, gory-lock shaking Macbeth-like phantoms, and even a floating yokai fireball pitching in for the conclusion.

Of course, we all know from the outset that it’s curtains for the villains, but the filmmakers have a heck of a lot of fun getting us to that point, realizing all of the above with a great deal of ghoulish skill and visual imagination, and even managing to generate some surface level tension, despite the fateful inevitability of the scenario now in play.

As seen in ‘Kuroneko’, but perhaps not in earlier versions of this story (or so I would imagine), the vengeful ghost-cat actually takes on solid, humanoid form here too, appearing as a werewolf-clawed half-woman, half-cat monster who turns up in one memorable scene to chomp the head off a passing snake and generally put the wind up the surviving characters even further. Curiously though, this furry cat-monster appears only briefly, and fails to return for the film’s finale, so I can only assume that the filmmakers must have decided that the costume just looked too silly, and minimized its use. It IS pretty silly, to be fair, but speaking as a lifelong fan of outlandish horror movie nonsense, I was still disappointed that we were denied any scenes of full-on, Paul Naschy-esque werecat mayhem. Oh well, you can’t have everything I suppose.

Lacking though at may be in furry-clawed grappling however, the conclusion here is certainly anything but underwhelming – in fact it is an desperate maelstrom of blood-letting, cat-hissing, limb-hacking carnage, incorporating strobe speed cutting, all kinds of goofy spook manifestations and howling super-imposed cat-faces. Whilst it may be far more orderly than the equivalent scenes of madness in Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s legendary ‘Hausu’ (1977), we’re definitely somewhere in the same ballpark here, tonally speaking.

I many ways, ‘Ghost Cat of Otama Pond’ seems poised at a transitional moment in the development of Japanese horror. From 1960 onwards, the popularity of kaidan films seemed seems to have plummeted (at least if we can judge from the quantity of films produced in the genre), with only Shindô’s more prestige productions really flying the flag for the form by the second half of the decade, leaving Japanese horror flailing around in a bit of a no man’s land, mainly resulting in the kind of occasional one-offs and stylistic cross-overs that we’ve looked at previously in this review strand.

As such, a film like ‘..Otama Pond’ can perhaps best be viewed as an attempt to keep the kaidan train rolling by adopting something of an east-meets-west approach, grafting Western techniques and aesthetics (lightning flashes, gel lighting, hairy monsters) onto a highly traditional, folkloric narrative. The extravagant use of colour is interesting in this regard, with the concentration on deep reds and luminous greens causing ‘..Otama Pond’ to completely lose the trademark ‘bone-chilling cold’ evoked by many older kaidan films, instead moving toward a kind of sweaty, hot-house fecundity that prefigures the kind of colour horror films that would begin to emerge from Italy just a few years later.

Given its era, I was also surprised how thickly the film lays on the horror business. At a time when many Asian (and indeed European) ghost stories were more inclined to go for the ‘softly, softly’ approach, padding out a few minutes-worth of spooky goings on with acres of convoluted plotting and dialogue, Ishikawa really goes all out for scares, throwing everything at his disposal into trying to freak his audience out, and dedicating probably about two thirds of the eventual run time to supernatural creepery of one kind of another. (Needless to say, I approve.)

The stiff presentation of the story here may feel more like a formalised re-enactment of an ancient legend than an engaging piece of human drama, but nonetheless, the extraordinary variety of macabre visuals and the general sense of marauding, out of control terror help make ‘Ghost Cat of Otama Pond’ a hugely rewarding experience for fans of early ‘60s horror, presenting a cocktail of thrills, weird imagery and atmosphere that matches up to the very best of the Italian gothics. By which I mean, I really liked it. A definite two paws up in the cat-related horror movie sweepstakes.


* Less than a year after this film was released, Shintoho – a studio initially founded by renegade Toho staff following an industrial dispute, and renowned for the creative freedom it allowed its filmmakers – declared bankruptcy and promptly ceased to exist, the earliest casualty of the slow decline of the Japanese studio system through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Notably, the commercial failure of Nakagawa’s ambitious horror epic ‘Jigoku: The Sinners of Hell’ (1960) is often seen as a key factor in the studio’s demise.

** Whilst it is of no importance to the film’s narrative, those of you who, like me, enjoy shouting “NINJA!” at your TV sets at every opportunity may wish to note that the baddies initially creep up on the good family dressed in traditional ninja outfits. So there ya go. NINJA!

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