Friday 18 March 2016

Nippon Horrors:
The Lady Vampire
(Nobuo Nakagawa, 1959)

Whilst we’ve already seen some pretty curious mash-ups of Eastern and Western horror tropes in this ‘Nippon horrors’ review thread, you’d be hard-pressed I think to find a more determinedly oddball example of the phenomenon than ‘Onna Kyûketsuki’ (‘The Lady Vampire’), another low budget quickie produced for Shintoho studios by J-horror pioneer Nobuo Nakagawa.

Whilst Nakagawa often used techniques and special effects inspired by Western horror in his films (which included Ghost Cat Mansion, ‘The Ghost of Yotsuya’ (1960) and the epic ‘Jigoku’ (‘Hell’, 1960)), the actual subject matter of his work tended to remain firmly grounded in traditional Japanese culture… which perhaps goes some way toward explaining how he got himself into such a muddle with ‘Lady Vampire’, a loopy little number that, to my delight, completely refuses to adhere to the rules of any particular horror sub-genre, or indeed any kind of narrative logic whatsoever.

From the eerie, low key atmosphere of the film’s opening reel, one might speculate that Nakagawa had Val Lewton’s 1940s RKO productions in mind, as we meet Tamio-san (Takashi Wada), a young reporter who works in one of those great movie newspaper offices where a bunch of hip cats hang around with their feet on the desks waiting for someone to phone in with a story. (“What’s that, a murder? I’ll be right there..”, etc.)

Finishing work late one evening, Tamio is driving to the family home of his fiancée Itsuko Matsumura (Junko Ikeuchi), to attend her birthday party. Temporarily distracted, Tamio accidentally runs into the shambling figure of a disheveled, long-haired woman. Stopping to help her, he finds that the woman has vanished, but, after shrugging off the incident and continuing to his destination, he suddenly sees her again, creeping around the garden of his fiancée’s home. Quite an unnerving occurrence one might imagine, but he doesn’t let it worry him too much, because hey – birthday cake!

Itsuko’s father and the family retainer however seem very worried indeed by these events, and, leaving the young folks to celebrate downstairs, they advance to the attic of the grandly appointed Western-style mansion (there’s a suit of armour and everything), where they find that the mysterious female glimpsed in the garden has broken in through a window and lies unconscious on a bed. Furthermore, the father immediately recognizes her – it is his wife (Itsuko’s mother), who hasn’t been seen since she mysteriously disappeared twenty years earlier, during a visit to the Southern island of Kyushu. Not only that, but get this - she looks exactly the same as she did the day she disappeared, having apparently not aged at all in the interim!

Unlikely explanations involving rare medical conditions and “bodily changes resulting from shock” are soon being thrown around, but, as the woman (played by Yôko Mihara) recuperates under the supervision of the family doctor, the plot soon thickens further. (1)

Attempting to escape the uncomfortable atmosphere at home, Tamio and Itsuko visit the “Ueno International Art Expo”, where they discover that the winner of the festival’s jury prize (which, in the grand tradition of paintings in horror films, looks like it would struggle to get a passing grade in a night school life-drawing class) features an exact likeness of Itsuko’s mother, painted as a reclining nude. Immediately inquiring as to the authorship of the painting, the couple learn that it was submitted to the expo by an individual named “Shiro Sofue” whom no one has been able to contact or track down.

By the time we’ve returned to the gallery by night to witness the painting in question being stolen by a dwarf with a distinctive two-tone hair-do (I wish I could credit this actor, he’s great) and his ‘master’, a tall, suave gentleman in a trilby, mirror shades and white driving gloves (Shigeru Amachi), and by the time we have subsequently seen the stolen painting delivered to the Matsumara residence care of (who else?) “Shiro Sofue”, suffice to say, the plot has assumed the consistency of a particularly lumpy gravy. (2)

By this point, ‘Lady Vampire’s combination of intriguing mystery plotting, flamboyantly grotesque evil-doers and an elegant, highly Westernised urban Japanese setting all seems to recall the distinctive atmosphere of Edogawa Rampo’s ero-guro stories, and that atmosphere is indeed captured quite well.

Despite the unavoidable predominance of flat, standing-around-talking type footage, Nakagawa nonetheless manages to employ some of the same clever focus effects and eerie sweeps through empty rooms that stood out in the opening segment of ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’, whilst Hisashi Iuchi’s heavy-handed but nonetheless rather likeable score goes big on the old singing saw / staccato strings / wordless female ululations combo.

Much like the earlier Lewton comparison however, the parallels with Rampo’s work are also ditched pretty quickly, as ‘Lady Vampire’ swiftly rambles on toward dafter and more unhinged realms than Rampo’s eminently logical approach to macabre storytelling would have countenanced.

As the more astute reader will no doubt already have guessed, that chap with the pet dwarf is Shiro Sofue, and furthermore, he is also a vampire. When we next see him, he is in his hotel room, freaking out with his head in his hands as shafts of light creep through gaps in the curtains. Acceptable vampire behavior you might think, but hang on a minute – the sky is dark. It’s clearly supposed to be night time.

“The moon, the dreadful moonlight..”, Shiro groans, before a maid enters the room and inadvisably throws open the curtains, at which point he undergoes a transformation into a sweaty, befanged beast with Nosferatu claws, and attacks her like a ravenous animal, leaving her bloodied body on a couch in the hotel lobby.

Yes, folks – what we have here is a vampire who behaves like a werewolf! Though a bit of a mind-blower for those of us who grew up in the West, with the “rules” governing the classic monsters set in stone, it’s worth remembering that things were probably a bit different in Japan in 1959. It’s all too easy to imagine Nakagawa and his collaborators sitting around, hazily trying to recall half-forgotten screenings of the Universal horror cycle; “ok, anyone remember how those Dracula guys work again?”, “Yeah, they’re the ones with the full moon, right?”, etc. I can only speak for myself, but as far as examples of cultural dissonance go, I found this monster’s apparent identity crisis absolutely delightful.

And, if our heads weren’t already reeling after that, the next thing ‘Lady Vampire’ hits us with is an unexpected history lesson. This is prompted by Mr Matsumura (Akira Nakamura), who begins lamenting “..the curse of those with Amakusa blood” – that being what apparently runs in his wife’s veins – and proceeds to ask Tamio and Itsuko how much they recall of the story of Shiro Amakusa.

Shiro Amakusa, it turns out, was the leader of the Shimbara Rebellion, which took place in Southern Japan in 1638 by the Western calendar. A significant uprising against feudal rule, this rebellion was spearheaded by an alliance of Catholic Christian converts who, under Amakusa’s command, took up arms against the Tokugawa Shogunate, and were soon violently massacred for their trouble.(3)

Amakusa himself was executed along with no less than 40,000 of his followers after the Shogun’s forces stormed their last remaining stronghold at Hara Castle near Nagasaki, and his head is said to have been displayed on a pike outside the castle gates. Subsequently, a legend has sprung up regarding Amakusa’s last words, which are reputed to have comprised a promise that he would return from the grave and seek vengeance one hundred years hence. As a result, Amakusa is often portrayed in Japanese culture as something of a supernatural or demonic figure– a “restless spirit” or wondering ghost of some kind.

Interestingly, this is not the first time we have seen the Shimbara Rebellion referenced in the context of a Japanese vampire movie. It was also mentioned in both Michio Yamamoto’s Lake of Dracula (1971) and that film’s follow-up, The Bloodthirsty Roses (aka ‘Evil of Dracula’, 1974), with the latter going so far as to include an elaborate historical flashback concerning the fate of a European missionary who inadvertently introduced vampirism to Japan after he escaped into the wilderness following the rebellion.

Whether or not there is any actual folkloric basis for this connection between vampirism and the spread and subsequent persecution of Christianity in Southern Japan in the 17th century, I’m unsure, but to be honest, I kind of doubt it. Basically, the thin thread of logic shared by all of these films seems to be that the vampire is an inherently Christian monster, and as such he must naturally have landed on Japanese shores alongside the European missionaries who arrived to propagate that religion.

Shiro Amakusa’s reputation as a ‘cursed’ figure certainly adds a bit of local colour to this assumption, providing a flimsy basis for an interesting, peculiarly Japanese twist on the vampire mythos, in which vampirism is understood less as a force that exists in *opposition* to Christian morality, and more as a kind of parasitic virus that inevitably accompanies it, reflecting to some extent the underlying suspicion of Christianity that persists in Japan to this day.

In ‘The Lady Vampire’ therefore, it is implied that Shiro Amakusa, in addition to being an evangelical Christian convert, was himself also a vampire (best not think too hard on the practicalities of that one), and that he has passed this curse down through his bloodline to his daughter, Princess Katsu. In a flashback outlining Shiro Sofue’s back-story (imaginatively portrayed via the use of a black-curtained soundstage, a few period props and some scratchy stock footage from an old samurai movie), we discover that he was originally the lover and loyal servant of the Princess (who, needless to say, is also played by Yôko Mihara). As the walls of the Princess’s castle crumble under the bombardment of the Shogunate forces, we see the two lovers embrace upon a Christian altar, as the Princess grants Shiro the gift of vampiric eternal life before being buried beneath the falling rubble.

That Shiro Sofue subsequently spends the next three hundred years lurking in a cave seeking out and imprisoning women who look exactly like his deceased love is somewhat of a no-brainer given that we’re dealing here with a low-budget horror movie rather than a historical epic, and, as Itsuko’s mother turns out to be both an exact doppelganger of the dead Princess and a direct Amakusa descendent to boot, well – that’s the rough outline of yr plot right there, pretty much.

All this is made clear to us – in a manner of speaking - when the mother, Miwako, finally wakes up, and recounts (via flashback) what she’s been up to for the past twenty years.

Wondering happily through a breathtakingly picturesque Kyushu locale having temporarily taken leave of her husband during that holiday all those years ago, Miwako encounters Shiro Sofue, who, elegantly attired as ever, is busy at his easel, working on a landscape.

After some suitably pungent banter (“I’ve been waiting for you for centuries..”, etc), he plies her with a knockout drop scented rose. When she awakens, she finds herself in the vampire’s lair, where Shiro stands over her, now sporting a full opera cape and shades ensemble, wielding a cobweb-coated candelabra with which he subsequently begins beating her chest (using the non-candle end, I hasten to add).

For the purposes of this lengthy flashback sequence, the vampire’s ‘cave’ is created on a blacked out soundstage, creating the impression of a kind of horizonless dreamland in which people and objects emerge from a featureless void – an inspired visual idea that, as well as presumably playing well from a budgetary point of view, helps to convey the dazed perception of the recently drugged Miwako very well, as well as allowing us to enjoy a veritable feast of the kind of tripped out, proto-psychedelic visuals that seem to have been an essential ingredient of Japanese horror filmmaking in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

As Miwako looks around her, a variety of bizarre, capering creatures appear one by one before her eyes, introducing us to the strange bunch who comprise the vampire’s inexplicable retinue of sidekicks. After the dwarf (with whom we’re already familiar), we meet the scary bakeneko lady from ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’ (presumably the Kyushu-set black & white sequences in that film must have been shot simultaneously with this one?), and, most intriguingly, a bald, loincloth-clad heavy whose look seems pitched somewhere between a caveman, a wrestler and a Shaolin monk. (Answers on a postcard please if you have any idea who or what the hell he’s supposed to be.)

After these weirdoes have ceased parading around (and after we’ve enjoyed Shiro’s own flashback-within-a-flashback origin story, as described earlier in this review) the vampire commences work on the portrait of Miwako seen earlier in the film. Haranguing her for failing to smile for his painting, he warns her of the fate she could meet if she fails to co-operate with his artistic aspirations, instigating an elaborate super-imposition shot in which we see multiple, underwear-clad Yôko Miharas emerging from a gilt-edged mirror, frozen like waxy-skinned zombies…. this marking the point, familiar to all devotees of ‘70s Euro-horror, at which we stop even bothering to try following the logic of what’s transpiring on screen, and just go with it.

Happily, the remainder of ‘Lady Vampire’ co-operates with this feeling, comprising as it does a splendid excursion into the realms of pulpy delirium that rarely lets up for long.

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Shiro, his bedtime delayed by the police investigation into the murder in his hotel room, finds himself trapped in a shady Ginza bar, where, as shards of moonlight creep in through a broken window, he enters monster-mode and goes berserk, launching into a lycanthropic rampage that would do Paul Naschy proud.

Being an elegant vampire of course, Shiro only vents his animalistic hunger upon the necks of pretty ladies, and on this occasion he leaves no less than six of them thrown to the ground with blood gushing from their jugulars before the cops arrive and he flees into the night. And before this has even started, I should point out, his dwarf sidekick has already done a pretty good job of wrecking the place, dancing across the bar counter hurling full whisky bottles at the customers heads. The whole thing is just absolute pandemonium, one of the wildest sequences of old fashion b-movie carnage I’ve seen in recent memory.

And to think, on the other side of the world at this point, censorious types were still getting hot and bothered at the thought of Christopher Lee breathing down some young lovely’s neckline…

For the film’s conclusion, the now fully conscious Miwako is recaptured by Shiro, who promptly spirits her away to his lair in Kyushu, with Tamio, Itsuko and assorted police and newspapermen in hot pursuit, with the latter keen to see the perpetrator of the Ginza massacre run to ground.

Led by a fugitive thief who claims to have been assailed by monsters whilst hiding out in a mountain cave, this gang – who comprise the equivalent of the more traditional pitchfork-wielding mob, more or less - converge upon the vampire’s cave, at which point Nakagawa’s film abandons all pretense of seriousness and proceeds to go absolutely bananas, descending (or ascending, depending on your POV) into a Saturday matinee monster rally that recalls the full strength pulp of some of the livelier horror films being made in Mexico at around this time.

Separated amid the dry ice-swathed mountains on their way to the cave, our heroes are beset by attacks from the caveman / monk guy (who shoots at them with a primitive musket) and Shiro himself (who inevitably kidnaps Itsuko).

Eventually arriving at the ‘cave’ set- which we now see in daylight as a series of crumbly, slightly expressionistic hall and corridor sets that look very much like they might have been repurposed from another production – Tamio encounters flappy rubber bats, a moldering skeleton and (of course) a smoking acid pit, before bravely going man to man with Shiro in a life or death fencing foil / candelabra duel.

Meanwhile, everybody else runs around being pursued by the vampire’s ‘monsters’ for what seems like ages, until the slightly Scooby Doo-esque shenanigans eventually draw to a close when the thief manages to dig up with treasure he left in the cave, somehow triggering an avalanche that conveniently sorts everything out, in much the way these things tend to in the closing reel of horror films.

And, in conclusion, well… there is no conclusion. I can honestly think of nothing more to say about ‘The Lady Vampire’, now that I’ve exhaustively described what happens in it. Whilst the film’s nutty ambitions are necessarily confined by the low key, low budget nature of its production, it is nonetheless a bizarrely inventive melting pot of mismatched monster movie tropes that denies all attempts at rational analysis, and I’m confident that any open-minded fans of wild/weird global horror cinema will enjoy it a great deal.

We will close with a few words from Mr Matsumura, inadvertently delivering not only a concise critique of this review, but arguably of my writing style on this blog in general. Good night all, and careful with that dreadful moonlight.


(1) Though she never really took on any leading roles to my knowledge, Yôko Mihara enjoyed a long and prolific career that should render her a familiar face to any fan of the wilder realms of Japanese cult film. Apparently specialising in pulpy horror roles in the last few years of Shintoho, she also appeared in such choice titles as ‘Girl Diver of Spook Mansion’ and ‘Bloody Sword of the 99th Virgin’ (both 1959, and both now residing on my ‘THAT I GOTTA SEE’ list), before moving to Toei, where roles in several of Hideo Gosha’s revered outlaw samurai films and assorted ninkyo/yakuza titles eventually led to her becoming a regular in the studio’s early ‘70s sexploitation and pinky violence output, appearing in such classics of the genre as ‘Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion’ (1972), Sex & Fury (1973), Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs (1974) and ‘School of the Holy Beast’ (1974), not to mention ‘The Lustful Shogun and His 21 Concubines’ (1972), and, my personal favourite title-wise, ‘The Erotomaniac Daimyo’ (1972) – most of the above directed of course by the one and only Norifumi Suzuki.

(2)Top-billed in this movie, and indeed doing a great turn as a pale, aesthete vampire, you may recall Shigeru Amachi for his similarly fine performance as Hirate, the doomed samurai in the first Zatoichi film. Interestingly, he subsequently appeared in a number of other films alongside Yôko Mihara, including Gosha’s ‘Sword of Doom’ (1965), Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘Blackmail is My Life’ (1968), and, somewhat less prestigiously, Norifumi Suzuki’s Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack (1971). He later played Edogawa Rampo’s master detective Kogorô Akechi in a 1979 TV movie (a role to which I can imagine he was uniquely suited), and subsequently appeared in Paul Naschy’s ‘The Beast With The Magic Sword’ (1983), thus allowing me to continue my tradition of finding an excuse to mention it at least once in every review of a Japanese film I complete for this blog.

(3) Forcibly curbing the foothold that Christianity had established in Southern Japan up to that point and hastening the Tokugawa decision to isolate Japan from the rest of the world (a state of affairs that famously persisted until the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ‘black ships’ in 1854), the Shimabara Rebellion proved a pivotal event in the history of Japan, with its aftermath playing an important role in shaping the country’s culture and society as we know it today. To learn more about Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate, why not visit your local library?

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

Shigeru Amachi did a good job in a film that tried to tap into the success of the first Lee Hammer Dracula. His swag to savage style predated Barry Atwater in the Night Stalker and Shin Kishida in the two Toho Dracula films. An interesting visual moment was when he painted his lady love. The climactic fight was filmed in a very static manner so it loses points for that weakness and more points got lost for the the scene of Amachi biting women while witnesses watched and did nothing. The music soundtrack was excellent. The Christian-vampirism link as a form of contamination in Japan crops up again in the Toho films, as you wrote in your essay. (This actual history of Christian persecution in Japan during the 17th century by the Shoguns is gruesome.)