Sunday, 13 October 2019

Nippon Horrors / October Horrors 2019 # 7:
Unbalanced Horror Theatre:
A Mummy’s Love

(Seijun Suzuki, 1973)

Sometimes, it’s difficult to know where to even start with these things.

So, let’s try this.

The narrative that has developed around the late Seijun Suzuki has tended to suggest that he more or less disappeared into the wilderness following his dramatic dismissal from Nikkatsu studios in 1967, only re-emerging when he helmed his critically acclaimed ‘Taisho trilogy’ in the early 1980s. In reality however, reports of Seijun’s invisibility during the 1970s have been greatly exaggerated. As his fans in Japan will be well aware, the idiosyncratic director actually kept busy and remained to some extent in the public eye throughout these ‘lost years’.

Indeed, viewed in the light of Nikkatsu’s decision to dedicate their resources entirely to the production of low budget ‘roman porno’ features from late 1970 onwards, and the subsequent collapse of the contract-based Japanese studio system as a whole in the mid-to-late ‘70s, it could easily be argued that Suzuki’s early dismissal basically just gave him a head-start in adjusting to the situation that most directors of his generation found themselves facing a few years later – interspersing more low-key, independently-financed films (if they were lucky) with voluminous quantities of TV work and commercials.

Which brings us neatly to ‘Kyôfu Gekijô Umbalance’ [‘Unbalanced Horror Theatre’], a weekly anthology series produced by the legendary Tsuburaya-Pro (home of ‘Ultraman’, etc), thirteen episodes of which were broadcast on Monday nights on the Fuji TV network, beginning in January 1973.

In terms of its creative ambition and production values, this series seems to have represented something akin to a Japanese take on the BBC’s celebrated ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’, and it also seems to have acted as a bit of a ‘life line’ to other struggling Nikkatsu directors, with Suzuki’s erstwhile colleagues Yasuharu Hasebe and Toshiya Fujita also contributing episodes.

Suzuki’s entry in the series however was the first to be broadcast, and is thus far the only one I’ve been able to track down with English subtitles. And, purely on this basis, I’m inclined to think that ‘Unbalanced Horror Theatre’ was pretty aptly named. To not put too fine a point on it, ‘Miira No Koi’ [roughly, ‘A Mummy’s Love’], first broadcast to the nation on 8th January 1973, is absolutely mental.

Frankly, even the series’ opening credits, in which twisting patterns of psychedelic flames are back-projected onto the looming silhouette of a roaming cat, to the accompaniment of shrieking, discordant strings and electronics, were enough to get me jumping out my seat, but once the story proper gets underway, all bets are off.

Suzuki’s reputation as a devil-may-care surrealist is immediately in evidence here, as he begins by cutting in a disorientating fashion between seemingly unrelated shots - close-ups of red warning lights at a railway crossing, and visions of a scraggly-haired skeleton in meditational pose floating toward the viewer – whilst voiceover narration, in a gentle female voice, also competes for our attention.

The woman who is speaking to us, it turns out, is a widowed employee of a publishing house who is travelling to visit an elderly and infirm professor, who has been working on a new translation of a work known as Harusame Monogatari (‘Tales of the Spring Rain’) – a genuine collection of folkloric tales, compiled by the famous writer and scholar Ueda Akinari in the years immediately preceding his death in 1809. The narrator describes this book as a “maddening and terrifying work”, and, on the basis of the story from it we’re treated to here, I’m inclined to take her word for it.

Pausing at the railway crossing, the woman encounters a small family car, driven by a chauffeur in full top-hatted finery, who gets out and doffs his hat to her. Inside the car are a Buddhist monk and a woman in formal, Edo period garb (complete with bakeneko type eye makeup). Our narrator is alarmed by the appearance of the monk, whom she declares conveys an “uncanny impression”, “like a doll”.

Before we realise what’s happening, we cut to a series of expressionistic studio tableau shots, reminiscent of some of the primary coloured effects Suzuki used a decade earlier in his masterpiece Gate of Flesh. We see the woman who has sitting in the car performing some kind of ritual before a bare tree branch, as the narrator’s voice fills us in on the nature of the ‘Nyujo’ Buddhist sect, whose adherents apparently attempted to attain enlightenment by confining themselves in wooden boxes and being buried alive.

Another sudden jump cut takes us back into the top-knotted, Shogunate past, where a studious young man named Shoji lives in a remote village with his mother. Shoji finds himself bothered by the sounds of a bell ringing somewhere in the vicinity of their house during the night, and, determining that these sounds emanate from the bottom of a disused well, he announces that they must belong to a “bodhisattva petitioning to return from the Pure Land”.

So, the young student starts digging, attracting a crowd of local on-lookers in the process. Eventually, the villagers succeed in unearthing a desiccated, mummified ancient sage, who was apparently buried in the lotus position.

Suzuki marks this discovery by suddenly cutting to a shot of an explosion taking place in some kind of thatched building, and a freeze-frame of the young student leaping in the air in front of it, after which the villagers begin hysterically laughing and bickering, kicking the polystyrene mummy prop around as if it were a football and cursing the unearthed monk for his apparent uselessness. Vaseline or something similar appears to have been smeared all over the lens for these shots, giving everything a woozy, unclear feeling, as if viewed through cataracts. (I’d also bet money that none of this was in the script.)

As the student and his mother set about resuscitating and caring for the revived ancient, whom the villagers have nicknamed ‘Nyoju no Josuke’ [very roughly, “guy in a trance”], it turns out that the predictions of his uselessness were entirely justified.

One of the monk’s first actions upon regaining consciousness is to attempt to molest a local woman (he is discovered in the rafters of a barn, making bird noises after she flees in terror), and, much to the villagers’ chagrin, he subsequently turns out to be a mute, drooling simpleton who displays no evidence of his apparent enlightenment.

Indeed, in stark contrast to the asceticism one would expect of such a high level sage, his sole interests in life seem to be stuffing his face, leering at women and giggling like a creep. This sends the young student who unearthed him into an existential rage, as he angrily questions the very basis of his nation’s Buddhist beliefs.

Before long, Josuke - who, hilariously, is played by none other than cult writer/director Atsushi Yamatoya, who worked with Suzuki on the script for ‘Branded To Kill’ and helmed a series of notable avant garde pink films, including 1967’s ‘Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands’ - has become a kind of despised village idiot figure, bumbling around in a dirty nappy and performing simple chores for the villagers.

Josuke’s antics, it should be noted, are accompanied by an incredibly strange music cue, which appears to blend digeridoo-like devotional chanting of Buddhist sutras with a light jazz/funk drum beat, effectively complementing the story’s crudely heretical themes, and cementing the surreal / comic mood. [IMDB credits this episode’s music to famed analogue synth maestro Isao Tomita, but I’m guessing he probably just provided the series theme tune, leaving the authorship of this weird music a mystery.]

When Josuke is discovered hiding in a haystack by a fornicating couple upon whom he is spying, they proceed to taunt him, with the woman suggesting he’d have more luck with the ladies if he were reborn as a kabuki actor – prompting our drooling bodhisattva to take on an even more grotesque appearance, plastering his face with theatrical make up, and wearing a handkerchief on his bonce in imitation of a kabuki head-dress.

Thus far, the portrayal of Josuke seems to have been inspired to some extent by the classic Karloff ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ archetype. Abandoned by his creator (or, uh, resurrector I suppose in this case) and shunned for his ugliness and inability to communicate, he gazes at his reflection in the river and so forth, inviting our sympathy. But, Karloff’s creature was never characterised as a goon-ish, slovenly sex fiend, and Frankensteinian mythos certainly offers us no analogue for what happens next, as Josuke’s new look unexpectedly succeeds in attracting the attentions of an impoverished young widow, to whom he is promptly married, or so the narrator (who has now become an elderly, croaking male voice, incidentally) informs us.

The narrator further relates that “Josuke had held within him an appetite for women for hundreds of years”, as a result of which, the couple make love continuously for seven days and seven nights. On the eighth day, they take a quick breather, and the woman collapses in pain, screaming that she is about to give birth. The frantic ringing of Josuke’s bell attracts the attention of the villagers, who, upon arrival, find clouds of bright pink smoke billowing from the widow’s house.

When the men, led by Shoji, break into the house, they find the woman dead, and, well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but… she appears to have given birth to dozens of tiny, gold-skinned Buddha people, who are crawling around all over her corpse like little human worms, ringing their miniature bells.

Understandably maddened by this terrible sight, the young student pretty much loses his mind, and begins crushing and stomping the little people, who collapse into dust at his touch. “What is a Buddha? What is resurrection? What have we been praying to all this time? Kill them all!” he cries as he tramples the tiny golden monks, encouraging the other villagers to join him in the destruction, kicking up clouds of Buddha-dust which soon cover them all.

Josuke meanwhile flees the scene with an angry mob in hot pursuit, commandeering a hay cart whose under-cranked progress drives him straight over the edge of a nearby cliff-face to his doom.

At some point subsequent to these awful events, Shoji takes a bride, but as soon as the young student and his partner attempts to consummate their marriage, they are interrupted by the tolling bell of the feral Nyoju no Josuke, who lurks cackling outside in the shadows.

Wondering the land in a daze, looking increasingly filthy and unhinged, the young man begins obsessively digging up the ground in the various locations where this story has taken place, in search of the ringing bell which plagues him. “From that point on, Shoji never touched a woman again,” the narrator tells us. THE END.

Still reeling, we cut back to the 20th century, where the woman whom we were following at the start of all this has arrived at the home of the professor who was working on the Harusame Monogatari, and has been transcribing his recitation of the tale outlined above.

The professor seems to pretty much at death’s door, far gone with some kind of consumptive illness, and his rooms are cramped, messy and seedy. Despite his illness however, the prof’s manner is intense and unnerving. He rambles on weirdly about the story of the resurrected monk as if it were verified truth, insisting that such things have actually occurred, and he further upsets his visitor – a former student of his - by unexpectedly producing a photograph of her late husband, who died as a young officer in the Pacific War.

Amid his ravings, the professor tells the widow he believes her husband is still alive, “like Nyoju no Josuke,” and that he has seen him walking around the era. He then becomes lecherous and grabby, attempting to assault the widow, who promptly leaves the house, suitably unnerved by her experience.

These scenes are sweaty and claustrophobic, with Suzuki slowly tracing his camera back and forth across the characters’ prone bodies, cutting between extreme close-ups of their eyes, as if it were some twisted Jess Franco sex scene, emphasizing the feeble desperation of the professor and the crushing loneliness of the widow, culminating in an intensely uncomfortable moment in which the professor’s sinister nurse attends to his needs with an incontinence bottle, whilst the sound of an air raid siren is heard on the soundtrack.

On her journey home through the stormy night, a shortcut takes the widow to the ruins of the air-raid shelter where her husband died. Some of the photography here is hauntingly beautiful, employing rich primary colours, deep blacks and chaotic compositions which again momentarily remind me of ‘Gate of Flesh’ – notably I think, another work which sought to exorcise the trauma of war through a kind of melancholic, sexualised desperation.

In order to leave the reader with at least some surprises should they seek out this TV show, I will break off my synopsis at this point and leave the story’s conclusion a mystery, but needless to say – it’s unpleasant, horribly ambiguous yet perversely beautiful -- and a final smug, Rod Serling-like farewell from series host (and future mayor of Tokyo) Yukio Aoshima does little to ease our frazzled senses or let us tie the threads of our conflicted emotions after all this startling business concludes.

Though I’ve drawn some comparison to Suzuki’s earlier work above, viewers familiar with Japanese genre cinema will inevitably emerge from ‘Miira No Koi’ with the name of ero-guro specialist Teruo Ishii on their lips. Indeed, this episode’s unsettling mixture of goon-ish comedy, twisted sexuality and malign visionary surrealism feels very much of a piece with the extraordinary series of “torture” films Ishii produced for Toei in the late 1960s, whilst the tiny, gold-skinned Buddhas seem to have been drawn straight from the same well of imagery as Ishii’s controversial Horrors of Malformed Men. Even Yamatoya’s performance as Nyoju no Josuke seems, when he initially appears, to echo the style of Iishi’s most distinctive collaborator, the pioneering Butoh choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata.

Going further, you could even make the case that there are moments here which recall the mad, performative psycho-analytical freak-out feel of Alexandro Jodorowsky, but really, such comparisons count for little. Ultimately, the clammy, unsettling feeling ‘Miira No Koi’ leaves us with is unique, even within Suzuki’s work.

In its own crazy way, this story seems determined to push the envelope in directions viewers tuning in for a more traditional ghost story would never have anticipated, interrogating themes that Japanese audiences in particular are liable to find deeply disturbing to this day. Not only do Suzuki (and writers Fumiko Enji and Yôzô Tanaka) treat the Buddhist traditions of resurrection and reincarnation which underpin much of their nation’s shared culture with nigh-on blasphemous scorn, they go one step further in suggesting that these received metaphysical notions have been chronically warped and devalued by the abusive lusts of a patriarchal social order, whilst simultaneously evoking harrowing memories of the personal loss and grief embodied in the mass death of the Second World War (still, lest we forget, well within the living memory of many viewers in 1973).

Digging into some deep, sticky psychic wounds, the goat-ish humour of this initially frivolous and absurd tale gradually gives way to some far more disturbing; safe to say, it must have left an impression difficult to shake off in minds of its initial viewers.


Robert Hubbard said...

Where did you find subtitles for the episode?

Ben said...

Hi Robert -

Don't tell anyone, but I downoaded it from here: