While the popularity of Japanese horror films has recently penetrated these shores, the genre has its share of classics, many from the ’50s and ’60s, when Japan’s studio system (like Hollywood’s) was beginning to crumble and smaller studios were experimenting with edgier (and sometimes downright sensationalistic) fare. This weekend, the American Cinematheque has been screening its mini-series, Black Cats and Haunted Castles: Classics of Japanese Horror and the Supernatural, and I’ve managed to see Kaneto Shindo’s atmospheric follow-up to his wonderful 1964 Onibaba (recently released on DVD by Criterion) entitled Black Cat in the Forest (Kuroneko), and two startling films about the netherworld, Shiro Toyoda’s Portrait of Hell and Nobuo Nakagawa’s Hell. As the screening notes for the mini-series suggest, “While current Japanese horror movies are primarily set in the modern world, kaidans [“stories of strange things”], often set in period, utilized age-old legends, folk tales or erotic/grotesque kabuki plays as their source material–yarns of disfigured, black-haired female ghosts wronged by their samurai lovers, tales of cat-ghost vampires, disembodied phantasms, female snow spirits and specters of murdered masseurs.”
Black Cat in the Forest (Kuroneko, 1968)
I’ve previously only seen two Kaneto Shindo films and both were superb, Onibaba and the sublime Naked Island (1965), both films utilizing scant dialogue and rendering vivid portraits of human beings struggling within a desolate physical landscape; the former makes highly intense use of tall, swaying reeds and the latter is lyrically set on a deserted island. Shindo is known as a politically-engaged leftist, and has said, “You should not forget that we are dealing intimately with the political when scrutinizing a man’s individual nature, needs, and problems.” This includes sexuality, a subject of interest in several Shindo films; Onibaba‘s erotic atmosphere highlights the way sexual politics determine much of the action between its isolated characters, a microcosm of human society.
Kuroneko is both an extension of the themes of Onibaba as well as a more bittersweet and even romantic film. Both films involve a peasant mother and her daughter who prey upon samurai, but the later film transposes the conflict from the realm of lust, attraction, and sexual competition to class conflict and duty versus love. The two women are raped and murdered in Kuroneko‘s opening scene by a band of roving samurai; later they haunt the area as physical ghosts who transform into murderous black cats, and one by one, lure each of the samurai into their deadly claws. However, one samurai turns out to be the daughter’s missing husband, who has himself become a revered samurai, and their love for each other is foiled by the divides between life and death, code and compassion (the daughter has sworn to destroy all samurai; her husband has sworn to destroy all ghosts).
Shindo underlines the class struggle between the peasants and the samurai throughout: as each of the samurai are killed, the ghosts deposit them in the woods and poor villagers strip the corpses of their possessions; all the while, the local samurai warlord demands revenge while gloating in his powerful fortress and savoring the aristocratic pleasures of his geishas. The ghosts’ cat nature underlines their lowly position, as the feline has traditionally been regarded as a lazy pest in Japanese culture, a creature who mythically arrived so late when the zodiac was being created that it missed out entirely.
Kuroneko also substitutes the reed-congested marshes of Onibaba with a tall forest of bamboo trees, a transposition that visualizes the thematic difference between the chaotic, primal energy of Onibaba and the social order of Kuroneko. Kuroneko‘s shadowy compositions, elegant use of sound and silence, slow-motion, and stylized violent confrontations–all rendered with a clear eye for class struggle–is imaginative, suspenseful, and compelling.
Hell (Jigoku, 1960)
It has been said that Nobuo Nakagawa (1905-1984) is Japan’s most celebrated horror director, and if Jigoku is any indication, his style can be loosely described a conflation of Luis BuÒuel and Hammer films. The movie is not a suspense picture, its mixture of realism and outlandish twists of fate makes it a never-ending string of surprises, more a Grand Guignol black comedy about the human condition than a horror film of dreaded anticipation. Its title sequence sets the tone as scantily clad women pose in brilliantly-hued backgrounds with intense jazz rumbling on the soundtrack; like a parody of a James Bond opening, the sequence establishes the film’s gleeful evocation of guilt and punishment, exemplifying a diabolical celebration of damnation found in art from medieval tapestries to the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Shiro (Shigeru Amachi) is a young student who’s engaged to his professor’s daughter. But he recently met a mysterious man with a malevolent grin named Tamura (Yoichi Numata), and the film begins with the two of them mired in blame–the previous night they had randomly hit a drunken yakuza with their car and sped away to escape notice. Tamura is nonchalant; Shiro begins his descent into agonizing guilt, particularly when his own random comments and decisions continue to result in the deaths of people around him (in often absurd and darkly humorous fashions). Eventually, Shiro finds himself in a senior citizen’s home where his father flirts with a young lover as Shiro’s mother lies dying in the next room. A party breaks out and chaos surrounds the drunken revelers…until time stops, and they all descend into a Dantesque-Buddhist, multi-leveled Hell.
At this point, the film becomes a series of shockingly gory vignettes but never loses sight of its visual ingenuity or the inner world of its characters as Shiro wanders from one scene of eternal torment to another, encountering the people of his life suffering among hundreds of lost souls swarming in the river of blood, the field of swords, the waterless desert, etc. People are lacerated and skinned alive, but the effects are Hammeresque and theatrical, more like a local haunted house enactment than anything approaching verisimilitude. The vision of Hell, in its detailed scope and lurid colors, impressively rivals any other cinematic interpretation, and would serve as a benchmark long before the CGI-enhanced imagination of something like Vincent Ward’s ideologically-tepid What Dreams May Come (1998).
Jigoku, however, is a film more about the theatricality of its horrors and its playfully cruel take on Fate than anything else. It may not be Dostoevskian in its thematic exploration of guilt, but as a stylish, remarkably original morality tale that manages to balance its sensationalistic terrors with cutting social critique, it’s a one-of-a-kind achievement.