By Gemma Files, for Patreon
One of the things I absolutely love about watching horror from around the world is the same thing I love about watching foreign movies in general—this sense of immersing myself in a different culture, one whose historical references and mythological cues I sometimes don't understand and can have a great time educating myself about. It's like back in the 1990s, when I used to watch Hong Kong movies in the heart of Chinatown, and often had the experience of everybody else laughing at something I didn't get was supposed to be funny—the literal fetish some Cantonese-speaking guys have for listening to women speak Mandarin, for example. It felt like my head was opening up in very interesting ways.
Some time back, I got hold of the Criterion copy of a classic 1960s Japanese folk horror film called Onibaba, by Kaneto Shindo—for ten bucks or something, because people are stupid. (This is also how I got my Criterion copy of Videodrome.) Onibaba is set during what Shindo calls the “Warring Period” of Japanese history, the civil wars of the 16th century, when constant feuds between city-states and samurai clans made things particularly crappy for everybody who wasn't a samurai—you see this in Kenji Misoguchi's Ugetsu, too, as I recall, whose protagonists are a pair of peasants who sign up in order to gain power by becoming samurai themselves, and end up destroying everything they want to save. This, Misoguchi implies, is simply the way it works; it's not so much that there's no stepping across class lines than it is that to gain power is, by nature, to abuse it.
Onibaba tells a similar story, but frames it from the point of view of the women who get left behind—a mother-in-law and her son's wife, left to fend for themselves in the middle of a great grass sea after their mutual breadwinner is drafted into some lord's army. The implication is that he dies, but they'd have no way of figuring out if this is true or not—these ladies live their lives down on the ground, like the insects in Jeffrey Beaumont's backyard, with utterly no idea of the larger political context that keeps sending wounded men in armour armed with swords blundering through their territory, aside from the fact that said men must be treated either as threats or—increasingly—prey.
In the middle of the field, near the women's house, is “a hole...dark and deep”. And that's where mother- and daughter-in-law dump the bodies of the samurai they kill with pikes they must have gotten off of previous dead bodies—using the grass sea as cover, they stalk these larger, more experienced men, rush them and slaughter them like animals, then strip them of armour and weaponry, which they barter in town for rice. It's a Brechtian subsistence existence, each woman left naturally dependent on the other: The wife on her husband's mother for strategy and impetus, mother-in-law on daughter- for sheer muscle and the sexual attractiveness necessary to lure their prey, when guerrilla tactics fail. A static, repetitious life literally built on a heap of bones, with no hope of change or growth.
One day, a virile young peasant who was drafted along with the son/husband turns up. He's deserted from the army, and needs a place to stay; he claims he doesn't know what happened to his friend, though the mother-in-law suspects he's lying. He and the daughter-in-law immediately hit it off, and run off by night to screw feverishly in the grass. The mother-in-law, sexually frustrated, pleads with this man not to take the girl away, because she needs her in order to keep killing samurai; he only promises not to marry her, but says otherwise, she'll do what she wants.
Previously, we watched the old woman kill a samurai who wore a helmet with a hinged mask in the shape of an oni devil covering his entire face; though he claimed to be ”beautiful” underneath, when she took the helmet off, she saw that his face was actually scarred and disfigured. On impulse, she kept the mask, which her daughter-in-law doesn't know about. Now she uses the girl's native fear of ghosts and demons to guilt her into staying, appearing suddenly out of the grass with the mask on—but when she tries to take it off again, she can't. It almost seems to be stuck to her face...
With its air of stark daylight horror (Shindo was unable to film by night in the region where it was shot, because it was located on the bank of a river and every evening the grass would flood, after which the entire area would be infested by crabs. He was eventually forced to specify that anyone who left mid-filming wouldn't get paid, just so that his crew didn't simply run off) and its fleshly concentration on sweaty sex, ravenous eating and blood, Onibaba seems to take place in a world without supernatural influences—all its worst plot twists come purely out of human psychology, human impulse, human venality and weakness. Yet Shindo would revisit an overtly supernatural version of much the same story with his later film Kuroneko, a riff on the classic Japanese “bakeneko” or “goblin cat” vengeful ghost/vampire scenario.
I got hold of Kuroneko also as a Criterion release, and believe you me, it didn't cost $9.99. But that was okay—I'm more than willing to pay for quality, if I have to. The film begins with what almost looks like an alternate version of the Onibaba scenario, except that the people emerging from the grass sea are samurai so down-and-out they look like peasants, descending on the unsuspecting house of yet another mother and daughter-in-law pairing like grim locusts. They kick in the door, eat everything in sight, gang-rape the women 'til they're dead, then set fire to the house. The next morning, as the women's charred corpses lie forlorn in the smoking ruins, a small black cat comes skulking out of the grove behind them, licks the delicious flesh of the mother-in-law's neck, and purrs.
Because Shindo's assumption is that everyone in the audience knows what's going to happen next, there's very little build-up before getting right to the meat of the story: A finely-dressed young samurai, dozing on his horse, passes through the Rashomon Gate around midnight and is startled by the cry of a cat. Immediately, a classic Heian court lady dressed all in white emerges from the darkness, seemingly lit up from within, almost cartoonishly bright. She explains that she has to go home through the grove, but is afraid, because it's rumoured to be haunted, Naturally, he volunteers to escort and protect her from the same ghost she later turns out to be.
Shindo sketches in the legend with fascinatingly palpable detail—the girlish way our demure young creature skips across puddles in slow motion, revealing black-furred ankles, or how her mother-in-law's beautifully-groomed ponytail will suddenly flip up at the end, twitching, like a cat's tail. The vision of the mother-in-law lapping water from a bowl while, behind a nearby screen, her son's wife tears a drunken samurai's throat out with her teeth. Peasants in life, their status as ghosts seems to have suddenly elevated them to the nobility: they occupy a massive mansion made from sliding paper and fog, constantly playing on the way that “sexy” Heian court makeup makes everyone who wears it look like a Noh play actor—blanched, impassive, those smudge-brows lifted in constant surprise, hairline plucked impossibly high. We don't feel too bad about their prey, either, since every samurai we meet is a bastard, to one degree or another. It simply seems a great pity that in a country this unstable, real justice can only be delivered through unnatural, toxic means.
And then...we switch over to the son/husband, drafted just like the guy from Onibaba, but still alive—surviving a massacre, triumphing over incredible odds, gifted with the samurai status he thinks can “save” his mother and wife, who he doesn't know are already dead. Shaved, bathed and dressed in the best his lord has to offer, he is nigh-unrecognizable by the time he's sent back to investigate this string of supposedly-supernatural murders in the grove, not knowing that the monsters he's agreed to slay are the only traces left of the two people he loved best in the world. A series of decisions ensue, all of them tragic. There's no way to get out of this situation that isn't going to hurt.
In the original bakeneko legend, there's always an implication that the goblin cat ghost/vampire may only take on the appearance of a human being, along with their reasons for seeking revenge—that they eat the original person entirely, becoming a perfect facsimile that incorporates the dead person's memories and personality yet is nevertheless not really them, and never can be. And while I'm not sure if believing this makes what happens in Kuroneko better or worse, watching it and Onibaba in quick succession makes for a very interesting experience. In both, Shindo's world-view is extraordinarily bitter, bleak and weirdly feminist, his every set-up implying a great respect for nature but almost no respect for the flawed, terrible human beings which inhabit it.
For more on the bakeneko, you could check out first the absolutely insane Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Stories anime three-episode arc called “Goblin Cat,” then the separate series it spawned (Mononoke, named after the Japanese word for spirits, in the animistic sense), which stars “Goblin Cat”'s ostensible protagonist, an arch yet empathetic wandering medicine-seller of the Edo Period who moonlights as a freelance exorcist and appears to be not entirely human himself. The art in both series is absolutely riveting, based on what seems to be a mixture of period ukiyo-e prints, murals and screen designs, with a texture to the animation itself that almost make it look like paper collage—the most physically beautiful guro I've ever seen, and unsettling as hell. Its creators at Toei Animation (director Kenji Nakamura, writers Chiaki J. Konaka, Ikuko Takahashi, Michiko Yokote and Manabu Ishikawa, plus animation director/character designer Takashi Hashimoto and art director Takashi Kurahashi) have much to answer for.
As Mononoke the series goes on, the Medicine-Seller takes on a haunted hotel that used to be a brothel and is (naturally) haunted by aborted fetuses, an area of the sea infested with ghosts, the ghost of a lump of aromatic wood used for making perfume, a woman who splits herself in two and is effectively haunting herself, plus a second ghost-cat haunting set on a train in 1920s Tokyo. This last arc is particularly fun, given it takes place against a backdrop of technological and social advancement and its central murder appears to have been specifically spurred by a reaction against the feminist implications of women starting to work as journalists—but also because the Medicine-Seller seems to have teleported himself through time from the ukiyo-e print era to the 20th century, without anybody finding him terribly out-of-place. “Are you a sandwich-board man?” one character asks him. “No, just a humble Medicine-Seller,” he replies. “I have to dress this way to attract customers.” Politely: “Oh...it's nice!”
Another Criterion DVD release I've finally caught up with is that of Masako Kobayashi's Kwaidan, the rightfully revered grandmother of all Japanese folk horror story anthologies, adapted from Lafcadio Hearn's collections of Japanese folk tales. Cut into four distinct sections, the tales it tells run from the universally recognizable—“The Black Hair,” in which a samurai returns home from the wars and is warmly welcomed by the wife he left behind only to realize the next morning he's been sleeping with a long-dead corpse, forms the template for Ugetsu's climax, where it's given extra punch by the fact that this same character has already almost been seduced and devoured by the ghost of a court lady several days earlier—to the considerably less familiar. (The last section, “In A Cup of Tea,” is its least powerful and most forgettable, in that I literally had to re-check the film's Wikipedia entry to even recall it was there.)
Most critics tend to fixate on the second section, “The Woman of the Snow,” in which a yuki-onna or snow demon spares the life of a young peasant boy, then returns masquerading as a human woman to marry him, have his children and wait patiently, knowing he will eventually break the promise she laid on him: never to speak of her to any other person, on pain of death by freezing. And it is indeed incredible! Yet I was oddly far more struck by the third section, "Hoichi the Earless," because it was so completely new for me, involving as it does not only mythology I'd never seen before but also history I'd never known about. (It's also very Mononoke-like, and not just because part of it takes place during a huge sea-battle.)
Hoichi is a blind musician who plays the biwa, a kind of lute, and is well-known for being able to perform all 99 songs which make up the Tale of the Heike, an epic immortalizing the downfall of the Heike Clan, who were overthrown by the Genji in a struggle for power centred around child- Emperor Antoku. Although respected, Hoichi is penniless and forced to squat in Amidaji Temple, where he's fed and looked after by a friendly priest. One night, a gruff samurai shows up outside the temple gate, claiming he's been sent to summon Hoichi to perform for a group of aristocrats who turn out to be—ta dah!—the Heike themselves, who want to hear about their own exploits in order to remember themselves the way they were in their former glory. The way you do.
Night after night, the Heike send their samurai messenger to haul Hoichi out and force him to play. The fact that he gets no sleep is making him ill, and worse yet, they never even pay, so he's starving to death—but they're aristocrats and they're dead, so they frankly don't give a damn. And Hoichi feels like he can't refuse to come when summoned, because (see above); half of it's probably “I don't want to be impolite,” while the other half is “because they'd probably tear me apart if I was.” Eventually, his priest friend comes up with a solution: write sutras all over him, rendering him effectively invisible to ghosts. But the one place he neglects to write anything is on Hoichi's ears, so the Heike samurai ends up tearing them off and bringing them back to his masters, just to prove he really did try his best to find Hoichi one more time. (Historically, Hoichi is said to have survived this injury and gone on to become widely famous as a musician, so go him for getting something good out of this whole crazy mess.)
Though all of Kwaidan is equally visionary, “Hoichi the Earless” contains some truly powerful sequences, all the more wonderful for their sheer alienness: a palace that rises out of a graveyard, re-enactments juxtaposed with scrolls illustrating the Heike's last naval engagement, and—sitting in state above everything—the coldly water-logged beauty of Lady Nii, the emperor's former guardian. As we watch the critical moment after she realized her generals had been defeated, when she told her five-year-old charge: “There is a capitol at the bottom of the sea where you will reign from,” then threw them both into the blood-stained water as her ships sank around them, we receive a jolt that resonates on several levels at once. This is history brought alive once more only to die a ritual death so honour-bound it's not even allowed to scream, literally soaked in the most basic, stupid human awfulness.
The idea of the dead sustaining themselves through other people's memories isn't exactly a new one, but here it's just another form of vicious exploitation practiced across class lines, a spiritual vampirism passed from parasite samurai to prey-animal peasants. That Hoichi only escapes the Heike's contagious doom because of the power of creativity, faith and education is probably highly significant, in context. That's classic Japanese Folk Horror, in a nutshell: though anything can haunt you, aristocrats are just the fucking worst.