Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hiroku kaibyô-den - review

Director: Tanaka Tokuzô

Release date: 1969

Contains spoilers

This Japanese film has the title on IMDb of The Haunted Castle, though I have also seen the name translated to Secret Chronicles of the Ghost-Cat.

The connection between cats and vampires is not unusual. Carmilla could transform into a cat and, when it comes to the Japanese traditions, the fantastic film Kuroneko was, without a doubt, a vampire film that featured cat creatures. There was also a traditional Japanese story, dating to somewhere between 14th and early 17th century and Anglicised in 1871, which is now known in English as The Vampire Cat of Nabéshima. In fact this is a loose production of the aforementioned story.

Lord Nabeshima Tango-no-kami
The film takes place during the rule of the eighth shogun Yoshimune, placing the film’s setting somewhere between 1716 and 1745, and focuses on a noble Lord Nabeshima Tango-no-kami (note the name). He rides out one day and sees a parasol on the distance. His friend, the blind Mataichirou, is having tea served by his sister Sayo. Nabeshima joins them and comments on her beauty.

Mataichirou murdered
His Chief of Servants, Komori, is sent to Yoshimune to ask that Sayo be sent as a concubine to the Lord. This has caused concern, back in the castle, as the soldier Gyoubu's sister, Toyo, is the master’s wife and Gyoubu wishes to ensure that she remains the Lord's favourite. As it is, Mataichirou declines but the message is intercepted by Gyoubu who relays it with, shall we say, some negative spin. The Lord is incensed and when Mataichirou arrives to play Go with the Lord an argument is manufactured that leads to Nabeshima and Gyoubu murdering Mataichirou.

Sayo's suicide
The body is dumped in a well and then Sayo is banished from her home. She commits suicide in the presence of Tama, Mataichirou’s beloved cat, and as she dies she calls on it to drink her spilt blood knowing that a cat that drinks human blood gains demonic powers. It laps at the blood and she asks the cat to avenge her and her brother, essentially cursing the castle.

odd behaviour
At first the castle is haunted by the tinkling of its bell, then a ghostly mew and soon there are strange murders where bloody cat pawprints are seen leaving the scene. Then Toyo’s mother starts acting oddly and has a bandage on her head. It is removed to reveal a cut like that inflicted on Mataichirou. She is killed and the wound fades away.

possessed by the cat
Soon after Toyo herself starts acting oddly, and desires fish – a dish she never ate before. She is now possessed by the cat but does not bear a wound in her head. Now this is where I feel the film’s interpretation of The Vampire Cat of Nabéshima is at its strongest. In the traditional story a cat kills (by biting the throat and throttling) a woman (probably a concubine) named O Toyo – the name is close enough. The cat then assumes her form to aid its feeding. In this it seems to be more of a possession of the human by the cat.

Later Nabeshima is said to be tired, as though the life were being sucked out of him. In The Vampire Cat of Nabéshima the cat drinks the Prince’s life blood night after night. We are never shown enough to ascertain that this occurs in this case but we can hazard a guess. It is clear that human blood has powered the cat’s transformation to something demonic. It at first maintains cat form but grows in power until it begins to possess humans. It is eventually powerful enough to disrupt an exorcism aimed at it. This seems to be after devouring victim after victim – whilst draining the life from Nabeshima slowly.

golden eyes
We do not see blood drinking explicitly but we do see neck biting. One can safely, I think, draw the conclusion that she drinks blood to increase her power. Toyo, in cat mode, develops golden eyes and fangs as well as wild hair. We later discover that a talisman, given by a priest at a temple, wards her away. The cat side is referred to as a ghost and is dormant during daylight hours.

the cat
As you start to watch the film you would be forgiven for wondering whether you are watching a vampire movie, that is unless you are aware of The Vampire Cat of Nabéshima and recognise the Lord’s name. However, as the film progresses there are more and more tropes that become apparent – fangs, biting the neck, being warded by holy items and in possession of magical powers (Nabeshima sees Mataichirou’s disembodied head at one point and I think we can assume that cat was behind that).

The film is a wonderful example of Japanese cinema, merging the historical Samurai film with a ghost/vampire story. The film is moody and atmospheric, mainly shot at night. The acting is good throughout and whilst the direction may not be as utterly glorious as that offered by Kaneto Shindô in the previous year’s Kuroneko it does the job masterfully. 7.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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