Sunday, January 20, 2008

Japanese Screams - Volume 6

1968 was a pretty incredible time for horror films. Films in general were going through a rennaisance, John Cassavettes with Faces, The Maysles Brothers, William Grieves, but in horror, there was something really remarkable going on. Night Of The Living Dead destroyed all genre conventions (while borrowing from a few others). Peter Bogdonavich used Roger Corman’s money to prove how stupid Roger Corman and his cronies were being with Targets. Rosemary’s Baby was the perfect use of the horror talkie and the new sex & the devil sensibility. Tigon had just made Witchfinder General which would inform every satan worshipper movie for the next 20 years. The films explored in this series were by no means as influential, but they were certainly more unique. Going into a forgotten (understatement) late 60s Japanese ghost story, you don’t expect to find something so completely fascinating as this. What I’m about to claim is 100% speculative, so don’t do anything rash, like take any of it to heart, but in 1968 Nobuo Nakagawa made a cautionary socialist ghost story that may have influenced The Exorcist and Kurosawa. Bold of me? Just the beginning.

Snake Woman’s Curse
by Nobuo Nakagawa
We start and end with some perfect Heaven and Hell Nakagawa imagery (a barrel breaking to reveal a ghastly green woman, snakes thrown onto glass like a sack of viscera), we are given the rundown in voiceover. In early Meiji period Japan, (no later than 1890) a brutal landlord essentially brings about the demise of a small dirt-farming family. When the husband dies of a lung deficiency, he orders the wife, Sue and daughter, Asa out of their house and into his to do manual labor, so that their house can be destroyed to make room for god knows what. After a few days of living under the Dickensianly-heinous rule of the landlord’s wife and his overseer, Sue is killed, leaving Asa alone. Her only comfort comes in the form of her hopeful boyfriend who promises to marry her when the time comes. She doesn’t even really have time to dream in starry-eyed wonderment of what life without the landlord would be like because his son comes home to get married to the police commissioner’s daughter and instead takes a shining to Asa, in the worst way possible. After the landlord’s son violates the girl a few times, and her boyfriend finds her dead, he discovers the bad luck that comes from seeing his bride in her dress before the ceremony. Soon he and his father are plagued with visions of the dead family and are in no mood to atone.

Ok, where to begin. First I guess we can start with the history. Japanese films, more so than just about any other country’s output, have had a focus on historical accuracy. Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Kaneto Shindo, Masahiro Shinoda and the dozens of filmmakers had all by 1968 made rich and fascinating narrative films with little to no anachronisms or careless mistakes. Nakagawa, from what I can tell, hadn’t really concerned himself with the kind of period-specific storytelling that his peers did, but here he shows he was no less capable of raising the same issues without detracting from (indeed enhancing) the movie’s effectiveness. Here we see the clashing of the old-world Japan clashing with modern Japan. Of the old we have the unquestioned rule of a brutal landlord, unspeakable working conditions, an old man known for hypnosis, a séance performed by a mystic, and no medicine or psychological theory to speak of. Where this movie first caught my attention was the appearance of a horse-drawn carriage, and if Val Lewton has taught me anything, it’s that the appearance of such a carriage means the appearance of a wealthy bastard is soon to follow (the angle here made me think Joe D’Amato watched this before making Death Smiles On A Murderer). The carriage also meant we were on the cusp of modernization; Meiji meant ‘enlightened rule’ after all. Seeing the emergence of justice in the form of the Police Commissioner and the landlord’s complete disregard for their authority was really something. We see that in the long run, the appearance of the law doesn’t make a lot of difference in the events of the story, but it does serve to frustrate both protagonist and antagonist. The commissioner doesn’t act in time to do anything about the murderous stupidity of the richest family in town while their wealth could make him happy; when it no longer makes a difference he wants answers. Nakagawa has a point; nothing much has changed in a hundred years. But it is a good foil to the ignorant, powermadness of the landlord when he has to consider the thought of someone standing up for the tenant farmers who serve him. In his mind, they are lower than dirt, so why should it matter when they are killed, or who kills them. The law means less to him than the mockery that his son’s wake becomes. The peasants show up to the séance, but make such a racquet while the medium tries to communicate with the spirits. The belief in the spirit world is waning here. The landlord himself doesn’t seem to give a damn about the whole mess, he does it merely because he doesn’t want to seem heartless and possibly to get some clue as to where the visions of snakes and dead farmers are coming from.

Incidentally, the use of a snake seems to have a cosmetic choice more than anything. They are relatively spooky, live in rural Japan and many exist that pose no threat to humans, and that I believe is where the choice came from; Scales are also easily mimicked. Nakagawa avoids the usual snake-pitfalls, medusa mythos or anything else remotely serpentine, which could be seen as laziness or caution, depending on your mood. Ultimately it feels almost unmotivated. Scorpion Woman’s Curse or Lamprey Woman’s Curse would have made for much scarier dream sequences, but I guess seeing your spouse covered in scales would be just as scary as anything else. The landlord’s son’s fear is made twice as understandable when put in the context of the marriage of convenience he so willingly takes part in. Being unhappy with his wife means discord between his family and the commissioner, and it also means he’ll have no one to take his sexual frustration out on, and so we see him actually considering sleeping with a lizard after a few run-ins with his conscious. This is pretty well done; we obviously feel no sympathy for the man, but putting ourselves in his shoes is not exactly comfortable. It is also a perverse comment on feminism. We both fear the scaly woman, but understand that her appearance is the orchestration of the angry ghost of a wronged woman. It does speak to the complete and utter helplessness of women in Japanese society. On the one hand we have a woman beaten by her employer and sexually abused by his equally wealthy and twice as piggish son. On the other we have the young bride, equally terrified of ruining her chances in marriage and of her brutish husband who continually tries to strangle her because of his lame mind. Even the tyrannical wife of the landlord winds up a victim of her husband’s insanity. There’s more worth uncovering, but, I don’t know nearly enough about feminist theory and manipulation to take any larger a stab than I already have. My guess is Nakagawa didn’t really care, but that’s ok.

The technical aspects of this movie are splendid. I think in the gap between Jigoku and Snake Woman, Nakagawa picked up a thing or two. The movie is shot pretty much entirely on real sets, outdoors as opposed to the back lot that most of Jigoku takes place in. His camera is also much grander. Shots and angles are longer; he feels more comfortable setting up at a comfortable distance from the action and just letting things happen, a far cry from the splice happy rhythm of his earlier work. I have a feeling that this came from watching Kwaidan, but most interesting is that this is the same kind of impersonal camera Kurosawa would adopt after his suicide attempt. Kagemusha, Dersu Uzala and Ran all had the same withdrawn view (and lush green color). He still used the same make-up and juxtaposition of ghastly apparition types as he did in Jigoku, but this time, he has a more grounded reality to contrast them with. This works greatly to his advantage. This is where my Exorcist claim comes in. it is in these scenes of sudden change and mixing of moods that the films influence is most felt. Take for example the scene at the séance. The landlord pulls himself out of the séance (a scene not unlike the exorcism itself) and the turns and sees the congregation of peasants has been replaced by a group of white-clad figures. This had exactly the same effect as watching Reagan MacNeil turn into Father Karas’ mother. Granted Nakagawa didn’t have the same sense of careful composition that William Friedkin did, but Friedkin wasn’t churning out B pictures for Toei, either. This isn’t the only crib I could spy either. The scenes of the carriage riding past the farmers, the nonchalant introduction of our male protagonist, the children running just before the wedding ceremony; they are all composed in ways not unlike the scenes in Northern Iraq.
The final aspect of this movie I want to draw upon is the storytelling. It is much less manic a story than his earlier works and makes sense from start to finish, which is always a plus. It’s story of woman thrust into unfair circumstances, despite the efforts of their friends draws heavily on another B film. Snake Woman’s Curse could almost be said to be an American version of Carnival Of Souls. We follow a woman’s descent into madness, brought on by an oppressive reality that results in a harsh fantasy world. The difference being that in Snake Woman, Nakagawa’s heroine isn’t the one who gets saddled with supernatural horror; this time the oppressors get their just deserts. Akemi Negishi certainly makes a better showing of herself than Candace Hilligoss did, but their mood is the same, a sort of reigned-in horror. At no point does either woman let their emotional state better them, they never scream or cry gratuitously. They have a lack of control, but unending dignity. For other parallels see the scores of both films. Gene Moore’s organ and Shunsuke Kikuchi’s Theremin sound eerily similar, in that you wish for both of them to stop the second they start. Jesus, nothing kills a mood quicker than inappropriate musical choices. Also, of course there are the recurring motifs, Snakes and Herk Harvey’s face, respectively.

So while he seems to have taken a fair amount from Val Lewton, Herk Harvey, and Masaki Kobayashi, Nakagawa proved that even on a B budget, he could make a film just as interesting as any of his heroes that could inspire generations of directors.

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