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One of the great pleasures of attending film festivals is getting the chance to see the rare and obscure in all their glory, as in the case of “The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen”, now playing at Zipangu Fest in London. Having the 1938 Japanese horror as part of its programme marks a considerable achievement for the festival and is certainly cause for excitement, with pre-war genre cinema from the country being largely unseen in the West, and with many films now sadly having been lost. Screening in association with the Japan Visualmedia Translation Academy and the National Film Centre of Tokyo, and specially subtitled for the festival, there really aren’t too many chances to catch films like this on the big screen, and so anyone with even a passing interest in Japanese or ghost cinema should definitely head to the ICA in London for the final screening on Thursday 24th November this week.
Thankfully, the film is far more than a mere curiosity piece, and is one of a wave of ‘ghost cat’ productions popular in Japan at the time with their roots in folklore and tales of the supernatural. The plot follows Sumiko Suzuki, then well-known for her roles in such films, as Mitsue, a rather spiteful onna-kabuki actress set to marry Seijiro, a skilled player of the shamisen instrument. Mitsue is angered when a beautiful young girl from the upper Samurai class called Okiyo falls for Seijiro after bringing home his missing cat. Despite rejecting Okiyo, he gives her his shamisen, which sends Mistue into such a rage that she kills the cat with her hairpin. When later Okiyo goes missing herself and the ghost of the cat appears under sinister circumstances, her sister Onui decides to investigate, trying to enlist the help of Seijiro.
“The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen” was directed by Kiyohiko Ushihara, who was one of Japan’s top silent film helmers and who actually spent 9 months in Hollywood studying under Charlie Chaplin. Here, he gives the film a very strong visual flavour, with a more elaborate and less static staging than seen in other genre outings from the period. Indeed, on a technical level the film compares favourably with many of the Universal monsters of the time from Hollywood, with some impressive camerawork and some enjoyable special effects work and playing around with imagery and shadows. Although theatrical in places, this fits well with the film’s central premise, with a few fairly long sequences of stage performance and shamisen playing being fascinating in their own right.
Although viewed today the film isn’t particularly frightening, very few indeed from the period are, and what it might lack in scares it makes up for with an exquisitely creepy atmosphere, with the black and white cinematography providing some marvellously sinister scenes during the later stages. The cat ghost itself is good value for money, not least due to the horrendous howling that marks its appearances, and this does result in a few unsettling moments. Similarly, whilst the basics of the plot are fairly predictable and have been repeated countless time over the decades, the film has a classical feel, doing a good job with its storytelling and characters. Kiyohiko Ushihara keeps things moving at a pleasing speed during its short running time, and the film is engaging throughout, even for modern audiences.
Given this, along with the high quality of the print and subtitles, “The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen” is a real must-see, not only as an important piece of Japanese genre history, but as a genuinely enjoyable and well made ghost tale.
Kiyohiko Ushihara (director)
CAST: Sumiko Suzuki