The Ghost Cat And The Mysterious Shamisen

The Ghost Cat And The Mysterious Shamisen


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The Zipangu Japanese Film Festival returns to London for its second edition in 2011 with a genuine item from the cabinet of curiosities - Kiyohiko Usihara's The Ghost Cat And The Mysterious Shamisen, a black and white horror film made in pre-war Japan and starring the then horror scream queen actress Sumiko Suzuki.

The Ghost Cat screening is unique in that the film was until recently thought lost, along with many other prints of Japanese early cinema that have disappeared or been destroyed due to a combination of neglect and natural disasters (such as the Tokyo fires of 1923) over the last 80 years. Recently rediscovered, the frail print was digitally scanned and especially subtitled for Zipangu Fest in collaboration with the Japan Visualmedia Translation Academy and Tokyo's National Film Center. Thus UK audiences are seeing this for the very first time in the film's history, as it is is believed the original film was never subtitled for English audiences.

Copy picture

The ghostly cat element draws on a odd strand of Japanese popular culture that fuelled a sub-genre of horror film, with at least six such titles being released between 1937 and 40.

Scratchy and distorted though the sound and image might be in places, the warping of tones and blurring associated with old film here actually enhances the atmosphere.

The story is a dark and cynical tale of lust and revenge that also offers an interesting look at the Japanese culture of Kabuki theatre, as the story involves the backstage dramatics of a theatre troupe.

Suzuki plays Mitsue, the beautiful, ambitious and callous kabuki actress who is betrothed to humble Shamisen (a stringed musical instrument) player Seijiro. Seijiro is of low standing but is kindly, too kindly it seems for his own good, as his troubles begin when he takes pity on Okiyo. Okiyo, a beautiful young girl from a samurai family, ends up taking Shamisen lessons with Seijiro after the local pet cat leads her to him.

Mitsue, however, will tolerate no rival to Seijiro's affections and fuelled by dark passion, she kills first the offending cat, then Okiyo, and tosses the Shamisen in the lake. But Okiyo, who loved her Shamisen more than anything, isn't quite gone it seems... the Shamisen washes up, and those who take it into their possession are paid nightly visits by a mysterious cat and a ghostly figure. Eventually the Shamisen ends up back in the hands of Seijiro and Okiyo's sister, and the stage is set for a revenge plot played out on the stage of a stunning, psychedelically shot Kabuki performance in which Mitsue is starring.

Ushihara employs a host of techniques in confined spaces to create an air of menace in a small village in pre-20th century Japan. Given the small size and specific architectural designs of Japanese houses, the sharp edges, minimalist interiors and see-through sliding panels, this offers him endless opportunities to use light and shadow here to suggest ghostly presences in claustrophobic confines.

In particular he announces the presence of ghostly visitors by rhythmically dimming and re-illuminating surrounding lamps on set, and sometimes darkening the entire screen. It is an effective suggestive technique, and the fact that the exact nature of the ghostly hauntings are never entirely explained only enhances the air of mystery.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2011
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Supernatural revenge beckons after a woman commits a jealous murder.

Director: Kiyohiko Ushihara

Writer: Kenji Hata

Starring: Tokusaburo Arashi, Shinpachiro Asaka, Yaeko Asano, Yuriko Asano, Junzaburô Ban

Year: 1938

Runtime: 74 minutes

Country: Japan


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