Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi (1957)

...aka: Depths, The
...aka: Ghost of Kasane, The
...aka: Ghost of Kasane Swamp, The
...aka: Ghosts of Kasane Swamp

Directed by:
Nobuo Nakagawa

In the snowy village of Hanya, Shimosa in 1773, blind masseur Soetsu Minagawa, raising his young daughter Rui with help from female servant Tetsu (Kikuko Hanaoka), goes to collect a debt and ends up getting slashed to death by irate, prideful samurai Fukami, who owes him money. The body is put in a chest and sunk in the waters of Kasane Swamp, but Soetsu's ghost soon returns to destroy the entire family, tricking the samurai into killing his own wife before leading him into the swamp where he drowns. The samurai's servant takes the surviving baby boy Shinkichi and leaves him at the doorstep of a wealthy food goods store owner at a neighboring village. Twenty years later, a now grown Shinkichi (Takashi Wada) is a kind, good natured and hard-working young man who is adored by all the town's ladies and has become the servant to those who ended up adopting him. His adoptive "mother" treats him little better than a slave, but her daughter Hisa (Noriko Kitazawa) has fallen in love with him. Unfortunately, Hisa is set to marry a wealthy young man from a well-to-do family and her mother is getting fed up with her daughter's obvious interest in Shinkichi and opposition to the arranged marriage.
Meanwhile Rui (Kazuko Wakasugi), who was raised into adulthood by Tetsu after her father's murder, is a popular music teacher living in the same village. One evening after a little too much sake, Rui is almost raped by a samurai named Omura (Tetsuro Tamba), but ends up being saved when Shinkichi stops by. Rui and Shinkichi end up spending the night together and when Shinkichi's boss/adoptive mother finds out, she kicks him out of the house. Rui and Shinkichi move into together and start living as husband and wife, but possibly supernatural forces seem intent on destroying the union, starting with a freak accident involving an axe blade that disfigures half of Rui's face. Tetsu puts two-and-two together and informs Rui that she's fallen in love with the son of the man who murdered her father and insist she breaks things off. But by that point, Rui is starting to lose her mind; partially because of her monstrous appearance and partially because the discovers Shinkichi has been sneaking off to visit with Hisa behind her back. Fate in this case takes shape as Omura - the man who almost raped her - who has been leaving behind incriminating notes and belittles her appearance. All principal characters end up meeting their grim fates in the swamp where a generation earlier both families were destroyed. Looks like history's about to repeat itself.
Clocking in at just 66-minutes, this eerie black-and-white film has elements of melodrama, social commentary and horror and deserves a wider audience and a reevaluation from critics and audiences. This film is solid in just about every single technical area; the performances and characterizations are uniformly excellent, the period detail is convincing and many of the scenes (especially those in the swamp) are highly atmospheric. The camera-work and score are both very good, and there are some very clever and arresting directorial touches, such as when Rui's new face (the makeup design is excellent and surprisingly grotesque) is slowly revealed in a bucket of rippling water. But this film is more than just a visual piece; it's also very smart.
Best of all - and this is where many horror films past and present have failed - is the well-written script; full of irony and insight on the casual cruelties of a judgmental and intolerant society. This movie obviously looks at local gossip and class hierarchy with disdain. Rui's career is destroyed when the villagers find out about her affair with Shinkichi and they no longer let their children come to her for music lessons. And if not for the interference from her mother, who's more interested in her social standing then her daughter's happiness, Hisa and Shinkichi could have been very happy together. In fact, if not for others, Rui and Shinkichi wouldn't have been romantically mismatched in the first place.
How the two samurai characters are portrayed is also a very interesting aspect. During this same period here in America, there were many films that romanticized the gung-ho wartime hero types while glossing over the actual horrors of war, just as there were many westerns that wanted us to be in the corner of the good, God-fearing white man as they were shown being randomly attacked by unreasonable Indian savages. Likewise in Japan, there were many films that seemed to romanticize the samurai. This film almost seems like an antithesis to that kind of thinking. Of course, there's Shinkichi's father, who reacts to a debt by slaying his debtor. Twenty years later, there's Omura, his hand rested on his sword throughout as if he's about to resort to violence any time something doesn't go his way. If not for Omura's deceit and greed, things also would have turned out differently for all the main characters.


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