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.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Kaidan Honsho nanafushigi (1957)

... aka: Ghost Stories of Wanderer of Honjo
... aka: Ghost Story of the Seven Wonders of Honsho
... aka: Ghost Story of the Wanderer of Honsho
... aka: Kaidan Honjo nanafushigi
... aka: Seven Mysteries
... aka: Seven Wonders of Honjo, The

Directed by:
Gorô Kadono

One of many familiar tales of wronged samurai and avenging ghosts to follow the widely-acclaimed Ugetsu (1953), this is given some minor distinction by the inclusion of some extremely weird ghosts and by working various Japanese folk stories into the plot; namely The Seven Wonders of Honjo. Back in the Edo era, the village of Honjo was a barely-populated land with vast, quiet fields, which visitors found to be somewhat eerie. Numerous ghost legends are attributed to the area and these include (1) a voice calling out from a pond demanding fishers leave their catch behind (2) a human head being pulled out of a well (3) the sounds of drums being heard but the source being unable to be located (4) lanterns that float on their own through the woods or refuse to go out even when blown on, and several others. Seven Wonders opens by briefly explaining those ghost legends and then proceeds to work each into its story line. It begins with the fish story, where two men hear a disembodied voice telling them to "Leave the fish!" They ignore it and then are faced with a bunch of strange mutant ghosts. After seeing a faceless woman, a hulking man with three glowing eyes, a Cyclops, a girl with an extremely long, elastic neck and an umbrella with a human leg bouncing around, the guys run off and forget about their fish. Things then settle into a more routine revenge plot.

Upon becoming a man, Yuminosuke (Jûzaburô Akechi) is off to try to make his way in the world; leaving behind his father Sazen (Hiroshi Hayashi), his stepmother Sawa (Akiko Yamashita), not-so-loyal servant Gosuke (Saburô Sawai) and Yae (Namiji Matsuura), a young maid who's in love with him, in the process. While he's away, his wicked cousin Gonkurô (Shigeru Amachi), who's been disowned by the entire family, returns. Though he claims he's there to pay respect to his deceased Aunt on the anniversary of her death, Gonkurô actually is there for one reason and one reason only: to get his hands on some money. He and Sawa used to be lovers before she remarried and the two start getting together behind Sazen's back; finally hatching a plan to murder him for the inheritance. Gonkurô and a group of his thugs slay Sazen and one of the servants; taking control of the house soon after. Not content with just that, he also attempts to rape Yae but Yuminosuke returns just in time to save her. Gonkurô then decides to do away with his cousin, so he pays off Gosuke to do the dirty work. After stabbing him in the back, Gosuke is shocked that his master's body immediately disappears afterward. Yuminosuke then returns to the home as if nothing has happened. Just what's going on?

The strange events are all attributed to a Tanuki, which the subtitles tell us is a "were-badger" that occupies the Sumida River Valley. Though I'm not so sure how a "were-badger" differs from a regular badger, the mythology here says the animals are pests that trick people out of food but can also be helpful critters with supernatural abilities if you somehow win their loyalty. The Father happened to save one of them before being killed, and the animal vowed to spend the rest of its life protecting him and his family. The Tanuki takes human form as a woman named Tebeydanuki (Michiko Tachibana), and since she was busy doing some dance while the murders were taking place, she now has a few deaths to avenge. As it turns out, the Yuminosuke who has show up at the house and managed to miraculously survive a stabbing isn't actually the real Yuminosuke (who's fallen ill and hasn't even returned yet), but Tebeydanuki impersonating him. Eventually, a monk is called in to perform an exorcism, the real Yuminosuke returns to the home and discovers what's been going on and some of the weird ghost things from the opening scene make a return visit.

This is well-made, doesn't wear out its welcome at just 55 minutes and though the midsection is extremely familiar, the opening and closing scenes partially make up for it, though the weird-looking ghosts are underutilized. The only cast member I recognized was Amachi, who seemed to corner the market on bad guy roles in Nobuo Nakagawa films like THE LADY VAMPIRE (1959), The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959) and Jigoku (1960). In 1983, he even co-starred in the Paul Naschy vehicle The Beast with the Magic Sword, which was shot in Japan with partial Japanese backing. Director Kadono also made the kaidan THE MOTHER TREE (1958) and Ghost of the Girl Diver (1960).


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