Sunday, March 12, 2023

Kaibyô ômagatsuji (1954)

... aka: 怪猫逢魔ケ辻
... aka: Ghost-Cat of Ouma Crossing
... aka: Mysterious Cat Exorcist

Directed by:
Bin Katô

There are a lot of 50s / 60s era Japanese period-set ghost films with near-identical characters (who almost always fall into one of two categories: amazingly evil or uncommonly virtuous) and plots, but this one hopes to differentiate itself with its setting. Kaibyô ômagatsuji is focused around the world of acting troupes and busy kabuki theaters which are being dominated by the Masudaya troupe and their popular headliner, the demure and sweet Miss Ichikawa "Tayu" Senjo (Takako Irie). However, with great popularity comes great jealousy and there are forces conspiring against the star attraction. Mr. Okuba has high hopes for young actress Somewaka (Noboru Kiritachi), whom he'd love to see eclipse Tayu as the #1 kabuki actress. However, due to Tayu's talent and fame, there's almost zero opportunity to show Somewaka off and she seems destined to be stuck in small supporting roles so long as Tayu is still working. As for the few remaining ways to still get one's foot in door, well, some kind of freak accident could always occur and thus create an opening for another leading lady...

Mr. Ume, Somewaka, Somewaka's (very mean!) sister, Sunekichi (Chieko Murata), and a few others all get to work trying to make their dreams a reality, which means Tayu has got to go. They first sabotage a catwalk, which causes Tayu to step through the floor and injure her foot mid-performance. However, it's just a minor injury and she's determined to continue performing despite her scrape. After all, she says, a true artist should be willing to die on the stage if necessary. The suspicious incident also puts the theater staff as well as Tayu's entourage on high alert as they rightly suspect foul play is involved.

After suffering her way through yet another performance on her still-tender foot, Tayu is almost smashed backstage when a sandbag "accidentally" falls from the scaffolding. However, no one happens to be up there aside from a cat named Miya (or "Mi" for short), who belongs to one of Tayu's understudies. While the incident is written off as an accident, the troupe's manager still decides to postpone performances until Tayu has adequate time to heal. That opens the door for nasty Sunekichi to humiliate and bully her in front of her peers. She takes her seat at the head of the table, dumps a bowl full of sake over one of her apprentice's heads, shatters a cup in front of her which cuts her face and tries to force her to dance despite her injury. By the way, most of the female characters in this are hilariously melodramatic about every little thing and will wail, burst into tears and collapse at even the smallest of provocations!

Tayu will soon have a real reason to flip her shit though when her enemies increase their attacks against her and someone she loves and trusts stabs her in the back. That person is her lover, Tsubaki Genziro (Kôtarô Bandô). She wants to marry him but, unbeknownst to her, he's been secretly dating Sunekichi and is leading the plot to get her out of the picture. Due to the cut on her face, Tsubaki brings Tayu a special black ointment "medicine," which turns out to actually be some kind of poison. After applying it, Tayu's face becomes hideously disfigured on one side, thus potentially spelling the end of her acting career. She covers up the rotten half of her moneymaker and puts hope in another doctor to cure her.

Things start spiraling out of control after Tayu's trusted confidant, Tomezi (Kimiko Tachibana), finds out about what's going on. After she threatens to spill the beans, Tsubaki strangles her to death and then stages her murder to look like a hanging suicide. He then takes Tayu out on a romantic moonlit boat ride, which quickly turns sour when he cruelly recounts everything they've been up to before slashing her to death with a sword and throwing her body into the lake. As the bad guys start rehearsals with Somewaka (who turns out to be quite untalented) as the new lead, Tayu's vengeful ghost returns to ensure that they don't even make it to see opening day.

While this isn't entirely useless, it's a very middling example of this type of film and suffers from very poor pacing and an unnecessarily large roster of characters. Good luck trying to keep tabs on the constant theater names, acting troupe names, troupe manager names, etc. that the cast are constantly talking about because I couldn't make heads or tails of it much of the time. Even worse, so much time is spent with the bad guys plotting and tormenting Tayu that an hour of this 82 minute movie is up before the ghost even makes her first appearance. Also disappointing is the promise of a ghost cat film and failing to make full use of it. There's no discussion about the mythology of the ghost cat or anything else that could have made this type of spirit interesting. They simply show a domestic feline hanging around the theater a few times and, almost at the very end of the film, the ghost finally turns up with slightly bushy eyebrows, crazy hair, crooked lipstick and occasionally does a pawing type motion with her hands. And that's really the extent of it. This ghost also appears to have vampire-like tendencies and goes straight for the jugular, though she mostly just moves her head in the general direction of the neck and then the victim falls over dead.

Not that this is all bad. A few elements work. Costumes and sets are fine. Some of the ghost scenes, especially the ones on the lake when the ghost keeps popping its head out of the water and one where it peeks around an umbrella, are fun. This also has some precise and surprisingly well-executed jump cuts that are effective. The most notable aspect here is the time set aside to show kabuki, which almost makes the ghost stuff feel like it's the padding. We get to see several performances, including a cool opening number that includes a webbed backdrop and a giant spider prop. One of the silly death scenes is even patterned in kabuki style with the victim flipping, floating, doing rolls across the stage, contortions, hanging upside down, etc. Aside from that, this is pretty forgettable.

Director Katô made a few other similar movies, including The Terrible Ghost-Cat of Okazaki (1954), Ghost-Cat of Gojusan-Tsugi (1957) and Ghost Story of Devil's Fire Swamp (1963), and this film may have been close to his heart as his brother (Asataro Ichikawa) was a notable kabuki actor in his day. Lead actress Irie, who was a major star for many years in Japan starting way back in the silent era, ended her long run making so many films in this category that she eventually earned the title "Queen of Ghost Cat Films," which is a pretty cool title really. The cast also includes Michiko Ai (who plays Tayu's understudy "Kocho"), a pre-Zatôichi Shintarô Katsu, Kôichi Katsuragi and Kôichi Mizuhara.

This has never been commercially released outside of its home country to my knowledge but there have been many VHS and DVD releases in Japan. While fan made subs are available and a watchable print is accessible (archive.org is one site that has it), there are probably several hundred other vintage Japanese ghost movies you'd be better off checking out first.

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