Every national cinema has their own homegrown subgenres and mythology when it comes to horror films and I think Japan has some of the most unique and bizarre creatures of all such as the hopping Umbrella ghost from Yokai hyaku monogatari (1968, aka The Hundred Monsters) or the rampaging stone idol of the Majin trilogy which began in 1966. Yet, in terms of eerie beauty and supernatural creepiness, I’m drawn to the bakeneko-mono stories from Japanese folklore with their shape-shifting cat demons and one of my favorites is Borei Kaibayo Yashiki (1958, aka Black Cat Mansion aka Mansion of the Ghost Cat).
Directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, one of the most prolific and stylish innovators in the Japanese fantasy film realm, the movie is a bridge back to the black and white twilight world of Val Lewton’s RKO thrillers in the forties but also the road ahead to the theatrical, studio-created horror of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960). Nakagawa, who also helmed such landmark horrors as The Ghosts of Kasane Swamp (1957), The Lady Vampire (1959) and the amazing Jigoku (1960, released by The Criterion Collection), chose to shoot this popular ghost story in the widescreen format that became so popular in the late fifties. The result is a stunningly beautiful experience that is part Kabuki theatre, part costume drama, and part ghost story. Even though the pacing can occasionally seem stately and austere, that very quality makes the unexpected mood swings into hallucinatory weirdness so jarring.
The opening credit sequence of the film is truly hypnotic and I only wish it had continued in this dream state fashion that teeters between nightmare and detached voyeurism. We are in a dark place with a meowing cat on a windowsill. Inside, someone we can’t see is exploring the interior of a deserted hospital with a flashlight and the point of view switches to a subjective camera that prowls the halls of this derelict building. The beam of a flashlight cuts through the darkness and occasionally picks up phantoms haunting its corridors such as two orderlies wheeling a mute patient on a gurney across our field of vision. Then we enter the office of a doctor, complete with skeleton specimens, before the spotlight finds our narrator, the one who recounts some strange events that transpired six years before. It’s a great set-up, not unlike the introduction to that B-movie mystery series from Universal, Inner Sanctum, where a disembodied head in a fortune teller’s ball, introduced twisted storylines in such films as Weird Woman (1944) and The Frozen Ghost (1945).
The main story of Black Cat Mansion is set in contemporary Japan and begins with a shot of a train traveling through the countryside, carrying Dr. Kuzumi (Toshio Hosokawa) and his sickly wife Yoriko (Yuriko Ejima) to their new home in rural Kyushu. Fleeing the city for a healthier environment, the doctor hopes the move will help cure his wife’s tuberculosis while he sets up a new practice in an abandoned mansion that will serve as their home and a clinic. Right from the start, Yoriko has uneasy feelings about her new abode which are soon confirmed by frightening apparitions of a white haired hag only she can see at first. As the visitations grow more frequent and threatening, Dr. Kusumi and Yoriko’s brother visit a local monk who reveals the violent history of the residence.
The story then leaps back in time to the samurai period when Lord Shogen (Ryuzaburo Nakamura) was master of the house. A cruel, devious man, he murders a young Go master who accused him of cheating during their game and then rapes the victim’s blind mother, Miyagi (Fumiko Miyata). In revenge, Miyagi places a curse on Lord Shogen before committing suicide by knife and her body is later discovered as her cat is licking up the spilled blood.
The curse is not limited to just Lord Shogen, but all of his family, servants and friends. Malevolent demons in Japanese mythology are rarely satisfied with selective revenge in their wrath and usually stalk any living person, whether guilty of any crime or not. So it goes with Miyagi who first possesses the body of Lord Shogen’s elderly mother (Fujie Satsuki) and then begins to terrorize and destroy the Shogen clan from within.
For Black Cat Mansion, director Nakagawa uses a slightly blue tinted black and white look for the contemporary framing device of the movie but then switches to vibrant color for the flashback story (the cinematography is by Tadashi Nishimoto, whose more than 50 film credits include 1975’s amazing Infra-Man). As a result, the violence and ghostly occurrences stand out prominently in scenes that serve up blood-splattered walls, floating disembodied heads, and for the scene of Lord Shogen’s comeuppance, the screen erupts in a psychedelic color freakout.
The real highlight of the movie though is the avenging cat woman ghost and the sequence where she toys with Yae (Noriko Kitazawa), a servant girl, is mesmerizing. First, she makes her spin around in circles but soon has her doing back flips off the veranda in a somnambulist ballet that is beautifully choreographed and disturbing in equal parts. There are also some unintentional comic moments as well, especially whenever the ghost woman becomes enraged and her cat ears suddenly pop up through her white fright wig. You can clearly see the roots of the late 1990’s J-Horror craze here with such familiar motifs as the disheveled hair-in-the-face look of the avenging demon, an effect which would be exploited much more frighteningly in The Ring (1998, aka Ringu). If you want to investigate other entries in the bakeneko-mono tradition, I highly recommend Kuroneko (1968) by Kaneto Shindo, the director of the horrific Onibaba (1964). Also known as The Black Cat of the Grove, Kuroneko is another creepy, visually stylish cat ghost fantasy. This one is set in the 11th century and recounts the tale of a mother and daughter-in-law who are raped and killed by marauding samurai but return to avenge themselves in the form of shape-shifting cat demons. While the Japanese film industry has probably produced more fantasy/horror films in the bakeneko-mono subgenre that any other country, England, the U.S. and others have dabbled in this area as well and for evidence we have such films as Cat Girl (1957), Shadow of the Cat (1961), and Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers (1992) to name a few. Black Cat Mansion is not currently available in any format in the U.S. but you might be able to still find DVD import copies of it from Japan. CD Japan is one label that used to carry it but you will need an all-region DVD player to view it. Other websites of interest: