The Glamorous Ghost (Japanese Title: Sanpo Suru Reikyusha, 1964) is something of a rarity in Japanese cinema – a noir comedy. This is the sort of twisty, convoluted farce in which all of the main characters are greedy, immoral and deceitful and you end up rooting for Asami (Ko Nishimura), the taxi driver protagonist, only because he is a pitiful underdog with a simple dream – to retire and run a pig farm in the country. His plan to accomplish that, however, involves blackmail and worse and before The Glamorous Ghost reaches its macabre but amusing climax, most of the major players have departed this mortal coil.
[Spoilers ahead] When the film opens, Asami is stalking his wife Suji (Masumi Harukawa) through a department store, convinced she is going to meet a secret boyfriend. Suji is not what you’d call a great beauty but she is undeniably a voluptuous fleshpot and a conniving tramp. She also works part-time as a nightclub hostess so she can make her own money and meet wealthy men for potential liaisons. When Asami finally confronts Suji about her infidelities, she denies it stating, “If you’re so suspicious, we might as well just break up. You’re so useless.” They argue and he ends up choking her.
At first we suspect that Asami has killed Suji but the truth turns out to be the first major twist in this wicked black comedy. It soon transpires that the married couple has declared a truce and come up with an ambitious scheme to make a pile of money by blackmailing Suji’s lovers. It plays out like this: Asami announces Suji’s death by suicide and hires Mouri (Kiyoshi Atsumi), a hearst driver, to transport her coffin around town (she poses inside it as a corpse). The plan is to visit Dr. Yamagoshi (Nobuo Kaneko), a medical surgeon, and Yoshinosuke Kitamura (Meicho Soganoya), a wealthy businessman, both of whom are current lovers of Suji. They are also informed that she wrote letters to both of them before killing herself and, afraid of what the contents might reveal, the two men offer to pay off Asami for the letters and his discretion in the matter. The ruse works with Asami and Suji accumulating a fortune in excess of five million yen.
This is only the beginning of a series of double-crosses that keep you guessing until the ironic fade-out. Suji turns out to be much more treacherous than we ever imagined while Asami proves to be exceedingly resourceful as a cunning opportunist and not the ineffective cuckold everyone imagined. This could have been played as a straightforward murder melodrama and the atmospheric black and white cinematography gives The Glamorous Ghost a noir-like veneer. The fact that director Hajime Sato presents all of the backstabbing antics in such a playful manner only increases our delight as each despicable character meets a well-deserved fate, either by natural causes or foul play.
Although the title suggests a tale of the supernatural, The Glamorous Ghost does flirt with some otherworldly trappings. There is an eerie sequence set inside a morgue that bears some similarities to a scene in 1953’s House of Wax and, at one point, Asami freaks out over a spectral apparition of Suji in the middle of the road. Further enhancing the fantasy aspect is the spooky music score by Shunsuke Kikuchi that employs the generous use of a Theremin and skeleton bone-like keyboard arrangements.
The final scene also reminds me of that iconic conclusion to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) as Mario (Yves Montand), the sole surviving truck driver in a deadly transport of nitrogylcerine, gets cocky and starts weaving his vehicle from side to side on a hazardous road. As the radio plays The Blue Danube waltz, Mario loses control of the truck and goes over a cliff. Asami is also undermined by a sense of being invulnerable and gleefully sings a little ditty amid the piles of cash in his hearst. Tamio (Jiro Okazaki), the sportscar-obsessed, callous young lover of Suji, and his female companion witness Asami’s comical demise but somehow miss the most important detail about the wreck – the sight of hundreds of dollars being spirited away in the breeze like the exposed loot at the airport climax of The Killing or the wind-blown gold dust at the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In this case, the last laugh clearly belongs to director Sato.
The Glamorous Ghost was the third feature in Sato’s filmography, which consisted of only seven movies and some episodic television. The self-assured tone and quickly paced narrative along with an excellent assemble cast make it one of the most underrated Japanese black comedies of the sixties. Surprisingly, Sato didn’t go on to make another movie in this genre but veered off into sci-fi and horror. His next feature House of Terrors (Japanese title: Kaidan Semushi Otoko, 1965) is a full-fledged ghost story featuring Ko Nishimura again, this time playing a hunchback servant.
Sato’s next two feature films were outlandish science fiction fantasies which were suitable for children but also perfect escapism for adults. Terror Beneath the Sea aka Agent X-2: Operation Underwater (1966) is about two reporters who discover a race of underwater cyborgs created by a mad scientist (the creatures look like descendants of The Creature from the Black Lagoon). The Golden Bat (Japanese title: Ogon Batto, 1966) is just as much fun with its tale of aliens trying to conquer earth. Luckily, they are thwarted in their scheme by a superhuman deity who is resurrected from the lost city of Atlantis. Shin’ichi Chiba aka Sonny Chiba is the star of both films and was still an actor on the rise at this point. He wouldn’t achieve a breakout international success until 1974 when he appeared in the martial arts action thriller The Street Fighter and its sequel the same year, Return of the Street Fighter.
Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968) is Sato’s real claim to fame and is a delirious assault on the senses. A Vietnam era fatalism pervades the entire film which follows a group of plane crash survivors being terrorized by a vampiric stranger (he invades his victims through an oozing wound in his forehead). The film is a popular cult item and was included in the much sought-after Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku (from the Criterion Collection).
It is a shame Sato didn’t make more films but I’m grateful for the eccentric handful of features he did complete and The Glamorous Ghost is a dark, glistening treasure. Part of the film’s success is due to the inspired casting, especially Ko Nishimura as the seemingly hapless Asami. The actor, who made over 200 movies and TV shows, is one of Japan’s greatest character actors but only occasionally got the chance to shine in leading roles. One of the more famous exceptions was his major role in Shohei Imamura’s Intentions of Murder (1964) in which he played the tyrannical common-law husband of a woman who becomes the victim/lover of a violent home intruder. Other career milestones for Nishimura include Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1960 noir Intimidation in which the actor plays a meek bank clerk manipulated by a dangerous blackmailer and Matagi (1982) featuring Nishimura as an elderly hunter stalking a huge bear in the snowy mountains of Japan.
Even if Ko Nishimura doesn’t seem familiar to you, odds are you have seen him in one of his many supporting roles over the years, either in a sci-fi adventure like Gorath (1962), a popular franchise such as Zatoichi (Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, 1970) or the films of Akira Kurosawa (The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, High and Low, Red Beard). He died in April 1997 in Tokyo at the age of 74.
The Glamorous Ghost is not currently available on any authorized format in the U.S. although you can find a better-than-expected DVD-R transfer of it from European Trash Cinema.
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