Researching the history of Japanese yokai in cinema is a difficult task. At least, it’s a difficult task if, like me, you don’t read Japanese and are kind of lazy. Almost all of the English language writing about movies involving these bizarre and multitudinous creatures from Japanese folklore focuses on the three loosely related yokai movies released by Daei in the late 1960s — Spook Warfare, 100 Ghosts, and Along with Ghosts — or on Takashi Miike’s more recent take on those old movies, Great Yokai War. A few people will talk about the history of yokai in popular Japanese culture and the role Shigeru Mizuki and his manga series, GeGeGe no Kitaro, played in turning this bizarre assembly of ghosts, demons, monsters, and goblins into pop culture icons. But beyond that, the field of cinematic yokai studies is largely empty even though, as Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo illustrates, someone was out there making yokai movies even before Mizuki published his comic book.
I am breaking little new ground when I point out that the original 1954 film Godzilla was a serious sci-fi horror film that is taken seriously by serious critics (seriously!), even the more annoying ones who usually refuse to give genre films the time of day. Few people would argue that it was a cinematic milestone, that it was to the crossover scifi/horror film what Citizen Kane was to movies about grumpy newspaper moguls and what Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was to the road trip film. Whatever the franchise may have become, Godzilla’s contribution to film history was as big as the monster itself, and not even Michael Medved will argue that one. Or maybe he will. I don’t really know him personally, so I can’t account for him.
During the 1970s, Japan’s Nikkatsu Studio became famous, and yes most likely infamous, as the number one home for sleazy sexploitation, violent pink films, and just softcore porn in general. Although hardly the stuff of highbrow cocktail party conversations, the thoroughly exploitive nature of the Nikkatsu films doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of boldness and innovation thrown into the mix, resulting in more than a few highly enjoyable and daring films. Yeah, there was a lot of crap, but there’s always a lot of crap, and usually even the crap had something about it that was so bonkers and just not right that you couldn’t help but nod your head in its direction. In other words, where as Europe during the 1970s was constantly making ponderous, over-inflated films that begged the question, “Is it art or is it porn?” Nikkatsu was more concerned with generating the answer, “I don’t know if it’s art, but it sure is cool.”
When we reviewed 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, we stated that it was one of two Nikkatsu Studio espionage films released onto the home video market in the United States, both starring studio mainstay Akira Kobayashi. We also said that 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, daft though it might have been, was the more conservative and conventional of the two. That’s because the second espionage film, Black Tight Killers, was constructed out of some mad fever dream by director Yasuharu Hasebe and production designer Teruyoshi Satani after they stayed up all night at a psychedelic go-go cabaret, drunk on Suntory whisky and overdosing on a steady stream of pop art and spy movies. When they awoke the next morning, two things had happened. One, their clothes had vanished; and two, they had apparently made a movie about a photojournalist who gets tangled up with a gang of black leather clad go-go girl assassins who fling razor sharp 45rpm records and are armed with ninja chewing gum, among other things.
When Nikkatsu Studio began to gain steam once again in the 1950s, thanks to the success first of their “Sun Tribe” films and then their “borderless action” style, their marketing department struck upon the clever idea of selling the studio’s top young stars as a brand name — the Diamond Line, as they would be dubbed in 1960. The original Diamond Line consisted of Yujiro Ishihara (upon whom almost all of the studio’s early success was dependent), Koji Wada, Keiichiro Akagi, and Akira Kobayashi. “Membership” was fluid, though, especially among a group of suddenly very famous young men who found every vice and indulgence now available to them. Ishihara for example, who built his early career in the studio’s popular “Sun Tribe” films was perceived as the real-life embodiment of his on-screen characters: brash, amoral, decadent, disrespectful — an affront to everything that was good and decent in polite Japanese society. Needless to say, restless young boys and girls, especially those in their late teens and twenties, flocked to support him.
After the critical and popular misfire of The Spy Who Loved Me — A literary experiment that was noble in intention but fell apart in execution — the pressure was on Ian Fleming to deliver a top notch Bond adventure to make up for things. At the same time, it’s obvious that Fleming was beyond the point of wanting to crank out another by the numbers book. He was going to have to find a way to work within the expectations people had of what a James Bond book would deliver to them, but find ways to tweak and alter the formula where he could. The result was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, regarded by many — if not, indeed, most — people as the finest Bond adventure Fleming ever wrote. For most of its pages, it is an exceptionally well executed but formulaic Bond adventure. The twist comes near the end, which leaves Bond an emotionally shattered man, cradling the body of his dead wife.
In 1948, French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut, a phrase which became “outsider art” in 1972 when critic Roger Cardinal imported it into the English language. It referred to works of art created outside the boundaries of general culture. Specifically, it was art created by someone like an inmate in an insane asylum. Over time, the term was applied to a broader audience, but the key element remains that the art is a reflection of a mental state beyond that of even the average crazy guy. This is not the same as an established art movement that is consciously seeking to do something “outside the mainstream.” An artist can’t rationally decide to make art brut. As Dubuffet himself describes it, art brut can’t be created by anyone who functions as part of regular society, even regular art society, and so this form of fierce and feverish creativity remains the sole purview of madmen and terrifying backwoods hillbillies who make sculpture out of cat skins, metal drums, and human skulls.
After a worthwhile idea (exploring the effect on a normal person’s life when they come into contact with James Bond) that turned into the savagely crummy The Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming had a lot to make up for. The trick for the author was finding something unique to do with the long-lived character of James Bond while still fulfilling the basic expectations of the Bond formula. Unfortunately for Fleming, as with many authors, musicians, and movie makers, when you strike upon a successful franchise you either make more or less the same thing over or over — variations upon a theme — and have people talk about how your work has become stale and formulaic or you make a radical change in the work and listen to people complain about how things changed and the author has turned his back on the essence of what made the series successful. After the dismal The Spy Who Loved Me, it would have been fair to write Fleming and Bond off as having dried up. No one could have expected that Fleming would bounce back with the best book in the series.
It is logical, and it seemed easy enough, to begin a discussion of The Cat and the Canary with a discussion of the history of “old dark house” mysteries — those movies where a disparate and largely shifty group of people convene upon a mysterious old mansion and find themselves embroiled in — and probably accused of — either a murder or a theft. Lots of skulking, staring, and clutching hands appearing from behind curtains or the doors of hidden passages ensues. From the silent era to the end of the 1930s, there was a dizzying number of “old dark house” films produced. They were cheap to make, easy to write, and demanded little from the production company or the audience. At their worst, old dark house mysteries were harmlessly entertaining. Often they were much better than that. The formula was so adaptable that it could be grafted onto pretty much any type of movie. Even established series like the Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan movies fell back from time to time on the old dark house motif. From horror to comedy to crime to thriller, it was easy to crank out an old dark house version of the genre and keep everyone at least moderately satisfied.
From time to time we accidentally wander into the realm of the nearly comprehensible, that no man’s land where the movies almost make sense. Our journeys sometimes bring us to these uncharted waters, and when cast adrift in them, we do the best we can in such a strange sea. But always what guides us, our great hope on the horizon that forever propels us forward even when things are at their most sane and logical, is the knowledge that we shall one day, like Ulysses returning home to Ithaca, return to a familiar port and once again watch the sun set slowly and with fiery bombast over an ocean littered with films that are completely and unequivocally batshit insane.