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.
Austrian writer and director Rudolf Zehetgruber had two shots at the Kommissar X franchise, and Death is Nimble, Death is Quick, the second entry in the seven film Eurospy series, was the first of them. It’s a commendable, if not especially controversial effort on his part, although, thanks to a particular directorial quirk it revealed, it has resulted in me becoming damn near obsessed with the man. In my review of Death Trip, the fourth Kommissar X film, I described how Zehetgruber, the director and writer, inserted himself – i.e., Zehetgruber the actor — into the action, casting himself as a sort of all-purpose deus ex machina who single-handedly bridged an impressive array of narrative gaps and plot holes.
For me, one of the hazards of watching one of the Kommissar X movies is that it means I’ll have that “I Love You, Jo Walker” song stuck in my head for the next two weeks and will be at constant risk of bursting into it at any given moment, which is actually more of a hazard to those around me than it is to myself. Personally, I don’t care if the world knows that I love Jo Walker (though my wife might have some questions about it). Given that he’s a character with all the depth of a walking Playboy cartoon, it’s actually surprising how lovable he can become with repeated exposure. Death Trip, the fourth entry in the Kommissar X series, is also quite lovable, though only once you get past the expectations that it raises and learn to love it for who it really is.
If you ever visit Ye Olde London Town, try and fit the Jack the Ripper walk into your itinerary. Ideally you should do it in spring or autumn, so that when you start out it’s daylight. But as you wander deeper into the backstreets of Whitechapel it gets increasingly dark (and if you’re lucky, a tad foggy). That way, as you find yourself in the one spot on the tour they can say with certainty that the Ripper stood, it’s fully night. It’s a chilling moment, something notably absent from 1959′s Jack the Ripper. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film, just a rather silly one.
In the opening moments of Kill, Panther, Kill! we see the daring escape, during a prison transfer, of master criminal Arthur Tracy (Franco Fantasia). Tracy has been in stir for four years after thieving a fortune in jewels worth three million dollars. Now his loyal henchmen, Anthony and Smokey, lie in wait beside a desolate hillside road that’s apparently intended to be overlooking Malibu — but is actually some anonymous European location — as the LAPD van baring Arthur approaches. After dispensing with Arthur’s guards in a hail of machinegun fire, the three pile into a getaway car, at which point Anthony (Siegfried Rauch) says he knows of an ideal place for them to hold up. “They’re holding a rodeo this week in Calgary,” he says. “Nobody will look for us there.” And truer words were never spoken. The only thing that I’d be looking for at a rodeo in Calgary would be a thorough ass-kicking.
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.
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.