Director: Michio Yamamoto
Screenplay: Hiroshi Nagano, Ei Ogawa
Starring: Kayo Matsuo, Akira Nakao, Atsuo Nakamura, Yukiko Kobayashi, Yôko Minakaze
Japan’s occasional flirtations with an interest in vampires are, like most things having to do with Japan and Western pop culture, a bizarre mix of revulsion and fascination with the foreign — a dichotomy that is almost certainly (in my eyes) born of the interests of the young simply not lining up with the prejudice of the old (something that is not unique to Japan, or to any culture). One portion of the Japanese population can import and read home-grown vampire fiction as cautionary tales about the corrupting influence of the foreign on Japan, while another portion of the population can read those same tales and simply walk away having enjoyed a fun horror story about strange creatures. The presentation of vampires as symbols for the threat of and infection by the foreign is hardly a uniquely Japanese trait. The very foundation of modern pop culture vampire lore, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is basically a cautionary tale about swarthy Eastern Europeans with weird customs coming to the “more enlightened” west of Europe and Britain to mess things up and steal women.
At the same time, such tales do not ignore the appeal of these exotic strangers — though more times than not, it’s a finger-wagging admonishment to the young about the seduction of the different and the unfamiliar. As late as the 1950s in the United States, vampires were still serving as stand-ins for the threat of weird foreigners with weird customs. Return of Dracula even casts the vampire in all his Eastern European darkness of appearance as a stand-in for the encroachment of Communism and Communist cells into clean, upstanding, suburban America. I am amazed, and perhaps impressed, at how many horror tales are about fearing people who are different from you, and how many fans of the genre reject those fears and embrace the unfamiliar regardless of the stern warning of their elders. That such xenophobia on the part of storytellers should find its way into Japanese works inspired by Dracula is only natural, if somewhat unfortunate. If it seems more obvious or prevalent in Japanese vampire lore, it is only because we are suddenly keenly aware that we (or I, I guess — don’t know about you — as a Westerner) are the targets this time around. How dare they! But like I said, it’s easy to read or watch Dracula and not really be affected by it as a “fear of the foreign” tale, just as it’s easy to do the same with Japan’s contribution to global vampire culture.
The Japanese fascination with vampires began more or less around the same time as it did for everyone else who wasn’t a spooked peasant living in the shadow of the Carpathians: in the 1930s, with the widespread resurgent popularity of Stoker’s Dracula and, probably more impactful, the release of Tod Browning’s 1931 cinematic adaptation starring Bela Lugosi. Japan was in the midst of a massive military build-up and boom of ultra-nationalist fervor. Somehow though, Dracula slipped in (he probably turned himself into some mist or an armadillo) and settled into the national pop culture consciousness. To highlight the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum, Germany was building itself up with much the same militaristic and nationalistic enthusiasm, yet the most popular books in Germany (until the Nazis finally banned them) were the outlandish pulp mystery novels of British author Edgar Wallace. This just further convinces me that if we based international relations less on the fragile egos of political leaders and more on how much we all dig each other’s pop culture, we’d be marching off to war a lot less often.
Anyway, once something from another country gets popular, it’s inevitable that home-grown versions will start to pop up. One of the first Japanese vampire novels was Seishi Yokomizo’s Dokuro-Kengyo (The Death’s-Head Stranger). Transplanting many elements cribbed from Bram Stoker into Tokugawa-era Japan, the book spins the yarn of Shiranui, a shifty stranger who transforms a shogun’s daughter into a vampire. It is Shiranui’s love of Western culture that eventually leads to his vampirism and further leads him to turn others into vampires. He was transparently based on historical figure Amakusa Shiro, who led a Christian rebellion in Japan during the 17th century. That rebellion would confirm the current Shogun’s prejudices about the dangerous encroachment of Western social, political, and religious ideas into Japan. The borders of the country were sealed to outsiders, and belief in Christianity was banned under penalty of torture or death. Although the Meiji Restoration ended the rule of the Shogunate and began the rapid modernization — some would say Westernization — of Japan, it was pretty easy for an author in the volatile environment of the days just before World War II to conjure up past spectres and use them as a way to rile folks up about the dangerous seduction of the foreign.
Again, this is no uniquely Japanese phenomenon. It is sadly prevalent in pretty much every culture, even today when cheap travel and the Internet has fostered more exposure and access to the rest of the world than human civilization has ever enjoyed. In fact, it’s at these times when it seems to reassert itself, if somewhat desperately, as one generation embraces many of the things and connections the previous generation feared. Every country, race, and culture seems to want to embrace and enjoy the pop culture of others while at the same time being harangued by a class of insular fearmongers who warn you that you are sacrificing the very soul of your country, your god, and your heritage if you so much as think you might want to try falafel or wear pants or listen to K-pop.
The unfortunate thing is that while the masses seem to be far less timid about interacting with the masses from other cultures, the people who profit from fear of the other almost always end up being the ones in control of governments — or at least, the people who are willing to capitalize on that fear where it exists elsewhere in the population and turn it into a hysterical vocal minority. So we all do this damaged and dysfunctional dance year after year, decade after decade when really all we want is to be able to watch Jackie Chan, write vampire fanfic, listen to rock ‘n roll, go to school. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve always had way more fun connecting with people from other countries than I have had being afraid of them, and I’m pretty most of them felt the same way.
After the war, the occasional Japanese vampire tale had a new set of moral quandaries with which to grapple. Japan was devastated and defeated. Occupying Americans were everywhere, and with them they brought everything from jazz to rock ‘n roll to blue jeans, sexually transmitted disease to murder to rape. And rapid reconstruction and modern convenience. In other words, an incredibly confusing mix of the helpful and the hurtful, the constructive and the degrading. Conversely, Americans were being exposed to Japanese culture for the first time in a non-war — or at least post-war — environment and bringing home with them everything from fascination with samurai and karate to Japanese wives. Ultimately though, the burden of suffering was on the shoulders of the Japanese. American soldiers were at their heart probably no more or less prone to commit crimes against Japan than a Japanese person. But the relative freedom from any type of consequence for such transgressions emboldened bad behavior and embittered the Japanese. Yet at the same time — things were getting rebuilt. Thing were getting modernized. Some things were getting better, at least for some people. And so once again Japan found itself in a place where its love for and dislike of Western influence collided with one another. And once again, a vampire emerged.
This time the book was Ryo Hanmura’s Ishi no Ketsumyaku (Veins of the Rock). This time around, the vampire comes from abroad and spreads vampirism not through the bite, but through sexual intercourse. This sexually transmitted vampirism turns the victim immortal but also instills in them an unquenchable thirst for human blood. Hanmura’s vampire is much more complex than the one served up by Seishi Yokomizo a generation before. Hanmura was a child during the war and came of age amid the tumult of reconstruction and occupation. His was a Japan that was humiliated and angry at the West but also benefitted greatly from new philosophies, new technology, and foreign investment. As a result, his vampire tale contains the complexity, confusion, and contradiction that often comes to typify the relationship between occupier and the occupied. Few and far between are the colonized nations that don’t end up with a weird fascination with the country that occupied them: America and England, Japan and America, Vietnam and France. I’m sure smarter people than me have studied and analyzed this phenomenon and can explain the myriad complicated feelings that go into it.
Ah, anyway, we stray into heavy territory when ultimately we are here to talk about a largely harmless and good-natured Japanese vampire movie. But that’s sort of my point, I guess. Seishi Yokomizo, you can try to scare Japan of others with your vampire tale, but once the fervor settles, you know what’s left: lots of Japanese people who like vampires. Not consistently, not all the time, but enough so that the vampire enjoys occasional flare-ups in popularity that result in things like lots of terrible anime about vampires (and a couple of OK ones), or anime adaptations of Marvel Comics’ Tomb of Dracula, or the strange trio of vampire movies produced by Toho in the early 1970s and known collectively as “The Bloodthirsty Trilogy,” even though they are connected not by plot but instead by the simple fact that they are three classically moody films about vampires. I don’t know exactly what it was in 1970 that caused this sudden desire on the part of Toho Studios, screenwriter Ei Ogawa, and director Michio Yamamoto to start making vampire movies, but it happened, and Vampire Doll was the first in the series.
By 1970, the Japanese economy was in full swing and the country was back on its feet — but with war-time wounds still raw in the memories of many veterans and politicians. Japan’s re-entry onto the world stage as a major player meant that the country was also seeking to be more global, less provincial, done with the old-fashioned. This is reflected in the films being made at the time. The late 1950s saw the emergence of French New Wave inspired “borderless action” films, a trend of internationalization that continued throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s. By the time of Vampire Doll, the sinister implication of a vampire as a foreign invader had more or less been lost under the broader appeal of the vampire as just a spooky monster. The political and social aspect that may have once informed the vampire had been replaced by a decade plus of American and British monster movies that had little interest in the vampire as a propaganda tool. It is that body of work — specifically, the lurid and colorful vampire films of Hammer Studios — that birthed Michio Yamamoto’s three vampire movies. So with what was, for me, an unexpected foray into social and political discourse thus dealt with, let’s have a little fun.
Lovestruck Sagawa (Atsuo Nakamura) arrives at the remote, spooky family mansion of his girlfriend Yuko, worried that she has sort of dropped off the face of the earth. He is shocked to learn from Yuko’s oddball mother (Yoko Minakaze) that Yuko was killed in an automobile accident a couple of weeks earlier. The stunned Sagawa stays the night in the creepy old place, and during his time there he is visited by none other than his dead girlfriend Yuko (Yukiko Kobayashi, Destroy All Monsters and Shuji Terayama’s controversial art film Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets), who in classic horror film form is all distant-eyed and monotone and has turned light grey, but Sagawa doesn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. It’s good to see that Vampire Doll imports not just the monster, and not just the overall look of Western horror films, but also the colossally unobservant and moronic hero who does things no normal human being would ever do. His reaction to finding his dead girlfriend drifting around the cemetery at night clad only in a nightgown is to sort of shrug it off as, “Huh, your mom said you were dead, but here you are, so I guess everything is cool. Want to grab some dinner?” Well, up until she beseeches him to kill her.
A week later, Sagawa’s sister Keiko (Seijun Suzuki regular Kayo Matsuo, also in Velvet Hustler, Sleepy Eyes of Death: Castle Menagerie, and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx) is as concerned about his sudden disappearance as he was about Yuko’s. Enlisting the assistance of her boyfriend Hiroshi (Akira Nakao, Commander Takaki Aso in the 1990s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla, and Godzilla vs. Destroyer), she travels herself to the desolate, old dark house to investigate — only to be stonewalled by Yuko’s mother and threatened by the deaf-mute family handyman Gen in a role that would probably have been played by Lon Chaney, Jr. in the United States, Milton Reid at Hammer. Not one to be deterred by spooky moms or handymen with a tendency to explode into random hatchet attacks on visitors, and with the eventual assistance of the local doctor, Keiko sets about uncovering the sinister mystery that involves secret chambers, creepy dolls, empty graves, throat slashing, hypnotism, and vampires — well, sort of vampires. A little bit. Yuko, it transpires, is something slightly more complicated than a straight-forward vampire.
One of the most notable things right out of the gate in this first of Yamamoto’s trilogy, and something that would remain consistent throughout, is how un-Japanese everything looks. The house is a very Western-style mansion, the furnishing could have been borrowed from the Hammer Studios backlot. Yuko’s mother wears a kimono, and that’s about it for nods to the film’s country of origin. However, I don’t think the implication here, as it was in the pre-war vampire tales, is that the family is so Westernized that it causes them to become western vampires (though this throwback to older Japanese vampire tales would resurface, albeit fairly casually, in the next two films in the series, Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula). Rather, I think what we have is a genuine adoration on the part of Ei Ogawa and Michio Yamamoto for vampire movies and an attempt by them to make one as close as possible to what was being made in England or the United States. By the time of Vampire Doll, the vampire is not as powerful a symbol of the encroachment of the foreign; it’s simply a vampire, and it’s a vampire because the people who wrote and directed the piece really liked vampire movies.
Their stab at it is pretty good but not without its flaws — those the flaws manifest in it are nothing unique to its novel role as a Japanese vampire movie. Just as the vampire by 1970 was “just a monster” with a universal cross-cultural appeal, the flaws in Vampire Doll are similarly universal. They’re the same flaws you’d be likely to get if this movie had been made by Hammer or American International in the same year. Chief among the flaws is the weakness of the protagonist. Kayo Matsuo was a fine actress, and in the film’s first half it seems like she is being set-up to be the strong, determined heroine who faces the nightmares and solves the mystery. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last. By the time the movie’s secrets have been revealed and the finale is ready to role, poor Keiko has been all but forgotten, or worse, relegated to standing in the corner and screaming while Akira Nakao’s Hiromi comes to the rescue. Nothing against him; he’s also a fine actor, but with it being Japan in 1970, and with strong female action heroes being increasingly common, it would have been nice to see Vampire Doll follow suit. Instead we’re left with two halves of a hero, neither of whom really add up to a whole Peter Cushing.
This cascades down and causes other problems. Vampire Doll, like the films that served as its inspiration, has a slow pace. Nothing wrong there — I generally love slow-paced old horror films. The difference here is that with the Hammer vampire movies or, say, AIP’s Poe films you were spending the movie with actors as dynamic as Cushing, Christopher Lee, or Vincent Price. Price could somehow make slowly sitting down with an anguished look on his face seem thrilling, and the gusto with which Peter Cushing would rifle through props rivals many full-on action scenes. In other words, these actors filled the screen, and even when a movie was mostly dialogue or quiet contemplation, it never seemed dull since the characters in it were interesting enough to keep things moving even when things weren’t moving. You don’t get that same dynamic sense or ability to create urgency from the cast of Vampire Doll, which means its slow pace feels slower than it should. Luckily, this movie barely bothers to stick round for more than an hour, so just when Hiroshi and Keiko are starting to drag things down, it changes gears and switches to something else. The result is that the pace end sup being brisk despite a couple of dull leads.
If you are the kind of person who can stick with a film with these sorts of flaws — and I am — the positives do eventually outweigh the negatives. The muted scenery and creepy sets are wonderful, creating the perfect sense of dread, faded opulence, and decay. It’s not the eye-popping vibrance of early Hammer, but it matches up well alongside later era Hammer and AIP and other horror films of the 1970s when the lurid colors of the previous decade gave in to muddy browns and yellows and everyone wore turtlenecks. And Keiko, though her screen time is as limited as Christopher Lee’s was int he Dracula films, makes a great and unnerving monster with her sickly grin, bluish skin, and gold-green glowing eyes. She is referred to alternately as a ghost and a vampire but really isn’t either. She’s more akin to the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, albeit a much more active version, or a precursor to the “girl with long hair in her face” ghosts that would dominate J-horror in the late 1990s. But again — despite the appearance of such female ghosts throughout Japanese folklore and horror cinema, there is nothing particularly Japanese about it. Spooky ladies have been haunting people the world over since time immemorial.
The multi-monster nature of Keiko the creature is reflected in the more literal translation of the film’s Japanese title: Ghost House: Bloodsucking Doll. She does have a thirst for blood, but she does not need it to survive. And she does not bite the necks of her victims; she slashes them with a knife. And I don’t think it is ever implied that she is immortal in any way or that her curse is passed on to others. So rather a different take on the concept of vampire, but that’s nothing new. Vampire lore gets reinvented from film to film, often even in the same series. Even Dracula, where us old-timers retreat when we need to cite vampire rules, was really nothing more than Bram Stoker cherry-picking the highlights of Eastern European vampire folklore. Making up his own interpretation of vampire is basically just Yamamoto sticking with the vampire tradition of always making up new vampire traditions. All that really matters is that when she appears, clad in the requisite white nightgown that all women in vampire films must wear before they go wandering through the woods at night, she really turns up the creepy.
This was only Michio Yamamoto’s third film, but he has a pretty firm grasp of the tropes and expectations of the genre and delivers them ably. Like this film, and like his next few, his first two films were all written by Ei Ogawa. I don’t know which of the two men was the horror buff. Maybe they both were. They sure knew how to make a low-key but satisfying entry in the genre though, and usher the vampire in Japan away from being a symbol of the threat of the foreign, and more into the universal realm of “we like scary monsters.” Ogawa’s script is quite good, with the right dash of dark secrets, family tragedy, scares, and pathos. And even though I said Keiko makes for a bit of a let-down as a heroine in the end, there’s little denying that actress Kayo Matsuo has one of the greatest scared faces in horror film history. If you are looking for some exotic take on familiar horror, you are going to need to look elsewhere. Beyond the novelty in the west of “hey, Japanese people in a vampire film,” this is an otherwise very straight-forward vampire tale, even if it’s not exactly a vampire. A slow burn, with some weak characters, but overall quite enjoyable I thought, with moments of sublime creepiness. Cobweb-covered Hummel figurines will do that for you.