Xavierpop Does @Shinsedai_Fest – Louis Reviews “The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen”

The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen is one of Japans few surviving prewar horror films. Shot in 1938, it features a terrific example of the period “ghost cat” (bakeneko or kaibyo) movie that was popular at the time. Several titles of this genre were released during this period which featured love, jealousy, murder, revenge, a shamisen and of course, a cat.

Somewhere in undetermined preindustrial Japan, Seijiro is a shamisen player (a shamisen is a three stringed instrument similar to a guitar) who is performing with the ensemble at a local theater and apprenticing under a master. He’s also engaged to marry Mitsue (Sumiko Suzuki), a popular actress at the theatre. Seijiro’s cat Kuro goes missing and is returned to him by Okiyo. Upon discovery of Okiyo receiving a shamisen given to Seijiro, Mitsue becomes jealous of the younger and more affluent Okiyo. She begins to manipulate the people around her, and seeks to keep the handsome and popular Seijiro for herself. Her misguided attempts to keep him, and the situation, firmly in control only creates more problems than it solves and sets them all on a collision course.

Japan had been making films for about 40 years when this film was made. The director Kiyohiko Ushihara had made 70 silent films during the 20’s, with 9 months of that spent working with Charlie Chaplin. Although not well known in the west, he was important to the development of filmmaking, and most importantly to the Japanese silent era. Shifting tastes and new technologies in post war Japan saw the rise of both new directors and new ways of filming, so he began to teach filmmaking.

Clever use of kaleidoscopic lenses, double-exposures and slow-mo sequences makes this film technologically advanced for its day. The framing and sequence of the film at times is rather stylish in trying to recreate the period and the people who inhabited it. There are some elegant and well thought out shots and sequences, and there were hints of superb filmmaking throughout. While not particularly frightening, it does have an interesting ways it shows the ghost and cat, and how it appears to people.

The straightforward way the story unfolds with it’s simple morality lesson comes straight from the folktale it’s based on. The difference, if any, is the non direct link between the actions of Mitsue and the haunting. The cause and effect aspect of the moral tale is a bit weak, though there is so much else going on it hardly matters.  What the film does do quite well is recreate the classic Japanese system, with its rigid adherence to social status and class. As the film unfolds, attitudes may seem very strange to modern audiences because they don’t try to change the system, but in fact are quite willing to live by the rules.  It simply shows the world as it was, without judgment or contempt. It simply was the way they lived.

The final sequence is of the troupe onstage performing. It is an amazing piece of filmmaking, from both a technological aspect and an artistic one. All of the principal actors are onstage, performing, as the ghost and some of the people seek revenge upon Mitsue. The lengthy final sequence, some 15 to 20 minutes, provides a stunning example of classical Japanese theater.  Allowing so much of the play to unfold actually brings more to the film than it might have otherwise.

While not a particularly frightening film, anyone interested in both the history of filmmaking, or strange things from Japan should check this out when they have a chance.