An elderly samurai who spent his life as a heya-zumi (essentially a freeloader off his family) is given one last chance to redeem himself, namely by picking up his sword to protect his beloved grandniece from a cruel samurai.
Nice visual presentation punches up a routine, too-familiar storyline.
KAIBYO OTAMAGA-IKE (THE GHOST CAT OF OTAMA POND), based on the story "Sotoo Tachibana" by Yoshihiro Ishikawa and Jiro Fujishima, opens with a great shot of the camera pulling back from a foggy marsh to reveal a young couple and then a hissing black cat on a tree branch. Tadahiko and Keiko, set the be married the following day, become lost in the woods and discover that no matter which direction they walk, they end up back at the same exact spot near a pond. Exhausted, and with both nightfall and and approaching thunderstorm heading their way, the two decide to follow a black cat back to a seemingly-abandoned home where they can spend the night. There, Keiko encounters an old woman (who may be a witch), passes out and comes down with a fever. Tadahiko and Keiko promptly leave, but a visit to a doctor reveals Keiko has the "mark of death" and has been somehow cursed by the cat. After an exorcism, the doctor explains to Tadahiko how the curse came about in the first place, and then we go into flashback mode, which takes up the bulk of the run-time.
The flashback scenes center around a pair of star-crossed lovers; samurai Yachimaru and maid Kozaso, whose families are sworn enemies. Kozaso's father is not only abusive and controlling, he's also carrying on a not-too-secret affair with his mistress and has sided with the corrupt village magistrate; arranging for for his daughter to marry the magistrate's brother against her wishes. While Yachimaru is away, Kozaso's father, the magistrate and the magistrate's brother murder his father and grandmother, burn down his home and attempt to rape his sister, who chooses to kill herself with a hairpin instead of being shamed. Yachimaru returns, learns his entire family is dead and then is murdered himself. Naturally, all the victims return in ghost form to settle the score by tricking those responsible for their murders into killing each other and those around them. So what part does the wronged family's pet kitty Tama play in all this? Best I could make of it is that she serves as the conveyance between the natural world and spirit world.
If you're familiar with Japanese horror of the 50s and 60s, this film doesn't really offer up anything new or different. You can see the same exact characters going through the same murdered-innocents- return-as-vengeance -seeking-ghosts plot in dozens of other films from this time period. The cat angle also isn't anything new. Do a title search here and you'll see at least a dozen 'Ghost Cat' films were made in Japan between 1953 and 1968. However, judged as a separate entity or from the viewpoint of someone not familiar with these kind of films, this isn't bad at all. The art direction, camera-work and lighting are all good, and if the script isn't particularly insightful or layered, it's at least competent. I still prefer what I've seen from Nobuo Nakagawa thus far, as his films tend to be better written, paced and acted than this one, but Ishikawa (who wrote several of Nakagawa's films) does a fairly good job orchestrating the action. Cinematographer Kikuzo Kawasaki also does a good job; utilizing brown/muddy earth tones that makes the key supernatural images; a pond full of bright red blood, green-lit ghosts, a black cat's yellow eyes, etc., stand out.
Just like several other Japanese horror films from this period, the amount of violence and actual blood, as well as the body count, far exceed what was going on in horror cinema in most other countries during the same time. This was, after all, made three years before Herschell Gordon Lewis created the "first gore film" with BLOOD FEAST, and there are other Japanese movies made years before this one with just as much violence and blood. I'm not saying they're to the extreme of Lewis' films or were designed specifically to be gross like Lewis' films, but this still has lots of the red stuff, slashings, stabbings, grueling prolonged deaths, gashed faces, impalements, burnt corpses and other things that may surprise those used to tamer films from this era.
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