ENTER THE DEN OF SIN:  THE GODFATHER OF JAPANESE HORROR Image

A few weeks ago, while we were watching Millennium Actress, our friend Graeme became exceedingly disturbed by the presence of a ghostly woman character with a spinning wheel who haunted the protagonist Chiyoko as she searched in vain for her long lost love. At the time I had tried explaining how this image was common to Japanese folklore, kinda like the three fates or something and that many of the elements of modern Japanese horror films that resonate with viewers now (long black hair, minimal/ambient soundtracks, ancient curses) had long been present in Japanese culture and specifically Japanese film culture. However, not being an expert in Japanese cinema studies or anything I decided to search out some evidence to support my a*s-talking.

As usual, Sinister Sam was able to help me out. For some time now, knowing me and my friends’ predilection for new school Japanese horror a la “Ringu” Sam had started badgering me about a film from 1964 called “Kwaidan” several months ago. A collection of traditional ghost stories it is generally regarded as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema and the Godfather of all Japanese horror movies. With this in mind and the fact that the last film Sam had pimped that heavily to me has now become a favorite for myself and my fiancé (Mario Bava’s “Black Sunday”), I realized I really should check it out. Being that I was still on something of an Asian heritage kick and I had a pompous position to defend, I decided that this was the time to show it.

The only real problem was the length. The film is nearly three hours long, which meant that there would be no second film, or if there was, it had to be very short. The other minor problem was that the film is a little on the slower side compared to what we’re used to showing. Being that it is a collection of atmospheric ghost stories, influenced heavily by traditional No theater with a minimal / ambient soundtrack, our usual habit of gabbing away like drunken school girls (which granted some of us are) was not going to result in the desired effect. This is a serious, beautiful movie which won a special jury prize at Cannes in the ‘60s. Innuendo and conversations about which Transformer we liked best just weren’t going to be allowed.

It was with this in mind that our buddy Nick proposed the adoption of a beat-stick or “shut-up stick” as my sister had dubbed it to quell any members of the Peanut Gallery who prove unable to contain themselves. This was followed by my fiancé acknowledging the “atmosphere warning” I had given him early which everyone else agreed was appropriate as he is most often the worst offender for flapping his gab whilst others are vainly attempting to follow the “plot” of one of our selections. If Corinne had been there I’m sure she would have asked if it could be used to beat the programmer if the night’s selection proved to be too evil (“Dragonstorm”), but she wasn’t, so too bad for her. As we couldn’t find any appropriate material from which to craft the “shut-up stick”, the plan was abandoned for the evening, but several of the regulars have offered to construct something at a later date.

Being that I didn’t really have the time or energy to hunt down a horror short, which would fit into our program and the fact that by starting the actual screening a little later would give people more time to get their gab out, I elected to delay the start time by about an hour. Unfortunately, this meant that some people who usually leave early because they have day jobs or something lame like that opted not to attend, but those who did make it were in for a real treat. And by treat I mean tasty sugary goodness in the form of obnoxiously colored cupcakes which my sister had brought with her.

It was a smallish turnout with only 7 people showing initially and two more arriving once the extra long, extra silent credit sequence was finished. This was the third week in a row that we were watching a movie with subtitles and just like our prior experiences, my fiancé had neglected to check the audio options so we spent the first five minutes of the film arguing over whether we’d selected the correct channel or adjusted the volume properly. This was aggravated by the fact that there is no sound whatsoever in the first 10 minutes. However, once we were done conferencing everyone was hooked.

The film consists of four stories: “Black Hair”, “The Woman in the Snows”, “Hoichi the Earless” and “In a Cup of Tea”. And I got my evidence right in the first story, with the appearance of both menacing long black hair and a creepy lady with a spinning wheel. I won’t give too much of the story away because I honestly want you all to go rent (buy) the Criterion DVD as soon as you read this, but let’s just say we were so into it that we all needed some nervous laughter to ease the tension when it was done. Everyone I should say except for our friend Bob who seemed to have had a very long day as he ended up napping his way through most of the film. A large chunk of the running time of “Black Hair” was spent surreptitiously discussing whether we should shave off his eyebrows and replace them with Japanese ones painted halfway up his forehead. Lucky for him the rest of the film had us transfixed.

I may have given a little too much away by pointing out that Yuki, on top of being a very popular Japanese name is also the word for snow as my fiancé was able to guess the twist to the second story less than halfway through. However, the intended Japanese audience would have known this already and it did not diminish from the devastating sadness of the ending. “Stoopid spirits. They’re so mean,” as my fiancé would say.

Although everyone thoroughly enjoyed all of the stories, the consensus was that #3, “Hoichi” was the clear crowd favorite. While it was the longest it was also the most complex, weaving together recognized Japanese history, folklore and spiritual beliefs. The historical background to the actual ghost story is told without any dialogue through highly stylized expressionistic choreography. There is only traditional chanting and intermittent narration, but the effect is spellbinding. We were also able to give ourselves bonus points for recognizing the Buddhist priest as one of the actors in “Seven Samurai” (getting us to actually name him is another story, but so far, so good).

The last story was a little bit harder to follow as the specifics of it didn’t seem to make much sense. I think the main problem was that the general premise wasn’t one that we see often in Western folklore. Jilted spouses and vengeful spirits we get. A guy’s soul magically appearing in a cup of tea and getting half drunk by another guy? We need a little more back story.

Rumblings from the peanut gallery: Even though Bob did end up taking off before the final story I did get major kudos for my programming selection. Andrea mentioned that she’d completely lost track of the time, and Nick pointed out that this was a good thing when watching a film, not to mention one as long as “Kwaidan”. There were lots of intermittent “wow”s, a couple “that’s cool” and one “rad”. A rousing success in my books. And even if it was a little more Kurosawa arty than full on terrifying, the “Ringu” connection was very evident, especially in the first film. But someone did say it was “one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in a long time”.

Mariko McDonald and her fiancé host a weekly film night in their apartment, affectionately known as the Den of Sin. It’s kinda like evil film school. Monthly screening schedules are available at http:filmgurlland.blogspot.com and if you happen to live in the Vancouver, BC area and are interested in catching a screening please drop her a line at filmgurl79@hotmail dot com. Suggestions, hate mail and cute pictures of cats also accepted.

And of course you can always offer up some juicy Back Talk>>>

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