Ghost Cat of Otama Pond
Ghost Cat of Otama Pond
One of the oft-repeated tales of Japanese ghost stories (or kaidan if you’re nasty) is the haunted cat tales. Possibly dating back to Segawa Joko III’s 1853 kabuki play “The Story of the Cat Monster of Fair Saga” (Hana Saga neko mata zoshi), a depiction of which can be seen here. These tales are called kaibyo, and generally feature cats that drink the blood of their murdered masters, return for revenge in a ghost story manner. Many kaibyo films feature lakes and haunted mansions, and some borrow other elements from similar famous Japanese ghost tales, like Yotsuya Kaidan. The amount of kaibyo films is in dispute (at least one source quotes over 100, though how correct that is I don’t know, and how many of the older kaibyo films are lost to time I also don’t know. Thanks to a great overview of some of the films by Spectacular Optical, I can tell you that the first known screen adaptation was 1910’s The Night Cherry Blossoms of Saga. Enough of the kaibyo films were made that actresses sprung up who specialized in playing the roles of the vengeful cat spirits.
Kaibyo films can seem repetitive, and the many films are less of a lesson in having a story than about telling it well. Director Yoshihiro Ishikawa filmed at least one other kaibyo film, The Ghost-Cat Cursed Pond, and besides writing that one also wrote Black Cat Mansion and Yotsuya film The Ghost of Yotsuya, so he is familiar with the classical tales. I hope to track those other kaibyo films of his down and compare them to see how he made each one different and how he didn’t. Ghost Cat of Otama Pond is based on a tale by Sotoo Tachibana. Ghost Cat of Otama Pond was screened as part of a Shintoho Film Festival that is making the rounds in the US, it was screened in San Francisco on a double bill with Vampire Bride at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and I attended the screening along with duriandave of SoftFilm.
Ghost Cat of Otama Pond is a color production (rare for a first-time Shintoho director), and really makes use of the colors for atmospheric effects. The lighting and design borrow from the kabuki roots of the ghost tales, with green being the most prominent color for supernatural elements. The ghosts are all let with a spectral green, and green lighting on the wall denotes when something creepy is going on. There is also a shadow of a cat’s head that is projected on the walls repeatedly as the ghost cat is enacting its vengeance. The ghost cat’s greatest weapon is the evilness of its targets, who begin to turn on each other while the cat pulls the strings.
We begin with a couple (Shozaburo Date and Noriko Kitazawa) lost in the forest, so lost they keep coming back to the same creepy lake. Why they are wandering through the forest while attempting to get to the man’s parents’ house is dismissed by him professing familiarity with the area. But it is now late and they’re forced to spend the night at the abandoned mansion right next to the creepy lake. We all know bad stuff is gonna go down, and it does in the form of a spectral old woman, bathed in green light, who appears to the woman and does pulling motions. She’s freaked out, of course, but soon after becomes burning hot and very sick. The next morning the guy carries her to a doctor, who immediately pronounces her cursed by a ghost cat!
This is a very good doctor.
The doctor then tells the tale of why the ghost cat curses people, including the woman, who is a descendant of the evil family from our tale. Yep, all of this is just a framing device to give us a long tale set in the good old days of samurais!
Good samurai family the Nanjo clan prepares to send their son Yachimaru (Shozaburo Date again!) off to the capital to earn his fortune, while the evil samurai family lead by Gensai (Yoichi Numata) plots to destroy the Nanjo clan. Yachimaru and Gensai’s daughter Kozasa (Noriko Kitazawa also again!) have their own Romeo and Juliet thing going on, which both parents hate. Gensai riles up the local magistrate to raid the Nanjo clan’s house and steal the young daughter for a night of raping and more raping. But first they have to get the father out of the way.
This is easily accomplished by some fake high taxes, protesting peasants, and the father going to talk to the magistrate about how that all sucks. He’s murdered and dumped in the lake, and his house is then attacked. Everyone is slaughtered except the daughter, who is kidnapped and kills herself before the magistrate does horrible things to her. Everything is covered up by a fire. The only survivor is the cat, Tama. Yachimaru returns after a premonition of his dead sister, and finds his family home burned to the ground and the talisman of the local governor in the wreckage. He denies involvement long enough to get goons in position to kill the son as well, who is also wiped out.
But little do they know that Tama had drank some blood! Soon Tama is possessing Kozasa, and using this new position of power the set things in motion that result in revenge revenge revenge!
Despite the slow-moving beginning and the longer-than-necessary framing device, Ghost Cat of Otama Pond begins to pick up once the blood starts flowing. The spooky green lighting over the water is conflicted with the ultra-bright red of the blood of the victims, staining the surface. Later, specters of the victims being popping up all over, all illuminated the green color. The minimal color of the mansion and surrounding jungle (usually shot at night so the leaves appear mostly black) helps give the use of color a pop that matches stage performances. The ghost cat has a neat effect where she appears to grab characters in a mime rope effect, pulling then towards her and their eventual doom. The spooky atmosphere manages to stick around once the plot gets moving, and things become more and more Twilight Zone. Though I’m not going to spoil the ending, how everything is resolved is done so matter of factly and easily that it’s amazing things were so much trouble.
The atmosphere and use of color help keep the spook factor up for what was a slow ride in the beginning. As things get going, ghost cat goes to town. There is a great deal of blood to keep the action fans happy, and enough horror elements later to keep things going. Ghost Cat of Otama Pond does have some spooks, but I preferred Vampire Bride in this double bill. Until next weekend!
Rated 6/10 (Minya Time x6!)
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