Director Nakagawa Nobuo (1905 – 1984) directed 98 films during his career, many of which were dedicated to the horror genre. Of those films, only a very few have become familiar to Western audiences, such as his 1957 Ghosts of Kasane Swamp, the 1959 Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, and his stylistically classic Jigoku (1960).
Nakagawa is a central figure in the early growth and evolution of Japan’s horror film trajectory, not merely due to the number of films he contributed to the genre, but primarily because of his relentless experimentation with visual styles and newly emerging cinematic technology. The film under review here, Borei Kaibyo Yashiki or Mansion of the Ghost Cat (1958) is Nakagawa’s first attempt to shoot a film in the newly available anamorphic/scope format with the help of cinematographer Nishimoto Tadashi — who (BTW) will remain Nakagawa’s principle cinematographer for many subsequent films including Nakagawa’s most well-known. Apart from experimentation with technology, the powerful use of visual styles to create ambiance and psychological focus comes through loud and clear in this film.
Though divulging this nearly amounts to a stylistic spoiler, Nakagawa here employs a radically creative stylistic flow as the narrative moves from present to past to present again. The film credits make clear that the central portion of the film is to be understood as a “jidaigeki” or historical piece, presumably from the Edo Era. The prologue and epilogue to this jidaigeki take place in the “present day” and amount to narrative bookends to the lengthier and more substantial middle. Rather than cast the present in color and the past in older hues, Nakagawa saves his color solely for the jidaigeki where the crimson red of blood and the ghastly pale of monstrosities come through all the more powerfully, while the prologue and epilogue are filmed purely in black and white, as if to imply the present somehow lives under the shadow of the past. The result is quite striking and, as hinted at above, caught contemporary audiences thoroughly off guard due to its counter-intuitive approach.
The tale here falls squarely within the genre of tragic ghost story, and centers wholly upon classic Shinto animism and superstition wherein the departed souls of humans and animals indeed may merge in the afterlife, resulting is a rather unholy and formidable breed of monster. (A more recent example of this can be found in the Ju-On series where little (departed) Toshio has basically absorbed the spirit of his departed black cat.) Here Nakagawa depicts a ghostly triad blended into a single entity comprised of one part cat, one part cursed human soul, and one part onryou or vengeful spirit intent purely on revenge.
The central jidaigeki portion of the narrative depicts the tragic and unfortunate chain of events which lead to the formation of this formidable monster and the generational curse which follows. Thus those in the “present day bookends” are merely experiencing the ghostly results of the far more descript and colorful past.