Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Short Take: Along with Ghosts


Along with Ghosts Poster

(1969) Directed by Yoshiyuki Kuroda and Kimiyoshi Yasuda; Written by Tetsurô Yoshida; Starring: Kôjirô Hongô, Pepe Hozumi, Masami Burukido, Mutsuhiro and Yoshindo Yamaji; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***½ 

“I’m the guardian of this place, the Onizuka. Those who do not heed the warnings will be cursed by the Onizuka spirits and meet a swift end. In addition, tonight is the night when once a year, not only will there be the usual apparitions, but also the ones from deep in the mountains, and the ones from the swamps will gather. There’s an old saying which states Onizuka is a spiritual land, where apparitions from all over Japan gather, because it is connected to the world where the apparitions live.” – Jinbei (Bokuzen Hidari)

An Assortment of Yokai

It’s tough being third. If the second movie in a trilogy is bad, the next film might redeem the series. Conversely, the third movie in a trilogy could be (and frequently is) the weakest link. In this case, the bar was set impossibly high. The previous two films of the Daiei Film’s* Yōkai Monsters trilogy, 100 Monsters and Spook Warfare (aka: Big Monster War), were solid pieces of entertainment, featuring an almost encyclopedic listing of the quirky Japanese spirits. Compared to its predecessors, Along with Ghosts is decidedly lighter on the yōkai, but more character and plot-driven. 

* Fun Fact: In Japan, Along with Ghosts appeared on a double bill with Gamera vs. Guiron.

Ambushed by Higuruma's Men

A group of Yakuza, led by their boss Higuruma (Yoshindo Yamaji) are waiting to ambush two samurai carrying an incriminating document (what’s precisely on the document is never made clear). Jinbei (Bokuzen Hidari), an old man, warns them that they’re on sacred ground, and any violence on their part will unleash a curse. In the tradition of cinema, where no one believes old men and ancient curses, the Yakuza thugs go about their dastardly plot, fatally wounding Jinbei when he steps in the way. His seven-year-old granddaughter, Miyo (Masami Burukido) happens to witness the event, and now she’s marked for death as a witness. Before he perishes, he instructs her to seek out her father, in the town of Lui, four leagues away.* Miyo sets off alone, while, meeting a helpful boy and a ronin (masterless samurai) named Hyakasuro (Kôjirô Hongô). Higuruma takes on the role of bodyguard, after he offers to accompany her on the way to Lui. The odds are against Miyo and Hyakasuro, with Higuruma’s thugs on their tail, but help comes in the form of vengeful yōkai with an axe to grind. 

* Approximately 14 miles away.

Miyo and Hyakasuro

Miyo and Hyakasuro’s endearing relationship provides a good argument for finding your own extended family. Hyakasuro is a kind and virtuous man, who will stop at nothing to protect her from harm. (SPOILER WARNING) We soon discover he provides a stark contrast to her real father, Sakiichi (Mutsuhiro), the capricious lapdog of the same Yakuza clan they’re evading. He’s ready to beat a confession out of Miyo until he discovers a pair of dice in her possession, proving that she’s his daughter. To make matters worse, in the previous scene, he suggested to the Yakuza that they could use her as a human shield against Hyakasuro. All seems well when Sakiichi eventually turns on his employers, reuniting him with his daughter, but letting the aforementioned slide requires more than a little cognitive dissonance on the viewer’s part.


While Along with Ghosts may not have the abundance of yōkai of the previous two films, they’re there, albeit in more ancillary roles. You’ll find Nopperabo (faceless spirits impersonating humans), the cyclopean Dorotabo, a Wanyudo (“Wheel Priest”), a Tsuchikorobi (another cyclops, resembling a huge hairy mound), and a Konaki-Jiji (masquerading as Miyo for a piggyback ride). If this had been the first, rather than the last, in the trilogy, it would be regarded as a nice preview of the movies that were to follow, whetting our appetites for all things yokai. But don’t sell this one short. Boasting an engaging storyline and distinct characters (who are arguably more three-dimensional than the ones in the other installments), it’s the humans who take the driver’s seat. Think of it as an Edo-period samurai drama with yōkai cameos.


Sources for this article: Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt; Yokai.com 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Japan-uary XII Quick Picks and Pans

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes Poster

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020) In this clever sci-fi/comedy, Kato (Kazunari Tosa), a coffee shop owner, inadvertently discovers the means to see events two minutes in the future via his home computer. Soon, his friends and plucky co-worker attempt to   delve further into the mysteries of accidental time travel. But as they continue to monkey around with the new experience, events begin to cascade, and they’re sucked into a loop of correlation and causality, replete with paradoxes. Director Junta Yamaguchi confines the action to one building, but this limitation never seems restrictive or redundant, in a story that milks the concept for all its worth.   

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Tubi


The Legend of the Stardust Brothers Poster

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (1985) Writer/director Macoto Tezuka’s lively musical/comedy ponders the ephemeral nature of fame and the fickleness of fandom. Rival musicians Shingo (Shingo Kubota) and Kan (Kan Takagi) strike a Faustian bargain with a shadowy producer to become the manufactured pop duo, the Stardust Brothers. Their chaotic rise and fall is told through a string of music videos. The results are an inspired combination of The Monkees, Get Crazy, and Phantom of the Paradise (in case you missed the copious references, the film is dedicated to Winslow Leach). It’s at once a pastiche of music star movies and a self-aware parody of pop music, but even that description is selling it short. You almost need a license to appreciate this much fun. 

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi


Passing Fancy Poster

Passing Fancy (1933) In this charming silent comedy/drama from Yasujirō Ozu, middle-aged layabout Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) helps Harue (Nobuko Fushimi) a young woman down on her luck get a job at a local tavern. Although Kihachi is smitten by her charms, it’s clear that Harue prefers his younger, cynical companion Jiro (Den Ôhinata).  Passing Fancy features nuanced performances by its talented cast, including Tomio Aoki as Kihachi’s crafty son Tomio, and Chôko Iida as the cheery but world-weary tavern owner Otome. It’s a bittersweet study of humanity during trying times, as only Ozu can present it.   

Rating: ****. Available on DVD (part of the Eclipse Silent Ozu collection)

The Ghost of Yotsuya Poster

The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959) Iemon (Shigeru Amachi) is a brash rōnin, who lusts after Oiwa (Katsuko Wakasugi), the daughter of a nobleman. After he’s denied Oiwa’s hand in marriage, Iemon kills her father in a fit of rage. It all goes downhill from there, when he murders Oiwa so he can marry another woman. Iomen soon discovers, however, that what goes around comes around when Oiwa’s bloody ghost exacts her terrible revenge. Director Nobuo Nakagawa‘s (Jigoku) Edo-period supernatural film provides ample thrills, with oodles of atmosphere and genuinely chilling imagery. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD (Region 2)

Black Cat Mansion Poster

Black Cat Mansion (1958) In another excellent horror fantasy from director Nobuo Nakagawa (based on a novel by Sotoo Tachibana), Yoriko (Yuriko Ejima), a woman suffering from tuberculosis, is brought to her ancestral mansion to convalesce. She starts experiencing a number of disturbing occurrences, including a strange old woman who seems committed to her destruction. Things are complicated by her husband (and physician), Dr. Kuzumi (Toshio Hosokawa), who thinks it’s all in her imagination. In a flashback, we learn the mansion is the site of an old curse, targeted against the cruel samurai who once lived there. There are some nice creepy moments, as a cat spirit takes revenge on the samurai’s descendents (including Yoriko), although the film’s conclusion is a bit too abrupt. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Region 2)


Nightmare Detective Poster

Nightmare Detective (2006) Kyoichi (Ryûhei Matsuda) is a deeply troubled man with the ability to enter people’s dreams. He reluctantly assists Keiko (Hitomi), a young police detective, to help solve a case involving people who have suddenly been driven to suicide. The deaths are linked to a mysterious phone message by someone named “O.” In her quest for the truth, Keiko enters a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the suspect, in the twisted world of her dreams. Director/co-writer Shin'ya Tsukamoto’s supernatural horror film drags a bit in the middle, but the slow build-up leads to an energetic finale.   

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Bright Future Poster
Bright Future (2002) Yuji (Joe Odagiri) and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano) are factory workers/friends with a relationship not unlike George and Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Emotionally stilted Yuji is unable to pick up on social cues, while his friend guides him through the complexities of human interaction. One day, Mamoru is arrested for the vicious murder of their employer, leaving his pet jellyfish to Yuji. The venomous jellyfish serves as a metaphor for Yuji’s emancipation from his codependence – like the creature, he’s suddenly out in the world on his own, opening himself to harm and harming others. Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film works best as a character study with poetic flourishes, rather than a linear narrative with a redemptive character arc.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Ocean Waves Poster

Ocean Waves (1993) Tadanobu Asano’s coming-of-age drama (based on a novel by Saeko Himuro) follows two high school friends, Taku and Yutaka who gradually drift apart over a new girl in town, Rikako. While the film takes pains to illustrate Rikako’s fractured home life, it does little to engender much sympathy for her character, who comes across as shamelessly manipulative and self-centered. It’s also hard to feel sorry for Taku, who continues to go along with her schemes. This Studio Ghibli television production is a step down from its theatrical releases, lacking the meticulous attention to detail and enjoyable characters we’ve come to expect from the animation house. It might be worth a look if you’re a Ghibli completist, but compared to the studio’s best, it rings hollow. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Killer Car Poster

Killer Car (aka: Ju-on Car) (2008) A more accurate title for this derivative horror flick would probably be Cursed Minivan, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. A group of 20-somethings take a road trip to a secluded waterfall in a second-hand Nissan Elgrand. Unfortunately for the new owner and his passengers, the vehicle once belonged to a serial killer (established in an unnecessarily grisly prelude), and one of the victims now haunts the car. None of it makes a lot of sense, but Killer Car’s worst flaw is that the ensuing attacks seem completely pointless (why would the victim’s ghost attack innocent people instead of the man responsible for her death?). There’s a quick nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that’s about the extent of what passes for inspiration in this movie. 

Rating: *½. Available on Tubi  

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Hiruko the Goblin


Hiruko the Goblin Poster

(1991) Written and directed by Shin'ya Tsukamoto; Story by Koji Tsutsumi; Based on the manga by Daijirô Morohoshi; Starring: Kenji Sawada, Masaki Kudou, Hideo Murota, Naoto Takenaka, Megumi Ueno and Chika Asamoto; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***½  

“…Light and darkness are the fundamental themes for all of my films. There’s not much darkness in my world right now. Everywhere I go has lights, so it’s getting harder for ghosts and monsters to hide. When I was little, there were more dark spaces, even in Tokyo the corners of the room would be dark, and you feel like you might see a ghost there… I miss those times, and I wish I could live in those times. When I thought about ‘dark space,’ I couldn’t think of anywhere in Tokyo. But in (the) countryside, there’s still dark places, where monsters would hide. That’s why Hiruko takes place in a small village. And the school at night is very scary.” – Shin'ya Tsukamoto (excerpt from 2000 interview)

Reiko on a Bike

Ah…summertime. A time to relax in the sun, hang out with your friends, and fight demons. Writer/director Shin'ya Tsukamoto’s follow-up to Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) changes the setting/theme from urban cyberpunk to rural horror, where the peace and quiet is merely a prelude to the chaos that follows. Hiruko the Goblin (aka: Yôkai hantâ: Hiruko) seems almost conventional in comparison to its predecessor, but that’s selling it far too short. Hiruko is full of surreal imagery, frenetic pacing, and a pair of unlikely protagonists. Based on the “Black Investigator” and “Red Lips” stories from Daijirô Morohoshi’s Yokai Hunter series, Tsukamoto’s relatively big-budget second film seems almost lavish in contrast to the independently produced Tetsuo. The movie was filmed at Toho Studios,*/** and on location in the Japanese countryside (Toyoma prefecture), with a combination of veteran and novice crewmembers. 

* Fun Fact #1: The pond used for the floating face scene (you’ll know it when you see it) was the same pool used for Godzilla

** Fun Fact #2: Hiruko was filmed adjacent to the area where Akira Kurosawa was simultaneously shooting Rhapsody in August.

Masao and Reijirou Look for Clues

Hiruko opens with a bucolic scene of high school student Tsukishima Reiko (Megumi Ueno) riding her bike on a country road. It’s a deceptive moment of calm, however, before the tawagato hits the fan. She joins her teacher Takashi Yabe (Naoto Takenaka) in an archaeological site near the school, where they’re promptly overwhelmed by an unseen terror. Their sudden disappearance prompts Yabe’s son Masao (Masaki Kudou) and his buddies to investigate the school grounds. When his friends succumb to the same terrible fate as Reiko and Yabe, Masao is forced to team up with his bumbling uncle Hieda Reijirou (Kenji Sawada).* They soon discover they’re in over their heads (quite literally), with an evil spirit named Hiruko with a nasty penchant for decapitations. Somehow, they must find a way to stop the ancient demon before he and his minions open a portal to hell and immerse the world in eternal darkness. 

* Fun Fact #3: Sawada rose to fame as a big music star in the ‘60s, before he caught the acting bug. He has appeared in several films, including The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979) and Takashi Miike’s bonkers but loveable The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001).

Watanabe Threatens Masao

Kenji Sawada amuses as Reijirou, a discredited archaeologist (who wants to be Indiana Jones, but he’s more like Abbott & Costello, combined) who’s convinced that a hive of goblins resides directly beneath a local high school. His initially skeptical nephew seems inextricably linked to the supernatural goings-on, with a strange affliction that causes him to run extremely hot, and break out in huge boils on his back that resemble stone faces. Unfortunately for Reijirou and Masao their actions are further thwarted by the irascible school caretaker Watanabe (Hideo Murota, in a delightfully quirky performance), who roams the grounds on his own mission to combat the demon scourge. Watanabe straddles the line between friend and foe – we’re never quite sure if he regards them as friends, foes, or collateral losses.

Masao and Reijirou Survey the Area

Is or isn’t Hiruko a Yokai? Based on a 2021 interview with Tsukamoto, signs point to no. While he didn’t precisely commit to labeling Hiruko, he alluded to something more ancient – a throwback from Japan’s ancient mythological origins.* In the film it’s a nightmarish being that lives by decapitating its victims and taking on their appearance (In one simultaneously ethereal and horrifying scene, we see Reiko’s face floating in a pond, singing a siren song, before it walks out on a hideous set of crab legs). In the context of the film, a more accurate interpretation would probably be a demon. 

* Fun Fact #4: The mythology implies something far less sinister than the goblin depicted in the film. Hiruko (roughly translated as “leech child”) was the deformed offspring of the gods Izanagi and Izanami, cast adrift into the ocean. The child was rescued by the Ainu people of Hokkaido, where he assumed his final form, as the benevolent god Ebisu.

Hiruko with Reiko's Head

Hiruko’s imagery recalls several American genre films from the time. Reijirou’s homemade goblin-hunting gadgets resemble something out of Ghostbusters. Hiruko, with its crab/spider-like appearance, immediately evokes comparison to John Carpenter’s The Thing (although Tsukamoto denied that the film was a conscious influence). The way Hiruko attaches itself to its victims is not unlike the facehugger in Alien, and the POV shots of Hiruko racing through the school corridors are an obvious homage to similar shots in the Evil Dead movies. Likewise, a huge silvery tentacle with a face recalls the “water weenie” from James Cameron’s The Abyss. The visual call-backs are not restricted to American movies, but Japanese cinema as well, as noted by author Tom Mes (in his Blu-ray commentary). One notable sequence was clearly inspired by Nobuo Nakagawa’s Edo-period film, Ghost Story of Kasane Swamp (aka: Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi), while numerous images are likely homages to the cinematic adaptations of Lafcadio Hearn’s works.

Reijirou Fights Hiruko

Hiruko the Goblin owes much to the American genre films that served as inspiration, but it’s much more than mere imitation, weaving a thread of Japanese folklore throughout. While the stakes are high, it never takes itself too seriously. There’s a playful mix of gore-drenched horror with slapstick comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson movie. As Tsukamoto noted, it’s not an anomalous entry in his filmography, as some fans and critics might attest, but much closer in spirit to the sort of no-budget short films he was making prior to Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Although Hiruko wasn’t a commercial success, like so many other genre films, it’s stood the test of time to become a cult favorite. Here's hoping that Tsukamoto revisits this fun horror hybrid style someday.

Sources for this article: Mondo Macabro Blu-ray commentary by Tom Mes; 2000 and 2021 interviews with Shin'ya Tsukamoto, Mythopedia entry on Ebisu, by Gregory Wright 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Short Take: The Invisible Man vs. The Human Fly


The Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly Poster

(1957) Directed by Mitsuo Murayama; Written by Hajime Takaiwa; Starring: Ryûji Shinagawa, Yoshirô Kitahara, Junko Kanô, Yoshihiro Hamaguchi, Ikuko Môri, Ichirô Izawa and Shizuo Chûjô; Available on Blu-ray 

Rating: *** 

“Light has a fixed wavelength. The human eye is the same. The human eye can only perceive light inside that wavelength. Conversely, if an object doesn’t overlap with that spectrum, visible to the human eye, the object cannot be seen. I think ‘imperceptible’ would be a more accurate description.” – Dr. Tsukioka (Ryûji Shinagawa)

Invisible Man with Banana

Daiei Studio’s first foray into H.G. Wells’ territory,* The Invisible Man Appears (1949), is essentially a caper film with a sci-fi twist. Police track a kidnapped scientist and his stolen formula, which enables an invisible jewel thief to act with impunity. Although not a direct sequel, Daiei’s 1957 follow-up, The Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly (Okay, really two invisible men and a woman, versus two human flies, but who’s counting?), ups the ante with a more outlandish premise that pits the transparent against the tiny. Both films were unavailable outside of Japan for years, but thanks to Arrow’s Blu-ray set,** we can finally enjoy them, more-or-less, as the filmmakers intended. 

* Fun Fact #1: In-between Daiei’s flirtation with the invisible man, rival studio Toho threw its hat in the ring, with The Invisible Avenger (1954). 

** Fun Fact #2: The only surviving prints were 16 mm that were slightly worse for wear, but considering the less-than-pristine source materials, the presentation looks pretty decent.

Crime Scene

In the pre-credits sequence (set on an airliner), an industrialist is murdered by an invisible assailant. All the passengers are suspects, but none seem to have committed the crime. After a series of several inexplicable murders, the police are understandably baffled, with few leads, except for a couple of seemingly unrelated clues: the male victims served together during WW II, and reportedly each murder is preceded by a buzzing sound, like a fly. While the police initially think the assailant is invisible, signs point to something else – something much smaller. Naturally, it takes an invisible person to take down the miniaturized menace.

Invisibility Ray

Police captain Hayama (Yoshihiro Hamaguchi) is provided a tour of his friend Dr. Tsukioka’s (Ryûji Shinagawa) secret laboratory, where he conducts experiments with a ray that generates wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. Anything that’s subjected to the ray (as opposed to a drug in the first film) renders the subject imperceptible to the human eye. Although human experimentation is forbidden, it doesn’t take long before an eager lab assistant uses the ray on himself, to become an invisible man (because calling him “The Imperceptible Man” doesn’t quite have the same panache).


The antagonist is businessman Kusunoki (Ichirô Izawa). After serving a prison term following the war, he plans to settle the score against his fellow colleagues, using a top-secret  compound, which had been developed in a lab to shrink soldiers. The drug temporarily miniaturizes the user, enabling them to enter locations undetected. The term “human fly” is a misnomer, since the drug shrinks the subject, but doesn’t transform them into an insect (despite misleading shots of a housefly). Instead, the user becomes so small, they float around, riding the air currents (how this would work is anyone’s guess). Through this substance, Kusunoki’s psychopathic lackey, Yamada (Shizuo Chûjô), carries out his dirty work, as an unstoppable assassin. But each subsequent use of the drug leaves him wanting more and more. Is it the substance or the process of getting small that’s addictive? I don’t know, ask Steve Martin.  

The Invisible Man vs. the Human Fly benefits from moody, noir-tinged cinematography by Hiroshi Murai, full of ample shadows and low-angle shots, giving the viewer a constant sense of mystery and unease. The “human fly” effects are not quite as convincing, as he appears semi-transparent in some shots, and his scale varies constantly. On the other hand, the invisibility effects are serviceable enough, and it’s refreshing to see (pun unintended) that the invisible man isn’t the antagonist here. The final scene of the movie seems to suggest the further crime-fighting adventures with an invisible man/woman duo, but unfortunately for us, it wasn’t meant to be. It’s regrettable that Daiei’s first Invisible Man movie and its eventual (and decidedly more fun) semi-sequel didn’t spawn a franchise of films. Universal, however, did its own successful reboot of The Invisible Man a few years ago, so maybe we’re overdue for his Japanese counterpart.