Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Ghost of Kasane Swamp (1957) review


Katsuko Wakasugi (Rui Toyoshiga), Takashi Wada (Fukami Shinkichi), Noriko Kitazawa (Hisa), Tetsuro Tanba (Omura), Nakamura Akira (Fukami Shinzaemon), Fumiko Miyata (Fusae), Kikuko Hanaoka (Tetsu), Unpei Yokoyama (Kanzo), Misaki Yoji (Soetsu Muneyoshi)

The Short Version: Celebrated director of vintage Japanese horror, Nobuo Nakagawa helmed this gloomy, intricately plotted tale of bad karma and revenge, based on a famous play written in 1859 by ghost story specialist Sanyutei Encho. Exceptionally well made and boasting some strong performances and a few horrific moments, this oft-filmed tale bears similarities to another classic story of Nipponese horror, 'Yotsuya Kaidan'. A formulaic, yet effective 66 minutes of traditional ghostly vengeance, Japanese style.

The time is 1773, winter in Hanyu Village in Shimosa Province. The blind masseur Soetsu Muneyoshi bids his family goodbye to travel to the household of samurai Fukami Shinzaemon to collect a debt. Having no intention of paying the old man back, Shinzaemon kills him, ordering his servant, Kanzo, to dispose of the corpse in Kasane Swamp. Shortly thereafter, the samurai is visited by Soetsu's vengeful spirit, causing him to accidentally kill his own wife. Fraught with fear, the doomed samurai ends up stuck in the mud of the swamp and drowns. Leaving behind a son, Shinkichi, Kanzo takes the infant to Edo and leaves him on the steps of the upscale Hanyuya shop. Twenty years later, Shinkichi is now a servant of the shop owner and has a romantic interest in Hisa, the shopkeeper's daughter. She cares for him, but, against her wishes, she is arranged to marry Seitaro, the son of the rich Yamada family. Meanwhile, Shinkichi has garnered the affection of an older woman, his music teacher, Rui Toyoshiga, the slain masseur's daughter....

Nobuo Nakagawa helmed nearly 100 films, and of the 97 he directed, only a small number were horror films; yet these are his most well known features, especially outside of Japan. TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959) and JIGOKU (1960) are the two he's most known for in America, but a couple years before his interpretation of the famous play 'Yotsuya Kaidan', he directed the similar THE GHOST OF KASANE SWAMP.

Adapted from the work of ghostly storyteller, Sanyutei Encho, Nakagawa spins a magnificently intricate love triangle that, considering how gruesome the film begins, you just know it won't end well for anybody in L'amour. Much like the even more popular Yotsuya spook favorite, love does not conquer all. If anything, the benevolent state of emotional grace is trampled upon by jealousy and lust wrought by a twenty year enmity built on betrayal, greed and murder. 

Kohan Kawauchi's screenplay opens on a bloody note with an extended murder scene (Misaki Yoji's Soetsu takes a long time to die), then settles into a complicated soap opera narrative while the terror element bides its time before surfacing again later on. Hell is finally unleashed in the last half and it's as customarily grim as you'd expect in a Japanese horror movie of this era. Characterization is strong, bolstered by engaging performances from everyone in the cast. Complementing the intrinsic drama are scenes of gossiping townsfolk and an air of superstition thick with bad karma affecting innocent people whose desires bring about calamity. An extraordinary tale envisioned through Nakagawa's directorial eye where the only redemption comes in the afterlife. 

The alluring Katsuko Wakasugi (of Nakagawa's TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN [1959]) is Rui, the daughter of the murdered Soetsu. Frequently fending off the rough advances of Omura (played by superstar Tetsuro Tanba), she feels safer in the arms of the benign, and younger Shinkichi (Takashi Wada). The irony is that both Rui and Shinkichi are connected by a blood debt that neither are aware of--Rui's father having been senselessly butchered over money by Shinkichi's father, and unceremoniously dumped into a black water grave. 

What makes the revenge plot of KASANE SWAMP so bitingly melancholic is that Shinzaemon, the man who killed Soetsu, meets his doom soon after; yet Soetsu's spirit isn't satisfied with just the one who felled him--it stretches beyond that. Early in the picture, Shinkichi is playfully scolded for setting out the beautiful Hisa's sandals. Kumi, her personal attendant, notes Shin comes from a long line of samurai to be so doting; to which he replies, "the past is the past. I'm a servant"--to the living that holds true but not to the vengeful dead.

Initially Shinkichi is enamored with the adorable Hisa (and she to him), despite her being promised to Seitaro, whom she has no interest in. Realizing the slim likelihood of having a settled life with the woman he truly loves, Shinkichi's heart changes course and becomes enchanted with his music teacher, the older woman, Rui.

The beauty of Kawauchi's script is in the ability of the actors to make these doomed romance angles not only believable but pitiable--particularly actor Takashi Wada. A meek, harmless man, he nonetheless has women doing one of two things--falling all over him or falling in love with him. It's a striking dichotomy to another male character in the picture; one who, unlike Shinkichi, is thoroughly detached from emotion, preferring to simply take what he wants.....

The film's preponderance of bad fortune isn't solely set in motion by two souls unknowing of the association of their violent pasts; a vile samurai, consumed by flesh and gold, is the ultimate vassal of Soetsu's karmic vendetta. Popular actor Tetsura Tanba (also listed as Tetsura Tamba) plays this divisive samurai, Omura--hired by Seitaro to keep him away from Hisa; he, too, feels the ghostly wrath in a comeuppance that mirrors Shinzaemon's fate.

The Kasane tale has been brought to the screen over half a dozen times at least, two of which were by Kimiyoshi Yasuda (DAIMAJIN [1966]) in a B/W version in 1960 and a color remake in 1970. Another popular ghost tale of Encho, 'Kaidan Botan Doro', or, 'Tales of the Peony Lantern', has been brought to the screen more than once as well.

It might not be as well known as TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959), Nakagawa's B/W spooker is just as good. The story has basically the same structure and similarities in the actions and fates of its characters. Additionally, a body of water is a central motif for death. One of the main differences between the two is, that despite the romanticism of KASANE SWAMP, the vendetta is more cruel in the way it's meted out. A warm-up for Nakagawa's popular interpretation of Iemon and his penchant for infidelity and murder, THE GHOST OF KASANE SWAMP is well worth haunting your DVD player.

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