Hiroku Kaibyoden (The Haunted Castle) (Tokuzo Tanaka, 1969)
[note: review originally published 8May2010]
The funny thing is, I know I’ve seen this storyline before. It took me a long, long while after I watched the movie to remember where, though (I watched the film, according to my spreadsheet, exactly a month ago as I write this on 8 June 2010)— it’s referenced in bonus panels in a volume of Hikaru no Go, though I don’t remember which volume. It’s a fun little horror flick, and a very enjoyable one, though you’re going to get a very short review out of me (there’s almost no information on it at IMDB, and I’m nowhere near good enough with Japanese to translate credits on the fly).
If you’ve dug into Japanese folklore at all, you’re probably familiar with the bakeneko, basically a shape-shifting cat, who wanders through a number of folktales. The bakeneko takes center stage in Hiroku Kaibyoden (literally, The Haunted Castle, though the official English title of the film was Secret Chronicles of the Ghost-Cat) in the form of a vampire who’s come back from the grave to take revenge on a go-obsessed samurai warlord who… umm. Killed her family? Seems logical, but I must say, the person who did the subtitles on my copy could have used a native English speaker to help with some of the translation. (Not nearly as bad as many Mandarin and Hindi movies I’ve seen, but still off enough that I missed a couple of things.) While it’s a main plot point, if you stumble across a copy with the same subtitles, not to worry. It’s not going to matter to the average viewer why this ghost/vampire/cat/thing is creeping around the castle knocking off samurai and family members, any more than it matters why the ghostly sailors in The Fog have decided to descend on that small California town. Hiroku Kaibyoden is all about atmosphere, pace, and timing, and it all works like a charm.
Given the closeness between the Japanese and Russian film industries over the years, it’s not out of the question to assume Tanaka had seen Viy, Konstantin Yershov’s 1967 ghost-demon flick based on a Gogol story. While the plot here is very obviously Japanese in origin, the screen presence of the thing put me in mind of Viy more than once. This is not at all a bad thing, especially because it lets me say that fans of Viy who have somehow missed this need to go a-hunting soonly. (I believe you can see the whole thing online at a few streaming-rental sites. Which is good because the DVD has been OOP for quite a while.) And if you’ve never seen Viy, you should check this one out and see whether you should go glom onto that one. Both have that peculiar, semi-naive sixties low-budget charm about them, both have really awful special effects that look endearing more than anything else these days, and both are blessed with a cast of gifted actors with a couple of glaring, and amusing exceptions. Yes, I’m telling you this is a lovable-trash kind of movie, and I’m probably not doing it the justice I should, given how revered it is by a majority of the few who’ve seen it in recent years. But just as Yershov is no Tarkovsky, by no stretch of the imagination is Tanaka another Ozu. This is not deathless cinema. But it is very, very good cinema, and it is worth seeing. *** ½
I don’t have a trailer for you. Or a clip. So how about the first episode of the anime adaptation of Hikaru no Go? (Which is a fantastic manga and you should read it.)