NYC Happenings: Japan Society's Got Girls, Guns & Ghosts

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
If you're a Twitch reader and a fan of Japanese films, then you have probably seen a flick or two from the legendary studio Shintoho -- yes, the studio that was formed by striking Toho workers, this was real grass roots action that then became the home for many an adventurous production by the early 60s. Well, starting February 27th and running through March 10th, Japan Society and Globus Films will be presenting a flurry of flicks from this second golden age of Japanese film and they're calling it Into The Shintoho Mind Warp: Girls, Guns & Ghosts. Now really, what is more Twitch-friendly than that triple threat? To get you on board with what looks to be a truly exciting series, our own Peter Gutierrez offers up some thoughts on some of the films playing in the coming days:

No joke: I've wanted to see Ghost Story of Yotsura for more than a quarter century--so you can imagine the level of my expectations... and the significance of my saying that Nobuo Nakagawa's 1959 film exceeded them. Made shortly before his masterwork Jigoku, Yotsura is a film wherein you can feel Nakagawa's brand of intoxicating horror in tension with the classical source material, and the end result is high art. The fact that nothing supernatural occurs for the first 50 minutes should provide a sense of the smart, stately build-up to the terror sequences. In terms of cinema, the aesthetic thrills are near-constant, and include the pendulum-swing of the frame in parallel to a key character knocking back some poison and, later, a phenomenal upwards tilt to follow the shocked gaze of our villainous protagonist. Meanwhile, horror fans should delight in the viciousness of the ghosts: even those not familiar with traditional kaidan but know its modern equivalent, J-horror, expect vengeful wraiths to mess with those who wronged them--but here they don't care if total innocents are slaughtered in the process. Unforgettable in just about every aspect.

While Yellow Line didn't blow me away, it's a film I urge hardcore followers of Japanese cinema to see, especially if they're into crime thrillers. While I admired many things about it, the fact that it very strongly echoes a novel by one of my favorite authors (Graham Greene's A Gun for Sale) left me with mixed emotions: loved the anti-hero "romance" of a hardboiled criminal being paired with a "nice girl" while hunting his dishonorable and hypocritical bosses--but I've seen it before. Sure, the sleazy view of post-war Japan is rather fascinating, and the staging of the climax is powerful and satisfying. But for every well-drawn character or detail there are clichéd thematic gestures, such as our killer-protagonist drawing a parallel between his profession and his father being a soldier during the war. All in all, an intriguing mix of Hitchcockian pursuit (its train sequence) and a prefiguration of the stylized crime dramas that would emerge in the 1960's à la Seijun Suzuki.

Don't let the goofy-sounding title of Ghost Cat of Otama Pond or the stills showing a furry humanoid threatening some samurai give you the impression that this is an all-out campfest. Far from it. That human incarnation of the cat appears in only a couple of scenes, and though the feline motif is common in Japanese lit/folklore, here it also strongly recalls Poe. In fact, that's one reason Yoshihiro Ishikawa's film might be compared to a Corman-Price collaboration, the first of which was released the same year as Ghost Cat. The dreamy use of color and lighting, and the leveraging of every last bit of production design to full effect are two more. So if Shindo's Kuroneko is an all-time art-horror classic that deserves its Criterion edition, then this is its drive-in cousin: a flick that's both transporting and full of popcorn- flavored pleasures.

The full program for Shintoho Mind Warp At Japan Society (which includes Vampire Bride, our all out awesome headline image) can be found right here
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