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October 04, 2011

Black Cat Mansion

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Borei kaibyo yashiki/Mansion of the Ghost Cat
Nobuo Nakagawa - 1958
Beam Entertainment All Region DVD

Nobuo Nakagawa is best known for his last movie with Shin Toho Studios, Jigoku, an ambitious horror movie about hell and karma. That film also was the final production from the Japanese studio that was mostly known in its last years for pushing the envelope in sex, violence and horror during the latter half of the Fifties. While Jigoku is available in the U.S. from Criterion, Nakagawa's films, as well as other Shin Toho productions, are difficult to find in English subtitled DVDs.

I went through the trouble of finally grabbing this version of Black Cat Mansion for multiple reasons. The Udine Far East Film Festival had a tribute to Shin Toho that whetted my interest in seeing the kinds of films ignored by Donald Richie and those who maintain that the only Japanese movies worth watching are primarily the canon films by Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. Also, after seeing Kuroneko last year, I wanted to see a real ghost cat movie. And Jigoku made me want to see other films by Nakagawa when he was Shin Toho's horror specialist.

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A young doctor, Tetsuichiro, brings his wife, Yoriko, to an old, abandoned mansion owned by her family, to help her recover from tuberculosis. Walking through overgrown weeds and untended greenery, Yoriko glances at an old woman just outside the mansion. Tetsuichiro doesn't see the strange woman with the thatch of white hair. The house his cleaned up, with Tetsuichiro setting up the place as a medical clinic. The old woman appears and disappears at will, finally showing up to strangle Yoriko without motivation. Tetsuichiro visits a nearby Buddhist priest who tells the story of when the mansion was the home of a hot tempered samurai who set in motion a series of events that led to one of his victims, a blind woman, feeding blood to her cat, and having the cat act as an agent of revenge.

Nakagawa jumps into the creepiness from the very beginning. The first shots are from the point of view of what is revealed to be Tetsuichiro. The camera follows a flashlight going through an unlit hospital. From that opening, the film is already in dream logic rather than real life logic. Not only is the hospital totally dark save for the beam of the flashlight, but we see a doctor and nurse wheeling a dead patient across the floor.

While the present day scenes are in black and white, the extended flashback in muted color. The color scheme is mostly gray, black, white and brown, all of which makes the appearance of blood more dramatic. Making the most of his limited resources, Nakagawa illuminates the now mad samurai with a light from a color wheel, giving the scene a mildly psychedelic touch. I wouldn't be surprised if audiences then, as would certainly would now, would laugh when the ghost cat's ears spring up. I would guess that Black Cat Mansion was primarily made for a teenage audience that was looking for some light chills and thrills. Mark Schilling has compared Shin Toho's exploitation films to those produced by Roger Corman, but some comparison to the films produced by Val Lewton may not be inappropriate in the way Nobuo Nakagawa is able to work with, and around, his modest budget. What matters most in horror movies is not so much the triumph of good over evil as much as the triumph of imagination.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 4, 2011 07:34 AM