Lost Cats Found at Camera Japan: The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen

The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen (1938)

So much of what we think of as film history is only what has survived. So much more has been lost. So many films have not made it into the 21st century. Only fragments, pictures or descriptions exist. It can happen when physical archives are destroyed somehow, such as happened in Brazil earlier this year. Or, with digitally stored media, a film might only be a software update away from oblivion. If no other copies exist, it can happen anytime, anywhere. It certainly happened to Japanese horror cinema made before World War II.

Of over a hundred horror films made in Japan in the pre-war era, only twelve remain. Horror had pretty much the same reputation as it does now, with many critics less than loving the genre, and most horror films were cheap productions made by small studios. These films were not necessarily made with posterity in mind, and thus even more easily lost than others. I learned about this from a wonderful, quite funny lecture by Michael Crandol, preceding a screening of the 1938 surviving horror film The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen (1938) at the 2021 Camera Japan film festival. Which is another reason to go to festivals, in addition to the reasons Colette de Castro wrote about in her musings on going to film festivals again last month.

Michael Crandol, assistant professor at the University of Leiden, has even written a book about the subject of Japanese horror history, called Ghost in the Well: The Hidden History of Horror Films in Japan. His passion was palpable in the lecture he gave at Camera Japan, in which he gave a short overview of the Japanese horror film history and its historical and cultural context, focussing on the early, forgotten era of Japanese horror from which Ushihara Kiyohiko’s The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen stems.

The Japanese horror film has its origin in the oral ghost story tradition. Such stories are called kaidan, which literally translates as ‘strange tale’. Most often, these stories would feature vengeful ghosts or apparitions taking their revenge on the living. During the Obon festival in August, which celebrates ancestors and in some ways, the dead, kaidan kabuki plays would be performed. They were the blockbusters of their time, popular stage spectacles that drew a large audience. It was said that “they would cool you off, because they give you the shivers.”

The kaidan film emerges from this tradition. One of the popular subgenres, most rooted in those kabuki plays, is the ghost cat film. By the end of the 1960s, over 70 had been made, most of them before World War II. The stories are often similar, and mostly boil down to a ghost cat taking revenge on a living person on behalf of a dead human. After the 1960s the subgenre seems to disappear, though cult classic House (1977) features a bakeneko and the boy ghost in Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) (and the other films in the series) behaves like a cat. 

While most, if not all, early iconic western horror movie stars were men, like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, the first Japanese horror movie star was a woman. Suzuki Sumiko started her career in the 1920s playing vamps for the most part, but then in the 1930s became the quintessential ghost cat actress. Most of her films have been lost, sadly, and only one in which she plays her signature role survives. During the war, no horror films are made due to the 1939 Film Law, which essentially turned the Japanese film industry into a propaganda machine, which left no room for disreputable entertainment like horror. After over 40 horror films were made in the period of 1937-1938, for instance, by 1941 there were zero. In the 1950s, the ghost cat makes a comeback, starring Suzuki’s successor of sorts, Irie Takako, in films like The Ghost Cat of Arima Palace (1953). Just like in the 1930s, critics hate the genre.

The lack of preservation of the genre, and its general bad critical reputation shows in the film that Camera Japan was able to show: rather than a typical example starring Suzuki as the ghost cat, The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen is an unusual variation on the ghost cat film. In response to the generally negative reviews the films got, respectable director Ushihara Kiyohoko was brought in to ‘elevate’ the genre. Yet, for all his attempts to make a different kind of ghost film, critics still hated, mostly attacking Ushihara for stooping so low.

Suzuki does star, but as the villain who ends up the victim of the ghost cat’s vengeance. She is a kabuki star and part of the plot revolves around a ‘cursed’ shamisen (a traditional Japanese string instrument), which Ushihara uses to insert many kabuki scenes and lots of music, played on said shamisen. As if to signal that this is about art as much as it is about scaring people. At the same time, as a playful wink, Suzuki’s first villainous deed is killing an actual cat, making it possible the ghost cat is actually the ghost of a cat seeking revenge. However, this ghost is depicted through experimental kaleidoscope imagery rather than just a person in a big cat suit or an actress with some cat-like make-up. Having not seen any of the horror films of the time this is supposed to elevate, it’s hard to judge how this compares to its contemporaries. But 80 years after its release, the kabuki and musical performances plus the visual experimentation certainly go a long way to making Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen a memorable night out still.

This Camera Japan article was published in October 2021