1957, Japan
AKA: 怪談本所七不思議 (Kaidan Honjo nanfushigi); Seven Mysteries
Director: Gorô Kadono

The first time I heard of yokai was when a friend brought back an unsubtitled VHS copy of Yokai Daisenso (aka Big Spook Warfare) from Japan, maybe around 1992 or so. The tape also had trailers for the other two yokai movies in the series, but at the time, they were ridiculously obscure in the United States, and any hope of seeing them was, at best, remote and would require months of correspondence with tape traders even weirder than me. At the time, I had no idea what yokai were or the role they played in Japanese folklore. I knew what a kappa was, and it wasn’t my first experience with one of those women with the super-long extend-o neck, but I had no reason to think they were anything more than a couple recognizable creatures from mythology sprinkled in with a lot of insane movie monsters. Unfortunately, college courses on Japanese history and culture tend only to focus on the most mundane elements of a culture – the lofty, artistic pursuits that are often as foreign to the common man of a country as they are to anyone from any other country. Not that those things aren’t worth learning, but they are as much an incomplete picture as if you learned only pop culture with no social or political history. It would be like watching Ozu films and only Ozu films and considering yourself well-versed in Japanese cinema.

Not too long after we first saw Yokai Daisenso, another friend gave me a tape full of episodes from the old Japanese cartoon GeGege no Kitaro. Many of the same creatures appeared in the episodes as I’d seen in the movie, and even a dense goofball like me was able to puzzle out the fact that these yokai were something more than just fantastic monsters from an old movie. The episodes of the series were, at least, fan-subtitled, so a considerable amount of the mystery could be unraveled. Still, there were very few English language articles at the time about these yokai, and walking into the university library with an erudite air about myself and asking the librarian for “your collected works on that Japanese rat goblin with the inflatable scrotum” rarely yielded the results for which I was hoping.

Years passed, and like childhood monsters, the yokai popped up from time to time. First, it was in the monster movie Sakuya, Slayer of Demons, a movie I would have liked were it not for the most irritating child actor I’ve endured in years being the main character instead of the titular demon slayer. The yokai from the old movies, including everyone’s favorite one-eyed, one-footed, tongue-waggling sentient bamboo umbrella, made a cameo appearance in the movie. A couple of years later, Takashi Miike, the darling of the underground Japanese shock cinema scene, directed a high-profile yokai movie called Great Yokai War which, once again, focused on all the yokai I’d come to love but not really know over the years. One Miike’s name was attached to a concept, American DVD companies keen to cash in on/promote the idea of “Asian extreme cinema” fell in line. Shortly thereafter, the three Daei yokai movies from the late 1960s found their way onto DVD in the United States. Along with them came a few books and a lot more articles.

Before then, researching the history of Japanese yokai in cinema was a difficult task. At least, it was a difficult task if, like me, you don’t read Japanese and are kind of lazy. Almost all of the English language writing about movies involving these bizarre and multitudinous creatures from Japanese folklore focused on the three loosely related yokai movies released by Daei — Spook Warfare, 100 Ghosts, and Along with Ghosts — or on Takashi Miike’s more recent take on those old movies. A few people will talk about the history of yokai in popular Japanese culture and the role Shigeru Mizuki and his manga series, GeGeGe no Kitaro, played in turning this bizarre assembly of ghosts, demons, monsters, and goblins into pop culture icons. But beyond that, the field of cinematic yokai studies was largely empty even though, as Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo illustrates, someone was out there making yokai movies even before Mizuki published his comic book.

The dearth of information on yokai movies made before Daei’s famous series was easy enough to understand: those three movies were, at the time, the only and oldest films of that nature available to overseas audiences. Even within Japan, home video releases of movies predating those three were scarce, and whatever yokai films had blazed the trail beforehand were largely forgotten, remaining unseen since their initial releases. Japan was hesitant to embrace the DVD format, but once they did, they did so with gusto, and a lot of really fantastic old movies found their way back into the market. Still, the fact that these movies were only available in Japan, and usually only availablewithout English subtitles, meant that the market was still largely opaque for outsiders. Nevertheless, a few trickled through, and lazy, clueless jerks like me were now able to piece together half-assed and wholly incorrect “histories” of the genre based almost entirely on a couple of movies and a lot of made-up nonsense. And then, eventually, people who actually did the work and spoke the language (or knew someone who spoke the language) did a much better job of spinning the tale of the yokai.

Several books about yokai have been published in the last several years. These range from the academic (Pandemonium on Parade), analyzing the meaning of yokai and how they reflect important Japanese mindsets and historical periods, and the mostly pop cultural (Yokai Attack!), that serve as sort of a Monster Manual style field guide to some of the most popular yokai. Although completely bizarre and often described as “very Japanese,” I think that, even if I can’t name the individual yokai or divine their purpose, the general concept is one that was very familiar and has a lot less to do with your nationality, and more with growing up in the country. Yokai, to me, are very much like the haints and forest goblins and wee folk with which I grew up — beasts that seem outlandish and incomprehensible unless you lived the sort of life that gave you a peculiar understanding with remoteness, rural settings, and deep, dark woods.

More years passed before it occurred to me, halfwit that I am, that it was possible those three Daei yokai movies weren’t the first three yokai movies. Japanese cinema has a long history of making supernatural films, after all, and it seemed increasingly unlikely that no one had thought to bring yokai to the big screen before 1968. But while I’d seen plenty of phantasmagorical Japanese ghost movies from the 1950s and ’60s, like those from director Nobuo Nakagawa, I’d yet to run across any earlier appearances by the yokai with which I’d become familiar thanks to Daei’s movies and GeGeGe no Kitaro. Until, by pure happenstance, one fell into my lap.

Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo is, for the most part, a straight-forward period piece ghost film, one of the countless Japanese ghost movies from the 1950s in which a scheming, evil samurai runs afoul of a ghost who messes with him for half the movie before a finale which usually involves the evil samurai freaking out, flailing, and swinging his katana around with reckless abandon until he is killed by some righteous hero or simply ends up impaling himself. But what makes Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo different than, say Ghost of Yotsuya, is that the yokai make token appearances at the beginning and end of the movie, first in a sort of “freak out the squares” scene where they spook a couple fisherman, and later to assist the heroic samurai and his ghostly accomplice in defeating the rotten samurai. It’s a pretty solid, if rote, little ghost story, based on an old story called Seven Wonders of Honjo (本所七不思議, Honjo Nanafushigi) by Akira Sugawa. I’m guessing the fact that this movie got titled with the word “Wanderer” in it has something to do with someone confusing “wander” with “wonder.”

The film opens with narration, explaining to us that we are about to witness the seven miracles of Honjo province (this film’s alternate title is Seven Miracles), which is accompanied by brief snippets of scenes we’ll see later in the movie. In general, the snippets are so brief and out of context that it tends to speak rather poorly of the quality of some of the miracles, which include a guy falling into some water and some folks dancing. Sort of like if Jesus had skipped turning water into wine and just whipped out a couple of card tricks. Anyway, after the intro, we join a fishing trip already in progress, as two rascals celebrate the bountiful day they’ve had while also providing expository dialogue about the tanuki that is supposedly lurking nearby, keen on tricking humans. Tanuki is better known as “that raccoon dog with giant testicles” that Japanese people like to put on their front lawn like a garden gnome or pink flamingo.

Tanuki are actual animals, and as you would guess from the English language description, they look like raccoons. Japan decided to integrate the little guys into their folklore, infusing them with a variety of magic powers and really getting into the magnificent size of the balls on the males. Folkloric tanuki are usually depicted wearing a hat and carrying a sake bottle, and among the powers ascribed to them are shape-shifting, protection from bad weather, the ability to make good decisions, and for some reason the balls equal financial prosperity — possibly because the skins of real tanuki were used in the processing of gold. While having your balls skinned to make gold may not seem like good luck for the tanuki, they soon began to represent such for people. Thus, the proliferation of tanuki statues outside of inns and ramen shops and in gardens. Tanuki weren’t all good luck and magic balls, though, and some of them, perhaps upset at being skinned and castrated for the betterment of humanity, took on coyote-like trickster personalities. This could be something as innocent as screwing around with a gullible monk to cheating a merchant to cooking a human and serving them to the person’s loved ones.

The tanuki in Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo happens to be female, and she summons her yokai friends to put the scare into the fishermen and free their fish. Unfortunately, this tanuki that has scared one too many easily startled villager, so the locals arrange a tanuki hunt and capture the beast. This hunt is stumbled upon by local honorable guy Komiyama (Shigeru Amachi), who is returning from paying respects to his late wife and sending his son, Yumenosuke (Jûzaburô Akechi), out into the world to learn the ways of a righteous man. Komiyama is in a good mood and considers it an auspicious day, so he buys the captured tanuki and sets it free, asking the creature to return his generosity simply by not messing with the locals.

Upon returning home, Komiyama encounters Gonkuro, his good-for-nothing nephew who has come to ask for yet another loan. Being a righteous man and still in a good mood otherwise, Komiyama agrees but says he wants to see no more of his brother’s worthless load of a son. Gonkuro, on the other hand, recognizes Komiyama’s new wife, Sawa, as a former lover. Before you can say “magic golden tanuki nuts,” the two of them, along with a shady servant, hatch a plan to kill Komiyama and take his fortune. The tanuki, who transforms into a young woman (Michiko Tachibana), vows to protect Komiyama as repayment for his kindness. When the murder attempt happens on the night tanuki traditionally emerge to perform ritual dances, she finds herself otherwise occupied when the dastardly deed goes down. Having failed Komiyama, the tanuki vows to at least help Yomenosuke avenge his father’s murder.

Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo comes to us courtesy of Shintoho Studio, one of the six big post-war Japanese studios. It was founded by disgruntled employees of the venerable old Toho Studio, though Shintoho productions never achieved the international respect and recognition that many Toho productions enjoyed. this is thanks primarily to the fact that Shintoho worked largely within the realm of exploitation films, serving up popular ghosts and goblins and samurai tales more often than prestige pictures. Seeing them as ungrateful, upstart hooligans, it’s not terribly surprising that Toho was at least mildly obsessed with crushing Shintoho, and the two companies duked it out for several years. Toho’s lead time, plus their extensive network of theaters, gave them the edge. But for years, Shintoho hung on by its fingertips, always struggling to find theatrical distribution for their films. Despite their tenacity, by 1951, it looked like curtains for Shintoho. They even had to close down production for a while, but still managed to stretch things out until 1955.

That’s when Mitsugi Okura, owner of a small chain of independent theaters, became Shintoho’s chairman. In a last-second Hail Mary, he staked the entire studio on the success of one big picture, 1957’s Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War. The film was a big success, and Shintoho found itself back in business, specializing in movies that either catered to the ultra-nationalist right-wingers or to the sex and violence crowd. They managed to sustain themselves for a few more years, but eventually, they found the pressure on again. There was no second Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War to bail them out this time. In 1961, Shintoho declared bankruptcy and had its assets sold off — to Toho. Many of their films lapsed into near-total obscurity, even on home video, and even today, while things are a little better, many amazing-sounding titles remain incredibly elusive. A few of their films are remembered internationally, thanks to having been made by Kon Ichikawa, and recently some of the more famous Nobuo Nakagawa films found their way onto DVD. But there are a huge number of Shintoho B-movies lurking out there, just waiting to be remembered.

Among them would be Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo. Clocking in at just an hour or so long, it doesn’t really have time to be boring. The cast performs ably, and many of them were ghost movie regulars at Shintoho, popping up in productions such as Ghost of the Girl Diver, Jigoko, Wicked Woman, and Ghost of Yotsuya, among others. They’re all pretty great, so long as you’re perfectly at home with the slightly more exaggerated and stylized method of acting that was popular at the time. Gonkuro is your classic over the top samurai film villain, everything being either s sleazy leer or an enraged scream. If I had to pick a weakness, it would be that he’s such a an effectively loathsome character that none of the scary stuff that happens to him is all that scary. When lanterns start lighting themselves and severed heads start hassling him, I’m not so much frightened as I am excited that the ghosts are finally going to unleash some much-deserved supernatural vengeance.

While there are no real scares, the film achieves some eerie-looking scenes thanks to the clever use of shadows and fog. Japanese ghost films of this period drew influence from old American horror films, and even if the creatures themselves are strange and unfamiliar, they are speaking the international language of eerie shadows and ominous thunderstorms. The finale is also wonderful, as the tanuki, Yumenosuke, and the yokai face off against Gonkuro and a greedy monk who helps the treacherous samurai once Gonkuro deduces that they’re up against spirits, tanuki, and the severed head of Komiyama, which has a tendency to appear and moan at inopportune moments.

Held up against more famous Japanese ghost movies like Kaidan or Nakagawa’s Ghost of Yotsuya, Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo probably seems a bit slight. But just because it doesn’t aspire to lofty or epic intentions doesn’t mean it’s not a great little movie. It’s fast-paced and fun, low-budget but well-executed. The yokai may only have a cameo, but heck, they really only had a cameo in some of the later Daei films. Ultimately, old-fashioned, black-and-white ghost movies like this are cinematic comfort food for me, and if my quest to learn more about early yokai movies and Shintoho means wading through a bunch more movies like Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo, I say bring them on.

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