My notes on the Japanese vampire movie Onna Kyuketsuki (The Lady Vampire) (1959)
It’s impossible to overestimate the impact Hammer Films had on the international horror scene in the late 1950s. It was predictable that the one-two punch of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula would prompt a revival of famous monster subjects in Hollywood, but when these films were seen around the world, countries with no previous record of this sort of thing started turning out vampire movies – including Mexico, Italy, Pakistan and Japan. Because they were all influenced by the same things – with the exciting new Hammer horror style not eclipsing memories of the black and white shadows of Universal’s 1930s and ’40s films – there’s a surprising continuity of look between, say, Mexico’s El Vampiro, Italy’s La Maschera del demonio, Pakistan’s Zinda Laash and Japan’s Onna Kyuketsuki: which combine sequences patterned on Terence Fisher’s action-packed, lurid style with haunted monochrome, local colour that co-exists with borrowings from British and American gothic and attempts to shock with violent and sexual content that must have affronted local censorship standards.
Onna Kyuketsuki – which means Woman Vampire though the chief villain is male and Vampire Man seems to have been an alternate title – is the first Western-style vampire film from Japan. It was directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, a specialist in more traditional Japanese ghost stories (his credits include The Ghosts of Kasane Swamp, Jigoku and at least one version of the much-remade Ghost Story of Yotsuya) from a novel by Sotoo Tachibana (source author also of Nakagawa’s Black Cat Mansion). It’s a wild, busy film which isn’t content to create its own Japanese take on the Dracula-type vampire but throws in elements of the Wolf Man/Jekyll & Hyde, the Mummy and even She to create a catch-all Universal monster.
In contemporary Japan, and with the widescreen black and white look of 1950s Japanese cop-crook melodramas, journalist Tamio Oki (Takashi Wada) is driving at night to a birthday party for heroine Itsuko Matsumura (Junko Ikeuchi) when he nearly knocks over a strange woman (Yoko Mihara) who strays into the road like Cloris Leachman in the opening of Kiss Me Deadly. She turns out to be Miwako, Tamio’s mother, who vanished decades ago and now turns up not looking a day older. The mystery deepens when a semi-nude painting of Miwako wins a prize and is stolen (for unfathomable reasons) by the artist Shiro Sofue (Shigeru Amachi), who favours a white scarf (as modelled by several later Japanese vampires) and big dark glasses. When moonlight falls on him, he sprouts chunky fangs and a snarl (and his smooth pompadour gets ruffled) then goes on Mr Hyde-like neck-biting rampages – he tears through the Ginza district biting bar-girls’ necks while appalled bystanders look on. He also has a dwarf sidekick who crawls through ventilation ducts, and turns out to be only one of his yokai crew – which includes a bald strongman and a cackling witch.
For a while, the vampire doesn’t know whether he’s more interested in Miwako or Itsuko. A complex backstory reveals that Shiro was originally Nobutaka Takenaka, a samurai retainer of the Christian Amasuka clan who became a vampire after drinking his murdered mistress’s blood and has sustained his existence through the centuries by picking on her descendants. How exactly this works is a bit of a muddle, but the inference seems to be that this kind of evil was brought to Japan with Christianity (there is even a very tiny overlap in the flashback with Martin Scorsese’s Silence). In the lively finale, the vampire kidnaps Itsuko and takes her to his ‘underground castle’ in the mountains and the good guys – cops, the hero, family members – pursue him and penetrate his lair.
The scenario mixes the climax of Hammer’s Dracula with something like a 1940s serial as multiple perils are encountered in corridors, minions are tussled with and the swashbuckling vampire (who wields a mean candelabra) tosses vampire-hunters around like a superman (a precedent for the action scenes that came along in the 1970s in House of Dark Shadows, Blacula or The Night Stalker). Of course, the vampire is destroyed at the end – transforming even more from his bestial form to white-haired, oatmeal-faced horror. The downside is that all the characters are cartoonishly thin, with barely a distinguishing feature apiece … and the plot lets a series of unanswered questions (why enter that painting in the competition if it was only going to cause all this trouble?) fall by the wayside in pursuit of the next surprising, shocking, exciting moment. It has only traces of Nakagawa’s habitual spookiness (a scene with a servant summoned to a long-unused room in a dark house) but delivers non-stop entertainment.
You always seem to introduce me to literature and films I never knew existed. Thank you for that.