2019 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge: Day 24: Option 2: Ugetsu (1953) and Option: 3 Kwaidan (1964)

Day 24 Short Attention Span Theatre: Watch some shorts or anthology things

My Dr. Jekyll promised that my celluloid Mr. Hyde would not spree a master thesis portmanteau for this Scarecrow Challenge with an embarrassing display of my obsessions for the British anthology oeuvre of Milton Subtosky and Freddie Francis. And my nostalgia for celluloid with Amicus and Hammer title cards. And of my indifference to most any modern horror omnibus patch-hack jobs lost in the shadows cast by Dead of Night (1945). And that I would not lecture you on the literary-influence minutiae of the Gothic short-fiction and anthologies of Ambrose Bierce, Sherdian Le Fanu, Nikolai Gogol, Gaston LeRoux and Guy de Mausspaunt, along with the psychological-fictions of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Yes, Goethe and Gogol were right: I’ll never be satisfied. I’ll never be satiated by any modern anthology of psychological, slasher, or British horror-cloned short stories patched together with an asthmatic-weak—or eschewing all together, a strong and crucial—linking device to hypnotically float the viewer through five chilling stories. Or short-sell me with three stories. Or arduously torture me with seven stories. We know that it’s cheaper to film three stories instead of five and it’s special effects-economical to shorten your tales and create seven stories. You can’t fool us.

If you’re a frequent visitor to B&S Movies, you know your anthology flicks. And that’s what makes it so difficult to meet this Scarecrow challenge. To do this right: I need to dig deeper into the crypts than Asylum, Bizarre, Dr. Terror’s House of Terror, Tales from the Crypt, Tales That Witness Madness, Torture Garden, The Vault of Horror, and From Beyond the Grave, and the films in this Ten Horror Anthologies recap.

Ugetsu

An jidaigeki or “period drama,” this Japanese ghost tale is based Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), an Edo-period 1776 collection of nine supernatural tales by the Japanese author Udea Akinari, itself based on supernatural tales from the Ming Dynasty (1300 to 1600s).

Unlike most anthologies working with a patchwork of three to five tales with no colligative narrative outside of a loose wrapping device, director Kenji Mizoguchi (you know his 1941 film The 47 Ronin via the 1994 Japanese and 2013 American remakes) chose to work with two segments from his literary inspiration: “House Amid the Thicket” and “Lust of the White Serpent.” He binds them as one fluid story—not two separate tales lacking a narrative-relationship beyond an antagonistic storyteller serving a comeuppance to the morally defective.

“Lust of the White Serpent,” with its tale about a succubus as an incognito princess who takes advantage of a man’s lustful desires and disloyalty, serves as the tale’s prologue, while “The House Amid the Thicket,” deals with a man who returns after a long absence on his greedy quest, only to meet the ghost of his dead wife. In addition to Udea’s book, Kenji wove Guy de Maupassant’s 1883 short-narrative Décoré!, a tale about a man who greedily sacrifices his family with his obsession to become a great, honored warrior: he does; and in “payment” his neglected wife becomes a prostitute.

Set in the 16th century, Genjūrō, a poor potter with greedy dreams, takes his wares into the city with his friend, Tōbei, who dreams of leaving his humble farming community to become a samurai. A sage warns Miyagi, Genjūrō’s wife, on the dangers of her husband’s greed and that he must work with the village to prepare for an attack. Genjūrō and dismisses the warning and instead works long hours to finish a pottery lot.

As predicted: the army destroys the village. Not even the aftermath of the attack that uprooted Genjūrō and Tōbei’s families squelches Genjūrō’s greed; he continues obsessing over achieving wealth through his wares. This takes the two families on a supernatural journey, as they first encounter a boat-stranded ghost across a fog-shrouded lake that warned them to go back to their homes; instead Genjūrō and Tōbei return their wives to shore and abandon them as they continue onward to sell the pottery. After taking his share of the profits, Tōbei buys samurai wares and becomes part of a clan. Meanwhile, his wife, Ohama, is raped by soldiers.

Not only greed envelops Genjūrō, but lust appears in the personification of a noblewoman and her female servant. They order several pieces of pottery on behalf of Lady Wakasa, as the cursed Kutsuki mansion that was attacked by soldiers that murdered all who live there, is being rebuilt. Lady Wakasa seduces Genjūrō; assuming his wife and child, in the midst of the upheaval in his land, are dead: he marries her. However, Miyagi and her son are, in fact, alive: she too is attacked by starving soldiers on the quest for food and she’s murdered with her son abandoned (and adopted by others).

The cowardly Tōbei, so desperate for fame, steals the severed head of a general to present to his commander. When he returns home to show his wife he achieved his goals, he discovers that, in order to survive in his absence, she became a prostitute.

Genjūrō meets his comeuppance as well. A priest tells him that the noblewoman is a ghost and Genjūrō discovers that his new wife, Lady Wakasa, and her servant are ghosts—and the Kutsuki mansion burned to the ground months prior. A broken man, he returns home to search for his wife, and he finds her, but comes to discover that, she too, is a ghost. She whispers to him, “I am always with you,” and he continues to make his wares, trapped by the outcome of his greed.

Ugetsu became available for the first time as Region 1 DVD in a two-disc DVD through The Criterion Collection (2005). For the horror fans across the pond: Eureka Entertainment issued a Region 2 DVD as part of their Masters of Cinema series (2008; 2012 Blu-ray). There’s a rip of the Criterion version on Daily Motion. VHS purists can search the aftermarket for the subtitled tape issued by Home Vision Entertainment.

Kwaidan

You usually do not hear critics drop the words “beautiful” and “stunning” in the dark realms of horror anthologies (not even for the ’70 Amicus ones), but those other films aren’t Masaki Kobayashi’s hauntingly lush, 160-minute supernatural tale. He breaks away from the omnipresent five-story tales (and the cheap jack three-story tales) with an ingenious “nature” metaphor: he tells four stories set during a different season of the year. This celluloid feast for the senses of Japanese Edo-period horror tales (“Kwaidan” translates as Ghost Tales or Ghost Stories) are adapted from Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903) by Greek short-story purveyor Lafacadio Hearn, who has a propensity for writing stories based on his love of the orient and his adopted home of New Orleans, Louisiana.

While many U.S horror fans, as with Ugetsu, have not heard of Kwaidan, Hollywood’s directors sure have: déjà vu is in full effect with these tales of Kobayashi’s masterpiece, which inspired many post-witch and vampire tales in its mists. In particular: Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990; the production team is also responsible for the EC Comics omnibus Creepshow 2) lifts Kwaidan’s second story (that’s missing from the 125 minute-chopped DVD reissue) for its own third story, which gooey-trashes Kobayashi’s ethereal vampire tale with a head-tearing incubus-gargoyle.

So caveat emptor ye consumer-shelf stuffers of physical media: While Kwaidan’s two hour forty minute run time grossly violates the Scarecrow Video “short attention span” edict for this 24th day of this Psychotronic Halloween celebration, avoid the 125-minute prints at all costs and stick with the original 160-minute version. Ah, but double caveat: the 1964 original, 183-minute edit is now commercially available.

The seasonal-supernatural linked tales begin—and harkens the earlier fate of Genjūrō and Miyagi in Ugetsu: In “The Black Hair”: A man leaves his faithful wife for his own adulterous pursuits, when he returns to her years later; he discovers she is a ghost.

In the next season, it’s the tale of “The Woman of the Snow” (the story that’s missing from the 125-minute print): A weary traveler who, as did Genjūrō, encounters his own “Lady Wakasa”; he’ll survive his encounter with the alluring vampire if he promises to never speak of her existence.

As the seasons change, we learn of the fate of “Hoichi the Earless”: A traveling madrigal doesn’t get what he expects when he covers his body in magical symbols to protect himself from evil spirits.

Finally, the seasons comes full circle “In a Cup of Tea”: A samurai quenches his thirst, only to discover he’s now possessed by a warrior’s ghost cast inside the teacup.

Janus Film’s The Criterion Collection completed a 2K restoration of Kwaidan (DVD and Blu-ray) of the original, three-hour Japanese version that was initially cut to 160 minutes for its 1965 U.S premiere. It’s the first time the 183-minute version has been commercially available. You can watch this restored version via the official You Tube page of Janus Films VOD and purchase direct from The Criterion Collection.

And while we’re talking Edo-period Japanese ghost-horror stories (but it’s not an anthology): I’d like to suggest Onibaba (1964; Demon Hag) as a companion watch to Ugetsu and Kwaidan. I will give you no plot spoilers on this masterpiece of horror. You can watch the trailer and the subtitled DVD rip on You Tube. Another masterpiece written and directed by Kaneto Shindo is the equally creepy Kuroneko (1968; The Black Cat). There’s no online rip, but you can watch the trailer on You Tube. You can learn more about Shindo and his two films with this 15 minute documentary on You Tube.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.

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