One of the earliest-known examples of the Japanese yokai film pits spooks and spectres against a rotten murderous samurai and his wicked femme fatale.
Researching the history of Japanese yokai in cinema is a difficult task. At least, it’s 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 focuses on the three loosely related yokai movies released by Daei in the late 1960s — Spook Warfare, 100 Ghosts, and Along with Ghosts — or on Takashi Miike’s more recent take on those old movies, Great Yokai War. A few people will talk about the history of yokai in popular Japanese culture and the role Shigeru Mizuki and his manga series, Ge Ge Ge 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 is 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.
Yokai themselves, as part of Japan’s folkloric history, are better documented in the English language, with a few books about the strange beasties having been published in the last several years. These range from the meticulously 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. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for yokai. Even if I couldn’t name the individual yokai or divine their purpose, the general concept was one that was familiar and has less to do with nationality, and more with growing up in the country. Yokai are like the haints and forest goblins and wee folk with which I grew up in Kentucky, beasts who seem outlandish and incomprehensible unless you lived the sort of life that gave you a peculiar understanding of remoteness, rural settings, and deep, dark woods.
Ghost Stories of Wanderer at Honjo is, for the most part, a straight-forward period piece ghost film, one of countless Japanese ghost movies from the 1950s in which a scheming, evil samurai runs afoul of a ghost who screws with him for half of the movie before a finale which usually involves the evil samurai freaking out, flailing around with wild hair, and swinging his katana with reckless abandon until he is killed by some righteous hero or simply ends up impaling himself. 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.
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, and the “Wanderer” in the English title is almost certainly a mistake, meant to actually be “Wonder”), 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 or rising from the dead and just whipped out a couple of card tricks. 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 thing with huge nuts” 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, only with giant testicles. Well, the males, anyway. I assume the testicles on the females of the species are of proper proportion to their body size.
Anyway, who doesn’t love a scurrying critter with big nuts? Japan decided to integrate the little guys into their folklore, infusing them with a variety of magic powers. 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. 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. She summons her yokai friends to put the scare into the fishermen and free their fish. Unfortunately, this tanuki has scared one too many easily-startled villagers, so the locals arrange a tanuki hunt. This hunt is stumbled upon by local honorable guy Komiyama (Hiroshi Hayashi), 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 (Shigeru Amachi, who also played the biggest jerk in the history of Japanese samurai/ghost movies, Iemon Tamiya, in Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1959 classic Ghost Story of Yotsuya), his good-for-nothing nephew who has come to ask for yet another loan. Being a righteous man and 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 beautiful woman (Michiko Tachibana) because, hell, wouldn’t you if you could, vows to protect Komiyama. Alas, the attempted murder happens on the night tanuki emerge to perform ritual dances, so she is 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 venerable old Toho Studio, though Shintoho productions never achieved the international recognition that many Toho productions enjoyed. This is thanks primarily to the fact that Shintoho worked largely within the realm of the genre film, 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.
By 1951, it looked like curtains for the fledgling studio. 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 the studio chairman. In a last-second Hail Mary pass, he staked the entire studio on the success of one epic picture, 1957’s Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War. The film was a 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 was on again. There was no second Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War to bail them out again. In 1961, Shintoho declared bankruptcy and had its assets sold off — to Toho.
Disappearing in 1961 meant that, unlike another studio that specialized in genre fare, Nikkatsu, Shintoho was too far gone from the public consciousness to find themselves subject of any particular focus or revival in the West. While the early works of Nikkatsu and Toei are enjoying increased rediscovery in the age of home video and streaming, the exploitation films of Shintoho remain largely unknown outside of Japanese old timers. A few of their films are remembered internationally, thanks to having been made by Kon Ichikawa, and 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. It’s a pretty solid, if rote, little ghost story, based on an old story called Seven Wonders of Honjo. 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. There are no real scares, but the film boasts some eerie-looking scenes thanks to clever use of shadows and fog. The finale is 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 yokai, tanuki, and the severed head of Komiyama, which has a tendency to appear and moan at inopportune moments.
Director Goro Kadono enjoyed a healthy spook film career, including variations in which Ama diving girls battle or become ghosts, such as Ghost of the Girl Diver. Held up against more famous Japanese ghost movies like Kaidan or Nakagawa’s film, 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 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. The film has an able cast, many of whom were ghost movies regulars at Shintoho, popping up in movies like Ghost of the Girl Diver, the classic Jigoko, Wicked Woman, and Ghost of Yotsuya, among others. The delightfully despicable Shigeru Amachi as Gonkuro is your classic over-the-top samurai film villain. He has two expressions — a sleazy leer and an enraged scream — and he employs them constantly and to great effect. 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, one is mostly just excited that the ghosts are finally going to unleash some much-deserved supernatural vengeance on such a loathsome fiend.