Japan’s occasional flirtations with vampires are, like most things having to do with Japan and Western pop culture, a mix of revulsion and fascination with the foreign, a dichotomy born of the interests of the young simply not lining up with the prejudice of the old (something that is not unique to Japan, or to any culture). One portion of the Japanese population can read imported and home-grown vampire fiction as cautionary tales about the corrupting influence of the foreign, while another portion of the population can read those same tales and simply walk away having enjoyed a horror story about strange creatures. The presentation of vampires as symbols for the threat of and infection by the foreign is hardly a uniquely Japanese trait. The foundation of modern pop culture vampire lore, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is a cautionary tale about swarthy Eastern Europeans with weird customs coming to the “more enlightened” west of Europe and Britain to mess things up, buy real estate, and steal women.

But even as they play on cultural panic, such tales do not ignore the appeal of these exotic strangers — though more times than not, it’s a finger-wagging admonishment to the young about the seduction of the different and the unfamiliar. As late as the 1950s in the United States, vampires were still serving as stand-ins for the threat of weird foreigners with weird customs. Return of Dracula (1958) casts the vampire in all his Eastern European darkness of appearance as a stand-in for the encroachment of Communism into clean-cut suburban America. It is amazing how many horror tales are about fearing people who are different from you — and how many fans of the genre reject those fears and instead embrace the unfamiliar, regardless of the stern warning of their elders. But then, loving what your parents warned you about is sort of the entire basis for being the next generation, no matter where you go.

That similar xenophobia should find its way into Japanese works inspired by Dracula is only natural, if somewhat unfortunate. If it seems more obvious or prevalent in Japanese vampire lore, it is only because we are suddenly keenly aware that Westerners are the targets this time around, and in the eyes of the Japanese authors, they are every bit as fearsome and threatening and perverse as west Europe regards the east (in much the same way that every review of a modern Chinese film has to mention the propaganda aspect of it, as if America does not frequently produce films dripping with propaganda). But just as it’s easy to read or watch Dracula and not really be affected by it as a “fear of the foreign” tale, it’s easy to do the same with Japan’s contribution to global vampire culture.

From East to West to East

The Japanese fascination with vampires began more or less around the same time as it did for everyone else who wasn’t a spooked peasant living in the shadow of the Carpathians: in the 1930s, with the resurgent popularity of Stoker’s Dracula and, probably more impactful, the release of Tod Browning’s 1931 cinematic adaptation starring Bela Lugosi. Japan was in the midst of a massive military build-up, and people were whipped into a frenzy of nationalist fervor. Somehow though, Dracula slipped in (he probably turned himself into some mist or an armadillo) and settled into the national pop-culture consciousness. To highlight the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum, Germany was building itself up with much the same militaristic and nationalistic enthusiasm, yet the most popular books in Germany (until the Nazis banned them) were the outlandish pulp mysteries of British author Edgar Wallace. This just further convinces me that if we based international relations less on the fragile egos of political leaders and more on how much we all dig each other’s pop culture, we’d be marching off to war a lot less often.

Once something from another country gets popular, it’s inevitable that home-grown versions will start to pop up. One of the first Japanese vampire novels was Seishi Yokomizo’s Dokuro-Kengyo (The Death’s-Head Stranger, 1939). Transplanting elements from Bram Stoker into Tokugawa-era Japan, the book spins the yarn of Shiranui, a shifty stranger who transforms a shogun’s daughter into a vampire. It was Shiranui’s love of Western culture that lead to his vampirism and further leads him to turn others into vampires. He was based on historical figure Amakusa Shiro, who led a Christian rebellion in Japan during the 17th century. That rebellion would confirm the Shogun’s prejudices about the dangerous encroachment of Western social, political, and religious ideas into Japan. The borders of the country were sealed to outsiders, and belief in Christianity was banned under penalty of torture or death. Although the Meiji Restoration ended the rule of the Shogunate and began the rapid modernization — some would say Westernization — of Japan, it was easy for an author in the volatile environment of the days just before World War II to conjure up past specters and use them as a way to rile folks up about the dangerous seduction of the foreign.

Again, this is no uniquely Japanese phenomenon. It is sadly prevalent in pretty much every culture, even today when cheap travel and the Internet have fostered more exposure and access to the rest of the world than human civilization has ever enjoyed. In fact, it’s at these times when it seems to reassert itself, if somewhat desperately, as one generation embraces many of the things and connections the previous generation feared. Every country, race, and culture seems to want to enjoy the pop culture of others, but at the same time they are harangued by a class of insular fearmongers who warn you that you are sacrificing the very soul of your country, your god, and your heritage if you so much as think you might want to try falafel or wear pants or listen to K-pop.

The unfortunate thing is that while the masses seem to be far less timid about interacting with the masses from other cultures, the people who profit from fear of the other almost always end up being the ones in control of governments — or at least, the people who are willing to capitalize on that fear where it exists elsewhere in the population and turn it into a hysterical vocal minority. So we all do this damaged and dysfunctional dance year after year, decade after decade, when really all we want is to be able to watch Jackie Chan, write vampire fanfic, listen to rock ‘n roll, go to school. 

After WWII, the Japanese vampire tale had a new set of moral quandaries with which to grapple. Japan was devastated and defeated. Occupying Americans were everywhere, and with them, they brought everything from jazz to rock ‘n roll to blue jeans, sexually transmitted disease to murder to rape. And rapid reconstruction and modern convenience. In other words, an incredibly confusing mix of the helpful and the hurtful, the constructive and the destructive. Conversely, many Americans were exposed to Japanese culture for the first time in a non-war — or at least post-war — environment and brought home with them everything from the fascination with samurai and karate to Japanese wives.

Ultimately, the burden of suffering was on the shoulders of the Japanese citizens. American soldiers were probably no more or less prone to commit crimes than a Japanese person, but the relative freedom from consequence for such transgressions emboldened bad behavior and embittered the Japanese. But at the same time…things were getting rebuilt. Things were getting modernized. General MacArthur was wildly popular in much of Japan. A lot of things were getting better, at least for some people. Once again, Japan found itself in a place where its love for and dislike of Western influence collided with one another. Once again, a vampire emerged.

Lady Vampire, the Lady Vampire Movie with No Lady Vampire

In 1956, director Nobuo Nakagawa took his first step into the world of horror, with Kyûketsu-ga (The Vampire Moth, 1956), an old-fashioned whodunit with supernatural overtones inspired by the silent classic The Cat and the Canary. A year later, he made his first full-blooded horror film, Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi (The Ghosts of Kasane Swamp, 1957), drawing on Japan’s long tradition of ghost stories. In 1958, once again casting an eye toward Japanese folklore — this time the tradition of “cat demon” stories — he made Bôrei kaibyô yashiki (Black Cat Mansion, 1958), the film that cemented his reputation as Japanese first (and still most enduring) master of horror. Nakagawa tapped into a rising global revival of horror, which had been out of style since the late 1940s when it was replaced in pop culture by science fiction and, in particular, movies about giant irradiated creatures. But in the latter half of the 1950s, filmmakers were again exploring the murky depths of horror.

The new wave of horror really hit in 1957, the year that Nakagawa made The Ghosts of Kasane Swamp and a production company in England called Hammer released the modestly-budgeted shocker The Curse of Frankenstein. Something about that movie, which Hammer of course hoped would make a profit but doubtfully thought it would become a global phenomenon, struck a deep chord with audiences and sparked the imaginations of countless filmmakers across the globe. Perhaps, in the atomic era and with the Cold War in full swing, there was something comforting about the return to classic Gothic trappings. The Curse of Frankenstein, followed in rapid succession by Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula (1958), swept across the planet, leaving in its wake a newly invigorated boom of horror films.

Between 1957 and 1960, there was an international horror renaissance, and leading it was a bunch of vampires. The boom included such films as I Vampiri (Italy, 1957), El Vampiro (Mexico, 1957), The Return of Dracula (US, 1958), Blood of the Vampire (UK, 1958), The Vampire and the Ballerina (Italy, 1960), Blood and Roses (France, 1960), and Hanayome kyûketsuma (Vampire Bride, Japan, 1960). Not all of these films looked like Hammer horror, but just about all of them exist because of Hammer horror. Right there in the thick of it all was Nobuo Nakagawa, who in 1959 made Onna kyûketsuki (The Lady Vampire).

The Lady Vampire has more in common with old Universal horror and the chillers coming from Mario Bava in Italy (he was somewhere between co-director and uncredited director on I Vampiri) than it does Hammer horror directly. Compared to The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula — to say nothing of Nakagawa’s own gore-splashed masterpieces, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost of Yotsuya, 1959) and Jigoku (1961)— it is tame in its bloodletting, but it makes up for that with some positively surreal (if accidentally so) moments. Although there are flashbacks to earlier times, it’s not a period piece and is instead set in the year of its release.

If there’s such a thing as vampire lore canon — and there isn’t, despite what many may insist — Nakagawa disregards it, creating for his bloodsucking beast a unique set of traits (he has no issue with sunlight, but moonlight transforms him into a monster). He also blends vampire lore with the Japanese tradition of spooky ghost lady stories. Like I Vampiri and The Return of Dracula, it features strange, at times almost comical scenes of an ancient supernatural creature partaking in the mundane aspects of modern life. The Lady Vampire might be the only vampire film in which a vampire goes on a murderous rampage and then hops into a car to make his getaway.

Takashi Wada (also in Nakagawa’s Vampire Moth, Kasane Swamp, and Black Cat Mansion) plays Tamio, a journalist in love with a well-to-do young woman named Itsuko Matsumura (Junko Ikeuchi, a regular in the Super Giant series and later in Nakagawa’s Ghost of Yotsuya). But like all rich families in horror films, Itsuko’s haunted by a tragedy. Twenty years earlier, her mother vanished while on vacation with Itsuko’s father. Needless to say, on the night of Itsuko’s birthday, her mother Miwako (Yôko Mihara, Girl Diver of Spook Mansion) reappears, which would be shocking enough on its own. But to make the strange event even more bizarre, she has not aged a day in the twenty years since she was last seen. Her somnambulistic state precludes Miwako from explaining what happened, but for the time being, the Matsumuras are just happy to have her back.

The mystery is compounded when Tamio and Itsuko attend an art show and see a painting of a woman who is a dead ringer for the mother. No one knows the artist who painted it, but there’s a mysterious guy (Shigeru Amachi, soon to deliver the iconic version of the rotten samurai rascal Iomen in Ghost of Yotsuya) in a white scarf and sunglasses lurking around the painting. When the painting is subsequently stolen and delivered to the Matsumura household, it shocks Miwako out of her reverie so that she can tell the horrifying story of what happened to her. At the same time, we learn in quick fashion that the mysterious guy from the art show is named Shiro Sofue, that he has a dwarf henchman who stole the painting, and that the touch of moonlight upon his skin turns him into a ravenous vampire (or werewolf, or like…I don’t know, a Mr. Hyde) who loves sucking the blood of beautiful young women but also never seems to take more than one sip before casting their lifeless bodies aside.

Lady Vampire is based on the novel Chieti-no Binko by Sotoo Tachibana, but it draws just as much from Seishi Yokomizo’s Dokuro-Kengyo. Although accounts of Tachibana’s life in English are difficult to come by, it must have been interesting, involving as it did a stint in prison and assignment to Manchuria during WWII. It was there that he became involved in film. By the 1950s, as he was nearing the end of his life (he died in 1959), he was making ends meet by dashing off stories to serve as the basis of horror movies, including Lady Vampire and Black Cat Mansion.

The men tasked with adapting Tachibana’s novel into a screenplay were Nakatsu Katsuyoshi and Nakazawa Shin, neither of whom had much experience, and neither of whom had particularly prolific careers. They were all working for the short-lived Shintoho Studio, founded in 1947 by a group of fed-up employees from Toho. Although Shintoho productions are often cited as having been quite good, they’re among the least-circulated outside of Japan, and in 1961, it declared bankruptcy. The fact that the studio was teetering on the brink, and that Lady Vampire‘s screenwriters were not seasoned veterans, might explain why so much of the story seems, at best, only half-written. Coincidentally, the final film Shintoho produced was the gory horror film Jigoku, directed by Nobuo Nakagawa.

This is one of those instances in which a half-baked script works to the film’s advantage. Lady Vampire feels dreamlike, rather than fractured. The vampire’s origin story is like something out of the Nemuri Kyōshirō samurai films starring Raizo Ichikawa (the first movie in that series wasn’t released until 1963, but the books upon which the movies were based began publication in 1956), drawing on an awkward recreation of Christian iconography, Amakusa Shiro once again, and the persecution of Japanese Christians and European missionaries in the 17th century. Nakagawa and cinematographer Hirano Yoshimi shoot the return of Miwako in the same style as they would a “ghost woman” story, full of eerie music, fog, and fleeting glimpses.

Vampire Shiro surrounds himself with a bizarre menagerie of henchpeople including an inexplicably violent dwarf, a bald giant in a loincloth, and a cackling old hag — the existence of which is never explained but which does lend the movie an almost carnivalesque atmosphere. The dwarf is especially perplexing, as he is ostensibly there to aide Shiro in his nefarious doings but, more often than not, takes actions that seem only to exacerbate various bad situations. Never in the history of cinema has someone been so bad at closing the curtains.

For that matter, Shiro’s status as a vampire is also handled in a baffling manner. He seems to both relish his vampire powers and despises turning into a vampire. He agonizes about avoiding his transformation but then goes out at night and rents hotel rooms where he keeps the curtains wide open until the last possible second. At times, his vampire self seems out of control and in constant pain, thrashing about and screaming and knocking over as much furniture as possible. At other times, he seems perfectly in control. He grabs nearby women with unbridled lust and fury, ripping into their necks for a single drink before dropping them and dashing after the next victim. 

His monstrous shenanigans reach a crescendo that is equal parts horrific and absurd when he runs wild down an alley full of bars and nightclubs, littering the street with discarded corpses as groups of onlookers stand by too shocked and timid to interfere. While the scene isn’t especially bloody (though we do get some shots of bloody neck wounds), it is savage, even out of control. Foreshadowing the awkward action during the finale, it’s also comically inept in its staging, but somehow, it still works, the horror equivalent to the way Kinji Fukasaku would film street brawls in his 1970s yakuza films, all full of flailing and falling down and shouting.

The nightmare scape feel kicks into high gear during the finale, set in Shiro’s labyrinthine subterranean castle, a confusing netherworld full of random spooks, pools of bubbling water, and winding passageways. For this, even though he is an ancient samurai who has spent his life in Japan, he still decides some European vampire traditions are worth adopting, so he dons a frilly silk shirt and opera cape. He also turns into a completely different kind of monster when the moonlight hits him during this scene.

If you are wondering at what point this movie features a lady vampire — keep wondering. None of the women are actually transformed into vampires, and exactly why Miwako remains ageless is just one more part of the story Lady Vampire can’t be bothered to explain. All the viewer knows is that it has something to do with a ritual in which Shiro presses a candelabra against Miwako’s chest while she moans in…pain? Ecstasy? All of this missing and/or incongruous information may be a function of rushed and/or incompetent writing job, but I prefer to think of it, as would be the case with many continental European horror films, simply as a strange and uncanny result of the films dreamy lack of logic. Why doesn’t she age? Who knows????

Whatever shortcomings Lady Vampire may have is not enough to counter its chaotic appeal. It may be less gory than Nobuo Nakagawa’s next two films, and big parts of it may make no sense, but it’s possessed of an enthusiastic willingness to be weird. Even at his most careless, Nobuo Nakagawa assembles an interesting film, and the pastiche of influences — he cribs an eerie scene of dead brides in suspended animation from Universal’s Black Cat (1932) and an old school transformation effect from Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) — makes for a film that is as entertaining as it is schizophrenic. Measured against the film Nakagawa made right before (Black Cat Mansion) and right after (Ghost of Yotsuya), Lady Vampire is a mess.

It’s no surprise or that great a tragedy that it gets lost in between those two masterpieces. It didn’t spark a glut of Japanese vampire films. Nakagawa’s follow-up, Ghost of Yotsuya, was so shocking and successful that it made everyone forget about his eccentric little vampire movie and focus instead on ghost stories, which along with giant monster movies and yakuza pictures, dominated most of the 1960s. But for a quirky, slapdash production slipped in between two titans of the genre, there’s a good deal of fun to be had with a Lady Vampire.