The 1950’s and 1960’s brought us some of the best of the best in gothic horror. Hammer studios were terrifying their audiences with films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959,) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), and on the other side of the Atlantic Roger Corman was bringing Edgar Allan Poe stories to the big screen with productions such as The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Meanwhile in Japan a similar trend was taking hold: the Edo gothic. Like it’s Western counterpart, it also relied heavily on period setting and gloomy atmosphere, but naturally delivered terrors drawing from Japan’s own cultural heritage, reflecting the fears and concerns of the time. It was a genre filled with stories of deceitful samurais, wronged women, and ghastly revenge from beyond the grave, with its stylistic roots set in the kabuki and Nō theatre tradition.
Many of these tropes have acted as the prototypes for modern Japanese horror; it is indeed the Edo gothic we can thank for classic horror characters such as Sadako Yamamura or Kayako Saeki. The genre came in many forms one of them being Kaibyô, which focused on stories of mythical feline spirits, often on a vengeful rampage. One of the best know examples is perhaps Kaneto Shindô’s 1968 masterpiece Kuroneko (Yabu no naka no Kuroneko), but it is by no means the only noteworthy film of this little sub-genre. It was in fact a whole eight years earlier, in 1960, that Yoshihiro Ishikawa brought out one of his takes on the theme with Kaibyô Otama-ga-ike, or The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond. It tells a classic story of murder and revenge, doing so in glorious, vibrant colours and abundance of eerie gothic atmosphere.
Young lovers Tadahiko (Shozaburo Date) and Keiko (Noriko Kitazawa) decide to take short cut through a forest on their way to Keiko’s parent’s house. Even though Tadahiko is no stranger to these woods, having spent his childhood years running through them, the pair end up hopelessly lost continuously finding themselves back at the same eerie pond. Eventually the two lovebirds decide a follow a seemingly friendly cat to what they hope will be its owners house. In true gothic fashion, instead of countryside hospitality, the couple find an abandoned dwelling with an eerie vibe. To make things worse, Keiko falls ill as if by magic and Tadahiko has no choice but to wait till the morning to get her girlfriend some much needed help. After getting Keiko back to his familial home, Tadahiko consults a local priest (Hiroshi Sugi) who informs him that what ails Keiko is no ordinary illness, but a deadly curse put on her by the very same cat that the unlucky pair followed the day before. He then goes on to tell Tadahiko a tale of how such hateful force came to be and we are transported back to feudal Japan where two lovers, Yachimaru and Kozasa (Date and Kitazawa in double roles) are desperate to be with each other.
Unlucky for them their families are sworn enemies and when Yachimaru leaves town, Kozasa’s father Gensai (Yoichi Numata) teams up with a crooked local magistrate, murders Yachimaru’s father and dumps his body in the local pond. They then go on to kidnap Yachimaru’s sister Akino, who the magistrate wants for himself, and murder the rest of the family and their servants in cold blood, leaving only the family cat Tama, alive. Rather than succumbing to the lecherous advances of the magistrate, Akino takes her own life. After seeing a ghostly apparition of his sister, Yachimaru hurries back home fearing the worst, only to also fall victim to Gensai and ending up in the pond like his father. But have no fear. These crimes shall not go unpunished for long, as the family cat is putting a curse on the evil doers and soon everyone involved is plagued by eerie visions and spectral visitors, leading them toward their inevitable doom.
The film begins in a manner familiar from Western gothic tales. The wild, overgrown forest with drifting fog and looming nightfall offer the perfect backdrop for our unlucky travellers. The promise of what is to come is reflected on the murky water of the lonely forest pond, as its water is tinted blood red, rather than the usual brownish black. The wind rises and lightnings flash as the couple seek shelter in the nearby abandoned house, just as so many other gothic heroes and heroines before them. All the while Watanabe Chumei’s fantastically eerie score sucks us into the story like a spooky siren call. While it has more in common with its Western contemporaries rather than any conventional Japanese arrangements (indeed you could easily imagine this composition in the background of a Hammer production), Watanabe has also mixed in some traditional Japanese instruments, giving the score a distinctly Japanese feel and therefore making it fit its purpose perfectly.
As the story moves on the feudal period, so the does the rest of the film move on from Western influenced gothic to its Japanese counterpart. The story unfolds as a classic Edo gothic tale full of betrayal, scheming, forbidden love, and of course, revenge. While atmospheric, it jumps almost immediately in middle of the murderous plotline. There is no hour-long build-up of suspense; when these blood-soaked events get going, there is no stopping them, and characters get killed one after another in almost dizzying pace. This might sound somewhat over the top for something that is supposed to be part of the gothic genre where mystery and ambience often rule over violence, but this, of course, is not without a good reason: in order to achieve revenge, the people seeking it must first die. And I do not just mean spectral apparitions revealing who their murderer was in order to get justice from beyond the grave. I mean nasty, corporeal spirits returning to this realm and that are more than capable of causing the wrongdoers actual bodily harm. Naturally, they drive them a little insane first, that’s part of the fun, but in the end the revenge of the Edo gothic ghost is always a deadly one and this too is the case with The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond.
The film does differ from numerous other films of the same era in one distinct feature: the lack of the wronged woman archetype. One of most central characters in the Edo gothic tradition, the wronged woman is someone who in life has not had a lot of power and has suffered a great injustice of some kind. This could vary from (among other things) infidelity, to being wrongly accused of a crime, to loss of a child, to being killed or murdered in a particularly nasty fashion. Whatever the case, in death the wronged woman gains their power and becomes a terrifying, unrelenting force of revenge. While quite few female characters in The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond do meet their end in miserable circumstances, they are by no means alone in this, but their fathers, brothers, and lovers also come to the end of their earthly journey through violence and betrayal. It should also be noted that while definitely in poorer position authority wise, these women are not exactly powerless, but all come from a wealthy, privileged background and do not therefore fully fit the wronged woman paradigm.
Instead, it is the family cat Tama, who then takes the justice to her own paws and sets up on a campaign or revenge that will echo through the generations to come. This concept of vengeful feline comes of course from the depths of Japan’s vast mythology and is most likely based on a creature called Bakeneko. It is a type of yokai, known for its shapeshifting abilities and a capability to mimic human language. While Bakenekos were not necessarily evil, it is said that they could bring on terrible curses and misfortune, to summon ghostly fireballs (hitodama), and manipulate dead people for their own purposes. Little Tama certainly does all of the above and more in order to get justice for her owners. It is somewhat unclear, whether Tama’s revenge is purely of her own selfish doing, and if she manipulates the restless spirits of her family like a puppeteer in order to get what she wants, or whether she is merely a conduit or a medium through which the spirits can seek their revenge. Either way, the villains of the story get what they deserve.
Visually The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond is a complete joy for the senses. As is the case with many Edo gothic tales, the influence of the kabuki stage plays a big part in the stylistic choices. The spectral apparitions are lit in eerie green, highlighting their otherworldly nature and giving them an unmistakably theatrical feel. The way these spirits appear and disappear often seems to mimic the trap doors of the Kabuki stage through which actors playing ghost and spirits could make their sudden entrance. Colette Balmain notes in her book Introduction to Japanese Horror Film how the cinematography also mirrors the revolving stage, using smooth pans through the landscape in order to transport the viewer from one point in time to another. It all works very much for the films benefit, adding to the wonderfully build atmosphere. Balmain also remarks on a brief but a significant shot of a samurai sword against a red background which we see just before the main antagonists of the story are introduced. Much like the blood coloured pond in the beginning of the film, the colour red once again works as a warning of things to come. The same motif is used when Yachimaru’s father promises to confront the magistrate, with windows glowing in red seen in the background predicting his approaching death. When Yachimaru himself takes off to confront his family’s murderers, a bright red evening sky lights his fateful journey. It’s subtle yet effective.
The scares might not be overly shocking for the modern audiences, and many could almost be described as somewhat predictable, but they nevertheless work in their own context. Besides ghostly apparitions, the wretched scoundrels of the story are haunted by visions of blood, items belonging to their victims, as well as the titular pond into which they sink more than one of their victims. In more than one occasion we see the water of the lone forest pond turn ominously red and as the haunting starts to hit its peak, we even see the pond itself appear closer to the home of the evildoers, working as stark reminder of their crimes. A haunting shadow of the Bakeneko is seen reflected on the walls as she takes her revenge, leaving no ambiguity about who is behind these ghostly events. It is all rather dramatic but does a great deal for keeping up the gloomy atmosphere, even when the body count starts to pile up.
While The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond might not offer the most mind-blowingly complex storytelling, it is nevertheless an excellent choice for any fans of gothic horror (Edo gothic or western). It delivers heaps of atmosphere in a beautifully stylised package and does not forget the fans of more violent kind of thrills either. It deserves its place amongst other classics of the genre and more importantly, it deserves to be seen by the gothic connoisseurs. Like many classic Edo gothic films, it is sadly somewhat hard to track down, as many of these films have never seen a proper release to the Western home video market, but if you do manage to find it, I encourage you to give it a go.
- Balmain, Colette. Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh University Press, 2008.pp 64-67.
- Hughes, Henry. Familiarity of the Strange: Japan’s Gothic Tradition. Criticism, Vol 42, No.1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23125174?seq=1. Accessed June 1, 2021.
- Rubin, Norman A. Ghosts, Demons and Spirits in Japanese Lore. Asianart.com. June 26, 2000. https://www.asianart.com/articles/rubin/index.html