Guest post by Michael Crandol.
It only took a ten-second YouTube clip from The Fantasy of Deer Warrior to convince me that I had to track down this movie at any cost. It was a scene familiar from countless grindhouse martial arts flicks. The fierce young male hero, clutching the dying body of his elderly teacher while the female love interest looks on, weeping. A closeup of the hero’s angry, determined yet tear-streaked face as he swears revenge on the villains who murdered his master. An archetypal kung fu movie moment.
Except everyone was dressed up like adorable forest animals.
The scene was played totally straight. The Deer Warrior spoke with all the righteous conviction of Bruce Lee. He was also obviously a man in a deer costume. The wizened old master was wearing a mountain goat getup. This was Fist of Fury by way of Bambi.
The Fantasy of Deer Warrior – ostensibly a Taiwanese children’s film from 1961 but clearly more suited to the sensibilities of the midnight cult movie crowd – is one of those you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it cinema experiences. Like Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House (1977), Deer Warrior takes its absurd premise and runs so far and so sincerely with it that discussions of camp and kitsch seem woefully inadequate to describe what’s happening onscreen. Films like these transcend such labels. Deer Warrior exists in its own weird universe, on its own weird terms. And for one glorious night in September (the 15th, to be exact) it will exist at IU Cinema, where the gritty drama familiar from a thousand martial arts movies will be played out in a way you’ve never quite seen before.
The Fantasy of Deer Warrior leads off the Fall 2018 East Asian Film Series. Admittedly it’s a tough act to follow, so to wrap up our East Asian autumn offerings just in time for Halloween we’re hosting the US premiere of the long-lost ancestor of all Japanese horror movies, 1938’s The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen, on Oct. 29th.
J-horror hits like Ringu (1998) and Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) infamously took the world by storm at the turn of the millennium, but Japan’s tradition of horror moviemaking stretches all the way back to the pre-World War II era. Of the more than one hundred horror films made in Japan prior to 1945, The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen is one of only a handful known to have survived the devastation of the war. In 2011 it became the first (and to date only) prewar Japanese horror film to receive English subtitles, commissioned for the Zipangu Fest in London. IU Cinema will host its US premiere on the film’s 80th anniversary, and I’m super-pleased that this screening will mark the first time ever it has played outside of Japan in 35mm.
The roots of so many now-classic J-horror tropes – everything from the vengeful female ghosts like Ringu’s Sadako to Ju-on’s terrifying cat-boy Toshio – are on full display in The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen. Part of a venerable subgenre of Japanese horror known as bakeneko-mono or “ghost cat tales,” the film draws upon the traditional folkloric belief that a cat which lapped the blood of a murder victim had the ability to grow monstrous, assume human form, and enact revenge on the killers. Director Ushihara Kiyohiko plays fast and loose with the bakeneko legend here, mixing in human ghosts and a cursed shamisen to create a Japanese horror cocktail whose legacy continues to resonate in the guise of contemporary J-horror, even if the film itself has been long forgotten (until now).
The Ghost Cat is also special because it features actress Suzuki Sumiko. Today she’s not exactly a household name, but in the late 1930s she was Japan’s first and most famous horror movie star, a female version of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. She takes a break here from her usual role as the monster, although she remains in fine villainous form as the wicked murderer around whom the bakeneko’s curse swirls.
Together, Deer Warrior and Ghost Cat make up part of IU’s “Animal/Human” Themester programming. They also represent, for me, everything that makes East Asian cinema so exciting. The extremely earnest absurdity of something like The Fantasy of Deer Warrior would never see the light of day in mainstream Hollywood. Meanwhile, The Ghost Cat and the Mysterious Shamisen and its J-horror descendants reveal the powerful yet hidden influence forgotten films from around the world can have on contemporary popular filmmaking trends.
Plus, they’re both just a really fun time at the movies.
The Fantasy of Deer Warrior will be shown at the IU Cinema on September 15, while The Ghost Cat and Mysterious Shamisen will be shown on October 29. Both screenings, which comprise the East Asian Film Series: Demon Cats and Deer Warriors, are free but ticketed.
Michael Crandol is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures at IU, the author of several articles and an upcoming book on the history of the horror film in Japan, and a lover of B-grade genre cinema no matter where it comes from.