Monday, November 28, 2016

Girl Divers of Spook Mansion (Japan, 1959)

In addition to their economical cars and improbably clean public restrooms, Japan deserves mention for the micro-specificity of some of the subgenres found within its exploitation cinema, whose founding principle seems to have been "No fetish left behind." A perfect example of this is the Ama, or “girl diver”, films of the 50s and beyond.

As some of you probably know, the Ama was a community that lived in pockets along the Japanese coast. Their women were known for their diving ability, and they supported the community with the abalone, pearls and other bounty they harvested from the bottom of the sea. Of special interest to filmmakers of the day was the fact that they performed this task clothed only in a tiny G-string, with the rest of god’s gifts exposed to the open air—and the camera. Never mind that the most competent of the Ama were well into middle age; those hags would be nowhere to be seen in the movie version of diving girl life, replaced to a one by pulchritudinous young lasses with hourglass figures.

Shintoho, at the time Japan’s premiere producer of low budget programmers, was the first studio to seize upon the diving girls’ exploitation potential, putting out a series of several Ama pictures starting with 1956’s Revenge of the Pearl Queen starring Machiko Maeda. Girl Divers of Spook Mansion, directed by Morihei Magatani, came later in the cycle and appears to have come at a time when Shintoho was trying to liven up the genre by way of a little cross-pollination. At this time, the studio was also enjoying success with a series of Kaidan, or “Ghost”, movies in the vein of Masaki Mori’s Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. As the title suggest, Girl Divers of Spook Mansion, is clearly an attempt to combine strengths (though it was not the first Ama film to combine genres, as other Ama films tended to feature elements of Shintoho’s popular crime films.)

In the film, Ama series regular Yoko Mihara plays Kyoko, a former diving girl who has left her village behind to become a big city police woman. As our story begins, she has returned home at the request of her friend Yumi, a young diving girl played by Supa Giantsu/Starman regular Reiko Sato. As advertised, Yumi lives by herself in a creepy old mansion that is more loaded with scary gimmicks than the Haunted House at Disneyland: Gloomily lit taxidermy, rope-like cobwebs, live snakes hanging from the rafters, hidden passages, black cats that jump out of nowhere, and a cackling, mentally defective hunchback who lurks about the grounds for no ascertainable reason. The black cat, I must mention, does not make that “raeerr!” sound that cats do when they jump out in Western movies, perhaps because the Japanese know that cats don’t actually do that—there presumably being no word for “boo!” or “psyche!” in cat speak.

Yoko tells Kyoko that she is being tormented by the ghost of her younger sister Kayo (Zatoichi regular Masaro Banri), who, in a flashback, we see going mad and throwing herself into a well on the mansion grounds. Her ghost is only visible to Yoko, but when Kyoko sees Yoko faint at the sight of it, she starts making an earnest attempt to get to the bottom of what’s going. Finally, stumped, she reaches out for help from her detective friend Nonomiya, who soon after arrives in the village. Nonomiya is played by Battles Without Honor and Humanity’s Bunta Sugawara, who, while bringing a not unwelcome presence to the film, undermines any potential for a female empowerment message that the film might have promised via his role as a male rescuer/white knight. It’s just hard to believe that these women, who are able to dive to depths of thirty feet in ice cold ocean water without scuba gear—or clothes, for that matter—wouldn’t be able to hold their own against a ghost.

Anyway, Nonomiya joins Kyoko in chasing after shadows and stumbling upon secret chambers, eventually to hear word of a treasure that is hidden somewhere on the property. Meanwhile, the perpetually cigar chomping Professor Mizuki (Jigoku’s Yoichi Numata) and his ever-present pith helmet make themselves a constant, suspect presence. Could there be more to this whole ghost business than meets the eye? Hmmmmm?

If you have gotten this far in my synopsis of Girl Divers of Spook Mansion, you have probably observed that its main characters being diving girls has no impact on the story whatsoever, and that it has as little to do with diving in general as it does bobbing for apples. And you’re right; rather than making day-to-day life in the Ama village an element of the plot, the movie instead uses it as just a backdrop for the action. This means that horrific scenes of leering female ghosts emerging from the shadows are often followed by long, documentary style underwater sequences that show the scantily clad diving girls from low angles that provide plenty of ass and crotch shots. Of course, censorship standards of the day prohibited the filmmakers from having their diving women be actually topless. Instead they dress them in brief half-shirts made of a cheesecloth-like fabric that becomes virtually invisible when soaked in water, which it, of course, is. The end result is like an artfully lensed wet tee-shirt competition.

Many people who have seen it (including Jasper Sharp, from whose excellent book Behind the Pink Curtain I gleaned most of the factual information used in this review) describe Girl Divers of Spook Mansion as boring. I suppose that has something to do with expectations. Indeed Girl Divers sets itself up for a fall with its delightfully kitschy credit sequence, which depicts the various diving girls in a series of pulpy tableaus reminiscent of Bloody Pit of Horror (a comparison that I do not make lightly): one girl embraces a skeleton, another is picturesquely tangled in a fishing net, another is decorously draped over the edge of a giant stew pot, etc. This primes us to expect an entertainment with a lot of reckless exploitation movie energy, where instead we find the cautious rhythms of a supernatural mystery.

And as a supernatural mystery, Girl Divers of Spook Mansion works, albeit in a cozily timeworn way that some might find laughable dated and other, more sentimental types (like me) may delight in. Director Magatani and cinematographer Kagai Okado brings just the right amount of old school creep to the ghost scenes, employing a dramatic chiaroscuro lighting scheme and a lot of weird, forced perspective compositions. That these are bracketed by a lot of rather prosaic T&A footage makes them, to me, seem all the more otherworldly and strange.

Then again, my charitable attitude toward the film may also be due to the promise of Girl Divers of Spook Mansion’s title, which, while not entirely delivered upon, is one that I don’t want to let go of. In this way it may be the Bruce Lee vs. Gay Power of Japanese exploitation cinema. In any case, if you don’t plan on watching the film, I would suggest that you instead plan a roughly 80 minute activity that is more intriguing to you than the idea of Girl Divers of Spook Mansion. Otherwise, you may find yourself haunted.

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