This movie has everything – well, almost everything. It has a dwarf; a mute bald-headed assistant; an old lady who shows up at the beginning of the story, looking young; another old lady who shows up at the end of the story looking old; a bunch of other ladies immobilized like mannequins on display; and an artistic Japanese vampire who dresses like a European count and turns savage by the light of the full moon. About the only thing the film lacks a Lady Vampire, but you can’t have everything.
The Lady Vampire (original title: Onna Kyuketsukiaka) is one of many horror films directed by the prolific Nobuo Nakagawa during a fertile period that lasted from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Unfortunately, The Lady Vampire serves to prove that even the talented Nakagawa could not hit a home run every time; at least he doesn’t totally strike out. Though the story is a jumble of mis-matched elements, the film is enjoyable in bits and pieces, thanks to the familiar stylistic tricks and narrative devices.
Things get off to an intriguing start when a taxi carrying reporter Tamio (Keinsosuke Wada) seems to run over a mysterious figure that appears out of nowhere – only to find no body lying on the road. The non-collision slows Tamio down so that he arrives late for the birthday celebration of his girlfriend Itsuko (Junko Ikeuchi), who cuts herself instead of her cake. Though the wound is slight, it seems like an ill omen to her father Shigekatso (Torahiko Nakamura), who recalls the time his wife mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago. The recollection seems slightly prophetic when, coincidentally, the mysterious figure from the road shows up and turns out to be Miwako (Yoko Mihara), Shigekatso’s wife and Itsuko’s mother – and she has not aged a day since her disappearance.
While Miwako recuperates, too incoherent to explain her decades-long absence, Tamio and Itsuko go to a museum, where they see a semi-nude painting the strongly resembles Miwako. Though they do not notice, an elegantly dressed stranger (Shigeru Amachi) overhears their conversation. Later, the stranger orders his dwarf assistant to steal the painting and deliver it to Miwako. The painting jars her memory: on vacation long ago, she fell under the spell of an artist, who turned out to be a vampire. Flashing further back, we see that the artist was a samurai who became undead hundreds of years ago, after he drank the life’ blood of his beloved, a member of the Amakusa clan, a sect of Japanese Christians, rather than let her fall into the hands of the Shogun’s conquering army. The vampire, who preserves his immortality by drinking the blood of Amakusa’s descendants, promised her immortality. Eventually, she escaped, and now the vampire (who currently signs his paintings Shiro Sufue, though he otherwise goes by the name Nobutaka Takenaka) wants to find her again.
Meanwhile, we see that Shiro/Nobutaka, despite his well-coiffed appearance and fancy apparel (including the no-vampire-would-be-caught-undead-without-it cloak), has a werewolf-like reaction to moonlight, which turns him into a bestial blood-drinker who attacks women like a violent thug. Despite living in an apartment right next to a recent victim, he manages to avoid the slow-moving police long enough to kidnap Miwako and take her back to his lair: an underground castle. The police follow, along with Tamio and Itsuko. Apparently tired of Miwako, Nobutaka kidnaps her daughter and offers the same immortality deal he previously offered her mother. Tamio and the police arrive; a wild melee ensues, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, and eventually the young couple walk away to safety.
For most of its short running time, The Lady Vampire comes across like the Japanese equivalent of the Mexican horror films that would start appearing a few years later: it resembles an assembly of clichés from classic American horror movies, filtered through the cultural eye of some competent technicians intent on manufacturing a successful pastiche with a touch of local flavor. The black-and-white photography is nicely done; the mystery is intriguing; the whole thing seems like good fun, but…
After the initial setup, the story goes nowhere fast; the human characters wander around somewhat cluelessly, while the vampire puts his plan into effect. But even his plan is unnecessarily protracted: once he knows Miwako’s whereabouts, why not kidnap her immediately instead of going through the trouble of getting the painting to her – which turns to be simply a plot device to jog her memory, so that the film can fill in the back story via flashbacks? Consequently, The Lady Vampire ends up treading water during its middle section, while the audience waits for someone to do something, with only Nobutaka’s occasional vampire outbreaks to rev up the proceedings.
The Lady Vampire is further hampered by its confusing mix of elements, best exemplified by the title itself: Shiro/Nobutaka never turned Miwako into a Lady Vampire, leaving her continuing youthful appearance somewhat puzzling. The enigma is exacerbated by his mannequin-like collection of women, embalmed in eternally youthful perfection; these are women who previously rejected Shiro/Nobutaka’s overtures – a fate that may befall Miwako as well – but the process by which they are immobilized is never explained, and considering that we see only half a dozen, we have to wonder whether that meager blood supply was enough to sustain him for centuries. This image of embalmed former wives/lovers standing at attention seems borrowed from the 1934 Universal Pictures horror film The Black Cat, in which Boris Karloff’s character had a similar collection of ex-wives; elements like this suggest that the writers of The Lady Vampire were tossing in genre motifs at random, out of a misplaced sense of obligation – such as the lunar transformations, which haphazardly mixes vampire mythology with lycanthropy.
Eventually, the unanswered question mount too high. Why was the vampire hanging out in the museum at exact time that Tamio and Itsuko happened to see his painting – was he hoping that Miwako’s relatives would just happen to show up and reveal her location, or is he just an egotist with an eternity to admire his own work? Why does the moon send Shiro/Nobutaka on a rampage? What the hell is the crazy ritual Shiro/Nobutaka performed on Miwako, thumping her breast with the base of a large candelabra? Why does Shiro/Nobutaka, after going to such trouble to retrieve Miwako, suddenly give up on her and go after Itsuko instead? If Shiro/Nobutaka requires the blood of Amakusa descendants to survive, why do we only see him drink from random victims when he wolfs out during the full moon?
Even when the script attempts to answer questions, it proves mostly lip service. I am willing to accept that, having lived several hundred years, Shiro/Nobutaka could have picked up a dwarf assistant somewhere along the way; however, the film randomly introduces two other servants, a bald henchmen, who provides a little extra muscle, and a withered old crone, who looks as she wandered in from Black Cat Mansion (which Nakagawa made a year earlier) and whose sole function is to utter prophecy of doom to explain why things go so wrong for Shiro/Nobutaka. She claims that that Shiro/Nobutaka is somehow angering the God that protects the Amakusa family, which I guess explains why the moonlight at the end suddenly ages him instead of simply turning him into a monster. Though I enjoy the idea that the old crone sees the Christian God as just another polytheistic deity, I have to wonder why Yahweh took so long to put the hammer down on Shiro.
I also have to wonder whether we’re supposed to assume that Shiro/Nobutaka became a vampire specifically because he drank Christian blood from his lover all those centuries ago – and does that also explain why he appears mostly in the guise of a Western-style vampire instead of a more indigenous species? (I guess this is as good a place as any to point out that script pretty much makes up the vampire rules to suit itself: Shiro/Nobutaka walks in daylight, drinks wine, and casts a reflection; we never hear exactly what it takes to destroy a vampire, but in the end he is dispatched by rather prosaic means.)
In spite of all this, why does The Lady Vampire remain watchable? Two factors:
- The story unfolds in a manner that pulls us into its mysteries (even if those mysteries remain frustratingly unfulfilled).
- Nakagawa knows how to deliver the genre elements you want to see in a film titled The Lady Vampire.
Like 1958’s Black Cat Mansion (based on a source novel by Sotoo Tachibana), The Lady Vampire wraps its story in three layers: present day, flashback to living memory, and flashback to history. This provides a sense of peeling away layers of the mystery moving deeper into the past, before returning to present day to see how the echoes of history reverberate in modern times. Unfortunately, the technique works less well here: in Black Cat Mansion, the historical flashback was the emotional core of the story; in The Lady Vampire, the much shorter flashbacks serve more as exposition, which do little to engage is in the outcome of Nobutaka’s pursuit of Miwako.
Fortunately, we still have Nakagawa’s visual skills to pull us through. The oddball mix of Western and Japanese genre elements is visually enjoyable, with some interesting variations on the expected: for example, instead of a fly-eating Renfield, this elegantly cloaked vampire has an ugly, misshapen assistant – but a dwarf rather than the more traditional hunchback.
One of the eccentric joys of Nakagawa’s horror films is that, though the supernatural elements are rooted in tradition and history, these elements often manifest in a modern context, creating an interesting clash of sensibilities (often underlined by jazzy soundtrack music). Typically, The Lady Vampire begins with an opening credits sequence playing over the dashboard of a car, whose journey will soon be interrupted the unexpected reappearance of Miwako. From this opening scene of the ghost-like figure nearly run over, Nakagawa establishes a supernatural atmosphere the overlays the entire film; the buildup to the revelation of Miwakos’ return (including a service bell ringing in a room closed for decades, followed by a long walk, illuminated by fluttering candles, into the room) is a classic bit of anticipation. The sequence stands on its own as a mini-gem of low-key horror in the Japanese tradition, enhanced with striking images, such as blood from Itsuko’s cut finger dripping blood on her own birthday cake – an unsubtle omen that jabs the eye with its impact.
Equally effective is Shiro/Nobutaka’s first moonlit vampire transformation. In the manner of Horror of Dracula (1958), The Lady Vampire presents its immortal blood-drinker in two guises: refined and savage. The jarring transition afflicts not only the character but also the film itself, which goes from the more refined uneasiness of a traditional Japanese ghost story to outright brutality. Shiro/Nobutaka’s attack upon a maid plays like a vulgar rape scene, with an emphasis on the helplessness of the victim. After filming the facial change with a subtle lighting effect (a la the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which used tinted filters to gradually reveal makeup otherwise invisible on black-and-white film), director Nakagawa plays with our visual expectations, keeping the camera mostly focused on the floor, where we see feet and shadows, as if to keep the violence just out of frame – but then he breaks the expectation with a jagged insert shot of the vampire savagely goring the maid’s throat, before tossing her on the bed to finish her off.
Shiro/Nobutaka’s later outbreak in a nightclub is even more extreme: a ramped-up rampage with multiple victims, it plays like an action set-piece and like a precursor to the later body-count attacks of monsters like Jason Voorhees (though of course without the explicit gore). The craziness of the sequence, with spectators standing in slack-jawed stupefaction while the vampire runs around unimpeded, has a go-for-broke quality, with the last couple victims gratuitously thrown in just for good measure. Unfortunately, even here, the narrative is confusing: Shiro/Nobutaka is exposed to moonlight because his dwarf assistant hurls a bottle through a tinted window. Did the dwarf do this on purpose – and if so, why? – or did he just get carried away while blowing off a little steam?
Nakagawa and his cinematographer also do a fine job with the vampire’s lair, initially visualized in flashback as a black void, housing only necessary props: a painting on an easel, a couch where Miwako reclines naked (arm strategically placed, of course), a mirror behind which the vampire’s previous brides stand motionless. We get a better look during the third-act daylight scenes, when the underground castle appears like a bundle of expressionistic angles and shadows, and Nakagawa, ever the master of the tracking shot, uses the twisted corridors to make us feel as if we are entering a netherworld fantasy-land of the imagination.
Sadly, Nakagawa’s directorial skills desert him when the wild melee erupts in the castle. Tamio and Shiro/Nobutaka run around fighting, while Itsuko is pursued by the dwarf, while the police rush in to assist. Because the sets are limited, the characters retrace their steps several times, crossing paths while pretending not to be able to catch each other. The overall effect is a bit like watching a horse race in which all the jockeys have taken bribes and are trying to let the other horses outrun them.
The climax (after aging in the moonlight, Shiro/Nobutaka seemingly commits suicide by walking into a pool of water and drowning) is not only a rather unusual demise for an undead being; it is also anti-climactic and visually uninteresting. (The troweled-on age makeup and the ridiculous white fright wig hardly help.) As if to compensate, the old crone blows up the castle, providing a little pyrotechnic excitement.
Yoshimi Hirano’s photography and Haruyasu Kurosawa’s art direction provide ample atmosphere throughout, enhanced by Hisachi Iuchi’s music. Amachi cuts a dashing figure as the vampire, though he over-does the evil sneer a bit. The rest of the cast is adequate.
The Lady Vampire is historically significant not only as Japan’s first full-blown vampire film but also as an early example of a vampire in a modern setting; also, Shiro’s longing for his lost love prefigures the reincarnation plots of Dark Shadows and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as the romanticized depiction of vampirism in many later films.
Aesthetically, The Lady Vampire does not rank among Nakagawa’s top-tier efforts (Jigoku, Ghost Story of Yotsuya), but it does contain individual sequences that rank among his best work. If you are a fan of old-fashioned black-and-white vampire movies, and you are seeking something beyond the acknowledged classics, you might want to tap this vein.