Dracula in Japan – The Bloodthirsty Trilogy

The two works which cast the biggest shadow over the development of the horror film are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, revised 1831) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), spawning notable cycles of adaptations and spin-offs from both America’s Universal Pictures (1931-1948) and the United Kingdom’s Hammer Film Productions (1957-1974). A few weeks ago I wrote about what happened when Japanese studio Toho, riding the waves of success of its Godzilla series in the mid-1960s, expanded Frankenstein’s creation to giant size to join the ranks of their kaiju films. By 1970 the Japanese film industry was beginning to feel the impact of television – audiences were increasingly staying home to be entertained with free programming rather than venturing out to the cinema, and by the end of the decade cinema attendance had dropped to one sixth of its previous level. As Japanese cinema began looking for new ways to offer cinema audiences material that they couldn’t see on TV, Toho producer Tanaka Fumio turned to Christopher Lee’s Dracula for inspiration. What followed was a series of three distinct takes on the western vampire in contemporary Japan from director Yamamoto Michio, known collectively as The Bloodthirsty Trilogy (Chi o Sū Shirīzu).

The films in this unofficial trilogy share only a few things in common: the director; a screenplay co-written by Ogawa Ei; a score by Manabe Riichirō; special effects by Nakano Teruyoshi; a contemporary setting; a decomposition scene modelled on Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958); and a complete absence of Dracula himself. Indeed, the first of the three films – Legacy of Dracula: The Vampire Doll [Yūrei Yashiki no Kyōfu: Chi o Sū Ningyō] (1970), literally translated as Fear of the Haunted House: Bloodsucking Doll – takes Dracula’s absence one step further by omitting vampires altogether! What we have instead is a twisted Gothic family drama which flirts with the appearance of vampirism but presents another explanation entirely.

On a dark and stormy night, Kazuhiko (Nakamura Atsuo) returns from 6 months overseas to reunite with his fiancée Yuko (Kobayashi Yukiko). After being greeted and assaulted by deaf-mute servant Genzo (Takashina Kaku), he is shocked to learn from Yuko’s mother Shidu (Minakaze Yoko) that Yuko had died two weeks previously in a traffic accident. Settling in to stay the night, he begins to doubt Shidu’s story when he catches fleeting glimpses of Yuko, following her outside to the site of her grave, where she begs him to kill her. Assuming she’s just really unwell and being hidden by her mother, he moves in to comfort her – and her visage transforms, golden eyes gleaming from a porcelain visage with a disturbingly gleeful grin. His subsequent disappearance leads his sister Keiko (Matsuo Kayo) and her fiancé Hiroshi (Nakao Akira) to retrace his footprints and conduct their own investigation, uncovering the tragic history of the Nonomura family. Twenty years ago an unidentified intruder broke into their house, killing everybody except Shidu – who gave birth 9 months later to Yuko. The revelation of this unknown intruder’s identity ties in directly with Yuko’s state of being, which owes its inspiration more to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (1845) than to Stoker’s Dracula.

Kobayashi Yukiko is outstanding as the titular Vampire Doll, a title which manages to be both misleadingly inaccurate and suggestive of the truth. Her disappointingly brief acting career took in appearances in Honda Ishirō’s Destroy All Monsters [Kaijū Sōshingeki] (1968) and Space Amoeba [Gezora Ganime Kamēba Kessen Nankai no Daikaijū] (1970) as well as avant-garde director Terayama Shūji’s Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets [Sho o Suteyo Machi e Deyō] (1971). Although she isn’t given much dialogue here, she projects a formidable physical presence in her eerie appearances which provide the movie’s main draw card, while creating a sufficiently distinct performance for her character’s less homicidal moments. Her female co-star Matsuo Kayo, taking the Gothic heroine role, appeared in Suzuki Seijun’s Gate of Flesh [Nikutai no mon] (1964) and would next turn up in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx [Kozure Ōkami: Sanzu no kawa no ubaguruma] (1972). The doomed Nakamura Atsuo had earlier had a small role in Kobayashi Masaki’s magisterial supernatural anthology movie Kwaidan [Kaidan] (1964) and would go on to appear in two episodes of Monkey [Saiyūki] (1978-1979). Also appearing in an episode of Monkey (1978) was Nakao Akira, who later made a splash in six Godzilla films between 1993 and 2004.

Yamamoto was at first reluctant to make a horror film, being more interested in the thriller genre – he only agreed to make The Vampire Doll after receiving permission to make Terror in the Streets [Akuma ga Yondeiru] (1971) in tandem using the same cast and crew (with both films released together on a double bill). Yamamoto’s second instalment in the pseudo-series – Lake of Dracula [Noroi no Yakata: Chi o Sū Me] (1971), or more literally Cursed House: Bloodsucking Eyes – comes closer to the western tradition of vampire stories, but nestled inside a psychological thriller framework more typical of Alfred Hitchcock or the luridly implausible machinations of the giallo genre at its best.

Lake of Dracula opens with the oneiric recreation of a dimly remembered childhood trauma. Five-year-old Akiko (Yamazoe Michiyo) chases her dog Leo through a forest to a rundown house, barely eluding the grasp of a strange old man (Otaki Hideji). Venturing into the parlour, she is confronted by a series of shocks in quick succession: the woman sitting at the piano (Fusako Tachibana) is revealed to be a corpse, shortly before a golden-eyed man with blood dripping from his teeth (Kishida Shin) begins to descend the stairs… and there her memory ends. Eighteen years later Akiko (Fujita Midori) is a schoolteacher living near Lake Fujimi with her younger sister Natsuko (Emi Sanae) and engaged to a doctor, Takashi (Takahashi Choei). Still haunted by her childhood memories, Akiko has just completed a menacingly surreal painting of a burning golden eye in a red sky, casting its gaze over a shadowy and indistinct landscape (possibly in homage to the Yuki-onna segment of 1964’s Kwaidan).

The completion of this artwork almost seems to act as a summons – while visiting Kyusaku (Takashina Kahu), proprietor of the local boat house and general handyman, he unexpectedly receives a mysterious coffin-sized delivery from a pale-faced van driver (Futami Tadao) purporting to have been sent by Dracula (never referenced again in the film, apart from a mention of the novel). That evening the coffin opens to reveal Akiko’s childhood menace, who wastes no time transforming Kyusaku into his Renfield and suborning Akiko’s sister, who appears to take great delight in gaslighting her sister and attempting to steal her fiancé – whose own encounters with a spate of blood-drained patients at the hospital lead him to make all of the correct conclusions. Then, right at the point where most vampire films would begin to concern themselves with how to dispose of the headlining menace, the film swerves back into psychological thriller territory as Takashi takes Akiko back to the site of her childhood trauma in order to reawaken all of her memories. This allows Takashi to come up with a psychological explanation for everything that’s happened – a theory which is both right on the money and fatally flawed, as it causes him to forget about the bit where there is actually a vampire on the loose as well! At this point the movie reverts to its model and everything resolves more or less as you’d expect.

The female leads are required to carry most of the movie and do a pretty good job, although by this point Toho found themselves increasingly reliant on newer actors with relatively little experience – this was only Fujita Midori’s first film, and the last of three film appearances by Emi Sanae. The more experienced Kishida Shin makes an effectively menacing vampire in his black suit and white turtleneck, a look he would repeat in Yamamoto’s final film. He had featured in the previous year’s jidaigeki crossover Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo [Zatōichi to Yōjinbō] (1970). Bridging the gap between his two appearances as a vampire are films such as Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril [Kozure Ōkami: Oya no kokoro ko no kokoro] (1972), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla [Gojira tai Mekagojira] (1974) and Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance [Shurayukihime: Urami renka] (1974).

The final entry in the loosely affiliated series – Evil of Dracula [Chi o Sū Bara] (1974), or more accurately Bloodsucking Rose – comes the closest to feeling like a Hammer vampire film, which is ironic as it was the success of a completely different horror film, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), which prompted Toho to return to the well once more. This time around, in keeping with the trajectories of both Hammer Films and the Japanese film industry, the filmmakers have spiced the mix up with some female nudity and upped their order of fake blood, although these aspects are fairly tame compared to what was going on elsewhere in the industry.

On the face of it, Evil of Dracula comes across to the Hammer fan as a variant on Jimmy Sangster’s ham-fisted and fatally compromised Lust for a Vampire (1971). Both movies centre on a male teacher taking up a post at a girl’s school, uncovering the activities of vampires, and – ahem – finding romance with one of their students. (Thankfully this element of the plot is a lot more toned down than the breathtakingly unethical goings-on in Lust for a Vampire – where that film’s sleazy protagonist fakes his qualifications as a way of meeting unattached young women, the lead in Evil of Dracula is a genuine teacher who treats his charges with respect and ensures that they are decently covered when vulnerable.) However, as Jasper Sharp points out in his excellent liner notes for the Arrow Blu Ray, Lust for a Vampire was never released to Japanese cinemas so the extent of its influence is dubious – at most, one might speculate that Toho had access to a press kit summarising the plot for potential distributors.

The opening section of Evil of Dracula reproduces Stoker’s major plot beats of Jonathan Harker coming to Transylvania to meet the Count. Professor Shiraki (Kurosawa Toshio) arrives in Nagano to take up a post teaching Psychology at the Seimei School for Girls, but is unable to obtain any assistance in reaching his destination. A mysterious vehicle pulls up and conveys him to the Principal’s house where he spends the night. His sleep is interrupted by an encounter with two vampire women – the Principal’s recently deceased wife (Katsuragi Mika) and a girl later revealed to be a missing student (Agawa Yasuko) – but he wakes up in bed the next morning as if nothing untoward had occurred. He checks the cellar to confirm that the Principal’s wife is still dead in her coffin – oh yes, according to the Principal (Kishida Shin) it’s a local tradition for dead people to spend a week in the cellar before burial – is yelled at by the Principal for his troubles (not at all suspicious) and moves into his room at the school.

While puzzling over the Principal’s announcement that Shiraki will take over as Principal for the following term, he meets three of his students – Kumi (Mochizuki Mariko), Yukiko (Ota Mio) and Kyoko (Aramaki Keiko) – and Professor Yoshii (Sasaki Katsuhiko), the weird French literature teacher who spends all of his time either staring at the students and/or reciting Baudelaire. Kyoko becomes the vampire Principal’s next victim after a white rose is left outside her door – a rose which later, in an eerie sequence, flushes crimson as the next victim is drained. As Shiraki continues his investigation he learns the 200-year-old story of a shipwrecked foreigner who was tortured into renouncing Christianity, becoming a vampire after drinking his own blood to survive. He becomes even more disturbed when he learns that the school has a pattern of Principals dying shortly after their wives, only to be replaced by newly hired teachers who experience a sudden change in personality… Although it could be argued that this aspect of the plot owes its inspiration to The Exorcist, a better comparison would be to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face [Les Yeux sans visage] (1960).

Although there are more women this time around, it’s very much the men who drive the action. Kishida Shin remains on fine form in his new vampire guise, with Kurosawa Toshio a suitably stolid lead and Sasaki Katsuhiko relishing his role as a Renfield-equivalent. Both men built up a solid film career before transitioning into mostly TV works. The female leads are, if anything, less experienced than those in Lake of Dracula, with no more credited roles after 1977 – but they all succeed at doing what’s required of them.

Director Yamamoto Michio got his start as assistant director to Kurosawa Akira on Throne of Blood [Kumonosu-jo] (1957), continuing his training with five more films under Okamoto Kihachi before making his solo debut on the action film Resurrection of the Beast [Yaju no fukkatsu] (1969). He escaped into the world of TV after Lake of Dracula before getting bored and answering the summons to come back for Evil of Dracula, finally abandoning film entirely to return to TV. Although he was never particularly enamoured of the horror genre, these three films display a shared eye for poetic imagery which persists through changes behind the camera – while Hara Kazutami (later to work on the 1984 reboot The Return of Godzilla [Gojira]) was the cinematographer on both The Vampire Doll and Evil of Dracula, Nishigaki Rokurō took over for Lake of Dracula. The combination of Yamamoto’s feel for atmosphere with Ogawa’s psychological concerns gives these three films a shared identity which goes beyond the tendency of western reviewers to dismiss them as simply Hammer imitations. Completing the picture – or perhaps I should say complementing the pictures – is composer Manabe Riichirō, whose combination of traditional instruments with electronics ties the films together into a shared sonic world while still maintaining the individuality of touch to keep them distinct. I only recently encountered his work for the first time on the delightfully bonkers Godzilla vs. Hedorah [Gojira tai Hedora] (1971), which saw him leaning heavily into psychedelic jazz. Although his follow-up work on Godzilla vs. Megalon [Gojira tai Megaro] (1973) was less inspired (much like the film itself), Manabe’s work on the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” has cemented his reputation in my books and I’ll be keeping an eye out for his name in future viewing.

Often dismissed a cinematic cul-de-sac, I found Toho’s flirtations with Hammer’s Dracula movies to be far more creatively rewarding than the crazy hijinks of their Frankenstein films (much as I enjoyed them). I’d happily recommend them to anybody looking for a twist on mid-20th-century Gothic cinema.

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