Director: Shirô Toyoda
Screenplay: Toshio Yasumi
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (as Iyemon Tamiya); Mariko Okada (as Oiwa); Junko Ikeuchi (as Osode); Mayumi Ohzora (as Oume); Keiko Awaji (as Omaki); Eitarô Ozawa (as Oume's Father)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #106
One of the best things about Japanese genre cinema is that no matter how excessive and even sleazy they can be, many explicitly deal with social issues like class and politics as much as such subjects would be in films by the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi. Inherently with the period films set in Japan's past, the films end up even tripping over themes such as these, the historical periods and social mores especially of the Edo period of Japan giving enough material still for ripe storylines. Illusion of Blood is no exception to this - where samurai are masterless and destitute, even considering trading in their swords for money, one such figure Iyemon Tamiya (Tatsuya Nakadai) is willing to remarry into a rich family with prospects of a new master even if it means publically disgracing his wife Oiwa (Mariko Okada) by either a fake adultery accusation or even disfigurement, maybe even worse to get his way. Like Les Diaboliques (1955), it's a drama of backstabbing and betrayal, its worldview awash with as much a cynical tone as the more famous film. Like that film, the perpetrators of certain crimes may even be haunted by the dead.
It's very much a bleak worldview on display, samurai without honour, a friend of Iyemon's in his own scheme to claim Oiwa's sister for himself even if it means bloodshed and lying. There are a lot of Japanese films about the dead coming back to haunt the living transgressors especially in period settings - even in films not necessarily horror themed like The Sword of Doom (1966) - and it's understandable why, especially in a country still with deeply held spiritual beliefs, as it can reflect both a literal supernatural tale and a metaphorical moral drama at the same time. There's never a need to try to downplay the supernatural content in these films or even try to rationalise them as a lot of modern Western films do, and it's a breath of fresh air as a result to view this film where it's part of a brazenly bleak narrative with a deeply detestable main protagonist to follow. Stories themes which would still be pertinent to the modern day but without the context of a time period that is entirely different from the modern day and allows for different perspectives. An emphasis more on deliberate drama is helped when the acting is top notch. In this case you have Tatsuya Nakadai as the lead of Illusion of Blood, an actor who carried Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition trilogy (1959-1961) on his shoulders, alongside roles in the likes of Akira Kurosawa films, and is just as good here, as an utterly loathful figure here who is yet compelling here due to Nakadai's performance1.
Even when these films are conventional ghost stories as this one becomes, Japanese tales like Illusion of Blood are significantly more interesting than from other countries due to how seriously the tropes are depicted and played with. At nearly two hours long, it doesn't feel like its dragging its feet but building up a period drama which ebbs and flows with interest side characters, moments of broad humour that work and a slow burn intensity. The quality of the set design for many of these films, even when one if forced to watch an old grotty DVD copy like I had to, also shows an era of Japan so drastically different, aesthetically and literally, to Western medievalism. While there's themes that are universal here to other countries across any time period, I openly admit a lot of my love of Japanese cinema's period stories is that it's also a depiction of an entirely alien world to mine of hierarchies and behaviour that's different, even the dress of characters drastically separate from many modern Japanese genre films. That even the genre films from Japan could have the best technical crews and production designers on them, rather than a couple of coins to rub together only, really makes these obscurer horror films shine even more.
The horror itself is lingering. Even for the one or two fake rats that appear, they come off as amusing and not detract from the ghoulish macabre tone. This does show, even if more sedate than films like Jigoku (1960) that went even further, the more morbid side of Japanese horror that yet depicts the gruesome - a couple of corpses pinned on opposite sides of a door - with an air of sinister beauty that's rarely found in Western cinema barring the European output. When it's also willing to be openly lurid - from the facial disfigurement subplot to a corpse's face melting off with effects still surprisingly efficient - it doesn't detract from the Japanese Gothic tone that won me over on this viewing. It even has an air of melancholy, the ending of Illusion of Blood with Iyemon being plagued by ghosts that may or not be real in a white snowbound landscape, a type of poetic and lyrical moment you don't normally picture with horror films nowadays but capped the end of this hidden gem off perfectly.
1 In fact, looking into the films Tatsuya Nakadai has starred in for this review, he's now become one of my favourite actors now upon reflection of all the incredible films he's been in I've seen. Ran (1985) and countless Kurosawa films he's appeared in, Kwaidan (1964), The Human Condition trilogy, Belladonna of Sadness (1973) (voicing the Devil), The Sword of Doom (1966), When a Woman Ascends the Strairs (1960), enough films there to make him stand out both for the quality of his career path but that he's always incredible in all of them regardless of language barriers. And the best thing is he is so prolific, still alive as of 2017 and working, there's major films in Japanese cinema he's starred in I've still to see.