A very enjoyable fantastical horror period-drama that excels in creating an unsettling spooky atmosphere…
Along With Ghosts (1969), directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda with special effects by Yoshiyuki Kuroda, is the third installment of The Yōkai Monster trilogy. Yet, this trilogy is not a narrative trilogy, where each subsequent part of the film further develops an overarching story, but a thematical one. Each film delivers a unique take on the theme of yōkai, Japanese mythological creatures. 100 Monsters (1968) offered a dark tale exploring the antagonism between humans and yōkai while Spook Warfare (1968) centred around a conflict between yōkai themselves. So, what kind of story does Along With Ghosts offer the spectator?
One night, a gang of samurai led by Higuruma (Yoshindo Yamaji) gather near a holy rock to ambush two samurai and reclaim the evidence that would incriminate them. Jinbei (Bokuzen Hidari), an old man, who happens to overhear their plans to lay in wait near the tree, warns them not to spill any blood around here. If they do, a frightening curse will fall upon them.
The criminals deem him crazy, but Jinbei explains that this spiritual place called Onizuka is connected to the world of spirits. He tries to stop them from attacking their prey but is swiftly attacked by their leader. The two righteous samurai fight for their lives, but quickly collapse blood-soaked on the ground. The dying man, who has crawled back to his house, orders his grandchild Miyo (Masami Burukido) to find her father Tohachi in the nearby city. On the way, the little girl receives help from Hyakotaro (Kojiro Hongo).
Along With Ghosts, a fantastical period drama, tells the story of a crooked samurai who viciously tries to keep his amoral and criminal nature hidden from society and the authorities. To keep his vile dealings hidden, Higuruma does not only order his men to murder any samurai who endangers the fiction of righteousness he has clothed himself with, like Nihei (-) or Hyakutaro, one of Nihei’s men, but also any innocent person who dares stand in his way, like the old man warning him of the curse or his granddaughter Miyo who for a fleeting moment possessed the damning evidence.
It is not unimportant to underline that the villains refuse, at all times, to pay respect to the religious places steeped in tradition and refuse to believe any kind of warnings steeped in indigenous Shintoist beliefs. Put differently, the vile desire of our crooks is not only a desire that disrespects the traditional ways but one that has already eradicated these and other traditions from their mindset. Put in this way, it is not that difficult to read Along With Ghosts as a very subtle critique of the destructive modernity of consumption that was blossoming in Japanese society.
This critique is also perceptible in the way the spirit world interferes. The ghosts or yōkai that come to haunt our crooks do not only try to mend the evil destructive ways of Higurama’s thugs, but also – and this most evident in the finale – attempt to confront them with the destructive consequences of their own evil ways on society and their own subjectivity. The finale elegantly forces the spectator to question who the true monsters are, the yōkai or Higurama and his thugs. And the narrative thread of Miyo seeking her father receives a heartwarming resolution in the finale beautifully, highlighting that a subject is always able to rescind the corruption of consumption.
That the narrative can engage and please the spectator is not so much a function of the intricate plot or the skilful screenwriting but the successful evocation of a spooky atmosphere and giving the supernatural appearances their unsettling quality. This being a function of three interlinked elements: musical accompaniment, sounds, and visual effects.
Chumei Watanabe’s musical accompaniment succeeds, due to its explicit spooky flavour, in giving the narrative from the get-go a foreboding atmosphere that foreshadows the appearance of the yōkai in the human world. While some contemporary spectators might be surprised by the lack of subtly of Watanabe’s music, the quirky style of the music does what it needs to do perfectly, that is whetting the appetites of audiences desiring to see the supernatural dimension that lurks behind the mundane feudal world burst forth in all its visual splendor.
The use of spooky or unnerving sounds, for that matter, plays a double function. While these sounds, similarly to the music, are used to foreshadow the occurrence of sinister and unnerving incidents, the sounds also play an instrumental role in strengthening the unnerving quality of the spooky appearances and the supernatural events.
Lastly, visual elements and effects (costumes, make-up, practical effects, … etc.) also play an instrumental role in evoking the sinister and menacing atmosphere. The most prominent visual element Yoshida applies to ensure that a certain eeriness is sensible is the greyish or blueish mist that forcefully embraces the trees of the forest and subtly accentuates the menacing shapes of the sprawling branches. Another visual element Yoshida utilizes is the lighting strike. Yet, in contrast to the lingering mist, the sudden lightning bolt is either applied to induce a certain uneasy feeling in the spectator or to signal the abrupt resurgence of a creepy atmosphere associated with the spectral world wanting to burst forth.
While many of the visual effects show their age, most of them, obviously due to their practical nature, still hold up after all these years and successfully persuade the audience to suspend their disbelief. The fluid integration of these effects in the composition heightens the ‘believability’ of the disconcerting fantastical events and appearances and, as a result, the variety of effects do not fail to induce a ‘pleasant’ uneasiness in the spectator.
Despite delivering an extremely potent spooky atmosphere, Along With ghosts is far from a perfect film. The composition, a blend of static shots and dramatic camera movement, is a bit too straightforward for its own good. This does not only cause certain moments to lack a quantum of tension but also makes it impossible for the serviceable swordfights to truly excite the spectator.
Along With Ghosts is a very enjoyable fantastical horror period drama. Yasuda and Kuroda’s narrative excels in evoking an unsettling spooky atmosphere and delivering a ghostly story that engages the spectator from start to finish. Sadly, it is held back by its lack of compositional dare. A bit more cinematographical extravagance could have easily transformed it into a horror classic.