Along with Ghosts (1969) Along with Ghosts / Yokai Monsters: Along with Ghosts / Along with Ghosts on Tokaido Road / Journey with Ghosts Along Tokaido Road / Obake Tokaido Dochu (1969) **½

     Or maybe Daiei didn’t learn their lesson after all. The main reason Spook Warfare was so much better than 100 Monsters was because it put the focus on the yokai themselves, dropping the audience (along with a few human characters) into a whole other world, complete with its own culture, its own social norms, its own way of life— or way of unlife, as the case may be. But Along with Ghosts, the final film in the series, returns to the first installment’s frustrating tack of being a modestly effective chambara movie that monsters wander through occasionally. Furthermore, the yokai in Along with Ghosts have none of the endearing individual personalities that so enlivened even 100 Monsters. They’re reduced here to generically spooky things lurking in the wilderness, which resent having their territory intruded upon by disrespectful mortals.

     The intrusion in question happens at a shrine called Onizuka (“the Devil’s Mound”) somewhere along the Tokaido— or East Sea Road— between Edo and Kyoto. While an old man named Jimbei (Bokuzen Hidari, from Black Tight Killers and The Human Vapor) prays to the spirits of Onizuka, four rough-looking swordsmen approach out of the woods. The latter are Kanzo (Yoshindo Yamaji, of Satan’s Sword and Ghost Story of Devil’s Fire Swamp), leader of the Higuruma crime syndicate, and his lieutenants, Gonkuro (Ryutaro Gomi, from 100 Monsters and Daimajin), Gorokichi, and Monta (the latter two of whom are not specifically identified in any source I’ve been able to locate). They’re here to lay an ambush for another gangster called Nihei (also not specifically credited), who is carrying a document to the shogun’s court implicating the Higuruma in something nefarious. Kanzo is understandably irritated to find Jimbei hanging around as if waiting to witness the assassination, but the way the old man tells it, the yakuza should be more concerned about the beings whom his prayers are meant to propitiate. The spirits of Onizuka have pronounced a curse upon any humans who spill blood in their sanctuary, and it furthermore happens that this is a special occasion. Tonight, the Master of Onizuka plays host to all the spirits of the surrounding swamp, and to those from the mountains as well— so surely Kanzo can see that this is neither the time nor the place for a mob hit, right? Unfortunately for Jimbei, Kanzo ain’t afraid of no ghosts. He cuts the old man down with his sword, and whacks Nihei and his escort exactly as planned when the latter come along a short while later.

     The first indication that Kanzo should have heeded Jimbei’s warning comes when he retrieves the document from Nihei’s corpse. As Kanzo looks it over, the page is snatched from his hand as if by a sudden breeze— except that the air is as stagnant as the swamp water where Gonkuro, Gorokichi, and Monta just dumped the bodies. The paper won’t stay put in Kanzo’s pocket, either, with the result that he and his men have to keep tromping around in the marsh looking for the damned thing. While they are thus engaged, they encounter a little girl named Miyo (Masami Furukido). She’s Jimbei’s granddaughter, and she came out to the shrine to see what was keeping the old man when he didn’t come home from praying on time. The mobsters have no way of knowing that, of course, so when they can’t find Nihei’s affidavit for the shogun, they jump to the conclusion that Miyo must have taken it. That would imply that she saw the ambush earlier (although she did no such thing in reality), making her a witness who needs to be silenced. The Higuruma’s efforts to tie up the loose end the child represents become the framework on which the whole rest of the movie hangs.

     Miyo naturally starts off by fleeing toward home, where she finds the gravely injured Jimbei waiting for her. With his dying breaths, Jimbei instructs her to take the Tokaido four miles to the city of Hamamatsu. There, she’ll find an inn called Yui. Miyo must ask the innkeeper to introduce her to a man called Tohachi, because he is the girl’s father. The reason he and Miyo have never met is because Jimbei has allowed Tohachi to believe that his child died from the same birth complication that killed her mother. One assumes that means Tohachi was a less than upstanding guy, and the token whereby Miyo is supposed to prove her paternity— a pair of bone dice that once belonged to her dad— might tell us a thing or two about how he was less than upstanding. Be that as it may, Miyo is too young to take care of herself, and Jimbei’s remaining lifespan is best measured in minutes. Under these circumstances, a compulsively gambling father is clearly better than no father at all.

     Now let’s return to the yakuza, because hunting little girls up and down the East Sea Road is only one of several irons they’ve got in the fire. Evidently the business with Nihei has something to do with a power play between the Higuruma and the dead man’s crime clan. If I’m following everything correctly, Kanzo aims to gain control of the other mob with the help of a turncoat named Saikichi (Rokko Toura, from Black Cat and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41). Saikichi thinks he’s going to take over Nihei’s organization as a subsidiary of the Higuruma, but Kanzo is too smart to trust a traitor. The boss isn’t ready to eliminate Saikichi yet, though, because there’s still one more person who needs to be rubbed out before the gang merger can proceed. That would be Hyakutaro (Kojiro Hongo, of Gamera vs. Barugon and The Demon of Mount Oe), Nihei’s right-hand man. Hyakutaro was supposed to accompany his leader to Edo, but got delayed somehow and thereby escaped Kanzo’s trap. He also trusts Saikichi, making the latter man the perfect choice to assassinate him. Then Gonkuro can kill Saikichi, and Kanzo can go home to Hamamatsu with all the marbles. (And yes, it will eventually become important that the Higuruma are based in the same city where Miyo’s father lives.)

     The two plot threads intersect when Gorokichi and Monta inadvertently chase Miyo almost literally into Hyakutaro’s arms. Not one to stand by while two armed men threaten a little girl, Hyakutaro gives the other gangsters what-for, and takes Miyo under his protection on the road to her father’s lodging. Various periods of temporary separation from Hyakutaro also bring Miyo under the protection of a somewhat older boy (Pepe Hozumi) whose name I never caught. (And since Along with Ghosts’ IMDb page gets just about everybody else’s names wrong to one extent or another, I see no reason to trust it about the kid’s.) Her greatest protectors, however, will be the spirit clan of Onizuka, who make a habit of descending like furies upon Kanzo and his men every time it starts to look like they’re getting the upper hand.

     It’s significant that Along with Ghosts is set on the Tokaido, and not just any highway. The East Sea Road was the longest and most well traveled of the Five Routes, the great thoroughfares linking the environs of the old capital to those of the new in the Tokugawa period. There’s an entire subgenre of Japanese travelogue literature recounting journeys on the Tokaido, so that the road might be thought of as the Route 66 of feudal Japan. The setting therefore gives Along with Ghosts a cultural resonance that doesn’t translate unaided. Trying to keep that in mind might help the movie go down easier, in the sense that there’ll be some substitute gimmick or touchstone to keep things interesting despite the disappointing paucity of yokai. You’re not watching a monster movie without enough monsters in it; you’re watching a road movie in which some of the roadside attractions are haunted, cursed, or both.

     There’s some irony in that, because when the spooks do make their presence felt, Along with Ghosts comes closest of all the Daiei yokai movies to functioning like a Western horror film. It has the most conventional scare scenes of the trilogy, with plenty of woods, fog, and darkness, to say nothing of sudden camera lunges to reveal the things hiding therein. The creature design is conventional, too, emphasizing age and decay over recombinant or bizarre anatomy, so that “ghost” seems for once like an adequate description. Even the yokai’s behavior takes a turn for the generically monstrous, which feels like a tremendous letdown after Spook Warfare. These ghosts are a basically malevolent outside force, essentially unknowable by their human prey— except to the children, whose juvenile credulity gives them a leg up on the adults as regards learning and obeying the rules for keeping the yokai placated or at bay.

     That last point is where Along with Ghosts wins back a bit of my appreciation, because while it’s hardly rare to see a movie treat children as uniquely in touch with the supernatural, this one gets some unusual dramatic use out of the idea whenever the two main conflicts— Miyo vs. gangsters and gangsters vs. ghosts— intersect. Let me describe one of my favorite scenes by way of illustration. During one of the boy’s turns as Miyo’s hands-on caretaker, he goes so far as to lead her to seek shelter in a cemetery he knows to be haunted. He understands the rules, you see, and has faith that the ghosts will not attack him or Miyo if he lays down his knife on the threshold of the graveyard, so as to enter the spirits’ domain respectfully unarmed. Meanwhile, he’s rightly confident that the pursuing yakuza will take no such precautions with their swords, and thereby bring down the wrath of the yokai onto their own heads. It’s in this moment that Along with Ghosts feels most of a piece with its predecessors, for it shows that the spooks aren’t indiscriminately hostile toward humans after all.

     Otherwise, what interests me most about Along with Ghosts is its return to something we saw in less developed form in 100 Monsters: when it’s wearing its chambara hat, Along with Ghosts is specifically a chambara crime movie. Japanese period melodrama isn’t among my fields of expertise, so I don’t know how normal that is. Maybe it’s completely unexceptional, and a Japanese reader would be puzzled to see me making a big deal of it. Maybe it was a Daiei thing, the way monsters vs. hot-rodders was an AIP thing or Filipino prison farms were a New World Pictures thing. Or maybe it really was something truly eccentric, making Along with Ghosts a film deserving of special attention. All I can say is that in the Western tradition, gangsters and sword-fighting rarely go together, so it’s neat to see yakuza and samurai combined so matter-of-factly here— especially since neither yakuza nor samurai are supposed to be the main attraction.



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