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Horror as Folk: Spiders, Snakes, and Subgenres in The Demon of Mount Oe (1960)

I have seen several people argue vehemently (and perhaps correctly) that films like Suspiria and Inferno are not really gialli. Specifically, because they belong, instead, to a different but equally distinct cinematic tradition, that of the Italian supernatural gothic. A similar argument could probably be made for not throwing The Demon of Mount Oe under the “folk horror” umbrella, even though it pretty obviously qualifies.

First and foremost, The Demon of Mount Oe belongs to the samurai genre. The director of this flick was the assistant director on Kurosawa’s Rashomon, after all, and went on to helm a pile of Zatoichi movies. More particularly, it seems to be a fairly early example of a studio (in this case Daiei, who would shortly jam up the samurai and kaiju genres with their trio of Daimajin films) combining the samurai drama with tokusatsu pictures.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, tokusatsu is a Japanese genre used to denote live-action movies that rely heavily on special effects. Literally translated, it means “special photography,” and the term came into popular use just a couple of years before The Demon of Mount Oe hit screens.

Outside Japan, the best-known examples of tokusatsu pictures are kaiju films such as the various exploits of Godzilla and their contemporaries, but the genre also includes a wide array of science fiction, superhero, war, and fantasy films, and perhaps the second-best-known iteration is the various Super Sentai TV series that were transformed into the Power Rangers here in the States.

While the term tokusatsu might still have been relatively new in 1960, the ideas that the film is exploring are much older. Indeed, the first few acts of The Demon of Mount Oe are probably relatively bewildering to Western viewers, due in no small part to the fact that the story is a retelling of one that would have been familiar to a Japanese audience but is largely unknown here. Something like a British film about Robin Hood or King Arthur.

The story is that of Minamoto no Raiko and his Invincible Four, who are introduced via on-screen text in the film’s chaotic opening, which relates to viewers a real legend that dates back at least as far as the 14th century. In it, we see how these brave samurai slew the demon known as Shuten-doji – so named because of his fondness for drinking sake – whose giant head continued to try to bite Raiko even after it had been hewn off. (Fortunately for him, in one of the oldest extant versions of the legend, Raiko survives the attack by wearing several helmets one atop the other.)

The movie then chooses to pull back the curtain and show us what “really” happened. This goes a long way toward explaining why this film may be more than a little confusing for someone without any knowledge of Minamoto no Raiko or Shuten-doji. It’s hard to get much from a revisionist version of a story when you don’t know what the original story was like.

In the film’s retold version, Shuten-doji is not a demon at all, but a just samurai who was cruelly wronged by a high-ranking servant of the Mikado and has sworn his vengeance against the decadent government. He leads a bunch of bandits and uses the legends of demons to keep people scared away from his lair on Mount Oe.

This would all be a pretty robust justification for the movie to eschew any supernatural tomfoolery and create a “realistic” take on the legend – something plenty of Hollywood films have done over the years. The Demon of Mount Oe does no such thing, however. While the film’s Shuten-doji may be a mere man (played by Kazuo Hasegawa, perhaps best known for his role in The Crucified Lovers), he is aided by three wizards, one or more of whom may also be demons.

These three wizards are the source of the film’s various monster effects, which include a severed demon arm, a giant spider with a mouth that shoots sparks, and a monster that looks a lot like an ox. These may not be especially ambitious compared to some of the other tokusatsu films that were their contemporaries, but they add plenty of visual pep to the scenes in which they appear, and are what prompted me to watch the movie in the first place.

As far as I know, The Demon of Mount Oe has never received an English-language release. I watched it with fan-made subtitles on YouTube. And it makes sense that it might never receive one, as mired as it is in cultural storytelling that would leave Westerners without a signpost.

Despite its revisionist nature, the film nevertheless draws in many elements from the original story, including aspects of how Raiko and the Invincible Four make their way to Shuten-doji’s lair for the final confrontation. At the same time, it also takes the opportunity to add several decidedly modern twists to the proceedings, with perhaps the most notable, at least in 2023, being a repeated theme of women’s liberation.

The demon or sorcerer who recruits the samurai who becomes Shuten-doji laments that her own ambitions are too grand to be realized by a woman. However, that’s only one small part compared to the character of Nagisa (Fujito Yamamoto, who went on to co-star with Kazuo Hasegawa in An Actor’s Revenge). In a sterling example of the film’s melodrama, Nagisa is taken from her loving husband, the samurai who becomes Shuten-doji, by a powerful servant of the Mikado, who then casts her aside to Raiko, thereby connecting all the various elements of the plot.

It is this act, more than any other, which precipitates everything that happens in the course of the film, and several times throughout the picture Nagisa laments some variation on “the sorrow of being a woman tossed around like a doll with no soul.” Ultimately, the real demon of Mount Oe is a society in which women are denied agency and treated as objects to be passed around. It’s nice of the film to also include some weird monsters, though.