Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 3: The Last Tsuburaya/Ok I’ll Bite
I was hoping for a stronger episode of Creepshow this week, and after an autumn evening excursion to Stormcrow Manor in which I watched the show the following day, I wasn’t disappointed.
It is beautiful to make something. It’s also satisfying to help something grow. And when it’s arbitrarily destroyed, or ruined, it is equally edifying to see that revisited on the parties that have done it: or seeing from that destruction something newly created.
“The Last Tsuburaya” is a segment directed by Jeffrey F. January and written by Stephen Langford and Paul Dini. The title itself keeps you guessing for a little bit. At first, you might be thinking that it’s the story about the last descendant of Ishido Tsuburaya receiving the final painting of his ancestor found in a monastery under Mount Fuji.
They make a great deal about Tsuburaya himself: claiming that he was one of the greatest artists of the Meiji Era: namely, the time of the Emperor’s Restoration after the fall of the Shogunate. None of that particularly matters, though, as Tsuburaya — the contemporary of seemingly also fictional luminaries such as Beguwa and Yoshi-Doshi — has a painting style very reminiscent of pre-Meiji Era Japanese art renderings of yokai: of spiritual beings and monsters in folklore. When you see samples of his work in the beginning of the episode, they remind me of something Utagawa Kuniyoshi — a master of ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints and painting — would have made if you’ve ever seen his “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre” depicting the summoning of a Gashadokuro: a giant skeleton. Combine that with the disturbing and bloody manga work of Ito Junji and the darkness of Francisco Goya, and you seem to get the composite character of Ishido Tsuburaya.
Basically, before we can even look at the man’s descendant, or look at more the yokai that the man painted, or even hear about the “notorious art collector in Moscow” that the lawyer says is fascinated with this lost piece (who may actually be real-life collector and artist Alexander Ivanov), along comes in the aspiring Elon Musk known as Wade Cruise. This particular billionaire gets his jollies not from buying everything, or collecting art and women, but feeling the power of the destruction: specifically holding it over another person, or thing. He is a terrible human being. At least Tsuburaya, for all of this misanthropy, had been an artist and did something creative with his hatred for humanity. That is inspiring. Cruise is a consumer that finds life cheap, and destroys something unique, or threatens to do so to give his small, petty heart something to feel.
And this is what he does when he hosts a party at his penthouse, just to open the crate and look at the last painting of Ishido Tsuburaya: making sure he is the only one that sees it, so that he can burn it into ashes right in front of everyone. He thinks this illustrates power: his power.
What we end up getting is an inevitable lesson in karma.
Oh, I suppose I am a cheap date when it comes to horror and retribution, because maybe a petty part of me is like Cruise: except I like to see small, arrogant, snobby creatures passing themselves off as human beings get obliterated by their own actions. At first, I thought his artistic girlfriend would reconstruct the painting: that it would memetically take her over. But this isn’t her crime. It’s his.
Only Cruise can see — by his own design and sheer arrogance, his hubris if you’d like — the beautiful creature that very much resembles an oni. At first, you’re led to believe it is just in his mind, and perhaps it only manifests there as he is the only one that can see, and interact with it. It hunts him, stalking him, terrorizing him no matter where he goes. Finally, however, he realizes that not only can it affect him, he can damage it.
Cruise had the site of the painting’s destruction in his private gallery of culturally appropriated Japanese art, adding another layer of sliminess to this detestable man. He uses the weapons he has there, one of which being a sword, and a pistol, and even a bo I believe to eventually kill the demon … which turns out to be our friend Ishido Tsuburaya: whose hatred had transformed him into a monster, and trapped him in his own painting. For all that vision of Cruise’s girlfriend said that he and Tsuburaya would have been best friends, it seems to be the opposite. Tsuburaya may have had a long time to think about his hatred, and the place where it traps him, but as he dies he tells Cruise that while he freed him, his own curse is just beginning.
And, in a sequence that is beautiful, Cruise sees himself changing into the demon and runs himself through on the weapon he used — at least from his perspective — on Tsuburaya. It is so much more satisfying than if he had hallucinated his girlfriend as the demon. Later, we see his dead body — all that wealth and perceived power taken away by fear — and it may be that he had just gone mad: except one of the paintings has changed outside of his death. It looks just like the demon.
If any of the above names of Tsuburaya’s contemporaries are real artists, please feel free to let me know. I absolutely love learning about these elements, and I wonder what would have happened if Tsuburaya’s descendant had actually gotten, and seen the painting himself. I was tempted to think of Tsuburaya as a kind of Japanese Richard Upton Pickman: and though after all of this I suspect that the only ghouls he viewed as references were human beings, he did become a monster just him: though far less accepting of that fate.
I do like creative and innovative figures, but speaking of predators that are hard to see, and those that take advantage of the callousness of the bluster and carelessness of others, let’s talk about the spiders and their keeper Elmer Strick in “Ok I’ll Bite.”
I have to admit that this story, written and directed by John Harrison made me pause by the title alone. It seemed silly. Even the premise reminds of something of a combination between the Bird Man of Alcatraz and Willard. But the karma is dark and heavy, and Fall is an especially excellent time to reap it all.
Elmer is in prison because he committed euthanasia on his cancer-ridden mother. He’s been in the system for a year, and he almost gets parole: until a guard vouches for the fact that he attempted to poison another inmate. You see Elmer — not to be confused for Aylmer from Brain Damage — is something of a lover and expert of arachnids: spiders. He is a fairly gifted chemist, whether professional or amateur initially, that works with the prison’s doctor as an assistant. Before he was put into prison, he was working on a way to synthesize from specialized venom an agent that would kill someone quickly, and without any pain whatsoever.
See, this conceit for a character would be a good story in and of itself. But it doesn’t go there. Instead what we see is a man who is being exploited by a prison guard, who lies about his poisoning, to get him to work on creating opium for his shady side business. Now, you might already think that what this will lead to is Elmer realizing he has nothing left to lose with the loss of his parole and, combined with the guard’s prisoner lackeys making his life a living hell, unleashing a swarm of pet spiders all over the prison system itself: or just for his tormentors.
Yet Elmer doesn’t seem to have the right ingredients yet. I read, not too long ago, a short story by Neil Gaiman called “The Case of Death and Honey”: where we find out just why Sherlock Holmes undertakes beekeeping after supposedly retiring from solving life’s great mysteries. Elmer seems to also be engaging in a form of alchemy with his pet spiders: each one different from the other. He has five official spiders: Min (named after the Egyptian god of fertility), and his “harem” members Grace (for her delicate webs), Azrael (for the angel of death), Izanami (the Japanese goddess of the underworld), and Hecate (the Greek goddess of witchcraft). He also has a larger spider hidden behind the lower part of the wall who I believe he comes to call Sakhmet (after the Egyptian goddess of war and the destroyer of Ra’s enemies as well as a goddess of healing).
Sakhmet is only mentioned after he receives a letter from an Egyptian peer, who respects his work as a fellow scholar and scientific innovator, giving him a hieroglyphic spell that will apparently allow its user to be transformed: to be resurrected into perfection. This research and performance is accelerated after the guard’s criminal lackeys break one of Elmer’s fingers, and kill his beloved Min — a cute, furry spider — right in front of him: crushing him under his foot. Combined with one of the spiders attacking the prisoner trying to kill it too, and forcing the warden to order their destruction that Elmers: sketching glyphs on the ground, letting Grace, Azrael, Izanami, and Hecate pin his limbs as Sakhmet consumes his face.
Yet this isn’t end for Elmer. At least, I don’t believe so. If the spell is what it seems to be, it transforms hm — or transfers him — to Sakhmet: resembling a large spider with the face of the person whose victim fears to drain their life force away. This is what the spider does to the guard who comes into Elmer’s cell with the intention of beating him: only to be trapped by its webs, and consumed by the being wearing perhaps his mother’s face. It is also further implied that this being is still alive, and waiting behind the wall where Elmer had been feeding it initially. It might come across as a little corny, but revenge is juicy enough, in conjunction with the idea of Egyptians believing spiders can provide the means for immortality, to pay it off. Also, one of Elmer’s books, Bugs: The Miserable Philosophy of Billionaire Upson Pratt, is an excellent reference to “They’re Creeping Up On You” segment in the classic 1982 Creepshow. There is just something vintage and EC Comics about this story, complete with an obsessive but sympathetic protagonist, and his lovable spiders that just gets me right here.
I think I had a harder time writing about these stories because I like them a lot. When I do look at works I like, I generally focus on my favourite parts, and want to know or explore more about them. And I just can’t say this enough: you can never get enough karmic retribution, especially from the destruction of art, or a beautiful creature … least of all in the horror genre.