The American Motion Picture industry should take note of the ability of the Japanese to produce visually appealing movies. The Phantom Horse, now playing at the Exeter Theater, is another realistic, sensitive, and artistically-designed film.
Though the movie's plot is unnecessarily inane--giving one the feeling that it was released specifically for the American public--it will appeal to children, and to those who enjoy the sentimental story of a child's love for his horse. American producers have worked this theme over thoroughly in National Velvet and many similar films. Yet The Phantom Horse possesses a fresh charm. It is convincing and restrained, and never becomes maudlin.
The story is set and photographed on Hokkaido, a northern island of Japan where the principal occupation of the people is horsebreeding. The farm community involved has been greatly influenced by the American occupation in dress and manners, but still retains a few of its ancient customs. Unlike most of the Eastern films that have been shown in America recently, this is a modern-day drama in modern-day Japan, and only occasional shots of the traditional rituals suggest the people's old cultural ways.
We are quickly caught up in the trials and difficulties of a family that is continuously fighting financial hardship. Ultimately the family's livelihood depends on the horse, Takeru, who hopefully will turn out to be the Nashua of his hemisphere. The horse experiences two traumatic experiences with fire, the first in a nearby forest and the second in his Tokyo stable. These incidents of couse affect his racing proficiency, and in the end the boy uses his harmonica in an attempt to calm the distraught animal in preparation for the "big race."
The story is full of psychological elements, as when the boy blames the horse for the death of his father and his sister for the eventual death of the horse. The animal himself is rendered virtually neurotic on several occasions, and, it must be said, suffers his misfortunes admirably.
The title of the film is a slight enigma, since the horse is very much alive for the major portion of the story, and in the end seems unlikely to return to earth in any shape or form. This may be the fault of the translation, though.
The photography is of course excellent. Without Cinemanscope or Vistavision, the camera catches the seacoast, seasonal changes, and other countryside scenes with delicate and restrained artistry. Very effective angle shots are employed, especially in the last big race, as the horses leave the post, round the turns, and finally slow down past the finish line.
The acting is adequate--the best performance being turned in by the horse--but the film's main attraction is still the photography. The Phantom Horse was made by the same people who produced Gate of Hell, and with some of the same success.