Japanese horror cinema has a rich history that goes well beyond the shenanigans of Godzilla and the inexorable supernatural curses portrayed in The Ring and The Grudge. Case in point, during the late ‘60s, the eclectic film studio Shochiku explored the genre with four intriguing tales that involve giant monsters, space vampires, subaquatic ghosts, and deadly swarms of tropical insects.
The involvement of Shochiku in the production of low budget horror films was a big deal, as back in the day this prominent studio was famous for producing transcendental and existential dramas helmed by directors of the caliber of Nagisa Oshima and Yasujiro Ozu. Most probably, the involvement of Shochiku in the horror genre was not a decision taken because of aesthetic considerations, but because of simply economics. After all, the horror genre has always been considered as a quick way to make a profit in the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, such a gambit did not played well for Shochiku, and after four films the studio went back to produce the melodramatic films it was well known for. In recent years, however, Shochiku has returned to the genre of the grotesque, producing films directed by the indefatigable and unpredictable Takeshi Miike.
The X From Outer Space
The quartet of horror films produced by Shochiku during the late ‘60s are The X From Outer Space (Uchu daikaiju Girara, 1967), Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro, 1968), The Living Skeleton (Kyuketsu Dokuro Sen, 1968), and Genocide (Konchu Daisenso, 1968). These films feature rather unique monsters and showcase distinctive aesthetic styles. Furthermore, and perhaps due to the influence of Shochiku, these flicks appear to have a unique sense of gravitas combined with somewhat dazzling and psychedelic visuals, an alluring mixture not commonly seen in other Japanese horror films of that period.
However, truth be told, these four fear flicks are far from being the best that Japan has offered to the horror genre. For example, most of the acting and narrative development are weak, to say the least, and after more than four decades, these films show their age. Indeed, not only the special effects feel anemic, even for late ‘60s standards. But also, the cultural and ideological subtexts of these films are completely outdated, firmly anchoring these movies in the era in which they were produced.
The X From Outer Space is a giant monster movie shamelessly made as an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Godzilla films. As the film explains, “UFO interference” has preempted the exploration of Mars. On the latest mission to the red planet, the spaceship AAB-Gamma is covered with a strange substance emanated by a mischievous flying saucer. Upon return to planet Earth, the extraterrestrial sample grows into Guilala, a giant monster that unleashes terror, destruction, and devastation all over Japan.
This silly looking monster is the only thing that manages to eclipse the silliness of the premise behind this movie. Indeed, the terrifying Guilala simply looks like a giant chicken with a head in the shape of a saucer adorned by two springy antennas. Arguably, Guilala may well be the second daftest monster to haunt a movie screen (the first place goes to the space monster from The Giant Claw, another fowl creature able to flap its feathery wings to travel across the stars). Needless to say, most of the movie boils down to scenes of a man in a monster suit destroying a miniature set made of buildings and airplane toys.
It’s perhaps ironic that the most interesting part of The X From Outer Space is the showcase of totally outdated gender and race politics. For example, one of the members of the spaceship is the blond American Lisa (Peggy Neal). Even though she is the biologist onboard the Mars expedition, she is the one that serves the coffee to the captain and the rest of the crew. Lisa is involved in a love triangle with Captain Sano (Shunya Wazaki) and Michiko (Itoko Harada). Needless to say, once the monster is destroyed and the normal order returns, the interracial sexual tension is completely dumped in favor of the traditional relation between Sano and Michiko, the two Japanese characters.
By far, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is a much better film. If anything else, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell has lots of interesting ideas and arresting visuals. As the flick begins, an UFO causes a passenger airplane to crash land in some remote area of Japan (the dazzling scene of the airplane flying over a bright orange sky backdrop is said to have influenced Quantin Tarantino for a similarly looking scene in Kill Bill: Volume 1). One of the survivors is possessed by an alien entity and gets transformed into a vampire-like creature.
Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell
The rest of the film revolves around the survivors trying to get along and find means to fight the alien menace. With a few weapons found onboard, the survivors manage to barricade themselves inside the airplane. However, the nefarious alien vampire does not compare to the stupidity, greed, and fear that weakens the strength of the group of survivors. At the end, the film shows how human weaknesses are far more destructive than the powerful alien force.
As such, the visual and narrative structure of Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is strikingly reminiscent of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. And even more surprising, both films have a strong anti-Vietnam war subtext. In the case of Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, one of the passengers is a young woman who was traveling to Tokyo to collect the remains of her dead husband who was killed in action in Vietnam. Unfortunately, rather than making a subtle point, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell goes straight for the jugular with an overt anti-war discourse given by the grieving widow. As a result, this film becomes unnecessarily preachy, which is perhaps its biggest liability.
Arguably, The Living Skeleton is the best film of the set. Furthermore, this may well be one of the most sought after Japanese horror films ever made. Indeed, several monster kids, like myself, who spent countless afternoons flipping through the pages of Dennis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1977), will remember the arresting image of a skeleton terrorizing a young girl. Well, this is the movie, finally available on home video outside Japan. Unfortunately, the image seen in the book was a publicity photo, and in spite of its title, this movie does not feature any re-animated skeletons.
Even so, The Living Skeleton offers a macabre and superfluously convoluted tale that combines modern day pirates, supernatural revenge, restless spirits, ghost ships, malevolent doppelgangers, underwater graves, evil crime masterminds, and mad scientists. Quite amazingly, these key words pretty much summarize the plot of the film. But then again, The Living Skeleton is a film more concerned about atmosphere and mood, than narrative structure and logic.
Because of its lavish black and white cinematography, The Living Skeleton brings to mind the atmospheric monochromatic nightmares created by Val Lewton in films such as The Cat People and Bedlam. Indeed, in spite of its cheap special effects, The Living Skeleton feels creepy and unsettling. In addition, the acting appears to be more professional than in the other three films made by Shochiku.
Closing Shochiku’s horror efforts of the late ‘60s is Genocide, a deeply flawed movie that is impossible to summarize in a few lines. Similar to The Living Skeleton, Genocide can only be described as a bizarre mixture of dissimilar narrative elements. The result is a movie that mostly seems to be about the revenge of Mother Nature in the form of swarms of angry insects, but also involves superfluous subplots dealing with lost nuclear weapons, communist spies, drug addiction, interracial adulterous relations, skewed science, the subjugation of Japan by imperialistic American politics, and the deep cultural impact left by the horrors of World War II in its two major combat theaters.
There are moments in which Genocide appears to be extremely bitter in its one-sided anti-American political ideology. Indeed, this film appears to blame America for all the bad things that threaten Japanese culture. From the development, deployment, and mishandling of nuclear weapons, to blue-eyed homewreckers and arrogant US Air Force officials, America is presented as far more destructive than the killer insects.
All things considered, these four Shochiku horror films are worth watching, even though Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell and The Living Skeleton are the only ones with some artistic merit. Thanks to the guys at Criterion, these four flicks have been packaged together in When Horror Came to Shochiku and offered as part of their Eclipse Series Collection. The audio-visual quality is top notch, as expected from Criterion, but the DVDs do not contain any extra features. By all means, and in spite of the mixed bag quality of the movies presented, this set is highly recommended to the serious horror film fan interested in the history of the genre.