Sunday, December 2, 2012

When Horror Came to Shochiku (1967-1968) dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu; Hajime Sato; Hiroshi Matsuno

When Horror Came To Shochiku, The Criterion Collection's 37th release in their Eclipse Series, which strives to provide under-appreciated cinematic gems in moderately inexpensive no-frills DVD collections, is their first dedicated strictly to horror. Though the Criterion Collection is no stranger to Japanese horror cinema-- having previously released Godzilla (1954), Jigoku (1960), Onibaba (1964), Kwaidan (1965), Kurnoneko (1968), and Hausu (1977) in the mainline series-- the four films contained in this new Eclipse set are struck from an almost totally unique vein of genre referents. Those other Criterion horrors belong to a long tradition of Japanese horror cinema that finds inspiration in Japanese cultural mythology, tradition, religious practice, or (in the case of Godzilla) uniquely Japanese ecological concerns. Shochiku Studio's horror output (these four films making up the sum total of it) is more clearly derived from Western cinema, with its multinational casts and decided avoidance of blatant Japanese cultural signifiers leaving each film feeling as if it has been primed for international export. But it would be wrong to call the films mere imitations of horror films with Western sensibilities. Rather, the films engage an assortment of disparate genre conventions from both East and West--ghosts (maboroshi), aliens, giant monsters (dai-kaiju), UFOs, doppelgangers, killer insects, vampires, mad scientists, nuclear disasters--in their frenzied, low-budget madness, producing a quartet of simultaneously goofy and thrilling films that are, frankly, unclassifiable.

The X from Outer Space (1967) dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu

A cloyingly mirthful romantic comedy (in space!) meets a most preposterous giant rubber-suited monster movie, The X from Outer Space is Shochiku's attempt at mining the lucrative kaiju pot and winding up with one of the more bizarre and schizophrenic (though cheerfully optimistic) entries in the canon. It opens at the headquarters of one of those ideal Star Trek era international, multicultural space programs, which, for reasons left sketchy, sends a happy-go-lucky shuttle team into the void of space on a mission to Mars. Six previous missions have failed due to inexplicable UFO interference, and this expedition turns out much the same, with a UFO that looks akin to "the world's largest fried egg" bungling communications and forcing the "astroboat" to take respite on the moon, upon which her unfazed crew flirt with each other and bounce around to the tune of Latin-flavored ballroom music. Soon after the crew set off again, coming into contact with the UFO once more and having their ship's hull covered with blinking, frosted eggs. Scraping one off for a sample and bringing it back to Earth results in the astronauts unleashing the swift development of a gigantic space monster... possessing all the visual ferocity of an antennaed chicken with ruffled sleeves. This monster, dubbed Guilala, birthed in a shower of fireworks and lava, soon makes short work of a cardboard and plaster city, stumbling his gangly way towards the nearest power sources while floor-punching buildings and letting fighter jets crash into his head all the while. He consumes electricity and nuclear power for energy, see, (looking as if he's mindlessly orgasming while doing so), and it'll take the military's combined strength to cover him in shaving cream before he wreaks irreparable damage. In the Eclipse set's liner notes, critic Chuck Stephens pokes fun at the notion of reading any deep themes emanating from either the film's slight interracial romance drama or glowing space omelet. He's right, but I can't help but be floored by the wistfulness with which the survivors talk about Guilala in the immediate aftermath of his killing (probably) tens of thousands of people and the glib lesson that the experience of the frilly chicken monster has taught to blonde-haired astronaut Lisa (Peggy Neal), who then applies it to her love life: "All things should remain where they belong."

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968) dir. Hajime Sato

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell has the distinction of being the the most visually audacious of the Shochiku horrors. Commencing on a jetliner coasting cautiously through a blood red sky full of blood red clouds, it's no great surprise when events take a turn for the grisly and extravagant. Multiple birds suicide against the windshield, shady deals begin to unfold between the passengers, and a mysterious man attempts a hijacking. The plane loses control and crashes into a mountaintop before anything is resolved, but the situation only escalates from there: the hijacker's body is overtaken by an alien entity in the form of a slithering pile of silver metallic goo that enters him, quite graphically, through a yonic wound it creates on his forehead. The vaginal imagery in this wound is explicit, and the hijacker's campaign of alien-fueled sexual vampirism (enacted indiscriminately on both men and women) complicates the usual gender-specific vampire/victim relationships in an equally interesting and bizarre manner. Also of note is the film's blanket condemnation of human aggression, here pointed squarely at the conflict in Vietnam. The specter of the Vietnam War hovers over everything in the film: a blonde haired American passenger is traveling to pick up the body of her deceased soldier husband, another passenger is an arms dealer setting up dubious exchanges, and the Vietnam War gives the invading alien species the justification it seems to require in order to initiate the genocide of humankind, in a sort of "you-had-it-all-and-screwed-it-all-up" mass shunning. The alien envoy offers "no repentance" to the irresponsible humans and neither does Goke. Innocents die in extreme and merciless fashion, a black and white photo montage of images from Vietnam reminding us of the source of its resolve. As the film ends on a breathtaking apocalyptic tableau, there's little question that director Hajime Sato has painted a bold political critique on his brazen and tawdry genre canvas.

The Living Skeleton (1968) dir. Hiroshi Matsuno

Shochiku's most fascinating genre mashup, The Living Skeleton combines elements of murderous pirates, haunted boats, vengeful ghosts, mad scientists, disguised psychopaths, and wayward bats. The only of these films shot in black and white, its delectable cinematography casts a rain-soaked melancholy over this outwardly simple yet increasingly convoluted tale. It's also the most charmingly spartan production, its hokey special effects (misshapen plastic skeletons floating at the bottom of the ocean, toy boats caught in bathtub storms, rubber bats on strings being thunked against windows) never detracting from the poignancy of the tale in any meaningful way. An initial scene of a group of pirates machine-gunning a boat's restrained passengers segues to events transpiring three years later. Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) is a young girl taken in by a priest after her identical twin sister (one of the victims in the opening scene) disappeared at sea without a trace. When the long-missing ship that her sister was a passenger on reappears off in the distance of the waters of this seaside village, Saeko and her boyfriend take a disastrous boat ride out to it in a storm. In the aftermath, a ghostly doppelganger begins to take bloody, brutal vengeance on the pirates, most of whom have established themselves as "respectable" members of society with the booty they acquired from the heist. Through this section the film is comfortably formulaic. But, after the surprise strangulation of a main character and the reveal of the sadistic and hypocritical murderer's true identity, The Living Skeleton forgets itself in its perverse ride towards its conclusion. This is assuredly a good thing. The film's most unsettling sounds and images arise from this wild abandon: a sunken-eyed doctor who sleeps on an abandoned ship curled up next to the mummified corpse of his wife with a syringe in his hand and a tape recorder playing the sounds of her orgasmic/tortured moans on a table in the background; a possibly sentient but expressionless corpse clinging with unearthly strength to a man's leg as he drags her along; a boat's superstructure literally melting into the sea. Only in its final, mournful moments does it feel like its contemporaneous Japanese ghost story brethren-- what came before is far too strange and indelibly Western (placing a certain emphasis on Christianity and go-go clubs) to warrant such a simple classification.

Genocide (1968) dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu

The year after helming The X from Outer Space, director Kazui Nihonmatsu returned to Shochiku for another science fiction/horror hybrid, which turned out to be his last for the studio. Genocide is in every way a more accomplished effort than Nihonmatsu's previous film. Its apocalyptic horror derives from a wildly absurd scenario that tops Goke's while sharing a basic resemblance: as nuclear tensions between the Eastern and Western blocs heighten, colossal intelligent swarms of genetically modified insects decide that they would rather wipe out humanity first than risk obliteration at the whims of irresponsible and reckless human beings. No lie, the clever, evolved insects actually communicate this exact intention to a character while he's in a poison-induced trance. The misanthropic ecological message is bolstered by the film's characters, who prove themselves to be all too eager to betray and murder each other, even when facing the total extinction of the human species. Even the character who one would imagine to be the most sympathetic-- a (surprise) blonde-haired Jewish woman named Annabelle (Kathy Horan) who was raped and witnessed the deaths of her whole family while imprisoned in Auschwitz (and who spouts a line that would proudly grace the cover of any lurid 1950s Men's Adventure magazine: "Nazi Soldiers Made Me Their Plaything")-- actively seeks the eradication of humankind because she doesn't "trust humans beings anymore." Because Annabelle, when not scheming, is also the deceitful "plump white butterfly" lover of one the film's main characters, a married Japanese man, the film is also making a more pointed condemnation of interracial relationships than The X from Outer Space could-- sunbathe with a blonde white girl and you just might be precipitating the Insect Armageddon. In addition, there are a slew of unnerving moments here, particularly the bloody mess that the swarms of insects leave when they decide to suicide en masse against the windshields of planes and the agonized sounds of monkeys being wantonly killed by the insects, overheard by two characters as they await their own imminent fates under the protection of a flimsy wooden shack. The film concludes, swiftly, with a murder, a suicide, a plane exploding, an H-bomb detonating, most of the main characters perishing, the insect menace still very much a reality, and a lone pregnant woman stranded in a boat staring at the scorched sun and sky. The events serve as an echo of one of the film's earlier sentiments: "The world in indeed full of chaos and danger."  

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