Criterion Corner: When Horror Came to Shochiku

Andrew reviews Criterion's Eclipse Series 37 of late '60s Japanese horror.

In the Japanese studio driven film scene led by studios like Toei, Toho, Daiei, Nikkatsu, Kadokawa and Shintoho, Shochiku is among the oldest and most respectable of the bunch.  Founded in 1895 initially as a kabuki theater company before evolving into a film studio in 1920 as a competitor to Nikkatsu, Shochiku sought to follow in the footsteps of the Western studio system by aiming for stories focused less on Jidaigekis (period dramas often in the Tokugawa period) with greater emphasis on modernistic small town urban dramas.  After a few setbacks including the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake, Shochiku soon attracted the talent of yet to be great directors like Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Hiroshi Shimizu.  Then WWII rolled around and many of the studios including Shochiku began churning out propaganda films, resulting in the arrest of Shochiku president Shiro Kido and Shochiku founder Takejiro Otani.  After the end of the American occupation in 1953, Kido resumed work at Shochiku and went on to garner the talents of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Keisuke Kinoshita. 

For the most part, Shochiku was known for their more eclectic and melodramatic director driven fare, often called the director’s studio by many auteurs lucky enough to have worked for them. In later years still they soon courted the talents of Takashi Miike, Yoji Yamada and Takeshi Kitano.  Further still, Shochiku has distributed many well-known anime films including Ghost in the Shell, Full Metal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa and Jungle Emperor Leo.  What the company isn’t necessarily known for, however, are horror movies and in particular rubber suit kaiju movies ala Gojira and Mothra.  Following in the footsteps of Toho and Shintoho’s low budget monster movies and horror flicks was the last thing on Shochiku’s roster.  But from 1967 to 1968, Shochiku briefly decided to give the critically maligned but commercially successful subgenres of their competitors a try, resulting in four films making up The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series boxed set, When Horror Came to Shochiku.  Previously only available via third generation bootlegs sold illegally before getting the Criterion treatment, these low budget ventures all certifiably wacky and exemplar of a film company as a fish out of water exploring the possibilities of exploitation horror cinema.  Indicative of the tail end of 1960s pop culture filtered through science fiction horror, all display an ineffable charm, visual invention against limited resources and all address numerous postwar fears with its mixture of international casting and their own take on Hammer Horror filtered through what would soon become the notion of J-Horror.  With this, The Movie Sleuth takes a good look at each of these four delightfully warped horror movies, marking a time when a film studio leapt into the most unlikely of genres with feverish and often reckless abandon.

The X from Outer Space (1967)

Undoubtedly the silliest and most overtly tongue in cheek of the bunch, Kazui Nihonmatsu’s low budget space sci-fi turned chicken lizard kaiju rampage The X from Outer Space announces itself during its samba and jazzy driven opening credits not one iota of this thing should be taken seriously.  Beginning with four astronauts heading towards a space base on the Moon before encountering an omelet flying saucer which leaves a sticky spore on the ship’s rocket boosters, the film shifts gears at the halfway mark when one of the spores grows into the aptly named Guilala.  Escaping the confinements of its glass jar via an acidic residue which eats through several floors (Ridley Scott had to have watched this before making Alien), the rubber suit monster Guilala sports dangling antennae, glowing red eyes and oversized arms, the clumsy looking kaiju with its chicken roar flapping its mouth every five seconds is immediate camp of the highest order.  Meanwhile the film becomes a race against time as the film’s astronauts comprised of three Japanese men and one American woman (whose dialogue is obviously dubbed over in Japanese) try to find a solution to the kaiju outbreak before it destroys all of Tokyo. 

Despite the low budget effects, this is one of the few kaiju flicks with something more to it than the usual Gojira fare.  Take for instance a sequence where two of the astronauts try to lure the Guilala away from the FAFC astroboat center with the Guilala close behind their vehicle.  Images of a hastily rendered blue screen optical effect of the Guilala’s hand reaching down for the vehicle immediately reminded me of the eventual T-Rex chase in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.  In between the low budget hilarity are real characters who, despite being broadly drawn archetypes, you become invested in.  There’s a love triangle, military intrigue, intentional as well as unintentional humor and moments of peril where you genuinely fear for the characters.  The strangest overqualified addition to the cast has to be Eiji Okada from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.  Seriously, how do you go from a prestigious arthouse favorite to over and unabashed schlock?  In any event, there’s also, believe it or not, moments of scenic beauty scattered throughout the film, augmenting the surrounding goofball scenes of the Guilala running about destroying models of cities and batting at airplanes hung by monofilament wires.  That said, I won’t pretend The X from Outer Space isn’t the weakest film in this series.  If you’re familiar with Gojira or have seen Destroy All Monsters, there’s a good bet you’ve seen this sort of thing already.  I always enjoy a good kaiju flick, particularly one with its tongue firmly planted in cheek, but to say it pales in comparison to what would come next from Shochiku’s brief horror oriented period is being too modest.


Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)

Now here is where the eccentric, colorful and just plain bizarre sensibilities behind Shochiku Horror really started to come into their own playing field.  With my personal favorite in the Eclipse boxed set and a longtime favorite of Quentin Tarantino, Hajime Sato’s Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is a batshit, psychedelic, transgressive free for all that has to be seen to be believed.  Telling the story of an airplane which crash lands after being sideswiped by an alien spacecraft, the ensemble piece quickly transforms into a gonzo freak show when it becomes apparent the aliens intend to possess and destroy the human race.  Did I mention vampirism factors into this thing as well?  To say caution is thrown to the wind is an understatement.  From the outset and title itself, this looks like another Invasion of the Body Snatchers flick but in all of the body snatcher adaptations that have come and gone over the years, none of them approached the Mount Everest of hallucinogenic weirdness reached by Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell.  Dubbed by hardcore fans the ‘Vagina-Face Apocalypse’, the film is most notable for the method in which the aliens take over human bodies, forming a slit on the victims’ foreheads where a neon fluorescent blob crawls its way inside.  It’s fair to say David Cronenberg must’ve seen Goke when he devised the vaginal orifice on James Woods’ stomach for Videodrome, another science fiction mindblower easier to see than describe to others.  Not to mention the acting with a capital A is joyously over the top, ranging from histrionic to laughably melodramatic, rounding out this surreal horror package as one that will elicit a myriad of reactions from the viewer.

Visually the film is absolutely stunning with ornate cinematography, vibrant colors, eccentric lighting and increasingly strange set pieces including a still phantasmagoric interior of the alien spacecraft which looks like a wet dream of Mario Bava and Nicolas Winding Refn come to vivid, bloody life.  The film also sports a funky score of strings and the theremin reminiscent of Nobou Nakagawa’s Jigoku.  Newcomers to Goke will immediately spot the Kill Bill Vol. 1 homage with a model airplane flying through a blood red sky, a striking beginning to a film which can and does go in places you wouldn’t expect.  There’s also a bevy of striking optical effects of orange alien spacecraft invading Earth and a mesmerizing image of characters in a trance slowly walking towards the spacecraft.  Spliced in between are images of disintegrating corpses that are startlingly gory, Kamikaze-esque crows and finally scenes of voiceover of the Gokemidoro alien race speaking their sordid intentions to the characters.  There’s a loose anti-war political context running through the film, including a subplot involving an American woman traveling to Vietnam to claim the body of her dead husband, but mostly Goke is remembered for being a color oversaturated freak out.  Unlike the previous film, The X from Outer Space, part of the charm of Goke is that it doesn’t play for laughs, leaving viewers unsure of how to process the surreal cocktail being served.  Much like The Thing from Another World, it is a horror film about a confined cavalcade of characters boxed in together while an extraterrestrial force lurks from the outside.  While the premise is familiar, the execution is otherworldly and a sensual delight for the eyes and another example of how many years ahead of the gory and oddball horror genre the Japanese really were. 


The Living Skeleton (1968)
Backpedaling from the zaniness of Goke, Shochiku aimed instead for a more straightforward gothic kaidan this time around, ultimately producing the only black and white film in the group: Hiroshi Matsuno’s The Living Skeleton.   Opening on a violent massacre on a pirate hijacked freighter, the film jumps ahead three years as a young woman finds herself haunted by evil spirits stemming from the horrific event.  In this ultra-widescreen atmosphere drenched unfinished business ghost story horror thriller, we see the tracks laid for John Carpenter’s The Fog with elements of haunted house chillers Val Lewton and Tod Browning would be proud as well as the then late 60s level of graphic violence amid yakuza and horror films of the time.  We also see the ground roots for methodically paced and nuanced low budget J-horror of the mid-2000s with many scenes you can trace directly to the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa or Takashi Shimizu.  Where the first two horror offerings from Shochiku seemed subversive in their own funky manner, The Living Skeleton marks the first time the studio’s attempt at horror managed to be genuinely creepy.  One part of you wants to reach out and touch the monofilament wires dangling the fake looking rubber bats about while the other can’t help but get unnerved by the sounds of disembodied and ghostly cries and moans against dead silence.  Sound being a key element to the horror experience, the score is one of the biggest surprises with Noboru Nishiyama’s mixture of jazz, funk, avant garde and ambience.  A recurring motif of an echoing twanging guitar over time gains the capacity to make your hair stand on end.  This might in fact the only horror film to make a harmonica sound eerie.  It’s such a creepy and melancholic listen even hearing it outside of the film is unsettling. 

Clearly a Japanese thriller with many conventional Western horror influences all over it, The Living Skeleton is a solid horror film in spite of its technical limitations.  You can see what would or would not become Hideo Nakata’s Ringu many years later in this.  I won’t disagree some of the cheapness in the special effects props department undercut the taut and stylized tension of The Living Skeleton but so much of the film works really very well you almost forgive them and aren’t taken out of the film.  The haunted house and vampire tropes are undeniably silly but the now worn cliché of a creepy Japanese woman in white with long black hair and an axe to grind remains startlingly effective here.  There’s also some fine acting throughout with a greater lineup of stars and more emphasis on subtlety.  Much like Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, many of its horrors happen in broad daylight and still manage to remain terrifying.  Far more violent and gory than the Shochiku entries preceding it with moments that haven’t lost their power to shock, The Living Skeleton against the drawbacks is an edgy, dark and at times uncompromisingly daring thriller with many twists and turns you’ll neither see coming nor easily shake off.   


Genocide (1968)

Who would have though the director of The X from Outer Space would later make an apocalyptic killer insects outbreak film that managed to be a sobering, downbeat horror experience about man’s capacity for self-annihilation?  Stemming from post-nuclear holocaust fears, genetic engineering and swarms of poisonous insects, Kazui Nihonmatsu’s Genocide opens on Saul and Elaine Bass inspired opening credits and sustains a bleak and apocalyptic tone of doom as a horror thriller that may or may not be about a manmade natural disaster.  In a way you could call this the director’s serious version of The X from Outer Space for shared plot devices such as a miniscule virus that breaks out into a raging epidemic, but Genocide has far more serious matters in mind to bring to the table.  Despite only running 84 minutes in length, the scale of the ensemble piece about a military aircraft carrying a hydrogen bomb downed by a swarm of insects is far greater and more complicated than you’d think.   You could also call Genocide both the precursor and artistic successor to Irwin Allen’s The Swarm which had more money but fewer brains by comparison.  Touching on the ease with which mankind can instantly destroy itself, this killer bugs movie manages to catch you up in nearly every character’s separate dilemmas, jump around without feeling disjointed and create an atmosphere of tension with a hint of hopelessness.  Much like Jorge Grau’s 1974 zombie thriller The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, it’s an ecological thriller full of scenic beauty thanks to the remote island locations and rural region, isolating the horrors from populated areas and insulating the terrors to only the immediate characters. 

An ensemble piece with multiple factions engaged in guerilla warfare including but not limited to the military, spies and a vengeful woman with a deadly secret, Genocide touches on the Vietnam War, Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet Union, drug addiction, racial profiling and even elements of the medical thriller.  While bugs play a large part in Genocide, the impact the outbreak has on the cast is what drives the picture, sparking a myriad of violence, double crossing and the old saying ‘an eye for an eye’ amongst many characters.  It’s difficult to know who to trust here and by the time you’ve allied yourself with the one or two sensible characters, it’s already too late.  One of the highlights of the film involves a doctor who subjects himself to the strange insect poison afflicting the region.  As he goes into convulsions whipping up into a sociopathic rage informing Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, the screen overlays a psychedelic montage of insectoid images on top of the footage, giving viewers an insight into the biochemical battle within.  It’s a remarkable scene that conveys the rapid venomous flow through the bloodstream and how quickly a perfectly sane person can succumb to barbaric impulses.  Although a scene of an escaped afflicted military personnel borders on silly scenery chewing and the sounds of an army of insects chiming the words ‘genocide’ feel forced, overall Genocide is easily the most pessimistic and darkest of the Shochiku horror offerings and the most unlikely turn for the director who gave viewers the ridiculous chicken lizard kaiju just a year before.  Proof positive you can make a killer insects epidemic film with minimal resources and still end up with a piercing social critique about man’s self-destructive tendencies and a solid door to close on Shochiku’s brief but inspired foray into the horror genre.


-Andrew Kotwicki

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