Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 4, 2013
When the Criterion Collection, via their Eclipse subsidiary, announced the release of a four-film DVD set from Japan’s Shochiku Studios, most of my fiends and fellows crowed about the imminent availability of Hajime Sato’s GOKE: BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL (KYUKTSUKI GOKEMIDORO, 1968)… while I rubbed my hands together in breathless anticipation of finally seeing Hiroshi Matsuno’s THE LIVING SKELETON (KYUKETSU DOKURO-SEN, 1968). I first read of both movies in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd., 1973) when I was 12 years old. An illustration from THE LIVING SKELETON was bunched into a grouping of stills showing the use of skeletons in movies (among them, the Lon Chaney version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Sidney Salkow’s 1963 horror anthology TWICE TOLD TALES). The picture didn’t show much — just a good-looking Japanese babe being bothered by a skeleton… well, that’s all I needed to see, really. And now, exactly 40 years later, I know what all the fuss is about.
What a year was 1968 for genre — world wide. While PLANET OF THE APES and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY blew our minds about man’s origins and destiny, ROSEMARY’S BABY and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD cast serious doubt on our ability to truly know and trust one another. While Hammer attempted to reassure us, via THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, that human exceptionalism and the grace of God would carry us through, WITCHFINDER GENERAL suggested that Big Religion (at least by proxy of its independent contractors) was really just looking out for itself, leaving us free-floating, vulnerable, and eaten up by fear. Things weren’t any more hopeful in Japan. Despite a booming economy, dread was dialed up to 11 twenty years out from Hiroshima-Nagasaki and that unease was reflected in the popular entertainment. Of course, by this date Godzilla (or Gojira, as he was known in his homeland) had had a dozen years of tenure as Japan’s resident Bogey but it wasn’t all cataclysms and kaiju eiga on the Nippon archipelago. Its culture rich in tales of the supernatural, Japan was home to many fine writers of the grotesque and arabesque and these tales had long informed the traditional, pre-cinematic art forms of Kabuki and Noh before the literature and then the movies got their hands on them, reworking the archetypes and tropes to keep them timely and personal. In the immediate years leading up to the release of THE LIVING SKELETON, Japanese filmgoers were mightily unnerved by the likes of Masaki Kobayashi KWAIDAN (KAIDAN, 1964), Kaneto Shindo’s ONIBABA (1964), Ishiro Honda’s ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE (MATANGO, 1965), Tsuneo Kobayahi’s THE GHOST AND THE HUNCHBACK (KAIDAN SEMUSHI OTOKO (1965), and Shindo’s KURONEKO (YABU NO NAKA NO KURONEKO, 1968), which beat THE LIVING SKELETON to the cinemas by nine months.
Scripted by Kikuma Shimoiizaka and GOKE scenarist Kyuzo Kobayashi, THE LIVING SKELETON has the simplicity of folklore and urban myth, telling the tale of a freighter whose crew is slaughtered by a quintet of mutineers out for $3 million in gold bullion. Among the dead are the ship’s doctor (Kô Nishimura) and his new bride (Kikko Matsuoka), machinegunned in front of one another within hours of taking their vows. Three years later and the long-vanished, rust-plagued freighter rolls up to the Japanese coastline in a bank of fog while one little two little three the five mutineers (most of whom have assimilated into proper, if not entirely high, society) begin to meet gory but well-deserved comeuppances. Could the killer be the dead Yoriko (“She was a newlywed. Of course she turned into a spiteful ghost.”) or her twin and still living sister Saeko (Matsuoka, in a dual role), who has spent the last three years being cared for by a country priest (Masumi Okada), whose benedictions and bromides seem to bring the tortured young woman zero peace of mind.
Rare for its vintage, THE LIVING SKELETON was shot in black and white ‘Scope at a time when vivid color was the standard and distinguishes itself even further from other films of its kind by bracketing the action within a Christian, rather than Buddhist, perspective. This choice seems to have been made primarily to allow the filmmakers to drench the feature in Gothic ambiance: in addition to the charm bracelet of skeletons that bob up from time to time as a sort of mute Greek chorus, THE LIVING SKELETON plays like The Castle of Otranto (or The Mysteries of Udolpho — I always get those bitches mixed up), with lightning scarring the sky, bats flapping at the window casements, fog rolling in over the land, and ghosts (or perhaps not ghosts) exacting a terrible vengeance. I can’t tell you what was on the minds of director Matsuno or writers Shimooizaka and Kobayashi but the film feels influenced by the best of what was coming out of England, Mexico, and Italy…
… the high contrast monochrome and shadowplay of Mario Bava and Antonio Margheritti, the pulp folkloric aesthetics of Fernando Méndez and Rafael Baledón, and the Gothic blandishments of Terence Fisher and Don Sharp (a shot of bats circling Masumi Okada’s church recalls the nightwing swarm at the end of KISS OF THE VAMPIRE). (The film’s theatrical one sheet, seen above, seems to have taken a cue from Fisher’s REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN.) Even Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) gets a nod in a disturbing vignette that plays out in a shower stall. And yet for all it may dip into the Flying Dutchman playbook, THE LIVING SKELETON‘s use of a spectral ship hauling karma to a coastal community at least partially funded by misdeeds gets the jump on John Carpenter’s THE FOG (1980) by well over a decade while Noboru Nishiyama’s use of Joe Meek-like electric strings and a plaintive harmonica to underscore this revenger’s tragedy feels like a warm up for Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL (2003-2004).
The Atomic Age transformed horror cinema in Japan, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone born before or towards the middle of the 20th Century. Post Little Boy and Fat Man, post Bikini Atoll and Castle Bravo, ghostly tales that had once turned on issues of karma recapitulation began to incorporate in greater proportion images of decay, mutilation, mutation, and transmogrification, with many a character winding up by the final fade-out as something other than wholly human. These motifs run rampant in many genre films of this era and in THE LIVING SKELETON in particular. I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler to say that the film concludes with the ghost ship decomposing before our very eyes, victim less of rot and rust than of necrosis as function of a House of Usher-style return to center. The film goes wildly off the rails for its last reel, with characters winding up charred beyond recognition, squeezed like fresh pasta between turbines, and liquified into a brothy putrescence. One might see no more in this than exploitation excess but to my eyes there is clearly more going on, a working through of questions of identity and corporeality, in which we fallible, gullible, temptable humans wind up through our failings and our sins the very stuff of nightmares.
I’m giving the Criterion-Eclipse collection WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU (Eclipse Series 37) my highest marks and full (like Thanksgiving full) recommendation. In addition to THE LIVING SKELETON and the aforementioned GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL, the set also includes Kazui Nihonmatsu’s THE X FROM OUTER SPACE (UCHU DAIKAIJU GIRARA, 1967) and GENOCIDE (KONCHU DAISENSO, 1968), both of which revolve around invasions of some sort, one from the skies, the other from the lower forms. All the films are presented in their intended theatrical aspect ratios and three out of the four are in color. There are no extras but critic Chuck Stephens (a former columnist for the esteemed Japanese film magazine Kinema Jumpo) provides brief but welcome liner notes for each of the releases, charting each film’s origins, applicable production history, and range of influences.
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