FROM DREAM FACTORY TO NIGHTMARE MACHINE
The second-oldest motion picture company in Japan, Shochiku studios, founded in 1924, was once that country’s most progressive film enterprise. Open to the absorption of Western filmmaking influences and the development of personal styles from the company’s very beginning, Shochiku president Shiro Kido liked to boast that his was a “director’s studio,” and almost every major Japanese filmmaker worked there at one time or another. Most famously, Yasujiro Ozu began at Shochiku in the 1920s and remained there his entire career, making precocious prewar comedies before embarking on the series of “home dramas” that cemented his reputation as Japan’s leading filmmaker and include so many of world cinema’s greatest films, Tokyo Story chief among them. And most infamously, Nagisa Oshima began at the studio in the late 1950s, a brash young critic and soon-to-be cine-radical whose first four films for the company provided such an incendiary succession of ideological and aesthetic shocks that Kido withdrew the fourth, 1960’s Night and Fog in Japan, from theaters after only three days. Oshima quit, and the Japanese New Wave was born. By 1963, Ozu was dead and Shochiku was in a state of creative and financial turmoil from which it wouldn’t entirely recover until the arrival of the affable traveling-salesman character Tora-san in 1969, whose appearance in a string of annual Yoji Yamada–helmed supersuccesses would continue for almost thirty years.
If Shochiku had a house genre in the 1950s, it was the melodrama, tinged with a little romance; Oshima’s late arrival notwithstanding, the studio had become, generically speaking, a rather staid place. Elsewhere, Japanese genre movies were living it up. Nikkatsu studios had its scandalous and successful “sun tribe” films, the forerunners of the “borderless” action pizzazz of Seijun Suzuki and company that would wow early sixties audiences; Shintoho studios had director Nobuo Nakagawa and a string of gruesome, atmospheric horror flicks that would culminate in Nakagawa’s staggering vision of eternal torment Jigoku in 1960. Toho had the towering twin forces of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (both 1954), the latter a dai-kaiju (giant monster) gold mine that would spawn an endless succession of sequels, spin-offs, and mutations to buoy the company for decades to come. So lucrative were Godzilla and his crew (Mothra, Rodan, et al.)—first as “serious” sci-fi, and soon thereafter as silly (but internationally salable) kid stuff—that by the mid-1960s, nearly every major Japanese studio had dabbled in the rubber-suit gargantuan minigenre. Honda, the master of the form, had followed up his formative franchise creature features of the fifties with an increasingly lyrical and lysergic set of kaiju variations in the early sixties, with Matango (a.k.a. Attack of the Mushroom People) and Frankenstein Conquers the World leading the charge. In 1967, surrendering to the sort of anything-goes attitude that often makes genre cinema feel so palpable and alive, Shochiku at last decided to join the club.
The quartet of berserk and bizarre science fiction/fantasy/horror genre masterworks the company produced in 1967 and 1968—The X from Outer Space; Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell; The Living Skeleton; and Genocide—have become legendary and sought-after crucibles of cheaply expressive special effects, unhinged flights of filmmaking fancy, and myriad topical anxieties of their day. Here are worlds of bargain-basement nightmares and genuine culture shocks, where vampires and UFOs are no stranger or more horrific than the atrocities of the Vietnam War or the disruptive energies of a brassy Western blonde in still-recovering postreconstruction Japan. Garishly designed and all the more gorgeous for it, these are deranged and largely despairing visions of a world gone out of control, most of them filled with bored, vicious people eager to tear one another apart. Each is a vividly etched example of 1960s Japanese popular culture run amok, from the cheery bit of singsong about embracing the universe that begins The X from Outer Space to the beautifully rendered, apocalyptic mushroom cloud that closes Genocide—a series of mad and glorious visions exploring the fears of the present and the thrilling/terrifying potential of the future, and sometimes even the mind-wrenching possibility that these may already be our final days. For this baffling and brilliant foursome of outrageous genre movies, the writers and directors were apparently given but a single filmmaking directive: only the craziest shall survive!
Buoyant, idiotic, and altogether irresistible, director Kazui Nihonmatsu’s The X from Outer Space (1967) enjoys a well-deserved reputation as one of the silliest—and, as a consequence, most beloved—rubber-suit monster movies ever made. In the shadow of Mount Fuji, Dr. Kato (Hiroshima mon amour’s Eiji Okada) of the FAFC (Fuji Astro-Flight Center) is preparing a fresh space crew for a mission to Mars, this one in the new “astroboat” the AAB-Gamma. Previous missions have all failed, and the AAB-Gamma’s international crew—three Japanese men and a blue-eyed American space biologist named Lisa (Peggy Neal)—are told that UFO interference is the suspected cause. Lisa’s duty is to “collect any unknown substances” encountered during the flight, but only with the express permission of the handsome Captain Sano (Shunya Wazaki). Also along for the ride: Signal officer Miyamoto (comic-relief man Shinichi Yanagisawa, of Shohei Imamura’s Stolen Desire), whose butt cheek will provide one of the lowest of the film’s many “mirthful” moments.
With composer Taku Izumi’s bouncy space sambas keeping things lively, the AAB-Gamma heads for Mars, only to encounter a glowing flying saucer that, according to Miyamoto, “looks like a half-cooked omelet!” Stranger things are to come. The impetuous Lisa soon begins defying Sano’s authority, even as she collects dagger-eyed glares of jealousy over the video intercom from Michiko (Itoko Harada), Sano’s romantic interest at the FAFC’s base station on the moon. When foamy, glittering space spores begin to accumulate on the outside of the ship, Lisa scoops up a sample, and the entire ensemble returns to Earth, where at last the ginormous Guilala (alternately Girara) is born. And what a ludicrous wonder he is to behold! Picture a denuded, four- legged chicken walking upright, twenty stories high, head like a fighter jet rendered in modeling clay, a pair of springy antennae on top and a faucet protruding from between its glowing insectoid eyes; body covered in coral-textured bumps, arms overstuffed like a mariachi’s billowing blouse, pinched seams running along each limb like the crust of some horrible potpie. Cloverfield’s gigantic plucked fowl looks like chicken cordon bleu in comparison. Much mighty monster roaring and the demolition of many miniature industrial complexes ensue. Is Guilala a manifestation of Lisa’s push-pull desire for Sano—the giant chicken actually a mutant child that grows from the profane spore of their cross-cultural longing for each other? Is the monster’s final containment a reflection of Sano’s climactic and culturally conservative return to Michiko’s loving arms? Do flying omelets glow from within?
Though hardly a candidate for anyone’s pantheon of great directors, Nihonmatsu was far from a Shochiku neophyte. He’d been an assistant director to Kurosawa (The Idiot, from 1951, one of the director’s few films for Shochiku), Keisuke Kinoshita (1951’s Carmen Comes Home, one of the biggest hits of the decade), and Masaki Kobayashi (The Inheritance, released in 1964). Already on the company payroll for almost twenty years when The X from Outer Space was made, Nihonmatsu directed a couple of romantic comedies in the early sixties, and would return to direct one more film for Shochiku the following year: the mindblown eco-apocalypse thriller Genocide—a hallucinatory vision of the end times where the perils of interracial romance (an idea only toyed with in X) and the real-life horrors of the twentieth century collide.
No matter what you’ve seen, you’ve never seen anything like Hajime Sato’s Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)—a movie so unfettered, so unpredictable, so overloaded with chaotic emotions, nightmare commotions, pulsating psychedelic lights, mercurial space slime, and newsreel images of blood- splattered combat forces that, were there any justice in the world, it would have long since been recognized as the greatest film of all time. Well, at least the greatest film ever to deserve the nickname bestowed upon it by its most ardent fans: “Vagina-Face Apocalypse.”
An airliner soars through a nightmarish sky filled with crimson cumuli; “it’s like a sea of blood!” shudders the captain. Back in the passenger compartment, an unctuous arms dealer (Nobuo Kaneko) toadies up to a senator (Eizo Kitamura) who has already developed a passion for the gun merchant’s wife (Yuko Kusunoki). Suddenly, crows begin to smash themselves into feathery pulps against the windows of the plane. A terrified American blonde (Kathy Horan) bugs her eyes and screams hysterically, forgetting for a moment the greater horror that confronts her: she’s en route to collect the body of her husband, killed in action in Vietnam. The flight crew receives an urgent message: there may be a mad bomber on board! With the help of flight attendant Kuzumi (Tomomi Sato), Captain Sugisaka (Teruo Yoshida) commences a luggage search, discovering a suspicious cache of Salvador Dalí reproductions, a high-powered rifle, and a vial of extremely corrosive acid, which he promptly drops. The creepiest of the passengers (Hideo Ko) materializes behind the captain, adorned with enormous black shades, a pink mock turtleneck, and an all-white suit-shoes- gloves combination that wouldn’t look out of place on a bathroom attendantat the Liberace museum. He’s come to hijack the plane. He’ll stay to suck blood, have an oozing gash erupt in the center of his forehead, be possessed by the overmind of the Gokemidoro alien race, and accelerate the end of the world. Swack!—more suicidal crows—and suddenly the plane hurtles off course, plummeting into a mountaintop wasteland! Will anyone survive?
More unnerving than any of Shochiku’s other genre curveballs of the period, and a well-known Quentin Tarantino favorite, Goke is one of the most internationally cherished of Japanese genre films—gaudy, elegant, and completely insane, with Fulci-esque crumbling corpses, a fleet of pulsating UFOs, and a climax that suggests what George Romero might have done with Last Year at Marienbad. Director Sato took a degree in economics before changing careers and making some of the kickiest Japanese cult movies of the 1960s: Golden Bat, a kid-oriented space romp about a caped crusader with a grinning skull for a head, and Terror Beneath the Sea, about a pair of intrepid reporters facing off against a legion of cyborg fishmen and the world-domination-bent scientist who controls them. He began at Toei studios in 1952, eventually directing cop and crime movies in the early sixties, before moving predominantly into science fiction and fantasy. He was still employed by Toei’s television division while making Goke for Shochiku, and continued working in various capacities on fantasy and superhero shows and movies, like Captain Ultra, Osamu Tezuka’s Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan, well into the 1980s. He died in 1995.
SHIP OF GHOULS
A chillingly simple film filled with horrible screams, echoing footsteps, foghorns in the moonlight, and an entire church belfry’s worth of rubber bats, Hiroshi Matsuno’s The Living Skeleton (1968) is a fitting heir to the cheapo atmospherics of producer Val Lewton’s shadows-over-shocks classics, like I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People—not to mention the goofball minor Guignol of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. A plastic ship sails across a bathtub ocean; a gang of modern-day pirates, under the command of a sneering scarface, machine-gun massacre everyone on board. Three years pass. In a seaside village, a catholic priest (Masumi Okada) has offered solace and shelter to the haunted Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) ever since her twin sister, Yorkio (also Matsuoka), disappeared with her new husband at sea. One day, while Saeko is out scuba diving with her boyfriend, the couple happen upon a group of submerged human skeletons, chained together at the ankles, bobbing and swaying near the ocean floor like blanched and brittle seaweed. That night, a ghost ship appears in the mist offshore, beckoning Saeko, with an echoey, spaghetti-western dirge for harmonica and electric guitar, to a rendezvous with her now wraithlike twin—and a mad tale of maboroshi (spirits), doppelgängers, ghoulish amour fou, and revenge from beyond the grave proceeds to unfold. In the end, all that remains are the acid-eaten vestiges of the guilty, and the shrieks and groans of the dismembered and the hideously crushed alive.
Cowritten by Kikuma Shimoiizaka and prolific mystery novelist and Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell coscenarist Kyuzo Kobayashi, The Living Skeleton—the only one of Shochiku’s quartet of sixties horror curios shot in black and white—is richly stocked with journeymen character actors, bringing together veteran Nobuo Kaneko, who here plays one of the most venal of the pirates, and another cornerstone of midcentury Japanese cinema, the hollow-cheeked Ko Nishimura. In The Living Skeleton, Nishimura gets the plum role of Nishizato, the cadaverous husband of Yorkio, a deranged doctor now living and sleeping with his wife’s mummified corpse, infusing her with his blood and playing tapes of her orgasmic moans over a sound system on the derelict ship. The specific evocation of maboroshi in this film—set in a small seaside town and so much about premature death and the grief that haunts those left alive—suggests an interesting double bill with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Maborosi, the filmmaker’s 1995 feature debut, another shadow-laden meditation on loss played out with ghosts by the side of the sea.
Hiroshi Matsuno had joined Shochiku in 1950 and worked as assistant director to veteran filmmakers daisuke Ito, Mikio Naruse, and Yoshitaro Nomura. He’d directed a couple of minor Bunta Sugawara action films in the early sixties before taking on The Living Skeleton, and a lengthy career in television documentaries and dramas followed, beginning with the successful Kaze in 1968. Matsuno spent much of the remainder of his career as a recurrent member, along with director Koreyoshi Kurahara, of the production team for the extremely popular samurai action TV series Hissatsu!: Sure Death!
THE INSECT WOMAN
Granddaughter of fifties creature features like Tarantula and Them!, cousin of the shockumentary The Hellstrom Chronicle, and forerunner of Frogs, Phase IV, The Swarm, and other seventies ecothrillers, Kazui Nihonmatsu’s Genocide (1968) is both the farthest-out follow-up imaginable to The X from Outer Space and an irrationally natural metamorphic successor to the director’s previous dai-kaiju child’s play. Think of X as a kind of formless chrysalis, and Genocide as the deadly butterfly disgorged from within: a strange and horribly matured new creature whose passionate colors and mesmerizing design serve only to distract from its deadly and unexpected sting. Somewhere on an island in a tropical Southeast Asian archipelago, Annabelle (Kathy Horan) and Joji (Yusuke Kawazu) are enjoying a romantic idyll in a lonely cove. The skin of her long white legs brushes against his; she moans his name. In the sky overhead hums a military aircraft transporting a hydrogen bomb. Inside the plane, gunner’s mate Charly (American expat Chico Roland) becomes hysterical when a large, buzzing insect hovers near him in the bomb bay. Cue montage of Vietnam atrocities over Charly’s screams of “Don’t send me back there!” Cue Annabelle’s climactic “Joji!” Cue cloud of insects that forces the plane, the bomb, and the crew members into the sea and the surrounding woods.
The most feverishly sexual of Shochiku’s late-sixties genre psych-outs, and an increasingly psychedelic reverie on Mothra’s time-honored environmentalist ethic, Genocide unfurls like a scroll painting of topical touchstones and atomic hot spots: nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, the ferocious Battle of Okinawa, the cockpit claustrophobia of Dr. Strangelove’s bomber crew, opiate addiction among U.S. combat forces in Vietnam, missing nuclear weapons, Soviet bloc “red agents,” interracial romance, and environmental catastrophe—even the lingering terrors of the Nazi concentration camps bubble to the surface of Genocide’s outrageously strange brew. Before long, insects are singing (“Genocide . . . genocide”) and Annabelle has been revealed as not only a cross-cultural home wrecker (separating Joji from his round-the-way girl Yukari, played by Emi Shindo) but a vituperative entomologist as well, bent on assisting the insects in their destruction of humankind.
Cowritten by veteran anime and live-action screenwriter Susumu takaku, Genocide is constructed as an uneasy mash-up of bugged-out melodrama, microscopic nature footage, newsreel glimpses of global violence, and visual effects that range from the film’s pop art title credits to the speckles of a thousand animated inkblots standing in for a blizzard of bugs—all of which hugely benefit from the production design of Nobutaka Yoshino and the cinematography of Shizuo Hirase (whose work is anonymous on The X from Outer Space but altogether extraordinary on Goke). Director Nihonmatsu appears never to have made another movie after Genocide, but what grander way to end a career? A tiny motorboat floats out to sea, the last hope for mankind aboard; on the horizon, far away, a mushroom cloud blossoms and billows in the sky. A sudden, final cut to a blanched-white sun in a bloodred sky—that all-purpose inverse image of the Japanese flag so familiar from the politically outraged films of the Japanese New Wave—and then darkness, as the doors of Castle Shochiku’s bright but only briefly opened Crypt of Sci-Fi and Horror Genre Classics clang shut.
Chuck Stephens lives and teaches in Nashville, Tennessee.