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Japanese genre filmmakers of the late 1950s and '60s could range far ahead of what was permitted in American studio films. Japanese gangster pictures were more brutal, their juvenile delinquency pictures more frank about sex and their dramas more willing to include radical political sentiments. Although stylized horror fare about ghost women and cats continued to be popular, Toho pictures dominated the 'all ages' market with its colorful fantasies, science fiction thrillers and Kaiju (giant monster) sagas. In 1967 the Shochiku studio launched a brief commercial foray into fantasy, horror and science fiction, hoping to break new commercial ground. The Eclipse Series 37 DVD set When Horror Came to Shochiku gathers these four eccentric thrillers into one package.
A bland imitation of Toho's successful giant monster fantasies, 1967's The X from Outer Space (Uchu daikaiju Girara) is the first and least adventurous of the four. Toho was already having its own problems keeping the genre fresh, and X adds little of interest. The Mars spaceship AAB-Gamma doesn't reach its destination thanks to the intervention of a flying saucer, but instead returns with samples of spores that have attached to its hull. These eventually grow into the giant monster Guilala, a preposterous concoction usually described as a 20-story chicken with a head shaped like a jet plane. The intrepid space voyagers include Eiji Okada of Hiroshima, mon amour and American blonde Peggy Neal; when not drumming up a jealousy subplot between Neal and a Japanese scientist, the live action makes room for comic relief from another happy-go-lucky space cadet.
The X from Outer Space is simply... terrible. Shochiku's giant monster effects lack Toho's expertise in all departments, with unimpressive space scenes, feeble miniature cityscapes and a poorly designed monster. Just the same, confirmed Kaiju fans will welcome the opportunity to see Guilala wreak havoc in a perfect 'scope transfer and original Japanese language. Eclipse's packaging doesn't mention the presence of the film's English-language dub, a plus for fans that remember the show from its long life as TV kiddie fare. 1
The other three Shochiku horror offerings all arrived in 1968. The most arresting by far is Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro), which can only be described as a crazed eclectic assault on the senses. A stereotyped group of airline passengers includes an unethical politician, a craven arms dealer and the beautiful American widow of a Vietnam War casualty. The story goes absolutely insane from the start, as the jet enters a sky made blood red by the presence of invaders from Gokemidoro. If the weird weather isn't enough to cause the plane to crash, the flight crew must deal with a bomb threat, a gun-wielding hijacker, a flock of crows smashing into the windows (at 30,000 feet?) and a flying saucer sighting. Almost everyone survives when the plane crashes, but the weirdness shows no letup. A blob-like glowing green alien organism oozes into the hijacker's face, turning him into a vampire possessed by the alien Gokemidoro race.
Goke's twisted visuals seem far too intense for a movie made in 1968. Quentin Tarantino borrowed the stylized first shot of a toy jet plane for his Kill Bill. Like a demented graphic novel, the movie barely makes rational sense as it lurches from one lurid scene to the next. Blatantly artificial images are thrown at us for shock value alone; the characters are in a state of constant agitation. The war widow's anguish cues a quick montage of tinted stills of bloody Vietnam combat. The nightmarish hijacker character wears a mask-like expression as green slime invades his brain through an obscene vertical slit in his forehead. Victims meet gory deaths, yet hardly any effort is made to solve the mystery. The intentions of the Gokemidoro invaders remain unexplained. Director Hajime Sato is just clever enough to make us suspect that the joke is on us -- if we could only figure out what the joke might be. Goke is the most demented episode of The Twilight Zone never filmed, an absurd apocalyptic horror show.
The most traditional of the four pictures is Hiroshi Matsuno's The Living Skeleton (Kyuketsu dokuro sen), a ghost story filmed in moody black & white. A phantom freighter drifts out of the fog to terrorize the piratical thieves that robbed and machine-gunned its passengers and crew. What the killers don't know is that the woman they raped and murdered (Kiko Matsuoka) has a twin sister, who appears to maintain a psychic communication with her dead sibling. It isn't long before the ghost woman returns to bring horrible death to her killers, one by one. But where is the hideously scarred leader of the pirates, the phantom ship's main target for revenge? The twin sister has a boyfriend, who with a friendly priest tries to keep her from falling under the spell of the violent past.
Matsuno's assured direction nails one horror set piece after another. Victims are dispatched in increasingly violent ways, the most brutal of which is a man crushed in the heavy mechanism of a ship's anchor winch. Eerie visual effects (the occasional feeble miniature notwithstanding) and spirited performances are a big plus. Only some skeleton mock-ups disappoint, as they look like party decorations. The highly effective conclusion brings back more than one character thought to have been killed, but by then the narrative absurdities don't matter. A final shock sees two men liquefied by a super-acid so corrosive, it can dissolve solid iron. Pushing the traditionally restrained, understated Japanese ghost story into gory thriller territory, The Living Skeleton is an exciting discovery for horror fans.
Director Kazui Nihonmatsu followed up The X from Outer Space with the half-baked Genocide (Konchu daisenso), an apocalyptic melodrama packed with undigested science fiction ideas. Writer Susumu Takaku tries to make the film's biological threat -- killer insects -- represent a natural reaction to society's ills, which are again represented by a checklist of hot-topic issues. Frightened of returning to combat, drugged-out American soldier Charly (Chico Roland of Black Sun) contributes to the crashing of a B-52 carrying an atomic weapon. The airmen parachute onto a small island, but disappear. Suspicious American army intelligence agents accuse local man Joji (Yusuke Kawazu) of murdering the crew, but the real culprit is a swarm of deadly bugs created by his employer Annabelle (Kathy Horan), a wicked entomologist. Her aim is to destroy the world, because of torture she suffered as a child in a Nazi concentration camp.
When not dealing with murderous bugs, Genocide contemplates War on Earth and bad will toward men. The Yankees mistreat the locals and ignore evidence that might absolve Joji. The married Joji lacks an alibi because he was having an adulterous interracial affair with the demented Annabelle. Charly's panic attacks cue rapid-fire montages of Vietnam horrors. The Americans' mistrust delays the search for the missing bomb. Genocide borrows situations and imagery from Michael Cacoyannis' The Day the Fish Came Out and Joseph Losey's These Are the Damned but never gets a grip on its subject or fully engages the viewer. Chico Roland's performance is effective but the other bilingual Anglo actors barely rise above amateur status. Some of the sets and special effects are sub-par and the borderline-abstract visuals fail to express the insect threat. The awkward Genocide is a thoroughly confused attempt to say something meaningful about the madness of the Cold War.
Eclipse's Series 37 DVD set When Horror Came to Shochiku is taken from beautifully preserved 'scope format original sources. The color features are sharp and clear and the B&W Living Skeleton has good contrast and rich blacks. The audio tracks are in fine shape as well. Often mentioned is the odd music used for The X from Outer Space, an incongruous Latin track with a Samba beat. Although almost all Japanese feature films of the 1960s were standardized in the 2.35:1 anamorphic format, the aspect ratios called out by Eclipse for these four titles range from 1.24:1 to 2.50:1. It's just another reason to qualify Shochiku's horror quadrilogy as 'strange'.
The disc set's detailed liner notes are by Chuck Stephens. The underachieving The X from Outer Space is made the object of ridicule, an attitude not in keeping with Criterion/Eclipse's normally non-judgmental attitude. Stephens is at least curious about Shochiku's willingness to play wild and loose with commercial conventions. Perhaps we should be thankful that Eclipse has spotlighted foreign genre pictures seldom given serious critical consideration.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hi Glenn, Writing to say I read your review of the Eclipse release of When Horror Came to Shochiku. A slight correction in regards to your mentioning of The X From Outer Space having the English dub. Yes, the English dub is present... but it's not the AIP-TV dub that many fans are most-familiar with. Rather, it's the English International dub prepared by Shochiku when the film was offered for export release. When AIP picked up the film for it's TV release, they had it re-dubbed as they most likely deemed the English International dub unacceptable (which is odd because AIP would use the English International dubs of Matango and Dogora the Space Monster for their TV release and those we're certainly not up to AIP's quality dubbing standards). Interesting to note that, while AIP would use the services of Titra Sound Studios for their dub jobs, The X From Outer Space was suprisingly dubbed in Europe and doesn't employ the familiar Titra vocal artists (in the AIP-TV dub, I believe it's Mel Welles who dubs Professor Burman; considering Welles was doing a lot of work in Europe at that period the connection, if possible, doesn't suprise me as much). But, the AIP-TV dub is vastly superior to the English International version in terms of vocal talent; the Lisa character in the English International dub is given the voice of an obviously Asian woman when the on-screen character is definitely Caucasian...talk about a mix-up!
Also of note that while The X From Outer Space contains the English International dub as an audio extra (most likely ripped from the Shochiku DVD release from quite some time ago), the English dub tracks for Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell and Genocide are absent. It's a shame for they make great comparisons (i.e., The X From Outer Space sounds like it was dubbed in Japan by a team of questionable vocal artists, while Goke and Genocide were definitely dubbed in Hong Kong featuring the familiar voice of Ted Thomas and his team going over-the-top like no tomorrow!), but it isn't a deal breaker.
Thanks for reading and have a good one. -- Chris Koenig
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