Who would have expected this from Criterion; a box set of classic Japanese horror?
Following years of a certain radioactive beast’s domination at the box office, many Japanese studios tried to replicate the formula with their own brands of monster movies. One of the most fascinating, if short-lived, dives into that fiendish deep end was the one by Shochiku, a studio better known for elegant dramas by the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. In 1967 and 1968, the company created four certifiably batty, low-budget fantasies, tales haunted by watery ghosts, plagued by angry insects, and stalked by aliens—including one in the form of a giant chicken-lizard. Shochiku’s outrageous and oozy horror period shows a studio leaping into the unknown, even if only for one brief, bloody moment. This four DVD set contains impeccable transfers of the following films, at least two of which are much better than the promotional material suggests:
THE X FROM OUTER SPACE
Kazui Nihonmatsu 1967
When a crew of scientists returns from Mars with a sample of the space spores that contaminated their ship, they inadvertently bring about a nightmarish earth invasion.
GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL
Hajime Sato 1968
After an airplane is forced to crash-land in a remote area, its passengers find themselves face-to-face with an alien force that wants to possess them body and soul—and perhaps take over the entire human race.
THE LIVING SKELETON
Hiroshi Matsuno 1968
In this atmospheric tale of revenge from beyond the watery grave, a pirate-ransacked freighter’s violent past comes back to haunt a young woman living in a seaside town.
Kazui Nihonmatsu 1968
The insects are taking over in this nasty piece of disaster horror directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu. A group of military personnel transporting a hydrogen bomb are left to figure out how and why swarms of killer bugs took down their plane.
Of these, Genocide and The Living Skeleton are easily the most interesting entries. Genocide is an intriguing genre hotwire fusing elements of the Yakuza crime films, horror and science fiction films, melded together with a political subtext which becomes more pronounced as the film rockets through its brief 84 minute running time. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the American occupation forces in the film are clearly the villains of the piece, and when the film finally crashes to an abrupt halt with an appropriately apocalyptic conclusion, I guarantee that you won’t have seen it coming. It’s a fascinating pop culture commentary on the uneasy truce between East and West during the waning years of the Cold War, when the tensions of World War II — particularly in Japan — were still omnipresent.
The Living Skeleton, the only film of the group shot in black and white CinemaScope, comes off like a moody mixture of Carl Th. Dreyer meets Lucio Fulci, with nods to Val Lewton and the early films of AIP along the way. The film is, to my mind, the most accomplished and sophisticated of the quartet in terms of its visual structure and narrative, while Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell and The X From Outer Space are more traditional Japanese horror movies, though Goke does have an usually downbeat conclusion, as do all of the films here; happy endings are definitely not on the menu.
My only caveat is the liner notes, which occasionally descend into dreaded fanboy territory; factually accurate, they nevertheless display an unfortunate condescension to the films — partially deserved, it must be admitted — but in doing so, the notes miss much of the pop culture relevance of the films, even though they allude to this in passing. Still, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in pop culture of the 1960s, genre films, or the ways in which various genres can be used to deliver a potent social and political message in the guise of escapist entertainment.
But no matter; here they are in immaculate transfers, and they’re well worth owning.