Tokusatsu Tuesdays is a regular feature relating to Japanese special effects entertainments and their associated whatsits, and a bridge, so to speak, between ExploderButton and its sister site, Eiga · Bouei.
Out of the string of grim and out-there sci-fi horrors Shochiku Company produced at the tail end of the 1960s, perhaps the grimmest and most out-there of them all was 1968’s 「昆虫大戦争」 Genocide.
A sort of precursor to the ecologically-minded nature-gone-wild horrors of the 1970s, Genocide finds a small island in the South Pacific serving as ground zero for clandestine biological warfare experiments, a wrong-man murder mystery, simmering Vietnam-era East-West tensions, and an apocalyptic revolt of the insect world as well. Drug-addled soldiers descend into trauma-fueled murder frenzies, fifth-columnist hotel managers letch, and scientists elucidate insidious insect intent from out of a groovy psychotropic haze, all while a lost H-bomb ticks ever more ominously away.
Needless to say, Genocide had an awful lot on its plate.
The production boasts plenty of talent with recent experience in Shochiku sci-fi – director Kazui NIHONMATSU, a long-time assistant director for the company best known for 1967’s one-of-a-kind kaiju goof-off The X From Outer Space, X‘s effects supervisor Keiji KAWAKAMI (The Thick-Walled Room), X and Goké Bodysnatcher From Hell photographer Shizuo HIRASE, as well as X-actor Keisuke SONOI (Affair of the Heart), Goké co-star Kathy Horan, and long-time scenarist and Goké scribe Susumu TAKAKU (The Blood Sword of the 99th Virgin). Chief among the returning staff however, for the sake of this article at least, is prolific composer Shunsuke KIKUCHI, who had been tasked with Goké‘s score just a few months prior.
Kikuchi’s work on Genocide is marked by his usual trademarks (staccato low-brass for action and extended muted brass for suspense and atmosphere, with ecstatic ascending motifs to punctuate the major plot beats), but it is also possessed of a nuance and subtlety not typically expected of the composer.
The latter is evident from the very beginning, with the main title’s more emphatic strains complemented by a Vertigo-esque layer of violins and flutes and the first tentative appeals towards Genocide‘s melancholic love theme. The theme reveals itself in full for Joji and Yukari (love theme), a restrained minute and 43 seconds whose judicious blend of high and mid-range strings perfectly evoke the fated nature of the two lovers – Joji, in over his head with a mysterious foreign mistress and jailed for murders he did not commit, and Yukari, faced with the prospect of raising their unborn child on her own.
As Yukari is to the greater film, Kikuchi’s bittersweet love theme is a glimmer of hope and humanity amidst Genocide‘s overwhelming gloominess, receiving plaintive reprises all the way through to the film’s doom-ridden finale. In Mankind’s Final Sunrise the theme emerges tentatively from a plume of nuclear destruction, a single violin with increasingly rich harmonized accompaniment, but its resolution is cut short by Ending‘s resounding and atonal piano din.
Cinema-Kan’s restored CD release of Genocide‘s score makes it easier to appreciate Kikuchi’s work than ever before. The film’s eccentric narrative seems to have compelled him towards more variety than his scores typically achieve, from the bright chords and jungle-trotting exoticism of Jungle Search to the insectine woodwinds and mounting tonal chaos of Revived Fear. Cinema-Kan went back to the original 6mm tape recordings to build this 42 minute release, which collects the film’s music in total for the first time ever, and with excellent sound to boot – Kikuchi’s laser brass is crisp and clear, free of the distortion I’ve become accustomed to hearing with it.
In addition to the requisite liner notes (in this case a heavily illustrated booklet complete with film credits, release notes, a listing of Genocide‘s past LP and CD releases, track-specific commentary, and a biographical section on the composer) Cinema-Kan offer a few on-disc surprises as well. The incidental music heard over the radio in the film is present in full, and what a weird mix it is. Lobby BGM is in the light chamber music style, while Radio Music 1 is pure glitzy pop, electric guitar and all. Radio Music 2 and 3 are different still, lurid and torchy numbers to compliment the seediness of the hotel bar they’re overheard in. Listeners get a couple of bonus tracks as well – a percussion-only alternate take for Jungle Search, and a recording of the isolated music from the film’s trailer.
My thoughts on director Kazui Nihonmatsu’s oddball kaiju opus Space Monster Guilala / The X From Outer Space haven’t changed all that much since I reviewed it a couple of years back in conjunction with the it’s domestic DVD premiere. X remains a gigantic mess of a picture, an awkward mix of swinging space travel, lethargic romance, and ludicrous giant monster action that appears as though it were edited together by someone with no knowledge as to what story it’s various bits were supposed to be telling. I would be remiss, however, in saying that I hadn’t softened a bit more to the film over those ensuing years. There’s a definite charm to be found in its propulsive sort of pointlessness, a euphoric brand of utter silliness that could only have been born in the space-crazed ’60s, with the Apollo program on the rise. This is the antithesis of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the recent Interstellar – post-Kubrick science fiction has about as much interest in lunar surface bounce-party diversions and impromptu astronaut cocktail shindigs as X does in actual science, but then that’s the greater part of X‘s appeal.
I suspect there will be plenty of reappraisal of X‘s willfully goofy space-age charms in the wake of its latest video edition, a fine blu-ray offering from Shochiku in Japan which presents the film in its first new transfer in more than a decade (from Shochiku’s ‘Collector’s Edition’ in 2001 to Criterion / Eclipse’s release in 2012, X‘s DVD editions have all regurgitated the same lackluster SD master). Released as part of the company’s new The Best of Films in Those Days Shochiku Blu-ray Collection (あの頃映画 the BEST 松竹ブルーレイ・コレクション), X and its minimal supportive content receive a well-encoded single layer BD25 treatment at the bargain price (by Japanese standards) of ¥3,300 plus tax. Better yet, the disc looks to be all region compatible (it played fine on my Region B secondary deck), and while English subtitle support has not been included an English dub for the film has. I suspect this one will turn up on many a tokusatsu fan’s shopping list this holiday season, and with good reason.
Shochiku’s new HD master for The X From Outer Space presents the film in full 1080p at the proper Shochiku GrandScope ratio of 2.39:1, and adeptly corrects the many weaknesses of the DVD master that preceded it. Framing is now consistent and stable (the old master was fond of showing ragged frame edges), mid-range contrast is no longer boosted beyond the pale, and the finer detail of the 35mm photography finally shines through. The image here is darker and richer overall than has been evidenced in the past, and the more balanced color still packs plenty of pop. The image loses trace amounts of information at the edges in comparison to the DVDs, but most of this was never intended to be seen by viewers – the jagged extremities of the 35mm frame should never have been allowed onscreen in the first place, and their loss here is a positive. X has also been digitally restored, albeit only to a point. The image is still afflicted by traces of splice gunk and dust and specks crop up from time to time, but the major damage (particularly during the film’s frequent optical effects) has been corrected, leaving X looking better than it would’ve when new in many instances. Detail advances as much as one might hope in comparison to the old DVD master (the comparisons below will tell more in that regard than I ever could), and there’s a subtle layer of grain tinkering about attractively in the background. Technical specs provide more than ample support – X receives an Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 29.3 Mbps (with peaks to 40.0 Mbps), and I noted nothing in the way of significant artifacts. It all adds up to a fine looking video presentation, and fans should be very pleased indeed.
Criterion / Eclipse DVD (L) vs. Shochiku Blu-ray (R) Frame matches are not exact in all cases.
Audio isn’t likely to wow anyone with regards to The X From Outer Space, but Shochiku have done quite well given the limitations of the film’s original mix. There are no artificial bumps to contend with, just the original Japanese monophonic recording presented in lossless 2.0 LPCM (48kHz / 24-bit). I noticed no significant wear and tear (pops, hiss and the like) and aside from some shrillness at the high end the track sounds very nice. A set of optional Japanese SDH subtitles are offered in support. Included as a bonus is Shochiku’s own English dubbed track for the film, which is in a bit rougher shape than its Japanese counterpart, but still perfectly presentable. The English track, too, is given a lossless encode, albeit at a lower bit depth – 2.0 monophonic LPCM (48kHz / 16-bit). A second set of optional Japanese subtitles is offered in support of the English dub track.
As with all of the titles in Shochiku’s …the Best blu-ray line, supplements are extremely limited. The original theatrical trailer (4 minutes) for The X From Outer Space is included, as is a short theatrical dispatch (~40 seconds) announcing the production (this was a treat, as I’d never seen it before). Though unrestored, each is presented in native 1080p HD with lossless 48kHz / 24-bit audio – one can’t ask for much more in that regard. Strangely absent is a second, longer dispatch for the film that was included on the original Shochiku DVD, which featured Guilala’s fanciful naming ceremony. The first pressing of the blu-ray also includes a miniature lobby card replica, in this case a familiar shot of Guilala on the lunar surface with the FAFC moon base and Astro-Boat AAB Gamma tooling about in the background.
There’s not much else to say, really. While a bit more supplemental heft would have been appreciated (isn’t that always the case?), it’s tough to argue against Shochiku’s efforts here. This is an excellent and affordable presentation of a real oddball of a film, and I’ve got no complaints. The X From Outer Space was released December 3rd, and is readily available for purchase through Amazon.co.jp, HMV, and the other usual outlets.
Tatsuya is coming home – to see the birthplace of his mother, to attend the funeral of his maternal grandfather, and perhaps something more. The current head of the wealthy Tajima family (barons as it were of the rural town of Yatsuhaka-mura) is ailing and near death, and with no other heir apparent seems intent on granting that honor to Tatsuya – his step-brother, estranged from the family since infancy.
Unfortunately for Tatsuya that honor seems to grow more dubious with each passing day. In addition to the predictable greed of relations both distant and otherwise (all itching to take a slice of the Tajima pie to further their own personal agendas), the downright oddball behavior of the household’s overseers (a pair of spinster great-aunts who chortle, insult, and prowl at night), and the less-than-kindly townsfolk (disgruntled farmers, inept policeman, gossips, and an old crazy obsessed with “The curse, the curse!”), Tatsuya also finds himself confronted with the slight issue of murder. Someone or something is targeting the villagers for destruction, a modern crime which many believe had its beginnings in the distant past.
How distant, you ask? Why 400 years! Deep in the warring states period eight wayward samurai from the Amako clan descended upon the village in hope of escaping their conquerors, the Mori clan. Though at first welcomed by the villagers for their hard work and kindness, the promise of incredible rewards from the Mori clan inspired a swift and drastic change of heart. A plot was hatched among the villagers – as they attended a local festival the unsuspecting samurai were to be ambushed and murdered, and their heads taken as prizes for the Mori clan. The fateful night arrived and the plan was grimly executed, but the betrayed Amako swore retribution, cursing the village with their dying breaths.
From that night onward the village is plagued by recurrent spates of seemingly irrational violence, each connected somehow to its most prominent family, the Tajimas, who were formalized in the immediate aftermath of the samurai slaughter by chief conspirator Shozaemon. It’s a fortuitous beginning for the Tajima family, who were granted extensive land rights (and with them near total local power) by the Mori clan for their traitorous work, but one which is short-lived. Not long thereafter founding father Shozaemon goes positively insane, murdering seven of his fellow townsfolk before gruesomely decapitating himself. The numerical connection, eight for eight, proved too much for villagers to ignore, and the fear of the curse began. Suitably scared for their own skins, the surviving townspeople gathered the scattered remains of the samurai for proper burial and erected a mountain shrine in their honor. Soon the town came to be known for the eight graves which overlooked it – Yatsuhaka-mura, the Village of 8 Gravestones.
And thus peace returned to the village, for a few generations at least. But twenty-eight years prior to the events of the film, shortly after Tatsuya’s mother fled Yatsuhaka-mura with her infant child in tow, misfortune struck the village once more from the troubled house of Tajima. Driven to madness by forces unknown, head of house Yozo murdered his young wife with a samurai sword before donning grotesque make-up and descending upon Yatsuhaka-mura with a shotgun in one hand and a sword in the other. Thirty two were massacred in total and some families obliterated entirely before Yozo escaped into the labyrinth of caves beneath Yatsuhaka-mura, never to be seen again. Despite reparations paid in cash and land the Tajima reputation was forever tarnished, and the tale of the curse of the slaughtered eight began to circulate afresh.
With memories of that tragedy still well in mind the new round of murders are enough to send Yatsuhaka-mura spiraling towards panic. As the body count rises newcomer Tatsuya finds himself a prime suspect to the villagers, whose long-repressed grievances against the Tajimas have finally boiled over. With the local police powerless to maintain order and a lynch-mob growing just beyond the walls of the Tajima household Tatsuya makes his escape into the caves below, following in the ignoble footsteps of his supposed father Yozo and desperately searching for answers. Meanwhile a certain detective is prowling, intent on piecing together the puzzle for himself even if its ultimate solution is almost too fantastic to be believed…
While it remains relatively unknown in the West (there is a French translation, at least), YOKOMIZO Seishi’s postwar mystery novel Village of 8 Gravestones remains one of the most popular of its type in its native Japan. The fourth full-length work to feature the author’s beloved detective KINDAICHI Kosuke, Village of 8 Gravestones was initially serialized over a whopping two years (March of ’49 to March of ’51) in Kodansha’s Weekly Shonen and has since been adapted three times for film (including a missing-in-action 1951 version from Toei and a 1995 effort from director ICHIKAWA Kon), six times for television, at least once for the theater, and, courtesy of From Software (Demon’s Souls), has even made the leap to the realm of video games (and this is ignoring the numerous print variants, including a wealth of manga iterations). Of all these adaptations Shochiku Co.’s 1977 effort was one of the most ambitious, a ¥700 million (roughly $3 million at the time) mega-production designed to go head-to-head with rival major Toho’s blockbuster product at the box office. The bid was well calculated. Village of 8 Gravestones turned a small fortune for Shochiku – ¥1.986 billion, roughly $8 million and more than twice the studio’s investment, making it the third highest grossing film of the year (a good one for the studio, with the dependable Tora-san‘s 18th and 19th entries adding a combined ¥1.935 billion to Shochiku’s box office take for 1977, and netting the 6th and 10th top-grossing spots respectively).
It’s well worth noting that big production values don’t always lead to great or even good films, but Shochiku were quite astute in their efforts, drawing together some of the best talent active in the industry at the time to make their big-deal feature a reality. The duty of adapting Yokomizo’s novel for the screen fell to HASHIMOTO Shinobu, arguably one of the most important screenwriters in postwar Japanese film history and a man whose credits read like a checklist of popular blockbusters and essential masterworks (Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, Kobayashi’s Harakiri, and Moritani’s Submersion of Japan, to name a very few). More pertinent to the film at hand are his frequent collaborations with NOMURA Yoshitaro (including Zero Focus, The Shadow Within and Castle of Sand), the venerable and prolific Shochiku director tasked with bringing Village of 8 Gravestones to the screen.
In its structure Village of 8 Gravestones reminds heavily of the screenwriter’s other collaborations with the director (particularly the then-recent Castle of Sand), and of many of the latter’s other films besides. Nomura’s penchant for flashbacks (well in evidence even in the earliest of his work that I have seen, 1958’s Stakeout) may have found its perfect outlet with this production, in which the material allows him to traverse not just hours or days but whole hundreds of years with a single cut. Indeed, the film begins with the fated samurai looking down upon the village that will be their doom before transitioning, with a hard cut and the roar of a jet engine, from a close-up of an Amako clansman in 1566 to a wide shot of a JAL airliner landing in 1977. In an instant the pastoral images of rural life and warm hues of an autumn sunrise give way to hazy smog, the glint of aluminum, and a pale concrete runway shimmering with summer heat – an abrupt collision of past and present that aptly sets the tone for what is to follow. Nomura may well be the master of the flashback technique, which by this point in his career was as essential an aspect of his storytelling as the moving image itself. More than just a tool for major revelation, Nomura uses flashbacks where other directors might settle for more traditional exposition, and goes so far as to eschew expository dialogue all together where the images alone will suffice. It’s a less obtrusive device than one might suspect, even used so often as it is here, and the atypical narrative flow that results is a big reason this Village of 8 Gravestones feels so uniquely of Nomura’s making.
The device also results in what are arguably Village of 8 Gravestones‘ two most memorable scenes – the ambush of the eight Amako samurai in 1566 and later massacre of 32 by the demented Tajima. The former is brilliant old-school horror stuffs, punctuated as it is with unexpectedly graphic violence (the suffering visited upon these unsuspecting samurai is ghastly indeed) and a curse delivered as an electrical storm rages overhead. The latter plays like a bona fide art-house nightmare, with the demonic Tajima hacking, slashing, and blasting his way through the hapless population of Yatsuhaka-mura as cherry blossoms drift down from above. There’s a sense of vengeful justice to the scene, with its almost heroic scoring and elegant slow-motion takes of Tajima charging through the cherry blossoms. The accompanying music is rousing and propulsive, calling to mind the golden age of the American western, and is one of the most evocative of acclaimed classical and prolific cinema composer AKUTAGAWA Yasushi’s contributions to the film. The contrast of Akutagawa’s heroic overtones with the horrific violence onscreen (Tajima cutting down tens of men, women and children in cruel and gory fashion) is a big part of what makes the scene so unforgettable and disturbing. More so still the fact that many of its details were founded in the real-life Tsuyama massacre (right down to Tajima’s bizarre choice of headgear – a pair of military-issue flashlights), a grim historical grounding that lends the scene an exploitative tabloid appeal that’s every bit as delicious as it is difficult to justify.
The frequent flashbacks aside Village of 8 Gravestones offered Nomura an opportunity to dabble in his other directorial idiosyncrasies as well, including a fondness for long takes of characters strolling down rural roads (a staple image of Castle of Sand with comparative examples to be found throughout his work) and a fascination with the depiction of rail travel that borders on the obsessive (his 1958 feature Stakeout offers perhaps the most ostentatious example of this, a 7 and a half minute pre-credits jaunt on an express train from Yokohama to Hakata). Nomura’s persistent establishment of location shifts with superimposed text is present and accounted for, and taken to an almost parodic extreme during detective Kindaichi’s mid-film investigative travelogue – seven changes in location across two minutes, with most accompanied by superfluous degrees of superimposed time and location data. Indeed, Kindaichi’s involvment in the proceedings can itself seem quite perfunctory, and rather than being the focus of the piece (a Kindaichi mystery!) is instead used by Nomura as a device to explore yet another of his perennial interests – that of adults haunted by troubling childhood events (a theme echoed in Castle of Sand, The Shadow Within, Writhing Tongue and others). To that end Tatsuya, whose hazy past comes into focus through the events around him, is a quintessential Nomura protagonist (though contrary to Castle of Sand et al, here it’s a haunting from the past doing the revealing as opposed to a haunting past being revealed). Village of 8 Gravestones remains a mystery film regardless, but as is typical of Nomura, the mystery it’s most interested and engaged with isn’t likely to be the one the audience expects.
While some of this may seem exceedingly minor (and some of it really is), it all adds up to a style as distinctive as that of any of the more lauded auteurs, one which Nomura established early and exhibited with surprising consistency throughout his thirty year tenure as a director for Shochiku. Beyond his own curious proclivities, a lot of that consistency doubtless lies with the professionals Nomura so regularly surrounded himself with. Perhaps most notable among them is director of photography KAWAMATA Takashi, a frequent Nomura collaborator from 1961’s Zero Focus onward. His photography here is much in line with that of the earlier Castle of Sand, eschewing a more heavily stylized genre approach in favor of a more neutral and restrained one, and punctuated with more dramatic flourishes where justified (a few intense and angular setups contrast heavily with Kawamata’s otherwise level and distanced compositions). Aforementioned composer Akutagawa was a frequent accomplice as well, first paired with the director as Nomura was establishing himself in the late 1950s – for Village of 8 Gravestones he followed up the symphonic tour de force of Castle of Sand with another of his very best scores. The styles on display are appropriately eclectic for a film so concerned with the clash of distant past and modern present, and set so unusual a tone in some sequences that it borders on the absurd. A late film wander through Yatsuhaka-mura’s caves by Tatsuya and and a Tajima family confidant quickly develops into a veritable travelogue of death (the caves are strewn with the recently deceased, all victims of murder), but Akutagawa willfully contradicts its abject ghoulishness with a slow waltz that’s practically dripping with romance. The five minute cue may well be the highlight of Akutagawa’s entire score, and for the cumulatively oddball Village of 8 Gravestones it strikes just the right (if rather strange) chord, ultimately pulling viewers in precisely the unexpected direction Nomura intended. Shochiku was so certain of Akutagawa’s talents that they actively sold the picture on them; one of their five (!) theatrical trailers for the film is devoted to his involvement, and puts his waltz front and center.
Not to be outdone by those involved behind the camera, Village of 8 Gravestones’ cast is a hodge-podge of new stars and established talent that ranks among biggest and best of its time. This is the sort of production in which even the most incidental of roles is filled with a seasoned professional, with such familiar names as HAMAMURA Jun (The Burmese Harp), OTAKI Hijeki (Deathquake) and IGAWA Hisashi (Pitfall) to be found among the supporting players. KATO Yoshi (Profound Desires of the Gods) seems to relish his brief appearance as Tatsuya’s maternal grandfather (who manages to utter only a couple of garbled words before spectacularly snuffing it from strychnine poisoning) while TODA Junko (The Blossom and the Sword) is goofily convincing as an elderly and curse-obsessed local crazy. ATSUMI Kiyoshi (Tora-sanhimself, and one of the most bankable actors in the history of Japanese cinema) took on the all-important role of detective Kindaichi, and lends the character an easy-going personality that contrasts wonderfully with Yatsuhaka-mura’s increasingly fear-crazy townsfolk. Though Atsumi may have been the de facto star of the picture it’s HAGIWARA Ken’ichi (musician, actor, and lead vocalist of the late ’60s pop group the Tempters) as Tatsuya who takes center stage dramatically, playing the essential straight man around whom Village of 8 Gravestones‘ considerable craziness revolves. OGAWA Mayumi (Vengeance is Mine) and YAMAMOTO Yoko (Gappa the Triphibian Monster) each take hefty supporting turns as rare voices of reason from within the Tajima household, while ICHIHARA Etsuko (The Eel) and YAMAGUCHI Ninako are appropriately insidious and creepily inseparable as the two great aunts. Even with such a bounty of fine performances to be had YAMAZAKI Tsutomu (Tampopo) and NATSUYAGI Isao (Warm Water Under a Red Bridge) can’t help but steal the show, and ghoul it up in iconic fashion as Yatsuhaka-mura’s pair of resident boogeymen – the deranged Tajima Yozo and the betrayed Amako samurai leader respectively.
If it sounds to you as though I’m singing the praises of Village of 8 Gravestones too highly, you’re probably right. But one should know that my enthusiasm lies less with any subjective judgement of its greatness on my part than the fact that I find it so endlessly, and perhaps even obsessively, interesting. I’ve screened it more times for the purpose of this review alone than I can rightly remember (a dozen or so over the past week I’d guess), and as I become ever more intimately acquainted with the idiosyncratic minutiae that form its whole such objective qualifiers as “good” or “bad” seem increasingly inapplicable to my case. I am fascinated by the intellectual experience of the thing, pure and simple, and by the contradictory sense that the more I see it the less it seems like any film I have ever seen before. To some extent I could say the same of the rest of the Nomura film’s I’ve seen, all of which are strikingly similar and yet no two of which seem the same. Among them Village of 8 Gravestones stands as perhaps the quintessential example of what makes Nomura’s cinema so unique. Practically all of the director’s stylistic quirks are present and accounted for, and often in spades, but the film remains highly accessible by virtue of its mainstream genre pedigree. For those curious to explore Nomura’s work there is no better starting point than this and, in case this mountain of words hasn’t already made it obvious, I recommend!
Village of 8 Gravestones is reviewed from the Shochiku blu-ray, which was released on October 3rd and from which the screenshots in this review were gleaned. The disc offers no English subtitle or audio options, but does present the film in a lovely new HD restoration made with the assistance of cinematographer KAWAMATA Takashi. The restored audio is presented in two flavors of 96 kHz / 24-bit LPCM – the film’s original 4.0 stereo and 2.0 monophonic mixes – and is supported by optional Japanese SDH subtitles. Shochiku’s 5-trailer ad campaign is the only supplement – these are also newly transferred in HD with 96 kHz / 24-bit LPCM audio, and total roughly 17 minutes in all. Village of 8 Gravestones is dual layered and appears to be all region compatible (it played without issue on my Region B secondary deck), and retails for a relatively reasonable ¥3,300. As of this writing it can be had for around $30 shipped from Amazon.co.jp.
My misgivings with the goofy The X From Outer Space aside, I absolutely adore Shochiku Co.’s brief late-’60s flirtation with science fiction and horror cinema, which produced three of the grimmest, most bizarre Japanese genre outings of all time. Of these MATSUNO Hiroshi’s monochrome 1968 effort The Living Skeleton (吸血髑髏船 / Vampire Skull Ship) stands out for a number of reasons, from its strange blend of cross-genre tropes – mass murder on the high seas, mad science, and ghastly supernatural revenge – to its atypical shooting format (each of the other Shochiku horrors was filmed in bold color). It’s also the least-known of its ilk, receiving less in the way of international distribution than even the same year’s Genocide (昆虫大戦争 / War of the Insects).
Though it reached domestic shores only recently, courtesy of a quadruple feature from Criterion’s Eclipse sub-label, The Living Skeleton did manage a theatrical release south of the border in Mexico. “The most horrifying movie filmed to date!” proclaims the advertising for the Organizacion Apolo / Centro Independiente De Peliculas distribution of the film. “When the sea is wrapped in mist, death comes to the ship of the damned!” Fun stuff. The lobby card, shared below (click for high resolution), features some appropriately befuddling graphic design as well as the great NISHIMURA Ko by way of a red-tinted publicity still.
Unfortunately I only own two bits of memorabilia for this film (thus far, at least – they aren’t as common on the market as all that), but I’m thrilled that I was able to find (and afford!) the one shared below. Pricing on original Japanese posters can be daunting to say the least, especially in the domestic market, but I snagged this B2-size one sheet for a steal at Japanese auction. My familiarity with the language (I am working on it) isn’t enough to tell much of what the ad lines say, but I really dig the furigana for the title, with Skull (dokuro / どくろ) accented in a bold, almost grotesque script. Of course, I dig pretty much everything else about the poster as well – the darkened ship in profile, the horrifically made-up central figure, and those iconic skeletons that seem to just be floating about. They just don’t make them like this anymore.
Despite featuring one of my favorite of the many monsters to emerge from Japan during the heyday of tokusatsu cinema, it is only rarely that I find myself revisiting Shochiku’s freshman daikaiju effort Space Monster Guilala (『宇宙大怪獣ギララ』, or The X From Outer Space in its English iterations). The reason for that is simple enough – it’s just not a very good, or even interesting, movie, especially in comparison to its fantastic Shochiku contemporaries. That’s not to say that I despise Guilala, and I do find myself dragging it out of the archives every so often. Through their Eclipse sub-label the Criterion Collection have now given me my best excuse yet to do so: Guilala‘s premiere on domestic digital video.
While popular opinion on the matter may disagree Space Monster Guilala was actually a big-deal production for Shochiku Co., who hoped their first turn into tokusatsu territory would lead to a strong performance at the box office – especially in foreign markets. With a financial assist from an association for film export promotion Guilala‘s budget leapt to a reported ¥150 million, half again that of Daiei’s superior 1966 effort Daimajin and a quarter less than that of Toho’s 1968 epic Destroy All Monsters, and such acts as the naming of the film’s title beast became heavily-publicized industry events. The production also attracted a veritable boon of experienced talent, including director Kazui Nihonmatsu (a long-time assistant director at Shochiku under the likes of Kurosawa and Kinoshita), actor Eiji Okada (Woman in the Dunes) and effects supervisor Keiji Kawakami, a veteran of Toho Co. and Tsuburaya Productions and a member of Akira Watanabe’s special effects company (who collaborated, sans Watanabe, with Guilala‘s production). Future star Hiroshi Fujioka (Submersion of Japan) even makes a brief appearance, playing a nameless moon-base technician.
On paper it’s all so promising, particularly for a major studio’s first ever tokusatsu outing, but as a finished product Space Monster Guilala fails to click. The trouble begins with the writing, a mix of tired genre tropes and even duller melodrama credited to Shochiku staffers Moriyoshi Ishida and Eida Motomochi as well as director Nihonmatsu, but compounds quickly from there. From the performances to the effects to the ceaseless drone of Taku Izumi’s score, there’s nothing much about Guilala that actually manages to meet the expectations set for it. This is no genre gem marred by a few minor shortcomings – this is minor shortcomings, the movie.
Playing a bit like two stories clumsily conjoined as one, Space Monster Guilala begins as an earnest space mystery and quickly devolves into torpid romance and banal sci-fi fluff. The crew of the atomic space ship AAB-Gamma, led by the dashing and emotionally stunted Captain Sono, are tasked with investigating the cause of a series of disappearances that have brought Earth’s efforts to conquer Mars to a standstill. In between trips to a swinging moon-base (full bar, no cover charge) and a dubious subplot involving space-biologist Lisa’s attempts at romancing Captain Sono (who is spoken for, naturally) the AAB-Gamma team discover the cause of the disappearances – a crispy-fried UFO that jams the ship’s communications and sends it packing back to Earth with a load of sparkly cosmic spores on its tail. It is some 40 minutes into the picture, when a sample of these spores is returned to terra firma, that the second and more amusing half of the film’s story begins, and Space Monster Guilala finally sets about earning its space-monster pedigree.
I’ve nothing but love for the second half of Space Monster Guilala. From the moment the eponymous critter erupts from a Japanese hillside the film becomes an absurd, chaotic, boundlessly amusing mess, with Guilala wobbling, stomping, and even flying his way from one corner of Japan to the other as various brands of officials (not to mention the screenwriters) try desperately to keep pace. That the monster, a puffy, pointy reptilian something-or-other with a Snork-style appendage and two doodly-bobs sticking out of his forehead, is such an unlikely thing is the majority of the appeal here, and enough to keep the sub-par effects work (Watanabe’s company, and Watanabe himself, was busy with Nikkatsu’s Gappa the Triphibian Monster around the same time) from distracting from the mindless fun of it all.It may never make much sense, and the bogus scientific exposition piles up to a hysterical degree in response to Guilala’s disjointed appearances, but so long as the monster is on-screen (and he’s on-screen a lot once the second half of the film is underway) Guilala can really do no wrong.
It’s a pity that Space Monster Guilala chose not to distribute its mind-boggling kaiju antics a bit more evenly, instead of overloading its front end with such dismal and pointless space-bound drama. Even the flying saucer mystery that jump-starts the picture goes effectively nowhere, just another clumsily concocted means-to-an-end that’s forgotten by Guilala as soon as its meager purposes are served. It’s just so unsatisfying, especially when one considers the stylish and intellectually ambitious Shochiku fantasies that were to come. This is ultimately just a one-trick monster show, and while the title creature’s ludicrous charms are enough to prevent Guilala from slipping completely into obscurity, they aren’t enough to make it any damned good.
After years of being on the Criterion back burner Space Monster Guilala has finally made its way to domestic home video in a properly subtitled widescreen version courtesy of Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku. Like the rest of the films in this collection (Vampire Gokemidoro, The Living Skeleton and Genocide – War of the Insects) Guilala is sourced from a Shochiku DVD master nearly a decade old. Of the four this is the weakest, windowboxed and interlaced with middling detail, dull contrast, and an overall smudgy appearance, but until Shochiku gets around to minting a new video master this is as good as things are going to get. Audio is monophonic Japanese or English dub (Shochiku-produced, not the AIP Television), and an excellent set of optional English subtitles are provided. Per the norm for the Eclipse imprint there are no on-disc supplements, though Chuck Stephens contributes a lengthy liner essay. Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku is available now from Amazon and other retailers.