Wednesday 11 September 2013

Nippon Horrors:
The Living Skeleton
(Hiroshi Matsuno, 1968)

All four of the films included in Criterion Eclipse’s recent When Horror Came To Shochiku collection are pretty interesting and enjoyable in their own right, but for me the pick of the litter was definitely Hiroshi Matsuno’s ‘The Living Skeleton’ – noteworthy not just as the sole black & white film in the set, but also as the only one that veers closer to a Western-style supernatural horror than to an Ishirô Honda-influenced sci-fi/monster flick.

Well… to a certain extent, anyway. A delirious mixture of ‘60s gothic, ghoulish mad science, psychic turbulence and macabre aquatic psychedelia, one of the things that helps make ‘The Living Skeleton’ so unique is its refusal to tie itself down to any easily definable set of genre conventions, or to really go where you’d expect it to; Weirdo Horror in excelsis, basically.

Case in point is the startlingly brutal opening sequence, which doesn’t exactly scream “gothic horror”, instead throwing us straight into a nightmare scenario of an entirely different order, as the occupants of a modern day passenger ferry – the ‘Dragon King’ - are imprisoned and coldly massacred by a gang of machine gun-wielding pirates.

The most memorable shot here (an optical FX job, presumably) features the screaming face of a doomed woman reflected in the lenses of the sun-glasses worn by the scarred, bald-headed leader of the attackers – an image whose central significance to the story that’s about to unfold will gradually become clear, but which for now merely serves to highlight the surprising level of stylistic ambition exhibited by Matsuno and his collaborators. Certainly, in comparison to the rather workmanlike fimmaking seen in Shochiku’s other horror/SF titles, the quality of the direction and cinematography here is excellent, and remains so throughout, with rich black & white photography and some beautiful, deep focus compositions really setting the film apart, leaving only some shaky nautical model shots and lovably dodgy special effects (bats on strings, rubber skeleton attacks, that sort of thing) to reveal it’s poverty row origins.

Once this out-of-leftfield prologue is taken care of, a dreamy, gothic atmosphere increasingly begins to take hold, as the story (such as it is) proceeds with a heavy, doom-laden feel that recalls nothing so much as Jess Franco’s ‘Nightmares Come At Night’ or ‘A Virgin Among The Living Dead’, presenting a vague and uncertain tale of interchangeable identical twins, ghostly manifestations and fantasy/reality disjuncture that proves is just as difficult to summarise in concrete terms as the aforementioned Franco films, however much sense it might make on an emotional level.

With her porcelain features, big, sad eyes and sombre, elegant movements, leading lady Kikko Matsuoka is certainly every bit the Japanese answer to Soledad Miranda or Diana Lorys, and makes a perfect casting choice for this rare example of a fully-fledged Nippon Gothic, here assuming the role of Saeko, identical twin sister of the girl we saw being killed on the ship, who now lives in a remote cliff top church, ward of a benevolent Christian priest.(1)

Out of sight of her benefactor, Saeko also enjoys a healthy romantic relationship with Mochizuki, a young fisherman, and generally seems to be enjoying a happy and relaxed existence. But when the wind blows in from the sea, she hears her sister’s voice calling her, and when she and Mochizuki go snorkelling, she experiences a vision of weird fake skeletons, looking look like something out of a Mexican day of the dead parade, dancing before her eyes. Soon, a thick fog rolls into the harbour, bringing with it the empty hulk of the ‘Dragon King’, and any hope we may have had of separating linear reality from Saeko’s subjective descent into vengeful, identity-shifting craziness goes entirely up the spout, in best Euro-horror tradition.

As things proceed, the bare bones of a good ol’ supernatural bride-wore-black vengeance narrative take shape, with Saeko and/or her ghostly sister tracking down and dispatching the venal pirates in short order. It’s all very much the kind of thing Franco might have come up with between courses at some local eatery, and is detourned in some equally interesting directions as well, taking in noir-ish segments, pulpy mad science and some shock reveals in the final half hour, building up to a hellzapoppin’ Laboratory-based climax that plays like something out of ‘40s Monogram b-picture amped up with ‘60s drive-in gore.

And in case you were worried things weren’t QUITE Jess Franco-like enough already, the 25 minute mark also brings forth a totally gratuitous nightclub striptease sequence, in which two stocking-clad dancers shake their stuff to languorous dinner club jazz! Heavens be praised.

(If anyone’s keeping track out there in Film Studies-land, it occurs to me that the opening shot of the dance routine, which features the two symmetrically posed dancers picked out by spot-lights, is a deliberate echo of the sunglasses reflection shot mentioned earlier, with both images serving to remind us of the film’s central tale of psychically conjoined twins. He was no slouch, this Matsuno-san.)

Even more so than Michio Yamamoto’s vampire films, ‘The Living Skeleton’ is full of explicit references to Western horror, many of them rendered inherently surreal by their placement in a Japanese setting. The dual role played by Matsuoka seems a direct nod to the traditions of ‘60s gothic horror, and, whilst steeples, crucifixes and Christian funeral services may go hand in hand with church setting, the endless swarms of bats, diaphanous night-gowns, stone dungeons and wrought-iron candelabras definitely seem a little too way out for any sense of realism to be maintained for long. (The priest’s study even boasts a medieval suit of armour amongst its accoutrements, ferchrissake!)

More specifically though, Matsuno seems to be most concerned here with plundering the same current of imagery that John Carpenter tapped into a decade or so later for The Fog. You know the score, I’m sure: isolated seaside locale, pirates, churches, priests, vengeful ghosts, staticy radio broadcasts, lighthouses, skeletons and fog – lots and lots of fog. The convenient discovery of a ship’s log divulging the dark secrets of the ghost-ship’s history is particularly synchronicitous in this regard, but I doubt there’s any direct influence going on here (the chances of Carpenter having seen this film back in the day are pretty slim, and even if he did, I’m sure he’s a solid enough guy to have acknowledged his debt). Instead, I feel this is once again just a parallel take on the same nexus of collective unconscious type imagery from filmmakers on opposite sides of the world, and another example of the same watery thread that runs through a whole swathe of my favourite horror films and stories, from Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ to Messiah of Evil, Jean Rollin’s ‘The Demoniacs’, and beyond.

With no production back story or literary/cinematic forebears as such, and with a director and writers who seem to have come out of nowhere and swiftly returned there, (2)  ‘The Living Skeleton’ is a real one-off, difficult to place within any grand narrative of Japanese genre cinema, Asian horror tradition, or much else for that matter.(3) About the nearest I can get to linking it to any of its domestic peers is in vague, thematic terms – there’s the ubiquitous figure of the long-haired avenging female ghost of course, and the overwhelming concern with the ocean and ships as a source of fear – a motif that seems to occurs again and again in post-war Japanese horror (I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions) - plus the psychic vengeance angle, all of which remind me somewhat of Hideo Nakata’s ‘Ring’ (a film that increasingly seems like a sort of rosetta stone for the recurring thematic concerns of Japanese horror, in spite of its time-specific technological aspect).

Like the best under-the-radar Western horror films, there is a real “where the hell did THIS come from?” thrill to the discovery of a movie like ‘The Living Skeleton’; a feeling that any seasoned horror fan should relish. Though rather insubstantial and sluggish of pace here and there (there are a few of those ol’ run-time padding “journey between locations” bits that we could probably have done without), as a piece of film-making it displays a high level of style, visual imagination and atmosphere-building know-how; qualities which are only enhanced by its ‘grab-bag’ approach to genre conventions and plot ideas.

Further increasing our enjoyment, and cutting through the Euro-horror somnambulance somewhat, there are some great turns from a supporting cast packed with capable character actors - Asao Uchida as a crafty, drunken gambler, Nobuo Kaneko as a nefarious club owner and Ko Nishimura as the cadaverous ship’s doctor all provide great value for money. And even the soundtrack is excellent for that matter, with a main theme that mixes up spy movie strings with thin fuzz guitar buzzing like a wasp on the periphery (lest we forget which decade we’re in), with heavily-treated tremolo guitar and eerie, reverbed harmonica reveries elsewhere suggesting that the lessons of Morricone and Nicolai were not lost on composer Noboru Nishiyama.(4)

You’ve probably gathered as much already, but I’ll freely admit that I loved just about everything about ‘The Living Skeleton’, and would highly commend it to anyone who enjoys the kind of stuff I write about on this blog. Sharing some aesthetic choices with the very wooziest end of ‘60s/’70s Euro-horror, it is a thoroughly irrational, oneiric venture that sails closer than any other Japanese film I’ve seen to the kind of territory mapped out by filmmakers like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco at around the same time. Which perhaps isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but my own cry of delight at having discovered not just a Japanese Jess Franco film, but a Japanese Jess Franco film that is arguably more accomplished than any actual Jess Franco film, must have been audible from space.

(1) A prolific actress in the late ‘60s, Matsuoka’s more notable credits include roles in Kinji Fukasaku’s two Rampo/Mishima adaptations, ‘Black Lizard’ and ‘Black Rose Mansion’, and an uncredited appearance in ‘You Only Live Twice’.

(2) Well, co-writer Kyûzô Kobayashi also gets a script credit on the same year’s ‘Goke: The Bodysnatcher From Hell’, but aside from that I’m gettin’ nothing.

(3) As previously mentioned, Western-style Japanese gothic horrors are rare as hens teeth; investigations are ongoing, but the only one I’m aware of prior to ‘The Living Skeleton’ is Ghost of the Hunchback aka ‘House of Terrors’, a terminally obscure 1965 Toei film from ‘Goke’ director Hajime Sato. Unsubtitled DVD-R of an Italian TV broadcast anyone..?

(4) Another obscure figure, Nishiyama’s four credits on IMDB are rounded out by two little known Daiei films, and Koji Wakamatsu’s ‘Affairs Within Walls’ (1965).

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