Finally, after years of waiting — far too long — a four odd-ball genre films made by Shochiku Studios in the late 1960s, are finally seeing the light of day on home video in North America! And I'm glad it's Criterion! For over a decade, Janus Films/Criterion has held the rights to a large number of obscure, weird, and unknown Japanese films in it's coffers, and only recently began making some of them available on DVD through it's Eclipse budget label, but also for view on their Criterion Collection page hosted over the streaming video service, Hulu. And now, at last, all four are coming to DVD! On November 20th, Eclipse Series 37: "When Horror Came to Shochiku", will hit store shelves — a set containing all four of the studio's gritty, crazed, and disparate science fiction, horror, and fantasy films from the late 1960s: THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, GOKE, BODYSNATCHER FROM HELL, THE LIVING SKELETON, and GENOCIDE — with excellent liner notes by the redoubtable Chuck Stephens — this is an epic box set that cannot be missed!
Shochiku threw its hat into the genre film ring during a pop cultural convergence in Japan
that the media branded, “The Monster Boom” of 1966 — kicked off by Tsuburaya Productions' hit television series, ULTRA Q. Every movie studio and television
network was rushing to get a piece of the Monster Boom pie, and more monsters began filling the screens of Japanese cinemas nationwide, with films such as Shigeo Tanaka’s GAMERA VS. BARUGON (Gamera tai Barugon), Hajime Sato’s TERROR BENEATH THE SEA (Kaitei Daisenso), Ishiro Honda’s THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (Sanda tai Gaira), Jun Fukuda’s GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (Nankai-no Daiketto), THE MAGIC SERPENT, and all three DAIMAJIN films — it seemed that all of Japan was deep in Monster Mania. ULTRAMAN premiered on July 17, 1966, and dominated the airwaves along with P-Productions' THE SPACE GIANTS (Maguma Taishi), and Toei TV Productions’ LIL’DEVIL (Akuma-kun). Before this, it was Toho Studio's territory — now, the flood gates were opened.
With the dawn of New Year’s 1967, the Monster Boom of the previous year had not yet shown any signs of slowing: ULTRAMAN’s ratings were still skyrocketing, and Godzilla, Gamera, Gappa, Guilala, and others, smashed their way across cinema
screens, while television networks rushed to have their own small screen
versions, followed by publishers and toy makers who jumped happily into ground
you looked there were monsters, monsters, and more monsters — while children, and
adults alike, couldn’t get enough. Daiei Studios saw the lighted fuse first, and started ahead of the game with Noriaki Yuasa's GAMERA (Daikaiju Gamera, 1965), which launched not only a series starring the colossal chelonian, but two trilogies about stone idols coming to life, and the shenanigans of native goblins or Yokai. Daiei also had a long history of Kaidan or Ghost Story films, even though most studios made Kaidan, a traditional genre, they weren't necessarily considered fantasy films. Nikkatsu Studios, mostly known for it's modern action films, produced Haruyasu Noguchi's GAPPA, THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTER (Daikyoju Gappa); released directly to the airwaves by American International Television as "Monster from a Prehistoric Planet".
Shochiku couldn't pass up the Monster Boom and went, head-first, into a series of wild and delirious films — some of which are quite unfamiliar to those outside of Japan, simply because they received spotty releases, or none at all. The best known of these films, Kazui Nihonmatsu's THE X FROM OUTER SPACE (Uchu Daikaiju Girara, 1967), was released directly to television by AIP-TV, where it melted the brains of young Japanese Monster freaks for nearly two decades. The film follows the familiar pattern of the giant monster movie — an interplanetary spacecraft on a routine mission, unwittingly brings back a spore to the Earth, which grows into a titanic, radiation-absorbing beastie, who goes on a path of destruction to feed its insatiable appetite for atomic materials. The resultant daikaiju is a sight to behold — best described as a cross between Godzilla and a plucked chicken — "Guilala" (christened in a naming contest run in a children's magazine), steals the show. Most viewers find the creature's design ludicrous, but I personally find him sublime. Add a teenaged American model-cum-actress, Peggy Neal, as an Astrophysicist (!), and Eiji Okada, star of Alain Resnais's HIROSHIMA MON AMOR (1959), and you have a real wackadoo of picture — and I'm not kidding, it's pure joy!
What can I say about Hajime Sato's GOKE, BODYSNATCHER FROM HELL (Kyuketsu Gokemidoro, 1968)? Well, if you thought THE X FROM OUTER SPACE was crazy — wait until you see this picture (which was visually referenced by Quentin Tarantino in KILL BILL VOL. 1)! A rash of flying saucer sightings portend impending doom for our world. An airliner is forced to crash-land in a remote area, after colliding with a massive flock of birds, and soon its passengers find themselves face-to-face with an alien being that desires to possess their bodies and souls — and perhaps take over the entire human race. Criterion heralds, "Filled with creatively repulsive make-up effects — including a very invasive bloblike life-form — GOKE, BODYSNATCHER FROM HELL is a pulpy, apocalyptic gross-out." Each of the passengers carries their own baggage — the corrupt politician, the desperate criminal, a twisted psychiatrist, a woman on the verge, etc. — playing out like Sato's condemnation of mankind, as each of them fall victim to the extraterrestrial menace. This is really outre filmmaking that is 1/4 ZERO HOUR (1957) + 1/4 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) + 1/4 MATANGO (1963) + 1/4 INVADERS FROM MARS (1953), all adding up to make GOKE a truly bizarre and otherworldly viewing experience — trust me.
Oh, GENOCIDE (Konchu Daisenso, 1968)... How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Kazuhi Nihomatsu returns after THE X FROM OUTER SPACE with a deliriously sleazy and nihilistic science fiction-horror-doomsday thriller, starring the respected Yusuke Kawazu (CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH). En route to a mission over Vietnam, a nuclear-armed US Bomber is mysteriously downed over a small Japanese island. When a small American search party arrives to retrieve the bomb, they come face-to-face with a plot to destroy all of mankind — employing mutant, killer insects! The extent of their mutation, and who created them, would spoil the fun of the "I-didn't-see-that-one-coming" revelation! With a climax that is, by any definition, big and terrible, GENOCIDE (aka WAR OF THE INSECTS) is resplendent with throughly unlikeable characters; everyone one of them is either mad, twisted, perverse, or throughly disgusting — my kind of picture! As the search for the ticking bomb (I did mention that, didn't I?) presses on, the claustrophobic atmosphere of this humid and oppressive island, is all the more suffocating, in sweaty, and over-saturated Eastmancolor. If I say any more (and I know you can easily look up spoiler-filled reviews), it would simply ruin experiencing the lurid, trashy wonders of GENOCIDE for yourself. And then there's Chico Roland. Yes, it's that good.
Now, we come to the real jewel among the gems of this set, an atmospheric tale of supernatural revenge from briny deep, Norio Matsuo's THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokoro-sen, 1968)! As a kid in the '70s, I read about this film in the pages of Greg Shoemaker's Japanese Fantasy Film Journal and Dennis Gifford's book, A Pictorial History Of Horror Movies, but I had to wait until the film surfaced on Laserdisc in the early '90s (properly letterboxed to highlight Masayuki Kato's effective black-and-white cinematography). And, I was not disappointed — and neither should you. The Ryu-Oh Maru, a freighter carrying a valuable cache of gold is raided, and vanishes without a trace. Three years later, the sister of one of the victims, now bereft of family, is living under the care of the kindly Catholic Priest, in a quiet seaside church. Not far away, five of the murderous pirates are living their lives with the ill-gotten gains, until one day, when a fog-enshrouded Ryu-Oh Maru drifts into view... Soon, everyone's lives begin to unravel, as the ship beckons for its pound of flesh. Starring the haunting Kikko Matsuoka (BUSHIDO: CRUEL CODE OF THE SAMURAI), THE LIVING SKELETON draws from numerous sources, from Euro Horror to Kaidan Eiga, and just a dash of Krimi, topped with an impressive ending that is far more devastating than the previous outtings. In the words of the late, great Bob Wilkins, "I think you're going to like it."
This essential, must-have DVD Box Set, Eclipse Series 37: "When Horror Came to Shochiku" (there is no Blu-ray release scheduled), will contain each film on individual discs with it own case (as previous Eclipse releases), and is retailing for $59.95 — or only $47.96 from the online Criterion Store. While there are no special features to speak of, aside from Chuck Stephen's liner notes booklet, there is also no word at press time whether the THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, GOKE, or GENOCIDE will feature their respective English Dubbed tracks (it's unclear if LIVING SKELETON was ever dubbed). All four films are expected to be presented in their original Japanese language with English Subtitles. Hey, after all this time, I'm just glad that we're going to be exposed to these truly unique and insane genre entries — hammering home that there's far more to the Japanese Fantasy Film than Godzilla. Really, there is.
Special thanks to Chuck Stephens