Sci-Fi, Shochiku Style

In the late 1960s, Japanese pop cinema started to give itself almost entirely over to pulpy entertainment. Godzilla had gone from disturbing symbol of atomic devastation to river-dancing superhero. Samurai films were trading in their ponderous pacing and thoughtful nature in favor of blood geysers and topless female ninjas. Over at Nikkatsu, jazz music and finger-snapping gangsters straight out of the French New Wave were winning the day. For the most part, Shochiku Studio chose to place itself somewhat above the fray. Founded in 1895 by Takejiro Otani and Matsujiro Shirai, Shochiku began life as a kabuki theater production company. They began producing motion pictures in 1920 and were famous for being the first Japanese production house to model itself after American studios, pioneering in Japan things like creating marquee stars, hiring women to play female roles instead of relying on the more traditional female impersonators (something that had been inherited from the stage), and building the country’s first sound studio.

Shochiku was most closely identified with shomin-geki, dramas about the lives of everyday people, and the undisputed master of such films was Shochiku director Yasujiro Ozu. But a studio can only exist for so long on movies in which a middle-aged factory worker stares at a plum blossom for two hours and then, upon a single petal falling off, quietly says to himself, “This is a good way to be, even though it is disappointing.” By the 1960s, things were changing. The youth were restless. Movies that embraced embracing the status quo and going with the flow weren’t appealing to a generation of Japanese youth who were throwing away their books and rallying in the streets. Ozu’s own apprentice, Shohei Imamura, rebelled against his master and what he saw as an old-fashioned attitude, both philosophically and stylistically. Shochiku, struggling to stay relevant amid changing times, eventually threw up its arms and said, “Fine. Whatever!” and rapidly produced four profoundly weird science fiction and horror films: The Living Skeleton (more of a horror film, thus discussed below), Genocide (aka War of the Insects), The X from Outer Space, and the oddest of all, Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell. Whether because the filmmakers all dropped acid, or whether it was due to Shochiku’s inexperience with such genres, these four films remain to this day four of the strangest genre films mainstream Japanese cinema ever produced.

Fly Me to the Moon

Imagine Godzilla with a severe dose of Our Man Flint or any of the Matt Helm films. Imagine Gerry Anderson’s UFO meets Japanese kaiju eiga. Imagine flying to the moon where men in silver space suits recline in bean bags, sip martinis, and cut the rug with their female counterparts, who have taken the time to switch out of their shiny space suits and into orange cocktail dresses. Then throw a giant monster smashing up Japan into the works, and you will just barely begin to fathom the cool of The X from Outer Space.

The movie begins with a flight into space. The year? Who can tell? We have super slick rockets and space gizmos, but we’re still driving 1960s style sedans. A team of astronauts (three Japanese men and one American woman) are going into space to see what happened to a bunch of missing space ships. Not exactly the mission one would want. “A UFO had slaughtered every crew we’ve sent. Go see what’s up with that.” The crew is the archetypal 1960s space movie crew. There’s the spunky but not-quite-liberated woman. There’s the stoic and stern captain with regret in his heart. There’s the sweaty weird doctor guy. And there’s the wacky guy. Every rocket to the moon, or Venus, or wherever was required to staff one “wacky guy,” usually named Jimmy or Corky or Scooter and really into the Brooklyn Dodgers. No one is sure why or how these guys got their job. They spend most the movie sucking up to the captain, hitting unsuccessfully on the ladies, and doing madcap things like forgetting there is no gravity in space or accidentally opening the window of the capsule or something. You can recognize them by a few distinguishing characteristics, such as frequent scratching of the head, a seemingly permanent “dazed and confused but still happy” look, and their addiction to wearing baseball caps.

They would, at first, seem like the kind of guy you really wouldn’t want on your spaceship. But they must be doing something right. I mean, in the space flight of the previous fifty or so years, we’ve never sent up a crew with a genuine wacky guy. And where are we? Haven’t even gotten past the damn moon, where missions with wacky guys would be halfway through the “Galaxy of Terror” or something by now. The course of action is clear. More wacky guys in space!

Anyway, no sooner does the rocket blast off than the cocktail music begin. We’re talking style here, real “Tijuana Taxi” type stuff. On their way to Mars, the rocket is pestered by a UFO that looks like a giant lumpy fried egg. It just sort of flutters around messing with the radio, and then that’s that. The encounter makes the doctor guy queasy, so the captain decided to stop on the moon, where his cutie of a girlfriend works. But he is too stoic and manly to really be all gushy. Once they get to the moon, though, we see why they wanted to swing by. It’s a happening place. It looks just like it should have, according to the 1960s. There’s Esquivel-type lounge music. Everyone dances and makes merry and smokes. I don’t know about smoking in space. I mean, don’t they have to pump oxygen or something into those domes? Doesn’t seem wise to me, but then, swank guys must smoke, so smoke they do. I already mentioned that the guys swing with their space suits on, but the women don cocktail dresses for the festivities. This is like a vision straight out of a Les Baxter album cover.

But the fun can’t last forever, so the crew packs up to leave, replacing their sick doctor with a new American one. I figure the Japanese doctor was probably faking his illness, because, hell, the moon rocks! Not too long after they are back in space, the UFO shows up again, this time spitting out some foamy spores onto the ship. Then it flies away, and the rocket goes back to Earth. I guess they realized finding the other ships wasn’t all that interesting. I mean, they already knew there was a UFO around, so it’s not like that was a revelation. I guess mostly they just wanted an excuse to go to that swingin’ moon, and I can’t say I blame them.

Back on Earth, the spore quickly becomes…I don’t want to saw a giant wingless space chicken, but that’s the closest I can come. Guirara, or Guilala depending on the translation, quickly mutates into a silly yet strangely cool looking beast and sets to doing what all giant monsters love to do — smashing Japan! Not surprisingly, Guilala is impervious to our weapons, but that doesn’t stop Japan from wheeling out some of those damn MASER cannons again. I guess they have to get rid of them somehow. The scientists soon realize that the only way to defeat this destructive hellion from beyond the stars is to coat him with Guilalium, a substance generated from the spores they picked up on the way home. So the astronauts must pile into the ship one last time, because no party is complete without guilalium. Perhaps my favorite moment takes place as the rocket leaves Earth. The film, after being rather light-hearted for the first forty minutes, gets heavy when the monster appears and starts knocking things over. The music gets all Akira Ifukube-esque on us, and is thundering and serious. But as soon as those mad cats get in the rocket and head toward the moon, the swank cocktail music starts up immediately.

X From Outer Space makes me wish the future had turned out more like it was supposed to, with cocktail dresses and mini-skirts, go-go boots and metallic purple hair. Why oh why did we let Ridley Scott color our future when Gerry Anderson had it so, so right long before? X From Outer Space is one of the quirkiest, most enjoyable sci-fi films I have ever seen. How often can you get finger-snapping cocktail music and retro-future bliss AND a giant monster smashing Tokyo all in one serving? I half expected the scientists to go, “Well, we’re stuck,” and give up, only to have James Coburn, clad in a turtle-neck, step from the shadows and go, “Perhaps me and my all-female team of go-go dancing karate masters can help.”

Insects Against Us

Both Goke and Genocide occur within a very familiar horror film narrative: in the case of Genocide, it’s the “when animals attack” film, albeit a few years before such films became a huge trend. The movie is hardly satisfied with a single genre though. Whether it was intentional or simply because Shochiku didn’t really have any experience with films of this nature, Genocide quickly becomes an acid trip of genres and subplots. Layered on top of an already loopy “insects are sick of humans destroying the world, so they decide to declare war on us” plot are Communist agents, psycho-sexual tension, missing hydrogen bombs, the Bikini Atoll atomic tests, drug-induced freak-outs, the Vietnam war, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even the lingering anger of Holocaust survivors.

Shot on a combination of lush island locations and claustrophobic studio sets, Genocide is an arms-race-esque escalation of insanity and paranoia that never goes where you think it’s going. Everything is saturated, sweaty, and delirious. With the exception of Emi Shindo’s put-upon housekeeper and Reiko Hitomi’s entomologist, almost everyone is a scumbag or is batshit insane. Chico Roland (who has a great role in Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun) goes completely nuts as an American GI who lives through a mysterious insect attack on a US bomber, and Kathy Horan is hilariously over-the-top but effective as a seductress with a mind-blowingly insane back story. Of Shochiku’s four forays into genre cinema, three feature foreign actors in major roles. Horan appears in two of them, specializing in utter hysterics, eye bulging, evil laughter, and general awesomeness. Outside of those roles, she was mostly a bit player. Chico Roland had what could actually pass for a pretty good career, at least relative to a foreigner in Japan. Black Sun is a fantastic, subversive take on the “sun tribe” genre that was briefly popular in the 1950s, and he gets an actual role in that one. He also appeared in Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Warped Ones, as well as Seijun Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh and Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards.

It’s hard to get noticed when you are paired up with Roland’s freak-outs and Horan’s mad hissing, but the Japanese cast is pretty good as well, inhabiting characters that are more complex than one might expect from a movie about bugs getting fed up with humans. Yusuke Kawazu (Cruel Story of Youth , The Human Condition II and III) is the theoretical hero of the film, a knockabout beach bum who makes a living collecting insects for the local eggheads. But he’s also cheating on his girlfriend, Yukari (Emi Shindo, Golgo 13), with long-legged beach siren Annabelle (Kathy Horan). Yukari works for a sleazy, lip-licking innkeeper who seems always on the verge of raping her. He and his equally sleazy buddies happen to form the core of a cell of Communist agents. When a US bomber goes down and its nuclear cargo is lost, the Commies try to track it down. They figure a guy like Kawazu’s Jozi can help them (he’s already on the run from the cops for…man, it’s complicated). The sole survivor of the crash (Roland) is insane and screaming about insects and genocide. American Air Force officials chalk it up to drugs and PTSD, but eventually it starts to look like something much weirder and sinister is happening. Before too long, the Communist agents, the American military, scientists, and an army of swarming insects are at war with one another, and the tiny island has become the beach head for an all-out assault on humankind.

Genocide is a remarkable film, a great example of how a lack of experience can result in something glorious and surprising. Director Kazui Nihonmatsu directed all of two movies in his career. The X From Outer Space was the first, followed shortly by this one. Screenwriter Susumu Takaku was similarly inexperienced, though he did have at least a few genre credits to his name, including the amazing Golden Bat and another film we’ll be discussing in this article, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. Unfettered by any real knowledge of genre conventions, Nihonmatsu and Takaku deliver a movie that is hilariously outrageous and darkly nihilistic. The film’s final image of a mushroom cloud blossoming above the island while Shindo’s character is tiny and adrift in the ocean off the coast is a stark and depressing finale to a bizarre movie.

Destroy All Humans

As weird and bleak as Genocide was, it is really just a warm-up for Shochiku’s Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. As with Genocide, Goke benefits from being made by people who didn’t really know how to make a science fiction film, resulting in a fantastic science fiction film that is genuinely surprising. Also like Genocide, this one takes a very familiar science fiction trope — people marooned in a remote location and preyed upon by a mysterious something — and sends it rocketing off into unexpected directions along a trail stuffed to the gills with sweating, grimacing, freaking out, hallucinogenic light shows, and a mysterious force that wants to exterminate all humans, starting with this motley band of castaways.

An airplane full of “people with a past” — a slimy politician, a conniving weapons manufacturer, a bereaved widow on her way to claim the remains of her husband killed in Vietnam, a sweet air hostess, a creepy psychiatrist, a mysterious hipster in sunglasses — runs into unusual turbulence and Barbarella-looking weird clouds and lights. As if dealing with that wasn’t enough for the pilot, he also has to contend with the fact that the mysterious hipster (Hideo Ko, giving off a serious Jo Shishido vibe) is also an assassin, on the run after killing a politician and willing to blow up the plane if he doesn’t get his way. His bomb becomes moot, however, when the disturbances outside force the plane into a crash landing in some remote, rocky back country.

Everyone of importance to the plot survives, but that’s cold comfort given that they seem stranded in the middle of the world’s largest waterless rock quarry, the hijacker is still running around with a gun, and oh yeah — there is an alien spaceship parked nearby just waiting to insert a gooey silver blob into someone’s forehead and turn them into a puppet that will initiate the extermination of mankind. Thus is the stage set for another delirious Shochiku foray into madness, paranoia, perspiring, and Kathy Horan freaking the hell out. Goke is a perfect companion piece to Genocide, as both of them trade in the exploration of paranoia and the temptation to give in to baser, desperate aspects of human nature. Once again, almost everyone is crazy or a total scumbag (often both), with only the pilot, the psychologist, and the stewardess maintaining anything like a level head.

And speaking of heads, what sets Goke apart from Genocide is the greater reliance on special effects, the main one being the glittering alien goo seeping out of a huge gash down the front of Hideo Ko’s face. It’s simple, and because it’s often done amid a flurry of crazy lights, disturbingly effective even when it’s obvious the head is just a dummy. Also of note is the glowing, pulsating UFO the alien blob calls home. They are all pretty simple effects (of the four Shochiku genre films, only The X From Outer Space would try to punch at the level of an Eiji Tsuburaya/Ishiro Honda kaiju blow-out) but are used wonderfully. None of them look exactly “right,” which just adds to the off-kilter sense of discomfort one experiences with Goke. They augment the warped reality of the film rather than overpowering it.

Special mention also needs to be made of Hideo Ko. As the assassin-turned-vessel for space goo with dreams of world conquest, he gives a totally unhinged performance that manages to go close to over-the-top without ever going over the edge (which is more than can be said for the remarkable number of dummies that are hurtled off of cliffs in this movie). The sickly make-up, the giant oozing gash, and his twitching, unnerving, giggling performance juxtaposed with his incredible white suit and Chelsea boots make for one of the most memorable and oddly menacing monsters in Japanese cinema history. The rest of the cast pales in comparison, but that’s not to say they are bad. We have solid, boring heroes and screeching, evil jerks. And of course we have Kathy Horan losing her shit. Trapped as we are with this increasingly paranoid and backstabbing collection of damned souls trapped in a place that seems like it should be easy to walk out of and yet frustrates them at every step, it would be easy for the film to become repetitive or annoying. But it reels the histrionics in at exactly the right moments and then douses everything with a thick coating of “what the hell???” so that it never grates on the nerves. Just when you think you know what it’s going to do, it veers wildly into another direction. And then there’s the ending. While not technically an atomic bomb movie, Goke‘s final apocalyptic images are surprisingly bleak.

Director Hajime Sato had a short but impressive career that included a couple true classics of weird cinema, including 1966’s Golden Bat  (written, remember, by Genocide‘s Susumu Takaku) and, from the same year, the amazing “Sonny Chiba versus cyborg fishmen” movie, Terror Beneath the Sea (which also starred Peggy Neal, who appears in X From Outer Space in a role you’d think would have been given to Kathy Horan, except I guess it didn’t feature nearly enough freaking out). It’s funny that, lurking underneath the much better known surface of Toho monster movies and Ishiro Honda was this little cabal of writers, directors, and stars who were, in various combinations, responsible for a secret second layer of completely off-their-rocker sci-fi films. Perhaps more than any others, Goke is a shining example of what can happen when a writer and a director are given more-or-less total freedom to do whatever the hell they want in a genre the studio making the film does not understand. Unfettered by rules, disinterested in expectations, Goke, like Genocide, takes on the air of outsider art. It is an utter delight to sit through a film this dedicated to making sure you have no idea what the hell it will do next.

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