Sunday, October 16, 2011

Skeletons in the Closet: The Living Skeleton (1968)

Original title: Kyuketsu dokuro sen

In the first themed month of many, the members and agents of M.O.S.S. point their eyes/eye-stalks/tentacles/augmentations towards all things skeletal and skull-shaped. You can find our ever growing (at least throughout October) list of fleshless knowledge here.


A group of pirates lead by a man with impressive facial scarring attacks the Japanese freighter Dragon King, killing crew and passengers, among them a woman named Yoriko (Kikko Matsuoka) and her doctor husband (Ko Nishimura), alike. As later occurrences suggest, the pirates then sink some of the dead bodies and leave the ship adrift and supposedly lost in a storm, never to be found again.

Three years later, the film finds Yoriko's twin sister Saeko (also Kikko Matsuoka) living with and working for the Catholic priest Father Akashi (Masumi Okada), somewhere in the vicinity of Yokohama. Akashi has taken care of Saeko for these last few years, clearly helping here through more than one phase of depression. But Saeko's depressions are a bit different from what you or I may have experienced. As the young woman tells her boyfriend, the restaurant owner Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa), Saeko has always had the proverbial mental connection to her twin, feeling her pains and emotions and vice versa. Ever since Yoriko died, Saeko has only felt an unending sadness coming from her sister that surely hints at Yoriko not resting peacefully.

Things go from disquieting to terrifying when Saeko and Mochizuki go diving while on a boating trip and find a gaggle of chained skeletons floating under water in a clear suggestion of doom. For some reason, our young couple doesn't even think of going to the police with what they've found.

Only a little later, the Dragon King appears in a thick fog bank. Leaving Mochizuki behind, Saeko enters the ship and descends into its depths, following a woman's laughter, all the while encountering more skeletons, until she finds herself finally face to face with her sister - or is it her sister's ghost?

Shortly after this encounter - cut short by some understandable fainting on Saeko's side - the young woman, determined to act on something her sister must have told or impressed on her about the way she died, disappears from Father Akashi's place without a trace or a word.

The pirates who slaughtered the people of the Dragon King have been living in the region around Yokohama these last few years, too, leading normal civilian lives as bar owners, alcoholics, divers and others. After Saeko's encounter with her sister, their lives begin to change. Glimpses of Saeko (or her sister's ghost - like much in the film, this point is foggy), adorable rubber bats or the Dragon King itself precede strange deaths of the pirates, deaths that could mostly be explained as suicide or accidents if not for the portents of doom surrounding them, or their fitting circumstances. The diver among the men, for example, dies under water wrapped up in the chained skeletons of his victims.

This continues until only two of the men - the pirate boss and the bar owner Suetsugu (Nobuo Kaneko) - are alive. When the Dragon King appears to them, the men descend into its cavernous belly like Saeko did, but instead of the expected explanations and exposition, they encounter the inexplicable and confusing, and finally their deaths.

First off, as this is part of a skeleton-oriented month, let's get The Living Skeleton's second biggest problem out of the way right at the start: despite its title, the film does not contain any living skeletons at all. In fact, the only skeletons on display are the very artificial looking ones floating under water and the few Saeko encounters on board the Dragon King. The internet tells me the literal translation of the film's title would be "Vampire Skeleton Ship", which is even more peculiar, seeing as it doesn't seem to contain any vampires either.

However, it would be churlish to complain about the absence of living skeletons in a film this full of other elements that should delight every right-thinking movie-goer's heart. There are, after all, the cute un-living skeletons, many non-vampiric rubber bats, a ghost, an evil catholic priests, a perhaps undead/perhaps mad scientist doctor with an appetite for human flesh and an improbable collection of acid flasks, a random plate mail armour used to hide a dead body, and a bit of necrophilia to enjoy. Even better, all these things are presented with a complete lack of irony and are taken as seriously by the film that contains them as humanly possible.

As a late 60s Shochiku horror movie, The Living Skeleton, is part of a small cycle of films as pessimistic and grim in their outlook as films can be (see also Goke and Genocide), films where the guilty may be punished, but in which the innocent lose their lives just as easily, or stop being innocents by becoming involved with powers utterly out of their control. This (slightly Lovecraftian) pessimism bordering on nihilism, as well as a brutal, luridly presented ruthlessness in its outlook, demonstrates (again) that not only US horror was changing in 1968 (the year that brought us Night of the Living Dead), but that international exploitation cinema was going in a similar, politicized direction that saw directors treating genre films as an area where it was easy to tackle what was happening in the world around it while still making commercial cinema.

It is a bit difficult to make out what The Living Skeleton is exactly trying to say about the world around it, though, for the film's biggest problem raises its ugly head in form of a script that often goes out of its way to be impenetrable. While certain of the film's views are clear - authority is not to be trusted (shown through the absence of worldly authorities and the corruption of spiritual ones), innocence ends once one has opened one's eyes to reality and can not be regained - it is anyone's guess what it precisely thinks it is saying. The film's first hour is comparatively clear, but the finale becomes so feverishly strange that even the seemingly simple plot just dissolves into unexplained complexities and unanswerable questions. Which may or may not be the point of the whole affair.

On the other hand, it's exactly these failings of the script that give The Living Skeleton some of its punch. I am a great admirer of movies that make the supernatural feel inexplicable and truly strange, and that's exactly what The Living Skeleton is willing to do even to the detriment of thematic clarity or the communicability of what's really going on in it.

Stylistically, the film's director Hiroshi Matsuno (whose only IMDB credit this is, alas), achieves a highly individual mix of elements and moments that feel pop (just watch the Jess-Franco-minded night club sequence), others that look like attempts to adapt the gothic stylings of Italian cinema to Japanese sensibilities, and others (getting ever more frequent the longer the film runs) that have the feverish, logic-defying intensity we tend to imagine all pulp literature and serials had (even though that's only true for half of them). On paper, these disparate elements (also furthered by a soundtrack Noboru Nishiyama that often seems to channel Ennio Morricone or perhaps John Barry, but dives into quite different directions too) should clash quite horribly with each other, yet in practice they do come together to give the film a weird (both capital and lower case) mood, a subconscious nervousness that could quickly turn into terror that is all too fitting for a film whose characters are as guilty and doomed as The Living Skeleton's.

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