Ju jin yuki otoko

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(5/10) Known internationally as Half Human, this abominable snowman film is most famous for its unavailability. After complaints about how primitive villagers were portrayed in the film, Japanese studio Toho pulled it from circulation right after its release in 1955, and has sat on it since. A grainy print of Godzilla director Ishiro Honda’s movie is available internationally. The lead actors of Gojira are still stiff as ever, but Akemi Negishi is stunning as a mountain girl, the snowman is beautifully realised, and the cinematography impressive for a B movie.

Momoko Kochi as the female lead in Ju jun yuki otoko, having just been kidnapped bu the snowman.

Momoko Kochi as the female lead in Ju jun yuki otoko, having just been kidnapped bu the snowman.

Ju jin yuki otoko (1955, Japan). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata. Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akemi Negishi, Nobuo Nakamura, Kokuten Kodo, Yoshio Kosugi, Fuminori Ohashi, Shoichi Hirose, Haruo Nakajima. Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka for Toho Company.
IMDb rating: 6.2/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

From 1954 to 1958 there was yeti fever in the movie industry, ignited by the tales of abominable snowmen brought to the western media by mountaineers Eric Shipton in 1951 and Edmund Hillary in 1953. Shipton provided the press with photographs of giant humanoid footprints in the snow, and Hillary also told tales of huge footprints. The craze was further aided by sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s accounts of the old Nepalese folk-tales of the giant bear-man of the Himalayas, and his assurance that people he knew had seen the yeti with their own eyes.

While the scientific community, along with Sir Edmund Hillary himself, remained highly sceptical of the tales of the yeti, the tabloid and yellow press were naturally ecstatic, releasing story after story about the supposed abominable snowman. For movie makers, the yeti hysteria came along at a perfect time. In 1952 RKO had re-released King Kong (1933, review) with immense success, and this event re-ignited the studios’ enthusiasm for monster movies, with films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review) and Them! (1954, review).

Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya.

Ishiro Honda (left) and Eiji Tsuburaya.

Japan, of course, brought to life one of the most famous monsters in history, when producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishiro Honda, writers Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata, as well as special effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya created Gojira (1954, review). But when it came time to make the rushed follow-up to the surprise hit film, director Honda was unavailable because of prior engagements, and possibly didn’t even want to make a sequel. Although he kept doing kaiju movies for Toho, it would take years until he agreed to bring back Godzilla. In 1955 Honda made three films – two romantic dramas, and the last to be released was Ju jin yuki otoko, translated roughly as Monster Snowman, and much later released on home video in the States as Half Human. Most Americans may be familiar with its Americanised butcher job starring John Carradine, called Half-Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman (1958). It is perhaps most famous for being semi-banned in Japan due to a perceived slight against a minority group. Toho pulled the film from circulation soon after its release, and has refused to release it for home viewing. It was shrouded in mystery for many decades, until a leaked video tape made its way to the United States in the late eighties and entered the grey market. A grainy VHS copy with a time stamp is available without subtitles online, but you can buy the film on DVD with subtitles and without the time stamp sold online by collectors. I don’t know where this version hails from, but since it lacks the time stamp, it is probably a different version than the original leaked VHS, either from someone with access to some of the old film copies in Japan, or a copy of the film that was shipped to USA for re-editing.

Promo still from Pekka ja Pätkä lumimiehen jäljilä.

Promotional still from Pekka ja Pätkä lumimiehen jäljillä (1954).

Ju jin yuki otoko was the third yeti film to be released. The one that almost always gets credit for being the first is W. Lee Wilder’s shoestring-budget movie The Snow Creature (review), which premiered in November 1954. The film is sometimes credited with ”creating the abominable snowman subgenre”, but if one looks at the evidence, there is very little to suggest that it did. Rather, it seems that movie-makers all over the world simultaneously latched on to the yeti craze, independently of each other. In fact, the first ever abominable snowman movie, as far as I can tell, was made in my home country Finland, and was released in July 1954, four months prior to The Snow Creature. The film was called Pekka ja Pätkä lumimiehen jäljillä (Pekka and the Stump on the snowman’s trail, review). It is a rather silly slapstick comedy about two dimwits looking for the snowman in Finnish Lapland, and features the Laurel & Hardy of Finland, Pekka and Pätkä, played by Esa Pakarinen and Masa Niemi.

That film certainly didn’t inspire anyone outside of Finland to make a yeti movie, but neither did W. Lee Wilder’s film inspire anyone outside of the US – since The Snow Creature was never theatrically released outside the States. And regardless of whether anyone on the Toho staff would have had the opportunity to see the movie, the fact is that Ju jin yuki otoko was already in pre-production when Wilder’s film premiered in November 1954.

Promo still for Ju jin yuki otoko.

Promo still for Ju jin yuki otoko.

When he had finished his work on Gojira, author Shigeru Kayama wrote a new screen draft in October 1954. The theme was not alien to him, as yeti-like creatures and other so-called cryptids had featured in his works before, and no doubt the on-going yeti craze inspired both Kayama and producer Tanaka to follow up Gojira with a giant snowman. The film was supposed to be a follow-up to Gojira, but after the success of the first Godzilla film, Toho wanted to cash in on the franchise, and hurriedly made plans to make Godzilla Raids Again (1955, review). Since Toho’s special effects department (i.a. Eiji Tsuburaya) would be caught up with that movie during the better part of spring 1955, the production of Ju jin yuki otoko was pushed to April 1955, when it still wasn’t too late to find snow in the Japanese mountains, but neither would production collide with the Godzilla film.

The structure of the film is rather convoluted, as it is basically told in flashbacks, and even the flashbacks are divided into to separate time periods. It also deals with several different groups of people and many characters, which means that even with subtitles, the proceedings are sometimes a bit difficult to follow.

A skiing holiday.

A skiing holiday.

The film begins with a reporter named Kodama (Yasuhisa Tsutsumi) meeting an expedition that has just returned from the Japanese alps. The up-beat journalist is greeted by a room filled with solemn, silent faces, and a woman holding an urn with the text ”The remains of Takeno”. Kodama asks the expedition leader, Professor Koizumi (Nobuo Nakamura), to tell him about the expedition, but Koizumi turns to a young man named Takeshi Iijima (Akira Takarada), and says, ”Perhaps you better tell the story”. Iijima produces a bundle of worn papers, and says ”Here are the last notes of Kyoshi Takeno”. And thus begins the story.

It all begins when five young friends go on a skiing holiday in the Japanese alps. They are separated as Kyoshi Takeno (Tadashi Okabe) and Kaji (Akira Yamada) decide to pay a visit to a mutual friend who’s staying at a different lodge than the main group. Kyoshi Takeno’s sister Machiko (Momoko Kochi) and her boyfriend, Iijima, as well as their friend Nakata (Sachio Sakai) continue directly to the lodge, as a storm blows up, and they figure that Kyoshi and Kaji will be stranded in the remote lodge. When they try to call up the lodge, they hear screams and gunshots, and then the line goes dead. The next morning the three go along with a search party to the lodge and find Kaji and the mutual friend dead, but Kyoshi has mysteriously vanished. In the snow outside the lodge they find strange tufts of hair and huge humanoid footprints …

Waiting out the snowstorm at the inn.

Waiting out the snowstorm at the inn.

Cut to four months later, and the three survivors, along with Machiko’s other brother Sinshuke (Kenji Kasahara) have teamed up with Professor Koizumi, an anthropologist who is trying to find a fabled snowman in the mountains. Machiko, Iijima and Sinshuke want to find out what happened to Kyoshi, and this means finding the creature that made the footprints outside the lodge. As the mountains are now free of snow, searching will be easier.

Momoko Kocho wakes up to the snowman.

Momoko Kochi wakes up to the snowman.

I’m not going to retell every part of the convoluted story, and I’ll try to keep it somewhat concise. Basically we follow the expedition up the forest-covered mountains, as they trudge on ever deeper into uncharted territory. But they are secretly followed by a ruthless pack of animal brokers led by a man called Oba (Yoshio Kosugi), who want to lay their hands on the snowman before Koizumi does, and sell it. One night the snowman sneaks up to the sleeping expedition, and finds Machiko’s and Iijima’s tent, where it gently caresses Machiko’s face. She wakes up, and screams. The snowman escapes, but Iijima follows it, and accidentally runs into Oba’s thugs, who beat him up and throw him off a ledge.

Akemi Negishi as Chika.

Akemi Negishi as Chika.

Badly wounded, he is rescued by a beautiful ”native” woman, Chika (Akemi Negishi), who takes him back to her village and cares for him. However, the villagers have lived secluded from the rest of humanity for centuries, and it is taboo to bring outsiders to the village. Chika’s grandfather, the tribal chief (Kokuten Kodo), chastises Chika for breaking the taboo, and sends her with offerings of food to a nearby cave, to avoid the wrath of the local deity that lives within – which just so happens to be the snowman of our story. But while she is away, the villagers tie Iijima up and hangs him from a cliff to be eaten by vultures. And upon her return, Chika is savagely beaten with a cane by her grandfather.

All the while Iijima is hanging on for dear life, trying not to be eaten by giant birds. But along comes the snowman, casually carrying a deer over his shoulders, and just when Iijima thinks he’s gone from the frying pan into the fire, he is carefully hoisted up from the cliff side by the snowman, who then unties him, picks up his deer, and calmly continues home to his cave. Astonished Iijima then returns to his expedition and tells the group what has transpired.

Tsuburayas miniature shot of Iijima dangling from a cliff.

Tsuburaya’s miniature shot of Iijima dangling from a cliff.

Chika, on the other hand, flees the village and the beatings and runs in to Oba’s thugs. As she assumes they are part of the scientific expedition, she tells them where the cave is. The thugs then race to the cave, and to their astonishment find that the snowman has a son. They capture the son, but are then attacked by the father. They manage to capture him with a net, sedates him, and place him in shackles in a cage on a truck and take off. However, during the melee, the snowboy manages to escape, and helps free his father who breaks out of the cage. The thugs shoot the son, which brings the father to a burning rage. After promptly dispatching of the thugs and their car, which he tosses over the edge of a cliff, he exacts his revenge on the village, which burns down to the ground. For good measure, he also attacks the expedition, and kidnaps Machiko – it is unclear whether he is going to kill her or try to mate with her.

Snowman Senoir and Junior.

Snowman Senoir and Junior.

The expedition then teams up with Chika – who realises that the death of the snowman’s son, and by the same token the destruction of her village and the kidnapping of Machiko – is really her fault, since she told the thugs where to find the snowman. Together they set off to find the snowman and rescue Machiko. In the creature’s cave they find Kyoshi’s notes, where he writes that the snowman was actually trying to help him, as he was wounded in the avalanche, and took him to the cave, where he then died. It seems the snowman doesn’t want to hurt people, but is a gentle being, as long as he is not disturbed. But now, after losing his son, all gentleness is gone, and it is a menace that has to be dealt with. They soon confront the snowman by a bubbling sulphur pit and – well, I wont tell you how it ends.

As stated, the movie was written, produced and directed by the same team that made Gojira. Kayama came up with the story, and the script was written by Takeo Murata, probably with input from producer Tanaka and director Honda. For more background on these gentlemen, please see my review of Gojira.

A snowman footprint at the lodge.

A snowman footprint at the lodge.

Honda’s signature is all over the movie – just like in Gojira, and its inspiration King Kong, Honda chooses to side with the monster. Despite Godzilla’s deadly destruction, it too was a victim of man’s cruelty, as it was driven from its deep-sea home by underwater nuclear tests. The allegory is even clearer in Ju jin yuki otoko, where the snowman really is just an outsider who wants to be left alone with his family, but whose life is brutally upended by the ignorance, superstition and greed of man. Of course the one thing that rings untrue in Honda’s fight for the outcast is the way he depicts the villagers, which really is the worst sort of insult you can hurl at outsiders and minorities, but we’ll get to that later in the post.

Ishiro Honda on the left.

Ishiro Honda on the left, Fuminori Ohashi in the suit.

Visually the film is stunning. Honda’s location shots of the Japanese mountains are breath-taking, the scene with the snow storm is savagely unsettling, and the jungle is dark, sticky and dense. The closing scenes utilise a cave set that must have been huge (or it is really good miniature work by Tsuburaya, it’s hard to tell which from the degraded print). The action scenes are both good and less so. Fuminori Ohashi is superb in the snowman suit, but with a slight problem. The script describes the snowman as 9 feet or 275 centimeters tall, which Ohashi naturally wasn’t. That means that the interaction between the snowman and the people had to be carefully thought out, and it is seldom seen in the same shots as the other people in the movie. In many instances, the snowman is clearly throwing around puppets, and when he kidnaps Machiko, it is obvious that an actor of smaller stance, probably a young boy, stands in for her, as he has a completely different body-shape. Other times the image is cropped in such a way that you only see the upper torso of the snowman as it deals with people. The effects are also uneven. As stated earlier, there are scenes where very obvious puppets are thrown over cliff sides. The vultures attacking Iijima when he hangs from the rope are clearly props. On the other hand, the matte work is beautiful, and the scenes of the burning village are haunting.

Momoko Kochi getting friendly with the snowman.

Momoko Kochi getting friendly with the snowman.

The acting is a bit hit-and-miss. Akira Takarada and Momoko Kochi basically reprise their roles as leading couple from Gojira, and still struggle to develop any kind of chemistry between each other. Handsome Takarada does well in this movie, perhaps more relaxed than in Gojira, but still feels slightly bland and stiff. Kochi was pretty terrible as chaste scream queen in the previous movie, and is no better in this one. And this time she has even less to work with in terms of characterisation than before.

This seems to be a recurring problem in the film made by this team of filmmakers. Personal relationships and drama are given central roles in the movies, but it seems neither Kayama nor Murata are able to do very much with them. You don’t really care much for either of the central characters, because they are so under-developed and blandly written. They sort of exist only to move the plot forward.

Kokuten Kodo as the village elder and Akemi Negishi as his daughter Chika.

Kokuten Kodo as the village elder and Akemi Negishi as his daughter Chika.

Nobuo Nakamura plays the typical benevolent scientist, and does a good job with the little he has to work with. Nakamura was a celebrated theatre actor and character actor in movies. He appeared in The Last War (1961), Submersion of Japan (1973) and No raifu kingu (1991), as well as a handful of Toho kaiju movies. Yoshio Kosugi makes a broad caricature of the main villain, which works alright, but is perhaps little out of place with the realistic acting of the main characters. Like Nakamura, Kosugi was a respected character and stage actor who appeared in many of Akira Kurosawa’s movies, as well as a number of kaiju eiga. Kokuten Kodo is superbly menacing as the tribal chief, even though most of his face is covered by his long hair and beard. Kodo also showed up in Gojira and many other monster movies, and was a favourite of Kurosawa’s.

Haruo Nakajima with a later Godzilla suit.

Haruo Nakajima with a later Godzilla suit.

The movie is filled with Toho stock players that would turn up in a number of classics by Kurosawa and monster movies by Honda, but let’s pick out two in particular, despite the bit-part nature of their roles in this movie: Haruo Nakajima and Shoichi Hirose, who both play anonymous expedition members. Nakajima IS Godzilla. A young actor who impressed special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya when he volunteered to basically be blown up inside a cockpit in Eagle of the Pacific (1953), the incredibly strong martial artist was a natural choice to put inside the heavy, almost immobile first Godzilla suit. After that he owned the character, and played Godzilla in 12 movies, as well as a good number of other kaiju, not to mention other roles.

Hirose we have seen previously on this blog in Toho’s invisible man film Tomei ningen (1954, review). However, he is best known as an adversary to Nakajima. He played King Kong in the smash hit King Kong vs Godzilla (1962), and King Ghidorah in Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster (1964), as well as Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). Apart from playing uncredited bit-parts in a whole slew of kaiju films (dam worker, truck driver, security guard, etc.), Shoichi Hirose also appeared in many other science fiction films, like The Mysterians (1957), The H-Man (1958), The Secret of the Telegian (1960), The Human Vapor (1960) and Atragon (1963).

The mesmerising Akemi Negishi as Chika.

The mesmerising Akemi Negishi as Chika.

However, one person stands out above the rest in this film, and that is Akemi Negishi as the village girl Chika. Not only because she is a good actress, but because she is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the movie screen. Negishi shot to fame in 1953, when actor-director Josef von Sternberg came over to Japan to make Anatahan, about 12 seamen stranded for seven years on a remote island, where they are soon at each other’s throats over the alluring young woman who is one of two inhabitants on the island. When Sternberg was casting the role of the girl, he saw Negishi on a cabaret stage with her dance group and was so stricken with her sensual charisma, that she hired her for the movie’s biggest role, despite the fact that she had no prior acting experience.

A lot of Negishi i Anatahan.

A lot of Negishi i Anatahan.

Because of her role as seductress in Anatahan, she was immediately typecast in roles as exotic, scantily clad tribal women or other glamour girls, which she resented, as she maintained that she could actually act as well. Both Ishiro Honda and Akira Kurosawa duly made note of her acting talents, but still often cast her as prostitute or seductress. She is probably best known for her roles in Kurosawa’s films I Live in Fear (1955), The Lower depths (1957), Red Beard (1965) and Dodesukaden (1970). She also played one of her few leads in the action thriller Sex and Fury (1973) and had a small role in another action film called Lady Snowblood the same year – the film that served as the main inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003) and was remade as the sci-fi movie The Princess Blade in 2001. To western audiences Negishi is probably best known as the woman who leads the tribal dance in King Kong vs Godzilla, which would remain her only science fiction movie apart from Ju jin yuki otoko.

Akemi Negishi in King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Akemi Negishi in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962).

Negishi brings a welcome naturalism and stoic calm to her role as Chika in Ju jin yuki otoko, and her powerful physique, as well as heroic deeds (which I wont reveal), really make her something of a precursor to latter movie heroines in a time when such were practically unheard of. Her performance stands in stark contrast to the chaste scream queen mannerisms of Momoko Kochi, who mainly succeeds in being annoying in this movie. Negishi brought a raw sensuality to her roles, which was very unusual in the sexually conservative atmosphere of Japan – one might point out that in all Godzilla films from the fifties to the seventies, there is one single kiss on screen. That’s the level of chastity usually portrayed in mainstream movies. This fact did no doubt also hamper her career, but she nonetheless continued acting and as she grew older was able to shake her femme fatale image and establish herself as a serious character actress. From the sixties onward she also started appearing regularly on TV. Her career spanned four decades, from 1953 to 1993, and she appeared in over 60 movies and over 50 TV shows. She passed away in 2008.

The snowman, designed bi Fuminori Ohashi.

The snowman, designed by Fuminori Ohashi.

What’s also good about this film is the titular character. The yeti suit is one of the best ”apeman” suits of the era, and it was designed by a character called Fuminori Ohashi, who also more or less designed the original blueprint for Godzilla, although sculpter Teizo Toshimitsu often gets most of the credit for it. Ohashi had practice with ape suits, however, as he designed the the suit for the now lost film King Kong Appears in Edo (1934), and had been creating movie and other art for decades. Ohashi was one of the many Toho special effects and art creators that almost always went uncredited. In later years. He got into trouble with Toho for creating monsters for other studios that they felt resembled Godzilla too much, until he reminded them that he actually did the design for Godzilla. Later Ohashi also worked in America, helping design artwork for the original Disneyland, and was hires as a consultant for the design of the ape suits and the makeup for Planet of the Apes (1968).

Fuminori Ohashi.

Fuminori Ohashi.

The man who played the snowman went under an artist name, as did many Japanese actors at the time, as Sagata Sanshiro. Ohashi designed the suit to his body, and the mask to fit his face, which gave it a snug fit, and meant that the audience actually could see the actor’s eyes, and they could get some movement out of the mouth. Sagata Sanhiro is perhaps best known for playing supporting samurais in some of Akira Kurosawa’s movies. He was intimately familiar with Fuminori Ohashi, since the two were actually one and the same person.

The face of the ape man is very nicely sculptured, but it isn’t a mechanically articulated face, like the best of the Hollywood ape men had in the heyday of ape films. Instead Ohashi and Toshimitsu made a number of different faces that could be switched depending on what emotion was needed for the shot. Initially Ohashi designed a face that looked very menacing and aggressive, but Ishiro Honda asked him to tone it down and make the snowman feel more benign – this is why the final design doesn’t match some of the promotional art.

Ju jin yuki otoko was meant to be another big monster movie hit for Toho, however things didn’t pan out that way, and soon after the film’s release, Toho pulled it from circulation. It is unclear whether there were formal complaints from some civil rights group about the way the villagers were portrayed, or whether the studio simply got angry messages from the public at large. The studio thus pulled the film from theatrical circulation, and has since shelved it. However, the film isn’t banned as such. There are no legal obstacles for showing the film or selling it on DVD, it’s just that Toho doesn’t want to do it. But the film has been shown at special screenings from time to time.

Ishiro Honda directing Akemi Negishi.

Ishiro Honda directing Akemi Negishi.

However – and this is where it gets a bit complicated – the film rights were sold to the American low-budget distribution company DCA in 1958, and DCA heavily re-edited it and added both narration by and live-action scenes with John Carradine (I’ll do a separate review for this film). Toho even shipped the snow boy’s suit to Los Angeles, so that it could be used for new scenes. DCA renamed the film Half Human: The Story of the Aboniable Snowman. The rights to both the Americanised and the original version are currently (2016) held by a company called DCS Video Screams, and these are not only US rights, but international rights. This means that the original film can be sold outside Japan, however, since Toho owns the Japanese rights, the internationally sold DVD can’t be imported into Japan. Still, the version available on DVD is of a pretty bad quality, and probably copied from some bootleg video cassette, so nobody is going to make any high-profile Criterion-style releases of it. No actual retailer seems to be carrying the movie, but you can find a number of copies of it circulating on online buy-and-sell websites, which is how I got hold of it. Copyright law is a highly complicated matter, but as far as I can tell, Ju jin yuki otoko is protected by a director’s mortem clause, which states that films made in Japan before 1970 have valid copyrights in the country until 38 years after the director’s death. Ishiro Honda passed away in 1993, which according to my calculations would mean that the film wouldn’t enter the public domain until 2031 – and that is unless another Mickey Mouse extension gets enabled – or in Japan’s case another Akira Kurosawa extension.

Kokuten Kodo as the village elder.

Kokuten Kodo as the village elder.

What is well known is that the film was shelved by Toho because of the depiction of the villagers as backwards, inbred, deformed, cruel, savage and ignorant. The general notion outside Japan is that it was the Ainu minority that protested against the movie. But in 1955 there really was no significant civil rights movement for the Ainu people. The Ainu had more or less been assimilated with the Japanese people, and the Ainu issue simply wasn’t on the cultural or political map at that moment in time. It wasn’t really until the eighties that Ainu descendants started going back to their ancestral roots, rediscovering their almost lost culture, and pressed for recognition of the Ainu people and culture.

One of the villagers.

One of the villagers.

But one civil rights movement that was gathering substantial steam in the fifties was the one fighting for the rights of the Burakumin. I won’t go into great length about the issue, but basically the Burakumin were traditionally the casteless people of Japan. Traditionally they worked in ”unclean” occupations, such as sanitising, garbage collection, etc, or with occupations that put them in contact with dead bodies or body parts, like undertakers, butchers and even leather-workers and meat-packers. The Buraku were shunned by the general population, and decrees were even given, declaring the Buraku as ”one seventh the worth of an ordinary Japanese”, or even worse, one seventh human. They were forbidden to marry outside their own caste, and lived in remote villages, partitioned suburbs or ghettos, giving rise to the popular idea of the Buraku as tainted, unclean, inbred and backwards. Very much like the villagers of Ju jin yuki otoko. But after WWII, the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) was formed, and together with the communist and socialist parties of Japan, they pushed hard for legal reforms, reparations and the end of discrimination of the Burakumin. And although I haven’t seen any verification of this, it seems likely that it was the BLL that filed complaints over the movie. For more on this issue, please see the superb write-up at Braineater, or another one at Cool Ass Cinema.

The villagers.

The villagers.

There’s some discussion, especially within the Japanese fan community, whether or not Toho’s shelving of the movie is warranted. I have read some pretty heated blog posts arguing either that 1. Toho is being overly sensitive, and the film doesn’t actually offend anyone, or 2. even if it does offend someone, that’s not reason enough for the studio to sit on the prints. One particularly angry blogger writes that ”it is wrong to deprive the majority of the viewers their enjoyment due to a few people’s opinions”. There is of course some merit in Oscar Wilde’s statement, ”There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” The question of whether films that, for example, shows actors in blackface or that are otherwise racially insensitive, should be banned in our more enlightened era, is one that is being discussed at lengths all over the world at the moment. And it is a tricky one. The case of Ju jin yuki otoko is slightly different, though, since this isn’t a case where a film that was once seen as unproblematic has been re-evaluated – this film was seen as problematic even at the time it was released. I can see the merits in both arguments, and to be honest the claim that the movie discriminates against the Buraku is on quite a pretty shaky ground, as there is nothing in the movie that explicitly makes any link between the Buraku and the village people (no, not The Village People). Legally, it would be hard to find an argument for banning the movie. On the other hand, I highly respect Toho for respecting the views of the Buraku. When people in a weak societal position feel they are being discriminated against, it is they, and only they, who have the right to determine whether a work of art or a statement is offending or not. There is, in fact, another Toho science fiction film that is similarly shelved by the studio, at least partly, and that is The Prophesies of Nostradamus, in which the gruesome depiction of victims of a nuclear explosion angered survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and their families.

1954-gojira-057-ishiro-honda-akira-kurosawa

Ishiro Honda (right) and Akira Kurosawa.

I cannot imagine that the team behind Ju jin yuki otoko deliberately set out to mock the Buraku. Ishiro Honda spent much of his career championing the misunderstood outcast, the Other, the ones who are different, and always took the side of the victim. Eiji Tsuburaya was an outsider, if anyone. He quit his job as a director of photography to devote his career to special effects, which at the time was little more prestigious than sweeping the studio floors. He was a Christian Japanese, which in and of itself made him an outsider in society, and they were making science fiction films in an age when sci-fi was frowned upon by the cultural elite.

No, my theory is that the villagers were simply an amalgamation of stereotypical views of backwards, superstitious and conservative country folk – intended as a metaphor for people in general. The snowman represents the Other in our societies, and the villagers actually represent us all – or at least a part of us. No-one goes scot-free in this movie. The villagers represent the fear of the ones who are different, racism and nationalism, which makes us just as ugly and inbred on the inside as the villagers are on the outside. Oba and his thugs are our greed and lack of sympathy for other people, our egotistic instincts to serve ourselves at the cost of others. Even the heroes aren’t free of blame – they naturally assume that the snowman is an evil, murderous beast, when in fact he has been trying to help all along. However, the way Honda & Co have tried to tell their metaphor through the villagers hint at a blind spot in their cultural and psychological understanding of said outsiders, and I will concede that it is highly insensitive and probably shouldn’t have been done in the way it was done.

If one disregards this aspect of the movie and views it as it was probably intended – with the villagers simply as a very fictional group of people meant as symbols for ourselves – the film isn’t a bad one. One could argue that it contends with Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman (1957) for the title of best fifties snowman movie, probably losing narrowly to the Brits. It shares the same problems that hampered Gojira – weak characterisations, an inability to make us care for the characters we are supposed to care about, lack of chemistry between the actors and a messy script with a jumpy dramatic arc. There’s also too many characters, and it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, contributing to the fact that we don’t get to spend enough time with the main characters, who remain cardboard cutouts. At least in Gojira, there was some depths and complexity to the leading cast. Here the good are good and the bad are bad. In the film’s defence, it does have some depth to the story, even if it is the endlessly rehashed Frankenstein/King Kong notion of the outsider as the misunderstood creature and the mob as the real monster.

Takashi Ito as the snow boy rescuing his father.

Takashi Ito as the snow boy rescuing his father.

Someone on some blog has pointed out that this actually isn’t a film depicting The Abominable Snowman, since, as we know, he lives in the Himalayas, not in Japan. The film also never refers to the snowman as the Yeti, but rather Monster Snowman. There is, in fact, an equivalent in Japanese cryptozoology called Hibagon, but the myth of the Hibagon got its start as late as the seventies, coinciding with the Bigfoot craze in the US. In the film, the snowman is explained as a missing link-type phenomenon, an intermediary between the ape and the human, although it doesn’t delve very deeply into the topic – the American version does, however. It has been noted that the village people’s worship of the snowman does have some parallels with the Ainu people’s folklore about a bear god, or a bear-man (which is also the main inspiration for the Nepalese yeti stories).

Janne Wass

Ju jin yuki otoko (1955, Japan). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata. Starring: Akira Takarada, Momomoko Kochi, Akemi Negishi, Nobuo Nakamura, Sachio Sakai, Kokuten Kodo, Yoshio Kosugi, Akira Tani, Fuminori Ohashi, Takashi Ito, Kenji Kasahara, Toshitsugu Suzuki, Ren Yamamoto, Akira Sera, Yasuhisa Tsutsumi, Tadashi Okabe, Akira Yamada, Shoichi Hirose, Haruo Nakajima. Music: Masaru Sato. Cinematography: Tadashi Imura. Editing: Shuichi Anbara. Production design: Tatsuo Kita. Sound: Ichiro Minawa, Yoshio Nishikawa. Special effects: Eiji Tsuburaya, Akira Watanabe. Suit creation: Fuminori Ohashi. Visual effects: Hiroshi Mukoyama. Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka for Toho Company.

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7 thoughts on “Ju jin yuki otoko

  1. Pingback: Gojira | Scifist

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