Directors: Hajime Satô
Starring: Teruo Yoshida, Tomomi Satô, Eizô Kitamura
Release Date: 1979 (US)
What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you on an airplane? Were you ever sat next to a screaming baby, or some fat guy who hogged the armrest and took his shoes and socks off? Maybe you’ve suffered with that perennial of bad stand-up comedy, airline food, or had to sit on the runway a few hours while the pilot sobered himself up with black coffee. Whatever happened, it’s unlikely to compare with the trauma suffered by Air Japan flight JA307 from Tokyo to Osaka, whose travails would make that time you got caught in your solo effort to join the ‘mile high club’ pale in comparison.
The flight in question is the story of Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, a rare horror outing from the Shochiko studios of Japan. “If Shochiko had a house genre in the 1950s,” notes Chuck Stephens, reviewing GBSFH for Criterion in 2012, “it was the melodrama, tinged with a little romance…the the studio had become, generically speaking, a rather staid place.” During the late 1950s and 1960s however, monster films had become so popular in Japan (with export sales to America also proving healthy), a variety of Japanese studios, such as Nikkatsu, Shintoho, and Toei, all got into the act, hoping for a slice of the fortune Toho Studios had mined through its successful Godzilla series. Shochiko followed suit with a clutch of genre movies just as crazed as anything their rivals came up with, and its own take on Godzilla, The X from Outer Space (1967) remains the best known, if only for its lamentable giant monster, a cross between a lizard, a squirrel and a giant rubber duck.
By comparison, and despite its fantastic nature, GBSFH is a film with serious intent and addresses real world issues. There aren’t many horror films around this time which mention the war in Vietnam, and “the trouble in south east Asia,” but GBSFH does so, also depicting political corruption, arms dealing, atomic warfare, assassinations, terrorism, and the place of evil in the human character. In fact, GBSFH is one of the most nihilistic horror films you’ll ever see, making it a not-so-distant cousin to Toho’s Matango – Fungus of Terror (1963), sharing its dog-eat-dog morality and downbeat ending which suggests, whichever threats come his way, mankind’s worst enemy will always be himself.
Our adventure into this heart of darkness begins mid-flight, with a shot which so impressed Quentin Tarantino, he ‘paid tribute’ (ahem) to it in Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003), as a passenger jet heads into a bruised, billowing sky of orange and red. On board, politician and senator Mr Mano (Eizo Kitamura) discusses the recent fatal shooting of the British ambassador with his butt-kissing business associate, arms manufacturer Tokuyasu (Nobuo Kaneko), who comments “Japan is becoming more like America,” a genuine worry for many Japanese at this time. Tokuyasu is concerned about an increase in terrorism, but as Mano reminds him, terrorism means an increase in business for Tokuyasu’s company. In reply, Mano’s associate advises the politician to get a bodyguard and to always know his enemies. And then birds fly bloodily into the plane’s windows…
At the same time, the plane’s pilot (Hiroyuki Nishimoto), and co-pilot Sugisaka (Teruo Yoshida), receive a bomb alert over their radio. Sugisaka checks the passengers’ bags, causing Tokuyasu to make a scene defending the liberty of Mr Mano’s luggage; were it not for the presence of Mrs Tokuyasu (Yuko Kusunoki), I’d say her husband and Mr Mano have a Mr Burns/Smithers thing going on. As it is, the truth is even more gruesome, but more of that later. A wryly tactless psychiatrist, Dr Momotake (Kazuo Kato) suggests the co-pilot is looking for a bomb, which gets everyone in a lather, something Momotake enjoys as a man interested in “the reaction of people driven to the limit of endurance,” or as others might call it, being a selfish dick. The last passenger Sugisaka questions is a very wrong-looking dude (Hideo Ko) in shades, a white suit, white gloves and a pink roll-neck sweater. Nature warns us of venomous animals by giving them distinctive bright colors; by dressing in this way, we learn this guy may not have poisonous claws, but would certainly try to scratch your eyes out. This mystery man claims to have no luggage, arousing Sugisaka’s suspicions, as this guy looks like he’d carry a substantial personal wardrobe everywhere he goes.
Sure enough, Sugisaka, along with stewardess Miss Asakura (Tomomi Sato), find a badly hidden suitcase in the hold directly behind The Man in White, and on unlocking it with an Air Japan sonic screwdriver, find a bottle of acid. We know its acid, as when the clumsy co-pilot drops the bottle, its contents dissolve the suitcase to reveal a hidden rifle. The Hijacker decides this is as good a time as any to live up to his name, so pulls out a gun and demands the airplane divert to Okinawa. The pilot does as instructed, just as ground control warns of a UFO in the area, with the Japanese and American air forces giving chase to the intruder. The hijacker, possibly thinking the pilots are tuned into reruns of Tales of Tomorrow, shoots out the radio, only for a UFO to pass over the airplane, knocking out the controls and burning out one of its engines. The stricken plane crashes, belly-flopping onto a mountainous region in the middle of nowhere. Believe it or not, we’ve only now reached the film’s opening credits!
The crash has left the pilot and all the film’s extras dead, with Sugisaka and Asakura shaking the survivors out of unconsciousness: Mr Mano (more interested in Mrs Tokuyasu); Mr Tokuyasu (more interested in Mr Mano); Mrs Tokuyasu (also more interested in Mr Mano); Dr Momotake; Dr Saga (Masaya Takahashi), a “space biologist” (I think he got his certificate from a box number at Penn Station); Mrs Neal (Kathy Horan), an American widow, whose husband was killed in action in Vietnam, and who is on her way to the US military airport at Iwakuni to pick up the pieces; and an overgrown teenager, Matsumiya (Norihiko Yamamoto), who runs off at the first opportunity. Sugisaka gives chase across the rocky terrain, and both are almost swept away by a rockfall. Matsumiya admits it was he who phoned in the hoax bomb threat, as a joke, because “there’s no fun in the world anymore.” Here’s a tip for the teenagers; if you decide to to prank an airline company with a bomb threat, don’t then board the plane yourself. If you need me to explain why, do us all a favor and just jump out of the plane over Mount Fuji.
Night falls, with no sign of rescue. Mano and Tokuyasu are impatient to get away, as important elections are coming up, but when Sagasaki explains about the strange light which forced them to crash, they believe he’s lying to excuse his incompetence, while Dr Saga mutters grimly about “there are things in the universe mankind doesn’t understand yet.” To make matters worse, Mrs Neal has used up all the water supply in removing her mascara, to Mano’s fury. I’d imagine Mr Mano is the sort of man who takes team-building exercises too seriously and ends up in hospital with a broken collar-bone after falling off a makeshift bridge made of planks and reeds. Mamotake, by contrast, relishes their predicament; with no food or water left, the psychiatrist declares “it’s the law of the jungle. We become beasts…in the end, everyone dies!” To make matters even worse than before, our hijacker, who we learn killed the ambassador, was merely feigning death. Armed with the rifle, he takes the stewardess hostage and takes his leave of the airplane.
Outside, the Hijacker and Asakura blunder towards the now-landed UFO. Asakura hides behind a rock, while the Hijacker is compelled to walk towards the pulsing, glowing spacecraft. The effects of the UFO are handled well enough, and the shots taken from behind the Hijacker as he approaches the ship are quite effective, as he seems to merge with the UFO, his human shape fizzing and contorting. The effects turn grisly once the dazed Hijacker finds himself inside the saucer, where a lumpy, viscous blue blob oozes its way up his body, splits open his face and slimes its way into his brain, leaving a suggestive vertical crack along his forehead and nose, as if a transgender operation has gone very, very wrong. Whether you find the scene gruesome or hilarious, you won’t be able to keep your eyes from the screen, and that goes for most of the action in GBSFH.
Back at the airplane, Mr Mano takes a break from polling Mrs Tukuyasu’s personal opinion (ahem, ahem) to take a stroll outside, where the others are disposing of the film’s extras. “We’re digging graves for the dead,” explains Dr Momotake. “Why not dig yours too?” I trust Dr Momotake doesn’t charge his patients more than five cents for his services, because Lucy from Charlie Brown gave better psychiatric advice than this guy. Once the party hears over a passneger’s radio set that the search for survivors has been abandoned due to lack of interest, Dr Momotake hypnotizes the traumatized Miss Asakura using a candle, and so the incredulous group learns what happened to the hijacker. Dr Saga explains the increase in flying saucer reports since the Hiroshima bomb, surmising aliens are awaiting the moment for man to destroy himself before they invade. Mrs Neal becomes distressed, as hearing of the hijacker’s head wound reminds her that her husband died as a result of napalm blowing up in his face. Mrs Neal’s dialogue is given in English, rather than Japanese, with the occasional aid of Japanese subtitles, and her lines come over as if she’d just learnt to speak from an English-Japanese dictionary: “I hate war, during war, everyone is miserable!” she cries. The Japanese characters react to Mrs Neal in a similar way to Stewie in Family Guy; sometimes they understand her, at others, only we comprehend what she’s saying.
Matsumiya reacts to these intergalactic revelations by pushing Dr Momotake over a cliff (“We were better off not knowing!”), thus winning back the audience’s sympathy. The psychiatrist survives this fall from grace, only to bump into the Hijacker, who bites Momotake’s neck and drains him of blood, because, yes, this is a vampire film on top of everything else. As Dr Momotake was rather a bloodless man to start with, you might think it hard to tell the difference once he’s dead, but to help us tell the stiffs from the living, the vampire’s victims turn an unappealing shade of blue when they die.
After Matsumiya is locked into the cockpit as punishment, the Hijacker is found unconscious outside the airplane. Amidst a battery of blood-soaked Vietnam flashbacks, Mrs Neal insists he be brought aboard: “I’ve got to help him, otherwise he’ll die.” Dr Saga admits “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” My dear doctor, it is way too late to suspect something bad is going down. Didn’t the kamikaze crows teach you anything?
Tokuyasu and Mano clash over their financial dealings, with the businessman ‘blackmailing’ the thirsty politician over a half-empty canister of water. Mano, it transpires, has led his associate a merry dance, accepting all manner of bribes to lobby government to purchase weaponry from Tokuyasu’s company, when Mano actually had little intention of awarding them the contract. As these sweeteners included Tokuyasu pimping out his wife for Mano’s personal use, he’s understandably annoyed by this news and turns the Hijacker’s rife on the group and orders them outside. Bad move, fella; the Hijacker re-animates himself and chows down on the luckless businessman. “He deserved to die like that,” observes his freshly-minted widow, who strikes a blow for female freedom by wandering away from the group, only to be dragged away by the Hijacker to the spacecraft.
Searching the next morning, the remaining survivors find Mrs Tokuyasu, but she’s not quite herself. “We are the Gokemidoro people,” announces an unearthly voice, which one guesses likes its friends to call it ‘Goke.’ “We have marked the earth for annihilation,” and it’s all our own fault, due to man’s propensity for war and self-destruction. As if to prove this, someone throws a dummy of Mrs Tokuyasu over a cliff. A poor effect, but the next one is pretty cool, as Mrs Tokuyasu’s body crumbles and turns to dust, which blows away in the breeze.
Back in what’s now a fourth-rate first class section, Dr Saga reiterates his belief that once Man is sufficiently weakened by war, the Gokemidoro will invade Earth. Mr Mano didn’t get where he is today by believing in alien invasions, but likes Saga’s idea of watching the vampire kill a victim for the sake of academic research. Mano suggests Mrs Neal, what with her being a foreigner, but then remembers Matsumiya, currently getting cabin fever in the cabin. Despite Sugisaki and Asakura’s boring moral objections, Mrs Neal and Mano force the teenager outside by gunpoint. Matsumiya reveals he did have a bomb after all, and threatens the approaching vampire with it, only to blow himself up by accident, damaging the plane’s hull and injuring Dr Saga.
Leaving the other three to fend for themselves, Mano and Mrs Neal run off together, only for the vampire to give chase along the cliff. Mano, who’s proving not so good in a crisis, pushes Mrs Neal in an ungentlemanly manner back towards the vampire, who grabs the opportunity to enjoy some foreign cuisine. Mano scuttles back to the airplane and locks the co-pilot and stewardess outside, where Sugisaki destroys the Hijacker’s body using aviation fuel. The blob however is alive and well and secretes itself on board the plane, where it takes over Dr Saga. This is not good news for Mr Mano, who dies very noisily because politicians love nothing more than being the center of attention.
Sugisaki and Asakura run for their lives, with the alien Dr Saga in pursuit. Another rockfall (what’s causing all these rocks to fall, anyhow?) brings Dr Saga back down to earth with a bump. Returning to its spaceship, the blob vacates Dr Saga, who crumbles into ash. Maybe the blob needs to pick a later model next time. Still running, the wounded Sugisaki almost gives up, but Asakura urges him to continue: “we must live, no matter what happens.” Yeah, about that…
The pair stumble across a line of cars at a highway toll station (reviewers have suggested GBSFH takes place on a remote island, although this doesn’t seem to be the case), but everyone inside the cars is dead, and the toll booth operator isn’t looking so well either. It’s the same story at the airport, with corpses, some intact, some skeletal, strewn in every direction, with one tragic individual caught forever in death at the moment of ordering a drink from a bartender. Truly, some people are taken too soon.
As the two surviving humans run across a barren, rocky landscape, the voice of the Gokemidoro is heard: “you are through…it is too late to wish you had lived differently.” We see atomic explosions, and Sugisaki can only agree with the Gokemidoro, as he tells Asakura, his would-be Eve, “it’s too late to repent” (again, some critics have argued that the Gokemidoro have eliminated all life on Earth, but its likelier humanity has destroyed itself through atomic warfare). The film’s startling last image is of a fleet of UFOs heading towards the Earth, which soon changes to an unappealing shade of blue…
GBSFH is one of the most colorfully depressing films ever made; some scenes, such as those set within the UFO, scream with violent, burning hues, and even by the standards of the horror genre, GBSFH takes a dismally low view of human nature. The Gokemidoro don’t have to do much but sit back and wait while the survivors of the plane crash tear each other apart, enacting macro events on a micro scale, showing in themselves what has brought mankind’s greater downfall: greed, selfishness and misplaced pride, a race in which even doctors and scientists are prepared to sacrifice others for personal gain. This is a world, as Mr Mano says early on, that has gone crazy, where teenagers bomb planes out of something to do and businessmen offer up their wives as bribes to politicians. The characters die as much as by giving in to the temptation of evil within themselves, as through the actions of the vampire, and their deaths occur in an interesting order for a Japanese film, whereby those who show disrespect to others are soon killed off, be it to their fellow man (the hijacker) or the recently deceased (Mrs Tokuyasu). The most corrupt, Mr Mano, is allowed to die last, perhaps due to his higher social status.
The film has its limitations however, and even those prepared to strap themselves in for the ride will find some elements risible: the overuse of models and dummies for example, and a few of the performances, especially Eizo Kitamura as Mano and Nobuo Kaneko as Tokuyaso, tend towards the hammy, with the latter often resembling a gleeful goblin as he torments the politician, who in turn is rather too animated for someone supposedly dying of thirst. You could argue, however, it’s part of Mano’s nature to over-react to any problem which concerns him personally, out of egomania and not wanting anyone else to share in what he claims to need. The film’s ending also creates a problem for the Gokemidoro, in that having killed off their food supply, they stay on Earth will prove a short one. In all however, GBSFH is a gripping experience, regardless of whether you watch it for chills or chuckles. I agree with David Kalat, who, writing for TCM in 2006, described GBSFH as “one deliriously pole-axed masterpiece that haunts the memory of those lucky enough to have seen it.”
As for Shochiko studios, they soon abandoned their experiment with horror, and these days are best known for their anime work, such as Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Fullmetal Alchemist (2005). Their brief flirtation with the genre however, helped cement Japan’s reputation for producing some of the world’s most popular and innovative fantasy films, not that this impressed US distributors. Knowing GBSFH‘s approach to Vietnam wouldn’t play in Peoria, the film had to wait until 1979 for a US release, when it was shown as part of drive-in double bill with the Italian Bloody Pit of Horror (1965). Sometimes you can scream your message as loud as you like, but people still won’t want to listen.