Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Jû jin yuki otoko (1955)

... aka: 獣人雪男
... aka: Beast Man Snow Man
... aka: Half Human
... aka: Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman
... aka: Monster Snowman
... aka: S
... aka: S-Project

Directed by:
Ishirô Honda

Due to several factors, Jû jin yuki otoko ("Beast Man Snow Man") is one of the most difficult Toho productions to find in its original form. For starters, it was pulled from circulation by the company itself because it contains what they feel is an offensive depiction of native villagers as dumb, inbred, dirty and deformed, which some feel could be seen as a jab at either the indigenous Ainu People or the burakumin, an outcast group descended from workers in "impure" or death-related trades. As a result, this has never been given TV, VHS and DVD distribution over the years like most of the rest of Toho's horror / fantasy / science fiction output. Second, the full version of the film was never released here in America in English. Instead, it ended up in the hands of producer Robert B. Homel, who hired director / editor Kenneth G. Crane (THE MANSTER) to create a new version. Crane scrapped over half of the original footage and partially replaced that with around 20 minutes worth of new scenes starring John Carradine and Morris Ankrum. Narration (by Carradine) was added and the original Masaru Satô soundtrack was also replaced by a "new" generic canned music score and sound effects.

To give you an idea of how much was actually cut, the original film runs about 94 minutes while the U.S. version (titled Half Human) runs just 63. That's 30 minutes shorter, not even accounting for everything else that was cut to make room for the new scenes. Doing the math, that leaves about just 45 minutes of the original film in the U.S. release. The Half Human cut was released theatrically in 1958 by Distributors Corporation of America (DCA), who also handled a re-cut / shortened / English-dubbed version of Toho's RODAN (1956) as well as Ed Wood's infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). It usually played on the bottom half of a double bill with Monster from Green Hell (1957).

Reporter Kodama (Yasuhisa Tsutsumi) shows up at a remote train station to look into a mysterious "recent incident" that occurred in the mountains. He's directed to a shaken student named Takeshi Iijima (Akira Takarada). Feeling he can't even adequately put into words what's occurred, Takeshi hands the reporter a bunch of notes taken by one of his ill-fated peers, which start out describing "a terrifying incident unparalleled in human history" and then make mention of a "monster." We then go into flashback mode to see just what the friend was talking about...

Five members of a mountaineering / alpine skiing club from Towa University are spending their New Year's holiday on the slopes. Among them are Takeshi, lone female Michiko (Momoko Kôchi) and Michiko's older brother, Takeno (Tadashi Okabe). After a long day of skiing, everyone decides it's time to head back to the lodge except for Takeno and another student, Kaji (Akira Yamada), who want to visit a local named Mr. Gen first. Soon after, there's a terrible blizzard (the worst seen there in years), followed by a massive avalanche (ditto). And then there's a scary phone call to the lodge, with screaming, gunshots and some kind of animal noise coming from the other end. Nakata and Kaji never make it back to the lodge. A search party later finds Gen's place ransacked, strange footprints, patches of fur and both Gen and Kaji dead. But still no sign of Takeno.

Deciding to wait until the spring thaw to look into matters more thoroughly, an expedition is put together by Takeshi and Michiko in hopes of finding her brother. Having analyzed the fur and determining it doesn't belong to any known animal species, zoologist Koizumi (Nobuo Nakamura) accompanies them, along with a number of others, including Michiko's younger brother Shinsuke (Kenji Kasahara) and lodge owner Mr. Matsui (Akira Sera). After they head out, the local hired guides refuse to go any further once they learn the final destination is going to be Garan Valley as no man who's gone there has ever returned. Several bad omens, including finding a mutilated bear and one of their men being injured in a rock slide, solidify their decision to get the hell out of there. The rest of the expedition forges on without them.

While everyone's asleep, the "beast man" (a human-sized man-in-a-suit abominable snowman) finally makes its presence known. The creature is especially fond of Michiko and can't resist trying to touch her while she's asleep in her tent. When Michiko wakes and screams, Takeshi takes off after it in the dark and falls down an embankment. Little does he or the rest of the science expedition know, but there's a rival expedition nearby that's been keeping tabs on them the entire time. The evil Oba (Yoshio Kosugi), carnival owner and boss of rare animal peddlers Oba Incorporated, hopes to find and capture the creature before they can. They stumble upon Takeshi lost in the dark, beat him and leave him for dead. He's rescued and taken back to a village by defiant native girl Chika (Akemi Negishi), who's torn between loyalty to her people and wanting to experience the "civilized" world.

Once Chika's fellow villagers find out what she's done, they're enraged. She's chastised for breaking the rules and is slapped, pushed down and even beaten with a stick by the white-bearded Grand Elder (Kokuten Kôdô) of the tribe. As for Takeshi, they tie him up with rope and dangle him over a cliff, where he hangs around as patient vultures circle waiting for him to croak. The tribe worship the Beast Man as their "Mountain Lord" and bring offerings of fresh meat to the cave where he lives. Beast Man also happens to be a single father with a young son. As for the mother, she likely died after eating poisonous mushrooms found inside the cave, along with the rest of their kind.

Oba and his group capture both the baby and adult creatures, which ends in tragedy. People and vehicles get hurled over a cliff, an entire village burns to the ground, many of the peripheral characters die and Michiko finds herself being kidnapped and dragged back to the cave by the lonely monster, where a bubbling lava pit factors into a demise or two. As with many older creature features, the Beast Man is feared at first but is basically just misunderstood and becomes more sympathetic as the film progressives. King Kong (1933) comparisons are pretty much unavoidable as this shares too many similarities to even mention.

This was Honda's genre follow-up to the legendary Gojira (1954) so it's a shame it's suffered the fate it has. With its outdoor location photography at picturesque locations and elaborate sets, it very well could be a lovely film, visually-speaking. We just don't get to experience any of that as the only available print of the full Japanese version is blurry, dark and murky. Also, the monsters look great in stills taken during production (see below) but the lack of detail in this substandard print doesn't showcase them well at all. Regardless, I suppose we should still be thankful someone leaked this or else we'd only have the Half Human version to go on. Because of the film's public domain status, a lot of bootleggers are now selling the original Japanese version (using the Half Human or The Story of the Abominable Man titles) but all use this same print.

So, what about the unflattering depiction of the natives in the film? Well, they're unkempt, smeared with dirt, dressed in animal hide scraps, don't appear to be very intelligent and hate big city folks to the point of trying to kill one for no real reason. I've seen offensive portrayals of basically every ethnic or minority group under the sun in films no one even bats an eyelash at, but I'm never on board for censorship nor the decision to hide this title from the public eye. For starters, intent is important. The tribe is never named (at least not on the subbed version) and, even if one could connect them to an existing group, that doesn't mean any of that was intentional. In fact, I laugh at the very notion due to Honda's consistent empathetic treatment toward, and virtual hero worship of, monsters. And who is more of a societal outcast than a monster? Honda also typically has scientists, intellectuals and blue collar types all working together using their skills to stop whatever menace they face. If he ever has anything negative to say about anyone it's the corrupted elite and (perhaps most especially) greedy industrialists. I flat out refuse to believe he'd intentionally slander a marginalized group of people who face systemic caste discrimination in this film as that's wholly out of character for him.

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