As a steady rain falls, a reporter named Kodama (Tsutsumi), seeking out the members of a returning expedition from the mountains around Mt. Fuji, enters a train station. Seeking a scoop on the harrowing ordeal this group has just managed to barely survive, Kodama finds a somber knot of men and one woman, who is holding the cremated remains of someone named Takeno, waiting for the next train to Hokkaido. Kodama tries to question Professor Koizumi (Nakumura), the leader of the expedition, but he defers, feeling Takeshi Iijima (Takarada) is better suited to relate the whole tale. Here, Takeshi produces some battered papers and says these are the last notes of Kyoshi Takeno, which triggers a flashback and kicks off our story proper:
Seems this all began several months ago when five students went on a ski trip over a holiday break. This group includes Takeshi, his girlfriend, Machiko (Kochi), her brother, Takeno (Okabe), and their two friends, Kaji and Nakata (Yamada, Sakai). And after some scenic travelogue footage whizzes by, Takeno and Kaji split off to visit another friend of theirs named Gen, who is staying at a different cabin further up the mountain, leaving the other three to press on to the main lodge alone -- and they barely make it before a huge blizzard kicks up. And as the weather worsens, seeing Machiko’s very worried about her brother, Matsui (Sera), the lodge manager, tries to call Gen’s cabin but can’t get anyone to pick up. And while Matsui tries and fails to hide his concern over this, Machiko’s attention is soon drawn outside when she’s startled by the approach of a large shadowy figure that is apparently covered in shaggy hair!
But this just turns out to be a young woman named Chika (Negishi), clad in cumbersome furs, who lives in a remote village further up the mountain that usually shuns all contact with outsiders but still occasionally trades with Matsui. And so, Chika is visibly skittish around these strangers; she also warns the “mountain is about to give way.” Knowing this means “avalanche” and knowing Chika has always been clairvoyant on such things, Matsui once more tries to call Gen to warn him about the worsening conditions. Again, no one answers. Then, comes the unmistakable roar of snow and ice thundering down the mountain en masse. And then, the phone rings but all they hear over the line is several terrible screams followed by a single gunshot before the line goes dead. And while the others gather around the phone, Chika manages to slip away unnoticed. And as the scene comes to an end, we are left to ponder on whether we heard something else over the screams and cascading snow. Something not quite human.
The following morning, Matsui leads a rescue party up the mountain. There, they find Gen’s cabin torn asunder and the owner dead inside. They also find Kaji’s frozen body in a nearby ravine. Both men appear to have met a violent end, judging by the massive trauma injuries suffered. And though the search area is widened, there is no sign of Takeno anywhere except for his torn jacket found inside the cabin. And the only real clues as to what happened here are strange tufts of coarse hair found stuck in the busted door-jam and some very large hominid-shaped footprints in the snow that suggest someone -- or something, over nine feet tall and close to a half a ton left them near the doorway after it finished up inside and headed off toward the mountains...
Back in 1952, the perpetually cash-strapped RKO once again re-released King Kong (1933) to much needed box-office success, introducing the film to a whole new generation of fans and officially kicked off the resurgent monster movie boom of the 1950s. One year later, Warner Bros. picked up and released The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which, along with King Kong, would go on to inspire Japanese producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to create a brand new monster to exploit this proven formula for his bosses at Toho Studios. And so, conspiring with director Ishiro Honda, screenwriters Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata, and special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya, Gojira (1954) was born, which proved more popular both critically and financially than they ever could’ve imagined. And so popular it was, the film was picked up for an American release by Joseph E. Levine, who rechristened their creation as Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956).
But even before that, Gojira had proved so popular in Japan Toho quickly fast-tracked a sequel to cash-in. Honda, however, would prove unavailable to direct Gojira no gyakushû (1955) a/k/a Godzilla Raids Again -- later released in the States as Gigantis the Fire Monster (1959), because he was already committed to direct three other films that year: two romantic dramas and another, slightly smaller kaiju flick, Ju jin yuki otoko (1955), which, like Gojira, was also a conspired vehicle to cash-in on a current popular fad -- one that originated in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal and Tibet.
Digging into the history of this mysterious cryptid shows the western world first became aware of the notion something was lurking in the snow at the turn of the last century, when explorers, disguised as religious pilgrims, heard tales of the “bear of the rocky place” or Yeti -- also known as the Meh-teh, or man-bear, as they first ventured into Nepal. But this notion really didn’t take root until around 1921 when Charles Howard-Bury led The Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, which found strange tracks in the snow that resembled human footprints. Howard-Bury’s guides insisted the prints were left by ‘The Wild Man of the Snows’. And when the expedition returned, a reporter interviewed these guides but misinterpreted the translation of Meh-teh as ‘filthy-man’ and thus officially coined the phrase, The Abominable Snowman.
And then this notion reached full bloom in the 1950s, when Eric Shipton failed to scale Everest but brought back the first pictures of alleged Yeti tracks. Sir Edmund Hillary would also claim to have found strange tracks, and his sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, who reached the peak of Everest with Hillary, regaled the press with the old Nepalese folk-tales about the Yeti and assured “that people he knew had seen them with their own eyes.” The British tabloids ate this up and had a field day, releasing all kinds of stories of encounters with hairy ape-men. And then more evidence turned up, including an alleged scalp, a pelt, and a mummified hand. And then in 1956, famed cryptid hunter, Tom Slick, an eccentric oilman from Texas, led several expeditions into the Himalayas to find and capture one of the beasts in 1956. The results? Inconclusive. Allegedly.
Now, all the while this was going on, the entire world became positively yeti-addled. And, of course, filmmakers from around the world were ready, willing, and able to exploit this hysteria to some box-office bank. One of the first Yeti films to hit the screen was W. Lee Wilder’s no-budget clunker, The Snow Creature (1954), which is pretty dismal. Noted inert filmmaker Jerry Warren followed that up with Man Beast (1956), which is actually pretty good considering his other somnolent cinema, with some fairly risque situations where the creatures kidnap the female member of the expedition to … *ahem* ‘propagate the species.’ Of course, the best of the bunch was Hammer Films’ The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), which finds a Tom Slick type huckster glomming onto a scientific expedition to bring back one of the beasts alive that ends in a giant existential crisis for all.
Checking the dates, it would appear Ju jin yuki otoko -- which translates as Beast Snowman, and later released in a severely truncated form as Half Human (1958), would qualify as the second Yeti film to hit screens. And it might’ve even been first if the film hadn’t been pushed back to free everyone else up -- aside from Honda, to participate in Godzilla Raids Again. Now, there is a Yeti equivalent in Japanese cryptozoology called the Hibagon, but that really didn’t take hold until the 1970s when the world went Bigfoot crazy with the release of the Patterson-Gimlin footage. And while the film initially proposes the Snowman might be some kind of missing link, this plot thread is quickly abandoned.
Again, this film was originally slated to be Toho’s follow up to Gojira until that film’s popularity demanded an immediate sequel and would be made by the same people, Tanaka, Honda, Kayama, Murata, and Tsuburaya. When he had finished his outline for Gojira, author Kayama immediately began a treatment for this new Yeti project, with later input from Tanaka and Honda before Murata finished the script. And while the legend of the Yeti appears to be the inspiration, there are still a few elements of King Kong that show up in the script as well -- though I think the real influence, here, is actually Mighty Joe Young (1948), whose pilfered parts we’ll get to in a second as several months have passed since the discovery of the wrecked shack.
And now that the snow has thawed, a proper search to find the presumed dead Takeno and uncover what happened to him and the others is being mounted. Leading this expedition is noted anthropologist, Professor Koizumi, who hopes to discover what left those giant footprints; and joining his group are Takashi and Machiko, determined to find out what happened to her brother. But when they reach Matsui’s lodge, which will serve as a staging area, we discover someone else is also up there looking for the creature. But Oba’s (Kosugi) intentions are far from noble or scientific. No. He’s an animal broker of dubious reputation, who captures exotic animals for zoos an circuses. And now, drawn to the area by rumors of a giant snowman, he’s determined to capture the beast and turn a tidy profit. And when one of his flunkies reports on Koizumi’s arrival and intentions, Oba decides his party will clandestinely follow the expert, let him lead them to the beast, and then snatch it out from under him.
More stock travelogue footage follows, and after several fruitless days of searching, as Koizumi’s group camps for the night, a huge shadow falls on Machiko’s tent. And then an ape-like creature peers in through the flap, sees her, and then reaches a curious hand in and touches her face, waking the girl up. And when she sees the Snowman, she screams, causing it to quickly retreat into the forest. In the ensuing scramble of pursuit, Takashi winds up lost and mistakes Oba’s camp for his own. This proves a terrible mistake as Oba’s goons beat him savagely and then discard his body in a deep ravine, where he probably would’ve died if Chika hadn’t found him. She takes him back to her village and tends to his wounds, much to the chagrin of her grandfather (Kodo), who also serves as the wizened village elder. In fact, no one in the village is happy with what she’s done. (And judging by all the genetic deformities and apparent inbreeding, it’s been awhile since a stranger has set foot in this place.) And while the elder sends Chika off to offer sacrifice to their mountain god, the other villagers quickly remove the intruder from the city limits and leave him to a very gruesome fate: strung up over a gorge where the circling buzzards will slowly eat him to death.
Chika, meanwhile, enters a cave near her village with a clutch of rabbits, gives a signal call and beats a hasty retreat when she hears something moving deeper in the cave. And then, from out of the darkness comes their god: the Snowman, the yeti-like beast we saw peeping on Machiko -- and he’s not alone, as a juvenile creature follows him to gather up the sacrifice. Meantime, Chika returns to the village, finds Takashi gone, and, defying her grandfather, who had beat her viciously for breaking tribal law, goes to look for him but runs into Oba, who convinces the girl he is part of the same expedition as Takashi. He then bribes the girl with a ring to get the location of the creature. And perhaps in a pique of anger over her grandfather’s brutal treatment, she reveals the location of the Snowman’s cave.
And so, Oba and his men lure the juvenile creature out of the cave and capture him. But the elder Snowman isn’t home, having been distracted by Takashi’s plight, whom he rescues and releases before returning to the cave. Hearing his offspring’s panicked cries from another entrance, the beast hot-foots to the rescue only to blunder into Oba’s trap. And after a fairly wild round-up, the snowmen are loaded up onto a truck and transported down the mountain. The villagers tried to intervene until Oba shoots the elder and makes a clean getaway. Unfortunately for Oba, his tranquilizers wear off way too soon and the Snowman easily breaks its chains and engineers an escape. Alas, during the resulting melee, Oba shoots and kills the juvenile. It is the last thing he ever does. And after killing Oba and all of his men, the grief-stricken Snowman’s rampage continues as it lays waste to Chika’s village, razing it to the ground.
Elsewhere, Takashi manages to reunite with Machiko and the others just before the enraged creature attacks their camp, too, and runs off with the girl. They try to follow but must wait until daylight. The following morning, they find what’s left of the village and the apparent sole survivor of the attack: Chika, who leads them to the Snowman’s cave. Inside, they find the remains of Takeno as well as fragments of his journal, which reveal he’d been tracking the creature when he was caught in an avalanche. Turns out the snowman had actually tried to save his life, giving the injured man food and shelter. He didn’t destroy the cabin or kill the others, see. That was all done by the avalanche. Apparently, he was just checking for survivors.
Further exploration of the cave finds a large group of skeletal remains of other snowmen. Here, Koizumi also spots poisonous mushrooms growing near the bones and deduces the consumption of these must have killed all of them off -- save two. Now one, whom they spot, with Machiko slung over his shoulder. Thus, they chase them deeper into the cave and finally corner the Snowman near the precipice of a deep pit of boiling sulfur. They can’t get a clear shot due to Machiko’s proximity. But Chika, still feeling guilty over the betrayal of her people, sacrifices herself, throwing herself on top of the creature, who drops Machiko as they struggle. Then, a shot rings out, the Snowman is hit, and he and Chika stumble and fall to a most certain death at the bottom of the pit together. Here, the flashback ends as we return to the station. Kodama has his story. The train arrives. And as everyone shuffles outside, someone comments on how the storm has finally passed.
As I stated earlier Ju jin yuki otoko was eventually imported to the United States when the rights to it were purchased by Distributors Corporation of America (DCA), who also handled the distribution of Rodan (1957), which kind of saw a quantum shift in imported films, where instead of shooting new footage and splicing things in to make it appear more like an American film, Rodan was just simply recut and dubbed over. For Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman (1958), DCA went the other route, chopped over a half hour out of the picture, removed all the dialogue from the Japanese footage except for a few screams and roars, and shot new footage of John Carradine and Morris Ankrum to explain to the audience what was going on in the now silent movie they were watching, making a slightly convoluted film even more so as we get trapped inside a flashback, inside another flashback, wrapped in another flashback, and then several flash-sideways. And while not quite as bad a hatchet job as Crown International pulled on Varan the Unbelievable (1958), it does make one step back and appreciate the work Terry Morse did on Godzilla King of the Monsters.
And that is why I chose to review the Japanese version of Half Human instead of the Americanized version -- no small task as the film has been unofficially banned in Japan shortly after its initial release and Toho refuses to sign off on any home video version. Seems the film was pulled from distribution after the studio received numerous complaints about the film’s depiction of Chika’s isolated village, which was full of deformed, retarded, and simple-minded peasants and extremely superstitious folk. Over the years since its banning most film scholars associated this slight with the Ainu people, “an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture" but upon further review it is now believed the complaints were raised by the Burakumin, the casteless people of Japan, who traditionally worked in “unclean” occupations.
These Buraku were shunned by the general population and were officially declared as “one seventh the worth of an ordinary Japanese” -- or even worse, one seventh human. Thus, the Buraku were not allowed to marry outside their own caste, lived in remote villages or partitioned off ghettos and slums, which only reinforced the notion these people were “tainted, unclean, inbred and backwards” -- which sounds a lot like the villagers depicted in Half Human. But after World War II, working together with communist and socialist parties of Japan, the Buraku Liberation League was formed to improve their standing and living conditions. And so, most likely, it was the BLL who lodged a complaint with Toho in 1955, who then placed a self-imposed ban on the film which still stands to this very day.
Thus and so, while the American version of Half Human was available to see with some effort, the original version was shrouded in mystery for decades until a videotape made its way to the States in the late 1980s and entered the grey market, where it proliferated as either a grainy dub with a time stamp across the top or a grainy dub with the time stamp blurred out. And for the longest time, this was the only way to see it. And that’s how I finally saw it after catching the American version at the Drive In Super Monster Rama back in September and got very curious to see what the original Japanese version looked like and was not disappointed.
It should come as a surprise to no one that Honda slants the film’s sympathies toward the monster as he portrays the Snowman as a peaceful creature, in tune with nature, who only wishes to be left alone to raise its offspring. When it does interact with people, it is mainly just curious and even helpful. The villagers worship it as a god because it maintains the peace in the valley, keeping predators away. (The Snowman is seen carrying a bear carcass around at one point. And I will admit to being sorely disappointed that a scene with the juvenile riding a bear as depicted in a lobby card did not appear in the film.) And it’s not until his world is upended by the greed of others and his offspring is killed does the monster go on a rampage; the village mere collateral damage to a grieving father. The film’s structure is still a little haphazard and convoluted with all the flashbacks and the front end is extremely padded out with stock-footage, but Honda’s imagery is just stunning. The scenes in the cave are genuinely creepy and the attack on the village, lit by the roaring fires as everything burns, is absolutely haunting.
Most of Honda’s stock players are present and accounted for here. Haruo Nakajima and Shoichi Hirose are back playing the main love interest, just like they did in Gojira, though Hirose is given very little to do. Akemi Negishi, on the other hand, is stunningly beautiful as the extremely proactive mountain girl. And it was here where I started to draw a line between her and Jill Young (Terry Moore), Oba and Max O’Hara (Robert Armstrong), and the Snowman to Mighty Joe Young -- especially the scenes on the truck where they’re trying to lasso the juvenile. Sharp eyes will also spot Haruo Nakajima and Shoichi Hirose as members of Professor Koizumi’s expedition, though one can understand not recognizing them out of their usual monster suits; Nakajima inside the Godzilla suit and Hirose inside whoever he was combating, be it King Kong or King Ghidorah. The two would also play the battling Gargantuan brothers in War of the Gargantuas (1966).
But the real star of the show is the spectacular Snowman suit, which was built and worn by Fuminori Ohashi (-- who also helped design the original Godzilla suit). Ohashi was a bona fide gorilla man, having built and worn them in films dating back to the lost feature, King Kong Appears in Edo (1934). Ohashi designed the creature’s mask to fit his face, which meant it was a rare kaiju suit that allowed the actor’s eyes to show, allowing him to display more emotion. His original design of the face was more feral and savage, with a mouth full of sharp teeth, but Honda asked him to tone it down and was instrumental in the creature having a bald spot to denote its age. (Honestly, he reminds me of Terrax the Tamer.) The Snowman’s hands were fully articulated and at least part of the mouth was, too, as the lower lip is seen to retract on a few occasions. Beyond that, the creature was designed with interchangeable faces that could be switched out to display whatever emotion was needed.
According to the script, the Snowman was supposed to be nine feet tall and weigh over a 1400lbs. To show this scale, there are several scenes with obvious smaller doubles (probably children) standing in for characters, but most of the time the monster just tosses around a dummy. But this is also rare as the Snowman is seldom seen in the same shot with any other actors. And during the rampages, there a couple of scenes, most notably Oba’s death as he’s tossed into the chasm, that are done by trick-shots and matting. The miniature work by Tsuburaya, as always, is up to snuff. A few matte shots are a little shaky but the matte paintings and model backgrounds they’re plugged into are all top notch.
And as one watches Ohashi’s handiwork, here, one can only scratch one’s head and ask how they could produce something that great for this and something so awful later for King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967)? The odd proportions of the second gorilla suit were due to matching up with the cartoon series, so we can let that slide, but the suit used for the title bout is nigh inexcusable. (The King Kong suit appears to be at least partially cannibalized from the Snowman, with a new sculpted head and extended arms.) Well, the answer to that is Ohashi got into trouble when he offered his services to other productions, which kind of got him in hot water with Toho, who threatened to sue him. Thus, Ohashi continued to seek employment elsewhere, finding it working for Walt Disney designing attractions for Disneyland, and then he would later serve as a makeup consultant for Planet of the Apes (1968).
While I can understand the protests over Half Human, the absolute draconian reaction to it seems a bit harsh. The print I watched was far from perfect but good enough to start an itch to find a better copy to scratch it with. Here, Honda reiterates a lot of the same themes he proposed in Gojira, only on a much smaller and more intimate scale that proves slightly more effective because the message doesn’t get quite as lost in the spectacle and mayhem -- though what little spectacle and mayhem we do get is outstanding. And if you feel the need to check this one out, I encourage you to skip the DCA version and check out the original no matter how shoddy a print you find.
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Half Human (1955) Toho Company / P: Tomoyuki Tanaka / D: Ishirô Honda / W: Takeo Murata, Shigeru Kayama / C: Tadashi Iimura / E: Shûichi Anbara / M: Masaru Satô / S: Akemi Negishi, Momoko Kôchi, Akira Takarada, Nobuo Nakamura, Kokuten Kôdô, Sachio Sakai, Yoshio Kosugi, Kenji Kasahara, Akira Sera, Tadashi Okabe