Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell
One must be careful bandying about words like "masterpiece," especially when talking about 1960s-era low-budget Japanese sci-fi flicks, but when it comes to Hajime Sato's Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro (1968) only hyperbole will do. That's "The Gokemidoro Vampire" for all you English speakers, but it has never been shown to English-speakers under that title. Instead it was marketed under the decidedly more colorful moniker Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell.
Speaking of colorful, this thing is as garish as if you gave a kid just three crayons but told her to color every scrap of paper in their coloring book. Art director Tadataka Yoshino and cinematographer Shizuo Hirase probably developed permanent crippling eye-strain from working on this film.
Director Hajime Sato praised Mario Bava, a key inspiration in his career as a journeyman director of low-budget genre programmers. Sato made his directorial debut in 1965 with Kaidan Semushi Otoko (released as The Ghost of the Hunchback here), an atmospheric B&W horror thriller. Sato followed that with a pair of starring vehicles for a young Sonny Chiba: Ogon Batto (1966, The Golden Bat) was a costumed superhero film in the Batman mold, but with a color scheme that made the 1960s Batman TV series look muted and restrained; Kaitei Daisenso (1966, The Terror Beneath the Sea) was a loopy piece of Saturday matinee cheese. Through these nutball B-movies, the influence of Bava on Sato is palpable. Like Bava, Sato brought a go-for-broke visual imagination to bear on even the lowliest material. His innate talents could enliven movies otherwise undermined by cheap special effects and poorly written scripts.
Then in 1968 all the pieces came together to give Sato his best shot at cult movie immortality. He had emigrated from Toei Studios to Shochiku's lot, bringing with him much of his established team, including his favorite composer, Shunsuke Kikuchi-a kamikaze jazz musician whose deranged compositions fairly scream for attention, and are simultaneously irritating, infectious, and addictive. Meanwhile cinematographer Shizuo Hirase was a Shochiku contract employee coming off the delightfully silly giant monster opus The X from Outer Space (1967). Together, they would be united to realize Susumu Tanaka's grim screenplay for Goke.
Being 1969, Japanese sci-fi was mainly all about the rubber: Godzilla, Gamera, Gargantuas, Mothra, Rodan, the Giant Majin... Shochiku's The X from Outer Space fit neatly into the square hole, but Goke would be the proverbial round peg. A bleak antiwar "message" picture that veers into total nihilistic misanthropy, it resembles nothing so much as an episode of The Twilight Zone written by a suicidal Rod Serling after too much whiskey.
It begins with an airplane. On board are a motley gaggle of unhappy souls: an arms dealer and a crooked politico, a heartless psychiatrist and a "space biologist" (handy, that), a terrorist and a professional assassin, and an American war widow come to collect the body of her husband, slain in Vietnam. Oh, and the movie's only examples of decent humanity: co-pilot Sugisaka (Teruo Yoshida) and stewardess Kuzumi (Tomomi Sato). If this were an American film, you could imagine Michael Landon and Annette Funicello would have snagged these wholesome roles.
The plane is forced down by a confluence of simultaneous crises: the terrorist's bomb, the assassin's gun, a flock of suicidal birds, and a UFO all at once, as the doomed craft tears across a blood-red sky (this is the jaw-dropping image Tarantino cut-and-pasted into Kill Bill).
The jet crashes in some unknown no-man's land, far from where any sane rescue mission would ever think to look. And their troubles are only beginning. The UFO has touched down nearby, spewing forth a glimmering blob of sentient slime that can possess the bodies of the dead. How does it do that? Why, by oozing into a vaginal slit it carves into their skulls, silly! But if you think being hunted by a bloodthirsty alien parasite is a nightmare, you have obviously underestimated the greatest threat to man's survival on the planet-other people.
Other movies might settle back and let their monster pick off victims one by one, Ten Little Indians style. Goke's cynical worldview barely gives the monster a chance, since the crash survivors instantly have at each other with cravenness, venom, and jealousy. It is all headed towards a shocking twist and a scorched-earth finale that gives the celebrated climax of Planet of the Apes (1968) a run for its money.
The late 1960s, mind you, were when the Cold War turned Hot, most explosively right in Japan's back yard. The war in Korea was winding down just as the war in Vietnam was winding up, all while China's more militaristic posturing was a continual shadow over the region. Although Economic Miracle-Age Japan was the most stable anchor in Asia, its neighbors were distrustful and anxious, given Japan's recent past. To escape the specter of World War II atrocities, modern Japan was styling itself as a mature, pacifist utopia. This meant Japan was gamely trying to prove to itself and the world that mere good manners and common decency could stand up to the roiling troubles of an increasingly brutish world-while the rest of the globe descended into chaos, war, terrorist violence, and political killings.
That this is the central theme of Goke is striking. Pop culture in the late 1960s tended to shy away from such overtly political subtexts, preferring to sell pulp escapism to an anxious public hungry for distraction. Goke embraces real-world horrors with only a thin allegory. Dark and intense (like cinematic espresso), Goke had no obvious place in the scheme of marketing Japanese SF to the West. Too far off the Godzilla reservation, it was simply ignored for years.
Enter Pacemaker Films in 1977, to finally give Goke an American theatrical run...to drive-ins, doubled with Bloody Pit of Horror (1965). It was a curious choice of companion feature, for a film nearly ten years stale, distributed to the moribund industry of drive-ins, by a company that previously only handled porn. That it failed to set box office records was only to be expected under the circumstances. That it won loyal, ardent fans from those who did catch it speaks to its raw power. Like its titular creature, Goke crawls into your head, gets under your skin, and leaves you a changed person.
Producer: Takashi Inomata
Director: Hajime Sato
Screenplay: Kyuzo Kobayashi, Susumu Takahisa
Cinematography: Shizuo Hirase
Film Editing: Akimitsu Terada
Art Direction: Tadataka Yoshino
Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi
Cast: Teruo Yoshida (Sugisaka), Tomomi Sato (Kuzumi), Eizo Kitamura (Mano), Hideo Ko (The Hijacker), Kathy Horan (Mrs. Neal), Yuko Kusunoki (Noriko Tokiyasu).
by David Kalat