I have seen a lot of Japanese films in my day. Indeed, before I decided to focus primarily on South Korean cinema I considered throwing my hat into the ring of Japanese film scholarship, which has come quite a long way since the labor intensive work of Donald Richie and the many off shoots that followed. While I certainly still incorporate Japanese cinema into my research when possible, it has now become more a labor of love to engage with the country's cinema in all its glorious forms whether samurai or kaiju related, even stepping into the lush and evocative world of Kurosawa on occasion. I say all this with reference to one of my particularly adored genres within Japanese cinema, the shoe string budget horror films that were released throughout the sixties and well into the late seventies, including the wonderfully wacky House and the schlock heavy, but well-regarded Matango. Indeed, I am, as such, always on the look out for a new film in this bizarre cannon to consume, realizing that in the space of these non-traditional, low-budget films exist some of the most pointed and scathing critiques of the many facets of Japanese society and the manner with which it relates to a larger global context. The delightfully eerie Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is certainly a case of this, right down to its use of a white European (perhaps American?) character and her lost Vietnam soldier as an extension of larger post-colonial woes in a country that was then still finding its footing on a global scale. At times some of the special effects in the film could give the worst of the b-movie nonsense a run for its money, but given the clear admiration and care for the filmic out come of his product, director Hajime Sato manages to make a shoe-string budget into something spectacular, through heavy use of red tones, a healthy does of fake blood and enough hand drawn animation to make even the most stern of film viewers smile in disbelief. Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell will never exist in a world of perfect cinematic output, but it is also far from being incurably bad, in fact, it is precisely in its willingness to not take itself seriously that the very critiques and condemnations it spouts become almost prophetic, even if only in a satirical sense.
Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell begins with a group of individuals flying on an airplane from Tokyo to Osaka, wherein the flight stewardess Kuzumi Asakura (Tomomi Sato) attempts to layout a general flight plan only to be repeatedly interrupted by birds killing themselves by flying directly into the plane. Paired with a disturbingly red sky the other members of the crew and the passengers begin to grow anxious of their safety on the plane. When information suggests that their might be a man on board with a bomb, the captains order an immediate search of all the persons present, including the somewhat befuddled Neal (Kathy Horan) an American widow, as well as a prestigious senator named Mano (Eizo Kitamura). When a sudden light floats above the ship, the captains lose control of the plane's computers and the aircraft spirals downward, landing damaged on a desert like area, assumedly between the two cities. It is at this point that the crew becomes suspicious of a particular man on the ship known only as The Hijacker (Hideo Ko), whose possession of a rifle makes him a prime suspect for a political assassination that happened prior to the flight. Noting the inherent survival nature of the situation, a psychiatrist in the group named Momotake (Kazuo Kato) suggests that the group be incredibly aware of each action they commit as the wrong phrase or move could send the entire group into a frenzy, a warning that proves futile when it is revealed that not only is The Hijacker dangerous on purely an assassin level, but that he is indeed a creature that consists entirely in blob form, using the human body as a vessel to transport itself and destroy the other members on the plane in a manner quite similar to a vampire. Nonetheless, figures like Mano in a foolish quest to quench their thirst drink large amounts of whisky, only worsening his suffering, while Neal, already reeling from the trauma of her loss, begins to act in bouts of hysteria bemoaning the war in Vietnam and the general downfall of humanity. Matters come to their worst point when it is revealed that the aliens, who refer to themselves as Gokemidoro, show that they are capable of transferring between bodies at a quick rate, consuming the life force of all those they encounter. The closing shots depict two remaining survivors traveling about the streets of Japan in a quest for survivors, only to be told by the spectral voice of a Gokemidoro that no human will be spared, as the camera then pans out to show the true destruction wrought not only on Japan, but the entire world.
While a well-argued case for this not really being a horror movie, but more so a science fiction thriller could be made, I would like to instead say that the survival aspects of the work are precisely what make it fall within the framework of a horror movie, as deemed so by Criterion who released it as part of their stellar and repeatedly rewarding Eclipse box set When Horror Came to Shochiku. In fact, the psychiatrists speech during the film notes that in times of survival one can see humanity turn to its most inhumane, tapping into base animal instincts and maliciously seeking their own survival over that of others. The narrative in Goke certainly evokes this sort of sensibility, but manages to take it even a step further, using this moment of survival to allow characters to challenge deeply entrenched notions of oppression, privilege and accessibility. This is absolutely the case when Tokiyasue (Nobuo Koneko) exploits the well-being of Mano by offering him the initial drink of whisky, thus affording his increasing suffering and drunkenness as a point to show the horrors and injustices he has condoned while in office. Similarly, there are multiple through lines between the figure of Neal's dead husband and his oppressive behavior both in regards to how he navigates as a continued colonial identity in Japan, while also proving quite hazardous to Neal who appears to be at a complete lack without the privilege attached to a white male in society. Of course, the horror does not extend at these oppression, one can certainly look closer and note the manners with which Japanese women become a doubly othered figure in the narrative, neither possessing the whiteness or the maleness to be taken completely seriously, despite, at times being the most rational in a situation. As such, Goke, in its low-budget ways becomes a wonderful look at the spectrum of intersectionality and the ways this oppression occurs even in the face of a near fatal accident, suggesting that as long as oppressors exist in the framework of a society, hegemony will exist and perhaps that is where a real horror lies, if not in this realization the purposeful juxtaposition of the Gokemidoro with the violence occurring in reality (Vietnam, political assassinations and riots) certainly drives the point deeply in a viewers psyche.
Key Scene: The airplane crash!
This particular film is part of an Eclipse series that is full of great Japanese horror films, in which this piece of brilliance is not even its best offering.