Kodama is taken aback by the grim faces of the nine people he finds inside, waiting for their connecting train. They are eight men and one young woman, sitting quietly together, in an atmosphere of complete despair. "Excuse me...?" begins Kodama, as the others shift uncomfortably.
The newspaperman casually tosses his coat and hat onto the table. There's a small box on the table; Kodama's coat hits it, knocking it an inch or two out of place. The girl reaches over and gently pulls the box toward her. It's only then that Kodama sees the white ceremonial wrappings, and the name on the paper banner — and realizes the box is a container for human remains. Shocked, Kodama retrieves his clothing and stammers an apology.
By this point, no one will make eye contact with the reporter; but Kodama presses on. He approaches the eldest member of the party: is he not Professor Koizumi? Could he spare a few words on the expedition? Koizumi, still without looking at Kodama, calls across to a young man on the other side of the room: "Iijima?" he says, "It might be best if you were the one to tell the story."
The young man glances uneasily from the Professor to his companions. He hands Kodama the small, tattered stack of papers he's been keeping on his lap: they're the dead man's last, hastily-written journal entries. Kodama begins reading, and the words seem to bring with them something of the bitter chill of the mountaintop. One sentence in particular brings him to a halt:
"What's this about a monster?" he asks.
Iijima seems to withdraw into himself. "It started during the New Year's vacation," he says, as the scene dissolves around him...
The tremendous success of 1954's Gojira/Godzilla ensured two things: first, that producer Tanaka Tomoyuki would rush a sequel into production; and second, that director Honda Ishirō would be too busy to helm it.
Today, with hindsight, it seems strange that Tōhō Studio would assign an early Godzilla movie to anybody other than Honda. We need to remember that in 1954 there was no such thing as a "Godzilla movie": there was only Gojira, a movie as different from any previous Japanese movie as it was from the kaijū eiga that followed it. Gojira was Honda's third big success in a row1
Brothers, Peter H. Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2009; p.45, but it had been his first fantasy film. Honda's replacement on Gojira no gyakushū/Godzilla Raids Again, Oda Motoyoshi, actually had two such films to his credit: Yurei otoko ("The Ghost Man", an early entry in the Detective Kindaichi series); and Tomei Ningen ("Invisible Man"), both from 1954. So from Tōhō's point of view, it made perfect sense for Oda to do the Gojira sequel, while Honda was busy with other things.
Honda's previous two successes before Gojira had been Eagle of the Pacific and Farewell, Rabaul.
And one of the projects that kept Honda occupied was Jūjin yuki otoko, literally "Beast-Human Snowman".
Jūjin yuki otoko was adapted from a story by the same man who had written the original story for Gojira, novelist Kayama Shigeru. Kayama had written about Bigfoot-type creatures before: his debut publications had been a series of stories about Indonesia's legendary orang pendek (the "short people" of the Sumatran forests, now thought by some to possibly be surviving homo floresiensis), who (in Kayama's stories) masquerade as humans and eventually mate with human women2
Schnellbächer, Thomas. "Has the Empire Sunk Yet? The Pacific in Japanese Science Fiction"; in Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime, Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. and Takayuki Tatsumi, editors. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007; p.48-49. As far as I know, Kayama's stories have not been translated into English, so I have no first-hand knowledge of their content. But from their descriptions, and from the work he did on the stories of Jūjin yuki otoko and Chikyū Bōeigun/The Mysterians, Kayama seems to have been fascinated by the idea of men losing their humanity, even as not-quite-human beings threaten to take their place. In fact, this particular thematic concern of his would have a drastic impact on the fate of Jūjin yuki otoko.
Two of Gojira's leading actors, Takarada Akira (who had played Ogata) and Kochi Momoko (who had played Emiko), returned to star in Honda's new film. A number of supporting actors from Gojira had roles in Jūjin yuki otoko as well, most recognizably Kōdō Kokuten, who'd played the grizzled old Oto Island fisherman. Perhaps most important was the return of Gojira's chief of special effects, Tsuburaya Eiji, whose name would become practically synonymous with Japanese monsters by the time of his death in 1970. Together, under Honda's direction, this team worked to create a serious, even brooding science-fiction tale that was fully comparable to their earlier work, even if it lacked the sheer spectacle and powerful symbolic content of Gojira.
Des pas sur la neigeFive young friends, university students, have come to the Japanese Alps during New Year's for a skiing vacation. Among them are some familiar faces: Iijima Takashi (Takarada Akira) — whose flashback this is — and his girlfriend Takeno Machiko (Kochi Momoko), who was the lone woman in the prologue at the train station. The other members of the group are their friends Nakata, Gen and Kaji.
Exhilarated by the mountain views, Gen and Kaji get a little carried away and decide to ski way on ahead of the others. Iijima warns them that the way down the mountain is a lot more difficult than it looks; but the other two decide to go ahead anyway. Sure enough, when Iijima, Nakata and Machiko return to their lodge, the caretaker has seen no sign of the other two. This is bad news, because the weather has taken a sudden downturn: the mountain is about to get hit by a blizzard.
Fortunately there is another shelter down the mountain, where a sixth member of the group, Machiko's elder brother, should be waiting for them already. With a little luck Gen and Kaji should have been able to reach it. The caretaker tries to telephone the remote cabin... but nobody answers. He tries to hide his concern, but nobody's fooled. While Iijima takes over trying to ring the cabin, Machiko stares out the window into the deepening storm...
... when suddenly she catches sight of a shadowy figure shambling toward the lodge! It's bulky and covered with fur, and it's...
...it's a false scare: it's really a fur-clad young woman named Chika, who lives in a remote village somewhere deep in the mountains. Chika is none too pleased to see so many visitors in the lodge, since the people of her village shun all contact with outsiders. However, the night is so brutal that she has little choice but to join them if she wants to stay warm. Even now, there is no response from the cabin; and the little group is horrified to hear the sound of an avalanche thundering down a nearby slope.
All at once, the lodge telephone starts ringing. It's the cabin, at last! Maybe Gen and Kaji are all right after all...! Machiko runs to the phone; but no sooner has she put it up to her ear when she throws it back down again in horror. Through the earpiece comes the sound of screams, followed by a single gun shot. There is a moment of silence. Then, when Iijima picks up the receiver, he hears another agonized scream — and the line goes dead.
(While the caretaker goes out to ring the alarm bell, Chika puts her furs back on and slips away, unnoticed by the others.)
The next day, as soon as the weather clears, a rescue party goes off to find Gen and Kaji. Gen is found dead on the cabin floor; Kaji's body has been dragged out into the snow. Their injuries suggest they were attacked by something far stronger than a man. Of the elder Takeno, though, there is no sign.
Iijima and Nakata find strange tufts of hair around the cabin, some in seemingly-inaccessible places — as though whatever had left them was absurdly large. But most disturbing of all are the enormous bare footprints leading off into the snow. The search team splits up, with one group bringing the dead men back to the lodge and the other continuing the search for Takeno. By nightfall, there is still no sign of Takeno, and the leader of the rescue team informs the others that they'll have to return to Tōkyo until the spring thaw.
Machiko's sobs bring us back to the present, in the railway station, as the girl bursts into tears again at the memory. Kodama is sitting quietly in the middle of the group, taking notes.
"When Iijima returned, we compared his evidence with all known animals living in that sort of habitat in Japan," Professor Koizumi tells Kodama, drawing out Iijima's photographs of the footprints. "We couldn't tell what sort of creature it could be." Kodama studies the photographs thoughtfully, as Koizumi continues the story...
The Abominable ShowmanOnce the mountains have thawed enough for a proper search to be mounted, Iijima and Machiko return to the Alps with Professor Koizumi's expedition. There is little hope of Takeno having survived, a fact which Machiko seems to have come to terms with; but if there is some clue what happened to him and the others, Iijima is determined to find it. Determining Takeno's fate, though, is almost incidental to Koizumi's intentions: the main focus of the expedition is to find out if there's a previously unknown bipedal primate lurking in the area.
The ski resort is almost unrecognizable in the spring weather: the snow is all gone, the trees and flowers are in bloom; and where once only a few hardy souls braved the elements, now there are plenty of visitors milling around in their shirtsleeves. When the party arrives at an inn, Machiko is distracted by a monkey in a cage. As she stops to feed it some treats, the shifty little man who seems to own the animal turns to the innkeeper and asks him — almost under his breath — who the Koizumi expedition might be. The innkeeper explains that this is a famous zoologist from the city who will be spending some time in the area. As soon as the innkeeper's back is turned, the little man sneaks out of the room and goes to find his boss.
The boss is Ōba, an animal broker of less-than-sterling reputation. His job is to capture animals for circuses and the like... and he's heard stories of one animal in particular that account for his presence here. When his lackey tells him a university scientist has come with a fully-equipped expedition, Ōba has no trouble guessing what he's looking for. Chikushō! (damn it!) Ōba had thought he had the area to himself. But there may be an up-side to Koizumi's "competition": Ōba and his men can follow the expedition surreptitiously, make use of Koizumi's knowledge of the local wildlife, and sneak in ahead of him when they start getting close to their target.
Little does Ōba know that he's not the only one following Koizumi's progress. As the expedition gets further into the mountains, a white-bearded old man and his oddly-shaped sidekick watch them warily.
And little do any of them realize that they're all being watched by the very thing Koizumi is hunting. Late one night, as the expedition tries to get some sleep after the day's misfortunes, a very large shadow falls across Machiko's tent. A face appears at the tent window: it's not a human face, but it's surprisingly intelligent-looking. The creature studies Machiko's sleeping form for a few moments; then he reaches into the tent — haltingly, as though unsure of himself — and touches her face gently. When she stirs, the beast hesitates again before withdrawing his hand. The moment calls to mind another classic film, though perhaps not the one you're thinking of: in the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera, the first meeting of Christine with the Phantom is played in a very similar manner.
The creature certainly hasn't seemed threatening, but Machiko can be forgiven for screaming her head off when she wakes to find him peering in at her. After all, this is presumably the thing that's killed her brother and her friends. The yuki otoko runs off into the forest, while Iijima chases after him.
Obviously the creature knows the mountain much better than Iijima, so it comes as no surprise when Iijima loses his way and takes a bad fall. As he stumbles back to the campfire that he believes (and we, too, have been led to believe) marks the expedition site, he's astonished to find himself surrounded by Ōba and his cronies. Ōba's men give Iijima a beating and casually toss him into a lethally-deep ravine. That should be the end of Iijima...
Or is it?
The badly-battered Iijima is found at the bottom of the cliff by none other than Chika, the girl who'd appeared and disappeared so mysteriously during the snowstorm. Chika brings him back to her village, a place so isolated that it's had little or no contact with the outside world for generations (which is exactly how its inhabitants like it). There she tends to his wounds as he regains consciousness.
But Chika has a price to pay for bringing an outsider into the village. Even the fact that she is the granddaughter of the white-bearded old village chief makes little difference — especially not to the chief himself. When I say that the village has been isolated from outsiders for generations, I'm being literal: the local population has become so inbred that Chika herself seems to be the only one with a full set of eyes, arms, legs and teeth.
When the village finds out Chika has brought someone from civilization into their midst, they become furious; but the chief, pretending to be reasonable, sends Chika out to bring an offering of game to their guardian Beast God while he confers with the others. Chika may not be as grotesquely deformed as the other villagers, but she may not be quite as well-endowed in the brains department: she takes her grandfather at his word, and leaves Iijima alone with the angry crowd.
Whereupon they bind him, gag him, and hang him off a cliff to be eaten by the vultures.
'Twas Beauty killed...When Chika gets back, she's horrified to find Iijima gone. When she confronts her grandfather, the old man castigates her, both for defying tradition and for challenging his authority. He also beats her viciously with a stick.
well... just about everybody, really.
Chika goes off on her own up the mountain to nurse her injuries, both physical and spiritual. Sitting alone on a rocky path, she has the terrible luck to run into Ōba and his henchman. Chika has no reason to suspect there are even more outsiders in this isolated territory, so she mistakes them from members of Koizumi's party out looking for Iijima. Ōba seizes the opportunity to try to worm his way into the girl's trust. He trades her a shiny silver ring for some information on where the man-beast can be found. Of course, he's not very good at pretending to be an honest man, so Chika is a little dubious. Still, the gift of the ring persuades her, and Chika marks the spot for Ōba by throwing a stone across the valley.
Meanwhile: the yuki otoko is on his way back to its cave, with a freshly-killed deer over his shoulder, when he sees a curious thing: a human hanging off a cliff by a rope. Well. That doesn't look very comfortable. So the beast calmly puts down the deer, pulls Iijima back up, unties his hands, shoulders the deer again and walks off without a second glance.
Ōba and his men lug their traps and equipment up the mountain to the creature's lair. But when they get there, they make an astonishing discovery: there's a juvenile creature playing by the cave entrance — a sort-of jūjin yuki kodomo! Ōba's eyes light up with fiendish inspiration: they'll trap the young yeti and use it as bait to capture the adult!
And that is precisely what they do: the yuki otoko comes back a little while later, and is horrified to find the cave empty. As he searches frantically for the little creature, Ōba's men remove the gag from the juvenile's mouth; its cries of terror bring the yuki otoko storming back out of the cave. A heavy net falls, trapping the creature; and Ōba's men use chloroform to knock him out.
Back in the village, Chika is still being punished for breaking the rules; and in the course of her punishment, her grandfather finds the ring. In short order, Chika admits that she's told the outsiders about the Beast God's lair. The old man and the other villagers arrive at the cave just in time to see Ōba preparing the unconscious beast for transport. When the old chief tries to intervene, Ōba shoots him. Terrified, the remaining villagers can do little more than jeer impotently and throw stones as the outsiders drag the yuki otoko away.
While all this has been going on, the young creature has managed to slip out of his bonds and run away. Ōba is at first too excited by capturing the adult creature, and later too busy fending off the locals, to notice that the little beast has escaped. But the young creature has no intention of running away: it's a brave and intelligent child, and it's formed a plan to rescue its father. When the truck carrying the yuki otoko starts off down the mountain, the juvenile springs onto the platform and works at undoing the ropes.
The rescue doesn't go very well. Eventually, there is an accident; Ōba fids himself the last surviving human as the adult creature begins to break his way out of the cage. In the chaos that results, Ōba ends up killing jūjin junior...
Up until this point, we've seen the yuki otoko to be a gentle creature. But we know from the movie's opening what he's capable of doing when he feels he's being attacked (evidently he had surprised Gen and Kaji in the cottage while seeking shelter from the avalanche [or even to get help for the injured Takeno, who was never actually at the cottage at all]; the pair had over-reacted and shot him, and the beast had killed them in self-defense). The death of the child changes everything. The yuki otoko sends Ōba to a gruesome death, and then stalks back to the village to continue his rampage against the humans.
He's also got something else on his mind. It's become a movie cliché that humanoid monsters are all fascinated by human women, no matter how far removed the monsters may be from our species. Just think of Murders in the Rue Morgue, Bride of the Gorilla, King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Octaman... But Jūjin yuki otoko is one of very few in which the creature's intentions are not only clear, but almost reasonable: the yuki otoko is the last of his kind; he has just lost his offspring. His only hope is to have more offspring. And that (although it's never explicitly stated) is the obvious reason he abducts Machiko.
Iijima, Koizumi and the others manage to track the creature to his cave. There, they find the bones of Takeno, as well as the fragments of his journal. According to the last, fragmentary journal entries, Takeno had been tracking the creature when he was caught in an avalanche. The yuki otoko had actually tried to save Takeno's life, giving the injured man food and shelter. Going further into the cave, the party finds a large pile of bones — yeti bones. Koizumi finds poisonous amanita muscaria mushrooms growing near the bones, and speculates that eating these mushrooms may have killed off the yuki otoko population.
This is the cue for the creature to come storming in, with Machiko over his shoulder. The would-be rescuers chase the beast further into the cave, until it stops by a pit of boiling sulphur. There, ironically enough, it's Chika who comes to the rescue, attacking the yuki otoko with her knife; she distracts the creature enough that Iijima is able to get a clear shot at it. The mortally-wounded yuki otoko, as though realizing much of this disaster is Chika's fault, grabs the girl and drags her down with him, as he plunges into the sulphur pool to certain death.
"Thank you very much," says the reporter, getting up and putting away his notebook and pen. He's being grotesquely cheerful, as though he knows his editor is never going to believe this story. The station attendant comes in and tells the group that their train will arrive shortly. "It looks as though the rain's stopped, at last!" says Kodama, still being absurdly upbeat. The others ignore him and file out silently.
And with this rather abrupt and jarring coda, we come to... The End.
There are plenty of problems with Jûjin yuki otoko. For example, much too much time is spent tracking up and down the mountain with one or another group of characters. As for the characters themselves, Ōba is a bit too villainous to be believed; while Machiko and Chika come off as typically ill-drawn monster movie heroines (which is unfortunate, considering how much these two characters could have contributed to the plot, had they been portrayed as convincingly strong women. After all, they're involved in not one, but two relationship triangles: with Iijima and the yuki otoko!). The yuki otoko fares better as a character, in spite of having no spoken lines; but you have to wonder how a species that had survived for so long would be bone-headed enough to eat the wrong mushrooms and die off en masse. And aside from the excellently-realized monster costume, the visual effects are hit-or-miss: the scene in which the creature picks up Ōba to toss him over a cliff is a noble failure, and it's puzzling why Tsuburaya used an unconvincing matte where a simple practical effect would have been enough.
On the other hand, even Gojira suffers to a certain extent from flimsy characters, odd plot conveniences and wildly variable special effect (remember the hand puppet?). What saves both films is their intensely serious tone, their moody photography, and — most of all — the solid emotional impact of their stories, which transcends any quibbles about the details. There is real tragedy in the plight of the yuki otoko; and we can't shake the feeling that by the end, the movie's one truly human character is the one who wasn't human at all.
An Unnatural HistoryClearly the spirit of Gojira was much more apparent in Honda's unrelated film than in Oda's official sequel. Yet even more than Gojira, there was another movie whose influence on Jūjin yuki otoko was overwhelming: King Kong (1933). After all, in Cooper and Schoedsack's film, a group of explorers comes across a hidden group of "primitive" people, who worship a large primate and send it offerings. The outsiders end up causing the monster ape to destroy its worshippers... and eventually, after abducting a human woman, the enormous creature plummets to its death. Sound familiar?
of Japanese Megaprimates
The impact of King Kong on the making of Gojira well-known and well-documented. After all, it was Tsuburaya's first viewing of the American film during its original world-wide release that inspired him to dedicate his entire career to developing cinema special effects — even though this was considered a very lowly occupation at the time3
Ryfle, Steve. Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of Godzilla, Ontario: ECW Press, 1998; p.44. King Kong's extremely successful 1952 re-release had been one of the reasons producer Tanaka had even considered making a giant monster film. Several scenes in Gojira that echo similar moments in Kong — widely ridiculed by American critics, then and now, as plagiarisms from the RKO classic — were actually intended as gestures of respect, acknowledging the earlier film's deep influence.
But what may not be so apparent is the extent to which King Kong had become a fixture of Japanese popular culture, even before he made his first licensed appearance in a Japanese movie with Kingu Kongu tai Gojira in 1962.
The first Japanese movie inspired by Kong (and by extension, the first Japanese giant monster film) was made as early as 1933. This was a short film called Wasei Kingu Kongu ("Homemade King Kong"). The film is now lost, but apparently is was a parody of the American film. All that survives of Wasei Kingu Kongu is a single still4
See also this post by user "Cam Eleon" on the Kaijuphile board..
Image from privatejohnís lyrical minority tour
The next Kong-inspired Japanese film followed in 1938, entitled Edo ni arawareta Kingu Kongu ("King Kong shows up in feudal Tōkyo"). This film is also lost. A surviving advertisement from the magazine Kinema Junpo poses more questions than it answers5:
Image from privatejohnís lyrical minority tour
The "Kongu" of the top two photographs (unsurprisingly, like Wasei Kingu Kongu, played by a man in a suit) seems to be a giant ape like the original. But the lower photographs show him interacting with normal-size humans. Did the 1938 version of Kong grow, like Ultraman? Did he speak to his Japanese adversaries? We'll never know: the film was either recycled during the War or was destroyed by American bombing.
1955's Jū jin yuki otoko represented a huge step forward in suit design. Also, the film's seriousness of tone and the pathos of its title creature's fate showed that the film-makers had finally taken Kong completely to heart. If Gojira had made some respectful gestures toward its inspiration, Jūjin yuki otoko was a flat-out love letter:
Publicity still for Jūjin yuki otoko
Seven years later, a semi-legitimate deal with Willis O'Brien's representative, John Beck, resulted in King Kong making his official Japanese debut with Kingu Kongu tai Gojira6
Ryfle, p. 80 et seq.. This was the first time that either monster had appeared in color, and by some accounts it was the presence of Kong, not the home-team player Godzilla, that made this third entry in the Gojira cycle a huge success in box-office returns7
Brothers, p. 151.
Kingu Kongu tai Gojira's slightly silly-looking ape suit was recycled (with a different head, and a decidedly un-apelike tail) for a "serio-comic phantasy" episode of Tsuburaya's TV series Ultra-Q (1966), called Gorō to Gorō (Gorō and Gorō, with each "Gorō" written using a different Japanese syllabary to show the difference between man and beast). In this episode, a slow-witted man named Gorō befriends a wild monkey (also named Gorō) that grows to enormous proportions and starts inadvertently destroying the town.
And in 1967, in cooperation with the Rankin Bass group, Honda and Tsuburaya joined forces one last time for Kingu Kongu no gyakushū / King Kong Escapes. Tsuburaya even went so far as to restage the classic battle between Kong and a dinosaur from the original, using the usual men-in-suits instead of stop motion photography. This movie's version of Kong was one of the goofiest Japanese monster suits ever... but the film also featured one of the most memorable rubber monsters, the wildly improbable but extremely entertaining Mecha-Kong:
You might notice from this set of pictures that the very best of these costumes is the one designed for Jūjin yuki otoko, and that the suits in later Tsuburaya productions show no improvements in realism or effectiveness. In fact, the initial version of the yuki otoko suit was designed by someone else, a man named Ōhashi Fuminori — one of the least-celebrated masters of Japanese monster movies.
It was Ōhashi who had designed the costume for Edo ni arawareta Kingu Kongu back in 1938, and his uncredited work on Gojira helped set the standard for monster suit design for the next several decades. Ōhashi worked constantly to refine suit-making techniques so that the costumes would be lighter, easier to maneuver, and more expressive. Though the final design of the yuki otoko costume reflected the input of Tsuburaya and chief modeler Teizō Toshimitsu, some of the defining touches are purely Ōhashi's work: for example, Ōhashi cast several head pieces for the costume, each expressing a different emotion, so that the beast's features would appear to change to match the action. He molded the heads to the suit-actor's own face, so that the masks would fit better and move more naturally with his body. This was also one of the only Tōhō creature costumes in which the actor's own eyes doubled as the monster's eyes as well, giving the monster a much broader range of expression.8
Brothers, p. 45
As for Jūjin yuki otoko's suit-actor, the man in the costume was an unusually tall fellow named Sagata Sanshirō, who is best known for appearing in bit parts in several films by Kurosawa. Sagata had a very close working relationship with Ōhashi — they were the same man. Since the designer of the monster costume was also the man who performed in it, the resulting monster characterization is one of the high points of the rubber-suit genre.
You may be wondering why Ōhashi's reputation isn't better-established, like that of Tsuburaya. Part of the reason is bad luck. Ōhashi went on to do work (as designer and director) for lower and lower-budget productions, like the troubled TV series Agon, the Atomic Dragon (made in 1964 but stopped prematurely, and not aired until 1968), or the kid's show Magma Taishi / Space Giants. As fate would have it, Ōhashi was even sued by his former employers at Tōhō, who alleged that his subsequent monster designs owed too much to their original Godzilla. Tōhō was finally convinced to drop their "suit suit" when Ōhashi reminded them that the original Godzilla was largely his own design. In any case, these multiple legal entanglements did nothing to endear him to the studios, even if they weren't his fault. Ōhashi went on to provide technical assistance during the creation of the original Planet of the Apes, but few seemed to notice either at home or abroad.9
As for Jūjin yuki otoko, some of his best work? In another bitter twist of fate, that film is among the hardest-to-find of all Japanese special effects films, especially in Japan. Ōhashi's triumph as designer and performer is every bit as obscure in his native country as it is to the average kaijūphile abroad, because the movie has been banned.
Buraku-sploitationOK, banned is a little extreme: the movie does show up on occasion in Japan's disappearing repertory cinemas. And it's not a legal ban, like the infamous Video Nasty crackdown in Great Britain. The actual Japanese term is fūin, which means "seal"; though there is a Japanese board of censors, an industry-run group called Eirin, fūin has nothing to do with them. It's the decision of Tōhō, as the publisher of the film, not to make it available on video10
See, for example, Wikipedia entry on banned films in Japan (but see also below); and while it hasn't prevented the odd public showing, for example a 2002 Tsuburaya retrospective at the Asagaya's Cinema Laputa, it does nothing to promote the film or even officially acknowledge its existence. The only way to see Jūjin yuki otoko at home is through a grey-market version (illegal in Japan) that was leaked in the mid-1990's, just as Tōhō was considering relaxing the fūin and allowing a video company to release the movie.
The reason for the ban? Discrimination.
Now, King Kong has had some problems with its portrayal of the Skull Island natives, to say nothing of Charlie the Chinese cook. Some critics have even suggested that Kong himself is nothing more than a symbol of white people's fear of the Black Man's natural virility. This is hardly the place for a full discussion on the merits of those claims (though I will point out that Kong, lovingly brought to cinematic life from an 18-inch model, is the beloved tragic hero of his own movie; meaning that if he does represent a racial caricature, he's the least-effective ethnic slur in history). But it's important to note that the offensive content of Jūjin yuki otoko is much more subtle than the situation with King Kong, and far less obvious to outsiders — to the point where practically every English-language reference to the ban misses the point a bit.
Many non-Japanese are surprised to hear that there are minorities in Japan who are discriminated against — not just immigrants and their descendants (though they've had a lousy time of it, too), but actual indigenous people who have spent much of the last few centuries struggling for recognition. To those Westerners who do know something about minorities in Japan, the first group they're likely to think of is the Ainu, an ethnically-distinct aboriginal people who may predate the Japanese themselves. The Ainu lived side-by-side with the ethnic Japanese for a long time, but with the start of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 they found themselves banned from speaking their own language or practicing their traditional culture. The forced assimilation continued well into the 20th century. It wasn't until the 1980's that the Ainu organized into a politically-viable group and began to regain some of their rights — one major catalyst being Prime Minister Nakasone's 1986 remarks that Japan was a mono-ethnic culture, and therefore superior. Today the Ainu are permitted to speak their own language and to live within their traditions — now that there are very few people left who actually remember the language and traditions, and fewer every year.
Most Western critics assume the Ainu are the ones being maligned by the portrayal of the villagers in Jūjin yuki otoko. The old village chieftain certainly resembles an Ainu, with his thick bushy beard. The resemblance of the fates of the two yuki otoko also resembles the Ainu legend of the Bear God, one of their most important folk tales. But this seems to be mostly coincidence: though in the mid-1950's the United Nations was beginning to take an interest in the plight of the Ainu, in Japan they were considered to have gone extinct — except for a few artefacts in museums and a few tourist shows, the culture was assumed to have completely disappeared11
"At that time, almost all of the Japanese began to believe that the Ainu people and their culture remained only in museums and sightseeing spots." Buckley, Sandra ed. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture. London: Routledge, 2002; p. 10. The Ainu simply weren't on the cultural radar screen, and it's doubtful Kayama gave them a single thought when he was outlining his story. It's true, the gigantopithecus had also gone extinct, yet the movie brought them back to life... but there's another factor that mitigates against the villagers being Ainu: I believe the geography is wrong. After their culture was marginalized in the mid-nineteenth century, the Ainu population found themselves restricted to northern Honshū, parts of Hokkaidō, and some of the islands between Japan and Russia. Jūjin yuki otoko takes place in central Honshū, in the Japan alps, not terribly far from Tōkyo — as far as I can determine, this is not an area currently associated with the Ainu.
But there's another cultural minority in Japan that has had a completely different experience with discrimination: the burakumin. The depiction of the burakumin in popular Japanese culture has often been distressingly similar to that of the backwards natives of Jūjin yuki otoko.
In terms of race, there is absolutely no difference between the burakumin and other Japanese. The difference is one of caste: in ancient Japan, anyone whose work put them in close contact with death or the dead — butchers, leather workers, undertakers and so on — were considered taboo-breakers, and therefore outcasts. The same applied to beggars, prison guards, street performers and others whose occupations didn't fit them into the stratified hierarchy of Tokugawa-era Japanese society. This pariah status was passed on to all these people's descendants. This led to a large population of "untouchables" who, before the Meiji Restoration, were forbidden to marry outside their caste and were often forced to live within certain districts or special villages (called buraku — and some districts of Japan still bear the stigma of having been reserved for the undesirables).12
Buckley, p. 52
It was only natural that people on both sides of the cultural divide would find the situation horribly unjust. In 1871, after the start of the Meiji Restoration, official sanctions against the burakumin were abolished (it's a little ironic that they should have their legal status restored at almost exactly the same time the Ainu were being deprived of theirs). Unfortunately, there was no sort of "affirmative action" program to ensure that the newly-liberated burakumin would have anywhere to go and anything to do in the mainstream of Japanese life. And the mainstream Japanese wanted nothing to do with them, having been taught for generations that the burakumin couldn't possibly be true Japanese because of the loathsome jobs they did. According to the extreme position — a familiar one among defenders of racial and caste discrimination — the burakumin had gravitated to their lowly occupations precisely because they were burakumin... and therefore not even fully human. Half Human, you might say.13
Neary, Ian. "Class and Social Stratification"; in A Companion to Japanese History, William M. Tsutsui, editor. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007; p.393 - 397
Since their official liberation did little to improve their circumstances, the burakumin became increasingly vocal about their plight. As the twentieth century began, especially in the wake of the Russian Revolution, they began to organize. After the Second World War, many buraku activists hoped the democratization brought by the American Occupation would finally guarantee them full citizenship and equal rights. They were disappointed. The Americans were entirely unequipped to understand this sort of discrimination ("They all look alike to us," was the standard Caucasian-American slur against the Japanese; and in this case, it was literally true: they couldn't quite figure out the ethnic tension between people who were racially indistinguishable from each other, and the Japanese weren't anxious to explain it to them).
The burakumin reorganized their advocacy group and launched an aggressive new political push for equality in 1955, at almost exactly the same time that Jūjin yuki otoko was released14
"Post-war business anti-discrimination measures". Accessed at http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%83%A8%E8%90%BD%E5%95%8F%E9%A1%8C#.E6.88.A6.E5.BE.8C.E3.81.AE.E5.90.8C.E5.92.8C.E5.AF.BE.E7.AD.96.E4.BA.8B.E6.A5.AD. Over the next several decades, they saw great advances in the restoration of their rights and their real integration into Japanese society. However, discrimination and violence continued, and to some extent it is still going on: there's a black-market directory which lists the genealogy of all buraku families; and though it's officially an illegal document, it is still a popular tool among prospective employers and in-laws to prevent associating with the "undesirables".15
See also The Buraku Liberation League, accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buraku_Liberation_League
"'Tokushu Buraku Chimei Soukan' Incident", accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burakumin#.22Tokushu_Buraku_Chimei_Soukan.22_incident
Historically, the burakumin had been forced to live in specific places — usually remote areas where nobody else wanted to live, where they had to struggle to eke out a meager existence. In pre-Restoration times, marriage outside their caste was considered a form of adultery — a capital crime. Then came the inevitable result of this ghettoization: after they were forced into these living conditions, the burakumin got a reputation for being poor, dirty and degenerate — a reputation that time did little to erode. So if a movie were to depict a remote village full of inbred monsters, like the village we see in Jūjin yuki otoko, it would likely have appeared to the burakumin of the 1950's as a deliberate insult.
(Of course, if you're still not convinced by my argument, you could just go to the movie's Japanese Wikipedia page, where it specifically states: "There are problems with the screenplay's depiction of the buraku...")
This is not to say that the insult was intentional. It's hard to believe that Honda Ishirō, who was the gentlest of men, would have deliberately gone out of his way to portray the burakumin this way. If anything, Honda's early post-Gojira fantasy films share an optimistic message of all humankind uniting in the face of world-threatening catastrophe. Considering the many times he involved himself in the script of his movies to add small humane touches — brief scenes to illustrate the impact of monsters and aliens on everyday people, for example; or (in a classic example) renaming the materialistic adversary country in Mothra from "Roshirika" — from "Roshia" (Russia) and "Amerika" — to the less-confrontational scrambled version, "Rorishika", for fear of hurting anyone's feelings. Honda, after all, was a close friend and assistant to Kurosawa Akira (who was very, very particular about his working relationships); and if ever there was a director who championed the outsider, it was Kurosawa. Think of the farmer who aspires to be a samurai in Shichinin no samurai / Seven Samurai, or the peasant who finds himself a king in Kagemusha, or the impoverished slum residents of Dodes'kaden. Or consider the self-made protagonist of Kurosawa's Ed McBain adaptation, Tengoku to Jigoku / High and Low: one of the details lost on most Western viewers is that Mifune Toshirō's character Gondo comes from a buraku family (leather workers, in this case)16
"Classic Old School Flicks: High & Low". HESO magazine; available at http://hesomagazine.com/film/high-low/.
(Of course, when you're thinking of ethnic slurs in a Japanese monster movie, it's hard to overlook the various portrayals of South Sea Islanders. For a detailed academic study of the issue, I can refer you to Yoshikuni Igarashi17
... family name last, since I think he's a US citizen; anyway, he's publishing in English in the US.'s "Mothra's Gigantic Egg: Consuming the South Pacific", published in In Godzilla's Footsteps [New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006]. But as far as Honda's films go — aside from Kingu Kongu tai Gojira, a satire, in which the "isolated South Seas natives" are supposed to be caricatures, and in fact speak New Guinea pidgin — the Islander stereotypes are drawn more along the "noble savage" type. Today they make us cringe with their condescension, but at least in films like Mothra the intent was to make them sympathetic. And there's little evidence they meant the Islanders to represent any real Pacific cultures.)
Honda's colleagues are also unlikely to have intended to represent (and offend) any real Japanese people with their creations: Tsuburaya Eiji, for example, was a Japanese Christian, working to revolutionize a field nobody took seriously — he knew quite a bit about being marginalized. I don't know much about the writer Kayama Shigeru, since his work outside the movies is not readily available in English; however, he seems to have been less interested in discrimination than in exploring the limits of what it means to be human, in the larger sense of the word. The orang pendek of his early stories interbreeds with human women to become more human, and not just biologically; the yuki otoko, while not human, is the most recognizably humane character in Jūjin yuki otoko (especially by contrast to the inbred villagers); while in Kayama's story for Chikyū Bōeigun / The Mysterians, Shiraishi regains his humanity in time to stop the aliens from interbreeding with Earth women and replacing the human race. Kayama doesn't seem to be warning against "miscegenation", though some may see it that way — he's stretching the rules of biology to draw our attention to the difference between what we consider to be ideal human qualities and the way we really behave. And that sort of thematic concern really doesn't fit with anti-buraku discrimination.
The closest parallel I can find to Jūjin yuki otoko in Tōhō's other monster films is Dai kaijū Baran. Honda's 1958 film also featured a remote village with a mysterious monster as its guardian — though this time, the villagers were ordinary people instead of malformed grotesques. In both films, there is a deep ambivalence toward tradition: the audience's sympathy is likely to be with the modern men and women who venture into the hinterlands, who must deal with the backwardness and superstition of the locals... but it turns out that the natives' distrust is warranted, and their superstition turns out to be correct. Nevertheless, the remote village can't survive the encounter with the outside, and the agent of destruction turns out to be its mythical protector (which, in Baran, then goes on and rampages through the modern world as well). The films seem to suggest that tradition has lost much of its meaning, and that a break is inevitable... but the break has tragic consequences, because it alienates a people from the source of their tradition. The village is flattened; the magnificent beast is destroyed; the modern world wins, but at a terrible cost.
(Baran also had some trouble with the censors. At one point, the village in the Tōhoku region is said to be in a region so remote it's "the Tibet of Japan". At the time, the Japanese considered Tibet to be the ultimate example of backward rural Asia. It offended mainstream Japanese sensibilities to suggest that Tibet-like conditions could possibly exist within a few hours' drive of the capital. So the "Tibet" line and similar bits of dialogue were cut out of the movie [though the cut moments are restored on the US DVD]. So it's possible that pressure from the burakumin may have been only one reason why Jūjin yuki otoko was shelved: there's also the thought that non-buraku objected to the idea of the movie's squalid rural backwater spoiling the image of the New Japan.)
Is the ban on Jūjin yuki otoko justified? I don't know. I'm in no position to speak for the burakumin; but if they're upset enough that a major movie studio would voluntarily reduce its revenue stream by suppressing one of its films from commercial distribution...? That's upset. But I'm on slightly stronger ground when I suggest that the movie could be released on video outside Japan without causing anybody too much grief. As I've tried to point out, there is some justification to the idea that the insult to the burakumin was not intentional; since the very existence of the burakumin is unknown to the majority of people outside Japan, it seems unlikely that anybody would ever make the connection on their own... especially since the grounds for the original stereotype have long since disappeared. Any implied discrimination is much less obvious to outsiders than, say, the surface racism of Disney's Song of the South (which, by the way, has long been available in Japan).
Still, I have a feeling Tōhō is unlikely to give the rights for Jūjin yuki otoko to anybody in the West any time soon. And the reason has little to do with the burakumin. You see, they'd already extended those rights back in the 50's, when the movie was new — just as they'd done with the rights to movies like Gojira, Gojira no gyakushū and Sora no dai kaijū Radon / Rodan, the Flying Monster. And any implied insult Jūjin yuki otoko may have given the burakumin pales to insignificance beside the genuine atrocities committed against the film by its American distributors — who cut out two thirds of the original film, removed not only the dialogue but the very names from the Japanese characters, shoehorned in their own uninspired footage... and finally, inserted a credit to thank the Japanese for "contribut[ing] much to the authenticity of this production."
But that's a different story. And here to tell that story (provided your interest in the film hasn't been ground to dust by this all-too-lengthy review) is my highly-esteemed fellow B-Master Lyz Kingsley of And You Call Yourself A Scientist!
It's all part of a project we like to call...