“Don’t feed me ghost stories for kids,” grumbles a skeptical villain midway through The Living Skeleton. He doesn’t have the stomach for such stuff, but unfortunately for him—and happily for the rest of us—Hiroshi Matsuno’s 1968 film is a feast of phantasmagorical delights, a veritable smorgasbord of the uncanny. It includes, in no particular order, vengeful ghosts, psychically linked identical twins, obsessed mad scientists, creepy priests, seemingly sentient (if not quite living) skeletons dragging their chains at the bottom of the sea, and a cloud of bats so phony that Ed Wood himself would have castigated the prop department. These ersatz creatures of the night serve proudly as emblems of Matsuno’s scrappily inventive modern kaidan, which entwines ideas and images from Japanese folklore with the tropes and tactics of American B movies—a transnational mash-up well before the term came to prominence. Those dangling rubber bats are kids’ stuff in the best way: their visible wires become a metaphor for the audience’s own gleefully suspended disbelief.
Capital-F Fakery abounds in The Living Skeleton, starting with the opening gull’s-eye view of a freighter slicing through the South Pacific—or, rather, a low-budget approximation of same. A match cut between this obvious miniature and the hull of an actual, full-sized boat (grandly christened “The Dragon King”) doesn’t so much suture us into an illusion as draw our attention to its seams—chintzy or dreamlike, take your pick. The subsequent set piece depicting the ship’s crew being methodically mowed down by machine-gun-toting pirates, meanwhile, is genuinely nightmarish, owing both to the unrepentant brutality of the scenario and some cruelly judicious stylization. Close-ups of hands and feet chained together link to some deeper, ambient evocation of collective helplessness; the swift, merciless cutting keeps placing us at the wrong end of the gun barrel. Splayed on the deck begging for her husband’s life, beautiful newlywed Yoriko (Kikko Matsuoka) is reflected and doubled in the sunglasses of a disfigured pirate commander before being finished off, shockingly, with a shot to the skull.
The bride wore white, and the eventual return of Yoriko as a smoky-eyed avenging angel tracking down and terminating the men with her blood on their hands twins The Living Skeleton with another 1968 thriller—Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, with its slain mother-daughter duo. The film may only be a vivid doodle compared to the inky, insinuating brilliance of Kuroneko, or the precise strokes of Masako Kobayashi’s painterly folk-horror fresco Kwaidan (1965), but the way it parallels those films is fascinating. Beyond its refraction of contemporaneous Japanese genre-movie aesthetics, The Living Skeleton points forward: Yoriko’s ghostly presence directly presages the dark-haired wraiths of millennial J-horror. Remember that before Ring’s villainess Sadako slithered out of the television, she emerged from the sea (“frolic in brine, goblins be thine”).
Historically speaking, The Living Skeleton also aligns with its production company Shochiku’s modish, midsixties shift away from its slice-of-life, shomin-geki roots and toward bolder visions. During a transitional period for a national cinema steeped in certain ascetic traditions, Shochiku’s patronage of directors like Kobayashi and Nagisa Oshima signified an attempt to surf a cresting new wave—and to compete with the jazzed-up output of rivals like Nikkatsu. Meanwhile, the shape-shifting restlessness of The Living Skeleton’s script and direction—the stark, recurring internal clashes of tone between severity, spookiness, and silliness across its eighty minutes—reflects Matsuno’s apprenticeship with a series of wildly different directors, including noir pioneer Yoshitaro Nomura, samurai specialist Daisuke Ito, and the great quotidian dramatist Mikio Naruse. The latter’s severe, unhurried style isn’t much in evidence here, but Naruse’s characteristic themes of women cautiously navigating a repressive, stratified modern Japanese society at their own peril can be heard whispering in through the cracks of Matsuno’s elaborately jerry-rigged revenge narrative.
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