Mothra, Jigoku, Godzilla: A Postwar Japanese Horror Primer

Mothra Photo: Toho/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

A screaming man is flayed alive, and his gruesome, steaming innards are exposed for all to see. A woman’s torso is grotesquely torn from her head. A terrified couple is boiled inside a giant flaming cauldron. A shrieking baby floats down a river of blood. While Alfred Hitchcock was scandalizing American audiences in 1960 with some artfully edited stabbing in Psycho, Japanese director Nobuo Nakagawa was delivering such unspeakably graphic images in Jigoku (Hell), his notoriously deranged tale of guilt and eternal punishment — a movie that ends with an extended journey through an unforgiving afterlife.

Loosely based on the Leopold & Loeb case (the same murder scandal that had inspired Hitchcock’s Rope a little over a decade earlier), Jigoku is one of a handful of films playing this week in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s series “Ghosts and Monsters: Postwar Japanese Horror.” (You can also catch most of the titles, including Jigoku, on Filmstruck, at least until next month.) Despite the red-hot carnage of its finale, for much of its running time Nakagawa’s picture is a surreal chamber drama about an unwitting college student whose friendship with another mysterious young man keeps resulting in people’s deaths. The protagonist himself seems largely innocent, and yet feels increasingly agitated and responsible about the damage that always occurs when he’s around. As he and the other characters — a cross-section of people, many of them far sleazier than he — land in the underworld, Jigoku starts to feel like a parable about the way guilt and shame can consume an entire society.

The horror genre has always had social and political dimensions, but tales of the supernatural have a special place in Japanese culture, where figures of different ghosts and demons come with elaborate mythologies that inform many people’s lives to this day. Koji Suzuki, the author of the Ring novels, has noted that while American and European horror films often end with “the extermination of evil spirits,” in Japanese cinema “horror movies end with a suggestion that the spirit still remains at large. That’s because the Japanese don’t regard spirits only as enemies, but as beings that co-exist with this world of ours.”

Vengeful spirits would come practically to define more recent “J-horror” hits like The Ring, Pulse, and The Grudge. But the films of the postwar period, while less defined by jump scares, are way more existentially unnerving. Tales of the spirit world figure prominently in a number of the titles in BAM’s series, which includes two of the greatest horror films ever made, anywhere: director Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). Violent, beautiful, supernaturally inflected medieval stories of female revenge, the pair could be seen as companion pieces: Onibaba follows a mother and daughter-in-law who subsist by luring wandering Samurai to their deaths, while Kuroneko follows a mother and daughter-in-law who, after a brutal rape and murder, are brought back to life by cat demons and begin viciously tearing unsuspecting Samurai to pieces. Both stories play out against a backdrop of civil war, and both sets of women have been told that the man of their family, who had left to go fight in a local warlord’s army, has died in battle. The characters’ rage is borne partly out of their desolation — of the sense that they’ve been left behind.

Shindo’s pictures are elegant yet shocking: They’re shot through with intensely physical scenes of eroticism and violence, but the director also likes to set a mood and patiently follow his characters. While the films depict a world of social and political chaos, there’s also a hermetically sealed quality to the lives of the women in Onibaba and Kuroneko — as if they’re struggling to hold that very world at bay.

The shadow of Godzilla naturally looms large among the major titles of this period. Ishiro Honda’s 1954 classic was extensively reedited for its U.S. release (with new scenes added featuring Raymond Burr) and soon became a staple of kid-friendly creature features. Along the way, the film and its sequels helped turn Toho Studios, which had suffered a series of devastating financial and labor troubles after the war, into an industrial juggernaut. (That Toho also had Akira Kurosawa in its stable of directors certainly helped, too; in fact, the biggest Japanese feature of 1954 wasn’t Godzilla; it was The Seven Samurai.)

But in its original form, Godzilla is one of the saddest, most bluntly brutal monster movies ever made. The legacy of the war, of American occupation and the atom bomb, hangs over the whole film. The beast is unleashed thanks to nuclear testing in the Pacific, and the picture opens with the destruction of a fishing vessel that resembles the Lucky Dragon No. 5, a real-life Japanese fishing boat that was famously contaminated by an American hydrogen bomb test in 1954 — an incident that is evoked by a number of works from this period. The devastation that Godzilla causes is extensive and heartbreaking, recalling the horrific aftermath of Hiroshima. Honda also used the 1945 American firebombing of Tokyo as a visual source for these sequences. The director had seen war up close: Conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army in 1934, he’d been sent to fight in Manchuria and served multiple tours of duty over the next decade, finally spending six months as a POW at the end of the war. (His close friend Kurosawa would pay tribute to Honda’s WWII service in an episode of his late-period masterpiece Dreams, itself partly a meditation on spirits, demons, and nuclear war.)

The political overtones of Honda’s mad, masterful Mothra (1961) are even more direct than they were in Godzilla, but the film — colorful, playful, filled with music and magical realism — is tonally the opposite of the earlier one. This time, a sleazy Western promoter from the U.S.-like fictional nation of “Rolisica” steals a pair of foot-tall singing fairies from an island that has been irradiated by atomic testing, and forces them into servitude; the fairies beckon the giant insect-god Mothra to save them, and the creature eventually lays waste to Rolisica’s capital, New Kirk City. Its title creature has since entered the pantheon of immortal Japanese monsters, with many sequels and remakes to its name, but the sweetly poetic lunacy of Mothra really needs to be seen to be believed.

The international success of Toho with Godzilla and other similar entries (particularly Honda’s 1962 hit King Kong vs. Godzilla, the film that really turned monster match-ups and team-ups into a thing) had resulted in most of Japan’s major studios looking to make their own lucrative horror and sci-fi features. The prestigious and storied Shochiku studios, which had long resisted the temptation, finally gave in during the late 1960s. One of their most notorious later efforts, Hajime Sato’s Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968), offers a fine example of cut-rate effects, apocalyptic sci-fi, and incendiary politics. A passenger plane crash-lands in an unknown and desolate valley after being pelted with mysterious birds smashing against its windows. Inside the plane, the paranoid passengers turn on each other. Those unfortunate enough to venture outside find themselves attacked by a bubbling trickle of body-snatching space slime that splits open their foreheads and takes ahold of their brains.

The film is filled with documentary montages of warfare and political turmoil. One of the passengers is an American widow headed to Japan to pick up the remains of her husband, who has been killed in Vietnam; at one point, she pointedly informs everyone that her husband was wounded in the face, similar to the way that the alien villain appears to be attacking its victims. It turns out that this is all a prelude to an invasion of Earth by an alien race called the Gokemidoro — and it’s clear that they see humanity as uniquely vulnerable at this point in history. “Our objective is to exterminate the human race. That objective is close at hand,” a voice declares, as we see documentary images of the charred remains of bomb victims, followed by mushroom clouds. These final moments are so darkly nihilistic that the film’s very final image — of an army of red, cheap-looking flying saucers headed toward Earth — seems almost like a relief by comparison.

When we think of the history of horror, we tend to focus, perhaps understandably, on American and British efforts, which had their own monster and gothic traditions and slowly explored what was acceptable material to put onscreen. The Japanese version of horror developed somewhat differently. While it had its share of narrative boldness and envelope-pushing extremity, it was based less on surface scares and more on mood and moral complexity. These genre films made in the postwar period weren’t just there to shock. They reflected the anxieties of a society that had suffered the unthinkable terrors of war, and was still processing feelings of trauma, guilt, and vengeance.

Mothra, Jigoku, Godzilla: A Postwar Japanese Horror Primer