The Living Skeleton (1968) review
This early example of a Japanese kaidan (ghost story) with a contemporary setting begins strong but gradually devolves into stupidity, as the scenario figuratively rips itself to shreds with a series of increasingly ridiculous plot twists. In a way, THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen) prefigures the worst aspects of Italian thrillers from subsequent decades, in which gratuitous shocks and surprises overruled logic. The result is too big a mess to be considered good, but it is interesting and occasionally effective. Curiously, the film hailed from Shochiku Eiga, a company more known for respectable dramas than exploitation horror.
The first thing you need to know about the story of THE LIVING SKELETON is that it contains no living skeleton (despite a publicity shot of said skeleton menacing a screaming damsel). Call me pedantic, but things like this matter – especially when this glaring omissions serves as a synecdoche for the entire film, which promises much that is never delivered.
THE LIVING SKELETON begins with a prologue in which pirates (including, apparently, members of the crew) kill everyone on board a freighter ship named Dragon King, including a screaming woman begging for mercy from the visibly scarred Tanuma. Three years later, we find Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) living with a Father Akashi (Masumi Okada). Why is a young, attractive, unmarried woman living alone with a Catholic priest? There is some vague lip-service dialogue about this, but it explains nothing – our first hint that something is seriously wrong with the screenplay.
Saeko is the twin sister of Yoriko (also Matsuoka), who was the woman we saw in the prologue – now presumed dead, since no one knows what happened to the freighter. Saeko, however, gets a premonition that her sister is alive; during a storm, she takes a small boat out to see, accompanied by her boyfriend Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa); when the boat overturns, Mcohizuki heads back to shore while Saeko ends up aboard the Dragon King, which has returned like a ghost ship in the fog. (And yes, you read that right: Mochizuki leaves his girlfriend in the ocean, not knowing whether she drowned; he remains pretty much this useless for the rest of the film.)
Saeko sees her dead sister in a cabin, then later shows up on shore, before disappearing again. While Mochizuki and the priest look for her, the former pirates begin dying mysteriously, after glimpsing an apparition of the dead Yoriko – or is it in fact Saeko, possessed by her dead sister?
To savor the full flavorful range of silliness that is THE LIVING SKELETON, you really need to have the ending spoiled for you. Here goes…
Eventually, Saeko confesses to Father Akashi, who tosses off a Biblical quotation suggesting she should be merciful. That night, in a genuinely shocking scene, Tanuma strangles Saeko, disrobes her, and hides her body in a suit of armor. It turns out that Father Akashi is actually Tanuma, his scarred face hidden beneath makeup. Tanuma and the remaining members of his gang head out to the Dragon King, where they encounter Doctor Nishizato (Ko Nishimura), Yoriko’s husband, who – despite having been apparently shot ead in the prologue – has been living aboard the Dragon King for the ensuing three years, during which time he has invented very potent acid, which he uses on one of the pirates, melting him down to a soggy mess. Tanuma escapes the doctor but finds Noriko’s corpse holding fast to his ankle.
Saeko shows up (a ghost, presumably, though the script is vague here) and tells Tanuma that Doctor Nishizato had been injecting his own blood into Yorkio’s corpse in an attempt to bring her back to life. (How she knows this is a mystery.) Tanuma tries to escape, but he too falls into a puddle of Nishizato’s acid, which melts him and the floor, eventually eating through the hull of the ship, which starts to sink. Mochizuki arrives to rescue Saeko (one supposes he never noticed her body in the suit of armor), but she apologetically knocks him overboard and goes down with the ship.
Well, that was fun…
THE LIVING SKELETON is loaded with fascinating supernatural elements that are gradually squelched by the narrative nonsense. Saeko’s psychic connection with her murdered sister and the reappearance of the Dragon King set up wonderful anticipation of encroaching revenge from beyond the grave, and the subsequent deaths are cleverly handled in an ambiguous fashion, leaving us to wonder whether it is Yoriko or Saeko who is responsible. However, when Saeko confesses, the story starts to fall apart: she claims to be responsible for murdering four people, but one jumped to his death after seeing her, and another drowned when he became entangled in chains binding several skeletons (presumably of the pirates’ dead victims) under the ocean.
How Saeko is supposed to have affected that death, we are left to determine for ourselves, which renders the “rational” explanation unsatisfactory. Moreover, the murders are generally presaged by omens of the supernatural: bats (of the rubbery flapping genus indigenous to cinema, first encountered on the Dragon King) flap ominously on screen, as if accompanying Saeko/Noriko; and the ghost ship (rendered in moody miniatures not that are not necessarily convincing but are usually somewhat effective) is frequently seen floating through the fog, a harbinger of doom. If Saeko is committing the murders without assistance from her sister’s spirit, these visual motives must be completely coincidental.
Narrative problems multiply with the revelation of Tanuma’s identity. Is this the way a murderous pirate enjoys his ill-gotten gains – three years of celibacy under the same roof with an attractive single woman? The scenario passes up potentially interesting material by playing the deception as a ruse with no clear motivation, instead of suggesting that perhaps Tanuma really was trying to atone for his sins. Also, the possible spiritual conflict between a traditional, vengeful Japanese ghost, and a religion that preaches forgiveness of one’s enemies, is short-circuited when the representative of said religion turns out to be a crook in disguise.
As frustrating as these problems are, THE LIVING SKELETON truly falls apart with the appearance of Dr. Nishizato, who has somehow survived alone for three years on an unmanned ship that has never been sighted by ghost guard. As if that were not enough, his shipboard office serves quite nicely as a mad scientist’s lab, with enough facilities to create a new acid and make at least some headway toward resurrecting the dead. We also have to assume he propped up Yoriko’s corpse so that Saeko could see it standing in a cabin when she boarded the ship earlier in the film. Why? To inspired Saeko to seek revenge? Who knows?
As if realizing the disappointing nature of this “rational” explanation, THE LIVING SKELETON finally gives us what must be a ghost, when Saeko reappears after her death. Even here, the film stumbles, as Tanuma does not seem particularly perturbed over being confronted by the woman he strangled to death. At least Saeko’s revenge gives the audience some small sense of satisfaction in an otherwise frustrating film.
Visually, THE LIVING SKELETON is impressive. The black-and-white photography captures the seaside atmosphere, creating a cinematic world in which we accept the (apparent) machinations of the supernatural. The first few deaths are handled with nice ambiguity, and the underwater skeletons are reasonably spooky, even if their design (which includes various facial expressions etched into bony skulls) is more bizarre and whimsical than genuinely frightening. The score uses plucked instruments, recorded with lots of reverb, to interesting effect, adding a modern tone to the old-fashioned spook scenes.
There are occasionally impressive visual flourishes, such as the pleading Yorko’s face reflected in Tanuma’s sunglasses (which has the added benefit of disguising his face, so that we do not recognize him as Father Akashi later). When Yoriko’s corpse grasps Tanuma’s leg, the gesture recaptures a similar moment when she begged for her husband’s life, emphasized by a brief flashback-cut – letting us know his karma has come back to haunt him, literally.
One must give THE LIVING SKELETON some credit for audacity if not good judgment, taking what initially looks like a traditional ghost story and transforming it into horrific exploitation sleaze. Not only do we get a gratuitous night club scene, in which female dancers jiggle, and jiggle, and then jiggle some more; we also get two gruesome acid deaths! The first stage of disintegration is laughably bad (a matte to superimpose the spreading decay on top of the actor’s face), but once the physical effects take over, the visceral impact is surprisingly effective within the context of what initially seemed to be an atmospheric ghost story. Who needs the subtle scares of a vengeful spirit, when you can melt a body down into a big gloppy mess? (Perhaps the film’s title refers to the victims not being quite dead as their flesh starts to melt from their bones?)
Truly, the best reason to see THE LIVING SKELETON is Kikko Matsuoka in her dual role as Saeko and Yoriko. She conveys an inner sense of tragedy from the beginning that does more than the script to make her eventual doom seem like an integral part of the story; her lovely face invites sympathy even while it is capable of registering in a more sinister light in her Yoriko persona. Unfortunately, the narrative shoves her aside too much, first when the focus shifts to the deaths of the former pirates, and then when Saeko is killed and Nishzato takes over as the film’s locus of horror. Nevertheless, her two deaths scenes (first at the hands of Tanuma, then on the sinking ship) engage our emotions – quite an achievement in a film that otherwise subordinates drama to shock effects.
Ultimately, THE LIVING SKELETON is a frustration experience that promises something much finer than it delivers. There is some camp entertainment in watching the filmmakers carelessly toss their ghost story overboard to make room for a mad doctor movie, but you wish they had finished the film they started, and saved the acid bath for another production
THE LIVING SKELETON is one of four horror and/or science fiction films made by Shochiku in 1967 and 1968, along with THE X FROM OUTER SPACE; GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL; and GENOCIDE. All four are available in the Criterion box set Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku. They can also be streamed on Hulu Plus, which has a deal with Criterion for these and several other Japanese ghost stories, such as YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959).
Ghostly goodness marred by medical malpractice.
THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen, 1968). Shochiku Eiga. 81 mins. Unrated. Directed by Hiroshi Matsuno. Written by Kyuzo Kobayashi, Kikuma Shimoizaka. Cast: Kikko Matsuoka, Yasunori Irikawa, masumi Okada, Asao Uchida, Asao Koike.