Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Half Human (1955)

Half Human has garnered a lot of curiosity in the Godzilla fandom, because it was Ishiro Honda's second monster offering, following his work on the original Godzilla, yet it is notoriously difficult to get ahold of. In fact, all of the people behind the scenes on Godzilla, including Eiji Tsuburaya, and Tomoyuki Tanaka (though, sadly, this entry lacks Akira Ifukube as composer), went to work on Half Human, but these days, the film has been classified as a banned film.  Toho took the movie out of circulation due to its depiction of some deformed inhabitants of remote mountain villages due to generations of inbreeding - as well as showing them as a backwards and violent culture - which was seen as a racist depiction of the real life Ainu peoples who are indigenous to regions of Japan as well as Russia.  An Americanized version of the movie still exists, though is long since out of print, and for many years it was assumed that Toho had destroyed or lost the original print of Half Human.  This, however, is not so, and a select few (yours truly included) have been able to see Half Human in its original entirety.

Starting off as so many horror films, five university students have come to the Japanese Alps in Nagano during New Year's for a skiing vacation. Among them are Takashi Iijima, his girlfriend Machiko Takeno, her elder brother Kiyoshi Takeno and their friends Nakada and Kaji. Rather than the five of them skiing together, Kiyoshi announces that he will follow Kaji to the cabin of a mutual friend named Gen, and then meet the other three at the local inn. Splitting up, Takashi, Michiko, and Nakada arrive at the inn, welcomed by the manager who informs them that a blizzard is approaching. The caretaker tries to telephone the remote cabin where Gen, Kaji and Nakada are hanging out, but nobody answers. While they continue trying to get ahold of the cabin, a woman named Chika who lives in a remote village somewhere in the mountains arrives at the lodge to display her people's upset that there are so many visitors to the resort this year.  You see, Chika's people aren't too keen on outsiders.  Suddenly, the lodge telephone rings, and they answer, only to hear the sounds of screaming and a gunshot.  With all their worries heightened, the troop (minus Chika, who heads back out as soon as she can) heads to the cabin only to find it in shambles.  Gen is dead on the floor, while Kaji's body has ben dragged outside and left in the snow.  Kiyoshi is missing entirely, but their injuries suggest that they were attacked by some kind of brutally strong animal.  More clues are discovered in the form of tufts of thick hairs laying around, as well as a set of large, bare footprints in the snow.  Could the Abominable Snowman of the Japanese Alps truly exist?  And if so, was this phantom yeti the culprit?  

Due to harsh weather conditions, the rescue teams and search parties unfortunately have to hold off the hunt until the snow thaws in the summer, so the story picks up six months later as Takashi and Machiko set off into the summery mountains with a large search party.  Joining them is Professor Shigeki Koizumi, an anthropologist who serves as leader of the expedition - his interests being primarily in running into any of the remote villages in the mountains, as well as possibly discovering the mysterious humanoid (or Half Human) attacker.  Unfortunately, along the way, their team runs into a rival party scouring the mountains led by a man named Oba, an animal broker capturing wildlife for circuses and zoos.  He too is hunting for the legendary Snowman of the Japanese Alps.  The two rival teams continue their search, running into mysterious goings ons along the way, such as mysterious mountain hermits, and boulders being thrown at them from unseen heights.  One night, as Machiko rests in her tent, the creature finally reveals itself as it peaks in and touches her face. 

Upon being touched by the beast, Machiko screams for help, scaring the Snowman away, while some of the men in the search party take off after it.  Takashi, in particular, gives chase, only to end up lost, and then captured by Oba's men who beat him and leave him for dead in a ravine.  Injured and unable to get back to the camp, Takashi believes he is going to die until he is rescued by Chika, who takes him to her remote mountain village.  Unfortunately, the horror hasn't ended, as the village is so isolated from the outside world that its population has survived through generations of inbreeding, causing the villagers to all be disfigured and somewhat mentally unstable. Furious to find an outsider in their midsts, they bind the recovering Takashi with rope and hang him over the edge of a cliff, where they leave him to die.  Once again giving himself up to death, Takashi waits to pass away, only to be spotted by none other than the Snowman.

The Snowman is carrying a fresh kill back to his cave, and its truly an impressive sight.  Carrying an actual deer carcass over his shoulders, the monster gives off an impressive aura of strength, while also immediately placing himself into the ecosystem as a predator, but one with some human tendencies as well.  It's a terrific scene.  The Snowman thoughtfully lowers the deer carcass to the ground, and then begins pulling Takashi back up to the top of the cliff, rescuing him, where he unties the bonds before picking up the deer again and wandering off without a second glance.  Takashi is astonished, but clearly thankful for the beast's help.

Meanwhile, Oba stumbles onto the home of the Snowman in order to set a trap for the monster, only to discover that there are more than one monster living in the cave, as there is a juvenile Snowman playing near the cave entrance.  Quickly, Oba captures the young creature, hoping to use it as bate for the adult.  The plan more or less works, as when the panicked Snowman adult arrives and finds its offspring missing, it storms out only to be immediately captured by Oba's men.  Oba and his team are then confronted by the people of the remote mountain village, who worship the Snowman as a deity, but he simply kills their leader, and the others fall back. Unfortunately, during all of the excitement, the juvenile Snowman escapes, and begins undoing the bonds that hold the adult in its cage.  In a spectacular set piece as Oba's trucks drive down a mountain road, the Snowman escapes and total chaos ensues.  In the end, all of Oba's men are killed, while Oba himself - the last survivor - shoots and kills the baby snowman.  The adult is, of course, outraged, and in another spectacular show of brute strength it grabs Oba, and hurls him down a ravine to a gruesome death.  Still enraged and struck with grief, the Snowman rampages into the remote mountain village and utterly destroys it.

Meanwhile, Takashi has reunited with his search party, but just as he is able to recount what he's been through to them, the Snowman appears and abducts Machiko, escaping into the night.  At dawn's first light, Takashi and the professor lead a team off in pursuit of the Snowman, entering its cave to find that it lives in a massive subterranean expanse filled with sulfuric pools to provide warmth in the harsh winters.  There, they discover Kiyoshi's bones, along with fragments of his journal which reveals that he had actually been injured in an avalanche following the Snowman's arrival the cabin six months earlier.  The Snowman rescued him and brought him to the cave, feeding him and so on.  There are also larger bones of other Snowmen in the cave, where the team discovers poisonous fungus growing, and they speculate that eating these mushrooms is what killed the Snowman population, and perhaps even their friend Kiyoshi.  But, at that moment, the Snowman storms in, with Machiko over his shoulder. They chase the beast further into the cave, until it stops by a pit of boiling sulfur. Chika - the final survivor of her village - comes to the rescue, attacking the Snowman with her knife; she distracts the creature enough that Takashi is able to get a clear shot at it. He shoots, and the mortally wounded Snowman grabs Chika and drags her down with him as he plunges into the sulfur pool to certain death.  Takashi is reunited with Machiko, and have found the answers they had been looking for - but the Snowman himself, and his entire race, are gone.

While it's one of Ishiro Honda's weaker offerings to the genre, Half Human is not entirely without merit or entertainment value. Its strongest asset is most certainly some beautiful scenery and some of the most gorgeous and cinematic sets/shots to come out of a Toho monster movie.  The Snowman himself was originally intended to be a gargantuan beast, towering over the humans he hunted, but for budgetary and time restraints, they were forced to take a more subdued route with the monster's sizing.  Furthermore, Ishiro Honda insisted that the monster's design be toned down from its original frightening appearance in order to add some pathos and benevolence to its features.

Of course, as was customary, an Americanized version of the film - the version that most fans are probably familiar with, considering Half Human's status as a banned film - hit in 1958 with some interesting changes to the overall story.  Extensive new scenes starring John Carradine were shot, in which the story is framed as American's get ahold of the juvenile Snowman's carcass and perform an autopsy on it - for which Toho actually shipped the juvenile costume out to America so that it could be used in these scenes.  The entire soundtrack was also replaced with stock music, to varying degrees of successful results.  Overall, it's a shame that the Americanized version is still the most prominent cut to be found - and even then, it's still fairly hard to come by - and it's perhaps even a further shame that the actual Half Human has been missing from public circulation for so long.  It's status has made it something sought after by many fans, but from my experience, finally getting ahold of the thing is a somewhat disappointing experience.  Honda was still experimenting with how to best do a monster movie, and so the film comes off as far more generic than any other of Toho's kaiju outings.  Still, it is not without its merits and, as noted above, is especially enjoyable for its - perhaps uncharacteristically - beautiful cinematography.

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