Hajime Sato is not ranked among the great Japanese B-movie directors, but during the 1960s he directed a string of diverting pulp favourites, including the gothic horror Ghost of the Hunchback (1965), the ridiculous Terror Beneath the Sea (1966) with ‘Sonny’ Chiba, and his greatest work, the cult classic Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell. Although the English-language title suggests a connection with sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), an obvious influence on Satō’s film, the Japanese title tells us that we’re also dealing with an interstellar vampire or kyūketsuki.
Like Ishiro Honda’s Matango (1963), a film it shared a double bill with in the early 1970s, Goke features a group of people trapped in an isolated location with a supernatural threat lurking close by. Following an incident with an armed assassin (played by jazz singer Hideo Ko, in a natty white suit and polo neck) and a near miss with a strange glowing object in the sky, a passenger jet is forced to crash-land on rocky terrain miles off course. The passengers are a disparate bunch, including a corrupt politician; an arms dealer looking for concessions; an American woman travelling to pick up the body of her husband, a soldier killed in Vietnam; a psychologist; and a bored young man armed with a homemade bomb. Two of the crew have survived: co-pilot Sugisaka (Teruo Ishii veteran Teruo Yoshida) and stewardess Asakura, played by Tomomi Sato, best-known as ‘Quick Change Oyo’ in Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973). While Sugisaka and Asakura gamely try and stop the panicked passengers from killing each other, an alien parasite takes over the body of the hijacker and tries to pick off the survivors.
Shot in vivid Technicolor hues with occasional bursts of psychedelic colour, Goke is avibrant film, running at a fever pitch most of the time. Strange incidents herald events to come: suicidal birds throw themselves at the plane; the instruments don’t work; strange lights appear in the sky, which has turned a fiery orange-red. With most of the human scenes characterised by whites, browns and blacks, Sato and cinematographer Shizuo Hirase turn the interior of the alien spacecraft into a riot of colour and light. The sets are slightly creaky and the ship itself is very reminiscent of the television series The Invaders (ABC, 1967-1968), but despite the budgetary restrictions the effects are generally handled well. The alien itself is suitably grotesque, existing mainly as a silver slime that enters its victims through a gash on their foreheads. Composed by tokusatsu and anime specialist Shunsuke Kikuchi, the score consists mainly of staccato horns, screeching strings and the ubiquitous Theremin. It doesn’t break new ground, but it’s atmospheric and fits the film’s visuals closely.
The passengers are all intense, one-dimensional portraits, but they provide shorthand notes for the social and political issues facing Japan in the mid-1960s: corrupt politicians; equally corrupt businessmen with a degree of growing political power; the Vietnam War and the presence of foreign soldiers in Japan; orchestrated acts of political violence; random acts of rebellious violence by an increasingly disaffected youth. They also conveniently resonate with the film’s young, educated, politically conscious target demographic. Any shred of civilised existence disappears quickly as fear and panic set in; even the American woman, who is initially the only sympathetic passenger on the plane, turns on the others when her life is threatened.
The disintegration of this microcosm of human society gives way to a more global apocalypse, as the last survivors of the plane realise they might also be the last survivors of the human race. In this Goke prefigures the wave of Japanese apocalyptic films that arrived in the 1970s, although its use of a science-fiction mechanism (the invading alien species) differs from the majority of similar movies, which placed Japan at the mercy of natural forces. This is a difference in details alone, however; Goke’s aliens are just as faceless and unstoppable as the diseases or tectonic disruptions of later movies. It’s an alarming conclusion, one that renders the previous squabbling, betrayal and violence utterly redundant, because the planet is doomed anyway. By extension, the chaos that humanity has inflicted upon the world and each other is equally pointless. It’s a bleak, hopeless statement, but it is in keeping with the mood of the times, both in Japan and in the wider world. For all its psychedelic flourishes and science-fiction tropes, Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell is an intelligent, surprising film and an icon of Japanese cult cinema.