(director/writer: Hiroshi Matsuno; screenwriters: Kyuzo Kobayashi/Kikuma Shimoiizaka; cinematographer: Masayuki Kato; editor: Kazuo Ôta; music: Noboru Nishiyama; cast: Kikko Matsuoka (Saeko / Yoriko),  Yasunori Irikawa (Mochizuki), Masumi Okada (Father Akashi / Tanuma), Norihiko Yamamoto (Ono, Diver),  Kaori Taniguchi (Mayumi), Keiko Yanagawa (Suetsugu), Nobuo Kaneko (Suetsugu’s cabaret manager), Akira Nishimura (Nishizato-ship’s doctor), Asao Koike  (Tsuji, estate agent), Asao Uchida (Ejiri, gambler maniac); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Akira Inomata; The Criterion Collection; 1968-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles-B/W)

“If looking for a ghost story that’s not perfect, artistically shot, prone to violence and entertaining, this one is it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A film classic from Japan’s revered Shochiku studio .

Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Matsuno (“Dôsu-dokyô no hanamichi”), the former assistant to the great Mikio Naruse, only made two feature films. After this one he worked successfully for many years in Japanese TV as a director. The Living Skeleton is a traditional Japanese kaidan film, in the form here of a vengeful ghost story. Because one of its scare shots (a cheesy one) reveal skeletons found linked together at the ankles by chains on a lost sunken ship by a scuba diver, it has become known in some circles as a Halloween fright film.

It’s co-written by Matsuno and the two novelists Kikuma Shimoiizaka and Kyuzo Kobayashi.

There’s a close resemblance between The Living Skeleton and many years later the American John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980).

The Dragon King is a Japanese freighter carrying passengers and a cargo of gold bullion. It has a mutiny and everyone aboard is put in chains and linked together. While it’s docked at the harbor, a ruthless gang of thieves, viewed as modern-day pirates, rob the ship of its gold. They are led by the facially burned, bald leader Tanuma (Masumi Okada). The vicious pirates under his command use machine guns to kill everyone on board, including Dr. Nishizato (Ko Nishimura) and his new bride, Yoriko (Kikko Matsuoka). The bandits escape with the gold, and the ship is lost at sea.

Because of that incident, the orphan Saeko (also Matsuoka) is looked after and given a home in the church by the kind Catholic priest, Father Akashi (Masumi Okada), and is romantically pursued by the doting Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa).

Three years later, at a small coastal fishing village Saeko, who is the identical twin sister of Yoriko, the one who was raped and murdered, has psychic contact with her dead sister when a ghost ship emerges from the misty sea. After reading the ship’s log, Saeko goes supernatural (while scores of fast moving mechanical rubber bats on the church grounds seem to announce the event) and she starts tracking down and brutally killing the four who raped and murdered her sister. The killers believe they are seeing Yoriko’s ghost and have nightmares before Saeko catches up with them.

Saeko (or maybe it’s the ghost of Yoriko) then goes after the now wealthy cabaret owner (Keiko Yanagawa) and the scar-faced boss Tanuma, the top gangsters who escaped. Revenge proves to be sweet, which could be the film’s theme.

Most of the horror set pieces work, as the atmospheric horror pic gets by on its gorgeous B/W photography (but some imagery doesn’t pass the giggle test, for example the freighter looked like a toy boat in one’s bathtub) and some of the nightmare scenes were more distracting than spooky.

But the acting was lively and the directing was competent. If looking for a ghost story that’s not perfect, artistically shot, prone to violence and entertaining, this one is it. It includes the shocking but satisfying climax of two repugnant villains liquefied by a corrosive super-acid to get their comeuppance.

REVIEWED ON 12/10/2019  GRADE: B