Half Human (1955)

Author: Patrick Galvan
January 11, 2016
Note: review may contain spoilers

As someone who passionately loves and cares about cinema and cinematic history, I am always a little bit saddened when I discover that a film has been classified as lost: that someone's story, whatever it might have been, will never again be put out for audiences to see and decipher. The making of a film—good or bad—is a difficult, obstacle-packed procedure in which individual artists must oftentimes struggle to maintain their vision. So I cannot help but feel bad when I learn those many, many hours were spent working on a now-destroyed piece of art. This is especially true in regards to Japanese cinema. According to author Catherine Russell, it is estimated that 96% of all silent Japanese movies have been lost forever. (An example: the venerable director Mikio Naruse made twenty-four silent movies in the early part of his career, and only five remain in existence today.) Furthermore, there have also been a few early sound Japanese films which were either hacked into fragmented form or sealed away from public consumption altogether. And both of these cruel, undeserving fates befell the film under discussion: Ishiro Honda's Half Human.

Half HumanThis was the first monster movie Honda made following the success of Godzilla (1954), in the dawn years of an era where the director juggled between science-fiction and more personal stories devoid of the presence of giant monsters and alien invaders. It's hard to say for sure due to the lack of regular availability of his entire career, but Half Human might be the closest Honda came to embracing imagination and reality in equal doses. Whereas Godzilla featured a monster more allegorical than plausible—one the director described as "equal to an atomic bomb"—the creature in Half Human was a yeti, a little larger than a man (although promotional images, like the one to the right, try to make him seem giant), vulnerable to gunfire, and hiding in the Japanese Alps. In short, a creature far more likely to exist than an indestructible fire-breathing behemoth. Add to that nice premise a fine cast re-teaming Akira Takarada and Momoko Kochi as young lovers entangled in a series of strange events. From that superficial description, the film sounds like a real winner in Honda's career.

However, as many know by now, Half Human would go down in tokusatsu history as one of Honda's lost projects. The studio withdrew the film from distribution, and—adding insult to injury—the only commercially available print is a justifiably despised American re-edit called Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman. The worst of both worlds, it would seem.

There is good news—relieving news—however: Half Human, in its original Japanese print, still exists today! Screenings are rare, but audiences can still experience the film the way it was meant to be seen. Even more rewarding news for us tokusatsu fans: in spite of some notable flaws in the screenplay, Half Human turns out to be one of Honda's more unique and interesting—and quite enjoyable—science-fiction movies. It's not a masterpiece. It's not on the same level as Godzilla (1954) or Matango (1963), but there's plenty of good material here to warrant more than a couple of views.

In terms of the story: on a rainy night, a news reporter ventures to a train station in hopes of interviewing a university team which recently returned from an expedition in the Japanese Alps. He finds the group sitting wordlessly amongst each other. With them are two items: the boxed remains of a companion, and the deceased's journal, in which he claims to have encountered a mysterious animal in the mountains. One of the students, Takashi Iijima (Akira Takarada), is selected to tell the story; he does so via a series of flashbacks.

The tale started, innocently enough, during the previous winter season, with a skiing trip. Iijima, his girlfriend Machiko (Momoko Kochi), her older brother Takeno (Tadashi Okabe), and two fellow students were enjoying the slopes in the Japanese Alps. Toward the end of a fun-filled day, Takeno and another student decide to ski ahead of the others, to reconvene at a later time. Iijima and the others proceed to their cabin, only to learn from the innkeeper that a blizzard would soon be sweeping over the area. (Their two friends had no way of knowing.) Later that night, as an avalanche roars down the mountainside, the students receive a phone call from a nearby lodge; and instead of learning their companions made it to safety, they hear the report of a gunshot and two agonized screams. Adding to the mystery is a temporary guest in their cabin: a native girl named Chika (Akemi Negishi), who seems to know more than she was willing to admit and who slips outside and disappears shortly after the phone call ends.

The next day, a search party heads to the lodge where the phone call came from, only to find it in shambles; the owner and one of the missing students are dead; Takeno is nowhere to be found. The team also discovers small tufts of mammalian hair caught in the jambs of the door—not to mention a series of enormous footprints trailing in the wilderness. After the thaw of spring, Iijima and Machiko return with their professor, Koizumi (Ozu regular Nobuo Nakamura), who believes the hair and footprints may belong to an unidentified creature inhabiting the mountains—Japan's very own abominable snowman, even. They begin searching the mountains, unknowingly facing competition from an animal broker (Yoshio Kosugi) intent on capturing the monster for profit. And the nearby village of superstitious people is determined to prevent anyone from interfering with the legendary animal they worship. Sure enough, the abominable snowman turns out to be more than just a myth. And what's more, it's not alone....

Half Human

Half Human, perhaps more than anything else, is a solid demonstration of Ishiro Honda's skills as a craftsman. From the very beginning of the picture, he establishes and maintains an effective atmosphere in which the mood is not so much gloomy as it is eerie and unsettling. Honda's filmmaking is simply beautiful. There are numerous shots suggesting he might have shared his friend Akira Kurosawa's fascination with the movies of John Ford. More than a few times, he photographs his characters from a great distance, placing them toward the bottom or far edge of the composition, with the mountains (some real, some recreated via spectacular matte paintings) looming high and mighty over them. In doing so, Honda and his crew effectively captures a sense of isolation, displaying that even in large groups, man is still puny and virtually helpless in the face of nature. The camera moves in graceful, fluid sweeps, providing just enough physical action to keep the shots interesting without taking attention away from the subject matter. One such movement occurs when the search party first enters the second cabin after the blizzard. Honda places his camera inside the cabin and we watch the men clamber inside before us. Then, slowly, the men turn and stare down at something beyond the boundaries of the frame. And instead of promptly cutting, the director swings his camera, very smoothly, at an angle to reveal the crushed body of the lodge owner. Pristine filmmaking.

Honda also demonstrates his ability to use simple techniques to recapture our interest just when things seem to be sputtering out. At one point, he ends a long, quiet, dialogue-heavy scene and immediately begins the next sequence with a series of gunshots. Just enough to change the rhythm and keep the pace snappy—to keep the audience awake. The pacing in general is smooth. It's not until the finale—our heroes tracking the snowman in its cave, answering questions about its species as well as the fate of their missing companion along the way—that the movie begins to drag. Some tighter editing would've greatly helped this climax.

As for the snowman, it is, easily, the best character in the entire film. And this further proves Honda's worth as a storyteller—in this case, an emotional one. Instead of depicting a bloodthirsty killer, he characterizes the yeti as a curious and rather shy animal, one who makes his first appearance peering through a hole in a tent, staring curiously at Momoko Kochi as she sleeps, only to flee in panic when she screams. The snowman means no harm to mankind. It's an omnivore (we discover at the end that the rest of the species died out after consuming poisonous fungi—a nice third-act touch—and, in another scene, the animal is marching across the wilderness with the carcass of a deer slung over its shoulders). But it has no interest in human flesh. In fact, on two occasions, the snowman goes out of its way to save the life of a human—a suggestion that, perhaps, it's sympathetic toward creatures which bear some semblance to it. Only when its child is slain—when deprived of its sole companion in the world—does the animal go into a rage.

Half HumanThe scene where the snowman's true anger comes out is one of the highlights. The adult yeti has been captured by the animal broker and placed in the caged rear of a circus truck. Its son comes to its aid, only to be captured and caged along with its parent. Eventually, the two creatures escape, but the animal broker pulls his gun and fatally shoots the infant snowman in the back. The adult, shocked and enraged, turns on its child's murderer, tosses him around a bit, and finally lifts the man up in both hands, high into the air, before hurling him into the mouth of a chasm. But Honda has not disregarded the creature's motive; the carnage was not put on film simply for the sake of exciting the audience. After the animal broker and his men have met their end, Honda composes a tight shot of the snowman panting with anger and aggravation. Then, the poor animal quietly returns to the lifeless remains of its child, whimpering sadly as it carries the body away into the woods. This last part of the scene is filmed in a single unbroken take with very little camera movement, and it's suitably emotional.

The physical depiction of the snowman by special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya is also impressive. I very much like the design of the costume: basically a stockier version of an ape. (Sometimes, the simplest designs are the best ones.) Most effective are the use of the eyes, which convey just enough emotion to give the impression that this is a living thing without too obviously spelling out what the creature is thinking or feeling. As with the two humanoid giants in The War of the Gargantuas (1966), the staff relies mostly upon physical movement and context (and sound) for the audience to understand and sympathize with the character. I'm not quite as enthusiastic about the costume for the baby creature, but I've seen worse. Far worse. Both of these creatures, even in their weaker shots, look infinitely more convincing than the atrocious gorilla suit made for King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and the even-more-atrocious suit utilized in King Kong Escapes (1967). Both suit actors turn out excellent performances, the postures and movements forming a nice and fitting suggestion of man mixed with animal. (The adult snowman, for instance, stands upright like a man and sometimes crouches forward like a man, but the movements—especially when it runs—are more lumbering to suggest weight.)

Half HumanThere are a few moments utilizing non-suitmation techniques which temporarily shatter the illusion, namely a stop-motion shot of the adult yeti clambering up the face of a rock wall. But, in general, the snowman and his offspring represent a mostly solid effort from Tsuburaya and his staff. And the characterization, again, is splendid.

Not everything in the film is so strong, though. Half Human was written by Takeo Murata, the same man who helped Honda craft the excellent screenplay for the first Godzilla movie the previous year and who would, in the following year, work alongside Takeshi Kimura on the strong script for Rodan (1956). All three films have interesting narrative techniques, but what sets Half Human a tier beneath those other two pictures is a significant lack of compelling human characters. Godzilla featured a love triangle with three beautifully written characters who the audience could relate to as human beings—which made the ultimate sacrifice of one of them all the more devastating. And Rodan, despite lacking the human tragedy element, provided us with two young lovers who genuinely seemed to care about one another, and who took turns caring for one another. The script for Half Human, however, falls short on generating emotional character investment. Hardly anyone in the film stands out as anything other than what they represent: the protagonist, the romantic interest, the scientist, the brother, etc. Over the course of the story, Takarada's leading man falls into a gorge, is beaten up and thrown into another gorge, is tied up and hung off the edge of yet another gorge—and yet whether he lives or dies doesn't amount to much because we don't really know anything about the character. And, sadly, there is zero chemistry between him and Momoko Kochi. Kochi herself is little more than a damsel in distress. This is not a strike against either of these immensely talented performers, who have done wonderful work elsewhere and who had a wonderful dynamic in Godzilla. The script here simply does not give them enough material to create sympathetic characters.

Their companions fare the same: competently acted, but no one really stands out or, for that matter, apart from one another.

There are, however, a few characters who do strike a positive note. For starters, Yoshio Kosugi is delightfully entertaining as the animal broker. Like Jerry Ito in Mothra (1961) and Hideyo Amamoto in King Kong Escapes (1967), he acts beyond conventional play-it-safe boundaries but, at the same time, avoids condescending into an obnoxious self-parody. An over-the-top performance done right! The actors playing the broker's henchmen follow his example, but Kosugi runs away with the show whenever he's on screen.

Still, having said all of that, Kosugi is not the most interesting human character in the story. For the one who really stands out—the one who really commands the screen and our emotions whenever she appears—is the village girl Chika. Akemi Negishi (a common face in Kurosawa's films) plays her well, but unlike so many of the people around her, Negishi is actually provided some dimension and compelling motives to distinguish her as an individual. Chika is a total and complete outcast. She's an isolated soul in an isolated community. The others in her village are hideously deformed; she's physically pure and normal. The others insist on distancing themselves from civilization and disposing of anyone who enters their territory (it is they who tie up Iijima and hang him off the cliff); she, by contrast, sometimes visits a lodges on the mountain, she saves Iijima's life after his encounter with the animal broker's men, and her most precious possession is a ring given to her by a man from civilization. At one point, she confuses the broker for a member of the university expedition and expresses a strong urge to meet his companions—as if she's trying to escape from the isolated and sometimes unpleasant existence she's always known. Without a doubt, she's the most complex and interesting person in the story.

Half HumanHowever, I would argue there's room for even further development. For instance, after Chika saves Iijima's life and brings him to her village, one of her neighbors aggressively questions if she's "sweet on him." Honestly, that's a question I myself would've liked answered. And part of me likes to think that, on an extremely rough level, screenwriter Murata was weaving a Godzilla-esque love triangle for this movie. It would fit into a pattern he established in his two previous monster movies. In both Godzilla (1954) and Godzilla Raids Again (1955)—which he co-wrote with Shigeaki Hidaka—the screenwriter created a love triangle which concluded with one participant suffering a tragic death. And in Half Human, we get some dim suggestions of Murata trying to continue the same pattern. Chika, it is suggested, has a crush on Iijima; yet he loves Machiko. Like the ill-fated Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla, Chika is the outcast, the abnormal one, whose love is not returned. Furthermore, it could be argued that when she later leads the expedition to the creature's lair in hopes of saving Machiko (who has been taken captive), Chika realizes she's lost the man she loves. Her home is gone—the snowman destroyed it in a rage following the death of its son—and so is the person she wanted. Perhaps this would explain her desire and urge to ultimately put her life on the line at the end. Now, admittedly, everything I just wrote could be a case of me reading way too deep into it; I have no idea if this vague suggestion of a love triangle was intended by the filmmakers at all; regardless, with some stronger development, it would've been a compelling manner to further expand the characters.

Still, missed opportunities aside, Chika is the one person in the movie with some emotional resonance, and Negishi's sweet and elegant performance makes it all the more believable.

Murata's screenplay also suffers in terms of explaining a lapse in the snowman's behavior. Why, at the beginning, does the creature violently kill two people and yet—in the same general stretch of time—bring a third, injured man to its cave and give him food? Did it curiously approach the lodge (like it does with Machiko's tent) only to be fired upon and the attack was a means of self defense? Was there some other motive for this out-of-character violence? Some context would genuinely help.

Since I am reviewing the Japanese cut of Half Human—the one that was pulled from distribution on supposedly moralistic grounds—I suppose I am obliged to discuss the villagers in the movie. There have been suggestions over the years that some people interpreted them as a negative stereotype of the Ainu (perhaps due to the touch of the villagers worshiping the snowman?) and that their physical deformities were due to inbreeding. Alas, there is not one line of dialogue in the film validating such a claim. And in truth, the characters are described in the film not as Ainu, but as Burakumin—outcasts from Japanese civilization. (It is worth noting that both the Ainu and the Burakumin have been subjected to discrimination for a long time.) And their repulsive appearances, it would seem, is little more than a visual tool to further distinguish them from the pure and noble Chika (who, again, explicitly shows a desire to join or experience civilization). It's not hard to see why some would grow concerned about this representation: the people living in rural Japan by primitive means (the villagers) are presented as barbaric, subhuman brutes, and the only members of their communities who can discover their own humanity are the ones who most closely resemble civilization and wish to join it (Chika). But, to counter, aren't the animal broker and his henchmen 'civilized' individuals as well?

Half HumanThe score for Half Human is another early-career piece by the great Masaru Sato, who here, as he did in Godzilla Raids Again (1955), turns out a modest soundtrack hinting at the brilliant work to come. There are some very good cues such as the cheerful music that plays as our heroes are skiing at the beginning of the film, and Sato effectively applies subtle, atmosphere-enhancing drumbeats when needed. On the other hand, the composer falls short—drastically short—during the climactic confrontation in the snowman's cave. The scene is already too lethargic for its own good, and the music is so dim and uneventful that it might as well not even be there. In total, Sato's score is more atmospheric than memorable, but it generally works well enough in context.

Onto the non-snowman effects. As mentioned earlier, the matte work, as it so often is in tokusatsu films, is sensational! The black-and-white cinematography by Tadashi Iimura helps guise the seams where live-action plates join illustrated backgrounds, and the sense of scale and majesty truly resonates. However, the separately photographed birds swirling behind Akira Takarada as he hangs from the gorge look rough: sometimes the scenery bleeds through them, and the birds jitter around sporadically on the background plate. But kudos to Tsuburaya and his team for trying their hand at this sort of effect; and, though imperfect, archaic composites such as these do have a lasting charm. The miniature trucks that pummel into the chasm during the escape scene look good, and Tsuburaya films them spectacularly. As the trucks shatter (multiple times) colliding into the rock wall, Tsuburaya's camera trails after every bit of debris, as if the crew could not help but watch their hard work being demolished. However, the same level of enthusiasm cannot be applied to the doll-like human puppets who are also sent tumbling into the ravine.

Let's move onto the wholesomely negative side of things now. While the original Japanese cut of Half Human can be regarded as an imperfect but entertaining piece of cinema, its western market edition, Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman, released in 1958, is an insufferable piece of garbage which makes Gigantis the Fire Monster feel masterly. The American cut of Half Human also tells its story through flashbacks; except in this case, the storyteller is—you guessed it!—an American. In this case, John Carradine: an immensely talented character actor who unfortunately made a fair share of dreary monster pictures, a sizable few of which featured humanoids. But this is not a case like Godzilla King of the Monsters! where the editors tried to create the illusion of the American actors inhabiting the same sets as the Japanese cast. This isn't even like the U.S. cut of Varan the Unbelievable (now we're stooping really low) which tried to make it seem as if the new actors interacted with the monster and the monster only. Here's the gist of the new story: Carradine's a returning exchange professor who learned of "a weekend filled with terror and murder" via colleagues while teaching in Japan, and now he's relaying what he knows for some fellow American scientists. He also has a yeti hair sample, a footprint cast, and the carcass of the baby snowman (Toho shipped the suit overseas for an autopsy scene)—all tokens he received after the fact, for he was not actually part of the action when it happened. So basically, it's like a slightly more involved campfire story. And a pretty boring one at that.

Carradine, usually entertaining, isn't very impressionable here, and the three actors he shares his scenes with fare no better. The dialogue—"Let's get back to the searching party! I want to know! Did they ever find whatever it was that left those footprints in the snow?"—helps in no way. (The constant hesitating between lines dims the pacing even further.) And what's more, these additional scenes benefit the narrative in no way apart from providing a slightly better explanation for the early-movie swing in the monster's behavior. One of the scientists—Morris Ankrum, who fared much better in Ray Harryhausen's 1956 Earth vs. the Flying Saucers —performs an (off-screen) autopsy on the baby snowman and explains, via some very fuzzy dialogue, that even though the creatures possess basic human emotions, their brains can't process them, and thus they are prone to violent outbursts at random. (Or so I think the movie was trying to say.) Also: there is some slightly more dynamic (stock) music for when Chika and the adult snowman square off at the end. But that is it. The rest of the U.S. cut is inexcusable, with dull narration, incessant music, and no dubbing apart from the occasional shout or scream. Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman makes 63 minutes seem obnoxiously slow. The only moment which gave me a sincere feeling of thankfulness was a pre-credits dedication in which the U.S. distributors saluted Toho's staff for their hard work. It was reassuring to receive confirmation that the movie was finally going to end, and it's fitting. Truly fitting, seeing as how the Japanese filmmakers were the only involved parties here who put up any kind of a commendable effort.

I feel terrible that the American cut is the only version of Half Human most fans are familiar with, but there is some justice in that Honda's original movie does, in fact, still exist. It didn't burn up in a furnace. It wasn't left to deteriorate in a vault somewhere. Half Human—the way it was meant to be seen—is still out there and is well worth any monster movie fan's time.