by Peter H. Brothers
(Oringinally published in Issue No. 69 of G-Fan (Fall 2004), this article was nominated for a "Rhondo Award.")
“I stopped to (rest) my horse on an open clearing, and loosened the girths, and watched the sun, which was just about setting. While I was musing, I heard a slight sound, and looking round, I saw some 15 or 20 paces away, a figure which I now suppose must have been one of the hairy men that the Everest Expedition talk about and the Tibetans, according to them, called the Abominable Snowman.”
The above account was written by Englishman William Knight and was published in a 1921 edition of The Times -- one of many sightings which began officially in the 1880s -- of a creature shrouded in the same legendary mystery as Bigfoot and The Loch Ness Monster.
The creature’s designation was based on a mistranslation of the Tibetan words metoh kangmi, which more accurately translates into “man-bear.” In any event, the idea of a snowman being “abominable” certainly didn’t hurt the creature’s PR, and fueled the imagination of both newspaper editors and newspaper readers for many years.
The Sherpas (a mountain-dwelling people living close to the source) call the animal “yeh-teh” (Yeti) which literally means “That over there.” Sightings of such creatures are not limited to the Himalayas but have also been reported in Australia, China, Russia and North America.
By the early 1950s the creature was a hot item. During the first attempt to climb the northward face of Mount Everest (1921), the expedition reported sighting strange black figures in the distance. Thirty years later, a team led by Eric Shipton took photographs of footprints allegedly belonging to the snowman. After these pictures were printed in newspapers around the world, they became a sensation.
When Toho Studio producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was considering what sort of monster would become the basis of his Project “G” film in 1954, he settled on a dinosaur, believing it “ . . . was more suited to the time period.“ Therefore was no surprise that in 1955 -- with the Shipton’s photographs still buzzing the scientific community -- Tanaka decided his next monster movie would feature a Yeti.
Project “G” had ultimately becomes Godzilla and had been a great achievement for 43-year-old director Ishiro Honda in what was only his sixth feature film up to that point. It has been stated that the true test of an artist’s greatness lies not in their first success but in their second -- after all, that initial success could have been a lucky stroke, timing and necessity dictating much of the achievement. The challenge that both Honda and Tanaka faced after Godzilla was in creating another monster film different in style, form, and purpose than the first film (e.g., no huge battle scenes or conflict with the military). This time, instead of utilizing an exaggeration of a dinosaur, the beast would be one based on documented sightings and scientific evidence: in other words, a creature that could actually exist.
Since Honda had done so well in molding fantastic subject matter into a convincingly compelling film in Godzilla, he seemed a natural to helm this new project to be known as Jujin Yukiotako (Abominable Snowman). However, the first Godzilla film had been such a success that a sequel (Godzilla’s Counterattack) was concurrently being prepared.
Tanaka gave the Counterattack project to Motoyoshi Oda, thus freeing Honda to handle the yeti film. As Honda later recalled, “ I was busy filming Koigesho, so I didn’t have time to direct Godzilla’s Counterattack. At that time, the studio made a schedule so that all in-house young (inexperienced) directors could direct a film. That is why the sequel was directed by Oda.”
Honda’s team would be essentially the same that assisted him with Godzilla: Shigeru Kayama would again write the original outline while Takeo Murata would assist Honda in writing the screenplay. Honda would once again go on location; this time to the snow country of Hakuba (a famous ski resort in the Nagano prefecture), with on-site technical assistance given from the University of Rikkyo’s expert mountain climbing club.
As the Toho Company Ltd. logo appears on the screen, it is accompanied by a crashing of symbols and low horns, clueing us to a grim journey ahead. The film’s opening title sequences appear over a panoramic painting of snow-covered peaks as seen from within a cave, the curved wall on the right moving slowly out-of-frame, as if we are walking further out beyond the cave‘s opening. The camera then pans slowly to the left as Masaru Sato’s music soars as a howling wind reverberates in the background. The music then segues into a sad harmonica rendition of a German hiking song (known in America as “Wooden Heart”) with a somber underscore, as if predicting a disaster for the hikers. It continues with staccato flutes and rolling timpani, until it finally reaches its coda, with horns holding a sustained note over the title of Ishiro Honda as Director, as if heralding an audacious new talent.
The film opens with a shot of a train station on a rainy night. A reporter named Kodama (Yasuhisa Tsutsumi) approaches a ticket agent, inquiring whether the expedition from the mountains has returned. The agent answers in the affirmative, and the reporter goes in.
He is confronted by the sight of the eight-member team looking somber and silent, revealed in a 180-reverse shot. As the reporter removes his coat, he accidentally places it against a box containing the ashes of Michiko Takeno’s (Momocho Kochi) elder brother Kiyoshi.
Kodama then approaches the senior member of the team, Professor of Anthropology Shigeki Koizumi (Nobuo Nakamura) and asks for the details of their disaster, but the professor cannot bring himself to answer (Honda used the same idea in an early scene in Godzilla, when the supervisor of the Nanki Shipping Company was unable to tell his boss what happened to the company’s sunken ship). Instead, the professor nods to Takashi Ijima (Akira Takarada) to fill the reporter in on the details.
Takashi, his right forearm bandaged, pulls out notes from a diary written by Takeno and hands them to the reporter. Kodama reads the entry which tells of two skiers, one killed in a cabin (in a voiceover of by the late Takeno) on what was supposed to be a pleasant New Year’s vacation in the Japan Alps in Nagano. As the flashback begins, we find ourselves on our way to an unforgettable adventure . . .
Tyrolean-type music starts us off, shifting into a happy lark-like theme amidst shots of five skiers threading their way through beautiful location scenery of snow-covered trees and mountain peaks shimmering on a wintry day.
The skiers pause at the top of a ridge. The camera pans from right-to-left, revealing Nakada (Sachio Sakai), Michiko, Takashi, Kaji (Akira Yamada) and Kiyoshi (Tadashi Okabe), all looking delightfully down on a vista of powdery-white, virgin snow.
Rather than the five of them skiing together, Takeno announces that he will follow Kaji to the cabin of a mutual friend named Gen-San, and then to meet the other three at an inn. This comes as a surprise to Takashi, who is a little uncomfortable with the change in plans; perhaps he has a premonition. He ultimately agrees however, and watches Takeno and Kaji ski down the slope.
After watching them depart, Takashi, Michiko and Nakada begin their decent (Honda commits a gaffe here: he goes to three close-ups of the skiers against a back-projection of the snow speeding by. While the shot is acceptable -- though Takarada is the only one who seems to know what he is supposed to be doing -- none of the skiers have pulled their goggles down over their eyes).
During this opening sequence, Tadashi Iimura’s lovely cinematography and Sato’s cheerful music paint an atmosphere of youthful exuberance of skiers reveling in the pure pleasures of their winter wonderland under a crisp, clear sky. Their ultimate destination will transport them into a world so diametrically opposed from this it will seem little different from the Seventh Level of Hell.
The three skiers arrive at the inn, welcomed by the manager Matsui (Akira Sera), who informs them that a blizzard is approaching. As the four enter the inn, the final shot in the sequence shows two distant figures ascending up a snow-covered hill (presumably Kaji and Takeno). The grave music clues us into bad weather ahead and a tragic end to their sojourn.
That evening a blizzard rages outside the inn, the wind howling as the innkeeper attempts to call the cabin, but no one answers. Although Matsui is confidant Takeno and Kaji are okay, Takashi isn’t convinced, and makes repeated efforts to get through, his hand spinning the induction coil (which supplies current to the phone) repeatedly.
While this is going on, a worried Michiko gazes out at the blizzard. Suddenly a furry figure hurtles out of the darkness, eliciting a scream from Michiko. As the garbed intruder enters, the occupants of the inn prepare themselves for a confrontation, (Nakada arming himself with a large spatula!). However, there is no cause for alarm, as the innkeeper recognizes the interloper as Chika.
Although her sensuality is prevalent even beneath her furs, she is decidedly unfriendly, reluctant to make idle conversation and content merely to have shelter. She is also uneasy, sensing disaster in the form of an avalanche, news which does not give comfort to anyone. A rumbling sound in the distant soon confirms her prediction as snow cascades down the mountainside, inundating everything in its path between the hotel and the cabin.
A close-up of a cuckoo clock sounding the hour of 7:00 is followed by one of the inn’s ringing telephone. In one of Honda’s most chilling moments, Michiko picks up the phone only to hear the sound of a human screaming into the receiver, followed by a thunderous, guttural roar. She drops the receiver, covering her ears in horror.
Takashi nervously approaches the phone. As he does so they hear the sound of a gunshot on the other end. Then, it is Takashi’s turn to be horrified as he now hears a second scream (Takarada’s poignant reaction to this is one of denial, dread and helplessness). He soon recovers and cries out “Hello!” repeatedly into the phone, but no one answers.
With the storm raging outside they are helpless to do anything. As the innkeeper sounds the alarm bell, Chika gathers her things and leaves, the three skiers looking at her with suspicion, as if somehow she had something to do with the awful situation.
Thus, the first 14 minutes of the film are evenly divided of a sunny vista in the snow and a nightmare on the mountain. The next sequence begins with a panoramic picture of mountains in the distance and a number of skiers, led by the local constabulary, venturing forth to Gen-San‘s cabin.
The journey is an arduous one, but they eventually come upon the quiet cabin. In a few moments they will wish they hadn’t. Takashi calls out but there is no reply.
The police cautiously open the front sliding door and walk in. The camera follows their gaze into the cabin, revealing a grisly visage: the stilled body of Gen-San, slumped over and wearing a sheepskin besotted with gore.
As Michiko and Ijima look around, Ijima spots something just outside the open door on the opposite side of the cabin: large, naked footprints, too huge to be human.
Michiko finds her brother Kaji‘s coat hanging on a line as Nakada discovers Kaji’s goggles. But where is Kaji? Meanwhile, two of the police have discovered the obligatory bent rifle, no doubt the source of the gunshot heard over the phone.
Takashi then makes another discovery: a small clump of mysterious hairs clinging to the side of the wall just inside the back entrance. Nakada even spots some on the ceiling; the strange animal must have been a towering figure.
Meanwhile the searchers outside the cabin have found another body: it is their friend Kaji, who has succumbed from exposure to the icy cold, his arms raised in a gesture of frozen death.
Mournful music accompanies the skiers as they search day and night for Kiyoshi. One night, after paying homage to the remains of Kaji by bowing to his effects, the police have terrible news: the search must be called off. Michiko breaks down, her sobbing segueing us back to the train station as the reporter dutifully takes his notes.
Professor Koizumi explains that the hairs found in the cabin defied analysis. Then the flashback resumes as, six months later, a new expedition has been formed, this time lead by the professor. All faces are filled with happy, optimistic smiles as the group checks into the hotel.
There are other guests staying there, one of whom is a portly man wearing a Hitleresque moustache (Akira Tani), feeding some cute monkeys in a cage. He then asks the innkeeper whose party it is that has just arrived. Matsui is told it is an expedition headed by Dr. Koizumi.
Matsui then goes into an adjoining room and informs his boss, Ohba (Yoshio Kosugi), who owns his own circus company, called Ohba-Gumi (Ohaba Group). Also looking for the Snowman, and knowing of the professor’s reputation, Ohba decides to shadow him.
The next day Dr. Koizumi’s expedition begins, traveling many miles through treacherous terrain and filmed on location -- often with the principal actors -- with crane and tracking shots worthy of Kurosawa. As the searchers rest, they are observed by Ohba (shotgun at the ready) and his associate.
The innkeeper has hired locals as guides who explain the route. They are heading into an uncharted area known as The Garan (Forbidden) Valley. More stunning landscape shots follow as the hikers continue on, driven on by Sato’s music.
That night, the exhausted searchers relax at their base camp, where Michiko’s younger brother Shinsuke (Kenji Kasahara) shows grim concern over the fate of their older brother. To lighten their spirits, the other hikers break into song, singing the hiking song (known in Japan as “Mushiden”) with a harmonic accompaniment.
While the uplifting music plays in the background, there is tension in the tent; the guides are not fond of continuing into the Valley of the Devil (as it is also known) – no one has ever returned from there. Michiko wants to give up the search, but Takashi will have not of it. They must and will continue.
As the hikers sing around the campfire, they are observed -- this time not by Ohba -- but by two native people of the mountains, one of whom, an old man (Kokuten Koudo) shows his displeasure to his companion (Senkichi Omura).
The next day the search continues but is brought to a halt by the sound of gunfire up ahead. As they trek through the tall reeds they come upon a bloodied bear. However, upon closer examination, they discover the bear was not shot, but killed by another animal.
Suddenly a man calls out as a landslide occurs. A “river of rocks” (superimposed in some shots, miniaturized in others) careens down as the searchers duck for cover. As one of the guides warns that anything can happen, a horrendous inhuman cry is heard from up high.
But all have not come through unscathed. One of the expedition members is in terrible pain (convincingly acted, we can almost feel his agony) from a broken leg. Displaying a remarkable lack of concern, the professor has the temerity to inquire if the is all right! Both guides have seen enough and want to abandon the search.
A storm is brewing done via optical work. Another debate in the tent resumes, as the rain pelts down, Koizumi speculates that Takeno was kidnapped and killed by the Snowman. A paragon of optimism, he tells the camp members to expect the worst. One member of the team, Shinagawa (Ren Yamamoto) and Michiko suggest they stop before more people get injured or killed, but Shinsuke and Takashi want to continue. It is also discussed that since they know the creature exists, they must continue with extreme caution.
The storm passes revealing a bright, full moon. Not far from the expedition’s camp, another camp is holding a meeting; this one belonging to the circus people. An unsavory lot, they debate what happened to Koizumi’s party earlier (one of the circus people speaks with a distinct speech impediment). Another helps himself to some sake. One argues against going into the Forbidden Valley, but Ohba feels a big profit is worth the risk. They also know the Snowman is there, so they must beat the professor to its discovery.
At the expedition base camp, Michiko decides to turn in for the night. Sharing her tent is Shinsuke. Takashi will keep watch, armed with a rifle.
The next shot is that of the outside of the tent, with the shadows of tree branches strewn across it, brightly lit by the moon. Slowly and suddenly a huge, hairy, ape-like silhouette covers it. Then an interior shot of the tent shows the sleeping Michiko as the camera pans up to show an opening in the tent, whereupon the face of the Abominable Snowman -- nearly 40 minutes into the picture -- is seen for the first time. The music accompanying this revelation is not threatening (as in the US version), but subtle; a quivering of bow strings while in the distance a camper whistles the hiking song (if one were to close one’s eyes listening to this music they would think nothing untoward was happening on the screen).
Takashi senses something and goes to investigate. Then, a close-up of Michiko‘s lovely face as she sleeps, followed by the Snowman’s face looking in as it makes soft, guttural noises. He then reaches in and strokes Michiko’s face, causing her to wake up. She sees first the hairy hand, then looks up to see the face of the Snowman gazing at her. She screams, startling the Snowman, who then scampers off in to the night. Takashi fires a warning shot to alert the rest of the camp, Sato‘s music mirroring their tension and fear.
Takashi follows the beast in a series of tracking shots (some from his point-of-view) as he pursues the Snowman, trying to find his way through the thick foliage. Chasing after the creature in the dark, Takashi loses his footing, falling off a ledge into the blackness below. His companions call out, but in vain.
After the fade we see that Takashi is still alive, but clearly in some discomfort as he tries to make his way through the forest. A shot of the base camp shows understandable concern on the faces of his friends as one repeatedly calls out to him. All are in distress but for Professor Koizumi, whose body language -- hands on his hips -- clearly show he is more annoyed than anxious at this latest stumbling block in his ambition to discover the Snowman.
Takashi then spots a campfire in the distance. Presuming it to be his, he strides toward it, only to have car headlights shined in his eyes (a moment uncannily repeated when actor Takarada – as Astronaut Fuji – is blinded after being told to “follow the light” in Monster Zero years later). He has stumbled upon not his base camp, but the encampment of the circus people.
Takashi -- weak, hurt and confused -- is clearly in no condition for a confrontation with them. Nor are they happy to see him, preferring their whereabouts to remain unknown.
A scuffle then ensues, and for a while the injured Takashi seems able to hold his own. The men toy with him until Ohba, tiring of the sport, knocks him out. Matsui administers the coup de grâce, kicking the unconscious Takashi over the side of an embankment and down into a deep ravine.
Back at the base camp, Michiko’s brother suggests she sleep, but for her such an idea is without merit. She stares out into the darkness as the scene fades out.
The next sequence begins by showing Takashi having again survived his fall, but this time he is in even worse condition; a blooded shirt sleeve and a limp arm give evidence to it being broken; he is also now displaying additional bumps and bruises. As he comes to, he opens his eyes and looks around.
An exterior crane shot follows showing a waterfall near a simple village, where approximately 30 natives, arranged in rows, bow to an altar displaying the skulls of deceased Abominable Snowmen. They chant along to the eerie wailing of a flute and a slowly beating drum.
Back in the hut, the camera follows Takashi’s gaze at his shelter; crudely constructed of reeds and leaves, with furs hanging from the ceiling and pots scattered over the dirt floor. Then the camera ends its pan as the front door slowly opens.
Coming into view are thonged feet, then the camera pans upwards to show us legs wearing western-style pants and a shirt worn by none other than Chika, carrying a bowl of hot food.
Stunned Takashi cannot believe his eyes; not only is he alive but he is being cared for by a beautiful young woman. For her part Chika seems delighted to see that Takashi is alive, presumably she is the one who found and brought him to the village. She offers him the food, blowing on it gently. He thanks her and tries to rise; it is a bit of an effort. He asks her who she is, apparently not recalling her from her earlier visit to the inn. She smiles at him, then, as if sensing something horrible, her face becomes frozen in fear as a shadow looms behind her.
The door opens once again, and this time it is the village patriarch (whom Chika addresses as “Oji“ or “grandpa“). With his long white hair and beard, he carries an expression of extreme foreboding. Chika and Takashi look at him; it is clear from their expression -- particularly hers -- that there is trouble ahead. He motions for her to accompany him outside.
She seems to know what is in store for her. Before she leaves, Takashi asks who the man is. She replies “I'll be back soon,” then slowly gets up to face her fate.
Another crane shots reveals a number of village huts to the left of the altar as Chika slowly follows the old man out into the village, and before the altar.
A tracking shot taken from ground level shows Oji and Chika moving through the crowd of villagers who interrupt their reverie to confront her. They are a grotesque lot: faces distorted with scars, sores, and open wounds. Some display signs of nervous disorders and missing limbs, others show ghastly or missing teeth and eyes with lids eternally shut.
To say that lovely Chika stands out from the rest of them goes without saying, although it is evident they consider her to be the exception to the rule. They are enraged by her bringing the boy -- an outsider -- into their camp. Chika tries to defend her behavior, but she is overwhelmed by the maddening din of taunting voices accusing her of blaspheming their god.
The old man has heard enough; he advises Chika to make an offering of food to their deity in an attempt to placate it. She goes, ill at ease in leaving Takashi behind.
No sooner does she leave them then the group heads for the hut, eventually coming upon the helpless Takashi. As they enter, some are armed with weapons, although he is clearly unable to offer any resistance. Others stare through the jail-like windows, eager to see what cruel fate will befall him. One thing seems certain: they intend him no mercy.
While this is going on, Chika has arrived at the entrance to the Snowman’s dwelling, a huge cave. She calls out, her voice echoing through its recesses. The sound of screeching bats accompanies the sight of the Snowman, whereupon we discover he is not alone; he has a young offspring. Chika, clearly frightened, scampers off. The two Snowmen gather the food and head back up into their lair.
Chika returns to the camp to look for Takashi, but he is long gone. She sinks to her knees, gazing at the uneaten cup of food. She then rushes out and confronts Oji, who is at that moment preparing a food offering for the altar. Her protestations cause him to spill the food.
He is in no mood for a debate. Enraged at her behavior, he backhands her to the ground, then mercilessly beats her with a long stick as she writhes about, screaming in pain.
Evening at the base camp shows the discovery of Takashi’s rifle. All are anxious to look for him but for Koizumi, who says that it is too dark to be searching for Takashi. Michiko is understandably distraught but the professor condescendingly admonishes her to calm down! The fact that all of this happened due to Koizumi’s urging has apparently escaped him.
As to Takashi’s fate, it is grim indeed: he is suspended several hundred feet high over a deep gorge clouded with mist. His mouth is gagged, his hands tied behind his back. Buzzards hover about, anxious for a meal. Sato colors the grim tableau with somber bow strings, vibrating violins and plucking harps, reinforcing the uncertain situation.
While this is going on, Chika finds a quiet ridge to seek some solitude, but it will be interrupted by Ohba and his assistant who happen to come across her. They naturally like what they see: Chika looks very fetching indeed in her tight-fitting shirt and small shorts revealing her lovely, muscular legs.
But to them she is merely eye-candy; they are after far bigger, even more exotic game. Though she is at first apprehensive of the two men, she assumes they are from the same group that Takashi belongs to. The following key dialogue takes place.
Chika: Do you know a student?
Ohba: A student?
Chika: An injured student.
Ohba: An injured one?
Chika: The one who I saved from my village.
Ohba: Oh, so you helped him? Oh yeah, he’s is my associate.
Chika: Where is he? I want to see him.
Ohba: Of course, you can see him. But I have one thing to ask you. I think you know.
Do you know that huge, monkey-like creature? (She shakes her head vigorously.) You should not hide him. Tell me, in which mountain is he hiding?
Chika: I don’t know.
Ohba: Okay. So I don’t need to have you know where my associate is. So (to his assistant) let’s go.
Chika: Wait! Will you really let me see him?
Ohba: I won't tell you a lie. (To his associate) Bring Takashi here tomorrow. (At this
point Ohba removes a ring from his finger which he will give to Chika as a token of his “sincerity.”) I will give this to you, this ring is more important than my life. (As she takes it and gazes at it, his expression toward her speaks volumes.) You can return it to me tomorrow.
At this point Chika picks up a stone and heaves it across the gorge. As the men realize their goal is literally a “stone’s throw away,” Chika uses the opportunity to scamper off.
The scene is eerily scored by a simple but effective two piano key note combination (Sato used a similar intro to his score for Kobayashi’s death scene in Godzilla’s Counterattack that same year).
Honda also films this encounter in an unusual manner: in a number of shots Chika is acting directly into the camera, creating a “spectator-as-character” perspective. This technique (which Honda used on occasion) tends not only to draw the audience further into the scene but makes the character speaking more sympathetic. What is curious about this point-of-view shot is that the character Honda is forcing us to become is Ohba -- arguably the most despicable character in the entire film.
Tsuburaya then ingeniously shows us a miniature ravine, filled with smoke (substituting for fog), then pans upward to a painted glass shot of mountains in the background, then a doll of Takashi hanging from a miniature cliff. As we cut to the actor we see Takashi cannot hold out much longer, the birds still swarming about (the birds were optically inserted, an effect which tends to give them a slight transparency).
Suddenly the Snowman appears, carrying a carcass (a hyena, or perhaps the infernal Nandi bear of antiquity?). The sound of the buzzards attracts his attention to the rope, whereupon he sees Takashi dangling helplessly. The Snowman then lays down his prey and hauls Takashi upward (in a marvelous shot we see the doll of the miniature Snowman pulling the bound Takashi slowly up).
Takashi is finally brought upward. Lying on his stomach, he becomes aware of the Snowman ripping his confining rope to shreds. He then rolls over and confronts his rescuer, dreading the worst.
But instead of giving us the expected close-up of the creature scowling at Takashi, Honda cuts to a medium shot of a trembling Takashi watching as the Snowman, content with freeing him, easily hauls the animal carcass back onto his shoulders, then lumbers slowly off into the distance. As Takashi stares after him, the Snowman stops and turns for a moment to gaze backward at Takashi, then – seemingly with regret – lumbers off.
At the Snowman’s cave, his son is wandering around near the entrance, his movements observed by the circus company. They soon snare the Snowboy and tie him up. The Snowboy struggles mightily, succeeding in inflicting facial wounds on Ohba’s assistant. The Snowboy wails, but to no avail. Ohba entreats his men to work fast lest the Snowman catch them in the act.
Back in Chika’s hut, we discover she is again receiving a tongue-lashing from Oji. “Let me see it! Let me see the ring!” he demands. Chika, her eyes wet with tears, sadly shakes her head.
“I can't forgive you anymore!” exclaims Oji, who then spits at her. He then slaps the ring loose from her finder, Tadashi Iimura’s camera focusing on it as the ring comes to rest on a mat. As Chika reaches for it, Oji steps on her hand, then grabs the ring. After examining it he again backhands her several times until she is left sobbing on the floor (these repeated scenes of this feeble old man beating the tar out of the young, athletic Chika while the villagers look on gives the picture moments of a dark eroticism).
At the entrance to the cave the circus people wait anxiously for the Snowman’s return. Soon the Snowman arrives, still carrying his prey. As if sensing something is amiss, he pauses for a moment at the entrance to the lair, then trots inside.
Once inside the cave the Snowman makes sounds to arrest the attention of his offspring. In the meantime, Ohba has dared to enter the cave but goes no further than just inside the opening. He fires his gun, which gets the Snowman’s attention. Ohba then scampers backwards out (hunched over like a monkey), then signals his companions to get ready. Just to ensure the Snowman does indeed come out, two of the circus people strike the Snowboy in order to make it cry out.
As the Snowman walks slowly out, the camera tracks his movements (we can briefly see a perspective painting of the background mountains off to the right). Then, seeing his son‘s predicament, he bellows in rage. In a shot taken from underneath, we see him raise his arms as a heavy net is suspended over him. Ohba shouts for his men to drop it. As they do so, he lowers his head, unable to look.
But his men have successfully captured the Snowman, although the beast has plenty of fight in him (the wounds of Ohba’s assistant are now bleeding). It is a tense moment until a rag soaked in ether puts the beast under.
During the commotion the unattended Snowboy has managed to free himself, tossing the remnants of the rope downward defiantly.
But now the villagers have arrived, led by the old man who shakily braces himself with a tree branch. The two monstrous groups confront each other, and although the villagers normally are a sight to scare the very Devil, Ohba is not awed -- he fires a warning shot -- pointless to the natives who have no knowledge of gunpowder.
In an idea Honda would use again in King Kong Escapes, the armed invader guns down the elderly stick-carrying native. In a wonderfully directed moment, as Oji writhes about in pain on the ground, the other members of the tribe clamber around him, looking at Ohba in confusion and dread.
Some of the villagers throw rocks at Ohba, but he has moved off. Chika then arrives, amazingly showing concern for her tormentor. “They did a terrible thing!” Oji tells her, then adds prophetically, “That is the end of our village.” As the villagers weep over him Chicka implores, ”Grandpa, please forgive me.”
The unconscious Snowman now lies at the bottom of a cage on a large flat bed truck, manacled about the wrists and ankles. The circus people are beside themselves with delight.
The convoy, consisting of a large truck carrying the captured Snowman followed by a smaller flat bed truck, head down the mountain road, the mountain a huge manmade miniature with the lead truck at least two-foot long and traveled along under it’s own power at 96 frames per second (a miniature snowman can actually been seen inside the cage!). The camera films some of the spectacular jungle terrain from above.
Up the road, waiting in the branches of a tall tree, is the Snowman’s son. He jumps and lands on top of the cage, then scampers down the side trying to reach his father, but without success (the back-projected landscape speeding by a bit too swiftly).
Eventually the men in the jeep following Ohba alert him to the Snowboy’s presence. The two vehicles stop and the Snowboy is captured for a second time. As he scampers to get to his dad, Ohba sardonically calls out, “What a wonderful reunion is that! What an unexpected profit!” As the men drive back, Ohba dreams aloud to his associate about showing the two Snowmen first in America, and then later in France, having heard about those fine French ladies. His companion’s wounds are now covered with bandages (bandages that go unexplained in the US version).
But disaster is about to befall all. As the Snowboy moans over his dad, the ether finally wears off and the Snowman regains his senses. Noticing his chains, he easily frees himself as his son hops about happily.
The Snowman reaches into the cab and strangles Ohba’s associate to death as Ohba struggles to bring the truck to a stop. Ohba soon feels a hairy hand around his own throat, but several shots from his pistol make the Snowman withdraw his paw.
But the sudden stopping of Ohba’s truck will cause a catastrophe for the men following. As the driver slams on the brakes the jeep goes out of control, falling over the embankment, the two men riding on the back are sent hurtling into eternity.
A panicked Ohba shoots blindly at the cage as the Snowman breaks through the bars. In a moment his son trots happily after him, only to be felled by a wild shot fired by Ohba. The Snowboy stops for a moment, screams in pain, then raises his hands as if feebly surrendering its life, falling limply into the arms of his waiting father. It is the most heartbreaking moment in all of Honda’s fantasy films.
As the Snowman lowers the body of his dead son down, Ohba takes aim at the Snowman and pulls the trigger, but to no avail. His bullets -- and his luck -- have finally run out. The Snowman seems to instinctively know who is responsible for the death of his son and approaches the circus owner, but not before taking a moment to send the truck careening into the canyon (we can even see water spilling out from the truck’s radiator as it tumbles down the side of the cliff).
Ohba now faces his end, cowering among the rocks as -- in an amazingly bold traveling matte (slightly marred by the different shading of the film stocks) -- the Snowman hoists Ohba up in the air, holds him there a moment, then launches him into the bottom of the ravine. Sato‘s music now enters as a vibrato of violins, ascending as if mirroring the snowman’s mounting rage.
An oboe then plays mournfully as the Snowman approaches his stilled son, then picks him up and carries the limp body back for the long, sad journey home . . .
After arriving back at his cave, the Snowman lays his dead son down amongst the bones of his dead ancestors. He then leaves the cemetery (an expressionistic circular set with stalagmites and stalactites) on a mission of destruction.
A scene in Chika’s hut then follows as the villagers have lit a fire and are trying to cure the stricken Grandpa, Chika hovering over him. The Snowman arrives at the village, roaring with rage, upturning several of the huts as Sato infuses the scene with low-key, slow, “funeral-dirge” music. As the huts collapse one-by-one, the fires inside them burn the thatched coverings, creating an inferno. Chika tries to move Oji, who refuses to be budged, “I'm too injured to move, save yourself,” he entreats her.
We then are shown a shot of the villagers’ bodies’ backlit by smoke and flames as they scatter about in panic, then a left-to-right tacking shot of running natives, smoke and burning huts as the Snowman bellows in the background.
As their village burns to the ground, the natives hurriedly huddle and pray for deliverance from their god, who is at that very moment destroying their lives; one native finds himself hurtled into the air by the enraged Snowman. Overwhelmed with grief and shock, Chika wanders off as the Snowman gesticulates madly about, smoke rising into the air. The village is doomed . . .
Back at the base camp, Takashi has finally been found and is relating his incredible story and rescues to his companions. The Snowman however, is at that moment approaching the base camp (a slight flutter belies a beautiful matte shot of the jungle and base camp in the background with the gesturing Snowman in the left foreground). His woeful cries and sounds of trees being felled in the forest alert the party to his presence. Shinsuke picks up a rifle, only to have it taken away by Takashi, remembering the Snowman’s kindness towards him.
The Snowman approaches, backed by gently thumping drums on the soundtrack. Michiko adds logs to the fire as the Snowman, in a reverse tracking shot, approaches her (the American film distributors liked this shot so much they used it more than once).
It is a convention of such movies that the girl be left alone and sure enough, Shinsuke moves away, leaving Michiko to stoke the fire. She screams as she once again encounters the Snowman, who hovers over her as she faints. The camp members return to find both her and the Snowman gone.
The next day the expedition spots smoke slowly spiraling upward. They soon discover the smoldering remnants of the village, uninhabited save for a solitary figure: Chika, worshipping at the shrine. The innkeeper wants to know what happened and Chika tells the grim story. Reunited with her, Takashi requests she show them the Snowman’s cave. This time she readily agrees, and as she does so, the music rises. Sato’s urgent music (horns, violins) spurs them onward to their final destination and a climax never to be forgotten . . .
The group enters the huge cave. Water drips down and is and seeping everywhere, creating underground streams. Squeaking bats (thrown about on fishing lines) fly concave loops about the group as they guardedly make their way further into the cave’s recesses, flashlights showing the way (a idea repeated in Honda‘s next fantasy film, Rodan). Iimura keeps his camera mobile, tracking and panning with the group as they head deeper into the cave. Then Chika spots something.
It is a solitary pile of clothes and bones; all that is left of Michiko’s elder brother, Takeno, found on a forgotten ledge. Takashi recognizes his friend’s watch as doleful harmonica music plays in the background. Kiyoshi’s younger brother Shinsuke calls out “Brother!” then collapses with grief. While the innkeeper tries to comfort him, Professor Koizumi simply tells him to “Cheer up!”
Then, Takashi spots the remnants of a diary kept by Kiyoshi. In a voiceover by Kiyoshi (accompanied by the sound of swirling wind), he describes how he ran from the Snowman into the blizzard. Suffering from exposure to the cold, the Snowman eventually found him and brought him to the cave, whereupon the beast actually tried to save him by bringing him food. To weak at that stage even to eat, Kiyoshi eventually succumbed. His tired, weak figure is superimposed over the pages of the diary as he then slowly disappears as he dies; Honda punctuates the somber scene with another breakdown by Shinsuke. The others then bow in reverence and remembrance before moving on.
As they continue their journey a soft drum thumps gently on the soundtrack. Chika has now found something else: several piles of bones scattered about, indicating the cemetery of the Snowmen. In the center of it lies the Snowboy’s lifeless body. Koizumi then finds some poisonous mushrooms nearby and this, he speculates, is why Snowmen’s race is becoming extinct (apparently the Snowman and his offspring were still alive because they hadn’t eaten the mushrooms). Chika discovers the entrance wound of the bullet fired by Ohba as she gently strokes the quiet corpse.
But now the Snowman appears, still carrying the limp body of Michiko. He gestures his anger, but a rifle shot fired by Shinsuke causes the beast to retreat back further into the cave. Takashi, still remembering his rescue by the Snowman, shouts for Shinsuke to stop shooting.
Instead, Takashi leads the way while the others follow, the desolate cries by the Snowman reverberating through the cave. After a time the group witnesses the Snowman carrying Michiko up a steep embankment as steam issues from the fissures, impossible to follow. But Chika sees another way up.
The music swells as the expedition arrives into the very heart of the Snowbeast’s den; a conical-shaped hill enclosed under a dome-like ceiling (a superb matte shot, as all the matte shots are in this picture, done “in the camera” by the legendary Hiroshi Mukaiya). Steam issues forth from various cracks in the surface. In the center of the dome is a deep pit filled with a boiling liquid at its bottom. Large rocks form steps to the top, and it is on these steps that the Snowman carries Michiko to the top, in a moment colored by low horns rising and falling in their octave ranges, mirroring the uncertainty of the situation.
The group watches helplessly as the monster displays Michiko as if warning the interlopers to stay back (“The Monster Demands a Mate!”). The professor admonishes no one to shoot. Takashi feels he has a chance to free her, but Chika goes up instead. The following sequence is worth describing in detail:
MEDIUM SHOT OF CHIKA APPROACHING THE MONSTER, THE GROUP BELOW TRYING TO CALL HER BACK.
MEDIUM SHOT OF BEAST HOLDING MICHIKO IN ONE ARM, THE OTHER REACHING OUT TO WARD OFF CHIKA.
MEDIUM SHOT OF EXPEDITION WATCHING, Shinsuke, ARMED WITH HIS RIFLE, IS HOPING FOR A SHOT.
MEDIUM SHOT OF CHIKA MAKING HER WAY UP THE STEAMING ROCKS.
MAGNIFICENT CLOSE-UP OF THE SNOWMAN AS HE PREPARES TO CONFRONT HER, AS CHIKA MAKES THE SAME SOUND SHE MADE EARLIER TO CALL HIM TO HIS FOOD.
LONG SHOT FROM BEHIND THE SNOWMAN, SHOWING THE CEILING OF THE CAVE, THE SNOWMAN WAITING, CHIKA CLIMBING AND THE EXPEDITION HUDDLED BELOW IN THE BACKGROUND.
CLOSE-UP SHOT OF MICHIKO TUMBLING AWAY AS THE SNOWMAN HAS RELEASED HER.
MEDIUM SHOT OF GESTICULATING SNOWMAN.
CLOSE-UP OF A SHRIEKING MICHKIO AS SHE LUNGES FORWARD WITH THE KNIFE, HER ARM INTERCEPTED BY THE SNOWMAN.
CLOSE-UP OF MICHIKO, WHO REGAINS CONSCIOUSNESS.
MEDIUM SHOT OF SNOWMAN DRAWING THE STRUGGLING MICHIKO CLOSER TOWARD HIM.
CLOSE-UP OF MICHIKO, HORRIFIED, MOVING AWAY.
CLOSE-UP OF SNOWMAN HOLDING THE STRUGGLING MICHIKO AT BAY, LOOKING BACK AT THE EXPEDITION.
CLOSE-UP OF Shinsuke TAKING AIM WITH HIS RIFLE.
LONG SHOT OF Shinsuke FIRING GUN AS OTHER MEMBERS OF EXPEDITION LOOK ON.
LONG SHOT FROM BEHIND SHOWMAN AS HE REACTS TO THE BULLET, THE EXPEDITION WATCHING IN THE BACKGROUND.
CLOSE-UP OF SNOWMAN, HIS BACK TO THE EXPEDITION, FACING CAMERA, GRIMACING FROM WOUND, CHIKA STILL TRYING TO FREE HERSELF.
LONG SHOT OF SNOWMAN FALLING, STILL HOLDING CHIKA, OTHERS WATCHING IN BACKGROUND.
MEDIUM SHOT OF EXPEDITION AS THEY RUSH FORWARD.
LONG SHOT FROM BEHIND AS SNOWMAN STRUGGLES TO GET UP AS EXPEDITION APPROACHES.
CLOSE-UP OF STANDING SNOWMAN BRINGING CHIKA UP TOWARD HIM, THE BLOOD ON HIS BACK CLEARLY VISIBLE.
INSERT OF EARLIER CLOSE-UP OF SNOWMAN HOLDING THE STRUGGLING CHIKA AT BAY AS HE LOOKS BACK AT THE EXPEDITION.
CLOSE-UP OF SNOWMAN LOSING BALANCE, TAKING CHIKA WITH HIM AS HE FALLS.
SHOT OF (MINIATURE) SNOWMAN AND CHIKA AS HURTLE INTO THE BOTTOM OF THE PIT.
MEDIUM SHOT OF EXPEDITION LOOKING DOWN INTO THE PIT.
CAMERA PANNING DOWN THE SHAFT OF THE PIT TO THE bottom, SHOWING THE BOILING WATER.
CLOSE-UP OF TEAM MEMBER AND PROFESSOR AS EERIE NATIVE CHOIR MUSIC FILLS THE SOUNDTRACK.
CLOSE-UP OF TWO MEMBERS OF EXPEDITION AND Shinsuke STARING INTO THE PIT.
CLOSE-UP OF MICHIKO AND Shinsuke LOOKING DOWN INTO THE PIT.
FINAL CLOSE-UP OF BUBBLING WATER.
This extraordinary sequence should have ended of the picture, but instead -- possibly at the request of producer Tanaka -- a happy ending will finish the film.
We find ourselves back at the train station where the reporter (looking remarkably nonplussed considering the tale he has just been told) thanks the expedition team for their story as he rises to leave. The ticket agent then announces that the train is approaching (no doubt on schedule) as its whistle sounds in the background. It has also stopped raining.
The reporter announces, “The rain has stopped,” as the group gathers to leave the station. A brief reprise of the hiking music -- this time on an upbeat note with a full orchestra – accompanies a dissolve to the film’s final image: a panoramic shot of the beautiful snow-covered mountains behind a bevy of luscious pine trees shining under a bright sun. The music swells and reaches its coda on an upward, happy note as the end credits appear on the screen, bringing this uncompromisingly grim, brutal picture to its contradictorily happy ending.
Abominable Snowman is an exquisitely structured and well-crafted film, every bit as compelling as Honda’s earlier masterpiece, Godzilla. Typical of his work, the pace is deliberate but never flags. And while the Snowman’s initial appearance is casually predictable, it is the singular treatment of the creature that differs from the typically Western approach.
Again, Honda’s “documentary-style” manner of filmmaker is evidenced by his focusing on the travails of the human participants and stressing the Snowman’s habitat in its natural surroundings; we feel we are witnessing the recording of an event rather than the staging of it.
Honda’s skillful direction is also in evidence as he manipulates his audience, drawing them in deeper into the machinations of the plot just as the expedition progresses deeper into the cave. He builds suspense beautifully; many times we feel we are a part of the expedition (such as the moment when the team members crawl through the reeds to check out the stricken bear); the scenes such in the cabin during the snowstorm have a claustrophobic quality.
The movie has a number of memorable scenes: along with the aforementioned snowstorm sequence is the introduction of the deformed natives, the capture and escape of the Snowman, the apocalyptic destruction of the village and the final scene in the cave (a sequence lasting 12 tension-filled minutes ); all of which demonstrate Honda’s versatility and the grim, compelling and uncompromising quality he brought to his early genre films. Indeed, to a theatergoing audience, these scenes – particularly the final confrontation in the cave -- must have been almost overwhelming.
As usual Honda evokes sympathy for his “monsters” while at the same time inspiring dread of the villagers and hatred for the circus people, and even certain members of the expedition! We almost hope the Snowman is never found, rather to be simply left alone to live its existence in peace. When mankind intrudes however, there is no turning back and Honda’s direction of the monster’s rampages seemed tinged with certain sadness: despite his obvious fury and power, none of the Snowman’s destructive tendencies will bring his son back to him and will only further aggravate the situation.
But perhaps the most astounding testament to Honda’s unique abilities as a director is the fact that in between Godzilla and Abominable Snowman – as grim a cinematic pair of bookends in any director’s repertoire – Honda directed two sweet and syrupy sentimental films called Love Makeup and Cry-Baby!
Takeo Murata’s gripping screenplay is realistically written while the plot itself is compelling and convincing, with complicated, intrapersonal relationships and conflicts building nicely to its shattering conclusion, held together by convincing performances. Murata’s take on the Snowman differs considerably from the typical Western approach in that the creature is highly misunderstood and not dangerous if left alone. Indeed, other than the monster’s scenes of revenge, the Snowman ultimately seems less bestial than many of the human participants.
The Snowman is not a wicked, malevolent creature or merely an engine of destruction (as painted in Half Human), but a gentle beast who harms no one unless provoked. As to why it killed the skiers in the cabin in the first place, we are given clues during the phone call to the inn; first we hear a scream, then the sound of a gunshot, then the roar of the creature.
Based on this, it appears that the Snowman came into the cabin seeking shelter from the blizzard and naturally frightened the skiers, one of whom (Gen-San) picked up a gun and shot at the animal, whereupon the Snowman killed the man in self-defense. As this was happening, the terrified Kaji ran out into the snow, only to later die of exposure. Also, when the Snowman came upon Michiko’s brother, weakened by disease, the creature cared for him out of mercy, not malice.
It has been noted that Abominable Snowman has more than a passing similarity to King Kong (1933), and indeed there are many parallels:
- The monster lives in a cave
- The monster is the last of its kind
- Men are shown falling to their deaths
- A woman is kidnapped by the monster
- Identification of the monster’s footprint
- A tribe of savages worships the monster
- The monster freeing itself from captivity
- The monster’s heart softened by a woman
- The monster pulling on a rope to retrieve someone below
- Monster climbing atop a structure with his female captive
- The monster having many human qualities and expressions
- Monster being rendered unconscious for capture and exhibition
- The monster falling to its death (the boiling pit recalling the similar ending of Son of Frankenstein (1939)
There are some significant differences between Kong and the Snowman, however. Whereas the Snowman shows definite traits of mercy and is never proven to be a killer unless provoked, the mighty Kong shows no mercy toward anyone save Ann Darrow, and that is only to claim her as his own possession.
And while Kong is motivated by rage and self-preservation, the Snowman seems guided by a longing for companionship, although his decision to capture Michiko after his son’s death could be seen as an instinctive attempt to prolong his species.
And, of course, whereas the Snowman had an offspring, the mightily Kong did not have a son. (Or did he . . .?)
As with Murata/Honda’s Godzilla, there are conflicts in Snowman as well; the professor wants to pursue the animal at great risk through unknown territory and even against the advice of those who accompany him, including the experienced guides. Michiko wants to abandon the search, but Takashi insists they continue. Most want the creature killed, but Takashi, remembering the creature’s merciful qualities, wants to spare the Snowman, even after the beast has captured Michiko, hoping to find a peaceful resolution to the struggle.
There is also the central conflict of the primitive era doomed by modern civilization and all its trappings, another parallel reminiscent of Kong. The tribe worshipping the beast is barbaric, superstitious and suffers physical deformities (due to inbreeding) and their treatment of women is cruel. It is also apparent that any suggestion of contact with the outside world will be severely discouraged.
It is possible that the appeasement and offerings of food and prayer to the beast presumably grant the natives safety from it, as opposed to any human sacrifices offered up to Kong. Despite this, the species is still on the edge of extinction, and regardless of whatever outside interference it may encounter, without a means to profligate itself, the era of the Snowmen is doomed.
Elements of Abominable Snowman would echo in films years later: the idea of a group of people gathered in the hills at night, playing music by a fire while being observed by “mountain people” would reoccur in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1970) and the concept of an exploiter stealing a unique native species while killing its worshippers would sprout up again in Mothra (1961). There is another: the scene of the native villagers encountering a superior “tribe” only to loose their leader due to superior weapons calls to mind the Moonwatcher’s victory over a competing group of primitive men in 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968).
There a weaknesses to the story, however. Michiko’s unconscious state lasts long enough to make us think she may be comatose and while Professor Koizumi’s expedition had to travel many miles through treacherous terrain in order to find the Snowman, circus owner Ohba has discovered a convenient mountain road that leads right to the Snowman’s cave!
Sato’s atmospheric music is simple, subtle and terrifying effective. He uses a soft drum music to color the moment when the creature’s footprints are first discovered outside the cabin and ancient Noh music and chanting to identify the natives (when Chika is beaten by her father in the hut, this music comes over onto the soundtrack).
A key musical moment occurs during the Snowman’s first appearance outside of Michiko’s tent; unlike the bombastic score in the US version, here the music is that of a softly played piano; an important motif as Honda clearly wants us to be fascinated by the creature and not frightened by it. As a result we become more curious than scared and wish to know more about it.
There were 32 separate tracks with over 65 minutes of music to the 93-minute film. To quote Japanese Monster Musicologist Lawrence Tuczynski, “The music easily takes you into the mountains in search of an abominable snowman.” Sato displays great versatility with his score, combining native chanting, happy-go-lucky themes as well as terror and suspense; all combining to create a score that is eerie and effective. One finds oneself playing the grim harmonica music of the hiking song over and over again long after the viewing is done .. .
Despite the fact that Eiji Tsuburaya was not yet being billed as the “Director of Effects” but merely as another technician, his work in Snowman is as audacious and innovative as anything he had done in Godzilla, with numerous glass and matte shots imperceptivity blended with the live footage.
A modest amount of stop-motion was also utilized. While it has been suggested that Tsuburaya lacked the inherent knowledge and skill to work with stop-motion, the fact of the matter was that with the short shooting schedules he was given, he was force to limit his use this technique due to its time-consuming nature. In Abominable Snowman, however, stop-motion was intended to be used quite frequently, but circumstances would dictate otherwise.
For example, as Taiko Inoue (who later work as a production designer at Toho) recalled, there was to be a scene where the Snowman was walking on a snowfield. “We shot the scene outside under natural daylight and put the miniature on the snowfield to shoot it frame-by-frame. We were surprised when we saw the rushes because there was a tree on the corner, and its shadow moved (too) quickly.”
Indeed, Tsuburaya’s effects were usually done on an outdoor stage utilizing natural lighting, which made the use of stop-motion difficult. Optical designer Minoru Nakano remembers, “ . . . (there was) a long shot of an automobile moving down a winding road, only it was done on an open set, which meant that the sun was moving across the horizon during the shot!” The mountain itself was recreated based on photographs of the real thing, a “technique” which Tsuburaya used for many years.
The film has many daring effects and conceptions, such as the opening POV shot from inside the cave, then moving out to the panoramic sweep of the mountains, and the moment when the Snowman picked up Ohba and threw him down the mountain.
This startling shot was achieved by photographing Ohba, with each frame of the actor converted into a photograph. Next, from the photographs, Ohba’s image was then cut along his outline, with each photograph put on a piece of glass, then transferred onto black paper. The matte shot was then created as each portion of Ohba’s image was shot frame-by-frame, with each piece filmed once again, this lit from behind onto glass.
Another amazing shot happened toward the end inside the cave where the Snowman is carrying Michiko up to his lair, steam issuing from the crevices. Here too a miniature Snowman was used in stop-motion, although the resulting effect is a bit jittery, as is the glass shot with painted stalagmites.
While some have criticized such effects (the US version omitted the two previously mentioned shots), the very fact that such conceptions were be attempted displays a certain amount of imagination and a willingness to try new ideas, even if the results were not always flawless. Tsuburaya learned on the job and what shots did not work in one film were either discarded or improved upon when and where they were next utilized (e.g., the manipulation of both the Mothra and Ghidora puppets both were improved upon in their second film appearances). While a questionable modis operandi, it does indicate Tsuburaya’s work ethic and keenness in attempting to bring the effects work of Toho on a par with the West. It would not be the first or last time Tsuburaya’s ideas would be superceded by their implementation due to the modest resources at his command.
Abominable Snowman is Honda’s most beautifully photographed genre film, due to the superb work of Tadashi Iimura. Particularly memorable are the shots of the Snowman’s footprints in the snow as well as his hairs stuck to the side of the entrance of the cabin, the shot of Chika’s ring rolling to a stop on the floor of the hut, of Michiko looking out from the inn during the snowstorm and of the innkeeper sounding the alarm bell.
Photographing on location is never easy, yet Iimura’s camera is constantly on the move with tracking shots and pans. His shooting of the night searching party is particularly effective. The very fact that many weeks of filming were involved in snow-covered terrain, at altitude, with the heavy camera equipment of the day, is evidence enough of a long, complicated, and well-planned shoot (one of many instances of this is when the beast begins his rampage in the village: while some of the villagers and Chika are attending to their stricken patriarch, they hear the bellowing of the Snowman. As the camera pans up we can see through the hut’s window as natives run and fires rage out of control.
The cave sequences are eerily filmed, again with Iimura’s camera tracking as it follows the expedition deeper into the Snowman’s domain. Other shots give evidence of imaginative planning -- just before the net is dropped on the Snowman, Iimura shows us the shot from underneath (an idea that would be copied in Harryhausen’s 20 Million Miles to Earth two years later).
Akira Takarada, fresh from his superb job as Ogata in Godzilla, is wonderful as the heroic -- yet often helpless -- Takashi (as is typical for a Japanese genre film, the hero is weak, susceptible to injury and must himself be rescued, as with Shigeru in Rodan, also scripted by Murata). Doing much to belie the general impression that good-looking actors are not necessarily good performers, he registers bravery and resolve with equal skill, as well as conveying intense vulnerability: his reaction to hearing his friends die over the phone is touching, and though still very young (22 years of age), he shows the promise of many fine performances to follow.
Momoko Kochi (aged 23) looks especially lovely in Snowman, and her performance here is as good as her Emiko in Godzilla. Kochi tended to look down upon her participation in genre films (Takarada remembers her as being a bit of a primadonna) and eventually grew unhappy with constantly being recognized for her part in Godzilla. After appearing in The Mysterians (1956), she promptly returned to her beloved stage.
47-year-old Nobu Nakamura (Dr. Koizumi) was one of Japan’s finest actors. Many will remember his excellent performance in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story as well as in a number of Akira Kurosawa’s films. Unlike Kochi, he bore no malice toward his genre work and continued to appear in such films years later; notably as the “deaf old man” in Dagora the Space Monster (1964) and as the elderly scientist in War of the Gargantuas (1966).
Screenwriter Murata liked to portray scientists as eccentric, unfriendly types (the opportunist Kashiwagi in Rodan comes to mind), and Koizumi is not exactly the milk of human kindness either; a man who cannot be bothered with anything as trivial as human suffering. His obsession with finding the creature alienates himself from the other members of the expedition and paints another unflattering picture of human greed and ambition – not unlike filmmaker Carl Denham in King Kong.
Certainly the most fascinating character was that of the sensual, enigmatic Chika as performed by 21-year-old Akemi Negishi. Honda had used her the previous year as a seductive, dancing native girl in Farewell Rabaul, and she becomes the first of Honda’s many alluring female characters in his fantasy films.
Negishi was discovered by legendary director Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Crime and Punishment) while he was seeking a woman to play the love interest in what was to be his last picture, Anatahan (1954). Negishi was dancing in a cabaret (not dissimilar to her role in Rabaul) and before she knew it she was cast in only her second film.
To quote Guy Tucker, “Negishi was an unusual presence in Japanese film at that time, since her presence was so aggressively, obviously sensual.” Fortunately, rather than being type-cast in trampish parts, she managed to carve out a successful career, appearing in important roles for such directors as Akira Kurosawa (e.g., Donzoko (1957) and Dodesukaden (1970)). Eventually she appeared in nearly 40 films in a career that lasted three decades.
Attractive and athletic, Chika moves with great fluidity through her environment, and although her first appearance has her bundled in furs, her subsequent appearances will show her less and less-clothed, eventually down to a modest shirt and tight-fitting shorts. Clutching her knife (a phallic symbol) during moments of duress, she is a striking visual counterpoint to not only her malformed native tribe but to the hairy and hulking Snowman as well.
Her relationship to the other characters is illuminating: Cleary she is thought of as an “outsider” by the members of her own clan, yet her most bizarre alliance is with her cruel “grandpa” as she continuously allows herself to be beaten by him. Yet, when the old man is dying or in eminent danger, she is close by his side, as if strangely appreciative of the constant drubbings he attends to her.
She is in fact far from innocent and indeed is an ultimately tragic figure. Though she demonstrates compassion, her revealing to the circus people the whereabouts of the Snowman will be a sacrilege that will not only lead to the destruction of the beast but of her tribe and eventually herself. The final image of her hurtling downward in the dying Snowman’s grasp into the boiling pit possibly portents a grim future in the next world.
As Ohba, Yoshio Kosugi (52 years old) was typically assigned gruff, repulsive characters (his callous cop in The Human Vapor comes to mind). His Ohba is simply loathsome and indeed subhuman, as Honda has the actor playing his part with a shuffle-like gait and simian facial expressions, as though hunting a mere extension of his own persona.
Ironically, actors Negishi, Kosugi and Kira Tani (who played Oji’s companion) would be reunited seven years later in King Kong vs. Godzilla as a native dancer, native chief, and interpreter, respectively!
According to the original Toho press release, a talent search was held to discover who would play the Snowman by auditioning “tall” people, the tallest one getting the part! This, however, was in all probability a promotional gimmick: it seems highly unlikely that such a key role would be given to someone based merely on their height. Instead, in a unique situation, the man who designed the costume actually wore it as well (a feat which would not happen again in films until makeup artist Rick Baker donned the King Kong suit in the Delaurentis remake in 1976). Although billed as Sanshiro Sagara (as the actor) and Toshinori Oohasi (as the suit maker), he was one and the same person.
Oohasi is considered the Father of Japanese Monster Suits, going all the way back to 1938 when he designed a King Kong costume for a long-lost period parody film called King Kong Appears in Edo (1938). The first Japanese makeup man to use latex in the base of his unique creations, he assisted Teizo Toshimitsu in the construction of the original Godzilla costume by utilizing lightweight materials, eventually working as an assistant to Tsuburaya. In fact, Oohasi’s methods of building his suits formed the foundation for the creation of the costumes used in the Ultra Q TV series in 1965. As an actor, Sagara worked on a number of films for Daiei Studios and preformed in many a Kurosawa picture, usually playing a samurai warrior.
Oohasi worked outside of Japan as well, such as Planet of the Apes (1968) in which his unaccredited contribution was to develop the foam latex and other rubber appendages used in the film.
In the early fifties Oohasi was hired by Walt Disney as a technical advisor for the construction of the original Disneyland. His reputation became worldwide, and his many credits included Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977). A special effects master, a suit-maker, an actor, a stuntman, a make-up designer and a director, Oohasi is nevertheless an unjustly overlooked, unappreciated and unheralded figure in the realm of fantasy films.
As related years later by Tsuburaya, an attempt was made to make the Snowman look as authentic as possible by utilizing both eye-witness accounts of the animal as well as researching information on the pithecanthropus and the legendary “Peking Man,” said to stand 3.5 meters tall and weighing-in at a hefty 200kg . The first sketches of the Snowman were begun in late 1954, with the clay prototype design not approved until nearly six months later.
The original design for the Snowman was a ten-foot-high monster with a demon-like face and sharp, craggily teeth; a truly terrifying apparition. Possibly at Honda’s request, the monster was toned-down to a more benevolent-looking creature, with distinctively warm features (aided by Oohasi’s own gentle eyes). The scale was also brought down to normal height, though in the scenes where the beast is carrying Michiko, a smaller scale manikin of the actress was used to give the creature an impression of great stature.
The suit was made with a chemical compound called Toho Chikku (Plastic) and was covered with goat hair. It weighed 30 kg and, not surprisingly, Sagara lost an average of a kilogram in weight for every day he put on the suit. Even so, he moves with surprising quickness and agility. Since the creature inhabited a rocky area, it was decided to cover the hair with scratches in the fur, but because the suit was used so prominently in the picture, an assistant was always on hand to comb the suit in order to keep the hair from snagging.
But Oohasi’s greatest accomplishment was in the design of the Snowman’s face, which had to be flexible and lifelike. To do this, Oohasi built a mold out of his own face, then used that in the final design of the Snowman’s face. Various molds of the face were created to suit whatever mood the Snowman needed to be in at the time of filming. The mask had a movable jaw and the range of expressions the face was able to convey was remarkable (particularly in the final confrontation in the cave, where the beast displayed looks of defiance, weakness and lust).
The costume was an unqualified triumph, even more so when one considers the limited materials and resources available at the time. To this day it is the best depiction of a “yeti” ever seen on film. Even the Snowboy costume achieved a distinction of its own; calling to mind the baby gargantuan fed by Kumi Mizuno in War of the Gargantuas. And in 1957 – two years after its filming in Japan – the Snowboy costume was shipped over to the United States for scenes in it’s American reincarnation, Half Human.
Taking all this into consideration, it seems impossible that Oohasi had anything to do with the ratty King Kong costume in King Kong vs. Godzilla -- but he did -- albeit uncredited (can you blame him?).
Working as the snowman was never easy, but it carried its own unique risks off-screen as well: while staying at the ski resort during the filming in Hakuba, Sagara displayed his Snowman creation to a maid who was working at the hotel, whereupon the maid screamed bloody murder. In doing so, she managed to get the attention of a tenant in the next room, who just happened to be a kendo master. After entering Oohasi’s room and seeing the actor in his monster makeup, the kendo master promptly beat the tar out of the Abominable Snowman.
Moiro Kita’s sets are splendid, from the base camp and its surrounding jungle habitat, to his attention to detail of the interior of the train station and of the cavernous cave. Tatsuo Kita was the production designer while Akira Watanabe’s special effects art direction shines throughout the production with many outstanding matte and glass shots by Mukaiya, imperceptivity blended with the actual location scenery. “Because the background of this film was a high mountain region,” Watanabe explained, “I put a miniature model and a full scale set at the same place so to exaggerate perspective and to make the mountains looks wider and bigger.” (It has been suggested that Watanabe has often taken the credit for other people’s work in the Toho fantasy films).
Sound effects by Ichiro Minawa and Yoshi Nishikawa are used subtly and with great efficacy: the mournful sound of a train horn in the background as Kodama questions Professor Koizumi about the expedition, the sound of a howling wind backing the voiceover of the dead brother as the reporter reads the notes in the diary; even the cries of the snowbeasts sound utterly authentic.
Abominable Snowman is an obscure film, all but forgotten in the annals of great monster movies. The film was not a great commercial success and it’s unremittingly harsh tone afforded it few followers. When seen today the film is not well-liked or revered, treated by many as exception to the rule of the generally upbeat, entertaining fantasy films to follow. The film never has received a video release (allegedly a bootleg DVD exists in Taiwan) and as a result the movie has become as enigmatic and elusive as the purported creature itself.
When a film has disappeared from view since its original showing, it is inevitable that it achieves a certain mystique and a legendary status. In the case of Abominable Snowman, this has resulted in the one of the greatest Urban Legends ever to be attached to a foreign film.
The legend is as follows: Abominable Snowman has been banned in Japan because of its depiction of the Ainu people.
Fact: The Ainus are an indigenous people who once inhabited Hokkaido as well as the Kurile Islands (in the Sea of Okhotsk). With physical traits of heavy beards and thick, wavy hair, their culture is precariously close to extinction thanks to centuries of oppression, racism, forced assimilation policies, intolerance and discrimination -- resulting in alcoholism, homelessness, and the gradual disappearance of their language and culture (sound familiar?).
A minority, in recent years they have been viewed unfavorably by mainstream Japanese. As a result, even the Ainu are prone to deny their own heritage and identity even amongst themselves.
During the Meiji era (1868-1912), the Japanese government confiscated Ainu land as ownerless and offered it to settlers as homesteads. This resulted in the Ainu being forced to forgo their traditional livelihoods of hunting and fishing and forcing them to take up farming instead.
It wasn’t until 1991 that Japan “officially” recognized the Ainu as being an ethnic minority, while at the same time still denying their recognition as an indigenous people. After filing a lawsuit on their own behalf, the Ainu were finally granted recognition as a native culture -- though many feel this “vindication” is merely lip-service to the Ainu’s problems of defending their cultural rights and ignoring their culture. As a result, this proviso gives them no real form of protection.
Still facing major problems in contemporary Japan, the Ainu continue to experience discrimination in their own native land, though the Japanese government -- as well as the Japanese people -- still deny there is any ethnic problem; instead silently treating the Ainu as a “barbaric” minority.
Iniquitous as these circumstances are, there is no direct correlation to the natives in Abominable Snowman and the Ainu. Some have offered yet another explanation as to the film’s non-release on video:
The film has been banned due to the film’s testament of the Buraku people.
Fact: The Buraku are the largest discriminated-against population in Japan. They are not a racial or a national minority, but a caste-like minority among the ethnic Japanese who, in years past, were recognized as descendants of outcaste populations in the feudal days such as peasants, craftsmen and other classes of people -- in addition to the discriminated people in general at that time -- and were included in a social structure legally and systematical fixed.
The Buraku were commonly given such unenviable and undesirable tasks as slaughtering animals and executing criminals; acts perceived by the general public as “polluting acts“ under the beliefs of both Shintoism and Buddhism. As a result, they were placed at the bottom of Japanese society, even to the point of restricting the type of clothing they could wear.
During the Edo era, their movement was restricted and the Buraku were not given the choice to live where they wished, instead being forced to live in mountainous areas or swamps near rivers. The severe social system of feudal times (2 million samurai managed 28 million people) led to the origin of the discriminatory consciousness against the Burakumin.
To this day, the forms of discrimination leveled at the Buraku include disparaging remarks as well as discriminatory acts toward marriage and employment. For example: a recent survey asked people in a town in Fukuoka if they would allow a family of Burakumin to move into their community. 33% answered “yes,” but 31% said no while a further 19% replied definitely not. The same ratio was observed in many other surveys conducted in other prefectures. The Buraku have no legal recourse and as such cannot take any action toward any discriminatory acts directed against them.
Because of this discrimination, the Buraku have been deprived of the right of access to jobs and education, limiting their ability to live in areas outside of their exclusive communities. In any event, the sad fact is that even if a Buraku did move into another non-Buraku town, their presence would soon become known and in all likelihood they would be expelled.
It was not until over ten years after the end of World War II that any policies were initiated to deal with the discrimination toward the Buraku, which at least raised the national consciousness to the problems that existed toward them. In 1965 the “Dowa Report” recognized the unfair treatment given the Buraku problems.
This has evolved into a series of laws passed since 1969 to solve the problems of the Buraku, such as improvements in their living conditions, improved enrollment in schools and more stable employment. However, it is still a debatable subject whether these improvements have been significant to solve a stream of conscious directed against a group of people that has lasted for centuries. As one report noted, “To learn about the problems of the Buraku is to know the meaning in the value of human rights.” Even so, there is a negative feeling among some Japanese that the Buraku are receiving “special treatment.”
Again, there is no direct correlation between the Buraku and the native tribe pictured in the film. Indeed, no real correlation should be made with any one existing clan, as the tribe in the film is clearly stated to be fictitious. (For that matter, any group feeling discriminated against could use the film as a cause célèbre to further their arguments).
How then did these rumors start? To be blunt, primitive native cultures have never been treated well in the Toho fantasy film universe (the natives in King Kong vs. Godzilla come to mind). It is possible that the simple disregard and mockery of any native Japanese culture is enough to ban a film or make changes to avoid any hint of discrimination or ridicule (when The Monster Baran was released on Japanese home video a number of impolite references to the natives worshiping the monster were deleted).
Nearly 50 years after its initial release, Abominable Snowman has never received a full-length video release of any kind, although it did come close: back in the 1980s a video master was produced in preparation for distribution, but at the last minute, this was recalled.
Again, reasons are speculative: some have suggested that since the film was not a great financial success initially and due to its relative obscurity it would be a difficult film to sell to a mass market. This seems doubtful however in light of the fact that both The Invisible Man (1953) and Secret of the Telegian (1960) – neither huge box office triumphs -- did receive a video release. To be sure, Abominable Snowman is not the sort of film a group could buy or rent, then comfortably get together and “enjoy.” But this holds true for a number of films which have seen the light of a video release.
There is yet another incongruity: in 2000 a book ironically titled The Complete Films of Ishiro Honda was published, in which Abominable Snowman was not even mentioned. It would appear that Toho has decided to “play it safe” and not release the film or even acknowledgment its existence; indeed they seem embarrassed by the fact they made such a movie in the first place. Recent attempts to contact the studio directly have revealed that Toho has no comment to make on the matter, apparently believing that if one ignores something long enough it will just go away.
There are two curious footnotes to this fascinating film: Not long after Snowman was released, a Japanese expedition lead by Dr. Teizo Ogawa of Tokyo University did indeed travel to the Himalayas to find evidence of the Snowman (they did locate a purported scalp of the beast). And in 1979, a local trade official named Guo Shenbao was staying in a hut with two colleagues laid upon a hill near a town that lay on the border of Nepal and Tibet. While sleeping, one of the companions felt a hand on his face. At first, he thought it was the hand of his friend Guo, playing a prank on him. However, as he attempted to push the hand away, he “ . . . realized it was furry.”!
Abominable Snowman is unique in the annals of fantasy films. With its sexy native girl, a fascinating and sympathetic title character, a cave to end all caves, stunning visuals, and brutal deaths, it is a strange, uncomfortable movie to watch; morose and unremittingly grim; Michiko has lost two of her brothers, the Snowman species is now extinct, the native villagers have been displaced forever, the men who captured the Snowbeasts have been erased from the face of the earth and the expedition has suffered its own devastating losses. Yet it is unquestionably the finest film ever done on the subject of a “yeti,” including The Snow Creature (1954), Man Beast (1956), The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957) and a couple of cameos in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). It also dispels the myth that Honda was a director without “guts.”
It is to be fervently hoped that Abominable Snowman will someday receive a justly deserved video release. Skillfully made, boldly executed and exquisitely acted and directed, it survives as one of Toho’s most uncompromisingly pictures and a triumph for its director. It must surely have convinced Tanaka (if he didn’t already know) that Honda would be the man -- from then on -- to direct his monster movies.
While this would give Honda a great deal of work and certainly would bode well for the genre, it would have one long-lasting singular effect on his career: despite his desire to direct sentimental socially-relevant dramas, he would be “confined” to be the first-choice director of Tanaka’s fantasy films. Although he had no way of knowing it at the time, Ishiro Honda had become a victim of his own success.
(Copyrighted by the author, who wishes to thank Martin Arlt, Brant Elliott, Brett Homerlick and Oki Miyano for their assistance with this commentary).
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