a.k.a. HALF HUMAN: THE STORY OF THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN
Toho Co. ltd. [1955/1958] 94′ / 63′
director: ISHIRO HONDA [American segments - Kenneth Crane]
cast: AKIRA TAKARADA, MOMOKO KOCHI, AKEMI NEGISHI,
cast: NOBUO NAKAMURA, SACHIO SAKAI, KOKUTEN KODO,
cast: JOHN CARRADINE, MORRIS ANKRUM, RUSSEL THORSON
Odds are that those of you who are Toho fantasy aficionados have heard of this film, though the likelihood of any of you having seen it is considerably more slim. This early monster picture from the company has become something of a cult legend over the years, thanks in large part to its status in Japan. Like the much later produced PROPHECIES OF NOSTRADAMUS, ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN has been pulled from all distribution due to a lingering studio-imposed ban. Made around the same time as GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN was the first of Toho’s human-sized monster efforts, a trend that would continue with the admittedly obscure but entirely available THE HUMAN VAPOR and THE H-MAN, amongst others.
The film concerns a missing Alpine Club member, who disappears during a blizzard in the Japan Alps – only a tuft of animal hair and a gigantic not-quite-human footprint [as well as the lifeless body of the young man's friend] are left behind as evidence. The man’s sister Machiko [Kochi] and fellow club member Iijima [Takarada] embark on an expedition led by Professor Tanaka [Nakamura] to locate him and, hopefully, the creature responsible for his disappearance. Catching wind of the expedition is animal exhibitor Oba, who forms a considerably less noble party to track down, capture, and sell the beast Tanaka hopes to study.
Tanaka’s expedition encounters problems from the get-go, with one of its members breaking a leg during a rock slide, but manages to attract the mysterious abominable snowman all the same. The creature, a single dad as luck would have it, even takes a liking to Machiko [who doesn't return the favor]. Iijima, who likes Machiko himself, goes on the hunt for the creature after its encounter with the young woman, but gets lost and runs afoul of Oba and his men instead. Oba’s party beats Iijima and sends him sliding down a mountain gully, at the bottom of which he is discovered by local beauty Chika [Nejima]. Chika takes Iijima to her village, where he instantly runs afoul of the chieften – in short order he finds himself dangled from a cliff face as bait for circling vultures.
Luckily for Iijima the abominable snowman he was hunting proves considerably more polite than its namesake indicates, as the creature rescues him from his precipitous position before going about its business. With Oba about, no good deed will go unpunished. His henchmen capture the snowman as it returns to its cave hideaway, fiendishly using its child [who escapes] as bait. The young snowman rescues his father, but is killed in the process. The adult goes into an entirely understandable rage, massacring Oba and his team as well as many of the local villagers who worship him. Intent on starting a family anew, the beast returns to Tanaka’s campsite and kidnaps Machiko. Her family and neighbors gone, Chika agrees to show Tanaka’s party to the snowman’s lair, where she makes a final stand against her once-god to save the innocent Machiko.
ABOMINABLE SNOMAN suffered the same fate as many foreign fantasy efforts imported by lower-tier distributors. Distributors Corporation of America cut it to ribbons, filled it with new footage shot on the cheap with past-its-prime name talent, and appended the original footage with over narration so as to avoid the headaches [and cost] of looping and dubbing the dialogue. Toho Co. ltd., even provided the suit of the snowman’s son for the new footage, though it is never seen doing anything but lying lifeless on an operating table.
Released in December of 1958 on a double bill with MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL, HALF HUMAN: THE STORY OF THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN focuses almost entirely on Dr. John Rayburn [Carradine], fresh from an exchange professorship in Japan and itching to tell of his experiences to a couple of his colleagues. It is in flashback that we learn of the details of the Japanese film [largely the same as the lengthy synopsis above, albeit considerably slimmed], with present-day scenes of Rayburn and his colleagues butchering the science of anthropology holding it all together. Dr. Jordan [Ankrum, trading his customary military duds for a lab coat] performs an autopsy on the dead snowman offspring while Rayburn waxes philosophical on yetis, hairy people, and missing links. HALF HUMAN ends with a listing of the major players of the Japanese production, both in front of and behind the camera, prefaced with a lame thanks for their contributions to the “authenticity” of the picture.
DCA’s 63 minute chop-job is a textbook example of a reasonable foreign production rendered dull and uninteresting in the name of domestic marketability and the all important bottom line. The new set-bound material is as removed from the Japanese footage as I imagine is possible, and no number of wishy-washy wipes back and forth [and there are many] can make it anything but. To their credit, the American cast remains entirely professional and their performances are fine if unspectacular. But the new script [which goes uncredited], full of asinine anthropological clap-trap, fails them miserably.
In its original version ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN is problematic [much like Toho's other fantasy picture from that year] but far more worthwhile all the same. The worst that can be said of it is that it is dull and uninspired in direct comparison to most of Toho’s other fantasy output. The screenplay by Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata [who had both served as writers on GOJIRA the year before] borrows considerably from KING KONG but is far more somber in tone, with murder [as opposed to the flashing of photographers' bulbs] serving as catalyst for the inevitable scenes of beast-borne mayhem and destruction. The snowman is easy to sympathise with – a peaceful mountain god and quite probably one of the last of its kind, only turned violent when forces entirely alien act out against it. It’s a pity, then, that the human drama is as lackluster as it is.
The director / cinematographer combination of Ishiro Honda and Tadashi Iimura ensures a well-shot production [the two had worked together numerous times previously], but indelible images are few and far between. Eiji Tsuburaya and his associates were pulling quadruple duty in 1955, which may explain why the effects work on display is not always up to their usually high standards. The snowman suit is a fine creation for its time, with its multiple faces allowing for a wide range of emotions [the same trick was used by Rick Baker in the 1976 rendition of KING KONG]. As was the case with many of his early productions, it’s the process shots that suffer the most here, looking downright primitive at times.
ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN’s cast is full of faces that will be instantly recognizable to fans of Toho tokusatsu, and I’m hesitant to say that any under-perform. Standing out from the rest is Akemi Negishi as Chika, the beautiful young mountain woman who befriends Iijima. Negishi was relegated to supporting roles for most of the rest of her career, a real shame if her turn here is any indication. The musical score provided by Masaru Sato is typical of his early work in film and, while certainly satisfactory [and preferable to the library score looped in the DCA cut], is a far cry from what he was to produce later on.
Foreign rights to ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN reverted back to Toho a few years back, and a statement from the studio at that time indicated that it had no intention of selling them again. The film was the first of the studio’s to fall at the hands of lobbying organizations, due to its unsettling depiction of indigenous Japanese peoples. It is easy when watching the film to understand why some were offended, as the mountain tribe shown consists primarily of demented and often deformed inbred yokels. VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE would land in similarly hot water for similar reasons, but, unlike ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN, has finally be made available uncut on home video. To date only one official release of the film, unfortunately in its slaughtered DCA-certified form, has been made on home video.
ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN is one of the low-points in the early Toho fantasy cycle, with the superior RODAN marking the beginning of a creative upswing for the genre the following year. For all its problems it can still be a very rewarding film, due largely to the sympathetic portrayal of its titular character. For fans of the genre I say ‘see it’.