I thought I was so cool, I had the next few months’ reviews all planned out. Then out of nowhere, Godzilla fan and all around cool internet person Chickenman456 gives me the hook-up on Half Human, the BANNED monster movie Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsuburaya, and Tomoyuki Tanaka collaborated on immediately following Gojira. Not just the gutted American version (which itself is not particularly easy or affordable to come by), but the borderline impossible to find Japanese original as well! It’s something I always kind of casually kept an eye out for, but never really expected to find… kind of like this movie’s heroes and its titular titan!
We’ll find out why it got banned in its homeland, how the Hollywood release chopped it from 94 minutes to 63 (despite adding a bunch of shit!), and more! Put on your parka, it’s time to dig into Half Human!
Half-Human (or as the screener calls it Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman) was released in Japan in 1955 as Monster Snowman before it was cut apart and released Stateside in 1958. Considering the original was banned in Japan, I wasn’t surprised when I couldn’t find a Japanese trailer. But I do have the trailer for the U.S. version:
It packs in all that classic shock and schlock that nourishes my stupid little soul:
- Thundering narrator describing scenes of indescribable terror? ✔
- Monster chaos? ✔
- Scientists sciencing their little nuts off? ✔
- Implying that the non-human monster wants to bone-zone human women? ✔
- Dubious attempts at realism: “FILMED IN THE MOUNTAINS OF ASIA” ✔
The trailer is careful to hide the fact that the US version of Half Human is scenes of dudes in a room talking stapled to a handful of scenes from the original film.
The score is by Masaru Sato, who created music for several movies by legendary director Akira Kurosawa, as well as plenty of monster films like Godzilla Raids Again and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. I’d post a link, but Youtube took down the one I had found. The opening title music in particular is fantastic, switching from aggressive foreboding bombast to mellow and mysterious melodies. It’s very King Kong-ish, which is definitely appropriate for this flick.
Monster Snowman was made by three major members of the Godzilla dreamteam: director Ishiro Honda, special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. It’s a little surprising that they weren’t tapped for Godzilla Raids Again, but that was a decision made before Godzilla was established as a global icon with the 1956 release of Godzilla, King of the Monsters.
Other than attending a film festival in Japan, the only way to watch the original cut of Monster Snowman is to track down a copy of the screener that was leaked in the late 80s/early 90s. It still has the timecode on it and everything!
Toho was toying with a home video release at the time, but ultimately backed out. I don’t advocate for piracy, but I’m glad the screener was leaked. I’d rather a movie live on via the gray market than have it disappear from history. Despite being an unofficial copy of a copy, the picture and sound quality are decent if a little muddy. The film opens at a train station in the middle of a torrential downpour: director Honda gives us a minute to really soak in the dour mood and scenery before following the reporter Kodama in. He’s there to interview the mountain-climbing college kids about the mysterious death of their friend Takeno on their last expedition.
So the movie is essentially a huge flashback. Kinda kills some of the suspense, but it does make it feel more like a true story being recounted, so I have mixed feelings on that. We flash back to the young mountaineers skiing around on winter break, and the movie really milks its beautiful location shots. In a very wholesome, 1950s kind of way, it’s oddly fun to watch these clean-cut kids scoot around the mountains. It also does that horror movie thing of lulling you into a false sense of security before pretty young people become victims of first degree (snow)manslaughter.
Our heroes split up, two of them go to check on their associate Mr. Gen in his cabin, while the others return to their lodge. Of course when they get to the lodge, they’re warned of the huge storm coming, and naturally worry for their friends that were en route to Mr. Gen’s. Once the snow starts piling up, they try to call the other cabin, and never have I heard “Mushi mushi” screamed so frantically so many times in a row. Iijima (played by Toho stalwart Akira Takarada) is blowing up their phone when we get a glimpse of something big and hairy shambling around outside the window! Your mom.
Okay it’s not your mom, but it is a woman! It’s Chika bundled up in heavy animal skins and furs, coming into the lodge to warm herself before moving on. She’s a member of the remote mountain tribe that call these mountains home year-round. She informs the caretaker there’s been an avalanche, and the caretaker lets our heroes know that she’s never been wrong before. If this wasn’t foreboding enough yet, she lets our heroes know the avalanche happened in a section of the mountains known as “Burning Hell.” The forebodement then gets cranked to 11 when they finally get a call back from Gen’s place, only to hear screaming and gunshots on the other end.
Now that everyone is thoroughly freaked out by the sinister phone call, Chika super supsiciously bails. I know the movie is called Monster Snowman/Half Human and not That Time Chika was Accessory to a Double Hom-ice-ide, but it still did a good job of putting me on edge. Does she or her tribe have sinister connections to the Snowman? Our heroes decide to start their search in the morning when they have sunlight and easier weather on their side.
When they do get to Gen’s the next day, they find Gen and Kaji super dead, with Takeno’s whereabouts horrifyingly unknown. Gen’s place is totally trashed, and they find huge, man-like footprints and unrecognizable clumps of hair. The search continues, and a manhunt on snowskis looks awkward as hell.
Eventually they have to give up their search until after the spring thaw. When they return, the mountain locations are no longer snowy wonderlands, but they’re still beautiful and the filmmakers get the most out of them. Our returning heroes Iijima and Machiko are joined by several guides, scientists and searchers, including noted anthropology professor Dr. Koizumi. They’re also secretly joined by a pair of greasy creep-asses shadowing them in the woods. We get a pretty thorough montage of the crew hiking further into the wilderness, and some of the shot compositions remind me of westerns: tiny people going about their tiny lives on grand, sprawling vistas. When they started playing harmonica and singing songs around the campfire, I was ready for them to put on tall hats and rustle cattle.
And maybe add some all-natural accompaniment to those campfire songs.
Farts or no, when the guides realize the group plans to search Garan Valley, they are done. “No one who’s entered there has ever returned to tell the tale!” they exclaim like Scooby-Doo extras. Iijima convinces Machiko and Dr. Koizumi that even without the guides, and even if Takeno is a lost cause, pressing on is worth it. They can at least still figure out what the hell is up with the mystery animal that killed Takeno. With that settled, they start a new campfire song, and then some other ghoulish creepoids watch them from the shadows.
The answer to that is also the answer to why this movie is banned in Japan, but we’ll get to that soon enough. Our heroes set out the next day and find a mysteriously slain bear and a fucking landslide. The landslide is pulled off well, and accompanied by the sounds of otherwordly roaring. This happy horseshit is the last straw for our guides. They build a stretcher for their injured man and hobble the hell out, presumably shouting “DUECES” in Japanese as they bail.
Our heroes set up camp for the night, while Dr. Koizumi is pretty certain that the roaring they heard is evidence of “an unknown animal living in these mountains.” As far as Koizumi’s concerned, it’s for real nut-up-or-shut-up time. Again Iijima makes a compelling argument for nut-up, but this time, a lurking pair of sketchy weirdos have overheard their conversation. Specifically, the first set of sketchy weirdos, who report back to their boss at a separate, secret camp. Their boss Oba specializes in selling exotic animals to circuses, and he’ll be damned if some gaggle of nerds gets to his Snowman before he does!
We cut back to our heroes settling in for the night. Iijima is on armed patrol while Machiko is tucked into her sleeping bag. A huge, imposing shadow is cast on her tent, and this is where the movie finally starts paying off the tension it’s been building with some classic monster moments.
The face in the window and hand in the tent gags are so good they feature prominently on some of the posters:
It’s just a totally perfect nugget of monster moviesmanship. It’s accompanied by Iijima’s unknowing whistling, which makes everything even eerier. The monster suit itself is terrific, largely because of its realistic, expressive face. It not only features an articulated mouth, but also incorporates the actor’s eyes. It’s a simple technique that allows actor Fuminori Ôhashi to breathe spooky life into his performance and the monster’s visage. I think the black and white photography must do the suit some favors too. Toho’s King Kong suits came later but don’t look quite as good:
Machiko’s screaming scares the yellow snow out of the monster, and he hauls ass into the woods. Iijima rushes after him into the darkness, which might not have been the best call of all time. It’s not even the Snowman that gets him, nature does. He stumbles down a ravine and gets knocked out. When he comes to, he wakes up in Oba’s camp and…
Iijma comes to a second time, and instead of thugs serving him knuckle sandwiches, the cute mountain girl Chika is serving him soup (its knuckle content is left vague). He’s bedridden in a hut in her village, and she gets chewed out by the ancient-looking village elder. She leaves the hut with the elder, and we see the whole village. It’s a pretty big, impressive set, with lots of full-size huts surrounded by rock walls dotted with little waterfalls. Their surroundings are rad, but the other residents aren’t so easy on the eyes.
Here they are! The dirty, deformed, superstitious, violent mountain villagers of Half Human. If the readily apparent traits aren’t enough, inbreeding and possibly even human/snowman cross-breeding are implied too. If you’re like me you might be thinking, “so what, we have fictitious towns full of horrible slobbering hillbillies in media all the time,” but the context is different here. In Japan, these folks aren’t seen as generic wilderness-dwelling grossoids, but damaging depictions of a real ethnic minority that exists in Japan. The movie doesn’t specifically call out an exact group, but most evidence points to either the mountain-dwelling Buraku or aboriginal Ainu people. Cool Ass Cinema has a great overview of both groups, their history, how they relate to Half Human, and the movie itself.
Anyway, these folks are all the way pissed that Chika brought an outsider into their little world. Not just because they don’t take kindly to city boys, but because they fear that outsiders will try to take away “the master.” They worship the Snowman as a deity, and believe he brings them good hunting and survivable winters. The elder has Chika take a meaty offering to the Snowman’s nearby cave lair while he and the other villagers get down to creepy-ass business:
While the villagers were showing Iijima the ropes, Chika visits the Snowman’s cave, hollering into it to let him know she brought snacks. The Snowman emerges from a dark chamber… trailed by his young son.
Their body language says a ton here. They are primal beasts, but also noble in their own wild way. The way they carry themselves in their dark, spooky lair made me think of them as a couple of caveman-Draculas. These are cool monsters. When Chika gets back from her errand, she asks the elder why the village is nearly empty, and he beats the shit out of her for her trouble. It’s fucked up, and further demonstrates the violent lengths the villagers will go to to protect their seclusion and the Snowman. I wonder if the abusive elder also figures into the movie being banned, because he definitely adds a layer of backwards shittiness to the mountain tribe.
The search party is trying to track down Iijima, Oba and his goons are trying to track down the Snowman, and Chika is understandably not hanging out in her village. A pair of Oba’s douchers come across Chika, chilling out on a cliff and showing some serious gam.
Gams notwithstanding, the Oba dickheads trick Chika into telling them how to find the Snowman’s home. They claim to be buddies with Iijima and his crew, and that they’ll take her to meet them later. Meanwhile, the Snowman finds Iijima while hauling a deer carcass home for dinner, and he doesn’t plan on leaving Iijima hanging.
Carrion birds have already started hassling poor Iijima. The birds are realized with composites that sometimes look pretty good, and other times jerk around really strangely, and even go translucent when flying over dark elements in the picture. It works from far away, but falls apart during tighter shots. What works throughout is the music: we don’t really know the nature of the Snowman yet, Iijima’s just as likely to be a snack as he is a rescue, and the score ratchets up that tension.
Luckily for Iijima, when the Snowman pulls him back onto solid ground he unties him(!), picks his “groceries” back up, and trundles off. Unfortunately, all this good samaritaning left the Snowman’s Snowboy completely unprotected from Oba and his thugs. We get a good look at the kid monster as he’s farting around outside the cave before his capture. The Snowboy suit’s not quite as impressive as the Snowman suit, but it’s solid. He’s got kind of a mullet, but considering his dad is balding, I guess it’s just hard to find a good stylist when you’re a mythical mountain monster.
The Snowman cruises into his cave with dinner and calls for his son with a sort of hooting/mooing sound reminiscent of gorilla calls. It’s pretty clear by now that these are smart, gentle creatures by nature, and things are gearing up to get King Kong-level sad. The cave that looked like a murky hellhole the first time is revealed to be a darkly beautiful interior world with little waterfalls not unlike the mountain village. The Snowman gets more and more frantic looking for his son until he’s spooked out by the sound of gunshots. He rushes out, and when he sees Oba and pals have his baby, he gets his favorite can-opener out for all the whoop-ass he plans to serve.
Oba himself is loudly, visibly and satisfyingly terrified by the Snowman’s monstrous fury, but these guys aren’t jabronis. They deploy a net and chloroform Snowdad’s big ass before he can rip their arms off. In the ensuing chaos, Snowboy busts free and uses his big primate brain to stage a rescue mission straight out of Donkey Kong Jr.
The villagers get wise to this deity thievery and confront Oba and his men. Oba shuts up the angry mob hilariously quickly; “I’ve got a gun you idiots!” After a warning shot, Oba blasts the shitty old elder. Chika runs to the elder’s side, who then blames everything on her.”What a terrible evil you have caused… You have brought ruin to our village.”
Oba and his crew have loaded the unconscious Snowman into their big cage truck and start driving down the mountain. These are some of the few miniature shots we get in Half Human, and both the cage truck and the regular pickup truck look great cruising along a dangerous little mountain pass. Snowboy drops onto the cage truck from a tree, and desperately tries to free his monster dad.
Oba and friends catch on quickly and easily overpower Snowboy, tossing him into the cage too. We get a quick moment with Oba and his right hand man that humanizes them a little. Sure they’re greedy rotten assholes, but they’re so psyched to have caught a complete Sasquatch set. They start juking around with hilariously evil joy, daydreaming about international tours and plowing French girls. They’re shitheels for sure, but they’re also just some trashy dummies hoping to make some dough. If nothing else, they’re easier to empathize with than say, the gangster-ass hustler villains in Mothra vs. Godzilla.
While our greedy goobers are all wrapped up daydreaming about the high life they’re about to live, Snowboy frees the Snowman! Do you know what that means?! I DO! These circus dudes are about to
The Snowman strangles the driver through the rear window, Oba tries to shoot him, then the truck behind them can’t stop in time and fucking swerves off the cliff
There are even little miniature men that fly out of the truck’s bed and crumple gruesomely on the rocks below! It’s a risky effect to implement because it doesn’t always come across well, but as we see in Half Human, when it’s done just right it’s a little shocking. The Snowman goes full Superman and bends the metal bars of his cage and breaks out triumphantly.
But before the Snowman can turn Oba into a pretzel, Oba shoots the Snowboy. The little yeti collapses into the Snowman’s arms and it is fucking sad. Oba freaks and stars hobbling away while the Snowman gently lays down his dead son… Then flips the fucking cage truck over the cliff, and throws Oba down after it. YEAH! FUCK YOU OBA!
We actually get two separate shots of Oba’s body pinballing down the rock face, a fittingly violent death for a true blue shitface. It’s a climactic, cathartic moment for the Snowman, but the story doesn’t end here. The Snowman hoots sadly, effortlessly picks up his deceased baby boy, and heads back to his cave lair.
He lays his son to rest in a burial chamber in the cave, meaning the Snowmen don’t just mourn their dead, they have burial rituals and everything. They’re not sympathetic monsters, they’re pretty much just weird looking, misunderstood people oh fuuuuuck. It immediately reminded me of the surreal tragicomedy of the sasquatch side-quest in Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare.
The Snowman keeps his shit together long enough to follow the burial customs of his kind, but quickly flies into a grief-fueled rage and freight trains through the nearby mountain village. He single-handedly tears downs all their huts, they catch fire, and within moments it’s just total screaming chaos wrapped in darkness and smoke. It is both sad and spectacular. The mountain people were shitty, but they didn’t deserve this.
Chika tries to save the buttholish elder from some burning wreckage, but he gets a minor redemption moment when he begs Chika to leave him behind and save herself. The Snowman chases people through the fiery ruins (fucking awesome), allowing a substantial chunk of the townspeople to escape to safe higher ground. The elder is not one of those people, because the Snowman THROWS HIS ASS LIKE HE’S A SACK OF DONKEY SHIT.
Iijima makes it back to the search party’s base camp, informing the others that the Snowman saved his life. “He’s a really cool guy!” Iijima
never says while not giving a thumbs-up. Dr. Koizumi follows up by slam-dunking the titular line:
After a deft fakeout, the Snowman silently and eerily emerges from the woods into their camp and kidnaps Machiko. The search party of course tracks the Snowman through the night, finding themselves in the ruined village at daybreak. The distraught Chika joins them, explains why the Snowman buttfucked her village to cinders, and guides them to his lair. When our heroes enter the cave, there is no music whatsoever, which jacks up the tense atmosphere nicely.
They explore the Snowman’s labyrinthine home, first finding the burial chamber. They discover Takeno’s body and his diary. Takeno’s notes give us the movie’s final twist: The Snowman didn’t burst into Gen’s cabin and start mauling motherfuckers, they chased after him, got stuck in the avalanche, and the Snowman was only able to rescue Takeno. The Snowman sheltered and fed Takeno, and he eventually died of (non-Snowman inflicted) illness.
Dr. Koizumi spots some poisonous mushrooms in the cave too. Based on everything they’ve seen, Koizumi posits that the Snowman and Snowboy where the last of their kind: the only ones in their species that learned not to eat the mushrooms before it was too late. One small side-detail I really enjoyed: one of the members of their party is snapping pictures of everything. It’s still a scientific expedition after all!
They find the Snowman with Machiko and corner him on the edge of a deep, deadly sulfur pit. They can’t get a clear shot without risking hitting Machiko, so Iijima decides he’ll try and approach unarmed. Just as Iijima’s about to be Mr.
ManagerHero, Chika stops him, and goes to confront the Snowman instead! The Snowman drops Machiko, goes after Chika, she stabs him, and one of the search party members manages to shoot the Snowman in the back! Hooray! Success, right?
Well… it’s definitely a win/lose. The Snowman and Chika tumble to their doom, and we’re quickly whisked back to the framing story in the train station. It’s a bittersweet ending at best, and the reporter is left without much to say. The rain stops, and we get an ending title card over misty, mysterious mountains.
So that’s the original cut of Half Human! It ends on a troubling, uneasy note. It takes King Kong’s feeling of “well, civilization just destroyed something wild, free, and irreplaceable” and maxes it out. And, shockingly, the hacked-to-pieces US cut basically captures that too.
Unfortunately, the US cut removes Sato’s entire score and replaces it with stock music,
removes all the dialogue and almost all of the sound effects, and replaces them with narration… or sometimes nothing,
and cuts out whole subplots, characters, and story beats, and replaces them with scientists speculating with one another on the Snowman’s biology.
It’s bad, but it’s not terrible. It’s a lazy chop-job compared to Godzilla’s comparatively classy and seamless Americanization, but it keeps the core nuggets of the original story, which was a nice surprise. The Snowman’s gentle, emotional nature is mostly left intact (though they do ramp up his menace with some clever edits), the Snowboy (and his murder at the hands of Oba) is still central to the plot, and Chika still confronts the Snowman to save Iijima.
It’s interesting to note that a lot of scenes featuring the villagers and the elder were cut, which I think has to be why the US cut of Half Human isn’t banned in Japan. The US cut also drops Iijima’s encounter with Oba’s company, and Oba’s men tricking Chika into revealing the Snowman’s lair. It even goes so far as to cut out the characters’ names. Legendary character actor John Carradine plays Dr. John Rayburn, the scientist narrating the entire story, but calls the leads “the boy,” “the girl,” “the circus man,” and no shit, “the other girl.”
They added an autopsy scene of the Snowboy, shot with the actual suit sent over from Toho. It’s a cool idea and helps connect the new framing story a little, but it ultimately boils down to more scenes of scientists hypothesizing, just now there’s a much more interesting prop on the room.
It’s weird because it’s clearly an attempt to repackage a movie for the US as cheaply and quickly as (half)humanly possible, but it seems like they also wanted to more or less preserve the movie’s spirit. The three Hollywood leads speak incredibly highly of Dr. Koizumi (renamed Tanaka here), calling him a renegade genius in his field. They agree that the Snowman and his son were extremely intelligent, albeit instinctual and emotional creatures, and that their deaths are a “scientific tragedy.” And while the opening credits focus on the American cast and crew, the Toho team get dedicated end credits:
It’s either insincere cheapo cash-grab bullshit or they really tried to do their best with hyper-limited resources. It probably falls somewhere in between. I’m glad that Hollywood eventually realized that Japanese monster movies are entertaining on their own merits and don’t need American actors and scenes shoehorned in, but there is something fascinating about these bizarre, Frankensteined-together movies. Instead of getting one monster movie, you get it and its mutated clone!
So that’s Half Human! Both of it! (so… Whole Human?) You might have noticed that in some of the pictures of the Snowman he has a furrowed brow, sharp teeth, and a non-receding hairline. That’s the original suit! They tweaked it to fit the fatherly nature of the monster character, but still used the scarier suit to promote the movie. They also did a bunch of promotional shots of the Snowman interacting with Godzilla, and now I wish that movie existed:
Plus plenty of backstage shenanigans too:
The original cut of Half Human is a very cool creature feature from a studio better known for terrible titans than man-sized monsters. If it wasn’t banned, it would easily join the ranks of their other horror hits like The H-Man, Matango, and The Human Vapor. Half Human also reminds me of Universal’s classic monster films; it seems to fit naturally somewhere between The Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon. This all just highlights what a bummer it is that the movie portrays a real ethnic group as subhuman simpletons. It’s a concept that absolutely goes against director Honda’s trademark theme of the brotherhood of man, and ensures that this ill-fated Snowman will likely be left to fade away.
Wow. I had never heard of this movie. I just happened to listen to a radio program about trying to document the last native speakers of the Ainu language. I’m glad to learn about this movie, but not so sad I didn’t have to actually watch the snow people die. I’m terribly soft hearted, especially about bigfeets. I blame the Time Life series of monster books my parents allowed my brother and I to subscribe to. Ah, the 80’s. Our favorite was the bigfeet book, closely followed by aliens and Loch Ness. Thanks again. I really enjoy your site.
Thanks for reading! My sis and I had those same books, they were awesome! The ghost one was spooky as hell.
That radio program about the Ainu sounds super interesting. It sounds like Japan is in a similar situation to the US: trying to document and preserve what’s left of the dwindling indigenous culture.
I’ve never even heard of this one… will have to try and check it out
Shoot for the Japanese release if you can. The U.S. chop-job isn’t unwatchable, but it’s definitely the inferior movie.
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Tomoyuki Tanaka and Eiji Tsuburaya both worked on “Godzilla Raids Again.” Ishiro Honda couldn’t direct it because he was busy directing “Abominable Snowman.”
Tsuburaya’s Kong suits look poorer than the Half Human suit because on BOTH movies, Kong’s look managed to get stymied by Americans. Here, there were no idiotic yanks to screw up the suit.
“I can only hope my life choices don’t land me in a situation where a goddamn yeti wants to kick my ass.”
That, sir, may be the quote of the year.
Solid Toonces reference, by the way.
At some point, I’ll be trying my best to remaster “Abominable Snowman” and “Half Human” for blu-ray. They will be in standard definition, of course, as VHS is our only source for them both. And with a whole new subtitle track. But that’s way off in the unforeseeable future.
Really really glad people still understand who/what Toonces is. Keep us posted on those remasters!
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