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The Forgotten: Skeleton Quay

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DR. LIVINGSKELETON, I PRESUME?

 

The Living Skeleton is a lot of fun, or at least, that was my experience, or I think it was. I have to couch things in the most uncertain terms, because I watched this 60s nonsense-fest, the only film by director Hirsohi Matsuni, in a DVD version with fan-produced subtitles. Now, I think it’s marvellous that amateur enthusiasts are making subtitles for films that have never been translated, opening up a world of cinema to movie pirates and illegal downloaders everywhere. But usually, to be a translator, some familiarity with at least two languages is a necessity. In the world of fan subtitling, access to Babelfish is sometimes considered enough. You might not even need one language.

My impression is that the heroic linguist responsible for rendering the 1968 horror thriller Kyuketsu Dokuro Sen as The Living Skeleton does not really speak either English or Japanese, but may be some kind of Chinese computer. At any rate, the dialogue emerges in a strange, mirror-world form which makes you wish you could squint with your mind. A funeral scene features a barely comprehensible oration by the priest, including such phrases as “Soul of letting that of his purified, come back to god side, amen,” and “Wish God will be your daughter as soon as possible.”

Watching this, I realised that the finer points of the story might become slightly muddied if there were any lengthy expository speeches later. By the end of the film, I wondered if I’d have been better off watching it without subtitles altogether. But on the whole, I think they added another layer of dementedness to an already gleefully loopy film. I’d like to see The Living Skeleton released on DVD with a proper, comprehensible translation, but I think they should keep the fan subs as an added bonus, allowing audiences to re-experience the movie as if under the influence of hallucinogens.

"Your women have all died, you are still really amazing."

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NO BONES ABOUT IT

Although the only publicity still I’d seen showed a girl being menaced by a slightly plastic, stylised skeleton (looking like a refugee from Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations), this does not actually happen in the film. Although there are skeletons, lots of skeletons, they are not so much living as dangling from a chain, underwater. The menaces encountered in the film seem to consist more of pirates, zombies, mad scientists, and rubber bats.

"I have known by mistake. I do not want to try to be a good fellow."

Despite the cut-price fakeness of much of the jeopardy, the film has a decent level of frisson, mainly evoked by the soundtrack (Echoing clanks on the ghost ship! Morriconesque harmonica wailings!) and moody, milky, inky widescreen photography. Ships and buildings have a tendency to be rendered in model form, as if there were a Godzilla film intersecting with this one, and stray bits of architecture somehow kept slipping across.

Meanwhile, everybody seems to either change identity by pulling off a rubber mask, come back to life, get torn up by rubber bats, or dissolve into a puddle. One character seemed to do most of the above, as well as beating a dog to death with a poker. And he was a priest.

"I want to let those insult person of the elder sister, taste the bitter pill."

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Who knows, you might find The Living Skeleton hard to live with, since comprehending its ructions and involutions defeated me. Or you might find a version with more comprehensible subs, and find it disappointingly linear and simplistic. But where else would you see an entire ship dissolved into sludge by a little jar of magic chemicals? Unless I’m ascribing a false causality here, and that ship was going to dissolve anyway. It probably was.

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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