The Living Skeleton (1968)

living skeleton poster 1968 movie shochiku
6.5 Overall Score
Story: 6/10
Acting: 7/10
Visuals: 6/10

Fun ghost story

So-so effects, sometimes overly complex

Movie Info

Movie Name:  The Living Skeleton

Studio:   Shôchiku Eiga

Genre(s):   Horror/Mystery/Suspense

Release Date(s):   November 9, 1968 (Japan)

MPAA Rating:   Not Rated

living skeleton divers shochiku

Oh my God!!! Skeletons!!! Wait, it’s ok…they’re obviously fake

Pirates raid a ship called the Dragon King, kill the passengers, and take the gold on board.  Three years later, Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) the twin sister of one of the passengers still feels that her sister is somehow alive.  When the Dragon King suddenly returns to the harbor, Saeko sees it as a sign while Father Akashi (Masumi Okada) and Saeko’s fiancé Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa) try to convince her that Yoriko is gone.  One-by-one the killers of the crew of the Dragon King begin to fall and face horrible deaths…is there a vengeful spirit out to destroy them or is it something worse?

Directed by Hiroshi Matsuno, The Living Skeleton (Kyûketsu dokuro-sen) is a Japanese ghost-horror suspense thriller.  The movie was produced by Shôchiku Eiga and was released as a double feature with Genocide.  The film was collected by the Criterion Collection’s imprint Eclipse under the title “When Horror Came to Shochiku” (Eclipse Series #37).

living skeleton twin saeko kikko matsuoka

Don’t mess with a crazy looking woman with a twin…

I was not familiar with The Living Skeleton, but it did have some tantalizing visuals when I looked it up.  Watching the film, it is unbalanced, but it still is fun.  It goes from goofy to grim in a flash and the story ranges from rather typical ghost story to a strange twist you didn’t expect (which isn’t necessarily a good thing).

The movie is a pretty traditional horror ghost story to start out with.  The Saeko character feels a psychic connection to her missing sister (also played by Kikko Matsuoka).  The movie dips into a violent revenge fantasy for a while with the ex-pirates dying in different ways…often by bat (as in the animal)?  It then jumps into a weird mad-scientist story at the end with the doctor (Kô Nishimura) living on the abandoned boat creating super acid…it feels pretty out of left field and an unnecessary twist.

The movie is surprisingly character driven.  Kikko Matsuoka is rather undefined as the mourning sister/vengeful spirit who has a good moment in the end when she decides to go down with the ship.  Her boyfriend played by Yasunori Irikawa also isn’t very descript and sometimes comes off as a jerk (especially when dealing with the deceased sister).  What is different is that the movie spends a lot of time focusing on the pirates and what their actions did to them.  Most took the money and ran, but some are eaten by their past.  Father Akashi might be the most interesting in that he seems to still be evil, but for some reason chose to stay close to Saeko…the victim of his actions.

living skeleton mad scientist ending ko nishimura

…and the killer is?!?! Wait…what? I feel like we just got some Scooby-Doo ending

Visually, you can see a lot of what rose from The Living Skeleton.  The ominous shots, horrible deaths, and the long flowing black hair of Kikko Matsuoka have a lot of resemblances to movies like Ringu and Ju-on.  The horror is very similar and the look of this film is as well.  The movie does better with some of the deaths than the more prop based horror like the cheesy skeleton models and the bats on strings.

Despite the weird “twist” ending, The Living Skeleton is a fun entry into the Japanese horror canon.  It might not rise to some of the artsier horror films like Kwaidan, but it does have its own place and feels like it had some influence on what came later.  The movie is short and sweet, so it doesn’t take a long commitment to get a fun little ghost story (just kind of ignore the mad scientist).

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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