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‘Shintoho Schlock: Girls, Guns, and Ghosts’ at Northwest Film Forum

For one week beginning Aug. 2, Northwest Film Forum will leap squarely into a pulp universe rife with hitmen, scantily clad pearl-diving women, vengeful ghosts and monsters.

Shintoho Schlock: Girls, Guns, and Ghosts is a weeklong retrospective of films from Shintoho Studios. The hardscrabble stepchild of the six major Japanese movie factories of the postwar period, Shintoho began in 1947 by financing and distributing some of that country’s greatest films, including Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 noir classic Stray Dog and Kenji Mizoguchi’s elegiac 1952 masterwork, Life of Oharu. But critical acclaim did little to fill the studio’s coffers, and in 1955 new studio head Mitsugu Okura attempted a massive turnaround to stem the company’s vortex of debt.

Okura was a former carnival showman and narrator of Japanese silent films who whittled Shintoho down to a lean and mean exploitation studio, eschewing higher-brow projects in favor of war flicks, lurid crime dramas, and low-budget horror movies. The change in direction worked for a while, keeping Shintoho alive and even generating a couple of honest-to-God blockbusters, but in 1961 the studio declared bankruptcy and quietly evaporated.

In the ensuing years, the tendrils of Shintoho’s influence have stretched well beyond the company’s fleeting 14-year existence. Like U.S. producer Roger Corman, Okura cagily hired talented young directors and actors willing to work fast and cheap, and some of those talents went on to long careers in film: director Teruo Ishii helmed everything from kids’ films to gritty action dramas over his 40 years in the business, and Shintoho contract director Nobuo Nakagawa’s oeuvre of quintessentially Japanese horror films wielded a decided impact on heavily-remade modern chillers like Ringu (aka The Ring).

Most of the Shintoho Schlock presentations are making their Northwest debuts with these screenings, so it’s a rare chance for U.S. audiences to get a birds-eye view of what titillated, terrified, and in some cases pushed the sensibilities of Japanese moviegoers during the country’s postwar cinema Golden Age. 

The retrospective begins on Friday with Revenge of the Pearl Queen, a 1956 melodrama in which a young female pearl diver (Michiko Maeda), marooned on a tropical island, amasses a fortune in pearls and seeks vengeance against the crooks who left her stranded. Maeda’s discreet display of rear nudity may play as quaintly tame today, but it raised a furor back in its time. Pearl Queen inspired its own exploitation sub-genre (lady pearl diver films were cranked out by the dozens in its wake), and it opened the Pandora’s Box of nudity and sexual content in Japan.

Most of the screenings have been organized into double features that effectively demonstrate the dizzying variety of the era’s B-movie offerings. Sold Into Prostitution! (playing August 3 and 4) gathers two of Teruo Ishii’s hardest-hitting crime dramas: 1958‘s Flesh Pier, in which an undercover cop runs afoul of a nasty flesh-peddling ring, and Yellow Line, a 1960 saga of a hitman on the lam. Tainted Love Rises From The Dead! consists of two of Shintoho’s supernatural offerings, Nobuo Nakagawa’s eerily-atmospheric Ghost Story of Yotsuya, and Ghost Cat of Otama Pond, an entry by Nakagawa protégé Yoshihiro Ishikawa.

Busting Out of Bars! pairs Death Row Woman, a 1960 Nakagawa crime drama about a woman falsely accused of her father’s murder, with The Horizon Glitters, director Mitchiyoshi Doi’s surreal 1961 black comedy detailing a jailbreak gone awry. Shintoho Schlock finishes with stand-alone screenings of Vampire Bride, a demented 1960 chiller about a disfigured dance student transformed into a giant, hairy monster by a sorceress.  

Full Passes to Shintoho Schlock run $30 for Film Forum members and $50 for the general public. The double features are also available at a special rate ($9 for Film Forum members/$15 general public). More details on dates, times, and pricing can be found at the Film Forum’s website, www.nwfilmforum.org.  

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