Atomic Rulers/Atomic Rulers of the World (1964)

Atomic Rulers of the World (1964)‘Starman, you should never have interfered with us. But you did. lt’s a shame. Because you will die. I’m going to throw this nuclear bomb in there with you.’

The Emerald Men of the Emerald Planet are concerned that nuclear testing on Earth is poisoning the galaxy. When the rogue nation of Magolia begins scheming to bring about a third World War, they send Starman to retrieve their doomsday device and put an end to their nonsense.

‘Supa Jaiantsu’ (aka ‘Supergiant’) was a series of nine children’s movies made in Japan in 1957 starring Ken Utsui. These were obviously inspired by the U.S. movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s, except these were shown in sets of two 40-50 minute episodes; in effect a film chopped in half. Medallion films and Walter Manley productions picked these up for stateside distribution, cutting the stories into 75 minute movies and releasing them with titles such as ‘Invaders From Space’ (1965), ‘Attack From Space’ (1965) and ‘The Evil Brain From Outer Space’ (1965).

This was the first of the films and it opens on the Emerald Planet where various robots, apparently cobbled together from household appliances, discuss what to do about the hoo-man problem, whilst a ringed planet sways gently in the background. (Obviously, that’s a visual anomaly caused by atmospheric conditions, rather than a cardboard planet on strings). Starman gets the gig, and heads Earthside, along with his Globe-Meter, which is obviously disguised as a wrist watch to help him blend in. What are his special powers? Well, he can fly, has super strength, can detect nuclear radiation and has a silly, white costume with a cape. So, not a bit like Superman, then.

The main mechanics of the plot revolve around a mysterious briefcase which everyone is after. Why? Apparently, it contains the Magolian’s nuclear device! During the course of events, it passes through the hands of various Magolian agents (most of them played by Western actors), and some pesky kids from the local orphanage. Of course, one of these brats gets himself kidnapped, and, once Starman’s rescued him, it’s the pretty nun who runs the children’s home who finds herself in the enemy’s clutches. So it’s off to the secret island base for the final showdown, via some wobbly model work and less than convincing flying sequences.

Atomic Rulers of the World (1964)

🎵’Ah! Ah! Ah! Staying’ Alive, Stayin’ Alive!’🎶

This was cut down from the two longest original films so there are noticeable narrative gaps, as more than 20 minutes of original footage is missing. But never fear, our old friend Voiceover Man is here, filling in the holes with his usual stentorian tones, convincing us just how damned important the whole thing is. Unfortunately, this is rather a dull experience, with enjoyment limited to the energetic fisticuffs, dodgy wire work and Starman leaping great heights as the film runs backwards.

Despite the overall lack of quality on display, it is necessary to bear in mind that this was designed as children’s entertainment, the Japanese equivalent of the Saturday Morning Matinee, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Utsui certainly didn’t see the joke, however. He was a serious dramatic actor in Japan and despised the role, the silly costume in particular, and refused to discuss it in interviews until the day that he died.

Undemanding, knockabout antics that often drag but provide some level of entertainment.

Advertisements

ESPY/Esupai (1974)

ESPY (1974)‘The Prime Minister should be safe, unless an enormous amount of energy is directed at him.’

A race driver with latent psychokinetic abilities is recruited by a secret organisation of special agents with extra-sensory abilities. Their main mission is to combat a rogue group of similarly talented individuals who are trying to wipe out mankind by starting World War lll.

Fast moving Japanese spy thriller that comes with a heavy dose of science fiction and a very serious approach to its material. There are no gadgets or gimmicks here; just a conflict between two sets of super-humans who fight with conventional guns and weaponry as well as their own mental powers. The only nod toward humour comes with chief bad guy Yûzô Kayama, who is a typically caricatured Bond villain, although this is probably emphasised more than intended by the maniacal laughter on the English dub track. Surprisingly, he is given some motivation for his actions, which is quite refreshing.

The film opens with a near fatal accident on the race track for Masao Kusakari, who saves himself with a sudden, and unexpected, use of his telekinetic abilities. This draws the attention of the two star operatives of ESPY, Hiroshi Fujioka and pretty Kaoru Yumi. At the same time the ‘Counter-ESPY’ organisation (not a very original name) are busy assassinating NATO diplomats on their way to a peace conference. Their aim is to destabilise the political landscape and plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust which will wipe out normal people and leave them masters of the planet. It’s a somewhat flawed scheme in my opinion, given what little would remain after such a conflict and their own dubious survival, but they are super-humans so they’ve probably got something worked out.

ESPY (1974)

Isn’t anyone going to help me up?

The story never really develops beyond a series of action set-pieces, but at least they keep coming and, for the most part, are efficiently realised. The SFX are very much of their time, but they are some pleasingly practical stunts and explosions.

There’s also a surprising emphasis on the psychological cost of being an agent, with Kuskari seriously conflicted after he has killed an opponent, and Yumi struggling to come to terms with performing a nude striptease under hypnosis on the stage of a seedy nightclub.

The film’s main problem comes with its’ lack of definition of the protagonist’s abilities. They can see through walls, practice telepathy, move heavy objects, and even teleport in moments of great stress, but seem unable to interfere with the actions of others in any way, instead being forced into lots of gun battles and fisticuffs. There are no exploding body parts here, such as appeared in films that cover similar ground, like ‘The Power’ (1967) or David Cronenberg’s ‘Scanners’ (1981). One of the Counter-ESPY agents uses her dangly earrings to hypnotise subjects, instead of any mental abilities, and later on when Kusakari is at the mercy of the criminal gang in an abandoned warehouse, all they try is running him down with mechanical diggers and then shooting him (which they probably should have done in the first place if you think about it). But nothing more.

Director Jun Fukuda is mainly remembered for his association with the Godzilla films of the late 1960s and early 1970s; including romps such as ‘Son of Godzilla’ (1967), and the seriously funny ‘Godzilla Vs. Megalon’ (1973). Leading actors Kusakari and Fujioka are still active in the Japanese film industry as of 2016. Sequels to this film may have been intended but never appeared.

At times this plays a little like a U.S. TV pilot of the 1970s, but it’s a fairly entertaining way to spend 90 minutes if you approach it in the right spirit.

The Golden Bat/Õgon Bat (1966)

The Golden Bat (1966)‘Idiot! Do you think Nuzo, the ruler of the universe, can lose to the Golden Bat?’

An amateur astronomer finds himself recruited to a secret UN Task Force after he notices anomalies in the orbit of strange new planet Icarus. Before long he is involved in the fight against alien forces, who plan to crash Icraus into the Earth and destroy the human race…

Juvenile Science Fiction hi-jinks from Japan featuring Õgon Bat, arguably the world’s oldest superhero and precursor to Batman. His origin story began even before the invention of moving pictures, as he first appeared as a character in ‘Kamishibai’ travelling shows, where a series of drawings would be accompanied by a storyteller’s narration! Although this type of entertainment eventually declined in popularity after World War II, the character survived and finally made his screen bow in ‘Õgon Bat: Matenro no Kaijin’ (1950) before getting a serious makeover with this project in the mid-1960s.

For a start, we have Sonny Chiba and his team of white-coated eggheads, who come over more as action heroes than serious boffins. Luckily, they have elderly inventor Andrew Hughes to provide some much needed gravitas, although involving his pre-teen granddaughter in proceedings seems a dubious parental decision at best. They all live in a secret HQ inside a Japanese alp and have a range of super vehicles at their disposal that resemble Gerry Anderson creations from TV shows like ’Thunderbirds’ and ‘Stingray.’

It’s fortunate we have these guys as they are the only ones who can stop Planet Icarus when it suddenly swerves onto a collision course with Earth. Their method? Use their ‘Super Destruction Beam Cannon’ (patent pending) of course! Unfortunately, it isn’t quite finished and they’re out looking for the final component when they come across a fragment of Atlantis (as you do!) which has somewhat unexpectedly risen from the sea. It brings with it the mummified remains of the Golden Bat, who returns every ten thousand years or so to help the human race in its hour of greatest need. He’s not looking too chipper until the prof’s granddaughter (sensibly along for the ride on this dangerous mission!) gives him a little drinkie of water. Then he’s raring to go; all death’s head mask, flowing cape and maniacal laugh. He might fly like ‘Turkish Superman’ (1978) (i.e. not in a tremendously convincing way) but he has super strength and is handy in a scrap with that silver baton!

And Earth needs the Golden Bat because Icarus isn’t trying to get friendly with the home world by accident. No, it’s been diverted by Nuzo, the ruler of universe. He’s a rather an odd chap too; looking like nothing so much as a mutant pantomime teddy bear. He also has a detachable metal claw for one hand, although it does looks suspiciously as if it’s made from silver cardboard. He’s out to destroy mankind simply because no-one else in the universe has the right to exist apart from him! Perfectly reasonable. It’s a policy he enforces close to home too; killing everyone who fails him in a stunning exhibition of excellent man-management and motivational skills. Who would want to work for him? Well, his three chief lieutenants are Keloid, Piranha and Jackal. Keloid (Youichi Numada) in particular enjoys his job a tad more than is strictly healthy for his mental wellbeing.

The Golden Bat (1966)

‘Idiots!’

Events move swiftly across the brief 72-minute running time, with the usual ration of last minute escapes, silly dialogue and unconvincing model work. The Prof’s granddaughter summons our superhero via a rubber bat that she wears as a brooch, avoiding a security beam means jumping in the air while the camera performs rapid sweeps so you can’t see what just happened, Icarus takes a chunk out of the moon (I think!), and the Golden Bat just can’t stop laughing. What a good sense of humour he has! Almost unhinged, you might say.

This is all harmless fun for the kiddies market and still holds up today as breezy, undemanding entertainment. Chiba went onto become a martial arts legend after his breakout role as ‘The Street Fighter’ (1974) and Quentin Tarantino was apparently thrilled when the old master accepted the prominent role of Uma Thurman’s teacher in ‘Kill Bill Vol. 1′ (2003). Hughes was a Turkish actor who appeared in many Japanese films in the 1960s and 1970s, including Toho Studio’s ‘Destroy All Monsters’ (1968) and ‘King Kong Escapes’ (1967).

But what of the Golden Bat himself? Well, he appeared in Manga and a 52-episode anime series followed on network television a year after this film. Comedy biopic ‘Õgon Batto ga Yattekuru’ (1972) seems to have been his final appearance on the big screen, however.

‘Where, where, where does he come from, the Golden Bat?’ asks the title song. Only the bats know, apparently…

The War In Space/Wakusei Daisenso (1977)


War In Space (1977)‘Skipper, it seems strange. Electric waves are calling us from Venus.’

In the near future, alien spaceships attack the Earth fleet and the planet’s orbiting space stations. A brilliant Japanese professor revives an old project to build an intergalactic battleship to combat this deadly threat.

The global phenomena that was the original ‘Star Wars’ (1977) was welcomed with open arms by film producers from all around the world, who immediately began knocking out their own space operas to compete at the box office. Japan differed slightly in this respect as, by all accounts, the release of the movie was delayed there, to allow the homemade ‘A Message From Space’ (1978) into theatres first. This probably accounts for the fact that this slightly earlier effort actually bears very little resemblance to the George Lucas film, beyond the laser battles in space. And there are an awful lot of those.

Apart from lots of (fairly) reasonable models shooting out multi-coloured rays, the film takes a mostly earthbound approach to its material, with a good deal of the usual clichés present and correct. There’s a lot of sitting around planning stuff, a tiresomely predictable love triangle, heroic self-sacrifice and notable world landmarks coming to explosive ends. Some of these fiery events look suspiciously similar to those in ‘The Last War’ (1961), which kind of scuppers the producer’s claim that this was the most expensive film to come out of Japan in years! But the main problem the film has is that it’s dull. Unbelievably dull.

There are a few scattered moments of interest. The aliens attempt infiltration of Earth disguised as human beings, but their masks seem to have come from a cheap joke shop as they tear easily and expose their green skin! Their mothership seems to have been modelled after a Roman galleon, complete with figurehead and what look a bit like rows of oars! Our main villain seems to be dressed as a Centurion (perhaps there was a spare uniforms in the wardrobe department!) and his sidekick is a pantomime Minotaur! This large actor threatens the captured heroine with a cardboard axe while she wonders why she’s suddenly wearing a very skimpy top and short shorts.

War In Space (1977)

‘Hi Honey, I’m home…’

Unfortunately, anyone expecting the sort of inspired lunacy of Italian rip-offs from a galaxy far, far away, such as ‘The Humanoid’ (1979) or ‘Starcrash’ (1978) (with Hammer Scream Queen Caroline Munro, Oscar Winner Christopher Plummer and a young David Hasselhoff!) are likely to go home seriously disappointed.

This has little to offer even the bad movie fan looking for a quick giggle. Models fly about, laser beams fire, things roar when they explode in the vacuum of space, hell, you know the drill by now.

Completely disposable space shenanigans. It’s a challenge to the memory to recall much of the experience even a few hours afterward.

Invisible Avenger/Tômei Ningen (1954)

Invisible Avenger (1954)‘Yes it seems he was studying these things, experimenting with protein collision using the Cyclot Theory.’

A motorist runs over an invisible man in the street. The authorities reveal that he was one of two survivors of a wartime experiment. Panic grips the country as a gang of criminals take advantage of the situation, blaming their crime spree on the surviving soldier…

Five years after Japanese science fiction got a kick start with ‘The Invisible Man Appears’ (1949), the box office went ballistic for ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954). Tucked away in the Big G’s mighty shadow was another production from Toho Studios; a return to the H. G. Wells story of scientific misadventure and ‘things that man must leave alone.’

As with the first Japanese ‘Invisible Man’, our unseen hero foregoes the usual ‘mad scientist and his reign of terror’ for reluctant involvement in criminal activity, as he is forced out of hiding to prove his innocence of a string of robberies. The gang recruit an elderly watchman to assist in their latest caper, promising him the money he needs for his blind granddaughter’s eye operation. Of course, they dispose of him instead, leaving the girl to rely on her neighbours; a kindly clown and a nightclub singer who spends most of her time resisting the advances of her boss, who might just have some skeletons in his closet.

As per usual in a Japanese film, the drama is played totally straight and the cast take the more outlandish twists and turns in the script in their stride. Principals Seizaburo Kawazu (the clown) and Yoshio Tsuchiya (the reporter) both later appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’ (1962) and Tsuchiya had already worked with the great director on ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954). It’s a brisk and efficient production all round, with decent direction and black and white photography. The story does threaten to get a little mawkish at times but stops short of getting too sentimental, although there are few surprises for the audience along the way.

Invisible Avenger (1954)

🎵Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear
I thought that you’d want what I want
Sorry, my dear 🎵

In a way, the film foreshadows the development of the character as a secret agent in the 1970s on US television. The NBC Network launched former ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ David MacCallum as ‘The Invisible Man’ in their 1975 season, who tried to cure his invisibility while working as an operative for the Klae Corporation. When that didn’t take, the network tried again with the unintentionally hilarious ‘Gemini Man’ featuring Ben Murphy working for INTERSECT and turning himself invisible with a digital watch. Unsurprisingly, it was cancelled after only 5 episodes had been broadcast.

The SFX here are courtesy of Eiji Tsuburaya, who provided the same service to ‘The Invisible Man Appears’ (1949) and was head monster-wrangler for Toho until his death at the end of the 1960s. It appears there hadn’t been a huge amount of technical progress in the five years since the first film, but still the usual motifs are efficiently delivered. After all, where would we be without the floating cigarette and the sinking seat cushions? By this point, Tsuburaya was able to use his own name, having been forced to hide behind a corporate identity in the post-war years, due to his work for the defeated regime during the conflict.

Although no great shakes, this is pleasing production, assisted by its relative brief running time of 70 minutes. Further adventures for the Japanese version of the character followed in ‘Invisible Man Vs. Human Fly’ (1957).

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977)

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977)‘lt’s really super big news!’

A young hiker falls into an ice cave near the foot of Mt. Fuji and finds it filled with large, petrified dinosaur eggs. An ambitious young geologist goes searching for the site, looking to justify the discredited work of his dead father and to make a buck or two on the side as well. Meanwhile, the crowd at the local Dragon Festival want their ticket money back when the event is suddenly attacked by a giant Plesiosaur.

This curiously gory tale of a legendary lake monster who finally meets its match against a giant pterodactyl was a product of Japan’s Toei Studio. Although it sounds a lot like one of the monster mashups coming from the rival ‘Godzilla’ stable, this effort is more likely to have been inspired by the worldwide success of ‘Jaws’ (1975). In effect, we have a very similar setup; a local waterfront community threatened by an aquatic menace with a taste for human flesh. Only this time the slightly more plausible presence of a killer shark is replaced with that of a savage dinosaur.

Although there is apparently a lot of local monster folklore in the area where our story is set, the film never bothers to justify this Dino’s sudden rampage or to explain why she suddenly fancies snacking on the local human population rather than sticking with her usual diet of crabs and shellfish. Oh, well. At least we get plenty of blood and guts and dismembered limbs as a young woman is attacked in a dinghy and mercilessly slaughtered!

Very little is shown of either monster at first, although this was probably down to budget constraints, rather than any skill on the part of director Junji Kurata. In fact after the initial, mysterious attacks, the film completely loses its momentum. We get a boring half-baked romance and a tiresome search for the creatures, accompanied by the usual scorn and disbelief from the authorities. The film actually attempts a serious approach to its material, rather than the (ever so) slightly silly vibe of Toho’s monster rave-ups, but this is completely torpedoed around the halfway mark when we get our first good look at this Japanese Nessie. Godzilla, she ain’t.

Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds (1977)

The mixed-species Synchronised Swimming event took a turn no-one had expected.

At first our scaly heroine is just a large, mechanical head, swinging around slowly with jaw flapping, accompanied by an (ever-so) slightly out of place disco soundtrack. Later on, she becomes an unconvincing giant puppet to fight the newly-hatched pterodactyl because I guess fighting each other is what giant puppet monsters do. The most frightening aspect of the whole enterprise is the Japanese Country band that open the Dragon Festival. Fortunately, our cut-price Nessie is only too willing to deliver an appropriate critique of their performance.

Apparently, this film became quite the cult hit in the USSR. It was the only monster movie released there until the 1990s but, by all accounts, it was the incidental trappings of a modern, capitalist country that fascinated the Soviet audience. All in all, it’s a curious project, given that giant monster movies were no longer box office gold, even in Japan. Toho’s original ‘Godzilla’ series had been mothballed two years earlier after ‘The Terror of Mechagodzilla’ (1975) proved to be the least commercially successful of the Big G’s screen outings (and it still is, all these years later).

The international success of ‘Jaws’ (1975) spawned many cheap imitations from around the world, but it still seems quite a leap from shark attacks to prehistoric dinos duking it out and knocking down model trees.

Worth a watch if you get a laugh from cardboard creatures, but probably best to try and find the ‘highlights’ on YouTube.

The Invisible Man Appears/Tômei ningen arawaru (1949)

The Invisible Man Appears (1949)‘Gadzooks, it’s the cops! Let’s go!’

An elderly scientist has been working to perfect an invisibility formula for over ten years. His two best students are also tackling the problem, albeit from different angles, whilst they compete for the hand of his eldest daughter. Unfortunately, the naive professor makes the mistake of showing his research to a slimy businessman…

Apparently, Japan’s first science fiction movie, this serious-minded excursion into H. G. Wells territory is modelled after the Universal ‘Invisible Man’ series of the 1930s and early 1940s. One of the ‘unmasking’ scenes even bares a close resemblance to Claude Rains ‘unwrapping’ in the guest room of the pub in ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) itself. We also get the usual round of floating cigarettes, sinking seat cushions and naked footprints appearing out of nowhere.

However, instead of the usual ‘mad scientist on the run’ plot, this story focuses more on the criminal possibilities afforded by invisibility, specifically the efforts of a gang of crooks to heist a priceless diamond necklace called ‘Amour Tears.’ Actually, with its skilful use of light and shadow and impressive black and white cinematography, the film often looks more like an American Film Noir than anything else. There’s also an element of mystery about the identity of the Invisible Man, which is unusual, even if the solution is not that hard to guess.

One of the notable facts about this production is the participation of Eiji Tsuburaya, who was in charge of the SFX. These are fairly slick, given the vintage of the film,  but still not quite as good as those delivered by Hollywood in previous years. Tsuburaya was actually blacklisted at the time, having worked with the governing regime during World War II, but he sidestepped the ban by forming his own company, which was credited rather than him. Five years later, he was instrumental in bringing ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters’ (1954) to life and a long career followed as head of FX with Toho Studios and their stable of monsters. The only other familiar name is that of actor Shosaku Sugiyama, who appeared in ‘Daimajin’ (1966) for rival studio Daei. This folk tale featured a giant statue on the rampage in a coastal community and spawned two sequels.

The Invisible Man Appears (1949)

‘No one will recognise me with these sunglasses on…’

The film was quite a domestic hit and Japanese cinema returned to the character, if not this incarnation, on several occasions. Whether it can be successfully argued that this project paved the way for Japan’s science fiction bonanza of the 1950s is doubtful. This often plays far more like a crime picture with some fantastic trimmings than science fiction and it’s more likely that Japanese filmmakers were still taking their main inspiration from Hollywood rather than from their own recent cinematic history.

A sober and sometimes thoughtful thriller, which puts a slightly different slant on what is now an all-too familiar tale to modern audiences. It may not bring a whole lot of original ideas to the table but presents what it has in a cool, professional manner and provides a decent level of entertainment.