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.

Message From Space (1978)

Message From Space (1978)‘You don’t believe in these silly nuts. A nut is a nut, after all.’

The intergalactic raiders of Gavanas conquer the peaceful Jullicians. The leader of the subjected people sends eight mystical seeds out into the cosmos to search for the eight heroes who will deliver them from their enemies. A trio of young punks and an idle rich girl are four of the recipients, along with a grizzled old General and his pet robot. Can they possibly succeed?

The global impact of ‘Star Wars’ (1977) created a cinematic science fiction bandwagon in the following decade that filmmakers from all around the world were only too eager to join. This particular effort originated in Japan, which is not surprising given their cinematic history. Actually, sources differ concerning the origin of this project, some claiming the film was already in the can prior to the unleashing of the George Lucas phenomena. What does seem clear is that the release of ‘Star Wars’ (1977) was delayed in Japan so this effort could reach the big screen first.

lt does seem rather hard to believe that this film was created independently of its far more famous US counterpart. It’s not the main story so much as the trappings that come with it. We get a Jullician Princess-heroine in a white bedsheet with an interesting hairdo (involving a lettuce, by the looks of it), a ‘cute’ robot bearing more than a resemblance to R2D2, and main villain Emperor Rockseia Xll in a strange silver mask, who wouldn’t have looked out of place on TV fighting The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Although he does take orders for his old mum in a wheelchair. It’s hard to imagine Darth Vader putting up with that. It’s also curious to note that the concept of the eight heroes is highly reminiscent of ancient folklore and also ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954), a film cheerfully ripped off in its turn by producer Roger Corman in his own totally unconnected space epic ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ (1980).

Recruited for American audiences are veteran character actor Vic Morrow, who had become a star on TV show ‘Combat!’ in the early 1960s, and hot shot heroes Philip Casnoff and perky Peggy Ann Brennan. For hometown audiences, there’s martial arts legend Sonny Chiba, who had form in cheap science fiction after headlining ‘Invasion of the Neptune Men’ (1962). He’d obviously not learned his lesson. Morrow’s career was none too healthy by this point, and he must have been pleased to pick up an easy paycheque. Ironically, his star was on the rise again only a few years later when he met with a deadly helicopter rotor blade on the set of ‘The Twilight Zone —The Movie’ (1982), a tragic accident that went on to prove that big Hollywood directors can afford really expensive lawyers. Casnoff went on to win a Golden Globe for his performance as Frank Sinatra in a TV biopic in 1993.

Message From Space (1978)

This film was made before ‘Star Wars’ right?

Sadly, the greatest cast could not have saved this. lt’s hopelessly cheesy. To begin with, our heroes are ‘chosen’ by glowing walnuts. Yes, I know they’re magical seeds that have scoured the cosmos, but they look a lot like walnuts. One turns up in Morrow’s drink when he’s at a bar with his ‘cute’ little robot. By the look on his face, you can tell it’s not ‘Happy Hour’. Aside from Morrow, everyone overacts dreadfully, probably just trying to get some life out of the damp, ‘dead on arrival’ script.

What makes things immeasurably worse is the bargain basement SFX. The spaceship models are probably the best element, but even they are obviously models and wouldn’t fool a 5-year old. Everything else looks cobbled together from cardboard and sellotape, and there are typically bad examples of ‘laser’ effects that are supposed to put the audience in mind of lightsabres.

All in all, a truly hopeless effort, redeemed by a few, scattered laugh-out loud moments.

Gamera Vs Zigra (1971)

Ganera Vs Zigra (1971)‘Explain how you managed to get here. Did you swim through the fourth dimension?’

All around extra-terrestrial bad egg Zigra shoots up the moon in his rinky-dink spaceship before heading for Earth. Two marine scientists and their kids are captured, but escape with vital information about his plan to enslave the human race. And then eat it. Luckily, Gamera turns up.

The last of the original series of five films about Gamera, the giant, flying outer space turtle. That’s unless you count ‘Gamera: Super Monster’ (1980) but that was almost entirely old footage from the previous films. Here, our heroic reptile (a ‘friend to children everywhere’) lock horns with mankind’s latest nemesis beneath the murky waves off the coast of Japan. Yes, to begin with Zigra appears to be just a stuffed shark’s head on the wall of his spaceship but, when Gamera destroys the vehicle, he transforms into a huge, tin fish with glowing red eyes and a ray that comes out of his mouth. It’s something to do with the pressure on our world, apparently, and perfectly feasible if you examine the science.

Clogging up the works from an entertainment perspective are our two pre-pubescent heroes who generally get in the way of the action as they tangle with Zigra’s right-hand girl, who looks quite fetching in a tight green number and can hypnotise people with a click of her fingers. Unfortunately, she can’t handle bombardment by cuddly toys and being shouted at through a radio.

Meanwhile, back at the movie, the Big Z is getting the better of our scaly hero, and being attacked by stock footage of jet fighters is just water off his shiny back. There’s an entertaining five minutes about two blokes arguing over buying some fish before a convenient lightning strike gives our last, best hope a new lease of life. Children sing a sterling chorus on the soundtrack and Gamera plays a nifty tune on Zigra’s backbone as their final confrontation reaches a thrilling climax. It’s a truly epic struggle.

Gamera Vs Zigra (1971)

‘Sod off, you bastard!’

A lot of the human drama is set at the local ‘Sea World’ and, years before current concerns about such institutions, it’s unsurprisingly presented in a remorselessly positive light with a fair bit of semi-documentary footage of the creatures in its care. There’s also an environmental message, which is worthy, but sledgehammered home in a less than subtle fashion.

All in all, it’s probably the best of Gamera’s films with the exception of the unhinged classic ‘Attack of the Monsters/Gamera Vs Guiron’ (1969), but what could possibly be as good as that? At times our heroic space turtle does seem like a guest in his own movie here, just showing up conveniently when he’s required. That’s not too bad a result, mind, as it’s really Zigra who is the star of the show. Simply put, he’s bloody awesome, and a string of Zigra movies should have followed. Perhaps it’s not too late.

Gamera is still one cool dude, though, and was revived for a new series of films in the 1990s and a reboot was announced in 2015. The more famous heroes in a half shell are no comparison. They can’t even defeat the less than lethal combination of Megan Fox and Michael Bay.

Hail Zigra!

Invisible Man Vs Human Fly (1958)

Invisible Man Vs Human Fly (1958)‘Professor Hayokawa Murdered — Insatiable Rampage of Bloodlust’.

An unhinged scientist has perfected a method of shrinking himself to the size of a fly, and uses his invention to revenge himself on former colleagues. An invisible laboratory assistant helps the police to track him down and foil his nefarious schemes.

Daei Studios were Toho’s main competition in the Japan’s Science Fiction arena during the 1950s and 1960s, and here they deliver an unusual mash-up of a mad scientist and a standard police procedural. So, on the one hand, we get familiar crime picture clichés such as tepid gunplay and a shady nightclub, but we’re also offered a floating head and a villain whose miniature size apparently allows him to fly!

Despite the outlandish elements, the script and cast play it completely straight. Things start off impressively with some inexplicable murders, which are slickly edited and quite unsettling. However, it doesn’t take too long before we know what’s going on, and any sense of mystery has been surrendered to some obvious, and pretty goofy, plot developments. Our young hero owes his invisibility to the side effects of a professor’s experiments into the effects of cosmic rays but his presence is a godsend to the local forces of law and order who find themselves up against it when dealing with our microscopic villain. There are some pretty huge gaps of logic if you look at things too closely, but it’s all acceptable enough if you’re prepared to go along for the ride.

Invisible_Man_Vs_Human_Fly_(1958)

(Human Fly not pictured) Probably…

The SFX are predictably variable, given the era when the film was made, although the invisibility is realised in the acceptable manner first pioneered by SFX technician John P Fulton in the golden era of Hollywood. Indeed, the production is professional in every department, and it’s no easy matter to point out any obvious flaws, but proceedings are simply never very creative or inspired. And exactly why the Human Fly makes a buzzing noise is a bit of a puzzle…

The Daei Studio never played more than second fiddle to Toho, despite plugging away for more than a decade. Probably their biggest success came with the ‘Majin’ series, which featured a giant statue come to life, but even that was a pale comparison to the global recognition enjoyed by Mothra, King Ghidorah and the Big G.