Sony Pictures has been a welcome player in the game of releasing classic Toho science fiction and monster films into the North American market. With nice packaging and some extras in their Showa Godzilla titles, and nice transfers for the Heisei films they've handled, Sony/Columbia has helped reignite interest from other companies in releasing these films with some modicum of decency.
Now they bring three classic tokusatsu films from the Toho (via Columbia pictures) vault and they span pretty much the whole gamut of Toho's science fiction/special effects offerings. We have one giant monster film, Mothra, one horror film, The H-Man, and one special effects extravaganza, Battle in Outer Space. Each film pretty much features the same staple of Toho actors that anyone with any connection to the Showa Godzilla series will recognize. That said, these are three solid, if flawed, outings that will at the very least help while away a rainy afternoon or cold evening.
Directed by: Ishiro Honda
Screenplay by: Shinichi Sekizawa, based on the novel by Takehiko Fukinaga
Emi and Yumi Ito (The Peanuts)
Mothra, not surprisingly, is the film that introduces one of Godzilla's most often seen enemies (and occasional pals). While not as dark or ominous as Godzilla, Mothra appeared during the early years where Toho was creating single-monster films and unwittingly creating Godzilla's future costars.
Mothra appeared in 1959, after Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again, and Rodan. Mothra has a slightly more gentle tone than any of its predecessors. The main characters in Mothra are reporters Sen-Chan and Michi Hanamura (Frankie Sakai and Kyoko Sagawa), and like the other giant monster films before it, who are peripheral to the secondary characters who are either the villain, or scientists. Our scientist is the camera-shy Dr. Choju (Hiroshi Koizumi), a biologist. And our villain is Nelson (Jerry Ito).
Unusually for the time, Nelson is clearly an American left over from the occupation and has made a fine living in the entertainment business. However, the script identifies him as a representative of the "Ruissican" government, even a diplomat. Either way he's meant to represent the west's lingering hold on Japanese society.
Perhaps it's a statement about Japan's emergence from the post World War period, but an American wouldn't be the villain in another Godzilla films until 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.
Nelson is more than just a diplomat and raconteur; he's a talent agent and nightclub owner, which we'll see way more of later. For now, suffice to say the government backing his business in Japan is happy to back a scientific trip to Infant Island (called Bieru in the American dub) after some sailors are recovered there following their ordeal in a cyclone.
They should be dead, they should at least be sick with radiation poisoning as Infant Island was one of the H-bomb test sites used by the Americans. But they return to Japan as fit and healthy as teenagers. The men tell a tale of a tribe of natives who gave them special berry juice (a common event in these movies) that seems to ward off the effects of radiation poisoning.
It's those berries that bring Nelson and his government to the table with money to sponsor an expedition. Don't waste too much thought on the villain's background, the film certainly doesn't.
While exploring the inner jungle of Infant Island the cast stumbles on adult, foot-high little girls. Nelson immediately wants them for his nightclub act. The girls are played by The Peanuts, a pop group of the time, who would go on and be the twin fairies in more than a few Godzilla movies.
In a common theme for these films, the "civilized" people only see the natives as something to exploit. But, not all of them have a psychic link to a divine giant moth god. Once the girls are away from Infant Island and forced to sing in Nelson's cabaret, it's not long before Mothra is wriggling her way across the sea to bring them back and throw a little insect smackdown on the residents of Tokyo.
Mothra offers some fantastic imagery. From the lush jungles of Infant Island presented as matte paintings and lush fern-filled forest sets, to the ultra modern newsroom of the Asahi Shimbun, to Nelson's insane cabaret, the film looks great. Mothra too is an underrated monster and while not as terror inducing as, say, a giant lizard or supersonic bird, she is clearly the very definition of power on little stumpy legs.
A note about the acting in this film, both in dubbed and original Japanese you will be impressed whenever Jerry Ito and Frankie Sakai are on screen, fortunately that's almost always. Sakai has a great gentle giant vibe, while Ito simply oozes menace. They are surprisingly well rounded for a special effects film.
Continuity wasn't a buzz-word at Toho so later in the Godzilla series there is an opportunity to pair up Frankie Sakai and Kyoko Sagawa, Toho instead casts two different actors in essentially the same role. It's a bit of a shame too as Frankie Sakai is just great here and would have added a little naïve levity to Godzilla vs. Mothra.
Alas, it wasn't to be.
This DVD set contains both the English dub and the orginal Japanese language version of Mothra. What's nice is that the Japanese version isn't just the original language track over the American cut, it's the actual Japanese cut with all the deep religious imagery left intact.
I'd never watched the Japanese original before so this was a great reintroduction to one of my favorite Showa Kaiju Eiga.
The commentary track with Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski offers enough production information to fill a small book.
The H-Man (1958)
Directed by: Ishiro Honda
Screenplay by: Takeshi Kimura
If there is a film in this set that suffers for lack of a commentary track, it's this one. H-man is one of Ishiro Honda's rare monster film without a giant monster. Instead we get a glowing blue blob that prowls the Tokyo sewers and eats gangster and cabaret singers.
I've always had problems connecting with H-man and it's not for lack of trying. I've watched it three times in the last month and I am still unable to write a detailed plot synopsis.
Whole trying to rob a bank, gangster Misaki is apparently shot, but before he can get into the getaway car he melts away leaving only his clothes, a watch, and the stolen loot behind. What follows is a pretty good police procedural following two cops, Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata) and Sakata (Yosifumi Tajima) as they try to track the gangster down by staking out his nightclub singer girlfriend Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa) at the sleazy nightclub where he hangs out.
Entering the story is our scientist, Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara) who are studying the effects of exposure to hydrogen bomb fallout. Misaki was exposed during the rainstorm on the night of the robbery and that is what led to his change from low level gangster to glowing blue glob. At least, that's Dr. Masada's theory. He gets snared when the cops catch him receiving money and a note from Chikako.
Complicating matters are the other gangsters who are also looking for Misaki and they aren't willing to just hang around and wait to see if he comes back. They immediately put the squeeze on Chikako.
As we learn Dr. Masada has a good reason for his theory and when he brings to inspectors to meet the only two men alive who have witnessed a person melt, the source of the H-man becomes a little clearer. The sequences of flashback as the men tell of stumbling upon a ghost ship are the best in the film and really showcase how Honda could build a little suspense. It's just a shame that that tone didn't carry through the rest of the film.
There's less Godzilla-science in this film than in the other two, and the acting is better so are the characters, but the story just doesn't gel with me (for lack of a better expression). It's as if the film wants to be a thriller but doesn't go far enough, a romance that doesn't go far enough, and a horror film that doesn't go far enough. Even the special effects, typically excellent in this era of Tsubaraya's work, are inconsistent and disinteresting as they all feature either blue globs flowing up walls or melting rubber bodies.
No commentary on this one, and ironically, it's the one I wanted the commentaries on most as I've always struggled to make sense of the plot. Oh well. The Japanese language version helps some as it's a little longer, and features a couple of stunningly good if not surprisingly hot exotic dance sequences that are cut from the American version.
This DVD features previews for other Columbia library titles.
Battle in Outer Space (1959)
Directed by: Ishiro Honda
Screenplay by: Shinichi Sekizawa
Battle in Outer Space is the spiritual sequel to The Mysterians. Set in pretty much the same Earth and featring pretty much the same story, minus the women stealing angle, Battle in Outer Space jettisons all of the crap that slowed The Mysterians down and replaced all that character growth with whiz-bang special effects.
We open with an Earth satellite (manned of course as this was 1960) being destroyed by a flotilla of small flying saucers. Before you can say United Nations Space Force, the United Nations are putting together an army to repel what they think might be hostile enemies. They, however, aren't sure exactly who attacked the satellite.
While discussing how to proceed one of the delegation has disappeared. We learn that he's been possessed by the alien intelligence and is being used to sabotage the laser guns developed for use on the new space rockets being prepped for a launch to the moon.
This movie moves so fast it's hard to remember if there were even main characters, let alone a coherent plot, and I just watched it. Suffice to say Battle in Outer Space isn't meant to be studied like Citizen Kane. In fact, it's exciting enough on its own that the characters are secondary to the action set pieces used to showcase the work of Eiji Tsubaraya's special effects skills. Once we learn a little about the aliens (they want real estate on Earth, naturally) and have found a way to harness the power of absolute zero to monkey with gravity. This super weapon puts the Aliens way above us technically, at least, that's what the rest of the cast thinks. After wiping out a train, after the destruction of the satellite, the battle is pretty much on.
I think it takes less than 10 minutes before our cast is screaming towards the Moon in two heavily armed rockets to pay back the aliens who attacked our satellite. The Moon, for what it's worth, is where the aliens (we learn later that they are called Natals) as a stopover before attacking Earth, so throwing them off of the Moon we can probably get them out of the solar system.
If you have experience with other Toho science fiction films you'll see a whole lot of things that borrow from both Toho's other science fiction stuff, but other western science fiction.
• alien-possessed humans working for the enemy
• special ray guns (in The Mysterians these are called Marklite Cannons)
• United Nations/Science Council meetings featuring international cooperation
• The soldiers in the film are all scientists under the employ of the UN
• World landmarks outside Japan destroyed to show that this isn't an isolated invasion
• Propane powered rockets
• An assault on a big alien base
• Goofy zero-gravity humor (and terrible gravity science)
Battle in Outer Space also features some cool music that shows up on later Godzilla films, not surprisingly the score is composed by Akira Ifukube and features some tunes that appear in later Godzila films (Godzilla vs. Gigan).
While the characters in this film are as dimensional as a sheet of typing paper glued to a chalk board, there is one stand out performance. Iwamura, (Yoshio Tsuchiya) the hot shot rocket ace who is under the control of the Natal for most of the film. Yoshio Tsuchiya is one of the best B-listers in Honda's stable and never fails to make the best of the goofier roles he takes. The guy who goes nuts on the island in Son of Godzilla, that's him. The Controller of Planet X in Monster Zero, again, that's him. The fighter pilot friend of the lead characrters in Godzilla Raids Again, yep, him. The Dr. who immediately sells out to The Kilaak in Destroy all Monsters, Tsuchiya. He's a twitchy, muggy, starey, weirdy and he's fun to watch here. And that makes his moment of redemption that much more fun too.
The work done to prepare this set for release required extensive digital touchup and source material scouring. You can find some good exhaustive articles about this at www.scifijapan.com and a bit in the commentary tracks as one of the touchup supervisors guests with Ed and Steve to discuss the details of the process.
In fact, these films have never looked better, especially Mothra, and I've had a good copy of Mothra in every format available since I first bought a VCR as a teenager.
Finally, the packaging shouldn't matter for a DVD set, but I have to say I've seen hilariously badly encoded public domain shit-ball DVDs that have better packaging than this Icons of Science Fiction set. The three disks are black and white labeled, like lightscribed, and all stacked on a single spindle. It's an invitation to scratched, ruined disks. Seriously what would a slightly better case have cost? A nickel? How about a little sheet of foam? That can't be too much, right?
But if my only complaint is the low quality of the packaging, there is damn little reason not to buy this set, especially if you have an interest in some of the stranger offerings from Toho at their science-fictiony zenith.
Now, Sony/Columbia, how about a nice Icons release of Matango, The Human Vapor, and Gorath?