1977 was a weird year for science fiction. Star Wars offered a titanic shift in filmed science fiction from the more cerebral offerings of, say, 2001, to the slam bang action that the genre would be associated with from then on.
But not all cultures were so cerebral with their science fiction even before Star Wars. Japan's history with epic space opera is almost as old as the Japanese film industry, and while their non-giant-monster special effects films take a cue from American titles, the Japanese have a flare that cannot be ignored.
Such is the case with the last of Toho's epic space pictures of the 1970's, The War in Space. The plot is as standard as space opera gets, an alien race wants to take over planet Earth, and a scientist and his band of merry adventurers must stop him.
Really, that's all there is to it. Though, to be fair there are some supplementary plot elements, the love triangle, the sacrifice, the self doubt of the hero, etc, but these all take a back seat to the special effects of the space battles.
Set in 1988, The War in Space, focuses on Professor Takigawa, head of the UN Space Task Force (or something akin to that) hurrying to stop an invasion from Venus. When an alien space ship, modeled on a Spanish galleon, destroys Earth's only orbiting space station and levels all of Earth's major cities, the last hope for man is the mothballed space ship Gothen and its plucky crew.
Gothen, for what it's worth, is essentially the model from Atragon, retooled to fly in space. It even has the same drill head at the bow. The galleon looks like a galleon, and even has weird little oar ports on the side that function as laser guns.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The War in Space isn't all wham bang action and good special effects, there's plenty of bad to go around too. The acting from the mostly young and barely experienced cast is lacking, the score is loaded with horrific wakka-chikka wakka-chikka music, and several elements of Star Wars seem to be intentionally "borrowed" and dropped into The War in Space for no reason other than to say "We're like Star Wars too!"
But since Lucas totally ripped off The Hidden Fortress to make Star Wars, I think it's a fair trade. While the plot is very standard Japanese science fiction, i.e. The Mysterians, Battle in Outer Space, Invasion of the Neptune Men, Prince of Space, it manages to work in a few of the visual tricks that Lucas pioneered.
Now, I am usually more than happy to shit all over George Lucas, his legacy, his crappy films, and his insane fans, but The War in Space has sort of tempered the pleasure in that activity. You see, if you watch both films you can see just how groundbreaking Lucas' direction was, how amazing Dykstra's special effects were, how important their never-before-seen camera techniques were.
The War in Space tries really hard to emulate the excitement of Star Wars but never, ever, even once, looks like more than a space battle full of small models. Where Lucas' work was absolutely absorbing, The War in Space maintains a distance from the audience by keeping the space ships mid screen, or moving from left/right or right/left only.
And it's not only the special effects, the sets too appear to be very inexpensive lacking the polish and futuristic wow factor of, say, The Death Star interior. The costumes are bland too.
Fukuda's pedestrian direction shows through as well. He just stands the camera up in front of the actors and lets them talk so there isn't any visual drama, and manages to do the same with the battle sequences too, so the whole film looks sort of boring.
Still, if you can suspend disbelief a little, there are some nuggets of goodness to be had. June Takigawa's weird bondage costume (that the Aliens make her wear) is awesomely out of place. And the secret entrance to the galleon is hilariously obvious. Better yet, there is one, ONE trap, that the heroes must overcome before finally entering the ship and it's a direct visual rip off of Obi Wan shutting down the tractor beam.
Look for it. It's funny!
The villain, unnamed for the entire film, has only about two lines and makes no real impact on the film. He wears a roman helmet, accountant's mask, and a cape. Other than that, he does nothing. The heroes don't even interact with him, instead, leaving him to die on his throne at the conclusion of the picture.
The War in Space is ALL told from the perspective of the heroes so we never really get to understand the motivation of the enemies. They are there to be killed and that's about it. And there aren't many enemies anyway. When the young hero Miyoshi storms the galleon to save June Takigawa he kills a Chewbacca look-alike (who has horns and a big axe) and three or four soldiers before making his escape. The aliens don't seem to have much of a force to take the Earth with if you ask me.
Diskotek releases The War in Space in 16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen in original Japanese (5.1 and 2.0 sound) with new English subs, and with the old 1977 English dub track (5.1 and 2.0 sound), and some trailers.
The War in Space is a nice look at that transition from classical science fiction film-making to modern science fiction film-making that harkens back to the Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space.