February 28, 2010
BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE:
This release of Battle in Outer Space is part of Columbia Pictures' Toho Collection three-pack that also features The H-Man and Mothra, all of which were originally released domestically by Columbia in the late 50s/early 60s. The DVD includes both the U.S. and Japanese versions of the film, along with commentary by Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle. The prints for both U.S. and Japanese versions are fairly good, if not excellent. The packaging, unfortunately, is severely lacking, with the discs all being crammed into one side of a single-width case. To remedy this, I just put the discs in separate cases and fixed them up with reproductions of the original Japanese one-sheets.
If Battle in Outer Space is not a direct sequel to The Mysterians (Chikiyu Boeigun, 1957), it certainly shares common characters and characteristics. It's unclear whether Dr. Adachi, played by Koreya Senda, and Etsuko, played by Kyoko Anzai, are intended to be the same characters from The Mysterians (played by Takashi Shimura and Momoko Kochi, respectively), but Dr. Immelman, played by Harold Conway in both films, is obviously meant to be the same individual. More as a result of budget limitations than creative intent, the alien spaceships are slightly modified holdovers from the former film, and the same sound effects are used while they are in flight.
Whereas The Mysterians built slowly, setting up a grim, brooding atmosphere before introducing the giant robot Mogera and then progressing to a massive artillery/aerial battle, Battle in Outer Space opens with an alien attack on a space station, immediately followed by several other violent assaults on the earth. The film moves at a fairly brisk pace for the duration, with two Earth rockets, called the SPIPs, making a journey to the moon to combat invaders from the planet Natal, concluding with a major battle as the Natalians make a desperate final attempt to conquer Earth.
Though technically not a daikaiju film, Battle in Outer Space features many of the trappings that would eventually come to permeate the Godzilla series--invading space aliens, high-tech spaceships and aircraft engaged in spectacular battles, and the graphic destruction of major miniature cities. Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects certainly take a front seat in this film, mostly involving battles between spacecraft. The effects work succeeds to varying degrees, with the best taking place on the surface of the moon. The design of the SPIP rockets is typical of those from the 50s and 60s--tapering, needle-like fuselages with large base fins--and they appear quite convincing, especially during launches and landings. For the most part, the lunar surface miniatures and sets work exceedingly well, and the ground cars used by the SPIP astronauts appear functional; cuts between miniatures and full-size mock-ups are oftentimes flawless.
While anything resembling respect for the laws of physics might be rare in outer space movies--whether then or now--Battle in Outer Space makes only a few token nods to the concepts of weightlessness, effects of acceleration in gravity, et. al., and these are particularly odd at that. Most of the time, under said weightless conditions, the characters carry on as if they're in normal Earth gravity, except that--from time to time--one of them might rise unexpectedly in the air and then joke "he forgot." And one line, uttered quite ironically, is "Doesn't this weightless feeling feel odd?" even as the characters are hoofing through the spaceship's corridor as if they're on a sidewalk in downtown Tokyo.
Because the story is so fast-paced and plot-driven, none of the characters are very well-drawn or memorable, though Yoshio Tsuchiya plays a fairly tragic character who succumbs to the Natalians' mind control--the kind of role for which he came to be well-known in numerous Toho films, such as Dr. Otani in Destroy All Monsters and Masafumi Kasai in Matango. The romance between handsome leading actor Ryo Ikebe and Kyoko Anzai is understated--almost to the point of superfluousness--but further development would needlessly slow the pace of the picture.
Most fans of Toho science fiction films tend to rate Battle in Outer Space as inferior to The Mytserians--as do I--but also find it exciting and engaging. Despite the packaging, which hardly does justice to these DVDs, a decent presenation of both the Japanese and U.S. versions of the film--with very perceptive commentary by Messrs. Godziszewski and Ryfle--is a most welcome thing.
Mothra has always been one of my least favorite of Toho's giant monsters. It's a bug; depending on its incarnation, either an unremarkable, big honking caterpillar or a terribly unreal-looking giant moth. Yet Mothra has also starred in some of Toho's best Showa-era epics, from the original Mothra to Mothra vs. Godzilla (1963). Later incarnations of the critter, such as those in Godzilla - Mothra - King Ghidorah: All-Out Monster Attack and Godzilla: Tokyo SOS have been outright impressive. Go figure. Of course, then there was the 1992 Godzilla vs. Mothra. Eh. Not so much.
After the dark, somber moods set in Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again, and Rodan, the Flying Monster, all of which were based on the disturbing premise of science gone too far, Toho opted to produce a friendlier, fantasy-based daikaiju movie. Mothra introduces a giant monster who wreaks havoc but is essentially gentle, driven to destruction only because of its loyalty to the benevolent Shobijin (which means "little beauties"): a pair of one-foot-tall young women from the radiation-blasted Infant Island, who are exploited by a greedy entrepreneur named Clark Nelson. In his zeal to make money, Nelson abducts the Shobijin and forces them to perform in an exotic nightclub act in Tokyo. However, unknown to him, the Shobijin are using their performances to telepathically summon Mothra to their rescue, and when the big bug eventually does appear, Eiji Tsuburaya and his special effects crew get a chance to more than go to town.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Toho monster movie without spectacular scenes of miniature city destruction, and on this count Mothra definitely delivers, especially during its rampage in larval form. Several different larva puppets of various sizes were constructed, as well as a suit (only of the caterpillar's fore section) worn by actor Haruo Nakajima, which allowed for the use of very large-scale, super-realistic miniatures. Unlike in some later appearances, in this movie, the larva's movements appear very natural and lifelike, and the mottled tan and brown skin texture looks far more realistic than most of the subsequent puppets', which were a more uniform, glossy brown.
The adult "imago" Mothra doesn't fare nearly as well. For scenes of the flying Mothra's assault on Newkirk City, the capital of the fictional nation of Rolisica, the miniatures are smaller and less detailed, resulting in a far less satisfying look. Much like Rodan, Mothra is able to generate typhoon-force winds with its wings, but most of the shots of miniatures whirling around like paper confetti leave more than a little to be desired.
The musical score is provided not by either of Toho's most frequent composers--Akira Ifukube and Masaru Sato--but by Yuji Koseki, who scored relatively few films but provided a distinctive and exotic musical backdrop for Mothra. Koseki wrote the song that the Shobijin use to summon their guardian, but it was later re-orchestrated by Akira Ifukube for use in subsequent films, such as Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster.
Although little good can be said about Sony's packaging job (see comments in the Battle in Outer Space review), the DVD presents generally fine prints of both the U.S. and Japanese versions of the film. During the film's initial release in 1962, Columbia inexplicably trimmed a considerable amount of footage from the film, including some impressive special effects scenes--presumably just to shorten its running time. Unless one has a serious aversion to subtitles, there's not much point in watching the (reasonably well-dubbed) U.S. version except to listen to the insightful commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. Despite the poor packaging, this set is a good value for any kaiju eiga fan on this side of the water.
At long last, Toho's 1958 foray into the more horrific side of science-fiction, The H-Man, is now available on DVD, as part of the Columbia Toho Collection package that also features Battle in Outer Space and Mothra. The story is openly based on the 1954 Lucky Dragon incident--oftentimes referred to as the third nuking of Japan--when a Japanese fishing boat strayed into waters contaminated by nuclear fallout, resulting in the crew succumbing to radiation sickness. The H-Man goes a step further, in that the radiated crew members are transformed into green, blob-like entities who prey on other humans by dissolving and consuming their bodies. Their ship drifts into Tokyo harbor and the H-men (short for "hydrogen-bomb men") escape into the city and are soon making a grim and gooshy mess of things.
Noted Toho regular actor Kenji Sahara plays Dr. Masada, an up-and-coming nuclear physicist who deduces the origin of the H-men but has a tough time selling it to skeptical police investigator Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata). Yumi Shirakawa plays nightclub singer Chikaku Arai, the girlfriend of gangster Misaki (Hisaya Ito), who the police believe is in hiding--though in reality, he has been dissolved by the H-men. Masada, understanding what has actually happened to Misaki, becomes involved with Chikaku, but she is abducted by a rival gangster who, like the police, believes she is actually hiding Misaki. At the climax, the H-men intervene in their own gruesome way; Masada rescues Chikaku; and the authorities, in their efforts to purge Tokyo of the slimy, radioactive invaders, leave a large portion of the city's harbor district enveloped in flames.
With its grim atmosphere and suspenseful plot, The H-Man succeeds as a horror thriller, while retaining plenty of the trappings of standard, 1950s-vintage science-fiction melodramas. The early scenes aboard the abandoned, radiated ocean vessel are outright creepy, and Eiji Tsuburaya's unique special effects bring the mutated humans to life in very convincing fashion. The "dissolving" scenes were accomplished via life-size balloons created to resemble the actors, which were rapidly deflated, filmed at high speed, and optically enhanced, so that when replayed at normal speed, the illusion is of a human being dissolving into an oozing blob.
Composer Masaru Sato offers an enjoyable, somewhat frenetic orchestral score, occasionally accompanied by staccato, pinging percussion that adds an unsettling mood to the visuals. In the U.S. version, the opening theme is edited to accompany an abbreviated credit sequence, but thankfully is otherwise left intact, unlike too many other Japanese imports from this period.
The prints of both the Japanese and U.S. versions of the film are very good, though the American version is edited somewhat. Stick with the Japanese to get the fullest, best viewing experience.