BluRay/DVD Reviews

ICONS OF SCI-FI TOHO COLLECTION

By • Oct 12th, 2009 •

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If you were being chased by a gigantic moth with rainbow-colored wings festooned with yards of cotton string, would you 1) scream and yell like holy hell 2) attempt to hide behind a cardboard mock-up of a large building or 3) realize you were having a bad dream, then rush out and buy the new ICONS OF SCI-FI TOHO collection in order to experience the real thing? I myself have opted for the last.

Let’s face it. It’s hard to be serious, let alone come up with prose extolling the apogee of cinematic art, when watching hyperactive men in latex suits stomping on exquisitely rendered miniature sets. Nonetheless, the ICONS OF SCI-FI TOHO is one of the best DVD collections released so far this year, not only in terms of its entertainment value, but also in scope and simply damn amazing movies, that, seen in their original Japanese versions, turn out to be some of the high points of late 50’s film making.

Just between you and me, I was never that crazy about Godzilla. Sure, the first film was great, but those interminable sequels, each one sillier than the next, such as MONSTER X and GHIDORAH, which Sony has seen fit to release on DVD in special editions over the last few years, have managed to make Japanese Sci-fi seem sleep-inducing. One could never say such a thing about the movies in this set – BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, THE H MAN and MOTHRA. In both their range and almost hallucinatory sense of image, the films are, as Monty Python used to advertize itself, something completely different.

They’re also completely different from each other. It’s not just that BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE is a neo-realist “space opera” modeled after George Pal’s DESTINATION MOON and CONQUEST OF SPACE combining a six year old’s fascination for smashing things with a strong left-wing “Popular Front” sensibility, THE H MAN a noirish gangster film with dazzling color cinematography and a darkly adult sci-fi core exploring the possibility of how the atomic bomb has changed what may lie after death, and MOTHRA a charming fantasy that stays in the mind for its simultaneous sense of visual sophistication and emotional innocence.

While all are directed by the man responsible for Godzilla at its worst – Ishiro Honda – and produced in the same time period, the films that comprise the ICONS OF SCI-FI set seem like the work of three different directors, really good directors, in both style and substance. There is also a sense that the Toho sci-fi film of the late 50’s was a much more diverse and experimental enterprise than the grainy, pan-scanned and badly dubbed English language versions of these films on late night television has led one to believe.

As Dave Kehr mentioned in his column in the New York Times a few weeks ago, because of their availability on television during the past four decades, these Toho sci-fi films are simultaneously familiar yet deeply strange, especially when seen in their original Japanese versions in Tohoscope. The widescreen transfers are simply exquisite and go a long way to helping one see the quality, not to mention artistry, in these sci-fi films that were previously mined for a Camp sensibility.

THE H MAN

The first CinemaScope film I ever saw was RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS. I remember they expanded the screen of the Westcott, my local neighborhood theatre, specifically for that movie in 1958. I was so taken with the largess of the new ratio I paced back and forth in the front row amazed by all the little details in each corner of the screen blocking the other patrons’ view until the manager called my father and I had to be taken home. By the time THE H MAN appeared (on a double bill with THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER) widescreen movie-going was something I had become accustomed to.

The credit sequence of THE H MAN’s US version presents a vision that has remained in my mind’s eye all these years: an iridescent silhouette of a man, a shape that is as familiar as its glowing contours are threatening. The Japanese version, on the other hand, superimposes the credits over a shot of an empty fishing trawler drifting at sea, followed by a news item about a boat that has accidentally sailed into an atomic bomb testing area.

A similar news item initially caught Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s attention in 1953 and led to the original GODZILLA, taking the germ of an idea about mutation due to atomic radiation and crossing it with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, a hit 1953 US movie about a dinosaur preserved in ice freed by atomic testing. THE H MAN takes that notion about atomic mutation and places it in a much more disturbing and realistic context, not as an attack from outside by a hostile force, but an insidious transformation of the human body itself.

THE H MAN – BIJO TO EKITAININGEN or THE BEAUTY AND THE LIQUIDMAN is the original Japanese title – despite a few lapses in logic, is a tense walk on the thuggish side of sci-fi, set in the contemporary world of criminal gangs and nightclubs in metropolitan Tokyo. During a torrential downpour, Masaki (Hisaya Ito) a member of a notorious drug gang, suddenly vanishes in the middle of a robbery, leaving both his clothes and the loot behind. The police, led by Inspector Tomingawa (Akihiko Hirata), are working on the assumption that Masaki ran away naked in the rain and will soon return. Therefore, they focus on the gangster’s live-in girlfriend Chikako, played by Yumi Shirakawa, who was cast in similar roles as beautiful yet modest young women in RODAN and THE MYSTERIANS. (What an apparently pure Japanese girl like Chikako is doing sleeping with a sleazy drug dealer like Masaki is, unfortunately, left unexplored.)

Chikako is a singer at the Cabaret Homura, a snazzy, sleekly modern nightclub with psychidelic red and green strobe lights evocative of the light show at the Fillmore East, featuring a chorus line of glittery, bikini-clad girls engaging in somewhat provocative dance steps to steamy exotica-jazz with a heavy Latin beat (composed by Masaru Sato, who wrote the highly rhythmic music to Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO and HIGH AND LOW, among others.) Ms. Shirakawa floats through the club’s assortment of demi-mondaines as if she was on her way to a country squire’s high tea. Her singing is dubbed by Martha Miyake, a legendary Japanese jazz diva, who manages to infuse believability along with a natural sense of melody into such lyrics as “So deep is my love/My love is like the sea/Ever changing, ever free/Yet in captivity.”

The Cabaret Homura is not only a center for neo-Latinate kitsch, but the other members of Masaki’s gang begin turning up there as well, attracting the attention of the police. The gangsters also exhibit a tendency like Masaki to suddenly vanish, leaving their clothes behind. Inspector Tomingawa thinks it’s all some kind of a drug-smuggling related conspiracy, but his friend Professor Masada (Kenji Sahara), insists this is the work of a mutation caused by hydrogen bomb tests that dissolves people and is now on the loose in Tokyo.

Inspector Tomingawa’s skepticism vanishes when, in the midst of a roundup of gangsters at the nightclub, a pulsating greenish blob begins dissolving chorus girls, leaving only black bikinis and high heels. Chikako tries to take refuge in a phone booth (like Tippi Hedren a few years later in Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS) but the throbbing mass surrounds the booth and begins seeping under the door, an extremely scary scene that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Unlike the other films in the set, THE H MAN does not particularly rely on special effects or miniature sets. Because of this, one is able to see Ishiro Honda’s directorial style apart from his collaboration with special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya. Although the script has a tendency to make the gangsters seem squeaky clean – no doubt in deference to the film’s potential kiddie audience – and the science at times turns luridly silly (“If Man perishes from the face of the earth due to the effects of hydrogen bombing,” a character intones, “it is possible that the next ruler of our planet will be the H Man!”), Mr. Honda’s direction, incredibly taut yet visually lush, never falters even when character motivation occasionally goes south.

Although Honda trained, as did Akira Kurosawa, with Kajiro Yamamoto, a director at Toho studios in the 1940’s who is credited as the founder of the neo-documentary movement in Japan (starting a tendency to film away from large cities and to focus on the lives of the dispossessed) THE H MAN has a quality of purely visual storytelling that puts one in mind of silent films. The Tokyo one sees in THE H MAN is clearly a product of the director’s imagination, a neon-lit city of constant rainfall where all the characters seem to come out only at night, and every darkened corner is fraught with jeopardy and horror. In this regard, Ishiro Honda’s film could be considered a prime example of a cinematic spook ride, comparable to Hitchcock’s aforementioned THE BIRDS and Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. In fact, the composition and color design of THE H MAN is so visually dynamic it puts me in mind of Steve Ditko’s illustrations for Stan Lee’s Doctor Strange comic strip from the early 60’s, especially the climax set in the sewers underneath Tokyo, where Chikako’s yellow dress seems to lead us into a realm between the living and the dead, reinforced by the smoke swirling around the shadowy figures captured by Mr. Honda’s constantly moving camera.

Of course, at heart THE H MAN is a serious film opposed to atomic bomb testing, no matter how specious the speculative science may be. Ultimately, THE H MAN creates a sense of man’s own need for exploration (coupled with greed) destroying his sense of individual autonomy, a notion that is not only entertainingly scary, but thought provoking.

As with the other films in this set, THE H MAN is presented in two versions, one dubbed in English and the other in Japanese. The Japanese version is 7 minutes longer, because of some exotic dancing that Columbia Pictures, the US distributor, found objectionable. While the US version has definitely been restored, the color is a bit faded and the image is fairly grainy. The Japanese version, on the other hand, has simply terrific color, with no discernable dirt or defects due to age, especially in the night club sequences, that will simply knock your socks off.

Rating: (****)

BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE

With its serious science babble, moon trawlers resembling gigantic hot dogs slathered with mustard and space battles with more pink and fuchsia than a Fourth of July fireworks display, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE is a perfect movie for a brainy eight year old (or perhaps the eight year old lurking within each of us.) At first I thought the Tohoscope image was covered with vertical scratches, but it turned out I was looking at strings, which lent an air of ancient puppetry to all the cutting-edge space hardware and cosmic pyrotechnics.

Released in 1959, the film is set in the distant future of 1964(!), where Japan has a space station orbiting around the moon. In the film’s first few images, a spinning top in celadon green festooned with ruby lights (the space station) is attacked by after-dinner mints (invading alien saucers) that glow bright orange. The space station then turns into the color of creme de menthe ice cream before exploding into jagged pieces of molten steel.

Surprisingly, a seriously-themed art film made with grace and gravitas lurks within the brightly-colored miniatures and sublime special effects. Imagine, if you will, William Wyler, with all of his meticulousness and high sense of purpose intact, directing SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS in order to express a theme promoting world peace. Ok, go ahead and laugh, but I’m being serious. In a season where most on-line reviewers are slobbering unceremoniously over Delphine Seyrig (in Chantal Akerman’s JEANNE DIELMAN) pounding uncooperative meatloaf into submission or dusting under couches in dull-as-sticks ten minute takes, Ishiro Honda’s elegant pans across glowing moonscapes can seem deeply significant by comparison.

While BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE is often considered a sequel to THE MYSTERIANS (1957), except for a couple of recycled flying saucers, it actually has almost no connection with the earlier film. THE MYSTERIANS concerns a group of space aliens in wrap-around shades and ensembles of purple and lime green who kidnap Japanese women. THE MYSTERIANS entices the eye in a surfeit of cinematic style and no-holds- barred production coups (such as a gigantic mechanical monster whose glowing eyes sets the surrounding area aflame), even while the plot disintegrates in a series of madcap non sequiturs. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, on the other hand, is much more sober-sided and internationalist yet mysterious in a manner looking forward to aspects of Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Well, perhaps 2001 crossed with the nervy pulpiness of Roger Corman’s NOT OF THIS EARTH.

BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE begins with a coordinated attack by the planet Natal against various countries on earth, including one semi-comic sequence where a train trestle is levitated so an express train crashes into a ravine. Beyond the fact these Natal dudes mean business, one is impressed by the large-scale sets special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya has developed for this film. These cityscapes evoking Manhattan in a kind of spiraling orgy of glass and steel seem to go on for miles. One recognizes the Chrysler Building, for instance, then realizes there are dozen of similar structures, like in certain dreams, where the familiar enhances the weirdness of everything else.

What happens next could be condensed as a headline in the old Daily Mirror: EARTH STRIKES BACK! Scientists from every corner of the globe meet in Tokyo to pool resources and build a rocket to the moon (where Natal has established a colony to attack earth.) The plot develops into a series of speeches pleading international cooperation, with the main characters first appearing as faces in a crowd, especially Dr. Ichiro Katsumiya (Ryo Ikebe, an actor comfortable with both comedy and drama, who starred in such masterpieces of the 50’s as Yasujiro Ozu’s EARLY SPRING and Kon Ichikawa’s THE WOMAN WHO TOUCHED LEGS); his girlfriend and fellow scientist Etsuko (Kyoko Anzai); and their close friend and collaborator Iwomura (Yoshio Tsuchiya). This should be boring but isn’t. Instead of C-Span, one thinks, paradoxically, of the humanist and intensely human cinema of late Rossellini. Ishiro Honda imparts a theatrical yet fluid use of the camera that empathizes the connection between people, usually realized in long takes that pan across the spare, modernist expanse of the Space Research Center (actually the Tokyo Sports Center, built in anticipation of the Olympics, a building of poured concrete that reminds one of Breuer’s design for the Whitney Museum.) The spaceship to the moon is a model of international cooperation, displaying a perfect balance of races, creeds and genders.

One might compare the plot to a wave form that waxes and wanes across time, incorporating the various strands of the story along the way. Pulp fiction enters the proceedings in the person of Iwomura, who has been brain-napped by the space aliens. Instead of the usual projectiles hitting the base of the skull, one can tell when someone is in the service of Natal because their face glows bright orange, an elegant design twist on a rather hackneyed concept from sci-fi films of this vintage.

Once the trip to the moon gets underway, one is engulfed by a series of images that continually undermine one’s expectations, not to mention imbue the proceedings with a sense of the sublime, in spite of all the color coordinated biomorphic toys that populate the screen. I particularly want to point out a sequence of the two spaceships floating weightlessly above the moon’s surface, silhouetted by the earth so that everything is seen in shades of blue and green.(This color scheme, in fact, is prominent in documentary films of Edward White II’s 1965 spacewalk, which happened a number of years after BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE was produced.)

I find myself in a bit of a conundrum here, as BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE has often been damned with the faint praise of being a “special effects” film. One might say the same thing about the aforementioned 2001 or Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER, where special effects and production design determine the esthetic strategy, or if you like, the film’s poetics. Admittedly, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE is a lot more fun than either of those later, more self-conscious films, especially when the space aliens appear in diminutive orange suits and chase our heroes to and fro reminding one of the climax of Melies ‘1902 A TRIP TO THE MOON.

BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE is presented in two versions, one dubbed in English and the other in the original Japanese. Both versions have the same running time of 90 minutes, and both are beautifully remastered, although the English version is somewhat grainier and the colors aren’t quite as stunning. As for me, I prefer the Japanese version. Since I came of age in the 60’s when art films were in their heyday, a movie isn’t truly artistic unless I can sit in the dark and read the subtitles.

Rating: (****)

MOTHRA

I hadn’t seen MOTHRA, the ultimate film on the set both chronologically and artistically, until now. When MOTHRA initially appeared in movie theatres, I was already in my early teens and felt superior to such exercises in infantilism as Japanese monster movies (or so I thought.) The original US one sheet, featuring the head of a gigantic insect with reddish-bug eyes against the profile of two tiny women, didn’t help much to get my interest. Later, I tried watching MOTHRA on television but became bored.

MOTHRA – especially in its original Japanese version, which is 10 minutes longer – turns out to be one of the great fantasy films, comparable to THE WIZARD OF OZ or Korda’s THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, movies that fuse elements of a studio production with a quality that transcends the merely entertaining for a work that becomes richer with each successive viewing. To be perfectly honest, no one could be more surprised than I about this sudden change in my feelings toward this film. Or, as Yogi Berra once remarked in a different context, “I didn’t say what I said.”

My only defense is that one needs to see the film in its original aspect ratio and the stunning color with which it is presented here. Once you accept the idea of a gigantic vengeful moth and diminutive, not to mention impossibly cute, Japanese pop singers who live in secret on a tropical island populated by plastic palm trees straight from a 1950’s Tiki lounge, the whole movie simply becomes irresistible. The fact that the film is pulled off with such style, production expertise and human warmth doesn’t hurt either.

According to the commentary by Japanese Sci-Fi Historians Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski (who produced the documentary BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE on the RODAN/WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS disc), the original treatment for MOTHRA was written during the demonstrations to stop the signing of the US-Japan Joint Security Treaty in early 1960. The joint security treaty would re-arm the Japanese military, which was something the left in Japan was opposed to, as well as most pacifists. These demonstrations, which became quite violent due to police brutality, radicalized many of Japan’s college students in the same way that US students became radicalized during the Vietnam War. (Nagisa Oshima made a film about the student demonstrations in 1960, NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN, which accused one of the student leaders of collaborating with the government. When the individual the film’s character was based upon was assassinated, Oshima’s film was pulled from theatres.)

Due to this sense of righteous struggle, there was a great deal of anti-American feeling among Japanese film makers, and this took shape in a story about evil capitalists from the country of Rolisica (the name is a cross between the Japanese pronunciations of Russia and America) kidnapping two diminutive Shobijin or fairies (played by twins Yumi and Emi Ito, a popular singing group known as “the Peanuts”) from Infant Island, incurring the wrath of the Island’s nature spirit, Mothra. The giant God flies to Rolisica to rescue them, creating much havoc and destruction along the way. Apparently, the original script was stridently anti-American, focusing on the villainy of Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito, a Japanese-American stand-up comic), the Rolisican entrepreneur whose greed sets the plot in motion.

In the process of turning MOTHRA into a movie, the political became mythological, and the strident anti-American feeling was transformed into a sense of enchantment. Partially, this was due to the fact that MOTHRA was chosen as the studio’s big release for the summer holidays, upping the budget and adding major stars who normally didn’t appear in Japanese Sci-Fi, especially Kyoko Kagawa and Takashi Shimura, two of Kurosawa’s favorite actors, who bring a sense of character and empathy not really seen in the other movies on this set. Taking a concept from the 1933 KING KONG, Mothra was transformed from a scary monster into a real character with a sense of vulnerability that audiences could identify with. There are sequences, which in their beauty and seeming effortlessness are unlike any I’ve ever seen, like a Walt Disney animated feature crossed with a Stan Brakhage diary film, as if Tinkerbell grew up and turned into Dog Star Man. (DOG STAR MAN is the title of one of Brakhage’s most visionary films.)

For example, there’s a scene in which the fairies are suspended in a gilded cage above a stage with a backdrop of glittering stars. As they sing a song which the audience in the theatre thinks is for them but is actually a plea to Mothra, the fake ceiling fades away and is replaced by an image of Mothra in its cocoon state swimming across the Pacific Ocean. The monster’s gigantic eye is superimposed against the diminutive sisters, dwarfed by this background of midnight blue, so that what follows (the destruction of an ocean liner) seems to be directly caused by their singing. This sequence is not only magical in its conjunction of color and overlapping faces, but also appears to place us inside the minds of the fairies, so that the very act of our watching causes something to happen that we (like the fairies) both desire yet abhor.

I could say a lot more about this amazing film, but I want you to experience MOTHRA for yourself, in all its possibilities of visual pleasure and pure joy. As with the other films in the set, MOTHRA comes in two versions. The US version has a clean print with muddy color, while the Japanese version is simply exquisite.

Rating: (*****)

Unfortunately, there are no original trailers or still galleries on this release, as was included with the Godzilla sets. However, Sony has included two fantastic full-length commentaries by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski on BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE and MOTHRA. Apparently, THE H MAN is lacking a commentary track because of budget cuts. Another sign of budgetary constraints can be found in the packaging. Instead of an extra plastic tray, all three discs are stuck on top of each other on a single peg. I would suggest removing the discs very carefully so as not to scratch them, and then immediately placing them in paper sleeves or jewel boxes.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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2 Responses »

  1. WONDERFUL DISCS!!! I just ordered these and some others and eagerly await them!
    You just lose with a Toho scifi film!!!

  2. I meant to sat “YOU JUST CAN’T LOSE WITH A TOHO SCIFI FILM” OK! GET THE GINSU KATANA’S AWAY !!!

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