01 November 2008

Movie Review: The Mysterians

The Mysterians (1957)
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Kenji Sahara, Akihiko Hirata, Momoko Kochi, Yumi Shirakawa, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Tsuchiya.

Starting in 1957, director Ishiro Honda, special effects maven Eiji Tsubaraya, and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the men behind Toho Studios’ Giant Monster Madness, created three excellent space opera adventures (with an occasional giant monster in a guest-star role). The SF trilogy of The Mysterians, Battle in Outer Space, and Gorath, hasn’t received much attention in the U.S., and Gorath has yet to surface in a Region 1 DVD or Blu-ray.

I’m here to fix this attention deficit. Today starts my triple-review series of these remarkable science-fiction spectaculars.

(A fourth film related to the series, although not a space adventure, Atragon, is also on Region 1 DVD. I’ve previously reviewed that, so go take a look.)

We start with the most traditional movie of the three, and the one with the most exposure and success in North America. Get ready for burrowing giant robots, Markalite laser guns, and candy-color-coated aliens who need women! You’ll find it all in The Mysterians!

It was 1957, and Toho Studios had released three successful giant monster films in the style of the popular “Atomic Horror” pictures in the U.S.: Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again, and Rodan. Now the time had come for Toho to take on the other popular science-fiction genre in the U.S.: alien invasion! Except Toho was going to lavish an enormous budget, color film, and the amazing Toho Scope to stretch their alien invasion across an epic canvas that few of the ‘B’-budgeted U.S. films could match. Ishiro Honda, now Toho’s go-to man for science fiction, took the helm, and special effects genius Eiji Tsubaraya busted out the biggest effects yet in his career. (But wait until you see the next two films in this series.)

Out of the darkness of the movie theater—or your living room—the Toho Scope Logo appears in piercing beams of Technicolor light while Ifukube’s awesome march pounds away. It’s epic time, folks!

A prelude with a sudden forest fire interrupting a village celebration introduces our human cast. Atsumi (Sahara, in his third Japanese film I’ve reviewed here) wonders why his astrophysicist friend Shiraishi (Hirata) seems so distracted and has broken off his engagement with Hiroko (Kochi). Dr. Adachi is also concerned about Shiraishi and his strange theories about the “Mysteroid,” fragments of a planet discovered between Mars and Jupiter. (We usually call them asteroids, but apparently they have something specific in mind here.)

But now it’s time for Act I: All Your Power Plants Belong to Mogera. An entire village near Mt. Fuji collapses into the earth, presaging the appearance of a giant burrowing robot, Mogera. Yes, there is a giant monster in this movie, although only in a supporting role. This came at the request of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who saw that big monsters meant big business. He later shoehorned kaiju in Atragon and Gorath, and not very effectively. I have a soft spot for Manda in Atragon because of his beautiful design, but he doesn’t move well. And Magma, the Big Walrus in Gorath . . . ah, we’ll talk about him some other time.

However, Mogera works in synch with the movie and is one of its highlights. Resembling a metal woodpecker with antenna, with stylized samurai armor and buzz saw blades along its back, Mogera is the definition of “cool.” (And inside the suit, we again have Haruo Nakajima, the stuntman inside Godzilla, Gaira, and Rodan.) Mogera goes on a rampage with its heat-wave beams toward a power station, demolishing intricate village sets as it goes.

The battle that concludes this section, with the JASDF firing rockets and flame-throwers in desperation at Mogera and eventually tricking him onto an exploding bridge, is one helluva ride. Ifukube’s madly racing music up drives the fiery spectacle like an out-of-control mine running downhill. And this is only the beginning!

Let’s rush over to Act II: Mysterians Need Women! Dr. Adachi and Atsumi’s research reveals Mogera’s attack originated from aliens who have set up a base on the Moon. The aliens make a re-location to a giant dome that emerges near Mt. Fuji. It isn’t explicitly stated, but Mogera’s burrowing must have laid the foundation for this base.

The aliens are, of course, Mysterians from the demolished planet, and they have two simple requests: the two-mile strip of land they’ve already taken, and breeding with Earth women—with Atsumi’s sister Hiroko and Shiraishi’s sister Etsuko (Shirakawa) on the personal request list. Shiraishi has joined the Mysterians and broadcasts messages to convince the Earthlings that the invaders only mean peace.

The Japanese government, of course, doesn’t buy into this at all. The Self-Defense Force launches an attack with conventional weapons on the Mysterians’ dome. The Mysterians knock back the tanks and planes with their flying saucers and a devastating heat ray from the top of the dome.

All of Earth’s governments come together through the U.N. to combat the menace of the Mysterians, forming “Earth Defense Force” (the literal translation of the Japanese title of the movie, Chikyu Boeigun). The theme of people putting aside differences for the common good is one of director Ishiro Honda’s favorites, and at this point in the film it almost topples what remains of the small human drama at the start. Honda also delivers his pacifist and anti-nuclear message through Dr. Adachi, who warns that H-bomb attacks against the Mysterians will only lead to Earth’s ruin. The Mysterians themselves caused the destruction of their original planet through nuclear devices. Honda isn’t subtle with his theme, but he is sincere—and it never threatens to take over the film. Not while Eiji Tsubaraya keeps launching one massive special effects set piece after another at the screen, and the art department has decked out the aliens in gorgeous popsicle-colored capes and visored helmets.

We now move into Act III: Battle without End. The Earth Defense Force unleashes its coordinated attack with its superweapons: hovering rockets and a barrage of Markalites, dish-weapons capable of hurling the Mysterians’ heat-ray back them, air-dropped into range of the dome. The Tsubaraya effects orgy begins! Lasers, explosions, a sudden flash flood, even a cameo from Mogera!

Yes, it goes on a bit too long. Tsubaraya was becoming one of the most powerful men at Toho, and sometimes he went overboard. But who am I to complain about too many great effects?

Meanwhile, in the human story we had almost forgotten, Atsumi enters a secret tunnel into the Mysterians’ dome (shame he didn’t tell the military about it) to rescue the kidnapped Hiroko and Etsuko. Honda finally plays the “tragic scientist” card with Shiraishi, letting actor Hirata replay the self-sacrificial role he played in Godzilla.

And stuff blows up real good.

The Japanese film industry was reaching one of its high points in 1957, and The Mysterians shows it in every frame. From effects to set design to costumes, Toho puts all the money on the screen. It’s the Japanese equivalent of “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the film’s major weakness is the human characters fading into the theme of a unified humanity. None of the characters stand out except maybe the brief performance from Hirata. Shimura, one of Japan’s great actors and a favorite of Akira Kurosawa, plays the elder scientist with his standard dignity, but the effects team is definitely in charge on this one. Tsuchyia vanishes under the helmet and cape in his role as the leader of the Mysterians, but at least he’s having fun. Two Caucasian performers who often played supporting roles in Japanese cinema of the era, George Furness and Harold S. Conway, pop up to add to the delight of kaiju fans like myself. Conway was no actor, he was actually a lawyer, but he doesn’t do too badly here.

Although Battle in Outer Space surpasses The Mysterians in its nonstop action, and Gorath has the finest script and direction of the three, The Mysterians is still an amazing amount of fun. It beats almost any American science-fiction film of the time in terms of pure spectacle. The U.S. films were ‘B’-budgeted, but Toho put the full force of their studio resources behind this one, and it shows.

The DVD from Tokyo Shock preserves the Toho Scope image in anamorphic widescreen. Some of the effects sequences have extensive scratches, but this appears to be on the negative itself because of the optical work involved. The Japanese language version comes in two versions: the original mono, and a newly created 5.1 mix. The 5.1 mix is better than most of these artificially created surround tracks, and works especially well for Ifukube’s score, which was recorded in stereo. Purists will want to stick with the mono.

The Mysterians came out in U.S. theaters from distributor RKO in 1959, with three minutes of cuts (Mogera doesn’t reappear in the final battle, for example). The TokyoShock DVD, unlike the Classic Media DVDs, doesn’t preserve the U.S. cut as a separate film on the disc. Instead, the English dubbing is an alternate audio option. This means that TokyoShock created a new dub for the film—and unfortunately the acting on it is stiff and seems inappropriate to the age of the film. Listen to the dubbed track only if you have children watching with you. Fans who remember the RKO version from television broadcasts will feel disappointed that it doesn’t appear here, but I’m not complaining since having The Mysterians in widescreen and Japanese is victory enough for me.

Mogera would return as a human-built anti-Godzilla robot in the most atrocious of the ‘80s and ‘90s Godzilla films, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla. Sad, really.

Next week: Battle in Outer Space. Keep watching the skies.