22 November 2008

Movie review: Space Amoeba

Space Amoeba (1970)
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Akira Kubo, Atsuko Takashi, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kenji Sahara, Yu Fujuki

You may have seen the Japanese movie Kessen! Nankai no daikaiju Gezora, Ganime, Kamoeba (“Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas: Gezora, Ganime, Kamoeba”) under the title Yog—Monster from Space, which was how American International Pictures released it in 1971. It played in this version on TV for many years, until vanishing with most other tokusatsu films from the airwaves in the 1990s. Now the film returns on DVD under its official English title, the less colorful Space Amoeba, Japanese language version intact and with a new English dub. Reason to celebrate? We’ll see.

The Japanese studio system that grew with the country as it emerged from the hells of World War II came to an end in 1970. Theater attendance dropped dramatically, major studio Daiei (which created the Gamera and Daimajin franchise of monster movies) went bankrupt, and Toho dropped their contract talents and slashed budgets, and the once imperial special effects department was shut down. The new, tigther-belt era of Japanese fantasy filmmaking had arrived.

Space Amoeba is the swan-song tokusatsu movie of the old system, the last of the classic era monster films. It would be director Ishiro Honda’s last special-effects film for five years, and it also marked the end of his collaboration with effects supervisor Eiji Tsubaraya, who had created the magic behind most of Toho’s tokusatsu movies. Tsubaraya was originally slated to do the effects for Space Amoeba, but his death on 25 January 1970 ended that hope, leaving Latitude Zero (1969) his final film. Teisho Arikawa took over as Special Effects Supervisor. Arikawa had worked as Tsubaraya’s special effects cameraman for years and had supervised effects on some of the lesser tokusatsu films on Toho’s schedule when Tsubaraya was too busy. Teruyoshi Nakano, who would handle the VFX duties on most of Toho’s ‘70s and ‘80s science-fiction films, served as Chief Asssistant Special Effects Director.

The movie makes sure we know there are giant monsters in triplicate packed inside it during the credits sequence, where our trio of creatures—Gezora the cuttlefish, Ganime the crab, and Kamoeba the snapping turtle—snarl and slash at each other. Sorry to say, folks, that the trio of monsters will never get into a three-way tussle. This is as close as you’ll get, so enjoy it now.

The effects work on the launching rocket that follows the opening credits shows we’ll have a very up-and-down time with the VFX here. The model launching looks pretty chintzy, but the shots of Helios 7 in space heading to Jupiter for its uncrewed three-and-half year mission are lovely, and on par with the work seen in the 1967 Bond film You Only Live Twice. Helios 7 doesn’t get far in its mission; the titular Space Amoeba (or Yog, take your pick—the current subtitles don’t mention that name) seizes control of the capsule and sends it home. That’s all for the “space” part of the movie, we’ll be stuck on a tropical island for the rest of the film.

Journalistic photographer Kudo (Akira Kubo) sees the landing space capsule from his plane, but his bosses won’t let him go search for it underwater. Perky Ayako (Atsuko Takashi) pulls him into taking publicity photos of Selgio Island, a tropical paradise and future resort facility—and which Kudo discovers matches the landing spot for Helios 7. Dr. Miya (Yoshio Tshuciya, hurrah!) will go with them to study animal life on the island, especially the rumors that there are giant monsters there. This happy bunch receives an additional traveler on the boat on the way to Selgio: corporate spy Makoto Obata (Kenji Sahara, hurrah!), who has disguised himself as an anthropologist. We know he’s a creepy guy because he has that special “creepy guy beard and glasses” you always see in tokusatsu film villains. Serious anthropologists don’t have that sort of beard, nor wear those sort of glasses.

There are indeed giant monsters on Selgio, and the space amoeba takes them over one at a time to terrorize the visitors and the frightened natives. Eventually, Mr. S. Amoeba takes over Obata. The alien intelligence has some grand plan to conquer the Earth, but how it will do this with a giant squid, crab, turtle, and corporate spy on a Pacific island is a question nobody bothers to answer.

Gezora takes up the first part of the movie. The huge squid move awkwardly on land, but the special effects crew tries to shoot it so that viewers won’t notice that two of the tentacles are actually the stuntman’s legs holding it upright. Underwater it can look quite fierce, and the tentacles grabbing at fleeing people tend to work without too many obvious wires. Ganime, the crab, arrives in enough time to get quickly killed—but then has a mysterious resurrection at the finale. Kamoeba, a turtle with Ram-Action Head™ pops up for the conclusion, when in the final few minutes two of the monsters at last take on each other.

Very little of the story makes sense. Every few scenes, scientist Dr. Miya makes a hypothetical—and always correct—stab at an explanation for what’s happening, but this never helps much. Were there always giant monsters wandering around Selgio Island, as the beginning of the film and the native legends seem to indicate? Or did the amoeba make them larger? And if so, why doesn’t it make Obata larger when it possesses him? Where did the second Ganime come from? The ultimate showdown with the amoeba involves finding a cave with bats (their sonar bothers the amoeba), so Obata runs ahead to burn out all the bats in their caves. It’s a sad, silly turn of events for a finale. Perhaps the amoeba is actually the Penguin from Batman, and he just can’t stand bats.

Space Amoeba has some class and gloss from the old studio system, and if you compare it to next year’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah, you’ll see what huge changes Japanese science-fiction films had undergone during the downhill slide. But Space Amoeba is mostly a bore for whatever luster that it still retains. The story is a haphazard lurch based on characters managing to make correct guesses just to get the plot moving again. The drama potential of Obata as a spy dries up immediately when he admits his duplicity and then just hands back the resort plans he stole. That saving the world hinges on finding a cave where an alien hasn’t torched all the bats should tell you that we don’t have an epic adventure on our hands. Director Honda hasn’t much to work with, and the only intriguing character, Makoto Obata, is unlikable and not someone who can seize our sympathies in his struggle to fight off the effects of the invader. Just compare Tscuhiya’s possessed astronaut in Battle in Outer Space to slimy Mr. Obata here and you’ll see the tremendous difference. And why, for once, is Tsuchiya stuck in the dull scientist mouthpiece part, and the alien-possessed character gets handed to Sahara? Sahara isn’t bad in the part—and he echoes the fun villain character he played in Mothra vs. Godzilla—but Tsuchiya would have done much more with the possessed character.

The monsters are an unimpressive bunch. Based on actual sea creatures (the DVD has a documentary about them), they don’t have much mayhem to unleash aside from knocking down huts and chasing after the bland cast and faceless natives. The smaller scale of the monsters offers some interesting opportunities for effects as they interact with people—watch the weird animated tentacles that Gezora uses to seize fleeing villagers—but only in the last few minutes do the monsters get down to the good stuff and start fighting. Stuck on bland Selgio Island, there isn’t much for the big beasts to do. The effects are better than the other films from the ‘70s, but the magic touch of Eiji Tsubaraya is absent. The heart and soul of the big beasts appears to have died with him.

I can’t even recommend Akira Ifukube’s score. The ethnic drumbeat at the opening promises some quirky experimentation, but most of the music stays on autopilot. Ifukube dusts off and tweaks his native chant from King Kong vs. Godzilla, which might have been a simple time- and money-saver.

This may sound blasphemous for a fan of giant monster movies to say, but Space Amoeba would have worked better if Jun Fukuda had directed it instead of Ishiro Honda. Honda simply doesn’t act invested in this tropical island adventure business, which Fukuda handles ably in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla. Honda tries to force his favorite theme of unity against worldwide danger into Kudo’s final words, but…
The united forces of earth creatures—porpoises, bats, and men—destroyed the invaders. Will the people believe this story?
…well, what can you say to that?

Next week: The beginning of a series-within-a-series, featuring Japan’s most famous cyborg monster.