Tuesday, June 12, 2007

star wars: the japan connection

(published at the Anime Jump blog in February 2007)

Ah, the late '70's. Disco, custom vans, gasoline lines, and STAR WARS. And STAR WARS ripoffs. Sure, our own Roger Corman got into the act two or three or four times, and even such powerhouses as Disney and Universal were tempted into jumping on the bandwagon, not to mention the Italians with their cinematic masterwork, the aptly named STAR CRASH (cough cough). However, I maintain that for sheer entertainment value, you can't beat Japan. Long known as the home of violent giant robot cartoons and rubber-suit monster epics, this island nation turned its energies towards SF-action films and proved they can make the most original ripoffs around.
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I was lucky enough to see Toei's MESSAGE FROM SPACE in a theater, and young enough to enjoy it. Anyone older than 10 would have immediately dismissed it as a pathetic STAR WARS imitation. Years later I was able to appreciate the fact that it was one of Vic Morrow's last roles, that Philip Casnoff would go on to play Frank Sinatra, and that the script was by one of Japan's foremost comics legends, Shotaro Ishinomori. However, at the time, all I knew was that this movie had it all. Space hot-rodders, evil silver-painted aliens, the destruction of the moon, a funny robot, laser guns, swordfights, the works.

The script is actually a SF reworking of a tale from feudal Japan known as the 'Legend Of The Eight Samurai', in which a desperate monarch sends eight magic seeds out into the world. Whoever finds one of the seeds is chosen as a holy warrior and charged with saving the kingdom. Add some spaceships and explosions, and you've got MESSAGE FROM SPACE, as the peaceful planet Tulusia is conquered by the evil Govannis. The Tulusians send out the magic seeds along with the requisite beautiful young space princess, played by Sue Shiomi, fresh from the starring role in Toei's SISTER STREETFIGHTER. Chosen by the seeds are two Earth space-delinquents, a spoiled young rich girl, a sleazy grifter, a retired alcholic space general (dialogue when meeting the remaining heroes: "I must have gotten drunk, wandered in here, and fallen asleep."), his robot comedy-relief sidekick, the true heir to the Govannis throne who was deposed and left to die on a desolate planet, and lastly, the Tulusian who... well, I don't want to spoil it. Let's just say that the mixture of American and Japanese acting talent works fairly well.

The dialog is naturally goofy-sounding. When discussing combining her spaceship with the two hot-rods, our spoiled rich girl Maya says "Oh GAWD what a machine it would be!" The Western actors are pretty much left to their own devices, to over-or-under-act as they see fit. Speaking of under-acting, Vic Morrow wears a sucession of costumes, each more embarrassing than the last.

The film climaxes with a combination trench / fly-into-the-interior-of-the-enemy-base-and destroy-the-energy-core scene that will leave you wondering who ripped off who. The special effects are actually pretty good. When destroying the huge enemy space battleship at the end of the movie, they take the 10-or 12-foot model, douse it with gasoline, and set the thing on fire, and it looks great. Earlier in the film an asteroid belt scene is shot not by costly and then-ineffectual bluescreen, but by making thousands of model asteroids and having the ship (and the camera) weave in and out amongst them. There are exploding planets, space cruisers that fire giant missiles from their noses, anachronistic space-going sailing ships, and enough other flashy stuff to entertain the 7-year olds in the audience (namely me). I swear, there aren't five minutes in this movie that don't feature a laser gunfight, space combat, silver-painted aliens, or explosions.

Sonny Chiba, voted the Japanese most likely to kick your ass, plays the deposed rightful Govannis ruler, and his martial arts skill is immediately evident as he proceeds to wipe out half the Govannis base by himself during the climactic final battle. Sure, there are glowing special effects all over the place to try and compete with STAR WARS' lightsabers, but for honest-to-God swordfighting action, this movie can't be beat. Oh, and it was also directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who directed THE GREEN SLIME in 1969 and would go on to helm BATTLE ROYALE in 2000. Go Kinji!!

Toei would go on to make a TV series out of MESSAGE FROM SPACE, retaining all the models and the name "Govannis" but dumping everything else in favor of POWER RANGERS-style martial arts action and a talking gorilla sidekick. Yeah, a talking gorilla. This was around the same time they made their SPIDERMAN TV show in which Spiderman got a giant robot and a car with machine guns on it. No kidding.

THE WAR IN SPACE, on the other hand, is a tiresome and lackluster Toho production that can't decide whether it wants to rip off STAR WARS, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, or its own precursor ATRAGON (a.k.a. Kaitei Gunkan, or Undersea Battleship). Here's the plot: evil alien light fixtures bombard the Earth as shown in special effects scenes lifted from other Toho monster movies. The Earth retaliates with its secret super space battleship, the Gohten, which resembles a battleship with fancy crap stuck all over it (like the Yamato) and a big drill in the nose (like the Atragon).

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Our multinational (OK, one Caucasian) crew takes off to destroy the alien base on Venus. Along the way they launch space fighters out of an arrangement that resembles nothing more than the cylinder out of a .357 Magnum revolver. The Captain's daughter (played by cute Japanese model Yuko Asano) is captured, taken to Venus, and made to dress slutty, so before they can destroy the base, a special team of hand-picked commandos infiltrates the base, rescues the daughter from the lamest Chewbacca ripoff ever, and escapes just in time for the Captain to activate the drill in the prow of the ship and send it right into the enemy.

This destroys the entire planet Venus.

In its defense, WAR IN SPACE manages to be faintly amusing whenever the alien (you only see one) shows up. Hehas green skin, is dressed in Roman garb, and is dubbed with incredibly incoherent dialog. The effects scenes are adequate when they're not stock footage, and the scene with the axe-wielding, horned Wookiee reject is priceless. However, the exciting parts are seperated by long stretches of attempted storyline involving really boring subplots, and the movie itself is such a obviously slapped-together pastiche of other, vastly superior SF films that viewing becomes a challenge rather than a pleasure. Even the dubbed-in voices seem bored with the whole thing (as perhaps they were). After this disaster, Toho wouldn't make another SF movie for seven years. It's one of the few films I'm glad never made it to American theaters.

Discotek Media recently released a DVD version of WAR IN SPACE that looks great. Unfortunately you can't shine crap. Movie still stinks on ice.

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But enough about that turkey. MESSAGE FROM SPACE has yet to be officially released on home video over here, so your best bet is to catch it on TNT (they're running the uncut version from time to time) or shell out for the letterboxed Japanese DVD. Even though at first glance it's just another STAR WARS ripoff, I think everybody will agree that, ripoff or not, it's one darned entertaining film.

Dave Merrill


(this article first appeared in the Star Wars fanzine BLUE HARVEST and thereafter at the fine website ANIME JUMP.)

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