Yoshio TsuchiyaIshiro HondaKoreya SendaRyo Ikebe
Battle in Outer Space
Medium: film
Year: 1959
Director: Ishiro Honda
Writer: Jojiro Okami, Shin'ichi Sekizawa
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese, English
Keywords: SF, rubbish, Toho Studios' space-opera trilogy
Actor: Ryo Ikebe, Kyoko Anzai, Koreya Senda, Minoru Takada, Leonard Stanford, Harold Conway, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Hisaya Ito, Nadao Kirino, Fuyuki Murakami, Malcolm Pearce, Leonard Walsh, Kozo Nomura
Format: 93 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053388/
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 13 July 2011
It was a struggle to keep watching it. 1950s sci-fi strikes again.
What's different about this one is that it's Japanese, but unfortunately that's not enough. It's still got the familiar problems of that era, i.e. a plot in which the characters are being sidelined. There's one scene in which someone makes a dramatic decision. That's it. Everything else merely portrays people as ants in the machine, over the workings of which we're being expected to go "oooh" and "aaah". A spaceship lands on the moon! There's a fight against aliens! I DIDN'T CARE. It's fundamentally missing the point of drama. If the cast have so little involvement in what's happening that it's a stretch even to say that the story has protagonists, then all plot developments become arbitrary and you might as well watch the sea beating on the shore.
This is worthless when American films of the era do it and I found it just as tedious when coming from Japan. End of rant.
However apart from the film's value as an insomnia cure, is there anything positive to say about it? After all, 1950s films were presumably popular in the 1950s. Even today, there are still fans of that era of cinema. You're not going to get me admitting that this film isn't pointless, but I can at least try to analyse it.
Firstly, it's the middle film in Toho Studios' space-opera trilogy, along with The Mysterians (1957) and Gorath (1962). It's even technically a sequel to the latter, although we have a new alien menace and almost all of the characters have been recast. The exception is Harold Conway as Dr Immelman. Secondly, it's more of a Destination Moon than a War of the Worlds. The alien invaders get surprisingly little story involvement and instead for a lot of the time we're simply watching a wannabe documentary on putting a man on the moon. After all, it's set in the distant and unimaginably high-tech future of 1965. The United Nations Space Research Center will be responsible for launching not one but two enormous rockets to the moon, each of which has an eight-man crew. Yes, you read that right. Sixteen people are to be flying into space and back. Clearly Japan has solved some kind of fuel problem which in the real world kept all Apollo missions to a three-man crew, one of whom wouldn't even touch the moon but would instead stay in the Command Module.
They also don't jettison any rocket sections. However in fairness, manned lunar missions were still ten years away at this point, while the first man-made object to reach the moon's surface was the Soviet Union's Luna 2 on 13 September 1959. This film was released three months later, on Boxing Day. All things considered, they don't do too badly. There's even a valiant (but amusing) attempt at showing zero gravity, in which one careless crew member will go flying off and get told to keep in mind that there's nothing holding him to the ground any more. After that, everyone will walk around normally.
I was in awe at their explanation of the aliens' anti-gravity beams, though. Apparently gravity comes from the movement of atoms, so if you make things cold, they'll fly. Matter is weightless at absolute zero.
The production values are more lavish than an equivalent American film would have been. Five years earlier Godzilla had blown the Japanese movie industry wide open, but crucially it had also been enormously expensive. Those special effects were not cheap. I suspect that influence is partly why this was a big, expensive movie (in colour), with cavernous sets that are always full of people. Surprisingly, their United Nations Space Research Center actually feels like a top-level international organisation and this is probably what it would have looked like if all the world's nations had come together in 1959 to go into space. The rocket sets are properly three-dimensional, with ladders for the crew to climb and a director who's fond of emphasising this by pointing his camera down them.
There's lots of modelwork too, although they're overlooking a problem of scale. They needed bigger models for their trains, while those little flames look very silly when New York's supposedly burning. You can also see the wires on the spaceships. However the Japanese have always been more flexible in their acceptable level of reality when it comes to tokusatsu, so that's just part of the charm. Basically it looks good. Also look out for the 1959 equivalent of a Star Wars space dogfight, which works better than you'd think.
The aliens are rubbish, though. They're called the Natal and they have mind control and anti-gravity weapons. So far, so good. However when we eventually glimpse them, they're just people in space suits. Little people. They're short. Those suits hide everything and so that's their only distinguishing feature, unless you count the fact that they sound like a squeaky toy that's been chewed too often by the dog.
The actors are irrelevant. They make no difference to anything. Apparently this was the last film of Kyoko Anzai, who retired from the movie business (aged 25) to marry the famous actor Tatsuya Mihashi. The funny part of that is that his last film would be Casshern (2004). Yeesh, two films not to boast about. The First Gas Human (1960) caught my eye, though. You could argue that there's a bit of business here involving Yoshio Tsuchiya being mind-controlled by the Natal, which eventually gives us that one and only dramatic scene I mentioned in which someone tells everyone else to return to Earth without him. That was good, actually. I liked that. However the film had an opportunity for an even more brutal scene, in which those sixteen lunar explorers try to decide which eight of them will be volunteering to stay behind after they lose one of their ships. Do they go there? No, they don't. We've already seen that this movie has solved all possible fuel problems, so presumably it's just a question of deciding where everyone's going to sit down.
Is there anything else good to say? The destruction on Earth is sort of fun, although there's not much of it. Otherwise, no. It's pointless. Perhaps you could argue that "human drama is subordinate to the struggles of society" 1950s storytelling was more culturally appropriate for Japan than for America, but even if so, I don't care. This film is perfectly good moving wallpaper, but no more. Don't watch it.