It's another 1950s Japanese SF movie, but fortunately better than the last one I watched.
There's a lot of love for this one, especially among Americans of a certain age. It did good business over there. Like its sequel Battle in Outer Space
, it's an SF invasion flick directed by Ishiro Honda with Eiji Tsuburaya on the special effects. Both films look great. Visually they still stand up today. The production values are the best Toho Studios could afford, with Perspecta stereophonic sound, TohoScope widescreen and colour. Compare it with other films coming out that year, e.g. The Giant Claw
, and you'll see you're looking at a blockbuster.
However unlike Battle in Outer Space
, it didn't make me want to eat my own head. It's still basically Earth vs. Aliens, with the international scientific community joining forces against the extraterrestrials, but it has enough personality and quirks to help you keep watching. We begin with people dancing at a festival. There's a funny bit with Akihiko Hirata being weird to his girlfriend, then suddenly things turn apocalyptic with fire, earthquakes and eventually a giant rampaging monster. He's a robot called Moguera. Whoah. I hadn't been expecting that. Moguera looks a bit like Gonzo from the Muppets, but that's normal for giant rampaging monsters in Japan and he's far more fun than a few flying saucers. We saw a few of those at the beginning and immediately forgot about them. We pay more attention now when a few more fly past, now we've seen Moguera and his eyes that shoot death rays.
Moguera isn't the real problem here, though. No, he's merely a puppet of... the Mysterians! (This would be more surprising if you were Japanese, since the movie's original title translates as "Earth Defence Force".) The Mysterians have the following characteristics:
(a) they're human underneath their colour-coded cloaks, environmental suits and motorcycle crash helmets. You can tell because they have noses.
(b) they mean well! They've come to Earth to save mankind, because in twenty years' time we'll have destroyed ourselves with atomic weapons. All they want is a three-kilometre exclusion zone, which isn't so bad since this means we still have the rest of the planet. Their technology is better than ours. They had space travel when we were living in caves. Moguera was just a pre-emptive show of strength to persuade us not to be silly, while even later while under attack they'll still be shouting that they'll stop if we will and all they want is peace on Earth. In other words, they're nice aliens and all the fighting in the rest of the film is our fault. However...
(c) they want our women. Mysterian women are infected with Strontium-80, which causes an 80% level of birth defects. They'd like to breed and they think we're the solution. They've even chosen the women they'd like to marry first. It's these five, in this photo. (This really happens, although it would have been even funnier if at this point they'd been passing around nude photos. Well, it's alien spy photography.)
Clearly that last point is unthinkable. War to the death!
There's a lot of entertainment value here, beginning with the dubious thinking from both sides. The film makes the Mysterians look like abductors and rapists and so we're in entire agreement with the Japanese-led mission to exterminate all aliens, but it's still dodgy. How would the morality have looked if you cut-and-pasted "Mysterians" with "Americans" in the script, for instance?
However as it happens the Mysterians deserve it, because they're either lying or stupid. Actually, they're definitely the latter. If they'd just kept quiet on the sex agenda for a few weeks, they could have turned themselves into mankind's saviours and then probably had their pick of the girls. ("Hey baby, want to see my flying saucer?") However on top of that, their story doesn't hold together. The film hasn't realised this, but it doesn't. Let me outline the Mysterians' history, according to the Mysterians themselves:
1. While we're in the Stone Age, the Mysterians develop atomic weapons. Twenty years later, they destroy their planet with them and make the asteroid belt a little bit bigger. Whoops.
2. In 1957, anything from thousands to millions of years later, they come to Earth and start throwing around Moguera and their demands for interplanetary sex slaves. Mankind beats the crap out of them. (Spoiler.)
However... why now? The Mysterians say they want to save us from the dangers posed by our own atomic weapons, but that doesn't answer the question of why they didn't come here initially instead of (I think) Mars. Cavemen certainly wouldn't have given them much resistance. Well, maybe we'll just chalk that down to 1950s science. I suppose it was the Mariner and Viking spacecraft that finally shot down all those speculations about Martian life, canals and so on.
Alternatively, maybe they didn't fancy neanderthal women.
There are a number of good things about this film. We briefly see Yumi Shirakawa in a public bath, which should wake you up even though we don't see any naughty bits. Later it transpires that when being kidnapped by aliens, a virtuous Japanese woman will not resist in any way but instead swoon into his arms. (I think this is meant to indicate a weak constitution rather than them being sluts. Maybe they'd just been felling trees and wrestling bears, so got themselves light-headed?) The Mysterians melt tanks. Furthermore we're halfway through the film before the international community gets involved, which is a good thing because it's dull to have everything relayed through interpreters and even worse to hear these Westerners speaking Japanese. I was laughing at their accents, but not in a good way.
The special effects really are excellent, incidentally. I'm not just talking about realism (ahem, Moguera), but craftsmanship. Look at the love with which they destroy a village with an earthquake. Look at the cool things they do to tanks. Hell, even Moguera himself is a pleasure to watch.
The cast doesn't have a lot to do, although they feel less peripheral than in Battle in Outer Space
. Sex slaves will do that to a story. Momoko Kochi is cute, but otherwise the only cast member you're likely to notice is Takashi Shimura, the chimp-faced titan of Akira Kurosawa and Godzilla films alike. He's wonderful. I love that face. He was the woodcutter in Rashomon
, the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru
and the leader of The Seven Samurai
, but on top of that he also played the scientist Kyohei Yamane in the first two Godzilla films. If you know your kaiju movies, incidentally, you'll recognise a lot of actors here. Kenji Sahara, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata and Takashi Shimura are all well known for fighting Godzilla and his ilk, as indeed is Susumu Fujita, one of the great stars of Japanese cinema before and during World War II.
Coolest of all though is Yoshio Tsuchiya, despite the fact that all his screen time here is in a motorcycle helmet. Apparently he loves science fiction, has written several books on UFOs and was offered the lead role in this film, but turned it down because he wanted instead to play the lead Mysterian.
It's worth defending the film against one charge, though. English-speaking audiences have hooted at the claim that apparently the Mysterians came from a group of suns between Mars and Saturn. There's a dubbed version that used "star" and "planet" interchangeably. Well, I presume that's a translation defect because in Japanese the word for both is "hoshi".
At the end of the day, it's still a 1950s SF film. It's not particularly good. It's merely quite fun, while towards the end I did find my attention wandering occasionally when we were watching English-speakers and/or battle scenes. However in fairness it's sincere in its faith in international relations and all men being as one. "Whether they like it or not, America and the Soviet Union live on the same Earth. You can be sure that unless all people on Earth unite to fight the Mysterians, the entire Earth will eventually be destroyed." Personally I don't find its scenes of international co-operation particularly interesting to watch, especially since any English-speaker's involvement in the plot will by definition be limited, but I do admire the film's determination to show us lots of them and convince us that this is a good thing.
It's also a genre landmark. It was a pioneer in Japanese SF cinema and stirred up a good deal of interest in the West too. I've even seen it called Toho Studio's best film, although of that I'd need a lot of persuading. Just don't watch its sequel.