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Thoughts on Toho’s space opera trilogy (spoilers)

Here are a few more Showa-era Toho films I’ve managed to track down, three non-kaiju tokusatsu films from Ishiro Honda, made during the 7-year gap between the second and third Godzilla movies. Wikipedia calls this “Toho’s space-opera trilogy,” although it’s kind of a misnomer.

The Mysterians (Chikyū Bōeigun, “Earth Defense Force”) was released in 1957, a year after Rodan. It starred several cast members from the original Godzilla, including Momoko Kochi (who was Emiko), Akihiko Hirata (who was Dr. Serizawa), and Takashi Shimura (who was Dr. Yamane). It was Honda’s first SF film without a kaiju per se.

Something’s up with Dr. Shiraishi (Hirata). He’s broken off his engagement with Hiroko (Kochi), he won’t leave his small village, and he’s failed to complete his astronomical research work for Dr. Adachi (Shimura), involving his theory of the Mysteroid, the planet that he believes broke apart to spawn the Asteroid Belt (not an uncommon hypothesis at the time, though not under that name, of course). His friend Atsumi (Kenji Sahara, who was “Man on Boat” in Godzilla but the lead in Rodan) is concerned even before he learns that Shiraishi’s village has been swallowed in an earthquake. This turns out to be the work of a giant burrowing robot with a ridged, boxy body and a drill-nosed, antenna-topped head that looks like The Great Gonzo designed it in his own image. This is Moguera, though it’s not named onscreen. Cue kaiju-esque rampage through the nearest town, until the SDF stops it by blowing up a bridge it’s crossing. Never send a robot to do a monster’s job.

Soon, as Adachi and Atsumi survey a lake that Shiraishi had theorized to be connected to UFOs, a large dome erupts from the ground and issues an announcement to the Earthlings (phrased as “Chikyuu no minna-san,” basically “everyone of Earth” with a polite honorific) saying they don’t want unnecessary conflict and inviting our two male leads and three others into the dome by name. These are apparently the five leading scientists on the whole planet, even though they’re all from Japan and all just happened to be there at the moment. The scientists find the Mysterians to be humanoids in proto-Power Rangers outfits, white jumpsuits with helmets and highlights in red, yellow, or blue. (In a nice touch, we can hear the Mysterian’s alien language underneath the Japanese translation, which is presumably synthesized by his helmet.)

The Red Ranger — err, leader — explains that they’re refugees from the Mysteroid, which they destroyed ages ago in a nuclear war. Red politely assures them that Moguera’s attack was just a show of strength and they want to live peacefully in the small territory around their dome. Oh, and by the way, all that radiation damaged our genes, so would you mind terribly if we demanded your women to breed with? We’ve already kidnapped three, but now we want Shiraishi’s ex-fiancee and his sister Etsuko, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble. Sheesh. Isn’t it always the way? Haven’t space aliens ever heard of online dating? (The premise is surprisingly similar to I Married a Monster from Outer Space, a nifty American B-movie from the following year.)

From here on, it’s a pretty standard and formulaic alien-invasion picture. The aliens announce their plans to enslave us to keep us from destroying ourselves, they abduct the leading ladies (who obligingly faint when the Blue Rangers come for them), the nations of the world unite against their common enemy, the hero raids the base during the climactic attack to rescue the womenfolk, and the turncoat turns out to be a double agent who heroically sacrifices himself. The Mysterians are discovered to have a convenient weakness, which is heat, so the authorities develop a weapon that’s referred to in broken-English dialogue as the Purple Heat Ray (maybe they meant ultraviolet?), even though it’s orange. Between this and a reflector for the Mysterians’ disintegrator rays, the new-formed Earth Defense Force manages to destroy their base and drive them into retreat. But their satellite’s still up there… have we heard the last of them? (Turns out, yes.)

I found The Mysterians to be surprisingly routine and uninspired. After Emiko played such an important role in Godzilla, it’s disappointing to see this film’s female characters reduced to little more than commodities. And all the miniature military mayhem that characterizes tokusatsu films loses something without a monster on the other end. The Moguera robot is an incidental and unimpressive presence. It would return in the dreadful Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla as M.O.G.U.E.R.A., G-Force’s replacement for MechaGodzilla II. It was pretty lame there, too.

Two years later, in 1959 (two years before Mothra, with Godzilla’s third film still three years away), Toho produced Battle in Outer Space (Uuchuu Daisenso, “The Great Space War” — a title very similar to their later title for Star Trek, which was Uuchuu Daisakusen, “The Great Operation in Space”). I thought it would be a loose sequel to The Mysterians, since it brings back Dr. Adachi and Etsuko Shiraishi, though played by different actors. However, it just reuses their character names with no other connection to the previous film. It’s more like a second go at the same premise, an alien invasion prompting the nations of the world to unite for the first time in defense against it. (Apparently Honda intended this recurring theme as an expression of his pacifistic views, although it’s odd that he kept casting them in terms of fighting against a common foe.)

And it’s an amusingly stupid film. It starts with an orbital space station being destroyed by alien flying saucers — and the station is ring-shaped and rotating, but the gravity is perpendicular to what it should be in such a situation. Nice try, but not quite there. Then the alien ships play a series of deadly games with an antigravity ray — crashing trains and ships, things like that — and it’s explained by the scientist heroes that they’re doing it with a freeze ray, since gravity is caused by atomic motion so freezing things to absolute zero will make them weightless. Huh? No, it isn’t, and no, it won’t (although the DVD commentary claims that this was based on a real scientific theory at the time). Although there is a nice bit about how centrifugal force from the Earth’s spin causes them to rise up when their weight is neutralized. And at least the antigravity weapon gives them a novel way to destroy Tokyo later on.

Anyway, the “World Council” decides to send a couple of cutting edge spaceships — called “Spips” for short, bizarrely — to investigate the aliens, but one of the delegates is mind-controlled by the aliens and tries to steal the heroes’ new ray gun. He’s exposed, but reveals that the aliens are from the planet Natal before they disintegrate him. There’s some forgettable characterization of the main heroes readying themselves for the journey, and interestingly, there are a couple of women on the expedition, including Etsuko. But one astronaut, Iwomura, is taken over by the aliens.

While the Spips are launching, they literally have the actors simulate the effect of acceleration on their faces by obviously putting their hands on the sides of their faces and pulling back! Then, once the rockets get into space, one of the astronauts — who’s supposedly trained for this for months — unstraps and floats to the ceiling and says “What’s going on?”, needing to be reminded that weightlessness exists. Except then everybody else just stands up and pulls him to the floor, and that’s the end of it. And then one guy says “Doesn’t this weightlessness feel strange?” while they walk along perfectly normally into the next room. And from that point on they’re walking, sitting, falling, fighting, etc. just like they would under gravity.

On the Moon, one ship deploys a nifty airlock which is basically an elevator car on a swing arm that rotates it down to the ground (it pivots to stay upright). Then both ships drop lunar rovers that look like the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, and they drive to the alien base and shoot at it a lot until it blows up. Not a lot of plot here. Etsuko briefly gets terrorized by a group of diminutive, spacesuited Natals, but her boyfriend saves her and that’s the only time we actually see the villains. Meanwhile, Iwomura blows up one of the Spips, but the destruction of the alien base frees him, and he stays behind and sacrifices himself to cover the astronauts’ retreat in Spip 2.

Oddly, the last act pretty much marginalizes the Lunar team while a new bunch of anonymous space fighter pilots engages a new wave of attackers and ultimately defeats them, though not until after they inflict destruction on… say it with me… New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Tokyo. It’s a trope seen in a number of ’50s sci-fi movies (e.g. Creature from the Black Lagoon and Tarantula), the heroes stepping back in the last act to let the military save the day. But the space battle scenes are pretty lively, and I wonder if they were an influence on Star Wars. I’m not sure if this is the first “dogfight in space” movie, but it’s got to be one of the earliest.

Akira Ifukube’s score to this one isn’t a particular standout, but the battle sequences are notable for featuring a mix of two military marches Ifukube used in other movies — one recycled from the original Godzilla and one that would be recycled five years after this in Frankenstein Conquers the World.

This wasn’t as formulaic as The Mysterians, but it was pretty superficial — virtually no plot, minimal characterization, minimal development of the alien threat. It’s basically just a flimsy framework to hang the special effects on. But at least the effects are fairly good, aside from some pretty bad bluescreen work.

Gorath (Yosei Gorasu, “Calamity Star Gorath”) came out in 1962, between Mothra and King Kong vs. Godzilla. It starts with the launch of a rocket on its way to explore Saturn — and fittingly, this is set in 1979, the same year Pioneer 11 made the first Saturn flyby. But it’s diverted to explore Gorath, a hypermassive new planet that’s projected to come dangerously close to Earth. The FX footage handles movement in space pretty well, with the ship rotating 180 degrees and thrusting backward to slow its forward motion, but it gets caught in Gorath’s gravitational pull, and there’s a beat of Japanese stoicism in the face of death and duty before they go kaboom. Back on Earth, they determine that Gorath will hit the planet, so Japan works with the UN (including countries like “U.S.S.O.,” “Crenion,” and “Pablonia”) to develop a defense. They eventually hit upon a pretty novel plan: Move the Earth by building a huge array of fusion rockets at the South Pole. (Which sort of makes sense. You couldn’t put them anywhere else due to the Earth’s rotation, and the North Pole has no solid ground.) We also get some hints of the fatalism that’s overcoming the public as the end of the world looms, but it doesn’t get a lot of attention.

We spend some time with a band of unruly astronauts who do things like stealing a helicopter to beg their director not to cancel a mission to Gorath  that he wasn’t going to cancel anyway. The biggest cutup, Kanai (Akira Kubo), has a thing with Takiko (Kumi Mizuno from the Frankenstein films), who’s still pining for a lost crewman from the first Gorath expedition. The second ship eventually blasts off to assess Gorath’s course, finding that it’s gained enough mass from the debris it’s swallowed to throw off their calculations — a nice idea, but it’s hard to believe the space debris could add up to 200 Earth masses. Anyway, Kanai goes out in a shuttle to take a closer look (and I love the way the shuttlebay is a wedge that folds outward from the rocket, rather than having a sliding hatch), and somehow the horrific sight of the burning world before him gives him amnesia.

Meanwhile, the scientists spend months building their rockets in Antarctica, and it actually seems a viable plan, although the head scientist argues with a fatalistic UN guy about whether adding even more rockets will help. Unfortunately, this conflict is abandoned in favor of a random attack by Maguma (or Magma), a giant walrus thawed out of the Antarctic ice by the rockets. It’s a really terrible kaiju costume and an utterly pointless digression from the story, and the whole sequence was cut from the American edition, one of the few times I can wholeheartedly approve of a change made in the US cut of a tokusatsu film.

This is fortunately followed by what, for me, is the coolest moment in the film, when Gorath passes Saturn and its gravity has a pretty impressive effect on the rings. Then it draws near to Earth, and there’s an orgy of miniature disaster footage as the oceans spill their banks and mountains collapse (and, of course, Tokyo is devastated). But despite the previously mooted problems and delays, the Earth survives, though the Moon isn’t so lucky. And Kanai’s second close-up look at Gorath restores his memory. So the day is saved, though they’ll need twice as much fusion rocket power to put the Earth back into its correct orbit. (I’m not sure how they would, though, since they can only thrust in one direction.) And I’d imagine the altered orbits of other planets and asteroids as a result of Gorath’s gravity could create some problems down the road.

Although this is a flawed film with mediocre characterization and a pointless digression or two, it’s interesting in concept. I like it that it’s a disaster movie rather than an alien-invasion movie, and that the big operation featured in miniature footage is, for once, a vast construction project rather than a military mobilization and attack. And its audacious “move the Earth” scheme is a nice twist on the planet-collision disaster genre.

Like the previous two films in this “trilogy,” this one is a standalone; it has no characters in common with the others, and the nations uniting against a common threat is treated like a first-time occurrence for the third time. And given the scope of the destruction to Earth — even the loss of the Moon and the rings of Saturn — I doubt this can be considered to be in continuity with any later Toho film. It’s probably just as well that plans to include Maguma in Destroy All Monsters were abandoned.

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