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Thoughts on Toho’s submarine (and related) SF films (spoilers)

Filling in a few remaining gaps in my review series of Toho tokusatsu films, here’s a trio of films revolving more around super-vessels than monsters.

Atragon (1963), originally Kaitei Gunkan (The Undersea Warship), is a loose adaptation of a novel of the same name and another called The Undersea Kingdom. It opens with several people being abducted by strange, hot-bodied people (in the thermal sense, not the sexy sense). The abductees include retired admiral Kusumi and his secretary/ward Makoto, daughter of the long-lost submarine inventor Jinguji. A pair of comic-relief photographers, who are somehow the lead characters and are stalking Makoto in hopes of hiring her as a fashion model, get caught up in the kidnapping; the abductor says he’s going to take them to an undersea kingdom called Mu, the Pacific equivalent of the Atlantis myth (which I used to assume was Asian folklore but is just another “ancient myth” invented in the 19th century by Westerners, around the same time the modern version of the Atlantis myth arose). The abductees fight off the agent, but the admiral is sent a film from the Mu-ians, telling how they ruled the world 12,000 years ago and founded all ancient civilizations until their vast continent sank literally overnight. Now they’ve recovered and become super-advanced (we see miniature vistas of their futuristic-yet-ancient kingdom), and they warn Japan to halt development on the missing Jinguji’s newest super-sub — which they claim to be under Jinguji’s supervision and known to the admiral — or else they’ll send their god Manda to destroy the surface world. The threat is taken to the UN off-camera and promptly laughed off, so the Mu-ites start destroying ships and bridges and such.

The most advanced sub in the world (implausibly named Red Satan and crewed by English-speaking white actors, though not all with American accents) is unable to chase Mu’s attack sub below a certain depth, and when it pushes too far, it implodes in a nicely done visual effect (probably using some sort of suction inside the miniature). With no other options, the authorities ask Kusumi to tell them where Jinguji is, but Kusumi insists he doesn’t know, and grudgingly reveals that Jinguji was a deserter. Meanwhile, Makoto has yet another stalker whom the police pick up on suspicion of being a Mu agent, but he only gives his serial number until he meets Admiral Kusumi, to whom he reports that he’s Jinguji’s radio man and that Makoto’s father is very much alive. He leads Kusumi and the other main characters (including a bearded reporter who threatens to blab the story if they don’t bring him) to the island where Jinguji has built his super-sub, Gotengo (轟天号 Gōten-gō, essentially “S.S. Roaring Heavens” — generally called Atragon in English, short for “Atomic Dragon” for some reason). In addition to the usual submarine features, Gotengo has a drill on the front for underground travel, which I guess would make it both a submarine and a subterrene. And it can fly. Which would make it a… supermarine?

It’s all kind of moot, though, since Jinguji is quite the jingoist. He refuses Kusumi’s pleas to use Gotengo to save the world from Mu, because he insists it must only be used for the glory of Japan. The fact that the world includes Japan seems to be lost on him. But the reporter turns out to be a Mu spy who bombs Gotengo‘s hangar and abducts Makoto along with one of the photographers. This abruptly changes Jinguji’s mind about helping the world.

Down in the supposedly super-advanced Mu, we get one of the standard Toho tribal-dance sequences, and it’s interminable. Finally the abductees are dragged in and told they’ll be fed to the Mu god Manda, a snakelike dragon kaiju, if Jinguji doesn’t destroy the super-sub. But they never actually pass this threat along to Jinguji before he drills out of the wrecked hangar and flies to the rescue when a Mu submarine (with a Manda-shaped death ray on top) attacks Tokyo and a fleet offshore. Gotengo pursues the Mu sub back home, where the captives have snuck out some mining explosives and use them to take the Mu empress hostage and escape to the super-sub, which covers their escape from Manda. Several different-sized Manda puppets are used in different shots, and the one used in the early shots is really goofy-looking with bulging, muppety eyes, though another used later in the escape sequence has a more menacing head sculpt.

On Gotengo, the young Empress (who somehow has all her robes and heavy jewelry even though she G-ratedly shed them earlier to change into a diving suit) refuses to negotiate or surrender, so Jinguji kills Manda with the sub’s Zero Cannon, an absolute-zero freeze ray — which seems like a really unwise weapon to use underwater, but all it does is essentially coat Manda in fake snow until it stops moving. Then the sub drills into Mu’s power generator room and a team uses hand-held freeze rays to battle its way to the generators and plant bombs. The crew and the empress surface and watch the huge explosion (an interesting effect that appears to be achieved by dropping a bunch of colored dyes into a tank of water and split-screening it upside-down over a shot of the ocean, so it looks like fiery clouds erupting upward). The sub freezes the last couple of subs trying to escape, and Jinguji allows the empress to dive into the ocean and swim to her doom in the hellish maelstrom. So they’ve basically achieved the total genocide of the most ancient civilization on Earth. Um, yay?

Kaitei Gunkan/Atragon was apparently a big hit in Japan, but I found it quite a chore to get through. It’s very slow-paced and had little to hold my interest, and I watched it piecemeal over 3 or 4 sittings. The characters are superficial, and it takes a while for the action or the big FX sequences to get going. Jinguji’s resistance to using his sub to save the world is weakly justified and too casually resolved. The token kaiju Manda (only added because it was expected in an Ishiro Honda film) is crudely made and poses a minor threat. And it’s harder to like a film where the heroes exterminate an entire civilization than one where they defeat a giant monster.

Atragon got a loose remake of sorts in 1977 with The War in Space (Wakusei Daisenso, “Great War of the Planets”), directed by Jun Fukuda and transposing the action to space — most likely as a knockoff of that other space war film that came out in America about half a year earlier. When alien ships purportedly from Venus — mostly looking like flying acorns, but with a mothership described as a “giant galleon” by the crew of a 2D-painting space station that it destroys early in the film — start attacking Earth cities, Dr. Takigawa (Ryo Ikebe) is persuaded to complete building his space battleship Gohten (as it’s written in Roman script on the crew hats), which he’d resisted completing as unnecessary until an alien impostor attempts to steal his plans. He recruits a cast of nondescript male leads and his technician daughter Jun to finish the ship, which gets trapped in its hangar by an alien attack and must drill its way free much as in Atragon, but with lasers this time. (This version of the ship still includes a forward drill, but it’s largely useless here and for most of the film.) It then uses oxymoronically named “aerial depth charges” (at least in the badly written English dub they have on Archive.org) to blow up a fleet of space acorns before heading off for Venus, just in time for the token American crewman to learn his family was killed by the aliens and stare expressionlessly at the camera while a glycerin tear slides down his cheek.

En route to Venus, it turns out that male lead Miyoshi nobly left Japan to let second lead Muroi get engaged to Jun, who liked Miyoshi more. Muroi gets Miyoshi to promise to take Jun if Muroi gets killed on Venus, making it 100% certain that he will. Needless to say, Jun is not consulted in this. The crew then finds a piece of the destroyed space station improbably far from Earth, with a single conveniently placed corpse to bring aboard for services, and they don’t recognize the obvious trap. The “corpse” wakes up and abducts Jun, who’s taken to Venus, changed into leather bondage gear, and held captive by Commander Hell, a green-skinned alien in Marvin the Martian cosplay, and his “Space Beastman” sidekick that looks like Chewbacca with horns, the most obvious Star Wars ripoff in the film. Hell explains his people have a huge space empire based in Messier 13, yet naturally the only planet within 22,000 light years suitable to replace their dying homeworld is Earth.

Gohten lands on Venus and the scouting party finds the “galleon” behind a force barrier. The sub, err, spaceship launches fighters from a giant revolver barrel (no, really, and the hangar inside is too big to fit inside the exterior model) to take out the force field so Miyoshi’s team can get in to save Jun. Ironically it’s the token American who does a kamikaze run to achieve that. The galleon is also way bigger inside than out and looks more like a castle interior than a spaceship. All the soldiers get killed but Miyoshi, who’s thrown in a cell with Jun as hostages for Takizawa to turn over the ship, but Jun saw Hell enter his password and uses it to escape the cell, and they fight their way out of the galleon and return to Gohten.

Now, I’d expected that Muroi would sacrifice himself nobly to cover their return or something, but instead he’s just shot down from behind while calmly tooling his way back to the ship. Seriously? Anyway, Gohten is crippled in the ensuing battle with the galleon, so Takizawa sneaks off in the ship’s otherwise useless forward drill, which it turns out — according to a recorded message he somehow already had cued up for Miyoshi and Jun despite having no time to record it — contains a super-bomb he invented that could destroy the universe if the knowledge got out. He uses it to blow up the galleon and himself, and subsequently all of Venus, to ensure the knowledge dies with him. Gohten barely gets repaired in time to escape (gee, thanks for the heads-up, Skipper). And presumably Earth endures some unpleasant climate effects from the resultant gravitational shifts and the debris belt that forms in Venus’s former orbit.

Well, this was mediocre, forgettable, and silly, with cheaper and clumsier effects work than the original 14 years before. Some of its elements seemed self-parodic, but it was played as a straight war drama, so the serious and goofy elements undermine each other.

Saving the best for last, we jump back to 1969 for Latitude Zero, aka Ido Zero Daisakusen (The Great Latitude Zero Operation/Mission). This one is unusual among Ishiro Honda’s films in that it’s shot entirely in English with a mixed US/Japanese cast headed by Joseph Cotten, Richard Jaeckel, Akira Takarada, and Cesar Romero, and based on an obscure US radio adventure series by the film’s screenwriter, Ted Sherdeman.

Three men in a tub — a bathysphere crew including Dr. Ken Tashiro (Takarada), Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada playing a Frenchman), and reporter Perry Lawton (Jaeckel) — are studying the deep scattering layer when they’re caught in an undersea volcanic eruption (a similar cloud-tank effect to the one in Atragon, but better done). They’re rescued by divers from the Alpha, an incredibly advanced nuclear sub captained by Craig McKenzie (Cotten), who tells Tashiro and Lawton that it’s neutral, belongs to no nation, and was launched in 1804. Dr. Anne Barton, the sub’s physician — a scantily clad young blonde played by Linda Haynes, whose line readings are even stiffer than those of the Japanese actors reciting them phonetically — advises that Masson’s injuries need more treatment than Alpha can provide, so McKenzie reluctantly calls off monitoring the volcano to return to a place called Latitude Zero (and longitude 180, where the equator and the International Date Line cross).

But the villainous Malic — played by Cesar Romero a year or so after the end of his tenure as the Joker on Batman — orders the crew of his own sub, the Black Shark, to destroy the Alpha. Apparently McKenzie and Malic were the hero and villain of the radio series, though the sub was called the Omega there. So the film treats their rivalry as long-standing. The flamboyantly dressed Malic is assisted by his lover Lucretia (Patricia Medina), who’s jealous of the Black Shark‘s female captain Kroiga (Hikaru Kuroki) and is cattily pleased when she’s beaten by the Alpha‘s superior tech tricks in a lengthy sub chase/battle, then is unable to penetrate Latitude Zero’s force field barrier.

McKenzie — who’s 204, a year older than Malic — shows Tashiro and Lawton the wonders of Latitude Zero (called “LZ” for short), a super-advanced, apolitical, post-scarcity anarchist utopia where the clothes are made of gold (extracted from seawater) and diamonds are used as flowerpot gravel. It’s basically as if Captain Nemo had invented the Federation. Tashiro is the Arronax of the film, intrigued by the utopian vision of LZ, while Lawton is the cynical Ned Land type, finding it too good to be true and suspicious of brainwashing and hallucinations (though he fills his tobacco pouch with diamonds anyway). He makes a good point about LZ’s failure to share their superscience with the world, though McKenzie insists they can’t until they can be sure it won’t be used for war.

Once Masson is healed, McKenzie explains how LZ’s teams recruit scientists from all over the world to come to LZ to conduct pure research without political, military, or commercial agendas — including one Dr. Okada and his daughter, both of whom Malic abducts to set a trap for McKenzie. The three newcomers and Dr. Barton volunteer to join McKenzie and his first mate Kobo (the only Japanese-speaking character in the film, played by Hitoshi Omae) for the rescue mission, and are equipped with an “immunity bath” that makes them temporarily bulletproof (and gives the men and Barton a chance to see each other naked, though it’s strictly G-rated for the audience), protective suits of a gold/platinum weave, jet-powered “elevation belts,” and gloves with built-in mini-weapons. The heroic menfolk leave the finally fully clothed Dr. Barton behind to woodenly pilot the Alpha (whatever happened to the large crew it had before?).

Meanwhile, Malic forces the Okadas to watch him punish Kroiga for her failures by surgically implanting her brain into a lion and sewing on a condor’s wings (which are somehow functional afterward), turning her into a griffin that he then enlarges with a growth serum and sics on the rescue team, though Griffin Kroiga instead just sits idly watching as they contend with various of the island’s deathtraps (what did Malic expect before the anaesthesia wore off?), so they’re able to reach Malic’s decidedly non-sterile operating theater and rescue the Okadas just before the professor goes under the knife. They have no trouble defeating Malic’s Bat Man mutants (Cesar Romero and Bat Men?? Why didn’t I notice that until now???), yet are somehow stymied when Malic releases a swarm of harmless actual bats (or superimposed footage thereof) to cover his escape.

The gang goes back to the Alpha, but Malic shows up in the Black Shark and subjects it to various attacks, including a powerful magnetic field trap, which it escapes by borrowing a trick from the Gotengo — it spreads its wings, fires jet engines, and takes flight. Malic is so vengefully obsessed with shooting down the Alpha with his laser ray that he gets the Shark trapped in the same magnetic field, and then the griffinized Kroiga finally takes flight and attacks the sub (again, what did he expect, really?), leading to both of their destruction along with the Shark. The entire island, like all respectable supervillain lairs, reacts to the villain’s demise by exploding for no apparent reason.

In the denouement, everyone chooses to stay in the paradise of LZ except Lawton, who gets picked up by a ship and finds his story disbelieved when all his film is blank and his diamonds are missing. Bizarrely, some of the crew are dead ringers for McKenzie, Tashiro, and Malic, as if we’re supposed to think it was all a dream — but then they find out (in Lawton’s absence) that a fortune in diamonds has been deposited in Lawton’s bank account, with none of them showing any knowledge of what it’s about. So Latitude Zero is real, and these guys just coincidentally look like the people in it? Huh? Wha?

Aside from that completely inexplicable ending, Latitude Zero isn’t bad as Captain Nemo riffs go. It feels almost like a backdoor pilot for a TV series, one that might’ve been fun to see. Granted, the acting isn’t great, for the most part. Joseph Cotten is basically just showing up for a paycheck, and the Japanese cast can only do so much with phonetically delivered English dialogue (the one fluent English speaker, Masumi Okada, has one of the smallest parts). Linda Haynes’s almost nonexistent performance (her first speaking role) can perhaps be excused by her youth and inexperience, as well as working with a director who didn’t speak English; here’s an interview with her about making the film. But Cesar Romero brings his supervillain A game to the role of Malic, gleefully chewing the scenery (only about half as hyperactively as the Joker would, but that’s more than enough), which makes up for a lot of the rest. It’s largely thanks to him that this film is so much more fun than the other two super-ship films. (Sorry, super-boat, since they’re submarines.)

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