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Sony's Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection is a terrific trio of Japanese fantasy from the classic years before Godzilla danced a jig and special effects man Eiji Tsuburaya stopped receiving big budgets for eye-popping miniature sets. Directed by the renowned Ishiro Honda, all three titles are present in both original and American dub / cut-down versions, which should please purists and historians as well as those who remember the thrills of Saturday matinees.
All six presentations are in full widescreen Tohoscope. Two also contain authoritative, information-packed commentaries by the authors and Kaiju experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski.
The original Japanese title of The H-Man translates directly into something akin to "Beauty and the Liquid Man", a name that firmly pegs this entertaining hybrid. Police experts investigating sordid drug dealings are stumped when crooks disappear, leaving only their clothes behind. No-nonsense Inspector Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata) refuses to give credence to the radical theory of scientist Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara): radioactivity has transformed six sailors into H-Men, liquid beings that dissolve other humans for food. Alluring nightclub singer Chikako Arai (top-billed Yumi Shirakawa, star of Rodan and The Mysterians) comes between these two men because her boyfriend is one of the gangsters thought to have disappeared -- or been liquefied. Two sailors' tale of encountering "living liquid" monsters on a derelict ship is presented in a spooky flashback. But the authorities are unimpressed until the H-Men invade Chikako's nightclub -- melting gangsters and detectives alike!
The original version of The H-Man is something new for fans of Japanese fantasy familiar only with the shorter, confusing American re-cut. It's been long disparaged as a copycat rip-off of The Blob, even though The H-Man's Japanese premiere preceded Irvin Yeaworth Jr.'s popular hit by months. If we're still intent on finding Occidental source inspirations, I'd nominate the seminal Hammer film The Quatermass Xperiment, but more directly its follow-up feature X-The Unknown. That picture not only features a blob-like monster, it postulates the odd idea that radiation "melts" flesh.
The sci-fi angle in The H-Man is something of a stretch, with excellent trimmings. Sailors exposed to an American nuclear blast are transformed into liquid "H-Men" that gobble up people like our own garden variety American Blob. But the monsters also assume the form of green humanoid ghosts, which look great but make little sense. Dr. Masada performs an experiment in which a frog is liquefied by radiation, and becomes a living slime. Nobody seems concerned about the unlucky croaker's fate. No "green ghost" frogs materialize to complicate things, either ... I guess the producers missed a chance to use the song, "The Michigan Rag".
The green slime's nocturnal adventures are pretty exciting. Victims touched by the creeping silicone collapse as if suddenly deflated, an effect enhanced by dramatic silhouette lighting. A couple of killings involve animation and frozen frames, and are a bad idea poorly executed. But shots of a carpet of slime creeping along the sewer walls are excellently visualized. Toho's miniatures are so carefully used that we're barely aware of them; the final conflagration below Tokyo seems inspired by the end of Warner Bros.' Them!
Director Ishiro Honda handles his actors well; many are familiar from Akira Kurosawa films. The gangsters are chosen for perverse attitudes, especially the villain Uchida (Makato Sato). The nightclub scenes include a couple of impressively filmed exotic dances. An American cabaret singer dubs Ms. Shirakawa's torch song, very unconvincingly. Compounding the cultural mismatch are inept lyrics that read like vintage Japanese stereo instructions: "I've counted my love", etc. The film's apparent criticism of encroaching American values (flashy gangsters, sexy nightclubs) just looks weird to us Yanks.
Scientists opine that the H-Men may have returned to Tokyo because they retain a human homing instinct. But the script ascribes no particular motivation to the killings, even though most of the victims are Yakuza crooks. The cop / gang moll / scientist romantic triangle stays purely professional, with all parties observing formal manners. The scientist never succeeds in getting the detective to take his theories seriously, until people start turning into jelly and the entire nation is alerted. In another inept scene, the scientist then thanks the detective for being so responsive, which isn't the case at all. However, we're treated to an impressive finale in the sewers as Uchida orders Chikako to strip, so as to make the cops think she's been liquefied. The scene is a little less censored in the Japanese version, but it's still fairly racy for 1958.
Kids who saw The H-Man in 1959 were duly impressed, and the title enjoyed a playground rep as scary stuff. Sony's double-version release will allow today's fans to see the film in its proper Tohoscope aspect ratio once more -- even Turner Classic Movies shows the film pan-scanned. The Japanese version also gives us a better shot at following the occasionally confusing plot. Masaru Sato's music score uses weird string twangs to represent the sneaky slime, but the main theme is a rousing march more appropriate for a convention of drum majorettes. We can tell it's a Toho monster movie because the police & military action is automatically accompanied by an approving, upbeat theme.
The transfer is bright and colorful, with deep blacks offsetting the massive Tokyo fires at the conclusion. The green H-Men glow like electric emeralds. The color is so snappy that our eyes are immediately drawn to a bright green telephone in the next scene -- which suddenly seems sinister by association. Good proof that art directors are necessary to keep themes and colors coordinated.
The dubbing in the American version is actually not bad. An English-language title card pops up that shows a green goblin H-Man in the flaming atomic cloud seen in the opening stock shots. Scanning through, I was aware that at least one exotic dance and a large chunk of footage had been deleted a little more than halfway through the film -- the U.S. version may have simply excised three or four scenes in a row.
Toho continued making films about men with special transformative powers, often involving crime or criminals: The Human Vapor, The Secret of the Telegian. The Japanese version proposes the notion that the H-Men may be the next evolutionary step, an adaptation that will allow man to live in an irradiated atmosphere. The movie can therefore be classified as one of the bleak apocalyptic 50s films that assume the inevitability of nuclear annihilation.
Savant can write about the next film from personal experience, as I was eight years old in 1960, the perfect age to see the exultantly juvenile Battle in Outer Space. Having been too young to greet most of the great earlier Sci-Fi movies set in outer space, Battle was an eye-popping wonder picture. And I claimed the right to be an "expert" about it, having sat speechless through The Mysterians just a few months before. The rotating space station was a familiar sight and the flying saucers were more colorful versions of the Mysterians' agile jet-jobs. What better warships to oppose them than the Earth Defense Force's fighter rockets, spitting images of the experimental X-15 rocket planes?
In 1965, bizarre phenomena cause disasters all over the world -- train wrecks, flooding, etc.. The United Nations traces the nefarious acts to alien forces called "Natalians". At the Japanese space center, a new weapon is being tested as twin "SPIP" moon ships are launched to investigate what might be an enemy base on the Moon. The expedition barely escapes from flying saucers launched from Natal's base of operations, the Mother Ship. Worse, a member of the expedition has been brainwashed by the space enemies, and telepathically commanded to sabotage the SPIPs.
The nations of Earth join in a rush project to front a massive defense against the invaders. Squadrons of rocket fighters spring forth from underground silos to engage Natal's armada in orbit. The Mother Ship launches giant space torpedoes that devastate San Francisco and New York City. And when the saucers and rockets do battle in the skies over downtown Tokyo, the Mother Ship unleashes Natal's ultimate weapon -- an anti-gravity ray!
Battle in Outer Space has everything a space-addled 1950s kid could want. We had all read non-fiction books predicting imminent space missions, with illustrations that looked quite a bit like Toho's sleek moon ships. On the moon, the spacemen toodle off to meet the aliens in space buses resembling Oscar Meyer's Weinermobile. With optical tricks much improved over earlier Toho efforts, sizzling animated rays zap across rocky moonscapes. A mass dogfight breaks out in Earth orbit, seventeen years before Star Wars. Aerial bombs blow up the Golden Gate Bridge, an effect that to our unspoiled (read: infantile) eyes looked 100% real. The anti-gravity ray makes a large Tokyo miniature (including a Cinerama theater) erupt into the air -- buildings, cars, people. Perfect pictures to eat popcorn by.
Also earning our approval is a view of the wreckage of the space station suspended in orbit, complete with a dead body, a macabre sight for the time. The astronauts exit the moon ship via an ingenious, beautifully modeled swing-arm elevator. The unimpressive aliens of Natal resemble a pack of plastic-helmeted space kids waving their arms and making beep-beep noises. Some of the production details are equally tacky -- the usual American actors hang around blathering dumb exposition lines, as if commenting on the action from a TV talk show set. And don't refer to Battle for good science. A suspension bridge levitated by Natal's anti-gravity ray shows signs of having been lowered in temperature to near absolute zero. As we all know, gravity ceases to effect very cold objects!
The human element isn't very important in Battle in Outer Space, mainly because the characterizations are paper-thin. The main hero and heroine take passive roles, leaving favorite actor Yoshio Tsuchiya as the only character with anything to do. He's one of two earthlings mentally remote controlled to subvert the Earth defense effort; the other happens to be an Iranian scientist. Tsuchiya makes a corny suicide gesture that nonetheless was received with full approval by myself and my peers. A secondary couple are apparently meant to be a Soviet fighter pilot and his girlfriend, a detail we weren't aware of at the time. I'm not sure we kids knew what a Russian looked like -- we heard talk about Russians but they didn't show up on early evening TV shows.
Thirty years later I did a shot-by-shot comparison with a subitled Japanese VHS and an American cut taped from the old Cinemax cable channel. The only picture differences were a few trimmed dialogue scenes. That doesn't prove much because the Cinemax version could easily have been longer than what was shown in theaters in 1960. But Columbia altered Akira Ifukube's music quite a bit. The original Japanese battle scenes are scored with a rousing military march heard briefly in many other Ifukube pictures, notably the original Gojira. Large sections of the American version have been re-scored with adequate but undistinguished library cues. Ifukube's infectious march apparently didn't translate across the cultural divide. It enforces a feeling of communal spirit, underlining the fact that Japanese, American and Russian rocket aces have joined forces to fend off Natal's attack.
Sony presents the Tohoscope Battle in Outer Space in two versions of near identical quality. The film has a few effects flaws, like scratches in blue-screen elements and frequent poor traveling matte lines. Yet general it looks fine, if nowhere near as snappy as The H-Man. The original English dub track is often quite lame, with uninteresting voices chosen to read inane, inconsequential dialogue. It may be "purist" bias, but the show plays much better for these ears in its original language, where I wouldn't recognize a poorly delivered dialogue line anyway.
Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski's earnest and coordinated commentary balances the usual star and filmmaker bios with great inside information on the story basis of Uchu daisenso. The technical detail reaches down to the thickness of the wires suspending the elaborate miniatures. Locations are also discussed; the impressive exterior of the "Japan Space Center" is actually a sports complex built in advance for the '64 Olympics. While admitting the story's shortcomings, the track communicates a real enthusiasm for the film and Toho artistry in general. Steve and Ed bring Sony specialist Mike Friend on to discuss the studio's efforts to restore the three films. American actress Elise Richter talks over the phone about her small role, one that she didn't advertise to her friends. The Japanese filmmakers decided that Elise wasn't curvaceous enough to be a foreigner (?), and padded her hips!
With Battle in Outer Space finally out on disc, the final classic-era Toho space film not yet available in Region 1 is 1962's Gorath. It took ten years for most of the classic Tohos to show up on DVD but this astral collision epic is still MIA, along with a decent letterboxed Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla and a few others. Gorath was released by an independent distributor and then tied up with A.I.P. television. A shaky chain of title (in Toho's view) may account for its absence so far.
At the same time that Toho was trying out more overt horror in pictures like the disturbing Matango, they also experimented with a giant monster fantasy suitable for small children. By far the best known title in the set, Mothra is a colorful storybook tale with a Kaiju context and some interesting political satire. The shortened American version omits some of the flavor of this unique monster fairy tale about the giant insect god of a mysterious lost civilization. In keeping with Sci-Fi's newfound ecological theme -- perhaps taken directly from the previous year's Gorgo -- Mothra is the first Kaiju in which the monster is the hero and villain is modern society itself. Mothra blows cities to rubble with the force of its giant wings, yet retains the full sympathy of the audience.
A scientific team is dispatched to investigate a mysterious radioactive isle. Thought to be uninhabited, Infant Island supports a population of sad, reclusive natives. Dr. Sinichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) meets the tribe's tiny "Shobijin" fairies, (Yumi & Emi Ito, aka "The Peanuts", singing stars very popular in Japan). The tiny twins communicate telepathically. Stowaway reporter Senichiro Fukuda (Frankie Sakai) befriends the Shobijin, but sneaky Rolisican gangster-entrepreneur Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito) secretly returns to the island, murders a number of natives and kidnaps the fairies to sing in his stage show back in Tokyo. Official efforts fail to force Nelson to relinquish the tiny girls, as do the reporters' attempts to free them. The Shobijin tell Senichiro that they are sad, not for themselves, but for innocent Japanese citizens: Mothra will come to their rescue. And indeed, as the Infant Island natives dance, a giant egg hatches an equally monstrous larval moth, which immediately sets sail for the Japanese capitol.
Mothra is a charming monster tale with excellent effects and terrific set pieces. The giant larva plows through the ocean waves and leaves a wake of destruction across enormous miniature sets. Kids react positively to the psychic connection between the fairies and the monster, and the metamorphosis from caterpillar to colorful moth is an affirmation of nature's triumph over man's petty politics. The title moth is an impressive screen presence despite the fact that it is little more than a giant fuzzy marionette. Its mighty wings produce a blast of wind like an atomic-era Big Bad Wolf.
The giant larva climbs Tokyo Tower to spin its cocoon. When the fairies are taken to a foreign country called Rolisica, the newly hatched giant moth files halfway around the world to rescue them. In the context of the movie "Rolisica" is an amalgam of Russia and the United States. Rolisica is the trouble behind everything -- they assume control of the expedition to Infant Island, which they once used as an atomic blast site. Roliscia denies that the island is inhabited despite hard evidence to the contrary, a kind of pre-echo of the documentary Radio Bikini. The Rolisican villain Clark Nelson is a combo of Carl Denham and Al Capone, committing theft and mass murder against a native population. Clark wiggles out of charges of kidnapping and slavery by claiming that the Shobijin are merely merchandise. They like to sing and dance, so he's making them happy! The Rolisican government is complicit with Nelson's efforts to loot the world, at least until Mothra arrives to wipe out its capitol, "New Kirk City." The Russian aspect of Rolisica can be seen in the combination of symbols on the flag of the Rolisican Embassy and the Russian-looking uniforms of the Rolisican generals helping to fight Mothra.
Every Anglo that could be rounded up, including familiar faces like Robert Dunham and Harold Conway, is used to play Rolisican citizens. New Kirk City has Manhattan skyscrapers, the Golden Gate Bridge and Los Angeles' Harbor Freeway. We also see a short clip of the row of hotels where Santa Monica reaches the bluffs over the beach. Nelson's gangster thugs occasionally speak in English. He and his main crook pals laugh themselves silly: "Mothra is dead! Now we can be happy and filthy rich! Ha ha ha ha!"
Clark Nelson's last ten lines are the same: "Shut up!" I hadn't noticed before, but the rotten gangster's final act is to knock the cane out from under an old man! I think there were some happy subversives at Toho that year.
Co-star Kyoko Kagawa plays the female photographer sidekick, a fairly thankless role. Ms. Kagawa did this film between stunning appearances in two Kurosawa classics, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. The loveable Frankie Sakai's nickname in the original is "Snapping Turtle," changed to "Bulldog" for the American dub version. He never lets go, see, and is a master of the obscure martial art of slapping bad guys on the head with folded pieces of paper.
A beloved monster fairy tale, Mothra saw a VHS release, but only in its severely cut pan-scan version. A letterboxed Toho laserdisc featured stereophonic sound. Thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts within Sony, repertory screenings of a glorious 35mm Tohoscope print occur occasionally.
Sony's Mothra is splendid in full color and Tohoscope, with a rich original Japanese soundtrack. Yuji Kosecki's charming music score includes a catchy title tune sung by the Shobijin in a command performance similar to the exhibition of King Kong. When cut and re-dubbed for America, Mothra lost 13 minutes of running time. In the uncut Japanese version, the Peanuts perform a second number in kimonos on a little cherry blossom set. It is interesting that the stadium audience is delighted, when nobody beyond the first two rows could possibly get a good look at the tiny twins.
Ryfle and Godziszewski's commentary for Mothra is even more impressive, with a full run-down on the Infant Island back story dropped for the film, an alternate ending and a full accounting of input from its various writers. A wealth of production detail includes the information that the largest crawling larva monster was twenty feet long and operated by several men, Chinese Dragon style: some of the "miniature" landscapes are enormous. The commentary also gets deep into the film's political context, and lists some topical protest-oriented material that was left out. The movie indeed shapes up as a P.C. fairy tale about superpower arrogance.1
The Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection adds another winner to Sony's ongoing series of disc sets of genre classics. The packaging is a little worrisome -- the three discs are stacked on a single hub in the keep case, which would seem to make scratching them all the easier. I'm considering transferring them to separate keep cases. The cover art is an unfortunate Photoshop mishmash. We take the bad with the good and count our blessings.
One disc has a serious subtitle problem. The English subs on the Japanese version of Battle in Outer Space are "dub-titles", copies of the subtitles on the re-written American version. Subtitles appear for dialogue not heard on the Japanese track, and often pop on at the wrong time. For all we know, the American subs on Battle could be seriously misrepresenting what's being said. The subtitles on the other two films are fine.
Even with that problem, this reviewer gives a big wave of approval to Sony for going to the trouble to put these films out in dual language versions. With DVDs trending away from fan-oriented frills of any kind, we're certainly grateful. Trailers would have been nice but the two expert commentaries make the Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection one of the brightest releases of a year seeing a general lack of genre classics.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Icons of Sci-Fi: Tohorates:
Movies: H: Excellent, Space: Very Good +, Mothra: Excellent
Supplements: Commentaries on Space and Mothra by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski
Packaging: 3 discs in keep case
Reviewed: August 5, 2009
1. Mothra, unfortunately, wasn't a success story for the ten-year-old Savant. Parents were required to drive us to the downtown San Bernardino theaters. The bratty kid across the street changed his mind at the last minute and talked his mom into taking us to see another movie: Babes in Toyland, for crying out loud. So my childhood experience with the film was limited to staring at the photos in Famous Monsters. I didn't catch up with Mothra on TV for twenty years, and didn't see it in 'Scope on a screen until 2005.
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