Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Mysterians (aka: Chikyû Bôeigun)

(1957) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Takeshi Kimura and Shigeru Kayama; Story by Jôjirô Okami; Starring: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata and Takashi Shimura; Available on DVD (Region 2)

Rating ***

“The space station is flying 42,000 kilometers above Earth. What we call flying saucers are their space ships. They can reach New York, London, Moscow and Tokyo at any time. They have command of the air. Will Earth be ruled by Man or Mysterians? No, only science can rule.” – Ryoichi Shiraishi (Akihiko Hirata)

The 1950s represented a golden age for science fiction films, producing some of the finest films of the genre. One of the staples that emerged was the alien attack sub-genre, notably, The Thing from Another World (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953). In Japan, many science fiction films focused on domestic threats, with Gojira (1954) and Rodan (1956), both directed by Ishirô Honda. Honda threw his hat in the alien invader ring with 1957’s The Mysterians (aka: Chikyû Bôeigun, or Earth Defense Force). Filmed in TohoScope (Toho’s answer to Cinemascope) stereo sound and in color, The Mysterians aimed for a more epic perspective, placing not only Japan, but Earth in jeopardy of annihilation.

On the eve of a harvest festival, a series of fires and cataclysmic events rock the city of Fuji. In an early scene, and one of the film’s highlights, a massive robot, Mogera (don’t look for its name in the movie), wreaks havoc and lays waste to the countryside, signaling the arrival of aliens from the planet Mysteroid. The Japanese military takes swift and decisive action to counter the threat. Meanwhile, the aliens, who call themselves Mysterians, establish a stronghold in their enormous burrowing spacecraft. An uneasy truce is proclaimed, as a band of top scientists are called upon by the aliens (clad in color-coded capes and giant helmets) to hear their requests: a plot of land three kilometers in diameter, and the right to mate with Earth women. The whole land thing gives the human leaders pause, but Earth isn’t ready to give up their women. In a multi-national operation based in Japan, Earth leaders plot to combat the Mysterians.

Considering how the Mysterians waste no time with hostile displays, it’s puzzling that they claim to come in peace. By contrast, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu arrived in peace. Gort didn’t unleash his intergalactic fury until the foolish Earth people fired first. On the other side of the fence, the Mysterians practice a sort of extortion, claiming they won’t attack the Earth if they’re allowed their plot of land and the women. Upon their arrival, however, they’ve already caused untold destruction and (probably) death, abducted several women, and settled their spacecraft under the ground. There’s nothing to suggest their intentions are honest or noble from the beginning. They also don’t have anything to offer humanity, giving no indication the wish to share their technology.

An ongoing theme in many of Honda’s films is the threat of atomic holocaust, and the ensuing dangers of radiation. In the wake of destruction from the Mysterians, Japanese officials must deal with an irradiated landscape, as exemplified by dead fish in a stream. The Mysterians, themselves, are refugees from a devastating nuclear war on their home planet, which has driven them to search for a new place to live, and rendered them unable to produce healthy offspring. When one official proposes attacking the Mysterians with nuclear weapons, Dr. Adachi is quick to suppress this dangerous line of thinking (“We must not use H-bombs under any circumstances.”), fearing the terrible consequences of using such a powerful weapon. It’s a message we could still benefit from.

Veteran actor Takashi Shimura, alumnus of Akira Kurosawa films such as Ikiru and Seven Samurai, lends a quiet gravitas to the film as Dr. Adachi, who believes in taking a measured, but demonstrative approach to the threat of the Mysterians. Akihiko Hirata, perhaps best known as the conflicted scientist Dr. Serizawa in Gojira, plays physicist Ryoichi Shiraishi, who first discovers the existence of the Mysterians, and collaborates with them to achieve their goals. Considering how he’s touted as a brilliant researcher, it’s perplexing that Shiraishi is slow to pick up on the fact that the Mysterians are only in it for themselves. Kenji Sahara, a familiar face in many Honda films, plays Joji Atsumi, Dr. Adachi’s eager assistant. He’s the nominal hero, although he doesn’t really have much to do.

Few people are likely to walk away from The Mysterians with distinct memories of the performances, but the impressive effects and art direction are certain to linger. Eiji Tsubaraya supervised the creation of detailed miniatures and pyrotechnic effects, to simulate a credible battle between Earth and alien invaders. One of the most impressive effects depict a giant World Air Force rocket craft,* employed to attack the Mysterian base. The film predates Thunderbirds by almost a decade, but the flying ship effects could have given Derek Meddings a run for his money. Illustrator Shigeru Komatsuzaki designed the alien costumes, and interior of the spacecraft that has a passing resemblance to the Krell laboratory in Forbidden Planet (1956). While there are similarities, the alien control room interiors differ significantly, with the ample proliferation of red and blue neon accents.

* The flying effects/craft design share many similarities for the title craft in Honda’s later film, Atragon (1963).

The Mysterians deserves credit where it’s due, for depicting worldwide cooperation against a common foe – an enlightened view during the escalating Cold War. We also get to see an effective military effort for a change (these things often end up being one-sided affairs, with only a deus ex machina intervening to even the score). On the other hand, compared to some of Honda’s better efforts, it’s a rather dull affair. Each action scene is followed by talky scenes with the characters sitting around, deliberating about what should be done about the alien invaders. And on a different note, the male-centric perspective of the film may be off-putting to some. There are no substantial female characters in the film. – the women are little more than a commodity, existing only to be kidnapped or saved. If you can put up with the preponderance of XY chromosomes and some draggy spots, however, it’s still not a bad way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.

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