Aug 15 2009

Ishiro Honda: Icon of Japanese Science Fiction

Sonys new set

Sony's new set

Though his name is conspicuously absent from the cover, the Icon of Sci-Fi celebrated in Sony’s three-disc Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection set is Ishiro Honda, the prolific director of the original Godzilla and a legendary run of giant monster movies. This collection from Sony highlights his science fiction output with the stateside DVD debuts of three films, a mere fraction of his genre filmography.

The H-Man (1957) is not a man at all but a gooey radioactive slime (the original Japanese titles translates to “Beauty and the Liquidman”) that slurps into Tokyo, starts oozing up legs of gangsters and digesting them in seconds flat. It’s a monster movie horror within a cop crime drama, with detectives investigating a drug ring where all the suspects keeps getting dissolved. Motivation for the hungry, hungry puddle is vaguely suggested by a  scientist who reads a headline about a missing suspect and immediately suspects radioactive hanky panky, but it still doesn’t quite explain why it invades the nightclub where all the gangsters hang, unless it absorbs the instincts of its victims as well. At least it that would explain its obsession with nightclub singer Chikako Arai. There are some great ooze effects of the gelatin spill going up walls and some dummies that deflate in place of victims being boiled into mush. The optical effects with freeze frames and animated slime are far less effective and for some reason they periodically turn into big green ghosts.

Battle in Outer Space (1959) is a visually splendid and narratively pedestrian space opera, short on character and plot but full of great miniatures and dramatic effects in a film packed with spectacle. It’s not just ships zapping each other with lasers in the dark void of space; there’s a caterpillar surface transport crawling over the rocky volcanic moonscape, a shoot-out with a fleet of flying saucers, a mind-controlled assassin sabotaging a human rocketship and of course the alien assault on Earth landmarks in the final battle. They may look like toys in flight, but they are they best toys a sci-fi geek could behold on screen in 1959, which alone makes it a genre highlight.

The "Battle in Outer Space" stops for a moon jaunt

The "Battle in Outer Space" stops for a moon jaunt

Mothra (1961) is the gem of the set, a marvelous mix of science fiction, monster movie and adventure fantasy filled with colorful characters and an unmistakable socio-political subtext. It opens in a similar fashion to The H-Man – a ship drifts into the radioactive area of old atomic tests – but this time the crew is saved, thanks to the berry juice offered them by the natives of Infant Island, an island assumed to be uninhabited. In a reworking of King Kong, a mercenary explorer named Nelson from the country of Rolisica (a not-so-subtle stand-in for the U.S.) leads an expedition to Infant Island to investigate claims of native inhabitants and kidnaps pixie-sized women (played by identical twins pop duo The Peanuts) after they rescue a scientist from blood-sucking vines. Just like Carl Armstrong, Nelson puts his “rare specimens” into a big ticket stage show and somehow charms the audience into watching performers a few inches tall on a gargantuan stage. Meanwhile the natives (at least those that weren’t massacred by the Nelson’s thugs) rouse Mothra from its cave incubator and a gargantuan larvae bobs through the water and over land, destroying everything in its path, following the clarion call of the “Tiny Beauties” (as the dogged newspaper reporter known as The Snapping Turtle dubs them). It’s only in the final act that it spins a cocoon and emerges a fuzzy Technicolor monster moth to really whip up some property damage. And Honda spreads the chaos around this time; after Japan gets its  share of winged fury, Mothra follows Nelson home to New Kirk City (??!!) in Rolisica, which looks like a lumpy mix of California, the American East Coast and, in a few odd shots, some grim Iron Curtain country. And in a really strange turn of events, the film appropriates the kind of Catholic imagery common in American movies and then twists it to his own purposes. While the Americans are quick to escape into the bosom of the church, the Japanese heroes arrive on the scene and use the crucifix to  stand in for the mythological symbols of Mothra’s ancient Polynesian culture. Mothra is not an evil monster. It’s more like a protector of the island magic. How Toho decided that a giant moth was a good idea for such a totemic creature is anybody’s guess, but crazily enough it works. Mothra is a beautiful creature and a visually riveting figure, and the movie Mothra is one of the best of Toho’s giant monster movies.

Mothra leaves the cocoon

Mothra leaves the cocoon

Toho’s special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya does double duty in his model work here; in addition to his radio controlled army toys and city miniatures built for lepidopteral destruction, he builds giant jungle vegetation and bird cages to make the wonder twins look diminutive. They all look great, though the static doll stand-ins for a few scenes are less convincing and the optical shots are often a bit ragged. Honda cuts those shots judiciously and in general he keeps this film driving along so crisply that these are merely minor and momentary distractions, if at all.

The films look terrific, presented in their original, uncut Japanese versions as well as the American incarnations (which are dubbed and in the case of Mothra significantly shorter) and in full Tohoscope widescreen. Japanese science fiction film historians Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski provide well-prepared commentary tracks for Battle in Outer Space and Mothra and they keep them humming all the way through in their tag team approach. But I do have to call out Sony on the case design: all three discs are stacked up on a single spindle, which is not just unwieldy but leaves the discs prone scuffing and scratching. There are other, budget-conscious options for putting three discs in a single standard-dimension case.

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection comes out from Sony on August 18.

3 Comments

  • By Sharon E. Dreyer, August 16, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    Well, it’s time I confess that I’ve seen most of these movies over the years. Yes, the not-so-special effects were lacking the science part of science fiction. And the dubbing was always out of sync, but the movies were a hoot to watch when we were growing up.

    The post-atomic bomb era of monster movies made both here in the U.S.A. and in Japan, may not have been too sophisticated, but that was the science fiction movies millions of us enjoyed.

    Thanks for sharing this article! Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting story is a romantic action adventure in space.

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