Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mill Creek Invasion: FUGITIVE ALIEN (Star Wolf, 1978/1987)

Jo Shishido, the Japanese action star and Nikkatsu Noir icon, is probably best known in particular for his starring role in director Seijun Suzuki's directorial kamikaze run Branded to Kill and in general for his decision to undergo surgery to expand his cheeks to make his face more distinctive. How this was to benefit him -- distinct isn't the same thing as handsome -- was always mysterious, but an advantage suggested itself decades after the procedure. As Captain Joe of the Bacchus 3 in the Japanese TV series Star Wolf, Shishido's face seemed specially designed to withstand the rigors of high-pressure space flight. While his fellow crew members get their cheeks and jowls set to rippling, just as if they were being blasted by a wind machine, Shishido the human chipmunk is unperturbed. Of course, Captain Joe is better lubricated than his subordinates. He's a hard drinking, hard smoking spaceman even before his wife and child are killed in an alien attack, and afterward his vices make it easier to cope. He even keeps a flask dangling from the ceiling of the bridge to supplement the bottles he drains at every opportunity. He's dubbed into English with a vaguely Noo Yawkish smartass voice that seems exactly right for the swaggering I-don't-give-a-damn performance Shishido gives; maybe only Cameron Mitchell's voice would be more perfect.  Captain Joe isn't really the hero of the series or the TV movie Sandy Frank (that purveyor of many things Japanese to North American audiences) assembled from the early episodes, but he was my hero throughout.

It's Captain Joe's universe; the rest of us just fly around in it.

The actual hero of Star Wolf, aka the Fugitive Alien, is Ken (Tatsuya Azuma), a Valna Wolf Raider by profession, whom we meet while he and his buddies are attacking Planet Earth. Part of the ground force, he leaps about committing random acts of murder, vandalism and jewel theft alongside his comrades, all dressed like deadly hippie space clowns with long blond hair flowing out from under his helmet. Despite his exuberant rapine, Ken has a code. There's a line he won't cross. Or at least when he encounters a Japanese child named Ken, he becomes profoundly confused. He sees himself superimposed over the child, as if all Kens are the same (only Barbie knows for sure), and this seizure of fellow feeling makes him incapable of killing the kid. Worse, it compels him to prevent his best buddy from killing the kid. In the resulting scuffle, Ken accidentally frags his pal, who dies denouncing him as a traitor to Valnastar. Now friendless on a hostile planet, he decides his best option is escape to outer space, but his ship is damaged in a crossfire and he's forced to ditch. He doffs his helmet to do so, revealing that those hair extensions are actually part of the Valna Wolf Raider uniform, presumably designed to terrify primitive people like Earthlings or make them lose their composure through laughter.

Fugitive Alien carries a 1987 date, but these guys are all Seventies.

Ken is rescued from a lonely fate floating through space by the Bacchus-3, whose crew is initially uncertain of whom they're dealing with. He tells them that he's an innocent astronomer observing the stars, but his superhuman strength (he's even stronger on Valnastar, he tells a fellow Valnastarian while on Earth) makes some of the crew suspicious. As it develops, Captain Joe matches a piece of fabric from Ken's clothes with a Wolf Raider uniform found near his dead child. He confronts Ken, is disarmed, disarms Ken back with the old "shouldn't you check to see if it's loaded" trick, but is dissuaded from killing the Star Wolf by Ken's tale of treason. Assuring Ken that "the world is mad," Joe decides to take him on as a crew member, the idea being that Ken, at least, will obey all his orders (and maybe not question his drinking), lest Joe expose him as a Valna Raider and render his life forfeit. Joe's second-in-command, Rocky, has his suspicions about Ken confirmed when he tries to run the stranger over with a forklift, but Captain Joe insists that Ken's superhuman strength doesn't make him a Wolf Raider.

Joe: I know Ken's a lot stronger than we are, but there's a reasonable scientific explanation for that. He's spent a lot of time in another constellation. That increases strength.

To his credit, Rocky isn't really convinced by Joe's story, but his loyalty to the captain compels him to tolerate Ken, to an extent. Now a full crew member, Ken joins the Bacchus-3's next mission to assist the beleaguered planet Carrero, whose traditional Cesar (or Viholi; the name changes abruptly) enemy is being aided by Valnastar and its evil blue-skinned ruler Valen. The Carrero mission really puts Star Wolf (or its Fugitive Alien segment) over the top, if it hadn't gotten there already for you, because the series's six writers and three directors have given us a Planet of the Arabs. The civilians are Arab-garbed, at least, while the military wear green, turtle-shell helmets, the sight of which I'll spare you.

These Carreros are ungrateful recipients of Earthly aid. They keep most of the Bacchus crew prisoners on their own ship while their ruler negotiates with Joe and Rocky. But Ken's a rebel at heart. He romps off the ship, which has been left unguarded -- apparently the Carreros believe in the honor system. The male crewmates want to follow him, but the one female officer (the computer specialist) forces them at gunpoint to stay on board -- but then doesn't bother pursuing Ken as he bounds childishly (I believe he actually says "yippee!") into a native town where he gets into a bar fight and is finally arrested for supposedly stealing a jewel. Informed that Ken is subject to the death penalty, Captain Joe tells the authorities they can have him -- but unlike Rocky, he doesn't really mean it.
Since the Carreros haven't stripped Ken of his uniform, Joe can still communicate with him via a device embedded in one of Ken's shoulder buttons. Another shoulder button contains a convenient "miniature nuclear device" that Ken can use to blast his way out of his cell -- it's "just like a grenade," Joe explains. Once out of the cell, Ken must break a Cesar prisoner out with him to make it easier for the Bacchus to infiltrate Cesar space. Doing this will require Ken to kill a considerable number of our Carrero allies, but maybe that was agreed upon in advance with the Carrero ruler, when that potentate made his advance payment of three blue crystals for Earth's assistance.

After Ken and the Cesar prisoner make their great escape, they run straight into a dangling subplot. Back on Valnastar, Valen had tasked Rita, Ken's lover and the sister of the man he killed, with avenging her family and her planet. That's the traditional law of Valnastar, and after a presumably traditional period of wandering in the desert, Rita embarks on her mission of vengeance. She manages to track Ken to Carrero, where she proves more adept at infiltration, disguising herself as a native woman, and more adept at tracking than the natives. She gets the drop on Ken, but basically folds as soon as he tells his sob story for the umpty-umpth time.

In the end, she only appears to convey the plot point that, superhuman strength notwithstanding, Ken is not a Valnastarian but a human, the son of a missionary from Earth. Maybe Captain Joe's theory about extraterrestrial strength is correct, after all. And having conveyed this revelation, and after having been established as the female badass of the picture, Rita is promptly shot down in a crossfire between Ken and a Carrero soldier. True to family form, she blames Ken with her dying breath -- except I have a weird feeling she might not be dead. After all, there's lots of the series left, as the "To Be Continued" card at the end makes clear....
The long journey to Mill Creek Entertainment's Sci-Fi Invasion box set began with American author Edmond Hamilton's trilogy of Star Wolf novels. Tsuburaya Productions adapted these into the Star Wolf TV series, from which Sandy Frank derived at least two Fugitive Alien films, which were in turn subjected to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. That last phase seems redundant, as I can't see how Joel and the robots could have made Fugitive Alien any funnier than it already is. From this account you can probably tell that not only Fugitive Alien but its source materials are probably pretty dumb, but it's all dumb in a charmingly childish, naive way, not in the cynically derivative manner of something like Welcome to Blood City.

The effects are hit or miss, but mostly miss, with some nearly psychedelic scenes of rotating spaceship formations thrown in alongside occasional yet understandable errors in English language labelling, but all of this comes with the territory of Japanese fantasy, where a craft aesthetic outweighed concerns for verisimilitude. But it's technical shortcomings aside, Star Wolf unselfconsciously believes in itself, and its guilelessness makes many of its sins forgivable. On top of that, Shishido seems to be enjoying and loathing himself at the same time in an eminently watchable, winningly decrepit performance. This is a bad movie by any measure, but it's the sort of bad movie that actually left me wanting to see more of Star Wolf -- so how bad can it really be?


W.B. Kelso said...

I remember when I first saw Branded to Kill it took me a moment before I realized who I was looking at and blurted out "That's Captain Jo!" to all the others in attendance. Two of my favorite MST3k episodes to boot.

"He tried to kill me with a forklift. Ole!"

Anonymous said...

the Starwolf books are actually quite good; they predated Star Wars and probably are owed a bit more credit for that film than they receive... Anyway, I enjoy Edmond Hamilton SF; try out Captain future or Starwolf if you're an avid SF reader.