Friday, September 25, 2009


Taking an optimistic view of man's progress in space exploration, Ishiro Honda imagines a full-scale orbiting space station in full operation in the year 1965, six years in the future from the time he made this film for Toho Studios. And like many a cinema fantasist, he imagines this modest incursion into space attracting hostile attention from alien powers. The culprits this time hail from the planet Natal (or is that an especially advanced region of South Africa?) and they blow up the space station as a prelude to subjugating the Earth. They just made a big mistake.

Natal may be ahead of Earth in space flight, but our side, spearheaded by Japan, is about to take the lead in weapons of mass destruction. The Natalies started throwing their weight around just as we've perfected a wave-motion dingus that "produces a narrowband energy radiation of the order of 600 megatherms. At maximum output it will fire continuously for 20,000 hours with a single charge of plutonium." This is a game changer. A hand-held dingus of this sort, we'll learn, can knock a flying saucer out of the sky. Large artillery-type dinguses are sure to wreak havoc on any alien armada that sticks its collective nose in our atmosphere.

But don't count Natal out just yet. The aggressors have a few tricks up their sleeves, --presuming the existence of Natal sleeves, of course. Their trump card is a kind of freeze ray that'll take you down to absolute zero, rendering the target entirely motionless. As scientists explain, that means that the mere motion of the earth will throw anything thus frozen straight up into the air, with calamitous results. But their real ace in the hole may be their ability to control the minds of humans. Throw in some freaky sound effects and a Natal dude doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation and a man will do your bidding. Such a fate befalls Dr. Achmed, who is compelled to try and steal the secret of the wave-motion dingus. It will later befall Iwomura, one of the eighteen elite scientists sent to the Moon in two advanced "Spip" rockets to find the secret Natal base and wreck it.

Iwomura works up quite a bit of sabotage while under Natal control, buy his exploits expose a limit to the Natal strategy. It looks like they can't ever control more than one human at a time. Or maybe they never thought of doing more than one at once. Really, couldn't they control everybody? Or are we to understand that Achmed and Iwomura were particularly weak-minded people? But who's the weak-minded species. after all. Remember that freeze ray I mentioned earlier in the paragraph? For all we know, the Natalies themselves (who despite the deep voices look like Oompa Loompas in spacesuits) forgot that they had it for most of the picture. We see them use it early on almost as a prank, levitating a railway bridge just in time for a train to drop into a ravine, only to drop it back into place. Then it comes into play again in the last act of the film, when it wreaks havoc in Tokyo while New York is subject to a more conventional attack. Natal could just as easily have been using this devastating device through all the time that our heroes are scurrying about on the moon and destroying the invasion base. But no; just when you think the picture's going to end at the 72 minute mark or thereabouts the underachieving Natalies get a second wind and start going to town on our cities. But it's too late by then, because Earth is armed to the teeth with wave-motion death for alien scum, and all Natal has done is make humanity mad....

To be honest, neither plot nor characterization was given much thought in this project. Two of our astronauts are in love with each other and that's about as deep as this picture goes. Iwomura betrays his crewmates under alien control and sacrifices his life redeeming himself, and that's about the biggest acting challenge in the whole affair. Battle in Outer Space (so Columbia Pictures called it; Toho called it Great War in Space) is a pure showcase for Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, and they make the most of it, displaying the strengths and weaknesses of Toho special effects. Many of the moon and space scenes are spectacular; Toho went to some trouble putting together detailed moon sets to match the models through which moon cars would roll and saucers fly. Anytime they don't have to swing their model ships across a bright background, the illusion of spaceflight is actually quite convincing and the compositions take full advantage of the Toho Scope wide screen. The sets and models have a multiplane quality that creates a strong impression of distance and depth. There are very effective scenes when the human explorers catch glimpses of saucers in the distance emerging into view between mountain peaks. Overall, the moon scenes have some of the best effects I've ever seen from Toho.

On the other hand, Toho often has trouble convincing you that their models have weight or true massiveness. The Natal moonbase is singularly unimpressive; its bright primary colors make it look like a pile of toddler's toys. As you'll notice, the model Manhattan simply won't do. At least in the freeze ray attack on Tokyo the inventive weirdness of the cityscape getting flung upward, with unhappy people in the midst of it, distracts you from the pure flimsiness of the models. Even in these cases, though, you can respect the craftsmanship of the Toho crew on an aesthetic level that goes beyond the model's effectiveness as effects. It's hard for me to know whether scenes that look wrong to a western eye are just wrong or just express the aesthetic choices of another culture. But the overall art direction here often look good even when they also look wrong.

Speaking of another culture, here's another picture in which Tokyo is devastated. The knee-jerk reaction is to note once more a lingering Japanese memory of nuclear attack, but I see something more than that in Battle in Outer Space. The devastating attack, after all, is just one round of several, many of which go to the Japanese-inspired Earth in a fight that ends in a knockout victory for the good guys. We've been trained to read Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and the Tokyo fire bombings and all the rest) into films like this, but shouldn't we also read into it the unresolved anticipation, still remembered by many of the people who first saw this movie, of an American invasion of Japan? When a giant monster or an alien power splatters Tokyo, it's supposed to signify that nukes are bad. But the giant monsters and aliens invariably lose.

As Toho's vision grew decadent the giant monsters themselves would save Japan or the world from aliens or other giant monsters. But in the early years people could take care of themselves quite nicely despite some major setbacks. Couldn't films like Battle in Outer Space be saying, perhaps subliminally, that in spite of the A-bomb, Japan could have licked the Allies in a real fight had it come to an invasion? That may not sound plausible, but these are fantasy films, and as well as expressing dread, guilt, etc., they may also show a symbolic chip on Japanese shoulders. I don't mean that as a reproach to the Japanese. Seeing this particular movie this way makes it more interesting, maybe more cool and perhaps a more meaningful artifact of Japanese pop culture.

Here's what Baradagi1985 calls a trailer for the Columbia release of Battle in Outer Space, but my hunch is that it's actually a TV commercial:

Meanwhile, CCZilla has uploaded the more colorful Japanese trailer for Uchu Daisenso.

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