Alien Deceit and Rocket Ships: Classic Japanese Science Fiction

Classic Japanese science fiction is such a vast subject that to cover it all would be a task not even Hercules himself would dare attempt (not even robot-fighting Lou Ferrigno Hercules). So I'm not going to talk about giant monsters (not only have I written about Kaiju before, but giant monsters are in a lot of classic Japanese science fiction), or discuss Power Ranger/Kamen Rider style superheroes - although let me take this opportunity to say if you haven't seen The Super Inframan (Shan Hua, 1975), see it now! It contains this image:

Lastly, I will not be mentioning the genetic Brundle-ing of Lovercraft and erotica that is Hentai (although we at Total Cults have discovered that the mere mention of tentacle sex prompts a brief spike in hits. Disturbingly, it seems that tendrils up the chuffer are very popular in some circles).

No, I'm instead going to identify three trends that appear across a lot of classic Japanese science fiction, picking out examples that best demonstrate them and hopefully discover further conventions that litter the genre. The three following trends are by no means exclusive and you'll see that each film I've picked overlaps with the others and beyond into a whole broader spectrum of Eastern science fiction. So ready the jet tubes, charge the laser turrets and boost the ion field as this drilled-nosed rocket is ready for battle!

  1. Space Opera

It would be easy to categorise Japanese science fiction (or JSF as I shall now irritatingly refer to it) as fairly out there what with all the giant transforming robots, kung-fu monsters and other assorted absurdities but straight space opera is something that is fairly consistent in a lot of Japans science fiction output. Take, for example, this amazing trailer for Message From Space (Kinji Fukasaku, 1978)...

I would have loved to have talked about that a little more, but the film deserves an artlcie all of its own.  Instead we will be looking at the no-less awesome War in Space (Jun Fukuda, 1977).   

Like a lot of classic JSF the film starts with a slow build.  Lots of science types in dated suits ponder bizarre happenings. Aliens, posing as humans, try to kidnap someone important from their just as dated living room and a secret weapon is being built to combat the emerging extra-terrestrial threat. I'm aware that 'slow-starts' is hardly a trend that will have you running to view these films but once things get going they really get going. War in Space features alien invasion, space exploration, space fighter-on-flying saucer (or balls in this case) warfare and a succession of crazily dressed alien antagonists. Prince among them is the Emperor of the Galaxy himself; Commander Hell and his right-hand wookie.

The appearance of this shoddy and, well, horny Chewbacca knock-off indicates quite how much Eastern and Western filmmakers has influenced each other. For every Sam Peckinpah that America sends over a John Woo gets sent back who in turn influences a whole new generation of American filmmakers. And if you have read my Lone Wolf and Cub articles (of course you have, what was I thinking?) you'll notice how spaghetti Western conventions creep into some of the later entries. Obviously this rather bored looking heap of sad fur is hardly an exemplar of the trend, but you get the point.

Unlike Star Wars, however, the bad guys can aim. So many of the heroes bite the dust in the third act you might start to think they've got no hope of completing their mission. Incidentally, these lasers not only hit but draw blood as the poor bugger that gets shot in the eye will testify (if he wasn't left blinded on an alien planet somewhere).

The last thing to take from War in Space is the inclusion of a rocket ship with a drill instead of a nose-cone and an old fashioned sailing ship styled enemy craft.

Which brings us neatly onto...

  1. Starship Fetishism

So much of classic JSF centres around the idolisation of futuristic craft. These flying weapons become Earth's only hope of defeating whatever alien army, kaiju or robot dares pick a fight with us. In many cases, these bizarre machines are such a draw for Japanese audiences that the film/series themselves are named after them. Here are just a few:

Space Battleship Yamato (AKA Starblazers)

Super Dimension Fortress Macross (AKA Robotech)

Bomber X (AKA Starfleet)

Or, in this case, Atragon (Ishiro Honda, 1963)

Atragon is the name of a machine that is capable of both underwater and air travel and that has, you guessed it, a drill instead of a nose-cone. This vehicle, known as the Gotengo, has appeared in a number of films and stories since its original conception in the novel Undersea Battleship way back in 1899 (when Jules Verne was still a contemporary science fiction writer). Atragon is an adaptation of the same story and centres around an undersea kingdom know as the Mu Empire, thought destroyed thousands of years ago, returning to claim the world its own. Earth's only hope lies in a Japanese Naval officer who, although presumed missing, has actually been working on a devastating new weapon; the Atragon.

The influence of Jules Verne is evident in both the Atragon, being that it is essentially the Nautilus (the drill is designed for ramming much like the Nautilus' sharp metallic nose) and in the naval officer who is essentially Captain Nemo. He is an outcast of the modern world working with advanced technologies to further his own agenda. Far from the Atragon being a weapon designed to save the world it is in fact a weapon designed to reclaim the glory of the Japanese Empire after their surrender in World War 2. This is very much at odds with the ethos of post-war Japan and it is not until the Officer's daughter is kidnapped by Mu agents that he agrees to fight for the good of the world.

Again we have something of a slow start with the first fifty minutes being taken up with the usual cogitating and espionage. But once the action starts we get model cities collapsing, battleships lasered to smithereens, freeze rays, an aquatic sea-dragon and some lovely matte paintings.

But what is key is that the Atragon is far more crafted than any of the characters.

  1. Seemingly Reasonable Alien Invaders

In Japan's view of the future the world is run by gullible idiots. Time and time again world governments are promised advances in technology, medicine or a way to destroy Godzilla by strange and friendly aliens, often in glittery spandex and a weird helmet, only to turn round and find they've actually unleashed a three-headed radiation breathing space dragon on us.

In The Mysterians (Ishiro Honda, 1957) the titular aliens don't seem to be attempting to deceive the human race. They invite some top scientists into their saucer and explain that although they have the power to wipe out humans they have no intention of doing so. They then acknowledge that humankind has been eyeing Mars for colonisation, despite some of their fellow Mysterians living there already, and are quite happy for that to continue. It's all very polite and lovely and all the Mysterians want is a small plot of land on Earth and five women to procreate with.

Humankind is, of course, having none of it and set about bombarding them with missiles, bombs, rays and the inevitable super rocket ship.

The film threatens the usual slow build, but right in the middle of some scientific pondering a giant robotic anteater shows up and starts firing laser from its eyes leading to a wonderful orgy of flame throwers and exploding miniatures. From then on it is a game of intellectual cat and mouse between the wonderfully garbed Mysterians and the armed forces of Japan.

What makes this particularly interesting is the pre-occupation with radiation and atomic warfare. The Mysterians come from a planet destroyed by atomic war and their bodies are riddled with strontium 90. As a result a huge percentage of their children are born with health issues hence the need for uncontaminated mates. It's a far more overt anti atomic bomb message than Godzilla and surprisingly this message comes from the bad guys. Even though their plan turns out to be a little more devious than originally stated (they are only seemingly reasonable after all) one can't help but think a compromise might have advanced the human race a little.

So there you go, if you're watching a science fiction film made between 1954 and 1980 in Japan you are likely to find tricky aliens, an amazing spacecraft and at least an element of space opera. Whatever the case, don't be put off by the first forty minutes of scientists buggering about because if you switch off then you'll miss all the fun stuff. Like this:


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