Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant's a big fan of Japanese monster fantasy, but my window of maximum enthusiasm only lasted from 1959 to about 1964. I saw The Mysterians and Gigantis, the Fire Monster first-run at about age seven, and soon thereafter solved my first cinematic puzzle when Godzilla, King of the Monsters appeared on television: Why, Godzilla and Gigantis are one and the same! When we moved to a new town, seeing movies was a hit and miss affair. I remember terrific kiddie matinee experiences with King Kong vs. Godzilla and Godzilla vs. The Thing, but missed a lot of the other titles. Gorath and Atragon only played at drive-ins. I had really wanted to see Mothra but was double-crossed by the kid across the street. At the last minute, he changed his mind and his mother drove us to see Disney's Babes in Toyland. Oh, the agony ....
By the time of High School, Savant had been weaned off Japanese monsters. I took my little brother to see King Kong Escapes and we had a good time, but the movies had changed. They were cheaper and nothing seemed to be trying to look real any more. The stories were simply infantile, as opposed to being merely adolescent. I think the last Toho Kaiju show I saw in a theater was Destroy all Monsters, and it was a bore. Then again, by that time I had a girlfriend, and girlfriends and King Ghidorah didn't mix well.
At UCLA in 1970, Randy Cook and Robert Birchard drove me to Larry Edmunds' bookstore where I found an early copy of Cinefantastique. It had photos from Yog! Monster from Space as well as odd pictures I was unaware of, from other Japanese ghost story movies to Jess Franco's Eugenie ... the story of her journey into perversion. One look at Toho's giant rubber monsters told me I wasn't missing much.
The latest (and the last announced) classic Toho fantasy movie from Media Blasters is Yog, under its export title Space Amoeba. It apparently did get some theatrical play in 1971, but soon thereafter joined the long list of Toho fantasies chopped up and pan-scanned on television. This original export version looks and sounds far better than any rendition yet available.
Photographer Taro Kudo (Akira Kubo) quits his job to search for a Jupiter probe he saw descending over the South Pacific, and is hired by some developers researching a hidden island for a new resort - which happens to be near where the satellite came down. Coming along are Ayako (Atsuko Takahashi) from the developer's office, Dr. Kyoichi Mida (Yoshio Tsuchiya), a biologist, and Makoto Obata (Kenji Sahara), an anthropologist who is really a competing developer in disguise.
The island is in chaos after an attack by a giant cuttlefish that the natives call Gezora. It slowly surfaces that an outerspace lifeform brought back by the Jupiter probe has possessed the cuttlefish and made it grow to giant proportions, a process it repeats with a crab and a turtle. But creatures possessed by the space amoeba cannot stand hypersonic sounds emitted by porpoises and bats, which gives the humans an edge -- even though the creature takes over Makoto Obata's body as well!
Space Amoeba is one of the last monster shows directed by Ishirô Honda and one of the first without a special effects contribution from Eiji Tsuburaya, who had started his own company several seasons earlier. Special effects director Sadamasa Arikawa's new monsters are different from the earlier rubber creations in that they're simply enlarged water creatures. A squid, a crab and a turtle are ingenious marionettes, with the walking squid a clever man-in-a suit creation. What the monsters lack is personality. They attack the humans and fight each other but have no specific agenda in mind. They've all been enlarged and possessed by the alien 'amoeba' first seen entering the Jupiter probe in deep space.
Ei Ogawa's story is mostly a piffle designed to appeal to the Japanese moppets, the ones who might respond to Space Amoeba's "It's really cool!" teaser copy. The original title lists the names of the three monsters as if they were meant to tie-in with toys hawked on the back of cereal boxes. The idea of a hostile creature drifting in space is a borrowing from Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Xperiment. As in previous Kaiju epics, a tropical island becomes the setting for a monster rally. The tacky story tumbles a few Japanese players -- photographer, scientist, industrial spy, cute girl -- onto the scene. Subplots about native superstitions and a local romance between the simpleton lovers Saki and Rico (Yukiko Kobayashi and Noritake Saito) end up in a silly wedding ceremony with the groom walking to the altar in a catatonic trance. "We'll be together and I can help him!" the bride squeals. How does a catatonic man give his consent to be married? 1
We're assured that the natives 'really like Japanese people' and got along with them well in the last war. The natives have also stockpiled a large cache of Imperial machine guns and explosives, to fight the monsters. Some fantasy!
The cast fights the monsters as if they were running a grade-school science experiment. Dr. Mida figures out how the aliens are functioning through briliant deductions. Having the alien's influence scrambled by high-pitched audio from porpoises and bats is a fairly clever idea, and points to the ecological theme that would soon dominate Toho monster fantasies. Nasty aliens can take over our animal friends, but teamwork between scientists and nature will save the day. And the nasty spy atones for having a villainous moustache by sacrificing himself into volcanic fires. The last image is of a big cruise ship approaching to rescue our heroes: The former monster island will be open to commercial development after all. Hooray!
Space Amoeba is not a cheap production and compares favorably to the juvenile Godzilla pictures, which were beginning to do things like recycle footage and stage action against featureless mountain slopes. Ishirô Honda's direction doesn't scrimp on angles and many of the special effects are good, especially the colorful matte paintings. The jungles and native villages aren't as impressive as the miniatures seen in early Toho features -- building entire cities and toy armies was apparently no longer economical -- but they're attractive in their own way. The early space launch footage looks far better than work being done in James Bond movies of the time. A big plus is the musical score by the late Akira Ifukube, which combines the drama of his earlier 'big monster' Toho work with some rather classy percussion themes.
The attractive cast always looks fresh and well-groomed, even if the indoor soundstage settings remind us of Gilligan's Island.The script has characters like Atsuko Takahashi's perky miss do little more than provide radio show-type exposition. We cut to the group hiking, and Atsuko immediately says, "We've been walking for hours!"
The main titles play behind a flurry of close-ups of the monsters in action. This lets the small fry know that if they have patience, there'll be plenty of rough-housing rampaging rubber critters to look at. If your kiddie nostalgia included these early 70s fantasies, Space Amoeba may be a Kaiju for you.
Media Blasters' Tokyo Shock DVD of Space Amoeba is a nigh-perfect enhanced widescreen presentation of this colorful kiddie monster rally. The picture is sharp and clean and the audio track is a showcase for Ifukube's brassy, percussive score. As with all Media Blasters discs, go to Setup first because switching audio and subtitle tracks on the fly can be difficult on some players. Besides removable English subs, the disc offers a choice between mono and 5.1 in both English and Japanese. The English audio version is new, and not the old A.I.P. - Titra dub track.
The main extra is a lively commentary from Fumiyo Tanaka, co-producer with his father Tomoyuki. He has a good memory for the production and the state of Toho at the time, and discusses everything from the 'new talent' showcased in the movie to the special effects -- Kaiju fans will probably want to give this a listen. There is also a rather interesting Japanese extra video showing the real animals that Gezora, Ganime and Kameba are based on. A teaser and a trailer for Space Amoeba pitch the frantic action at juvenile monster fans. Kameba the turtle does not fly; if he did, Savant would like to see him towing a banner saying, "I am NOT Gamera!"
Another menu screen accesses trailers for the other Media Blasters Toho fantasy films. The one for The Mysterians brings up a new promo that jams a lot of action behind some amusing new title work.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Space Amoeba rates:
Supplements: Commentary with producer Fumiyo Tanaka, a look at the real animals, teasers, trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 26, 2006
1. On the other hand, the scene makes perfect sense ... A lot of married men probably spend their lives asking themselves, "I was catatonic. How could I have given my consent to be married?"
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson