One of the best things about this column is that Savant can discuss almost any film or video topic, and it is often the weirder movies that pique my interest. Savant is here to praise video and film, and not to bury anything ... except DIVX....
It's in this spirit that I was tickled to get the letter about The Mysterians. It's a great movie few people are hip to, and if we can't be enthusiastic here, where's the fun?
Anime, the modern adult-oriented Japanese animation, is a strong market these days and a taste Savant hasn't acquired yet. But if you mention the first decade of Toho studio's output of science-fiction/monster movies, say, from Godzilla to Gorath, then you have me hooked. It's a little-boy thing.
In 1959 there was nothing like The Mysterians. Ninety minutes of almost nonstop jeopardy, noise, destruction and military fantasy. Not to mention giant robots, eerie flying saucers and a spinning electronic battle dome. Daily Variety dubbed it "a red-blooded phantasmagoria" which was pretty right-on for a trade mag in '59. I saw it at age nine and it just made my little life worthwhile. The color, the violence and the spectacle were completely spellbinding -- as far as I was concerned, the obvious special effects and the "toys on strings" quality of the miniatures were not a drawback. At that time television was so incredibly dull that The Mysterians was Disneyland and WW3 rolled into one.
Original title: Chikyu Boeigun ("Earth Defense Force") color & Tohoscope
Unofficial sequel: Ucho Daisenso (Battle in Outer Space) color & Tohoscope.
The American release of The Mysterians was through MGM, which inherited it when its intended importer RKO folded in 1958.
The plot of The Mysterians is as simple as plots get. Outer space marauders from the nuclear-war ravaged planet of Mysteroid establish a formidable underground base near Tokyo. After a clash with a colossal tunneling robot monster (identified by Kaiju fans as Moguera) the Earth scientists learn the demands of these color-coded pirates from space: Just a few hectares of land for a base and a supply of Japanese females with which to mate, heh, heh. It seems their irradiated chromosomes need revitalization by crossbreeding with Earth females, a line I never thought of trying. End of plot. There is something of a personal story with a quisling Earthman who sees the error of his ways and turns heroic just in time, but mainly the film is one protracted battle between invader and defender using an ever-escalating inventory of unlikely but dazzling technological weapons. At age nine, what could be better?
I suppose one reason we adult video fanatics are so excited about films we saw 30 years ago is that we had to wait so long to see them. Waiting was job #1 for a kid in 1960. How precious can Jurassic Park be nowadays when it is so accessible (unavoidable?)? When theatrical films came and went away, the memory of individual titles like The Mysterians soon faded for most viewers. For me, movie memories were cherished personal property. The TV guide was scanned repeatedly in the hope that one would be shown. Ah, childhood.
The battlefield appearance
of the SECOND Moguera robot cut from the
But, in those infrequent television viewings The Mysterians lost much of what it had on a giant screen: Tohoscope, good color and good music. It seems the original 16mm optical soundtrack for the flat tv prints (from which all the English-language videos seem to have been made) was recorded with an awful warble for about a quarter of the running time of the movie, reducing Akira Ifukube's relentlessly martial music to mush.
Cut to 1995 and the miracle of the internet. On it I found a company that imported Japanese laser discs and asked if there was one for The Mysterians. I ordered it immediately even though I am not the kind of person who can plunk down $80 on a whim. The disc I got back was of course in Japanese language only, which is great for understanding the real tone of the original and not so great when you really want to know what is being said. Again, however, the story is so straightforward that the language is hardly a drawback, even if you've seen the American version just once. Even better, the disc was in brilliant color, letterboxed and had a clear and strong soundtrack. Perfect.
The Mysterians is sort of a transition movie for Toho's special effects. In Godzilla, Eiji Tsuburaya copied Hollywood's split-screen techniques without registered cameras, so that mattes jumped and weaved all over the place. Here in The Mysterians they have advanced to doing all-out color opticals with total abandon. But they also seem to be so dazzled with what they can achieve, that technical quality perceived as standard in the US is not even attempted. The blue-screen shots are some of the worst in screen history. Every optical in the film is accompanied by a hair-storm of white dirt, lint and speckles of all sizes. When told that optical work required ultra-clean facilities their answer must have been, "Yeah, sure, we'll do it our way."
The design of The Mysterians overcomes its technical crudity. Most of the models are fascinating to look at and the dramatic angles chosen of the giant battle dome are awesome. The flying saucers are still some of the most effective ever shown. Indifferently edited, the film contrasts its furious action with some weird poetic effects that give its fantasy a gaudy but ethereal quality.
Americans often wonder why Japan, the only country to be attacked with nuclear weapons, would make masochistic Godzilla fantasies revisiting the horror of nuclear devastation. The English Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Films by Phil Hardy offers good arguments for the idea that the monsters and invaders in these films clearly represent the United States of America. The Mysterians, Hardy proposes, is a Japanese militarist fantasy for
a nation still smarting from MacArthur occupational censorship, which forbade any glorification of militarism. Chikyu Boeigun means "Earth Defense Force", and the film dotes on scenes of Japanese retaliation and martial self-sacrifice against an impossible foe. Who do these Mysterians represent, politically? The invaders have an "American sounding" name, come out of nowhere demanding space for military bases (the U.S.) and make demands to mate with Japanese women (G.I.'s on the loose in Tokyo?). Naturally they must be repelled, to the last drop of patriotic blood.
This isn't gobbledygook, political or cinematic. Even a simple fantasy as this was made by artists with themes to communicate, subtle or obvious. When an effective and entertaining violent film has no overt message it's not a bad
idea to apply some reason and look to see what other meanings it might carry. The Mysterians is a useful mirror to hold to America's own jingoistic, violent fantasies: So-called un-political action films that consistently point to
foreign threats real or imagined and dress them as demonized "Mysterian" monsters for the American hero (the audience) to self-righteously obliterate.