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Mothra

Mothra(1962)

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Sony's Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection is a terrific trio of Japanese fantasy from the classic years, before Godzilla became a comic character that danced and assumed karate poses. All three of the titles are present in their original and American dub / cut-down versions, which should please purists and historians as well as those who remember the thrills of Saturday matinees.

All of the films are also in full widescreen Tohoscope, and two of them are accompanied by authoritative commentaries by the authors and Kaiju experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski.

The original Japanese title of The H-Man translates as "Beauty and the Liquid Man", a name that firmly pegs this entertaining hybrid. Police experts investigating sordid drug dealings are stumped when crooks vanish leaving only their clothes behind. No-nonsense Inspector Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata) refuses to give credence to the radical theory of scientist Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara): radioactivity has transformed six sailors into H-Men, liquid beings that dissolve other humans for food. Alluring nightclub singer Chikako Arai (top-billed Yumi Shirakawa, star of The Mysterians) gets involved because her boyfriend is one of the gangsters thought to have disappeared -- or been liquefied. Two sailors' tale of encountering "living liquid" monsters on a derelict ship is presented in a spooky flashback. The authorities remain unconvinced -- until the H-Men invade Chikako's nightclub, melting gangsters and detectives alike!

The original version of The H-Man is something new for fans familiar only with the shorter, confusing American re-cut. It's been long disparaged as a copycat rip-off of Irvin Yeaworth Jr.'s The Blob, even though The H-Man's Japanese premiere came months earlier. A more likely source inspiration is Hammer Films' 1956 release X-The Unknown. That picture not only features a blob-like monster, it postulates the odd idea that radiation "melts" flesh.

The result of sailors exposed to an American nuclear blast, the "H-Men" monsters also assume the form of green humanoid ghosts, which look great but make little sense. Dr. Masada performs an experiment in which a frog is liquefied by radiation, and becomes a living slime. Nobody seems concerned about the unlucky croaker's fate, and no "green ghost" frogs materialize to complicate things.

Victims touched by the creeping slime collapse as if being deflated, an effect enhanced by dramatic silhouette lighting. A couple of killings involve animation and frozen frames, and are a bad idea poorly executed. But shots of a carpet of slime creeping along the sewer walls are excellently visualized. Toho's miniatures are so carefully used that we're barely aware of them; the final conflagration below Tokyo seems inspired by the end of Warner Bros.' Them!.

Director Ishiro Honda handles his actors well; we recognize many from Kurosawa films. The gangsters are chosen for perverse attitudes, especially the villain Uchida (Makato Sato). The nightclub scenes include a couple of impressively filmed exotic dances. An American cabaret singer dubs Ms. Shirakawa's torch song, very unconvincingly. Compounding the cultural mismatch are inept lyrics that read like vintage Japanese stereo instructions: "I've counted my love", etc. The film's criticism of encroaching American values (flashy gangsters, sexy nightclubs) just looks weird to us Yanks.

Scientists opine that the H-Men may have returned to Tokyo because they retain a human homing instinct. But the script ascribes no particular motivation to the killings, even though most of the victims are Yakuza crooks. The cop / gang moll / scientist romantic triangle stays purely professional, with all parties observing formal manners. But in a scene fairly racy for 1958, Uchida orders Chikako to strip, so as to make the cops think she's been liquefied.

The transfer of The H-Man is bright and colorful, with the green H-Men glowing like electric emeralds. The dubbing in the American version is actually not bad. A large chunk of footage and an exotic dance have been deleted -- the U.S. version may have simply excised three or four scenes in a row. Masaru Sato's music score uses weird string twangs to represent the sneaky slime, but the main theme is a rousing march more suited for a convention of drum majorettes.

A scientist proposes the notion that the H-Men may be the next evolutionary step, an adaptation that will allow man to live in an irradiated atmosphere. The movie can therefore be classified as one of the bleak apocalyptic 50s films that assume the inevitability of nuclear annihilation.

The exultantly juvenile Battle in Outer Space is a gaudy wonder show that presents Star Wars- like space combat a full decade before George Lucas. Agile jet-job flying saucers oppose Earth's Defense Force fighter rockets in the stratosphere, in orbit and on the dark side of the moon.

After a worldwide spate of bizarre disasters -- train wrecks, flooding, etc. -- the United Nations traces the nefarious acts to alien forces called "Natalians". Twin rocket ships are launched from a Japanese space center to investigate what might be an enemy base on the lunar surface. The expedition barely escapes from flying saucers launched from Natal's base of operations, the Mother Ship. Worse, a member of the expedition has been brainwashed by the space enemies, and telepathically commanded to sabotage the UN spaceships.

The nations of Earth join in a rush project to front a massive defense against the invaders. Squadrons of rocket fighters spring forth from underground silos to engage Natal's armada. The Mother Ship launches giant space torpedoes that devastate San Francisco and New York City. And when the saucers and rockets do battle in the skies over downtown Tokyo, Natal unleashes its ultimate weapon -- an anti-gravity ray!

Battle in Outer Space has everything a space-addled 1950s kid could want. The spacemen rumble across the moonscape in space buses that resemble Oscar Meyer's Weinermobile. Sizzling animated rays zap across the screen. A mass dogfight breaks out in Earth orbit. Aerial bombs blow up the Golden Gate Bridge, an impressive special effect for its time. The anti-gravity ray churns up downtown Tokyo, flinging buildings, cars and people into the air like a tossed salad.

Other details aren't as appealing. Columbia's original English dub track is packed with inane, inconsequential dialogue. The unimpressive aliens from Natal look like a pack of plastic-helmeted space kids waving their arms and making beep-beep noises. And don't refer to Battle for good science. A suspension bridge levitated by Natal's anti-gravity ray shows signs of having been lowered in temperature to near absolute zero. As we all know, gravity ceases to effect very cold objects!

Few picture changes were made to the import version of Battle. But large sections of the American cut have been re-scored with adequate but undistinguished library cues. Ifukube's infectious march theme enforces a feeling of communal spirit, underlining the fact that Japanese, American and Russian rocket aces have joined forces. That alone makes Battle in Outer Space progressive sci-fi in the Cold War era.

Sony presents Battle in Outer Space in dual language versions of near identical quality. Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski's earnest commentary communicates a real enthusiasm for Toho artistry and provides a wealth of information. The technical detail reaches down to the thickness of the wires suspending the elaborate miniatures. The impressive exterior of the "Japan Space Center" is actually a Sports complex built in advance for the '64 Olympics.

At the same time that Toho was injecting more overt horror into pictures like the disturbing Matango, they also experimented with a giant monster fantasy suitable for small children. The famous Mothra is a colorful storybook tale and an interesting political satire. In keeping with Sci-Fi's newfound ecological theme Mothra is the first Kaiju in which the monster is the hero. Mothra's giant wings blow cities to rubble, yet it retains the full sympathy of the audience.

A scientific team is dispatched to investigate a mysterious radioactive island thought to be uninhabited. It now supports a population of sad, reclusive natives. Dr. Sinichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) meets the tribe's tiny twin "Shobijin" fairies (Yumi & Emi Ito, aka "The Peanuts", a singing duo very popular in Japan). The tiny women communicate telepathically. Stowaway reporter Senichiro Fukuda (Frankie Sakai) befriends the fairies, but sneaky Rolisican gangster-entrepreneur Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito) secretly returns to the island, murders a number of natives and kidnaps the Shobijin to sing in a stage show back in Tokyo. Official efforts fail to force Nelson to relinquish the tiny girls. They tell Senichiro that they are sad, not for themselves, but for Tokyo: Mothra will come to their rescue. And indeed, as the natives back on Infant Island dance, a giant egg hatches an equally monstrous larval moth, which immediately sets sail for the Japanese capitol.

The charming Mothra is packed with excellent effects and terrific set pieces. The giant larva plows a wake of destruction across enormous miniature sets. Kids react positively to the psychic connection between the fairies and the monster, and the metamorphosis from caterpillar to colorful moth is an affirmation of nature's triumph over man's petty politics. The title monster is an impressive screen presence despite the fact that it is little more than a giant fuzzy marionette. Its mighty wings produce a blast of wind like an atomic-era Big Bad Wolf.

The giant larva climbs Tokyo Tower and spins a cocoon. When the fairies are taken to a foreign country called Rolisica, the newly hatched giant moth files halfway around the world to rescue them. In the context of the movie "Rolisica" is clearly an amalgam of Russia and the United States. Rolisica is the trouble behind everything -- they assume control of the expedition to Infant Island, which they once used as an atomic blast site. Roliscia denies that the island is inhabited in the face of hard evidence, kind of a pre-echo of Radio Bikini. The Rolisican villain Clark Nelson is a combo of Carl Denham and Al Capone, committing theft and mass murder against a native population. Clark wiggles out of charges of kidnapping and slavery by claiming that the Shobijin are merely merchandise. They like to sing and dance, so he's making them happy! The Rolisican government is complicit with Nelson's efforts to loot the world, at least until Mothra arrives to wipe out its capitol, "New Kirk City." The Russian aspect of Rolisica can be seen in the combination of symbols on the flag of the Rolisican Embassy and the Russian-looking uniforms of the Rolisican generals helping to fight Mothra.

New Kirk City has Manhattan skyscrapers, the Golden Gate Bridge and Los Angeles' Harbor Freeway. In the Japanese version Nelson occasionally speaks in English. He and his gangster pals laugh themselves silly: "Mothra is dead! Now we can be happy and filthy rich! Ha ha ha ha!"

Clark Nelson's final act is to knock the cane out from under an old man! I think there were some happy subversives at Toho that year.

Co-star Kyoko Kagawa has a fairly thankless role as a photographer sidekick. The loveable Frankie Sakai's nickname in the original is "Snapping Turtle," changed to "Bulldog" for the American dub version. Bulldog is a master of the obscure martial art of slapping bad guys on the head with folded pieces of paper.

Sony's Mothra is splendid in full color and Tohoscope, with a rich original Japanese soundtrack. Yuji Kosecki's unique, magical music score includes a catchy title tune sung by the Shobijin in a command performance similar to the exhibition of King Kong. When cut and re-dubbed for America, Mothra lost 13 minutes of running time. In the uncut Japanese version, the Peanuts perform a second number in kimonos on a little cherry blossom set. It is interesting that the stadium audience is delighted, when nobody beyond the first two rows could possibly get a good look at the tiny twins.

Ryfle and Godziszewski's commentary is even more impressive, with a full rundown on the Infant Island back-story dropped for the film, an alternate ending and a wealth of production detail. The large crawling larva monster was twenty feet long and operated by several men, Chinese Dragon style. The commentary also gets deep into the political context of the movie, which shapes up as a P.C. fairy tale about superpower arrogance.

The Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection adds another winner to Sony's ongoing series of disc sets of genre classics. The packaging is a little worrisome -- the three discs are stacked on a single hub in the keep case, which would seem to make scratching them all the easier.

One disc has a serious subtitle problem. The English subs on the Japanese version of Battle in Outer Space are "dub-titles", copies of the subtitles on the re-written American version. Subtitles appear for dialogue not heard in the Japanese track, and pop on at the wrong time. For all we know, the American subs on Battle could be seriously misrepresenting what's being said. The subtitles on the other two films are fine.

Sony should still be commended for going to the trouble to put these genre favorites out in dual language versions; fantasy fans will be delighted. The expert commentaries make the Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection one of the brightest releases of a year seeing a general lack of genre classics.

For more information about Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection, visit Sony Pictures. To order Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson