Tuesday, April 04, 2017


First, a word about me and Japanese sci-fi movies: I tend not to watch them unless they are accompanied by the guys and gals and robots of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, in which case, try to keep me away. ("Gamera is really neat/Gamera is full of meat!") I have seen and appreciated the classics GODZILLA and MOTHRA, and a handful of others—I watched GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL because, you know, that title. But typically, the cheap effects, the laughably bad monsters, the presence of young children as major characters, and the terrible dubbing (these movies would be improved quite a bit if they were released in subtitled versions with the original Japanese audio), all make this genre more suited to an evening of campy commenting than serious entertainment, scares, or awe. This movie was recommended to me by YouTube based on the number of public domain B-movies I've seen, so I watched it unaware for a few minutes of what it was. By the time I realized what it was, I couldn't take my eyes from the screen.

In the opening sequence, a narrator tells us that the Sapphirians, an alien race bent on conquest of the universe, are heading to Earth to start a nuclear war that will destroy us. However, from the peaceful planet Emerald comes a humanoid hero called Starman to save us. Starman has a heavy-duty wristwatch which lets him pretty much do everything that Superman can, including fly through space in just tights and a cape. On Earth, a group of men are already at work clearing the way for the Sapphirians by kidnapping Dr. Yamanaka, creator of a super-powered spaceship, and two of his children, to force him to work on a super-duper ship for them. The Sapphirians are a militaristic Nazi-like group who warn the world what they're up to, then destroy a mountain in the Himalayas to show what they're capable of.  As this is a Japanese 60s movie, the kids get involved by plotting with one of Yamanaka's assistants to free their father, being held under hypnotic control. Eventually Starman finds the ship, boards it, and kicks off a 15 minute ass-whooping scene in which he uses fists, martial arts moves, and guns to decimate the Sapphirians. Yamanaka, his young son, and his assistant escape in a spaceship; after Starman has finally kicked hundreds of Sapphirian asses, he flies the daughter through space to join her dad and destroys the Sapphirian ship.

Before this movie turned into a typical Japanese SF kiddie-movie, it grabbed me with its opening sequence. It mostly consists of tediously delivered exposition, but the visuals—of the surface of the planets, ships drifting through space, the cheap but almost nightmarish look of the peace council on Emerald (pictured above right), and the shots of the glowering Starman flitting through the galaxy—are dreamy and almost surreal. I discovered later that the movie is actually two episodes of a TV show knit together, and that Starman had other small and big-screen adventures. This helps explain why the movie feels like an old-fashioned movie serial with occasional sequences that barely feel related to each other. In fact, in my notes, I scribbled down this observation: "Imagine if Ed Wood had been hired by Toho Studios to make a 12-chapter sci-fi serial, but then was told he had to cut it down to 75 minutes." Actually, this film’s technical aspects are several notches above those of an Ed Wood movie, and the production design, though distinctly low budget, shows some flair. But there is an overarching slap-dashedness to everything that makes you think any moment now, the set will fall over on an actor. Big chunks of plot are dispensed with in a few sentences of spoken exposition. One scene of the bad guys face-checking a crowd of a hundred or so troops to find a disguised intruder plays out at length, practically in real time, and then it turns out that the intruder isn't even there. I have read that Starman's crotch was stuffed to make him seem more masculine (see picture at left), but I will leave verification of that to others who might have known the actor. This movie deserves a drubbing from MST3K—and apparently it has been mocked by the Rifftrax gang—but I still found it to be a semi-delightful surprise. If for nothing else, it should be seen for its epic concluding fight scene, with lots of fists that don't come anywhere near connecting with a jaw, and for the obvious dummies that Starman tosses hither and yon. [YouTube]

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