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DIRECTED BY: Ishirô Honda
FEATURING: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Shirata
PLOT: The Mysterians, a technologically superior force from another world, threaten the people of Earth with destruction unless they are granted access to a small plot of land and intermarriage with the planet’s women.
COMMENTS: The Japanese monster movie stands today mostly as a magnificent punchline, a peak in the field of cheesy filmmaking. With men in rubber suits wreaking havoc upon cardboard cities and sober-voiced scientists sagely predicting doom while hordes of citizens flee in terror, they can feel appealing nearly seven decades later specifically because of their amateurism. The home-movie caliber special effects, the hilarious destruction of major metropoli, and at least here in the West, the peculiarly emotive and awkwardly translated dialogue are all part of their charm. And as the sequels and copycats have piled on, that has largely become the raison d’etre for the whole genre. That was supremely silly, we say. Give us more.
But was it silly? An interesting side effect of their continued popularity is the rise of dedicated scholarship that examines the very serious origins of some of these stories. Consider the giant among giants: Ishirô Honda’s 1954 classic Gojira, which used a rampaging beast to tell a story of Japan’s psychic fallout from the atomic blasts of World War II, as well as to react to current events in which Japanese sailors were contaminated by exposure to a nuclear test. (Later kaiju, such as Mothra and Gamera, would have similar nuclear-inspired origins.) Yes, it’s a monster movie, but those in the know recognize it for much more.
Someone who absolutely knows the subtext is Ishirô Honda, and he practically triples down on it in The Mysterians, a movie about an occupying force that holds immense power over the occupied, who claims to want little but always seems to take more and more. If you imagine Honda and screenwriter Takeshi Kimura weren’t thinking about the United States, then you’ve been well-distracted by the aliens who look like baggy-suited Power Rangers and the monster who seems to be a blend of Big Bird and a steel-plated baseball umpire. Or you’re an American.
That’s far from the only theme The Mysterians wants to get across. There’s the matter of Ryōichi, the scientist who throws in with the invaders only to realize too late that the purity of science was no match for the corruption of power. He deflects accusations of treason only to regret his folly: “Even science has no value in itself!” he declares in his final message. “It all depends on how it’s used – for good or for evil!” And if science has a lesson to learn, so does the whole world, as a relieved functionary proclaims at the film’s conclusion. “The nations of the world must now stay united, and struggle against unknown forces instead of fighting each other.” Remind me to check on how that’s going.
The messages seem more prominent and more didactic than in Godzilla’s film debut, and that might be because the threat seems a lot less impressive. Even though the stakes have gone from the fate of Tokyo to the fate of the world, the battles themselves feel smaller. After the monster is deployed early in the film, the rest of the Mysterians’ danger is represented by being impervious to attacks, firing lasers, and enacting some of the lamest kidnappings ever filmed. They just don’t deliver shock and awe, no matter their demands or their dominance. That carries over into a painful lack of suspense. With Earth foiled at every turn, you need a really big payoff to buy the home team’s ultimate victory, and you don’t get one. Ultimately, the Earth Defense Force just has to keep working on better weapons until they find one that makes a dent, and that’s exactly what happens. It’s the equivalent of playground banter wherein one kid announces he has a forcefield to protect himself from harm, and the next kid declares that he has an anti-forcefield gun.
There are some genuinely great special effects, such as the dramatic flooding and the melting tanks caused by the Mysterians’ weapons, and the Akira Ifukube score is exciting and propulsive. But overall, The Mysterians just ends up not being that interesting. Honda and the team at Toho had a lot more to say, but this go-around wasn’t a particularly compelling way to say it all. Seems like another reason the monsters had more staying power than the messages.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s solemn and silly, with too many earnest scientific-military discussions, but it pulls out all the stops when unleashing destructive weaponry, melting tanks, bizarre futurist décor, panicking hordes and kicking the baddies off the planet.” – Kim Newman, Empire
(This movie was nominated for review by Neil Lipes. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)