Saturday, June 30, 2012

Random Movie Report #107: The Mysterians

Mysterians DVD cover

There's a lot going on in The Mysterians. On a surface level, it's notable as the prototype for nearly all of Toho's alien invasion epics, setting up a number of familiar visual and aural tropes that would recur for over a decade. But it's also an interesting look at Japan's place in a postwar world and the atomic age, with issues raised both intentionally and not ranging from atomic devastation to racial anxiety to the curious way war advances technology. Subtext in and of itself doesn't make a movie good or bad, but fortunately The Mysterians is also a fun and well-crafted story with a neat atmosphere that's just slightly askew from the company's other entries in the subgenre. Any film with a giant robot mole in it isn't entirely playing by normal rules.

A remote village is beset first by forest fires and then a landslide which swallows the entire town. No sooner do people investigate than the landslide disgorges a giant robot which wreaks all kinds of destruction before being buried under a collapsing bridge. Later, a giant dome emerges from the ground- the spaceship of the Mysterians, men from the planet Mysteroid, which used to exist between Mars and Jupiter before an atomic war turned it into a bunch of floating rocks. The Mysterians are looking for a new home and ask for a few square miles of land, insisting that the robot and such were valid responses to their being attacked when they first arrived. (I'm a little unclear as to whether this was totally offscreen or what.) Oh, and they also want our women. Specific ones, that they've chosen, and some of which they've already abducted- radioactive materials in their bodies have contributed to a low birth rate and they think mating with healthier women will help. The Japanese government doesn't take kindly to this, and soon it's war.

Fighting super-advanced aliens requires super-advanced technology, and one of the cleverer things about this movie is that it focuses on this basically being Japan's ticket to modernization. We start with an old village ritual that's been performed for hundreds of years, but that village and its traditions are buried under progress and now the country has to get scientific to preserve itself. There's even a sense of it joining the international community as a result- scientists from the United States help out, and both the US and Russia unite with Japan against a new enemy from the stars.

Of course, amidst all this global cooperation there's a hint of xenophobia. It's kinda hard not to associate the fear of the Mysterians breeding with Japanese women with Japan's own history of strict national identity politics and not getting along well with its immediate neighbors. Obviously they're not the only ones to do this story, which was probably born when people first started to wonder what all those flying saucers were doing hanging around Earth to start with, and the Mysterians aren't portrayed as particularly exotic- they're as much the product of nuclear war as they are a foreign "other."

The effects sequences- now for the first time in glorious Toho Scope- are quite impressive for the time, considering Tsubaraya was still developing a lot of this stuff. The drill-beaked robot, which off-screen goes by the name of "Mogera", is charming in an old school way even if it's weirdly pear-shaped. The studio's trademark charming weirdness was already emerging at this point, as well as their tendency to give the Japanese self-defense forces giant super-weapons that didn't actually exist yet. The color-coordinated Mysterians are kind of nifty too, and their echoing voices are memorable in both the dubbed and original language versions.

This is not a terribly suspenseful film, with action sequences paced more for spectacle than uncertainty, but the rhythms of it are kind of compelling anyway, and there's no disputing the visual imagination on display. Compared to some of Toho's later achievements this is crude, but the crudeness itself is endearing. If nothing else, they had big plans.

Story by Jojiro Okami
Adaptation by Shigeru Kayama
Screenplay by Takeshi Kimura
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: B+

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