When Toho Studios released the original Godzilla in 1954, Japanese science fiction movies featuring giant monsters took the cinematic world by storm. The genre, known as Kaiju Eiga to aficionados, became a matinee trend in a manner similar to Italy’s “Spaghetti Westerns” or Hong Kong’s Kung Fu films. Other countries such as Korea, England and even Denmark got in the act. The genre gradually became more juvenile as time went on. But at their peak in the 60s’ these films were a Saturday afternoon staple and along with the science fiction-flavored spy movies such as the James Bond series became the eye candy of the period.
I had fond memories of growing up in the 70s’ and watching films such as The Land That Time Forgot and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad at the Plaza Theater in Windsor, Connecticut. Television provided exposure to the Universal monster classics and other films for youths with an appetite for science fiction, fantasy and horror.
The X from Outer Space, which is a garish product of the late 60s’ with it’s bright colors and comic book visuals, often appeared on local channels. It seemed that every neighborhood kid saw the film at least once. When Criterion released the film as part of the boxed set When Horror Came to Shochiku, it seemed natural that nostalgia would draw people toward the film. Sometimes one’s memories of a film are better than revisiting it, though.
The film is not without it’s charms. Contemporary Kaiju fans will find it diverting, but it does not compare to the better monster films to come out of Japan during that period. The film deals with an attempt by a crew of astronauts to investigate he fate of previous expeditions attempting to land on Mars. They encounter a UFO during their trip and bring back a strange growth on their space craft. The growth predictably grows into a gigantic, energy-draining monster that goes on a rampage and destroys buildings.
The first half of the film plays out like one of the Italian “space operas” turned out in the late 60s’ by genre specialist Antonio Margheriti. The space ships and high technology look like props from Team America: World Police. The film’s general 60s’ vibe, enhanced by a jaunty quasi-Jazz score, is so thick that you expect Austin Powers to jump out from behind a moon crater.
The monster, which appears when the film is about half over, defies description. It looks like a combination of rubber chicken, shark and insect.
The usual clichés transpire. Conventional weapons like artillery and jets have no effect, for example, but the military keeps using them anyway (fans of the genre will spot tanks with particle beam weapons, which seem to turn up in a few of these films).
This film works best as campy entertainment and as a historical artifact illustrating the approach to science fiction during the period. A moon base has a fully-functioning lounge, for example. Some of the Kaiju films slip in veiled political discourse but the filmmakers at Shochiku, a studio that information from Criterion states was known more for it’s contributions to general film than monster movies, don’t bother with that here. They do include a love triangle between the lead astronaut Captain Sano (ShuriyaWazaki), his girlfriend Michiko (Itiko Harada) and blonde Caucasian astronaut Lisa (Peggy Neal) that seems designed to reinforce the idea that Japanese people should not romantically mingle with foreigners; the xenophobia apparent here extends slightly into other parts of the film.
Other flaws are abundant despite the quaint entertainment value. There are plot elements like the presence of the UFO that are simply not explained in any meaningful way. Director Kazui Nihonmatsu delays the monster’s appearance for too long and then simply introduces it with no build-up. Attempts at comic relief fall painfully flat.
This is a film that will appeal most to film historians, nostalgia buffs and Japanese cinema completists. Others may want to tread more carefully.