Saturday, February 10, 1973 (Noon) Rodan (1956) / Battle in Outer Space (1959)

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Synopsis: In a Japanese coal mining town, a new mine shaft has been opened that is deeper than any before it. After the deepest part of the shaft floods, several miners go missing.  Safety inspector Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) goes down to look for the missing men, knowing that one of them is Goro, the brother of his fiancee Kyo (Yumi Shirakawa). Descending to the new opening with a search party, Shigeru and his colleagues are attacked by giant insects that have been living in the subterranean depths. After part of the mine collapses, Shigeru is cut off and trapped with the creatures. But later he is found on the surface, unable to remember how he got there; the trauma of his ordeal seems to have blocked his memory.

Soon there are reports of a supersonic object that is streaking at high altitude over nearby cities. At first called UFO by the press, it destroys any fighter jets that manage to get near it. It is only when a family on holiday mysteriously vanishes that the first clue to the object is discovered: the last photo taken in their camera captured the blurred edge of a gigantic wing.

During Shigeru’s convalescence, Kyo shows him a bird’s nest that is just outside the window. Looking at the eggs within, Shigeru’s memories come flooding back: he had been on the wrong side of the cave-in, trapped near the Volkswagen-sized insects. A massive egg in the chamber began to crack apart, and from it emerged a giant pterosaur, which ravenously devoured the loathsome bugs.

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With Shigeru’s memory restored it is now clear what the flying creature is and where it came from. This is proof, Shigeru relates, that the dinosaurs were not extinct, but only dormant. The pterosaur — now called Rodan — has descended from the high altitudes it had kept to previously, and is now making low passes over Japanese cities, its huge wings and supersonic speeds causing typhoon-level damage below.

The military deploys tanks and bombers to dispatch Rodan in its temporary resting place, only to discover there are two of the creatures. Finding that all of mankind’s weaponry is useless against Rodan, the military must now face the fact that these invulnerable pterosaurs may soon settle down and hatch out a whole clutch of similar creatures….

Comments: Horror Incorporated’s daytime double feature is a pretty strong one this week, sporting two films from Toho’s golden age. Both are exceedingly slick– shot in color, with what appear to be generous budgets and executed with a seriousness that most contemporary American films didn’t even attempt.

Rodan, like its predecessor Gojira (1954), carefully builds a clever mystery around a series of strange events and holds its titular monster back as long as possible. In this film  the subterranean insects serve as an undercard for the main monster, and help keep our interest until Rodan finally starts attacking Japan.

These carefully-constructed mysteries were essential to the early kaijus; Gojira (1954), Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)  and Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) all depended on them. In later films a dramatic monster reveal wasn’t viewed as necessary and, perhaps not coincidentally, the production values became increasingly slipshod.

Rodan is a somewhat atypical kaiju film because the protagonist is from a blue-collar background in a genre that almost exclusively focuses on scientists and government officials. We like Shigeru and are able to relate to him right away, and the fact that his future brother-in-law is among the missing gives the movie some welcome urgency.

Kenji Sahara appeared in a dizzying number of kaijus over the years; while this was one of his larger roles he also appeared in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Matango (1963), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), War of the Gargantuas (1966), Son of Godilla (1967), Destroy All Monsters, (1968), Godzilla’s Revenge (1969), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1975), Godzilla vs. Khing Ghidorah (1991), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1993), Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

Yumi Shirakawa was another durable Toho contract player, and Rodan was her first starring role.  She also appeared in Ishiro Honda’s The H-Man (1958) and The Mysterians (1957) as well as Yasujiro Ozu’s The End of Summer (1961) and the nuclear war melodrama The Last War (1961).

 

 

Battle in Outer Space

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Synopsis: It is 1965, and Earth’s manned orbiting space station is attacked and destroyed in a surprise foray from a squadron of flying saucers. Soon after, a series of disasters befalls Earth: ships, trains and other modes of transit are sabotaged. In an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, it is revealed that some sort of anti-gravity beam was deployed at the site of each disaster, and it is theorized that an alien race is attacking from a hidden base on the Moon as a prelude to full-scale invasion.

At the UN conference, the Iranian delegate Dr. Ahmed is suffering from blinding headaches. He staggers back to his office at the UN complex, but soon vanishes.

Meanwhile, the U.N. delegates are taken to a field demonstration of a new energy weapon called the Heat Gun. The weapon is powerful enough to pierce the hardest alloy known to man, an alloy which is being developed for a newly designed interplanetary rocket, the SPIPs. The delegates are then taken to view a demonstration of the spacecraft’s powerful new engines, and they marvel at how quickly the newly-designed fleet is being assembled. This fleet will soon be dispatched to the Moon on a reconnaissance mission to the alien base believed to be located there.

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An Interpol agent arrives to ask for the location of Dr. Ahmed. Professor Adachi, the leader of the program, is puzzled at the delegate’s absence, but at that moment an alarm sounds: there is a disturbance in the room housing the heat gun. Rushing to the gun room, they find Dr. Ahmed fighting with Dr. Kotsumaya (Ryo Akebe) over a handgun Ahmed has smuggled into the complex. Ahmed breaks away and tells those assembled that they will quickly become slaves to the glorious planet Natal, and he runs away, and is swept up by an approaching flying saucer.

Later, Kotsumaya and girlfriend Ersuko (Kyoko Anzai) are enjoying a moonlit evening when they’re startled by the appearance of their friend Iwomura, who offers them a lift into town. Both Iwomura and Kosumaya have been chosen for the crews of the two SPIP’s that will make the reconnaissance trip to the Moon, and Iwomura wants to have a wild night on the town before they depart. Kotsumaya and Ersuko decline, and Iwomura heads into town alone. But as he drives he is stricken by a crippling headache, and an evil voice tells him that he is now a slave under the control of the invaders from planet Natal….

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Comments: It’s tempting to write off Battle in Outer Space as a bit of Toho juvenilia, with flying saucers zooming around, ray guns zapping stuff, famous landmarks blowing up, and a moon buggy — looking remarkably like the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile — wending its way through the lunar canyons. But as was typical of Japanese science fiction of this era, the filmmakers took it seriously enough that great care was taken in bringing it to the screen; as a result, Battle in Outer Space looks fantastic — in fact, with the possible exception of MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956) this film sported the best outer-space effects until 2001: A Space Odyssey hit theaters a decade later.

In the U.S., Battle in Outer Space appeared on a double-bill with 12 to the Moon, and a comparison of the two is illuminating.  12 to the Moon was a typical example of an American science fiction movie of the era: cheaply made, visually unambitious, talky and derivative. By contrast, Battle in Outer Space does everything it can to not only deliver on what the title promises, but also to do so by showing, rather than telling. From the first breathtaking widescreen shot of the film — where we pan from the wheel-like space station in Earth orbit, across the depths of space to the approaching alien armada — the movie is clearly out to grab and hold the viewer’s attention.

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Toho’s kaijus often had a strong science fiction flavor, and similarly, the studio’s stand-alone SF efforts took on familiar kaiju tropes, perhaps because they were (like most American SF films of the time) aimed at juvenile audiences. Gorath (1962) imagined a massive rogue planet plowing through the solar system, headed for Earth; because Gorath is far too big to destroy, the scientist-heroes instead hit upon the zany idea of planting giant rocket motors in the Antarctic and moving Earth out of harm’s way. You might think this would provide enough action for a single movie, but Gorath decided to shoehorn in a giant monster — almost randomly — just to keep things interesting.  Similarly, X From Outer Space (1967), which is in all other categories an unassuming space opera, threw in a kaiju-like robot that metes out destruction in the first reel.

But such is the confidence of Battle In Outer Space that adding a giant monster is never deemed necessary. In the end it’s a thrillingly staged space opera, big and ambitious, with a large cast and an enormously busy running time. It’s as close to a blockbuster space epic as you will find from this era. It wasn’t often broadcast on TV, and because the existing color prints faded to pink too quickly, it was unavailable on home video until just a few years ago. If you get a chance to see it, jump at the chance; it’s a great alien invasion flick.

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One comment

  1. A Toho double feature, a rarity during the 70s, not even Pittsburgh’s Chiller Theater tried it (my buddy and I wished for a Godzilla/Gamera twin bill). All these years later I learned that the voice narrating RODAN belonged to Keye Luke, now he’s unmistakable. I enjoyed the earlier scenes best, depicting the unknown menace beneath the water, far more frightening than a monster that can flatten buildings. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE I caught up with again in 2008, a slight upgrade from THE MYSTERIANS, before the space opera would merge with the kaiju by 1965’s MONSTER ZERO.

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