Alien invasions are as old as literature. I’ve read versions of the Biblical flood myth that sound more like the plot of tonight’s film than any other part of the Old or New Testaments. Yet ever since the success of George Pal and Byron Haskin’s War of the Worlds (released four years prior to our subject), vicious extraterrestrials have tried to conquer Earth at least once a year, despite repeated, and often embarrassing, setbacks.
Case in point: The Mysterians, first of the many, many, many alien races who threatened Toho Co.’s Japan (and, by extension, The World) with enslavement and annihilation throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. And while superhero and space opera films on all sides of the Pacific had long ago burned over this particular district of science fiction, The Mysterians marks the first successful fusion of the alien invasion motif with Ishiro Honda’s daikaiju formula. The result is, to say the least, mixed. But it’s still head and shoulders over what would come after
We open at a festival…of some kind…near Mt. Fuji. And hey, look: it’s Akihiko “Dr. Serizawa” Hirata, appearing in his third Ishiro Honda monster movie in as many years. How much you wanna bet Hirata’s playing a representative of Science? How long before he’s called upon to speculate about a monster’s origins? Only time will tell!
At the moment, Hirata’s playing a stick in the mud named Ryoichi, hanging out at the festival with his sister Etsuke (Yumi “Kiyo-chan” Shirakawa), Etsuke’s date, Joji (Kenji “Shigeru” Sahara), and Etsuke’s friend, Hiroko (Momoko “Emiko Yamane” Kôchi). Joji politely suggests Ryoichi and Hiroko might enjoy shaking their respective grove things together. This makes Ryoichi cross enough to flick his cigarette away and leave. Must be going back home to pick up his regulation eye patch and lab coat.
Turns out Ryoichi’s just broken off his engagement to Hiroko, plunging his entire social circle (i.e., Joji and Etsuke) into chaos. Ryoichi claims he can’t leave the little village they’re all in and this, somehow, prevents him from marriage. “But what can you,” Joji asks in the English dub, “a physical astronomer, do here?” A nearby forest fire (represented by some gel lights behind a matte painting) saves Ryoichi from answering.
In fact, the whole village turns out for the fire (now represented by some stock footage), stopping their festivities dead. The girls catch up to Joji and find Ryoichi’s run towards the flames…if for no other reason than to watch helplessly as three anonymous village dwellers are consumed…and to notice that the trees are burning from the ground up. Don’t you just love the fun-loving, lighthearted tone of these early monster pictures?
Cut to An Observatory, where Joji’s ratting Ryoichi out to their (mutual?) superior, Dr. Tanjiro Adachi (Takashi “Professor Yamane” Shimura). Turns out Ryoichi’s out in the sticks studying a mysterious asteroid located somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Saturn. So mysterious, in fact, Ryoichi’s named it “the Mysteroid.” Incidentally, characters in my copy of The Mysterians keep referring to asteroids as “stars” for no reason at all. Have I mentioned how much I love these old dubs? Earlier, Etsuke introduced herself with the following commentary on the festival: “They look so gay!” Hey, she said it, not me.
A well-timed landslide calls Joji away since the land slid out form under the little town where Ryoichi’s chosen to hang his hat. This somehow grants Joji the right to snoop around the decimated remains with a full military escort. What type of Scientist is he supposed to be again? I’m not sure, but no security clearance can compare to being the point-of-view character in a daikaiju film. With an Ishiro Honda film crew at their backs, characters always gain instant, unfettered access to all kinds of fun restricted military and civilian sites. Secret government command centers, natural disaster areas, and even moon bases are theirs to stroll, free as they please.
At least Joji remembered to bring a Geiger counter, since this is the 50s. What’s a giant monster movie without a shot of some Geiger counter going haywire? In this case, the road beneath Joji’s Jeep sets the needles jumping, giving Our Heroes pause. Good thing too, or they’d have run right into the giant robot that walks out of the mountainside ahead of them. I love how, even though Joji’s escort has nothing but a pea-sized service revolver, he still covers the valuable Scientist’s retreat by standing in the road and unloading into the two hundred foot tall shinny thing. Never mind that it just turned the highway back into crushed gravel: this man’s a Scientist! MY LIFE FOR YOU, Joji!
The robot soon reveals its laser cannon eyes and, since Laser beats Gun almost every time, Joji and his entourage retreat to home base. A helpful grunt informs him Etsuke’s waiting in his room, and you can really see the hurt on his face as he struggles to figure out what to tell her about Ryoichi. “Damnit,” his face says. “We were all set to go out and have sex in the woods tonight! Now I gotta tell her her brother’s dead!”
Etsuke, meanwhile, has gone and made the classic horror movie mistake of bathing while there’s a monster on the loose. Her nude flesh draws the robot towards our characters (its head visible from Etsuke’s sauna-room window). Only a nearby power plant, which the robot proceeds to torch, saves everyone from a gruesome, flamey death. The fire department try to battle the blaze and succeed only in catching a face full of laser, as do the various military forces deployed to counter the robot’s devastating march. Twenty minutes in and already The Mysterians feels like the pure essence of Honda’s last three daikaiju films. Here are the scenes of military mobilization and mass evacuation…scenes we’d see over and over again as the budgets fell out of Toho’s movies and stock footage became the new in thing.
But here the scenes are fresh and new, setting up quite the monster battle. It doesn’t have the scope of comparable sequences in Godzilla or Rodan, but it’s nice to see nevertheless. The Japanese Self Defense Force goes all out on this robot’s ass, deploying everything from fifty cals to flame throwers. The barrage lures the giant robot onto a bridge which the JSDF detonates, apparently destroying the war machine. Could it be? After three years and at least four failed attempts, has the JSDF actually killed a giant monster without recourse to Super Science? Yes!
To celebrate, Joji goes to Tokyo and, while waiting for the bars to open up, stops at the Diet to make a presentation about the whole “underground monster” thing. He doesn’t know much…but back at An Observatory, Professor Yamane Dr. Tanjiro Adachi’s finally gotten around to reading Ryoichi’s notes. Three guesses where that giant robot came from and the first two don’t count.
Yes, now that we’ve had our monster movie, it’s time for the alien invasion. Joji and Etsuke noticed some flying saucers during the monster attack but Joji kept his trap shut because, “A Scientist should not talk until positive.” Dr. Adachi’s all like, “Screw that, son. The fate of the world’s at stake.” So Adachi makes Ryoichi’s findings public, wins command of his own military unit, and hikes right back out into the field.
You may think, “So what? That’s boilerplate, giant monster movie stuff. Scientists almost always command respect, especially in daikaiju movies from the 50s.” Ah, but this Scientist gains it by publishing his dead colleague’s claim that aliens from an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter (a “Mysteriod,” say; making these “Mysterians”) have begun a covert invasion of planet Earth. Turns out Ryoichi spent all those months camped out in the boonies tracking the movements of their flying saucers. Eventually, he figured out the location of their underground base, and the lake they use to cover the comings and goings of their ships.
The secret base uncovers itself almost as soon as Our Heroes arrive. Looks a lot like a giant, glowing egg, and it’s here non-fans of Japanese monster movies might jump off the boat…which is a shame, since the movie’s just getting really good. “Attention all Earth people,” the Egg Fortress of Doom says. “We wish to dictate terms with the following persons…” The Mysterians have somehow learned the names of Japan’s five smartest people and demand they step inside. Joji and Adachi are two of the five but, even more outrageously, the military accepts the Big Giant Egg’s word that these valuable Scientific resources will not be harmed. Only a script contrivance (i.e., the Mysterians actually keep their word) saves our Scientists from falling into alien hands and our Planet from total domination by the motorcycle-helmet-wearing monsters.
The next scene should be all the proof you need that this movie kicks ass. Because of the extreme climatic differences between the Mysteroid and Earth, the Mysterians provide Our Heroes with protective clothing…by which I mean white jump suits and Dracula capes. The Mysterians themselves are far ahead of their time, rocking the Super Sentai look long before Hiam Saban even dreamed of going into the entertainment business. Color coded biker helmets, shoulder pads and plastic speedos give the Mysterians an appropriately robotic look to them. But, oh God, why do they need the giant opera capes? That adds a whole other layer of silly icing.
Turns out a nuclear war destroyed the Mysteroid “over a hundred thousand years ago,” leaving a few survivors stranded on Mars. How? Why? I have no idea. Maybe the Mysterians just like the balmy, minus-270 degree days on Mons Olympus. In any case, the advent of the A-bomb and humanity’s burgeoning Space Race have finally drawn the Mysterians attention to Earth. They ask the Scientific Might of Japan for three kilometers of land, the right to establish a permanent settlement, and permission to breed with Earth women, since generations of radiation exposure have left their genetic stock in disarray. On the way to Earth they passed Jeff Golblum going the other direction and he told them Earth girls were easy. The Mysterians even have photos of their first five female draft pics. And, they add as a “By the way,” they’ve already kidnapped three of them.
The assembled Scientists of Earth, and the United Nations (to which they report), turn the aliens down flat, obviously have problems with the whole “kidnapping and boning our women-folk” thing. Joji even causes a Mysterian guard to draw on him by taking a bold stand against interspecies marriage. At this point, the Mysterians’ Leader announces, “We Mysterians are pacifists to the end.” Really? Is that why you let the robot with the laser eyes rampage across the countryside, wiping out whole towns, and anything else that stood in its path? Were you so pacifist you just couldn’t bring yourself to impede its destructive rampage? You had to try and stop it with lovingkindness? Rather than, say, the “Off” button? Is that why all your Gold Capes (the Mysterians’ version of Starfleet’s Red Shirts) pack heaters?
Since they are so transparently full of shit, the decision’s made to attack the Mysterians’ Egg Fortress of Doom. But that night…Ryoichi’s ghost contacts Joji through his television and asks him to call the whole thing off. Thankfully, Joji doesn’t, and we see the Mysterians are as adept at destroying toy tanks and planes as any giant monster.
Will humanity save itself from the hour-long alien invasion movie stapled onto the ass end of this giant monster-on-the-loose picture? Of course. But not before military men sit in rooms having meetings, allowing other, non-military men to develop anti-alien plans based on Science! All the drama basically drains out of things after the Mysterians reveal themselves and we get the first of several set-piece battle scenes that go pretty much the way such things always go: tits-up for the assembled military forces of Japan (by which this film means “Earth”).
Eventually the movie remembers its characters and Ryoichi reappears in full Mysterian garb…if only to kidnap Hiroko…who faints as soon as she falls into his arms (of course). At least Etsuke remains conscious during her abduction. But the movie can’t even really work any drama out of having its two leading ladies kidnapped by space aliens. Instead, Honda cuts back to another meeting room scene, where military men discuss the impending attack and the Super Science behind it. Then we get yet-another evacuation scene. Hello, movie? Our leading ladies were just kidnapped by space aliens!
Dr. Adachi can’t see any way to save them, but Joji’s all for storming the Egg Fortress through a crack in the Earth opened up by that earlier landslide. Since no one wants to back his plan, Joji dons his best John Rambo headband and sneaks into the Egg Fortress while the Mysterians are distracted by an attack from Science. In this case, Science is represented by “the Markalight”: a pair of giant satellite dishes that reflect the Mysterians rays back at their Egg Fortress. Oh, yeah: and an “electric gun” made by (who else?) “The Americans.”
There’s a lot of levels to this flick. Up top, it’s classic, Japanese sci-fi, with everything that implies. Special effects during the Giant Robot Attack segments are quite nice, negative-scratch death rays notwithstanding. Things fall apart a bit during the set piece battles, which obviously occur on a tabletop. Some of Honda’s quick cuts work well to help create the illusion of that giant robot interacting with Our Humans on a scale Godzilla just couldn’t, and the Mysterians’ dome can’t either, sabotaging the invaders “credible threat” cred. What’s really sad is the static nature of the Mysterians (and their slow-as-hell plan for conquest – one square mile at a time) almost sinks the film, because where do you go after bringing out, and then destroying, a giant robot with laser beams for eyes? After that, an alien sports stadium (no matter how well-armed) isn’t exactly going to scream “dynamic antagonist.” Neither are bikers in opera capes.
Structurally, The Mysterians has the same problem as Rodan and Godzilla: characters stand around twiddling their thumbs through the Second Act because the story’s outgrown them. But like Godzilla and unlike Rodan, The Mysterians pays its characters back for all that bench-time during the climax, when Joji gets to go all kinds of Flash Gordon on these alien bastards. Kenji Sahara, International Man of Action! Abduct his girlfriend and you win a free pistol to the face.
It’s hard not to see some xenophobia in a plot like this. With their taste in chicks, advanced technology, and their “request” to establish a base, the Mysterians seem to have more than a bit of the United States in them. They say “Mysterians wish for you peace on Earth,” but we know the truth, don’t we? And the film never treats this line as anything other than Mysterian propaganda. On another level, the movie’s as wonderful a nationalistic fable as any other modern Alien Invasion myth: Japan unites the world (including the United States and Russia) against a superior threat at the height of the Cold War, utilizing Science.
I had a lot of fun with The Mysterians, even though I recognize that most of the fun, for me, flows from a love of military pornography I happen to share with Ishiro Honda. There are no real characters here, and nothing for the Ishiro Honda Repertoire Company to really do until it’s time to blow some shit up. Even Kenji Sahara spends most of the film standing around saying things like, “I would like to get a sample of it.” Makes his turn as Shigeru look positively manic.
Sometimes, out of desperation, the film tries to be a “home front during wartime” movie befitting its Takeshi Kimura script. There’s a bit where Joji and his army escort cop a squat in the woods. “Maybe we will be defeated by them,” Escort Man says. Joji says nothing. There’s literally nothing else to say. I am eternally envious of the fact that, in situations like this, Japanese conversational etiquette allows you to just shut the fuck up and think for a second. Joji sits mute, facing the bleakness of a future under the Mysterians’ thumb. It’s quite the nice and tender and hopeless scene, real in a way that tanks melting under a Death Ray can’t be, no matter how photo-realistic. It’s an authentically human scene in the middle of a sci-fi action flim. I’ll bet cash money quite a few Japanese people had quite a few conversations just like it about twelve years before The Mysterians came out.
The real ending is a triumphant march through all the feel-good messages at mid-century Japanese cinema’s disposal. Super Science allows humanity to triumph. The turncoat Ryoichi turns again, helping Joji rescue the womenfolk, only to stay behind, sacrificing himself to help destroy the Egg Fortress of Doom from the inside. Making this the second time Akihiko Hirata’s had to go down with an Ishiro Honda movie’s ship.
Stick with it through the too-long battle scenes in the center and you’ll be rewarded by this climax, which is as outrageous and satisfying as the Mysterian’s costumes. It’s hard not to love a film this straight-faced with its wackiness. Simply put: The Mysterians kicks ass. It remains the Ishiro Honda alien invasion movie and a fine choice for the collector and appreciator of such. Just remember Ryoichi’s immortal words: “Even Science has no value in itself. It all depends on how it is used: for Good, or for Evil. The Mysterians have used it for Evil. It would be tragic if humanity repeats their mistake.”