Monday, 11 October 2010

The Mysterians (1957)

Country: JAPAN

Chikyû Bôeigun
Defence Force of the Earth
Earth Defense Force

Released originally in Japan under the title Chikyû Bôeigun in 1957, Ishirô Honda’s second major foray into science fiction after the success of Gojira (1954) was picked up for distribution in the United States by MGM and released in 1959 under the title The Mysterians. No doubt the abominated bastardisation that Gojira experienced when released under the title Godzilla, King of Monsters! (1956) prompted US distributors to keep a keen eye on the development of Japanese science-fiction/monster movies, even if ham fisted dubbing and subtitle translation reduced the enjoyment and power of the films. The Mysterians was particularly fitting for US distribution because it is an invasion narrative, and it fed nicely into the fears and anxieties of the day. If Gojira borrowed numerous plot elements from King Kong (1933), then the major influence on The Mysterians is War of the Worlds (1953). What is most distinctive now is the wonderfully expansive use of Tohoscope, which gives the film an epic grandeur, some impressive model work, and the rich colour cinematography of Hajime Koizumi. The combination of these stylistic elements gives the film a look that would be repeated for many years in numerous Japanese monster movies. In this respect The Mysterians holds a significant position in the influence of Japanese science-fiction, a position that is somewhat underappreciated in the west.

The film opens with the violent disruption of a traditional Japanese celebration courtesy of a forest fire. This is indicative of a culture whose relationship to historical tradition has been violently halted, and from this point onwards the film rigorously explores technological and political modernity. The destruction of a rural village situated in the awesome shadow of Mount Fuji as a result of a land slide is further evidence to suggest that the attack in this film is on a rural and traditional way of life. These opening moments showcase some of the best special effects of the 1950’s, and also offer a sobering environmental message which was commonplace in much Japanese sci-fi of the 1950’s and 60’s. This rural clime is invaded by two bands of outsiders. The first are alien invaders from the planet Mysteria, the second are the forces of modernity; representatives of the military and scientific instiutions. The Mysterians unleash a giant mechanised robot which causes some minor chaos as an illustration of their technological power, but after this show of egotism their intentions are to travel the pathway of peace and diplomacy. The Mysterians are the only side that mention peace, their demand for women in order to replenish their decimated civilisation is such an affront to the Japanese authorities that they declare war.

The Mysterians themselves are colourfully attired, radiation scarred survivors, of a civilisation that was all but wiped itself out in a atomic war. They are a text book deterrent to the application of science in service of warfare. The film follows this line, a line that was prevalent throughout much sci-fi of the 1950’s, before performing a remarkable about turn which sees the military vanquish the outsiders with a special ray gun developed in secret by Japanese scientists. The Japanese authorities blithely disavow anything other than an aggressive military led strategy, and the power of the military emerges as the hero and saviour of the piece. The scientists led by Dr. Tanjiro Adachi (the ubiquitous Takashi Shimura) are alarmingly ineffectual. They don’t even offer a pacifist counter argument, but instead totally support the action taken. This means that The Mysterians is strangely bereft of a moral core, a position that when allied with its attitude to science and warfare is quite troubling. This is a notable shift from Gojira which Honda directed three years before. Gojira was a cautionary tale about the misuses of atomic power, which nevertheless fell back on scientific ingenuity for its resolution. The attitude in The Mysterians is confused and contradictory, instead of learning lessons from the fate that befell the alien interlopers we get a celebration of that same technology.

In other ways The Mysterians shows itself to be progressive and liberal. This is one of the few sci-fi films of the 50’s that goes beyond the borders of a country. By establishing an Earth Summit meeting in Tokyo, the Japanese authorities bring together the most influential governments of the world - this includes the USA and the Soviet Union, who appear to work in harmony for the good of the planet. The retrograde culture of paranoia and covert surveillance which marked the Cold War is totally absent from the film, ignored in favour of a culture of consensus, negotiation and co-operation. There is an easy temptation to read the alien invaders as a metaphor for America. The Mysterians are after all an aggressive and external threat demanding a tract of land for undisclosed military purposes. if this was in fact the intention then it adds a layer of subversion to the already mixed messages about atomic warfare, military aggression and liberal geo-politics. Most important of all though The Mysterians is a very good entertainment. We have images of UFO’s, space stations, alien abduction, giant robots, melted tanks and more explosions than is strictly necessary. Early experimentations with digital effects do not pay off, but the model work is never less than excellent. There is a certain naivety to The Mysterians which gives it a sense of fun and enthusiasm lacking in more serious minded science fiction.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. I wanted to thank for this great read!I really enjoyed manchester

  2. Nice review, Shaun. I really enjoyed this movie along with other Honda sci fi movies such as BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, GORATH and ATRAGON among them. Have you seen RODAN from '56? It has a certain terrifying air about it that approaches the level of the original GODZILLA.

  3. Cheers Brian - Yes I thought 'The Mysterians' was great. It was one hell of a politically mixed up movie, but that was part of the charm. I have to admit to the fact that I have seen very few films by Honda. This includes 'Rodan', which isn't available to rent from the online rental service I use. In fact Honda films have received patchy distribution on DVD here in the UK. I would like to see more, so manybe some importing of Region 1 DVD's is the way to go.

  4. RODAN is available in a nice double feature package paired with WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. There's also a cheaper release of RODAN, but it's not as nice a package as the Classic Media one.

    The first few Toho monster pictures were really serious, but switched over to a more kid friendly style when it became noticeable that more and more children were coming to see the movies.

    What I find most fascinating about the Japanese monster films is how much emotional attachment they are able to imbue for the creatures. RODAN, while having some damn fine model work and a grim atmosphere, by the end, the way it's shot, the audience feels for the creatures. Just like King Kong. It isn't his fault he's been brought to civilization by mankind's meddling. Only the reptilian birds of Honda's movie cause a great deal more damage.

  5. Thanks for the information :-)

    I shall being adding a few of those titles to my wishlist. One film am I very intrigued by is 'Mothra', which I think is a Honda directed production. I read an illuminating piece on it by Kim Newman in a recent issue of Sight and Sound and have wanted to see it ever since - what is your view on it?

  6. It was one of my very first experiences with Japanese Sci Fi. I also used to have the 45 single of the Peanuts Mothra song, which was a hit over here. I wish I knew what became of that record.

    It's not a favorite of mine, but it's a very well made movie with some striking special effects sequences. It's a fantasy at heart, but one that deals with a clash of two civilizations--one modern and one seemingly out of times step. Religion also plays a role in the film as it would in several other similar Honda/Toho monster movies.

    Even with all man's technically proficient weaponry, the more primitive tribe is superior because of their faith in their monstrous deity. There's definitely a social subtext in the film, but generally when it comes to these kinds of movies, I often just get lost in the whole child like wonder of it all. One you should definitely see is GODZILLA VS MOTHRA (1964). That one is considered one of the best ever and it also contains some of the best special effects sequences of the entire series.

    MONSTER ZERO (1965) is also a major fan favorite mainly because of the rich and lively performance of Nick Adams which shines through in the dubbed version since he's using his own voice. It's fluff, but incredibly fun fluff just the same.

  7. My appetite has certainly been whetted and Japanese sci-fi of the 50's and 60's has been a blank spot I've long wished too address. I shall be adding DVD's of 'Mothra', 'Rodan', 'Godzilla vs. Mothra' and 'Monster Zero' to my library at the earliest opportunity. Thanks for the generous comments Brian, it has been much appreciated.

  8. Of the ones we discussed, these DVD's are the only legit and best releases of those titles on R1...




    MOTHRA (this set also includes Honda's BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE and THE H-MAN)

    You can also rent these from amazon as well.

  9. I've only been introduced to the films over the last year, and Venoms has played a huge part in expanding my Toho-scope! Looking forward to seeing this one later in the month, another excellent Honda fantasy film that can't be missed is Matango, so be on the lookout Shaun!

  10. That's brilliant Brian - many thanks for taking the time to send the links! - I shall be looking for 'Matango' as well Carl, thanks for the tip off.


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