Films, Japan, Recommended posts, Reviews, Sci Fi / Fantasy

War In Space

Jumpsuits, bodypaint, cardboard models and sacrifice, Oh My!…

I must admit the whole Japanese people doing stuff to do with space monsters (FROM SPPAAACCE!) craze that was prevalent during the 60’s and 70’s somewhat puzzles me. While the Godzilla series of films are the default you watch to see strangely Asian looking aliens trying to destroy humanity and then being wiped out by a 90 foot tall nuclear breath lizard, there are other entries that follow a different formula that don’t rely on creatures to do the work. Instead humanity (usually Japan) typically build huge machines to blow the shit out of the effects budget and then gloriously sacrifice some or all of its cast to defeat the enemy. 1963’s Atoragon (or Atragon to give it its US title) is the benchmark against which all would be set. Anime titles like Space Battleship Yamato and Fight! Iczer One! have elements of Atragon in it with an enormous ship or robot being used to defeat aliens. But there were other attempts at aliens getting their arse kicked by a giant human phallic symbol. Take 1977’s War in Space for example. Or as I like to call it, It’s Going to End in a Gunfight.

Examining the plot, it seems this is a standard fare from the era. Mysterious aliens from the Empire of Galaxies have set up a forward base in the solar system and are using it to attack the Earth. At the same time, the United Nations Space Force (who writes this stuff!?!) decides to reactivate Project Gohten, a battleship with enough firepower to destroy a planet. Gohten has a secret that only its designer, Professor Takigawa (Ryo Ikebe), knows about. More on this later. While reluctant at first to finish the Gohten, possibly because of bad blood between Takigawa and the government suits, the destruction of Earth cities by the invaders quickly changes his mind. With his daughter, Jun (Yuko Asano), and her fiance Reisuke Muroi (Masaya Oki) plus his former student, Koji Miyoshi (Kensaku Morita) in tow, Takigawa sets out to settle the fight with the aliens. What makes this better than most fare is that the film prides itself on getting things right. The UNSF soldiers act in a reasoned manner, the jump suits the crew wear can be used as EVA suits and the cast don’t engage in histrionics for the most part. While its plot is fanciful, the movie itself has an answer for everything or as much as it can. Yes, the ship and its crew are in Japan to begin with but the crew are international (or as international as you can be in 1977) with Americans serving alongside their Japanese UNSF comrades.

The films’ gambit is to hook you from the start into a kind of cold war paranoia with enemy agents turning up to try and stop Professor Takigawa from restarting the Gohten. I liked how Takigawa sees through the ruse and the alien calmly takes it in his stride and so does Takigawa. In fact, the opening of the whole movie is like that. Yes, there’s an alien race trying to kill us and yes, people are dying by the hundreds of thousands every day. However the cast don’t lose their minds and start making reckless choices. People keep their heads and just get on with their jobs. Moving quickly from the initial crisis, Honda shifts the film into a war of attrition with the Gohten taking the fight to Venus. Venus, which at the time had only been physically visited in 1975 by the Soviet Union probe Venera 9, is depicted as a cloudy and wind swept planet with no breathable air and some form of radiation. But for the purposes of the film, Venus’ terrific atmospheric pressure and high temperatures are omitted. Hey, never let science get in the way of a good story. Also worth mentioning is Fukuda ditches national identities in this tale; countries exist but in the face of annihilation, we don’t bother getting into squabbles. East and West don’t exist in this story.

I mentioned Yamato earlier because now that I rewatch War in Space, the design influence of Yamato can be seen. Everyone wears the same kind of jumpsuit and the ship itself is designed with industrial design mentality; spartan and utterly functional. With no real “Oooo, aahhhh” set design, Fukuda can concentrate on the journey to Venus and explore emotional undercurrents with the crew. It’s implied that Jun and Koji had some kind of relationship before he left for America and that she either didn’t need to tell Reisuke about this or he was astute enough to figure it out for himself. When Koji comes back, the two men resume their friendly relationship together and Koji doesn’t pass comment on their engagement save to congratulate them. When things look grim, only the two men pass comment about what should happen if Reisuke is killed in the final battle. Koji shrugs it off with a smile. A strangely poignant moment happens on the journey when Jimmy (David Perin), the American crew member, is informed of a tragic loss. After he silently and respectfully remembers his lost loved ones, he resumes his station and carries on. The actor carries it off nicely even with a bizarre flashback to a family picnic. Another thing I should mention is that other than that flashback, Honda never plays up the schmaltz or baits you with false pity. People die; uncomfortable but that’s war. Dozens of invaders and humans amongst the crew get killed in the course of their duties. However the real emotional payoff is the very end of the film when it is revealed that the Gohten is carrying a weapon of unbelievable power. This weapon is so powerful that it took the threat of annihilation for Takigawa to use it. As it happens the use of the weapon is terrifyingly destructive and since when the invaders don’t posses such a weapon, the fact that the Professor successfully hid it from everyone gives me pause for thought. The film’s creators grew up in the shadow of the atomic bomb so I can’t help but feel that this plot point is an inverse of the Godzilla trope: the worse kinds of things we inflict on each other are man made not some giant monster.

If I had a complaint about the film in general, it’s that the last thirty minutes of the story don’t really work all that well. Set in the Emperor of the Galaxy, Commander Hell’s, personal battleship, it involves Koji and some crew rescuing Jun from its brig. For this, Commander Hell (yes, that’s his actual name) taunts Takigawa by threatening to kill Jun if he doesn’t surrender the Gohten to Hell. Also don’t ask how Jun ended up on the battleship because that’s the other flimsy plot point in the movie. For some reason, Fukuda has Yuko Asano dressed in a black leather one piece mini skirt. While being guarded by a scimitar wielding Sasquatch. C’mon, I said the movie was good, I didn’t say it made sense. The references to Star Wars with Koji and the crew infiltrating the battleship, getting caught and then busting out were nice without being heavy handed.  Thankfully, Koji manages to rescue Jun and she dresses in more appropriate attire after that (Wait, she’s wearing a mini-skirt! Quick, put on this jumpsuit from one of our dead comrades so you can use the helmet and air tanks!).

Acting wise, I’m not that offay with the style from this genre all that much but both Morita as Koji and Oki as Reisuke work because I can completely believe they hung out, got drunk and generally behaved badly as young fighter pilot cadets. Yuko Asano doesn’t really descend into the tired “She’s hysterical! Slap her!” trope that sci-fi around this time pushed on this. She’s a trained specialist, competent scientist and level headed person. I like her plus she’s cute. I really feel bad for Ryo Ikebe as Takigawa. Even from the start, I felt he was carrying a burden heavier than just commanding the Gohten and when you find out what it is, you feel bad for him. Again, he carries himself with a respect and dignity that goes beyond the Old Guy With a Pipe method of acting. The invaders (sorry but they don’t really get a name) are only shown as a disguised human and Commander Hell. Both have, I guess, green skin. Colour me puzzled but William played both Professor Schmitt and Commander Hell. Don’t know what the intention there was but for my money, Ross had more to do as the Schmitt agent than as Hell. As Hell, he just threatens and intones or just reacts to whatever is appearing on his magic closed circuit TV.

In terms of special effects, the film does look a bit ropey by today’s standards (and even by Kaiju film standards) but they work and we get treated to things like Ion drives and gravity belts to explain how they don’t float around the ship or the speed at which they arrive at Venus. Lovely 70’s era matte paintings and model work make the film feel solid and not imperceivable like modern CG. The invaders ships move fast and while are of the flying saucer type, have a swarm deployment that rains down destruction whether they go. The Gohten looks like a typical Japanese sci-fi ship, i.e. it couldn’t exist in real life. That said, it’s so lovingly designed, you want to see all the hidden compartments and functions it has. The final battle has the deaths of several of the main cast and the near total destruction of Gohten and the trashing of Venus and the alien ships. Trust me, Michael Bay’s got nothing on how to trash backgrounds compared to this. Of notable mention is the cinematography by Yuzuru Aizawa. Aizawa shoots the film with one part soft focus drama, one part hard sci fi. It’s all matter of fact with no dutch angles or weird compositions to screw with tone.

Reading up on the project, this film is a semi sequel to 1959’s Battle In Outer Space (itself a sequel to 1957’s The Mysterians). Those were directed by Ishiro Honda (God of the Godzilla movies) but War in Space is tackled by Jun Fukuda. Fukuda is an interesting bloke. While starting off his career doing comedies and mystery movies, he was tapped by Toho to direct Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966). From then on he was associated the most with Godzilla directing the bulk of films toward the end of the Showa-era, effectively replacing Honda as the main director of the series. While War in Space is a different direction to the Godzilla films, sadly this would be one of Fukuda’s last efforts for Toho before basically retiring from film work for the remainder of his career. War in Space is not a serious looking film but it takes itself seriously and takes its cast and script seriously. It’s an excellent addition to your Japanese and Asian cinema collection.

Home media details

DVD details

Distributor: Discotek/Eastern Star Edition: DVD (2006)

Discotek's DVD of the film has a standard video transfer for a film of its age. That is, it looks good and that's about it. The film is very soft but I would imagine that is the look of the film rather than the transfer. Audio options include the original Japanese in stereo or 5.1 Dolby. That is a hit and miss affair. The stereo is nice and loud while the 5.1 is clearer but front heavy. Not much surround sound immersion but what can you expect from a nearly forty year old film?

The dub is a hoary affair with plenty of biff-bam-whack delivery. Stick with the original, though props to Discotek for including it. We also get a neat interview with the special effects director for the film, Teruyoshi Nakano. Nakano is a blast talking about the effects, the problems they caused for the film and the lengths they had to go to do them. Rounding it out are some trailers for some of Discotek's other releases.

About the author

Phillip O'ConnorPhillip O'Connor Phillip O'Connor
A fan of anime, it helped me to find Hong Kong Action films and later Japanese and Korean cinema. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Chung, they all became my guides to Asian cinema. At the same time, HKL reawakened in me the desire to watch films again... More »
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