Today’s selection: Message from Space (1978, dir. Kinji Fukasaku)
Subgenre: Space Opera
Reposting an old review with some changes:
The boom of space operas following in the aftermath of Star Wars during the late 1970′s was not limited to the US; Japan also had several, including Gundam, Captain Harlock, Star Fleet, Galaxy Express 999, War in Space, and more. Message From Space was a live-action TV series from Toei (the most powerful studio on Japanese television), and kicked off with a pilot movie that actually got a US release. (A few episodes of the show were also edited together into a sequel movie in the states, titled Space Ninja: Swords of the Space Ark).
The movie was written by the King of Manga, Shotaro Ishinomori, who had major sway with Toei for giving them Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, and numerous other super hero show ideas. It was directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who had previously directed a US-coproduced space opera called The Green Slime (though his final movie, Battle Royale, would eventually be blacklisted in the US. How’s that for a fall from grace?).
The plot revolves around evil aliens (one played by Japanese supervillain extraordinaire Eisei Amamoto) who conquer planet Jillucia, so the Jillucian princess (Sue Shihomi) send magical seeds into space to find 8 warriors who will defend her people. The seeds find two hotshot pretty boy pilots, their rich and spoiled lady classmate, a petty crook, a drunken and disgraced former admiral (Vic Morrow), the admiral’s robot sidekick, the deposed former prince of the alien invaders (Sonny Chiba), and the princess’s own bodyguard. It’s pretty standard, and at the end the bad guys are defeated, but the princess’s planet is blown up in the process, so the whole cast sails into deep space looking for a new home.
Morrow is actually the surprise badass of the film; since Chiba spends the whole time in clunky space-samurai armor and Shihomi is playing a princess, neither gets to do much karate. The admiral character, while serving as an ambassador, challenges an enemy soldier to a duel in order to give the Earth fleet more time to prepare, and the sequence plays out pretty awesomely.
The movie looks pretty good, and there are some neat ship designs and special effects nearly on par with the original Star Wars. Wait… actually, thanks to the special editions, I’m not even sure if I’ve seen the original Star Wars. Let’s make that “much better than the original Battlestar Galactica.” It’s hard to imagine these standards continuing into the production of a weekly show, but I’m quite curious to see it now.; in addition to the compilation movie, a handful of episodes are out there in fansubbed form.