Friday, October 30, 2015

Invaders from Space (Shintoho Film Distribution Committee, Walter Manley Enterprises, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Invasion of the Bee Girls Charles and I watched another from the download backlog, Invaders from Space, a Japanese movie from 1965 released in an English-language version by something called Walter Manley Enterprises, which — praise be — at least had Japanese actors doing the English dubbing, so we don’t have clearly Asian-looking people playing Japanese characters but speaking American-accented English like we got in the Godzilla films. Invaders from Space is marked on as a TV-movie and references are made to the original Japanese serial version, in which the monsters are kappas, figures from Japanese mythology. For the U.S. version the baddies were changed to “salamander men” from the planet Kulimon in the Moffit Galaxy (which sounded to me like they were saying “Moptop Galaxy” and made me wonder if anyone had actually named a galaxy after the Beatles this early). The good guy is Starman, a pretty obvious Superman knock-off (down to the silly hat and tacky suit he wears in his non-hero “Clark Kent” identity) even though he’s supposed to be a robot, sent from the Emerald Planet (do you get there by following a yellow brick time-warp?), sent from two billion miles away traveling at the speed of light (which, as Charles pointed out, would mean it would take him four years to get to Earth) to keep the Salamander People from conquering Earth and releasing dangerous radiation that would endanger life on their own planet, which remember is two billion miles away. This is also assuming there is any biological life there, since all we see are robots that look like bobble-headed dolls from the Tokyo Woolworth’s conferring in solemn conference about what to do about the Salamander People. Invaders from Space is obviously a film aimed at a child audience, especially since among the key people in the dramatis personae are some typically obnoxiously cute kids, one of whom stumbles on the key weapon — copper sulfate — that when sprayed on a Salamander Person will cause them to melt away and become a puddle on the floor like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. 

But despite its childish (literally and figuratively) aspects, Invaders from Space has a lot going for it, including some surprisingly atmospheric shots from cinematographer Takashi Watanabe, a suitable (and sometimes better than that) score from composer Michiaki Watanabe (any relation? Could be, even though I’ve heard of so many people named “Watanabe” I get the impression it’s the Japanese equivalent of “Smith”), and, above all, some of the most remarkable fight scenes ever staged. Apparently the producers decided to hire acrobatic dancers to play the Salamander People, outfitting them in cool skin-tight striped costumes and having them do backflips and other gymnastic maneuvers, and actor Ken Utsui, who plays Starman (or his stunt double) matches them and creates some surprisingly balletic action sequences that are the real highlight of the film. It’s true that there’s a plot hole in all this maneuvering — early on we’re told that the claw-like fingernails of the Salamander People are so sharp they can easily puncture even the solid steel (or whatever the material is) Starman is made of (he’s a robot, remember?), but in all those exciting martial-arts dances the Salamander People often get close enough to Starman to claw his skin to shreds but never think of doing so — but even so, the fight scenes are genuinely entertaining and set this movie well above the common run of films in its genre and audience appeal. There are also such intriguing villain characters as the man who shows up as representative of the Salamander People to demand Earth’s surrender — he’s somehow able to stuff his big salamander-person’s head into a disguise to make himself look like a normal Earthling, but he can’t do anything about the scarring on his face, so he ends up looking like the Joker in the Batman comics, complete with painted mouth to look like a clown; and a character referred to on as “Alien Hag” (Akiko Ono — any relation?), who stalks around the latter part of the film carrying a staff that makes her look vaguely like the figure of the Grim Reaper in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. If they’d only put a few songs into it (there actually is one production number, put on by the Salamander People in their headquarters), the producers of Invaders of Space could have had some kind of ultimate genre-bender: the first science-fiction action-adventure martial-arts musical!