American Stars in Japanese Movies: MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978)

27 Jul

MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978) was designed as Japan’s answer to STAR WARS. It was directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who’d directed THE GREEN SLIME nine years earlier (see my entry of April 22, 2012). I remember seeing it in a neighborhood theater (the Loew’s Paradise) in late 1978 and enjoying it a great deal. On a technical level it may not be as good as STAR WARS, but it certainly pleased me a lot more. I was taken with the baroque imagery created by its mix of historical styles in the design of its spacecraft, costumes, sets and spacescapes. That space-traveling sailing ship was the clincher.

I was also moved by Vic Morrow’s performance as Garuda, a world-weary ex-General who’d resigned from the Earth Federation’s military after losing his R2D2-like robot sidekick, Beba I, and getting reprimanded for making unauthorized use of a spaceship to send the deceased robot into orbit. ( It’s never clear how the first robot “died” or why he simply couldn’t be repaired. Besides, Garuda’s got another one, Beba II, all lined up to take his place.) Morrow invests his character, a disillusioned old warrior, with a level of emotional layering that we don’t often find in American characters created for Japanese films.

Morrow died thirty years ago this past Monday (July 23) in a horrific accident on the set of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE when a pyrotechnic explosion caused the helicopter carrying the camera crew to crash down, killing him and the two Vietnamese-American child actors he was carrying.

MESSAGE FROM SPACE was his only Japanese film.

It’s difficult convincing anyone this is a serious science fiction film when you try to explain the story, which involves an alien race, the Jillucians, being attacked and persecuted by another alien race, the Gavanas, and sending out “Liabe seeds” to find eight brave warriors to help them fight the Gavanas. The Liabe seeds look like walnuts, except when they glow, and turn up magically in Garuda’s drink and in various places where the other “warriors” can find them.

The Liabe nuts recruit a pretty motley crew. Three of them are teenaged “rough-riders”—space hot-rodders–two male and one spoiled rich girl, who zip through space in their speedy little craft.

They’re joined by a gaudy, low-life hood named Jackie, clad in a snakeskin jacket, who even betrays the Jillucians at one point. The other three warriors are revealed late in the film and one of them, Prince Hans (played by Sonny Chiba), is, like Garuda, an actual warrior. He also happens to be the true heir to the Gavanas empire.

There are extraordinary lapses in logic throughout, like the lack of spacesuits and helmets in all sorts of environments and a fanciful, but delightful scene where the trio of hot-rodders float in space trying to capture “space fireflies.”

I don’t think I’ve seen a scene quite like this anywhere else–not even in anime, although I wouldn’t be surprised if an episode of “Galaxy Express 999,” which premiered the same year, featured something like this.

The four young people who join the effort are not the most likable characters you’ll find in a space opera like this, and too much time is spent on convincing them to join a cause in which there’s no chance of profit. (Truth to tell, Garuda is initially resistant as well.) But the action flies all over the solar system at a breakneck pace and the effects are generally colorful and imaginative. And the young people eventually come around.

It all culminates on the flying planet the Gavanas have rigged up to transport their Jillucian prisoners. The Gavanas successfully fight off an Earth fleet and make demands for the Earth to surrender. When our heroic crew of “liabe warriors” finally arrives, they’re all quickly captured by the Gavanas. A big battle ensues in which the hot-rodding heroes find a way to destabilize the core of the planet using a trick  they call “threading the needle,” which they seem to have learned from Luke Skywalker’s handling of the Death Star in STAR WARS.

The cast is mostly Japanese, but with three Americans among the leading players, one a 23-year veteran in the business at the time (Morrow) and the other two newcomers making their debuts (Philip Casnoff, Peggy Lee Brennan).

Morrow comes decked out in an array of costumes that must have made him chuckle when he had to put them on. He sports an old fur-trimmed overcoat and floppy black fedora early in the film as he drinks in bars and sleeps it off, but has more elaborate attire later in the film, includng a silver combat suit, complete with beret.

Morrow had starred in TV’s “Combat” back in the early 1960s and had been a regular heavy in movies and TV since BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955).

Sonny Chiba, famous for the martial arts classic, THE STREETFIGHTER (1974), and its various sequels, wears armor and fights with a sword.

Chiba has worked with American actors more recently, including twice in the past decade: with Uma Thurman in KILL BILL, VOL. 1 (2003) and with the Fast & Furious crew in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT (2006).

Philip Casnoff plays Aaron, one of the hot-rodders, and this was his first film. He has had a pretty active career, mostly in TV, and played Frank Sinatra in a TV miniseries, “Sinatra” (1992).

Peggy Lee Brennan plays Mayah, the spoiled rich girl, who’s always decked out in flashy fashions, even in the midst of battle.

This was her first film and she’s done relatively little since. This film is the only time I’ve seen either Casnoff or Brennan.

Hiroyuki Sanada plays Shiro, the other hot-rodder, and this was his fourth credit. He was only 17 at the time, but went on to quite a distinguished career in Japanese films, including LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI, RING, and TWILIGHT SAMURAI, as well as various Hollywood films in the past decade, including THE LAST SAMURAI, RUSH HOUR 3 and SPEED RACER.

Etsuko (Sue) Shiomi plays Princess Emeralida of the Jillucians and is best known for playing Sister Streetfighter in a number of martial arts vehicles, including several with her mentor, Sonny Chiba.

There are many prominent Japanese actors in the film, including:

Tetsuro Tamba (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE):

Makoto Sato (SAMURAI PIRATE):

Eisei Amamoto (“Dr. Who” in KING KONG ESCAPES) in drag as Grand Empress Dark:

Mikio Narita (THE YAKUZA PAPERS):

And Japanese-American actor Jerry Ito (MOTHRA):

Director Kinji Fukasaku is mainly known today for BATTLE ROYALE (2000), but before that he was primarily noted for his Yakuza movies, e.g. GRAVEYARD OF HONOR, SYMPATHY FOR THE UNDERDOG, MODERN YAKUZA: OUTLAW KILLER, and the five-part YAKUZA PAPERS. He’d also directed a number of samurai films both before and after this film: YAGYU CLAN CONSPIRACY, THE FALL OF AKO CASTLE, LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI, etc. His previous science fiction film, THE GREEN SLIME (1969), featured an all-western cast, including two Hollywood name actors, and Fukasaku would go on to direct another science fiction film with a largely western cast, VIRUS (1980), whose name actors included Glenn Ford, Robert Vaughn, George Kennedy, Chuck Connors, Henry Silva, Bo Svenson, and Olivia Hussey. VIRUS, unfortunately, did not get as wide a theatrical release in the west as his earlier sci-fi films, although it is probably the best of the lot. GREEN SLIME was released in the U.S. by MGM and MESSAGE FROM SPACE by United Artists. I don’t have a DVD of VIRUS or I would do an entry on it here.

GREEN SLIME had a more concentrated storyline and involved a threat in an enclosed place, making it much more suspenseful than MESSAGE. VIRUS, about a biowarfare plague unleashed on an unsuspecting worldwide populace, was much more clearly established in the real world, including location shooting around the world, and involved contemporary geopolitics to a degree not found in Fukasaku’s other work. MESSAGE was more of a fantasy and much more playful than Fukasaku’s other films. It’s also a lot more reliant on special effects than either of the other two sci-fi films. I wonder if Fukasaku was more of a hired hand on this one, recruited because of his experience directing non-Japanese actors. Perhaps the real auteur of MESSAGE is writer Shotaro Ishinomori, who is also credited with “Mechanical Design,” which, in this case, probably refers to the spaceships. Ishinomori also created such popular TV franchises in Japan as “Cyborg 009,” “Kamen Rider,” “Kikaida,” and “Himitsu Sentai Gorenja,” aka “Go Ranger,” the first sentai series (with the 37th currently running in Japan) and the forerunner of “Power Rangers.”

The MESSAGE FROM SPACE DVD which I purchased from Amazon is distributed by a company called Eastern Star HK, identified only in tiny print on the DVD cover. It contains both the English-dub soundtrack, which is how I saw it in my neighborhood theater, and the Japanese-language track with English subs., which is how I saw it in 1979 when it was shown at Japan Society in New York. Morrow’s own voice is heard on the English dub, but is, of course, dubbed by a Japanese actor on the Japanese track. I don’t know if Casnoff or Brennan dub their own voices, since I don’t know what they sound like. (Brennan’s voice in the film has a heavy Queens, NY accent.) Interestingly, the Japanese trailers that accompany the film on the DVD feature Morrow and Casnoff speaking lines in English although the rest of the dialogue heard in the trailers is in Japanese. One of the three trailers features footage of Morrow, Casnoff and Brennan arriving at the airport in Japan at the start of production and appearing at a press conference with the rest of the cast and crew.

I believe this is Kinji Fukasaku:

The literary basis for this film and its other adaptations was discussed in a review I did of a Japanese animated series based on the original source. Here are some excerpts from my IMDB review of “The Hakkenden”:

THE HAKKENDEN is a 13-part made-for-video animated adaptation of the famed19th century Japanese literary work, “Nanso Satomi Hakkenden,” by Bakin Takizawa (aka Kyokutei Bakin). It tells the tale of the accursed Satomi clan in 15th century pre-Shogunate Japan and the mystical gathering of eight “dog warriors,” reincarnations of the clan princess’ offspring, fathered by Lord Satomi’s pet dog, who join together with the intent to save the Satomi clan and lift the curse.

The story source for this film also served as the basis for two live-action movies by acclaimed director Kinji Fukasaku: the space opera MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978) and the more straightforward adaptation, LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI (1983). Echoes of the story are also found in the popular children’s animated series, DRAGON BALL, and its follow-up, DRAGON BALL Z. The original book was a multi-volume work written in installments from 1814 to 1841 and based in part on the 14th century Chinese classic, “Water Margin” (aka “Outlaws of the Marsh” and “All Men Are Brothers”), which has been filmed many times as well.

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