Gamera, Hercules, Ninjas and Giant Robots: American International Television, 1964-1970

12 Mar

Screenshot_2021-02-26 Watch Voyage Into Space Prime Video(19)

I recently watched VOYAGE INTO SPACE (1970) on Amazon Prime, a feature compilation of episodes of “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot,” an English-dubbed live-action Japanese series that aired in syndication on American TV beginning in 1969. This compilation was never released to theaters but was sold to TV stations as a movie by American International Television, the TV distribution arm of American International Pictures (AIP), which ruled the drive-ins and grindhouses of the 1960s with all manner of low-budget genre and exploitation films.

I had seen VOYAGE INTO SPACE on television around 40 years ago and seeing the AI-TV logo again triggered a memory of quite a few other Japanese films I’d seen from that era that bypassed theaters completely and went straight to TV. Foremost among these were five Japanese movies featuring Gamera, the giant turtle, that had been retitled for American television, all of which I’d seen on TV back then, usually on Channel 7’s 4:30 Movie (WABC), with four of them completely omitting “Gamera” from the titles: WAR OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. BARUGON, 1966), RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GYAOS, 1967), DESTROY ALL PLANETS (GAMERA VS. VIRAS, 1968), ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GUIRON, 1969), GAMERA VS. MONSTER X (GAMERA VS. JIGER, 1970).

I’d also seen a lot of “sword & sandal,” or “peplum” movies, from Italy highlighting the exploits of folkloric strongman hero “Maciste” who would be renamed either Hercules, Goliath or Samson for the American market. Many of these had been syndicated directly to TV by American International long after the vogue for such movies in theaters had passed. AIP studio heads James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff often put their names ahead of the title.

These are in addition to the numerous Italian and Japanese movies that the parent company, AIP, had first released to theaters in the 1960s including the following:

One thing that distinguished these films from so many later generations of dubbed foreign films is that they were dubbed into English in New York by an outfit called Titan Productions (aka Titra Studio), based at 1600 Broadway, which developed a crew of professional actors, often with stage and radio backgrounds, who did the voices. In an article entitled, “Kimba: The Trials of Tezuka’s White Lion,” by Fred Patten and Robin Leyden, which appeared in the Fall 1991 issue of Markalite: The Magazine of Japanese Fantasy, the authors discuss the work that went on in this building converting foreign films into products ready to ship to American theaters:

“There was a single ‘magic address,’ 1600 Broadway in New York City, an old office building that contained a number of independent but interlocked businesses. There was Fred Ladd Productions, which contracted to produce English-language editions of foreign films. There was Titan Productions, a couple of sound studios for voice dubbing. There was Zavala-Riss Productions, who did film editing. It was their boast that a foreign film could be brought there and emerge as a complete American film without ever having to leave the building.”

1600 Broadway was torn down in the 2010s and replaced by luxury condos or something, but here is how it looked in 1990  in photos taken by the author:

Some fairly well-known actors who worked on films at this address include: Brett Morrison, who had once voiced “the Shadow” on radio and worked as voice director on several of these films; Paul Frees, who frequently narrated Hollywood films and TV shows; Peter Fernandez, most famous for “Speed Racer”; and Hal Linden, future star of TV’s “Barney Miller.”

For most of these films, the dubbing was excellent. While I’d much rather watch a Japanese film in Japanese, I’d much rather watch Italian genre films in English because the sound was always post-dubbed in the Italian versions anyway, usually by actors who weren’t even in the movie. And since so many of the cast members were non-Italian anyway–American, British, French, Spanish or German, given the frequency of international co-productions in those years–they didn’t all speak Italian in the first place. When the Hercules-type films starred American actors like Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott and Mark Forest, they rarely, if ever, used those actors’ voices to dub the roles. I have watched some Italian films from this period dubbed in Italian and it’s not an experience I would choose again. The sound quality and voice acting are so much better in the English dubs.

Years later, in the 21st century, when the Gamera and Godzilla films that AIP distributed became available on home video from new rights holders, fans clamored for the DVD releases to include the AIP dub tracks since they were so greatly superior to the “international” dubs done in Tokyo. The Tokyo Shock 2011 Blu-ray release of the all-star Toho monster rally, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968), offered several audio tracks, including the Japanese track (with English subtitles), the international dub, and the AIP dub. When Shout Factory released the eight Showa-era Gamera films on DVD in 2010 in newly mastered prints in Japanese with English subtitles, foregoing the American International TV prints entirely, additional English dub tracks were included for six of them, all but the first two. Four of the six had the AIP dub included as a separate audio track. The last two only had the “international” dub. If I have to watch any Japanese monster films in English, I want them to have the dub tracks done at 1600 Broadway.

The five Gamera films released by AI-TV were always fun to watch, then and now, because by that point in the series’ development, Gamera had become a national hero in Japan and a friend and protector of children. These sequels invariably featured child heroes, both boys and girls and four of them featured American kids in the cast, played by local westerners, all non-professional, who could speak Japanese. (Indeed, in the Japanese-language tracks on the DVDs we can hear these kids speaking their own lines in Japanese in sync-sound, recorded on the set and not post-dubbed.)

From GAMERA VS. VIRAS (Shout Factory version):

From GAMERA VS. GYAOS (Shout Factory version):

From RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GYAOS AI-TV print):

Aside from the Gamera and Godzilla films, few of the films discussed so far are easy to find in good copies on home video. “Gray market” distributors made a practice of finding 16mm TV prints of films like these when they wound up in distribution limbo (usually rescued by collectors after they were junked by local TV stations) and transferred those to video. They’re not in great shape, being choppy, scratchy, with faded color, and invariably pan-and-scan, cutting off the sides of the widescreen image. Outfits like Sinister Cinema and Something Weird Video used to sell copies by mail order in VHS editions, which is where I got a lot of my early acquisitions. More recently, Mill Creek has bundled together up to 50 thematically connected films (Italian westerns, kung fu, science fiction, sword & sandal, etc.) into multi-disc DVD box sets that were available in video stores for reasonable prices. Several of these feature AI-TV prints.

Two of the greatest discoveries in my years of exploring the output of American International Television are THE MAGIC SERPENT (1966) and KING OF THE MONGOLS (1960), Japanese films that were released straight to TV by American International, never got a legitimate home video release in the U.S. and, as far as I can recall, never aired on TV on any of my local stations. I had never heard of either before acquiring them on VHS. I first bought THE MAGIC SERPENT in a widescreen Japanese-language tape edition with no subtitles from a convention dealer in 1992 and later found the English-dubbed version on a DVD from Retromedia purchased at Kim’s Video in New York’s Greenwich Village in 2004. I found KING OF THE MONGOLS (1960) also at Kim’s Video and bought it there in a Something Weird Video VHS edition in 2001. The Retromedia disc and the Something Weird tape were both transferred from 16mm TV prints originally from American International Television.

THE MAGIC SERPENT (KAIRYU DAIKESSEN), produced by Toei Pictures, is a ninja fantasy mixed with the kaiju (giant monster) genre since it features a battle between giant creatures at the end, a dragon representing the villain, Orochimaru (Ryutaro Otomo), and a giant frog representing the hero, Izakuchimaru (Hiroki Matsukata). Orochimaru actually transforms into the dragon, while Izakuchimaru, aka Jiraiya, directs the frog’s combat moves from atop the frog and then from a flying cloud. A magic pin carried by the heroine, Sunate (Tomoko Ogawa), yields a giant spider that joins the fray on the side of the frog.

The plot has to do with Izakuchimaru, the surviving son of a slain ruler, learning the ninja arts and growing up to seek revenge on the corrupt warlord who took over, Yuki Daijo (Bin Amatsu). Along the way, Izakuchimaru picks up Sunate as a traveling companion, as she seeks her father, and a brother-and-sister pair whose father has been slain by the bad guys. Izakuchimaru eventually confronts both Yuki Daijo and Orochimaru, culminating in the big monster battle. Sunate and the sister both fall for Izakuchimaru, but, unusual for this type of film, he actually makes a choice and rides off on a giant bird with Sunate at the end. I haven’t seen as many ninja fantasies as I’d like, but this one sure made me hungry for more like it.

And from the letter-boxed VHS tape, just so you can see the contrast:

KING OF THE MONGOLS (aka KOGAN NO MISSHI), also produced by Toei Pictures, tells a fictional story of the Mongol invasion of Japan in the 13th century, focusing on the Emperor’s emissary, the samurai Takemara (Hashizo Okawa), who is tasked with the mission of reaching the beleaguered Fort Izawa to share with them a secret weapon, “the water that burns,” found under the fort’s grounds, with which they can defeat the Mongols. The Mongol leader, General Tadar (Jun Tazaki), knowing of the emissary from his spies in court, goes undercover with his aide, Princess Yamatimo, to try and stop Takemara, who is slowed down by taking a poor village girl, Sajiri, under his wing and escorting her to the fort where she hopes to find her father. He has several encounters with Tadar along the way and, in the course of it, the princess falls in love with him and even does a provocative dance at the fort, while still undercover. It all culminates in a large-scale battle at Fort Izawa, where the hungry, besieged people are directed by Takemara to pump up the oil from the ground there and use it as a fiery weapon to rout the Mongols.

The film plays more like an Italian sword & sandal movie than a traditional Japanese samurai movie, understandable because so few samurai films dealt with this period, while Italian spectacles often did, with several focusing on the Mongols, two of which I found while researching this piece, HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS (1963) and HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS (1964), both of which went straight to television via American International Television. I recorded both of them off TCM a few years ago. I have MONGOLS on disc in a Mill Creek box set in a terrible pan-and-scan, faded color print, but the TCM print was much better, although still pan-and-scan. The print of BARBARIANS that TCM ran was, surprisingly, letter-boxed. Genghis Khan is a major character in BARBARIANS and is stopped in his conquest of 13th century Poland by a local strongman who calls himself Hercules. MONGOLS opens with the death of Genghis Khan and the peace he’d made with the west ended when his three sons renew the invasion of Eastern Europe, stopped only after Hercules rallies the remaining Christian armies.

HERCULES AGAINST THE MONGOLS (Mill Creek print):

HERCULES AGAINST THE BARBARIANS (TCM print):

The two films were made back-to-back, with MONGOLS taking place after BARBARIANS, although with enough differences to keep from qualifying as a direct sequel. Curiously, MONGOLS, the one that takes place later, was released in Italy months earlier than the other. The films are bigger-budgeted than usual for Italian “Maciste” movies and feature hundreds of extras on horse-back, large-scale battle scenes, and massive sets. They have much of the same cast and crew, including its stars, American bodybuilder Mark Forest as Hercules, American actor Ken Clark as one of Genghis Khan’s sons, and voluptuous Italian actress José Greci as the female lead.

Back to VOYAGE INTO SPACE, the movie which prompted this journey in the first place. The movie was compiled from five separate episodes of the Toei TV series, “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot,” which AI-TV had syndicated to TV in 1969 in a dubbed version produced by Salvatore Billitteri and Titra Studios, with much of the dubbing farmed out to a Florida company called Copri Productions. The episodes chosen for excerpting are spread out over the entire 26-episode run of the series, which ran in Japan as “Giant Robo” and was based on an idea by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, creator of the similarly-themed black-and-white anime series, “Tetsujin 28,” that ran on American television in 1964 as “Gigantor.” In the movie compilation, after a series of dizzying events involving the discovery of an island complex run by alien ruler Guillotine and his evil henchmen, the Gargoyle Gang, ten-year-old Johnny Sokko (Mitsunobu Kaneko) manages to get control of a giant robot that had been designed by Guillotine to wreak havoc on Earth. With the help of Jerry Mano (Akio Ito), an adult who had been with Johnny when they were shipwrecked on the island, Johnny becomes an agent of Unicorn, an international peace-keeping agency leading the defense of the Earth, and directs the robot to fight off the giant monsters routinely sent by Guillotine to cause destruction. If you were a boy who dreamed of wearing a uniform and a helmet and carrying a gun and controlling a giant robot to go after bad guys, this series was your fantasy come true. It certainly compares well with “Ultraman” and the subsequent “Ultra” series.

VOYAGE INTO SPACE is available in the U.S. on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing and is also available for streaming on Amazon Prime. The entire “Johnny Sokko” TV series has been released in a box set by Shout Factory and includes liner notes by tokusatsu expert August Ragone, who described the series as a cross between “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “Ultraman.” “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot” was syndicated to TV stations by American International TV, although I don’t remember it airing in New York at all. (Truth to tell, my family didn’t have a TV set during the seasons it was first on.) I didn’t know about the franchise at all until I saw VOYAGE INTO SPACE on TV in the 1980s.

Aside from Shout Factory and its release of “Johnny Sokko,” I’m not sure who holds the rights to the films distributed by American International TV. I’m assuming it would be MGM, since they’ve released so many American International Pictures titles on home video, but I have yet to see any legitimate releases of the titles I’ve mentioned above that went straight to TV, other than VOYAGE INTO SPACE. I sure wish some entity would get the rights and locate the best prints they can find and release them on disc. The range of copies I have on VHS and DVD came from a variety of sources and took a while for me to locate and watch and varied widely in print condition as seen from some of the images above.

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