Ishirō Honda's THE MYSTERIANS
A movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
In 1957, Toho Studios released Akira Kurosawa’s epic The Hidden Fortress, a film that George Lucas has stated strongly influenced his creation of the Star Wars saga.
I wasn’t paying attention. That was also the year that Toho released Honda’s sci-fi epic The Mysterians.
When I saw this as a kid I was totally awed by the giant robot, the ray guns, the explosions, the flying saucers, the city swallowed up by the earth, the giant flood, the space ships —- it was almost too much to take in at once.
Add to that the fact that the whole reason for the Mysterians coming to earth in the first place — to use our women to reproduce and replenish their dying race!
I saw this film over and over again. That was one of the advantages of having a dad who was part time manager at a neighborhood movie theater in Columbus, Ohio. I could see movies multiple time — and the popcorn was free.
Oddly enough, The Mysterians is probably responsible for both my love of electronic gadgets as well as my continued fascination with Japanese cinema, both serious and not so serious. I well remember saving up the money I earned from cutting grass and taking these hard earned dollars downtown to the Sun Appliances store, a local Columbus distributor that displayed what seemed at the time to be hundreds of examples of gleaming, freshly-imported transistorized devices from Japan. I can still remember the squeak of the Styrofoam packaging that surrounded the miniature reel to reel Japanese tape recorders I loved to play with. Heck I can even remember how these early Japanese transistorized imports smelled!
But I digress. This is a movie review. After all these years, how does this film hold up?
I am happy to report that my memories of the movie still hold up well. Some of the special effects are still amateurish (though now I appreciate the work that goes into miniature construction, given all the DVD commentaries I’ve heard), the dubbing into English is still atrocious, and the music is a constant, grating marshal pounding. And that giant robot still looks ridiculous with its pointy nose and the tiny rotating antenna on the top of its head.
But you know what? I don’t care. I love this film! Seeing the dirigible-like hovering space ships take off and slowly trundle through the air, watching the toy tanks shoot blanks at the giant spinning dome — these aresimply a concentrated phantasmagoria of the basic “Us vs. Them” cinema that has served pop science fiction down to modern times.
Certain themes recur that look so quaint now — women scream and faint, elderly scientists speak with solemn tones about the fate of humanity, astronomical observatories (and astronomers) play important roles, military leaders bark orders to attack, crowds scream and run through the streets; these all bespeak a simpler, although not necessarily more innocent time.
The physical design of the film holds up well. This was Toho’s first color CinemaScope film, and director Honda takes full advantage of the wide screen ratio, filling some scenes with fascinating wall to wall action.
The technology still looks good, too. The Mysterians’ giant domed headquarters spins as it moves above and below ground, the Dome’s control room and its gleaming colored tubes and machines is lovely, and the giant “marcolite” ray-amplifying devices with their huge dish antennas and tank-track wheels are beautiful to watch as the film details the step by step process of launching them via giant multi-stage winged rockets onto the battlefield. It’s like seeing a classic issue of Strange Adventures or Mysteries in Space comics come to life!
This is a violent film, filled with (off screen) death and (on screen) destruction. It was a little more than a decade earlier that Japan saw its cities burned to the ground in return for the war its leaders had initiated. Older Japanese viewers of this film at the time (parents who took their kids to see this stuff) would have recognized and shivered at the fire, the panic, the houses disintegrating in the face of advanced technology. The fact that the Americans and the United Nations are instrumental in defeating the Mysterians is secondary, though, to the fact that it’s Japan, not New York, that gets trashed here and in so many other movies of this type.
The only comparable American film of the era I can think of is George Pal’s War of the Worlds, which in many ways duplicates the massive death and destruction of the Mysterians. A major difference, though, is that in War of the Worlds you can see the wires holding up the Martian War Machines. In The Mysterians, there’s nary a wire to see, despite the multitude of flying saucers (coolest on record, in my opinion), rocket ships, F-86 Saber Jets, Hawk/Honest John/Nike missiles, and F-104 Starfighters that whiz through the air.
And there are extras on the DVD in addition to surround sound and multi-language sound-tracks! Wow!
My favorite is the commentary. Two Toho special effects technicians are interviewed, one of whom was personally acquainted with the people who made this film. They put the film into the context of Godzilla, the Smog Monster, and other monsters and films. They also wax wistful when they see that environmentally they can no longer get away with some of the things they used to do; this conversation is initiated when one notes that the Mysterians’ costumes were actually made out of scratchy, unhealthy Fiberglas.
Periodically we hear that they know little more than we do, but there are a few interesting gems, my favorite being that there appears to be serious consideration of producing a remake!
Other extras include a music-only soundtrack (I’ll pass on that), a series of black and white stills, pages of the original storyboards, and several beautifully painted illustrations showing designs for costumes, the Mysterians’ headquarters dome, and the giant ray gun machines.
Finally, there is a series of previews of other Toho films, including one called “Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People,” which I’m definitely going to have to rent.
Review copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald