War in Space Review
War in Space. Now there’s a title - it’s Star Wars isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Toho were awfully crafty toward the end of the seventies; their Godzilla series had just come to a close (one that wouldn’t last long) and audiences’ tastes were shifting somewhat to space fiction once again, two decades after the fifties and early sixties had produced endless supplies of sci-fi B-movie nonsense. George Lucas’s Star Wars wouldn’t appear in Japanese theatres until the summer of ’78 and so Toho got the jump by going into production late ’77 (roughly September). Production wrapped on November 20th (incidentally my same birthday. Cards and money to the usual address please) and the film premiered on December 17th 1977.
Director Jun Fukuda had quite a prolific career between 1952 and 1978. From ’54 to ’56 he cut his teeth as chief assistant director for the acclaimed Miyamoto Musashi Samurai Trilogy and continued doing Toho work throughout most of his career. He was the obvious go-to man when it came to helming War in Space, having worked on five of Toho’ Godzilla pictures, including the last one of the seventies Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla. War in Space was his first major science fiction film; a space-opera that would come one year before his swan song for NHK TV - Saiyuki (a.k.a. Monkey!). It would also be his biggest challenge - to create a film from scratch within the space of two months. If that’s not rushed then I don’t know what is. Of course that just happens to be part of the problem with War in Space, though certainly it gets points for trying. Even so, the film did remarkably well back home.
The year is 1988. Miyoshi (Kensaku Morita) has just returned to Japan after spending two years in the United States and now he’s ready to work for the UN Space Federation Japan branch. Upon his return he learns that his ex-girlfriend Jun (Yuko Asano) is now engaged to old rival Muroi (Hiroshi Miyauchi), both of whom work at the same branch, but those worries are quickly put to one side when they learn of an alien invasion as UFOs are spotted over America. Miyoshi decides to visit Jun’s father Professor Takigawa (Ryo Ikebe) and hopes to convince him to resurrect the Gohten, a battle cruiser that had been abandoned three years earlier. Takigawa has his reasons for keeping the Gohten buried, but when these invaders from the planet Yomi set up shop on Venus and declare war, he has no choice but to take action with the most powerful war machine ever created. Heading the mission, Takigawa is joined by Miyoshi, Muroi, Jun and Jimmy from NASA (David Perin) as they take to the stars for what may be their last adventure together.
As the famous Toho logo graces the screen in all its wide screen glory, a chirpy fanfare precedes an ominous image of a space battle cruiser as it launches orb-shaped attack craft known only to the design team as “Hell Fighters”. Cue credits. War in Space might not have the scrolling credits that Star Wars so famously employed, but it more than makes up for that with Toshiaki Tsushima’s awesome theme; a funkadelic mixture of electric guitar, electronica and trumpets that perfectly sets the mood for this ridiculously entertaining, albeit flawed piece of work. That very theme is what defines War in Space; constantly cropping up during every heroic moment and lifting it beyond what is perhaps expected and ultimately remaining one of the feature’s most memorable assets. Damn, I want that soundtrack.
Director of special effects Teruyoshi Nakano, who had also worked on numerous projects for Toho, including Godzilla and his assistant Koichi Kawakita provide all of the ambitious sets and space craft. War in Space looks nice in a charming kind of way; there’s nothing immensely believable about what we’re seeing, but from a design perspective it’s interesting to say the least, in particular the two main craft: Gohten, complete with the well implemented “Revolver Beam” (a six-barrel cannon mounted on its side) and the enemy’s Roman-like vessel with ore-like cannons and manoeuvrable sails. Smaller craft and set designs vary in terms of quality and there is a very routine feel about the way that several scenes are edited by using recycled shots. Credit when credit’s due, however, this was probably the tightest feature that they’d ever worked on, so to cut them a little slack would be just. But once in a while a beautiful shot creeps in and we’re given an opportunity to take in a little majesty. Interestingly enough War in Space makes an effort to separate itself from a number of science fiction shows and films from the seventies. There’s none of that clichéd spacey silver wardrobe (except for one scene, but it’s quite tasteful), disco lights and what not; instead it’s pretty well grounded and manages to restrain itself, at least for the good guys, what with some attractive space suit designs. It’s when we head into space that we’re greeted by the aliens, who look like humans but with green faces, complete with centurion get-up, along with a wookie who bears giant horns.
It’s because of War in Space’s aesthetics and addictive score that much of its actual plotting can be dismissed. Unfortunately it’s an area that’s just too lazy for its own good, employing a dozen clichéd plot devices which includes a love triangle, self-sacrifice, and convenient weak spots on enemy ships. What’s worse is that despite a nice looking cast, including some classy veterans, the performances are universally uninspiring. There’s very little for the viewer to invest in; there’s a never a great sense of connection between these people. Characters are set up and past relationships between several are established, but due to the film’s quick pacing, which certainly makes it anything but dull, there’s little time for theatrics and meaningful transitions, with even characters dying and bearing no impact whatsoever. Still, there are enough heroics all round for each character to get their moment in the sun and oddly enough it’s still highly enjoyable. Toward the end War in Space becomes a little more poignant with the inclusion of clear anti-war sentiments which highlights Japan’s ongoing fight to see that all nuclear armaments are disbanded. Being aimed at a younger audience this is naturally a good way to get through to a new generation and it’s handled nicely enough without the need to become overbearing.
As Discotek claims, War in Space has never before been seen on DVD, which makes this quite a find. It’s out in Japan on DVD actually. Anyway, for its western debut it couldn’t have been done much better. Included in the package is a nice little booklet that contains a little film history, production photos and design work.
War in Space was originally filmed in TohoScope, which often led to 2.35:1 ratios. Here it’s presented in all its glory, with anamorphic enhancement and seems to be sourced direct from the Japanese masters. Completely restored and remastered it looks very impressive throughout. The odd speck of dirt does little to sullen the overall quality, which retains a strong colour palette and nice contrast levels, with suitable blacks and some fine detail. There’s a very tiny amount of aliasing, which I only made out at times on the spacesuits and once again the transfer is interlaced, as is the bonus interview. A very solid effort though for a film knocking on thirty years.
Discotek has gone all out to provide us with some neat language options. Hardcore fans will appreciate the original Japanese mono soundtrack, which is very effective all round, while the newly created 5.1 remix is adequate. I’m sure some will get a higher kick out of it than I did as I’m not one to get overly excited about remixes unless absolutely necessary. Certainly it sounds a little louder, but I found comparisons to be marginal. There’s also an option to watch the film with its original English dub, which is supposedly quite a rarity these days.
Optional English subtitles are included and provide another good translation.
Rare Black and White Stills Gallery
Comprised of thirty stills this shows some nice shots taken from production, including some superb Gohten vs. alien ship set-ups and art.
Interview with Nakano Teruyoshi (32:00)
This lengthy interview, recorded specially for the film’s original Japanese DVD release, has the director of special effects reveal some insights into production, along with tricks of the trade and fond recollections. It opens with the man acknowledging seeing Star Wars prior to production and how he had then had to work with a reckless schedule to produce the entire look of the film; this includes him making compromises and using influences to get through certain areas. Soon afterward he talks mainly about designing the vehicles and planets. As such Gohten and the enemy ship get some much needed attention, as do the Hell Fighters and hero vessels. His ideas behind creating a realistic scenario and taking artistic license when portraying Venus is also touched upon, before the interview culminates with a discussion about the climactic final battle.
Trailers for War in Space, Lupin the Third: Strange Psychokinetic Strategy and Mikadroid: Robokill Beneath Discoclub Layla round off the disc.
War in Space, despite offering some interesting designs, special effects and an outstandingly upbeat and groovy score, lets itself down with a fairly routine script which has been painfully rushed, failing to capture the heights of some of Toho’s earlier efforts such as The Mysterians and Atragon (both available on fine discs from Media Blasters). The characters here are nowhere near on the same level as those in Star Wars, which managed to triumph above an equally simple tale, but they’re enough to get us through the feature. Flaws and all War in Space is still an entertaining piece of science fiction and thanks to Discotek, who have been championing quite a few rarely seen flicks, more science fiction fans can check it out for themselves.