Sunday, August 21, 2011

When Co-Productions Attack!: Latitude Zero (1969)


One of the core ideas behind the creation of The Wandering Kaijyu has been the exploration of pop culture's seemingly endlessly subterranean fascination with one of my childhood obsessions, the Japanese tokusatsu fantasy realm. Something that many readers may have approached these pages, only to be disappointed that I have only scratched the surface of this topic. So perhaps it's best to come out here, and admit that while I love the stuff, there's a great gulf of material that I have either never had the time to explore, or ability to obtain it. Also, knowing that the internet has an already solid army of authorities on the worlds of Japanese genre film, it only felt natural that this blog be something more of a celebration of multiple obsessions, hopefully in the name of all-inclusiveness in a sphere that at times seems destined to sequester films/comics/artists of this ilk into their own designated cubbies.

So when Japanese studios occasionally delve into working alongside their western counterparts, I like to take a little time to chart the history of this often uneven, weird relationship. Sadly, when these projects take place, the end result is more often than not a tonally compromised work complete with awkward performances by at-times former Hollywood luminaries looking for a paycheck, or even some primed for some kind of international recognition. Some that come to mind include several Kinji Fukasaku films The Green Slime ( Ganma Daisan Go: Ushu Daisakusen - 1968), (Tora!Tora!Tora! - 1970), Message From Space(Uchu Kara No Messeji-1978), Virus (Fukkatsu No Hi - 1980). And this isn't to say that there haven't been some memorable works to come from these arrangements, many of the mentioned Fukasaku films contain a charm to them that transcend their limits. Among some of the non-Fukasaku productions that still hold a place in my heart is Masato Harada's GUNHED (1989), which despite being a bit of a derivative snore, contains some at-times impressive art design and concepts. But any way one slices it, east-west productions such as these have something of a checkered past, and cast a huge light on the cultural and spiritual rift that exists between both filmmaking styles.

Which is made quite clear in the small number of projects that occurred during the latter days of the swingin' 1960s, when Toho's already distinguished genre pioneer Ishiro Honda took on Ted Sherdeman's 1940s radio serial, Latitude Zero, to almost completely disastrous results.

Which leads me to a bit of a big confession, I had heard of this film years ago, but never had the fortune of experiencing it for myself. Now having seen it, perhaps it would be bad form to ever regret seeing it, but it was certainly difficult to get through an almost kidney-punching 105 minutes of film that felt more on par with any number of early MST3K experiments. While that at times can imply a certain amount of enjoyment, do not be misled; this is Mighty Jack without the charm. Would it not have been well-documented that the film was a troubled production from the getgo, it is likely that I would have been ready to hit the mute button just to experience the last science fiction FX work of visual giant, Eiji Tsuburaya (who fell ill during the making, leaving much of his crew to pick up the slack. He passed away soon after.).

So the story (Um..yeah) of Latitude Zero is essentially the finale of a longstanding battle between two behemoths of the superscience ilk. On the good guy corner is Captain Craig Mackenzie (played to the manly gills by an aging Joseph Cotten), helmsman of the supersubmarine, the Alpha-gou, alongside his crew of..two? And in the red corner, continuing his endless efforts to destroy Mackenzie and his undersea utopia located at (you guessed it...Latitude Zero) is the nefarious Dr. Malic (aka - Dr. Murderer, played by Cesar Romero!!) and his pouty lover, Lucretia (played by Patricia Medina). We are brought center stage to this protracted conflict via our audience surrogates in a trio including scientist, Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada), fellow oceanographer, Jules Masson (Masumi Okada), and journalist, Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckal). Rescued after a nearby volcanic eruption's concussive force knocks over the bathysphere the three were aboard on a research mission, the three are suddenly aboard the Alpha, and treated to the wonders beneath the ocean, and to the ongoing battle: scarves & open chest shirts Vs. flowing gowns with capes-er, good and evil. The revelation is that Mackenzie and Malic have been dueling it out for reasons unclear for nearly two centuries. And as Malic continues utilizing the commandeer abilities of one female Captain Kuroi(Hikaru Kuroki) via The Black Shark to end the Alpha once and for all, his plans to kidnap reknowned scientist, Dr. Okada and procure the secret to his latest breakthrough are moving forward with haste, leading to what could only be an ultimate showdown.


And despite all the words used in the last paragraph, there is no depth beyond any of this as the film careens from point to point without rhyme or reason. While it can all be considered childlike, there also seems to be a deep lack of energy to the proceedings to balance out matters. Even in many of the weaker kaiju eiga, there is at least some form of quirk, or sense of fun to keep the brain from drifting off too far, but in the case of Latitude Zero, everything is set up at the most basic level. It's so much so that one wonders how these two forces have kept any conflict going for as long as they have without killing each other numerous times. There's an almost Spy Vs. Spy logic happening here that could easily have been made into something both sly and hilarious, but played straight, is a poisonous mix. In many ways, the film feels like an extended, leisurely trailer, punctuated by a cool submarine shot, or a laugh-inducing monster. But we'll get back to that in a second.

Another egregiously awkward theme running throughout the film is a streak of philosophical defiance that the film goes out of its way to never back up. In here's it can easily be summed up with: everything the American journalist decries or opines-is wrong. As Mr. Lawton is taking photos, and investigating the no-want laden society that Mackenzie and company inhabit, it is made clear that the world he comes from is not only technologically slow to lead, but ideologically flawed. His questioning as to why the people of L.Zero have no desires, or grievances with leadership, Mackenzie's responses are often defiant to the point of smug. Now granted, to challenge ideas in film is potentially exciting, but when there's no depth to the declarations presented, it merely comes off as pompous, and ultimately shoehorned into the film. And as the script already has problems establishing character, things like this truly make the film feel off. So yeah, the individualistic, aggressive cowboy in Lawton is made to be something of an object of ridicule- which is later attempted to be the film's thematic "cornerstone", only to fall apart through an incredibly goofy finale. Silly blonde-haired, blue-eyed idealist! This'll show you! This is perhaps the most ambitious element in the film, and yet is completely bungled.

But we don't come to this film for any kind of philosophical debate, we come for the action and effects, to which I say only works in regards to the expected Tsuburaya miniatures and pyrotechnics. But when it comes to the wild and wacky creatures that appear once our heroes invade the baddie's stronghold, things just go from weird to outright laughably bad. When it comes to giant rats, fine, but once the quivering bat people come in, all bets are off for the viewers. Among the other highlight creations, my personal favorite was Malic's lion experiment involving the brain of one of his subordinates(in a bonehead move to end all bonehead moves) transferred into the beast, and then given wings(!!!) This griffin puppet must simply be seen to be fully comprehended. Thankfully, this creature doesn't get taken out by our heroes, and naturally becomes the film's desperately last second deus ex-machina-cum-disaster. If the film hasn't killed any remaining attention spans, this development alone makes the last minutes worth watching. The look of horror on the face of Cesar Romero is priceless (and possibly telling?).

And, no, I haven't even gone into the existence of the blonde Doctor Barton(Linda Haynes), and the burly Koubou, the Alpha's second in command who's only dialogue consists of "Hai kanchou!" (Japanese for "Yes, chief!"). And also no mention of Captain Kuroi's inexplicable crush on Malic, and Lucretia's seething jealousy. AND let's seriously not go into the sudden, tonally schizophrenic montage of real world imagery of world strife, and carnage near the end. The film as a whole simply feels like a classic case in both sides not completely being comfortable with each other, so some may see this, and take this as an excuse for some campy fun. It's just too bad that the film never runs with it. And this is possibly where Honda's talents might ot have made the best mix. Language barrier is one thing (the japanese actors did their best with what they had, having learned their lines phonetically), but cultural barriers are clearly a factor here. Latitude Zero, if nothing else is a good reminder of how far things have come since then, but also of how much more effort both sides must make in order to come out with a memorable, effective product.

At least we can be happy with moments like these as a reminder?

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