Monday, January 21, 2013

The War In Space (1977) Movie Review

Our story opens as a menacing galleon-esque spaceship descends toward the blue earth with only the glowing red eye of conquest fixed upon our planet. When space transmissions begin interrupting communication abilities across the world, members of a disbanded earth defense unit are in dire need of return. And when admired star pilot Koji Miyoshi (Kensaku Morita) returns to Japan in time to witness the alien treachery engulfing the globe, can he and his loyal team, the crew of the UNSF Gohten be more than a match for the unholy terror that is the Roman-like kingdom of Yomi? This is the core story that comprises the heft of Jun Fukuda's wild & wooly The War In Space (AKA -The Great Planet War). A late 1970's piece of TOHO space madness that  appeared in the wake of not only George Lucas' little noisemaking indie, but of a number of surprise elements.

With the second half of the decade seeming primed for a renewed interest in more romantic science fantasy, War is also looking toward anime as a means of influence. Taking a major lead from Ishiro Honda's beloved Atragon, the film is also conceptually combined with many elements borrowed from the newer-edgier science fiction favorite, Uchu Senkan Yamato to create something that could combine the special effects ingenuity of maestro, Teruyoshi Nakano, and old fashioned high drama. And while this was not something that could just so easily be conjured for live action, director Fukuda and crew give it the ol' college try, and deliver some sincere, ludicrous fun. And while it pales in comparison to the works that inspired them, there is a pace and sense of energy at work here that became harder to replicate even as tokusatsu movies entered a more sophisticated era.

One of the bigger components Fukuda and company heap on in the spirit of the classic space battleship, it's in its cast, and an unabashed lean toward the cartoonishly dramatic. Miyoshi's investment as the story's central character is very much in the classic hero vein, complete with return home from afar, and with unresolved issues. From a long-neglected love, to a best buddy with wedding plans for said love. It's all compounded by the ever-popular mechanic of having the elder chief of the Gohten be the father of Jun(Yuko Asano), who comes along for the a fateful mission to Venus the newly reformed space defense force undertakes for the remainder of the film. This is perhaps as dense as the characterization for this film gets, and while the film packs on the bombastic emotions, a lot of what makes the whole thing work is in how swift the cut moves in between the ingenious effects which include some terrific ship and fighter battles. There is an undeniable desire to pay tribute to what was to become a major cornerstone of Japanese genre media for at least the next twenty years.

And all of this is especially impressive considering that films of this ilk were not in the best of budgetary shape around this period. By this point, producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka and his folks at Toho were nowhere near the giants they once were in the 1950s and 60s. And as such, War In Space is a unique work that takes great advantage of said limitations by either reusing a lot of model shots, some questionably poor monster costume choices, or just having plenty of events happen offscreen. And while this can be considered a minus, it also does plenty to just get us knee-deep in the moment. Even as the crew of the Gohten find themselves obligated to taking the fight to the aliens, there is little fat on these bones. It's actually a tribute to the cast and crew who play matters straight from start to finish. It's heartening to see such sobriety applied to what so easily could be a hopeless schlockfest. The whole thing is a go-for-broke wave hello to a new era of Japanese fantasy, the "Space War", which eventually became a huge part of anime in series' such as the original Gundam.

So, yes. Is this at all what it could be? No. But it hardly matters when considering the era, and the budget onhand. And there is a corporeality to all that craftsmanship on display. (there are even shots here that hint at the astounding miniature work to come in films such as Sayonara Jupiter) It truly comes from a place of inspiration and love. And the soundtrack by Toshiaki Tsushima, oozes fuzz guitar dreams and brass galore. If I had any gripes to bear regarding The War In Space, it's the lack of more Jimmy (David Perin).

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