Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: The X from Outer Space (1967)

[Finally, the first kaiju eiga in this series.]

Shochiku was one of the major studios in Japan. They specialized in the naturalistic style of Yasujiro Ozu and their biggest successes were the Tora-san traveling salesman comedies. In the mid-1960s, most of their production was focused on television. Their motion picture output lagged behind other studios and they didn't take many chances.

Shochiku missed the science-fiction/giant monster boom of the late '50s and the '60s that Toho and Daiei Studios cultivated. Their first foray into the genre, Giant Insect War (a.k.a Genocide) in 1967 was a disappointment. The only insects were a swarm of bees, and they weren't giant bees. Still trying to break into the sci-fi genre, they followed up with Uchu Daikaiju Guilala, known internationally as The X From Outer Space.

In the near-future (a future with space travel and a moonbase, but also mid-60s Volkswagen Beetles), six Mars missions have gone missing. A seventh mission is sent in the most advanced ship available. The crew encounters a UFO near the moon, and the ship's doctor takes ill. They take a side trip to the moonbase to exchange doctors, then continue on towards Mars. The UFO makes a return appearance and fires glowing goo at them which sticks to the ship. The team's German biologist, Lisa, makes a spacewalk with the pilot to retrieve samples, and they turn back to Earth to avoid the UFO. The egg-like sample melts a hole in the laboratory floor, and soon it grows into a monstrous creature which roams the countryside looking for energy sources to absorb. A recently-discovered element on the moon prevents energy absorption. Can the crew of the AAB-Gamma get to the moon and return in time before Tokyo is destroyed?

The X From Outer Space has a certain goofy charm. It will probably appeal more to those who remember growing up watching movies like this on TV. Don't expect logical progression in the story or the best special effects from the era. This was director Kazui Nihonmatsu's first film. He co-wrote it with two novice screenwriters. Some events in the film are explained in quick single lines of dialogue. Other times a scene is set up between the rocket base director and the German nuclear scientist just for the purpose of exposition. Often it seems that something important might have been left on the cutting room floor. There is a love triangle set up between the ship's pilot, the biologist, and Michiko, a crewmember from the moonbase. Initially Michiko is very cold to Lisa, but then all of a sudden they are fast friends. The UFOs are never explained.

The moonbase seems more like a Hilton hotel rather than a working scientific base. The crew arrives just in time for happy hour at the cocktail lounge. Later when the crew returns successfully to Earth, the German nuclear scientist at the rocket base invites everyone to his house for a celebratory party. It's a very social movie. The upbeat theme song, repeated throughout the film, fits the jazzy lounge mood.

It takes 45 minutes for the giant monster Guilala to make its appearance. The movie perks up then, and it's enjoyable kaiju action but not at the level of a Toho or Daiei film. The monster suit is well done and an interesting design. Some of the other miniatures (planes, tanks, etc.) are less effective. Two of the crew members use the rocket base's nuclear fuel as a decoy to lure Guilala away. The chase scene, with a jeep and trailer being followed by the monster, is totally unrealistic (for a giant monster film...) with the changing scale of Guilala's claw, but it fits the bizarre feel of the movie.

American-International picked up the film for U.S. distribution but it went directly into their television syndication package. It would be a mainstay of late-night and Saturday afternoons for years.

Fun and enjoyable films would continue to be made into the 1970s, but the "golden age" of the daikaiju eiga was nearing the end. The last Toho monster film of the '60s directed by Ishiro Honda, Space Ameoba (Kessen Nankai no Daikaiju, a.k.a Yog, Monster from Space) would be released in 1970. Toho's special effects master, Eiji Tsuburaya, had already passed away. Later, Shochiku would release the cult classic Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell. Another of the majors, Nikkatsu Studios, created their one and only kaiju film,  Gappa, The Triphibian Monster (Monster from a Prehistoric Planet), in 1968.

The X From Outer Space was released on a full-frame VHS tape by Orion. It's available in Japan on DVD. I watched the non-anamorphic widescreen Japanese version with the international English dubbing. There is a version out there with the AIP-TV English dub, and I think that might be the preferred way to watch this.

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