Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ishiro Honda, 1969)

latitude zero1969. Man lands on the moon, the cold war is in full swing, and Star Trek is cancelled prompting a mass write-in campaign from devoted sci-fi enthusiasts across America. The tide was also turning politically as the aforementioned TV series’ utopianism came to gain ground among liberal thinking people who rose up to oppose war, racial discrimination and sexism. It was in this year that Godzilla creators Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya brought their talents to America with a very contemporary take on science fiction in Latitude Zero (緯度0大作戦, Ido Zero Daisakusen). Starring Hollywood legend Joseph Cotten, Latitude Zero gives Jules Verne a new look for the ‘60s filled with solid gold hotpants and bulletproof spray tan.

International scientists Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada) and Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada) are in the middle of a bathysphere alongside American reporter Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel) when a volcano suddenly erupts. Rescued by a passing sub, the team soon notice there’s something very strange about this serendipitous crew. To begin with, the doctor treating their injuries is a svelte young blonde woman in a skimpy outfit, and then there’s that plaque on the bridge which says the boat was launched in 1805, and why won’t Captain McKenzie (Joseph Cotten) tell them which country this very expensive looking rig belongs to?

All these questions will be answered in due course but the major revelation concerns the futuristic city of Latitude Zero – a secret underwater world where top scientists and other skilled people who have been “disappeared” from the surface conduct important research free of political constraints. Despite the peace and love atmosphere, Latitude Zero is not without its villains as proved by exile Malec (Cesar Romero), McKenzie’s arch nemesis who has set out to kidnap a prominent Japanese scientist before he can make his way to the city. Malec is hellbent on taking McKenzie down and has drifted over to the scientific dark side by conducting brain transplant experiments to create his own army of bizarre creatures to do his bidding.

There may be a cold war going on but Latitude Zero is more or less neutral when it comes to its position on science and scientists though when push comes to shove it leans towards negative. Malec, played by Batman’s Ceasar Romero, is a moustache twirling villain of the highest order who will even stoop to transplanting the brain of his own lieutenant into a lion as well as making other strange creatures like giant rats and weird bats to try and destroy McKenzie’s enterprises yet those enterprises are the entire reason for the existence of Latitude Zero. Towards the end of the adventure, Lawton points out to McKenzie that his world is essentially selfish, stealing all the best minds for his underwater paradise and secreting their discoveries away rather than sharing them with the the surface. McKenzie sympathises but deflects his criticism with the justification that mankind is currently too volatile and divided to take part in his project, though they do try to drip feed the essentials all in the name of making the world a better place.

Lawton further shows himself up by trying to loot Latitude Zero which has an abundant supply of diamonds it barely knows what to do with. What is does with them is experiment – jewels are worthless baubles here, the value of the diamonds is purely practical. Similarly, they have a taste for solid gold clothing which might explain the skimpiness of their outfits were it not for the fact the precious metal holds no other value than being stylish.

Unlike other subsequent US co-productions such as Fukasaku’s Virus, Latitude Zero was filmed in English with the Japanese cast providing their own English language dialogue (with various degrees of success). A second cut running fifteen minutes shorter was later prepared for the Japanese market with the entire cast dubbed back into Japanese and dropping McKenzie’s often unnecessary voice over. Given a relatively high budget, Honda and Tsuburaya once again bring their unique production design to life with intricate model shots and analogue effects complete with a selection of furry monsters even if they’re operating on a level that owes much more to Star Trek than Godzilla. It’s all very silly and extremely camp but good clean fun with a slight layer of political subversiveness which displays a noted ambivalence to the neutrality of utopia even whilst hoping for the day when the world will finally be mature enough to pursue its scientific destiny without polarised politics getting in the way.


Original trailer (English version)

The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)