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)

Mothra (モスラ, Ishiro Honda, 1961)

mothra-poster.jpgJapan’s kaiju movies have an interesting relationship with their monstrous protagonists. Godzilla, while causing mass devastation and terror, can hardly be blamed for its actions. Humans polluted its world with all powerful nuclear weapons, woke it up, and then responded harshly to its attempts to complain. Godzilla is only ever Godzilla, acting naturally without malevolence, merely trying to live alongside destructive forces. No creature in the Toho canon embodies this theme better than Godzilla’s sometime foe, Mothra. Released in 1961, Mothra does not abandon the genre’s anti-nuclear stance, but steps away from it slightly to examine another great 20th century taboo – colonialism and the exploitation both of nature and of native peoples. Weighty themes aside, Mothra is also among the most family friendly of the Toho tokusatsu movies in its broadly comic approach starring well known comedian Frankie Sakai.

When a naval vessel is caught up in a typhoon and wrecked, the crew is thought lost but against the odds a small number of survivors is discovered in a radiation heavy area previously thought to be uninhabited. The rescued men claim they owe their existence to a strange new species of mini-humans living deep in the forest. This is an awkward discovery because the islands had recently been used for testing nuclear weapons and have been ruled permanently uninhabitable. The government of the country which conducted the tests, Rolisica, orders an investigation and teams up with a group of Japanese scientists to verify the claims.

Of course, the original story of the survivors was already a media sensation and so intrepid “snapping turtle” reporter Zen (Frankie Sakai) and his photographer Michi (Kyoko Kagawa) are hot on the trail. Zen is something of an embarrassment to his bosses but manages to bamboozle his way into the scientific expedition by stowing away on their boat and then putting on one of their hazmat suits to blend in before anyone notices him. Linguist Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi) gets himself into trouble but is saved by two little people of the island who communicate in an oddly choral language. Unfortunately, the Rolisicans, led by Captain Nelson (Jerry Ito), decide the helpful little creatures are useful “samples” and intend to kidnap them to experiment on. Refusing to give up despite the protestations of the Japanese contingent, Nelson only agrees to release the pair when the male islanders surround them and start banging drums in an intimidating manner.

The colonial narrative is clear as the Rolisicans never stop to consider the islanders as living creatures but only as an exploitable resource. Nelson heads back later and scoops up the two little ladies (committing colonial genocide in the process) but on his return to Japan his intentions are less scientific than financial as he immediately begins putting his new conquests on show. The island ladies (played by the twins from the popular group The Peanuts, Yumi and Emi Ito) are installed in a floating mini carriage and dropped on stage where they are forced to sing and dance for an appreciative audience in attendance to gorp.

Zen and Michi may be members of the problematic press who’ve dubbed the kindnapped islanders the “Tiny Beauties” and helped Nelson achieve his goals but they stand squarely behind the pair and, along with linguist Chujo and his little brother Shinji (Masamitsu Tayama), continue to work on a way to rescue the Tiny Beauties and send them home. The Tiny Beauties, however, aren’t particularly worried because they know “Mothra” is coming to save them, though they feel a bit sad for Japan and especially for the nice people like Zen, Michi,  Chujo, and Shinji because Mothra doesn’t know right from wrong or have much thought process at all. 100% goal orientated, Mothra’s only concern is that two of its charges are in trouble and need rescuing. It will stop at nothing to retreive them and bring them home no matter what obstacles may be standing in the way.

The island people worship Mothra like a god though with oddly Christian imagery of crosses and bells. Like many of Toho’s other “monsters” it is neither good or bad, in a sense, but simply exists as it is. Its purpose is to defend its people, which it does to the best of its ability. It has no desire to attack or destroy, but simply to protect and defend. The villain is humanity, or more precisely Rolisica whose colonial exploits have a dark and tyrannical quality as they try to insist the islands are uninhabited despite the evidence and then set about exploiting the resources with no thought to the islanders’ wellbeing. The Japanese are broadly the good guys who’ve learned their lesson with this sort of thing and very much do not approve of the Rolisicans’ actions but they are also the people buying the tickets to see the Tiny Beauties and putting them on the front pages of the newspapers. Nevertheless, things can conclude happily when people start respecting the rights of other nations on an equal footing and accepting the validity of their rights and beliefs even if they include giant marauding moth gods.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Kihachi Okamoto, 1964)

vlcsnap-2016-07-12-23h44m56s789Being stood up is a painful experience at the best of times, but when you’ve been in prison for three whole years and no one comes to meet you, it is more than usually upsetting. Sixth generation Oyabun of the Ona clan, Daisaku, has made a new friend whilst inside – Taro is a younger man, slightly geeky and obsessed with bombs. Actually, he’s a bit wimpy and was in for public urination (he also threw a firecracker at the policeman who took issue with his call of nature) but will do as a henchman in a pinch. Daisaku wanted him to see all of his yakuza guys showering him with praise but only his son actually turns up and even that might have been an accident.

His mistress has moved on, his wife got religion, and the clan has gone legit and formed a corporation. That last bit might have been OK except Daisaku isn’t the president, he’s the Chairman, and the new top dog is a pen obsessed political candidate who runs under the slogan that pens can save Japan and violence is the enemy! Taro and Daisaku come up with a way to get revenge on the usurper by sneaking a bomb into one of his beloved writing implements but it’s far from plain sailing in this typically anarchic Okamoto world.

Okamoto casts his ironic tale as a musical, cartoon style slapstick comedy with frequent digressions into musical interludes which take inspiration both from Hollywood movie musicals and classical Japanese drama. Daisaku may only have been inside for three years but he’s a man out of time with behaviour and attitudes more suited to the pre-war world than the modern era. Consequently he often breaks into theatrical rhythms inspired by noh or kabuki with their characteristic chant style recitative and stylised movements. Younger characters sing in the vernacular of the day with Taro and Daisaku’s son belting out a popular hit, and the office workers suddenly breaking into a musical set piece themed around the idea of overtime in which the men and women of the office bicker about balancing the books. Similarly, the would be mayor, Yato, takes his cues from ‘20s gangsters so he naturally dances the charleston before breaking into a tango when he gets some unwelcome news.

Rhythm is the key as the film continues to respond to its various musical fluctuations in highly stylised approach which takes advantage of Okamoto’s innovative editing techniques. Apparently inspired by a Cornell Woolrich story, this is nominally a noir inflected crime story of an ousted gangster trying to rub out his rival and get his old life back, but Okamoto neatly deconstructs the genre and turns it inside out with a hefty serving of irony on the top. Daisaku is an old guy and his era has passed, but Yato isn’t real enough to represent the future either which seems to either belong to bumbling bomber Taro, or Daisaku’s hardworking and straightforward son.

The plot to blow up Yato using his favourite prop becomes progressively more ridiculous as the pen ends up everywhere but where it’s supposed to be and threatening to explode at any second (to great comic effect). Things get even darker when Yato is talked into considering the orchestration of an “accident” for his mayoral rival involving a golf ball which once again causes everyone a lot of bother (though not the kind that was intended).

Daisaku has brought some of his old fashioned habits out of jail with him, quickly corrupting his old friend the chauffeur (who ultimately proves incorruptible even if grateful to have been reminded of the happiness he already shared with his wife, poverty or no) and allowing Taro and his crazy bomb plots access to the criminal mainstream, but ultimately he proves more of a loveable rogue living in the past than a criminal mastermind. Yato, by contrast, is a darker figure with his hypocritical campaign slogans and lack of personal integrity. Daisaku may be deluded in many ways but he never pretends to be anything other than he is, unlike the would be dictator.

Filled with Okamoto’s idiosyncratic touch of absurd irony, Oh, Bomb! (ああ爆弾, Aa Bakudan) is one of his most amusing and formally ambitious pieces of work. Mixing classical theatrical techniques with modern movie musicals, jazz rhythms, expressionist sets and unpredictable editing, he once agains creates a crazy cartoon world in which anything is possible but somehow it’s all quite good natured even when you’re talking about bank robbery and possible assassination plots. Hilarious fun but also intricately constructed, Oh, Bomb! ranks among Okamoto’s most charming masterpieces and is urgently in need of a reappraisal.


 

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (江分利満氏の優雅な生活, Kihachi Okamoto, 1963)

81zKsQWUtKL._SL1442_Kihachi Okamoto might be most often remembered for his samurai pictures including the landmark Sword of Doom but he had a long and extremely varied career which saw him tackle just about every conceivable genre and each from his own characteristically off-centre vantage point. The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (江分利満氏の優雅な生活, Eburi Man-shi no Yugana Seikatsu) sees him step into the world of the salaryman comedy as his hapless office worker reaches a dull middle age filled with drinking and regret imbued with good humour.

The film opens with an exciting, strangely edited setup of young people having fun singing, dancing and playing sports on a rooftop while a middle aged man sits apart from them looking gloomy with his head in his hands. Eburi is a depressed ad exec who laments that nothing really interests him anymore. It’s all so crushingly dull that he’s taken to drink, only he’s not very good at it so no one wants to join him. When Eburi drinks, he tends to go off on long and often non sensical rants which is probably quite funny for the first half hour but perhaps less so at 3am. One day he runs into some people from a magazine and gets so roaring drunk that he accidentally promises to write them the best magazine serial they’ve ever seen. Only problem being Eburi’s a copywriter, not a novelist, so he’s no idea what he’s doing. Going with “write what you know” he turns his everyday life into a humorous exposé of modern society and ends up becoming one of the most popular writers around.

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman is based on the prize winning magazine serial by Hitomi Yamaguchi which was also inspired by the author’s own life. Yamaguchi and Eburi are both of the generation who came of age around the end of the war, spared the front lines but not the post-war chaos. Somehow, they were the ones who were supposed to rebuild their nation whilst trying to make a life for themselves in the difficult post-war economic environment. Eburi spins a humorous yarn about how he ended up marrying his wife for reasons of financial necessity and the pair didn’t even get a proper honeymoon because they hadn’t bothered to book ahead so all of the inns in the resort town they ended up at were full. Eburi also lost his job twice when the companies he worked for went under and seems a little mystified that he has this pretty good position in the ad agency (even if he doesn’t like it much and no one seems to think he’s very good at it).

There’s an awful lot of social comedy here as the Eburis try to lead their “elegant” lifestyle on his relatively modest salary. The family – Eburi, his wife, son, and father, all live in “company accommodation” which is a complex of small homes where all the employees live close to each other. Eburi’s neighbour works in his office and is a much younger man who’s been married for six months and, in contrast to Eburi, comes straight home at 6pm to have dinner with his wife whom he adores. Eburi is wearing army surplus suits, cheap underwear from the thrift store and a vest which is full of holes in contrast to his neighbour who is wearing swanky sports underwear and fashionable outfits including unshined shoes – unthinkable to Eburi (though his own footwear is in such a state that the shoeshine boys send him packing). Eburi’s wife is also quite excited when she realises their garden might just be a little bigger than next door’s, something which also gives Eburi a lot of pleasure.

In keeping with the source material, Okamoto opts for a first person narrative style with Eburi narrating his life in the manner of his book only employing a fair few other devices in addition to the wild and radical editing. When Eburi goes further back into the past to tell the story of how his no good father became a rich man by exploiting the populace during the years of militarism, the film suddenly becomes a chaplin-esque silent comedy complete with over emphasised acting and pantomime-like painted sets before turning into a full on cartoon. He mixes montage with onscreen graphics which appear way ahead of their time considering this is a film from 1963 and a fairly mainstream comedy at that.

The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman is also extremely funny. Obviously owing a lot to its source material, the script is one of the wittiest ever written and even if it’s talking about early 1960s social mores, the humour has barely dated at all. Much of the success of this is owed to the committed performance of the leading man, Keiju Kobayashi, who is able to give Eburi a sort of soulful weariness as his cynical rants take on an odd quality of warmth, appearing both strangely energetic and endlessly tired.

Whatever else he says and does, Eburi loves and has a duty to his family that proves extremely stressful for him as he feels the pressure to provide though he only wants the best for them (even at one point lamenting that he’s had to give up thinking about suicide because of the responsibilities he now has). These simple things must have struck a cord with the men of Eburi’s age who found themselves in a similar position of feeling eclipsed by the younger generation coupled with resentment towards their parents who had lead Japan into the folly of war and left the mess for their kids to clean up. Keenly observed, hilariously recounted and brilliantly brought to the screen, The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman might just be one of the funniest films ever made and an unjustly neglected masterpiece of early 1960s Japanese cinema.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 at London’s ICA 10th February 2016.