[NOTE: THE MYSTERIANS (1957) has been available on DVD for several years, but today sees it re-packaged with two other titles (VARAN and MATANGO) as part of the “Toho Triple Feature” box set. With that in mind, we offer this review of the original DVD.]
This attempt by Toho Studios to create an alien-invasion science-fiction adventure is only partially successful. The film lacks the grandeur of 1953’s lavish WAR OF THE WORLDS or even the moody tension of Ray Harryhausen’s low-budget 1954 effort EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. Instead, we get a colorful, reasonably energetic thriller, with some sincere but slightly preachy speeches about the nations of the world learning to put aside its H-bomb arsenal and band together for the common good. (Made during the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the film’s message no doubt played with much more gravity at the time.)
Made in color, this was Toho’s first widescreen science-fiction film, and it seems to be a slightly transitional effort. It still bears the “serious” science-fiction trappings seen in GODZILLA (a.k.a. GOJIRA, 1954) and RODAN (1957), but the colorful costumes of the titular invaders (not to mention the production design of their flying saucers and underground lair) betray an aesthetic predilection for fanciful eye-candy, edging the film toward imaginative fantasy (the studio would make the full leap with MOTHRA a few years later).
The effective first act sets up the mystery of what’s happening (including an inexplicable fire, apparently erupting from underground, followed by the disappearance of an astrophysicist who had broken off his engagement for no good reason), climaxed by the appearance of an alien robot called Mogera (one of Toho’s most effect giant monster attack scenes). In spite of this destruction, when the Mysterians reveal themselves, they matter-of-factly claim to be “pacifists” even while demanding that humanity allow them a two-mile stretch of Earth property, along with the right to “marry” Earth women in order to regenerate their own dying race. (It is clear that “breeding,” not marriage, is really on their minds.) Unfortunately, after the aliens make their demands, the effects take over, to the film’s detriment. The story turns into an alternating series of scenes: in the live-action, the humans casually discuss implementing an apparently unlimited array of newly invented weaponry (which they seem to be able to manufacture without feasibility concerns of any kind); in the special effects scenes, these weapons are knocked out one by one, until the last one finally succeeds. Along the way, some women are kidnapped, but their plight barely registers; it mostly serves as an excuse for a final-act rescue. In a surprise twist, the missing astrophysicist (Akihiko Hirata) turns out to be a traitor collaborating with the Mysterians, but the dramatic potential is almost completely ignored until his predictable, last minute change-of-heart.
The lengthy battle scenes are fun to watch, but they are marred by some “heat rays” that look like blobs of animated light (an effect that would be improved in later films). Also, the human element is sadly diminished: with almost nothing but miniatures, the action feels like aint-it-cool “puppet theatre,” with little sense of danger. This is underlined by one all-too-brief moment, when we actually do get to see the crew of a tank advancing on the alien fortress: it’s amazing how much suspense this adds, even if the process shots combining actors with miniatures are badly marred by blue-fringing.
The special effects are mostly high quality (especially considering the era). There are lots of elaborate miniature and some good process shots to combine them with the live-action. The film also had the cooperation of the Japanese Self-Defense Force, so you see real tanks, planes, and flamethrowers to establish believability before the special effects take over and melt them down or blow them up. Also, noteworthy, effects director Eiji Tsuburaya improves upon the airborne effects that marred GODZILLA; filmed mostly in long-shot against a bright-blue painted sky, the miniature airplanes for once are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
Featuring much of the cast and crew responsible for the classic GODZILLA (Hirata and Momoko Kochi practically reprise their roles as a couple with a doomed engagement), THE MYSTERIANS is a moderately entertaining effort that will appeal to fans of Japanese sci-fi cinema; however, it is no match for its classic forbearer. The technical improvements (extensively special effects filmed in widescreen and color) are worth seeing; but the film itself emerges as almost a textbook example of the oft-voiced complaint that the visuals overwhelmed the story.
The Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock DVD presents a beautifulprint of the film in a widescreen letterbox format that preserves the original Toho-scope compositions and stereo sound. Bonus features include a photo gallery, a design gallery, storyboards, the film’s Japanese trailer, an audio commentary, a music-only option (which lets you view the film while hearing only the excellent score by Akira Ifukube), and previews of other Media Blasters DVDs (DOGARA THE SPACE MONSTER, VARAN, MATANGO, GAPPA, and a creepy-looking horror film from Takashe Mike called ONE MISSED CALL).
All the galleries scan through through several images automatically, set to a music accompaniment culled from the film. The photographs look somewhat like retouched lobby cards, and they tend to feature the giant robot (which was added to the film to make it an easier commercial sell). The design gallery is interesting, but it is not always clear what the drawings represent. The storyboards are a bit too small to see clearly, but it is interesting to note that in them Mogera resembles an organic creature (a bit like Godzilla), not a mechanical robot.
With most of the original cast and crew now dead, the audio commentary features special effects experts Koichi Kawakita (who worked with Eija Tsuburaya on later films and eventually graduated to directing the special effects for the 1990s Godzilla movies) and Shinji Higuchi (who worked on some Toho special effects films before moving to Daei Studios, where he created the excellent special effects for GAMERA, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE).
Their comments (in Japanese, with subtitles) upon the special effects tend to be a bit dry and technical; the moderator occasionally has to drawn them back to explain some terminology that might not be clear to the audience. Mostly they reminisce about how influential the film was on their careers, interspersed with occasional anecdotes (warning: it helps if you’re a knowledgeable fan of this genre; otherwise, many of their references will fly by without enough explanation for you to understand them).
Occasionally, things brighten up. When the leading ladies are kidnapped, the commentators note that “Back then, women often fainted.” Pondering the implications, they wonder whether “women in an unconscious state” was not an expression of men’s hidden desires at the time. Finally, near the end, Higuchi and Kawakita agree that they should remake the film for the 21st century — this has been a long-time dream of Kawakita, who claims he has a script ready to go.
The “Toho Triple Feature” box set includes this version of the DVD, complete with the bonus features discussed here.
THE MYSTERIANS (a.k.a. Chikyu Boegun [“Earth Defense Force”], 19570.) Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Takeshi Kimura, story by Shigeru Kayama and Jojiro Okami. Cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Tsuchiya.