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Toho Sci-Fi Double Bill

by Glenn Erickson Jun 13, 2020

Mill Creek again dips into exotic Japanese sci-fi fantasy, and this time scores with the desired language choices and subtitle configurations for these spectaculars from the beginning of Toho’s strongest period. The H-Man is a stylish gangster-horror melange about a radioactive slime that cheerfully transforms Guys ‘n’ Dolls into living goo. Then, a Battle in Outer Space is the result when a two-rocket expedition to the moon uncovers an imminent alien invasion, and flying saucer vs. rocketplane dogfights break out in low Earth orbit and in the skies over Tokyo. Was matinee moviegoing ever better than that?  CineSavant writes, uh, at length about all the fan concerns over this disc.


Toho Double Feature
The H-Man & Battle in Outer Space
Blu-ray
Mill Creek
Color / 2:35 widescreen / Street Date June 9, 2020 /
Cinematography: Hajime Koizumi
Director of Special Effects: Eiji Tsuburaya
Produced by Tomoyuko Tanaka
Directed by
Ishiro Honda

 

Here’s how a fan of Japanese sci-fi shows his age: between the ages of eight and eleven I saw The Mysterians, Gigantis: The Fire Monster, Battle in Outer Space and King Kong vs. Godzilla new in theaters, and loved them dearly. For me the charm of Toho fantasy lasted until 1965 or so. Becoming ‘grown up’ had nothing to do with my defection: this reviewer is still enthused by fantasies far more infantile than Toho’s output.

Originally released in America by Columbia Pictures, the two shows in this Toho Double Feature remain big favorites. Sony put out a sci-fi DVD trio in 2009, and just last year Mill Creek followed up with two of them on Blu-ray. This double bill finishes the set, but fans still want to know if Mill Creek has practiced ‘due diligence:’ what are the transfers like?  Is each show presented in true Japanese and English-language versions, including accurate subtitles?  I spent a full evening examining the disc set, and comparing it to older editions.

 


 


The H-Man
1958 / 78, 87 min. / Bijo to Ekitainingen
Starring: Yumi Shirakawa, Kenji Sahara, Akihiko Hirata, Koreya Senda, Makoto Sato, Yoshifumi Tajima.
Production Design: Takeo Kita
Original Music Masaru Sato
Written by Takeshi Kimura, Hideo Unagami

We fans once believed that the classic 1958 drive-in chiller The Blob inspired the copycat Japanese The H-Man (1959) as well as the frightening Italian movie Caltiki the Immortal Monster (1960). But those dates were for American openings — the Japanese Bijo to Ekitainingen actually opened in Tokyo in June of 1958, three months before Irvin Yeaworth Jr.’s The Blob. Assuming that genre filmmakers do indeed jump on any trend that makes money, I’d have to say that the inspiration for all of them was the seminal Hammer film The Quatermass Xperiment, and even more precisely its follow-up feature X-The Unknown. That shocker not only features a blob-like monster, it postulates the odd idea that radiation ‘melts’ flesh.

Casting about for fantastic subject matter beyond Kaiju giants, Toho, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya put a lot of effort into The H-Man, creating yet another monster spawned from irresponsible nuclear testing. The storyline again links up with the fateful Lucky Dragon 5 disaster. This time the emphasis are horrors that David Cronenberg might endorse: atomic beings that can take the form of glowing radioactive slime. Like a universal solvent, the H-Slime dissolves people as if they were ice cream cones in a blast furnace.

 

The Japanese title of The H-Man translates directly as “Beauty and the Liquid Man,” a name that pegs this entertaining hybrid into ‘Beauty and the Beast’ territory. The sci-fi / horror thrills begin in a police procedural about sordid drug trafficking. Police experts are baffled when crooks disappear, leaving only their clothes behind. No-nonsense Inspector Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata) at first discounts the theory of scientist Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara): radioactivity has transformed six sailors into H-Men, liquid beings that dissolve other humans for food. Alluring nightclub singer Chikako Arai (top-billed Yumi Shirakawa, star of Rodan and The Mysterians) comes between these two men because her boyfriend is one of the gangsters thought to have disappeared — or been liquefied. Two sailors’ tale of encountering ‘living liquid’ monsters on a derelict ship is presented in a spooky flashback. The authorities are unimpressed until the H-Men invade Chikako’s nightclub — killing gangsters, showgirls and detectives alike.

The sci-fi angle in The H-Man is pure pulp poetry. Sailors exposed to an American nuclear blast are transformed into liquid creatures that gobble up human flesh. They also assume the form of green humanoid ghosts, which look great but make little sense. Dr. Masada performs an experiment in which a frog is liquefied by radiation and becomes a living slime. Nobody seems concerned about the fate of the unlucky croaker. No ‘green ghost’ frogs materialize to complicate things, either … I guess the producers missed a chance to use the song, “The Michigan Rag.”

 

The green slime’s nocturnal adventures create stunning visuals. Men touched by the creeping silicone collapse as if suddenly deflated, an effect enhanced by dramatic silhouette lighting. Some victims bubble and pulsate, like the ‘birthing’ Pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. One killing involves animation and frozen frames, and is a bad idea poorly executed (and cut from the American version). But the effect of carpets of slime creeping along sewer walls is both creepy and convincing. The struggle in the storm drains below Tokyo would seem inspired by the finale of Warner Bros.’ Them!  The trick effects in the fiery, colorful finale go for more realism than is usual for Toho. We’re barely aware of Eiji Tsuburaya’s miniatures.

Director Ishiro Honda handles his actors well; many are familiar from Akira Kurosawa classics. The gangsters are chosen for perverse attitudes, especially the villain Uchida (Makato Sato). The nightclub scenes include a couple of impressively filmed exotic dances. A cabaret singer dubs Ms. Shirakawa’s torch song, not very convincingly. The inept lyrics read like vintage Japanese stereo instructions: “I’ve counted my love,” etc. Did Japanese criminal gangs really imitate Warner Bros. gangsters, hanging around nightclubs and running with sexy nightclub performers?  In the final nightclub scene, most of the patrons are either crooks or blatantly obvious undercover cops.

The original version of The H-Man is nine minutes longer than the confusing re-cut we saw in America. But the storyline still seems jumbled — why do the H-Men target a gang of drug runners?  The romantic triangle remains professional and formal. The detective never takes the scientist’s theories seriously. After the scoffing detective witnesses people turning into jelly, the scientist Masada still acts like he owes him an apology. And it’s Masada that breaks ranks to rescue Chikako in the fiery storm drains. Both she and the villain Uchida are trapped in the watery tunnels, as the H-Man slime closes in.

 


 

We had to wait until 2009 to see The H-Man in its full-length Japanese version. Stuart Galbraith loaned me his laserdisc years before, but without subtitles we had to make guesses about what was happening. Even the shorter American cut is a little poky, as the narco squad interviews one suspect after another, etc.. But the production values overall are excellent. Hajime Koizumi’s cinematography turns the abandoned ship into a floating haunted house, and pouring rain provides an appropriate setting for H-Man attacks on the streets of Tokyo.

Composer Masaru Sato created plenty of openly weird-sounding film music — as with Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit and Kurosawa’s High and Low. Weird string twangs represent the sneaky slime, but the main theme seems a big mistake: it’s a rousing march more appropriate for a convention of drum majorettes. The upbeat military theme returns as soon as the police / military action commences. Shots of neighborhood evacuations, plus the fire special effects, were recycled in later Toho fantasy spectacles.

Toho continued making films about men with special transformative powers, again involving crime and criminals: The Human Vapor, The Secret of the Telegian. Additional dialogue in the Japanese version theorizes that the H-Men may be the next evolutionary step, an adaptation that will allow man to live in an irradiated atmosphere. That idea precedes the defeatist pessimism of Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned (1961). Toho’s movie can therefore be classified as one of the bleak apocalyptic films that anticipate nuclear annihilation.


The H-Man looked fine on DVD and this new HD offering is just as attractive, with bright new colors. I think film stocks must have changed in Japan in the late 1950s, for the texture of the image and the ruddy flesh tones and deep blacks have more in common with previous color Tohos, like Rodan. The massive Tokyo fire at the conclusion is quite a sight, and the green H-Men glow like electric emeralds. The color is so vibrant that our eyes are immediately drawn to a bright green telephone in the next scene — which suddenly seems sinister by association. That’s good proof that art directors are needed to coordinate colors with themes.

The dubbing in the American version is actually not bad. Both versions begin with a stock shot of an atom blast, but for the American main titles, an English-language ‘H-Man’ card pops up that shows a green goblin in the flaming atomic cloud. I am aware that most of one exotic dance was deleted. The U.S. version may have simply excised three or four scenes in a row.

 


 


Battle in Outer Space
1959 / 91, 93?, 96? min. / Uchu sai senso [Uchu daisenso] (Big Space War)
Starring: Ryo Ikebe, Kyoko Anzai, Koreya Senda, Minoru Takada, Leonard Stanford, Harold Conway, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Hisaya Ito, Nadao Kirino, Fuyuki Murakami, Malcolm Pearce.
Production Design: Teruaki Abe
Original Music Akira Ifukube
Written by Jojiro Okami, Shinichi Sekizawai

Although I was too young to experience most of 1950s sci-fi fantasy first-hand, this writer was the perfect age to be dazzled by Battle in Outer Space, an exultantly juvenile, eye-popping wonder picture. I claimed the right to be an ‘expert’ about it, having sat speechless through The Mysterians just a few months before. The rotating space station was a familiar sight and the flying saucers were more colorful versions of the Mysterians’ agile jet-jobs. What better warships to oppose them than the Earth Defense Force’s fighter rockets, spitting images of the experimental X-15 rocket plane?  Through the 1960s I wondered why there hadn’t been follow-up fantasy spectacles about war in space… when we bloodthirsty American kids played, we made everything into a war. A major filmmaker finally scratched that juvenile itch seventeen years later in Star Wars.

Set in 1965, Battle in Outer Space follows the interstellar pirate invasion of The Mysterians with another all-out war, this time with aggressors from the planet Natal. It’s never made clear what these spacemen want. What exactly can they gain by using an anti-gravity ray to effect bizarre disasters all over the world — train wrecks, flooding, etc.. The United Nations theorizes that an enemy base may be on the Moon. A new ray gun weapon is demonstrated at the Japanese space center, and twin ‘SPIP’ moon ships are launched to investigate. Once on the moon, the expedition is attacked by flying saucers launched from Natal’s base of operations. Worse, expedition member Iwomura (Yoshio Tsuchiya of numerous Kurosawa pictures) has been brainwashed by the space enemies, and telepathically commanded to sabotage the SPIPs. Interestingly, Iwomura’s mental possession begins while driving a car, as happened to Dr. Van Ponder in Roger Corman’s War of the Satellites of the previous year.

 

With the invaders identified, the nations of Earth unite in a rush project to front a massive defense. Squadrons of rocket fighters spring forth from underground silos to engage Natal’s armada in orbit, flown by Japanese, American and Russian pilots. San Francisco and New York City are attacked. When the saucers and rockets clash over downtown Tokyo, the Mother Ship unleashes Natal’s anti-gravity ray!

As should be clear, Battle in Outer Space was not written by Marcel Proust. The fantasy has everything a space-addled, toy crazy 1950s kid could want. We wonder if Japanese tie-in toys were made for these movies, as is suggested in Yasuzo Masumura’s radical advertising satire Kyojin to gangu (Giants and Toys). Toho’s sleek moon ships resemble the idealized illustrations in our non-fiction books touting a future of space travel.

 

Fanciful space gadgetry is the show’s main attraction. On the moon, the spacemen exit their SPIP ship via an ingenious, beautifully modeled swing-arm elevator car. They then toodle off to meet the aliens in space buses vaguely resembling Oscar Meyer’s Weinermobile. With optical tricks much improved over earlier Toho efforts, sizzling animated rays zap across rocky moonscapes. It appears that the snowstorm of hair and dirt that blanketed The Mysterians motivated Toho to create a serious optical department.

Kids already hip to The Mysterians were delighted to see the same fighter-saucers again, now colored Hot Rod Yellow and Orange. Another eye-opener is a view of the wreckage of the space station suspended in orbit, complete with a dead body, a macabre detail for the time. Writer Ed Neumeier may have thought of Battle when he expanded on the space wreckage aftermath idea in his Starship Troopers (1997).

 

The highlight is the mass dogfight in Earth orbit, with scores of fighter ships ‘jousting’ while firing ray gun blasts. The rockets and saucers are just models on wires and we sometimes can see through the traveling mattes. But the effects are bold and ambitious, with dozens of multi-colored animated ray blasts filling the screen. In 1960 it was a Buck Rogers dream come true.

An aerial bomb called a ‘space torpedo’ blows up the Golden Gate Bridge, an effect that to our young eyes looked 100% real. Actually, the toppling of the bridge is one of the better miniature illusions ever — the camera angle is perfect, and it’s just realistic enough. Another torpedo strikes NYC, and the Mother Ship’s anti-gravity ray makes a large Tokyo miniature (including a Cinerama theater) erupt into the air — buildings, cars, people. Perfect pictures to eat popcorn by. Our parents couldn’t understand why mass destruction so excited us kids, but Susan Sontag did.

 

Other aspects of the show aren’t as nifty (translation: ‘neato-keen’).  The unimpressive Natalians are plastic-helmeted space midgets waving their arms and making beep-beep noises. Some of the production details are equally tacky — the usual American actors offer dumb exposition lines, as if commenting on the action from a TV talk show set. ‘Actors’ likely plucked off the street because they looked like a Russian general or Mideastern scientist, sit looking confused, unable to react to direction in a language they don’t understand.

We’re also still wondering about the quality of science dispensed in Battle.  A suspension bridge levitated by Natal’s anti-gravity ray shows signs of having been lowered in temperature to near absolute zero. As we all know, gravity ceases to effect very cold objects!  On the moon, an atmosphere is detected, allowing the Weinermobiles to use air jets to fly instead of crawl. Wouldn’t the jets work just as well in a vacuum… ?

The human element isn’t very important in Battle in Outer Space. The functional main hero and heroine take passive roles, leaving favorite Yoshio Tsuchiya as the only character with anything exciting to do. The second earthling remote-hypnotized to subvert the defense effort happens to be an Iranian scientist. Tsuchiya’ s corny suicide gesture was nevertheless received full approval from myself and my peers; the Japanese dialogue in the same scene isn’t as awkward.

A secondary couple are apparently meant to be a Soviet fighter pilot and his girlfriend Sylvia (Elise Richter). She exchanges bits of inconsequential girl-talk with the pretty leading lady, space cadet Etsuko (Kyoko Anzai). Main hero Ryo Ikebe plays Ichiro, who helps lead the expedition to the Moon but stays at Tokyo combat headquarters for the two battle scenes. The capable Koreya Senda is Professor Adachi, the wise scientist in charge of Earth’s scientific opposition. An unusually large contingent of Anglo players is present; at least one was a sales representative for the company.

The original Japanese battle scenes are scored with a rousing march heard briefly in many other Akira Ifukube pictures, notably the original Gojira. Columbia replaced some of Ifukube’s distinctive cues with adequate but undistinguished library music. Did Ifukube’s infectious march seem too cheerful?  The much less appropriate march theme in The H-Man was left untouched. Culturally speaking, the rousing marches add a feeling of communal spirit, underlining the fact that Japanese, American and Russian rocket aces have joined forces to fend off Natal’s attack.

 


 

We ordered the Toho Double Feature Blu-ray knowing full well of Mill Creek Entertainment’s record for so-so encodings of Columbia Hammer films, that ended up being far surpassed by releases from other disc vendors. Last year’s Mothra was acceptable but no beauty, with dull greenish colors similar to those on the earlier DVD release. That makes us all the more happy to report that Mill Creek has done due diligence on this double bill — the issues that worried us detail-oriented collectors have been addressed. To begin with, the bargain-priced set is two discs — Mill Creek didn’t try to jam two versions of two films onto a single Blu-ray.

Sony released Battle in Outer Space as a single Blu-ray, back in October of 2018. I haven’t seen it, and don’t know if it’s identical to the BIOS in this Mill Creek double bill.

This Tohoscope Battle in Outer Space is a visible improvement on the DVD, with brighter colors and a sharper image. Much of this is due simply to the format upgrade. The animated rays have more punch now, at HD’s 24-frame rate. The sharper scan reveals more detail, and also shows the flaws in the effects more clearly. We see holes in mattes (such as in a General’s hat), and we can’t miss the myriad little wires that suspend the rockets and saucers. Did some of them carry signals to activate motors and lights?  Fans won’t mind this any more than fans of Japanese puppet theater mind seeing Bunraku puppeteers on stage.

A better timing job properly darkens many shots on the moon, where earlier transfers made matte paintings look flat and fake. Obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey is a thousand times more realistic, but Battle constantly offers fanciful, beautifully designed space opera visuals, especially in its moon voyage episode.

 

The ‘goodest’ good news?

The new Battle presents optional Japanese and English-language versions, with different title sequences and different subtitle tracks. The 2009 DVD subtitled its Japanese version with ‘dub-titles’ that copied the titles from the altered English version. If the Japanese script was different, we wouldn’t have known. Some Japanese dialogue was un-titled, and vice-versa.

Assuming that the translations of the new subtitles are accurate, we have a chance to assess Battle afresh. We find that the same pseudo-scientific talk (absolute zero = zero gravity, etc.) hasn’t changed. But the wording of most everything has, and some scenes simply change what’s said. In other words, the English-language dubbing producer saw fit to freely reinterpret the dialogue, to better fit actor’s mouths, or to simply have them say different things.

Example 1:  The moon buses are racing back to the plain where the SPIPS have landed.

English subtitles on English language version:

Spaceman 1:  I wonder what happened to those saucers that flew away?
Spaceman 2:  Well there isn’t very much to worry there with their homebase destroyed.
Spaceman 1:  I only hope they don’t get to our ships before we do.

English subtitles (presumed accurate) on Japanese language version:

Spaceman 1:  We have no time to lose. Let’s go back to our ships.
Spaceman 2:  We dealt a good deal of damage, so our mission is complete!
Spaceman 1:  They won’t be able to attack earth for a while.

Example 2:  At the victory celebration, Dr. Richardson is greeted by his eager son.

English subtitles on English language version:

Richardson’s son:  Listen, papa, how many enemy saucers were there?
Richardson:  Well, you can read all about it in the paper.

English subtitles on Japanese language version:

Richardson’s son:  Daddy, does this mean we’re going home to the US?
Richardson:  That’s right, to Grandma’s house.

In the American cut, the Japanese commander (Minoru Takada) greets the little boy when he runs to see his father. In the Japanese cut, the commander’s lips move, but he says nothing.

Also, it’s interesting that on the Japanese soundtrack, the reverse countdown for the SPIPS launch is spoken in English. The Natalians normally speak in echoey Japanese, but when they give the SPIP moon raiding party an ultimatum, they also count to ten — in English.

I haven’t listened to every line. I haven’t heard any earth-shattering differences yet, but comparing will give us a chance to know for sure. Twenty years ago, seeing the original East German cut of First Spaceship on Venus / The Silent Star showed us that EVERYTHING was different — the original was packed with political snipes at West Germany and the U.S..

Retained from the old Sony release is an earnest and coordinated audio commentary on Battle in Outer Space by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. They offer filmmaker bios, inside production information and technical detail that reaches down to the thickness of the wires suspending the elaborate miniatures. We learn that the impressive exterior of the ‘Japan Space Center’ is actually a sports complex built far in advance for the ’64 Olympics. American actress Elise Richter talks over the phone about her small role, one that she didn’t advertise to her friends. Elise says that the Japanese filmmakers decided that she wasn’t curvaceous enough to be a foreigner (?), and had the costumer pad her hips.

 

About the running times.

I’m now reading posts online assuring us that there is no substantive difference between the Toho and Columbia cuts of Battle in Outer Space. My information from Stuart Galbraith’s books is that the Japanese original was two minutes longer. [I once did a precise comparison of a Japanese videotape and a TV cablecast, but that’s inconclusive because the cablecast version might have been edited.] If that’s not convincing, there’s always expert August Ragone’s announcement from October 4, 2014 that an even longer cut of Battle had been screened in Japan. Back at DVD Savant, I wrote:

“Details are so far sketchy but the word is that they’ve also recovered three minutes’ worth of footage from 1959’s Battle in Outer Space. Perhaps this will spur Toho into issuing new Blu-rays for some of their titles, or licensing them to U.S. companies. The news is unfortunately somewhat sketchy.”

If there ever was a follow-up on that news, my spies didn’t bring it to my ears.

 


 

I’ll leave it for another time to gripe about the access to and quality of Toho fantasy now available outside of Japan. A third classic-era Toho space film nowhere to be seen is 1962’s Gorath, an impressive and ambitious retelling of the ‘When Worlds Collide’ theme from a Japanese point of view. It was released by an independent distributor and then never really seen again. A shaky chain of title may account for its absence so far.

Or does Toho just have an uncooperative attitude about the way its product is marketed (or not marketed) overseas?   Many of the discs in Criterion’s pricey Godzilla box from last year looked fine, but others were reportedly from lesser transfers. The copies of the original Godzilla that are available here are good but not terrific: about ten years ago Steve Ryfle showed us some scenes from a (no- subtitles) Japanese Blu-ray that looked far better. Toho has new 4K restorations of several of the Godzilla films (including a much-improved King Kong vs. Godzilla), but did not grant Criterion access.

I hope I haven’t missed any important details regarding audio and cuts on these new Toho Double Feature titles. For what it’s worth, a web board pointed me to a proposed upcoming English Blu-ray double bill of the same movies, from Eureka Video/Masters of Cinema. If the set includes a couple of attractive extras, I’ll likely want to review it, too.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Toho Double Feature
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: The H-Man: Excellent for fans; Battle in Outer Space: Excellent for fans.
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good; original Toho Japanese and Columbia English dub versions.
Supplements: Audio commentary (from 2009) on Battle in Outer Space.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (both features, NO dub-titles)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 11, 2020
(6289toho)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.