Sci-fi alert! Classic science fiction discoveries are getting rare these days, which makes Arrow’s rejuvenation of Japan’s first science fiction tale in color such a special item. Fans may need both hands to count the ‘copycat’ elements but Kôji Shima’s epic improves on many of its American predecessors. Despite the star-shaped arts ‘n’ crafts aliens, this well-directed First Contact tale has impressive special effects at the service of a surprisingly mature and thoughtful storyline.
Warning from Space
Arrow Films US
1956 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 87 min. (Japan), 88 min. (U.S. TV) / Street Date October 13, 2020 / Uchûjin Tôkyô ni arawaru (Spacemen Appear in Tokyo) / Available from Arrow Films / 39.95
Starring: Keizô Kawasaki, Toyomi Karita, Mieko Nagai, Shôzô Nanbu, Bontarô Miake, Kanji Kawahara, Kiyoko Hirai, Isao Yamagata, Sachiko Meguro, Fumiko Okamura, Shikô Saitô, Tetsuya Watanabe, Bin Yagisawa.
Cinematography: Kimio Watanabe
Film Editor: Toyo Suzuki
‘Color Designer’: Taro Okamoto
Original Music: Seitarô Ômori
Written by Hideo Oguni story by Gentaro Nakajima
Produced by Masaichi Nagata
Directed by Kôji Shima
Because CineSavant takes science fiction movies so seriously, this Blu-ray review almost immediately becomes an enthusiast’s essay. So to get the review essentials out of the way first, Warning from Space is a polished presentation of an item fairly rare in its original form. Japan’s first science fiction film in color sees odd alien invaders arrive on Earth to save us from a cosmic collision. The big-budget production’s mature & thoughtful attitude stands in contrast to many Sci-fi epics from Hollywood and Toho alike.
Beating Rodan into Japanese theaters by a number of months, the Daiei company’s Warning from Space is science fiction on a scale comparable to the early Hollywood classics. It has flying saucers from an alien mothership, monsters in disguise walking among us, alien-earthling communications issues, a planetoid on a collision course with Earth, a scientist unsure of what to do with his secret super-bomb formula and a scientific crusade to save the world. Plus cute children singing about their happy neighborhood… in other words, it has everything.
What keeps Warning from Space from being better known? It’s been largely unseeable in a decent presentation. It was never released theatrically in the United States. It waited seven years to be dubbed into English, and then only for TV syndication in a slightly edited version. Even the Public Domain and YouTube iterations were ratty and color-leeched. And then there’s those alien creatures from the planet Paira, the starfish pajama people with glowing eyes instead of belly buttons. Most everything we see in the movie is fairly realistic, but those aliens seem ready to become children’s plush toys. They’re the graphic work of a famous designer – architect, Taro Okamoto. The lead-off article in Arrow’s insert pamphlet covers Okamoto’s contribution — his minimalist creatures are almost like a logo design, a ‘symbol’ of alien life.
As it turns out, the Pairans are some of the nicest alien interlopers ever to spin their saucers in our direction. The Pairans think humans are hideous, especially the ugly lumps in the middle of our faces. They care about us, even if their first attempts to make contact only frighten people. They’ve come for two main reasons. A scientist finalizing a schematic for a super-bomb is advised to not share his ‘Element 101 Urium’ formula with anybody. And we need to immediately do something about Planet R, a giant glowing planet that’s soon to erase Earth from the solar system. (Planet R is not restricted to viewers under 17 unless accompanied by an adult.) The Pairans are working on a solution but in the meantime a trio of responsible Japanese scientists urge the ‘World Council’ — read, the U.N. — to shoot all available nuclear weapons at Planet R. As might be expected, neither the World Council nor most of humanity wants to believe in flying saucers, Pairans, or Planet R.
A full half-hour is devoted to the first reactions of humanity. Astronomers observe a spaceship dispatching landing craft. Strange-shaped creatures are half-glimpsed, and associated with strange electrical energy fields. But contact is made only after several Pairan individuals transform themselves into human form. One star-Pairan becomes the double of a famous variety singer, to communicate with the three Japanese scientists trying to convince world leaders to unite to save the planet.
Warning from Space uses the expected twirling newspaper headlines, but the heart of the story is carried by dozens of brief scenes spread across Japan, in dozens of ‘ordinary life’ situations. Scenes of alien contact are intercut with episodes in little shops, tea houses, offices, factories and a shipyard as people scoff at the news, and deal with static on their radios. A group of young picknickers at the lakeshore (too nice to be ‘Sun Tribers,’ I assume?) make fun of the Pairan silliness. The observatory is next-door to a nursery school, where the kids’ happy songs and dances are contrasted with a glitzy nightclub floor show. Only when the bright red orb of the approaching Planet R appears does the public begin to worry.
We’re told that scenarist Hideo Oguni wrote a number of Akira Kurosawa’s classics. I think he takes this show seriously as well — it’s just as concerned with Man’s Atomic fate as is Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear of the previous year. Behind the colorful flying saucers and the odd alien starfish is a serious story about the survival of the human race, whether from an astral collision or our own toying with nuclear weapons.
The show is constructed from many short scenes, swiftly paced. The three scientists and a young couple carry much of the story but the focus really isn’t on them as individuals. Most interestingly, the movie instead tries for a ‘communal’ effect. The storyline doesn’t monitor those few main characters in depth but instead confronts us with maybe a hundred speaking roles, of average people reacting to the threat from outer space. Policemen, students, commuters, a musical revue star, lab staff, teachers, and nursery school children get equal emphasis. The movie takes a couple of musical breaks but dispenses with comedy relief scenes. It instead builds a sense of proportion and maturity. In American films the Fate of the World is often given less weight than a single romantic relationship. The threat here is to the group. Not even the kids are individualized. The heroics are communal — Japan Can Take It.
I only know of one Toho sci-fi disaster film that touches on a similar vibe — and critics always point it out. In Ishiro Honda’s Gorath, a professor (Takashi Shimura) drives around Tokyo at night, looking at the people and contemplating the end of the world. It is unexpectedly thoughtful.
In the film’s most memorable highlight a Pairan star creature transforms into a flesh & blood human woman, through a series of dissolves. A Metropolis– like spiral is partly superimposed over this. She emerges as not only a perfect copy of a variety performer (Toyomi Karita) but wearing her stage gown as well. It is of course only a subjective reaction, but the alien that looks like a sea creature and the gray, minimalist setting remind me strongly of the recent thriller Arrival (2016).
Once in human form, the alien initially tries to go incognito. The scientists call her ‘Ginko’ and suspect her origin almost immediately. She phones home now and then but is never confronted with her performing double. When she plays tennis she seems awfully at ease on the court, and our young couple under-react when she leaps fifteen feet in the air, or walks through a wall. When the Pairans finally confab with the scientists on how to stop the marauding Planet R, Ginko appears in a chic Klaatu– like jumpsuit.
It’s too easy to call this a copycat production… but here come the comparisons anyway. Was Warning from Space influenced by any of these?
✓ A scientist creates a super-explosive too dangerous to be allowed to exist (the Czech classic Krakatit, 1948 [or any number of precursors, of course]) .
✓ Alien saucers hide from view by landing in bodies of water (The Mysterians, 1957).
✓ An alien transforms into a beautiful human (It Came from Outer Space).
✓ Air raid sirens cue mass evacuations (The War of the Worlds, 1953).
✓ A mystery man / gangster seeks to monopolize a scientist’s work (Woman in the Moon 1929, Gold 1933).
✓ Aliens foil a kidnapping (the book Childhood’s End) (1952).
✓ A planet withstands a nuclear bombardment, observed from afar (This Island Earth).
Stuart Galbraith warns us not to assume that all of our sci-fi classics were well-known in Japan. When It Came from Outer Space and Invaders from Mars (both 1953) first went world-wide, they weren’t distributed in Japan. Even if the show does reshuffle the deck of Hollywood sci-fi themes, the tone is different — less hysterical, more thoughtful. At one point it is said that the Pairans picked Japan as their first point of contact because Japan should be the country most concerned about the nuclear threat.
Obviously, the show is a revisit of the astral collision theme of La fin du monde (1931) and When Worlds Collide (1951), both of which emphasized grandiose spectacle. Abel Gance showed humanity going crazy with revelry and orgies as a comet approaches, and literally warped the film image to suggest its gravitational effect. George Pal keeps the fate of the world’s ordinary folk mostly off-screen. For the physical effects of the approach he resorts to a montage of Technicolor stock footage of isolated disasters.
Kôji Shima’s depiction of planetary disaster is just as ambitious and much more detailed. Some cityscapes and a few more shots of waves washing over a landscape (very Tsushima-like) are handled with okay miniatures. When a siren sounds we see train passengers leaping from windows — is that something that occurred during WW2 air raids? The film’s best material puts the disaster of the approach of Planet R in human terms, at the level of common experience. Five days before impact the sky turns reddish and the temperature rises alarmingly. Shima cuts to animals in the open, felled by the heat. Earthquakes fracture buildings; one of the professors must avoid falling debris in the street. Rats seek shelter where the schoolchildren have been placed, and floodwaters pour in as well. One curious detail during the heat wave concerns a spider. We first see it in close-up, and then a little later, furiously building a web. Is director Shima saying that when the going gets tough, patriotic Japanese get to work?
As Stuart Galbraith points out, later Toho fantasies return to the same imagery, especially Gorath (1962), the menacing planetoid that charges through the solar system like a giant glowing candy apple. Most of Kôji Shima’s outer space vistas are created with cel animation, yet they seem more realistic. Galbraith also notes another major difference between Daiei’s epic and Toho’s sci-fi and Kaiju thrillers: Kôji Shima’s populations are genuinely agitated, and often near panic. That’s a contrast with the orderly evacuations of civilians seen in Toho’s movies. Whether the threat be aliens, Godzilla or liquid blob-men, Toho citizenry politely obey the civil defense monitors.
Despite some glaring plot coincidences, fans looking for sobriety in their vintage Sci-fi fantasies will immediately see Warning from Space’s superior qualities. To me it solves the problems that make other Astral Collision movies seem insubstantial — only Gorath occasionally involves us in its human drama. Daiei’s lavish production is equal to the task, with many large studio sets and much location work (with lots of extras).
I loved the finale, including the Pairans’ welcome intervention to protect puny humanity. The film only seems to contradict its own anti-bomb message, when the dreaded Element 101 explosive becomes useful after all, because the secret stays safe with the pacifist Pairans. Hideo Oguni and Kôji Shima keep their ‘communal hero’ pledge to the end. The film backs away from individual celebration — there are no shots of lovers hugging and kissing. Even the joyous children are observed in long shot.
To a sci-fi addict the understated finish with the children will feel like an inversion of the finale of These are the Damned — the preschool tots exit into a charred yet hopeful landscape. It follows a charming montage of bits of wildlife re-emerging from shelter, a Bambi- like cliché. The makers of the later Mars Attacks recycled similar imagery as a gag, but the sentiment was so positive that any cynical intent evaporated. We like it when the world is saved for fuzzy critters.
Want to make an outlandish fantasy that people really want to see right now, in the misery of 2020? Create an intelligent sci-fi disaster movie in which the conflicts are happily resolved — common sense saves the children, warring sides find harmony. Peace in the Valley. I’m ready for that right now.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of Warning from Space will be a real find for the confirmed fan of classic science fiction. It’s the first time most of us have been able to see the movie in its original state. Arrow gives us the original Japanese language version (86 minutes, 40 seconds) with English subtitles. The Eastmancolor images are warm and rich, with much the same slightly ruddy look as Toho’s Rodan of the same year. The transfer brings out the film’s intriguing color design. There is a slight disclaimer — some scenes and the better part of one reel suffer from a slight contrast pulsing that would require expensive digital work to even out. It’s not too distracting.
What we see is a million times better than the colorless, indistinct Public Domain copies on the Internet. Arrow includes the American recut with its very good English dub, which is actually longer than the original, (88 minutes, 2 seconds). The extras and the commentary explain how the opening and finish were altered. Most of the rest of the movie seems untouched.
It’s hard to believe that Uchûjin Tôkyô ni arawaru didn’t receive a wider distribution overseas — perhaps Daiei just didn’t have the business connections to market it well. An insert essay by David Cairns discusses the very good re-dub job done for TV sales, by Jay Cipes with the help of our own Arianné Ulmer Cipes. If I remember correctly, Kaiju film expert August Ragone first explained the reason behind the confusing pan-scan shots in the Pairan spaceship, perhaps fifteen years ago.
For some reason, the original Variety review and most older reference books translated Uchûjin Tôkyô ni arawaru as ‘Unknown Satellite Over Tokyo.’ The title Warning from Space belongs to the U.S. recut, so I guess I’ll have to get used to Spacemen Appear in Tokyo. Another reason that fantasy film fans might not know this movie well, is because Bill Warren omitted it from his Keep Watching the Skies reference book. The Hardy Sci-Fi Encyclopedia gives it a brief but proper appreciation.
The insert booklet leads off with a piece by Nick West about the famous artist and designer Taro Okamoto. He gets credit for ‘color design’ but he created the aliens as well. We’re told that they were meant to look as if they had been made with broad brush strokes. Perhaps Okamoto also thought up the weird blue lights that appear only once, when an alien visitor is nearby. I direct readers to check out an article by Janne Wass at the website SCIFIST, where I sourced most of these image scans. It has a very cool image of a ‘display’ Pairan made by Taro Okamoto, on view at a museum.
Expert Stuart Galbraith handles a lively audio commentary that only covers the first 65 minutes of the film. He has solid observations and information I was glad to hear (I’ve interpolated some of it above) and welcome career notes on director Kôji Shima. Less interesting are long strings of credits for the unfamiliar cast and a full history of Daiei studios.
Galbraith discusses the movie as if it deserved to be obscure. ‘They failed to create leading characters for us to care about,’ is his argument. My argument is that Warning from Space is all the more interesting because it skips the usual vapid Sci-fi heroes. In the final analysis people in general are depicted as being basically good and caring, and worth surviving. Perhaps Galbraith would have found the show more satisfying if the finish afforded the main characters more closure. The storyline resolves the kidnapping of a scientist, but his kidnappers exit the story as abruptly as do the sweethearts, the scientists and even the good-guy aliens. Our Pairan saviors only show up intermittently, and at the finale don’t even hang around for a ‘sayonara.’
Also included is an interesting still gallery, with many paste-up photos depicting situations not in the movie, including the oft-printed photo of a giant star creature astride a flooded city. The handsome promotional photo just above depicts two things that don’t happen in the show: the sweethearts don’t embrace, and a Pairan starfish never appears in the observatory. Finally, the curious original trailer includes many alternate takes, including a longer cut of a certain planetoid exploding. It looks like an exploding head effect from Scanners.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Warning from Space
Video: Excellent – minus some color and density pulsing
Supplements: second version of film prepared for American television with English audio. commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV; insert pamphlet with essays by Nick West and David Cairns, image gallery, original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 26, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson