In the far-off future of 1988, the Earth is besieged by evil, green-skinned aliens. Their UFOs (not really, they are clearly identified) fly sorties around the globe, blowing up cities like crazy. Meanwhile, Miyoshi (Kensaku Morita) has returned from America to the United Nations Special Defense Federation's Japan branch to find that his ex-girlfriend, Jun (Yûko Asano), has gotten engaged to his best friend, Muroi (Hiroshi Miyauchi). Amidst this drama, Jun's dad, Professor Takigawa (Ryô Ikebe), is ordered to resurrect and complete the abandoned "space defense unit", Gohten, a space-faring submarine with a giant drill at the bow and plenty of surprises under the hull. Joined by old teammate Jimmy (David Perin), the four blast-off with the crew of Gohten to fight the baddies in space.
By 1975, the first cycle of Godzilla films (known as the "Showa" series) had ended with Terror of Mechagodzilla. However, Tokusatsu (literally, "special filming") entertainment was still prevalent in Japan. While this style is usually identified with superheroes, like the "Super Sentai" series and the "Ultra" series, it also encompasses any film or television show that is heavy on special effects. In the wake of Star Wars, there was an avalanche of rip-offs from every corner of the globe. The War in Space capitalizes on the Lucas film in its marketing, and there are obvious riffs on the movie. The land rover has an "R2" antenna. There's a Death-Star-trench-assault-style scene towards the end. The film also borrows heavily from such shows as "Space Battleship Yamato" (aka "Star Blazers") and such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, at its heart, and for all intents and purposes, Fukuda's film is a remake of Ishirô Honda's Atragon. But instead of repelling invaders from the ocean's depths, they're from the depths of outer space. Plus, the theme of Japanese nationalism is dropped in favor of an idealistic spirit of unity.
If you've ever seen a story about alien invasion made in Japan, you'll recognize the story here. Although not really original, it fits like an old pair of sweatpants and feels just as comfy. The acting is all melodramatic but not totally over the top. The editing is where you begin to get a sense that Fukuda's hand is at work. The aerial combat scenes are loaded with zooms, Dutch angles, and jump cuts. Fukuda seems to prefer this style to keep up his frenetic pacing, but there's never any confusion. His sense of spatial relationships is solid and key in crafting dynamic action scenes. Unfortunately, the finale comes off a bit flat, but this is due to the special effects. More precisely how they're shot. The effects work is well-done throughout the movie (I don't think I ever spotted a wire holding a model up), but the models at the climax don't display any sense of physics. Consequently, it feels more like playing with your G.I. Joes in the bathtub rather than a life-or-death dogfight.
The Japanese people have a fascination with combining old and new things in their fantasy worlds. Spaceships like Gohten and Yamato are designed after (and in the case of Yamato at least, actually employ) old military vehicles but with interstellar capabilities and futuristic weaponry. The evil aliens' flagship is based on a Roman galley, the "oars" actually rotating laser cannons. While we're at it, how do the Japanese seem to have a fully-functioning defense force for every eventuality from giant monsters (G-Force) to extraterrestrial marauders (the other G-Force)? It's as if a Godzilla-free day is the exception rather than the norm (thank you, MST3K).
Despite everything, it's the film's wildness that carries it through. Commander Hell's (William Ross) Roman galley spaceship comes complete with marble halls and pillars. Tell me, why would an advanced, alien civilization be based on Earth's ancient Roman Empire? Cause it looks good, is my guess, though the sets may have been extant from another production. However, only the aliens' leader dresses like a centurion. The soldiers of planet Meshie 13 dress similar to Louis Feuillade's "Fantômas" (black hoods, tunics, and pants). It must be said, dressing like medieval executioners goes a long way in projecting an aura of menace. The Gohten has a giant revolver cylinder that alternately shoots lasers and jet fighters (space jet fighters, of course). Also, the seemingly-useless drill bit at the ship's bow has a delightfully gonzo payoff at the film's end. Hell, they actually blow up one of the nine planets of our solar system (I still include Pluto, please and thank you). But what ultimately sold me on this film was the sight of a captive Jun in leather fetish gear struggling against the iron grip of...the Space Beast.
Now, I've always had an affection for hirsute monsters. Maybe it's because I'm bald. War of the Gargantuas is my favorite daikaiju movie. Sasquatch is my favorite member of the Canadian superhero team, Alpha Flight. You can see where I'm coming from. Here, the Space Beast (played by the appropriately-named Mammoth Suzuki) is our Chewbacca the Wookiee stand-in. He looks like the result of a Bionic Bigfoot, Chewie, and Minotaur love-in. With a giant battleaxe. The costume is cheap and saggy, but you can't (well, I can't) take your eyes off it. Tragically, the character has no discernible personality and is wholly underused. I still loved it.
My feeling has always been that Jun Fukuda has forever been compared unfavorably to Ishirô Honda. It's as if he's the second-tier Honda, and I feel that attitude is dismissive to his work as a filmmaker. His films (most famously, Godzilla vs. Megalon) are often unjustly maligned. The War in Space is, to be truthful, a derivative film, but it gleefully captures what legendary FX creator Eiji Tsubaraya called, "a sense of wonder." And that's something to be cherished and admired, in my estimation.
MVT: Teruyoshi Nakano's special effects are exceptionally well-done on what had to be a shoestring budget.
Make or Break: The "Make" is when Jun is first seen in captivity with the Space Beast. Two great tastes that taste great together.