There really is no underselling the cultural and financial impact Star Wars had on sci-fi cinema. With lines around the block (busting them, even), movie producers everywhere scrambled to make their own space adventure movie with ships and lasers and robots and stuff. Lucas’ film was partially based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, and I’ve already talked about how Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars was a blatant sci-fi cash-in on the Japanese director’s Seven Samurai. So, what did the Japanese do with all of these references to their cinema in America space operas? Well, actually, they did their own Star Wars-clone only a year after Lucas did, directed by Tora! Tora! Tora! co-director Kinji Fukasaku and, yes, it sort of cribs from Seven Samurai also. The film? Message from Space.
This movie is whack-a-doo in the best way. It exemplifies exactly what I love about Japanese B-movies, from the obviously fake model shots to the lavish makeup and costumes to the ridiculously over-the-top performances. While much of it feels like throwing too much at the wall, some of it does stick and makes for a really enjoyable time. The fact that it has American screen legend Vic Morrow and Japanese icon Sonny Chiba in it only pushes it from “enjoyable” to “really quite enjoyable.” If only those damn teenagers weren’t in the movie.
The story is thus: On the planet of Jillucia in the Andromeda Galaxy, the peaceful Jillicians, adorned in leaves despite the lack of vegetation apparent on the planet, have been overrun by the imperialistic Gavanas and their leader, General Rockseia XXII, who all look like living versions of the Ronin Warriors. In an attempt to free the planet, the leader of the Jillucians, an old Gandalf-looking dude, sends eight magical Liabe Seeds (or “nuts,” as they’re often called onscreen) into the far reaches of space to locate eight warriors who will aid them. He then sends his daughter, Princess Emeralida and the noble warrior Urocco to find whomever the nuts chose.
Elsewhere in space, two “roughriders,” or punk starship pilots who like to cause trouble, Aaron and Shiro (Hiroyuki Sanada from Lost and The Wolverine), are acting a damn fool and making the local Keyspace Cops pretty upset. They, along with their irritating friend Jack, owe a lot of money to a mobster and are going to get killed because they can’t pay him off. Luckily, Meia, a super rich girl who happens to be a friend of theirs, offers to pay off their debt if they help her catch space fireflies. This scene consists of bad rear-projection and them “floating” on a chair.
Drowning his sorrows in Scotch is Earth General Garuda (Morrow). His best friend has died and he’s decided to give up the army life. However, his best friend was “Beba,” a goddamned robot, and the higher-ups in the military think he’s an idiot, especially considering Beba-2 has already been issued to replace the first one. Still, Garuda drinks in a bar, the same one in which the roughriders are hiding out. Garuda gets one of the glowing space nuts but doesn’t know what it is. Later, the roughriders, Meia, and even dumbass Jack get glowing space nuts too.
The teenagers find Emeralida’s ship, which looks like a sailing vessel, with her and Urocco unconscious onboard. When they awake, and see the nuts, they tell the whole story. Meia wants to get involved, but pretty much no one else does. Jack, the asshole, decides to sell the Princess to a witch as a bride for her reptilian son and leave Urocco for dead just for the money to pay off the mobster. The fact that Jack doesn’t get killed, and in fact remains a “hero” throughout the film, is the one real problem with the movie. Fuck this guy in his stupid face. He’s even a hostage later on and we’re supposed to care about whether he lives or dies? That guy sold innocent people for money! I hate Jack so much; if there were a way to cut him out of the movie and for it to still make sense, I would do it. Ugh. Anyway.
Rockseia and his cronies kidnap the Princess from the witch and her lizard-boy, and then he decides he wants to take over Earth, because why the hell not? Garuda goes up to negotiate as Earth’s special envoy, but things do not go well. The teens, after deciding at random that they should make sure their ships can fasten together (this movie’s Japanese, after all), get pulled off course and onto a barren planet whereupon they meet Prince Hans (Chiba), the exiled son of the Gavanas’ former king. He decides to join them, and eventually we get a huge battle with spaceships and swordfights and cheering and whatnot.
I like this movie a lot, but mostly because it’s so silly. I, for one, love that Japanese model spaceships are the same after Star Wars as they were before it. They saw what Lucas’ special effects team did and how they made the ships look about as realistic as pieces of plastic can but the Japanese were like, “Nah, we’re good! We want them to look like foam rubber on wire, like a sort of interstellar Thomas the Tank Engine. Thanks anyway!” It gives it this fun, quaint quality that I really enjoy. The costumes, particularly for the Gavanas, are very much what you’d expect, in the Power Ranger villain arena, but they’re actually quite craftily done. One note that I think is super interesting and weird: Rockseia’s mother is a character in the film and is often seen pulling his strings. The character is adorned in white and red with a long, white wig. She is also, inexplicably, played by a man. I don’t know why. She’s dubbed by a woman in the English language version, so if not for Wikipedia, I’d never even have known. But now I can never un-know.
I actually think Vic Morrow gives an excellent performance in this movie. It’s oddly nuanced and restrained, much more like we like to remember him than his scenery-chewing turn in 1990: The Bronx Warriors. He’s the hero you want for something like this, and is totally believable as the jaded military man. The way he relates to his replacement robot is so bizarre and touching, it sort of makes you forget it’s just a little person in a plastic suit he’s confiding in. Maybe Morrow himself was drunk all the time, but the character certainly feels like he’s been around the block a few times. Similarly, Sonny Chiba, who sadly doesn’t appear until 68 minutes into the movie, portrays the nobleman warrior seeking revenge incredibly well. His final swordfight with Rockseia is exciting and full of tension, even if we didn’t know about their bitter rivalry until almost the end of the movie.
What I don’t really like, I think I’ve already told you: the stupid teenagers. Japanese popular culture lives or dies by the teenagers, and there always seem to be people of high school age in anything they want similar-aged kids to see. They are just so super annoying in this. The roughriders wear the same thing and have the same poufy haircut, despite one being an American and the other being Japanese. Meia is plucky. I hate plucky. And, of course, I’ve already pledged my undying hatred to the character of Jack. Also, what are the odds that those glowing space nuts would all go basically to the same place, even though we saw them fly off in eight random directions? Seriously, five go to the same BUILDING, one shows up late, one goes to a barren wasteland, and the last one was on Urocco’s vine-vestments the whole time. What stupid nuts.
Despite these nitpicks, and the fact that it really isn’t any good at all, I have a lot of fondness for Message from Space. It’s not quite on the same level of adult-nostalgia (being that I never saw these movies as a kid but they make me feel like one) as Battle Beyond the Stars and Starcrash, but it’s pretty close. I just love space opera. Get over it, fuckers. I’m sorry I swore at you. I mean, how could you not love a movie that contains this?