Thursday, June 19, 2008

Japanese Whispers

One film unfairly saddled with the “Star Wars rip off” (SWRO) label is Jun Fukuda’s Wakusei Daisenso / War in Space. Released in 1977, this lackluster Japanese production is related closer to Ishiro Honda’s 1959 work Uchu Daisenso / Battle in Outer Space than George Lucas’s film of the same year. In Wakusei Daisenso, a team of United Nations astronauts climb aboard the Gohten and head to Venus to rescue June (Yûko Asano), who’s been outfitted in a pair of leather panties and bustier while held captive by self-proclaimed “Emperor of the Galaxy” Commander Hell and his oversized wooly space demon. With his green skin and Centurion helmet, Hell is a dead ringer for Marvin the Martian and proves to be about as much of a threat (even without a Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator). Apart from the horned, axe-wielding creature that might be mistaken for a Wookie at fifty paces and one character bemoaning, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” the similarities between Wakusei Daisenso and Star Wars are tenuous at best.

The same can nearly be said about the 1978 Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) film Uchu Kara No Messeji / Message from Space. Closer to Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, the hapless Jillucians are suppressed by the steel-skinned Gavanas. In a desperate bid, eight magical walnuts (!) are cast into space to seek out a group of heroes that might save the peaceful aliens. The walnuts are found by a group of annoying twenty-somethings and General Garuda (Vic Morrow)—a drunken soldier with an unnatural affinity for robots.

After some painfully tedious longueurs, including a hunt for space fireflies, the movie seems to reset itself with the rediscovery of the walnuts, as if the filmmakers had been so bored with their own film that they had forgotten the earlier scenes. Things finally get in gear over an hour into the proceedings with the introduction of Prince Hans (Sonny Chiba). He’s got an acorn around his neck and an axe to grind with Gavanas leader Rockseia XLL (Mikio Narita).

Apart from General Garuda’s robot pal, Beba, and a spaceflight down a narrow passage to destroy the Gavanas’s power source (which, in all fairness, looks like the finale of Return of the Jedi), the likenesses between Message from Space and Star Wars generally end at the opening credits.

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