Space Amoeba
Japan | 1970
Directed by Ishirô Honda
Starring
Akira Kubo
Atsuko Takahashi
Yukiko Kobayashi
Color
| 84 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Tokyo Shock
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8
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Guest Review by Troy Guinn
If there was a Mount Rushmore-style monument dedicated to the Japanese fantasy film, it might very well feature these four likenesses: Tomoyuki Tanaka, producer at Toho film studio, who, while on a plane trip over the Pacific, first imagined the creature that the world would come to know as Godzilla; Ishirô Honda, at one time the assistant director to the great Akira Kurosawa, and director of Toho's kaiju eiga (giant monster films) and virtually every classic Toho sci-fi/fantasy film of the '60s; Eiji Tsubaraya, the special effects master whose miniature and 'suit-mation' craftsmanship gave magical form to Honda and Tanaka's visions; and Akira Ifukube, the maestro, composer of stirring, ominously memorable scores that gave those scenes of men in monster costumes wrestling and stomping amidst model cities a tone of mythic gravity and tragedy.
    These four men, aided immeasurably by a well of fine actors to draw from, put their stamp on every Godzilla film of the late 1950s and '60s, as well as Rodan, Mothra, Atragon, Matango, and other milestones of the Japanese genre film. In the first month of the 1970s, Eiji Tsuburaya died while supervising the effects for Godzilla's Revenge. His passing was only the first of many significant changes Toho was to face that year. 1970 would see Toho's proud studio system come to an end, fragmenting into numerous, smaller companies, the film projects fewer, to be farmed out to independent firms instead of created in-house. As it turned out, the last film that would bear the earmarks of Toho's "Golden Age" would not be a Godzilla vehicle. That distinction would belong to an offbeat and entertaining film that went into production in April, 1970, entitled Space Amoeba.
    An unmanned space probe, Helios 7, is sent to explore Jupiter, but encounters a mysterious "cloud". This obviously purposeful amorphous entity seeps into the probe, which soon reverses its course back to Earth. Jaded photojournalist Taro Kudo (the usually clean-cut Akira Kubo, playing very nicely against type), flying home from an assignment, catches a glimpse of Helios 7 falling towards the Pacific Ocean. Once in Japan, Kudo cannot convince his boss or anyone else of what he has seen. He is approached by Ayako Hoshino (Atsuko Takahashi) a perpetually cheerful young woman who represents a company that wants to develop Selgio Island, and wants Kudo to accompany her to the island to take publicity photos. Kudo initially dismisses the assignment as beneath him, but his interest is peeked when he learns that an old acquaintance, biologist Dr. Kyoichi Miya (Yoshio Tsuchiya) is coming along to investigate legends of monsters on Selgio. When Kudo also realizes that the island is located in the vicinity of where he saw Helios 7 go down, he sees a chance to get photographic evidence proving his story, and agrees to join the expedition. While on the voyage that will carry them to the island, they are approached by Makoto Obata, who claims to be an anthropologist interested in research on Selgio Island. Obata is played by Kenji Sahara, another actor normally given heroic roles. One look at him here, though, in his hilariously tacky suit, tinted shades, pointed beard, and cigarette holder, and we just know he's up to no good. I've always gotten a kick out of the cartoonish depiction of sinister or shady characters in director Honda's fantasy films, and Obata here is no exception, at least in appearance. However, his character eventually reveals more layers than we initially expect.
    Meanwhile, the legendary squid-like monster Gezora makes an appearance on Selgio Island, attacking a pair of company employees, killing one in the process. When the researchers arrive on the island, they are met with hostility by the natives, except for one named Rico, who explains that the natives blame Gezora's anger on the Japanese exploitation of the island. During a subsequent attack by Gezora, in which he destroys the researchers' hut and kills another employee, Rico sees that the monster has a key weakness, but the attack shocks him into amnesia before he can relate to the others what he has seen. Kudo discovers that Obata is a spy hired by another firm to steal the development plans, but eventually all the human inhabitants must put aside their differences as more horrors are unleashed on Selgio. Dr. Miya realizes that an alien force has returned inside Helios 7, intent on world conquest and using monsters as its tools, first Gezora, then the turtle-like Kamoebas and the giant crab, Ganimes. A desperate struggle to survive begins, as the humans find elements at their disposal to combat the invisible Alien and the horrific monsters it controls; fire, military weapons discovered in an island garrison abandoned after WWII, and, when Rico recovers from his amnesia and reveals that Gezora can be hurt by ultrasonic frequencies, even other animal inhabitants of the island are employed by the resourceful heroes. As Kudo says, "The united forces of earth creatures porpoises, bats, and men... Who'd believe this story?"
    Space Amoeba was released in the U.S. under the title Yog, Monster from Space. I've never heard a reason for this re-titling, but the interviewer on the DVD's audio commentary speculates that Gezora's appearance is a bit like H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu, thus the Yog title might be a reference to the Lovecraftian entity Yog-Sothoth. This might be a stretch, but it's true that if bat wings were given to Gezora, he might pass as an interpretation of old H.P.'s favorite dreaming cephalopod. In any case, Gezora failed to captivate the public like Toho's popular fire-breathing lizard, and it would be nearly three decades before the studio made another giant monster movie that didn't feature Godzilla (1996's Rebirth Of Mothra).
    Space Amoeba/Yog has been largely forgotten, perhaps the most under-referenced Japanese fantasy film of that era, and if it played television at all in my hometown, my usually-watchful eyes missed it. I was really eager to watch the DVD, since it was the only old-school Toho giant monster movie I had never seen, but the film's general lack of reputation had me expecting something only mildly appealing. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to find the film to be a fast-paced, humorous ride that definitely has all the charm and conviction one associates with the classic Toho kaiju eiga. There are weaknesses, to be sure: the "alien hell-bent on conquering Earth via the use of giant monsters" plot had already gotten a bit worn by this point, and this alien is even more one-dimensional than other Toho aliens such as The Kilaaks or The Mysterians. Additionally, there seems to have been a plan early on to give the monster Gezora some depth. "He reads our hearts by telepathy," says Rico, but this is never expanded on or indicated by any of the monster's actions. The opening credits, though dramatic, are something of a tease as well, as it hints that there will be a fight between all three monsters (and in fact, the publicity still that always turned up in Famous Monsters magazine suggested the same thing), but the anticipated monster asskick-a-trois never happens, though Ganimes and Kamoebas do have a decent rumble towards the end. The monster action is really the draw here, let's face it, so the lack of a really big battle was a letdown to this 40-year old kid.
    As for the monsters themselves, the designs and execution are imaginative, particularly Gezora, a two-piece suit with multiple legs that must be second only to King Ghidorah in complexity of operation. Sadamasa Arikawa supervised the effects work, and looked to be a worthy successor to the late Tsubaraya. The effects and model-work are skillfully handled, except for a few unconvincing human miniatures. Arikawa left Toho after this film, and one can only wonder how his expertise might have improved the remaining Godzilla films in the '70s, even when faced with the series' declining production budgets.
    One of the more unique elements of the monsters in Space Amoeba is that they are of considerably smaller-scale than Godzilla and the fellow monsters in his mythos. This allows director Honda to be more creative with his camera placement, enhancing the plight of the humans, bringing more intimacy to the attacks on the villages, and also allowing for the creation of an impressive large scale model village. More important than that, the smaller scale of the monsters allows the human characters to be able to convincingly cause some damage as they combat them, something rare in a kaiju eiga, where the Japanese army usually just launches itself to be swatted away in contempt by Godzilla and his brethren. In Space Amoeba, the 'puny human' protagonists are actually able to use their wits and weapons and fight back against the marauding beasts. This, as much as anything, reminds one of what is missing from the Godzilla films of the '70s, '90s, and onward...Honda's deeply felt humanism that infused his work. Obata, the character that we have distrusted from the start, is possessed at one point by the alien, but as he struggles against the aliens' influence, he proves the truth of a comment spoken earlier by Dr. Miya, that "man is more than a structure of cells, he has a soul." Honda's optimism and respect for life is what gave meaning to these fantastical tales, and if Akira Ifukube's music does not deviate much from his norm (other than the calypso-like cue heard over the opening Toho logo), it's still dramatic enough to underscore the serious dedication with which the golden era of Japanese fantasy films were made.
    Of course, selling the story falls first and foremost on the cast, and part of the poignant experience of watching Space Amoeba is in knowing that this would be the last film to use the Toho stock company of actors. One's appreciation of these thespians only grows with exposure to the more offbeat Toho films such as Matango, Dogora, and the film reviewed here. Attractive, versatile, and charismatic, actors like Kubo, Sahara, Tsuchiya, as well as Akira Takarada and Kumi Mizuno, could inhabit roles by turns villainous, heroic, and comic; they could draw you in despite the sometimes overwhelming size' of the titular monster 'stars'. After Space Amoeba, Toho would be forced to draw its future casts from the ranks of television... and the lack of big screen experience and big-screen presence would be greatly felt.

Once again, Media Blasters' Tokyo Shock line has given a kaiju eiga a respectful and excellent DVD presentation. In fact, the only thing that prevents this release from getting full marks is the rather stingy number of chapters, a mere 8 total. The 2:35:1 print is stunning, showing off Taiichi Kankura's beautiful island cinematography. Both the English dub and the original Japanese language, English-subtitled versions are included, nor does Media Blasters skimp when it comes to adding cool extras to their Toho releases. (Are you paying attention, Sony?) First, we are given a short documentary examining the marine animals used as a basis for the three monsters in Space Amoeba, and a trailer with narration that hints at the humorous slant of future Toho films ("Giant monsters! How scary!") Best of all is an audio commentary, as an unnamed interviewer discusses the film with Fumio Tanaka, who co-produced Space Amoeba with Tomoyuki Tanaka (no relation). The gentlemen have a fun time with the film (at one point speculating what type sushi Gezora would make, and commenting on his "sexy" walk) but there is a definite bittersweet tone as Tanaka recounts the post-history of this production, when the Toho management structure changed, and its various departments went independent. There was no longer any sense of a family, of actors and technicians united under one roof. Tanaka reveals that films after this became painful to make, as there were fewer of them and so expectations on each one became greater.
    So, rather than being an inconsequential footnote in Toho history, Space Amoeba turns out to be essential viewing for anyone studying the Japanese sci-fi/fantasy film's golden era. As Tanaka wistfully declares in his commentary, this film was "the last of a good time, a great era, when young people had more freedom."
5/24/06

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