13 vintage Japanese sci-fi movies to pair with some sushi and sake

Contributed by
Dec 7, 2016

Godzilla isn’t the only immense import from Japan to make waves like a turbulent tsunami. Some of the most entertainingly bizarre science fiction has slithered out of the country that brought us anime, manga, mochi, sushi and kaiju. The monstrous tokusatsu (huge on the special effects) films that crawled onto Japanese screens in the '60s and '70s managed to breed every imaginable horror storyline, from bioluminescent walking mushrooms to mammoth mutated jellyfish.

Tokusatsu is a Frankenstein’s monster style of filmmaking pieced together from epic kabuki fight scenes and creepy bunraku puppets of traditional Japanese theater. Kaiju are a species of movie monster that evolved from this hybridization. Many sci-fi movies were invaded by kaiju, whose name literally translates to “strange beast.” Most of these mega-tentacled leviathans were superpowered stuntmen in rubber suits, wreaking havoc on a miniature model of Tokyo. However, some tokusatsu films rocketed into the future of science fiction by using unconventional techniques to create the illusion of a skyscraper-sized behemoth with far too many rows of teeth descending on a helpless metropolis.

Skip the tea ceremony and fast-forward right to these 13 outlandish movies from the other side of the planet.

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Dagora, the Space Monster (1964)

Someone must have called Cthulhu from Japan, because it looks like he mated with a jellyfish and sent his tentacled spawn to ravage the earth in Dagora, the Space Monster. Said Cthuloid also has a peculiar taste for rock candy — it craves actual diamonds like human preteens crave Pixie Stix. Investigators have to get their hands on this thing's junk food of choice before it polishes off millions of dollars’ worth of potential engagement rings. So, what is the glob of gelatinous protoplasm actually made of? It’s a writhing mass of special effects that uses bluescreen, otherworldly optical effects and miniatures that make it look like glowing greenish tentacles are actually slithering down from the chasm of outer space. 

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Yog—Monster From Space (1970)

Creeping on with accidental Lovecraftian references (think Yog-Shoggoth), the English title for this movie, alternately called Space Amoeba, was an attempt to shorten the gargantuan title that translated from Japanese as Gezora, Ganimes, and Kamoebas: Decisive Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas. An amoeba you definitely don’t need a microscope to see crashes to Earth and proceeds to make lab experiments out of the things crawling on our shores. Creatures mutated by the Space Amoeba may look straight out of R’lyeh, but are actually based on the scariest sea life in Japan: The stone crab and kisslip cuttlefish, which look like aliens waiting to happen, and the Matamata turtle, the neck of which could easily be mistaken for a chainsaw. The most shocking thing of all? This monstrosity is rated G. 

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The Human Vapor (1960)

From the same studio that brought Godzilla stomping into Tokyo comes a semi-corporeal criminal who is literally not all there. He can thank the twisted biologist who promised him immeasurable power through quasi-invisibility, using atomic science to make human flesh dissolve into a ghostly, blue, phosphorescent gas. He can pull off a bank heist and then vaporize himself, seeping out from underneath the door of his jail cell is if he were just some convict's cigarette smoke. The weird science behind Vapor's superhuman ability to vanish into thin air is actually a mashup of shots that gives the illusion of going from flesh and blood to an empty suit deflating on the floor. Watch for subtle American toilet humor in the Japanese title, Gas Human No. 1.  

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Invasion of the Neptune Men (1961)

This one might give you déjà vu from an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Aliens aside, what's even more disturbing is that certain scenes have been eerily mistaken for snapshots of a bona fide WWII documentary—not exactly the kind of reality show a postwar audience wanted to tune in to. Stock footage swiped from a movie called World War III Breaks Out will do that. Even the costumes are so bad they’re good. From the Neptunian invaders’ warped take on galactic chic, accessorized with helmets that could have fit a Conehead, to hero Iron Sharp’s blinding aluminum-foil-esque space suit, there is so much metallic silver nylon in this movie that you may need to wear sunglasses with extra UV protection. Sharp also rides around in a tin can masquerading as a spaceship, which you’ll secretly wish was parked in your garage. 

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Gorath (1962)

While there are enough exploding and erupting phenomena here for any disaster movie aficionado, the real star of Gorath is Maguma. Thanks to an astral corpse on a collision course with Earth, the dinosaur-age walrus (whose name is a play on volcanic magma) wakes from its deep freeze under Antarctic ice after sleeping in for millions of years. Maguma's massive mutant suit was dreamed up by special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya. The rubber blubber was later recycled for Japanese sci-fi TV series Ultra Q, regenerating as tusked behemoth Todola. While Maguma makes the same predictable ooo-eeeeee-oooooo sounds every other kaiju makes in every other Japanese sci-fi film from the '60s and '70s, who cares when you’re watching a massive prehistoric life form with enormous fluorescent green eyes and teeth like telephone poles smashing everything to splinters?

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Atragon (1963)

“The most devastating device man has created”, aka the submarine Atragon, tunnels through subterranean territory with an enormous drill, manned by men in white coveralls that make them look like proto-Stormtroopers. This is one to watch with a bottle of sake within reach, because things just keep getting weirder from there. Cultish worshippers in white robes gather to invoke the gods of terror in what looks like a mass séance that's only missing a Necronomicon. What is a really obviously rubber sea dragon — as in so obvious that you wouldn’t be surprised to find it floating around in the neighbors’ pool — tries to sink its teeth into the undersea tin can. Flying saucers rain from the clouds. If you could swear you've seen a few of the disaster scenes before, it's not the rice wine, because they've terrorized you before in Mothra.   

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Matango (1963)

Something trippier than Sailor Moon actually exists, and it’s overrun by day-glo human mushrooms. Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People) is a product of the hallucinogenic culture of the '60s, and was almost banned in Japan for makeup that was eerily reminiscent of the mutations suffered by victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s also why you will dread ever getting stranded on a remote island without humanoid life forms to warn you what not to eat. Forget about making a mushroom soufflé. So much as breathing in the noxious fumes of this humungous fungus will glow a sickly green before morphing into one. Matango's mushroom magic was latex in the early stages, which rapidly evolved into freakish foam suits that could pass for distant relatives of Musty Moldy Melvin.

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Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)

You know something is amiss when random screams tear through the silence. You know something is paranormal when you almost trip over a blood-drained corpse seconds later, and a vampire alien speaks through someone you called human not even 24 hours ago. It seems that the special effects artists couldn’t make up their minds about how bodies are supposed to decompose in this movie, because while one crumbles and collapses into dust (like a vampire exposed to sunlight should), another morphs into a gelatinous blue blob and yet another shrivels into what could pass for an unwrapped Egyptian mummy. At the freezing point of the Cold War in Japan, Hajime Sato’s cult thriller was actually a serious political message disguised in fake blood and special effects. Even stranger is that the studio which released it in the US previously flaunted its sex appeal as a star of—wait for it—the adult film industry. 

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Submersion of Japan (1973)

Earthquakes! Eruptions! Firestorms! Tsunami! Killer waves wiping out entire rows of houses! Horrified hordes of people swarming in the streets! Who cares about the plot when you’ve got a montage of every conceivable disaster that can happen on Earth blown up to supernatural proportions onscreen? You barely even get acquainted with the characters before something else explodes. Just about every emotion in this epic disaster movie is panic, which is really all you need to know. Submersion shook the US box office when it was recovered from the ashes and resurrected as New World Pictures’ Tidal Wave by producer Roger Corman and director Andrew Meyer (no dubbing or subtitles necessary). For catastrophe-philes everywhere, it later made monstrous waves as a TV show that crashed into even more budget wreckage.  

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Half Human (1955)

This abominable snowman is definitely not Humble Bumble from the stop-motion animation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s 9 feet and 1800 pounds of hairy, scary destruction that flings its own worshippers to a fiery death, and brings on an avalanche with a stamp of a foot that probably has a triple-digit shoe size. Brought to life by (not surprisingly) Godzilla's original production team, the film better known as Monster Snowman in Japan became taboo for a racist undercurrent of inbreeding and violence. While the abominable snowthing was originally supposed to look like Bumble’s evil twin with even bigger teeth, director Ishirō Honda wanted to make the monstrous creature more approachable. The only sword that can slay it? Poisonous mushrooms à la Matango. What exactly is it with Japanese sci-fi and hallucinogenic fungi… 

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Warning from Space (1956)

Watch this and one thing you won't want included with the pina coladas and tiny paper umbrellas on your next beach vacation is a starfish. It might end up masquerading as human only to reveal itself as a five-legged extraterrestrial echinoderm with one gargantuan eye. Not exactly the kind of thing you’d want to find out over a seaside brunch alfresco. Even if it intended to warn you of impending nuclear doom from an enemy planet, you’ll probably have sprinted to the other side of Tokyo from sheer terror by then. At least the tentacles won’t unstick from you until the nuclear threat is obliterated. Produced on the heels of Godzilla, Warning From Space was among the stampede of kaiju films that followed the fire-belching dinosaur after its immense reptilian feet smashed box offices worldwide. Horrible reviews also didn’t keep this many-armed disaster from being inspiration fodder for Gorath and even 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

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Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)

Never take shady orders to seize the immortal heart of Frankenstein from a Nazi lab, even it is for biological research. Creeping around that jungle of chemicals is a feral boy who has built up a mysterious resistance to radiation. Like a scene from a sci-fi soap opera, Teen Frankenstein breaks out and terrorizes most of Japan years later, all because someone took a little too long debating whether to cut a limb off and see if it grows back. That wasn’t the only indecision looming over this movie. Uncertainty over throwing in a massive mollusk led to an alternate eight-legged ending that mutated the title to Frankenstein vs. the Giant Devilfish. Also, taxonomy fail. The monster’s nemesis Baragon, threateningly called the “prehistoric mastodon of destruction” in the trailer voice-over, is actually a huge one-horned lizard. Someone’s biology teacher was facepalming in a movie theater somewhere when this was released.

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The X From Outer Space (1967)

So egregiously awful it's almost mesmerizing, The X From Outer Space is one of those movies at which you can’t help laughing even when some sort of dinosaur hybrid is projectile-spitting fireballs at the screaming masses of Tokyo. This is why you never bring home stuff you randomly picked up in space for show and tell. When astronauts find alien spores floating around Mars, the specimens just have to be studied in a petri dish back on Earth—because science. Now it’s trampling cars and guzzling nuclear fuel by the tank. While the rubber suit that is Guilala doesn’t look like much more than one of those rubber dollar-store Godzillas with a red-eyed chicken head, that’s exactly what makes it so hilarious to watch as it storms through the city on its ridiculous rampage. Pass the wasabi popcorn.