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The most important (but forgotten) Japanese sci-fi classic

Contributed by
Dec 28, 2017

Legendary Japanese director Ishiro Honda’s alien invasion classic The Mysterians (1957), which premiered 60 years ago this month, is a film seldom seen by western tokusatsu fans, but its influence on the genre has been immeasurable. Sci-fi enthusiasts around the world cherish Godzilla movies such as Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) and Destroy All Monsters (1968) — just two of many films that blended the alien invasion story with the giant monster story — but not as many are familiar with the one that paved the way for these pictures in the first place.

Honda's original Godzilla (1954) notwithstanding, no other film in the history of Japanese science fiction has had more extensive influence than The Mysterians. And so, this being the film’s 60th anniversary, SYFY WIRE felt now would be an opportune time to look back on Honda’s somewhat overlooked film, and remind fans why they owe it to themselves to see it if they have not already.

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This was not the first Japanese sci-fi picture to feature aliens, but it established a series of tropes still used in the genre today. In the film, the titular Mysterians arrive on Earth claiming to be peaceful beings. Their technology is vastly superior to man’s, having developed hydrogen bombs while Earth was still in the Neolithic Age, but they profess no wish for confrontation. All they say they want is a two-mile strip of land and the right to marry terrestrial women. (Their home planet was destroyed in a global nuclear war, and radioactive contamination has resulted in 80% of their children bearing physical deformities.)

But, sure enough, their actual goal soon becomes clear: world domination. The result is an all-out war between the people of Earth and the outsiders from the cosmos.

You might already be thinking this plot bears a small similarity to that of Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), in which the seemingly peaceful residents of Planet X offer a miracle drug to humankind in exchange for their help, only to double-cross them as soon as their guard is down. Or how about the extraterrestrials in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), who pretend to save earth from a widespread monster attack and later turn out to have been controlling the monsters the whole time? The Mysterians didn’t perfect this bait-and-switch screenwriting technique, but its eponymous beings claiming to be peaceful while harboring a wish to dominate has left a lingering influence in Japanese sci-fi all these decades later.

Also common in such films is a character swapping allegiances. We all remember the tragic female leads of Invasion of Astro-Monster and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), who side with the invaders, realize their errors, and sacrifice themselves in order to save the planet. Compare that to The Mysterians, in which a knowledge-hungry astrophysicist initially teams up with the aliens and, after discovering their treachery, dies while destroying their base. Now, the original Godzilla (1954) featured a conflicted person who self-sacrifices for the better of mankind, but The Mysterians implemented the allegiance-oriented character arc, which has been mimicked many times over in films with similar stories.

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“I would like to wipe away the [Cold War-era] notion of East versus West.”
- Ishiro Honda

The movie’s Japanese title, Chikyu Boeigun, literally translates to Earth Defense Force— perhaps more fitting, considering this picture catapulted Honda’s recurring theme of world unity to the forefront. This was the first sci-fi film in which the director depicted various nations actively working together to solve a greater crisis.

Please note some historical context: The 1950s witnessed a major technological race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both were rapidly expanding their nuclear programs, and the Russians triggered the Space Race with the launching of Sputnik—a mere three months before The Mysterians was released! At the time of this film, the Cold War was still in its early stages. However, in Honda's film, all the nations of the world, including the aforementioned superpowers, set aside their differences and unite to combat the alien menace that threatens everyone. As one character puts it: “Japan’s trouble today will be theirs tomorrow.”

Honda returned to this humanitarian theme in Battle in Outer Space (1959) and stuck with it well into the 1960s with films such as Gorath (1962) and Destroy All Monsters (1968); and before long, it was being picked up by other Japanese science fiction directors. In 1965, rival studio Daiei took a page out of Honda’s book with Gamera the Giant Monster, repeating the subplot of Americans and Soviets assisting Japan in a moment of crisis. 1984’s The Return of Godzilla begins with the U.S. and the Russians on the verge of atomic war; but by the end of the picture, the two superpowers cooperate with Japan to prevent a nuclear warhead from detonating in Tokyo.

The trend filtered into more recent pictures, such as Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) and Shin Godzilla (2016), which presented, to varying degrees of effectiveness, cooperation among multiple nations.

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And now, the other big reason why The Mysterians holds a special place in the history of Japanese science fiction: It was here that the idea of invaders controlling a monster and sending it to attack mankind came to be. Fans who only know Mogera as the human-operated machine protecting Japan in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) may be surprised by Mogera’s role here.

In his first outing, Mogera is a radio-controlled pawn of the Mysterians, burrowing out of a mountainside and wreaking havoc upon a local town in what is unquestionably the film’s most intense action sequence. And though the 1994 incarnation of Mogera has been popularized (this is the version you see in most media, including video games), the 1957 original holds a much more vital place in cinematic history.

True, Mogera is not a kaiju in the same sense as Godzilla or Rodan, but without this first stepping stone— this very crucial idea of aliens controlling a monster — films such as Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), Destroy All Monsters (1968), Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) might’ve turned out quite different. And that’s overlooking its influence on a few entries in Daiei’s Gamera series, video games such as the trilogy put out by Atari, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (to cite an example of influence outside Japan), and many others!

How different the tokusatsu cinematic landscape might’ve been had it not been for this one incredibly influential 60-year-old movie, which every fan of Japanese science fiction should, if they haven’t already, seek out.


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