We Interrupt This JFF Plus Report for a Warning from Space

It’s Day 5 and I’ve gone rogue. I decided to skip the day’s programming entirely and instead watch Shima Koji’s Warning from Space [Uchūjin Tokyo ni arawaru] (1956), Japan’s first science fiction film made in colour.

The story follows a fairly standard 1950s science fiction movie model. While making routine observations of the sky, Dr. Isobe (Kawasaki Keizô) spots an unknown object which approaches the Earth, stops, and begins to emit smaller objects. These coincide with power disruptions in the area and bright lights in the sky, fuelling public speculation about flying saucers, an idea which is ridiculed until the sober scientists are finally able to compare notes. It also marks the beginning of a number of sightings of giant glowing starfish stalking the streets which leave behind a luminescent, mildly radioactive blue goo.

After half an hour or so of the slow build, we finally meet the Paisan aliens on their craft in the most hypnotic scene of the entire movie. Six people stand around in starfish costumes, with a glowing central eye indicating which of the Paisans is talking – which is a more important visual cue than you might think, since we can’t hear anything other than a background electronic burbling. Pillars of Japanese text appear on either side of the screen to inform the viewer of the Paisans’ conversation, which reveals that they have come to Earth to save us from ourselves but appear to inspire panic whenever they are seen. Their leader pulls a polaroid out of nowhere and somehow flicks it across the room to be pinned against the wall – as this is an example of what Earthlings consider beautiful, one of the aliens will sacrifice their form and allow themselves to be transformed into her identical double (despite disparaging comments about that ugly blob in the middle of her face, i.e. her nose).

The photograph depicts famous nightclub dancer Aozora Hikari (Tomoyi Karita), who we have just seen in what appeared to be an entirely gratuitous dance number. Given that the filmmakers go on to insert an even longer and more gratuitous dance number a little later on, this is clearly a blatant excuse for the studio to show off their new talent and attempt to promote her as an up-and-coming star – an attempt that was unsuccessful, since she apparently had a very short career. The secondary purpose of these scenes seems to be pure revelry in how different things look in colour. There are numerous scenes throughout the picture of people going about aspects of their daily lives which otherwise have little narrative purpose, even considering that lengthy scenes of people walking from one location to another were still a common sight back then.

The transformed alien, using the name Ginko, is found floating in the bay and taken in by the scientists, who know there’s something odd about her because her white blood cell count is too high. After demonstrating an astonishing leaping ability during a game of tennis, Ginko reveals her true purpose – to warn Dr. Matsuda (Yamagata Isao) against the development of Element 101 (your generic “more dangerous than a nuclear bomb” element), and to warn the people of Earth about the approach of Planet R on a collision course, which can only be averted by firing all of the world’s nuclear missiles at it simultaneously. The Paisans have approached Japan since, as the only nation to have been subjected to atomic attack, they are in the best position to appreciate the danger. Unfortunately the rest of the world is inclined to think that Japan is either making it up or easily deluded until the planet is close enough to detect, by which point it’s also having an adverse affect on our own planet.

Supposedly based on a novel by Nakajima Gentaro of which there appears to be no evidence, the story clearly owes a great debt to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) (the benevolent alien warning of human self-destruction) and When Worlds Collide (1951) (the discovery of a pending collision with Earth). The team of Japanese scientists investigating the situation are disappointingly generic – other than such basic distinguishing characteristics such as “the young one” or “the one who invented the element”, there’s very little to differentiate one character from another and I quickly lost track of who was who. This isn’t the first Japanese SF movie I’ve seen throw in a complication by including some opportunistic criminals, but in this case they’re bolted onto the story in a particularly clumsy way. After a sinister man offers to buy Dr. Matsuda’s formula in order to make a huge profit in the international arms trade, he disappears from the picture remarkably quickly, only to reappear to kidnap him while Tokyo is being evacuated due to the extreme weather conditions caused by the approach of Planet R. Not only are they short-sighted enough to do this when his expertise is clearly needed by the rest of the world, their strategy for making him reveal the formula appears to be to handcuff him to a chair in an evacuated flat, threaten him a little, and then disappear from the movie, leaving him alone to be rescued by the Paisans at the last minute. Neither the criminals nor the writer seem to have thought this through – which is very disappointing coming from Oguni Hideo, a screenwriter best known for his collaborations with Kurosawa Akira such as Seven Samurai [Shichinin no Samurai] (1954), Throne of Blood [Kumonosu-jō] (1957) and The Hidden Fortress [Kakushi toride no san akunin] (1958). He does bring some humour to the script, but on a purely plot level it’s underwhelming.

Warning from Space (whose original Japanese title translates as Spacemen Appear in Tokyo) was eventually picked up for American distribution in 1963, where (as was typical for Japanese SF) it was taken apart and re-edited before being dubbed. Although I haven’t watched the American version, apparently one of their priorities was to remove all evidence of humour just in case anybody thought they were mocking the material. The biggest difference, though, is that the big meeting of six Paisans in all of their costumed glory as they discuss their reason for visiting Earth has been shifted forward to the opening scene, completely undercutting the original version’s gradual build-up of menacing half-glimpsed appearances. A reversed transformation sequence showing Ginko turning back from human to Paisan has been added at the end, completing the shift in emphasis from a movie about humans struggling to survive, into a movie about aliens coming to save humanity.

In closing I have to acknowledge the renowned avant-garde artist Okamoto Tarō, who made the single most important contribution to this movie – the design of the Paisan costumes, which dominate most of the poster art and promise a far more interesting film than we actually got. The costumes are at their best in the movie when seen in the shadows with their glowing central eye. They’re a little more disappointing when seen en masse during the conference scene, but the way this scene plays as a telepathic conversation backed by abstract electronic noises in the Japanese version adds a level of eerie alienness. It was the appearance of the Paisans which drew me to the film, and they remain the best thing about it.

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