Amidst the good, the bad and the awful, drive-in audiences really lucked out with the mind-blowing, globe-spanning, double-bill of Italy’s Starcrash (1979) with the Japanese Message from Space. The joys of Luigi Cozzi’s interstellar rave are numerous (Caroline Munro in a skimpy, space-bikini; kung fu amazons, hairy troglodytes and stop-motion robots; the Hoff firing frikkin’ laser beams from his eyes!), but Kinji Fukasaku’s fast-paced space saga is the most amazing Star Wars rip-off ever made.
The peaceful planet of Jillucia is under attack. Evil invaders from the Gavanas Empire, led by samurai-styled Emperor Rockseia (Mikio Narita with his face painted silver) and his cackling, space-witch mother (Eisei Amamoto in drag) lay waste to the alien world. Lovely Princess Emeralida (Sister Streetfighter icon Etsuko Shiomi) releases eight magical seeds into the universe hoping to summon eight cosmic heroes who, as foretold in ancient prophecy, will rescue the flora-crowned fairy people of Jillucia. First up are interstellar rough riders, Shiro (Hiroyuki Sanada, the Japanese Tom Cruise) and Aaron (Philip Casanoff… Who?), and zonked-out disco dolly, Meia (Peggy Lee Brennan… Again, who?) who is super-rich and has her own chauffer-driven spaceship.
Hyperactive sleaze-ball, Jack (Masazumi Okabe, dressed like a space pimp) betrays Emeralida and her burly bodyguard, Urocco (Makoto Sato) to pay off a drug snorting crime lord, but has a change of heart when he and the teens are plagued by prophetic dreams. World-weary, alcoholic earthman General Garuda (down on his luck special guest star: Vic Morrow) and his faithful robot buddy, Beba 2 (Isamu Shimuzu) find their magic seeds and join the cause. But planet Earth is next in line for conquest by the mighty Gavanas armada, despite their heroic defence led by World President Ernest Noguchi (Tetsuro Tamba - who stars in practically every Japanese cult movie, but is best known for playing ‘Tiger’ Tanaka in You Only Live Twice (1967)).
Stranded on a deserted planet, the youngsters are rescued by dashing Prince Hans (the great Sonny Chiba), rightful heir to the Gavanas throne. With all eight heroes in place, the good guys launch an all-out assault upon the Gavanian flagship, but face vast armies, witchcraft and treachery.
Produced by Toei Studios, and filmed under the title “Star Wars in Japan”, this $6 million space opera was the most expensive movie made in Japan at that time. It’s disco-era daffiness rubs some up the wrong way, but the vast spectacle, non-stop energy and restless invention, coupled with touches of offbeat poetry dazzled youngsters across the Far East and won a faithful fan following. Sure, with galactic dogfights, cuddly robots and characters called Meia and Hans, the thefts from Star Wars are pretty shameless. However, the story actually reworks the ancient Japanese folktale, The Hakkenden, and Kinji Fukasaku (who later adapted the story more faithfully in Legend of the Eight Samurai (1984)) draws more from Toei’s history of anime, samurai and yakuza films.
Manga genius Shotaro Ishinomori co-wrote the script and designed the overall look of the film, which is more whimsical in tone than the lived-in, “believable” universe of Star Wars. Sorcery co-exists with sci-fi gadgetry and Jules Verne imagery, as Fukasaku plays with a treasury of pop culture: Princess Emeralida flies a spaceship that looks like a 19th century galleon; our heroes float across the stars like Peter Pan, chasing “space fireflies”; there are space traffic cops and intergalactic nightclubs full of mutant yakuza and glittery dancing girls. Special effects are your typical Japanese model spaceships, optical laser fire and cel animation sequences rather than the groundbreaking work achieved by I.L.M. However, only a curmudgeonly Asian cinema-phobe would deny they are often beautiful to behold and achieve a certain grandeur on the big screen or watched on DVD.
Like many Asian cult classics, Message from Space shifts tone and focus several times, which means a few subplots fall by the wayside. The supposed romance between Aaron and Princess Emeralida is pretty inexplicable since they hardly speak to each other, and the closing scene shows her snuggling next to Prince Hans. No surprise, since he and Shiro do all the work while whiny Aaron throws a temper tantrum every five minutes. Amidst a cast drawn from the Japanese A-list and, perversely, the Hollywood Z-list, Toei’s roster of superstars attack their roles with passionate intensity, while Philip Casanoff seems to have modelled his performance on John Travolta in 70s sitcom Welcome Back, Mr. Kotter. Much-maligned Peggy Lee Brennan is actually quite engaging in her childlike sincerity, while poor Vic Morrow mostly looks confused. He was recruited into this after his TV show, Combat! became a big hit in Japan.
Fukusaku drops allusions to Don Quixote, with Beba 2 playing Sancho Panza to Garuda’s aging knight. An ambitious filmmaker, he often transcends weak material (his infamous sci-fi turkey The Green Slime (1968) was originally intended to be a Vietnam parable in space) and stays true to the themes of his samurai movies and crime dramas. Disillusioned youth and world-weary old men struggle with greed, cowardice and self-loathing, before finally finding hope and redemption in one, last, glorious adventure. Even the closing scene, which shows the heroes are huddled beside hopeful survivors and orphaned children as they fly into the stars in search of a better world, is surprisingly moving. Ken Ichiro’s soaring score is quite lovely, if at times suspiciously similar to John Williams’ “Princess Leia Theme”.
Hiroyuki Sanada returned for a spin-off television series, later edited into a feature film called Swords of the Space Ark (1979). A cult favourite in its own right, the show adds a blonde space-fairy, gives Rockseia a sex-change and replaces Philip Casanoff with a talking orangutan.