release date: August 18, 2009
retail price: $24.96
details: 1x DVD5 + 2x DVD9 / NTSC / Region 1
film: The H-Man
a.k.a. Bijo to Ekitainingen
company: Toho Co. ltd.
runtime: 86′ / 78′
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa,
Akihiko Hirata, Eitaro Ozawa
film: Battle in Outer Space
a.k.a. Uchu Daisenso
company: Toho Co. ltd.
runtime: 93′ / 93′
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Ryo Ikebe, Kyoko Anzai,
Koreya Senda, Yoshio Tsuchiya
company: Toho Co. ltd.
runtime: 101′ / 90′
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi,
Kyoko Kagawa, Jerry Ito
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This has been a long time coming from Sony / Columbia Pictures, who have been sitting on renewed rights to a trio of Toho-produced science fiction and fantasy classics for the past 20 years. The good news is that this Icons of Sci-Fi collection [hopefully the first of many more to come] is well worth the wait, a few nagging caveats aside. I think it best that we get those out of the way right now.
The biggest complaint I have is with just how cheaply the set appears to have been put together – this is a far cry from the excellent slim-case packaging of the earlier Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman Collection. The cover is a aesthetically off-putting blob of photoshop madness that’s far beneath what we know Sony can produce when they put their minds to it. The packaging itself is a single Amaray case with a single hub used to house all three discs in a small stack, making scratching during removal all but inevitable [this reviewer's first action after opening the set was to put each disc in a proper case of its own and chuck the one provided in the garbage]. Then there is the labelling of the discs themselves, which is just printed text on the silver DVD surface. I expect this kind of garbage from companies like Mill Creek or Navarre, but from a major studio it’s nigh on unacceptable.
Less a complaint than an admission of personal disappointment is the lack of supplemental material [beyond the two fine audio commentaries, to be discussed below] for the set. Both Toho and Sony / Columbia Pictures have trailers for these films in storage, but they are nowhere to be found on this set. The most we get is a bit of cross-marketing via a trio of previews for unrelated releases that can be found on the disc for THE H-MAN.
That said, the set’s retail price is low and the sale price at most online retail outlets even lower – I snagged my copy for less than what a bootlegged disc of any one of these films would have cost from popular fan venues like Video Daikaiju and for a third of what a R2 Toho disc can be imported for.
It’s also important to note that all three films in this set received digital restorations from Sony, which recreated the English dubbed editions through a combination of their own less than stellar elements with new interpositives provided by Toho Co. ltd. The image quality remains consistent between the English dubbed and original Japanese versions, as shown in the second and fourth captures from THE H-MAN. While some dust, speckling and minor damage is still present, the transfers are very satisfying to behold and will be a real treat for stateside fans.
THE H-MAN is a film I fondly remember waking up early to see on the precious few occasions that it aired through the late 80s and early 90s, but my younger self couldn’t have appreciated the true spectacle of the thing from the cut and cropped version that kicked around on US television. The film follows the interweaving stories of a woman on the run, detectives out to solve a gang-related missing persons case and a young researcher looking to prove his radical hypothesis that exposure to intense radioactivity can liquify living tissue. It’s a bizarre mix of crime noir and Quatermass-inspired science fiction goodness and one of the most memorable of the non-daikaiju efforts Toho was producing at the time.
The script by Takeshi Kimura [MATANGO] from a story by Hideo Unagami is played essentially straight and offers up plenty of opportunities to showcase the horrific powers of the titular menace [and, vicariously, nuclear weaponry]. The H-men [or liquid humans, as they are referred to in the original Japanese] are the bi-product of nuclear testing in the Pacific and a unique metaphor for mankind’s more destructive tendencies. Kimura’s end message is clear – more tests mean more H-men, and more H-men mean no humans. Ishiro Honda’s direction is deft and assured, and he allows the picture to retain a welcome darkness in spite of its primary focus on entertainment. Special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya are more limited with this effort than with the other two in the set but are no less accomplished – who can forget those oozing swaths of green slime or the vistas of Tokyo waterways engulfed in flame.
Sony offers up two transfers of THE H-MAN, the original Japanese cut and the shorter English dubbed American theatrical cut, on a dual layer disc. The general details are the same, with the restored sources being presented in fine 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 Tohoscope with great color and solid contrast. Hajime Koizumi’s vivid scope cinematography is well served. Audio is presented in the original 2.0 stereo for both the English dubbed and Japanese versions, with the latter having the best fidelity overall – Masaru Sato’s lively score, one of the best out of his early work, punches through nicely. Separate easy to read English subtitles are provided for both versions. For an older Toho title THE H-MAN looks very good here, and I’ve no complaints with the presentation.
This film gets the short end of the stick in the supplements department and is the only one of the set not to feature a commentary track – a pity, really. The only supplements are a trio of trailers for unrelated Sony product.
BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, Toho’s big sci-fi special effects blockbuster for the New Years season of 1959 / 1960 plays like a thematic sequel to THE MYSTERIANS from two years earlier [there are no direct plot connections to the earlier film, though a few characters share names with characters from that film], but with the bulk of the action moved beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The story concerns a moon-based assault on our planet by the war-mongering people of Natal and the efforts of the United Nations to stop the invaders. The fantasy quotient of BATTLE is spot on. Audiences are treated to a lunar offensive by way of ray-gun armed super vehicles that look like a cross between the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile and the landmasters from DAMNATION ALLEY, an outer space dogfight between alien saucers and Earthly fighter craft and the uprooting of downtown Tokyo by the Natalian mothership.
Unfortunately the drama of BATTLE is strictly bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. Romantic interest must have been deemed necessary late in the game and seems to have been tacked on as an afterthought, with the relationship between stars Ryo Ikebe and Kyoko Anzai relegated to two brief scenes in which the former is a complete jackass. The rest of the screenplay is devoted exclusively to military / scientific babble and the stereotypical threat-speeches from the Natalian invaders. The only really promising element is the character of Iwomura played by the eccentric and ever-reliable Yoshio Tsuchiya, and his arch from scientist to Natalian slave to self-sacrificing hero is still shortchanged by the writing.
Inept as it is in the drama department, Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects direction is top-of-the line for the genre. The lengthy moon offensive and it’s bevy of blue screen work is particularly impressive, as is the first-of-its-kind outer space dogfight. Tsuburaya’s work is enough to make BATTLE a must-see for genre aficianados. Akira Ifukube’s rousing score, one of his best for the genre, is another high point of the film – the dark and melodious themes that accompany Earth’s astronauts on their first visit to the moon are not to be missed.
BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE was not edited in regards to running time by Columbia Pictures, though new titles were made and much of the Ifukube soundtrack removed in favor of bland library cues. Sony presents the film on a single layer DVD5 with seemless branching between the original Japanese and English dubbed variants. The transfer is 16:9 enhanced in the original Tohoscope ratio and looks splendid, with vibrant colors and contrast – I’ve seen this film in all manner of disrepair over the years and the restoration here is a revelation. While the vast majority of the transfer is encoded for progressive playback, the branched opening and closing segments are interlaced and a drop in quality is noticeable [particularly at the end of each version]. Audio is presented in Japanese and English, both in their original 2.0 stereo formats. Unfortunately someone seriously goofed on the subtitle front, and the only option available are the subtitles made for the English dubbed varient. That version’s talkiness leads to many subtitled lines that simply don’t exist in the original Japanese and the dub-titles are, predictably, not always accurate to the Japanese dialogue that is present.
Supplements are limited to a fine commentary track by authors Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, two of the best in the business as far as genre commentaries are concerned. The two keep the discussion lively, entertaining and, most important of all, informative. Thanks to the branched structure, the commentary track is accessible from both the English and Japanese cuts of the film.
Rounding out the collection is one of the most highly regarded of Toho’s giant monster efforts, the big budget fantasy MOTHRA. The story has a bit of a KING KONG vibe, with two young women substituted for the giant ape as the exploited centerpiece. Novel to this film is the concept of a giant monster as an impartial guardian, concerned only with the well being of the two Infant Island princesses. The peaceful culture of Infant Island exists in stark contrast to the rest of the world in MOTHRA, even with the Cold War literally knocking at its door through its use as a nuclear weapons test site by the country of Rolisica [a fictitious stand in for Cold War superpowers Russia and the United States].
MOTHRA was a huge undertaking for Toho, warranting a higher budget than was typically alotted their already largely budgeted genre pictures, and it shows. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya is at the absolute height of his talents here, creating vast cityscapes for the larval and adult Mothras to destroy. Some of the models are quite large and, as such, feature an amount of detail rarely seen in miniature work – seeing them smashed to bits by the unstoppable monster-god is pure old-school spfx bliss. A sequence in which the larval Mothra destroys a dam is simply astounding and was recreated by Teruyoshi Nakano, albeit on a smaller scale, for the much maligned GODZILLA VS. MEGALON.
The drama in this case is, in contrast to BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, quite good and balances out the picture nicely. Frankie Sakai and Kyoko Kagawa are wonderful as a trouble-causing reporter / photographer team, two characters who would be recycled [with different actors] in 1964′s MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA. Hiroshi Koizumi, one of my favorite genre actors, plays the eccentric linguist Chujo, who is forever at odds with Jerry Ito’s greedy opportunist Rolisican Clark Nelson. Nelson is one of the most ridiculous and audacious villains in Toho history, and is so identifiably bad that it’s hard not to boo and hiss whenever he’s on screen. A prime example of his character comes just before he is killed at the conclusion of the film, with Nelson stealing the cane from a hobbling elderly man and hurling it into the street. Then there is the twin sister musical act The Peanuts [Emi and Yumi Ito], whose reasonable performances and exceptional voices hold MOTHRA together.
Sony presents MOTHRA on a dual layer disc with two unique transfers – one for the English and another for the original Japanese variants of the film. Both are presented in 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 Tohoscope and are progressive, with exceptional color and contrast. The level of detail is a notch higher here, and Hajime Koizumi’s work as cinematographer is well served once again. This is easily the best looking film of the set. Audio is presented in 2.0 stereo for both films, with the original Japanese element being the most aurally satisfying. Seperate subtitles in an easily readable white font are provided for both variants.
Another choice commentary track by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski is on board as the only supplement, but it’s a welcome one. The pair are as entertaining and informative here as ever, and provide extensive background and production information for the title. The commentary track is available for the shorter English dubbed variant of MOTHRA only.
While more supplements and [especially] better packaging could have improved my reception of this set, I found myself growing more and more satisfied with it as I watched. The films all look fantastic [brief interlacing on BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE aside] and the addition of the English dubbed US theatrical variants is just what my inner child ordered. This one is an easy recommendation and a must-buy as far as I’m concerned. Now if whoever is sitting on the U.S. rights to the Brenco Pictures distributed Toho classics GORATH, THE LAST WAR and THE HUMAN VAPOR will just get with the program . . .