Message from Space/Uchu Kara no Messeji (1978) ***½
Of all the Star Wars rip-offs that were released during the late 70’s and early 80’s, perhaps only Star Crash is more shameless than this incredibly strange Japanese cash-in. Quite surprising, then, that this movie should also be the best of the bunch, with only Battle Beyond the Stars offering it any serious competition. Message from Space/Uchu Kara no Messeji owes most of its success, I think, to the sensibility of the studio that produced it. Toei, after all, is best known (in America, at least) for its anime, and Message from Space resembles nothing so much as a lavish live-action cartoon, Japanese style— edgy, goofy, eye-catching, and surreal, all at the same time.
As our voice-over narrator tells us, the planet Telusia is dying, its entire surface ravaged by the war between its peace-loving but indomitable people and the Gavonnas, a race of steel-skinned conquerors from a distant star. Though the Telusians still fight on, the war is already lost, and their only hope lies in the intervention of their gods, the Liabe. In accordance with an ancient prophecy, the leader of the Telusians casts eight sacred Liabe seeds (actually ordinary walnuts— no, really!) out into space. These seeds will magically seek out eight heroes who will turn the tide against the Gavonnas, and rescue Telusia from its peril. The old leader then sends out his granddaughter, Emeralita (Etsuko Shihomi, from The Street Fighter and Dragon Princess), and her bodyguard, Urocco (Makato Sato, of The H-Man and The Lost World of Sinbad), to chase the Liabe seeds across the universe and bring the divinely ordained champions back to Telusia.
The Gavonnas, in their impregnable fortress on the other side of the planet, detect the launching of Emeralita’s ship, however. The Gavonna ruler, Emperor Rockseia (Mikio Narita, from G.I. Samurai and Ninja Wars), takes little interest in this piece of intelligence at first, but when his mother (Eisei Amamoto, of King Kong Escapes and The Secret of the Telegian, acting in drag) tells him that she saw the release of the Liabe seeds just before Emeralita embarked, the emperor realizes the gravity of the situation. He dispatches the mighty flagship of his fleet (indeed, it seems to be the only ship in the Gavonna fleet) to intercept the fugitive princess, giving rise to what will be only the first of many Star Wars deja vu moments.
Meanwhile, in our own galaxy, a spoiled rich girl named Meia (Peggy Lee Brennan) is taking a cruise through an asteroid belt on her father’s new space yacht. While Meia looks out the window and admires the glowing of the “space fireflies”— particles of radioactive ash from the reactors of the starships that ply this part of space— her vessel is buzzed by a pair of “rough riders.” These spacefaring hot-rodders, Aaron (Philip Casnoff) and Shiro (Ring’s Hiroyuki Sanada, who alone among the cast was hired back for the spin-off series that aired on Japanese TV the following year), seem to be friends of Meia’s, and she tries to convince the captain of her ship to follow them, even going so far as to attempt to seize the helm when he refuses. This wild scheme is nipped in the bud by the appearance of the Space Patrol, which serves as an analogue to coast guard, air force, and state police, all in one. The space patrol interceptor chases Aaron and Shiro out of the asteroid field, and down to the surface of a nearby planet. The rough riders are too crafty for the space cop, however, and use their superior piloting skills to force their pursuer to ditch his craft in a canyon. But before they can complete their getaway, something strikes both rough riders’ vessels, forcing them to land as well. And when Aaron and Shiro inspect the damage to their machines, what should they find lodged in the engine nacelles but two of the Telusian Liabe seeds!
Either the Liabe gods have a thing for humans, or else we’re the meanest bunch of ass-kickers in the universe, because the third Liabe seed also comes to an Earthling. General Garuda (Vic Morrow, from Humanoids from the Deep and The Evictors) and his distinctly R2-D2-like robot sidekick, Beba 2 (Isamu Shimizu), are hanging out at a showbar, “celebrating” the general’s resignation from the military in protest of having been ordered to scrap his original robot, Beba 1, who had served him faithfully for over 30 years. Garuda is watching the dancers and getting shitfaced when he notices that somebody has put something in his drink— something which rather looks like a large walnut. Not knowing what to make of it, he fishes the Liabe seed out of his glass and sticks it in his pocket.
By a remarkable coincidence, Aaron and Shiro, the rough riders, happen to be line cooks at the very club where Garuda is getting his drink on. Or at any rate, they are for the moment. Their boss isn’t terribly happy with them right now, because he owes some gangsters a hell of a lot of money, which he gave to the rough riders’ slimeball friend, Jack (Masazumi Okabe), for safe-keeping, only to have him turn around and lend it to them so that they could buy parts to repair their damaged hot rods. Now the gangsters have come looking for the cash, and nobody has a penny of it. Fortunately for all concerned, Meia, who turns out to be a rough rider herself, stops by to see her friends, and she is willing to put up the money, on the condition that Aaron and Shiro take her back to the asteroid field to collect some of those space fireflies she was admiring earlier. No one likes this idea very much (that Space Patrol pilot is sure to be on the lookout for Aaron and Shiro’s ships), but Meia drives a hard bargain.
While the rough riders (with Jack in tow) are trying rather futilely to fill their pockets with glowing atomic ash (doesn’t sound like too good an idea, if you ask me, especially since it means space-walking without pressure suits!), they spot Emeralita’s badly damaged ship adrift among the asteroids. A quick look around the hulk reveals that Emeralita and Urocco are both still alive, and Meia and company have just begun trying to figure out what to do with them when the Gavonna battleship arrives on the scene to finish what it started. It’s a good thing for our heroes that their ships were docked on the far side of Emeralita’s from the Gavonnas, because otherwise, the aliens would surely have seen them escaping, and continued the chase after destroying their initial target. But instead, the Gavonnas return to Telusia, satisfied that their mission has been accomplished.
Back at Aaron and Shiro’s swinging bachelor pad, the rough riders pump their new guests for information regarding what in the hell just happened. When Emeralita gets to the part about the Liabe seeds, the rough riders produce theirs (Jack has found one, too, by this point), and ask if they’re what the alien princess is talking about. This turn of the conversation gets the attention of General Garuda, who just happened to have snuck into Aaron’s place to sleep off his drunk, and who had been hiding with Beba 2 behind some kind of shelving unit while his “hosts” talked. Garuda is the only one of the Liabe Braves who quite lives up to the title; none of the boys has any intention of risking their asses to save Telusia. And much to the chagrin of Emeralita and Urocco, Garuda, too, backs out of the deal when he realizes it’s shaping up to be just him against the Gavonnas.
Looking for a way to salvage the situation without looking like the coward he is, Jack pretends to know who received the other four seeds, and he offers to take Emeralita to them. His friends don’t realize this, but Jack’s show of concern is really just a ploy to raise more money to pay off the gangsters. (Don’t ask me what happened to Meia’s offer to front the cash— if even the screenwriters don’t know, what the hell chance have I got?) What Jack really ends up doing is selling Emeralita to an old hag with a horny mutant for a son, after seeing to it that Urocco has been gotten out of the way. But before Junior can make any use of his new toy, the Gavonnas, who apparently decided they hadn’t been thorough enough after all, burst into the hag’s shack, kill the mutant boy, and take Emeralita and the hag prisoner. When this ugly story gets out (courtesy of the not-dead-after-all Urocco, who has just enough fight left in him to track Jack to Aaron’s pad), it causes quite a nasty schism among the rough riders. Aaron and Shiro, while they may not agree with Jack’s methods, are right behind him when it comes to not getting involved in interstellar wars. Indeed, they go so far as to throw away their Liabe seeds. Meia, on the other hand, thinks her friends are a bunch of pusillanimous chickenshits, and storms off to take a head-clearing ride in daddy’s space yacht.
This show of moral fiber apparently impresses the Liabe gods, because Meia gets a seed of her own while she’s out flying. When she rushes back to show Aaron, Jack, and Shiro (whose guilty consciences have been torturing them with dreams of Emeralita’s death), the Liabe take the opportunity to demonstrate that their will is not to be denied by sending Jack and Shiro’s seeds bouncing in through the window to them. Aaron, for some reason, does not get his seed back, and falls into a sulk of positively Achillean proportions, a sulk in which he will remain for the next two reels or so. What finally snaps him out of it is the destruction of his house at the hands of the Gavonnas. You see, the Gavonnas have a machine that enables them to scan the memories of their prisoners, and one look at the hag’s memories of Earth was enough to convince Emperor Rockseia that ours was the only planet in the universe beautiful enough to serve as a galactic conqueror’s capital. Rockseia then revealed what a busy son of a bitch he’d been in the years since his conquest of Telusia by ordering the activation of the giant rocket engines his people had installed in the planet’s crust. It wasn’t until Telusia showed up in an orbit just beyond the moon’s that we Earthlings received any indication that we’d earned a place on an alien conqueror’s “to do” list. Now, Rockseia has issued an ultimatum to the people of Earth, and as a wee show of force, he has sent his big-ass battleship our way to blow some stuff up. Aaron’s place just happens to be among that stuff, and what’s more, the Gavonnas beam Jack aboard their ship as a prisoner. Aaron’s righteous rage at this turn of events convinces the Liabe that he deserves a nut of his own after all.
General Garuda gets his Liabe seed back, too (amusingly, it finds its way into another tumbler of whiskey), when his old friend Noguchi (Tetsuro Tamba, from The Story of Ricky and Kwaidan), now the prime minister of Earth, comes looking for him with an important proposition. Noguchi knows Garuda is no longer with the military, but he feels the ex-general is the only man on the planet with the balls to serve as Earth’s envoy to the Gavonnas. Rockseia has given the people of Earth just three days to surrender to him, and Noguchi wants Garuda to buy him some more time. Garuda is just in the process of turning his old friend down when he notices the glowing walnut in his drink, and comes to the conclusion that one does not turn down destiny.
That brings the total to five Liabe Braves out of the intended eight. Number six shows up when Aaron, Shiro, Meia, and Urocco have a little accident on their way to rescue Jack from his captivity. The four heroes are zipping along in Meia’s ship (which has been modified to allow Aaron and Shiro’s shorter-ranged vessels to ride piggy-back) when the Liabe seeds suddenly send out a pulse of energy that scrambles their navigational instruments. The ship crashes on a planet seemingly zillions of miles out of the way (if you’re having a hard time getting a handle on Message from Space’s interstellar geography, you’re not alone), and it is there that they meet Prince Hann (Sonny Chiba, from Invasion of the Neptune Men and Terror Beneath the Sea). Hann is the rightful ruler of the Gavonnas (in which case, why doesn’t he have metal skin like all the rest of his people?); evidently Rockseia usurped the throne by murdering Hann’s parents. And what’s more, Hann has around his neck a pendant made from a Liabe seed. Now it all comes clear, doesn’t it? The reason the Liabe seeds caused Meia’s ship to crash was that they needed a way to bring Prince Hann into contact with the other Liabe heroes, and to give him a means of getting the hell off of that miserable little planet. The Liabe Braves are soon back on their way to Telusia, where Urocco and Beba 2 will soon be chosen as the last of their number.
Meanwhile, Garuda’s mission isn’t going very well. The general tells his host that the people of Earth are by nature a stiff-necked, freedom-loving lot, and that Rockseia’s methods will do nothing but embroil him in an endless guerilla war with human resistance fighters. If that happens, Earth will wind up as dead and barren as Telusia, and nobody wants that. But if Rockseia will give the Noguchi government more time to round up and pacify the crankier elements of the population, such a disaster could be averted. Naturally, this is all just a cover story; what Noguchi really wants is time to prepare for an all-out offensive against the Gavonnas, and Rockseia sees right through the ruse. After being sent on his way with an amnestied Jack in tow, Garuda links up with Emeralita’s grandfather, the Telusian resistance, and the other Liabe Braves to plan one last, desperate gambit in defense of the Earth. The Telusian leader happens to know of a sure-fire way to defeat the Gavonnas, but he has thus far been unwilling to use it because of its dire consequences for his people. You see, one does not convert an entire planet into a mobile space fortress without providing it with some kind of power source, and deep within Telusia, the Gavonnas have built a huge reactor, accessible only through a narrow, spiraling tunnel. If somebody— the rough riders, for instance— could fly a small ship into that tunnel and deliver a powerful enough bomb to the reactor, the whole Gavonna war machine would go up in smoke. Mind you, the Telusians would be out a home planet in that case, but at this late stage of the game, there seems to be no other way to stop Rockseia. Hmmm... a planet-sized death-machine whose one vulnerable spot is at the far end of a long, narrow access tunnel... why does this all sound so familiar?
As you could probably guess on the basis of the preceding four-page plot synopsis, Message from Space is just a wee bit too long for its own good. On the other hand, its extremely episodic story structure prevents it from ever bogging down too much— you’re never more than twenty minutes away from another little mini-climax. Not only that, the movie is such a treat for the eyes that looking at it can sometimes distract you from watching it. The sets and effects are inevitably cheaper-looking than those in Star Wars, from which this film’s effects department so clearly took their inspiration (note, for example, how closely the Gavonna battleship resembles a cross between an Imperial Star Destroyer and the Battlestar Galactica), but they’re still awfully impressive by 70’s standards— which is only to be expected, considering that Message from Space was reputed to be the most expensive movie ever made in Japan at the time.
The most enjoyable thing about Message from Space, however, is the interplay between its bald-faced cribbing from Star Wars and its sheer Japaneseness. In between the hilariously numerous scenes lifted directly from the most famous sci-fi fantasy of the 70’s are jarring notes of a totally alien sensibility. Lucas’s movies have often been compared to cartoons, with their emphasis on slenderly motivated action and unidimensional characterization, and the same could be said about Message from Space. But whereas Star Wars plays like an old Flash Gordon comic come to life, this movie’s stylistic roots go back to anime and manga. Lucas never allowed his heroes to be as seriously flawed as Aaron— let alone Jack, who sells Emeralita down the river before his conscience asserts itself. And just try to imagine Obi Wan Kenobi drinking himself under the table in the Cantina Cafe while watching G-string-clad dancers gyrating onstage! The design of Emeralita’s ship— which looks like a galleon, complete with sails and an old-fashioned wooden helm!— betrays an obvious kinship to the title vessel in “Space Battleship Yamato” (or “Starblazers,” as we in the US know it), and the plot device of the magic walnuts is something that only a Japanese screenwriter could have thought of. There is also one final Japanizing detail to the script from Message from Space that is so subtle that many viewers might not notice it at all: at no point do any of the human characters bat an eyelash at the notion that they have been chosen to perform a mission for an alien god! When you really think about it, most Western or Middle-Eastern monotheists would have real trouble coming to grips with this idea, which would seem to strike at the heart of the whole “one true God” concept. The Shinto religion of Japan, however, allows for almost infinite proliferation of deities, and can easily expand to accommodate gods from another planet. It’s stuff like this that makes me watch so many foreign-made movies— the difference in cultural context allows them to surprise me in ways that American films rarely can anymore.