The X from Outer Space/Uchu Daikaiju Girara (1967/1968) -***½
You might think it impossible to make a kaiju movie sillier than Yongary: Monster from the Deep— but oh, how wrong you would be! When set alongside The X from Outer Space/Uchu Daikaiju Girara, Yongary is positively tame. Furthermore, The X from Outer Space isn’t another Korean copykaiju, but an authentic product of Japan— and from a fairly respectable studio, at that! Shochiku may not have been as big a deal as Toho or Nikkatsu, but they weren’t exactly the Japanese equivalent of PRC, either. They had some money to throw around, at least by Japanese standards, and it frequently shows in the production design of The X from Outer Space. Then again, they had never made a monster movie before 1967, which is pretty much what you would gather on the basis of this one. It isn’t just that the monster itself is ridiculous-looking, although that certainly is the case. Apart from some surprisingly effective miniature work, there’s scarcely a single aspect of this movie that doesn’t somehow scream, “These guys didn’t have the first fucking clue what they were doing.”
And neither, for that matter, does the Fuji Astro-Flight Center, the Japanese space agency at the center of the plot. As Dr. Kato (Eiji Okada, of Lady Snowblood and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons) and Dr. Berman (Franz Gruber, from The Last Days of Planet Earth and Terror Beneath the Sea), the FAFC’s head scientists, explain to their latest crew of astronauts, the agency has to date launched six manned missions to Mars, and each one ended in disaster when the spacecraft were apparently destroyed by some sort of UFO in the vicinity of the Red Planet. So how do you suppose the FAFC is responding to this rather dire pattern of failure? Why yes— they’re sending up another ship! This is not because Kato and Berman have devised some special new technology that will make the AAB-Gamma, as the new ship is called, impervious to the UFO’s unexplained attack; they’re just going to launch it and its crew into space and hope for the best. Strangely enough, the astronauts who have been selected for the mission don’t really seem to mind. Captain Sano (Toshiya Wazaki, from Sword of Vengeance and Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Hades) takes in the briefing from the scientists with a stoic imperturbability that would do any samurai proud. Medical officer Dr. Kiowata (Keisuke Sonoi) makes nearly as impressive a show of impassivity. Hell, even comic relief radioman Miyamoto (Shinichi Yanagisawa) comes across creditably in this department. In fact, the only member of the AAB-Gamma crew who seems even a little bit bothered by the prospect of taking a rocket ride to certain death is gaijin biologist Dr. Lisa Nolastnamehaver (Peggy Neal, who was also in Terror Beneath the Sea), who looks to be having just the slightest trouble staying focused on what Kato and Berman are saying.
Unsurprisingly, the AAB-Gamma gets attacked by the mysterious UFO, which doesn’t even have the decency to wait until the spacefarers get near Mars. Incidentally, I think the “F” in UFO stands for “fried” in this particular case. The astronauts’ adversary looks less like another spaceship that it does like some sort of pastry, or perhaps an oriental dumpling. Regardless, it makes life very difficult for the humans, and eventually forces them to break off from their intended course and put in at the space agency base on the moon. The detour is made doubly urgent by the fact that Dr. Kiowata suddenly becomes gravely ill for no apparent reason about halfway into the space pastry’s attack.
At this point, we apparently enter some other movie, one which has nothing whatever to do with UFOs or missions to Mars. Instead of those things, this other movie is about romantic jealously and hardcore 60’s cocktail-drinking. There’s a girl named Michiko (Itoko Harada) at the moon base, see, and she’s in love with Captain Sano. That means she’s insanely jealous of Lisa, even though Sano gives no indication of being attracted to her at all (or to Michiko either, for that matter). In fact, Michiko is so put out by the revelation that her non-boyfriend has a pretty female crewmember that she abandons her post at the air traffic control station in a huff even despite the fact that the AAB-Gamma is coming in at a perilously high velocity, and might be in danger of overshooting the landing pad. (Incidentally, if you’re thinking this here space program has a real problem with discipline and insubordination, you ain’t seen nothing yet.) What makes this love-triangle subplot twisted enough to fit in with the rest of the movie is that— to the modern, Western eye, anyway— it looks like the currents of jealousy are running in the wrong direction. To all appearances, it isn’t Sano that Lisa is trying to get with, but Michiko! How else would you explain the biologist’s gushing reaction to the prospect of finally getting to meet this girl she’s heard so much about from Sano? How else would you explain the gaudy and expensive earrings Lisa gives Michiko upon her arrival on the moon? And if the shower scene the two women have together doesn’t look like the lead-up to lesbian sex, then somebody had better tell the makers of Western porno movies, ‘cause they’ve apparently been doing it wrong. Not that the movie actually is headed in that direction, mind you, but damn…
The plot does eventually get moving again, when it is revealed that Dr. Kiowata is in no condition to continue the mission, and that moon base physician Dr. Stein (Mike Daneen, yet another member of the Terror Beneath the Sea cast) has been drafted as his replacement. Stein spends the whole of the trip bitching and grumbling. He hates the freeze-dried food, he hates being cooped up in the ship’s tiny cabin, and in general, he wants nothing more than to go back to Earth. He also (big surprise here) doesn’t like taking orders from Captain Sano, and when the AAB-Gamma is attacked a second time by the Nefarious Space Pastry, he goes so far as to seize control of the ship, and burns up practically all the fuel in its tanks trying to escape from the UFO’s magnetic tractor beam. By the time the captain restores order, the ship is way off course and has insufficient fuel to reach any of the big celestial bodies in the area. Yet, strangely enough, Stein reaps no ill consequences from this act of mutiny, even after the UFO inexplicably goes away and Michiko takes the moon base rescue rocket out to shuttle a fresh supply of fuel to the stricken vessel. I ask you— how the hell is Stein’s behavior not worth a court-martial, or at least an official reprimand?
While Sano and his crew are waiting for the rescue rocket’s arrival, they discover something very odd. The aft section of the AAB-Gamma’s hull is coated with something that looks rather like a thick layer of meringue with blinking lights set into it. (Do I detect a theme here?) When Lisa and the captain investigate, they find that each of the blinking lights is in the center of a small, approximately spherical object, glued by means of the meringue to the ship’s skin. Lisa collects one of the objects for subsequent analysis while Sano does his best to clean the rest of them off of the hull. The discovery of the lightbulb from the space meringue softens the blow a bit when Sano aborts the mission, and the AAB-Gamma returns to Earth without ever getting within visual range of its intended destination.
It also, as you’ve probably guessed, serves as the means by which the monster finally enters the story. While the astronauts and their colleagues from the FAFC are partying at Dr. Berman’s house (More cocktails! More cocktails!), something hatches out of the lump from outer space, and escapes from the FAFC laboratory by burning a hole in the steel floor. The melted footprints it leaves behind look (as Dr. Kato observes) like those of an enormous chicken. A few hours later, outside the Hakone Hotel (to which our heroes were headed with the aim of getting even drunker), the now full-grown creature burrows its way out of the earth to begin its much belated rampage. It’s a staggering scene. There’s a famous publicity still of Al Jolson (it might be from The Jazz Singer, but that’s well outside my field of expertise, and I don’t pretend to know for certain) which shows him crouching down on one knee, his arms outstretched to either side and his head cocked back to maximize projection on a high note. Maybe you’ve seen it. Well if, instead of a rich white dude pretending to be a Negro minstrel, Jolson had been a gigantic foam-rubber Chickenlizardosaurus with a garish 60’s Christmas tree ornament for a head, that old photo would have looked exactly like our first sighting of the monster, which Kato and his whitecoats dub “Guilala.” God knows why. After a short conference-room scene in which it briefly appears that we’re going to get totally stiffed on the city smashing we’re watching this film for in the first place, Guilala goes on the attack in Tokyo, and chaos reigns for the rest of the running time. Eventually, Lisa gets the idea that the material of which the Guilala spore’s shell was composed— to which she gives the almost unpronounceable name, “Guilalanium”— might be able to contain the adult monster as well. Her research indicates that Guilalanium is the most effective insulator in the universe; because Guilala’s campaign of destruction appears to be motivated by its need to absorb energy from sources like nuclear power plants, covering its body in the stuff ought to deprive it of the ability to feed itself, at which point it will be just a matter of waiting for the giant creature to starve. The trouble is, Guilalanium can be synthesized only in a vacuum, so Lisa and the rest have to get back onboard the AAB-Gamma and return to the moon.
On the way home, the ship is inevitably attacked by the UFO again, but before that happens, an even more insidious danger arises. The energy-disrupting properties of the Guilalanium are such that after a few hours of exposure to it, none of the electronic devices aboard the ship will function properly, and the AAB-Gamma falls into a stable orbit around Earth, to which it will be perpetually confined unless some way can be found to shield the control systems from the Guilalanium. Michiko has the bright idea that the radiation-proof compartment that contains the ship’s nuclear reactor ought to do the trick. Never you mind that this means putting the energy-blocking substance right next to the AAB-Gamma’s main power supply. The strategy works, and the ship is able to make it past the Nefarious Space Pastry with its vital cargo intact. Then the Japan Air Self-Defense Force scrambles the usual flight of F-104Js, and we are treated to what is far and away the most hilarious scene of a movie that was already brimming with hilarity. When the fighter planes strafe Guilala with their Guilalanium missiles, their successive impacts leave the monster’s body increasingly coated with thick, white slime. Yongary: Monster from the Deep dispatched its monster by means of rectal hemorrhaging. The X from Outer Space goes that one better, presenting us with the awesome spectacle of a kaiju looking for all the world like it’s being bukkaked to death!!!! Only in Japan, folks. Only in Japan.
Of course, it’s only fitting that such a singularly ludicrous movie should come to a singularly ludicrous conclusion. From one end to the other, The X from Outer Space is outlandishly wrong on just about every level. The script is laden with non-sequiturs and inanities, and many of its most important plot threads are simply forgotten about by the end of the film. To cite only the most egregious example, we never do learn who the pilots of the Nefarious Space Pastry might be, what (if any) connection they have to Guilala, or why they’re so hot to keep humans from landing on Mars. The UFO is in many respects the pivot upon which the story turns, yet to all appearances, that point was entirely lost on all three of this movie’s screenwriters. Meanwhile, director Kazui Nihonmatsu displays his lack of experience with kaiju at every turn. Forget about his failure to shoot the Guilala scenes at a higher film speed, so that the monster will look slower and more ponderous (and thus more believably huge) when the footage is played back at the normal frame rate; even such seemingly obvious tricks as photographing Guilala from a low camera angle representing the perspective of a human eye are out at the very limits of Nihonmatsu’s directorial imagination. His eagerness to get sidetracked in the almost completely static human story doesn’t help any, either. Then there’s the music. 60’s sci-fi films frequently have quirky and whimsical soundtracks, but The X from Outer Space takes that quality to a level of which I had never previously conceived. And because there aren’t but two musical themes at work here (one for Guilala and one for absolutely everything else, no matter how ill-fitting), you’ll have plenty of opportunities to appreciate the depth and breadth of the daffiness inherent in each. Finally, those of us who watch The X from Outer Space in English will be confronted with some of the worst dialogue ever written. My favorite passage, from Lisa’s exegesis on Guilalanium: “It seems that it exercises an unknown function. It’s probably a substance [Shatneresque pause] produced by an explosion [pause that even Shatner would have thought twice about] of an ultra-heated heavenly body. In a vacuum, it presumably contracts and creates a complex molecular structure.” 33 words that say absolutely nothing… In addition, consistency was not the voice actors’ strong suit. Whoever dubbed Michiko’s dialogue never quite got a handle on just how thick her Japanese accent was supposed to be— which is made twice as odd by the fact that none of the other Japanese characters are dubbed with detectable accents at all. There’s also the small matter of “Guilala” and “Guilalanium.” No one seems to have taken the time to coach the dubbing people on the precise pronunciation of either term, and no two actors say them in exactly the same way. Indeed, at least one man found “Guilalanium” so daunting (and who can blame him?) that he only rarely gave it the same reading two times running! If The X from Outer Space makes it clear that Shochiku had never produced a monster movie before, it also strongly hints at some reasons why they never made one again, either.