The Mysterians (Ishirō Honda, 1957)
Ishirō Honda, helmer of the original 1954 Gojira (that’s Godzilla to you, silly westerner), as well as it’s not quite as brilliant (hey, hardly a criticism as how many films are as brilliant as Gojira?) but still pretty awesome flying reptile kaiju follow-up, Rodan from 1956, is back, right where he belongs (and if I’m to believe his Wikipedia credits, Honda also apparently directed eleven other non-monster films in the three years between Gojira and The Mysterians – man, whether East or West, these studio systems really knew how to work a guy!). He did skip one entry so far, the direct Gojira sequel, Godzilla Raids Again that came a year after the original, which, no surprise, is the least of the lot, with the resonant themes Honda approached his kaiju efforts with – a big part of elevating them — replaced with cheese-ball romance subplots.
I guess you could argue that The Mysterians, with a story dealing with an alien race out to conquer the Earth (with the human officials’ suspicions confirmed after the initially friendly humanoids ask that, along with a teensy-weensy tract of land for them to live on, how about handing over a few Earth women to impregnate?) is actually a scifi entry, but there’s still plenty to be found to comfortably slip it right into the kaiju section at your local Kim’s or Boîte Noire (yep, I still pretend there’s a video store right there on every other street corner, just like I pretend we don’t live in a society demanding perfectly healthy people either take a Big Pharma experimental drug sold as a vaccine for a virus that is largely a threat to the very sick and old, or risk getting fired from their jobs).
There’s the earthquake that destroys the village in spectacular fashion, the huge (robotic) kaiju that reigns destruction before fairly quickly getting all blown up (in all that slightly-camera-overcranked miniature glory that never fails to bring out the child-like wonder in me). There’s the underlying adult-leaning parable on the destructiveness of man, with his endless desire for God-like power and capacity for planet-destroying war (the type of parable that at least is there, springing out of the monster narratives, in all the Honda films so far — overpoweringly so in Gojira, less present but still there in Rodan), with the humankind-stand-in last remaining Mysterians having fled their own planet, having destroyed it through nuclear war.
Perhaps for good luck (and maybe an attempt at some extra box office mojo) Honda brings back three indelible figures from Gojira, all playing similar characters, there’s the great Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as his usual world-weary and wise high level scientist, and Yumi Shirakawa, perhaps the most unforgettable of all the characters in Gojira, as another emotionally-torn scientist – this time an astrophysicist (all that’s missing is the eye-patch, which I would have been fine if they would have given it to him again,) who decides – like the equally idealist, and ill-fated doctor in The Thing From Another World, foolishly believing you can communicate with a recently thawed carrot monster from outer space — to make the tragically bad decision to join with the Mysterians as an act of solidarity, before realizing it’s his fiancé (the third of our little triumvirate of Gojira thesps, who also appeared in Rodan, the stunning Momoko Kōchi) before realizing the error of his ways and, just as in Gojira, sacrifices himself for the greater good (I made sure to mention the Japanese title here, because if I would have gone with Godzilla, there is of course no one more memorable to man-children like myself than Raymond Burr’s intrepid international journalist dropped omni-presently into the narrative by those crafty Americans).
Alas, even with all those welcome familiar elements, The Mysterians is the most forgettable entry so far (Honda entry that is… the non-Honda directed Godzilla Raids Again still remains the weakest, even with the nice add to the kaiju films of the monster mash-up, with Godzilla all-out brawling the four-legged spiked and horned Anguirus). Even though I just argued for the film as a kaiju, a big problem is there is no memorable kaiju (the big egg-like alien shelter kaiju stand-in doesn’t inspire much wonder, and the actual robot kaiju early in the film, with its awkwardly robotic construction and silly aardvark face, is more than a bit clunky… now, if it would have fought Godzilla or something, that might have worked some wonders, but on its own? Not particularly menacing…). The aliens (ie, humans in costume) aren’t particularly exciting… and while the low-rent scifi production design is amusing, it could used some Mario Bava-like inspiration, that’s for sure.
Even the cautionary parable doesn’t hold the same weight as in Honda’s previous works (though perhaps it would have if the film itself was stronger), with the underlying message of ‘we should all come together as nations otherwise we’re doomed to destroy ourselves’ a little watered down when the reason the film has all the nations of the Earth coming together… is to destroy someone else.
No question, The Mysterians is a passable divergence… but compared with the transcendent brilliance Honda brought to Gojira, and the pathos he attained with Rodan (the ending of which, to me, with the unforgettably powerful image of those two majestic flying birds burning to death together, accompanied by Akira Ifukube’s haunting orchestral score, holds as much weight as the profound ending of Gojira)… well… put it this way, it’s understandable why you can easily find gorgeous HD presentations, subtitled, with the original Japanese intact, of these other two films, while all I could find with The Mysterians was a barely viewable and fuzzy VHS copy, dubbed in English, streaming on Dailymotion.
A quick glance at what’s next on the chronological list of kaiju films (whenever I get to it) is Varan the Unbelievable. While it’s a good sign that it’s another Honda effort, it’s a bit troublesome that, like The Mysterians, it’s clearly one of those never deemed worthy to put on the endless syndicated television monster-movie loop of my impressionable years. Still. Some more kaiju, straight from Honda? Lesser? Maybe. Bad? No way.