Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Starring: Kenji Sahara, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura
Honda’s 1957 science-fiction opus ushered in the golden age of Toho’s dominion over the genre. While earlier giant monster films such as GODZILLA (1954) and HALF HUMAN (1955) are undisputed classics, THE MYSTERIANS ups the ante by delivering the goods in a blaze of sound and fury that set the bar sky high for all films that were to follow in the halcyon days of Japanese science-fiction.
As the film opens, aliens arrive on Earth under the pretense of peace. However, their motives are soon revealed to be far more sinister: to enslave humans like animals and mate with our planet’s women to repopulate the Mysterian race. As Earth’s defenses fail, brilliant scientist Ryōichi Shiraishi seems to join in the Mysterians’ efforts to destroy humankind . . . but is he a traitor or our unlikely savior?
While GODZILLA was in many ways a character piece, THE MYSTERIANS is all about spectacle and it makes no apologies for that fact. While the common “no nukes” thread that runs through so many of these pictures is present in THE MYSTERIANS, the film’s goal seems to be simply to entertain and astonish the audience. I must say that this writer was thoroughly entertained, indeed!
Kenji Sahara takes the lead, following his terrific performance in RODAN (1956). GODZILLA veterans Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata and Takashi Shimura are reunited here and surrounded by many faces that will become familiar to fans of the kaiju/sci-fi cycle. While the cast list is impressive, the actors are given precious little acting to do. They are present to be audience identification figures, looking on in awe at the might of the Mysterians. Little is asked of the actors but most of them, particularly the very watchable Momoko Kōchi, do what they can with what they are given, taking it seriously and obviously having a ball.
I single Kōchi out for the most praise. While she is given little to do other than look worried, cry out or faint, her eyes are absolutely arresting. Where lesser actresses would simply rattle off the lines and play up the damsel-in-distress angle to the hilt, Kōchi is restrained and controlled. The actress manages to become a fully fleshed-out character simply with a flash of emotion in her eyes and the way she carries herself. Kōchi would become disillusioned with film work and return to the stage soon after, but we are fortunate that at least a few of her performances are forever preserved on film.
The real star of the picture is undeniably the astonishing special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. In the three years since his ground-breaking effects work on the original GODZILLA, Tsuburaya attacks THE MYSTERIANS with all he had learned on the earlier film while taking new and extremely bold steps to creating bigger and better effects. The results are astounding: lasers flash, missiles fly, giant robots plunder and landslides sweep away villagers by the hundreds in a very convincing and horrifying display. The flash-bangs come fast and furious, leading to an explosive finale that is both impressive and immensely enjoyable.
With THE MYSTERIANS being an earlier sci-fi outing from Toho, there are a few teething troubles that would be ironed out in subsequent pictures. The film can occasionally be a bit talky and the character development is sparse to say the least. However, to concentrate too much on these minor issues would be missing the point of this film entirely.
The battle sequences are quite obviously inspired by the George Pal-produced film THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). As in Pal’s production, the battles are visually stunning, colorful and grimly riveting; never shying away from the carnage that war leaves in its wake. THE MYSTERIANS is a fairly sober and somber film. While many 1950’s alien invasion films were campy affairs of faceless aliens who seem to want to conquer the Earth for no discernible reason, the Mysterian plot is far more sinister. Not only do they want to colonize our planet and enslave its inhabitants, they are intent on mating with human females in order to create a super-race of Mysterians. Heavy stuff for 1957 science fiction.
The final piece in this satisfying celluloid puzzle that is THE MYSTERIANS is the thunderous score by the great Akira Ifukube. The orchestra no doubt broke a sweat while hurtling through Ifukube’s sweeping, pounding and occasionally moving score.
THE MYSTERIANS is all about spectacle and, in that regard, the film triumphs. Here you will find an excellent jumping-on point for the Toho novice and an enjoyable evening’s entertainment for the Kaiju completest.
Contributed by Johnny Stanwyck