Category Archives: Genre: Scifi

Robot Keiji: The Movie

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Robot Keiji: The Movie (Japan, 1973)

Despite the title, this is not so much a “movie” as a theatrical 25 minute edit combining scenes from multiple episodes from the Robot Detective TV series. It was created for the Toei Cartoon Festival, an anime and superhero film event held by Toei during holiday seasons and aimed at children. The original TV series, which ran 26 episodes, was an early entry in the Metal Hero genre and followed a robot detective who would dress in casual clothes on his free time. Sonny Chiba appeared in one episode, and his brother Jiro had a role as a (human) detective. The Movie Version compiles selected scenes from episodes 1-9, 11 and 12. As such, it’s quite difficult to follow unless you’ve seen the original TV series as there is clearly too much content crammed into 25 minutes. It has also been cropped from its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio to theatrical 2.35:1, which causes major amounts of information to be cut off from top and bottom. That being said, the original TV series seems fun.

* Original title: Robotto keiji: gekijoban (ロボット刑事: 劇場版)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Cameo (in the movie version)
* Film availability: None. Review format: TV
* TV series availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

The detective’s car

I can’t stop laughing at this bad “guy” (bad robot?) who kidnapped the lady…

As you can see, the framing is often way too tight vertically

Jiro and Sonny

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New 7 Color Mask

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New 7 Color Mask (Japan, 1960)

Sonny Chiba landed his very first acting role with a bit of luck. Drafted by Toei in 1959, he replaced Susumu Namishima in Toei’s first ever superhero TV show 7 Color Mask after Namishima dropped out after 31 episodes. Chiba took his role as Detective Ran (the show was then renamed as New 7 Color Mask), a master of disguise fighting all sorts of foreign super villains threatening Japan, including “Golden King” and a middle east terrorist group using poison gas emitting spiders. Ran’s ace in the sleeve was turning into an invincible masked superhero, 7 Color Mask. It’s a world where kilt-wearing masked villains are running around in broad daylight, the police bow to a private detective who solves all crimes for them, and everybody is always fooled by the silliest of disguises. A bit of child-like mindset is required from the viewer.

Chiba himself looks self-assured as stylish as hell in black suit, also benefiting from solid production values (the series was originally meant to be released as edited movie versions in theatres as well, hence shot on 35mm, though only Namishima’s episodes made it to the silver screen). Chiba did all of his own stunts and fighting, with no “suit actor” (stunt performer for the superhero scenes) utilized in the show. The show’s main liability is its unimaginative writing. Ran’s invincibility always saves him from any trouble, and storylines tend to drag a bit until it’s time for the bad guys to get caught.

Toei produced a total of 26 episodes of the show. Episodes 1-13 are included in Toei’s recent 4 disc DVD set. Episode 14 is also featured as an extra. The rest will probably never be seen as, according to Toei’s announcement, the negatives are lost. This seems to have been the case already back in the 1980s when the same 13 episodes were released on video. The positive news is that the series is made of independent story arcs, 1-13 episodes each. The DVD release contains the first two stories (episodes 1-6 and 7-13) in their entirety. The final story arch (episodes 14-26) is missing except for the first episode (14). It’s a shame because that story looked very cool, but at least the first two stories can still be enjoyed.

* Original title: 新七色仮面 (Shin nana iro kamen)
* Director: Toshiro Suzuki
* Chiba’s role: Starring Role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

Message From Space

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Message From Space (Japan, 1978)

The Japanese were quick to take note of Star Wars’ success, releasing a handful of copycats to Japanese screens before the film had even opened in Japan. Message From Space was the biggest budgeted (approx. $5 million) of them. Hiroyuki Sanada, Etsuko Shihomi, and Vic Morrow star; Sonny Chiba has a small and forgettable supporting role. In fact, more interesting than the cast is the fact that the film was based on an old samurai novel. Unfortunately the sci-fi adaptation turned out quite a mess with hardly any interesting characters. Special effects are sometimes good, sometimes not. Tokusatsu fans may still like it, and indeed the film has its fans, but for non-genre fans there are better movies to see. Fukasaku did much better with his second try, Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983), which was a tremendously entertaining pop ballad period fantasy version of the same story.

* Original title: Uchu kara no messeji (宇宙からのメッセージ)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (in Japanese, no subtitles), Shout! Factory DVD (US) (English dub), Discotek / Eastern Star DVD (US) (sub and dub) (the legal status of this release is questionable)

The Terror Beneath the Sea

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The Terror Beneath the Sea (Japan/USA, 1966)
The young & handsome Sonny Chiba stars as the lone Japanese lead in this Japan-US co-produced sci-fi cheese-fest. Chiba and his attractive blonde companion encounter mad scientists and horrifying underwater men who usually jump (yes, jump) from behind the corner with their hands in a “boo” pose. Hardly great filmmaking, but it comes with plenty of amusing SFX work and unintentional laughs. Chiba is the only cast member who evidences any kind of acting talent. It’s solid campy fun, and a more enjoyable movie than Golden Bat, which was also directed by Hajime Sato and released the same year. This was probably the first time for many foreign audiences to see Chiba, as it was released in a number of countries, such as Germany, Austria, Italy, and USA (as a TV film).

* Original title: Kaitei daisenso (海底大戦争)
* Director: Hajime Sato
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles, all dialogue in Japanese), Dark Sky Films DVD (USA) (English dub)

Golden Bat

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Golden Bat (Japan, 1966)
Japan’s first ever super hero, who debuted in the early 1930s kamishibai (narrated “paper theatre”, returns in a live action film starting Sonny Chiba. Unfortunately Chiba is not playing the skull-faced (rubber masked) hero Golden Bat, but a bearded scientist who discovers Atlantis, where Golden Bat is resting. His help is needed against manically laughing evil aliens (including one who looks like a werewolf) who intend to destroy the earth. It’s nice to see Chiba given a charismatic authority role at this relatively early stage of his career, but frankly he doesn’t have that much to do in the film even though he’s the leading actor. The film has its entertaining campy moments, but it could be more fun. At 73 minutes it feels a bit longer than it really is.

* Original title: Ogon batto (黄金バット)
* Director: Hajime Sato
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Chiba

Chiba

Golden Bat

Iron Sharp

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Iron Sharp (Japan, 1961)
Sonny Chiba is Iron Sharp – a superhero who must fight alien invaders who arrive in flying saucers. The campy sci-fi adventure has a lot to be enjoyed: an awesome superhero mobile, good special effects (better than the 2014 Godzilla film if you ask me), aliens watching terrestrial TV in outer space, and of course Chiba! At 74 minutes the film never drags. The alien costumes are leave something to be desired, though: they’re not even men in rubber suits, but men in plastic suits with iron helmets. Unfortunately in 1964 the film was licensed, and butchered, by American distributor Walter Manley Enterprises who not only cropped and dubbed, but also re-cut and enhanced it with extensive stock footage, eventually earning the film – or rather its American version Invasion of the Neptune Men – a reputation as one of the worst films ever made.

* Original title: Uchu Kaisoku-sen (宇宙快速船)
* Director: Koji Ohta
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles) (Iron Sharp version), Dark Sky Films DVD (USA) (dubbed, cut, re-edited Invasion of the Neptune Men version)

Title screen

Chiba the superhero and his mobile!

Chiba the scientist

Many have called these kids irritating, but I didn’t think so at all. Again, maybe an issue with dubbed version?

Evil aliens

Karate vs. Alien

Here’s a brief summary what Walter Manley Enterprises did to Iron Sharp when they created the Invasion of the Neptune Men version:

1) The film was originally released in the US in TV. For this purpose, it was cropped from its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio to 1:37:1, making its battle scenes incomprehensible. The DVD release by Dark Sky Films widens the presentation to 1.78:1, which is still missing plenty of image.

2) The film was given a nerve shatteringly bad English dubbing. Many people familiar with the English version would be very surprised to learn the kids in the film are not irritating at all in the original Japanese version.

3) The film was heavily cut, which made the storyline extremely incoherent. They even deleted the two scenes where Iron Sharp is originally introduced, the 1st one being a scene where the boys talk about him and the 2nd being the opening credits scene where the character makes his first appearance.

4) Other than just deleting scenes, the film was re-edited. The film’s last 15 minutes originally consisted of three battle scenes played in order and taking place in three different locations. In the US version they are all edited together into one big battle that takes place all over the place and makes absolutely no sense.

5) Speaking of the films last 15 minutes, it’s actually 21 minutes in the US version. While there is about one minute worth of stock footage stolen from a different film, the rest was achieved by recycling the same shots from the battle scenes over and over again every few minutes. None of this happens in the original Japanese version.

Speaking of stock footage, it always cracks me up when I see reviewers calling the film’s special effects crappy, and the in the same review criticising the film of bad taste for using WWII stock footage of a “Hitler Building” being blown up. That’s not stock footage, it’s a special effects shot made for this film. The building in question, or should I say the miniature in question, is Tokyu Culture Hall in Shibuya. The “Hitler” on its wall is an advertisement for the Swedish documentary film Den blodiga tiden. This documentary about Nazi Germany was released in Japan in February 1961 (5 months before Iron Sharp) under its Japanese title Waga tôsô, which btw is written in there in Japanese.

Here is the real building in Tokyo