Category Archives: Genre: Special Effects

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)

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

Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 7)

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Sonny Chiba Festival Day 7: July 4th (Friday)

Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Nihon ansatsu hiroku) (Sadao Nakajima, 1969)

Sadao Nakajima was one of Toei’s seminal genre film directors. He worked in almost any genre that was popular at the time, and delivered competent films that ranged from ninja adventures to sexploitation and yakuza movies. He had, however, also an urge to deliver something more ambitious, as evidenced by his surprising 1973 visit to Art Theatre Guild where he directed the gangster drama Aesthetics of a Bullet. Memoir of Japanese Assassins is another odd beast is his filmography. This all star political slaughter fest chronicles murders committed by assassins in different eras, all based on reality. Stars like Ken Takakura, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Bunta Sugawara pop up for their 5 minute episodes only to cut someone’s head off, stab someone to death or blow someone into pieces with a hand grenade.

The seemingly endless cavalcade of ultra-violent kills finally comes to an end about 25 minutes into the film. This is when the film finds its main story: an impressive tale of a young man slowly transforming into a political assassin. Sonny Chiba portrays this character; a youngster living in the middle of never ending poverty and misery. He eventually finds new home with a revolutionary group, which begins his long road to becoming a political assassin. This episode takes no less than 90 minutes of the film’s 142 minute running time, features almost no action or bloodshed, and gives Chiba more screen time than all the other stars combined.

Chiba is quite good in the leading role, despite slightly overdoing his most emotional scenes. He actually won an acting award for his performance at the Kyoto Citizen Film Festival (Kyoto shimin eiga sai), where Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri was also awarded the same year. Yakuza film queen Junko Fuji also appears in a seminal supporting role in this episode. Once their story concludes, the film still continues with two more short episodes (one of them featuring stock footage from the earlier Chiba film The Escape, 1962). As a whole the film is a bit uneven, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating and occasionally epic (partly thanks to composer Isao Tomita, whose score plays on repeat) movie. Easily recommended!


 

Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1980)

The second film for Friday was a real rarity: the 1980 special effects extravaganza Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (literally Tokyo Great Earthquake Magnitude 8.1). This generously budgeted TV film premiered on Nihon TV in 1980, and completely disappeared from the face of earth until it was screened in a special event in Tokyo last year. That screening was reportedly so popular that only a fraction of the willing customers were able to obtain a ticket. Cinema Vera gave the film no less than three screening days, during which it was seen from a relatively worn out 16 mm print, which would of course be the original format.

As the title suggests, it’s a disaster movie based on the premise of a giant earthquake hitting in Tokyo. This fear stems from real life: Tokyo has been destroyed by earthquakes several times, most recently in 1923 when more than 140 000 people died and over 400 000 buildings were destroyed. When it comes to Japanese cinema the genre may not seen very common – a couple of exceptions aside there aren’t many Japanese disaster movies – however, it closely relates to monster movies and other tokusatsu epics that have long traditions in Japan. It was a short way from giant monsters stamping Tokyo to a natural disasters creating similar cinematic destruction.

Indeed, a couple of shots in Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 seem so familiar that they just might be old Godzilla sets put into new use. That wouldn’t be surprising considering many of the filmmakers, including producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and special effects director Koichi Kawakita, and co-production company Toho, had their background in Godzilla films. The fine, even if obvious, miniature work is actually the best thing about the film. There are a couple of especially memorable scenes, like a passenger plane flying over Tokyo that has turned into a giant inferno, and dawn in the destroyed metropolis.

As a character drama Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 falls flat. All the usual clichés from helpless grandmother to dumb children and even animals escaping at the wrong moment are included, not to mention characters discussing how terrible it would be if an earthquake hit Tokyo just a few hours before it really happens. That is quite disappointing considering the film was directed by Kiyoshi Nishimura, who had helmed interesting thrillers and existential action films like The Creature Called Man (1970) and Hairpin Circus (1972) for Toho in the 1970s. Perhaps he just couldn’t help the screenplay.

Sonny Chiba plays the starring role; however, he doesn’t have much else to do than run back and forth in the special effects shots, and worry about supporting characters constantly getting in trouble. It’s not an especially physical role since most of the effects are make-believe. His most memorable scene involves blowing up a door while taking cover inside a safe. Yutaka Nakajima, who appeared in some earlier Chiba films like The Executioner (1974), plays the female lead, but her role is very forgettable as well. There are a few other supporting actors as well, but amusingly a great lack of extras. It seems the entire budget went to special effects since there are only a handful of people in Tokyo and they miraculously run into each other throughout the film.

Because of its rarity Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 will remain to be sought after movie. It’s a decent special effects show that probably deserves to be seen by genre fans, especially for its nostalgia value, but it’s hardly a great movie. For fans of Chiba it’s passable viewing, but not among his most memorable roles.

As a side note; the film’s budget was 150 million yen, which was five times higher than the episode budget for the famous cop-action series Seibu Keisatsu (which is still fondly remembered for its insane action scenes full of car wrecking and explosions) that was screening on TV around the same time. By the 1980s many of the former actions stars, like Yujiro Ishihara, Tetsuya Watari, and Chiba himself were mostly working on TV. Chiba had already starred in hundred of TV episodes in various different shows since the 1960s, like Key Hunter (1967-1973) and The Bodyguard (1974). In the 1980s television became his primary employer as well. It was a great era of epic small screen action entertainment that often rivalled, and sometimes surpassed, the theatrical films. Nothing like it exists on Japanese TV anymore.