The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The twenty-ninth entry into this disreputable canon is the bizarre but heartfelt Japanese Star Wars knock-off, Message from Space…
Trailers: The Green Slime
Knock-off cinema only gets weirder once it goes international. So nobody should be surprised to find that one of the most bizarre repurposings of Star Wars’ iconography is the 1978 Japanese take on Lucas’ megahit, Message From Space. Outside of the cultural updates and garish staginess, the Toei Company’s recruitment of legendary filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) lends the production a legitimacy one wouldn’t otherwise expect. The results are chintzily hearfelt, floating on good vibrations and a genuine need to entertain any and all who sit down with the massive movie (budgeted at $6 million, it was the most expensive film in Japanese history to date). Sure, the plot is somewhat incomprehensible (even by space operetta standards), but the sheer commitment to genuine escapism is delightful even during the movie’s peak nonsensical points.
Message From Space owns its title with perhaps the movie’s only example of literalism. In the Andromeda galaxy, quaint, earthy planet Jillucia has been conquered by the metal-skinned samurai of the Gavanas Empire. Instead of the peaceful sphere it once was, Jillucia is now a terrifying military fortress. Kido (Junkichi Orimoto), a Jillucian elder statesman, casts out eight Liabe Seeds in order to locate heroes who can help liberate their world. Kido's granddaughter, Princess Emeralida (Etsuko Shihomi), and the warrior Urocco (Makoto Satô) follow the seeds into the outer limits, searching for those the SOS signal chooses. It’s a weird fusion of Japanese granola and interstellar soap opera, sporting the gaudy production values of a Godzilla picture.
To make matters weirder, Gavanas Emperor Rockseia (Mikio Narita) refuses to take the search seriously until his mother, Empress Dark (Hideyo Amamoto), scolds the Japanese Darth Vader into pursuing the Jillucian's space-pirate ship (which is designed to look just like a galleon, complete with sails) as it leaves the planet’s atmosphere. The spores lead to a collection of ragtag champions, comprised of hot rod freaks, a spoiled aristocrat, gangsters, a sad, drunk stand-in for Han Solo (Vic Morrow, mourning the death of his best robot buddy while wearing a pimp coat) and his new android servant, Beba-2. Of course, this geek squad reluctantly accepts their call to duty, leading to an intergalactic showdown with the Gavanas armada.
Sounds pretty simple right? Wrong. Fukasaku jams every frame of the film with colorful action and character moments, pacing his movie at warp speed so that you often don’t have time to stop and ponder the preposterousness of the plot. Games of chicken are played in asteroid belts while Morrow boozes it up and tries to find a reason to keep pressing on in this cold, dead galaxy. Meanwhile, Beba-2 steals the entire show, doggedly trying to prove his worth while the battle rages on around him. Martial arts legend Sonny Chiba even shows up momentarily (roughly three reels into the movie) as the heroic Prince Hans and proceeds to sword fight on a spaceship. It’s a veritable grab bag of J-Pop silliness, distilled through the lens of a filmmaker who knew how to deliver rather exciting set pieces.
To be completely honest, a viewer is either going to get on board with the wholly sincere yet totally borrowed wavelength Message From Space is operating on or they’re not. Only those devoted to Japanese cinema, severely weird exploitation, or every bit of Star Wars minutia are going to get a kick out of Fukasaku’s paradoxically genuine cash-in. Message From Space demands that attention be paid not solely to the actual proceedings of the picture, but rather to an emotional core the writer/director is able to craft despite what otherwise may seem like strictly consumerist objectives. However, this is what marks Fukasaku’s oddball saga as utterly compelling: it remembers to retain its soul as it reaches into the pockets of its country’s eager ticket buyers. If you’re going to make a bizarre rip off, you might as well go all in, and Message From Space certainly has no problem wearing its spectacularly corny feelings on its sleeve.
This Week at Weird Wednesday: The Ice Pirates
Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement; Vampyres; She; Dolls; Alice, Sweet Alice; Starship Troopers