Battle in Outer Space, Ishiro Honda
Battle in Outer Space (1959)

Exploring the Sci-fi Worlds of Ishirō Honda in Three Films

The devastating power of the atomic bomb casts a long shadow over Ishiro Honda’s The H-Man, Battle in Outer Space, and Mothra.

Ishirō Honda Double Feature: The H-Man and Battle in Outer Space
Ishirō Honda
Eureka Entertainment
16 November 2020 (UK)
Ishirō Honda
Eureka Entertainment
16 November 2020 (UK)

Ishirō Honda is perhaps best remembered for co-writing and directing the original Godzilla (1954) for the Japanese film studio Toho. However, he went on to direct several more popular entries in the wider Godzilla franchise, as well as a variety of innovative science fiction films.

Eureka Entertainment has recently released three of Honda’s films on Region B Blu-ray. The first release is a two disc double bill that features The H-Man (1958) and Battle in Outer Space (1959) while the second release is a deluxe edition of Mothra (1961). All three films were made for Toho, a well-oiled film production studio capable of producing good-looking, high-quality genre films often featuring impressive special effects.

These three films directed by Ishirō Honda are popular genre films, but the devastating power of the atomic bomb casts a long shadow over all of his work here. Battle in Outer Space and Mothra feature scenes depicting sections of Japanese cities being obliterated instantly. In addition, The H-Man and Mothra feature scenarios that bring to mind the “Lucky Dragon No. 5” incident, in which the 23 crew members of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon No. 5 were contaminated by nuclear fallout following the testing of an atomic weapon by the American military at Bikini Atoll in 1954.

The H-Man (1958)

A civilian boat goes missing when a nuclear bomb is tested in the Pacific Ocean. Sometime later, Misaki (Hisaya Ito), a drug trafficker who is going about his nefarious business on the streets of Tokyo, literally vanishes into thin air: only his crumpled empty clothing remains at the spot where he was last seen. Two police officers, Inspector Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata) and Detective Sakata (Yoshifumi Tajima), are perplexed by the strange nature of Misaki’s disappearance. Still, their rational minds determine that friends or rivals from Tokyo’s criminal underworld must be responsible.

As such, they interrogate Misaki’s girlfriend, Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa), before stepping up their investigations into the various criminal types who congregate at the nightclub where she sings. When further members of Tokyo’s criminal classes disappear, similarly to Misaki, a university researcher called Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara) tries to convince the police that fallout materials from the recent nuclear bomb test have created radioactive slime monsters that can melt and absorb humans.

The executives at Toho Studios are slick operators who have had their fingers on the pulse of Japan’s popular cinema audiences for decades. As such, the studios have produced countless films of quality that span the most popular genres. Noir films were popular in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s. The H-Man cleverly takes the look and feel of a superior Japanese neo-noir film and seamlessly adds interesting cautionary science fiction elements to the proceedings.

Much of the time, The H-Man plays like a gritty police procedural film, and Tominaga and Sakata are convincingly presented as hardboiled law enforcers with tough jobs. The criminals’ favourite nightclub is revealed to be a seedy den of iniquity. We get to see performances by Chikako and her fellow entertainers when the cops do undercover stakeouts there. The film works just fine when it’s operating in crime film mode, but it gets even more interesting when Masada turns up and tries to convince the cops that the disappearances are being caused by radioactive slime monsters.

Masada has to sell some quite outrageous ideas to both the cops and the audience, but Kenji Sahara manages to play the character straight, and The H-Man is all the better for it. His theories are proven beyond doubt when he’s able to introduce the police to four sailors who are suffering from radiation sickness. These men are the survivors of a party who found and boarded the civilian vessel that was irradiated by the atomic bomb test at the start of the film (a clear reference to the “Lucky Dragon No. 5” incident).

An eerie, atmospheric, tension-laden flashback has the men exploring the seemingly empty ship before being attacked by the slime monsters. The slime monsters are pretty disturbing creatures (they’re a bit like miniature variants of the monster from Irvin S. Yeaworth‘s 1958 film The Blob), but we are reminded of their human origins when they randomly choose to transform themselves into glowing, translucent, and ghost-like humanoid shapes.

It’s unclear why the slime monsters are hunting down Tokyo’s criminal classes. Maybe the six seafarers who became the slime monsters were forced into importing drugs for the traffickers by sea and are seeking revenge. Whatever the reason, when the slime monsters attack the nightclub, all hell breaks loose in what amounts to a frenetic but finely executed bit of sci-fi monster mayhem. Ishirō Honda foregrounds some fairly big and well-choreographed crowd scenes as the film builds towards an exciting finalé within Tokyo’s labyrinthine network of underground sewers.

The H-Man is a pretty entertaining and involving film. Its narrative veers towards the pulpy side of things at times, but its production values are top-notch for the most part. Its actors are convincing, and bold colours, good lighting, pleasing camera placements, and thoughtful framing make The H-Man a good-looking film, too. Excellent and mostly effective special effects complete the picture. I watched the longer Japanese-language version of the film (supported by English-language subtitles), and its picture and sound quality were both very good.

The H-Man‘s Extra Features

The shorter English-language dubbed version of The H-Man includes an image gallery, an audio commentary by screenwriter Steve Ryfle and producer Ed Godziszewski, and a second audio commentary by film historian David Kalat.

Battle in Outer Space (1959)

A scouting party from the planet Natal has journeyed far across space to make preparations for a planned invasion of Earth. The aliens test the water by using their anti-gravity rays to cause a series of major disasters around the world. A special conference to tackle the ongoing crisis is convened in Tokyo but it gets off to an inauspicious start when it becomes apparent that the aliens can possess humans and have them do their malicious bidding.

Earth’s only hope is to launch two specially constructed rockets that will travel to the Moon and destroy the advance base camp that the Natalians have set up there. If successful, the mission might buy the people of the Earth the time they desperately need to prepare themselves for a full-scale invasion.

Compared to The H-Man, Battle in Outer Space is a much more straightforward – though no less compelling – science fiction film. That means that there’s a lot more in the way of traditional sci-fi elements to enjoy here: space stations, rocket ships, alien UFOs, lunar rovers, dangerous meteorites, ray guns, laser blasts, neat-looking space suits, the lunar landscape, and the big battle in outer space that the film’s title promises. All are brought to life by smart design work, convincing-looking models and sets, decent travelling matte shots, and other special effects work.

Along the way, we are introduced to key characters such as the naturally heroic Major Ichiro Katsumiya (Ryo Ikebe) and his dependable female colleague Etsuko Shiraishi (Kyoko Anzai), but little effort is made to eulogize or make us identify exclusively with these characters. Katsumiya and Shiraishi remain the nearest things that the film has to a traditional leading man and woman, but Ishirō Honda wanted his audience to experience the battle against the Natalians as a multinational and multicultural team effort.

Indeed, Battle in Outer Space promotes team efforts and successes rather than individual heroics. In the film’s final space battle, the amassed fighting forces of a completely united Earth take on the alien invaders in a determined fight to the finish. That said, one team member is allowed to pursue an extravagant act of solo bravery during the mission to the Moon, but only as a penance to make up for an earlier betrayal forced upon him by the aliens’ mind-control methods.

Interestingly, actual atomic weapons are only briefly referenced in Battle in Outer Space. Earth’s only real hope is the newly developed “energy radiation gun”. It’s the one weapon that mankind possesses that holds the destructive power needed to destroy the Natalian’s base on the Moon. But the energy radiation gun is small potatoes compared to the aliens’ anti-gravity ray ferocity. When the ray hits Tokyo during the film’s exciting finalé, the devastating power of the atomic bomb is immediately brought to mind.

Battle in Outer Space possesses a relatively simple and slightly hokey storyline that’s realized in a wholly pleasing manner. As noted above, the film’s design work and special effects are of very good quality, as are its cinematography and other technical specifications. My only quibble is the film’s soundtrack: some of the music cues play slightly incongruously. I watched the Japanese version of the film (supported by English subtitles), and its picture and sound quality were very good.

Battle in Outer Space‘s Extra Features

The English language dubbed version of Battle in Outer Space, an image gallery, an isolated music and effects track, an audio commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski and a second audio commentary by David Kalat.

The first 2,000 copies of The H-Man and Battle in Outer Space come with a card slipcase and a collector’s booklet.

Mothra (1961)

A typhoon forces a Japanese ship to run aground on the supposedly uninhabited Infant Island. Years earlier, the nation-state of Rolisica had tested atomic bombs on the island, but when the ship’s crew are rescued, they’re found to be completely radiation-free. Moreover, they claim that their clean bill of health is due to a red juice administered to them by the island’s mysterious natives.

When Japan and Rolisica subsequently launch a joint expedition to Infant Island, the party includes a domineering Rolisican, Nelson (Jerry Ito), a Japanese linguist, Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi), and a Japanese reporter, Sen-chan (Furanki Sakai). The island reveals many wonders to the explorers, including a pair of perfectly proportioned female twins (Yumi Ito and Emi Ito) who are just one foot high. The twins rescue Chujo when a plant with blood-sucking tentacles attacks him.

Nelson wants to own these “Fairy Twins”, so he leads a second expedition to Infant Island, massacres many of its natives, and kidnaps the tiny women. When he returns to Tokyo, Nelson sets the twins to work as the star attraction in a theatrical musical extravaganza. However, the Fairy Twins are able to contact their guardian on Infant Island telepathically, and before long, the giant monster Mothra is heading for Tokyo to rescue them.

Much as The H-Man employs the tropes of Japanese neo-noir and police procedural films, Mothra employs the tropes of the dogged newspaper reporter and the fearless investigative journalist genres as the sturdy “real world” foundations that its sci-fi elements are cleverly built upon. Sen-chan and his female photographer colleague Michi Hanamura (Kyoko Kagawa) are a crack team who never let a story go. Their investigation into the rescued sailors eventually leads to Sen-chan stowing away on the initial mission to Infant Island. Sen-chan (who is the source of some mild and well-judged comic relief), Michi, and Chujo, the linguist, are likable and well-drawn characters, but the star of this film is undoubtedly Mothra herself.

Mothra is an amazing monster that remains one of the jewels in the crown of the wider Godzilla universe. She exists in two forms; both are appealing and cute in their own ways: she’s initially seen as a huge caterpillar-like grub that eventually transforms into a gigantic moth. We’re told that Mothra does not understand concepts like “right” and “wrong”: she simply acts upon an inner instinct to rescue the Fairy Twins and return them to Infant Island.

Travelling in an unwavering direct line towards the Fairy Twins’ location means that the Mothra grub plows through busy shipping lanes and bustling Japanese cities, causing much devastation. Indeed, she’s responsible for acts of mass destruction, but she remains a “good” and heroic monster figure because her actions are essentially those of a determined and committed protector-rescuer: at the end of the day, the provoked Mothra only wants to look after her own.

The Japanese Army uses tanks and planes to attack the Mothra grub but their efforts are unsuccessful. When the Mothra grub comes to rest at the Tokyo Tower and spins a cocoon around itself, the Japanese authorities figure that blasting the cocoon with “atomic heat cannons” is a good idea. Still, all this does is hasten the emergence of the flying Mothra moth. Ishirō Honda offers some good crowd scenes and excellent special effects that employ effective miniature sets and vehicles when Mothra goes about her destructive business.

Mothra is one of the key films in Toho’s wider Godzilla franchise. Indeed, the film introduced one of the franchise’s most popular and enduring monsters while confirming that kaiju (strange beast/giant monster) films were apt for carrying allegorical political subtexts. Nelson’s massacre of the Infant Island natives and his theft and exploitation of one of the island’s cultural treasures for commercial gain is an obvious metaphor for the horrors of colonialism.

Similarly, the nuclear weapon-wielding nation-state of Rolisica that continually bullies Japan is brought to life via a hodgepodge of cultural symbols that reference both America and Russia. When Mothra flaps her wings, a section of Rolisica’s capital, New Kirk City, is demolished in an instant, and we are immediately reminded of the devastatingly destructive power of the atomic bomb. The nuclear weapon tests on Infant Island and the fear that the shipwrecked sailors have been irradiated serve as a reference to the “Lucky Dragon No. 5” incident.

Mothra is an intelligent and near-perfect slice of giant monster-themed sci-fi. It’s a well-acted, well-plotted, well-paced, and thoroughly compelling film, and its soundtrack is excellent. The songs that the Fairy Twins sing will stay with you forever. Furthermore, Mothra is a great-looking film: the pleasing camera placements, thoughtful framing, bold colors, and excellent special effects that are generally found in Ishirō Honda’s other films are present here, too. I watched the longer Japanese version of Mothra (supported by English subtitles), and its picture and sound quality were both very good.

Mothra’s Extra Features

The shorter English-language dubbed version of Mothra includes an isolated music and effects track, an audio commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, a second audio commentary by David Kalat, an interview with film critic Kim Newman, two image galleries (production stills, ephemera, and concept art), a teaser trailer, and a theatrical trailer.

The first 3,000 copies of Mothra come with a hardbound card slipcase, a double-sided poster, and a collector’s booklet.