There are many Toho Studio monster movies that don't star Godzilla. So I'm shocked and pleasantly surprised that such a rare item is out on DVD. Space Amoeba has been released widescreen (2.35) and in Japanese, after years of having the picture cropped and the dialogue dubbed. Cause for celebration and reappraisal — it's a good, clean, fun (man in a suit) monster movie!
In 1970, Toho rounded off their extremely successful decade of monster movies with this gem, before lower budgets began to compromise their output. In Japan, according to IMDB, it was called Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaijû but was given even sillier names for its release in the west, notably Yog – Monster from Space. Despite the titles and even sillier publicity stills, Space Amoeba has an A-list production crew.
Directed by Ishiro Honda, no less — the director of the original Godzilla film (Gojira, 1954) and the best of Japan's sci-fi films over three decades. Honda directed one last Godzilla film after this, Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), then retired to TV work. He only returned to film-making to assist his long-time friend Akira Kurosawa on Kagemusha, Ran and Dreams.
But back to Space Amoeba! After a title sequence that teases us with close ups of the movie's three monsters, the opening shot of the story is a startlingly modern image – the silhouette of an Apollo-like space rocket against a huge sunrise. Instantly, I was reminded of the opening shot of William Peter Blatty's black comedy The Ninth Configuration (1980) which is an odd coincidence to connect two odd movies.
We're then treated to an impressive rocket launch, all done with huge models, obviously benefitting from recently having the real thing on TV. Plotwise, the 'Helio 7' is being sent on an unmanned mission to Jupiter. Of course, it never gets there, as the probe gets intercepted in space by a, er, huge space amoeba. A beautiful special effect – a glittering transparent blob that oozes its way into the spaceship and takes control, crashing the probe into the sea near a remote South Pacific island.
Enter young, trendy photographer Kudo, on the trail of the missing probe — he saw it land but no one believes him. He tags along with an expedition to the island, where a report comes in that a Japanese explorer has been snatched from the beach by a giant squid! This, of course, is at a time decades before giant squid were known to exist.
The team discover that some thing from deep space has come to the island with the probe, and is trying to assimilate itself into different lifeforms on the island.
While this is more of an excuse for a giant squid, a giant crab and a giant turtle to run around terrifying people, the plot is probably derived from the 'blob from space' scenario first posed by writer Nigel Kneale in The Creeping Unknown. Indeed, the scene of the amoeba entering the capsule in space is something I imagined occuring, but was never explicitly shown, in that Hammer Studios production from 1955.
The 'invasion from space' plot, together with a sub-plot about industrial espionage on the island, is strong enough to keep us interested in the human characters. This is very rare in giant monster movies, and a credit to the cast for making the implausible interesting.
The photographer Kudo is played by Akira Kubo, who was normally a cleancut astonaut or hero-type. Here, Kubo obviously enjoys letting his hair down, sporting a designer beard, a funky hat, and playing it cool. The actor is still working today, recently appearing in a new Chiaki Kuriyama horror film called Mail.
The short-tempered scientist Dr Mida is played by Yoshio Tsuchiya, fresh from starring in the extremely risque, avant-garde Funeral Parade of Roses.
The dodgy-dealing Obata, is played by Kenji Sahara, who only ever seemed to act in Toho monster movies, and still is! He was recently in Godzilla Final Wars (2004).
The heart and soul of this party, Ayako, is played by Atsuko Takahashi, who had previously played a beautiful alien (a Kilaak!) in another classic monster rally, the Godzilla film Destroy All Monsters (1968).
To summararize, we've got a space-blob who takes over other creatures, makes them gigantic and strong and directs them to the islanders' village for some gratuitous destruction of buildings — these are only grass huts, but they'll have to do. This of course means that the giant squid, called Gezora, has to walk around on land. If you thought that the walking squid in The Calamari Wrestler (2004) looked silly, then what about a walking giant squid. Much fun can been made of Gezora's wobbly walk, but let's face it, most squid are pretty wobbly out of the water. The rubber suit is a lot of fun, and cleverly filmed so that you don't ever see the legs. In fact, it looks pretty much as it should do, but the glowing eyes are a little over the top.
Next up is Ganime, a giant crab. (Who comes up with these names?) It gets to fight with Kameba, the giant rock turtle in the spectacular finale, shot on a wonderfully intricate volcano studio set.
My main complaint about the film is that Gezora (the squid) never tangles with either the crab or the rock turtle. I was disappointed the first time I saw Space Amoeba for this very reason. Subsequently, I revisited my old books and discovered publicity stills that feature all three monsters fighting with each other. I'd been suckered by the publicity – the scene doesn't appear in the film. But re-watching the film has kindled new joys.
Yes, the monsters are all men in suits, but what fantastic suits. The movements in Ganime's face rival Predator's ugly mug. Kameba the turtle looks great, again with a convincingly articulated face, and with the fact that he's a man on all fours cleverly hidden.
Did I mention the mechanical bats? These creatures are obviously operated by 'old school' wirework – way before we could summon up CGI bats. But they're very good for what they are. Indeed 'bats on wires' deserve a movie sub-genre of their own. One which I'm currently nostalgic for…
Space Amoeba is an undemanding monster movie that moves the fun swiftly along, with plenty of action, and a better storyline than most. However, when Akira Kubo summarises the plot during the closing scene, even the scriptwriters know how ridiculous it sounds.