One of director Ishiro Honda‘s better known pictures, The Mysterians would act as a blueprint on countless “alien invasion” films to come from Toho while also introducing new techniques to the genre. Where as Legend of the White Serpent (1956) was Toho’s first science fiction film to utilize color, Honda’s The Mysterians becomes the first science fiction epic to use the firm’s “Toho Scope” aspect ratio. This “extended widescreen” look to the film would become standard throughout most of Toho’s work, prevailing up until the 1980s before reemerging at the turn of the century for the Millennium series of Godzilla films. This “technical achievement” aside, Honda’s The Mysterians is a rather ho-hum entry in the director’s portfolio of science fiction films. As it stands, The Mysterians has a fairly straight forward plot, which fails to introduce any memorable characters or give the actors much to work with, and while the musical score and special effects are impressive at times, the film really ends up limping to the finish due to the film’s very slow pacing.
The plot of The Mysterians isn’t entirely complex, although it does add more layers to the film’s antagonists than most of the later “alien invasion” movies from Toho would care to examine. The movie starts out with a mysterious fire sweeping through a forest near a village ceremony. Ryoichi Shirashi, a local astronomer, rushes out to investigate and disappears during the confusion. Meanwhile, a village near Fuji is completely wiped out in a large fissure, as gaping canyons are left where the town once stood. While investigating the area, scientist Atsumi and a group of police officers stumble upon the war machine Moguera. The giant mech then advances on a town near Koyama Bridge that night. It is meant by heavy resistance from Japan’s self defense force. However, the conventional artillery has no effect on the war machine. The creature continues its rampage until it tries to cross the Koyama Bridge, which is detonated sending the machine crashing down to the Earth below which destroys it. The remains of the giant machine are quickly examined, revealing that it was constructed from materials not present on Earth.
Shortly afterwards, astronomers witness activity in outer space around the moon. They alert the world of this discovery. Not long after, the Mysterians emerge, their gigantic dome breaking through the Earth’s crust near Mount Fuji. A group of scientists are politely ushered into the structure, where the Mysterians list their desires from the people of Earth: a two mile radius strip of land and the right to marry women on Earth. Although the latter part of their demands is downplayed, they admit to already taking three women captive and reveal two others that they are interested in. One of them is Etsuko, Atsumi’s current love interest. As expected, Japan quickly disregards this request and begins the mobilization of their armed forces around Mount Fuji. It’s also discovered that the missing Shirashi has sided with the alien race due to their technological achievements. Japan wastes no time, though, and quickly launches a full scale attack against the Mysterians. However, the modern weaponry is no match for their technology, and Japan’s forces are easily fought back.
Distraught by this set back, Japan sends their plea to other nations that they might join together to remove the threat of the Mysterians from Earth. The nations around the world answer the request. In no time another raid against the Mysterians dome is underway, this time utilizing the newly developed Alpha class battleships. Sadly, the attack is meant with failure as well. The Mysterians then increase their demand, asking for 75 mile radius of land. Meanwhile the Earth continues to develop a new method of attack: the Markalite Cannon, a gigantic lens that can reflect the Mysterians’ weaponry. While this is going on, the Mysterians kidnap Etsuko and Hiroko, causing Atsumi to search for, and locate, a back entrance to the Mysterians’ dome. In the mean time, the Markalite Cannons are deployed and the final battle against the Mysterians’ base commences. As Atsumi, later joined by Shirashi who sacrifices himself in a final attack on the Mysterians, assault the base from the inside, the Markalite Cannons attack the base from above ground. Together, the structure is finally destroyed, the kidnapped women rescued, and the Mysterians expelled from Earth for good.
Although a departure from the style of Honda’s last few pictures, The Mysterians is still very distinctively his as the director includes his trademark message against the side effects of nuclear war. The film’s title antagonists, the alien race of Mysteriod, discuss how they obliterated their own planet in such a war, and how the few survivors are still ravaged by the side effects of their own weaponry. An interesting look at the motives and hardships of a race trying to conquer Earth, although the extraterrestrial setting makes it hard for the message to have the same impact it had in Honda’s work in the years before. The movie also contains a strong message of unity, a message continued in the director’s Battle in Outer Space (1959) and Gorath (1962), as The Mysterians pit humanity in a situation that requires all of the nations in the world to pool their resources against a greater threat. Overall, though, the plot is fairly straight forward. Still, one should not delude the influence the picture had on numerous Japanese science fictions films that were to follow.
General plot of the film aside, the character development found in Honda’s 1957 film is certainly nothing to write home about. The most explored of the lot would have to be Akihiko Hirata’s Ryoichi Shirashi, who has to play the “double agent” of sorts. His explanation for siding with the Mysterians over his interest in their advance technology feels weak, while Shirashi’s final decision to betray them feels much more logical as the true intent of the alien race is revealed. Kenji Sahara‘s Jyoji Atsumi plays the standard hero here, nothing particularly noteworthy about this character. It certainly pales in contrast to the actor’s similar role as Shigeru in the previous year’s Rodan (1956). The most unimpressive aspect of the character development, though, would have to be the film’s two lead female roles: Etsuko and Hiroko played by Yumi Shirakawa and Momoko Koch, respectively. Even by the film’s end one knows next to nothing about them. The only thing to differentiate the two is which of the leads they have a romantic interest in.
As expected with the subpar character development, the acting in The Mysterians is merely adequate. There are no breakthrough performances, nor does any given actor’s performance add to the enjoyment of the film. The most impressive performance would have to be credited to Takashi Shimura, likely no surprise to anyone familiar with the film Ikiru (1952) or Seven Samurai (1954). Although even Shimura plays the role of Adachi pretty mundanely, lacking the energy one tends to associate with the actor’s best work. The film’s principal actor, Kenji Sahara, isn’t all that memorable here either; he plays his character pretty similar to his previous roles along with some later ones, such as in H-Man (1958). At this point, Sahara still appears to be in need of honing his skills slightly, as the actor’s true talent wouldn’t be realized until later in movies like Matango (1963) and Atragon (1963). As for the rest of the actors, sadly, there isn’t a whole lot to talk about. Most of them don’t get a great deal to do, and none of them manage to give an impressive performance with the material they are given. It should be mentioned that the English speaking actors, while far from notable, are at least credible here in how they read their lines. Well, that is in regards to when they are speaking English, as the actors’ Japanese lines are pretty awful.
Some of the more negative aspects aside, the film’s strongest point is easily Akira Ifukube‘s riveting score. There are a wide variety of enjoyable tracks to be found during the course of the film, such as the military march when troops begin mobilizing around Mount Fuji and the theme of different nations of Earth meeting to discuss the Mysterian threat. However, thee most memorable theme would easily be the movie’s “battle theme”, which to this day stands as one of the composer’s highlights of his career.
Still, back in the day, one of the film’s main draws was the special effects, but how do they stack up in retrospect? Well the effect work in The Mysterians, like most of Toho’s science fiction films, is a mixed bag. It ranges from the extraordinary, like the mat work with the fire torn forest, to the embarrassing, like the gigantic waves tearing through the city. The movie’s most famous creation, Moguera, is also utilized with mixed results. In still shots, the mech looks rather impressive as an antiquity style war machine. However, in action, the mech is less imposing. The bottom “skirt” part of the machine seems to wiggle rather noticeably while it’s rubbing against anything, while the “knees” seems to share this same problem depending on the leg movement. The creature’s trademark eye beams, etched on the print by hand here, look extremely crude, but considering special effects technology of the time one can’t be too harsh. One of the film’s most impressive shots, though, does occur during Moguera’s city raid. The house level perspective of Moguera toppling over a power line as it advances still commands a little bit of awe in the way that the shot is established. In fact, all of the film’s model buildings and structures are done extremely well here, each set being done in a level of detail that makes them credible for the full-size structures they are intended to represent. Another thing worth noting is that a lot of the military in this film is not special effects, as Toho was able to work with Japan’s defense force for a lot of the film’s scenes. The ending result is several shots which move fluidly from real military hardware to Eiji Tsuburaya‘s special effects, such as flamethrowers being used against the war machine Moguera. Another impressive effect is related to the Mysterian’s dome, as the shots of the scientists slowly walking toward the gigantic structure are very well constructed here. Sadly, a lot of the film’s numerous battle scenes are not as well staged, some featuring some very crude mat work. In general, for their time, the special effects tend to be more impressive than not, and Tsuburaya does deserve a lot of credit for his efforts.
When all is said and done, though, the pacing of The Mysterians is the real problem with the picture. The movie starts out strong with the forest fire followed by Moguera’s attack. The action during the start of the film is well juxtaposed with scenes to help elaborate on the story, while the flow between the two feels very natural. Sadly, once the title aliens emerge, the film starts to get bogged down in how it examines the impending events. The meeting of the Earth’s Defense Force is a strong example of this, as it’s being conducted in Japanese with those same lines then translated later for the foreign leaders, to add a flare of credibility to the scene. However, it makes the sequence feel incredibly long, as the audience is basically dictated the same information twice. The battles themselves feel noticeably drawn out as well, in particular the climax, as similar shots and events are shown over and over again. In reality, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact instance in the film which is to fault for the pacing, as, in general, The Mysterians feels like the editing overall needed to be tighter. The film does have a couple of amusing moments though, intended or not. The most noteworthy in this respect is the appearance of the second Moguera, which emerges near a Markalite Cannon only to be almost instantly destroyed as the gigantic weapon topples over, due to the upturned earth from Moguera emerging, and crushes the Mysterian’s war machine.
Overall, The Mysterians is an important entry in Toho’s special effects film catalog, even if it is overshadowed, in terms of quality, by numerous other entries. The basic concept of the film would be explored by Honda again in two years for the film Battle in Outer Space, while the director would craft his most famous rendering of the theme eight years later for Invasion of Astro-Monster.