Bye-Bye Jupiter (1984)

Author: Patrick Galvan
March 26, 2015
Note: review may contain spoilers

In the late 1970's and early 80's—i.e. the era of the original Star Wars trilogy and the first run of films that tried to copy their success—movie theaters in all corners of the globe saw a persistent surge of films set in outer space which wavered between lighthearted entertainment and deep, philosophical epics in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The big space epic released by Toho in 1984, Bye-Bye Jupiter, resides in the second category. Or, perhaps better put, it wishes to reside in the second category. It certainly tries—there's no denying that—but unlike the Kubrick film, which continues to leave audiences hungrily searching for answers as to what its story means, Bye-Bye Jupiter turns out to be more frustrating than fascinating, more sluggish than sweeping; at the end of the day, it's little more than a big, expensive-looking bore. Not worthless by any means and not devoid of good moments and ambitions, but hardly a film to be contemplated and scrutinized and marveled at—beyond a technical level—in the years to come.

As far as a superficial plot description is concerned, it all sounds interesting. The story takes place in the 22nd century: the Earth's population has inflated to 18 billion people, and an additional 5 billion have since made homes on nearby planets, moons, and asteroids. But the more the human race grows, the further into space colonists must venture to establish new homes. A solution called the J.S. (Jupiter Solarization) Project is initiated. Its goal: to convert the planet Jupiter into a second sun so that the more distant solar bodies can obtain energy and light for easier colonization. (How this could be done without accidentally overcooking anything passing between Jupiter and the sun—such as Earth—we are never told.) The plan is met with some resistance from a group called the Jupiter Church, who passionately believe distant worlds—such as Jupiter—should not be tampered with. However, all attempts at sabotaging the project are cut short with precious little struggle.

Then, catastrophe strikes. The loss of three space-faring vessels, each disappearance occurring closer to Earth than the last, signals the arrival of an enormous black hole—one strong and powerful enough to devour the sun and its surrounding worlds. With this discovery comes an adjustment to the J.S. Project. Instead of altering the planet just enough to convert it into a star, the men and women behind the strategy opt to increase the fusion of Jupiter's core just as the black hole approaches in hopes of producing an explosion that will cast the cosmic invader back into the unknown. But, in the process, Jupiter, the largest planet in the system, would be destroyed and gone forever. Two years press on; the new project phases commence; and a few isolated members of the Jupiter Church take another—much more violent—step toward thwarting the new interstellar plan.

For much of the first hour—before the black hole enters the story—Bye-Bye Jupiter is actually somewhat enjoyable. A tad perplexing and plagued with some truly discomforting acting, but enjoyable. Watching the massive manmade machines glide smoothly through outer space, Kentaro Haneda's marvelous musical score alternating between softness and sweeping awe in the background, appropriately recaptures the same kind of visual splendor from similar scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It attempts humor involving zero-gravity, where the characters remain stationary while tangible objects float around them. (There is a hilarious moment where a pilot watches a McDonald's food box drift in front of him; he opens it and takes a bite out of the sandwich while a Coca Cola bottle spirals in the foreground—the most outlandishly enjoyable piece of product placement I can remember.) More entertaining stuff: compositions photographed upside-down to play in with the whole lack of gravity scenario; the science-fiction chatter about the J.S. Project and why it could increase mankind's reach into the stars; and who can resist smiling at scenes of characters watching old Toho movies like Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) and Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)?

And then the black hole enters the story, and the film's themes come into play. Bye-Bye Jupiter was written by renowned science-fiction author Sakyo Komatsu (he adapted the screenplay from his own novel) who loved to channel ideas and symbolism into otherwise simple, straight-forward stories. I've been unable to find a translated copy of Bye-Bye Jupiter's print version, but I have read another Komatsu novel called Japan Sinks, which became the magnificent Shiro Moritani film Submersion of Japan (1973). In the case of that narrative, Komatsu took what could've been a thoughtless fable about rampant earthquakes destroying civilization and produced what was, at heart, a poignant and revealing story about Japanese morality and Japan's relationship with the rest of the world.

Again, I cannot comment on the effectiveness of Komatsu's novel version of Bye-Bye Jupiter, but the film adaptation's philosophies are severely underdeveloped. I do not fault the film for trying to communicate ideas—I would never fault a film for that—but I do criticize Bye-Bye Jupiter the film for failing to convey these meanings and themes in a captivating or interesting manner.

Let's consider the Jupiter Church and their involvement in the narrative. To begin discussing them on a positive note, I wholesomely appreciate that the filmmakers took a more two-sided approach in portraying them. This is not yet another film where religion is portrayed as all-bad; various members of the church, their leader (an obvious religious symbol named Peter) in particular, wish for peaceful coexistence with other men and the universe around them; it's only a few isolated members, one of whom is motivated by personal gain, who resort to violence. That's all very nice, and I'm sure that's at least close to what Komatsu had in mind. However, is that theme conveyed, through dialogue and acting, in a way that is particularly intriguing to watch? Not really. Precious few members of this congregation, who love to spend their time bathing in the ocean and playing with their pet dolphin, are well-acted; the often-stiff dialogue is rendered even stiffer by the performances. Sometimes the film cuts from scenes in space to brief shots of the group on Earth without any real sense of relation or why the cut was even necessary. And most befuddling of all is their relationship with the dolphin. I suppose there might be some religious or environmentalist (or both) message being instilled here (not being a theologian, I cannot say for sure) but regardless, this narrative element comes across as wholesomely clumsy. For instance: the sequence where the dolphin dies trying to fight off a shark. What does it signify? It must stand for something given how much aftermath time the filmmakers spend on it. And again, I would be perfectly satisfied with the ambiguity (I adore Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all) had it been handled in a way that truly captured my interest and my hunger to learn more. I would love to know what it all means, but mostly to ease my frustration, as I doubt having that answer would make the film much more entertaining. Clumsy execution, even with a good idea behind it, is a tad difficult to ignore.

It also doesn't help that the human element—the people we're meant to cheer and feel for—ranges between dreadfulness and sheer mediocrity. Our protagonist, a space engineering chief competently acted by Tomokazu Miura, falls in the latter category: tolerable but possessing very little in the way of personality. His love interest, played by French actress Dangely Diane, comes across with even less development. The idea behind their relationship has potential (she distrusts outer space due to her parents having been killed in an attempted landing between planets; and he earns his living on other worlds) but, once again, the idea is not honed enough to leave much resonance. The only memorable moment between the two characters stands out only because of how visually perplexing and bizarre it is. And yes, I am referring to the notorious zero-gravity sex scene with the two lovers drifting around in their room and then projected against backdrops of outer space. The protagonist's best friend (William H. Tapier) does little apart from engaging in a friendly fistfight, watching a Godzilla movie, and dying a horrible death. And had the character been sharpened beforehand, that horrible death would actually mean something to the audience. The only other character worth drawing attention to is a Japanese scientist played, in his final film outing, by the great Akihiko Hirata; the character is barely on-screen, but it is fun to see Hirata one more time. Apart from that, the character is just there to die so Miyuki Ono, as a Caucasian scientist, can reveal she once loved him. (Yet another storyline that left me begging for some more context.)

Now, moving back to the positive side of things, I want to address some fine craftsmanship and one of the movie's few modestly successful themes. And I can address both by extending my praise to the film's director, Koji Hashimoto. First off, the technique is appealing: Bye-Bye Jupiter manifestly demonstrates the same subtle and unpretentious filmmaking style that was also present in Hashimoto's other directorial effort, the much-superior The Return of Godzilla (1984). His beautifully coordinated images, combined with some excellent sound engineering and special effects, turns a third-act shootout into one of the film's few truly immersive sequences. Better still, we have a thematic element that he would later use brilliantly in the 1984 Godzilla movie: a sense of unity. The Godzilla film used the Cold War as a means of expressing hope that, just maybe, warring nations might be able to set aside their differences and work together to avoid a greater disaster. (In the case of that film, the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated with neutral Japan to prevent a nuclear missile from striking downtown Tokyo.) So is it a coincidence that the protagonist and his love interest come from opposite sides of the world? Or that the protagonist's best friend is an American? Or that Hirata's ill-fated scientist was once loved by a Caucasian woman? Or that so many English-speakers are present throughout the film, banding together with their Japanese comrades, striving toward whatever common goal they find? Now granted: this humanistic element isn't explored with nearly as much depth and solid writing as it was in The Return of Godzilla (1984) [a vastly better film, I remind you], but seeing this element present here does make me respect Hashimoto even more as a filmmaker. It is a shame economic circumstances forced Hashimoto to abandon his career as a director, for one can only imagine what else he might've achieved had he kept going. Of the two films he made, one is a near-masterpiece, and the other is immensely flawed but still demonstrates his visual flair and, at a basic level, his ideas as a humanist.

To keep going on an upbeat note, the special effects, directed by the late Koichi Kawakita, are easily the highlight of the film! The miniature spaceships are rich with detail and, filmed at the proper camera speed, effectively convey a sense of mass and scale as they drift through the universe. Background mattes and optical effects for the stars and planets similarly look wonderful; so good, in fact, that in the few odd moments where the film decides to use a stock image of the real outer space, Kawakita's manufactured effects, oddly enough, stick out as more dynamic. Let's also not forget about the viscous, unrelenting gusts of different-colored smoke utilized for a scene where a small ship pilots through the storm clouds of Jupiter. In fact, Kawakita's only blunder concerns his animatronic dolphin and shark. The props are woefully unconvincing and really stick out when juxtaposed with stock clips of their real-life counterparts. But those two effects aside, most of what Kawakita accomplishes here is genuinely effective and mops the floor with that silly, untrue bias that the Japanese film industry cannot produce good special effects. [Also, is it just me, or do the eerie screams emitted during Jupiter's death resemble the cries of Godzilla's opponent in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), for which Kawakita would provide the visual effects half a decade later?]

In looking back on Bye-Bye Jupiter, I cannot help but consider two revisions which might've rendered this into a better, more satisfying film-going experience. The first would be to go against the filmmakers' original intent, drop all of the philosophies and thematic elements, and make a simple, straight-forward space opera. (Hence why the much-simpler first hour of the film is the more enjoyable.) And the other—more preferable—route: keep the ideas, but take the time to develop them. This would, of course, add more to the film's running time, but with proper care in the writing and casting process, it would be time well-spent. As is, Bye-Bye Jupiter is impersonal, lethargic, and rather tiresome to sit through. Still, it does show Koji Hashimoto's skill and humanism, and he would, of course, utilize both to their utmost potential in his second directorial effort.