Banned Japan: From Tsuburaya Productions with Love

Given the very nature of the sort of cinema I gravitate towards its an unavoidable fact that every now and again I stumble onto something that’s banned somewhere, but this may be the first time I’ve ever crossed paths with a banned episode of a television series. The now-infamous episode 12 of Tusburaya Productions’ superior Ultra-sequel Ultra Seven ran afoul of the same cultural sensitivities that would land Toho’s Prophecies of Nostradamus: Catastrophe 1999 in the hot seat just a few years hence, the result being that it has not been seen (officially) in its native Japan in decades. Those of us elsewhere have proven luckier. While Tsuburaya Productions have pulled the episode domestically and now (according to the interwebs) refuse to so much as acknowledge its existence, Yusei yori Ai o Komete (ă€ŽéŠæ˜Ÿă‚ˆă‚Šæ„›ă‚’ă“ă‚ăŠă€ / From Another Planet With Love) was marketed in foreign territories none-the-less. Those fond of Cinar’s mid-80s English adaptation of the series may remember it as the modestly spelling-challenged Crystalized (sic) Corpuscles.

The fuss in this case is all to do with Cristalized Corpuscles‘ requisite villains, a race of chortling backroom baddies from the nuke-ravaged planet Spellia who are out to fill their irradiated veins with delicious Earth blood (“This planet gives good blood!”). For a television show produced in a nation in which A-bomb survivor lobbyists are still counterbalanced against lingering stigma and discrimination the concept of bomb-happy galaxy-trotting vampires gleefully bleeding Earth-men dry is already treading on thin ice. While that narrative hook was likely more than enough on its own to illicit protest from victims’ rights organizations, Crystalized Corpuscles takes the issue one step further in its physical depiction of the Spell Aliens in their native form:

In retrospect it’s easy to see why the appearance of the Spell Alien – a gargantuan pallid figure with a sinister, expressionless face, covered in glowing keloid scars (lingered upon in close-up, no less) and raving about his desire for the blood of children – proved offensive. Even with my Western sensibilities firmly intact I find the presentation a bit tasteless, though it’s done nothing to lessen my innate personal revulsion to censorship, self-inflicted or otherwise. To that end I’m not entirely positive that the word “banned” is even appropriate to this case. Tsuburaya Productions have certainly pulled the episode from domestic circulation, but that appears to have been of their own volition – an effort made, no doubt, to avoid or mitigate any possible scandal. Crystalized Corpuscles was still made available to foreign markets, and well after the domestic moratorium went into effect. And moratorium be damned, even the original Japanese version is but a few clicks away anymore.

With words like “infamous” and “banned” weighing so heavily upon it, it’s easy to neglect the episode itself, which is second to none as an example of the heady ambition and audacious absurdity that mark the best of classic tokusatsu television. The premise is as ludicrous as they come, concerning a nefarious alien scheme to harvest the blood of women and children with wrist watches, but director Akio Jissoji (Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis) delivers not just a rollicking pulp actioner, but an oddball satire of romantic cinematic conventions as well! Even the compulsory episode-ending Ultra-fight is handled with unexpected artistry, the battle cast in rich sunset color and depicted in freeze-frame style complete with audible shutter clicks. It’s as surprising a 24 minutes as has ever been produced for Japanese genre television, and with an intriguing cultural significance as well. One only wishes it were more officially available…

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La Morte Viene dal Pianeta Aytin: The Snow Devils (1967)

The Snow Devils is here covered as part of Icy May, a certain Mysterious Order’s post-seasonal wintry review celebration. Read more here.

The concluding entry in the Gamma One franchise, a series of four low budget Italian / American co-productions that spawned the swinging cult masterpiece The Wild, Wild Planet, is, in a word, forgettable. Whatever funding had existed for the earlier The Wild, Wild Planet and War of the Planets had all but dried up by the time of The Snow Devils’ production, along with director Antonio Margheriti’s enthusiasm for the increasingly formulaic material. Though the credited director for the project, Margheriti was busy preparing another film when shooting for Devils was underway, leaving his assistant director Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) to pick up the bulk of his directorial duties. There is a minimum of fun to be had with Devils, but the lack of imagination and dearth of action leave it feeling like a pile of second unit footage with no real movie to fall back on.

Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (The Day the Sky Exploded) takes his second turn as Gamma One Commander Rod Jackson, fresh from his conquest of a living, farty planetoid in the earlier Planet on the Prowl (or not – any narrative connections between the films of the series are tenuous at best), and his faithful aid Captain Pulasky (Goffredo Unger, playing a character who had perished in Planet on the Prowl) are put in charge of investigating strange happenings in the remote Himalayas as the rest of the world suffers disaster after disaster. Massive storms, floods, and melting Arctic ice threaten the very foundations of civilization – what could be causing such widespread stock footage devastation?1

The answer to that is one of the very best things about The Snow Devils, and perhaps its best hope for reserving even a shaky spot in the memories of genre devotees. Escaping from their distant and dying ice-planet home are the Aytians, a race of space yetis in leotards and furry boots who look to make our beloved Earth their new favorite hang-zone. Their plan is simple: change the planet’s climate to melt the ice caps and drown all of the pathetic Earthlings they can before blowing the thermostat and turning our temperate world into the third snowball from the Sun.

Commander Jackson is no fan of the star-yeti’s devilish scheme and, with their villainy firmly (furrily?) established, sets out to enact an interstellar genocide against them. Hooray for the free-nations of the Earth, and death to all yeti kind! Jackson and a small crew made up of the faithful Pulasky, suspiciously suspicious guide Sharu and hottie Lisa Nielson (actress and politician Ombretta Colli) raid the Aytians’ Himalayan hide-out with ether concocted from the enemy’s own supplies, then fly out to the far-flung Jovian moon Calisto to deliver a more final judgment. A few well-placed meteor strikes level the Aytian base of operations to dust, ridding the Universe of the yeti scourge forever. With their extermination of an entire civilization complete our intrepid heroes return home, piling into a futuristic four-seater and yuking it up on the way to a celebratory picnic.

The disconcerting notion of securing world peace by ridding the Universe of everything not us and the prescient topic of climate change aside, The Snow Devils is a pretty uninteresting affair. The endearingly cumbersome space-yeti invaders appear only for the final third of the picture, even then only briefly, and are given little to do but share their fiendish plot with the film’s heroes and die. The human cast is given even less, and trek about the Italian Alps for a brief location shoot before mucking around in sets leftover from prior Gamma One outings. The climactic showdown (featuring some neat new practical perspective effects) cuts repeatedly to Commander Jackson’s higher ups, who waste their valuable screen time lamenting the physics of long-distance space communication.

Doing his utmost to salvage things is ace composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino (Gorgo), who seemed at a loss for devising anything appropriate for the mind-numbing inaction and opted, instead, to just write something good. His theme for The Snow Devils is funky and fantastic, among the top pieces he scored for the Gamma One series, and is repeated as many times as the editor could stand. Coupled with the casting of the lovely Ombretta Colli, it’s almost enough to make the film tolerable, even enjoyable! Lavagnino’s music for the Gamma One series is arguably more popular than the films themselves, having been released to CD as a compilation album well before the films (Planet on the Prowl, the only entry not distributed by MGM, excepted) made their way to home video.

Where I may have been worried about overstating the charms of the first Gamma One outing there’s certainly no risk of that here – The Snow Devils is a slow, tiresome slog whose few high points (Colli, Lavagnino, and goddamn space yetis) are hardly high enough. And yet I just can’t bring myself to hate it, as sad a final entry in the series as it may be. Even at its most tepid Margheriti’s peculiar brand of space-chic charms this jaded heart, what with its string-propelled space stations and fire-shooting laser pistols. Where the other Gamma One entries rank at least as harmless fun, The Snow Devils is perhaps best described as just harmless.

The Snow Devils is out now on manufactured-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive (in English), or as part of Medusa’s Gamma Uno Quadrilogy region-2 PAL 4-DVD set (in Italian). The screenshots for this article were taken from the latter.

1 Perhaps the more pressing question is, does anyone familiar with the film know where this destruction footage comes from? The miniature work is very good (and far beyond the production level of the Gamma One franchise), but I can’t recall having seen it anywhere else.

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I Criminali della Galassia: The Wild, Wild Planet (1966)

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Gothic horror king Mario Bava may have devised the ultimate classic of Italian fantascienza cinema with his beautifully outlandish Terrore nello Spazio / Planet of the Vampires, but for pure delirious entertainment value it’s tough to beat cult maestro Antonio Margheriti’s tetralogy of space-age pulp epics, which were produced on scant resources over the course of just 12 short weeks in 1965. Co-produced by Ivan Reiner and America’s Southern Cross Films under the banner of Mercury Films International, the Gamma One series suffers from an obvious financial deficit (an issue most notable in the finale Snow Devils), a hurdle it overcame the good old-fashioned way – with heaps of crazed imagination. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first film of the series, a boozy collision of hip futurism, interplanetary criminal intrigue, and mad science that distributor MGM saw fit to dub wild not just once, but twice.

Offering less a story than a series of events and snap realizations that lurch it from one oddball revelation to the next, The Wild, Wild Planet follows space station Gamma One Commander Mike Halstead (Tony Russel in his first of two series appearances as the character) as he investigates a gaggle of odd kidnappings, including that of his beloved Connie (Lisa Gastoni, credited as Jane Fate in the Italian release), on the Earth of the 21st century. As the number of disappearances rises the ever more bizarre evidence points to Delphos, a high-tech extra-planetary research station, and its head scientist Nurmi (Massimo Serato), a man whose villainous intent is plain from his Zaroff goatee alone. It seems that in addition to his efforts towards producing stunning new chemicals and perfecting the manufacture of individual human organs, Nurmi has been tinkering with the creation of a perfect race of super-men, a veritable army of biologically flawless beings with which he hopes to conquer all the universe!

The narrative for The Wild, Wild Planet, credited to Ivan Reiner and Renato Moretti (who together penned all four of the Gamma One films), is pretty rudimentary stuff, and in its points all too familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the genre, but the details – oh, the details!

Case in point are the kidnappers, not to mention their rather unusual methods. The ring-leaders are a gaggle of women in snazzy future fashions, a product of Nurmi’s race-building operations, who lead their genetically engineered henchmen – silent quad-armed hulks in cool shades and oversized black rain slicks – from one unsuspecting victim to another. As for the kidnappings themselves, through 20 years of scientific hardship (“It’s not magic, Commander!”) the devilish Nurmi has perfected a method that’s as impractical as it is fantastic. Victims aren’t just spirited away to his Delphos headquarters, through some obscure process they’re miniaturized as well, and packed away for the trip in the kidnappers’ specialty-made carry on luggage! Should the criminals be caught in the act Nurmi has devised a solution for that as well: A destructive chemical that can be injected for a fashionable suicide that leaves only a crumpled wardrobe behind.

Nurmi himself is the archetypal scientific super villain, from his expansive secret headquarters right down to that darned goatee. His failed experiments with limb and organ grafting are dumped into his chemical moat, a filthy red pool that dominates his HQ, and any of the manufactured beings who fail to meet his expectations of perfection are summarily destroyed. Strangely excepted from this rule is a literal closet of failures, a chamber choked with malformed pseudo-people complete with spooky mood lighting and a convenient window for peaking in. I suppose being able to break your own rules is one of the perks of being the super-villain in charge…

Most bizarre of all The Wild, Wild Planet‘s outlandish details is the manner in which Nurmi intends to extend his race-building to himself. Super-beings need a super-leader after all and, as though calculating to earn as much personal ire from Commander Halstead as possible, Nurmi expects to become that very leader by fusing himself with Connie (“The epitome of perfection!”) to become some sort of ill-explained transgender ĂŒbermensch. Mike will have none of it, of course, and for a man licensed to drive, fly, and kill (with groovy fire-shooting laser guns no less) running the secret base of a certifiable madman into the ground proves no trouble at all.

Though oft ridiculed, The Wild, Wild Planet‘s frequently ineffectual but consistently colorful special effects production fits right in with the rest of its ridiculous pulp style. Given such a short production schedule it’s no wonder that the majority of the effects work has such an unfinished feel, but there’s something to be admired in the uncredited artisans’ practical solutions to certain problems. Composite effects and process photography were obviously out of the question for the Gamma One films, and throughout the series takes that would have been made by such methods otherwise are instead accomplished through inventive, if rarely believable, forced perspective setups. The Wild, Wild Planet itself involves some lovely miniature photography during the climactic destruction of Nurmi’s lair, which sees his blood moat flooding and, quizzically, exploding through his laboratories and super-race alike. As with the sets and cast, many of the effects takes would be re-purposed through the rest of the series, and by the time of Snow Devils production of new effects appears to have stalled all together.

Enjoy it as I do, I have no desire to overstate The Wild, Wild Planet‘s charms for those who have yet to see it. The writing is unquestionably juvenile and the pace less rollicking than one might prefer, never mind the effects, but those willing to go with the flow of its oddball imagery and improbable circumstance should find more than enough to love here. There’s even some historical significance, at least in so far as Italian cinema is concerned, in that The Wild, Wild Planet gave a young Franco Nero one of his very first substantial film roles, along with the sequel (I Diafinoidi vengono da Marte / The War of the Planets), filmed at the same time in 1965. Funnily enough, Nero had already been propelled to stardom by the time his minor Gamma One appearances made it to theaters. Though produced after, Sergio Corbucci’s Django beat The Wild, Wild Planet to its 1966 Italian cinema debut by a couple of months, and I doubt Nero ever looked back.


Though available in an English edition domestically through Warner Archive, I reviewed I Criminali della Galassia / The Wild, Wild Planet from the Gamma Uno Quadrilogy 4-disc DVD set, released in Italy in January of this year. The single layer disc presents a nice 16:9 enhanced 1.85:1 transfer of the Italian cut of the film with Italian monophonic audio only, and optional Italian subtitles for the hard of hearing. The set is Region 2 and PAL format, naturally, but is quite affordable and a good deal for the price provided the language barrier is of no concern. At present the Gamma Uno Quadrilogy can be picked up for €15 or less from Amazon.it.

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The Bullet Vanishes

China during the Warlords Era. Policeman Song Donglu (Lau Ching-Wan, doing his crazy detective bit with all the verve and charisma I expect from what might be my favourite living Chinese actor) may work in a prison, but he’s a nearly superhumanly able investigator. He spends his time actually talking to the prisoners, clearing up wrongful convictions through his powers of deduction – not that this frees anyone, mind you – and learning what he can about human psychology from the inmates. Donglu may be a cop in a dirty system, but he’s as humanist a man as one could imagine.

The numerous letters regarding the wrongful convictions he has written must have earned him the respect or supreme annoyance of somebody somewhere, for he is transferred to the city of Tiancheng to work on the local police force’s corruption problem.

Not a man to be discouraged by little things like getting an office in the file archive in the cellar, Donglu quickly inserts himself into an interesting case, the kind of mystery he developed his talents for. A peculiar series of murders has begun in the munitions factory of a certain Mr Ding (Liu Kai-Chi, in a horribly over-done performance that doesn’t jive at all with anything everyone else on screen is doing). The victims are shot by some unknown and unseen person, but the bullets are nowhere to be found. It’s as if they were disappearing into thin air. So it’s no wonder the workforce – held in virtual slavery by Ding – believes the killer to be the vengeful ghost of a killed worker girl who died in a game of Russian Roulette dressed up as “asking the heavens” for a verdict on a supposed crime by Ding.

Donglu, working with cop Guo Zhui (Nicholas Tse, as neutral as always acting-wise), the fastest gun in Tiancheng, and clearly a policeman nearly as clever and as interested in the cause of actual justice as Donglu is, soon realizes that Ding is the kind of guy who would cheat in a game of Russian Roulette, and that whoever commits the murders certainly does so in connection with crimes Ding committed. But realizing this and finding out and proving what is actually going on are different things. Things that can be dangerous once one finds out that the local chief of police is in Ding’s pocket, and there aren’t many people an honest cop can trust.

At first, it’s easy to assume The Bullet Vanishes to be a Hong Kong clone of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, seeing as how the films share an eccentric and brilliant detective, some techniques of demonstrating said detective’s brilliance, and a soundtrack style. However, once the film gets going it becomes clear that director Law Chi-Leung was certainly taking inspiration from the Holmes movies yet is wise enough to be doing very much his own thing with it. Which, as much as I enjoy Ritchie’s pulp action mysteries, really is as it should be.

Law’s film keeps inside the genre lines of the pulp mystery, with the mandatory – and excitingly done – chases and shoot-outs, the contrived murder method that can only be understood through just as contrived and very entertaining investigation techniques, and a damn boring romance sub-plot between Nicholas “I may win prizes for best actor but you sure wouldn’t notice” Tse and Yang Mi as terribly cute fake soothsayer Little Lark (some women really know how to wear a 2012 idea of a 1920s hair cut is all I’m saying) who unfortunately share not an ounce of chemistry.

Despite the very uninvolving romance, that feels shoe-horned in from a “blockbuster writing 101” checklist, I’d be perfectly satisfied with The Bullet Vanishes if it did only repeat the expected genre beats in its own enthusiastic and accomplished fashion. However, Law is a more ambitious filmmaker than that. Consequently, Bullet goes through some mood shifts reminiscent of a style of Hong Kong film made thirty years ago, with tragedy and serious discussion of ethics as much on the program as detecting, shooting and a bit of silliness. This more po-faced aspect of the movie didn’t work quite as well as I would have wished for, with some of the more melodramatic moments feeling not quite as well built up as they should be, and the discussion of political ethics coming somewhat out of the blue, but I prefer a film like this that attempts to add something more to genre formula filmmaking and not quite achieves it to the more harmless and riskless kind of movie; at least when the not quite achieved ambition does not ruin the rest of the movie, which it doesn’t here. Plus, it’s nice to see a Hong Kong film that doesn’t shy away from agreeing with a humanist view of people even though it is willing to respect other perspectives. There’s none of the unpleasant respect even for corrupt authority that is en vogue in Hong Kong cinema since the Takeover to be found in the film, either – after all, these bad guys are Warlord Era capitalists, so there’s surely no connection to contemporary China (or America, or Germany) here, right, Mister Censor?

While I and many of my Hong Kong cinema loving peers have written many sad words about the descent of Hong Kong cinema already, if you watch the right movies, the old lady still has some life in it beyond whatever Johnnie To directs in a given year. More importantly, there still seem to be filmmakers like Law Chi-Leung willing to do interesting and at least somewhat ambitious things inside of very commercial genres without looking down on them or their audience. The wild years of Hong Kong cinema may be long over, but films like The Bullet Vanishes are proof that there’s a good chance that the second decade of the slick years of the city’s cinema can still produce films very much worth watching and thinking about. Like Lau Ching-Wan’s character in the movie, I choose to remain hopeful.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?