On the face of it, the 1957 Japanese science fiction film The Mysterians is a kitsch fest about an invasion of horny aliens looking for territory and women, but repelled by the plucky Japanese after perilous battles involving sets and models that probably inspired Gerry Anderson ten years later.
Below that surface, though, is a narrative of themes relying on interpretation in the context of phenomena and meanings entirely external to the film: a strong anti-imperialist message about Japan’s American occupiers, but also of Japan’s own imperialist past; and a reminder of how much more destructive modern war would be even than the catastrophic destruction that forced Japanese surrender in 1945.
Assuming a Japanese cultural habit of avoiding directly confrontational messages, and stepping away from the literal dialogue and the specific detail of the film’s mises en scène, the lasting after-images are of masked aliens demanding territory and women, a string of destructive but unsuccessful battles, and a denouement involving not just technologically superior weapons, but also the subterfuge of betrayal and ingenuity over direct confrontation.
We are told that the invading Mysterians are the survivors of a cataclysmic war that destroyed their planet, the fifth one in the solar system, between Mars and Jupiter. They are sneaky, pretending to want only a small place to call their own, but secretly harbouring much greater territorial ambitions. They demand women, ostensibly because their own nuclear wars have rendered many of their offspring mutated and unviable.
Japan enlists international help–read American help–to fight the Mysterians, though there appears to be only a single, token non-Japanese actor representing American scientists. Battles ensue which Japan loses several times until a technological edge is developed, and some Japanese counterintelligence comes into play.
Our heroes are scientists, one of whom joins the aliens and then betrays them, and another of whom finds a secret tunnel into the alien base to rescue hostages and sabotage their infrastructure.
The themes are about a militaristic, expansionist imperialism. Like that of a militarist Japan in WWII. Nevertheless, who were the contemporary imperialists occupying Japan in the 1950s? The USA, of course, engaged in the neo-colonial Cold War.
And did Japanese imperialism not also involve the abuse of ‘comfort women’? Perhaps more pertinently, was military defeat and subsequent economic desperation not a driver in making many Japanese women into American comfort women? Before passing over that theme too quickly, it is worth remembering that a few years earlier the rape-murder of a six-year-old Japanese girl, Yumiko Nagayama, by an American serviceman, caused outrage and the first anti-American demonstrations in post war Japan.
In the 1950s, most Japanese were quite poor, and the immensely popular Mysterians might have been no more than mindless escapism for its audiences. But such an explanation strikes me as ahistorical and smugly Western. An occupied people cannot speak their minds openly, so they will inevitably do so in other ways.
And the portrayal in the film of unrelenting military efforts by the Japanese hardly speaks about peaceful natures. It is more likely a message about ‘outrages’ being met with implacable opposition.
I can’t say I recommend The Mysterians as sheer spectacle. It’s just too old and cliché-riddled for that. But as a bit of fun, combined with some cultural archaeology or anthropology, it isn’t any worse than Hollywood superhero fare today.
Toho, colour, 89 minutes.
Directed by Ishirō Honda, produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, written by Takeshi Kimura, cinematography by Hajime Koizumi, musical score by Akira Ifukube.
With Kenji Sahara as Jōji Atsumi, Yumi Shirakawa as Etsuko Shiraishi, Momoko Kōchi as Hiroko Iwamoto, Akihiko Hirata as Ryōichi Shiraishi, Takashi Shimura as Dr Kenjirō Adachi, Fuyuki Murakami as Dr Nobu Kawanami, Yoshio Tsuchiya as the Mysterian leader, Susumu Fujita as General Morita.