- Ravi Swami
"Warning From Space", Dir: Koji Shima, 1956
The two poster images above both come from Arrow Video releases and are also viewable for rent via the Arrow Video streaming channel via Apple TV, with the first being their most recent of a film that is also one of the first to be made in colour in Japan and that follows hard on the heels of similar themed films from the U.S, most notably "Forbidden Planet" , "Earth V Flying Saucers" and "The Day The Earth Stood Still", which clearly struck a cord with Japanese audiences.
The plot combines elements of all these films with the added ingredient of fears about the nuclear age, something still very fresh in the minds of Japanese audiences following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that continued to influence science-fiction films in Japan well into the 1960's.
It also goes further by taking in the idea of rogue planets, that featured in the George Pal adaptation of the 2-part novel, "When Worlds Collide" - a concept that has its origins even earlier and can be seen in "Flash Gordon", represented by the wandering planet "Mongo", since the latter part of the film concerns the imminent collision with Earth of a mysterious "Planet R".
Produced by the Daiei company - later responsible for the "Gamera" series of "Kaiju" / Giant Monster films - the film's plot revolves around sightings of mysterious UFO's over Japan and focusses on an astronomer - here representing the knowledgable "intermediary" required by the story to interpret such mysterious occurences both for the audience and other characters - and the arrival of an emissary from space who assumes the form of a popular female nightclub dancer to warn Earth about the dangers of using nuclear energy.
"Planet "R" is eventually deflected just as collision with the Earth is imminent by the use of the very nuclear weapons that the aliens from planet "Paira" warned about, thus underlining the idea that nuclear energy can also be directed toward peaceful ends.
There's a lot to enjoy in this film even if it tries to cover many bases by combining several concepts from earlier science fiction films into one story, not least the snapshots of 1950's Japan that are rich in detail, like the railway station at the start and the narrow cobbled streets lined with noodle bars that characterize Japanese cities, with the colour photography emphasising details like the red paper lanterns seen hanging outside to invite customers in - details that give the film an almost documentary quality as if to underline the serious and at times, sombre, tone of the plot and adds to a feeling that everything is happening too close to home.
The alien "Pairans" are a very unusual and striking design, and are the work of the avant-garde artist Tarō Okamoto, being starfish-shaped beings with a single large blue eye in their middle and the art direction for the inside of their ship has an organic quality with curved walls and few details, with the aliens' luminous blue eye standing out against the mostly grey interiors.
One detail that I have noted in a previous post about the work of Yasujiro Ozu is the use of low camera angles for interior, mostly domestic scenes, and that I wondered if this was unique to Ozu's style of framing shots, but in fact it can be seen in many sequences in "Warning From Space", something that leads me to think that either these interiors were built on raised sets resulting in a composition where a horizontal line can be drawn through the exact middle of the frame that separates the floor with the upper part of the set, and where this line goes through the middle of the actor in the same way or it was a visual cue for scenes set in "traditional" interiors.
It's something that persists to the present in animation layout design in Japan but for the most part ended by the late 60's in live-action films as the film technology allowed for more mobile cameras, and may possibly be a subconscious reference to Japanese theatrical conventions, where the audience viewpoint is mostly low down, or possibly of how the Japanese behave in domestic spaces, ie sitting on the floor etc - it's also noticeable in "Shozo, a Cat & Two Women" and may also be a visual reference to "old" pre-war Japan compared to post-war "modern" Japan.
As the film progresses towards its climax another noticeable feature is a gradual shift from full-colour to a duo-tone of red and blue lighting as "Planet R" approaches that led me to wonder if the colour process being used was in fact a two-colour system, before the arrival of the Technicolour process and its equivalents - that question aside, it's very effectively used in the film.
From a visual effects viewpoint, which have been described as "eye-popping" in some reviews, there is considerable restraint when compared to later Japanese science-fiction films, with several effective matte-painted composites and one large miniature of the astronomers' observatory seen from a high vantage point and a few scenes such as a classic flying saucer design exiting a whirlpool on Earth and then approaching and entering an orbiting Pairan "mothership", but for the most part the alien UFO's are represented as bright spots of light seen from a distance, using effects-animation.