Battle In Outer Space

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Ishirō Honda’s film Battle In Outer Space (1959) is a kind of conceptual sequel to his earlier film The Mysterians (1957). Both films were produced by Toho and feature themes of global unity and Japanese technological supremacy. In the two years that lapsed between these productions the use of miniatures in special effects were greatly improved upon so that, even to this day, Battle In Outer Space is a breathtaking visual feast.

The design of the spacecrafts, both interior and exterior, in Battle In Outer Space draws on popular science fiction illustrations of the time that appeared in magazines, comics, and manga. The look of Battle In Outer Space is not intended to achieve any degree of realism. Instead Honda and company strive to bring these images drawn from popular culture to life. Battle In Outer Space, from costumes and make-up to set design and miniatures, is a cohesive exercise in style that immerses the viewer in the milieu of popular science fiction.

While the plot of Battle In Outer Space is pure pulp and the execution by Honda is pop art, the themes suggest those popularized by Gene Roddenberry’s television program Star Trek (1966-1969). At the core of Battle In Outer Space is this notion that in the future, and in the face of planetary peril, all of the countries in the world would band together. When Battle In Outer Space was made the United Nations was still a new and groundbreaking concept that held all of the promise of a global utopia. The film reacts to that event positively just as it also celebrates Japan’s great post-war boom of the fifties.

As Honda’s contemporaries Yasujirō Ozu and Akira Kurosawa made films that examined the culture wars between the young and the old as a result of Japan’s post-war boom with an eye on the past, Battle In Outer Space looks to a future that is fundamentally linked to the traumas of WWII. Younger and more radical filmmakers like Yasuzo Masumura, Shōhei Imamura, and Nagisa Ōshima openly rebelled against the traditions of Japan’s recent past in a series of provocative films that are highly critical of Japanese institutions. Honda’s fantasy epics like Battle In Outer Space attempt the opposite by looking towards the future and suggesting, perhaps naively, that all the values of his generation will remain intact and play a crucial role in global unity.

Battle In Outer Space, although an undisputed technical marvel, was often dismissed in its moment as “pulpy” or “childish”. It was only long after the initial release of the film that a major critical revaluation of Ishirō Honda’s oeuvre restored the filmmaker to his rightful place as one of the great Japanese auteurs of the post-war period. Looking back at Battle In Outer Space today over sixty years later the campy acting and Gerry Anderson-esque special effects might put off some viewers. But there is real art to Ishirō Honda’s craft and Battle In Outer Space is one of his best pictures.