More than just the monster

When Shochiku studio released The X From Outer Space in 1967, they likely had high hopes for their own successful kajiu eiga (giant monster movie) series, much like Toho Studios’ famed Godzilla (1954), which by then already had seven profitable features. Unfortunately for Shochiku, their monster Guilala failed to have the even modest success of Gamera, another of the giant monsters riding Godzilla’s spiky coattails. For one thing, the tongue twister “Guilala” probably didn’t help.

Despite poor Guilala’s lack of popular appeal, the film that introduced him fascinates in its own right as an example of the craftsmanship of mid-century Japanese genre film. An unscientific survey of comments on YouTube suggests that The X From Outer Space is considered a “so bad it’s good” style cult film, but I find it a good deal more interesting and well-made than many of the later Godzilla films, which are mostly repetitive, “monster of the year” wrestling matches between two men in rubber suits. To be fair, perhaps Guilala would have suffered the same fate as his compatriots Godzilla and Gamera, had The X From Outer Space succeeded. After all, the first Godzilla film is probably the only masterpiece the kajiu eiga genre produced.

The X From Outer Space is only really a kaiju eiga in the second half of the film. The first half of the film is a “voyage through space” narrative, similar to something like Destination Moon (1950) or Rocketship X-M (1950). The crew of the AAB Gamma is dispatched to Mars to investigate the disappearance of previous expeditions, the cause of which, we are told “may be UFOs.” The ship’s crew is diverse, made up of both Japanese and Americans, and they are directed from Earth by Dr. Berman and Dr. Kato. In this respect, The X From Outer Space seems to emerge from the same Cold War liberal consensus as Star Trek, imagining space travel as a global, international venture undertaken for the benefit of humanity — though perhaps to attribute such sentiment to The X From Outer Space gives it the benefit of too much doubt.

Uniting our differences through technology

Uniting our differences through technology

crew

Our multi-ethic (or bi-ethnic) cast

AAB Gamma experiences a fairly standard set of space travel film complications — a threatening UFO which resembles a glowing pastry, an ill crewmember who endangers the others, and a brief pit stop at the international moon station, which sets in motion a lamely conceived love triangle between Capt. Sano, ship’s scientist Lisa, and Michiko, a staff member at the moon station who holds a torch for the good captain. The moon stop does provide a distraction for a kitsch-minded audience, however, as we get a full dose of the film’s mid-60s space age production design.

UFO

Threatened by a glowing pastry

moon base

Sweet swingin’ 60s moon base

After replacing the ill crew member, the AAB Gamma blasts back into space, and once again encounters the UFO, which this time deposits a sticky, weblike substance onto the ship, attaching a glowing orb which, we later learn, is an egg containing Guilala. The UFO has apparently mistaken the AAB Gamma for a mate. The crew of the ship removes the glowing orb, for science, and naturally return it to Earth for study. Predictably, the orb opens and Guilala escapes, grows to monstrous size at tremendous speed, and proceeds to attack power stations across Japan, feeding on the energy.

At this point, the film becomes less interesting than during the “voyage through space” first half. This is largely because the plot then follows the general formula of the kaiju eiga: Guilala threatens destroy a major urban area (as usual, Tokyo), the standard efforts of the military fail to cease his rampage, and the main characters stand around discussing said rampage until they discover a scientific way of destroying the monster. The mise-en-scene feels familiar as well: Guilala is clearly a man in a suit, smashing small model buildings, and matte shots allow the rubber terror to menace fleeing Japanese civilians. Still, the entire thing is charmingly lo-fi, and demonstrates a level of special effects craftsmanship entirely lost in the digital age. Perhaps my greater interest in the first half is a result of its leisurely pace and lack of urgency or clear direction, which enables a contemporary audience to appreciate the production design and effects.

Guilala

Guilala menaces the good people of Japan through a matte shot

Tokyo

A man in a rubber suit wrecks a model city

My objection to calling The X From Outer Space merely a laughable B-movie is that clear care was put into making the film, even if it aspires to be no more than a standard genre offering. Consider the film’s repeated use of graphic matches. Although it’s not entirely clear whether the filmmakers intend for us to make a comparison in using the device, its repetition seems a clear indicator of an aesthetic sensibility at work. Finally, the soundtrack to the film is absolutely tremendous, featuring laidback, lounge-pop 60s music mixed with science fiction effects (sadly, no theremin, which fell out of popular use by this time), matching the film’s space-age optimism, though it does undercut the threat Guilala is supposed to represent. To be fair, he was never that threatening anyway.

The X From Outer Space is dated as hell, and never once reaches the poetry of the original Godzilla (though few films do). But it has enough idiosyncrasy to recommend it. I’ve read that a sequel was produced in 2008, but given the state of contemporary Japanese pop culture, I think I’ll skip it. I prefer the charm of the 60s incarnation.

Adam Capitanio lives and works in New York City as an editor and educator. He’s happy to talk to you about any dimension of film art and culture.

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