In the not too distant future in Tokyo, Japan, an alien terrorist syndicate called the Galactors has declared war on the Earth. With their advanced technology, they quickly take over half the planet and enslave everyone they can find. Dr. Kozaburo Nambu (Gorô Kishitani), a leader at the International Science Organisation, brings together five teen agents to form an elite ninja squad known as the Gatchaman or 'G Force'. Using superpowers drawn from ancient stones, the GForce aim to save the world.
You keep waiting for the next big set-piece
JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL: Back when I was in primary school, I used to watch the cartoon series Battle of the Planets. I liked it well enough, though would hesitate to call myself a diehard fan. And while I knew nothing of its origins—that it was, in fact, an American-dubbed version of a Japanese anime franchise, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman—I do recall wondering why Mark, the handsome, white-clad leader of G-Force, sounded exactly like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo (answer: they were both voiced by American Top 40 DJ Casey Kasem), and why their robot sidekick, 7-Zark-7—a pretty obvious R2D2 rip-off—was such a tool.
Back in its homeland, though, the show was a phenomenon, spawning a slew of TV sequels and an animated movie. Yet a live-action version, long mooted, never materialised. (About a decade ago, a Hong Kong-based production began shooting, but was never completed.) Now, at last, there’s a feature film, made by Nikkatsu and shot entirely in Japan. The momentousness of this pop-cultural moment cannot be underestimated.
The opening is all breathless exposition: around 2015, Earth is invaded by aliens known as Galactors, bent on conquest and none too perturbed about how much of the planet they have to destroy to achieve it. Impervious to assault, protected by ruby-coloured force-fields and sustained by a 'Virus X’, they’re vulnerable only to blue energy drawn from a number of ancient crystals, wielded by a select corps of humans known as Receptors, who together form the aforementioned Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. (Pay attention.)
Even so, these defenders have managed only to battle the Galactors to a draw: as the story begins, 13 years later, billions have died, more half the planet has fallen to the invaders, and most of Europe, we learn, is little more than piles of heaped corpses, burning.
Japan, though, looks just dandy: sunny, serene—though increasingly burdened by something of a refugee problem. Indeed, one of the film’s subtlest features, and its most effective, is the number of non-Japanese faces glimpsed in the backgrounds of many shots.
We’ve hardly given time to digest all this before the action begins: a 'Treader’—basically, a giant Yokohama tyre—has managed to enter Japanese airspace, and is wreaking havoc around west Shinjuku"¦ oh, and if the bomb it’s carrying should detonate, over a million lives will be lost. Even after 13 years of war, the army apparently still haven’t worked out that none of their weapons have the slightest effect on the invaders—so it’s something of a relief when a freshly-trained G-Force crew is scrambled to deal with the problem. (Although, were I a member of this new team, I’d be slightly worried that my first combat mission was being codenamed 'Operation Last Suicide.’)
Even more baffling are some of the onscreen captions which accompany our heroes’ introductions. Team leader Ken gets the slogan 'Judgment is Coming’, and cheerful, dumb Ryu scores 'Ride the Lightning’, which suits the pro wrestler he resembles"¦ but what to make of cheeky boy-warrior Jinpei, who’s saddled with the subtitle 'Lark’s Tongue in Aspic’? (So—what? He’s a King Crimson fan? He plays a lethal violin?) At least Jun’s tastes are clear: her handle namechecks Pink Floyd’s 'The Great Gig in the Sky’"¦
These nonsensical lines are, you realise, the film equivalent of a Japlish T-shirt, random English phrases deployed with little concern for actual syntactic meaning. (My all-time favourite, back from when I lived in Tokyo in 1988: 'KISS KISS / Black Man For Maximum Efficiency / I would kiss you baby but / where do noses go?’) Personally, I would have thought the simple fascination of non-Hiragana lettering had kind of faded by now, but hey, whatever floats your boat.
The resulting battle is good, dumb fun, well-choreographed and rousing. When it’s over, the team return to their clubhouse to sit around trading quips—while in the background, what sounds like a Japanese Jack Johnson strums some sunny acoustic guitar. But before long, a narrative kicks in, thanks to the reappearance of moody, black-clad outsider George (or Jason, as he was known in the Battle of the Planets cartoon, who, you now realise, was Emo –avant le lettre), and the surprise defection of one of the Galactors’ commanders, Ilia. Who just happened to have murdered Ken and George’s mutual girlfriend Naomi years before, driving a wedge between the erstwhile best friends.
There are the expected reversals, the wholly predictable twists. There are discussions and explanations—lots of these, in fact. You keep waiting for the next big set-piece. And waiting.
But this is a film which plays its best card at the beginning, then spends the rest of the movie standing around talking. There’s no escalation, no sense of pacing or energy. It’s not until the very end that we get another action sequence—so obviously inferior to the first as to seem anticlimactic.
This wouldn’t be a problem in, say, one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, where the brooding is the main event and the fistfights therefore seem faintly ridiculous. But when all is said and done, this is a kids’ film. And kids get bored. Especially when all they have by way of compensation is a string of weary clichés (a sequence of the team infiltrating a lavish party that seems to have been ripped from every 007 movie; interminable speeches from Ilia, outlining his master-plan in numbing detail), and long, painfully earnest musings from Ken or George—or both—on the nature of honour, loyalty and sacrifice"¦
Guys! you want to scream. Just, you know, hit stuff, already!
Worse still—though typically for recent Japanese SF (viz. the 20th Century Boys trilogy)—the actual execution is a little shabby. The sets often look cheap, and the digital effects are far from state-of-the-art—not one evinces anything like the intricacy or care of George’s artfully tousled hairstyle. (Though some of the wirework is nice: one shot, of Ryu casually backhanding a Galactor right through a wall, is terrific.) It’s a kid’s movie, all right, but of a distinctly antique kind, more suited to a Saturday afternoon matinée than a post-Transformers world.
Still, at least there’s no 7-Zark-7.