Latitude Zero (1969)

I figured that I’d subjected my wife to quite enough of Eiji Tsubaraya’s low-budget television special effects on Ultraman and should show off what the genius would do given more money for the big screen, and the collaboration of a brilliantly talented director like Ishiro Honda. One of the best options to accomplish this, and thrill our favorite five year-old critic, is 1969’s Latitude Zero. It is a weird and strange movie.

Toho had been finding it easier in the 1960s to find good distribution deals in the United States by hiring American actors like Nick Adams and Russ Tamblyn, but this is a rare sixties example of the studio creating a film with a cast who spoke entirely in English. The acting, overall, isn’t too much better than what you’d get from one of their dubbed offerings, as several of the Japanese actors are speaking English phonetically and one of the American actors, Linda Haynes, was new to the business and was clearly hired because she’s cute in go-go boots. But it’s also got Joseph Cotten in the unlikely role of a 204 year-old action hero, Richard Jaeckel as a fists-first photojournalist, and Cesar Romero as the villain.

Latitude Zero is based on an obscure radio serial that had been popular in 1941. It seems like it must have been pretty close to second-hand Jules Verne at the time – a scientist “drops out” of warlike society in a submarine and starts an underwater utopia based on scientific discovery – but it was updated by Toho to give it a Cold War edge and a platform for Tsubaraya’s special effects. Honda and Tsubaraya had actually made an unrelated “flying submarine” movie called Atragon six years previously, and I recall that it’s a better movie than this and one that I should buy again, but Atragon didn’t have hordes of bat-men, giant rats, and a gigantic winged lion.

The movie is certainly flawed, but it’s a triumph of design and it never stops getting weirder and weirder, with one strange surprise after another. I don’t think that it was a good idea to introduce us to the conflict between the scientists by means of a lengthy cat-and-mouse submarine chase before telling us who these people are. This did keep our son excited, but the comedown is too lengthy. Explanations at the undersea utopia of Latitude Zero go on forever, and a romance between Linda Haynes’ character and a scientist played by Masumi Okada (the dad from The Space Giants) comes from nowhere.

There’s a much more interesting romance between Cesar Romero’s villainous Malic and his femme fatale, played by Patricia Medina, but it all goes south because the black-clad woman who captains Malic’s submarine also has a thing for him. The femme fatale wants her out of the way, so Malic uses her as the subject of his latest grisly experiment.

I hadn’t actually watched this film in about twenty years. I forgot that the operating room sequence, apart from Tsubaraya making a liar out of my claims to his greatness with an absolutely pathetic pantomime lion costume (Monty Python fought a more realistic one in the “Scott of the Antarctic” sketch), might just be too scary for our son. The camera never actually shows the brain transplants, but we certainly hear the sound of the saw. Can’t blame the kid for hiding during that bit.

Aside from that deeply awful costume, this is a film that just looks great, with miniature work far better than what the team had done on a TV budget for Ultraman, and some terrific explosions. It honestly never quite rises above the silliness of its concept and execution, and seeing the 64 year-old Cotten charging into battle in a gold fetish suit is a special kind of ridiculous. But it’s fun and unpredictable and the silliness is rarely stupid. Our son loved the fight scenes and the winged lion – it’s markedly more successful when the camera pretends that it’s a giant monster than a real lion – though I’m pretty sure he docked it a few points for being talky and scary. But he also says that he’s glad that he watched it.

I’m not immediately planning to watch any other Toho movies for the blog, but you never know. My interest in Godzilla is as low as it can possibly be these days, although I do fondly remember Atragon and The Mysterians, and I think that The War in Space might be fun to find as we look at Star Wars cash-ins later this year. Honestly, it may be that any film with a musical score by Akira Ifukube is worth watching at least once, but Toho’s not a priority this year.

(Extra special thanks to Dave from Let’s Anime for sharing his copy of this for us to watch. Okay, technically I did break the rule about using a legitimately-purchased DVD for this blog, but I did buy a copy about a decade ago. It went walkabout along with my Terror of Mechagodzilla [another Ishiro Honda film] in 2011, but I did spend money on it!)

What We’re Not Watching: The Space Giants

We’re not watching The Space Giants for our blog, and that’s a shame. I’m trying to set an example and watch only films and series that have been legitimately released for purchase, and, sadly, this program has never been available in English on home video. In fact – and I would welcome a correction – it really looks like the only two Japanese sci-fi shows from the sixties and seventies to ever have been released in English on DVD in North America are Ultraman and the painfully stupid Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. Quite a few others have been released legitimately with English subtitles, like Ultra Seven, Iron King, and Red Baron, but my son is still a beginning reader and cannot manage subtitles quite yet.

The Space Giants is the dubbed-in-English version of Ambassador Magma, a 52 episode series based on a fun comic by Osamu Tezuka. Unfortunately, this comic has also never been legitimately released in English! Can’t win for losing if you like these characters, but at least the reprints are not expensive and they’re amusing even if you cannot read the dialogue. In Japan, the TV version of Ambassador Magma beat Ultraman to the air by a couple of weeks, making it – I believe – the very first sci-fi monster series made in color in that country.

It was also made for a very small budget. A company called P Productions made it for the Fuji TV network, and they didn’t quite have Tsubaraya’s special effects know-how. This shows in unusual ways: many of the “laser” or “missile launching” effects were done with animation, and there aren’t as many monster costumes. Unable to afford a new monster suit and a new miniature landscape every week, the screenwriters came up with longer, detailed stories that focused on the human cast. The first 40 episodes of Magma are four-part serials, and the remainder told in two parts: ten four-parters and six two-parters. Typically the monster would first show up in the cliffhanger to part one and have a few small skirmishes with the hero over the course of each story before the final conflict at the climax, occasionally introducing a second monster in part three.

As I’ve said before, the fight between Ultraman and each week’s monster is the most dull part of the story, meaning each adventure stands or falls on how much fun the Science Patrol business is. In Magma, this is also true, but the human stuff is amazingly fun every week, the most addictive and watchable stuff I’ve ever seen from Japanese adventure TV. (Okay, so admittedly I have seen very little. Still.) In the series, an alien dictator named Goa (Rodak in the English dub) tries to conquer the planet using shape-shifting, identity-stealing, black-clad beings called Lugo Men. Our hero is an investigative journalist named Atsushi Murakami (Tom Mura in the English version), who has a son named Mamuro (Miko).

Things get really fun when an ancient wizard who has been warring with Goa gets involved. He has two robot assistants, a husband and wife called Magma and Mol (Goldar and Silvar). Mol/Silvar takes a shine to Mamuro and wishes for a son like him, and so the wizard creates a near-duplicate little boy robot, Gam. Oh, and all three robots can turn into rockets. It’s the most fun little wish-fulfillment show ever, and every kid pretended to be Mamuro/Miko after school, sneaking around imaginary abandoned factories and power plants with his robot best friend, battling the mysterious, hideous Lugo Men, who dissolve into blue applesauce when killed.

A very small company called Lakeside Television got the US rights to Ambassador Magma in the late 1960s, and retitled the show The Space Giants. The English language dub was offered to stations in 1970, but it didn’t show up in Atlanta (or many other markets for that matter) until the fall of 1978, when every UHF station in North America started looking closely in the syndication programming book for any program that had the words “star,” “space,” or “planet” in the title. Ted Turner’s WTCG-17, later TBS, picked it up around the time that WTCG programming started showing up on cable packages around the country.

As a kid, I came on board with episode three, and loved the show absolutely. It came on at maybe 3.30 in the afternoon. Around episode 14, with the planet suffering an amazing heat wave and drought, the robots transform into rockets, seed the clouds, and make rain, but the water that falls out of the sky is boiling hot. I pretended that rain was hot water for at least two years after that. It helped that WTCG kept the program in rotation for most of that time.

Unfortunately, the show has never been available for home purchase legitimately in America; Lakeside appears to believe that they got the North American rights in perpetuity (even the Japanese rights lapsed in the early 1990s and P-Productions returned them to Tezuka’s company to exploit and manage), and another party who drew half of a Space Giants funnybook that nobody ever saw appeared to believe that he had the exclusive rights to any North American merchandising from either the live-action show or Tezuka’s original comic book. My guess is that neither the small Lakeside nor the other party could realistically afford the mammoth legal bill that untangling the rights to such a limited interest program would involve, and nobody wanted to act first and get sued by the other. (For a very lengthy and eye-popping first-hand account of somebody who got in the crosshairs of this tomfoolery, give yourself half an hour and read this account of selling Magma toy kits on eBay.)

I’m going to put my boring old fuddy-duddy hat on now. I spent more than a decade swapping bootlegs of lots of shows on VHS myself, including this one, always telling myself I was acting ethically. Then I somehow raised two kids who did not see anything wrong with swapping the entire catalogs of favorite musicians on USB drives instead of buying the albums themselves. I tried to clamp down on that crap, but had to acknowledge my own failings on that front. Since legitimate copies are not available, I’m not going to skirt around the problem.

One of the parties in the Space Giants dispute is dead and the other hasn’t actually ever distributed very much television as far as I can tell. Sorry to be cold, but that’s how it looks. You can watch bootlegs of the show on YouTube if you like; DVD-Rs occasionally show up on eBay, but we will not watch this show for this blog because it is not commercially available. Tezuka Productions did release a 10-disc Blu-ray set last fall. It retailed for (good lord!) 50000 yen ($482.88!!), which is the sort of price I laugh about when people try listing out-of print Bugaloos DVDs that they evidently don’t actually want to sell. These Blu-rays do not contain an English language track. I very, very much hope that Tezuka Productions might work with Lakeside and release a domestic edition in English before we get too old to fall in love with it again. It’s a super little show that I’m sure my son would adore.

For a whole lot more about the production of Ambassador Magma and distribution of The Space Giants, please see this fabulous article by August Ragone and Bob Johnson here:

Photo credit: Kaiju Fan Network