Japan Does Star Wars: The War in Space (1977)

When you mention the country of Japan in the same breath as Star Wars, nostalgic Jedi hearts reminisce about American actor Vic Morrow setting sail on a solar sailboat to save the world from Ninja-suited space battalions in 1978’s Message from Space.

As with Bye, Bye Jupiter, Toho Studios’ later tokusatsu science fiction film, the majestic fun of The War in Space (known as Great Planet War, aka Wakusei Daisensō, in its homeland) was also unknown on U.S shores (outside of comic book store-distributed grey market VHS rentals)—until a 2006 DVD release. (Featuring both English and Japanese language tracks, special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano appears in a subtitled interview vignette on the DVD.)

As with Disney’s bid for some Star Wars box-office returns, they took no chances and went with what they knew—and simply retooled their underwater adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) into a space opera. And not let’s forget that George Lucas retooled the Asian cinema classic, The Hidden Fortress, to create the framework that he then covered with pieces of The Dam Builders, Casablanca, and The Seven Samurai (read our “Ten Star Wars Ripoffs” investigation for more on those roots).

So, keep those influences in mind when watching Toho Studios’ debut entry in The Kessel Run that is, like The Black Hole, an outer space reboot of Toho’s old 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea rip-off, 1963’s Atragon. (That’s the film’s poster side-by-side with The War in Space; above, right. Notice the similarities, not only between the one-sheets’ graphics, but the design-homage to Atragon’s “Gotengo” vessel vs. the “UNSF Gohten” in WiS.) Sci-fi and Asian cinema aficionados will also notice plot and design similarities to the worldwide popular, groundbreaking anime Space Battleship Yamato (itself treated to an excellent, big-budgeted live-action version in 2010; the full movie is on You Tube!).

Initially announced as a sequel to Toho’s 1959’s alien-invasion epic, Battle in Outer Space (which The War in Space plot-mirrors in places), it’s more alien invasion mayhem triggered by a worldwide electromagnetic inference by way of a comet’s close call with Earth.

Of course, as with the much later Lifeforce (1985), the comet served as a cover for a fleet of UFOs that destroy the UN’s orbiting Space Station Terra. This leads the UN to complete the financially-plagued Gohten project, an intergalactic warship.

And with that, the Earth’s space marines jet off to Venus, where the alien forces have established a base of operations . . . and the George Lucas space battles ensue against the alien’s mothership: a baroque, oar-spouting, sea faring space galleon—that we became acquainted with a year later courtesy of 1978’s Message from Space.

When it comes to Star Wars rips, no one does it better than Toho Studios.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is currently in theaters and was released theatrically on December 20 in the United States.

About the Author: You can read the music and film criticisms of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.

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