AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article originally ran in Drive-In Asylum issue 20. You can get it right now on the Etsy store.
While many of us would consider the first superheroes to be Superman or Batman, the truth is that The Golden Bat (Ogon Batto) predates both of them by nearly a decade and is considered the world’s first comic book superhero.
The character was created by sixteen-year-old Takeo Nagamatsu and twenty-five year-old Suzuki Ichiro in 1931. They were inspired by, of all things, Golden Bat cigarettes and the mythology department of Tokyo’s Ueno Royal Museum. However, they sought to create a hero based on science rather than magic.
The Golden Bat made his debut in a traveling storytelling show known as kamishibai, which means paper play. He was so popular that after World War II, his adventures continued in both manga comics (including work by Osamu “The Father of Maga” Tezuka), anime and film.
I know you didn’t crack open this issue of DIA to read about obscure comics. So let me get to the reason why I’ve picked Ogon Batto to spotlight. The first live-action film starring this character was made by Toei — yes, the same studio that brought you The Green Slime, Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion and Message from Space — in 1966.
While made in the same year that the Batmania craze was spreading like wildfire, this film is a strange mix of movie serial and Eurospy with a watchful eye toward the sentai shows that would dominate Japanese kids TV by the late 70’s.
Professor Yamatone (Sonny Chiba, eight years before he’d make The Street Fighter for this very same studio) and his family have taken a visit to Egypt. While exploring the tomb of a legendary god of justice — you guessed it, Ogon Bat — the agents of Dr. Erich Nazo take Yamatone captive. This has something to do with Nazo’s home planet Icarus being drawn toward Earth to destroy it and a giant robot that he keeps under the sea.
As his daughter Mari begins to wail and plead for her father’s life, her tears fall into the Golden Bat’s tomb and bring him 10,000 years forward into our time from his native land of Atlantis.
This would be a strange origin story to start with, but it’s the design of Golden Bat that makes it sublime. He’s literally an aurum-armored warrior with a face like, well, a skull. He looks like the villain of the piece, more Kriminal than Superman. He pretty much invented the bat-signal, casting a giant gold bat and his laughter before each battle, before a large golden skull appears as he does. Most fights between Golden Bat and his adversaries end with most of them dead, which is strange for a hero who fights for small children.
He’s also incredibly similar to Fantomas, a fact not lost on Italian and Brazilian audiences, which renamed him as Fantaman and Fantomas respectively. Even cooler, this movie was released in Italy as Il ritorno di Diavolik or The Return of Diavolik. Deep deep down, indeed.
This is probably the point in which I should explain that the insidious Dr. Nazo looks like a giant stuffed bear with four eyes and a giant mechanical claw for a hand. His agents all have burned up faces, deploy tricks like gigantic hypno-wheels and have no compunctions menacing young children and old people.
Director Hajime Satô was also behind the senses-shattering Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. Just imagine the weirdness of that movie, but instead harnessing it to create a superhero movie for kids. Now you have a good idea of what to expect here.
Keep an eye out for Andrew Hughes, a Turkish-born import/export businessman who inexplicably became a Japanese movie star. He was on speed dial — yes, Japanese directors had that way before we knew what it was — for anyone who wanted a Western-looking face in their film, showing up in everything from King Kong Escapes and Destroy All Monsters to Crazy Adventure, where he played Adolf Hitler.
Sure, Golden Bat has every superpower ever — and then some — but this movie flies, making you never even realize that seventy-plus minutes of aliens, lighting-blasting staffs and skullman versus robot fisticuffs have battered your brain into jelly.
Of course, Golden Bat’s story — not in this film, mind you — ends like every Japanese hero story ever, with both the protagonist and his arch-nemesis dead. There’s something in the Japanese culture that demands that each of its monster heroes must pay the price for their daring-do in blood.
But The Golden Bat will return. Even death can’t hold him in her grasp when a young girl’s tears call from beyond, after all.
You can watch this movie on YouTube.