Not Just Another Star Wars Rip-Off: Kinji Fukasaku’s Message from Space

If on a long starry night on Pluto, or perhaps a seedy cantina at the outer arm of the Milky Way, you stumble upon a strange glowing walnut flying your way, don’t panic. Instead, gather your gear and prepare for a journey of adventure, peril, and manly scotch drinking. That’s not a walnut, but a Leabe seed from the planet Jilucia, and you’ve been chosen as a Leabe brave to free the Jilucians from their vicious conquerors and restore peace in the galaxy, and so on, and so forth. No, I haven’t gone crazy or delusional, I’m merely referencing Kinji Fukasaku’s infamous 1978 science fiction flick Message from Space.

The plot of Message from Space is loosely derived from the epic 19th century Japanese novel, Nanso Satomi Hakkenden (roughly translated as The Tale of Eight Dogs) by Kyokutei Bakin. In Fukasaku’s film adaptation, the peaceful planet Jilucia has been conquered by the expansionist empire of the Gavanas. Brought to near destruction, the Jilucians put their remaining hopes in the Leabe gods, who instruct them to send eight magical Leabe seeds into space. The seeds will seek eight brave warriors who are destined to save Jilucia and liberate its people from their captors. After many trials and tribulations, the eight brave warriors heed the call of the Leabe gods and join the fight against the ruthless Gavanas.

At the time of its release, Message from Space was the most expensive Japanese film ever made, budgeted at approximately $6 million. Employing a mixture of Japanese and American actors, Toei Studios had clearly set its aims at international distribution and appeal in order to justify the film’s astronomic costs. After all, this was not an international co-production like Fukasaku’s previous pulp SF cult classic, The Green Slime (1968). No, this time Toei footed the entire bill, and had to somehow make their money back. So, they went international. Within just a few months of its Japanese release (where it received moderate success), Message from Space made its debut in both Europe and North America. Unfortunately, the success they hoped for did not follow.

Message from Space was universally panned by western critics and audiences alike. Contemporary reviews are littered with epithets such as “terrible,” “garbage,” “indecipherable,” “unappealing,” “grotesque,” and every other synonym thereof. Even the film’s occasional defenders operate on the grounds of “it’s so bad is good,” with little objective praise for the film. All these reviews had one common argument in their collective derision: Message from Space was just a rip-off of another popular film, a little fairy tale in space known as, Star Wars (1977).

It’s quite impossible to overestimate the success of Star Wars in the late 70s. Released in May of 1977, Star Wars broke all sorts of box-office records almost overnight, a success that surprised even the filmmakers (Alec Guinness famously called it “fairy tale rubbish”); and by 1978, the film had swept half the world off its feet – pretty much everyone except the communists and Pauline Kael. Inevitably, popularity bred imitators and the case of Star Wars, the imitators came fast: from goofy SNL sketches to porn parodies to straight-up rip-offs, everybody wanted to get a bite of George Lucas’ cash-cow. And why not? In a decade when Hollywood was dominated by gritty crime thrillers and socially aware dramas – Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), The Friends of Eddy Coyle (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), etc. – 1977 showed movie studios an alternative path to box-office success, one that was paved in spectacle and special effects. That trend continues even today.

For better or for worse, Message from Space does not exist without Star Wars. During its release and ever since, there hasn’t been a review of the film that does not compare it to Lucas’ film, unfavorably more often than not. This comparison was inescapable at the time and would have been so even without United Artists aggressively marketing the film as the “Japanese Star Wars”. In 1978 Star Wars was at the very top of the zeitgeist (many theaters still played it), and nearly all science fiction (certainly all space SF) was weighed against it. SF movies may have very well been judged by how like or unlike Star Wars they were, and inevitably, the remotest of resemblances would have the fans cry bloody murder. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in cinema whenever a popular or influential title comes along: even something like Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) was for a while labeled “the Soviet 2001” despite being nothing like it. So, it’s no surprise that at the time of its release people saw Message from Space as nothing more than a Star Wars clone. How could they not? Star Wars was everything everyone talked about. It’s easy to see from contemporary reviews that the downfall of Message from Space came precisely because of its inevitable comparison to Star Wars, regardless of the accuracy or fairness of that characterization.

Today that’s no longer the case. In the 40-year interim, Star Wars has become an established phenomenon in the collective consciousness, or subconsciousness, of worldwide audiences, and its discreet bits or pieces no longer stand out. Now it’s just there. It exists, it’s vast, it’s diluted. In such an environment, a film like Message from Space can hope for a fairer re-evaluation that extends beyond trivial accusations of copycat crimes.

Naturally, in no way am I trying to dismiss the similarities between Fukasaku’s film and Lucas’ multi-billion dollar franchise. That would be delusional. While Fukasaku may have made the film even if Star Wars did not exist (he had been interested in the source material for a while), Message from Space would certainly not take the form it currently has. Unquestionably, the existence of Star Wars informed many production choices, including the production schedule.

Message from Space was released in April of 1978, comfortably beating the Japanese release of Star Was by two months. This can’t be a coincidence. It is likely that Toei sought to replicate the worldwide popularity of Star Wars (which had already made the news, despite its delayed release in Japan), quite possibly rushing production with the intention of hitting Japanese theaters before Star Wars (a common strategy in the film industry). The echoes of a rushed production are evident on screen: the unpolished script, the mixed-bag special effects, as well as the striking inconsistency in the quality of set and costume design. It is important to also note that Message from Space was but one of three movies Fukasaku directed in 1978, along with The Fall of Ako Castle (a retelling of the 47-Ronin story), and the impeccable Yagyu Clan Conspiracy (aka Shogun’s Samurai). All three feature Sonny Chiba in some capacity.

So, it safe to say that Toei did try to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Whether it was because of artistic admiration or box office greed, the production team did not hesitate to “borrow” a few things from the beloved American space opera. Imitation is, however, a doubled edged sword. Let’s not forget that Star Wars itself was an imitation of everything that Lucas admired, though that is hardly its defining characteristic. In similar fashion, Message from Space is more than what it replicates.

Even so, the similarities between Message from Space and Star Wars are relatively skin deep, just enough to give the marketing department something to work with. These include a princess dressed in white, an evil empire, a Darth Vader sort of figure, a character named “Meia,” as well as ample space-fights and planet explosions. There’s also a wise-cracking robot named Beba-2, though its design is far closer to Robbie in Forbidden Planet (1956) than anything in Star Wars. Parts of the soundtrack also bear some resemblance to John Williams’ score. Such similarities between the two stood out because they had to. The film had to ride on the popularity of its progenitor. Otherwise there isn’t much else in the film that bears a one-to-one comparison. The plot is different, and so is Fukasaku’s overall tone and visual aesthetic for the film. For instance, the bad guys are actually bad (instead of storm troopers that always miss), and the sword fights don’t resemble those of two old men struggling with arthritis (my sincerest apologies to the ghosts of Sir Alec Guinness and David Prowse).

On the other hand, I’m also not trying to make the claim that Message from Space is a forgotten gem or a lost masterpiece of filmmaking. It isn’t. For all the love I have for this film, I’d be remiss not to recognize its glaring flaws and egregious inconsistencies. Fukasaku’s film, for the most part, fails to achieve the polish and sophistication of his better-known work, and certainly lags behind when compared to the film it’s trying to imitate. One could argue Message from Space was doomed from the start, what with a rushed production, limited budget, and the fact that Fukasaku never quite figured out how to properly navigate the science fiction genre. Virus (1980) was the closest he ever got to deliver a competent SF film, and that’s hardly one to boast about.

But enough with the criticisms! There is no point in spending all this time to write a 2000-word article about a film that’s got nothing going for it. Because it does. Message from Space is, in its own strange and perverse way, a wonderful viewing experience. For all its numerous flaws, the film is competently made, with Fukasaku’s distinct voice shining through the layers of styrofoam models and corporate meddling. In its 105 minutes of runtime, Message from Space contains not a single minute of boredom, predictability, or pretension to be anything more than what it is: a fun little adventure in space, a classic pulp science fiction flick featuring sword-fights, explosions, spaceships, fairy-tale villains, and heroes.

The majority of the film’s appeal comes from its carefree attitude towards the subject matter. Message from Space wholeheartedly embraces the tradition of pulp science fiction not only by content, but also by possessing a sort of unbound energy and  laissez-faire mentality that was all too common in the pulps of the 20s and 30s (think of the Skylark or the Lensman series by E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith). Fukasaku is smart enough not to take himself too seriously. For instance, Message from Space makes no attempt at scientific congruity: words like universe, galaxy, solar system, gravity, and radiation are nothing but dialogue fodder, with about as much meaning as Jar-jar’s high-pitched whine. The film’s charm rests entirely on the characters’ bravado and the director’s ability to make the action exciting. As Raymond Chandler said about  writing for the pulps, “when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” That is the principle under which Fukasaku seems to operate. The plot is unpolished, but there’s no shortage of wonder and excitement. Of course, this approach risks the balance tipping on the other side where things become so ridiculous that charm turns into confusion and head-scratching. Thankfully, in Message from Space this happens only on a handful of scenes, the most notable being when our characters go “swimming in space to collect space fireflies,” dressed in outfits that would be considered unfit to climb a mountain.

The film’s action and special effects are equally impressive considering the budget and time constrains. While the model work is not always convincing, and action leans perhaps too heavily on gratuitous explosions, the overall visual tone of the film fits perfectly with the pulp nature of the narrative. Once again, the critical community has compared the visual effects of Message from Space unfavorably to those of Star Wars, but I doubt many of those comparisons are with the original, unrestored 1977 version. That version of Star Wars is impossible to find today in its entirety. Head to head, the two films are not that different. All action set in space is phenomenally done, striking a pleasant balance between chaos and order, something that the Star Wars franchise doesn’t achieve until the second film, Empire Strikes Back. Interestingly, Fukasaku even manages to sneak in a real-life atomic bomb explosion among the spaceship dog-fighting.

Somewhat more justified is the derision towards the film’s acting performances, which all-in-all are rather forgettable, with the possible exception of Vic Morrow as general Garuda, and Mikio Narita as Emperor Rockseia XII. Narita deserves credit for managing to pull off a respectable villain in all that heavy silver make-up. Vic Morrow, on the other hand, is utterly sublime mostly because he doesn’t try. He seems resigned to do as little as possible in the Garuda role, which is exactly what the role required. I doubt any of it was intentional, but it worked. For anyone who decides to watch the film, Garuda is likely to be their favorite character.

Ultimately, Message from Space might not be the Japanese response to Star Wars that everyone hoped, or even a good representative of Kinji Fukasaku’s extensive film-making career. It lags and falters in many places, and with all its charm it doesn’t make for very good science fiction. The charm is there, however, and it’s enough that it merits reconsideration.