If there’s one thing the Japanese movie industry has always wanted, it’s a massive international box-office hit on the order of Star Wars, Titanic or Jurassic Park. They’ve tried by aping the formulas of Hollywood blockbusters—but ironically enough the most successful of Japan’s movie exports have been Hayao Miyazaki’s animated productions. Spirited Away may have seemed “too Japanese” for other audiences by its own creators, but that also gave it a charm that couldn’t be copied, and it grossed over $250 million worldwide.
Japan’s other attempts at international blockbusters are strange creatures. Godzilla wasn’t really meant to be one (at least not at first), but it turned into just such a franchise after its studio, Toho, discovered an endless array of sequels and spin-offs not only made money but turned their giant radioactive lizard into a character as iconographic as Darth Vader or Indiana Jones. And there’s been other Japanese productions that were intended to make it big worldwide, and while some of them made big bank at home they ended up falling flat on their faces elsewhere: Kinji Fukasaku’s Virus (which I still need to see), or Sayonara Jupiter.
Sayonara Jupiter is definitely a case in point. Bankrolled by Godzilla godfather Tomoyuki Tanaka and released through Toho itself, it’s like a computer-generated composite of just about every major SF film of the Seventies and Eighties. Jupiter gives us a generically utopian space-faring future a couple of hundred years from now (Star Trek), where a project has been undertaken to turn Jupiter into a second sun (2010) to provide energy for the outer planets. Then a black hole is discovered heading our way, and Jupiter Project is converted into a desperate last-ditch attempt to save the solar system by using Jupiter as bait for the black hole. Meanwhile, there’s a cadre of environmental terrorists led by a hippie folk-singer type (hey, it could happen), sneaking around and making trouble. It doesn’t help that one of their number is the former lover of a Jupiter Project team member, a revelation which leads to the most unintentionally funny zero-gee love scene ever filmed.
The movie’s not just a clone in terms of plot or storyline, either; there’s shot-for-shot, scene-for-scene and image-for-image lifts from Star Wars, Alien, Outland, and—in one absolutely flabbergasting digression—Jaws. The space-docking sequence right after the credits is plagiarized from 2001: A Space Odyssey in such detail that I was amazed Stanley Kubrick didn’t sue; ditto a shot that mimics HAL’s “brain room”. It’s a little depressing, actually, to see the Toho that created such beloved and unique icons as Godzilla sink to so shamelessly ripping off everyone in sight—especially since apart from the effects and graphics, the movie itself is amazingly kitschy.
This isn’t to say that they didn’t spend time and money on the movie’s look. The outer-space shots, in particular the scenes around and on Jupiter, are eye-poppers, and the spaceship designs all have that unquestionably Japanese flavor to them. If you’ve seen other tokusatsu (“special visuals”) movies from Japan like War in Space, Fukasaku’s Message from Space, or non-Godzilla Toho productions like The Mysterians, it’ll be all the more apparent how it falls in line with those films. But it’s also all too clear how many of the movie’s ideas, visual and otherwise, were hijacked straight out of the other films it so desperately wants to be. And the non-effects parts of the movie are a chore: the mixture of languages spoken by the cast, and the downright goofy English-language actors, will make most of the effects buffs reach for either the mute or fast-forward buttons.
Come to think of it, Jupiter doesn’t really feel like a cousin to Toho’s other effects-event movies (Godzilla, etc.)—it’s actually closer in spirit to the sorts of productions I’ve seen from the Kadokawa company. Publishing magnate heir Haruki Kadaokawa set up his own film-production unit and released a number of bombastic, cheerfully overblown movies that commanded big box-office receipts in Japan: Heaven and Earth, Virus, G.I. Samurai, Makai Tensho, Ninja Wars, Satomi Hakkenden, and dozens more—until he spent five years in prison after a deLorean-like cocaine scandal. Those movies have the same dippy combination of bombast and dewy-eyed sincerity that Jupiter has by the kiloton.
There’s another kind of movie that Jupiter freely borrows both ideas and inspiration from: the high-concept Irwin Allen-esque disaster movie. The director and screenwriter, Sakyo Komatsu, was responsible for one of Japan’s best-known examples of same: Japan Sinks, a bestselling novel of his that was filmed not just once (1973) but twice (2006). Jupiter’s also from one of his books, and I give him credit for putting this thing together with an entirely straight face from front to back. Well, maybe not entirely straight—when one of the characters sits down to watch a movie, it turns out to be the Toho monster-mash Ghidorah. Too bad the rest of the movie isn’t that clever.
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