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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A Japanese Star Wars knock-off almost as weird as the original

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Because it’s Star Wars Week here at The A.V. Club, we’ve singled out some of the more interesting movies inspired or influenced by George Lucas’ beloved space opera.


Message From Space (1978)

There’s so much Japan in Star Wars (see: Vader’s constructivist samurai get-up, faux-Japanese names like Kenobi and Yoda, story elements borrowed from The Hidden Fortress, etc.) that it makes sense that some of the most interesting movies of the Star Wars knock-off gold rush should come from the Japanese industry. George Lucas designed Star Wars as a pastiche of Western and Eastern genres—World War II flicks, Republic serials, Edo-era samurai stories (commonly called jidaigeki, hence the Jedi)—and Message From Space, produced by Japan’s Toei studio, is one of the few A New Hope clones to really pick up on the original’s grab-bag appeal.

Considering Japanese sci-fi’s long-standing love affair with World War II iconography (see: Space Battleship Yamato, Mamoru Oshii’s Kerberos franchise, etc.), it seems significant that this is the most important part of the Star Wars formula jettisoned by Message From Space. Instead, in trying to make a story about space rogues and princesses fighting an evil empire its own, the movie brings in elements of pseudo-medieval high fantasy and tokasatsu serials, imagery from Europe’s Age Of Sail, and a whole lot of stuff taken from American hot-rod and trucker movies, complete with white-helmeted space patrolmen with mustaches and aviator shades.

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, then best-known for his energetic crime movies, from a script credited to four writers who seem to have never shown each other their work, Message From Space is a knock-off that’s almost as weird as Star Wars itself; it just looks a whole lot weirder, because unlike Lucas’ movie, it doesn’t benefit from a unified design sense. Part of what makes the original Star Wars movies work is the way they use consistent color palettes and textures to make so many disparate references and ideas seem to co-exist within a unified universe. It’s where a Mediterranean-style cantina bar with a swing house band and a customer base of creature-feature rejects can seem of-a-piece.

Message From Space, on the other hand, looks as all-over-the-place as its influences, mixing everything from bright colors and outrageous ’70s street fashions (e.g., embroidered trackwear and snakeskin suits with matching flat caps) to horned suits of medieval armor and 18th-century naval uniforms, with extravagant practical effects that are never remotely credible as anything other than models. It’s a whole lot of fun to look at—a pageant of off-beat visual references, which is probably what the movie it’s imitating would look like if it weren’t smoothed out by its production design, costuming, and effects team.

Availability: Message From Space is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library.