Monday, March 17, 2014

Who weeps for Starman? Roots of the Japanese superhero

By BRAD WEISMANN

The recent death of actor Ken Utsui provoked a strong chord in my memory, although it seemed to make no ripple in the English-speaking datahive.

A little research revealed that he played the first Japanese film superhero, Super Giant (although, unlike a subgenre of Japanese superheroes to follow, he does not grow to abnormal size in time of danger). The rampant success of “Godzilla” in 1954 launched the tokustasu, or special-effects, film genre in Japan. In a series of nine sci-fi/action short features released between 1957 and 1959, Super Giant fights various baddies who seek to destroy Earth.

Utsui did not relish his time in tights. A look at him in his Starman costume – with antennaed skullcap, frilly undersleeves and touchingly overpadded crotch, it’s not hard to blame him. 

He went on to a long and honored career and steadfastly refused to discuss the role during the rest of his life.

Starman has no backstory. Unlike Superman, Batman, or the multiple neurotics of Marvel superhero-dom, he has no secret identity. In fact, he was fabricated from the strongest steel by the Peace Council of the Emerald Planet. With the “Globe-Meter” strapped to his wrist, he can fly, detect radiation, and speak and understand any language on Earth.

These movies made their way to America in the mid-‘60s. Much as the American Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the 1930s were chopped and reshaped into features, so was it with Starman. Four full-length films were cobbled out of them: “Atomic Rulers of the World,” “Invaders from Space,” “Attack from Space,” and “Evil Brain from Outer Space.” The hero – and the entire film – was redubbed. Under the name of Starman, and sporting some of the most delightfully bad overdubbing of the period, he flew across our American TV screens in all his black-and-white glory.


This was the kind of film that would invariably come one while I was home with the flu, feverish, my suspension of disbelief pushed to hallucinogenic proportions. By far the scariest point in any of these films is their openings, when we see the Peace Council. It’s an assemblage of blanking, gesticulating creatures that look like Mondrian’s nightmare, a bunch of Kachina dolls on acid.


The entire vibe of the series – the silly concepts, the lack of continuity, the lazy editing, the bargain-basement costumes, the cheesy effects, the bad canned-library music that replaced the original soundtrack, and the ubiquitous presence of an annoying bunch of child characters – makes the Starman movies a campy treat. It holds fascination as the launch point for subsequent Japanese superheroes such as television’s Moonlight Mask, Kamen Rider and Astro Boy; the Kyodai (rapidly growing) Heroes such as Ultraman, and Henshin (transformer) Heroes such as the Power Rangers.


The charm of Starman lies in its insistence on transcendence, despite its lack of resources. Unlike many other low-budget efforts that have gone down the collective memory hole, Starman hangs on in the mind, if for nothing else than for its desperate energy. Utsui may have scorned his early efforts, but there’s a bit of crazy magic in it. Thank you for protecting Earth, Starman!