Judge Brett Cullum thinks he's turning Japanese, he thinks he's turning Japanese, he really thinks so!
A triple bill of monster moths, melting mutants, and mini aliens.
Toho studios is known for two things in America—a big green lizard we call Godzilla and the artistic works of Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai). If you asked the common man on the street which one he prefers or is most familiar with, I would bet money on the giant stomper of Tokyo. The studio cranked out tons of lesser known science fiction B-movies which Columbia Pictures distributed to the Western world without much fanfare. Often these films would be allegories for "bad things" the United States had imported to postwar Japan, but fans Stateside never saw that angle too well. To most of us "white devils" these were simple romps about atomic nightmares with laughable yet striking special effects. I grew up on a steady diet of Toho productions thanks to Sunday afternoon creature features on television decades after they were made. Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection gathers together a triple bill of giant moths, alien invaders, and mysterious mutants to remind us of the glorious days when Japan cranked out cheesy science fiction for the world to marvel over.
Facts of the Case
Battle in Outer Space
You could compare all three of these films to Western science fiction classics with Mothra becoming a feminized version of King Kong, Battle in Outer Space offering a Japanese take on War of the Worlds, and The H-Man reinterpreting The Blob. Most people will get this collection to acquire a new print and DVD of Mothra, a favorite in the Toho cannon of monster epics. It is the standout selection of the trio, having the most effective story and what Toho is famous for—the kaiju eiga ("monster movie") which most people associate with Japan. In addition this set offers two films that contrast the creature feature with more traditional science fiction. All of the trio are worth a look, and I found each to be fast paced and good natured fun. You've got a monster movie, an invasion space opera, and a noir influenced glowing gangster film.
Sony has done an excellent job with all three films for this DVD release. We get the original widescreen aspect ratios (Toho-vision!) as well as both the United States and Japanese versions. It's a Toho completist's dream come true! Previously we had only seen these films released on very poor VHS copies that only offered fullscreen Americanized cuts. There are still a lot of scratches and grain to be found, but that is part of the charm of these types of films. When the effects are done with matte paintings, models, and overlays you don't need a pristine digital transfer to ruin all the fun. We get both Japanese and English versions of all three films which means extra footage in some places. Mothra gets almost a full ten minutes added when you watch the original language version, H-Man gets seven extra, and Battle in Outer Space is the same length no matter which version you chose. You can either read subtitles or listen to the Western dub. Fans will really want to see both, because it changes the tone just a little depending on which one you watch. It doesn't look like this is done with branching at all, and each film is transferred twice on to the disc in its entirety.
Extras include commentary by two authors who have written books about Toho and Japanese monster movies, Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. Apparently the two men are preparing to publish a biography of Japanese director Ishiro Honda as a joint effort. They talk over the English language print of Mothra, and both versions of Battle in Outer Space. The two men offer significant information on the productions, and even call other participants on the phone during the commentary to add color and authenticity. These are two of the best commentaries I have heard this year for DVD. H-Man only offers some previews as its sole supplement.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Oddly enough the worst thing about the set is the packaging. All three films are presented on single discs that are stacked on one spindle in a single disc case. Yep, the side that plays for one disc is resting on the label of another. It is amazing there are not massive issues with them scratching each other. Fans are up in arms about it, and it looks strange and cheap when you open the box. I've also heard rumblings that the subtitles on Battle in Outer Space sometimes don't work so well, coming on during the English dub or popping up when nobody is speaking. My advice is to check the discs carefully once you make a purchase, and keep that receipt handy in case you have any issues.
Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection is one of the best film sets offered up this year. Unfortunately, it's housed in some of the worst packaging I've seen. Three DVDs stacked up on top of one another would seem to encourage scratches and other issues. Still, the content is worth the risk considering you get US and Japanese versions along with excellent commentaries. It's hard to resist a smile once the Peanuts start singing the Mothra song which brings the angry wrath of a butterfly moth on Tokyo. Toho Studios may have brought us classics from celebrated directors like Kurosawa, but they will probably be more fondly remembered for their contribution of cheesy B-grade science fiction and monster movies. There's an art on display, even if it is a creative use of toy trains and rubber suits.
Guilty of making me feel like I'm six years old again watching Creature Feature, but this time I see the whole picture and get a lecture to boot.
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