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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Latitude Zero

Toho Studios tried another "international" sci-fi film starring American actors and Japanese Toho regulars. Latitude Zero (LZ) was written by an American and starred names like Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero. It was filmed with the actors speaking English, then reverse dubbed into Japanese for the home market. Several regular Toho folk were in the production, such as director Ishiro Honda (of Godzilla fame). The tale is essentially Captain Nemo updated for the late 60s in a Toho flavor.

  Quick Plot Synopsis
(The plot is so full of miscellaneous bits, it's hard to be brief) Three men descend to the Pacific sea floor to study deep currents. Commander Ken, scientist Jules and journalist Perry. Their diving bell breaks loose when an undersea volcano erupts nearby. All three are wounded and unconscious when scuba divers (?) from a sub rescue them. The lady doctor (scantily clad 22 year old blond) tends to seriously hurt Jules. Perry and Ken learn from the genial Captain MacKenzie, of his marvelous sub, the Alpha, and his undersea commune, Latitude Zero. MacKenzie's rival and villain-of-the-tale, Malic (Romero) orders his sub, the Black Shark to stop MacKenzie. This fails and Alpha gets to base okay. The underwater city of Latitude Zero is a utopia where everyone lives for hundreds of years. Everyone is happy because all their needs are met. Diamonds are used as houseplant mulch. Perry scoops up some in his tobacco pouch. Meanwhile, Malic has kidnapped a Dr. Okada and his daughter, supposedly because Okada has a formula that will make people immune to radiation. Okada has a tracking device which let's MacKenzie know his whereabouts. Malic doesn't mind, because his real intent was to use Okada as bait to lure in his rival MacKenzie so he could kill him. MacKenzie, Ken, Jules, Perry, the babe doctor and sturdy Koubo take Alpha to Malic's lair, Blood Rock. Once there, the men all don golden jumpsuits with jet packs and laser-flamethrower gloves. Ann stays with Alpha. The men jet pack up the cliff and begin searching. Meanwhile, Malic's secret weapon is that he is going to create a griffon from a real lion, a real condor and using the brain of KuroiGa (the former captain of the Black Shark). The griffon is supposed to kill MacKenzie. Bat men hold Okada and his daughter. Malic completes his griffen and sends it looking for MacKenzie. Next up is Okada's turn on the operating table. Malic says he can extract the secret from Okada's brain. MacKenzie and crew burst into the lab, interrupting the brain removal. The golden men fight the bat men, many of whom are shot down with MacKenzie's laser glove. Malic escapes. MacKenzie and the golden men jet out with Okada and his daughter. They return to the Alpha. Before they can sail away, the Black Shark appears again. Malic fires lasers at the cliff above the Alpha to bury it in rocks. Ultimately, this fails when MacKenzie makes the Alpha fly and escape. The griffen, now giant sized because of a growth serum Malic injected, attacks Malic in the Black Shark. Malic mistakenly hits the cliff with an errant laser blast, burying the Black Shark in rock and sparking huge explosions. Huge. The whole island of Blood Rock explodes. Back at LZ, Perry is the only one who wants to return. MacKenzie allows it. Perry is picked up by a naval ship. Aboard is an American captain who is named MacKenzie (also played by Cotten), and a Lt. doctor (played by Romero). Perry's film is all blank and his tobacco pouch contains only tobacco. Was it all a dream? A telegram arrives on the ship, telling Perry that a shipment of diamonds was deposited in his bank. The End.

  Why is this movie fun?
As a modernized variant on the sturdy Jules Verne story of Captain Nemo, LZ has its interesting points. The rubber-suit-monster, which apparently all Toho movies must have, is an eyebrow raiser. Of some interest, too, are the bizarre costume designs by two people had not worked on any other movie, before or after.

  Cold War Angle
For the most part, LZ is an eclectic adventure dating before the atomic age. One rewrite for the Cold War audience was that Dr. Okada's formula would make people immune to the effects of radiation. MacKenzie cautions about what a powerful "weapon" it would be. If one side's population was immune to radiation, the other side's nukes would be no deterrent. When Okada is kidnapped, the Americans and Russians blame each other for trying to steal that secret. This, however, is a very minor part of the story and pretty much inconsequential.

Atragon 2? -- MacKenzie's super sub, "Alpha" is not purported to be another Atragon, but the movie serves as a loose sequel. Toho Studios' Atragon ('63) featured a super sub that could also fly. It also featured an underwater city (though an evil empire version) and the idealist scientist-inventor-pacifist and captain of the super sub. Rather than an actual sequel (picking up the story from where the other left off), LZ is more like a cousin. "Atragon" bt Shunro Oshikawa (original creator of "Atragon" in 1899) and Ted Sherdeman (creator of Latitude Zero's "Alpha" in 1941) were both inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Radio Roots -- Ted Sherdeman wrote "Latitude Zero" originally as a radio serial adventure. It ran only one season in 1941 -- before America had entered World War II, but tensions were mounting in the Pacific. It was crafted for juvenile audiences. That trait still comes through the modernized version, filtered through Japanese hands. The many undeveloped elements in FZ may have been better explained in the various radio show episodes.

  Nemo & Nemesis -- The whole (militarist) world, more or less, was the enemy of Verne's Nemo. Atragon's captain Jinguchi was ascetic, like Nemo, but the evil Mu Empire became his enemy (not the world, per se). LZ's MacKenzie is also the reclusive (and cynical) genius in the Nemo mould. His enemy list is much shorter. Not the world, nor an evil empire. MacKenzie's nemesis is a cartoonish, small-scale villain (Malic) who has an entourage of the usual cinematic minions.

  Materialist Dream -- Idealists of the late 1800s and early 1900s liked to imagine that violence and crime were primarily the struggles over material things. Greed, envy and strife stemmed from the unequal distribution of "stuff". Sherdeman's utopian Latitude Zero commune-under-the-sea is a prefect example of this. With the god-like MacKenzie providing all their material needs, the inhabitants were free to frolic and laugh (you'll notice that they laugh a lot). Idealists turn a blind eye to mankind's propensity to evil and violence, even if well-stocked with "stuff". (Rich people don't do evil?)

  A Woman Scorned -- Malic's supposed master stroke is to create a special monster to "get" MacKenzie. He creates a "griffin" from a male lion and a condor. A human brain would give it the facility of taking (his) orders. A major flaw in his plan is his choice of brain. Malic's selects the petite Kuroi Ga, woman captain of his evil sub. All she wants is a little love from Malic. He betrays her affection, making HER the brain donor. And Malic wonders why his KuroiGa-brained Griffin doesn't obey him, but attacks him instead? Are arch-villains really that stupid?

  Dubbing Irony -- LZ was filmed with all actors speaking english. Even the japanese actors who did not speak english, learned their lines phonetically. This led to lines like, "I hear you rowd an crier". Viewing the Japanese version carries the amusing irony of Japanese actors lips not matching the Japanese words.

  Super Charger -- A curious automotive bit, was MacKenzie showing off his model (not too well done of a model) of a 1969 Dodge Charger. It had a special extra canopy and its wheels folded up inside, so it could be a submarine too. This was how the various "missing" scientists were brought to Latitude Zero by LZ agents. Of course, the budget would only allow film clips of agents walking up to actual '69 Chargers and nothing more, but it was an interesting teaser bit.

 Bottom line? LZ is, at least, a more sci-fi offering than Toho had been offering in the mid-to-late 60s. The acting is flat or melodramatic. The sets and model work were modest, given Toho's reputation. There are far too many plot elements for any of them to get developed or incorporated. (like aqua cars, finger lasers, bat men, giant rats, etc.) This may be a legacy of a season's worth of the radio serial being condensed into a single movie. As long as viewers don't take the film too seriously -- more akin to a juvenile comic book -- it has some entertainment value.


hurricane51 said...

One of the saddest results of the decision to dub in Japanese is that Joseph Cotton, who possesses one of the truly great voices in film, was given an ordinary Japanese actor's voice. I kept expecting that unique gravely sound whenever he spoke, and was disappointed each time. Couldn't they at least have found someone with a voice in the lower registers to dub his voice?

Nightowl said...

I agree. Some of the voice-talent choices for dubs have been odd -- not matching the person believably.