After the unexpected success of Star Wars in 1977, studios rushed to recreate the film and its massive popularity. This saw a huge spate of ripoffs like Starcrash, Battle Beyond the Stars, and one of the most wildly inventive, strange, and beautiful films ever made: Toei Studios’ Message from Space. Directed by Battle Royale’s Kinji Fukasaku, Message from Space reimagines the original Star Wars space opera as an epic, folkloric saga that ends up as a perfectly balanced cosmic mashup of classic Japanese cinema and campy Saturday morning serials. It’s the best Star Wars knockoff you’ve probably never seen.
It’s easy to write off Message from Space as a quick, derivative cash-in, but Fukasaku and co. create an experience that elevates the film from its B-movie roots to something truly special. It begins on the far-off planet of Telusia, which has been destroyed by an ongoing war between the peaceful inhabitants and the evil metal-skinned space colonists, Gavonnas. To help the people of Telusia, their leader sends out some magical walnuts — literal walnuts — called Liabe seeds to find eight heroes who can save the planet and the galaxy, and he sends his granddaughter Emerlita — played by the incredible Etsuko Shihomi — and her bodyguard across space to wrangle the motley group. And that’s just in the first five minutes.
From the outset, Fukasaku builds an enchanting world which is wildly different and somehow (likely due to budget restraints) more intimate than George Lucas’ vision of space. The film is filled with barren planets populated by robed villagers, floating pirate ships, and psychedelic ’60s-esque space drinking holes. It has a visual tone entirely of its own, which matches the route of the narrative that quickly moves away from the story we all know so well. Yes, we still have a princess looking for help. But as we get to know our heroes, things become strange, surreal, and incredibly stylish.
We meet the first champion as she flies through space in her father’s intergalactic yacht, bumping into her friends as they race through the galaxy whilst being chased by a comical cosmic cop known as Space Patrol. These three are named Meia (yes, they just changed the L to an M), Aaron, and Shiro, played respectively by Peggy Lee Brennan, Philip Casnoff, and Hiroyuki Sanada. Our next addition to the Liabe seed gang is Vic Morrow’s completely outrageous General Garuda, who in one of the best scenes in the film is kicked out of the military after giving his old robot Beba I a burial in space against the direct orders of his superior. This leads to him storming out of the room with his sassy robot sidekick Beba II whilst wearing a cape that would make Lando Calrissian proud. Oh, and did I mention he finds his Liabe seed in a glass of whiskey?
Things start to get really wild in the world of Message from Space with Aaron and Shiro, line cooks in the same place as Garuda. They eventually end up in some kind of Solo-ish tangle based around unpaid debts, which sees them take Meia on a paid trip to collect some space fireflies. During their hunt they discover Emerlita and save her from the roving Gavonnas. It’s a joy to see a twist on the fantastic miniature work that makes the original Star Wars so special, but here we get to see it inspired by Japanese culture and cinema. When it really lets loose, Message from Space feels like a cross between a Kurosawa movie and Cowboy Bebop.
Meia forces the other heroes into action after they cower at the idea of helping Emerlita. The women of Message from Space are formidable, whether they’re the questing princess, the evil crone, the wicked witch, or daddy’s little rich girl. This impresses the Liabe deities as Meia is rewarded with a seed of her own, and thus the group sets off on their adventure. The apparent Luke analog, Aaron, doesn’t get his seed back for a while and this makes him very upset, hinting that the creators of Message from Space saw the moaning farmboy in Lucas’ film for just that, but many years before the rest of us.
Sonny FREAKING Chiba turns up as the rightful leader of the Gavonnas — though he doesn’t have metal skin??? — and luckily for the team and Telusia, Price Hann has a Liabe seed around his neck. Finally, Beba II and Emerlita’s bodyguard Urraco make up the last of the Liabe warriors as we move into the third act. Even though the film’s ending heads back into derivative territory, there’s something unbelievably special about the surreal and strange world of Message from Space. Although the heroes have to fly and shoot into a very small hole to blow something up, it still manages to visually surprise and enthrall with an odd tone all its own.
It’s been noted that Star Wars itself pulls heavily from Kurosawa, so it’s only fitting that the most brilliant Star Wars knockoff would come from the same place. Message from Space isn’t an award-winning film — it’s a cult favorite and deservedly so, as it expands on and elevates some of the weaker moments of Star Wars whilst also creating something wholly unique. Those looking for polish and popularity may not respond to the film’s lo-fi luster, but sci-fi/fantasy fans and scholars of cinema will find a lot to love about this charming and unusual flick. So if you ever need to take a vacation from the galaxy far, far away, then jump in your flying pirate ship and head over to the world of Message from Space.
(Message from Space is available on DVD and Blu-ray.)