Koji Shima was a prolific director of Japanese cinema, as well as an accomplished actor. In a career that spanned from 1925 to 1970, Shima was reported to have acted in 90 films and directed 90 more. He never became exceptionally well known in either profession, although he did win a prize at the first Moscow International Film Festival for his 1959 film Unforgettable Trail. Today, decades after his death in 1986, his best-known work is almost certainly Warning from Space (1956). A ‘tokusatsu’ visual effects picture, it has the credit of being the first-ever Japanese science fiction film to be made in colour.
The world suddenly experiences a spate of UFO sightings. In coastal and lake-side communities, people report seeing strange starfish-like monsters in the water. After an alien spacecraft is discovered orbiting the Earth, its inhabitants are finally able to reveal themselves: they are the Pairans, inhabitants of a twin planet on the other side of the sun to Earth, and have come to warn the human race of an imminent catastrophe.
In 1954 Toho had found enormous commercial success with Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla. Just two years later, rival studio Daiei took a different approach to the visual effects picture. For all of its effects, models, and alien costumes, Warning from Space is a relatively humourless drama. There is no antagonist for a hero to fight, but rather a fast-approaching rogue planet on a collision course with Earth. In that regard it foreshadows large-scale disaster pictures much more than any ‘kaiju’ giant monster movies. That makes it a slightly more challenging watch than other tokusatsu films of the period. Its pace is slower, its characters somewhat less charismatic, and any viewers expecting rubber-suit monster action will come away deeply disappointed.
That said, the Pairans are a charming feature in the film. They are designed to resemble human-sized starfish, which is an admirable ambition, but of course budgetary restraints leave them looking like humans that have become entangled putting a cover on a duvet. They are introduced to the film well, with a lot of uncertainty to their motives at first. Proper effort has been spent to make these aliens genuinely alien, and despite the goofiness of the result they still represent one hell of an honest try.
As might be expected, concerns over nuclear weapons loom large. It is a typical feature of Japanese science fiction, and is well expressed here. The performances by the human actors are rather dry, and not deeply characterised, but the focus of the film is definitely on the big picture more than human drama. It boasts a rich colour palette, befitting its place as Japan’s first colour science fiction film, and the design is reasonably strong for the time. There are better tokusatsu from the 1950s, but Warning from Space stands as a commendable attempt to produce something just a little more adult and a little more complex that the standard action-dominated fare.