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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

ESPY (1974) review

ESPY 1974 aka ESUPAI (ESPy)

Hiroshi Fujioka (Yoshio Tamura), Masao Kusakari (Jiro Miki), Tomisaburo Wakayama (Ulrov), Kaoru Yumi (Maria), Katsumasa Uchida (Goro Tatsumati), Yuzo Kayama (Chief Hojo)

Directed by Jun Fukuda

The Short Version: This audaciously daffy science fiction-spy-action thriller is a wild comic book superhero movie from Toho Studios about psychic assassins--one group wants to destroy mankind and the other wants to protect it. If only one or two characters had been sufficiently fleshed out, we'd have a hidden international 70s classic on our hands. As it is, ESPY is a groovy collage of action, intrigue, boobs and blood. It's a breath of fresh air for fans seeking something on the wild side of Japanese cinema during its transitional stage of the 1970s.

The International Psychic Power Group is a covert organization financed by the United Nations. Made up of clairvoyant supermen under the guise of the International Pollution Research Center, they wage a private war against enemies that threaten world peace and the total annihilation of the human race. With hostility between the East and West reaching a boiling point, four Eastern European delegates are assassinated aboard the Milan-Geneva international express on their way to the United Nations for the Mediation Committee of International Dispute. The Baltonian Prime Minister is the next to be targeted for termination. A ruthless psychic assassin named Goro hunts down the psychokinetic saviors, themselves marked for death by an anti-ESPY group led by the insidious and superhuman Ulrov who plans to destroy mankind by initiating World War 3.

More well known for directing five Kaiju films including GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966), SON OF GODZILLA (1967) and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974), Jun Fukuda shows a propensity for modern style action on a James Bondian level with this kooky and kool globetrotting science fiction spy flick with a dose of bloody violence and stunts. Fukuda also helmed the early Toho science fiction film THE SECRET OF THE TELEGIAN (1960) and the later, infantile STAR WARS bandwagon movie, WAR IN SPACE (1977). Of Fukuda's more easily obtainable works, ESPY is definitely one of the most energetic and fun spanning multiple locales much in the same way a James Bond movie would, but with more sleaze appeal and violence such as exploding bodies, gratuitous nudity, a tongue that is psychically torn out of a mouth and a poor soul who is turned into swiss cheese by dozens of bullets.

The various psychic powers on display add quite a bit to the fantastical aspects of the script which deceptively uses its powers to take your mind off of some of the noticeable lack of character depth. Powers such as telekinesis, hypnosis and even teleportation(!) are showcased. At one point, the villain possesses the Baltonian Prime Minister's mind during a crucial peace conference in an effort to jump-start a new war with the countries of the world. These combatants armed with Extra Sensory Perception can sense harm coming to others from afar, stop an enemy from pulling a gun trigger, or manipulate inanimate objects among other tricks. It's also evident Toho spent some money on this one as it's a polished production and several locations all over Europe are visited by the characters in the film. This Euro feel is also recognizable in several of the cues heard in Misaki (LADY SNOWBLOOD) Hirano's score.

From Japan to Istanbul to Switzerland to Paris and back again, we follow this live action, anime styled, pseudo exploitation spectacle from one action scene to the next stopping long enough for minor doses of exposition. Much of what we get character wise is intriguing, but the script would have us believe race car driver, Jiro Miki is the main character. He discovers his hidden psychic powers one day while speeding along on the track and is courted by the covert agency of psychic spies to join them and hone his skills. Not long after, Miki is brushed to the side and we become far more entrenched in the duo of lovers, Tamura and Maria. The script goes back and forth between the various psychic super heroes and heroines, but the bulk of the attention is paid to Tamura and Maria.

As typical of most Japanese movies of the time (Toho in particular), pollution and man's destructive nature of the Earth's resources are a major point of contention throughout the movie. It never gets quite as heavy handed as it does in many of Toho's fantasy and monster movies, but the subject is breached regularly during the 94 minute running time.

Katsumasa Uchida is notable as the ruthless psychic assassin, Goro. We first see him at the start of the film preparing to pick off four United Nations Peace Conference delegates hidden behind the blinds of a train carriage. As the train speeds by Goro aims his sniper rifle and uses his psychic powers to take out the quartet with ease. Uchida is the chief underling of the 'Anti-ESPY group' led by the evil Ulrov, an eccentric villain if there ever was one, living in a Gothic castle surrounded in darkness. Godzilla fans will recognize Uchida as Murakoshi the Interpol agent from TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975). He can also be spotted in such wonderful examples of Japanese action/fantasy cinema as SEX & FURY (1973) and TIME SLIP (1979).

The LONE WOLF himself, Tomisaburo Wakayama (brother of the equally famous Shintaro Katsu of the long running ZATOICHI series) plays the main bad guy, Ulrov with appropriately larger than life zeal. We don't see quite as much of him as we'd like, but his unhinged, Dracula inspired performance will surprise those more accustomed to watching the burly actor cut down assassins and colorful swordsmen in gory chambara films and television shows. Referring to himself as superhuman, Ulrov has a vendetta against mankind (revealed during the explosive finale), a blood debt he demands be paid and doesn't care if World War 3 is started over it. His stronghold is a "House of Traps" that would make Chang Cheh proud.

ESPY is just too good and goofy to not be made more widely available in America in a subtitled edition. Those who enjoy English dubs would likely feel like a kid in a candy store if one surfaced for this film. No doubt the overt seriousness of the sometimes surreal nuttiness would enhance the experience for that cult of fan follower. It's based on a novel by Sakyo Komatsu, but it would make a great anime series what with the vast array of "Force powers" on display. Use your own powers of perception and seek out ESPY.

You can buy the fan subbed DVD here--FAR EAST FLIX


Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I've not heard of this one Brian, but your write up makes it sound like an attractive proposition. I shall be looking out for it.

venoms5 said...

I was pleasantly surprised by this one, Shaun. This was my first time watching it and it definitely picked up my spirits during its 90+ minutes. I don't know how well the film did for Toho, but this would have made an amazing franchise. The concept alone has the propensity for success. It reminded me a lot of this video game that came out for the PS2 several years ago called PSI-OPS. Very similar.

J.L. Carrozza said...

There is a dubbed version, its of the Hong Kong "Shaw Brothers" 70s school of dubs but it is shorn of some of the violence and most of Kaoru Yumi's risque dance scene and all that. It was released on VHS by Paramount. It is hard to find and expensive, but not impossible.

I like this, Fukuda made a lot of spy and crime films in the 60s and from the word on the street they're far superior to his tokusatsu work. EPSY definitely is more akin to this stuff than to his Godzilla efforts. His reputation as the "poor man's Ishiro Honda" is definitely a bum rap.

This film, BOOTED BABE, BUSTED BOSS looks really cool:

venoms5 said...

Thanks for that link, J, it does look good! I wouldn't mind checking out more of Fukuda's work although I think some of his kaiju movies are really good in their own right. ESPY was definitely a lot of fun and a quirky departure from the norm.

J.L. Carrozza said...

SEA MONSTER/EBIRAH is quite a good movie, as good as most of Honda's 60s work I think despite basically being a King Kong movie with Kong exed out of the script and Godzilla's name written over his. Fukuda's best Godzilla movie I thini. SON OF GODZILA has some good moments in spite of its silliness. GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA is also quite entertaining, his best 70s movie for sure (though HEDORAH/SMOG MONSTER is my favorite 70s Godzilla movie personally by far).

Most of his Godzilla movies show glimpses of his action and spy movie specialty since the human plots are generally more espionage driven than Honda's. My guess is he must have liked the 007 movies a lot.

venoms5 said...

Exactly, I feel the same way. Especially regarding SEA MONSTER. There's definitely a Bondian quality to that one and a human interaction/peril scenario that blends well with the level of monster action.

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