Running time: 72 min.
Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman
Ogon Batto, the Golden Bat, is among the first of Japan’s super heroes. Appearing in kamishibai (street theater storytelling using illustrations) and pulp novels in the early 30’s, he would morph into becoming an early manga favorite and hero to generations of Japanese. The fact that he shared the same name with the brand of cigarettes with the most street cred in Japan probably helped his popularity. Hajime Sato’s “Ogon Batto” opened the doors for a popular TV anime version in the 1970s.
“Ogon Batto” opens with young otaku Akira (Wataru Yamagawa) doing some midnight telescope viewing and discovering a planet - Melancholia? No, Icarus - falling toward earth. Kidnapped and whisked off to secret United Nations mountain hideout, he meets Dr. Yamatone (Sonny Chiba) svelte acolyte to Dr Pearl - the Daedalus of the drama? They know of the impending collision and have the weapon, a mighty gun, but not the jewel that will focus the rays that will blast the planet out of the sky. It's off to Atlantis, recently resurfaced after centuries beneath the waves where they got the news that that's where they would find the diamond. The original search party has met with some mysterious fate, so a secondary search party that includes the UN team and young Akira, but also Dr. Pearl's young daughter, Emily, who not only will provides the deus ex machina for the plot, but in an oblique way, becomes the object around which all the characters will revolve. As the giant corkscrew lair of alien villain Nezo drills up through the sea, the team flees into a cave to find Ogon Batto, holding the precious diamond in his mummified clutches. Young Emily anoints the slumbering superhero with water flowing from a fountain (of youth?) and presto-chango he comes to life with booming mwa ha ha. Ogon Batto is a caped skeleton with a super baton that comes in handy in most situations involving bad guys. He also tends to strike heroic poses when fighting (introduced in the strikingly shot opening credits). Ogon Batto comes to the rescue of the entire team, but gives Emily a bat brooch that will come to life and summon Ogon Batto whenever Emily finds herself in distress. Of course Emily will find herself in distress several times during the film. Our heroes escape with the jewel, but the Earth's not quite safe yet.
Super baddie, Nezo, who looks like a giant sock puppet potato with four eyes, one hand sporting a smart looking mechanical pincer, the other - shades of Mickey Mouse! - a three fingered black rubber glove. Nezo epitomizes a Republican logic of wanting to control the world while simultaneously wanting to destroy it. He sends out a trio of differently-abled troops from his minions to retrieve the diamond. His crack team includes Jackal, a proto-Wolverine, Keloid, brother of Scarface, and Piranha, a shape-shifting femme fatale. She has the ability to inhabit others bodies, as does Wolverine, which wreaks havoc on poor little Emily when they take over both mother-figure Naomi (Chako van Leeuwen) and father-figure, Dr. Pearl. They all wear black Klingon attire (a few years before the invention of Klingons). They all apparently can walk through walls, while our good guys, sporting white turtlenecks, are bound to entrances and exits through doors and driving cars. Fights and chases culminate on the panicky streets of Tokyo, Icarus closing in, the drill drilling up through the urban landscape and edge of your seat suspense building to the denouement - saving the Earth and giving Nezu his comeuppance. By 2011, Lars Von Trier's remake would have a more melancholy ending.
Ogon Batto, himself, makes surprisingly few appearances, mainly appearing at the last moment to get rid of bad guys and to punctuate the soundtrack with his ominous laughter.
Of primary importance though is Emily. In the original comic strip she reanimates Ogon Batto with her own tears. It's a bit of copout on B-director, Hajime Sato's part to have her just spill some water on him, though in some Freudian symbolism it can mean just about everything you could want it to. On the other hand, just adding water seems appropriate for the universal culture of capitalist consumption that had conquered the world by 1966. Nonetheless, a particular unbreakable bond is made between the pre-pubescent "mother" and the "dead" man-baby who comes to life not with a cry, but with laughter. His mouth frozen in a perpetually coming death grin is particularly disturbing. This baptism, or rebirth, exalts her in the position of virgin mother. He on the other hand is reduced to infantile ojisan-ism, only able to cackle and strike ridiculous fighting poses. These poses, though, in the choreography of death, are still effective against the living.
After the trauma of giving rebirth to Ogon Batto, Emily will also have to fight against her evil-possessed mother and father. In her topsy-turvy world, even those she can rely on for comfort and safety are duplicitous. The traumas of her path into womanhood is given pathos in the end, when her man-baby flies away from her leaving only his laughter behind.
Her world is also blown apart by the continued appearance of the phallus of Babylon. The first appearance of Nezo's upward thrusting lair is when our heroes go to Atlantis. It rises from the womanly pool of vast waters, the life source of Gaia. It appears as a conical drill bit - topped with a squid fluke and a pair of glowing eyes no less! A similar phallus will appear years later in Shinya Tsukamoto's Ogon Batto remake, Tetsuo. Its very presence shakes the earth - tremors becoming trauma - much to everyone, and Emily's dismay. Worse, the destructo beams from its eyes will wreak havoc on the last of the crumbling Greco-Egypto-Mayan remains of the lost Atlantean civilization. The only way to escape a destroying phallus? Into a vaginal cave, of course. And it's here where the sarcophagus embryo, wearing death's head will be given birth again. Like Shiva, both creator and destroyer. Or merely like Gamera, a friend of children?
The phallus will return at the end of the film, this time drilling through the firmament of Tokyo itself. Having destroyed the last of the ancient civilization, it's intent on destroying the modern world. But of course this being a parable of reconciling the destructive tendencies of man vs. the nurturing and life giving qualities of women, the phallus must fall and the man-child must leave.
Emily plaintively wails, "Goodbye, Golden Bat!"
“Ogon Batto” is an inconsequential B movie that throws in so many tropes of sci-fi and monster movies that it could be considered a paragon of post-modern textuality, but in truth it’s pleasure lies in is a low budget brilliance and creativity. It’s beautifully shot in wide-screen black and white by Yoshikazu Yamasawa. For Sonny Chiba fans, the star is still defining himself. He’s serviceable in “Ogon Batto” but has yet to define himself as the icon he would become. All in all, it’s nutty guilty pleasure that’s relatively incoherent, but jammed with enough action, interesting characters and invention that makes its 73 minute running time fly by.
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