Golden Bat (Hajime Sato, 1966)

WHERE, WHERE, WHERE DOES HE COME FROM, THE GOLDEN BAT?

AV_Inferno_DVD_.inddThe strange alien menace Nazo has set the planetoid Icarus on a collision course with the Earth!  Only Doctor Yamatone (Sonny Chiba, The Street Fighter) and his team at the Pearl Research Institute can prevent humanity’s obliteration by destroying Icarus with their Super Destruction Beam Cannon, but they can’t defeat Nazo and his henchmen alone.  Thankfully they have the sworn protection of the Golden Bat, a skull-faced superhero awoken from a 10,000 year-long sleep.  With his Baton of Justice, Golden Bat laughs in the face of danger and leaps where others fear to tread, ready to save mankind from its extraterrestrial threat!

Originally created in 1931 by writer Ichiro Suzuki and illustrator Takeo Nagamatsu, Golden Bat is transported to the Space Age in this low-budget, science fiction masterpiece from Toei.  Director Hajime Sato (Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell) fills the screen with alien bad-guys, super-science laboratories, buzzing laser beams, and plenty of cool ’60s gadgetry.  This early example of tokusatsu entertainment and Toei’s prominent superhero productions is sure to please kids and adults alike!

Special Features:

  • New high definition digital transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard DVD Presentation
  • Uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Newly translated English subtitles
  • New interview with actor Sonny Chiba
  • Golden Bat, the First Superhero, a video essay by Eric P. Nash on the origins of Golden Bat
  • Reversible sleeve with original and commissioned artwork
  • Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Japanese film scholar Chris D., illustrated with historical artwork of Golden Bat

(No English subs!  Sorry, kids!)

Akira (Wataru Yamakawa), a young auto-factory worker and amateur astronomer, detects that the planet Icarus has left its usual orbit and is now on a collision course with Earth.  While he is dismissed by his local officials, he is quickly recruited by the UN’s Pearl Research Institute who has similarly noted the Icarus threat and have developed a Super Destruction Beam Cannon to destroy the approaching planet once it has come into the necessary range.  The Cannon still needs a rare mineral to fashion its lens, and after being fitted for a shiny speed suit and helmet, Akira joins Dr. Yamatone (the Street Fighter himself, Sonny Chiba!), Dr. Pearl (the crazily dubbed Andrew Hughes), his tweenage niece Emily Pearl (Emily Takami), and a team of PRI researchers including Naomi Akiyama (Chako van Leeuwen as Hisako Tsukuba) in Supercar #2 on a skybound expedition to the lost island of Atlantis where the required substance has been detected.

Little does Akira, Dr. Yamatone, and the rest of the planet Earth know that Icarus has been purposefully directed at Earth by the alien Nazo (Kôji Sekiyama), a four-eyed, anthropomorphic bean-bag chair with a mechanical claw-hand who is bent on dominating the universe and destroying all other life.  From Nazo Tower, a kind of gigantic, spiked corkscrew with a squid-bodied top (naturally the squid-shape’s eyes shoots lasers, just like Nazo’s own four eyes), the would-be emperor of the universe Nazo dispatches a group of black-garbed henchmen to thwart the PRI team and obtain the mineral.  Just as all seems lost, pinned down inside an ancient Atlantean burial chamber, Emily awakens Golden Bat from his slumber inside a sarcophagus (Golden Bat is literally a “just add water” saviour), and our revived hero handily resists Nazo’s get-’ems, pledges to protect Emily and assist the PRI scientists, provides Dr. Yamatone with the needed mineral, and generally acts bonkers.  Golden Bat is a strange hero, having a flowing cape, a high collar, a glittery body suit, wrestling boots, and an eyeless skull for a head.  He can fly, is impervious to lasers, and performs various heroic acts with his Baton of Justice (a somewhat silly weapon that feels entirely in keeping with the character).  If you like, Golden Bat resembles Batman’s Joker if he fought for justice and had Superman’s powers.  His constant pose-striking and maniacal laughter, along with his outrageous costume, gives him something of the feel of a classically trained, out-of-touch actor a little too excited about his new found superpowers – all in an awesome and thoroughly entertaining way .

With Dr. Yamatone possessing the necessary mineral for the Super Destruction Beam Cannon and fashioning it into the requisite lens, Nazo must bring his fight directly to the hidden headquarters of the PRI set within the Japanese Alps.  He dispatches his three principle agents – Jackal (Keiichi Kitakawa as a wolf man in a fuzzy space uniform), Piranha (Keiko Kuni as a deadly, shape-changing lady), and Keloid (Yôuichi Numada chewing scenery as a disfigured and deranged lunatic) – and they prove fairly successful in their efforts.  Despite the intervention of Golden Bat and the PRI team’s coordinated outfits of white turtlenecks and gloves with tan khakis, Nazo is able to acquire the Super Destruction Beam Cannon, Piranha and Keloid capute and replace Naomi and Dr. Pearl, and Emily gets slapped and strangled far more than one would expect.  Nazo is even able to force the surrender of the Cannon’s lens after throwing multiple PRI scientists from Nazo Tower to their deaths.  This all culminates in a showdown between Golden Bat and Nazo in his Tower which has surfaced in central Tokyo, including some surprising levels of violence and a typically heroic ending.

Golden Bat finds itself landing between Japanese sci-fi spectacles like Atragon (Ishiro Honda, 1963), with its sleek and sharp-nosed aircraft and spaceships, and tokusatsu adventures like Kamen Rider, with its overly theatrical hero and unending line of uniform get-’ems.  The film removes the tokusatsu hero’s alternate identity, his ostentatious mode of transport, and the obligatory quarry battles usual to Japanese superhero stories and instead inserts him into a super-science escapade, thereby offering some mild genre-mixing.  The cult-appeal of Golden Bat likely rests however in the nostalgia of childhood programming and the simple conflict of good versus evil, in the particular primitivism of low-budget filmmaking, and by the exotic weirdness singular to Japan.  It’s all very heart-warming in its own ways – the grand proclamations to justice made by Golden Bat, the magnificently designed crafts wobbling on detectable strings, the foam stonework of Atlantis bouncing around the PRI scientists, the nearly absurd designs of the film’s villains, the sudden moments of violence normal to tokusatsu but shocking to Western expectations.  The film may look initially like an outlier compared to Arrow Video’s other Japanese titles, but Golden Bat‘s artfully done campiness gives it a style, an inventiveness, and an impulse that is comparable on its own terms to the stylish tales of criminal outsiders already offered by the label.

Golden Bat PosterGolden Bat is a solid Japanese cult pick, one that is popular enough to have made itself a standard catalogue title for nearly every grey market DVD-R seller trading online in hard-to-find esoterica.  We’d love to see a high definition edition of Sato’s film.  We’ve even debated with ourselves promoting the film as a possible Criterion Collection addition.  That might sounds strange, but in our current era of Hollywood adapting comic books into blockbuster feature films, Golden Bat offers a reasonable opportunity for a label preoccupied with cinematic respectability to approach the topic.  With Arrow Video’s expansion to North America and its greater emphasis on Japanese cinema, we thought the cult-focused label would be a more apt home for Golden Bat, trusting that what the film lacked in sex and gore would be made up for with sci-fi cool, pure eccentricity, and the presence of a certain cult film favourite named Sonny Chiba.

Credits:  The Sonny Chiba interview and Chris D. essay are both inspired by Chris D.’s interview with Chiba in his book Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film.  In their discussion, Chiba seems surprised and amused at the notion that Golden Bat has a following outside of Japan, and we’re be hopeful that both Chris D. and Chiba would provide some entertaining insight on the film.  The Eric P. Nash feature on Golden Bat is motivated by Nash’s book Manga kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theatre.  The Golden Bat character dates back to Depression-era Japan where travelling story-tellers would entertain children with tales told by them and illustrated by a series of water colour illustrations shown in their butai, a miniature stage set up on the back their bikes.  Kamishibai and its story-tellers notably compare to benshi, the narrators of Japanese silent cinema.  Hopefully Nash would be able to speak to not just the origins of Golden Bat, but also discuss the character’s other incarnations including a manga by famed writer-artist Osamu Tezuka, a 52-episode anime series from 1967 (particularly popular in Central and South America), and another feature film in 1972.

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