ESPY [Esupai] (1974)

Let’s face it, the 1970s were a bit…weird for Toho films.

At least when it came to their Tokusatsu films.

Godzilla wasn’t doing too well (at least not on the big screen., even if his “monsterverse” spinoff, Zone Fighter did well — well enough that the Big G actually made a few appearances on the show).  His Seventies films were all a bit odd, with aliens, robots and even living garbage.  The audience dwindled rapidly as did the budgets. 1969’s Godzilla’s Revenge was the clip episode of Godzilla films, and he followed it up with Godzilla vs. Megalon, the appalling Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, the utterly silly Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster (which I actually saw in the theaters when it came out!) and even talked in Godzilla vs. Gigan.  Only their last ditch final Godzilla effort of the original series, Terror of Mechagodzilla comes close to being a classic.

At the same time, Toho made a number of other Tokusatsu films which are far harder to classify.  War in Space, for example, might on paper look like a belated sequel to Battle in Outer Space with a few ties to Atragon, but it was more of a Star Wars retread, while Space Amoeba is sort of a downsized version of a standard Kaiju film, and Daigoro vs. Goliath, their team up with Tsubaraya Productions is mind-bogglingly silly children’s fare.  Most of the others don’t seem to be aimed at same market as Godzilla, like their excellent Vampire trilogy which at its best reminds you of Hammer’s Dracula films, or the utterly bizarre Prophecies of Nostradamus, or their disaster movie on steroids, Tidal Wave, or the dead serious flying saucer epic, Blue Christmas, which somehow avoids having any flying saucer effects.

And then there’s this film.

Jun Fukuda directed a lot of Tokusatsu films, including some of the lesser Godzilla entries: his battles against Ebirah, Megalon, Gigan, the first round with Mechagodzilla and Son of Godzilla.  He also made War in Space and a number of Zone Fighter episodes.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t as good as Ishiro Honda and lacked Honda’s knack for overcoming the limitations of his budgets.

Now, if you are familiar with the Godzilla oeuvre, you know that they frequently tied current trends into these films (with perhaps the most egregious being the environmentalism and psychedelic rock in The Smog Monster).  So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that ESPY is a combination of a very familiar sort of Japanese spy film with the then current fascination with parapsychology and psychic powers.

After a seemingly impossible assassination in a moving train which could only be carried out with the help of telepathic powers, the secret psychic spy group, ESPY (pronouced “E-Spy”) — which is tied to the UN somehow or other — leaps into action.

There’s a similar group of evil telepaths which aims to destroy the world and ESPY must find some way to stop them, even though the enemy keeps capturing or injuring their agents.

This gives Toho’s effects department a chance to show off with falling chandeliers, an earthquake, a wild chase through the mountains in an out-of-control commercial jet, teleportation, and some extravagant fire effects of the practical sort which you just can’t find in the movies these days.

However, if you are still clinging to the belief that the Japanese Tokusatsu genre of special effects laden films is for kids, you would probably be shocked by  the violence, by the bad guys weapons, which splatter the people they hit, and by a brief but violent topless scene when the female lead has her dress ripped open (you won’t find this scene in the American dub!)

The scene is even repeated, in case you missed them.  Twice, if memory serves.

If the villain’s deep powerful voice sounds familiar, it’s because he’s played by the Lone Wolf and Cub movies’ Ogami Itto,  Tomisaburô Wakayama.  He doesn’t have a big part and mostly talks about his character’s beliefs, history and philosophy.  But he still brings a powerful and somewhat oppressive presence to the film.

Tokusatsu fans will probably note the presence of Kamen Rider’s Hiroshi Fujioka as Tamura.

Sharp eyed viewers may also note that the psychedelic swirl of color around a silhouette in the opening credits is actually a Kirlian aura on film, which plays a larger part later on in the film.  Someone involved in the production was obviously familiar with the current ideas being explored by parapsychology and the film does give us a fairly plausible high tech approach to training psychics — although we also get talk of yoga and an old Martial Arts Master straight out of an old Shaw Bro;thers movie.

There’s even a wonder dog, who saves the day not once but three times!

A lot of people will tell you ESPY is dull.

I can’t agree.

It’s a heady mess with a lot of curious elements thrown together into a familiar, if quirky, spy story.

I enjoyed it and would call it one of the better Toho Sci Fi films of the Seventies.

Mind you, your mileage may vary.

But if you aren’t expecting Godzilla, you should be fine.

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