Big hits spawn copycats; that's just what happens, in any commercial art form, anywhere in the world, throughout recorded history. So when Toho released Godzilla in 1954 to huge box office returns, it could only ever be a matter of time until the rest of Japan's film industry was jumping into the monster movie game. Toho managed to make the first cash-in itself, with Godzilla Raids Again, but breathing right down its neck came Daiei Film, one of its biggest competitors among the Big Six of Japanese film studios. At the very start of 1956, Daiei released Warning from Space, their first monster movie and the first tokusatsu (special effects-driven) film in color, beating Toho's own Rodan to theaters by several months.

Now, I am not a Daiei specialist. I know that they were responsible for some of Mizoguchi Kenji's most important post-war films, and Kurosawa Akira made Rashomon there. And those facts are enough to suggest a certain degree of prestige and respectability. But Warning from Space is the farthest thing from "prestigious" or "respectable". Where Godzilla is a grim, considerate examination of the nuclear age in all its ramifications, Warning from Space (the original title translates as the agreeably straightforward Spacemen Appear over Tokyo) is a doofy thriller about scientists staring through telescopes and men in star-shaped hooded footie pajamas issuing grave warnings about rogue planets. It absolutely, unmissable has a nuclear weaponry subtext, one that's all the more astonishing coming out of Japan; but the problem is that the filmmakers seem entirely unaware of their subtext, or of anything else resembling human behavior.

In its original Japanese form - I understand that the much-delayed U.S. cut, which I haven't seen, is structured differently - the film opens with scenes of everyday Tokyo life, with people we'll never really get to know puttering around biding their time until OH MY GOD flying saucers start to appear. This extraordinary occurrence brings together three scientists: Dr. Kamura (Miake Bontaro), Dr. Matsuda (Yamagata Isao), and Dr. Itsobe (Nanbu Shozo), furrowing their brows and staring through telescopes and having insensibly long conversations about whatever the hell might be going on, given that they're in a film called Spacemen Appear over Tokyo.

Eventually, the aliens, who call themselves Pairans, give up trying to communicate by needlessly terrorising fishermen and nightclub singers, and regroup to re-evaluate their plans, in a scene that I understand was featured at the opening of the U.S. release. This was a mistake. It is far better for the film to have shown us normalcy disintegrating in widespread panic, and to build up the fear that the humans have for these unknown invaders, before confronting the audience with men in star-shaped hooded footie pajamas.

I mean, seriously. Two years after Godzilla - not, itself, the most impressive giant monster movie on the block, effects-wise - Daiei hoped to convince people to be awed and terrified by this:

It would be insulting if it wasn't so goddamned charming. Though focusing too much on the Pairans runs the risk of making Warning from Space seem too much like something it most certainly isn't: a delightfully fun bad movie. But we'll return to that, first let me finish quickly recapping the plot: the Pairans' plan involves having their leader's first lieutenant take the form of a human being. Flaunting any attempt to be inconspicuous, it copies the shape of the gorgeous Aozora Hikari (Karita Toyomi), the aforementioned nightclub singer, whose act is depicted in very full detail. The beautiful femalien, calling itself Ginko, then passes among the humans of Japan, revealing only after a great deal of not-much-happening that the Pairans have need of Earth's help: being a super-advanced species, they renounced weapons research eons ago, but now a planet - Planet R - is on course to hit both Earth and Paira, destroying both. Only the humans, with their nuclear weaponry, can destroy Planet R while it's still safely in outer space.

Six years later, Toho would nab the idea of a rogue planet for their own Gorath, which is by no means a terrible movie, but certainly wouldn't be anybody's first pick for a tokusatsu viewing party. And it's still waaaaaay better than Warning from Space, a movie that combines a killer planet with a star-shaped alien disguised as a gorgeous woman, and manages the unholy and frankly unimaginable sin of being boring as you could possibly imagine. The best I can imagine is that the filmmakers - including producer Nagata Masaichi, director Shima Koji, and screenwriter Oguni Hideo (who co-wrote no fewer than twelve Kurosawa pictures) - figured out somewhere along the line that scenes of people talking are far cheaper than scenes of people doing, and after dropping all the budget on those bitchin' starman costumes, they had to cut corners somewhere. Most of Warning from Space consists of wheel-spinning: watching as characters come up with new and exciting ways of re-establishing things we've already known since the first ten minutes, or ways of putting of the reveal about Planet R till another scene. There's even a whole boggy subplot about young lovers related to two of the scientists that serves absolutely no discernible function other than somebody's vague sense that generic rules required a love story for the teenagers out there; the best it does is to distract from the endless scenes of scientists pontificating about their science, but it brings an already pacey film to a dead halt.

Even worse than being boring, the film is stupid: and not just the kind of B-movie stupid that comes out of monsters like that. This is, essentially, a pro-nuke message movie, in which pacifist aliens come to beg the Japanese, of all possible nations, to intercede with the nuclear powers to use their weaponry to save us all; and it ends up being a Japanese scientist's invention of an even more deadly explosive that saves the day when conventional nuclear weaponry just doesn't cut it. There's an amazing amount to unpack out of all that not even eleven full years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and Warning from Space doesn't stop for even an instant to do any of that unpacking, or think about the fact that it could be done. This despite owing its existence to Godzilla, one of the bluntest anti-nuke metaphors ever filmed. It makes it even clearer that Warning from Space is nothing more than a deliberately clichéd space invader film, with no new ideas of its own and nothing distinctive other than the glacial rate at which it oscillates through those non-ideas.

There's one upshot to all this, which is that Warning from Space is actually quite lovely: cinematographer Watanabe Kimio, making Japan's first all-color science fiction film, made the most of his privilege, particularly in the scenes when Planet R is nearly ready to hit Earth, and casts its hideous right glow over the surface of the planet. And, in turn, Suzuki Toyo's art direction is really quite lovely, taking advantage of color without being needlessly showy. It's a vivid film, but not garish, and when it needs to amp up the color effects, it does so to absolutely terrific effect. For a movie as irredeemably terrible as this, it's incredibly nice to look at; and when the Pairans show up, it's absolutely, wonderfully hilarious. Basically, it should be watched with the sound off; which, in addition to the idiotic dialogue, saves you from the trite score.

Warning from Space was not the blockbuster Daiei hoped for (it was a hard sell internationally), and the company spent many years away from monster films of any sort, even the half-assed, human-sized monsters of this film. When they regrouped and tried again, it was clear they'd learned their lesson: about how to make an enjoyably bad movie, at any rate, if by no means a more cohesive piece of cinema...