Ishiro Honda’s Latitude Zero (1969)

What do you get when you mix a plot that seems borrowed from Jules Verne with comic book style heroes and villains that would make Batman envious, costume designs that could be right out of Mario Bava’s Diabolik, combined with a mad dash of James Bond and pulp style adventure? You get the terrifically fun and entertaining Japanese science fiction and fantasy film Latitude Zero (Ido zero daisakusen, 1969) directed by Ishiro Honda!

Honda’s name should be recognizable to most fans of Japanese science fiction films since he’s responsible for the original Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) and many other terrific movies including Rodan (Sora no daikaijû Radon, 1956), The Mysterians (Chikyu Boeigun, 1957), Mothra (Mosura, 1961), Attack of the Mushroom People (Matango, 1963) and Frankenstein Conquers the World (Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon, 1965).

Latitude Zero is an often-overlooked film in Honda’s impressive body of work and considered a lesser science fiction effort from Toho Studios. The movie definitely has its flaws, including some of the most shoddy looking movie monsters you’re likely to ever see. But the entertainment value, great cast and amazing look of the sets more than make up for the film’s flaws. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that they sort of add to the film’s unusual charm. Thankfully a new audience of science fiction fans will be able to discover Latitude Zero and make up their own minds about the movie since Media Blasters has recently released a spectacular two disc DVD presentation of the film with lots of terrific bonus materials including two versions of Latitude Zero (the original Japanese release with English subtitles and the original American release in English), interviews with the Japanese film crew and an image gallery.

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

In 1969 Ishiro Honda made Latitude Zero at Toho Studios with a Japanese crew and American producers and writers. One of these producers was fellow director Don Sharp. Although Sharp is only credited with producing Latitude Zero, the movie often seems more like a collaborative effort between both men since it differs from Honda’s previous films in various ways. Don Sharp made many entertaining genre movies during the sixties such as Curse of the Fly (1965), The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), Our Man in Marrakesh (1966), Rocket to the Moon (1967) and Psychomania (1971). He also made two good films for Hammer Studios (The Kiss of the Vampire, 1963 and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, 1966) and directed episodes of terrific television shows like The Avengers and The Champions. Sharp’s creative influence on Latitude Zero seems rather hard to miss and he may have contributed some of his own ideas to the film.

These are just assumptions on my part and the interviews with the Japanese crew members that appear on the new DVD don’t confirm my suspicions. They do make it clear that the American and Japanese film crews had trouble working together. In the interviews that appear on the DVD the Japanese crew complains a lot about the way Hollywood was making films in the sixties. Compared to Japan where directors were often given full control of the movies they made, American producers were used to having control and making creative decisions. Producers clearly flexed their financial muscles on the set of Latitude Zero and this clash of basic movie-making sensibilities obviously caused a lot of tension between the international cast and crew. I only wish Media Blasters had included some interviews with the American crew on the new DVD so viewers could hear their side of the fascinating behind-the-scene action on the Latitude Zero set.

Latitude Zero begins when a couple of scientists (Akira Takarada and Masumi Okada) and one American reporter (Richard Jaeckel) find themselves lost at sea after an underwater explosion and are rescued by a submarine run by Captain Craig McKenzie (Jospeh Cotten) along with his beautiful assistant Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Haynes) and tough henchman (Susumu Kurobe). Captain McKenzie takes the three men to a mysterious underwater world known as Latitude Zero where scientists and artists have secretly gathered together to create an international utopian society without government interference. Of course, all is not well in Latitude Zero and the men soon find out that the utopian city is under constant attack from an evil genius known as Malic (Cesar Romero) and his two wicked mistresses Lucretia (Patricia Medina) and Kroger (Hikaru Kuroki). After Malic kidnaps another Japanese scientist and his daughter who are making their way to Latitude Zero, Captain McKenzie invites the three men to strap on some jet packs and head out on a mission to save the scientist and his daughter with the hope of putting an end to Malic’s reign of terror. As the adventure unfolds the men are forced to fight off giant bloodthirsty rats, man-like bat creatures and finally a strange giant size beast that is part lion and part vulture.

The film takes a somewhat unusual anti-war stance that is probably due to the times in which it was made. In 1969 the American war in Vietnam was raging and parts of Japan were still under American occupation. Students in both countries were often involved in protests against the war. In the film, the citizens of Latitude Zero don’t use violence against their enemies. Instead of aggressively attacking them, they mostly use protective measures and the idea of a peaceful utopian culture that is home to multiple people from various nations must have seemed extremely appealing at the time.

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

Ido zero daisakusen (1969)

As I mentioned above, the film brings together a wonderful international cast that includes many popular Japanese actors who appeared in countless science fiction and fantasy films, as well as the great American actor Joseph Cotten and his real-life wife, the talented actress Patricia Medina. Cotten is one of my favorite actors and I love watching him in anything, so I really enjoyed him as Captain Craig McKenzie even if he’s obviously a little too old for the role. Patricia Medina manages to steal just about every scene she’s in with Cesar Romero and both actors seem to really be enjoying themselves on the set. Supposedly Cotten and Medina decided to appear in the film so they could work together and spend time in Japan, but unfortunately they only have one scene together in the movie.

The amazing Eiji Tsuburaya was responsible for the special effects in Latitude Zero and he did a great job on many of the miniatures and set designs, but much of the film’s backdrops are made up of impressive matte paintings. The creature designs on the other hand leave a lot to be desired. Most of the monsters featured in the movie are obviously men wearing rather shabby costumes or poorly constructed puppets. The climactic battle at the end of the film is somewhat marred by a lion with vulture wings that looks like it belongs on the Island of Misfit Toys created by Rankin/Bass for their Christmas special Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).

Even with its obvious flaws, muddled script and ridiculous plot-twists, Latitude Zero has a lot to offer adventurous viewers and I’m really glad that Media Blasters has made the effort to release the film in a lavish two disc collection DVD package. The new Media Blasters DVD marks the first time that this film has been made available to American audiences in any format and it’s easily one of my favorite DVD releases of the year. The restored widescreen print of the film looks fantastic and I was also impressed with their choice to use the original Japanese poster art for the DVD case. If you’re a fan of Japanese Tokusatsu films or just want to see an entertaining science fiction and fantasy movie with a good cast, then I highly recommend giving the movie a look. Latitude Zero is currently available from Amazon for only $14.99 (it normally retails for $19.95).

If you’d like to see more screen shots from the film please visit my Latitude Zero Flickr Gallery. The movie contains so much fabulous eye-candy that I hard time selecting which images to share.

16 thoughts on “Ishiro Honda’s Latitude Zero (1969)

  1. God this movie looks wonderful! I must see it soon! And I love fifties, sixties and early seventies sci-fi having socio-political stances, from Godzilla to this. It was great because they could say what they wanted to say without anyone trying to stop them because no one ever looked for the message in sci-fi.

    And that look – you probably know I just LOVE that sixties sci-fi look. I mean, really, I love it. From my favorite tv shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to the Amicus Doug McLure productions, they just make me feel good inside. They’re some of my all-time comfort movies. Thanks for the great recommendation.

  2. I got mine for 12.99 at Best Buy and there was a third disc intact of trailers. You can’t beat the low price on this. I was going to blog on this but you beat me again. I’ve watched both versions. This looks like it was shot in a psychedelic lounge of the era decored with clashes of OP ART and Flintstone stylistics. Everything seems sprayed in bright plastic. I really love that look. It was based on a 1941 US radio play which was very popular on the West Coast by the writer of THEM!. It’s kind of a surrealist daydream or a child’s nightmare. The men in monster suits, puppets, etc all added to the entertainment value for me. Is that the same Don Sharp who worked for Hammer? The film could actually be read as a critique of the cultural values of the West(US) vs the East(Japan)and Hollywood was always eager to divert attention from Honda’s warnings of environment disaster from GODZILLA onward, that’s why radically altered his work so often.

  3. This is such a great blog posting. I’ve heard of this film, but never seen it. It sounds awesome. I love science fiction of the 50’s through 70’s. This film looks beautiful for one thing. I love the coloring and the sets. It has an incredible cast. I’m a huge fan of Cesar Romero so I’d love to see him in this. I like the whole idea of the story. It sounds fascinating, plus I do enjoy watching a film that has a message while entertaining you as well. I definitely am going to have to get this one. It sounds and looks great. Thanks for posting about it.

  4. Very sparkly movie. I think Cotton and Medina got the better of the deal – the first words outta my mouth when I saw this on TV were, “Holy crap, that’s Joseph Cotton!” They deserved a little trip to Japan for sightseeing when they signed on to this one, as it was campy to the max, and so…colorful, almost luscious. Is it just me, or did it seem more like the Thunderbirds than the Thunderbirds themselves? The monsters especially seemed like deliberate puppets, costumed actors or not. I haven’t seen it since, but now I’ll have to watch it again, just for giggles.

  5. Seemed like the Thunderbirds!??!! Each comment makes me want to see it more. How did I miss this movie being obsessed with low-rent sci-fi my entire childhood? And I freakin’ love the green silk scarf around Cotton’s neck.

  6. Jonathan – I hope you get a chance to see it soon because I think you’d really enjoy it. The look of the film is fantastic! It didn’t get much TV play in the US at all as far as I know so I’m not surprised you haven’t seen it before. And as I mentioned above, it’s often dismissed or overlooked.

    Robert – The look is amazing and I really enjoyed it. As I mentioned above in my piece on the film, Sharp made a couple of films for Hammer. I’m not sure I could agree with an article that tried to frame the film “as a critique of the cultural values of the West(US) vs the East(Japan)” but it would be a great read! I hope you’ll write about the film yourself someday.

    Keith – The English language version is the one that played in American theaters and since it was shot with the Japanese actors trying to speak English, it’s probably the closest to the original. I enjoyed the Japanese language version myself since I happen to love listening to the Japanese language and it was fun watching Cotten speak Japanese. I hope you see it soon because I think you’d really like it too.

    Vanwell – I think all the “diamonds” used for decoration in the film added to the sparkle factor. Cotten is so much fun in this! I shouted “Holy crap” myself when I first saw the lion who looked like King Moonracer from the Island of Misfit Toys. As for The Thunderbirds, there is totally an element of that show in the film. Since The Thunderbirds was hugely popular in Japan, I’m sure it influenced a lot of Japanese sci-fi shows and movies. I also think The Thunderbirds was obviously inspired by a lot of pre-65 Japanese shows and films featuring hero teams, etc.

  7. As an extra fillip of zaniness, this was a tongue-in-cheek NBC radio play in the last great summer of 1941, (No shit!!??!!) with the names the same and a very slightly different plot, but writer Sherdeman’s touch was all over it, and this incarnation – no wonder it plays like a super-camp space-opera.

  8. Vanwell – That is fascinating and Robert mentioned it above. I don’t think the final script resembled the original play much in the end, since the interviews with the Japanese cast & crew make it clear that they thought the original story was ridiculous and lots of changes were made to it by the Japanese writer Sinichi Sekizawa and the director. I guess half way through the filmmaking process the American writers got so pissed they left the film, only to return a few times and complain about the direction it was taking. It would be fun to read the original play and compare it to the movie!

  9. I think there is an element of clashing cultures about the film, Kimberly. Given what the crew says about the making and the wild shifts in tone it could be TOHO vs Hollywood.

  10. I would take what the Japanese crew says with a grain of salt. The Japanese (in particular the older generation) don’t exactly express themselves directly and are experts at obfuscation. You really have to read between the lines when you start watching interviews with Japanese filmmakers, crews, etc. I say this from my own personal experience dealing with Japanese people, their culture, etc. and I mean no disrespect to them at all. One problem I often notice with American critics who write about and review Japanese films is that they don’t really understand Japanese culture and the way that Japanese people commincate ideas, opinions, etc. But, I still think your ideas are interesting and I hope you’ll explore them more!

  11. I went straight and ordered this after reading your post! What a wonderful site you have as well. Great choice of images always. Love your good taste in movies!

  12. Thanks for the nice comment John and I hope you enjoy the movie once you get the chance to see it. It’s a lot of fun. I really enjoy your terrific site as well. Cheers!

  13. The pic of the flying lion got me reaching for my credit card!I can’t believe i’d never heard of this before.

  14. Thanks a lot for your recent comments Robx69. I’m really glad you’re enjoying the blog and have found stuff of interest here. Latitude Zero is a great looking and entertaining movie, but it’s relatively unknown. I really applaud Media Blasters for releasing so many great Japanese science fiction films lately!

  15. I was in this movie as a driver, recruiting people to come to LZ… 30-45 secs 😉 I remember Ceasar Romero and Richard Jeckel… wow… My goodness, after all these years to see I can download myself on the net… Oh well, 3 years from 70 ;-))) but it’s been a mega fuuuun run!Now in Kyiv 17 years!! also did Dankon and Nihonkai Daikaisen that year while running the pool as a US army corporal at Camp Zama

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