ŌGON BATTO A.K.A. THE GOLDEN BAT IS GENERALLY CONSIDERED THE FIRST JAPANESE SUPERHERO CHARACTER.
Here we find him up on the silver screen in a 1966 Toei film starring future martial arts superstar Sonny Chiba (though not as the titular hero). GOLDEN BAT is an oddly-still-in-B&W-by-this-late-date film obviously made for the children's market; a superhero/monster genre which all fans of ULTRAMAN, STARMAN and SUPER INFRAMAN will gladly embrace. Silly in the extreme and coming at the height of the mid-60's camp craze, GOLDEN BAT operates simultaneously on the level of camp entertainment for adults as well as wide-eyed wonder for the kiddies watching. I remember as a kid, I watched the BATMAN TV show reruns as a drama and it was only when I got a little bit older I first tweaked to the camp factor involved. However, I suspect the filmmakers weren't actually going for camp but instead for a certain type of fairy-tale fantasy which these movies embody.
The story starts when a pint-sized amateur astronomer and science geek little boy named Akira (Wataru Yamagawa) discovers that the planetoid Icarus is hurtling toward the Earth and will destroy it. What all the OTHER astronomers and scientists over the age of 21 were doing that they all missed this rather important detail is never disclosed. Shortly after bringing this to said slacking scientists at a nearby observatory, Akira is accosted by a group of dashing white-turtleneck-clad science adventurers led by Captain Yamatone (Sonny Chiba) who recruit Akira to join the Pearl Research Institute: a kinda super-secret group set up by the United Nations to investigate strange phenomena and spacey things (much like a Japanese UNIT). They've invented a "Super Destruction Beam Cannon" with the power of "1000 H-Bombs" which would blast Icarus out of the sky . . . if only they had the super-rare mineral needed to fashion a lens for the cannon . . . which they ain't got. Luckily for Earth, no sooner is this fact revealed than an away-team searching for the mineral discovers the lost continent of Atlantis risen from the depths and is wiped out by a gigantic tower that looks like a drill wearing a pair of librarian spectacles.
Our team led by Cap Yamatone and including not only young Akira but also head honcho the Anglo Dr. Pearl (Andrew Hughes) and his 12 year old granddaughter Emily (Emily Takami) hop in their Supercar (every superteam needs one) and lands on the resurfaced Atlantis. Why Dr. Pearl is Anglo-Saxon and Emily is Japanese is never gone into -- neither is the strange tendency a UN Research Institute has for hiring pre-pubescents. Nevertheless, after the gigantic tower zaps at them and strange dark minions harass them, our team discovers the lost Egyptian-style tomb of the Golden Bat.
Not only do they discover a note stating that 1000 years after his entombment, Golden Bat will be revived by a drop of water to fight some dire threat but also Ogon Batto happens to be holding the exact mineral needed to make the Super Destruction Beam Cannon's lens. After Emily revives Golden Bat, the skull-faced superhero tells her that, because she brought him back, only she can summon him in times of danger via a small golden bat brooch obviously purchased from the same store selling Jimmy Olsen's Superman signal watch.
The huge drill is the mobile base of the evil Nazo (Ruler of the Universe) who intends to wipe out all life because "only he deserves to live"; kinda making his "Ruler of the Universe" position into the potential "Ruler of a Buncha Nothing". I suppose Nazo is meant to resemble a tarantula with six eyes but he looks like his mom made his costume out of felt and string for $1.98! It's pantomime time! After beating back Nazo's henchmen with his "Baton of Justice", Golden Bat tells the scientists to call him when they need him and to get the hell off Atlantis because it's gonna sink again.
The movie proceeds much in this fashion with Nazo continually trying (and eventually succeeding) in stealing the Super Destruction Beam Cannon, realizing sadly he's not got a lens to work it with, kidnapping several members of Dr. Pearl's Institute and replacing them with identical copies in order to get the lens and unleashing his goofy trio of stooges to defeat the good guys. This wonderful trio of terror consists of a wolfman-like fella named Jackal, a woman named Pirahna and a scar-faced loon named Keloid.
The movie is a symphony of silliness but oddly the Golden Bat himself is under-utilized throughout much of the middle part of the film. Ogon Batto himself is a wonderful image with his skull-face, long cape (crimson in the poster art) and his habit of laughing maniacally whenever he appears and striking vogue-like dramatic poses.
Sadly, the superhero is used sparingly only when our scientific team get themselves into such messes as they can no longer get out of. Then Emily summons Golden Bat who swoops in, defeats the bad guys and departs until next time. While "leaving them wanting more" is always a good strategy . . .well . . . dammit I want more of the Golden Bat.
The scientific team is just not charismatic enough to support the film (even Sonny Chiba is rather bland despite his natty beard and white turtleneck sweater) and the film begins to groan when too much screen time sans the Golden Bat unspools. However, the villains are insanely goofy so at least they hold up their end. And there are a couple instances of nastiness surprising in a children's film. In one scene the abducted 12 year old Emily is backhanded rather mercilessly (and startlingly) and later on Keloid begins to callously toss members of the Pearl Institute off the top of Nazo Tower to their deaths. However, the film does move a quite a brisk clip and never lags into boredom. There are a plethora of Gerry Anderson-like gadgets and vehicles from the daffy Nazo Tower to the Pearl Institute's Supercar to the villains' shark-like flying submarine. The strange fact of the film's being in black & white (in 1966!) may be a bit of a disappointment but there are several really nice camera setups and atmospheric B&W camerawork (especially at the beginning) which are quite tasty. Then we get into semi-Godzilla/Gamera territory when the Nazo Tower drills up from underneath Tokyo and begins to destroy the city while the flaming planetoid Icarus grows ever nearer and larger in the sky. Come on, this movie's hard not to love!
Ōgon Bat was created by writer Ichiro Suzuki and artist Takeo Nagamatsu in 1930 (pre-dating Batman by almost a decade) for the early 20th century Japanese entertainment form Kamishibai; a traveling show similar to "magic lantern shows" which featured a storyteller and a series of illustrated pictures. This was also similar to the peculiar form of early 20th century silent cinema in Japan which featured a "benshi" who told the audience the story of the film they were going to see before it started and then narrated and did the voices of all on screen actors; this practice actually went on quite late even after the introduction of sound movies in Japan. Apparently there was a previous Golden Bat film in 1950 as well as a 52 episode animated series the year after this film and a live-action TV series in 1972. I'd love to see the animated series (and, for that matter, ALL the other Golden Bat incarnations) which include such episode titles as "In Pursuit of the Melon Bombs", "The Mystery of Finkhamen", "The Ghost Tower", "Superpowered Cyborgs", "The Bat Hag and the Monster Shelgon", "Revenge of the Liger Man" and "The Devil's Giant Statue".