Japanese Planet of the Apes

If you ever thought “Planet of the Apes” needed robots, UFOs, and ninjas… so did Japan! Guest host Allison Pregler‘s got the scoop:

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A sudden disaster catapults three poor souls to a planet where apes rule over humans. And together they make a terrible discovery: not one of them is Charlton Heston.

Am I gibbon you a headache? Or is it chimp-ly a case… of Deja View?

In the Japanese film “Time of the Apes,” an earthquake traps a scientist and two children in cryogenic chambers, accidentally transporting them to the far future. Captured and confronted by a warlike society of apes, the terrified trio joins forces with a lone human and a friendly ape child to search for a way back to their own time.

The film moves at a brisk, almost dizzying pace for its 97-minute runtime, and there’s a good reason. In fact, this film wasn’t originally a film at all. “Time of the Apes” is actually an abridgment of the 26-episode Japanese TV series “Saru no Gundan,” or “Army of the Apes.” The show was produced in 1974 to cash in on the terrific success of the “Planet of the Apes” movies in Japan. Thirteen years later, US-based Sandy Frank Entertainment condensed it into a feature length film for American audiences.

The series “Saru no Gundan” was produced by Tsuburaya Productions, the company behind the wildly successful “Ultraman” TV series and founded by special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya of “Godzilla” fame. As such the makeup and effects, while certainly dated, are impressive for its limited budget.

Although not an official adaptation of “Planet of the Apes,” “Saru no Gundan” is curiously more faithful to the original novel in one striking way. Here, as in the book, the apes have a modern civilization with electricity, automobiles, airplanes, and other contemporary technology. This stands in stark contrast to the canonical films in which the eponymous apes live in primitive architecture and utilize even more primitive technology. It wasn’t until a year after the premiere of “Saru no Gundan” that the animated series “Return to the Planet of the Apes” would bring the simians up to date.

The “Army of the Apes” TV show even presents an additional element of zoological realism by portraying gentler gorillas and aggressive chimpanzees — traits which “Planet of the Apes” had reversed. In fact, a large portion of the series involves a bloody military coup staged by the chimpanzees against the gorillas.

The apes also amusingly display such stereotypical behavior as chest-beating, grooming one another, and, in one instance, utterly panicking at the sight of a small snake. Unlike regular apes, however, they respond by machine-gunning it to pieces.

When it comes to the movie version “Time of the Apes,” things begin to come apart. Of course condensing 650 minutes into 97 is bound to cause a certain degree of narrative confusion. Focusing its edit job primarily on the main arc of the series, numerous plot elements — and even revelations — are referenced offhandedly without the prerequisite foreshadowing or preceding story. This chimpanzee military coup and the mysterious, recurrent UFO are two casualties of the edit.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of “Time of the Apes” is that it must by necessity drop so many entertaining and compelling elements of the series to achieve a reasonable movie runtime. As such, swathes of episodes disappear in a single cut. American viewers therefore miss out on a deliriously silly robot, an ape spy masquerading as a surviving human, clever inversions of Japanese mythology, and even ape ninjas — yes, ninjas — bursting from the trees, wielding automatic weapons. By turning the series into a movie, Sandy Frank left behind so many gems that made the show truly remarkable.

But at the end of the day, “Time of the Apes” is still well worth a spot in the collection of any “Planet of the Apes” fan. It’s campy, fast-paced, and more fun than, well, a barrel of monkeys.

Incidentally, “Time of the Apes” has the dubious honor of being satirized on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” not just once, but twice. It was no small task for the show’s writers, either. Unaware that the film was an amalgamation of an entire TV series, they were baffled by what appeared to be a parade of multiple endings — a point which becomes a running joke in the episode’s final act.

I guess you might say it drove them… bananas?

Thanks so much for watching, and we’ll see you next time.

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