ESPy (1974)

Original Title: Esupai
Country: Japan
Director: Jun Fukuda
Starring: Masao Kusakari, Hiroshi Fujioka, Kaoru Yumi, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Yûzô Kayama
Music: Masaaki Hirao

Every now and then I stumble upon a film that is a bit tougher to categorize and describe than most. ESPy is one such film. Firstly it is Japanese, and secondly as the title may suggest, ESPy concerns a team of secret agents who have ESP and other psychic abilities. They are like super spies. They can jam their enemies guns with a thought. They can plant other thoughts in their enemies heads. They can use telekinesis to move objects and they can hypnotize people and make them perform acts against their will. In fact, I guess if they put their mind to it, they could do anything – or at least make you think they can do anything. Which gives this film a very broad canvas on which to work.

As the film opens, the world is a pretty messed up place, and there is trouble in the European country of Baltonia. If Baltonia’s troubles boil over, then it looks like it could bring on the next world war. But there is hope. A United Nations mediation committee is on it’s way to help sort things out. The delegates of this committee are on their way to Geneva on board an express train.

Meanwhile, a a bad-ass named Tatsumi, is driving his Mercedes on a high road that overlooks the railway line. He parks his car and retrieves a sniper’s rifle. The train rushes past, but even though the blinds are drawn, and no targets can be seen, Tatsumi takes aim at a carriage. Tatsumi then uses his psychic powers – portrayed as some sort of x-ray vision to see inside the carriage. Seeing the delegates, he takes aim and fires – shooting each one of them in turn – right between the eyes.

As you have no doubt guessed, Tatsumi is a bad guy, and he works for an evil organization called – wait for it – ‘Anti-ESPY’. Anti-ESPY, who are also psychics, are dedicated to taking over the world and killing all the ordinary people – because they (we) are a sub-species.

Next we meet race-car driver, Miki Jiro, (Masao Kusakari) and he is fangin’ around a test track. As he rounds a bend, he sees three pigeons on the track. Rather than run them down, he turns the wheel sharply and spins out of control. Just as his car is about to hit the barriers, he uses his psychic powers to move the car backward out of harm’s way. But Miki is being watched, and later he is collected by some mysterious people and taken to the W.P.P.O (International Polution Research Centre – it seems to lose something in translational there!). Miki is introduced to Chief Hojo – but doesn’t understand how he can help with pollution. Hojo explains that the pollution thing is just a cover – they are really the International Psychic Power Group and they work for the United Nations (and are known as ESPY). I guess in today’s world, suggesting that an anti-pollution organization is just a front for an intelligence organization would be seen as ‘bad show’. Imagine if Greenpeace weren’t actually concerned with environmental issues and were really a front for a group of super-psychics!

Anyway, Miki is recruited to ESPY, and his first mission is to assist in the protection of the Baltonian Prime Minister. After the assassination of the U.N. Delegates, the Baltonian Prime Minister has agreed to meet with the US President in Japan to sort out a peace plan. It is assumed – correctly I might add – that Anti-ESPY will make an attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.

Miki is introduced to the rest of the ESPY team – but the two agents he will work closely with are Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka) and Maria (Kaoru Yumi). These agents have a psychic bond with each other and can read each other thoughts and can sense when each other are in danger.

ESPy is a strange little sci-fi espionage thriller. What makes it interesting is, that for just a second it veers towards being an exploitation picture. There is a sequence where Maria is captured and Tamura, using his psychic ability, tracks her to the villains lair, which happens to be a strip club. Tamura takes a seat, and immediately iron cuffs ensnare his wrists and ankles. He is trapped in his seat. Then the next performer comes on stage. It is Maria, and psychically, the villain is forcing her to perform a routine. Maria begins to dance and gyrate to the music. Tamura is frustrated because he is trapped and cannot stop her. Then a dark skinned minion walks on stage – just to provide a bit of inter-racial tension (you’ve got to remember this was made in the ’70s – and the sequence was clearly designed to provoke such a reaction). Maria continues to dance, and he rips off her top exposing her breasts. Now by today’s standards, this scene is quite tame, but in the film it is clearly used as a bit of exploitative titillation. The scene is even replayed in flashback later in the film, just so the viewer can relive it.

The thing is, later Maria considers quitting ESPy, because she feels that she has degraded herself. Now I realise Japanese culture places a greater emphasis on saving face, than western culture, so Maria’s embarrassment may culturally be appropriate – particularly for a film made in 1974 (then again, with all the Pinky Violence films being made at this time, it may be a mute point). But the thing that fascinates me, and where this film could have really stood out from the crowd, is if it had delved more into the psycho-sexual arena. And just so you don’t think I’m being a randy old pervert once again, if you compared the film to Brian DePalma’s Carrie, released two years later – which lives in the hormone fuelled world of teenagers – then ESPy which is happy to flash some breast, doesn’t have the courage of its convictions, and is afraid to delve into the psychology of the average person. Even the new Harry Potter film – Deathly Hallows, in its treatment of Ron’s jealousy – suspecting that Harry and Hermione are having a sexual relationship behind his back (aided by some magical manipulation by the Dark Lord)  – shows it has a more sophisticated grasp of the human psyche than ESPy.

But maybe I am expecting too much from the film. It is directed by Jun Fukuda, who directed a goodly number of Godzilla films in the 1960s and early ’70s. Most likely Fukuda’s talents lie elsewhere, and it must be said that the sequences of destruction are particularly well handled, such as the destruction of the villains lair, and the ‘earthquake’ sequence at the peace conference. Fukuda obviously knows how to shoot models to good effect.

Overall, the film see-saws between plodding exposition scenes and wild crazy action scenes. But despite this un-eveness, I still found it to be an interesting film, with a few good ideas lurking underneath, but not really given their full reign. But for those who like their spy films, sprinkled with a healthy dose of science fiction, then ESPy is an interesting diversion, and certainly very different to the majority of spy films being made in the early ’70s. You may find it worth a look.

Thanks to MY

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