Terror Beneath The Sea is a movie with a lot of charm. There are the wondrous conventions of Sixties science fiction: bold colors and sleek design, underwater cities built in miniature, torpedo battles, a safety-striped submarine, and even a Nehru-suited mad man. But Sonny Chiba is the most charming thing in Terror Beneath The Sea. As the romantic lead, Chiba portrays a character with an endearing sweetness he rarely, if ever, gets to present. In a way, Chiba is playing a character other than his usual “Sonny Chiba.”
J. J. Sonny Chiba, Ph.D., nee Shinichi Chiba, is known for his graphically violent movies, ones in which there is very little sweetness, no romance, and often outright misogyny. In fact, films from just ten years later, The Street Fighter (1974), The Executioner (1975) and Karate Bullfighter (1977), might be composed entirely of anti-sweetness, and I say that as someone who enjoys them. But I’ve always had the sense that Chiba was a nice man. It’s not that sweetness is impossible in an actor probably best known for his performances tearing out a man’s testicles, knocking a man’s eyes clear out of his head, or killing a bull, all with his bare hands. It’s just hard to back up using evidence from the films. I can think of two hints offhand. The first is making a movie (The Killing Machine / Shorinji Kenpo, (1976)) about a Japanese man who brought to Japan a martial discipline he was taught at the Shaolin Temple during the Japanese Occupation of Manchuria. It feels like a political statement in postwar Japan. The second is Chiba taking on a female student, Etsuko Shihomi/Sue Shiomi, as his protege and featuring her in his films at a time when that just didn’t happen very often.
In Terror Beneath The Sea, Chiba plays, “Ken Abe,” handsome modern Sixties man, journalist, and scuba diver. Ken is accompanied by Jenny, his photographer and shockingly or liberally for American co-productions in 1966, his white American lady love played by Peggy Neal. This is an additional part of Terror Beneath The Sea‘s charm: its optimistic progressive values, which I assume it gets from Masami Fukushima’s novel; its sense that American studios and audiences would not be freaked out at the prospect of showing a white American woman and a Japanese man canoodling; and its belief that we can all work together to clean up nuclear waste… or at least put an end to a city of mad scientists. Part of me thinks of Terror Beneath The Sea‘s international cast as following in the similar optimistic vein of First Spaceship to Venus, though the rest of me thinks that cast would be disappointed with the lack of other uplifting qualities in Terror Beneath The Sea. But they obviously do not appreciate spearguns, fish people, and extensive scenes of swimming and involuntary surgery.
The film opens on a remote island with Ken and Jenny attending a naval press conference demonstrating a powerful new torpedo, which means we get groovy slides, lucite maps, blinking instruments and all the underwater battles special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya can provide. The gathered reporters watch on closed circuit television and panic as test rockets appear headed straight for the naval compound. More startling is the footage of what appears to be a human figure swimming in front of the camera.
Commander Brown attempts to soothe the gathered journalists with a simple explanation: It’s most likely only a drowned body. They gotta float up sometime. Being Naval officers and scuba divers, the characters obviously think about drowned bodies a lot. My favorite instance is when Jenny describes “dead bodies standing and swaying on the ocean floor.” She might have a chipper and modern outlook, but Jenny knows her way around a creepy description. I like to think she went on to write pulp horror novels using a manly pseudonym. But the journalists are not reassured. Instead, Ken demands answers. Commander Brown shuts down the press conference and everyone retires to poolside to decide what to do next. Ken and Jenny decide to investigate further. Thus begins the extensive swimming portion of Terror Beneath The Sea. In the transfer I watched, all that’s clearly visible are Jenny’s bathing cap, orange diving suit and bare legs. I was actually quite concerned that Jenny’s legs were bare when Ken was fully covered in black frogman neoprene. But she is a fully certified scuba diver and underwater photojournalist and I am not.
Jenny drops her camera and, picking it up from the edge of an oceanic crevasse, comes face to face with not a dead body standing and swaying on the sea floor, but a grumpy-looking, vaguely cross-eyed fish person. Of course, it turns out that all the fish people look grumpy, so it’s probably best not to take it personally. As we discover, the fish people likely have a lot of issues and are hearing super sonic control signals, and that has to grate after a while. The fish people remind me of a cat I once lived with. He also looked grumpy and almost cross-eyed, but not quite. Like he thought that maybe he had a migraine coming on. Jenny takes its picture, proving the existence of something lurking grumpily beneath the waves, but drops her camera (again) as she flees.
Back in the naval bungalow, Commander Brown doesn’t believe Jenny. But Jenny stands up for herself, saying, “You mean it’s the wild, hysterical imagination of a woman, don’t you?”
Brown responds, “Have you even been to a psychiatrist? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any offense.”
He spits it out fast, like the point is not so much to shut Jenny down now, as to tell people later about how he told her. Proving Sonny Chiba is the Ryan Gosling of 1966, Ken backs Jenny. He tells Brown, “I believe her.” Ken’s middle-aged German friends stop Ken from clocking Commander Brown as Brown walks out. But Brown knows something really is up and goes to Prof. Howard who has made — or had made for him, depending on the graduate student situation — a plaster mold of mysterious clawed footprints found on the beach. As a specialist in atomic science, Howard is concerned.
Meanwhile, Ken helps Jenny look for her camera at the bottom of the briny deep. This time, Ken and Jenny discover an entrance to an underwater cave that leads to tunnels carved from living rock. (If Fukushima’s book were available in English translation, I bet it would use the phrase, “living rock).” They explore the tunnels to very Sixties mystery incidental music, reminiscent of Dr. Who or Dark Shadows. Suddenly confronted by the mysterious fish people — who, no doubt, know these very tunnels as if they were spawned in them — Ken and Jenny are overpowered, which is probably terribly surprising to Chiba fans. But Chiba’s ninjutsu is not on display. Instead, he is the stout-hearted and faithful boyfriend to Jenny.
Meanwhile, Commander Brown and his Naval colleague, “Bob,” have found the camera and set out in search of Ken and Jenny and to investigate the strange goings on. Just as they put up a slide of the fish person, the submarine is ordered back, which leads to bickering. Commander Brown and Bob clearly have the same relationship that the two officers in Kinji Fukasaku’s The Green Slime have on their space station. Brown and Bob spend a lot of time arguing about orders and looking for fish people and/or missing persons.
“I’ve received a wire from HQ. We’re ordered back to base.”
“But we need to find X.”
“I can’t — orders!”
“Orders be damned, man, lives depend on this!”
“You’re a reckless hothead who’s going to get someone killed!”
“And you’re a stiffnecked martinet!”
“I love you!”
“Dammit, I love you, too!”
I sort of fade out during these parts, so those aren’t exact quotes. Thankfully, there is less backstory on their relationship and the causes of their contention than in The Green Slime, because we want to see Sonny Chiba, fish people and secret underwater bases.
We enter the underwater base before Ken and Jenny. Shadowy figures approach a chamber walled with lucite, a sure sign that this is, in fact, the Civilization of the Future. A man gives wonderfully science fiction orders, “Change the light!” and a minion turns off the light in the hallway and turns on the light in the chamber illuminating Ken and Jenny prone on tables and dressed in what appear to be fencing outfits. “Proceed!” he orders, and the science begins! Light is shined in Ken’s eye and an anatomical drawing of his brain is stimulated all the way to 4/40. I am certain the human mind would be driven mad at 30/40 and only the superior intellects of the secret city’s scientist citizens could endure 40/40.
Ken and Jenny’s abduction experience is overseen by Nehru-suited mad man, Dr. Rufus Moore, a mildly-named but sinister man in sunglasses who seems to be visiting from one of Antonio Margheriti’s science fiction films — an underling from Wild, Wild Planet / I Criminalli della Galassi, perhaps, but whose fetish is less transforming people into four-armed, intersex Michel Foucaults and more, “water cyborgs.” Moore is accompanied by Dr. Mueller, who has a Ph.D. in involuntary surgery, but a MS in bouffant and hospital administration, since she has both an amazing ‘do and is the mad scientist who tells everyone on the base where they need to be. Moore tries to tell Ken of the Civilization of the Future, 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, and Ken’s place in it as a “specialist in propaganda,” but Ken won’t listen. Moore does manage to get out, “With this incredible formula we can change a man’s physical structure to conform to any specific purpose.”
The three purposes on “super sonic signal” master control dial are “Work,” “Fight,” and “Stop.” This does cut down on having to give your minions explicit and complex instructions. And the water cyborgs do show initiative in finding work — from interfering in experimental weapons testing, to kidnapping scientists, to scaring scuba diving ladies into dropping evidence, and even scheduling time at the spear gun range. Anyway, if I were Ken, I might’ve agreed to hear the megalomaniac out once he starts a promising rant with, “Their minds, if you can call them that, are response mechanisms only. They have no free will of their own!”
But instead Ken and Jenny spend their afternoon watching Dr. Heim, originator of “The Theory of Processed Man” and Dr. Mueller performs some quick surgical procedures. And we spend a lot of time watching them watch. If the first half of Terror Beneath The Sea involves a lot of Ken and Jenny swimming in scuba gear, the second half involves a lot of Ken and Jenny watching in fascinated horror as humans are transformed into water cyborgs. It’s like a reverse version of The Creature Walks Among Us, instead of human skin being revealed beneath the scales, human skin is transformed into the silvery scales of a Toei studios gill-man. Since we all spend a goodly amount of time watching, I attempted to deduce Dr. Heim’s incredible “Processed Man Formula.” It is, apparently: Daiya dairy-free mozzarella shreds; chocolate sauce; lotion (probably hypoallergenic and unscented); bits of plastic wrap; and thinly sliced cheddar for the scales. Toast till claws erupt and then powdercoat for a nice silver sheen. (Please don’t abuse this knowledge)
“Now do you see, Mr. Abe? What you see here is a Water Cyborg!” Dr. Moore declares. Just to demonstrate what a jerk he is, Dr. Moore sets two fish people to “Fight” and they fight like the administrative assistants they likely were before being abducted and subjected to experimental surgery. There’s a lot of flailing, but vigorous and enthusiastic flailing. You can’t say water cyborgs don’t try their best.
After witnessing all this horror, Ken and Jenny are returned to their prison to think about how much they don’t want to be controlled by a dial with only three settings. As silent marine snow falls outside their lovely Bay Window of the Future, they realize how hopeless their situation is. Until Ken decides to fight the future by stealing one of the lapel pins the Citizens of the Future use to open doors. They steal Dr. Mueller’s pin, who has come by presumably to make sure they’ve received an updated copy of their schedule and signed their non-elective surgery waivers. Ken and Jenny wander into the water cyborg speargun range and are recaptured by a laughing Dr. Moore. Ken and Jenny get captured a lot, but what do you expect? They’re journalists, not ninjas. Dr. Heim punishes them with a maniacal speech espousing the glories of a coming utopia built on the nuclear waste of the present:
“It’s a world that makes sense! We’re 100 years ahead of you! What you throw away, we turn into power that can shatter the earth to bits! Power that is so colossal, it staggers the imagination—the things we plan to do! And our plans have a place for you…”
Ken continues to demur. But Dr. Moore doesn’t care anymore because water cyborgs have kidnapped Prof. Howard and delivered him in a fully-lined silver transport sarcophagus. To encourage Prof. Howard to join The Civilization of the Future, Ken and Jenny are subjected to the radical exfoliation that is the primary stage of water cyborgization. I assume that it is necessary to ensure full scale adhesion.
Meanwhile, we cut to bickering Naval officers as they search for the fish people and then don’t, search for missing persons and then don’t, discover something’s up with the atomic waste on ocean floor and finally launch a torpedos at the underwater city, interrupting the exfoliation process. The Civilization of the Future powers down to prevent pinging the sub’s sonar, but the super sonic signal device controlling the water cyborgs is damaged in the attack. No matter how minions turn the dial, the water cyborgs will not obey, which is exactly the kind of unreliability to be expected from dial-controled water cyborgs. Instead the cyborgs arm themselves with slim pistols with long silencers. Unfortunately for them, the water cyborgs must’ve spent all their time training to shoot spearguns at the speargun range and it’s apparently not a transferable skill. More fortunately for them, the scientists are also terrible shots. Soon the whole compound is in chaos with water cyborgs, scientists and minions shooting and fighting all over.
In the confusion, Prof. Howard helps Ken and Jenny escape the exfoliation chamber. Ken battles their way through corridors, though not at any kind of blackbelt level. Still he does kill a cyborg brutally by crushing it in closing sliding doors. (I suspect the two minions Sonny Chiba fights were likely far more prominent in the Japanese release). In the final showdown between Ken and Moore, Moore displays remarkable sensitivity by not simply shooting his own minion as the man struggles with Ken, demonstrating why a lot of people signed on regardless of his creepy water cyborg transformation plan. However, once again, good old Prof. Howard comes to the rescue, shooting Dr. Moore in the back to stop Moore from shooting Ken after Ken throws the minion into the drink. Terror Beneath The Sea is the first and only film in which a Sonny Chiba character is rescued twice by an old white professor.
Ken, Jenny and Prof. Howard are briefly separated, but are reunited in time to come across Dr. Heim’s dead body. Howard sadly notes, “He was killed by a cyborg he himself created.” Only a scientist can truly feel this irony. They enter an elevator/escape capsule that unfortunately seems to stop on every floor of the biodome, leading to another fight. With the the underwater city terribly damaged and the counter to the self-destruct device set to detonate in ten seconds, Ken hits the red control button/lever thing and the capsule rockets from the Civilization of the Future back into the ocean of the present. Back on the naval base, Prof. Moore cures Ken and Jenny. All their dead peeling skin has disappeared and both are fresh and lovely again. We end with them walking along the beach, the Navy guys are bickering and presumably all is right with the world—except for the mysterious tracks of a Water Cyborg on the beach.
But stray water cyborg aside, it’s kind of nice to end a film with Sonny Chiba walking along the beach with his girl. How often does that happen? Beyond the water cyborg menace, there’s Terry Tsurugi and brutal fights and rapes looming ahead. So I’m happy to freeze frame and enjoy a sweet moment with Sonny Chiba.