Flying Phantom Ship is equal parts sadist and Dadaist. It is what every boomer-aged person thinks of when they think of “Japanimation”. It’s aggressively 60’s Showa, so laden with plucky boy heroes, giant robots, and dog companions that anyone going in blind might expect this to be some sort of winking self-satire. Its plot is stream-of-consciousness, and has some almost perverse delight in leaning into every cliché with herculean strength. Sometimes it seems to take a break to make a point or develop plot, but jettisons all that to focus on monster crabs that reduce humans to Ramune, so the viewer can never be too sure where it sets the goal posts. It’s a movie that changes both antagonist and genre no less than three times in its one-hour run time, and scolds you for not being able to keep up.
Hayato (Dragon Ball’s Son Goku, Masako Nozawa) is on a fishing trip with his parents and pet dog when they witness a car accident on the cliff side. He and his father go ashore to help, and find’s it’s his dad’s boss and his wife that were driven off the road by the specter of a skeleton, who reappears once they take shelter to warn of his upcoming vengeance for the life of his wife and child. This would all be a great set up for the standard spook show fare, but this is negated by the following scene, where Hayato and his dad are driving through town before the attack of a giant robot claiming to be an agent of the ghost and his flying ship.
This is the moment things get squirrely. After the robot comes corporate intrigue, followed by giant crabs, and a plot twist so contrived that it would verge on offensive in lesser movies. But Flying Phantom Ship is not a lesser movie. The only way that Flying Phantom Ship reaches narrative satisfaction is that it begins on a boat and ends there too. Wedged mercilessly between minute one and minute sixty are a parade of characters, themes, and plot points introduced and dropped with the temperament of an anxious child. The story starts Scooby Doo, adds in a healthy dose of Tetsujin 28, sprinkles in some dead parents, evil businessmen, mind-warping mollusks, and bit of Sealab 2021 for taste. Then at the end, it leans back in its chair while you struggle to digest the whole thing and asks “Well, what did you think?”
The animation is stiff and the designs are lacking. Disappointing when you have a pedigree such as Miyazaki as key animator, who just a year prior had pushed Toei’s limits with Horus: Prince of Sun and and The Wonderful World of Puss ‘N Boots. Sad to say that Flying Phantom Ship may be Miyazaki’s first low point, with a protagonist that looks like a rejected Tezuka character doodled on a napkin, and a robot resembling a metallic gumdrop. One can’t be too hard on him though, by this point TV animation had overtaken the budget once set for theatrical release, a dip in quality was hardly unexpected, but even that cannot excuse why our hero, Hayato wears white short-shorts and go-go boots topped with a kicky scarf.
Really, one cannot call Flying Phantom Ship a good movie, or a bad movie. It defies anyone to categorize it by being so maddening. At no point in this film’s production can I imagine anyone on the staff thinking they were living up to their previous work, nor can I imagine them caring about this in the slightest. Even its writer and original mangaka, Shotaro Ishinomori, the father of super sentai, seems to care very little for quality or even logic in this case. It’s worth noting that Ishinomori was Tezuka’s protégé, and bits of Tezuka’s Mighty Atom can be felt up and down the movie, from the designs, to the plot, down to Nozawa voicing the hero.
Flying Phantom Ship simply must be seen to be believed. Its short runtime makes it accessible (perhaps the only accessible thing about it) and while not being historically or artistically notable, it’s definitely unforgettable.
Sully can be found haunting Twitter @calva_kun
Notable shout out to Dave Merrill himself for keeping the flying fandom ship afloat for this film for decades now. Keep up with Dave or ask him about anything FPS over on twitter @terebifunhouse.