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Thanks to a staggered international release, Message from Space could rip off Star Wars before the sci-fi classic was even out in Japan.

With The Force Awakens now in Japanese theaters, fans are enjoying the latest chapter of the Star Wars saga. But while the series has always been tremendously successful in Japan, the original Star Wars film wasn’t the first taste of adventure space opera for Japanese moviegoers.

Star Wars’ first film, later subtitled A New Hope, opened in the U.S. in the spring of 1977, but this was long before the days of international media blitzes and worldwide simultaneous premiers. It actually took more than a year for A New Hope to reach Japan, which it finally did on July 1, 1978.

That allowed Japanese position company Toei’s science fiction film, Message from Space, to beat A New Hope to Japanese theaters by more than two months. It also meant that when viewers saw Message from Space, which began its theatrical run on April 29, many of them didn’t know how liberally it had cribbed from Star Wars.

So how many things do they have in common? Let’s take a look at the trailer and see.

The antagonists are an evil empire (namely the Gavanas Empire) with a planet-sized fortress that they float about the galaxy with, while sternly staring out of their Millennium Falcon-style window.

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To the credit of Message in Space (which was directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who would later go on to direct cult hit Battle Royale in 2000), the film does show a little originality by giving the Ganvanas soldiers metal skin. And while their outfits do have sort of a Darth Vader thing going on, Vader’s armor itself was based on samurai armor, so Message in Space has some plausible deniability in that its outfits are culturally influenced, and not just a copy of the famous Sith lord’s.

▼ You could also argue that they look more like tokusatsu superhero show outfits than Star Wars costumes.

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Still, as the trailer goes on, the “coincidental” similarities to Star Wars start piling up, such as resistance leader Princess Emeralida

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abundantly winged space fighters

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sword fights

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…and an energetic companion robot named Beba-2 that communicates through a series of excited bleeps and bloops.

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Seated next to Beba-2 in that space bar (cantina?) is General Garuda of the United Earth military. He’s played by American actor Vic Morrow, one of two key roles in Message in Space that were given to foreign actors. The other is American Phillip Casnoff, who plays Aaron.

▼ Aaron is described as a “space bosozoku,” a Japanese term for members of unruly motorcycle gangs.

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Novel as the concept of “space biker” may be, it’s pretty obvious that anyone who’d already seen Star Wars was going to think of Message in Space as, at best, a largely derivative homage, and at worst a cheap knockoff. Nevertheless, Toei wanted to release the film outside of Japan as well. To that end, General Garuda and Aaron speak English, while the characters played by Japanese actors speak Japanese, sort of like the 1989 Japanese robot action movie Gunhed, which also had an international ensemble cast. It makes for an odd impression, as you can’t help but wonder if Aaron can understand the diabolic Gavanas warriors when they taunt him by asking if he’s prepared to exchange his life for that of the captive princess.

Predictably, Message from Space wasn’t a success in the American film market. Not only was it seen as a watered-down Star Wars pretender, the special effects didn’t come anywhere near the polished look that A New Hope’s team had achieved. Message from Space’s space ships fail to appear as anything other than small, plastic models, and the cheap-looking visuals rob the dogfights of any real sense of immersion or tension.

But is there anything first seen in Message in Space that would show up in the later Star Wars movies? Well, the assault on the Gavanas Empire’s fortress involves flying through its interior, which is something that would be seen again five years later in the Death Star battle of Return of the Jedi.

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There’s also General Garuda’s moustache and collared cloak, which predate Lando Calrissian’s The Empire Strikes Back facial hair and wardrobe choices by two years.

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But if you’re such a diehard Star Wars that you still find yourself getting worked up about Message from Space ripping off A New Hope, bear in mind that it wasn’t anything personal.

▼ After all, it ripped off Captain Harlock too!

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Source: YouTube/toeimovies
Top image: YouTube/toeimovies
Insert images: YouTube/toeimovies, Star Wars official website