Teenager Hayato (voiced by Masako Nozawa) quaffs a can of Boa Juice, Japan's most popular soft drink, whilst out on a speedboat with his mom and dad. In the midst of their family fun the three witness a car crash and end up saving Mr. Kuroshio (Akio Tanaka), head of the multimillion yen Kuroshio Corporation where Hayato's dad works as an engineer and mom toils on the factory line. Seeking shelter from a storm the family bring Kuroshio and his wife to a creepy old abandoned house only to be confronted by the skull-masked Ghost Captain. He is the skipper of the Flying Phantom Ship, a seemingly supernatural vessel lately haunting the seas, sinking ships owned by the Kuroshio Corporation. The cackling ghoul puts the frighteners on Hayato and Mr. Kuroshio as he declares he is out for revenge.
So far this vintage Toei anime feature sounds like an episode of Scooby-Doo. It even features a cowardly, accident prone Great Dane dog among the supporting cast. The animators conjure a truly spooky atmosphere throughout the first act set in the haunted house yet the mystery unfolds as something a tad more complex than the usual antics of Scooby and co. Suffice to say, the culprit turns out to be someone more insidious than old Mr. Jones the caretaker in a rubber monster mask. Ghost Captain reveals his target is a mysterious enemy operating somewhere inside the government. Thereafter a giant robot, unimaginatively named Giant Robot, stomps through Tokyo claiming Hayato's mom and dad among its victims. Hayato swears vengeance against Ghost Captain only to backtrack when the Flying Phantom Ship reappears in the sky and blasts Giant Robot with an awesome arsenal of cruise missiles and laser beams. As Hayato concedes Ghost Captain might not be such a bad guy his search for the true villain unearths horrifying facts about his favourite soft drink.
Expanding the initial ghost story into a science fiction threat to all Japan enables the animators to stage some impressive action scenes, the only way at the time Toei Films could compete in the spectacle stakes with the kaiju eiga (monster movies) produced by wealthier rival Toho. However, what impresses most about Flying Phantom Ship is its pointed attack on consumerism and the means by which corrupt corporations exert an unhealthy influence upon national interests. In doing so the film co-opts a soft drink as a tool to suppress the masses, a representation of consumerism run amuck in a manner remarkably prescient of Larry Cohen's junk food satire The Stuff (1985). Flying Phantom Ship features some pretty subversive satirical ideas for a children's film. It was one of the first anime to be dubbed into Russian and screened in the Soviet Union where no doubt its critique of capitalism went down very well. Nevertheless running a brisk sixty-one minutes the film is too to develop these ideas properly. On the plus side the lively action includes giant robot crustaceans rising from the sewers, impressive sky battles, a Coca-Cola parody that melts people into putrescent slime and a climax that takes the film into freaky Lovecraftian territory.
Although directed by Hiroshi Ikeda, who made Animal Treasure Island (1971), the film is more notable for two other talents working behind the scenes. One was a young Hayao Miyazaki serving as an animator. Well-known as an aviation buff, it is tempting to theorize Miyazaki was responsible for the titular retro-fitted pirate galleon cum spaceship though the design recalls the one featured in Toho's celebrated science fiction epic Atragon (1963). The key player here is Shotaro Ishinomori, who went on to father the Japanese superhero genre with live action tokusatsu fare like Kamen Rider (1971) and Go Ranger (1978), the TV show later Anglicized into Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers (1993). Ishinomori was also active in anime, most notably with the Cyborg 009 franchise along with films that combined boys' own sci-fi adventure with a tendency towards heavy-handed eco-sermonizing, e.g. 30,000 Miles Under the Sea (1970), Age of the Great Dinosaurs (1979) and Harmagedon (1983) lacking the light touch of his mentor Osamu Tezuka. Even so, Flying Phantom Ship remains entertaining and admirably ambitious, combining allusions to films like The Mysterians (1957), 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Thunderball (1965) with provocative anti-consumerist message.