To fight the good fight against international espionage and terrorism the United Nations look to E.S.P-Y, a group of secret agents with amazing psychic powers. On the opposite end of the moral spectrum are the unimaginatively named Anti-E.S.P-Y, psychic terrorists bent on eliminating human beings to make way for the new world order. One such villain assassinates a train load of UN peace envoys en route to the troubled (and fictional) region of Baltonia. E.S.P-Y promptly recruit Jiro Miki (Masao Kusakari), a young race car driver who has the potential to become the most powerful psychic in the world. Inexperienced and insecure, Miki is partnered with the more seasoned, rugged E.S.P-Y agent Yoshio Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka, with amazing hair) and plucky female agent Maria (Kaoru Yumi) for a lively, globe-spanning battle against Anti-E.S.P-Y's evil mastermind Ulrov (Tomisaburo Wakayama), a man with a plan for worldwide destruction.
E.S.P-Y remains one of the more obscure science fiction epics produced by Japan's Toho Films, the studio behind Godzilla, which might be one reason why it has been overpraised by some genre fans. Certainly the concept is killer: James Bond meets the psychic craze that was all the rage in Japanese genre fare at the time, from seminal anime serial Babel II (1973) to popular manga Mai the Psychic Girl, but the execution smacks of uncertainty. If it's action you're after, veteran Godzilla hand Jun Fukuda delivers rampant bloodshed, gunplay, karate, topless nudity and executes several surreal psychic set-pieces with aplomb. Notably a suspenseful sequence with Tamura trying to control a runaway jumbo jet that features excellent miniatures, the remarkably gory assault on a Swiss retreat with exploding bodies galore, the hallucinatory earthquake that rocks a UN assembly and a climax involving a house of traps that seems to have strayed from a Chang Cheh kung fu movie. Fukuda, who hated his own monster movies, clearly relished an assignment closer to the early spy thrillers with which he was more comfortable.
However, the exotic intrigue is crippled by the campy plot, syrupy unconvincing romance and jarring inconsistencies in tone. Some deadpan nastiness (e.g. Tamura telekinetically rips the tongue out of a bare-chested black guy molesting a topless Maria) sits uneasily beside the almost Disney-like moments when Tamura learns a life lesson from Miki's heroic German Shepherd or the bad guy belatedly realizes, hey, love is all you need. When a hypnotized Maria bares her boobs performing a sultry dance it is more silly than sexy. Later at a restaurant Maria weeps about the incident while the film flashes back to her bare breasts, y'know to underline the tragedy of it all, not to just give the audience an eyeful. Heavens, no. Indeed the heroes are on the whole a rather mopey and morose bunch. Plus it's a mystery why the plot seems to focus so heavily on colourless Miki when the charismatic Tamura handles most of the action. Hiroshi Fujioka was the big star here. He found fame as the bug-eyed superhero Kamen Rider (1971) then graduated to more ambitious action roles, notably in Toho's science fiction disaster epic The Submersion of Japan (1973). He had a shot at an American career with the Charles Band production Ghost Warrior (1984), headlined the fine Hong Kong actioner In the Line of Duty 3 (1988) and remains active to this day recently reprising his iconic role in Heisei Rider vs. Showa Rider: Kamen Rider Taisen featuring Super Sentai (2014). Co-star Masao Kusakari went on to appear in Kinji Fukasaku's star-studded science fiction disaster movie Virus (1980) where he got to play Olivia Hussey's love interest.
E.S.P-Y was the second time Toho adapted a novel written by Sakyo Komatsu, Japan's leading science fiction writer, after the blockbuster success of Submersion of Japan (released theatrically in the United States as Tidal Wave through Roger Corman's New World Pictures). The studio later gave Komatsu full creative control over his grandiose space extravaganza Sayonara Jupiter (1984) with disastrous results. Komatsu's concept of warring psychic factions and the exploding head imagery make this an intriguing precursor to Scanners (1981) while the espionage angle also evokes The Fury (1978) and presents a more benign view of the state-sanctioned psychic antics in Akira (1987). The author's sociopolitical concerns are also evident though painted in broad strokes and more well meant than coherent. Even so it is quite pleasing to watch a spy thriller where Russia and the US are on the same side and Turkish agents get equal opportunities to be heroic, although the rape-happy black henchman is a regrettably racist caricature. It is a glossier production than much of Toho's output from the Seventies with a healthier budget evident from the eye-catching locations (the streets of Istanbul, the Swiss Alps) and big name guest stars. Eiji Okada, acclaimed star of Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Woman of the Dunes (1964), appears in kitschy old age make-up as the good guys' wizened psychic guru and Tomisaburo Wakayama, of Lone Wolf and Cub a.k.a. Shogun Assassin fame, savours some ripe dialogue ("I have a name but no nation!") and cuts quite an amusing figure in his white suit, mod haircut and goatee. Japanese genre completists will want to see E.S.P-Y but it is no landmark in Asian science fiction.