Archive

Archive for July 5, 2019

Thoughts on DAIKAJU BARAN, KING KONG vs. GODZILLA (Japanese), and SPACE AMOEBA

Thanks to some new discoveries I recently made on Archive.org, I’m now able to tie up some loose ends in my kaiju review series. A couple of years ago, as my series trailed off into the dregs, I offered my thoughts on Varan the Unbelievable, the 1962 American adaptation of the 1958 Toho film Daikaiju Baran. Now I’ve seen the original Japanese film at last, and it’s almost a completely different film, but not much of an improvement. Apparently it was shot as a 3-part TV special at the request of kaiju-hungry American distributors, then converted into a feature when the Americans dropped out. Which may explain why it feels so half-hearted.

We start with a rocket taking off. The Space Age is here (says the narrator)! Weird stuff happens in space, doesn’t it? Well, weird stuff happens on Earth too, and that’s what our movie’s actually about! Fooled ya! And now for something completely different: butterfly hunters. Sent to a remote mountain area called “the Tibet of Japan” (a line cut from later releases when the Tibetans complained) to investigate an unusual butterfly species, they defy the warnings of the local superstitious tribe not to intrude on their god’s territory and get killed by something off-camera. Back at the institute, a stock trio of Handsome Scientist, Plucky Lady Reporter, and Comic Relief Photographer convince the head scientist (whose actor is sleepwalking through the part) to send them to investigate the deaths. (One of the fallen butterfly hunters was the brother of reporter Yuriko, but this barely comes up.)

When our heroes arrive, the villagers are praying for forgiveness from their god, and Handsome Scientist (Kenji) berates them for their superstition. When Obligatory Cute Kid runs off after his dog, Kenji’s scornful condescension somehow convinces the villagers to abandon their lifelong belief system and storm en masse into the forbidden zone after the boy (even though Yuriko already tied a note to the dog saying that she and the boy were fine and waiting for the fog to clear, so why bother). Naturally, this provokes the giant lake monster to emerge and trash their village. Somehow, Kenji instantly recognizes it as “Varan,” which we later learn is short for “Varanopode,” a supposed dinosaur species (though it’s based on the monitor lizard, genus Varanus).

The rest of the movie is about the military’s attempts to kill Varan before it can get to a major city, even though the evidence is that it’s content to stay in its lake as long as nobody bothers it. But they bother the heck out of it with poison bombs, then with flares that ignite the surrounding forest, prompting it to reveal diaphanous gliding membranes and fly off with a jet-engine sound. Oops! There follow the obligatory montages of military maneuvers and attacks, including minesweeping tactics by a naval brigade that surrounds it underwater, but these efforts fail to deter its movement toward Tokyo. Of course it’s heading for Tokyo. It’s a young kaiju out in the world for the first time, so it needs to take in the sights, y’know?

Back at military HQ, Sleepy Scientist is basically useless and fatalist, but wait! Handsome Scientist 2 has shown up (Fujimura, played by Akihiko Hirata, who was Dr. Serizawa in the original Godzilla). “Say, Fujimura-hakase, we hear you’ve developed a super-explosive we can use.” “Yes, I invented it for dam construction. I’m convinced it’s not ready yet and can’t possibly work on Varan, but nonetheless I already have a film cued up to show you.” Fujimura explains that the explosive is only effective if it’s set off inside something rather than outside, but instead of devising plans to address this weakness — say, hiding it in a big pile of fish in Varan’s path — everyone just shrugs and ignores the problem.

So when Varan comes ashore that night, Kenji (remember him?) bravely drives the truck full of useless explosives up to Varan and runs, and the explosives go off under Varan and predictably do nothing. But Sleepy Scientist notes that Varan is swallowing the flares being used to light the scene (a behavior he said he noticed back at the lake, though I don’t think that was shown), so they tie the rest of the explosives to the flares, and that’s the end of their Varan problem.

This may be the only kaiju movie where the military actually succeeds in preventing the monster from reaching and destroying a major urban area. The whole plot is driven by the prospective threat to Tokyo or other cities, but for once that threat never becomes a reality, except for a few buildings around the docks where Varan comes ashore. It may be part of the reason this film was never very popular. Even though this is only Toho’s fourth kaiju film (after the first two Godzilla films and Rodan), it feels routine and formulaic, and doesn’t even take the formula to its usual climax. Varan isn’t a bad design, but it comes off as a hybrid of Godzilla, Rodan, and Anguirus. The film offers little novelty or substance. Perhaps that’s why it was 3 years before Toho made another kaiju film, the far superior Mothra.

The main merit here is Akira Ifukube’s score, built around two main themes: the Varan theme, which Ifukube would repurpose as Rodan’s theme from 1964 onward, and a version of the familiar Godzilla monster-rampage theme that would be further developed and reworked in King Kong vs. Godzilla and Mothra vs. Godzilla (I don’t recall offhand if it was used in Godzilla Raids Again).

I also finally found the Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla, whose American adaptation I covered back in my first “Thoughts on Godzilla” post back in 2012. I disliked the US version and its dull framing sequence of reporters in news studios, and I perceived the underlying Japanese film as a lame, goofy comedy aimed at kids. It turns out that the original film is a lot better than I thought. Though it does have a good deal of humor, it’s clever, brisk, and balanced effectively with the serious aspects.

Indeed, the opening minutes have a stream-of-consciousness flow that reminds me both of sketch comedy like Monty Python and of the opening of Joss Whedon’s Serenity. A corny B-movie narration about the mysteries of Earth turns out to be an intro to a kids’ science show, which is being watched skeptically by its sponsor Tako, the advertising director of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, a Groucho Marx type who comically berates his staff for sponsoring this lame show. (Tako is Japanese for “octopus” and is also an insulting epithet.) The show’s host reports on a US submarine expedition to the Arctic, which leads us onto the sub, where the English-speaking crew detect “Chellenkov” (i.e. Cherenkov) radiation from an iceberg — the harbinger of Godzilla, breaking free from the ice where he was trapped 7 years before at the end of Godzilla Raids Again. That sub crew is toast.

Incidentally, when a white, English-speaking helicopter pilot spots Godzilla, he pronounces the name “Gojilla.” Which is interesting, since  I gather that Toho had chosen “Godzilla” as the official English rendering of the name back in 1954 or so.

Meanwhile, Tako hears of a mythical monster on Faro Island (subtitled as Pharaoh Island on the version I saw), where Pacific Pharmaceuticals has been researching the local berries, so he sends the two male leads, Osamu and Kazuo (respectively the brother and boyfriend of leading lady Fumiko), to capture the monster as PP’s “sponsor” (I think he means mascot). He’s upset that Godzilla’s getting all the attention — “there’s even a movie!”

Cue stereotyped brownface islanders dancing and chanting to their unseen god, who becomes un-unseen when a giant octopus (i.e. mostly-real octopus on miniature set) attacks some villagers and King Kong comes to drive it off. Whereupon Kong gets drunk on berry juice and calmed by native singing, letting our guys capture him and tow him back to Japan, until he breaks loose. He randomly ends up running into Godzilla, who’d attacked a train that Fumiko was randomly on because she was pursuing a false, never-explained report that her brother’s ship had disappeared. The first battle’s inconclusive, and the military tries to stop Godzilla with an electric fence that works until Kong smashes it, since he apparently literally eats up electricity (an artifact of the Willis O’Brien King Kong vs. Frankenstein premise that evolved into this, or rather its intermediate Godzilla vs. Frankenstein stage).

The film doesn’t succeed in establishing Godzilla as the greater threat, since he’s mostly just wandering the wilderness while Kong attacks the city, including another train that Fumiko is on. Out of all the millions of people in Tokyo, the one Kong picks to be his Fay Wray is the sister and girlfriend of his two captors, even though he’s never met her before. What are the odds? Anyway, he beelines for the Diet Building, which looks a bit like the top of the Empire State Building but is a lot shorter, so he just sort of loiters around it rather than climbing it, and our heroes use the berry juice and recorded island music to knock out Kong, who’s then airlifted to Mt. Fuji to fight Godzilla. The fight unfolds like a Popeye cartoon, with Godzilla trashing Kong decisively until a bolt of lightning strikes the latter and makes him strong to the finach. The finach being the two monsters smashing a historic castle, like you do, and then falling into the sea, with Kong swimming home and Godzilla’s fate unresolved (until his return in Mothra vs. Godzilla, which is practically the exact same story done better).

Still not one of the best, but much better than its US version, with a better balance of humor, character, and action and a better score by Ifukube. It’s a bit revisionist, the first movie to claim that Godzilla was created by nuclear testing rather than merely made radioactive and driven from its natural feeding grounds. There’s some dialogue from yet another Akihiko Hirata scientist about Godzilla having been born in Japan somehow, and a later emergency broadcast clarifying for some reason that Kong is a “real animal” while Godzilla is a monster born from radiation. Did the fleeing populace really need to know that?

It’s also noteworthy for a broader range of special-effects techniques than usual. There are a couple of stop-motion animation scenes, of the giant octopus’s tentacles seizing villagers and at one point in the Kong-Godzilla battle, and some good use of what appeared to be rear projection to combine the human performers with footage of the giant creatures. There’s also a bit in the climax with puppet versions of Kong and Godzilla going at it in a long shot. Unfortunately, the regular monster suits for both Godzilla and Kong are crude-looking, and even though this version is more serious than I thought, Godzilla’s performance is often somewhat goofy compared to his previous two turns and the one to follow.

That leaves only one more major Toho kaiju film: 1970’s Space Amoeba, the last kaiju film Ishiro Honda directed under Toho’s studio system (though he’d come back for Terror of Mechagodzilla) and the first made after the death of effects director Eiji Tsuburaya (and Toho’s failure to give him a tribute credit angered the filmmakers). This is a multi-monster film, but was dialed back considerably from its planned global scope due to budget cuts. Unfortunately, the copy on Archive.org is the international English dub, which is quite badly acted by the dub cast, but includes the 3 minutes cut from the American version Yog, the Monster from Space.

The titular amoeba appears as an animated blue cloud (created similarly to the Star Trek transporter effect, it seems) that hijacks an unmanned Jupiter probe (oddly in the form of an Apollo-type capsule) and flies it back to Earth, where it’s spotted coming down by reporter Kudo, but nobody believes his story. By coincidence, the pretty Ayako recruits him to take photos of the remote Sergio Island, where her company plans to build a tourist resort, and which happens to be exactly where the capsule came down. They’re accompanied by Kudo’s scientist friend Dr. Miya, who’s going to investigate reports of monsters on the island, and Obata, a corporate spy pretending to be an anthropologist.

The foursome hears that one of the company’s advance team was eaten by a local monster, Gezora (which Obata finds amusing), and when they arrive, they find the supposedly friendly islanders (whose island was occupied by Japan in WWII) actually mostly hate them (gee, I wonder why) and fear the monster’s wrath. Which proves well-founded, since the monster shows up right on cue and eats the other advance team member, while leaving a local islander, Rico, in catatonic shock. Gezora is a clumsy looking squid monster (actually based on a “kisslip cuttlefish,” though the dub calls it an octopus) whose eyes glow blue underwater but who somehow has red eyes once it emerges, and that can goofily walk upright on its tentacles (whose skin texture is more like elephant trunks). The film’s monsters are smaller than most kaiju, with Gezora being 30 meters in length.

Everything in this film seems to show up immediately after it’s mentioned. Kudo sees the space capsule right after reading a headline about it. The group encounters Gezora almost immediately upon starting their investigation. Later, Kudo and Miya dive, find the space capsule, and are again immediately attacked by Gezora, which lets them go when a pod of stock-footage porpoises swims by, then destroys the village, whose natives are praying to it with stock audio of the native chants from King Kong vs. Godzilla. Ayako notices that fire hurts the creature (which, really, duh), so the guys say they need gasoline — and I’m not kidding, the fleeing villagers instantly show up just happening to carry a dozen cans of gasoline!! Whaaaa??? Anyway, they burn Gezora and it flees to the depths and dies — and the blue sparkly space amoeba emerges from it and floats off…

The gang’s next bit of luck is stumbling onto a WWII ammo shed, just in time for the emergence of the crab monster Ganimes. Kudo eventually manages to blow the crab up along with the explosives shed, but the blue sparkles flee it again, and then Obata gets taken over by a stray piece of the amoeba, which speaks in his mind, informing him that he has the honor of being the first human “we” have possessed and intend to use to conquer the world. (So why didn’t “they” just possess the islanders instead of mucking about with sea critters? And why doesn’t he grow giant like the critters?)

Dr. Miya somehow magically intuits the alien’s existence — and then, creepily, the villagers throw a wedding for the Gezora survivor Rico and his girlfriend while Rico is still walking around in shock like a zombie, which raises all kinds of consent issues (not to mention logistical ones — how can he say “I do”?). But Kudo’s camera flash shocks him back to consciousness (supposedly by association with the monster’s light, though it only glowed underwater and it attacked Rico on land), and he mentions that he was saved because a flock of bats drove the creature away. The guys remember the porpoises and realize ultrasonics will hurt the alien, so they plan to trap the bats in a cave and release them when needed. Possessed Obata has been going around burning up all the batcaves, though, and when he’s discovered, the alien outs itself and scoffs at the puny humans. But Ayako’s pleading awakens Obata’s humanity and he fights the creature, releasing the bats. The bats appear to have been briefed on the plan, since they circle over the last two possessed kaiju — another Ganimes crab and Kamoebas, a spiky-shelled mata mata turtle with an extending neck — and drive them crazy, making them fight each other. The heroes’ impossible dumb luck holds, because the monsters’ fight happens to move toward an active volcano that didn’t seem to be there before. Their fight somehow makes it erupt, and they fall into the caldera, into which Obata throws himself to destroy the last of the space creatures. The heroes look onto this erupting volcanic nightmare from a reverse daylight shot with normal white clouds in the sky, and Kudo laments that he can’t tell anyone this implausible, ridiculous story, which is maybe not the best way to end a mess of a movie like this.

I mean, really, it doesn’t make any sense at all. On top of everything else, if the monsters were normal animals turned giant by the alien that just crashed there, why was Miya going there in search of previously reported monsters? Apparently this script went through a lot of drafts due to the budget cuts, and a coherent story seems to have been sacrificed in the process. And the monsters are pretty underwhelming. Kamoebas was the most interesting design, with its dinosaur-like spiky shell and telescoping neck, but it was underutilized. It doesn’t help that the English title spoils the mystery. The Japanese title is Gezora Ganime Kamēba Kessen! Nankai no Daikaijū, literally Gezora, Ganimes, Kamoebas: Battle! Giant Monsters of the South Seas. Which is maybe a grander title than the movie deserves.