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Archive for June 27, 2020

Kaiju review: REIGO: KING OF THE SEA MONSTERS

I recently came across another obscure kaiju movie on the Overdrive online library. While I’ve moved most of my reviews to my Patreon page these days, I figured I should keep my kaiju reviews together here (plus maybe seeing my occasional review for free will prompt some people to subscribe to my Patreon).

Anyway, the movie is known in English as Reigo: King of the Sea Monsters, originally titled Shinkaijū Reigō (深海獣レイゴー, Deep Sea Beast Reigou, with the “kai” meaning “sea” rather than being part of the usual word “kaiju,” though the pun is probably intentional). It’s a 2008 independent film (according to Wikizilla, though the credits say Copyright 2007 and IMDb says 2005) directed and co-written by Shinpei Hayashiya, a Japanese actor-comedian and kaiju buff who had a minor role in 1984’s The Return of Godzilla. Apparently he made a well-regarded fan-film sequel to the superb 1990s Gamera trilogy, which got him the gig making this film. The lead roles went to two kaiju veterans — Yukijiro Hotaru, who was the comical Inspector Osako in all three installments of said Gamera trilogy, and Taiyo Sugiura, who was the lead actor in the 2001-2 TV series Ultraman Cosmos (which, as it so happens, I’m currently watching).

This is an unusual kaiju film in that it’s a period piece, set in the early 1940s aboard Yamato, the iconic Japanese battleship from World War II. This is the only time I’ve seen Yamato depicted onscreen outside of Star Blazers/Uchuu Senkan Yamato, the classic ’70s anime in which the battleship was rebuilt into a starship.

The movie begins with a black and white sequence emulating a period movie, with scenes focusing on two soon-to-be Yamato personnel: head gunner Noboru Osako (played by Hotaru and named for his Gamera character) praying at a shrine for his pregnant wife to give birth to a son (though he phrases it more crudely), and Sub-Lieutenant Takeshi Kaido (Sugiura) talking with his pretty childhood friend Chie (Mai Nanami) about how he might not return from war. The movie goes to color once they’re out to sea on the battleship. Osako smuggles a girl onboard for hanky-panky, but she brings along her grandfather, who warns about a “dragon” (ryuu) named Reigo that’s recently reawakened in the sea due to all the naval activity, and whose arrival is heralded by some nasty “bone fish.” Osako shoos him off, having other priorities. Later, at night, the crew sights what they think is an enemy sub and opens fire, killing Reigo’s baby. Reigo — basically a giant plesiosaur with a Godzilla-ish head and an oversized, spiny dorsal fin that attracts lightning — cries out in mournful rage, and the crew assumes they killed a whale.

Unaware of their bad karma, the crew celebrate their victory with sake, and Osako tells those around him of the legend of Reigo, still not believing it. Later, while paying for his drunknness and leaning over the side, Osako spots and rescues an officer from a downed American ship; the officer turns out to speak “a little” Japanese (indeed, the actor’s Japanese is fluent while his “native” English is spoken with a thick Japanese accent) and introduces himself as Lt. Cmdr. Norman Melville (subtle). The captain, Yamagami (apparently a fictional character standing in for Yamato‘s first captain Takayanagi), insists that the prisoner be treated honorably, without violence.

The crew is soon attacked by the shark-sized bone fish, which kill around a dozen people. Melville tells Osako (a fellow gunner, to their mutual excitement) that his ship was also attacked by bone fish and then destroyed by a giant sea monster, and he alone escaped to tell them. Osako goes to warn the captain, who tries to let his crew hash out a strategy for dealing with it in an unsupervised meeting, but they just end up shouting at each other.

Yamato is assigned to lead a task force of ships, which come under attack by Reigo, with two destroyers being blown up (so I guess they were actually destroyees). The giant battleship’s huge guns are useless because they aren’t designed to work at short range. For some reason, Yamagami is randomly promoted to Secretary of the Navy and replaced mid-movie by Captain Matsuda (based on a real person this time), who’s studied marine biology and thinks they can dazzle Reigo with searchlights and then blast it. It fails disastrously, so Matsuda calls in Kaido, a former student of his who offered a wild theory rejected by naval engineers, that flooding Yamato‘s flotation tanks on one side could tilt the ship and allow aiming the guns below the horizontal. But Matsuda’s junior officers reject the plan as too absurd and dangerous, leaving Kaido embarrassed — though he’s cheered up by a letter from his girl Chie professing her hope to marry him on his return.

Reigo’s next attack on the fleet goes as badly as the previous ones, leaving Matsuda no choice but to try Kaido’s ship-tilting plan. Osako drags Melville out of his cell to help work the giant guns. Tilting the ship downward lets them shoot at the approaching monster, but the gun misfires and Reigo does an improbable twisting jump clear over the battleship, damaging the mast with its tail. It comes back around from the other side, and Osako and Melville rotate the gun around 180 degrees and blast it point-blank as it leaps out of the water again — meaning the whole business with tilting the ship was pointless and they just had to wait until the monster obligingly gave them an easy target. Well, anyway, the gunners on the surviving ships keep pouring on fire with the smaller machine guns until Matsuda and Kaido tell them to stop and let the poor beast die in peace. Matsuda gives the crew a speech about how they’ve won a major victory together and now must take on the far greater challenge of defeating the United States. Yeah, good luck with that, guys.

Indeed, we then get a very weird coda that depicts the 1945 destruction of Yamato by American planes through a mix of stock war footage and kabuki pantomime by the actors. It modifies history by showing Reigo returning from the dead to deliver the mortal blow that finally sinks the ship, getting its revenge at last. Finally, we see Chie and Osako’s wife and son praying at the temple years later on the anniversary of their loved ones’ deaths. (The movie implies that Osako’s young son has the same given name as Gamera‘s Inspector Osako, making me wonder if it’s supposed to be the same character, making this an unofficial, indirect prequel to the Heisei Gamera trilogy. However, the inspector would have to be nearly a decade older than he looked in that case.)

This was an odd film, and I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s basically a historical drama about life on Yamato with a monster story added on, but there’s a good deal of comedy and broad acting. The film is hampered by its poor visual effects; while the design of many of the shots is fairly good, the CGI is incredibly crude, with a resolution and frame rate well below the state of the art for the early 2000s, and even the close-up puppet version of Reigo seems to have been shot at a low frame rate or clumsily composited into the CGI ocean. So the action/FX sequences are murky, jerky, and unpleasant to watch. Thematically, its message is kind of vague, though I think it’s mostly anti-war; while the commanding officers are portrayed as honorable and decent, the crew of Yamato basically bring their destruction on themselves by firing blindly and killing an innocent creature, prompting nature’s retribution. Also, I’ve read that Uchuu Senkan Yamato tended to stress the unity of Yamato‘s crew, putting collective over self and working as one entity to achieve their goals; this film seems to subvert that by showing the crew degenerating into hopeless, ego-driven bickering when asked to solve a problem collectively, though they do eventually learn to come together at the end. I’m not sure what point, if any, is conveyed by having Kaido’s daring plan fail and Osako saving the day through dumb luck. Maybe it’s satirizing the clever, so-crazy-it-just-might-work plans of the heroes in other kaiju movies, or maybe it’s just clumsy writing.

All in all, I didn’t get much out of this one, aside from the novelty of seeing two familiar actors in new roles and finally seeing a production about Yamato in its original oceangoing form (though its CGI representation here looked just as cartoony as the one in the anime). I gather there have been two modern-day sequels to Reigo — Raiga: God of the Monsters in 2009 and Raiga vs. Ohga in 2019 — but they’re not available from the library and I don’t feel any pressing need to seek them out.

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