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Thoughts on Toho’s submarine (and related) SF films (spoilers)

Filling in a few remaining gaps in my review series of Toho tokusatsu films, here’s a trio of films revolving more around super-vessels than monsters.

Atragon (1963), originally Kaitei Gunkan (The Undersea Warship), is a loose adaptation of a novel of the same name and another called The Undersea Kingdom. It opens with several people being abducted by strange, hot-bodied people (in the thermal sense, not the sexy sense). The abductees include retired admiral Kusumi and his secretary/ward Makoto, daughter of the long-lost submarine inventor Jinguji. A pair of comic-relief photographers, who are somehow the lead characters and are stalking Makoto in hopes of hiring her as a fashion model, get caught up in the kidnapping; the abductor says he’s going to take them to an undersea kingdom called Mu, the Pacific equivalent of the Atlantis myth (which I used to assume was Asian folklore but is just another “ancient myth” invented in the 19th century by Westerners, around the same time the modern version of the Atlantis myth arose). The abductees fight off the agent, but the admiral is sent a film from the Mu-ians, telling how they ruled the world 12,000 years ago and founded all ancient civilizations until their vast continent sank literally overnight. Now they’ve recovered and become super-advanced (we see miniature vistas of their futuristic-yet-ancient kingdom), and they warn Japan to halt development on the missing Jinguji’s newest super-sub — which they claim to be under Jinguji’s supervision and known to the admiral — or else they’ll send their god Manda to destroy the surface world. The threat is taken to the UN off-camera and promptly laughed off, so the Mu-ites start destroying ships and bridges and such.

The most advanced sub in the world (implausibly named Red Satan and crewed by English-speaking white actors, though not all with American accents) is unable to chase Mu’s attack sub below a certain depth, and when it pushes too far, it implodes in a nicely done visual effect (probably using some sort of suction inside the miniature). With no other options, the authorities ask Kusumi to tell them where Jinguji is, but Kusumi insists he doesn’t know, and grudgingly reveals that Jinguji was a deserter. Meanwhile, Makoto has yet another stalker whom the police pick up on suspicion of being a Mu agent, but he only gives his serial number until he meets Admiral Kusumi, to whom he reports that he’s Jinguji’s radio man and that Makoto’s father is very much alive. He leads Kusumi and the other main characters (including a bearded reporter who threatens to blab the story if they don’t bring him) to the island where Jinguji has built his super-sub, Gotengo (轟天号 Gōten-gō, essentially “S.S. Roaring Heavens” — generally called Atragon in English, short for “Atomic Dragon” for some reason). In addition to the usual submarine features, Gotengo has a drill on the front for underground travel, which I guess would make it both a submarine and a subterrene. And it can fly. Which would make it a… supermarine?

It’s all kind of moot, though, since Jinguji is quite the jingoist. He refuses Kusumi’s pleas to use Gotengo to save the world from Mu, because he insists it must only be used for the glory of Japan. The fact that the world includes Japan seems to be lost on him. But the reporter turns out to be a Mu spy who bombs Gotengo‘s hangar and abducts Makoto along with one of the photographers. This abruptly changes Jinguji’s mind about helping the world.

Down in the supposedly super-advanced Mu, we get one of the standard Toho tribal-dance sequences, and it’s interminable. Finally the abductees are dragged in and told they’ll be fed to the Mu god Manda, a snakelike dragon kaiju, if Jinguji doesn’t destroy the super-sub. But they never actually pass this threat along to Jinguji before he drills out of the wrecked hangar and flies to the rescue when a Mu submarine (with a Manda-shaped death ray on top) attacks Tokyo and a fleet offshore. Gotengo pursues the Mu sub back home, where the captives have snuck out some mining explosives and use them to take the Mu empress hostage and escape to the super-sub, which covers their escape from Manda. Several different-sized Manda puppets are used in different shots, and the one used in the early shots is really goofy-looking with bulging, muppety eyes, though another used later in the escape sequence has a more menacing head sculpt.

On Gotengo, the young Empress (who somehow has all her robes and heavy jewelry even though she G-ratedly shed them earlier to change into a diving suit) refuses to negotiate or surrender, so Jinguji kills Manda with the sub’s Zero Cannon, an absolute-zero freeze ray — which seems like a really unwise weapon to use underwater, but all it does is essentially coat Manda in fake snow until it stops moving. Then the sub drills into Mu’s power generator room and a team uses hand-held freeze rays to battle its way to the generators and plant bombs. The crew and the empress surface and watch the huge explosion (an interesting effect that appears to be achieved by dropping a bunch of colored dyes into a tank of water and split-screening it upside-down over a shot of the ocean, so it looks like fiery clouds erupting upward). The sub freezes the last couple of subs trying to escape, and Jinguji allows the empress to dive into the ocean and swim to her doom in the hellish maelstrom. So they’ve basically achieved the total genocide of the most ancient civilization on Earth. Um, yay?

Kaitei Gunkan/Atragon was apparently a big hit in Japan, but I found it quite a chore to get through. It’s very slow-paced and had little to hold my interest, and I watched it piecemeal over 3 or 4 sittings. The characters are superficial, and it takes a while for the action or the big FX sequences to get going. Jinguji’s resistance to using his sub to save the world is weakly justified and too casually resolved. The token kaiju Manda (only added because it was expected in an Ishiro Honda film) is crudely made and poses a minor threat. And it’s harder to like a film where the heroes exterminate an entire civilization than one where they defeat a giant monster.

Atragon got a loose remake of sorts in 1977 with The War in Space (Wakusei Daisenso, “Great War of the Planets”), directed by Jun Fukuda and transposing the action to space — most likely as a knockoff of that other space war film that came out in America about half a year earlier. When alien ships purportedly from Venus — mostly looking like flying acorns, but with a mothership described as a “giant galleon” by the crew of a 2D-painting space station that it destroys early in the film — start attacking Earth cities, Dr. Takigawa (Ryo Ikebe) is persuaded to complete building his space battleship Gohten (as it’s written in Roman script on the crew hats), which he’d resisted completing as unnecessary until an alien impostor attempts to steal his plans. He recruits a cast of nondescript male leads and his technician daughter Jun to finish the ship, which gets trapped in its hangar by an alien attack and must drill its way free much as in Atragon, but with lasers this time. (This version of the ship still includes a forward drill, but it’s largely useless here and for most of the film.) It then uses oxymoronically named “aerial depth charges” (at least in the badly written English dub they have on Archive.org) to blow up a fleet of space acorns before heading off for Venus, just in time for the token American crewman to learn his family was killed by the aliens and stare expressionlessly at the camera while a glycerin tear slides down his cheek.

En route to Venus, it turns out that male lead Miyoshi nobly left Japan to let second lead Muroi get engaged to Jun, who liked Miyoshi more. Muroi gets Miyoshi to promise to take Jun if Muroi gets killed on Venus, making it 100% certain that he will. Needless to say, Jun is not consulted in this. The crew then finds a piece of the destroyed space station improbably far from Earth, with a single conveniently placed corpse to bring aboard for services, and they don’t recognize the obvious trap. The “corpse” wakes up and abducts Jun, who’s taken to Venus, changed into leather bondage gear, and held captive by Commander Hell, a green-skinned alien in Marvin the Martian cosplay, and his “Space Beastman” sidekick that looks like Chewbacca with horns, the most obvious Star Wars ripoff in the film. Hell explains his people have a huge space empire based in Messier 13, yet naturally the only planet within 22,000 light years suitable to replace their dying homeworld is Earth.

Gohten lands on Venus and the scouting party finds the “galleon” behind a force barrier. The sub, err, spaceship launches fighters from a giant revolver barrel (no, really, and the hangar inside is too big to fit inside the exterior model) to take out the force field so Miyoshi’s team can get in to save Jun. Ironically it’s the token American who does a kamikaze run to achieve that. The galleon is also way bigger inside than out and looks more like a castle interior than a spaceship. All the soldiers get killed but Miyoshi, who’s thrown in a cell with Jun as hostages for Takizawa to turn over the ship, but Jun saw Hell enter his password and uses it to escape the cell, and they fight their way out of the galleon and return to Gohten.

Now, I’d expected that Muroi would sacrifice himself nobly to cover their return or something, but instead he’s just shot down from behind while calmly tooling his way back to the ship. Seriously? Anyway, Gohten is crippled in the ensuing battle with the galleon, so Takizawa sneaks off in the ship’s otherwise useless forward drill, which it turns out — according to a recorded message he somehow already had cued up for Miyoshi and Jun despite having no time to record it — contains a super-bomb he invented that could destroy the universe if the knowledge got out. He uses it to blow up the galleon and himself, and subsequently all of Venus, to ensure the knowledge dies with him. Gohten barely gets repaired in time to escape (gee, thanks for the heads-up, Skipper). And presumably Earth endures some unpleasant climate effects from the resultant gravitational shifts and the debris belt that forms in Venus’s former orbit.

Well, this was mediocre, forgettable, and silly, with cheaper and clumsier effects work than the original 14 years before. Some of its elements seemed self-parodic, but it was played as a straight war drama, so the serious and goofy elements undermine each other.

Saving the best for last, we jump back to 1969 for Latitude Zero, aka Ido Zero Daisakusen (The Great Latitude Zero Operation/Mission). This one is unusual among Ishiro Honda’s films in that it’s shot entirely in English with a mixed US/Japanese cast headed by Joseph Cotten, Richard Jaeckel, Akira Takarada, and Cesar Romero, and based on an obscure US radio adventure series by the film’s screenwriter, Ted Sherdeman.

Three men in a tub — a bathysphere crew including Dr. Ken Tashiro (Takarada), Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada playing a Frenchman), and reporter Perry Lawton (Jaeckel) — are studying the deep scattering layer when they’re caught in an undersea volcanic eruption (a similar cloud-tank effect to the one in Atragon, but better done). They’re rescued by divers from the Alpha, an incredibly advanced nuclear sub captained by Craig McKenzie (Cotten), who tells Tashiro and Lawton that it’s neutral, belongs to no nation, and was launched in 1804. Dr. Anne Barton, the sub’s physician — a scantily clad young blonde played by Linda Haynes, whose line readings are even stiffer than those of the Japanese actors reciting them phonetically — advises that Masson’s injuries need more treatment than Alpha can provide, so McKenzie reluctantly calls off monitoring the volcano to return to a place called Latitude Zero (and longitude 180, where the equator and the International Date Line cross).

But the villainous Malic — played by Cesar Romero a year or so after the end of his tenure as the Joker on Batman — orders the crew of his own sub, the Black Shark, to destroy the Alpha. Apparently McKenzie and Malic were the hero and villain of the radio series, though the sub was called the Omega there. So the film treats their rivalry as long-standing. The flamboyantly dressed Malic is assisted by his lover Lucretia (Patricia Medina), who’s jealous of the Black Shark‘s female captain Kroiga (Hikaru Kuroki) and is cattily pleased when she’s beaten by the Alpha‘s superior tech tricks in a lengthy sub chase/battle, then is unable to penetrate Latitude Zero’s force field barrier.

McKenzie — who’s 204, a year older than Malic — shows Tashiro and Lawton the wonders of Latitude Zero (called “LZ” for short), a super-advanced, apolitical, post-scarcity anarchist utopia where the clothes are made of gold (extracted from seawater) and diamonds are used as flowerpot gravel. It’s basically as if Captain Nemo had invented the Federation. Tashiro is the Arronax of the film, intrigued by the utopian vision of LZ, while Lawton is the cynical Ned Land type, finding it too good to be true and suspicious of brainwashing and hallucinations (though he fills his tobacco pouch with diamonds anyway). He makes a good point about LZ’s failure to share their superscience with the world, though McKenzie insists they can’t until they can be sure it won’t be used for war.

Once Masson is healed, McKenzie explains how LZ’s teams recruit scientists from all over the world to come to LZ to conduct pure research without political, military, or commercial agendas — including one Dr. Okada and his daughter, both of whom Malic abducts to set a trap for McKenzie. The three newcomers and Dr. Barton volunteer to join McKenzie and his first mate Kobo (the only Japanese-speaking character in the film, played by Hitoshi Omae) for the rescue mission, and are equipped with an “immunity bath” that makes them temporarily bulletproof (and gives the men and Barton a chance to see each other naked, though it’s strictly G-rated for the audience), protective suits of a gold/platinum weave, jet-powered “elevation belts,” and gloves with built-in mini-weapons. The heroic menfolk leave the finally fully clothed Dr. Barton behind to woodenly pilot the Alpha (whatever happened to the large crew it had before?).

Meanwhile, Malic forces the Okadas to watch him punish Kroiga for her failures by surgically implanting her brain into a lion and sewing on a condor’s wings (which are somehow functional afterward), turning her into a griffin that he then enlarges with a growth serum and sics on the rescue team, though Griffin Kroiga instead just sits idly watching as they contend with various of the island’s deathtraps (what did Malic expect before the anaesthesia wore off?), so they’re able to reach Malic’s decidedly non-sterile operating theater and rescue the Okadas just before the professor goes under the knife. They have no trouble defeating Malic’s Bat Man mutants (Cesar Romero and Bat Men?? Why didn’t I notice that until now???), yet are somehow stymied when Malic releases a swarm of harmless actual bats (or superimposed footage thereof) to cover his escape.

The gang goes back to the Alpha, but Malic shows up in the Black Shark and subjects it to various attacks, including a powerful magnetic field trap, which it escapes by borrowing a trick from the Gotengo — it spreads its wings, fires jet engines, and takes flight. Malic is so vengefully obsessed with shooting down the Alpha with his laser ray that he gets the Shark trapped in the same magnetic field, and then the griffinized Kroiga finally takes flight and attacks the sub (again, what did he expect, really?), leading to both of their destruction along with the Shark. The entire island, like all respectable supervillain lairs, reacts to the villain’s demise by exploding for no apparent reason.

In the denouement, everyone chooses to stay in the paradise of LZ except Lawton, who gets picked up by a ship and finds his story disbelieved when all his film is blank and his diamonds are missing. Bizarrely, some of the crew are dead ringers for McKenzie, Tashiro, and Malic, as if we’re supposed to think it was all a dream — but then they find out (in Lawton’s absence) that a fortune in diamonds has been deposited in Lawton’s bank account, with none of them showing any knowledge of what it’s about. So Latitude Zero is real, and these guys just coincidentally look like the people in it? Huh? Wha?

Aside from that completely inexplicable ending, Latitude Zero isn’t bad as Captain Nemo riffs go. It feels almost like a backdoor pilot for a TV series, one that might’ve been fun to see. Granted, the acting isn’t great, for the most part. Joseph Cotten is basically just showing up for a paycheck, and the Japanese cast can only do so much with phonetically delivered English dialogue (the one fluent English speaker, Masumi Okada, has one of the smallest parts). Linda Haynes’s almost nonexistent performance (her first speaking role) can perhaps be excused by her youth and inexperience, as well as working with a director who didn’t speak English; here’s an interview with her about making the film. But Cesar Romero brings his supervillain A game to the role of Malic, gleefully chewing the scenery (only about half as hyperactively as the Joker would, but that’s more than enough), which makes up for a lot of the rest. It’s largely thanks to him that this film is so much more fun than the other two super-ship films. (Sorry, super-boat, since they’re submarines.)

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.

Thoughts on Legendary’s GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (Spoilers)

I got an overdue advance check this week, and figured I should catch Godzilla: King of the Monsters while it was still in theaters — which seemed uncertain, since apparently it didn’t do well at the box office and is already going out of release. So I’d need to go a bit more out of the way than usual. I considered just waiting for home video, since I have other stuff I need to focus on, but I wanted to at least see the monsters on the big screen, even if I didn’t get to see them in 3D like with the 2014 film. Anyway, I had some business at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and it turned out they had an office near one of the theaters that still carried the movie — which also had a grocery store and an Arby’s nearby, so I could do four things on one trip, which decided it for me.

So anyway… Godzilla: King of the Monsters should not be confused with the 1956 Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, the Raymond Burr recut of the 1954 original. It’s easier to tell the titles apart in Japanese, since the Burr film’s title was translated literally into Japanese as Kaiju-Oh Gojira, while the 2019 film’s title is merely rendered phonetically as Gojira Kingu Obu Monsutāzu. Maybe that’s fitting, since in some ways G:KotM is a very, very American action film, while in other ways it’s truer to the Japanese franchise than any other US Godzilla movie.

We open with scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), who lost her son in the climactic battle of the 2014 Godzilla and is estranged from her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), a naturalist studying “alpha frequency” vocalizations in wolves (based on a theory of wolf behavior that’s arguably been discredited). She’s living with their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) at a Monarch site in Yunnan Province, China, where that secretive monster-research organization is monitoring a Mothra egg that hatches as they watch. When the containment field is sabotaged, Emma uses a device called ORCA (developed by her and Mark to communicate with whales) to use the “alpha frequency” for kaiju — sorry, Titans, as they’re called herein — to calm the rampaging larval Mothra. The sabotage is the work of an unnamed ecoterrorist group led by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), which kills most of the Monarch team but takes the Russells and ORCA with them.

Meanwhile, in one of those movie-style US Senate hearing rooms that don’t look much like the US Senate chamber, returning Monarch characters Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins of The Shape of Water) are arguing against Senator CCH Pounder’s plan to turn over Monarch to the military and kill all the Titans, which Serizawa-hakase argues are vital to the Earth’s balance, especially Godzilla, who officially hasn’t been seen for five years. They get called away by news of the attack (on Titan?) and go to recruit Mark, an angry know-it-all who wants the Titans dead for what they did to his son, and who, on hearing that his wife and daughter are in danger, prioritizes shouting “I told you so” and being a self-righteous jerk over actually trying to help find his family. In a meeting with the Monarch team, he speaks out of turn and condescendingly lectures the team on what they should be doing — something pretty obvious that these dozens of trained experts should’ve been able to figure out on their own, but no, Mark is the designated hero so they all have to be dumbed down so he can get the glory. Oy. The scene also introduces two more Monarch scientists: Ilene Chen, the resident mythologist (the ever-luminous Zhang Ziyi, with a boyish haircut) and Rick Stanton, the obligatory wisecracker (Bradley Whitford trying very hard to be Charlie Day from Pacific Rim).

Jonah has Emma work to awaken “Monster Zero,” a three-headed dragon frozen in the Antarctic ice. Of course, this is King Ghidorah, with his Monarch appellation being a nod to one of the better-known English titles of his second film (usually known as Invasion of Astro-Monster). Meanwhile, an antsy Godzilla nearly attacks Monarch’s deep-sea base where they’re secretly monitoring him, and once again this whole organization of monster experts is made to act like idiots so that the obnoxious angry white guy can do all the thinking for them. Honestly, Mark is as irritating a know-it-all as the kids in the Showa Gamera movies. But he actually acts against his hotheaded destroy-all-monsters preference and urges them to back down from the alpha predator, which satisfies Godzilla so he goes on his way to Antarctica. Monarch gets there first in their flying wing, the Argo, in time to confront Jonah’s terrorists and try to get the Russells back. There’s a clumsily staged moment where Mark by himself with a pistol is implausibly able to hold a whole squad of rifle-carrying soldiers at bay and demand his family back (I think maybe the team of snipers backing him up is the justification, but it’s not very clear and it feels more like he just has movie hero plot armor). But Emma picks up and activates the detonator that frees Ghidorah, and we realize she’s been with Jonah all along.

So Ghidorah attacks the Monarch team and Godzilla shows up just in time to save them, for the first of several times in the film. I wasn’t expecting this marquee fight so early in the movie, but it’s inconclusive, with Godzilla giving the team time to escape, though Dr. Graham is killed by Ghidorah — something that should’ve been a big deal but is quickly lost in the shuffle. Emma then calls up Monarch to explain her actions, saying that the Titans need to be awakened to restore the balance of the Earth that humans have destroyed, and she advises Monarch to start making use of those bunkers they’ve been building to protect humanity from the monster apocalypse. Mark emphatically disagrees with her philosophy, and Madison is caught in the middle.

Also, Jonah has Emma wake up the giant pterosaur Rodan from his volcano nest in Mexico, which draws Ghidorah to the scene while the thinly drawn “G-Team” soldier characters try to rescue the nearby townsfolk. Ghidorah trounces Rodan and goes after the Argo, leading to Godzilla’s second last-minute arrival to save the humans. But our old friend Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) has already launched a new weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer — namesake for the weapon Daisuke Serizawa used to destroy Godzilla in the original film, but protested here by his namesake, since his buddy Godzilla will be killed. Indeed, the blast appears to kill Godzilla (along with all the fish within a 2-mile radius), but Ghidorah inexplicably survives — which Dr. Chen realizes means he’s not part of Earth’s natural balance and must be an alien. Ghidorah emits his own alpha frequency to awaken all the Titans at once (the rest are all original Legendary designs, including a new MUTO) and control them to terraform (or, well, de-terraform) the Earth to his liking. Emma is dismayed that Ghidorah isn’t acting like she expected, but Jonah is fine with letting humanity get trashed. Weird that Emma gets mad at Jonah when it was her own idea to wake Ghidorah.

Meanwhile, the adult Mothra emerges beautifully from her cocoon (how nice for an American film to get her gender right at last) under the observation of two Monarch scientists — Joe Morton as an older version of Dr. Brooks from Kong: Skull Island and Zhang Ziyi as Ilene Chen’s twin sister Dr. Ling. Yes, Zhang is playing a version of Mothra’s twin heralds, and there’s a bit inserted about how she and her sister are the latest in a long line of twins connected to Mothra, a cute but random bit that serves no story purpose beyond fanservice. Mothra uses her divine light to help revive Godzilla, and Mark realizes that the only way to stop Ghidorah is to replace him with our planet’s indigenous alpha kaiju. So he’s now made the turnaround from wanting Godzilla killed to seeing him as the savior of the planet. It makes him marginally less obnoxious, I guess.

So Monarch takes a sub to Godzilla’s underwater lair, strongly implied to be Atlantis (furthering the connections between Legendary Godzilla and ’90s Gamera). There’s an unexplained natural radiation source that looks like falls of lava, but it won’t heal him fast enough. To speed his healing, they have to set off a nuke near him, but their launch system is damaged, so Serizawa chooses to sacrifice himself to deliver it manually. It’s an interesting symmetry — the original Dr. Serizawa sacrificed his life underwater to kill Godzilla, and this one does the same to save Godzilla.

So Madison figures out that she and Jonah’s people are holed up in a Monarch bunker in Boston, and she somehow gets past a trained group of terrorist soldiers, steals the ORCA, and escapes to Fenway Park to use its sound system to broadcast ORCA’s signal to calm the Titans rampaging across the globe. (Those must be some hellishly loud speakers, guys.) Ghidorah’s having none of that, and comes in to attack Madison, who’s saved when Godzilla shows up with the whole US military at his back, an impressive and unusual visual. But in a nod to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the nuke charged Goji too much, and he’s minutes from going critical. Plus Ghidorah’s called in Rodan, who turns out to be a total suck-up to anyone who beat him in a fight and is now Ghidorah’s loyal lackey, taking on Godzilla’s ally Mothra in an aerial struggle. There’s a moment where Godzilla is almost killed but Mothra sacrifices herself to revive him, much as Rodan did for him in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II.

Meanwhile, Emma’s broken off from Jonah and gone to save her daughter, leading to a reunion of the family at last, but Emma stays behind to atone, using ORCA to distract Ghidorah so her husband and daughter can get away. We never actually see her death, but it’s pretty much a certainty, since Goji’s reached critical mass and is in full-on BurningGodzilla mode as in Destoroyah, and then some, literally melting skyscrapers as he walks past. (It’s not only a very impressive visual, but a rarity for Hollywood to acknowledge that heat can propagate through the air; usually people in action movies can be inches away from molten lava or an explosive fireball and be totally unaffected.) He releases his nuclear energy in spherical blast waves, saving himself and crippling KG so he can finish him off. The other Titans show up and bow to Godzilla, reacknowledging him as their alpha. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (Yes, they not only heard the Fenway Park speakers from all over the world, but got to Boston that quickly from all over the world. Dr. Stanton had some vague dialogue earlier about the “Hollow Earth” tunnels established in Kong: Skull Island somehow providing near-instant, wormhole-like travel for kaiju, presumably to set up this moment. Consider my disbelief unsuspended.)

There’s no followup on the Russells, just a credits montage of headlines painting an implausibly rosy aftermath as new life blooms in the wake of the Titans’ destruction and Monarch has gone public and everything is awesome except suddenly there’s a lot of news about Skull Island and something weird seems to be happening there, come back next year for Godzilla vs. Kong, but first, watch this post-credits scene teasing another potential sequel, a tease that depends on the American “Oxygen Destroyer” being a whole lot less disintegratey than Daisuke-san’s version.

Okay, not a perfect film, and it had some of the common failings of American action films — most of all the obnoxiousness of Mark as its male lead. The problem with Hollywood’s tendency to default to white male heroes is that it all too often doesn’t bother to make them interesting or likeable because it’s presumed that they’re automatically worthy of our focus. There were times during the movie when I felt it would be better if Mark wasn’t in it, if Serizawa and Chen were the main protagonists on the Monarch side, and if the film had let the mother-daughter dynamic be the key family element instead of bringing a cliched estranged father into the mix. Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown are both strong actresses who could’ve carried the emotional arc of the film without needing Kyle Chandler, who plays a rather stock character without bringing anything special to it. Ooh, I can imagine a better version of this film where Joe Morton’s Dr. Brooks is the male lead, Emma’s mentor and Madison’s surrogate grandfather who has much the same philosophical conflict with Emma. What a waste of Joe Morton to show him in only one scene.

It’s also very American in how pure and dualistic its morality is — Titans are either good or evil, and the good ones protect humanity and pretty flowers literally bloom in their wake. There’s a token acknowledgment that we’d be helpless before their power and have to deal with a lot of destruction, but this is quickly glossed over. Many of the best Japanese kaiju films (and some of the not-so-great ones, like the Netflix anime trilogy) are about challenging human hubris, forcing us to realize the Earth doesn’t belong to us and there are greater powers than ours. G:KotM only pays lip service to the idea and then turns Godzilla into a superhero actively protecting humanity and fighting alongside us.

Still, it’s nice that Serizawa and Chen are able to school the American characters on some Eastern ways of seeing things, like Chen’s explanation to Mark that Asian dragons are seen as protectors and redeemers. And this is the first American Godzilla film that really shows deep knowledge of and reverence for the original series, with a number of fannish references and Easter eggs. Best of all, Bear McCreary’s score incorporates Akira Ifukube’s iconic Godzilla theme and Yuuji Koseki’s “Mothra’s Song” throughout the film, the first time any of the classic kaiju themes have been used in a US film (though Ifukube’s Rodan and Ghidorah themes are not used). The film is pretty true to the “characters” of Mothra and King Ghidorah, with the former as a luminous figure of awe and benevolence and the latter as a ravenous destroyer (with its three heads snapping at each other like a pack of angry dogs). I guess the portrayal of Rodan as a hench-monster is consistent with his role as Godzilla’s ally/assistant in later Showa films, though he’s playing for the other side now. Legendary Godzilla, however, only seems true to the later Showa version of Godzilla as a heroic protector of humanity, and does feel more like Gamera in some ways.

Still, this is as authentic a Godzilla film as has ever been made in America, a good effort to capture the spirit of the franchise, even if it’s filtered through American sensibilities. The action sequences are massive and impressive, with some imaginative choreography and camera work. And despite my dissatisfaction with the male lead, the character work in the film wasn’t bad overall — not as good as Kong: Skull Island, perhaps, but not as bad as claimed by many of the reviews I’ve read. The actors were reasonably good, particularly Charles Dance, whose Jonah reminded me very much of Ian McKellen’s Magneto. Though I found Bradley Whitford’s performance disappointing since it was just non-stop snark with no depth.

Godzilla, Mark & Madison Russell, and Ilene Chen will be back in March 2020 for Godzilla vs. Kong. Hopefully the new Titan-friendly Mark will be less of an obnoxious know-it-all this time. Well, at least Jessica Henwick will be in it.

Thoughts on GODZILLA: THE PLANET EATER (spoilers)

January 10, 2019 1 comment

Netflix has now released the conclusion of its Godzilla anime trilogy (Part 1, Part 2), under the English title Godzilla: The Planet Eater (Gojira Hoshi o Kū Mono, which is more literally “The One Who Harvests Planets/Stars”). While it’s the culmination of what was set up in the first two films, in many ways it’s a very different story, less action-packed and more philosophical — and not all that much about Godzilla.

The film opens with the crew aboard the Aratrum in orbit arguing over the events of the previous film’s climax, conveniently providing a recap. The Bilusaludo/Bilsards are outraged that Captain Sakaki Haruo, our protagonist, passed up his chance to kill Godzilla in order to instead stop the Bilsards’ Mechagodzilla City from becoming an even worse threat. The human crew argue he probably did the right thing, and it leads to a schism with the Bilsards seizing the engine room and trapping the ship in orbit. But that won’t amount to much, since the Bilsards’ role in this narrative is all but over.

Down below, Professor Martin tells Haruo that Yuko, his love interest from Part 2 who was infected by Bilsard nanometal, is brain-dead, her body only kept alive by the nanotech. It’s a rather ignominious way to drop her from the story. Meanwhile, the Exif priest Metphies (still pronounced “Metophius”) is convincing the surviving soldiers that Haruo was saved from the nanometal by a miracle (though Martin quickly figures out what was obvious from Part 2, that it was the Houtua natives’ healing sparkle-dust that immunized him), and the soldiers both on Earth and on the Aratrum are implausibly quick to be converted to the Exif’s cult, with Metphies and his priest counterpart on the ship using Haruo as his Messiah figure but controlling the narrative so Haruo can’t actually get a word in to refute it — and Martin’s too afraid of being burned as a heretic to point out the simple truth. It’s all implausibly easy for these soldiers to be turned into religious fanatics, even given their fear and despair about Godzilla.

Anyway, the twin pseudo-Mothra-heralds Miana and Maina both consecutively get naked for Haruo, your conventional “My natural role as a primitive tribal babe is to be sexually available for the hero” cliche, although for unclear reasons he rejects the former twin and sleeps with the latter. (Pretty short grieving period for Yuko there, champ. Her corpse is literally still warm, though that’s admittedly because of the nanotech.) That frees up Miana to confront Metphies and discover through her telepathy that he also has telepathy and is planning devious things with his priest buddy on the ship, so Metphies captures her, and Haruo has a fortunately symbolic dream about Metphy cooking her as soup. But there is real soup, which Metphy serves to his converts with a sermon about how the soup ceases to exist but lives on as part of something greater. (Somehow I don’t think “But we are not soup” is going to go down in history as one of the great philosophical statements.) The collective prayer of the converts, combined with Exif crystal techmagicology, draws the Exif’s extradimensional god, Ghidorah, to this plane. In perhaps the film’s most effectively chilling sequence, the soup drinkers are devoured one by one as the shadow of one of Ghidorah’s heads/necks intersects their own shadows, with the focus of the camera ending up more on the horrified reaction of the last one to go.

The impact up in space is more dramatic — a singularity opens up by the Aratrum and a golden Ghidorah head and endlessly long neck emerge, evidently made of pure gravitational energy and wrapping around the ship, causing chaos and distorting time (the bridge crew gets a message from the engine room 40 seconds after it was destroyed and reads their own life signs as ceased several moments before it happens), ending in an impressively rendered explosion that creates auroras in the Earth’s atmosphere below.

Somehow the folks on the surface never figure out what happened to the ship, just that they’re cut off, but they don’t have much time to wonder. Three singularities form in the clouds around the dormant Godzilla (remember him?), and a long, snaking energy neck emerges from each one. Martin watches in bewilderment as the Ghidorah heads latch onto Godzilla and start draining his energy while he’s unable to touch them in return. The instruments show nothing except gravity distortions, but the observers can see and hear Ghidorah. Martin figures out that the monster must come from another dimension with different physical laws and is being guided by an observer in our dimension — no doubt Metphies.

Haruo confronts Metphies, who has replaced his own eye with the Ghidorah-linked stone he’s been carrying all trilogy. He uses his telepathy (or the stone, or both) to overpower Haruo physically and show him mental visions explaining the Exif’s nihilistic philosophy: All civilizations advance until they invent nuclear weapons, which breeds their destruction and triggers the birth of a Godzilla as the ultimate life form, and then Ghidorah comes to feed on the Godzilla and complete the cycle… which somehow destroys the planet too. The Exif see death as inevitable and thus a blessing to embrace, so they worship Ghidorah, having deliberately sacrificed their planet to it and sending their surviving priests out to make sure other civilizations repeat the cycle.

But Maina and Martin give Haruo a hand, communing with the Houtua’s god — an unhatched Mothra egg — to counter Ghidorah’s influence. A vision of Mothra frees Haruo from Metphies’s control, and he remembers his parents’ love and optimism as a counter for Metphies’s despair and nihilism. He also realizes Metphy caused the explosion of his grandfather’s shuttle in the first movie. He overpowers Metphies in his mind and in reality, breaking the stone and the link to Ghidorah. Which, by what Martin said before, should have made Ghidorah unable to exist or interact in our realm, but somehow it makes Ghidorah sufficiently subject to physical law that Godzilla can destroy its heads one by one, followed by the singularities they emerged from. (If they’re connected to a single body, we never see it except in visions.)

We then get a pop-song montage of semi-still images of the soldiers burying their weapons and hooking up with the conveniently numerous primitive tribal babes (who, remember, are evolved from insects, yet evidently interfertile with humans), until Martin eagerly tells Haruo that he’s used a bit of nanometal from Yuko’s still-living corpse (remember her?) to restart the surviving Vulture aircraft, and says he can use the Bilsard tech to recreate all their advanced civilization — which gives Haruo a mental flash of Ghidorah’s screech and Metphies’s dying warning that Ghidorah would always be watching for humanity to destroy itself again. Haruo then has a final talk with Maina about whether she fears and hates Godzilla. She says she fears him like lightning and tornadoes, but her people have no word for hate. You don’t hate a force of nature, you just learn to live with it.

So Haruo takes Yuko’s body into the Vulture and sacrifices himself in a kamikaze run at Godzilla, asking the kaiju with his final breath to make sure every last bit is destroyed this time. Godzilla obliges and is hit by the wreckage, but probably survives. After the credits, we see the Houtua acting out the past battles in effigy and praying to Godzilla (or Mothra, or both?) to devour the things they fear.

Okay, so, that was pretty well-made, but pretty nihilistic and Luddite. The Godzilla series has always revolved around cautionary tales about the dangers of the misuse of technology, but this trilogy comes down a little too hard on the idea of technology being intrinsically destructive, and this film in particular takes some narrative shortcuts that don’t quite work. It’s also an oddly slow, somber, talky film for the finale of a trilogy — quite a change from the first film’s excessive action in its third act, but maybe a bit too far in the other direction. And what action it has is pretty static. It’s the only Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen where Godzilla hardly moves at all. He spends half the film dormant and recovering from Part 2’s climax, then moves exactly once to the location where he confronts Ghidorah, a battle that’s conducted with Godzilla staying in one place except when he’s briefly levitated by Ghidorah. While the design of this extradimensional-gravity-god version of Ghidorah is striking and novel, the kaiju action in this trilogy overall has been largely disappointing.

Still, in my last review I did express hope that this film would be the richest and deepest of the trilogy, and from a philosophical standpoint it pretty much is, if you like that sort of thing. But I think it falls short in other respects, from character to action to the extent to which it actually uses Godzilla as a presence rather than a concept. All in all, the Godzilla anime trilogy was interestingly different and in some ways impressive, but ultimately underwhelming.

Thoughts on GODZILLA: CITY ON THE EDGE OF BATTLE (spoilers)

With my financial situation starting to improve again, I decided I might as well spend the 8 bucks a month to re-up my Netflix subscription, and the first thing I decided to watch was the second part of the anime Godzilla trilogy that began with Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. Part 2 is called City on the Edge of Battle in English, which means somebody’s a fan of Star Trek and/or Harlan Ellison, since the original title of the film, Gojira Kessen Kidō Zōshoku Toshi, translates more literally as Godzilla: Battle Mobile Proliferation City, or alternately The City Mechanized for the Final Battle.

The sequel picks up right where Part 1 left off, with the only recap being a brief opening scene of the shipboard crew hearing the panicked reports of the ground team being devastated and discovering the existence of a 300-meter-high Godzilla, apparently the original having grown immense over 20,000 years on the long-abandoned Earth. We then cut to our protagonist, Captain Sakaki Haruo, as he recovers in the wake of Godzilla’s attack and finds that his wounds have been treated by a mysterious, initially shy elfin woman who’s apparently native to the Earth. He reunites with most of the surviving members of his team, and after an initial conflict with the native humanoids that luckily doesn’t kill anyone, the survivors are captured and taken to the underground village of the natives, who are called the Houtua. The native woman, Miana, turns out to have a twin sister, Maina, with whom she telepathically speaks in unison to let the soldiers understand their language. (The soldiers are oddly bewildered by the concept of identical twins, but then, they’ve grown up among a smallish refugee population, so maybe they’ve never met any twins before.) The Houtua are covered in a sort of scaly dust, their “bangs” look more like feathery antennae on closer inspection, and the team’s science guy, Professor Martin, thinks they might be descended from insects instead of humans, despite appearances. And they worship something called the Egg, which seems to rest behind a massive wall carving resembling a stylized winged insect. By this point, it was pretty clear to me that these are a new interpretation of the Infant Island tribe that worships Mothra, and Maina and Miana are the latest version of Mothra’s twin heralds the Shobijin (aka Cosmos aka Elias), despite being normal-sized. (The Netflix subtitles render their names as “mAina” and “mIana,” but I guess that’s meant to stress the difference.)

Once Haruo tells the Houtua that his team is there to destroy Godzilla, their weapons are returned and they’re allowed to leave, and the twins come along to guide them. Galu-Gu and Belu-Be, the two team members belonging to the highly rational, technological Bilusaludo (or Bilsard) species, hold the Houtua in contempt for their “primitive” lifestyle, but notice that their spear points are made of the advanced nanometal that the Bilsard (that’s easier to type) used 20,000 years before in their abortive attempt to create Mechagodzilla to save the Earth from Godzilla. The twins guide them to the source of the nanometal, which turns out to be a city-sized industrial complex that’s evolved and metastasized from the intelligent nanometal that Mechagodzilla was made of. Thus, they dub it Mechagodzilla City and make it their new base of operations. The Bilsard are confident that its superior tech will give them all the resources they need to kill the giant Godzilla Earth by scaling up the plan that killed the smaller Godzilla Filius.

Haruo, to his credit, has some doubts about all this. He was stupidly gung-ho in the first film, not at all likeable, but his defeat at the hands of Godzilla Earth has humbled him somewhat. He still believes that, since his initial plan was a success (however Pyrhhic), the basic idea of killing Godzilla to reclaim Earth for humanity can still work even against a bigger Godzilla. But he’s no longer blindly obsessed with that goal. He pauses to question his own motives, he takes responsibility for his failures, and he shows more consideration for his troops, asking them to join him only on a volunteer basis, which most of them do. It’s a major improvement. He also gets the inevitable romance with the token female soldier Yuko, who’s cast in a more conventional love-interest role this time around — which is not much of an improvement, though at least it gives her more to do.

The Bilsard, meanwhile, are quite gung-ho about the power of their technology to destroy Godzilla, to the point that the subordinate ones willingly let the city’s nanometal assimilate them, giving up their biological lives so their minds can boost Mechagodzilla City’s processing power. This leads to a heated debate where Haruo, Martin, and the humans question whether Mechagodzilla City will become a monster of its own and take over the planet after it destroys Godzilla. Galu-Gu and Belu-Be make it clear that they consider surrendering their flesh to technology to be a desirable goal, that they admire humanity’s achievement in “creating” Godzilla as something more powerful than themselves (or rather, creating the environmental damage that provoked the evolution of Godzilla as the ecosystem’s defense mechanism), and they think the only downside of Godzilla’s creation was humanity’s failure to control it. The Bilsard are happy to create and become a monster if it makes them smarter, more advanced, and more powerful. Yuko actually gets to be more than the love interest when she agrees with the Bilsard’s side of the argument over Haruo’s, at least insofar as the immediate crisis is concerned.

But the moral debate must be set aside when Godzilla awakens and begins to sense the city’s activity as it prepares the weapons for its attack on Godzilla. This requires them to launch their anti-Godzilla plan prematurely, with their weapons incomplete. This includes only three modified powersuits (called “Vultures”), which Haruo, Yuko, and Belu-Be take out to harry Godzilla with in order to lure him into the trap. As with the first film, Godzilla shows up only in the last third and the battle takes up most of the final act. The CG animation and design of Godzilla Earth don’t seem quite as clumsy as in the first film; maybe I’m just more used to it, or maybe it works better on this larger scale. Godzilla moves extremely slowly, but that makes sense for a creature so vast.

Anyway, their attempt to blow up Godzilla with his own disrupted internal energies eventually goes according to plan, but he doesn’t quite blow up, instead dissipating the energy as an immense quantity of heat, so that the attackers can’t get anywhere near him to continue the attack. Galu-Gu, as fanatically obsessed with destroying Godzilla as Haruo was in the first film, causes the nanometal in the Vultures to begin assimilating their pilots to give them the heat resistance they need. Belu-Be gives in willingly, but Haruo and Yuko resist, and Haruo is somehow able to fight it off (probably due to the moth-dust healing balm he was given by the Houtua between movies), but Yuko isn’t. Haruo is contacted by his friend Metphies (pronounced “Metophius”), the religious, androgynous Exif alien from the first film, who’s played a background role in this one (despite his sinister agenda revealed at the end of Part 1). Metphies tells Haruo that the only way to stop the nanometal from consuming Yuko is to destroy Galu-Gu’s command center, shutting down all the nanometal — which means the only way Haruo can save Yuko is to give up his vendetta for good and allow Godzilla to live. Of course, that’s exactly what he does, and the freed Godzilla destroys Mechagodzilla City — but is it too late for Yuko? We’ll have to wait for Part 3, Godzilla: Planet Eater, due in November.

This is a definite improvement on Part 1, with Haruo’s character growth making him more sympathetic, and with somewhat better characterization all around, though most of the supporting cast still isn’t developed that much. The twins provide a bit more of a female presence this time, and the characters actually have some limited wardrobe changes. There’s still not much of a sense of scale to the Godzilla battle, though; he is placed against the context of Mechagodzilla City rather than just generic woods, and we had earlier seen how vast that city was next to humans, but the city is still too alien a setting to let us really feel the scale of it all.

I found the Bilsard to be too much of a cliche, the alien culture that’s hyper-logical and scornful of emotion, but it’s interesting that they still basically share the same goal as the human protagonists even though they have deep philosophical differences in how to achieve it. And I’m a bit concerned that apparently both of humanity’s alien allies seem to have harmful agendas, given the first film’s intimations that Metphies worshipped kaiju as sacred destroyers and orchestrated Godzilla Earth’s awakening. Metphies seems helpful enough here, but he gets the Bilsards’ help in repairing some supposedly harmless religious trinket that is probably not harmless. He also reveals to Haruo the name of the kaiju that destroyed the Exif homeworld, a cosmic force of destruction far greater than Godzilla — and it was easy to guess who that would be even before we heard the name in the post-credits stinger. Given the implication that the Houtua are connected to Mothra — and given the cryptic references they made to “the Baby Chick,” a term which (if translated correctly) may suggest Rodan — we may be in for the same monster team-up in Planet Eater that Legendary Pictures is delivering in Godzilla: King of the Monsters next year.

So after a slow and disappointing start to the trilogy, we get a stronger middle. Hopefully the filmmakers will continue to build on what the first two films have established about the characters and the world and make Planet Eater the richest and deepest of the three. If they do, the trilogy as a whole may prove worthwhile after all.

Thoughts on GODZILLA: PLANET OF THE MONSTERS (spoilers)

January 18, 2018 3 comments

Godzilla is back, and this time, it’s anime! Yup, somebody finally had the idea to put those two iconic threads of Japanese entertainment together. Or rather, they kind of had to. Apparently Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla license means that Toho can’t make another live-action Godzilla movie until after Legendary’s next two films, so a Shin Godzilla follow-up won’t be possible until at least 2021. But the deal doesn’t cover animation, so Toho was able to continue the franchise in that form.

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (Gojira: Kaiju Wakusei) is the first of a new Godzilla trilogy from Toho Animation and Polygon Pictures, the first time the big G has ever been interpreted in animated form in Japan, although there have been two American animated Godzilla series in the ’70s and the ’90s. Thanks to Netflix being a production partner, I was able to watch the film from home on the day of its worldwide release, and thus I can bring you a prompt review. (Some sources translate the title as Monster Planet, but Netflix has it listed as Planet of the Monsters — perhaps to resonate with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the title of both the 1956 Americanization of the original film and the upcoming 2019 Legendary Pictures sequel, give or take an exclamation point. It also lists it as “Episode 1” of “A Netflix Original Series,” since it’s the first of a trilogy.) I watched it in Japanese with subtitles, but Netflix defaults to the English dub.

The film is computer-animated, but apparently cel-shaded 3D animation has advanced to the point where it looks indistinguishable from well-done 2D hand animation, although the characters still move like 3D computer models, which is a combination that’s a bit off-putting to me. But I got used to it as the film went on. One drawback of the CGI approach is that the characters spend the entire movie in their spacesuits, with no change of clothes/digital model until the post-credits scene.

At first, there’s no indication that this is a Godzilla movie. We open on a large starship where Captain Sakaki Haruo is rebelling against a plan to leave the elderly passengers behind to colonize a hostile planet, insisting it’s just a scam to rid the ship of its weakest population and leave more resources for the rest. Haruo’s grandfather (or just an old man he respects, since the Japanese use the “grandfather/grandmother” title for all elders) talks him down and he’s arrested, but he watched in horror through his cell window as the shuttle blows up in the atmosphere.

We then get a title montage with narration explaining the backstory. In “the final summer of the 20th century” (by which they probably meant 1999, unless they’re calendrical purists), kaiju began to emerge and attack humanity, with the largest of them, Godzilla, appearing in 2030. (Apparently there’s a Japanese prequel novel, Monster Apocalypse, that tells this backstory.) Godzilla proved unstoppable, human civilization was devastated, and two different species of humanoid aliens, both refugees from their own cataclysms, came to Earth to offer help: the Exif, pale androgynous humanoids offering comfort through their religious beliefs, and the Bilsards (or Bilusaludo in the Netflix subtitles), a stockier people with gray featherlike hair and eyebrows, who make a failed attempt to fight Godzilla with Mechagodzilla in exchange for colonization privileges on Earth. Eventually, all three must flee Earth together in the starship Aratrum. Over the ensuing 22 years, the refugees must deal with deprivation and starvation as their search for a new planet continues to be fruitless.

Haruo grows up feeling that humanity has lost its pride and dignity because they fled Godzilla rather than staying to fight, and in prison he develops an anonymous plan to fight Godzilla by identifying the source of the deflector shield Godzilla’s body generates to protect it from attack, the key to its invulnerability. (Reminiscent of the “post-Crisis” explanation of Superman’s invulnerability as the result of his solar-charged Kryptonian cells generating a skin-tight force field, which was why he stopped being invulnerable when Kryptonite or red sunlight disrupted the charge.) If this can be identified by the “noise” it generates, EMP generators can be fired into Godzilla to amplify the “noise” and destroy it. (I figure “noise” must be a bad translation, but I double-checked, and it’s in both the subtitled and dubbed versions. Incidentally, it’s an interesting experience to watch a scene with both the English dub and English subtitles on simultaneously, since the former is written to fit the lip sync and thus can differ considerably from the latter.) Haruo is aided in this project by an Exif priest called Metphies (as his name is spelled in shipboard display graphics, though “Metophius” would better match the sound), who believes Haruo has a destiny to fulfill. When the commanding council realizes the refugees’ only hope of survival is to go back to Earth, they have no choice but to release Haruo on probation to advise them on how to destroy Godzilla.

The ship has a near-instantaneous subspace jump drive, yet somehow it jumps unpredictably in time so that it’s effectively much slower than light, with millennia passing on Earth in just two shipboard decades. They get back to Earth 19,200 years after they left, finding it covered in forests and dense fog. Godzilla is still there, and the atmosphere makes their drones useless. Haruo advises that the only option is to send down fully 600 of the ship’s 4000 personnel to wage a ground campaign to gather the sensor data they need to destroy Godzilla, and we get a Gilligan Cut from some shipboard authority guy saying it’s out of the question to the mission actually being launched, with no explanation for how he was convinced, how personnel were selected and trained, or any of it.

Once the team gets down, they are soon attacked by dragonlike avians evidently related to Godzilla (called Servums behind the scenes, but not in dialogue), damaging them so badly that their commander, Leland, calls a retreat, saying they’ll settle on the Moon and gather resources from Earth. It’s actually a more reasonable-sounding plan than Haruo’s macho determination to stay and fight for what’s theirs, but Metphies points out to Leland that their only path to regrouping and getting everyone off-planet requires following something very close to Haruo’s plan anyway, just without the active Godzilla-hunting. But Metphies tells Haruo that other worlds have been destroyed by Godzilla-like creatures, and “some” believe they’re a punishment the universe sends against hubristic species, so that Godzilla will surely seek them out rather than let them escape.

Indeed, Godzilla finally shows up 53 minutes into the 88-minute film, and it’s pretty much nonstop action from there. Leland sacrifices himself to get the data Haruo needs, Metphies is next in command, he puts Haruo in charge, and Haruo orders the big attack and does the whole screaming relentless Japanese movie hero bit, and eventually his plan works and they blow up Godzilla — but then their science guy wonders how Godzilla was so unchanged over 20,000 years and if maybe that was the offspring of the original… and then the whole nearby mountain erupts and turns out to be the original Godzilla, now grown to preposterously large size, and that’s the cliffhanger to Part 1. (Apparently the big one is called Godzilla Earth, and the offspring was Godzilla Filius. Which translates from Latin as “Son of Godzilla,” which means they’ve been fighting Minilla this whole time!) And we discover that this is what Metphies was trying to provoke all along, using Haruo’s attack as bait to draw out the “King of Destruction” whom he worships. Oops! (I suspect his name was influenced by Mephistopheles.)

The reason my summary of the last 1/3 of the movie is so sparse is because there’s not really a lot of story. I’ve come to expect anime to be smarter and deeper than Japanese live-action productions, on the whole, but this movie is pretty superficial. The first half is mostly setup and the second half is mostly action, and neither one has much in the way of character development. Haruo is the only character whose point of view we really get to know that well, and he’s just so stubbornly gung-ho and confrontational, fight and win at all costs, that he’s one-note and hard to sympathize with. To anyone who’s familiar with past Godzilla movies, it’s easy to predict that his conviction of humanity’s right to dominate and possess the Earth will turn out to be misguided and he’ll be struck down for his hubris. So he’s really not someone I could root for, since I could guess he’d turn out to be the goat rather than the hero, and there wasn’t really anyone else to sympathize with. A few other characters have agendas that either reinforce Haruo’s arc (e.g. Metphies) or create obstacles for it (e.g. Leland), but they don’t get much development. There’s also Tani Yuko, a soldier who’s basically there just to be the token female, though she mercifully isn’t gratuitously sexualized in any way. She does get one scene with Haruo where she wonders if the old people on the shuttle were deliberately murdered, with Haruo not wanting to believe the leaders are that corrupt — which is pretty interesting, considering that Haruo’s the one who staged a violent revolt to try to stop the shuttle launch. But otherwise, she’s just kind of there. Overall, the movie is much more interested in military porn and hardware and combat action than it is in character exploration, and offhand I can’t think of a single moment of humor in the film.

Visually, the Godzillas and the Servums are kind of weird-looking. They aren’t rendered in a cel-shaded 2D style like the human and humanoid characters, instead having a complex 3D surface texture, but they don’t look photorealistic either, or even like the kind of stylized-realistic 3D characters you see in Pixar or Dreamworks movies, say. It’s a weird sort of uncanny valley between them, like moving charcoal paintings or something, and it’s off-putting and visually unclear. It’s certainly a novel form of animation, but I don’t think it looks good. Maybe it would have helped if they were more colorful instead of being pretty uniformly gray. But I think the problem is that they’re just too detailed and textured. Part of what makes cartooning and conventional animation effective is that it’s simplified, that it distills things down to their essential outlines and features. A design as cluttered as these kaiju is hard for the eye to make sense of when it’s in motion.

Another problem with the film’s depiction of Godzilla is that, aside from the brief flashbacks in the opening montage, all the action takes place in the wilderness. Godzilla isn’t stomping through a city or an industrial area, just moving through woods and mountains. So while you can tell he’s quite tall in comparison to the forest, there’s still not that great a sense of his scale from a human perspective. There are humans fighting him, but mostly from the air, which also doesn’t help to establish a relatable sense of scale. And just in general, it’s a fairly dull backdrop for the action, without a lot of visual interest. Some of the best Godzilla battle scenes in past movies are ones set against distinctive landmarks — prominent downtown districts, historic castles, amusement parks, bridges, things like that. If Godzilla’s smashing through a setting, you want it to be a setting that has a personality, a strong sense of place. The more striking and unusual the environment is, the greater the sense that something unique and valuable is being destroyed, and thus the higher the stakes feel. So having a whole movie where all the action is in a rather dull-looking wilderness is just not taking the best advantage of the potential of animation to create striking vistas. If they were going to make a Godzilla anime set in the future, why not in some vast futuristic cityscape stretching clear to the horizon, or maybe even a megastructure in space, somehow?

And really, why start the story where they did? Why pack all that deep, complex backstory of the fall of Earth and the arrival of aliens and the failure of Mechagodzilla into a 3-minute, 45-second flashback and a tie-in novel rather than making that the story of the first film and saving this story for the sequel? Just one more respect in which this film feels superficial and unsatisfying.

All in all, then, the first Godzilla anime is underwhelming, especially as a followup to the very impressive Shin Godzilla. It looks fairly good in some respects, less so in others, and it’s well-made and competently acted, and it has a good score (by Takayuki Hattori, composer for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla and Godzilla 2000: Millennium), although without any reference to Akira Ifukube’s classic Godzilla themes. But it doesn’t have much in the way of substance, or a lot going on beyond a pretty straightforward, one-track story. The more I reflect on it, the more disappointed I am with it. I just hope the remaining two installments in the trilogy do better.

Thoughts on Legendary’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND (spoilers)

September 18, 2017 3 comments

It’s taken me a while to get around to reviewing Kong: Skull Island, the second film in Legendary Pictures’ “MonsterVerse” following the 2014 Godzilla. I haven’t been able to afford the luxury of seeing many movies lately, so I had to get it from the library, and there was a long waiting list. But it finally arrived, so now I can add it to my kaiju review series. (On that note, if you enjoy my reviews, please consider making a donation with the PayPal Donate button to your right.)

Although this film is set in a Godzilla universe, its links to Godzilla are peripheral. The monster-seeking organization Monarch returns, but at an earlier stage in its history — the film is set in 1973, aside from a prologue set in 1944 — and though its main agent in this film, Bill Randa (John Goodman), makes a passing reference to the Marshall Island nuclear “tests” in 1954 that we know were aimed at Godzilla (in this continuity), his own motivation for seeking giant monsters dates back to a ship disaster he survived in 1943. There are a few other references (discussed below), but aside from a post-credit scene setting up the next Godzilla movie, they’re subtle enough that you could watch this film without ever realizing that it connected to any other film. Which is a good way to do a shared universe.

Anyway, it’s the end of the Vietnam War and Randa fears Monarch will lose funding in peacetime, so he organizes an expedition to Skull Island, spoken of in legend but only just confirmed by satellites to exist, in a last-ditch effort to prove monsters are real. (This is a point where the loose continuity is maybe a bit too loose — if Monarch and the US military cooperated in attacking Godzilla in ’54, doesn’t that mean they already know monsters are real? Is this trip really necessary?) He ropes in a military escort led by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s bitter about leaving the war unwon but cares deeply for his men, as well as James Conrad, an ex-RAF expert tracker (Tom Hiddleston). Award-winning photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) tags along to document what she and most of the others believe to be a geological survey of the island.

While Godzilla 2014 was justifiably criticized for its fairly superficial and unengaging characters, it seems K:SI took those criticisms to heart, because its first act is all about establishing character, developing its large and rich cast through plenty of fun interplay and banter. Hiddleston’s Conrad is introduced as a world-weary cynic but ends up as a rather generic competent and heroic type for most of the film; but there are plenty of other colorful personalities. The film also does a nice job creating a sense of the period, largely through heavy use of ’60s and ’70s rock songs and extensive visual and stylistic homages to Apocalypse Now. We get to know and like the characters quickly, which makes it more effective when the expedition’s choppers, in the process of dropping “seismic” charges onto the island with blithe disregard for the local fauna, attract the attention of the local mega-megafauna, namely Kong, who smashes their choppers up quite thoroughly and leaves the survivors scattered across the island. Packard now has a clear enemy to fight and multiple dead soldiers to avenge, and he’s ready to shoot Randa for leading them into this — it’s clear that the “seismic survey” was meant to flush out the beast — until Randa explains that there are far more monsters living in the hollow spaces under the Earth and they must be proven to exist so that they can be stopped before they devastate the world. Now Packard has both men to avenge and a country to defend, and he’s determined that Kong must die. This time, he thinks, there’s no question who the enemy is.

But elsewhere, Conrad, Weaver, and their group of survivors find a village of islanders, among whom lives Marlow (John C. Reilly), an American fighter pilot downed on Skull Island in 1944. Though he’s grown quite eccentric over the years on the island, he interprets for the Iwi islanders (even though they don’t speak on camera) and explains that Kong is the island’s “King,” defending the Iwi and most of the other animals of the island (including various kaiju species like a bamboo-legged spider and an amphibious giant mammal called a Sker Buffalo) from the Skullcrawlers, two-legged giant reptiles with skull-like, beaked heads. They live in the underground spaces that Skull Island provides access to, and Kong is the only line of defense against the largest of them. Weaver sees proof of Kong’s benevolence when she tries to save a Sker Buffalo trapped under a downed helicopter only for Kong to arrive and free it — and perhaps he recognizes her benevolence too. But then, Kong always did have an eye for the ladies.

So naturally this leads to a conflict between Conrad’s group wanting to protect Kong and Packard wanting to kill him. But even though Packard does go kind of Captain Ahab and is implacably obsessed with vengeance, his motivations are still understandable, even sympathetic. He goes too far in the end, but we can understand how he got there and thus forgive him for it. It’s a really deft bit of characterization.

But the conflict of Packard and Kong must ultimately give way to the climactic fight between Kong and the ultimate Skullcrawler, known in publicity as the Skull Devil. It’s a brutal, lengthy battle, very creatively choreographed and well-animated, and the human protagonists get in on the fight and help Kong — notably Weaver, whose fearlessness gets her a little too close to the action and gets her in trouble, requiring Kong to save her (although she’s been proactive enough throughout the movie and contributed enough to the fight that she doesn’t feel like a damsel in distress). I’d say it’s a better climactic battle than the one in Godzilla 2014, and does a better job of integrating the kaiju and human characters. Although it makes sense that a fellow primate like Kong would be more prone to bond with humans than a prehistoric reptile like Godzilla.

All in all, I liked this movie quite a bit. It’s effectively written and directed, it has strong characterization and a talented cast, and its action is creative and well-handled. It manages to evoke a lot of elements of the original film’s Skull Island sequence while also making them fresh and avoiding the cliches like Kong being taken captive or fighting off aircraft atop a skyscraper. (There is a sequence where he ends up chained in a somewhat contrived way and must break free, but I only just now realized that it was an homage.) And it works better as its own entity than a lot of franchise-building films these days. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything about it that doesn’t work, aside from the prologue maybe revealing a bit too much of Kong too soon, and the post-credits tag scene setting up 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters being a bit tonally jarring and unnecessary. Even though the tag features Conrad, Weaver, and the surviving Monarch characters who recruit them, it doesn’t feel like a part of this film — and it seems extraneous as a setup for G:KotM, since that would presumably be set in the present day, 46 years later, so it’s unlikely that any of these characters would be involved.

Even the portrayal of the Iwi tribe isn’t bad, at least not compared to prior Kong movies. Rather than superstitious savages, the Iwi are portrayed as a dignified, intelligent, and artistic people that extend hospitality to Marlow and the other refugees — although they’re still treated as exotic and voiceless, so it’s not perfect.

I said the film doesn’t dwell too much on setting up future films, at least not in a way that intrudes on the story it has to tell, but there are ideas relevant to its story that do a lot to flesh out the Legendary MonsterVerse (as I guess we’re stuck with calling it). G2014 established that ancient monsters were still lurking about somewhere, maybe deep underground, but K:SI clarifies that the Earth of this reality has large subterranean hollow areas where the kaiju live, with Skull Island being one of their access points to the surface (which I realized could perhaps explain the perpetual wall of storms circling the island — something to do with the pressure and thermal effects of a really deep hole to the Earth’s interior). Interestingly, that’s an idea that was considered for an abandoned third Godzilla film back in 1956, an incredibly bizarre premise called Bride of Godzilla, which would’ve involved a scientist building a giant naked robot double of his own daughter and using it to seduce Godzilla, yes, seriously. I sincerely doubt anything like that will happen in the MonsterVerse, though. But the “Hollow Earth” established here sets the stage for the emergence of as many monsters as Legendary needs for future films. I can even imagine a future time when Monarch uses Skull Island as the equivalent of the original Monster Island from the Showa series, an enclave where kaiju can live cut off from the rest of the world. Although Kong might have something to say about that.

Oh yeah, about Kong — in this movie, he’s apparently 31.6 meters tall according to official sources. That’s a bit over twice the height of the 1933 Kong and more than four times the height of Peter Jackson’s 2005 version, but only 2/3 his height in Toho’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. But the MonsterVerse’s Godzilla, aka LegendaryGoji, is over 108 meters, 3.4 times Kong’s height herein. But I guess that’s why K:SI has Marlow establish that Kong is “still growing.” Even so, it’s hard to see him tripling his height in less than 50 years. But I guess we’ll see when Godzilla vs. Kong arrives in 2020.

Thoughts on miscellaneous (very bad) kaiju films

I’ve already covered pretty much all the major kaiju films in previous posts, so I’m down to whatever dregs I can scrounge up here and there. Here are some thoughts I’ve gradually accumulated…

One film I found online was Varan the Unbelievable, the 1962 Americanization of the 1958 Daikaiju Baran (Giant Monster Varan), the last black-and-white kaiju film from Toho and one of the few solo monster movies in the series. The thing is, the adaptation took the Godzilla, King of the Monsters! approach and then some, replacing most of the movie with new American-made footage and using mostly just the action/effects footage from the original, plus some silent or Japanese-language scenes with narration added. So I wasn’t sure I should bother watching it, but it was the only opportunity I had to see Varan, whose only other appearance is a minor cameo in Destroy All Monsters (since the suit was badly damaged between films). So I gave in and took a look.

The American version stars Myron Healy as Commander Bradley, a US officer assigned by the Japanese to head a desalinization experiment in a saltwater lake on a small Japanese island, whose “primitive” natives resist the project because it will disturb the lake where their reptilian god sleeps. Oddly, the god/kaiju is called Obake throughout, despite the title being Varan. We spend most of the first half of the movie with Bradley and his Japanese wife/secretary Anna (Tsuruko Kobayashi), whom he treats like a child both because that’s how American men treated their wives in the ’50s and because that’s how white Americans treated non-Westerners in the ’50s. The new material is claustrophobic and tediously padded, spending nearly half the movie debating whether to forcibly relocate the villagers before it gets to the actual experiment, which naturally awakens Varan and sends him on the rampage that dominates the rest of the film while our “heroes” are mostly stranded on a jeep far from the action, trying to get through on the radio to give instructions to the actual leads of the Japanese film, with whom our “heroes” have been clumsily given an off-camera relationship and who are only seen briefly a couple of times before they carry out the action of the climax. It’s a really dreadful adaptation. At least GKotM included the bulk of the actual plot of the original, giving the sense of telling almost the same story from an alternate perspective. This replaces most of the story with cheap, padded, repetitive scenes that offer nothing of interest besides Ms. Kobayashi’s stunning features.

It’s a pity, because Varan’s a fairly effective kaiju. Based on a monitor lizard (genus Varanus), it’s a quadrupedal kaiju with a row of straight, clear spikes down its spine, effectively menacing-looking and quite versatile — it can function as a facultative biped as well as an aquatic creature and even, in the Japanese version, gliding like a flying squirrel. It’s too bad its film wasn’t well-received (the Japanese version’s plot was apparently considered too unimaginative and by-the-numbers) and the costume was damaged, relegating Varan to an undeserved obscurity. I hope someday I manage to see the original film.

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I managed to see a rather obscure 1967 kaiju film from Shochiku, The X from Outer Space (Giant Space Monster Guilala). Shochiku is actually Japan’s oldest film studio, but kaiju-eiga wasn’t generally in its wheelhouse, and this film maybe shows why. It’s a lightweight film aimed at a young audience, and it’s practically two different movies. The first half is a space-travel adventure about a rocket crew trying to get to Mars and fending off a UFO attack, which ends up with the rocket being coated in some kind of space spores that they manage to get off, bringing one back with them. The second half suddenly turns into a by-the-numbers kaiju film when, due to lousy scientific procedure, the space spore gets loose and grows into a cheesy, Muppety space monster called Guilala, which has a pointy, bug-eyed head with antennae and bizarrely bulgey limbs with a very limited range of motion. Guilala goes on a half-hearted rampage through very cheap miniature cityscapes while the space heroes try to harness a space element as a weapon against the space monster. And all the monster’s rampages are accompanied by the same two bars of music looping endlessly, and I had it stuck in my head for hours thereafter.

Oh, and the three Caucasian actors in the cast have their lines dubbed into Japanese, and there isn’t the slightest effort to even vaguely match their lip sync. Really lame stuff, although the Japanese female lead is really pretty. You’d think a network with “Movie Classics” in its name could drum up some higher-quality movies. They show this one often enough that there will probably be more chances to see it.

Apparently, astonishingly, Shochiku actually made a 2008 comedy sequel to this movie, The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit. I haven’t managed to see that one, though, and I’m not sure I’d want to.

One kaiju movie I’d read about but hadn’t had the courage to watch was South Korea’s first stab at the genre, 1967’s Taekoesu Yonggary (Great Monster Yongary, which I guess would make taekoesu a direct translation of daikaiju), which was released in English in 1969 as Yongary: Monster From the Deep. From what I’d read about it, it was really bad, and so I didn’t feel any great compulsion to watch it. But when the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on Netflix recently, Yongary was its 9th episode, so I finally got to see it, after a fashion. My review is based on the MST3K viewing, but I really don’t want to bother to watch the movie “in the clear,” because it seemed like it’d be really boring without a guy and his robot friends making fun of it.

So the main characters are an astronaut and a scientist who seem to be related in some way, plus the astronaut’s new wife, the scientist’s love interest who doesn’t actually seem to like him much but is being pushed toward marrying him by her relatives, and her mischievous 8-year-old brother Icho, who’s introduced hitting the newlyweds with an experimental ray that makes them itch and nearly drives them off the road. The honeymoon is interrupted when the astronaut needs to go on a spaceflight to monitor a nuclear test in the Middle East, but if this becomes relevant, it’s unclear in the version I saw. Presumably the nuclear test is what awakens Yongary, but the spaceflight to monitor it has no bearing on the plot at all. And there’s never any direct link drawn between the test and the monster. Anyway, the monster is first detected as a moving series of earthquakes as it burrows underground, just like Baragon in Frankenstein Conquers the World. Thus, the officials name the monster Yongary, supposedly after a mythic Korean monster associated with quakes, although it’s actually a portmanteau of yong, Korean for dragon, and the name of the mythical Korean monster Pulgasari.

But when Yongary finally emerges, he’s possibly the most derivative kaiju ever — a skinnier Godzilla with Gamera-like eyes, a Baragon-like nose horn, and vaguely Anguirus-like tail spikes, emitting Gamera-like fire breath (emitted from a huge, obvious nozzle in its mouth) plus a Gyaos-like cutting beam from his horn — a weapon that I think shows up exactly once in the entire film.

I hardly even remember the plot after this, since it’s your by-the-numbers kaiju business with government men in meeting rooms and toy tanks and buildings getting crushed while the people flee, only much more crudely made. There’s a shot of a mother and her baby that looks like a ripoff of one of the most heart-wrenching moments from Gojira, but then they get up and run and they’re fine. The scientist, Ilo, goes to see the monster and his girlfriend and Icho inexplicably go with him, and the scientist gets hurt and Icho wanders off to where he manages to see Yongary feeding on oil tanks, and being made very itchy by some substance he encounters. Like the kids in Gamera movies, he’s the only person to have the insights that help the grownups figure things out — namely, that Yongary feeds on heat and energy, just like Gamera, and that the chemical irritant may be a weapon. The government tries setting an oil fire to lure Yongary out of the city so they can blast him with missiles, and when that doesn’t work, Icho steals the itching ray, but this time it doesn’t make Yongary itch — the chemical already did that — but rather lures him with its energy. (Confusing, isn’t it?) So the kid leads him into the trap and the missiles don’t work but the chemical dust (dropped from a helicopter) does, poisoning Yongary into a coma. But then, with the monster already defeated, the damn kid sneaks out and uses the energy from his no-longer-itching ray to revive Yongary, which… oh, hell… inexplicably makes the monster dance, with Icho dancing along until some soldiers come along and drag the kid away for perpetrating this horror — well, actually to get him to safety, but come on, the kid is directly responsible for the destruction Yongary goes on to cause.

But that final rampage doesn’t last long, since the good guys just dump a bunch more chemical on Yongary until it very slowly dies, and there’s an aspect of it that’s rather disgusting and gruesome and “What were they thinking?” And then the kid who started off happy to help kill Yongary and then resurrected him is suddenly all “It’s cool that you’re killing him, but did we really have to kill him, since he’s really a nice dancing monster who’s just hungry?” (I gather that they stopped short of killing him in the Korean version, though he’s dead in the English dub. And the Korean version is mostly lost.) And then there’s an interminable denouement with the press interviewing the damn kid and the girlfriend finally breaking down and agreeing to marry the scientist, and then oh gods it’s finally over.

Wow. Not only a lazy ripoff of a bunch of other kaiju films, but a totally unfocused one, unable to make up its mind about whether it’s a drama or a comedy or about what motivates the characters. I’ve seen some bad kaiju films, goodness knows, but this is just such a thoughtless, empty parroting of other kaiju films that its very existence as a distinct entity seems unjustified.

Despite everything, though, there was actually a reboot of Yonggary (as it’s spelled in this version) in 1999, with a revised 2001 edition that’s the only one available (it’s on YouTube in a version squished to a 4:3 aspect ratio), and was inexplicably called Reptilian in US release, or even Reptile 2001, as it’s listed on IMDb. You know how the ’90s reboots of Godzilla and especially Gamera were much better than their late-’60s versions? Well, we finally have a kaiju whose ’90s reboot was even more awful than the original! 2001 Yonggary/Reptilian/whatever is a Korean film, but it’s set in America with an all-Western, all-English-speaking cast of atrocious actors, and though the script is credited to Marty Poole, it sounds like the work of someone for whom English is not a first language.

Most of the characters in this film are incredibly unlikeable, too. We spend the first act with an evil archaeologist who’s determined to unearth the bones of a huge new dinosaur, not caring about all the strange accidental deaths happening around them, and refusing to listen to the dire warnings of his crazy, grizzled mentor Dr. Hughes, who gets a little more traction with the evil archaeologist’s ex-assistant, aka the film’s female lead Holly. There’s also a skeevy photographer who’s treated as a major character in the first act (there are actually two different scenes where he tries to photograph a dead worker and has the film torn from his camera by the evil archaeologist, who gives nearly the same lecture to him both times), but this goes nowhere. Of course, Hughes’s warnings prove right, because there’s a goofy-looking alien ship that just happens to show up in orbit and fire an un-skeletonizing ray to turn the fossil back into a live monster, which Hughes calls Yonggary, based on knowledge from ancient hieroglyphs (somehow written 200 million years ago, or else more recent but somehow knowing about events 200 million years ago and also having a word for “dinosaur”). While in the original movie, the monster’s name rhymed with “dungaree” (at least in English), here it’s pronounced “Yong Gary.”

So Young Gary kills the evil archaeologist — and I guess the skeevy photographer too, since he doesn’t appear again — and the film becomes about Hughes and Holly assisting a bunch of military types as they hunt and fight Yong J. Gary, which keeps getting beamed up and down by the aliens. This Yonggary is a very crude CGI effect who doesn’t look much like his predecessor — he’s still a broadly godzilloid kaiju, and he has a tiny horn on his snout, but he has a more simian facial structure, triangular head plates reminiscent of Lisa Simpson, inexplicable spiked shoulder pads, and a rosette-like chest structure resembling the ’90s Gamera’s plastron (i.e. underbelly).

The rest is mostly the usual thing of the military’s attacks having no effect, the city being trashed, and the President threatening to use a nuke on the city if another solution can’t be found. The one innovation is that a group of soldiers headed up by the main soldier character (who’s evidently meant to be likeable and witty but is terribly acted and obnoxiously unfunny) takes on Yonggary by flying around him in jetpacks, but that seems like a singularly pointless and bad idea when going up against a giant monster with fire breath. At least in a jet plane or chopper, there’s a chance the hit will be glancing enough that you can eject. Anyway, Hughes and Holly decipher some secret data that Hughes stole from the top-secret government agency dealing with aliens, telling them to attack the diamond structure on Yonggary’s head, which the aliens are using to control him. This is over the objections of a cartoonishly evil government guy from that agency, the latest in the string of thoroughly unpleasant characters.

So when one soldier does a kamikaze jetpack run to smash the diamond (with the actual smashing implied rather than shown), Yonggary is freed from the aliens’ control and is suddenly a friendly and helpful kaiju, saving the obnoxious soldier guy from a falling buiding. So the aliens send down a second monster, a centauroid hodgepodge of crustacean parts called Cykor, and Yonggary fights him. (If they had another kaiju all along, why did they need Yonggary? Or why didn’t they have both attack Earth at once? Their goal was explicitly to destroy Earth, and relying on a single monster to do all the work is pretty inefficient.) But the evil government guy wants Yonggary killed to lure the aliens down so his agency can get their technology, or something, so he jams the command center’s transmissions, which doesn’t really affect anything since Yonggary’s doing all the fighting anyway. The crisis is resolved by the time Yonggary wins and they need to call off the nuclear strike. Yonggary conveniently falls unconscious for no reason after destroying Cykor, and the military airlifts him to an offshore locale that I’m sure is geographically and legally distinct from Monster Island.

I guess one thing I can give this version of Yonggary is that at least it’s a slightly more original story with somewhat more creative monster designs than its predecessor. But it’s far more ineptly made and acted, far more obnoxiously bad in its dialogue writing and attempts at character humor, and comparable in incoherence. It was clearly made for US audiences, but they couldn’t be bothered to cast a single recognizable actor, let alone a single competent one. The American cast and setting also make it feel more generic from my perspective; at least the original Yongary gave us a glimpse of South Korean culture and architecture, a change from the usual Japanese or American (or occasionally European) monster-movie settings. And the CGI monsters are not only terribly animated, but they take away the charm of watching rubber-suit monsters duke it out and smash toy buildings.

I say if you’re going to watch a South Korean monster movie, you should go for Dragon Wars: D-War from 2007. It’s almost as ineptly written as Reptilian, but the Celestial Dragon that shows up in the climax is the most beautifully rendered screen version of a Chinese-style dragon (long) that I’ve ever seen, awesome enough that it almost makes up for the rest of the movie.

Thoughts on SHIN GODZILLA (Spoilers)

October 24, 2016 6 comments

That’s right, kaiju fans, I’ve seen the new Godzilla movie! I was fortunate that Funimation’s limited release of the Japanese Godzilla reboot Shin Gojira — which was originally going to be released in the US as Godzilla: Resurgence but was instead released as Shin Godzilla — happened to be showing at a theater just half an hour’s drive from me this past weekend (actually right by the place I took my car when its odometer broke down a while back). I was also fortunate that they decided to extend the run after I missed my chance last week, and that they included a Saturday matinee showing so I didn’t have to drive in unfamiliar territory after dark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Japanese Godzilla film in the theater before — certainly not uncut and undubbed — so it was good to get the chance. Though I was a bit late getting started and I made the mistake of taking the shortest route rather than the faster but more circuitous freeway routes, so I just barely got into the theater in time for the opening Toho sunburst.

This movie is written and “executive directed,” whatever that is, by Hideaki Anno, creator of the acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I’ve been curious about but haven’t actually seen as of this writing. The other director, also the director of visual effects, is Shinji Higuchi, who was the effects director on the superb Gamera trilogy in the ’90s. That’s some impressive talent.

Shin Gojira means “New Godzilla” or “True Godzilla,” with a bit of a wordplay suggesting “Divine Godzilla.” It’s something unprecedented since the 1954 original: A Japanese Godzilla film that isn’t a sequel to that original, but a complete reboot in which Godzilla is something never before encountered. Indeed, that’s arguably unprecedented even if you count the two American attempts. The creature in the 1998 TriStar version was newly evolved, but named in reference to an existing Japanese legend called Gojira, which could conceivably have been the actual creature (and the 2002 GMK did imply that the TriStar movie happened in its continuity); and the Godzilla in the 2014 Legendary Pictures reboot had been secretly known to the military and governments since 1954. Even in the original movie, Gojira was known and worshipped as a sea god by the native tribe of Odo Island.

When I first heard that this, the seventh continuity reboot in Toho’s Godzilla series, would break with the tradition of making every reboot a parallel sequel to the ’54 original, I was disappointed. But as it turns out, this is a film whose story depends on Godzilla being a black swan event, a totally unprecedented problem that catches everyone in authority completely unprepared. It couldn’t really have been told any other way. “New Godzilla” indeed. (And perhaps it explains why the Resurgence title was dropped. It would’ve been false advertising.)

The film opens found-footage style with a Coast Guard investigation of an abandoned boat, the Glory-Maru, which is destroyed by a mysterious steam eruption at the same time an auto tunnel below Tokyo Bay is flooded. Opening with an abandoned boat is no doubt meant to evoke the ill-fated boats that opened both the ’54 original and the ’84 Heisei reboot, but remember it — there’s more to it than that.

The opening minutes are somewhat dry and tedious as the vast government bureaucracy moves from meeting to meeting and clumsily tries to figure out what to do, but it soon begins to become clear that the tediousness is the point, highlighting the inefficiency of a bureaucracy so top-heavy and complacent that it can’t react promptly to a crisis. The lead character, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), is a young government official who chafes at the inefficiency and bureaucracy, and once the scope of the crisis becomes clear, he takes charge of a task force of nerds and rebels (by Japanese standards) who operate informally and free of hierarchy, working as a team to figure out the nature of the creature and how to fight it. But they still have to contend with the rest of the government, not to mention the Americans and other world governments, playing politics as usual.

Yaguchi is eventually contacted by Kayoco Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), supposedly a third-generation Japanese-American whose grandmother came to the states after WWII and whose father is a U.S. senator. The odd spelling of her given name (seen printed in her file) is perhaps meant to be an Americanization of “Kayoko.” Unfortunately, Ishihara speaks English with a very heavy Japanese accent, so she’s unconvincing as a U.S. native. (She is gorgeous as hell, though.) Kayoco brings Yaguchi the files of Goro Maki, a missing scientist who owned the Glory-Maru and who shares his name with the protagonists of both 1967’s Son of Godzilla and the ’84 reboot. Maki’s notes confirm that the creature chowed down on nuclear waste dumped on the ocean floor, presumably mutating it. Kayoco also establishes the creature’s name, and it’s odd how it’s explained in the film: The American code name Godzilla is introduced first, explained as a variant of Maki’s coinage Gojira, meaning something like “wrath of God” in the language of Maki’s native Ohdo (or Odo) Island, with the American spelling thus influenced by the word “God.” It seems convoluted, but I suppose it’s necessary to justify the “Godzilla” spelling in a modern context. That spelling is based on a romanization scheme that was preferred in the ’50s (in which it would be Gozila or Godzila) but has since fallen out of use in favor of the scheme that romanizes the same name as Gojira.

When Godzilla first appears, it seems oddly comical, a snake-headed, fish-eyed juvenile form that galumphs clumsily on all fours, ill-suited to movement on land. But it quickly gets less comical as we see the sheer size of it and the destruction it wreaks, and it soon visibly mutates into a second, upright form better adapted to land. As with prior reboots, this one has evolved the concept of Godzilla, adding something new to the mythos. Originally, Godzilla was just a surviving dinosaur species turned radioactive by nuclear testing. The Heisei series retconned him into a therapod dinosaur mutated to giant size by radiation. The Millennium series introduced his super-healing ability, allowing Godzilla to regenerate from near-total destruction if any part of him remained (an idea cribbed from Toho’s ’60s Frankenstein films). Now, Godzilla’s gained the ability to evolve into new forms at will — reminiscent of Iris in the Heisei Gamera trilogy, although it also kind of makes Godzilla a Pokemon now, or a Digimon. As with those franchises, it seems the sort of thing designed to let them sell lots of Godzilla toys by giving him various different forms.

Another idea this film shares with the Gamera trilogy: The Self-Defense Force is initially hampered in fighting the kaiju because the treaty only allows it to use force if fired upon first by an aggressor. They figure out they can make an exception for “pest control,” so the helicopters are sent in, but when it turns out a few civilians remain in the area, the Prime Minister chokes and refuses to give the fire order, allowing the creature to retreat to the sea.

Godzilla’s eventual mature form is more than twice its previous size (and taller than any previous Godzilla, in a bit of one-upmanship on Legendary Pictures, the previous record-holder), and it heads for Tokyo for unclear reasons (except, well, where else would Godzilla go?). Yaguchi’s team and the SDF have had time to organize a systematic attack, but none of their weapons leave a scratch, and it takes some American stealth bombers dropping bunker-buster bombs to pierce Goji’s hide. But that injury just prompts its next mutation, and it unleashes a devastating fire breath that then becomes an even more devastating atomic ray, and that’s just the start of a sequence of truly massive devastation on a scale beyond what we’ve ever seen in a Godzilla film, destroying three whole wards of Tokyo in moments and killing the Prime Minister and much of the government. Its energies depleted, Godzilla then freezes in place to recharge.

Yaguchi and half his team manage to survive (including all the speaking characters therein) and try to pick up the pieces. They have a plan: They’ve figured out that Godzilla’s nuclear reactor is blood-cooled, and they intend to use a coagulant to shut down his metabolism and force a “scram” (i.e. an emergency reactor shutdown). But the U.S. plans to nuke Godzilla — and Tokyo — to prevent it from evolving into a form that can reproduce and spread worldwide. Naturally, the prospect of America nuking a third Japanese city evokes a lot of pain and soul-searching from the characters. Yaguchi’s team has to race against time and pull every official and back-channel string they can to get the time to finish the coagulant, and the appointed replacement Prime Minister, who initially seemed like a flake, rises to the occasion and helps them get the time they need. Along the way, they figure out — this is a little unclear — that Goro Maki was somehow responsible for unleashing and possibly even creating Godzilla, perhaps as vengeance on Japan for his wife’s death, or perhaps a test of humanity’s worth to survive. If they are saying that Godzilla was a genetically engineered organism, it would be another parallel with the Gamera trilogy, and the first time that idea has ever been applied to Godzilla, although there was an unmade 1994 American remake that would’ve explained Godzilla as the creation of aliens.

The final battle with Godzilla is actually rather anticlimactic, since it’s basically just a matter of pinning Godzilla down and spraying the coagulant into its mouth, and the plan succeeds a bit too easily. Kayoco reminds Yaguchi that the nuclear countdown is only on hold as long as Godzilla remains dormant. But there’s a final shot showing… well, I’m not quite sure what it shows, but it may be a hint that this is not the only Godzilla out there.

Even though this is a total reboot, the film has a lot of references to the history of the franchise. I’ve mentioned many of them already. The score, by Evangelion composer Shiro Sagisu, makes use of a number of Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla motifs and military marches at appropriate points, while also basing a number of original cues on a 6-note ostinato prominent in his Evangelion scores. (Some sources say he reused the actual cue from NGE, but I listened to the tracks on YouTube and they have distinct melodies, sharing only the ostinato underneath.)

Shin Godzilla is certainly the most serious, dark, and allegorical Godzilla film since at least GMK. It’s also very much a rumination on the state of Japan as a society, perhaps because it’s in some ways a reaction to the new American Godzilla franchise. Although using Godzilla as a metaphor for the contemporary zeitgeist of Japan itself is something done by many of the most effective Godzilla films — and some of the less effective ones. The original film was a protest of American nuclear testing and its unconsidered impact on Japan, and a rumination on the ethics of weapons of mass destruction from the perspective of a nation still healing the wounds from their recent use. The 1984 reboot took a critical look at the US-Soviet Cold War from the perspective of one of the smaller nations caught in the middle, with Japan’s history giving it a unique moral authority to take a stand against the superpowers’ nuclear gameplaying. The problematical Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was a jingoistic celebration of Japan’s Imperial history and its rise as an economic superpower in the ’80s and ’90s. Conversely, GMK a decade later was an indictment of that same Imperial history and the way the modern generation had chosen to forget the nation’s past crimes and horrors. Following those precedents, Shin Godzilla is a commentary on the state of Japan in the post-Fukushima era, an expression of frustration at the governmental bloat and inefficiency that hampers the protection of the public against disasters, and at the way Japan’s political and military autonomy is still restricted even generations after WWII, a period of penance and dependence that seems like it may never end. While GMK criticized the Japanese for forgetting the lessons of their forebears’ misdeeds, this film makes the counterargument that the current generation doesn’t deserve to keep being punished for them, not if it inhibits Japan’s ability to defend itself and stand as an independent nation rather than a client state. Still, it’s more nuanced than the rah-rah pro-imperialist politics of GvKG, making a case for Japan as an equal partner among cooperating nations.

Still, as somber as it gets, I feel there’s a certain superficiality to it, due to its unrelenting focus on government officials. Aside from the early found-footage scenes, there’s little sense of ordinary people’s reactions to the disaster. The action scenes are mostly quite bloodless, with the population largely or fully evacuated before the battles, and with little in the way of onscreen death or the loss of established characters other than the first Prime Minister. This is actually pretty typical for Godzilla films, but it kind of belies the publicity saying that this was going back to the spirit of the original film, because that film focused heavily on the human cost, the terror of the victims and the suffering of the survivors. That was what made it so powerful and poignant. Similarly with the Shibuya sequence in Gamera 3 — what made it horrifying was not all the buildings the kaiju destroyed, but the focus on all the civilians fleeing and dying underfoot. The Tokyo cataclysm here is visually and stylistically potent, beautifully made and striking, but a bit sterile in contrast, because it’s a mostly empty city being destroyed and there’s little sense of a human cost aside from the loss of the PM. Other Godzilla films may rarely feature as much onscreen death as the original, but there are usually at least some civilian characters to offer a more street-level perspective.

Still, from a stylistic standpoint, it’s a well-made and effective film. The VFX, done mostly with CGI, are quite good overall, although the “baby” Godzilla doesn’t look quite as solid and real as the later models. The music is used fairly deftly; at first, in the dry, documentary-like opening minutes, there is no music, but a score finally begins to emerge once the proto-Godzilla makes landfall, and the Ifukube themes kick in once the mature creature appears. The editing is quite fast-paced, sometimes maybe a bit too much so, but it helps keep the energy up even in all the scenes of meetings and dialogue. There are captions everywhere, identifying characters by name and government title (including several captions for Yaguchi as he’s promoted to more and more responsibility) and the various offices and task forces and even military vehicles, and it’s hard to pay attention to the subtitle translations of both dialogue and captions at the same time. I’m glad I was sitting toward the back of the theater so that I could at least fit both sets of captions into my field of view. Still, watching this movie with subtitles might be more rewarding on home video with freeze-frame capability.

All in all, I’d call it one of the better Godzilla movies. I think the film it most reminds me of is the ’84 reboot — also a rumination on Japan’s relationship with nuclear superpowers, and the last time that a Japanese Godzilla film was strictly about Godzilla vs. humanity, with no other monsters or giant mechas involved. It does a good job feeling grounded and naturalistic, even if it is a bit sterile. It’s certainly raised the effects game to a new level, perhaps even enough to compete with Legendary’s efforts. Apparently it’s been quite a critical and box-office success, the best-attended Godzilla theatrical release in Japan in 50 years, and its limited US run has done better than expected. I’d say that means the prospects of a sequel are pretty good, although the next announced Godzilla project from Japan is, surprisingly, a CGI anime film slated for 2017. If there is a sequel in the Shin continuity, hopefully we’ll get a bit more explanation of Goro Maki’s role in unleashing Godzilla. I’m sure we’ll get further mutations of Godzilla as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a rival monster or two. It’d be nice to have an ongoing continuity again, although next time I’d like to see the perspective broaden beyond the government.

And I’m probably not the only one wondering if there’s a way to do a Shin Godzilla vs. Legendary Godzilla crossover…

Kaiju family values: GORGO and GAPPA (spoilers)

In search of more giant-monster movies, I’ve found a pair of indirectly connected films in public domain: The 1961 British film Gorgo and the Japanese Daikyoju Gappa (Gappa, the Colossal Beast) from 1967. The latter film, from Nikkatsu studios rather than the usual kaiju suspects Toho and Daiei, is considered to be a knockoff of Gorgo, so I decided to watch them back-to-back to compare them. Now, the Internet Archive copy of Gorgo is of terrible quality, so it’s probably better to watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version available for free on Shout Factory TV, although honestly the image quality isn’t that much better there and it isn’t one of their funnier episodes. I decided to sit through the Archive version first, though, just to get a feel for the unadulterated story.

Directed by Eugène Lourié (director of the earlier stop-motion dinosaur movie The Giant Behemoth and production designer on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), Gorgo focuses on salvage-ship captain Joe Ryan (Bill Travers faking an American accent) and his first officer Sam Slade (2001‘s William Sylvester using his real American accent), who happen to be at the Irish island of Nara when an undersea volcano unleashes a 65-foot giant monster, a Godzilla knockoff with red eyes, fan-shaped earflaps, and comically oversized hands and feet. Joe and Sam prove instantly unlikeable when they shake down the local harbormaster (himself an archaeologist hoarding sunken treasure rather than studying it) to get permission to capture the beast. Ryan makes the ill-considered choice to use himself in a diving bell as bait, but just barely manages not to get killed before the crew catches the beast in a net. Joe and Sam prove further unlikeable when they double-cross the Irish scientists sent to study the beast and instead sell it to Dorkin’s Circus in London’s Battersea Park. Sean, an annoying orphan boy from the island, stows away and tries to free the creature, which he considers a legendary sea serpent called Ogra, but he fails.

There’s a big media circus around the beast’s capture, and the film utilizes a full-scale replica of the creature’s head, paw, and tail (with a tarp concealing the “body” so they didn’t have to build it) for shots of it being driven through the streets of London on a flatbed. A crewman is killed getting “Gorgo,” as it’s been dubbed, into its pen at the circus, but Joe pushes forward regardless, even as Sam begins to have doubts. Soon, the Irish scientists report, without explaining how they know, that Gorgo is an infant creature, which means mommy may still be out there. Sure enough, a bigger creature smashes Nara (and the crooked harbormaster) and follows the baby’s scent trail toward London. Sam suggests the obvious solution — let the baby go — but for no comprehensible reason, both Joe and the military dismiss the idea out of hand, overconfident that they can defeat the beast. Even when it survives all the stock footage the British Navy can throw at it and destroys an entire, err, destroyer, nobody questions this assumption.

Sam does try to free the baby, but Joe stops him. Which means Joe, supposedly the film’s hero, is responsible for the mother creature “Ogra”‘s rampage through London, which naturally destroys the obligatory landmarks (the Tower Bridge, Big Ben’s Clock Tower, the part of Picadilly Circus that isn’t live-action footage) and kills thousands under badly superimposed falling debris before Ogra finally reaches her baby and they both go back to the sea. There’s a feeble attempt to make Joe heroic when he braves the crowds and the monster attack to save Sean when the boy randomly gets swept up in the evacuation, but come on — saving one boy that’s only in danger because of Joe’s choices hardly makes up for all the horrible devastation and mass death that Joe’s greed and negligence are entirely responsible for. And yet Joe and Sam get no comeuppance and barely any closure, with some random bluescreened reporter making the final speech about man’s hubris.

All in all, I can’t say I thought much of this film. It’s very derivative, basically a cross between Godzilla and King Kong with a touch of Mothra. It’s rather dull for much of the first act, the characters are thoroughly unlikeable and morally despicable, and the monster suit is a bit goofy-looking with those big hands and feet (I think they used the same suit for both beasts, just against differently scaled miniatures). The effects aren’t too bad overall, given the era and the budget available, but there’s too much stock footage of the military stuff (which the director apparently didn’t want at all) and the London rampage goes on a bit too long and repetitively. I gather this is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film, but I come down more on the “hate” side, mainly due to the dreadfully unpleasant characters. (And as Mike and the bots pointed out in the MST3K edition, there are no women in the entire film except for a few extras in crowd scenes. And Ogra herself, of course.)

The Internet Archive’s version of Gappa, the Colossal Beast (under the title Monster from a Prehistoric Planet) is all but unwatchable, but there’s a tolerable version (low-resolution widescreen English dub) on YouTube (under the title Gappa: The Triphibian Monsters). There is a broad structural similarity to Gorgo, but the details differ. This time, the ship we open with is on a South Seas expedition to gather animals for a theme park being built by a greedy magazine publisher, Funazu (Keisuke Inoue). A volcanic eruption draws them to an island populated by a stereotyped tribe in brownface makeup, whose members welcome the expedition but warn of dire consequences if they disturb the entity they call Gappa. The leads — reporter Kurosaki (Tamio Kawachi), scientist Tonoka (Yuji Okada), and their mutual romantic interest Koyanagi (Yoko Yamamoto) — find a giant egg that hatches into a human-sized infant creature that they take back with them to Japan. The publisher Funazu insists on smuggling it in and keeping it secret so he can get the exclusive in his magazine (which at least the English dub calls Playmate Magazine, but which doesn’t seem to be sexually themed or pinup-oriented in any way). Soon, the parent monsters, which are basically bipedal bird-lizard creatures with hands, emerge and trash the islanders, then fly off in search of baby. An American sub rescues the islanders, including the boy who had previously bonded with the heroes and who now warns the sub crew about the Gappas heading to Japan.

So Koyanagi’s upset about the menfolk being so coldly focused on their work, feeling they should release the baby creature. Soon thereafter, the adult Gappas begin rampaging through Japanese cities and going through the usual kaiju-attack beats, just in duplicate. There’s even a bit where, during a rocket attack by a fleet of jets, the Gappas take time out of defending themselves to destroy one of those traditional Japanese castles that always get trashed in these movies, even though there’s no particular reason for them to do so. Oddly, there’s a bit afterward where Funazu releases the magazine telling the story of the baby Gappa, and yet somehow nobody makes the connection with the larger monsters that just attacked. Wouldn’t he have wanted to kill the story, since it would basically be admitting culpability for all the death and destruction? But apparently nobody recognizes the link, except for our lead trio, who are aware that the baby can emit homing waves like a bird’s, thereby attracting the parents. Koyanagi again proposes releasing the baby, and this time, to their credit, the protagonists actually go along with the idea — but the greedy Funazu forbids it, because now he’s suddenly worried about admitting his culpability. Tonoka and Kurasaki are both willing to accept responsibility, though, and they overrule Funazu and airlift the baby to an airport, then amplify its cries to draw the parents. The mommy and daddy Gappas’ first meeting with their baby is actually a bit touching, as they embrace it and then teach it to fly so they can go home. In a ’60s-style happy ending, Koyanagi announces she’s quitting her job to find a husband, and Tonoka tells Kurasaki to go after her and presumably become said husband.

Well, if this was inspired by Gorgo, it’s a much better take on the premise. The protagonists are a lot less reprehensible, and they actually take action to correct their mistake. The characters overall are better-drawn, and the plot is better-structured, though I could’ve done without the stereotyped island tribe and the brownface makeup. The monster action is a bit by-the-numbers, but the nuclear-family angle, with the parents smashing up Japan together in pursuit of their baby, is a novel twist. The Gappa are a fairly interesting design, versatile in being able to function on land, sea, and air (hence “Triphibian” in the US title, although that’s an invalid construction — I think “triplibian,” tripli- plus -bian, would be more correct). This was the only kaiju film by Nikkatsu, a studio that went out of business shortly thereafter, but it’s not a bad one.

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Thoughts on GAMERA THE BRAVE and series overview (spoilers)

Wrapping up my Gamera reviews now, we come to the final film to date, Gamera: The Brave (Chiisaki Yūsha-tachi Gamera, literally Young Braves of Gamera). This film came out in 2006, seven years after the end of Shusuke Kaneko’s trilogy. It’s interesting how the Gamera films after the original series never seem to overlap with Godzilla. The 1980 revival came about midway between the end of the Showa Godzilla series in 1975 and the start of the Heisei series in 1984. The Heisei Gamera trilogy began in 1995, a year after Heisei Godzilla ended, then continued in ’96 and skipped forward to ’99, a year after the TriStar Godzilla and nine months before the start of the Millennium Godzilla series. And Gamera: The Brave came out two years after the Millennium series ended (although it’s still considered a Heisei-era film, since we’re still in the reign of the Heisei Emperor, and the “Millennium” title is specific to the Godzilla franchise).

And yet, although the Gamera revivals tend to skirt around the Godzilla revivals, they also follow their lead. The Kaneko trilogy followed the Heisei Godzilla’s precedent in being much darker, slicker, and highly revisionist, rejecting the silliness of the Showa-era predecessors and ignoring their continuity (although Godzilla reboots to date have always counted the 1954 original, while the Gamera trilogy started from scratch). And The Brave, written by Yukari Tatsui and directed by Super Sentai/Power Rangers/Kamen Rider veteran Ryuta Tasaki, somewhat follows the lead of the last three Millennium Godzilla films in disregarding the ’90s continuity and revisiting elements of the original Showa series — although in this case, the links are quite tenuous, and it’s more a spiritual sequel than anything else.

Which should not be held against it. You know how I said in my Gamera vs. Barugon remarks that being a better film and being a darker, more adult film didn’t automatically go hand in hand? Well, this is the film that proves that. Gamera: The Brave is very much a child-focused film, but it’s as different from the cheap, cheesy, formulaic Showa series as it is from the dark, sophisticated horror-drama of the Kaneko trilogy.

The film begins in 1973, with a Gamera very different in appearance than the one we know (based on a different species of turtle, with a much flatter beak, knobblier limbs, and a yellow-brown color scheme with a red pattern on the plastron) engaged in battle with three smaller Gyaos that are attacking a seaside village. (Why is it always Gyaos?) Given that this is only two years after the last film in the original continuity, it initially gives the impression that this might be the same Gamera from those films — but it’s later implied that Gamera was not known prior to 1973, making this yet another unconnected continuity. Anyway, the emphasis is much more on the villagers fleeing the destruction of their village than on the monsters’ battle. A young boy, Aizawa, watches as Gamera unleashes a final attack reminiscent of his Mana Blast from Attack of Legion, but in this case it vaporizes Gamera along with the Gyaos; he sacrificed himself to save the humans. We fade to the same spot in 2006, where the grown Aizawa is with his son Toru (Ryo Tomioka), going to visit the fairly fresh grave of Toru’s mother. Toru is sullen, unwilling to be comforted by the belief that his mother endures as a spirit rather than being simply ashes. But he has friends that he gets along with better than he does with his father, including the brothers Ishimaru and Katsuya and Toru’s next-door neighbor Mai (played by an actress listed only as Kaho), a girl who seems to be a few years older but who lets him borrow her manga. Mai’s parents run a shop that sells the distinctive scarlet pearls found at the site of Gamera’s self-destruction.

Soon, Toru follows a glint of red light from that same site to find an egg ensconced in a glowing red crystal. The egg hatches into a baby turtle that he calls Toto (his mother’s nickname for him) and secretly takes home with him, since his father runs a restaurant and doesn’t allow pets for reasons of sanitation. Toru is surprised when the turtle grows with remarkable speed — and he and Mai are quite surprised when Toto begins levitating. Toru tries to get rid of Toto before he’s discovered, but Toto follows him home and Toru saves him from getting run over. Soon he’s too big to keep, and Toru and his friends take him elsewhere and keep an eye on him, but then he disappears — just before the village is attacked by a giant frilled lizard. Toto emerges as an eight-meter giant and manages to fight off the lizard, but is badly wounded. The military shows up and takes him away, wanting their own Gamera as a weapon against kaiju. (There’s a background thread about how the government’s “giant monster council” has recently been disbanded, implicitly from a lack of further kaiju attacks until now.) Aizawa now knows about Toru keeping “Toto” as a pet, but tells his son to forget him, because he’s a Gamera now, and his lot is to fight. But Toru doesn’t want to believe that, because that means he’s destined to die.

The government names the monster Zedus (Jidasu) for unspecified reasons. I wondered if it might be something to do with the so-called Jesus lizard that can run on water — in which case we’d have Gamera vs. Jesus, of all things — but they don’t have the same kind of frills that Zedus had. Apparently Zedus’s design comes from a mix of influences, including Barugon and Jiger from earlier Gamera films, the monitor-lizard monster Varan from Toho’s hard-to-find 1958 Daikaiju Baran, and the TriStar “Godzilla”, aka Zilla. It’s a reasonably effective design, but a lot less weird and more naturalistic than most Gamera foes.

Anyway, Mai needs to go to the hospital in Nagoya for heart surgery, and Toru’s worried about maybe losing her as well, so he gives her Toto’s red crystal as a good luck charm. Meanwhile, the government tries to force Toto’s growth by feeding him the “Gamera energy” they’ve extracted from the scarlet pearls. Mai survives her surgery, but she’s somehow senses that Toto will need his crystal, so the boys head off to Nagoya to get it from her — just in time for Zedus to attack Nagoya, since Toto’s also being held there and Zedus is hunting him. Toto awakes, now full-sized, and fights back, but is rather overpowered.

Still, once again, the kaiju battle is more of a background element, with the focus remaining heavily on the characters reacting to it, particularly on the kids trying to fulfill Mai’s urgent need to get the red crystal to Toto. The film finds a rather extraordinary way to involve multiple children in this effort; I don’t want to spoil it, because it’s such a “wow” moment. But it’s a totally fresh angle on the old idea of Gamera being the friend to all the children in the world, because now the friendship goes the other way — he’s not protecting them, they’re protecting him. Ultimately, of course, it falls to Toru himself to give Toto the power-up he needs — although he’s not sure he wants to. His father has tracked him down, and Toru tries to convince Aizawa of his need to help Toto… but he’s torn, because he doesn’t want to see his pet die. Is there a way for Toto to be Gamera, to save us from the evil monsters, and yet still survive? Maybe having a boy who has faith in him will make the key difference this time.

I have to say, this is totally not what I expected from a Gamera movie, or indeed from any kaiju movie. It’s a really fresh take, a thoughtful, sophisticated children’s film operating on a very personal, human-scale level, beautifully directed with a lot of focus on the details of everyday small-town life and the beauty of the environment. Even in the midst of the giant battles, the focus stays on the human level and the drama among the characters. It’s like a live-action equivalent of a Miyazaki film. And its take on the idea of kaiju is unique. I commented before on how vulnerable the Showa-era Gamera was, how frequently he was shown wounded and screaming in agony and spewing green blood all over the place. It seemed almost sadistic at times. But this film uses that vulnerability in a very interesting way. Toru doesn’t find the idea of kaiju battles exciting. He isn’t thrilled that Gamera is here to save us. He’s a boy who’s had to cope with death and loss far too early in his life (something I can identify with), and he hates it that a good kaiju’s role in life is to fight and die in defense of humanity. He wants Toto to be his friend in a way that doesn’t require Toto to suffer. And Toto, being essentially a child Gamera forced to mature size too soon, is indeed quite vulnerable, the one that needs to be saved by the love of Japan’s youth, rather than the one doing the saving. It’s an angle that could easily have been done in a cheesy, corny way, but this film handles it extremely well. It uses the kaiju narrative as an allegory for exploring love and loss and a child’s experience with mortality, and it’s kind of extraordinary. (I’m reminded of my favorite season of the Digimon anime, Digimon Tamers, which similarly deconstructed the conceit of children bonding with fighting monsters by having lead children who saw their Digimon as friends and didn’t want to risk them in combat, and that dealt potently with the grief and depression of one child whose Digimon did actually die.)

It seems audiences didn’t respond well to this new angle, out of disappointment that it wasn’t as dark as Kaneko’s trilogy. I think that’s quite unfair. Though I’m not sure whether to regret that there was never a sequel to this. On the one hand, I would’ve loved to see this creative team follow up on this version of Gamera, to follow Toto to maturity. On the other hand, I’m not sure they could’ve topped this.

Gamera: The Brave is the last Gamera film to date, but the current owners of the series, Kadokawa Pictures, have been working on another reboot for a while now, apparently just called Gamera. It was supposed to be a 50th-anniversary project for 2015, but it’s been delayed well beyond that. But there was a trailer released at New York Comic-Con in 2015, and it can be seen here. It looks like it’s trying to go back to a darker, more violent tone like the Heisei trilogy, and indeed it seems to pick up roughly where the trilogy left off, with Gamera fighting a horde of Gyaos (why is it always Gyaos??), although with differences in the kaiju designs and the date (10 years in the past, so presumably 2005 or so, not 1999). Also it’s using pure CGI rather than suits. Perhaps it’s because I watched it so soon after GTB, but I find its action footage too self-consciously dark, violent, and flashy. Apparently, though, its director Katsuhito Ishii has said that GTB is one of his favorites and a major influence on the film, though you’d never know it from the trailer.

Anyway, the four Heisei Gamera films to date have been among the best kaiju films I’ve ever seen, in stark contrast to the general mediocrity and cheapness of their predecessors. This latest reboot, if it ever actually gets completed, will have a very high standard to live up to.

So that brings me to the end (for now?) of my Gamera reviews, a shorter series than my Godzilla/Toho reviews, but a more comprehensive one. Thanks to ShoutFactory TV’s streaming site, it’s proven far easier to see every Gamera film than it is to see every Godzilla or Mothra film, let alone some of Toho’s more obscure tokusatsu films. It’s also much easier to assess which ones are the best. Of the Showa series, Gamera vs. Barugon is the only one I’d even tepidly recommend, unless you’re in the mood for something really cheesy — and if so, you might prefer the Mystery Science Theater 3000 editions (which include every film in the Showa series except Viras and Jiger). And of the Heisei films, every darn one of them is absolutely a must-see for any fan of the kaiju genre. That includes the trilogy consisting of Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe, Gamera 2: Attack of Legion, and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris, and the standalone Gamera: The Brave.

Gamera continuity is less complicated than Godzilla’s as well, because each distinct set of films is in essentially a separate reality, although there is a bit of overlap here and there. As I did with Godzilla, I’ll list the various continuities:

1) Shōwa universe: Includes all Gamera films from 1965-71, namely Gamera, Gamera vs. Barugon, …Gyaos, …Viras, …Guiron,Jiger, and …Zigra.

This reality’s Gamera is a member of a species of giant tusked turtles native to Atlantis, feeding on fire and other energy sources and capable of breathing fire and flying via rocket propulsion. Though he was revived from glacial hibernation by a nuclear explosion, there’s no indication that he was mutated by it. Originally, Gamera is simply instinctively driven to feed on energy sources and incidentally causes massive destruction to human life and property in so doing, aside from one passing rescue of a child that Gamera’s own actions endangered. Later, though, Gamera inexplicably becomes “a friend to all children,” motivated primarily by their protection. This change corresponds with the adults of the world suddenly becoming incompetent and completely dependent on children to tell them how to solve their giant-monster problems. (I’m tempted to count the latter five films as a distinct reality from the first two, except that at least two of the latter five films include flashbacks to the events of the first two. Although this means that Gamera causes identical damage to two different dams and attacks Tokyo twice in exactly the same way, due to the reuse of stock footage in Viras.) Gamera is one of several prehistoric monsters that are coincidentally revived within a few years of each other, including Barugon, Gyaos, and Jiger, and the Earth is subject to several alien invasion attempts in the same period, involving the kaiju Viras, Guiron, and Zigra. (The existence of Space Gyaos on the counter-Earth planet Tera suggests that Earth’s Gyaos may have been of alien origin as well, but it could also be a case of parallel evolution.)

2) Space Women universe: Includes Gamera: Super Monster (1980).

In this reality, the Earth is nominally defended by a trio of alien superheroines called the Space Women. Gamera may be either an actual kaiju who is depicted in manga or simply a manga character somehow brought to life by either Space Women technology or a little boy’s wishes or both. Or maybe the whole thing is the boy’s daydreams — it’s hard to tell. All other known kaiju in this reality (if it is a reality) are identical to the monsters fought by Gamera in the Showa series, but are weapons of the invading starship Zanon and are kept on an alien planet (identical to Tera) until they are sicced on Earth.

3) Heisei universe: Includes Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe (1995), Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996), and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999).

In this universe, the ancient Atlanteans were master genetic engineers who apparently had at least two rival factions, one which engineered the deadly Gyaos organisms and the other of which created Gamera (after multiple failed attempts) as a defender of the Earth against the Gyaos, which had the potential to breed out of control and destroy the world. The Gyaos faction also engineered the self-mutating Gyaos variant later named “Iris” as a counterweapon against Gamera. But the Gyaos destroyed Atlantean civilization before the other kaiju could be unleashed, and Gamera did not awaken until 1995, when pollution had depleted the Earth’s supply of mystical mana energy sufficiently to allow the Gyaos to thrive again. Gamera battled the Gyaos and mostly destroyed them, but his depletion of mana in fighting off the alien Legion organisms allowed more Gyaos to thrive and Gamera himself to turn more aggressive. The ultimate fate of this world is unknown.

4) Toto universe: Includes Gamera: The Brave (2006).

Gamera’s origins and nature here are unknown, but a Gamera emerged no later than 1973 and sacrificed itself (herself?) to protect a human population from multiple small Gyaos, leaving an egg that hatched into a new Gamera 33 years later. The government organized a Giant Monster Council to deal with kaiju threats, but apparently there was a dearth of such threats prior to 2006, when the giant lizard Zedus emerged. Zedus’s activity may have catalyzed the birth of the new Gamera, aka Toto, in order to meet the threat.

5) Reboot universe: Includes unscheduled upcoming Gamera film, maybe.

Possibly a loose continuation of the Heisei trilogy universe. Insufficient data to say more. But its kaiju inhabitants include Gamera, hordes of Gyaos, and at least one other, unidentified monster.

I listed these continuities chronologically rather than clustering them by similarity as I did with the Godzilla universes, since there’s no overt overlap between any of them. (The reuse of stock footage in Super Monster doesn’t count, because it’s meant to represent new events, and the monsters have different origins.) But one could perhaps cluster the Toto universe with the Showa universe, as they both feature child-friendly Gameras that were active in the early ’70s, and the Reboot universe looks like it could be clustered with the Heisei universe. But that’s tenuous at best, which is why I didn’t bother.

It’s interesting that, other than Gamera, the only monster that appears in every continuity is Gyaos. This is in contrast to the Toho films, which have revived and redesigned multiple older monsters such as Mothra, King Ghidorah, Rodan, Mechagodzilla, and Baragon. All of Gamera’s Showa foes reappeared in Super Monster, but only as stock footage, so that doesn’t really count. The other continuities all have Gyaos in them — usually smaller than Gamera and existing in flocks — yet otherwise introduce new monsters. The Kaneko trilogy adds Legion and Iris (which is a Gyaos variant anyway), GTB has Zedus, and the reboot has that unidentified monster. Outside of Super Monster, the only revivals of Barugon, Viras, Guiron, Jiger, or Zigra have been in manga stories or video games. Gyaos seems pretty ubiquitous in video games too. I wonder why it was Gyaos, instead of one of the others, that became Gamera’s default arch-nemesis. I think most of the later revivals are following the lead of the Kaneko trilogy, but why did that trilogy deem Gyaos the only enemy worthy of revival? Perhaps it’s because Gyaos can take on Gamera in the air and is visually distinctive enough from Gamera to make an interesting contrast. Perhaps Barugon was too easily confused with Toho’s Baragon, and perhaps the later monsters were just considered too silly or weird. Although Gyaos’s original design was rather weird itself, and the movie wasn’t that much better than the ones that followed. I could see most of the other monsters working in more sophisticated, redesigned forms like the later Gyaos. Barugon is essentially a horned lizard, Viras a squid, Jiger a ceratopsian dinosaur, and Zigra a shark. The most problematical one is Guiron, who’s basically a walking chef’s knife that shoots shurikens out of its temples. (And whose name, I just now found out, is derived from “guillotine.”) But maybe it could be redesigned into a more organic-looking form. Still, maybe it’s better that no other redesigns were attempted, since Legion, Iris, and Zedus were all quite effective kaiju.

But it might’ve been interesting to see a fourth Kaneko film that elaborated on the identification of Gamera and Gyaos with two of the Four Symbols of Chinese astrology, adding other kaiju to represent the Azure Dragon of the East (maybe a reinvented Barugon?) and the White Tiger of the West (White Jiger…? Nahh).

So that’s it for my week of Gamera reviews. Are there more kaiju films I can track down and comment on in the future? Time will tell.

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Thoughts on Gamera: The Heisei-Era trilogy (spoilers)

The main reason I decided to do this Gamera watch-through is because of the acclaim I’d heard for the Gamera reboot trilogy made in the ’90s, and after slogging through the mostly childish, cheesy, formulaic films of the original series, I’m finally there. Intriguingly, these were the first kaiju films directed by Shusuke Kaneko, who would later direct Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, the best of the Millennium-era Godzilla films. They also have the same composer as that film, Kow Otani. So this should be interesting.

Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe (Gamera: Daikaiju Kuuchuu Kessen, literally Gamera: Giant Monster Midair Battle, almost the same title as the original Gamera vs. Gyaos) came out in 1995, a year after the end of the Heisei-era Godzilla series, and follows its lead by rebooting in a much more serious, mature vein. After a Naval flotilla transporting plutonium has a nearly disastrous collision with a mysterious floating atoll, conscience-stricken officer Yonemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara) convinces Professor Kusanagi (Akira Onodera) to let him join the study of the atoll. Meanwhile, ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (the lovely Shinobu Nakayama) investigates her mentor’s disappearance along with the nervous Inspector Osako (Yukijiro Hotaru), who takes his sense of style from Lt. Columbo. They discover that the mentor was devoured by three giant “birds” that soon come after them, though Nagamine discovers the nocturnal creatures are repelled by her camera flash. Though Nagamine is wary of the government’s plan to capture the creatures alive, she and Osako cooperate, coming up with a clever plan to lure the creatures to a stadium and trap them under its retractable roof. (The 1957 American movie The Black Scorpion used a similar gambit on its Willis O’Brien-animated title monster, but without the roof.)

On the atoll, Yonemori finds several bits of comma-shaped jewelry and a stone plinth bearing the same symbol and other writing. When he touches the plinth, it shatters and the atoll’s stony covering breaks apart to reveal a tusked turtle kaiju that then heads for the stadium and attacks the smaller winged creatures. (In a bit of a sight gag, it emerges at a Shell oil refinery.) In an interesting quirk that’s never come up before in these films, it’s pointed out that the Japan Self-Defense Force is prohibited by law from attacking any foe that hasn’t already opened fire, so they can do nothing but watch as the “sea monster” tears through the city and attacks the stadium to get at the captive “birds,” which use their sonic cutting rays to escape. The sea monster rockets off after them like a whirling “flying saucer.”

Translation of the plinth’s runes reveals an inscription identifying the turtle kaiju as Gamera, destined to awaken to fight the “bird” kaiju, the Gyaos. Dr. Kusanagi speculates that Gamera came from Atlantis and that the comma-shaped charms are made of orichalcum. Yonemori gives one charm to Kusanagi’s teenage daughter Asagi (Ayako Fujitane), and it glows when she holds it.

Later, Yonemori helps Nagamine rescue a boy from a village the Gyaos are attacking, and when Gamera seems to protect them, they realize Gamera is on their side. That doesn’t stop the SDF from attacking him, though, and when Asagi finds herself drawn to the battle site, she suffers the same injuries as Gamera. After the wounded Gamera retreats, he and Asagi both go dormant for a while.

Genetic analysis shows that the Gyaos were artificially engineered; the ancient Atlanteans were destroyed by their own creation. Gamera was their counterweapon, created too late to save them, but left for posterity in case the Gyaos ever returned — which is possible now because pollution has changed the world’s conditions enough to make it amenable to Gyaos. Yonemori and Nagamine reflect on the parallels between the past civilization destroying itself and our own civilization’s hazards.

With Gamera off healing in the ocean, Gyaos is able to feed unfettered and grow into the massive Super Gyaos, which attacks Tokyo — and has developed eye shields so that daylight no longer bothers it. In a subversive twist, for once it isn’t the kaiju that wrecks Tokyo Tower, but the military’s own missiles. (Kaneko doesn’t seem to have much regard for the authorities. There’s been an obstructionist government official whose insistence on capturing Gyaos alive for study has allowed matters to get to this point.) Super Gyaos nests atop the remains of the landmark, and we get a newscaster montage talking about the evacuation, the stock market panic, and other generally-overlooked consequences of a kaiju disaster. (Another interesting touch of realism: Nagamine remarks that it would take ten days to evacuate Tokyo, in contrast to the mere hours usually implied in these films. And Zack Snyder wanted us to believe Metropolis could be evacuated in minutes…)

Dr. Kusanagi’s love for his daughter seems to revive both her and Gamera, and he and Yonemori realize that she’s become his “priestess.” That link lets her offer guidance to Gamera in his massive final battle with Gyaos. Gyaos’s death throes are shown much the same way as in the original Gamera vs. Gyaos, with its cutting ray firing skyward and fizzling out. Gamera swims away under a blatant knockoff of the Jurassic Park theme music, but Nagamine realizes there may be more Gyaos eggs out there. Asagi promises her and the audience that Gamera will be back.

Well, this was a good revival, taking a realistic tack that couldn’t fully cancel the inherent silliness of a giant, tusked, bipedal turtle that can fly via rocket propulsion from its leg holes, but that came pretty close. It has some of the same subversiveness we’d later see in GMK — toward the kaiju genre itself and its conventions, toward the military and government establishments, and a bit toward the general public, remaining fixated on their mundane concerns and failing to take the threat seriously enough. The characters and actors weren’t bad, although Ayako Fujitani (Asagi) was kind of bland. There are influences from the Heisei Godzilla series, such as the darker and more naturalistic take and the focus on a young heroine with a psychic link with the hero monster. But there are elements that presage later Godzilla films, and not just GMK. The idea of Gamera having been created to defend against more malevolent kaiju is very reminiscent of the 2014 Legendary Godzilla.

The following year, 1996, brought Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (Gamera Tsu: Region Shirai, literally Gamera Two: Legion Invasion, though the onscreen English title text reads Gamera 2: Advent of Legion). This one focuses on a mostly new cast centered on Midori Honami (Miki Mizuno), a Sapporo Science Center staffer who investigates a mysterious meteor fall and comes into contact with the SDF’s Col. Watarase (Toshiyuki Nagashima). At least I think he’s SDF — his helmet at the start says “Chemical School.” Anyway, there seems to be something unnatural about the meteor fall, and soon our old friend Osako — now a security guard because last year’s events were too much for him — spots a monster that eats all the glass in a beer factory. But that’s the extent of his cameo, because next there’s an attack on a subway by some freaky cyclopean bug-like critters that are a couple of meters long. A vast plant pod soon erupts from the site of the attack. Midori deduces that the bugs and the pod are symbiotic, and that the pod will launch a seed to another planet, which is how the combined species spawn. Midori’s colleague Obitsu (Mitsuro Fukikoshi) determines that the launch of the pod will destroy a region miles across. They’re convinced they’re doomed, but Gamera shows up — sporting a new ability to extend his forearms into sea turtle-like wings — and destroys the flowering pod before it can launch. The bugs attack en masse, and a Bible-literate soldier dubs them Legion (albeit with a Japanese pronunciation, “Re-gi-on” with a hard G). Gamera is wounded and driven off, and a giant mother bug emerges, flies off, and is apparently but inconclusively shot down by the military.

Midori suggests tracking down Asagi, having read online about her bond with Gamera, but the government officials are skeptical. She and Obitsu deduce the biology of what’s officially called the Symbiotic Legion — they have semiconductor-like cells (and move by gas pressure instead of muscles), so they must extract the silicon from glass, which releases the oxygen that feeds the pod. They need EM fields to do it, so they’re drawn to cities — with the next city in their path being Sendai. Another pod erupts there and the city is evacuated, and sheer coincidence brings Midori together with Asagi on the same evac chopper, though it’s unclear to me whether Asagi is there in search of Gamera or not. Anyway, Gamera holds the giant Mother Legion at bay long enough to let the choppers get away, but it was a delaying tactic on Legion’s part to keep Gamera from reaching the pod in time. He aborts its space launch just in time, but the explosion destroys the entire city, and Gamera is assumed dead, his body charred and motionless.

Inevitably, the now-desperate Mother Legion heads for Tokyo (and there’s a glimpse of the still-wrecked Tokyo Tower from last time). Obitsu pursues a plan to use a certain EM frequency to lure the Soldier Legion and kill them, by some sort of analogy with pheromones and bee stings, while Midori and Asagi join a prayer vigil for Gamera at the ruins of Sendai. This apparently brings Gamera back to life, but Asagi’s orichalcum charm is shattered. The SDF fights Mother Legion ineffectually until Gamera arrives, and the general is initially reluctant to provide any support to Gamera, having apparently never heard the bit about “the enemy of my enemy.” But eventually they all fight together against Legion and destroy the Soldier bugs, but Mother Legion is so tough that Gamera eventually has to draw in energy from all over the world to power an ultimate weapon called the Mana Blast, which fires out of the middle of his plastron and vaporizes Legion. And it seems to have no negative effect on Gamera, so I have to wonder why it took him so long to unleash that one. At the end, Asagi points out that Gamera is the guardian of Earth, not humanity, so we’d better take care not to be the enemies of Earth.

I gather this is the most acclaimed film of Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy, actually winning a Japanese Nebula Award, but I find it less impressive than its predecessor. It’s a very effective horror movie and action movie, with excellent effects and an imaginative concept and design for Legion; but the characters make much less of an impact, little more than ciphers who are there to deliver exposition, though there are a few nice touches (like when Watarase is told the pod has formed a flower — he asks what color it is, and the nonplussed soldier replies he didn’t ask). It’s also less subversive, a lot more respectful in its portrayal of the SDF. So it feels more ordinary and less edgy, although the production values are really good. Otani’s music is still effective, and he briefly uses an SDF march with basically the same percussion line as his later SDF march in GMK, but then switches to a march that’s basically a pastiche of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall theme.

The series took a break for three years, not returning until 1999 — the year after the abortive TriStar Godzilla and nine months before the Millennium Godzilla series began. The concluding film of the trilogy is Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris (Gamera Surī: Jyashin Irisu Kakusei, literally Gamera Three: False God Iris’s Awakening, though an onscreen title at the end calls it Gamera 1999: Absolute Guardian of the Universe). Perhaps Kaneko realized the second film’s replacement characters were ineffective, since this one refocuses on key characters from the first film, including the lovely Dr. Nagamine (yay!), who’s chasing down new Gyaos mutations that have been emerging around the world. Meanwhile, we get acquainted with Ayana (Ai Maeda), a teenage girl who’s shown in a flashback to the first film, watching helplessly as Gamera destroys her apartment building with her parents inside (along with her cat, Iris) while fighting Gyaos in Tokyo. As a result, she harbors a deep hatred of Gamera and wants him dead. (Hey, isn’t that the setup for Batman v Superman?) When she’s dared by some girl bullies at her new school to tamper with a local temple, she finds an orichalcum pendant similar to Asagi’s and triggers the hatching of a weird beast with a mouthless Gyaos-like head and a shelled, tentacled body. She names it Iris (with a short I at the beginning), sensing that they share a hatred of Gamera. The movie associates Gamera and Gyaos with two of the four guardian beasts of the compass points in Chinese mythology, the Black Turtle of the North and the Vermilion Bird of the South, casting them as mortal enemies. And Iris is a self-mutating evolutionary offshoot of the Gyaos.

Gamera’s changed too, as we see when his ongoing battle with the Gyaos crashes into Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya District on Friday night, its busiest, most crowded time — with the now-homeless ex-Inspector Osako continuing his running gag of being the first one in the film to witness a kaiju attack. But his fear isn’t played for laughs this time. Gamera shows no concern for collateral damage and causes massive fatalities, with Osako as one of the few survivors. This is the most shockingly violent kaiju battle scene I think I’ve ever seen in terms of the depiction of human casualties underfoot. Gamera has evolved into a more ruthless, savage-looking form, driven only by the imperative to destroy Gyaos. In the aftermath of this, the Japanese government effectively declares war on Gamera.

Meanwhile, Iris grows and bonds with Ayana in a more literal, predatory way than Gamera with Asagi, enfolding her in its tentacles (in a disquietingly erotic, albeit consensual moment) and then encasing her in a sac inside its body. She’s rescued by the teenage boy from the family that guards the temple (sorry, I didn’t catch his name), but she falls into the hands of a couple of government employees who turn out to be Atlantis-worshipping cultists. They see Gamera as a demon, believing Iris was created as a failsafe to destroy him if he got out of control.

Nagamine convinces Osako to get back in the fight, and he has some nice moments, but he remains largely peripheral. She also reconnects with Asagi, who’s been wandering the world researching Gamera and come to the conclusion that he feeds on mana, the mystical energy of life. Apparently Japanese civilization (and others, I guess) has been depleting the Earth’s mana, triggering the rise of the Gyaos, and I think that Gamera’s Mana Blast against Legion worsened the depletion, which would answer my question of why he used it as a last resort. Also, his connection to humanity is severed, which is why he’s become so ruthless and destructive. But Asagi has no way to get it back. (I wonder why they called it mana instead of ki, the Japanese term for the concept. But the idea of mana as a depletable resource was used by Larry Niven in his The Magic Goes Away series, so I wonder if that was an influence.)

Iris’s mature form is a startlingly vast, weird, and beautiful creature like something out of anime, and its battle with Gamera comes to ground in Kyoto during a typhoon. The visuals here are fantastic, making up for some overly confusing camera work during their aerial battle earlier. It comes to a head in Kyoto Station, with Iris recapturing Ayana, which according to the male cultist (a smugly nihilistic, black-clad fellow who also seems like an anime character type) will give it the power to evolve into an unbeatable form. Averting this will require Ayana to confront the true cost of her hatred and Gamera to endure severe injury to rescue her. But the Gyaos are still out there, and the movie ends on an ambiguous note.

Wow. This was intense stuff, and beautifully made. Some of the story points seemed to lose focus in the third act, but I missed some stuff since some of the subtitles were missing. But it’s one of the best kaiju films I’ve ever seen, in terms of both story and production values. I’d even say that Kaneko’s work on GMK two years later was a step down from this in some respects.

All in all, it’s a powerful trilogy, intelligently written, beautifully made, and effectively scary. It matches or surpasses any of the Heisei or Millennium Godzilla films in sophistication, even though it was apparently made on a much smaller budget. It’s an amazing change from the juvenile, formulaic mediocrity and cheesy effects of the original Gamera series.

I can’t seem to find any information on why there was no fourth film in this series, although it could have something to do with Daiei being bought up and merged with Kadokawa Pictures in 2002. Four years after that, Kadokawa would put out a belated 50th-anniversary Gamera film, Gamera the Brave. We’ll see how that compares in the next review post.

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Thoughts on GAMERA: The Showa Era, Part 2 (spoilers)

Continuing my review of Daiei’s original Gamera series…

Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (Gamera tai Uchuu Kaiju Bairasu) came out in 1968, not long before Toho’s multi-kaiju epic Destroy All Monsters, and indeed Viras was later released in the US under the ripoff title Destroy All Planets. (You can’t do that! Where would we keep all our stuff?) Here’s where the kid-friendly formula that defines the rest of the series is definitively set in place. We get the debut of the theme song so memorably mocked on MST3K (“Gamera is really sweet / He is filled with turtle meat”) and the mantra that “Gamera is a friend to all children,” as well as a cuter, friendlier-looking Gamera, who fights off an invading alien ship from the planet Viras before the credits. Like every movie from this point forward, the lead duo consists of a Japanese child and a white American child — in this case, Boy Scouts named Masao and Jim, who go tooling around in a mini-sub and meet a friendly Gamera under the sea. (The rear-projection screen used for the rest of the series is really scratched up, by the way. It’s incredible that they couldn’t even bother to fix or replace a lousy screen.) When a second alien ship arrives and traps Gamera using a “Super Catch Ray,” Masao calls to Gamera for help, and Gamera actually nods in response and helps the kids escape. Yes, now Gamera explicitly comprehends human language.

The Super Catch Ray lasts only 15 minutes (not so super), which the aliens use to probe Gamera’s memory — which means an unbroken 10 minutes of stock footage of Gamera’s battles from the previous three movies. Once he breaks free, the aliens Super Catch the kids as hostages against Gamera, which works long enough to implant a mind-control device and send Gamera on the attack, which is all stock footage from the first two movies, even though the first was in black-and-white and used a noticeably different Gamera suit. The kids wander interminably around the spaceship and try to sabotage it without success, due to the ship’s rules about not obeying thought commands that harm the ship — until later when they’re suddenly, inexplicably able to harm the ship and free Gamera using the same stupid prank they played on the sub earlier, reversing the polarity to make the controls work backward. (Pro tip: Nothing actually works that way.) Before then, though, there’s a bit where the kids use Masao’s wrist radio that he built because he’s really good with gadgets to contact the military and courageously express their willingness to sacrifice their lives to save Earth, but the UN will have none of that and insists on surrendering the whole human race to spare two kids who would probably die along with everyone else anyway.

So Gamera wrecks the ship, and a “harmless” caged monster the kids found onboard — sort of a gray upright squid thing — is actually the boss monster (and is literally no kidding called “Boss”), who absorbs its crew’s life energy to grow to giant size and fight Gamera. The fight culminates with Boss Viras goring Gamera clear through the plastron in what looks like an instantly fatal impalement, but Gamera is able to jet into the sky and freeze Viras to death in the upper atmosphere, despite the facts that a) cold is Gamera’s own weakness and b) Gamera has a huge gaping hole in his belly. But Gamera is fine because he’s the hero and there are more sequels coming, which would vary in little other than the setting and the specific gimmicks of the monster.

Gamera vs. Giant Evil Beast Guiron (Gamera tai Daiakuju Giron, aka Gamera vs. Guiron or Attack of the Monsters) was released in March 1969, less than a year after Toho’s Destroy All Monsters. This one opens with a halfway decent educational lecture about astronomy and the planets (aside from a misstatement about nebulae being the size of galaxies). Our boy heroes, Akio and Tom, see a flying saucer land but are unable to convince their mother. Akio’s a dreamer who imagines a superior alien civilization with “no wars or traffic accidents.” He and Tom find the flying saucer and get abducted into space, with Gamera showing up to try to rescue them (the first time since the original that he hasn’t appeared in the opening scene). But the saucer outpaces him and deposits the boys on an alien planet that turns out to be menaced by Space Gyaos — a silver repaint of the Gyaos suit from two films earlier, because they couldn’t afford another new monster — but it has its own defender kaiju, Guiron (pronounced “gear-on”), basically a giant walking knife with a face. Gamera took a whole movie to bring down Gyaos, but Guiron only needs two minutes to literally slice Space Gyaos to pieces, in a rather gory sequence including graphic amputation and decapitation (well, as graphic as it can be with a rubber monster and purple “blood”), with Guiron actually laughing sadistically.

So the boys meet two women who are the last survivors of this world, Tera, which is in the same “Counter-Earth” position as so many other sci-fi worlds, hidden on the opposite side of the Sun. (Never mind that orbital perturbations would’ve caused such a world to collide with Earth billions of years ago, and that even if they hadn’t, we could detect it by its gravitational effect on the other planets and asteroids. So much for the good astronomy.) The mighty “electronic brains” that gave them their advanced civilization (free of wars and traffic accidents!) also created monsters that destroyed their world. Okay. So is this the origin of the first Gyaos too? Anyway, the boys invite the space babes to come to Earth with them, but the ship only holds two, so the women plan to eat the boys’ brains for rations. But Gamera shows up in the nick of time. The women sic Guiron on him, and Gamera fares pretty badly, but the boys manage to escape and eventually accidentally cause Guiron to go on a rampage that leads to the bisection of the saucer and the death of one of the Teran women. (Note that Tera is now no longer free of traffic accidents.) Guiron’s rampage ultimately endangers the kids too, until Gamera returns to save them. Gamera defeats Guiron in a rather silly way (that conveniently kills off the other space babe), then he — oy — uses his fire breath to weld the ship back together so he can fly the kids back home. Akio moralizes that we must stop looking to other planets and clean up our own damn wars and traffic accidents. And 47 years later, we’re still working on it. Sorry, Akio, we let you and Gamera down.

1970’s Gamera vs. Giant Demon Beast Jiger (Gamera tai Daimaju Jaigaa, aka Gamera vs. Jiger or Gamera vs. Monster X) is the first Gamera movie to come out in a year without a Godzilla film; Toho’s only kaiju release in 1970 was the obscure Space Amoeba. However, it came out just a few months after the inane Godzilla film All Monsters Attack, which had a lot in common with the Gamera series, in that it centered on a child lead and relied entirely on stock footage for its kaiju sequences. We’re well into the doldrums now.

Jiger is built around the real-life Expo ’70, the Osaka World’s Fair. They’re bringing in a statue from “Wester Island” as part of their cultural display, ignoring warnings about a curse. Gamera tries to stop the statue from being airlifted away, but grownups ruin everything, so they shoot at Gamera long enough to get the statue away. (Evidently they forgot how he’s been saving the world annually for the past four years.) Naturally, this unleashes Jiger (rhymes with tiger), a vaguely ceratopsian kaiju that comes after the statue and trashes Osaka. Gamera comes to the rescue, but Jiger impales him with a spike at the end of its tail, and Gamera collapses, seemingly dead. The kids convince the grownups to x-ray Gamera, and they find a shadow on his lung, leading to the deduction that — eww — Jiger implanted her larva inside his lung. The tail spike was an ovipositor. Which… oh, good grief… means that Gamera has been forcibly impregnated by a monster’s appendage. We’ve just crossed over into a whole other genre of Japanese fantasy fiction…

Anyway, as usual, the adults mutter and shake their heads uselessly while the kids take the initiative, using a mini-sub (another one?) to go Fantastic Voyage on Gamera, finding a way to kill the baby Jiger and stumbling upon the solutions that the stupid adults are too hidebound to see, including how Gamera can use the ancient statue to contain Jiger using the sound it makes when wind blows across it. Although that wouldn’t be gory enough for this series, and instead Gamera just impales Jiger in the skull with it.

So anyway, the theme of this movie seems to be “Adults are stupid, kids, so just ignore them and do what you want, no matter how dangerous it is.” Such wholesome, educational entertainment for the youth of Japan.

Finally we come to Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (Gamera tai Shinkai Kaiju Zigra, aka Gamera vs. Zigra — no generic alternate US title), arriving in July 1971, just seven days before Toho’s release of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the trippiest and most Gamera-esque of the Godzilla films (with Godzilla as a kid-friendly champion of Earth against a very weird-looking monster, and with Godzilla actually flying via jet propulsion at one point). Gamera was a Godzilla knockoff from the start, and the Godzilla series started to shift to a kid-friendly mode before Gamera did, though it didn’t actually start focusing on child protagonists until All Monsters Attack. So it seems that Gamera had become popular enough by 1969 — or the Godzilla series was struggling enough by then — for the influence to begin flowing back the other way.

I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison, though, since Hedorah was freakishly experimental, while Zigra is just another by-the-numbers Gamera film barely worth recapping. There’s another alien invasion (by a ship that looks like a bowl of gumballs) with another space babe (Eiko Yanami, who’s considerably babe-ier than the previous ones). This time the lead kids are kindergarteners with gratingly shrill voices, and the American kid’s a girl. Their dads work for Sea World, and the aliens are a sea-dwelling race that fouled their seas with pollution and now intend to conquer us before we foul our seas any further, so they’re really doing Earth a favor, just like the Mysterians (although they do plan to use us for food). The villain kaiju, the sharklike Zigra, actually talks — but Viras could talk too, through a thought-translator device.

The budget’s so low that the earthquakes the aliens use to subdue humanity are all off-camera. The battles between Gamera and Zigra are lackadaisical and by the numbers. The standout moment — strictly for its silliness — is when Gamera has immobilized Zigra and uses a rock to play his theme song xylophone-style on Zigra’s back spikes, then does a victory dance. Oh, boy. (The other standout moment, from a strictly male-gaze standpoint, is when the alien woman, pursuing the kids, tries to blend in by stealing human garments — and the first people she comes across are some women in bikinis.)

There’s nothing wrong with gearing films for young audiences, but these last four relentlessly formulaic films didn’t have anything special to offer, aside from startling amounts of simulated gore and maimings in the monster fights. One consistent thread is how vulnerable Gamera is, how routinely he suffers serious, bloody injuries like impalements and deep lacerations and screams in horrible agony. There’s often an element of that in Godzilla films too, but not to this casually gory extent. Gamera’s vulnerability may have been meant to make him more identifiable for children, but the degree to which the filmmakers torture him gets kind of sadistic.

Daiei Film went bankrupt in 1971, putting a (perhaps merciful) end to the Gamera series for some years. When a publishing company bought out the studio, they made one more Gamera film in 1980, titled Space Monster Gamera (Uchuu Kaiju Gamera) but known in English as Gamera: Super Monster. Annnnd… it’s a clip show. Aside from a few shots (including a sight gag of Gamera’s foot knocking over a placard for a Godzilla movie), all its Gamera footage is recycled from the previous seven movies.

And that’s not all that’s recycled, since it opens with a space battle “scene” (in the sense of the camera literally just panning over concept paintings of a space battle) and a blatant ripoff of the opening Star Destroyer shot from Star Wars. The arrival of this evil space ship Zanon at Earth is detected by three ordinary women who are actually a team of cape-wearing alien superheroes! They transform and fly to their sky base (i.e. a blob of orange video-effect fuzz), whereupon they…do nothing, since Zanon announces that it can detect and destroy them if they use their powers, so they immediately change back to normal and give up. Wow, what a tease. Then we cut to a bunch of kids in what seems to be an extended commercial for the Weekly Shonen Jump manga, which is odd, since that manga was from a different publisher.

It’s strange to introduce a superhero team whose whole function in the story is to be ineffectual. But I quite liked the lead Spacewoman Kilara, played by a wrestler-turned-actress known as Mach Fumiake. She’s impressively statuesque, beautiful in a strong-looking way, and has a charisma that reminds me of Lynda Carter, only with better acting. The other two Spacewomen are extraneous, though. Kilara’s human disguise is a pet-shop owner who befriends the boy protagonist Keiichi, who really likes turtles and Gamera, though not as psychotically as Toshio in the original. When Zanon starts sending kaiju to attack Earth, Keiichi gives Kilara the idea to summon Gamera, but it’s unclear whether they’re summoning the pre-existing Gamera or using some superpower to fulfill Keiichi’s wish that his pet turtle would turn into the manga character Gamera. A lot of this movie has the same ambiguity as Godzilla vs. Hedorah — is this real or just the boy’s daydreams? There are even bizarre bits where the boy dreams of Gamera matted onto animated footage of Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express 999, theme music included. I guess the stock footage from Gamera’s previous fights wasn’t enough padding.

Kilara actually gets to do some superheroing when Zanon mind-controls Gamera to wage the same stock-footage rampage he waged when he was mind-controlled in Viras (good grief, it’s a rerun within a rerun!) and Kilara intervenes to free him. There’s also a subplot where Zanon crewwoman Giruge (Keiko Kudo) tries to find the Spacewomen, and it’s your pretty standard Japanese plot of the evil henchwoman who ruthlessly tries to kill the heroes, then is shown mercy in defeat, is shamed by the heroes’ kindness, and sacrifices herself to save them. It’s almost touching, but rather routine. And one wonders why this huge Star Destroyer knockoff doesn’t have more than one crewwoman to hunt their enemies. Anyway, once all the kaiju are killed (again), Gamera sacrifices himself to destroy Zanon, and they don’t even have the budget to show it — just shots of the Gamera puppet closing in on the Star Destroyer and then a bright flash of light as seen from the surface. And Keiichi asks if this means we can all live in peace now, and Kilara assures him that we can. Does that mean the Spacewomen have previously put an end to all wars and traffic accidents?

I have to admit, I actually liked this film better than the previous several, though that’s mainly because of Mach Fumiake (and because I did chores and exercised during the stock-footage fights — too bad you can’t fast-forward with streaming video). It’s really dumb and weird and contrived and cheap, but parts of it are more entertaining than most of its predecessors.

Gamera: Super Monster was deliberately made as a one-shot, since the revived Daiei wasn’t up to making a whole series. Hence Gamera’s noble offscreen sacrifice at the end. Godzilla’s own revival would be just four years away, but Gamera would have to wait until 1995 to be rebooted. And what lies ahead for Gamera could not be more different from what’s behind.

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Thoughts on GAMERA: The Showa Era, Part 1 (spoilers)

With my supply of accessible kaiju films from Toho run dry, I’ve decided to tackle Daiei’s Gamera, the most successful knockoff/rival of Godzilla. I remember seeing the Gamera films they spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and being aware that they tended to be more kid-oriented than a lot of the Godzilla movies, but then, the Godzilla movies of the late ’60s and ’70s were often quite juvenile and silly themselves. I recently happened to discover that Shout Factory TV’s streaming site has nearly all the Gamera movies available for free, and in the original Japanese, so I decided to give them a try. The only one missing from there is the last film to date, 2006’s Gamera the Brave, but that one is available through Netflix DVD rental. Thus I’m able to cover the entire Gamera series comprehensively and in chronological order, which is more than I was able to do with Godzilla or Mothra.

Daikaiju Gamera (Giant Monster Gamera), generally called simply Gamera and originally called Gammera the Invincible in English (with the second M added to clarify the pronunciation), was released in November 1965, not long after Toho’s solemn Frankenstein Conquers the World and a month before Invasion of Astro-Monster, the second film to portray Godzilla in a relatively heroic vein. So this was an era when lead kaiju were becoming sympathetic, though Gamera’s a more ambiguous monster in his debut than he would become later on. This film is something of a throwback to the early kaiju formula with only a single giant monster against humanity. Not to mention that it’s shot in black and white, the only such film in the Gamera series. (Gamera’s name, by the way, is a blend of kame, the Japanese word for “turtle,” with elements of the name Godzilla/Gojira. This series made little secret of being derivative.)

The opening is sort of a blend of Gojira and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms: While lead scientist Hidaka (Eiji Funakoshi), his pretty assistant Kyoko (Harumi Kiritachi), and plucky reporter Aoyagi (Junichiro Yamashita) are investigating “Eskimo” legends of giant turtles from Atlantis called Gameras (which is geographically questionable in a couple of different ways), a Cold War dogfight breaks out overhead. (We see a US military command center whose characters speak in badly structured and even more badly acted English, with Japanese subtitles on the sides of the screen. Although they wouldn’t be subtitles if they’re beside rather than below — paratitles? Anyway, I gather the English-language version reshot these scenes with recognizable American actors, and dropped in a few other scenes with them as well.) This leads to the crash of a bomber from an anonymous country, one that builds its nukes poorly enough that they detonate on impact, awakening the glacier-entombed Gamera. The terrible terrapin destroys the ship Hidaka and his two colleagues had recently disembarked from, and there’s a bit of solemn reflection about how close they came to dying, though it doesn’t last. Hidaka is convinced that Gamera must have died of radiation poisoning soon thereafter, but there’s a spate of flying saucer sightings, and then Gamera shows up at the lighthouse home of Toshio (Kenny in the English dub), a boy who’s unhealthily obsessed with turtles, to the point that he gladly rushes toward Gamera and courts certain death, not for the last time in this film. Oddly, when Gamera smashes the lighthouse and endangers Toshio, the monster then catches the boy and lowers him to safety, convincing Toshio that Gamera is friendly. Tell that to all the people that Gamera later kills while smashing up Tokyo in order to feed on the resulting flames. (Toshio is, in fact, convinced that his tiny pet turtle Chibi has turned into Gamera. Someone get this boy into therapy, stat.)

Dr. Hidaka is less along the lines of Gojira‘s Professor Yamane — “We should keep it alive so we can study it for the good of humanity” —  and more along the lines of the 1998 American Godzilla‘s Nick Tatopolous — “Why, yes, I will gladly contribute my zoological expertise to killing this unique and irreplaceable scientific discovery, no big deal.” His big plan, after discovering that Gamera feeds on fire and nuclear energy (a concept that the Heisei-era Godzilla films would later adopt), is to use a freeze bomb that the military has conveniently just invented, and that somehow only works for exactly ten minutes to the second, no matter what the environmental conditions. The freeze bomb covers Gamera with, um, a faint coating of frost, I guess, and immobilizes him long enough for the military to undermine his position and blow him onto his back, where the scientists gleefully assume he will now starve to a slow, horrible, agonizing death, hooray. Lucky that Gamera can fire jets out of his shell holes and turn into the “flying saucer” seen earlier.

So the scientists of the world get together and decide to use a mysterious “Z Plan” that’s conveniently being developed on a nearby island to deal with Gamera. (That’s twice that the authorities have just happened to have a convenient anti-Gamera technology already lying around.) They keep him contained at a burning oil refinery (after his obligatory Tokyo rampage) by sending in more tankers of oil, giving Toshio another chance to attempt to sacrifice himself to his terrible turtle god. For some reason, this convinces the heroes to adopt the boy as their mascot rather than getting him institutionalized for his own safety. Then they use… umm… a trail of fire across the ocean (lucky there were apparently no currents) to draw Gamera to the island, whereupon they lure him into the “Z Plan” — which is a shell that closes around Gamera and then turns out to be the nose cone of a rocket that blasts into space. Yes, Gamera’s the Martians’ problem now!

All in all, I was underwhelmed. It started out promisingly dark, with a bit of anti-war sentiment, but then the kid showed up and it was downhill from there. Aside from the chelonaphilic brat, it was a pretty by-the-numbers kaiju movie, with substantially cruder special effects than Toho’s work. The action sequences were shorter, the miniatures looked very toylike, the buildings in “Tokyo” looked like cardboard (ever heard of slow motion, guys?), and the cooling towers at the geothermal plant Gamera trashed were clearly made partly of chicken wire. And Gamera’s final defeat was anticlimactic. Also, I’m sorry, but a turtle walking on its hind legs just looks silly, at least with this design. I’m not impressed so far.

The second film, Duel of the Giant Monsters: Gamera vs. Barugon (Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon, aka Gamera vs. Barugon or War of the Monsters in the US), came out only five months later, not long before The War of the Gargantuas from Toho — and just 8 months after Toho’s Frankenstein vs. Baragon, also featuring a quadrupedal monster with a nose spike. Hmmmm. Anyway, we get a quick narrated recap of the first film, ending with “…and then a meteor destroyed the rocket and Gamera flew back to Earth and destroyed Japan’s biggest dam.” Oh, well, so much for that happy ending.

But then Gamera wanders off to feed on a distant volcano — or maybe to destroy cities that don’t matter because they aren’t in Japan — and we shift to a totally separate story about a group of treasure-hunters trying to retrieve a giant opal that the brother of the lead character Hirata (Kojiro Hongo) found and hid on New Guinea during World War II. The local tribe is all “no, don’t go, it’s cursed,” but they go anyway, and the villain Onodera (Koji Fujiyama) steals the opal and tries to kill the others. Hirata survives and is warned by a local tribeswoman with the exotic name of Karen (Kyouko Enami) that the opal carries a terrible curse. Indeed, when Onodera reaches Japan, an accident with an infrared heat lamp hatches the opal, which is actually a Barugon egg, and Barugon grows to giant size in minutes and wrecks the port of Kobe before heading for nearby Osaka. Barugon’s a giant lizard with a chameleon-like tongue that shoots freezing vapors and back spines that emit a rainbow disintegrator ray, weirdly enough. The rainbow energy attracts Gamera, but Barugon freezes him (his one weakness) and gets away. Meanwhile, Onodera’s crime is found out by Hirata’s brother, but Onodera leaves the brother and his wife to die in Barugon’s rampage.

Hirata and Karen arrive and use her knowledge of Barugon lore to try to fight the beast, using a supersized diamond to lure Barugon, because he can’t resist their light. The plan is to lure him into a lake, since extended immersion in water will kill him. It doesn’t work until they figure out that… oh, boy… the infrared radiation from the heat lamp mutated him. Yup, low-energy, non-ionizing heat radiation — also known as warmth — supposedly had the same mutagenic effect as the high-energy gamma radiation from a nuclear bomb. I know we don’t watch kaiju films for the science, but oh, man. Anyway, they modify a “ruby death ray” (i.e. laser) to become an infrared diamond ray, using the infrared beam — which is blue for some reason — to lure Barugon into the lake. But greedy Onodera shows up to steal the diamond, foiling the plan. Will he pay for it with his life? Will Hirata devise another clever plan that also fails? Will Gamera thaw out just in time to save the day? Will Hirata end the film feeling all guilty about the destruction caused by human greed? Of course they will.

Well, this one’s much better than its predecessor, and a lot darker and more adult as well (not that those automatically go together, but it happens to be both). The characters are richer and more emotionally involved in the story, there’s a lot more interpersonal conflict, and we see more of the human cost of the devastation. The effects are somewhat better too, though Barugon’s monster suit is kind of crude-looking, and its powers are sort of ridiculous. Points off, though, for the stereotyped tribal villagers, who cower in fear from a helicopter, warn of offending the gods, and are all made up to be dark-skinned except for the good-looking women (especially Karen, who’s the palest person in the movie). I wouldn’t call it a great movie, but it’s not bad.

Giant Monster Midair Battle: Gamera vs. Gyaos (Daikaiju Kuuchuusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu, aka Return of the Giant Monsters) came out in early 1967, between Toho’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and King Kong Escapes. Toho’s movies were getting more kid-friendly around this time, and this film follows suit, establishing most of what would become the standard formula going forward. It once again focuses on a young boy who really likes Gamera, namely Eiichi (Naoyuki Abe), who lives in a village that’s in the path of a superhighway construction project, with the villagers refusing to sell. At first, I thought this was going to be a story about ruthless corporations vs. the noble protectors of local tradition and culture, but instead, the villagers were just greedily holding out for more money and thus impeding the righteous cause of progress. Anyway, the construction is halted when a volcanic eruption awakens a bat-winged kaiju with a weirdly angular, anvil-shaped head and an ultrasonic death ray that slices through everything except Gamera’s shell. When Eiichi is endangered by the creature, Gamera comes to his rescue, and the boy names the kaiju Gyaos (pronounced basically “gyowse”) after its cry. (A graphic identifies it as a “Rhamphorhynchoides Monster,” after a type of pterosaur, so this is Daiei’s answer to Rodan. It even has a similar destructive-wind attack, as well as the cutting beam and a vapor spray that puts out fires, since light is its weakness.) Gamera is wounded by Gyaos’s ray, and borrows a page from Godzilla by retreating beneath the sea to heal. Note that Gamera’s motives have changed: Before, he was driven by instinctual hunger and incidentally saved one boy he happened to notice while otherwise not caring how much death he caused, but now he arrives on the scene specifically to aid a threatened child, then goes to greater lengths to ensure the child’s safety.

After that, it’s your usual sequence of scientific attempts to kill Gyaos, plus the titular aerial battle with Gamera, culminating with Gyaos cutting its own toes off to escape Gamera’s jaws. (Don’t worry, they grow back.) Studying the amputated talons confirms that UV light is deadly to Gyaos — although Eiichi already figured out that the beast was nocturnal. Basically the scientists and the military are dependent on this small boy to make all their key insights and discoveries. This includes the bizarre plan of using a fountain of artificial blood (which is colored pink like Klingon blood in Star Trek VI) to lure the man-eating Gyaos onto a revolving restaurant that’s been souped up into a giant turntable to make him dizzy and immobilized until the sun comes up and kills him. (So help me, I almost remember this part from Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s kind of unforgettable.) Naturally, the plan doesn’t work, requiring Eiichi to come up with one more brilliant plan so the grownups don’t have to: Set the whole damn forest on fire to hurt Gyaos and lure in the fire-eating Gamera. Of course, Gamera wins and drags Gyaos into the volcano, where the monster’s death is shown the same way Barugon’s was, by having its beam fire into the sky and then retract. (Even as a kid, that trope bothered me. A beam wouldn’t go backward when it turned off! But it’s surprising how many sci-fi animators over the decades have assumed it would.)

The brevity of that summary should illustrate how superficial the film is compared to the last one. The characters aren’t very memorable, and the plot is basically just there to bridge the action sequences. There’s a bit of a moral condemning greed again, but less so than last time. The effects aren’t quite as good either. Gyaos is a weirdly inorganic-looking monster, with its stiff, angular head and body; in flight, it looks more like a jet aircraft in shape than a living pterosaur. (I wonder, though, if it’s an inspiration for the MUTOs in the 2014 Legendary Godzilla. They also have unnaturally angular heads, and I felt they looked more like Gamera monsters than Godzilla monsters. Gyaos must’ve been the kaiju I was thinking of.)

We’re only three films in out of the seven in the original Gamera series, but the basics of the formula are in place now, and the next four are where it really solidifies. So I’ll cover them all together in the next post, along with the 1980 revival film.

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Thoughts on the REBIRTH OF MOTHRA trilogy (spoilers)

Now we finally come to the one major piece of Toho’s kaiju multiverse that I haven’t already covered, the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy from 1996-98. This was just a couple of years after Toho had concluded the Heisei Godzilla series in order to cede to what they expected to be a trilogy of American Godzilla films from TriStar — although that didn’t turn out too well. So I imagine they decided to shift their focus to their second main kaiju star, Mothra. While the Rebirth trilogy (its English title — the first was just called Mosura in Japan) came out during the Heisei era of the Japanese calendar, it isn’t in continuity with the Heisei Godzilla series featuring Miki Saegusa and G-Force, and it uses a different version of the Mythra mothos, err, Mothra mythos, than the one in Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth. This is a separate universe for a film trilogy that’s geared toward a younger audience than the Heisei or Millennium Godzilla films.

The trilogy, written by Masumi Suetani and directed by Okihiro Yoneda (films I & III) and Kunio Miyoshi (film II), centers on the Elias (Eriasu), this continuity’s equivalents of the Shobijin/Cosmos, the pair of tiny, singing women who are Mothra’s heralds in the other films — but now they’re the lead characters, there are three of them, and they have more individualized personalities. The two heroines are Moll, or Moru (Megumi Kobayashi), the calmer, wiser older sibling (called Mona in the English dub), and Lora (Sakaya Yamaguchi), the more emotional younger one. The third is Belvera, or Berubera (Aki Hano), the recurring villain of the series, who rides around on a miniature robot dragon called Garu Garu and recruits various evil kaiju to destroy the human race. Moll and Lora have their own flying mount, a kitten-sized miniature Mothra called Fairy. (The first Fairy Mothra appeared in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla a few years earlier, though I’ve blocked that awful film from my memory.)

The first film involves Belvera’s attempt to free Desghidorah (or Death-Ghidorah), a life-force-sucking alien monster that sterilized Mars and tried to do the same to Earth before the Mothra race and their Elias allies were able to entrap it. Belvera wants to free Desghidorah and destroy the world, basically just for evil’s sake. But the movie takes a while to get around to explaining this, instead focusing on the dysfunctional Goto family, whose father happens to unearth the small metal seal that keeps Desghidorah contained and takes it home as a gift for his daughter, leading to an interminable aerial fight between the good Elias sisters on Fairy and Belvera on Garu Garu. It’s an interesting twist to take a kaiju battle to a tiny scale instead of a huge one, but since the premise, characters, and stakes haven’t been explained to the audience yet, it’s kind of tedious.

Eventually Belvera gets away with the seal and frees Desghidorah, who’s a King Ghidorah variant with four legs and a burlier design more suggestive of a European-style dragon, though still with three heads. Conveniently for this kid-friendly film, Desghidorah has no interest in preying on human life force, preferring to target the much longer-lived trees and thus serve as an allegory for the film’s clumsy environmentalist message.

The Elias summon Mothra with a modernized, music-video style version of the original Mothra awakening song — the musical style has a ’70s sound to me, but the visuals are very ’90s music video with the singers bluescreened over flames and whatnot. This version of Mothra is even more plush and fuzzy than prior versions. She’s also elderly and weakened after laying her egg, so she’s badly hurt in the fight, provoking her infant, known in English as Larva Leo, to hatch prematurely and come to her aid (and somehow the Elias are able to watch this even though they’re hundreds of miles away). It’s odd to see Mothra and her larva fighting side by side; in Mothra vs. Godzilla, the new Mothra larvae were born shortly after the mature Mothra died, suggesting the mythological trope of the dying and reincarnating god. I think the larvae in Tokyo S.O.S. were born before Mothra died, but didn’t actually fight alongside her. Here, Larva Leo takes quite a pounding but manages to drive Desghidorah away, and the good Elias recapture the seal from Belvera, while the Gotos deal with the destruction around them. But the old Mothra soon gives up the ghost and sinks into the sea.

Desghy goes on an offscreen rampage that drains the life from the forest of Hokkaido and makes it hard for the hospitalized survivors to breathe (huh? It’s not like people can’t breathe in a desert or something). There’s an odd misstep in the film’s environmental message here, since there’s an environmentalist protestor/journalist who’s been condemning Goto’s logging business, and here he comes off as a malicious lunatic who attacks Goto, blaming him for the whole mess. But eventually the kids leave their injured parents behind and run off to help Larva Leo, who cocoons herself (himself in the English dub) next to a really really old tree in a nature preserve and draws on its energy to metamorphose (and how is this different from Desghidorah’s parasitism, exactly?). She hatches into a bunch of little animated moths that combine into a fiercer-looking (but still plush) Mothra Leo (actually Shin Mosura, “New Mothra”), who takes on the now-winged Desghidorah in a very one-sided battle, since Leo unleashes about a dozen different attacks and Desghy doesn’t have a chance. Once Leo uses the seal to entomb Desghy again, Goto has a weird speech about how “we” destroyed the forest in minutes, even though it was the monster that did it, and how maybe, with hard work, we can reclaim the environment and build a better world for our grandkids. Which is immediately rendered moot when Leo takes the kids for a ride on its head and sprinkles fairy dust over the landscape to make it all magically bloom again. Who needs environmental responsibility when you have kaiju fairy dust? Oh, and Moll and Lora let Belvera get away because, oh, didn’t we mention she’s our big sister and we love her? Plus we need her back for the sequels.

I’d gathered this trilogy had a good reputation, but this was kind of a mess. Decent effects, and the actresses playing Moll and Lora were better than their dull predecessors in The Battle for Earth. The music was pretty good too, more lush and expressive than the usual Godzilla score. But it was hard to care about the dysfunctional clan of human heroes, the fight scenes ran too long, and the plot was unfocused.

Rebirth of Mothra II, aka Mothra 2: The Great Undersea Battle, takes place in the islands of Okinawa as a series of strange incidents begin in the sea, involving hostile starfish creatures called Barem, which turn out to be the waste products of a kaiju named Dagahra (not to be confused with Dogora), basically an amphibious dragon with manta-ray wings. It was created by an Atlantis-like civilization called Nilai-Kanai, which intended it to consume ocean pollution, but their genetic engineering was flawed and the monster produced the Barem as a waste product. Dagahra has now been reawakened by modern sea pollution, and the Barem will consume all sea life and destroy the world if it isn’t stopped.

There’s also a small, benevolent creature called Ghogo, a pear-shaped ball of cream-colored fur with eyes, chicken feet, and a single antenna atop its head. Ghogo ends up in the hands of the film’s preteen heroine Shiori (Hikari Mitsushima), who’s bothered by a couple of bullying boys that become her allies when Belvera attacks them to get Ghogo, who she says will lead her to a magic treasure that will let her take over the world (presumably by supernatural means rather than just, you know, becoming one of the one percent). So both factions compete to get to Nilai-Kanai, with Belvera recruiting a pair of bumbling treasure hunters as her allies, and when they find the sunken pyramid-city and Dagahra attacks, the Elias girls summon Mothra (this time without the cheesy music-video staging). Apparently New Mothra generally spends her time dissolved into hundreds of little Mothrae (like those that came out of her cocoon before) that only assemble into the Leo Mothrazord when summoned.

Dagahra takes a totally random detour to smash up the nearby city, but when Mothra arrives, their aerial fight is over the no-longer-sunken pyramid and a nearby forested island. Mothra Leo is not nearly as devastating as she was against Desghidorah, and the monster spins up a whirlpool that leaves Mothra helplessly encrusted in a toxic brown substance that it took me a while to realize was a coating of the Barem things. The pyramid’s defenses then drive off Dagahra, making Mothra seem kind of irrelevant to the whole affair.

Finally a holographic Nilai-Kanaian princess shows up, and we finally get some motivation for Belvera when she argues that she needs the treasure to save the Earth by wiping out the scourge of humanity, while her sisters argue that humans have the potential to save the world and that Dagahra is the real threat. The princess sides with them and reveals that the real treasure is Ghogo (big surprise) and that he must will his soul to the defeat of Dagahra — which has randomly mutated into a deadlier form with shoulder missiles. The kids and the treasure-hunting baddies save each other when Dagahra attacks again, and everyone’s redeemed and on the same side.

Ghogo’s final sacrifice is… ugh… Okay, look. I didn’t want to get into this, but there’s been a running gag of Ghogo magically healing people by, well, urinating on them. This culminates in a sequence that it’s very hard not to read as fetishistic, as Ghogo’s ultra-pure, healing “miracle water” (just animated sparkles, but still) rains down upon the delighted Elias girls and everyone else. Seriously, who thought this was a good idea in a kids’ movie? Annnnnnyway… Mothra is healed and transformed into a new, more colorful form called Rainbow Mothra, who magically parts the sea so the humans can run back to shore (I wonder if there’s some Mosura/Moses pun intended there), then transforms into Aqua Mothra, basically a moth/flying fish hybrid that splits into a bunch of little Aqua Mothras that have a CGI Death Star trench dogfight with the Barems inside Dagahra’s body, leaving it weakened and defeated. We end with an unsubtle metaphor where the princess’s voice tells the kids their generation has been entrusted with the fate of the world, and Ghogo has left Shiori a pearl that turns into the Earth for the final shot.

All in all, a forgettable sequel. The effects and music were okay, but the story didn’t have much going for it, and the climax was kind of icky. This one could probably be skipped altogether without impact.

Rebirth of Mothra III was originally titled Mothra III: King Ghidorah Attacks, so one guess who the monster is. Now Belvera is trying to steal three triangular jeweled pins connected to the “Elias Triangle” that protects the little ladies’ species, one each for Wisdom, Courage, and Love. Moll and Lora fight her, but she escapes with the Love pin. Moll finds that the Wisdom pin fits a triangular depression in her dagger and causes it to lengthen Thundercats-style into a sword (okay, that’s not sexually symbolic at all). But the Courage pin doesn’t fit Lora’s dagger, so it must be for Belvy’s, with Lora as Love.

Our human protagonist is a teenage boy named Shota, a budding chef whose indulgent parents are letting his skip school without knowing why, though their younger kids explain that all the students hate the healthy school lunches. It’s a weirdly moralistic conversation with the kids arguing that not letting kids eat junk food doesn’t let them be true to themselves. Anyway, Shota takes advantage of his abundant free time to investigate some meteorites that fell in Aoki forest, but Moll and Lora get there first and find residue that Fairy’s antenna sensor scan (yes, apparently) identifies as dinosaur juice, basically. So Lora deduces that whatever fell to Earth was the same thing that killed the dinosaurs 130 million years ago (twice the actual figure, but no worse than the “2 million years” estimate in the 1954 Gojira). Turns out that was King Ghidorah (with a conventional roar rather than his usual high, warbling cry), who’s now flying over the city and disintegrating children when it passes over them. Shota discovers that the children have been teleported to a big squishy-walled dome in the woods, some sort of larder where they’re stored for later consumption.

When Rainbow Mothra shows up to fight KG, he gets pretty well trashed. Lora’s “gentle heart” allows her to be hypnotized by KG’s gaze and she turns evil. Then Belvera gets snatched by some earthwormy tentacles from the dome (and again I’m having trouble believing that the implied sexual fetishism is accidental). Moll hooks up with Shota (who’s totally unfazed to see a tiny woman riding a large fuzzy moth) and takes him to Mothra, while Lora arrives inside the dome and swordfights with Belvera, snatching the Love pin to sword-ify her dagger. Somehow the power of Love doesn’t cure her of King G’s evil influence.

Anyway, Moll has to sacrifice the last of her life force (turning into a crude digital-effect representation of stone) to turn Mothra into a more streamlined Aqua Mothra known as Lightspeed Mothra, who travels back in time to defeat the younger King Ghidorah — which does not immediately reset the timeline, since this movie follows what TV Tropes calls San Dimas Time, where events in the past and present are somehow simultaneous, with past events only affecting the present after we see them occur in the narrative. “While” Mothra battles the smaller Cretaceous King G in a landscape populated with stiffly animated mechanical dinosaurs, Shota gets sucked into the larder dome (which turns out to be an outboard stomach that begins spewing acid) and uses Moll’s last words to reach the hearts of her sisters, whose powers combined summon Captain Planet help Mothra win the day in the simultaneous past, causing King G to vanish in the present — until another King G emerges, grown from a bit of Cretaceous KG that was severed in the past. And the time-travel logic is just as nonsensical as in the previous KG movie, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, but at least Belvera actually recognizes that it doesn’t make sense — which doesn’t actually help it make any more sense. Naturally Mothra returns (thanks to some Primitive Mothra larvae that cocooned her in the distant past) and gets two more ultra-gaudy transformations, Armor Mothra for the climactic takedown and Eternal Mothra at the end. Lora and Belvera use the Power of Three to bring Moll back to life, kind of like Charmed if Shannen Doherty were an evil witch bent on destroying humanity. (Although I think her co-stars might’ve believed that she was.) The sisters come to an understanding that they’ll never agree but that’s okay, and Shota has presumably gained enough courage to tackle the horrors of school lunches.

While this one has its silly aspects to be sure, it’s easily the best of the three, due to the drama among the Elias sisters. Shota is also a more effective child lead than his predecessors, a bit older and more thoughtful. The effects are pretty good except for the stiff wind-up dinosaurs in the past. I do wonder why they decided to do two movies with Ghidorah variants as the villains.

I know I’m not the target audience for these films, but overall I found them underwhelming. I believe that children deserve nothing less than the best we can offer them, so being made for kids is no excuse for a film to lack quality or intelligence. And in my opinion, these are just mediocre movies — not the worst that kaiju eiga has to offer, but well below the best. The first two Mothra films were among the finest of the Showa era, establishing Mothra as a figure second only to Godzilla in Toho’s pantheon. But few of Mothra’s later films came close. These are the only films since Mothra vs. Godzilla in 1964 in which Mothra has been the top-billed lead kaiju (that film was called Godzilla vs. the Thing in the US, but it was really a Mothra sequel with Godzilla as the guest villain), but they don’t live up to the same standard. Their effects and music are pretty good, but they’re too dominated by gimmickry, by giving Mothra various power-up transformations that were probably meant to sell new toys. The choice to center the series on the miniature women for a change was interesting; it makes Moll, Lora, and Belvera the only non-kaiju characters to be regulars throughout an entire Toho kaiju continuity. But they didn’t really get much character development until the final film, and the human children and families they connected with were never all that effective or sympathetic — especially since the boy “heroes” in both the first two films were bullies who harassed the young girl leads. So ultimately, the whole thing fails to rise above mediocrity, and feels more like an exercise in commercialism than anything else.

So that pretty much does it for the Toho films I’ve been able to track down. I’ve completed all the major Toho kaiju series — Godzilla, Mothra, Frankenstein — and a fair sampling of their other films. All that’s left are a couple of minor kaiju films from Ishiro Honda, Daikaiju Baran (whose terrible American version, Varan the Unbelievable, I’ve seen but don’t consider worth commenting on in isolation) and Space Amoeba (aka Yog, the Monster from Space), as well as a couple of non-kaiju things like Atragon and Latitude Zero, plus a couple of later, related films that may not even be worth it, like Jun Fukuda’s stock footage-based The War in Space. Maybe someday I’ll manage to track down enough of those to get another post out of it, but for now, I’m all Tohoed out, at least until Godzilla: Resurgence hits these shores, hopefully later this year.

So what does a kaiju eiga reviewer do when he’s effectively run out of Toho monsters to cover? Well, there’s really only one other major Japanese giant-monster franchise left, isn’t there? That’s right, true believers — it’s time to tackle Gamera. Brace yourselves, because from here on it’s turtles all the way down…

Thoughts on Toho’s space opera trilogy (spoilers)

Here are a few more Showa-era Toho films I’ve managed to track down, three non-kaiju tokusatsu films from Ishiro Honda, made during the 7-year gap between the second and third Godzilla movies. Wikipedia calls this “Toho’s space-opera trilogy,” although it’s kind of a misnomer.

The Mysterians (Chikyū Bōeigun, “Earth Defense Force”) was released in 1957, a year after Rodan. It starred several cast members from the original Godzilla, including Momoko Kochi (who was Emiko), Akihiko Hirata (who was Dr. Serizawa), and Takashi Shimura (who was Dr. Yamane). It was Honda’s first SF film without a kaiju per se.

Something’s up with Dr. Shiraishi (Hirata). He’s broken off his engagement with Hiroko (Kochi), he won’t leave his small village, and he’s failed to complete his astronomical research work for Dr. Adachi (Shimura), involving his theory of the Mysteroid, the planet that he believes broke apart to spawn the Asteroid Belt (not an uncommon hypothesis at the time, though not under that name, of course). His friend Atsumi (Kenji Sahara, who was “Man on Boat” in Godzilla but the lead in Rodan) is concerned even before he learns that Shiraishi’s village has been swallowed in an earthquake. This turns out to be the work of a giant burrowing robot with a ridged, boxy body and a drill-nosed, antenna-topped head that looks like The Great Gonzo designed it in his own image. This is Moguera, though it’s not named onscreen. Cue kaiju-esque rampage through the nearest town, until the SDF stops it by blowing up a bridge it’s crossing. Never send a robot to do a monster’s job.

Soon, as Adachi and Atsumi survey a lake that Shiraishi had theorized to be connected to UFOs, a large dome erupts from the ground and issues an announcement to the Earthlings (phrased as “Chikyuu no minna-san,” basically “everyone of Earth” with a polite honorific) saying they don’t want unnecessary conflict and inviting our two male leads and three others into the dome by name. These are apparently the five leading scientists on the whole planet, even though they’re all from Japan and all just happened to be there at the moment. The scientists find the Mysterians to be humanoids in proto-Power Rangers outfits, white jumpsuits with helmets and highlights in red, yellow, or blue. (In a nice touch, we can hear the Mysterian’s alien language underneath the Japanese translation, which is presumably synthesized by his helmet.)

The Red Ranger — err, leader — explains that they’re refugees from the Mysteroid, which they destroyed ages ago in a nuclear war. Red politely assures them that Moguera’s attack was just a show of strength and they want to live peacefully in the small territory around their dome. Oh, and by the way, all that radiation damaged our genes, so would you mind terribly if we demanded your women to breed with? We’ve already kidnapped three, but now we want Shiraishi’s ex-fiancee and his sister Etsuko, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble. Sheesh. Isn’t it always the way? Haven’t space aliens ever heard of online dating? (The premise is surprisingly similar to I Married a Monster from Outer Space, a nifty American B-movie from the following year.)

From here on, it’s a pretty standard and formulaic alien-invasion picture. The aliens announce their plans to enslave us to keep us from destroying ourselves, they abduct the leading ladies (who obligingly faint when the Blue Rangers come for them), the nations of the world unite against their common enemy, the hero raids the base during the climactic attack to rescue the womenfolk, and the turncoat turns out to be a double agent who heroically sacrifices himself. The Mysterians are discovered to have a convenient weakness, which is heat, so the authorities develop a weapon that’s referred to in broken-English dialogue as the Purple Heat Ray (maybe they meant ultraviolet?), even though it’s orange. Between this and a reflector for the Mysterians’ disintegrator rays, the new-formed Earth Defense Force manages to destroy their base and drive them into retreat. But their satellite’s still up there… have we heard the last of them? (Turns out, yes.)

I found The Mysterians to be surprisingly routine and uninspired. After Emiko played such an important role in Godzilla, it’s disappointing to see this film’s female characters reduced to little more than commodities. And all the miniature military mayhem that characterizes tokusatsu films loses something without a monster on the other end. The Moguera robot is an incidental and unimpressive presence. It would return in the dreadful Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla as M.O.G.U.E.R.A., G-Force’s replacement for MechaGodzilla II. It was pretty lame there, too.

Two years later, in 1959 (two years before Mothra, with Godzilla’s third film still three years away), Toho produced Battle in Outer Space (Uuchuu Daisenso, “The Great Space War” — a title very similar to their later title for Star Trek, which was Uuchuu Daisakusen, “The Great Operation in Space”). I thought it would be a loose sequel to The Mysterians, since it brings back Dr. Adachi and Etsuko Shiraishi, though played by different actors. However, it just reuses their character names with no other connection to the previous film. It’s more like a second go at the same premise, an alien invasion prompting the nations of the world to unite for the first time in defense against it. (Apparently Honda intended this recurring theme as an expression of his pacifistic views, although it’s odd that he kept casting them in terms of fighting against a common foe.)

And it’s an amusingly stupid film. It starts with an orbital space station being destroyed by alien flying saucers — and the station is ring-shaped and rotating, but the gravity is perpendicular to what it should be in such a situation. Nice try, but not quite there. Then the alien ships play a series of deadly games with an antigravity ray — crashing trains and ships, things like that — and it’s explained by the scientist heroes that they’re doing it with a freeze ray, since gravity is caused by atomic motion so freezing things to absolute zero will make them weightless. Huh? No, it isn’t, and no, it won’t (although the DVD commentary claims that this was based on a real scientific theory at the time). Although there is a nice bit about how centrifugal force from the Earth’s spin causes them to rise up when their weight is neutralized. And at least the antigravity weapon gives them a novel way to destroy Tokyo later on.

Anyway, the “World Council” decides to send a couple of cutting edge spaceships — called “Spips” for short, bizarrely — to investigate the aliens, but one of the delegates is mind-controlled by the aliens and tries to steal the heroes’ new ray gun. He’s exposed, but reveals that the aliens are from the planet Natal before they disintegrate him. There’s some forgettable characterization of the main heroes readying themselves for the journey, and interestingly, there are a couple of women on the expedition, including Etsuko. But one astronaut, Iwomura, is taken over by the aliens.

While the Spips are launching, they literally have the actors simulate the effect of acceleration on their faces by obviously putting their hands on the sides of their faces and pulling back! Then, once the rockets get into space, one of the astronauts — who’s supposedly trained for this for months — unstraps and floats to the ceiling and says “What’s going on?”, needing to be reminded that weightlessness exists. Except then everybody else just stands up and pulls him to the floor, and that’s the end of it. And then one guy says “Doesn’t this weightlessness feel strange?” while they walk along perfectly normally into the next room. And from that point on they’re walking, sitting, falling, fighting, etc. just like they would under gravity.

On the Moon, one ship deploys a nifty airlock which is basically an elevator car on a swing arm that rotates it down to the ground (it pivots to stay upright). Then both ships drop lunar rovers that look like the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, and they drive to the alien base and shoot at it a lot until it blows up. Not a lot of plot here. Etsuko briefly gets terrorized by a group of diminutive, spacesuited Natals, but her boyfriend saves her and that’s the only time we actually see the villains. Meanwhile, Iwomura blows up one of the Spips, but the destruction of the alien base frees him, and he stays behind and sacrifices himself to cover the astronauts’ retreat in Spip 2.

Oddly, the last act pretty much marginalizes the Lunar team while a new bunch of anonymous space fighter pilots engages a new wave of attackers and ultimately defeats them, though not until after they inflict destruction on… say it with me… New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Tokyo. It’s a trope seen in a number of ’50s sci-fi movies (e.g. Creature from the Black Lagoon and Tarantula), the heroes stepping back in the last act to let the military save the day. But the space battle scenes are pretty lively, and I wonder if they were an influence on Star Wars. I’m not sure if this is the first “dogfight in space” movie, but it’s got to be one of the earliest.

Akira Ifukube’s score to this one isn’t a particular standout, but the battle sequences are notable for featuring a mix of two military marches Ifukube used in other movies — one recycled from the original Godzilla and one that would be recycled five years after this in Frankenstein Conquers the World.

This wasn’t as formulaic as The Mysterians, but it was pretty superficial — virtually no plot, minimal characterization, minimal development of the alien threat. It’s basically just a flimsy framework to hang the special effects on. But at least the effects are fairly good, aside from some pretty bad bluescreen work.

Gorath (Yosei Gorasu, “Calamity Star Gorath”) came out in 1962, between Mothra and King Kong vs. Godzilla. It starts with the launch of a rocket on its way to explore Saturn — and fittingly, this is set in 1979, the same year Pioneer 11 made the first Saturn flyby. But it’s diverted to explore Gorath, a hypermassive new planet that’s projected to come dangerously close to Earth. The FX footage handles movement in space pretty well, with the ship rotating 180 degrees and thrusting backward to slow its forward motion, but it gets caught in Gorath’s gravitational pull, and there’s a beat of Japanese stoicism in the face of death and duty before they go kaboom. Back on Earth, they determine that Gorath will hit the planet, so Japan works with the UN (including countries like “U.S.S.O.,” “Crenion,” and “Pablonia”) to develop a defense. They eventually hit upon a pretty novel plan: Move the Earth by building a huge array of fusion rockets at the South Pole. (Which sort of makes sense. You couldn’t put them anywhere else due to the Earth’s rotation, and the North Pole has no solid ground.) We also get some hints of the fatalism that’s overcoming the public as the end of the world looms, but it doesn’t get a lot of attention.

We spend some time with a band of unruly astronauts who do things like stealing a helicopter to beg their director not to cancel a mission to Gorath  that he wasn’t going to cancel anyway. The biggest cutup, Kanai (Akira Kubo), has a thing with Takiko (Kumi Mizuno from the Frankenstein films), who’s still pining for a lost crewman from the first Gorath expedition. The second ship eventually blasts off to assess Gorath’s course, finding that it’s gained enough mass from the debris it’s swallowed to throw off their calculations — a nice idea, but it’s hard to believe the space debris could add up to 200 Earth masses. Anyway, Kanai goes out in a shuttle to take a closer look (and I love the way the shuttlebay is a wedge that folds outward from the rocket, rather than having a sliding hatch), and somehow the horrific sight of the burning world before him gives him amnesia.

Meanwhile, the scientists spend months building their rockets in Antarctica, and it actually seems a viable plan, although the head scientist argues with a fatalistic UN guy about whether adding even more rockets will help. Unfortunately, this conflict is abandoned in favor of a random attack by Maguma (or Magma), a giant walrus thawed out of the Antarctic ice by the rockets. It’s a really terrible kaiju costume and an utterly pointless digression from the story, and the whole sequence was cut from the American edition, one of the few times I can wholeheartedly approve of a change made in the US cut of a tokusatsu film.

This is fortunately followed by what, for me, is the coolest moment in the film, when Gorath passes Saturn and its gravity has a pretty impressive effect on the rings. Then it draws near to Earth, and there’s an orgy of miniature disaster footage as the oceans spill their banks and mountains collapse (and, of course, Tokyo is devastated). But despite the previously mooted problems and delays, the Earth survives, though the Moon isn’t so lucky. And Kanai’s second close-up look at Gorath restores his memory. So the day is saved, though they’ll need twice as much fusion rocket power to put the Earth back into its correct orbit. (I’m not sure how they would, though, since they can only thrust in one direction.) And I’d imagine the altered orbits of other planets and asteroids as a result of Gorath’s gravity could create some problems down the road.

Although this is a flawed film with mediocre characterization and a pointless digression or two, it’s interesting in concept. I like it that it’s a disaster movie rather than an alien-invasion movie, and that the big operation featured in miniature footage is, for once, a vast construction project rather than a military mobilization and attack. And its audacious “move the Earth” scheme is a nice twist on the planet-collision disaster genre.

Like the previous two films in this “trilogy,” this one is a standalone; it has no characters in common with the others, and the nations uniting against a common threat is treated like a first-time occurrence for the third time. And given the scope of the destruction to Earth — even the loss of the Moon and the rings of Saturn — I doubt this can be considered to be in continuity with any later Toho film. It’s probably just as well that plans to include Maguma in Destroy All Monsters were abandoned.

Thoughts on Toho’s DOGORA and KING KONG ESCAPES (spoilers)

February 9, 2016 1 comment

Here are a couple of standalone kaiju films I’ve managed to track down over the past year or so, bracketing the Frankenstein duology I covered in my previous post. I’d been saving these until I could add one or two more films to the post, but the Frankenstein reviews turned out long enough that it made more sense to post them in pairs.

Dogora the Space Monster (Uchuu Daikaiju Dogora) was the film Ishiro Honda made in 1964 between the classic Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster — just before the era when Godzilla films started to grow more kid-oriented and whimsical, but also just a year before the dark and moody Frankenstein Conquers the WorldDogora tends toward the latter route, mostly striking a pretty serious tone, but it’s kind of an odd one too.

Nominally, Dogora is about the mysterious attacks of a mutated amoeba-like monster living in Earth orbit, able to suck things up into the sky with antigravity powers. But mostly it’s a crime caper about international diamond thieves. One such gang (the film’s featured villains) finds a diamond heist interrupted by something that levitates them, then absconds with the diamonds after they flee. Police inspector Komai (Yosuke Natsuki) investigates the home of crystallographer Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura), where Komai gets into a fight with American Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham, who would later play the Seatopian king in Godzilla vs. Megalon), himself a suspected jewel thief. The film mostly follows the interplay of Komai, Jackson, and the gang as they compete for various diamond hauls, occasionally finding themselves interrupted as Dogora comes down from space to suck up coal and diamonds as its energy source. Munakata’s assistant, who’s also Komai’s love interest, conveniently has a brother in the space agency, so they end up advising the military on Dogora, with Komai occasionally touching base with them in between clashing with Jackson and the gang. About a third of the way in, Jackson reveals that he’s actually an international insurance investigator, a “diamond G-man” as he puts it, although he continues to behave in a suspicious manner and seems to be playing Komai as much as he’s playing the thieves. So Komai follows him when he follows the gang to Kyushu (Japan’s southernmost island), which naturally comes under attack by Dogora.

Eventually the military gets lucky when Munakata learns that a swarm of wasps was able to hurt Dogora, turning parts of it into crystal that rain down on the city. So they concoct a huge batch of wasp venom to use as a chemical weapon in Dogora’s next attack. But the cops and crooks have their own concerns. The gangsters’ moll, the sultry, sexy Hamako (Akiko Wakabayashi, later to appear in the Bond film You Only Live Twice), absconds with the diamonds that Jackson had in a safe-deposit box, leading the gang to hunt her down for double-crossing them, and Komai and Jackson (after barely escaping a dynamite deathtrap) chase the gangsters down in turn — with the overhead battle with Dogora interrupting their gunfight and having a rather decisive, err, impact on its outcome.

Structurally, this is a weird movie. It’s like Honda wanted to do a straight-up crime caper, but was obligated to put in a monster because that’s what people expected from him. The Dogora side of the story, despite providing the title, is very much secondary to the cops-and-robbers plot, largely going on in the background as the crime drama unfolds. But it provides an interesting look at the psychology of the people who live in the universe of Toho’s monster movies. (The characters do talk about monsters without much disbelief when they first begin to realize that one is responsible for all the diamond “thefts” around the world, implying that the film is in the same universe as the other kaiju films.) After a decade dealing with monsters of all sorts, they’ve grown blase about it; they just leave the monster-fighting to the military and the scientists while they go about their own affairs. It’s interesting to see a kaiju movie that’s mainly about the people who aren’t involved in fighting the kaiju, who don’t even particularly care about it except when it gets in the way of their own goals.

Although, really, you’d think they would care more. Knowing that there’s a giant space amoeba-squid with the power to suck diamonds up into the sky, these people would logically try to lay low and avoid anything to do with diamonds until the problem had been resolved. Maybe the crooks were just too greedy to think straight, and the heroes too ploddingly fixated on their duties to see the bigger picture. Even though Komai was in contact with the people who were dealing with Dogora.

Still, it’s also a pretty fresh and impressively made kaiju movie, with some really creative visual effects from Eiji Tsuburaya’s team. Dogora is a nifty departure from all the stuntmen in rubber lizard suits stomping down buildings. It’s eerie and alien, frequently unseen — which was probably due to budget limitations, given the rather more elaborate monster attack scenes shown in the production art on the DVD, but works well at creating a sense of mystery. The visuals of mounds of coal and various structures being sucked skyward by antigravity are a fresh and novel approach to kaiju destruction scenes, and well-made (generally relying on reverse filming). There’s also some rather beautiful use of cloud tank effects, dyes swirling in water with the Dogora puppet waving its tentacles within the cloud. There are also some shots of explosions going off inside the cloud that remind me of some of the Mutara Nebula shots from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I believe cloud tank effects were pretty innovative for 1964, and not just in Japan. This is impressive work, although some of the action is confusing in the last third of the movie.

Unusually for an American actor in a kaiju film, Robert Dunham was fluent in Japanese (he was a former U.S. Marine who’d been living in Japan since he served there years earlier), and thus he speaks Japanese in his own undubbed voice throughout, except once or twice when Jackson lapses into English briefly in moments of surprise or emotion. He even pronounces “New York” and other Western city names the Japanese way. Oddly, though, the other characters use “Mark” as though it were his surname — even though none of them are on friendly terms with him, except for Komai toward the end. It’s hard to believe the filmmakers weren’t aware of American name order; maybe they just found “Mark” (or “Maaku”) easier to pronounce than “Jackson.” Anyway, apparently Toho was hoping to spin Jackson off into a series, but it never came to pass. Just as well; aside from his fluency in the language, Dunham isn’t all that interesting an actor. I wonder if these other films would’ve been kaiju movies or just caper movies. With this film as the source, it could’ve gone either way.

King Kong Escapes was a 1967 co-production of Toho and the American Rankin-Bass studio (producers of all those badly done stop-motion holiday specials in the ’70s and an early animated version of The Hobbit), loosely based on The King Kong Show, a cartoon that R-B coproduced with Toei (now known for Super Sentai/Power Rangers) in the first instance of an American cartoon being produced in Japan. This was Ishiro Honda’s next kaiju film after War of the Gargantuas, since the previous two Godzilla films (Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla) had been directed by Jun Fukuda; however, Honda would return to Godzilla with his next film, Destroy All Monsters.

King Kong Escapes is not really in continuity with Kong’s earlier appearance in King Kong vs. Godzilla; there, Kong was blown up to 45 meters/148 feet to match Godzilla’s size, but here he’s a mere 18 meters/60 feet, closer to his size in his US film appearances (though still nearly 3 times larger than the ’33 original). Also, the name of Kong’s home island is changed from Faro to Mondo.

The film goes for a James Bond flavor in its villainy. We open at the Arctic base of the villain (Eisei Amamoto, dubbed by Paul Frees in the English version), whose name, amusingly enough, is Dr. Who. With his white hair, black cloak, and fur hat in the outdoors scenes, he actually looks a bit like a Japanese version of William Hartnell’s Doctor, albeit with a rather Capaldi-esque set of attack eyebrows. He’s working with, I kid you not, Madame Piranha (Mie Hama, a recent veteran of You Only Live Twice and of King Kong vs. Godzilla before that). She’s an agent of an unnamed Asian country with ambitions for conquest, and she’s hired Dr. Who to dig up the powerful, radioactive Element X in order to turn her country into a nuclear superpower. (But not an ultra-superpower — that’s Chemical X!) For some reason, his idea of the perfect digging tool is Mechani-Kong, a robotic replica of King Kong. Yes, Kong got a robot double seven years before Godzilla! But M-K is overwhelmed by the radiation of the element before it can get far.

Luckily for the villains, our heroes have stopped in at Kong’s island. The lead, played by Rhodes Reason, is a UN submarine commander named Carl Nelson — a name that evokes both Carl Denham from the original King Kong and the Denham-like villain Clark Nelson from Mothra, although he’s based more on Admiral Nelson from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Reason did his lines in English, and although IMDb claims his lines were dubbed by British actor David de Keyser (who’s actually done voice work in Doctor Who), the 2005 edition from Netflix definitely features Reason’s own voice. Anyway, he’s partnered with his first mate Jiro Nomura (perennial Toho lead actor Akira Takarada) and the designated Fay Wray, nurse Susan Watson (Linda Miller, an American model living in Japan, whose only other film credit was the MGM/Toei co-production The Green Slime). After they witness a rubber-suit re-enactment of Kong’s death match with the T. rex (here played by the kaiju Gorosaurus, who would return blown up to Godzilla size in Destroy All Monsters), they find that Kong’s weakness for pretty blondes is intact, and Susan’s able to make him do as she asks. Which leads Dr. Who, who turns out to be Nelson’s arch-nemesis, to arrange to kidnap Nelson, Susan, and Jiro and make her control Kong. Although this happens before he undertakes an interim plan to control Kong with hypnosis. Dr. Who makes an unconvincing attempt to bluff Nelson into cooperation by threatening to kill Jiro and Susan, even though Susan’s the one he needs alive; logically he should’ve threatened the men to get her cooperation, but that would’ve required actually giving a woman agency, and we can’t have that, I guess. Mme. Piranha has some agency at first, I guess, but her attempt to seduce Nelson into cooperation leads her to do a near-instantaneous flip-flop to the good guys’ side, actually saying “I’m sorry my country was so wrong.”

Anyway, Kong lives up to the title by escaping, and Dr. Who sends Mechani-Kong after him, the chase coincidentally but inevitably ending up in Tokyo, where our heroes (helped to escape by Piranha) warn the authorities not to make Kong angry by shooting at him, because they wouldn’t like him when — no, wait, that’s someone else. But just when Susan’s gotten Kong calmed down, Mechani-Kong crashes in and grabs her, and Kong chases it up Tokyo Tower for the climactic confrontation. Which, I have to say, makes far more sense as a King Kong ’33 homage than the 45-meter Kong’s attempt to climb the 65-meter Diet Building in KKvG. Since it’s a Japanese film, it’s up to Jiro to save the girl while Nelson stands by watching; and then it’s up to Kong to go after Dr. Who and, err, force him to regenerate.

I wouldn’t call this a great film, but I like it better than the previous couple of Godzilla films from Jun Fukuda. (Ebirah was actually another Rankin-Bass project that started out as a King Kong film before being switched to Godzilla.) It’s in a fairly light vein, much like those films, but somewhat older-skewing, with a fair amount of deadly gunplay.  It feels more like a spiritual sequel to Honda’s Frankenstein duology, though it’s goofier than either of those. The War of the Gargantuas changed the caveman-like title character of Frankenstein Conquers the World into the Sasquatch-like Sanda; this film takes it a step further, from giant caveman to giant ape-man to pure giant ape. And just as Sanda was more unambiguously benevolent and less tragic than Frankenstein, so King Kong is an even friendlier monster (with an inexplicably keen grasp of English, or Japanese, vocabulary, given how easily he can be ordered around) who gets a happier ending. But happy or not, it was a definitive ending. This is the last Toho-produced film outside of the Godzilla and Mothra series to feature a heroic kaiju.

Thoughts on Toho’s Frankenstein duology (spoilers)

February 3, 2016 4 comments

As I mentioned in my last Godzilla review post, I thought I might try to track down some of the films Toho made in the ’60s and ’70s about other kaiju. The available selection is piecemeal, but I’ve managed to track down a number of them. I’ll begin with the loose duology based on Frankenstein, which were the first kaiju films co-produced by an American studio. I hadn’t been able to find a copy of the first film through rental or the library, but I finally figured out how to use the statewide interlibrary loan system and found a copy in Cleveland. And while the English dub of the second film is available at Hulu and elsewhere, my local library had a copy with the Japanese audio as well. So, yay, libraries!

Frankenstein Conquers the World, aka Frankenstein vs. Baragon (full title Frankenstein vs. Subterranean Monster Baragon), came out in 1965, between the first two King Ghidorah films in the Godzilla series. It was originally based on (or plagiarized from) a treatment for an American King Kong vs. Frankenstein movie, then planned as a Frankenstein/Godzilla match-up to follow King Kong vs. Godzilla, but the plan to make Godzilla the hero didn’t make sense at the time, so they fortunately did the superb Mothra vs. Godzilla instead, eventually reworking their Frankenstein treatment with a new kaiju, Baragon, in Godzilla’s place, and Frankenstein as the hero. Confusing, no? (And yes, it should be Frankenstein’s Monster, but they call it Frankenstein here — or rather, Furankenshutain.) The film was partly financed by the American animation studio UPA, and it was plotted in part by American SF author Jerry Sohl, the writer of my favorite Star Trek episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.” To appeal to an American audience, Nick Adams was imported from the US and cast in the lead role (the first of his two consecutive kaiju-film appearances, followed by Invasion of Astro-Monster).

The film begins in 1945 with German soldiers confiscating a beating heart in a trunk, loading it on a German sub, and delivering it to a Japanese sub. During the transfer, an Allied bomber sights sub, sinks same, but second sub scarpers safely. The sub’s Captain Kawai (Yoshio Tsuchiya) takes the cargo to a Japanese hospital, where a scientist (Takashi Shimura, who played Dr. Yamane in Gojira) explains to Kawai that it’s the indestructible heart of Frankenstein(‘s Monster), which they intend to study in hopes of using its regenerative properties to make soldiers indestructible. (Implicitly, this is a rough sequel to earlier American or British Frankenstein films, with Frankie’s immortal heart explaining his ability to come back to life over and over.) Unluckily for them, the hospital is in Hiroshima and it’s August 6…

Cut to 15 years later, and the Hiroshima International Institute of Radio Therapentics [sic]. There we find Dr. James Bowen, played by an English-speaking Adams with his dialogue dubbed in Japanese by Goro Naya. (In the English-language version, Adams redubbed his own dialogue.) He and his colleagues, Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) and Dr. Ken’ichiro Kawaji (Tadao Takashima) are studying victims of radiation exposure and trying to develop cures, but the mood is somber as many of their patients face slow but certain death.

Bowen and Sueko discover a feral “waif” child that’s been wandering around Hiroshima killing small animals for food — something that was sadly common after the bomb, but odd over a decade and a half later. Sueko gives him food, which comes in handy later when the authorities corner him in a cave and Sueko and Bowen are able to bring him in peacefully to the Institute of Misspelled Therapeutics, where they find that he’s pure Caucasian (though he’s played by Sumio Nakao with green contacts and a Frankensteinian beetle brow and wig) and inexplicably resistant to radiation. He’s nonverbal but intelligent, and he’s quick to anger but not inclined to hurt people, especially Sueko. They determine that he was seen years earlier around the ruins of the hospital from the opening sequence, but how could he have survived being abandoned from infancy?

Captain Kawai, now working at an oil rig in Akita, witnesses its collapse in an “earthquake,” though we get a glimpse of a burrowing kaiju with a glowing nose horn. Later, he reads the news reports about the Boy (as Sueko calls him, even though he’s grown up and is now played by Koji Furuhata), who’s continued to grow at an accelerating rate, is now nearly two stories tall, and is rather cruelly being kept chained in a cage, with the shackle digging into his growing wrist. Kawai tells Bowen’s trio about Frankenstein’s heart, suggesting that the boy could’ve regenerated from it. Dr. Kawaji goes to Frankfurt to find the German scientist from the opening scenes, who advocates chopping off the boy’s arm or leg to see if it grows back, thereby proving he’s Frankenstein reborn. Horrifically, Kawaji thinks this is a peachy-keen idea, though Bowen and Sueko are morally opposed. But they’re too busy flirting over dinner, so Kawaji sneaks in to conduct the amputation experiment himself. (Sheesh, couldn’t you limit it to a small toe, say?) He has pangs of conscience and is interrupted by a TV crew whose bright lights enrage the Boy, causing him to break out of his cage and escape, stopping to peer into Sueko’s second-floor window and have a bonding moment before the cops drive him off.

Investigating the cage, the reporters find the shackle unbroken — and then are horrified to find Frankenstein’s severed hand crawling under its own power. They alert the scientists, who take it to the lab for study. Bowen has been urging the military and the media not to kill Frankie, since studying his regeneration and radiation resistance could be essential for science — much the same argument that Dr. Yamane used to argue against killing Godzilla in 1954. But with the hand, err, in hand, Kawaji argues that keeping Frankie alive is less essential. Anyway, Frankie manages to elude pursuit and live off wild game and raided livestock. He’s reached 20 meters and somehow his clothes have grown with him, though they eventually get tattered and replaced with skins. (It’s never explicitly stated that Frankie’s growth is the result of the heart’s radiation exposure in Hiroshima, but it stands to reason, since Frankenstein never became a giant before. If so, this would be the first kaiju-film appearance of the idea of radiation creating gigantism, an idea the Heisei era would return to.)

Finally, Baragon makes his first full appearance. He’s a weird kaiju, with lizard legs, a sort of armadillo-ish back, batlike ears, and a goofy, big-eyed face with a glowing nose horn. Frankenstein gets blamed for Baragon’s destruction and the military’s hunting him in full force, but the hand has died from insufficient nourishment as it grew, so the Three Scienceketeers need him alive again. Captain Kawai once again shows up to provide plot-advancing exposition, having realized that the glowing monster from the Akita earthquake is behind the carnage. Somehow, he deduces that it’s an ancient dinosaur that survived the cooling of the Earth (one of the dinosaur-extinction theories at the time) by moving deep underground. The scientific community scoffs, suggesting this wasn’t intended at the time to be in continuity with the Godzilla series, despite Baragon’s later cameo appearance in Destroy All Monsters. So Frankenstein is still being hunted, and only our three heroes are left to attempt to contain Frankie by finding where he’s most likely to go (Mt. Fuji, for a cool climate like his native Germany — indeed, it was snowing in the opening despite it being August) and airlift food there to keep him from roaming.

But Kawaji still has a more aggressive agenda, and his plan to kill Frankenstein and sample his remains happens to enrage Baragon, who goes on a rampage, endangering Sueko. Frankenstein comes to her rescue and the marquee fight is underway. It’s more fast-paced and acrobatic than your usual kaiju fight, since Furuhata is unencumbered by a heavy rubber suit — though Baragon (played by Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima) is pretty lively too, prone to wire-assisted leaping. During the fight, Kawaji is endangered and Frankenstein saves him, gently carrying him back to Bowen and Sueko. The battle leads to a massive forest fire which provides a dramatic backdrop for the climactic battle, until Frankenstein snaps Baragon’s neck and then the ground (weakened by Baragon’s burrowing) collapses and sucks them both into the Earth. Kawaji learns his lesson and assures Sueko that Frankenstein cannot die, but Bowen has inexplicably had a change of heart too and ends the movie by saying he’d be better off dead because he’s just a monster. Huh? (The English dub goes with a slightly kinder “He couldn’t live in this world.”)

However, the 1985 “international” version restores a long-lost alternate ending the filmmakers shot at the request of their American co-producers, who were oddly enamored of the giant octopus fight in King Kong vs. Godzilla and wanted to see a similar scene here, whether it made sense or not. Ishiro Honda and his team grudgingly shot the scene, but ultimately left it out of both the Japanese and American editions — and it’s easy to see why. After Frankenstein kills Baragon, suddenly a giant octopus shows up out of nowhere — yes, a sea creature crawling on land — and flails nonthreateningly while Frankenstein attacks it and wraps its tentacles around himself to mime being grabbed, until they both fall into a lake that suddenly happens to be there, before we segue back to the final conversation. It’s an absolutely terrible, pointless ending and it should never have been restored as anything but a deleted scene. If you see this movie on the Tokyo Shock DVD, do yourself a favor and watch the “theatrical” Japanese version rather than “international.” (Meanwhile, the original US version incorporated a few more added shots of Frankenstein inflicting destruction during his rampage, but apparently no widescreen prints of this material survive, so they’re missing from the reconstructed English-language edition on the DVD set, though included in low quality as bonus features.)

The alternate ending aside, this is a really impressive film. It’s the darkest, most somber kaiju film since the original Gojira, with a similar acknowledgment of the suffering caused by the atomic bomb. The fact that the monster is essentially human makes him unusually sympathetic and lends a darker quality to the discussions about hunting the monster down and killing it. Baragon’s inclusion seems kind of random at first, but it serves a purpose once Frankenstein gets blamed for its attacks, and though it’s a silly-looking monster, the big battle is quite effective. Akira Ifukube’s score is moody and effective, and makes heavy use of what was apparently the only bass flute in Japan at the time. It’s surprising to see such a solemn, dramatic kaiju film in 1965, when the Godzilla films were starting to become lighter and sillier.

The following year, Toho made a sequel under the name Frankenstein’s Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira, known in the US as The War of the Gargantuas. It’s an odd kind of sequel, though. Storywise, it’s a direct continuation of FCtW, with abundant references to that film’s events, and the lead trio are clearly meant to be the same characters. And yet all three leads are renamed and two are recast. Bowen is now Stewart (Russ Tamblyn, dubbed by Goro Mutsumi), Kawaji is now Majida (Kenji Sahara), and though the lovely Kumi Mizuno fortunately returns, she’s now Akemi rather than Sueko. (Some sources attribute the cast change to Nick Adams’s death, but that was two years after this.) They’re now based in Kyoto rather than Hiroshima. And the Frankenstein design has been changed to a full suit and mask that’s more apelike than before. There’s even a new flashback to Frankenstein’s childhood in which he looks more like a baby orangutan than a deformed human. It’s really weird that they made these changes, but it’s possible to look past the surface alterations and see the direct sequel it was meant to be.

It begins with the very scene the American investors wanted FCtW to end with, a battle between a Frankenstein and a giant octopus. They were really determined to get that octopus fight one way or another. This time it’s at sea, and the octopus attacks a smugglers’ boat before being attacked in turn by a hairy green ape-giant (not jolly at all), who then launches his own attack on the boat and eats all but one of its crew. (No doubt the redundant giant octopus was forced into what was meant to be a more straightforward scene of the sea giant destroying the boat.)  The survivor’s story of seeing “a Frankenstein” isn’t believed at first, but soon the creature attacks an airport, and the hunt is on. Much of the first half of the movie is the military hunting what they believe to be Frankenstein while our scientist heroes investigate, doubting the story. The Frankenstein they knew wasn’t a sea dweller like this creature, and there’s evidence of giant footprints in the mountains.

There’s an interlude where the green giant attacks an American singer (Kipp Hamilton) right after she sings a really dreadful song called “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat.” Now, this was a song I’d heard before in the Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated episode “Battle of the Humongonauts,” which I hadn’t realized was meant to be an homage to this film. I’d assumed the song had been written for the cartoon as a joke — I couldn’t believe anyone would write a song that bad in earnest. (Seriously, why couldn’t the monster have attacked Hamilton three minutes earlier?) Now I wish I’d seen this movie before that episode, so I could’ve watched out for more homages.

Anyway, the musical score makes plenty of use of one of Akira Ifukube’s most memorable military marches, the “Operation L March” (part of which was reused in the Destroy All Monsters title theme two years later, and the entirety of which was reused in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah in 1994) as the Self Defense Force prepares and launches its assault on the green kaiju. The assault sequence features the debut of the iconic Maser Cannon tanks which would reappear in later Godzilla films, perhaps the strongest continuity link (such as it is) between the Frankenstein films and the Godzilla series. The kaiju is injured and almost defeated when a second, tan-haired giant with slightly more human features and oddly scaly skin comes to its rescue and helps it to safety. This creature’s musical theme is just a slight variation on Frankenstein’s theme, which tells us what the three scientists soon figure out: That this is the original Frankenstein, the one they cared for in the past. If you squint a little, you can almost buy that this is the mature, hairier form of the earlier adolescent Frankenstein, or that he’s undergone some secondary mutation since we last saw him. The military dubs the maneating green creature Gaira (from kai, meaning sea) and the sandy-colored one Sanda (from san, meaning mountain).

The scientists conclude that Gaira is a clone grown from some cells that Frankenstein shed from an injury in the lake where he was briefly seen in the first movie, which somehow explains Gaira’s aquatic nature. This means they can’t just blow up the Frankensteins without spawning hundreds. Our heroes try to convince the military that Sanda, at least, should be protected, but the general just wants to use napalm and chemical weapons to destroy both giants utterly. After a pastoral interlude, Akemi/Sueko falls off a cliff and Sanda/Frankenstein breaks his leg saving her. He returns to his clone-bro and sees something that enrages him — it took me a couple of viewings to figure out that it was the clothing of a pair of vacationing boaters we’d seen earlier, now eaten by Gaira. A furious Sanda beats Gaira with a tree and drives him away.

Gaira ends up attacking Tokyo and Sanda comes after him. The military intends to attack them both, and Akemi/Sueko gets hurt trying to warn him, whereupon Stewart/Bowen confesses his love for her. I think the scientists’ arguments got through, though, since the military only shoots at Gaira while he and Sanda fight in the streets and docks of Tokyo, smashing the surrounding buildings with implausible, Man of Steel-like ease. (These kaiju are a lot smaller than Godzilla and his peers, so it doesn’t seem they’d be heavy enough to smash buildings that effortlessly.) Eventually their battle carries them out to sea, and the filmmakers must’ve been running out of ideas at this point, because suddenly an undersea volcano erupts and apparently burns up both Frankensteins, though it’s ambiguous enough to leave room for more sequels.

Even aside from the bizarre and gratuitous changes, this film is inferior to its original. It’s basically just more of the same, but without the ambiguity, since the heroes are all on the same page, convinced that Sanda/Frankenstein is a good guy and it’s just another case of mistaken identity, and Sanda himself is more saintly and less of a tragic, tortured figure than the previous film’s Frankenstein. Changing the kaiju to full-suit monsters makes them less human and less engaging (though at least they have visible human eyes). And too much of the run time is devoted to military maneuvers and attacks on Gaira.

The 1970 English-language version severs all connections to Frankenstein — perhaps because American audiences would’ve been puzzled by the reinterpretation of Frankenstein’s Monster as a Bigfoot-like giant? Instead, it posits the existence of hypothetical giant cryptids called Gargantuas — swapping out Mary Shelley for Rabelais. (It’s amusing to see the surviving smuggler mouthing “Furankenshutain!” and hearing “Gi-i-aant!” dubbed over it.) Gaira and Sanda are unimaginatively redubbed Green Gargantua and Brown Gargantua. (Poor Pantagruel gets left out.) Stewart is now just an expert in giant creatures rather than a Frankenstein expert, and he’s introduced earlier in the film, with several early scenes reshot to include him. (This actually fixes a major continuity error in the Japanese edition, which has the reporters show up to question Stewart about Frankenstein mere moments after he was first contacted, as part of the same scene. Here, there are several scenes between the initial contact and the press conference.) I believe this version also hints at the possibility of a second giant much sooner than the Japanese version does, which somewhat undermines the suspense. It also abandons all uses of Ifukube’s “Operation L March” in favor of the frequent use of a stock music cue that I got really sick of listening to after a while. Unfortunately, it keeps “Stuck in My Throat.” I fast-forwarded through a lot of this version. And somehow, with Russ Tamblyn dubbing his own lines in English, it’s easier to notice how lazily he walked through the part. In keeping with his lack of passion, the bit where he confesses his feelings for Akemi ends up as “I thought I’d lost an assistant.” All around, the English dub is an inferior version of an inferior sequel. Too bad, since Frankenstein Conquers the World is one of the very best kaiju films I’ve seen.

THE FACE OF THE UNKNOWN is done!

February 1, 2016 2 comments

Hey, all. I’m still here. I’ve been kind of preoccupied with a few things this month, mainly finishing up Star Trek: The Original Series: The Face of the Unknown, which I’ve just sent off to my editor. I think it’s turned out very well, especially considering that I had all those computer problems delaying me over the past few months. Fortunately the writing went smoothly for the most part; I actually finished the first draft early, but then I realized there were some additional story threads I needed to add, and it’s taken me until last night to get those sorted out.

As for my computer, it’s been working quite smoothly so far. I’ve got just about everything up and running as it should, and I haven’t had any trouble since I finished reinstalling stuff on the replacement hard drive. I’m thinking I should look into getting a backup drive that I can clone or image my drive to on a regular basis, so that it would be easier to restore if something else goes wrong. But I’ve never really figured out how to do backups beyond just copying my documents onto removable media. (Which used to mean whole boxes full of floppy disks, and now means a tiny plastic stick in my pocket. We live in the future!)

I’ve also been working my way through a rewatch of classic Doctor Who, as I mentioned before. I’m getting near the end of the William Hartnell era now, which means I’m going to be watching a lot of reconstructions of missing episodes for a while. Though I am getting the DVD of the restored “The Tenth Planet” through interlibrary loan. I’ve only just figured out how to extend my search to other Ohio libraries and request materials from them, which has let me track down some things I could never find otherwise. That also includes some of the non-Godzilla kaiju films I’ve been looking for, so you can expect the return of my Toho review series in the near future. (Sorry it didn’t occur to me to do Doctor Who reviews. I don’t think I’d have the time anyway.)

Now that I’m done with my Trek novel, I’m hoping to spend the next month or so working on original short fiction, hopefully including at least one new Hub story. Although I’ve already been delayed getting to that by my computer problems, so I hope nothing else comes up to divert me.

In the more immediate term, I should probably go for a walk today. We’re getting a spell of unseasonably warm weather hereabouts, after a bitter cold snap last week. Although in this age of climate change, we’ll probably have to throw out our past ideas of what’s unseasonable.

Speaking of which, I should probably take my car in for some maintenance soon. Over the past month, it’s had trouble getting started in cold weather — that is, the engine starts, but the car initially resists moving when I step on the gas. The first time it happened, I thought something must be obstructing the wheels, but nothing was. The resistance to acceleration gradually subsides, though it takes a couple of blocks to get back to normal. I figure some kind of lubricant must be depleted or in need of changing, though it seems to work okay in warmer weather or after a short enough interval of non-use. (I generally only drive once or twice a week.)

Godzilla will return to Japan!

In my review of the recent American Godzilla movie produced by Legendary Pictures and directed by Gareth Edwards, I said the following:

This film is cleaning up at the box office and a series of films — the “Legendary Era” I mentioned above — seems assured. But I have to wonder — what does that mean for the prospects of ever seeing a Japanese-made Godzilla film again? Could Toho ever match the level of money and technology that went into this movie, and if not, would audiences be interested in a smaller-scale Godzilla movie ever again? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad this movie succeeded and that there’s finally a viable American Godzilla series. I just wonder what the cost of that success will be.

Fortunately, it looks like my fears were groundless. Variety reported the other day that Toho is getting back into the Godzilla game, developing a new film for 2016 release:

The inspiration is the success of Gareth Edward’s 2014 “Godzilla,” which earned $525 million worldwide and JPY3.2 billion ($26 million) in Japan, with Toho and Warner Bros. Japan co-distributing.

Toho has launched what it calls the Godzilla Strategic Conference (Godzi-Con), a committee of studio executives and directors whose aim is to reboot the Godzilla brand, including the new “Godzilla” pic.

They admit they won’t have anywhere near the budget of the Legendary version, but still hope to make something that can be competitive with a Hollywood feature. It remains to be seen whether they can live up to that goal, but, well, I gather there is an enormous amount of inefficiency in Hollywood that causes a ton of money to be wasted. So who knows?

But it’s interesting… The last time we had an American Godzilla film, it was the failure of that film that prompted Toho to resume making their own. As I mentioned in my Millennium-Era review, their plan had been to leave their Godzilla franchise dormant until 2004, long enough to let TriStar complete a trilogy, but when the TriStar film bombed, Toho hastened to resume production. This time, though, it’s the success of the American Godzilla that’s prompted them to get back in the game and resurrect the character domestically after more than a decade’s absence. They’re not content to let America retain sole responsibility for Godzilla’s development this time. Or, more likely, they just want a piece of the huge profits that Godzilla’s latest rebirth has brought.

Anyway, I’m glad to hear this, because it means the scenario I was worried about won’t happen. Although, granted, there’s no way to be sure Toho’s endeavor will succeed. What if it just can’t compete with the level of spectacle that Legendary can provide? Honestly, I’d be happier with a full co-production, with Toho having control over the creative process and Legendary bankrolling the visual effects. Don’t get me wrong — personally, I wouldn’t mind the return of a cheesier, rubber-suited Godzilla. But would the general audience have the patience for that anymore? And even I admired the amazing VFX in the Edwards film, so it would be really something to see comparable visuals in an authentic Toho Godzilla movie.

Of course, this means I’ll have yet another universe to add to my growing list of Godzilla continuities. And I do love my lists. I look forward to seeing how Toho’s new universe will differ from the Legendary Universe and the earlier Toho continuities. Ooh, wait — that’s assuming I’ll be able to see the film. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long before it gets a US release, either theatrically or on home video. It’s been a long time since a Japanese kaiju film has had a US theatrical release; the last one was Godzilla 2000: Millennium, which TriStar distributed in the US in 2000 because they still held the rights at the time. So now that Legendary has the US rights, maybe they’ll provide the same service. We can only hope.

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