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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.

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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 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 Tazaki, 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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