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Kaiju review: REIGO: KING OF THE SEA MONSTERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 18, 2017 3 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on miscellaneous (very bad) kaiju films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on SHIN GODZILLA (Spoilers)

October 24, 2016 6 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaiju family values: GORGO and GAPPA (spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thoughts on GAMERA THE BRAVE and series overview (spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing my review of Daiei’s original Gamera series…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thoughts on the REBIRTH OF MOTHRA trilogy (spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Toho’s space opera trilogy (spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 9, 2016 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Toho’s Frankenstein duology (spoilers)

February 3, 2016 4 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE FACE OF THE UNKNOWN is done!

February 1, 2016 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Godzilla will return to Japan!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thoughts on Godzilla: Finishing the Showa Era (spoilers)

September 19, 2014 2 comments

Last time, I covered the beginning of the doldrums of the Godzilla franchise, a run of mediocre, half-hearted films whose only high points were the ambitious and epic Destroy All Monsters and the off-puttingly weird and experimental Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Following the negative reactions to the latter film, Godzilla vs. Gigan in 1972 brought back director Jun Fukuda and reverted to a more standard formula, using mostly established monsters aside from the title villain Gigan, a hook-armed, cyclopean cyborg kaiju with a buzzsaw in its thorax. The hero is a manga artist who’s hired by a theme park dominated by Godzilla Tower, an office building in the form of a life-sized Godzilla statue — but the people running the park have some ominous plans involving “absolute peace,” and the hero (along with his kickass martial-artist mother, my favorite character in the film) gets involved with the sister of another employee who’s gone missing (kidnapped by the bad guys for his scientific knowhow) and they investigate what turns out to be another alien invasion plot. There’s a bit of an attempt to echo Hedorah‘s ecological message, because the aliens (who are literally cockroaches disguised as humans) thrive in the hostile environments left over after civilizations have destroyed themselves with pollution. But they’re happy to hasten the process on Earth, with help from Gigan and King Ghidorah, who show up to trash Tokyo and, presumably, the rest of the world. At this point I had to wonder, how come literally all the alien invaders up to this point have had King Ghidorah working for them? Is he some kind of cosmic mercenary for hire?

Like Fukuda’s first Godzilla film, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, this film keeps Godzilla mostly in reserve until the last half-hour, though we do get a few scenes of him on Monster Island, giving instructions to Anguirus, who’s apparently now his sidekick. There is actually a version where they converse in cartoon-style speech balloons, but the version on Hulu excludes those. However, YouTube has the relevant clips. Anguirus makes a half-hearted sortie onto Japan but is turned back by the Self-Defense Forces, and that’s the only kaiju action we get until Gigan and Ghidorah arrive and start smashing up the place. But once Godzilla and Anguirus finally show up, the tag-team battle rages pretty much nonstop for the last 30 minutes of the film, albeit with the occasional cutaways to the heroes as they escape from Godzilla Tower and get the military’s help in defeating the aliens so that the good kaiju can fight the bad kaiju without interference. It’s more effective action than we’ve seen since Destroy All Monsters, though it certainly helps that it’s tracked with stock Akira Ifukube music, which automatically makes the whole thing seem more stately and impressive, even with the Muppetish Godzilla of the later Shōwa films.

Fukuda’s next film, Godzilla vs. Megalon, is oddly difficult to find on DVD. Apparently there have been some release problems and delays making it less available. Netflix has the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version available for rental, but with a “Very long wait.” So this was the hardest film for me to track down and the reason this 2-part post has been delayed. I was almost on the verge of giving in and spending actual money for a copy, my completist urges almost trumping my cheapskate urges. But it finally occurred to me to check my library’s catalog for a VHS edition rather than a DVD, and lo and behold, they had one! A phone request and a car trip later, and I had it, costing me only 20 cents for the parking meter (plus the cost of the gas I used, I guess). Of course, being an old library tape, it was pretty worn and had major tracking problems, which may have undermined my enjoyment of the film.

Except there’s not much to enjoy. The title is somewhat misleading, because this isn’t really a Godzilla movie. It was originally meant as a solo debut for an Ultraman-type robot hero, Jet Jaguar, but it was decided to shoehorn Godzilla and Gigan into the story as an afterthought. Jet Jaguar — who has no feline attributes whatsoever — was invented by a guy called Goro, who’s the protagonist along with his friend Hiroshi and his young nephew Rokuro (who seems to be called “Roxa” in the English dub — probably an approximation of “Roku-san,” which is how a boy named Rokuro might be addressed in Japanese). JJ is hijacked by people from the Atlantis-like subterranean kingdom of Seatopia, which has been partly destroyed by underground nuclear testing by the surface nations. Seatopia is given a nebulous and plot-irrelevant link to the Easter Island statues, yet its inhabitants are played by Caucasian actors, which I suppose was meant to make them look exotic to the Japanese audience. Despite having been at peace for 3 million years (yes, million), they happen to have a daikaiju, Megalon — a beetle kaiju with drill hands — that they unleash to destroy the surface world without any prior attempt at diplomatic overtures, communication, or anything. At first, they use JJ to direct Megalon toward Tokyo, but Goro retakes control of the android with ridiculous ease, and at Rokuro’s suggestion, sends JJ to Monster Island to summon Godzilla’s aid. JJ conveys the message through semaphore, in which all the monsters in this movie are apparently fluent. But Godzilla takes most of the movie to swim from Monster Island to Japan while JJ tackles Megalon solo — somehow spontaneously “reprogramming” himself to become giant-sized.

As if that weren’t random enough, the Seatopians contact the aliens from the previous film and ask them to send Gigan to help Megalon defeat JJ. So… they have the means and the will to communicate with aliens from Nebula M, but can’t be bothered to phone up the White House and the Kremlin and say “Hey, guys, your nuke tests are trashing our kingdom”? Anyway, Gigan arrives for his encore and tag-teams JJ with Megalon, and then, about ten minutes before the end of the film, Godzilla finally shows up — initially battling Gigan so they can recycle stock footage from the last film, but finally trading partners with JJ so the film can just barely earn its title. The hero monsters beat up the villain monsters to the point that it just becomes petty, and finally Megalon flees back underground and that’s the end of it, with no attempt to address the unresolved conflict with Seatopia, beyond a cursory mention by Goro and Hiroshi of telling the scientists to be more careful with their bombs from now on.

All in all, Jet Jaguar vs. Megalon, Featuring Godzilla (there, I fixed the title) is a pretty desultory kaiju film, and shows how far Godzilla had decayed as a concept by this point. Godzilla is at his least scary and most anthropomorphic here, more a friendly, cuddly superhero and wrestling partner to JJ than a vast, terrifying monster. At one point, he even holds up his fingers in a V sign to JJ. Most of the rest of the film isn’t much better. It was shot in great haste and probably for very little money, and it shows. There really aren’t any significant human characters beyond the three main protagonists and the Seatopian villains. (And there isn’t a single female character in the entire movie except for some dancers at the ceremony that awakens Megalon.)  There’s a lot of stock footage, and the scenes of the SDF mobilizing to fight Megalon and of Megalon trashing Tokyo feel lifeless, since we aren’t shown any characters reacting to these events and so they have no emotional context. The whole film feels like it’s just going through the motions. I’m glad I found a library copy, because it wouldn’t have been worth paying for. Hedorah may have been freaky bizarre, but it was a lot more interesting than the routine, slapdash films that preceded and followed it.

Jet Jaguar never appeared again onscreen, but it’s worth noting that a month after this film, Toho debuted the television series Zone Fighter, which featured a team of similarly Ultraman-like superheroes and had guest appearances by Godzilla as a heroic ally and King Ghidorah and Gigan as villains. The series is considered part of the Shōwa-era canon, but I don’t feel any pressing need to track it down and watch it.

Perhaps Toho realized the problems with the franchise at this point, since the final two Shōwa-era movies take things in a more serious direction, starting with Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Jun Fukuda’s swan song as director. Godzilla (now with a meaner, less Muppety design) seems to be on the rampage, but there are some things that aren’t quite right: He hisses rather than roaring, his atomic breath is yellow rather than blue, and he gets into a brutal fight with his sidekick Anguirus, bloodily dislocating the ankylosaur’s jaw and sending him into retreat, his survival unclear. But Anguirus has summoned the real Godzilla, whose atomic breath blows holes in the impostor’s skin and reveals a robotic body made of “space titanium,” as it’s dubbed by the main scientist of the film, yet another scientist character for Akihiko Hirata (seen before in the original film and Son of Godzilla). This is Mechagodzilla, who’s under the control of the latest bunch of alien invaders (ape-men from “the third planet of the black hole”) and who badly injures Godzilla, with rather a lot of blood.

But the aliens, despite using Godzilla as their template, are more concerned about a new kaiju, one based on the shisa, a protective lion-dog spirit of Okinawan mythology. Its name is King(u) Shisa, which is very straightforward, but it usually gets Anglicized as King Caesar, which basically makes no sense, so I won’t call it that. Much of the movie is about the film’s rather nondescript heroes discovering a statue that will awaken King Shisa, studying the prophecy that tells them what to do with it, and eluding the aliens who are determined to keep them from awakening King Shisa, who allegedly has the power to awaken other kaiju, or so the aliens exposit to each other. Once the statue unearths KS, though, a descendant of Okinawan royalty needs to sing him awake with an extended musical number, much like Mothra, but without the dance routine accompanying it. It kind of drags the film to a halt. And once King Shisa wakes up, he doesn’t really live up to the hype. He’s kind of a scruffy-looking lion-dog-man giant who has one neat trick — he can absorb Mechagodzilla’s ray in one eye and return it from the other, a bit like Bishop of the X-Men — but that’s about all he has going for him. Mechagodzilla has him on the ropes when Godzilla finally shows up, and he doesn’t contribute much to the climactic fight beyond head-butting MG a few times once Godzilla has overpowered it by somehow turning himself into a giant magnet because what the hell. The tally of other kaiju that King Shisa awakens in the course of the film is exactly zero. Finally, Godzilla “kills” MG by twisting its head off, even though we were shown just a few minutes earlier that it could rotate its head all the way around quite freely. It’s like the filmmakers kept forgetting what they’d previously established.

So while it’s nice to see the franchise attempting to go in a more mature direction again, the film ends up being rather mediocre, making promises it doesn’t really deliver.

The final Shōwa film, Terror of Mechagodzilla, brought back Ishiro Honda as director for the final time. Akihiko Hirata is also back again, but this time playing a different character, Mafune, disguised by a gray-white wig and mustache but still recognizable in old photos and flashback scenes. After playing an aloof and ethical scientist in the original film and friendly, bland scientists in Son of and GvMG, now he’s playing a full-on evil scientist — your classic mad doctor whose radical theories got him disgraced and now wants to destroy the world to show up Those Fools at the Institute. He’s working with a second contingent of the black hole aliens, except they’re no longer Planet of the Apes rejects disguised as ordinary, business-suited humans, but are wearing silver jumpsuits and truly insane helmets. His rejected theories give him control of a dinosaur kaiju called Titanosaurus — no relation to the actual sauropods of that name, but a long-necked godzilloid with fishlike fins and crest — and the aliens have recruited him to apply his knowledge to the structurally similar Mechagodzilla, now somehow intact again after being blown into space-titanium confetti in the previous film. He owes the aliens for saving his daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai) by turning her into a cyborg after a fatal lab accident. But she’s torn by her feelings for the film’s nondescript hero, a marine biologist working with Interpol to deal with the Titanosaurus problem.

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned Godzilla. He doesn’t show up until the last half-hour or so, having a brief, abortive clash with Titanosaurus and then not appearing again until the climactic battle. (Once again, we see that the 2014 movie’s limited use of Godzilla is not without precedent.) But at least this is the one film out of the last four where Godzilla is the sole heroic kaiju rather than part of a duo. At first he just seems to want to “challenge” Titanosaurus for dominance, but in his second appearance he’s back in the superhero mode established in earlier films, arriving just in time to save a couple of random teenagers from Titanosaurus’s rampage. He’s actually kind of overwhelmed by his two foes, but the human heroes manage to weaken them both in different ways, allowing him to triumph. Though there’s a tragic outcome to the central character story.

While still more serious and older-skewing than some of the earlier films, this one’s a bit more conventional than its predecessor, what with the goofy-looking alien costumes and broad characterizations. It does have a fair amount of city-smashing and monster-brawling action; these last two films had more money to spend than their predecessors, and it shows. This film also had the advantage of bringing back Akira Ifukube to do the score. Still, the bizarre approach of doing a direct sequel to the prior film yet making no effort at any real continuity with it, and even bringing back one of its lead actors in a completely different role, rather undermines it, at least when the two are watched back-to-back. And it doesn’t work as any kind of climax or finale to the  Shōwa  series; it was just one more film, and then the series got cancelled due to poor box office returns. It’s not an awful ending to the era; it’s good that the last two films attempted to pull the series out of the goofy doldrums and put more effort into it. But the second half of the  Shōwa era, even at its best, just doesn’t compare to the first half, or to the Heisei series to follow.

And that just about does it for my Godzilla review series — again. I can now say I’ve seen at least one version of every Godzilla film (though I regret having to settle for the lousy American version of King Kong vs. Godzilla). But, y’know, there are still a number of other kaiju films out there, like King Kong Escapes, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and so forth. So this may not be the end…

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Thoughts on Godzilla: Back to the Showa Era (spoilers)

September 18, 2014 3 comments

As promised in my last post, here’s the first part of my followup on the  Shōwa era of Godzilla movies, which I’ve fortunately been able to complete sooner than expected, though it turned out long enough that I’ll post it in two parts.

Last time I covered the Shōwa-era Godzilla films, I focused mainly on the first decade or so of the franchise and was kind of dismissive of the second decade, where the films generally got goofier, cheaper, and more juvenile. But since then, I’ve had occasion to watch some of the later Shōwa films, including several that I discovered were available on Hulu (with ads, but in Japanese), and I figured I should flesh out my review series accordingly. At first I was just going to cover the films that were convenient to watch online, but my compulsive personality demanded that I watch them all, even the ones I really didn’t want to. So here we go…

The last films I covered before were the two consecutive King Ghidorah films from 1964-5, which began the transition of Godzilla from villain to hero, the role he’ll play for the remainder of the Shōwa era. The next film was 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster — the first of five Godzilla films to be directed by Jun Fukuda.  Now, all those people complaining that the 2014 movie didn’t show enough of Godzilla would hate this one; he isn’t even seen until about a third of the way into the film, and then he’s sleeping until the last third of the film. This is mainly the story of a young man who’s desperate to obtain a boat to search for his shipwrecked brother, and who, through a series of misadventures, ends up stealing a yacht that was already stolen by a master thief (played by Akira Takarada, lead actor of the original 1954 film and portrayer of multiple roles throughout the franchise, including a cameo deleted from the 2014 film), with a couple of comic-relief dudes somehow getting roped in as well. They get attacked by the titular Ebirah, a lobster kaiju, and end up on an island controlled by the Red Bamboo, a nebulously evil military organization building nukes for world conquest and using slave labor from Mothra’s Infant Island, including the requisite pretty girl that the heroes team up with when she escapes. Yes, Mothra’s technically in the movie too, but she doesn’t wake up until the last ten minutes. Eventually the heroes decide their best bet for evading the bad guys is to awaken Godzilla and hope he’ll do more damage to the bad guys than to them; he’s still seen as a danger by the characters, but one they hope they can turn to their advantage against a worse threat (“Let them fight” comes to mind). Once Godzilla actually does get awakened and dragged into the story, it kind of loses focus. The monster fights in the last half-hour are kind of a jumble, both conceptually and in editing. There’s a weird sequence where Godzilla and Ebirah basically play pickup baseball with boulders before Godzilla wades in for the actual fight. And later Godzilla is attacked completely at random by a giant condor named Ookondoru, which means “Giant Condor” (oh, the creativity). It’s a very short and unsuspenseful battle. And one of our heroes tells the Infant Islander slaves how to turn Ebirah against the Red Bamboo, a very obvious plan that they somehow failed to think of themselves.

The first hour or so isn’t as lame as it sounds, as long as you forget that it’s supposed to be a Godzilla movie. The characters are kind of a fun group, which helps given that most of the movie is more driven by their travails than by the monster stuff. The music, by Masaru Sato, is pretty good too. And at least it has the advantage of not having a child as the main character, something that won’t often be the case from here on.

The next film, also directed by Fukuda, was Son of Godzilla, introducing Godzilla’s adopted baby, Minilla. The first third or so is a rather boring story of a reporter, Goro (Akira Kubo), crashing a secret weather-control project on a Pacific island. (One of the scientists is played by Akihiko Hirata, who was Dr. Serizawa in the original film; he’s playing a friendlier character here.) Goro spots a “native” woman that the scientists refuse to believe exists, and even Goro is oddly unconcerned by their assumption that the extreme heat caused by their freezing experiment’s backfire probably killed her (though it didn’t). Anyway, the radiation used in their experiment causes the already horse-sized mantises on the island to mutate to kaiju size, whereupon they’re named Kamacuras (a variation on the Japanese word for mantis — the English dub calls it “Gimantis”). The Kamacuras discover and break open the egg of a rather ugly baby Godzilla, which the real Godzilla arrives just in time to rescue, though he turns out to be a reluctant, halfhearted, and not very gentle parent to the rapidly-growing newborn. The woman (Beverly Maeda), who turns out to be a Japanese girl named Saeko (Reiko in English) who grew up on the island after her archaeologist father died there, bonds with the baby, who’s never actually called Minilla in the movie. The scientists are oddly unconcerned by the rapid maturation of the baby and the prospect that there could soon be two adult Godzillas rampaging across the world. The idea that Godzilla could be a threat to anyone other than evil kaiju receives no more than lip service.

Anyway, the rest of the movie follows Godzilla training the baby and fighting off the Kamacuras while the human cast deals with island hazards, and it comes to a head when the scientists are attacked by the local spider kaiju, Kumonga (called Speiga in English), which for some reason fires its webs out of its mouth like a Mothra larva. It webs the researchers inside Saeko’s cave and the fight between it and Minilla threatens to collapse the cave ceiling, so the scientists resolve to use their experiment to freeze the monsters before it’s too late. Except… suddenly they’re able to come and go from the cave freely in order to activate the experiment, which makes it kind of pointless to proceed anyway; why not just run for it? Not to mention that the radioactive capsule that was part of the re-warming after the first cooling experiment is now suddenly part of the cooling process itself. Basically it’s all rather incoherent. Minilla isn’t particularly endearing, and is accompanied by an obnoxious sitcommy musical leitmotif every time he shows up. And the new kaiju aren’t very imaginative; in the past two films, all we’ve gotten are a giant lobster, mantis, and spider, plus a cameo by a giant condor. By this point, the franchise seemed to be getting tired and lazy.

Next came Destroy All Monsters, which is available on Metacafe. This was originally intended to be the last film in the series, and was thus a grand celebration of all Toho’s various kaiju. It was also the last film reuniting Godzilla’s original creative team: director/cowriter Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, FX producer Eiji Tsuburaya (albeit in a supervisory capacity only), composer Akira Ifukube, and Haruo Nakajima as Godzilla.

The opening narration establishes that the film is set in 1999, when Earth has built a base on the moon — no, sadly, not that one. Square-jawed rocket captain Yamabe (Akira Kubo again, playing a very different character than last time) has a girlfriend, Kyoko (Yukiko Kobayashi) who works on Ogasawara Island, aka Monsterland, a high-tech nature preserve where all the daikaiju are safely contained and living in improbable harmony. (I wondered if this might be the same island from Son of…, which was referred to in dialogue as “a monster island,” but apparently not. Minilla is there too, looking the same as he did in Son of… even though it’s supposed to be 32 years later.) But Monsterland’s control center comes under mysterious attack, and then the kaiju are suddenly free and destroying major cities around the world. Godzilla himself — presaging the ’98 movie — shows up in Manhattan, blowing up the UN building. Eventually it turns out that a race of very polite, silver-skullcapped alien women from the asteroid Kilaak are mind-controlling both the Monsterland personnel and the kaiju themselves. They’ve attacked everywhere but Japan to distract from their establishment of a base near Mt. Fuji, but then Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and Manda (a serpentine kaiju from the film Atragon) gang up on Tokyo, and a mind-controlled Kyoko delivers an ultimatum: The Kilaaks will gladly coexist with us so long as we obey all their commands, and if we don’t, the monsters will destroy us. Naturally, Yamabe is too square-jawed to tolerate that, so he roughs up his girlfriend in order to rip off her mind-control earrings — which are decidedly not clip-ons. He and Godzilla could compare notes on tough love.

So our heroes figure out that the mind-control signals are coming from the Moon, so they raid the Kilaak base and win with surprising ease; they have more trouble detaching the Kilaak control module from its support than they have actually overpowering the base in the first place. And they don’t even use the module, because the scientists back home have rigged their own control system. They sic the kaiju on the Fuji base en masse, with reporters giving color commentary like a sporting event while the monsters gather. The Kilaak call in King Ghidorah for the big fight, and it takes multiple critters ganging up on KG to defeat him. The Kilaaks manage to destroy the humans’ monster control center — but, freed from control, Godzilla still knows who his enemies are and trashes the Kilaak base on his own initiative.

The first time I watched this film in recent memory, I thought it was kind of fun but rather superficial. Seeing it again in the context of the films that surround it, I recognize why it’s so well-regarded. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the ’54 original, it’s surely the pinnacle of the second decade of the Shōwa series. It’s vastly more ambitious in scale than its two predecessors or even the first two Ghidorah films, with tons of kaiju destruction and battles on a more global scale than ever before, though naturally it all focuses on Japan (plus the Moon) by the second act. Even though the film features the kaiju population as a whole, Godzilla is still more heavily featured than in either of the previous two films or many of the following ones, and anchors several key action sequences. It’s the last time in the Shōwa era that Godzilla is at all menacing, although it’s while he’s under mind control. The movie also features one of Akira Ifukube’s most impressive scores, although it’s also a very repetitive score, with four or five main cues that get tracked into several different scenes each. It’s off-putting when the Tokyo-battle cue is reused later and you hear Rodan’s theme over a scene featuring a solo Godzilla.

What I find particularly notable about DAM is that it contrasts with a lot of the earlier Godzilla films, and those in the Heisei era onward, by treating the kaiju as animals that could be controlled and managed by sufficiently sophisticated technology. So many other G-films have focused on the folly of believing that humans could contain the sheer power of nature (as represented by kaiju) and the devastation we bring down on ourselves when we try. The kaiju in DAM were tamer in comparison, both in-story and metatextually. And perhaps that shows how the whole franchise had become rather tame by this point, even despite all this film has going for it.

The next film, the similarly-titled All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge), couldn’t be more different from its predecessor, despite also being directed by Ishiro Honda. In fact, I question whether it actually counts as part of the Shōwa universe. It’s about a latchkey kid living in a polluted dystopia (aka 1969 Tokyo) and mildly tormented by a bully named Gabara. Unhappy with his real life, the kid, Ichiro, retreats into a dream world consisting mostly of stock footage from Ebirah, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, and the like, wherein he flies to Monster Island (as it’s called in the English dub streaming on Netflix) to visit his idol Minilla (called Minya in the dub). There’s nothing in the film to suggest that the kaiju really exist in Ichiro’s world rather than simply being movie characters — although there’s nothing to prove they don’t exist either. But given that Ichiro’s dreams consist of actual footage from previous movies, I’m inclined to believe this is just a story about a real-world kid who daydreams about movie monsters. (Actually one sequence of Godzilla training Minilla to breathe fire looks at first blush like stock footage, but I’m pretty clear it was a new re-enactment of the same sequence, since the setting is different.)

Anyway, Ichiro runs afoul of a couple of bumbling bank robbers and some proto-Home Alone antics ensue, only more boring and less comical, and he somehow wills himself into REM sleep while in their clutches (not exactly a healthy response to imminent mortal peril) and has a dream about Minilla, egged on by a tough-loving Godzilla, battling a bullying monster who’s also named Gabara (the film isn’t exactly subtle), which looks like a pebbly-skinned, tailless green godzilloid with a catlike face. Seeing Minilla (and then Godzilla) beat Gabara gives him the courage and mad skillz to defeat the bandits. Afterward, he has the confidence to take on the real Gabara, and… ugh. This film’s message is basically that you should deal with bullies by becoming exactly like them. First Ichiro beats up Gabara, then he plays a mean prank on a random bystander in order to win the respect of the bullies. This is supposed to be a triumph? The rest of the film is just dumb; the ending is genuinely terrible.

I remember seeing this movie on TV periodically when I was a kid, and I remember recognizing the sequences it reused from other movies. Even then, I knew it was a clip show. I don’t recall how I, a bullied child myself, reacted to the film’s ultimate message, but I’m happy to say I wasn’t inspired to become a bully myself and start beating up other kids. I guess I never liked this film enough to be influenced by it in any way. It’s hugely disappointing to see the series backslide so radically after rallying with Destroy All Monsters.

Next comes Godzilla vs. Hedorah, aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. And wow, this is the weirdest, trippiest film in the entire franchise. It’s a bizarre piece of filmmaking from director Yoshimitsu Banno, who was never allowed to direct another movie for Toho after this. Basically it’s an anti-pollution allegory in which our sludge and smog create or sustain a mutant inorganic tadpole monster from space — or something — that grows into the giant, lethal Hedorah, which threatens to kill us all and erode our civilization with the sulfuric-acid mist it gives off after its crystallized-carbon cells convert carbon smog into sulfur (note: chemistry does not work that way). Godzilla is treated here as the unambiguously heroic defender of the Earth, and the film is told largely from the viewpoint of boy hero Ken, who adores Godzilla as his hero and is even able to psychically sense his approach, apparently. It’s got weird bits of surreal imagery, random digressions into animated sequences like a child’s drawings, a dreamlike montage or two, a collage of TV screens showing vox-pop interviews in a fashion reminding me of Frank Miller’s Batman comics, even a completely random bit in a very psychedelic dance club where one of the male leads hallucinates all the dancers as having fish heads. I can’t help wondering if the writing and production of this film involved psychedelics in more than just the aesthetic sense. Although it could be that the film implicitly has the same conceit as All Monsters Attack — i.e. the whole thing is really Ken’s daydream about Godzilla — but executes it with much more originality. At the very least, the events of the film are filtered through Ken’s childlike perceptions.

As for the kaiju action itself, there’s a lot of it compared to something like Ebirah, and Hedorah is certainly a difficult adversary for Godzilla; but the fighting tends to be languid and dull and sometimes rather incoherent. After the initial, somewhat understated confrontation on land, we’re told by a newscaster that 32 buildings were destroyed even though the onscreen tally was approximately zero. And in the climactic battle — again around Mt. Fuji — the action jumps between different stages of the fight without any transitions, so that in at least one case we don’t see how Godzilla got out of a trap Hedorah sprang on him.

Still, as trippy and bizarre as this film is, at least it isn’t phoned in or predictable. Banno made a real attempt to bring new ideas and energy to the franchise. Also, it’s an astonishingly dark and violent Godzilla film for this era, with a lot of onscreen fatalities (even Destroy All Monsters largely avoided those). And it was trying, in its clumsy way, to have a real message, in the allegorical spirit that began the franchise. So I wouldn’t call it a good or particularly successful film, but I respect the daring and innovation behind it. It is anything but ordinary.

Next, I finish out the series with the last four films.

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Thoughts on Godzilla: The TriStar sidebar

September 17, 2014 5 comments

That’s right, folks, I’m reviving my Godzilla review series in the interests of completeness. I’m working on a review of the remainder of the Shōwa series, but I’ve also been looking forward to an opportunity to revisit the 1998 animated series spinning off of the Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie from the same year. Since Netflix streaming is dropping the animated series at the end of September, I had to watch it before then, and I fortunately happened to find the movie on TV at a convenient juncture.

Yes, yes, I know that the featured kaiju in the ’98 movie is not recognized as actually being Godzilla (the creature is sometimes called Zilla, but apparently Toho considers that the name for the different creature of the same species that had a cameo in Godzilla: Final Wars). But as I discussed in my increasingly misnamed “Final thoughts” post, I do believe the movie can work as a side branch of the universe seen in Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (or GMK), which actually alludes to the events of the ’98 film as a case of mistaken identity, and sets up a universe in which such mistakes are understandable. So I’m including it as a sidebar, just as I covered films like Mothra and Rodan in my initial post.

The ’98 movie opens in a surprisingly similar way to the 2014 movie, with an archival-footage montage of nuclear tests in the Pacific — except these are French nuclear tests, and there are a lot of shots of iguanas and Komodo dragons, presumably the ancestors of our featured monster. We then cut to Matthew Broderick singing a show tune and being instantly unlikeable. Turns out he’s Dr. Nico “Nick” Tatopolous (named in honor of the film’s production designer Patrick Tatopolous), and he’s a “worm guy” working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to document annelid mutations caused by nuclear radiation. Somehow this makes him a suitable expert to be called in when a giant reptilian creature attacks a large Japanese fishing vessel… which somehow ends up on the shore in Jamaica. (Do Japanese vessels fish in the Atlantic? Or are we supposed to think the creature dragged it through the Panama Canal?) The sole survivor calls the creature “Gojira,” and it’s entirely reasonable that he’d think that’s what it was, assuming this is a universe where the real Godzilla exists. Later on, there’s a news report explaining the name as a mythical dragon spoken of in Japanese lore — which, given the general ineptitude of Harry Shearer’s character Caiman, the reporter delivering the spiel (and coining “Godzilla” as a mispronunciation, or perhaps he came across an old-style Romanization written down somewhere), is marginally reconcilable with a universe where Godzilla really attacked Tokyo in 1954. The film implies that event never happened, but it isn’t overtly inconsistent with the idea that it did. (Even if we assume that, as in the Legendary universe, the 1954 attack on Tokyo never happened, it stands to reason that the Oto islanders could have still been aware of Gojira and worshipped it, giving rise to the “myth.” Although that would be harder to mesh with GMK.)

Anyway, the creature makes a beeline for Manhattan, allegedly because it’s the perfect nesting ground to lay its hermaphroditically conceived eggs, but really because of movie monsters’ unerring attraction to landmarks. Most of the movie is a chase through Manhattan with lots of collateral damage by the military, with the running gag of “Godzilla” being extremely quick and good at dodging missiles and torpedoes, until it’s finally trapped in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s a large digression in the middle of the movie where it turns into an attempt to one-up Jurassic Park, with the characters fleeing from 200 baby Zillas (gestated and hatched with absurd speed) inside Madison Square Garden. The main problem fans have with the movie is that it didn’t try to tell a Godzilla story so much as it tried to rework the concept into a conventional American-style monster movie, which ended up being sort of a mix of Jurassic Park and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which, ironically, was a direct inspiration for the original 1954 Godzilla).

Still, that’s not the film’s only problem. The first time I saw it, I decided that it was a perfectly serviceable monster movie so long as you accepted that it wasn’t a Godzilla movie, just a movie about a monster that was called Godzilla by mistake. But I think I felt that because I was looking at it from the back end. Seeing it again, I’m reminded that the first half of the film is pretty lame. It suffers from the attempt to play up the comedy angle in a way that isn’t very funny, and to tell a character-driven story about characters that aren’t that well-drawn. The female lead in particular, aspiring reporter Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), is a weak and ineffectual character who only accomplishes things because others around her encourage her to — mostly her cameraman friend Animal Palotti (Hank Azaria), who’s a stronger protagonist than she is despite being nominally her comic-relief sidekick (though it’s hard to tell when most of the characters are supposedly comical). The film handles its destructive subject matter in such a frivolous tone that it carries little weight. This is exemplified in a scene where “Godzilla” destroys three fighter jets, and commanding officer Col. Hicks (Kevin Dunn) only gets a few seconds of pained reaction to their deaths before we cut to the buffoonish Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) getting a comedy beat. The other characters don’t fare much better. Jean Reno plays Philippe Roaché, a French secret service agent who works with Nick once the military kicks the scientist out (for unintentionally allowing Audrey to swipe a classified tape), and Philippe’s main personality trait is wanting a good cup of coffee. And Vicki Lewis and Malcolm Danare are introduced as Nick’s fellow experts Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven, then get pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie. Nick himself has a poorly defined motivation; for a scientist faced with a new form of life, he’s oddly untroubled by the idea of participating in its destruction, and by extension that of its whole species.

The most worthwhile part of the movie, for me, is the third act. Usually that’s where I think modern movies tend to fall apart, as the demand for spectacle and pace overrides story logic and plausibility. But here, the amped-up action means there’s less time for cartoony characterization and unfunny gags, and with less annoying stuff going on, the film is more watchable. Still, it’s a weaker movie than I remembered.

One drawback to the idea of this creature being called Godzilla by mistake is that its roar includes the original Godzilla roar as one of its sound elements. But it wouldn’t be the first time in kaiju history that a roar sound has been used by more than one monster, I think. Also, the creature breathes fire — exactly once in the movie, and without a lot of weight given to it — but it is actual fire, not atomic breath. That part is so half-hearted that one wonders why they bothered. But then, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of care or thought put into this movie at all, let alone respect for the source material.

Godzilla: The Series, though, is an enormous improvement. It was developed for television by Jeff Kline and Richard Raynis, executive producers of multiple animated series from Columbia Pictures Television, also including Extreme Ghostbusters, Men in Black: The Series, and Jackie Chan Adventures (and Raynis has also been an executive producer on The Real Ghostbusters, The Simpsons, Futurama, and King of the Hill among others). Interestingly, and almost unprecedentedly, the series fits just about perfectly into the continuity of the movie, without having to make the kinds of continuity tweaks and cheats that most series based on movies need to do (for instance, Men in Black: The Series ignored Agent K’s retirement at the end of the movie). The opening scene of the series premiere does present the climax of the movie slightly differently, since it has to fit the whole thing into a much shorter time, but it still meshes pretty well (aside from the implausible speed with which landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge were rebuilt — although there is one episode that shows the Chrysler Building spire still under reconstruction after its trashing in the film). The series picks up on the closing scene of the movie, where a single Godzilla egg survived and hatched. Here, we learn that, right after the climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, Nick (now played by Ian Ziering) convinced Hicks (Dunn reprising his role, though he’s been demoted to major in the series) to check Madison Square Garden for surviving eggs. Nick finds the intact egg just as it hatches, but he fell into a pool of amniotic fluid or something, so the hatchling imprints on him as its parent. He later discovers this when the creature resurfaces, already quickly grown, and studies and trains it, calling it Godzilla (and since that’s its actual given name, regardless of origin, I’ll use it without quotes). He assembles a team called HEAT — the Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team — which travels the world dealing with the further giant mutant monsters that are springing up around the world, and Godzilla, who instinctually follows and protects Nick wherever he goes, becomes their main monster-fighting asset. (How Godzilla is able to track Nick even when he travels by jet is unexplained.)

The series focuses primarily on the HEAT group, so Nick is the only character who’s central in both the movie and the series (since the series’ Godzilla is a different individual). Minor film characters Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven are part of his team; Malcolm Danare reprises Craven, but Charity James takes over playing Elsie. Also, for some reason Elsie is working for Nick now, when in the movie it was nominally the reverse. I guess that’s understandable since they’re operating out of Nick’s lab this time. The series also adds two original characters who add some much-needed diversity to the essentially all-white cast of the movie: Randy Hernandez (Rino Romano), a dreadlocked, wisecracking college-age hacker, and Monique DuPre (Brigitte Bako), a French agent of apparently Vietnamese ancestry (since Elsie calls her “Miss Saigon” in one episode), assigned by Roaché to shepherd Nick’s team and keep an eye on Godzilla. Audrey, Animal, Hicks, and Mayor Ebert (reprised by Michael Lerner) have recurring roles in the series, and Roaché appears a couple of times, played by Keith Szarabaika.

Right off the bat, the series is an improvement on the movie. Though still humorous in tone, it treats its characters as people rather than walking jokes, so that they’re (ironically) less cartoony and their personalities and relationships have more dimension. The characterizations are the largest departures from the film continuity, but since they’re pretty much improvements all around, I’m not complaining. The show’s Nick is much more of an authoritative action-hero type than Broderick’s, and this time he actually shows some scientific curiosity and empathy for the new species he’s discovered, bonding with the junior Godzilla and defending it from Hicks’s initial attack. Audrey (now played by Paget Brewster) is also a stronger character in the show, much more assertive in pursuit of a story; I suppose it’s a manifestation of the new confidence she gained at the end of the film, but it’s quite a wholesale transformation. Elsie is basically the resident wisecracker, and also occasionally in the middle of a vague romantic triangle where she’s into Nick but Mendel is into her. Mendel’s main job is operating the robotic probe NIGEL (Tom Kenny), which gets smashed by monsters on a weekly basis. He’s timid, insecure, and allergy-prone, but rises to the occasion when he has to. Craven has a rivalry with the younger, snarkier Randy, who constantly plays pranks such as reprogramming NIGEL with funny voices. Randy was meant to be a fun, witty young character for the cartoon’s audience to identify with, but he gets a bit annoying if you binge-watch the series, with his tendency to refer to Godzilla as “the G-Man” getting rather tiresome. Randy also has a hopeless crush on Monique, a no-nonsense ice princess who’s basically Seven of Nine with a French accent. There are occasional episodes where she seems to enjoy or even encourage his attentions, though. Animal and Hicks don’t get much development beyond their movie personas. (Animal is now played by Joe Pantoliano — surprising, since Hank Azaria has done plenty of voice work, particularly for Raynis’s The Simpsons.) All the characters have new designs by Fil Barlow, who also designed the monsters, though Patrick Tatopolous gets a consultant credit for the reuse of his Godzilla design, which works quite well in 2D animation. The designs help make both Nick and Audrey seem stronger than they did in the movie.

The show’s Godzilla differs from his movie parent in a couple of ways. Though he has the same design, he’s often more upright in his posture. He’s conveniently infertile, so there’s no risk of more eggs being laid, though the reason why is not explained. And he breathes atomic fire, a green flame preceded by a chaser-light effect of flashes moving up his spine plates from tail to head, and occasionally a flashing of his eyes. Plus the show’s introduction of other giant “mutations” for Godzilla to fight lets him play a role more like the real Godzilla does in most of his movies. All in all, the animated Godzilla is much closer to his Toho namesake than his parent was. (He also emits a purer, though usually shortened, version of the original Godzilla roar.) Although he’s still like the movie creature in some ways as well. He’s very much an animal, albeit a clever one — he’s more mortal and vulnerable, less a force of nature than his namesake, and though he’s far from tame, he’s submissive to Nick in a way the true Godzilla would never be.

The series also deals with a range of threats similar to those in the Toho movies: newly evolved mutant creatures, ancient mythic creatures like Quetzalcoatl and the Loch Ness Monster, technological threats like a runaway nanotech blob or a monster created by a dream amplifier, evil industrialists looking to profit from Godzilla and the other monsters, and even alien invaders and time travel. There’s a 3-parter called “Monster Wars” that’s basically a Destroy All Monsters remake complete with Monster Island, and even featuring a version of Mechagodzilla (though it’s actually more reminiscent of MechaKing Ghidorah, since it’s the reanimated cyborg corpse of the creature from the ’98 movie). It’s a nice, rich mix of stories, yet there’s also an ongoing focus on character development and conflict among the cast. It’s not without its occasional duds — for instance, there’s a Fantastic Voyage riff where the heroes travel through Godzilla’s bloodstream in a minisub to fight off macroscopic mutant germs, which is absurd because Godzilla is nowhere near that big in proportion to humans. And then there’s the bizarre one where they battle a monster that’s a fusion of a giant shrew and… a tornado. Huh? And there’s the one where Godzilla tears down the Sears Tower to get at a monster perching atop it, and nobody bats an eyelid, with the whole thing just being a passing action beat. Still, on the whole it’s a smart, well-written series with good character work, definitely much more so than the film it’s based on. A particular favorite of mine is “S.C.A.L.E.,” written by Scott Lobdell — a found-footage-style episode in the form of a documentary by Audrey about a terrorist attack on Monster Island. (Two other episodes are written by veteran comic scribes, one by Marv Wolfman and one by Len Wein.)

The proper episode order is a little unclear. The DVD/streaming order differs enormously from the broadcast order, and the episodes seem to jump randomly between episodes where Elsie is into Nick and doesn’t know Mendel exists and episodes where Elsie shows signs of reciprocating Mendel’s interest. But the broadcast order doesn’t seem to have a clearer progression for that relationship. And there’s a general lack of continuity in other respects; for instance, I had thought that the lawsuit in “Underground Movement” for damages inflicted by HEAT during a monster attack in Miami was a callback to the events of “S.C.A.L.E.,” which began after a Miami attack; but the monsters in the two cases were different. There’s also an “Area 51” episode in which belief in aliens is treated as a delusion even though it’s after the alien invasion from “Monster Wars” in both orders. (Turns out Area 51 is actually a secret mutation research facility and the alien stuff is just a cover story.) The only real continuity in the series is the reuse of familiar monsters in later episodes — which, I suppose, is another thing that makes it like the Toho series.

And yes, you can follow the series without seeing the movie; I did so when it first premiered. Seeing the movie first does provide additional insights, though, and makes the series even more enjoyable by contrast.

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Thoughts on Godzilla: 2014 Reboot — “The Legendary Era?” (spoilers)

Well, here I am, continuing my Godzilla reviews with the new movie reboot, and as you see in the title, I’m proposing a name for the new series that we’re probably going to be getting, now that the film has done so well on its opening weekend that a sequel has already been ordered. Since Legendary Pictures is the production company behind this film (in collaboration with Warner Bros. and under license from Toho), “Legendary Era” seems a fitting name for the new age of Godzilla — though time will tell if it’s worthy of that name. (Or if anyone other than me will want to call it that. Edit: Turns out Wikizilla is already using “Legendary Series.” Later edit: The official Legendary title is “MonsterVerse.”)

So here we are… the fourth film in total to bear the title Godzilla (alternately transliterated as Gojira), and the second American one, sixteen years after the previous attempt at a US reboot — which, as per my previous analysis, is best seen as a movie about a different creature that was simply mistaken for Godzilla (arguably occurring in the universe of GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, which alludes in passing to its events). So this is the first American-made film about the genuine article — unless you count 1956’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, which is altered enough from the 1954 original that it arguably constitutes a distinct film running in parallel to it. Let’s say, then, that this is the first fully American-made film about the actual Godzilla (or one of his many avatars across the cinematic multiverse).

But this film is definitely a new start. Previous Godzilla universes (see above link) have almost invariably shared a common origin story: The American nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands in 1954 awoke the beast in one way or another (either driving him from his natural feeding grounds and turning him radioactive as in the Showa Era, or mutating a smaller carnosaur into a giant, nuclear-powered creature as in the Heisei Era) and led him to rampage through Tokyo later that year, after which Dr. Daisuke Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer weapon either destroyed the beast (followed by the emergence of a second Godzilla at some later point) or crippled him (after which he spent decades regenerating before re-emerging). But this film changes that. The 1954 atomic tests are still part of the backstory, but their meaning is changed. Here, as in Showa, Godzilla was a naturally occurring prehistoric alpha predator, one of a breed of creatures that fed on radiation and evolved to live deeper in the Earth as the surface became less radioactive. (Not great paleontology, but then, the first movie said the dinosaurs died out 2 million years ago, so what the heck.) An American nuclear submarine awoke Godzilla, so one could say that America’s culpability for unleashing him is intact; but this American-produced film gives the US military a chance to redeem itself, since the Marshall Islands tests are now explained as an attempt to kill off Godzilla. I’m not sure that’s in the best of taste, considering that the original film was an allegorical protest for the deaths of Japanese fisherman and the poisoning of Japanese soil and water as a result of those tests. Although I’ll grant that the film paints those attempts as a futile gesture, at least. Every attempt in this film to use nuclear weapons as a solution proves ineffectual, and the bomb is ultimately shown as more a threat than a benefit, which is reasonably true to the spirit of the series. So it’s not as jingoistic as the American dub of the 1984 reboot (which was altered to make the Soviets more evil), but it still lets the Americans come off somewhat better, as one would expect of an American Godzilla.

Also, Godzilla’s 1954 raid on Tokyo is apparently absent from this universe, unless it happened in a different way that was covered up as a natural disaster. That’s perhaps the biggest departure from prior continuities; six out of the seven Toho Godzilla universes include the ’54 attack as an iconic part of their history, and the other (Godzilla 2000: Millennium) is agnostic on the question. Perhaps we can assume that in this reality, the American nuclear attack injured Godzilla enough that he didn’t attack Tokyo. So the world is mostly unaware of kaiju until 1999, when a mining operation unleashes one of the film’s original monsters (called MUTO for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism” — not as colorful as the Japanese kaiju names), which causes a Fukushima-esque disaster at the nuclear reactor where Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody and his wife work, causing his wife’s death (boy, the Brody clan can’t catch a break) and turning Brody into a conspiracy nut searching for The Truth, eventually drawing his Navy-lieutenant son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) into events just in time for the winged male MUTO to hatch from its cocoon around the damaged reactor (they feed on nuclear material and absorb the associated radiation for energy, a trait they share with Heisei/Millennium Godzilla) and begin a rampage toward Nevada, where its larger mate’s cocoon has been stored by the US government until it, too, breaks out. (I guess this is vaguely an allegory for how the danger of atomic waste may not be as containable as we like to think, or maybe it’s just an excuse to bring the action to the US.) The MUTOs not only feed on radiation, but emit electromagnetic pulses that knock out all electronics around them, part of the reason the military is helpless against them. And of course, the EMP is portrayed as fancifully as it always is in fiction. It expands in a visible blue sphere — much, much slower than light — and while it’s able to knock out military hardware that’s presumably EMP-hardened, it somehow leaves a commercial GPS device on a civilian boat completely undamaged. Also, its effects are temporary, with devices coming back on again after the MUTO threat recedes. No. Nope. EMP induces currents so strong that they burn out electrical equipment that isn’t built to handle such intense currents (even if the equipment is turned off, since the pulse itself creates the current). It’s permanent damage, not just a suppression of activity.

Since Joe has information that was believed lost in the ’99 incident, he and Ford come to the attention of Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who’s named after the original film’s director Ishiro Honda as well as Daisuke Serizawa, and is perhaps implicitly Daisuke’s son, in this continuity where Godzilla never attacked Tokyo and he never had to sacrifice himself. (Watanabe was born in 1959, so the timing would work. And sure, he said his father’s watch stopped when Hiroshima was bombed, but that doesn’t mean his father died there. In fact, the tie-in comic Awakening reveals that Ishiro’s father was a survivor of Hiroshima.  Although Ishiro wouldn’t be the son of Emiko Yamane, because she presumably would’ve still left Serizawa for Ogata.) But it’s odd that Watanabe’s scientist-hero is named for Serizawa, since he’s more reminiscent of Professor Yamane, the thoughtful scientist who strives to understand Godzilla and argues against the military’s efforts to destroy it.

Anyway, Cranston is taken out of action pretty early on, so the narrative shifts focus to Ford, Serizawa, and Admiral Stenz, head of the American anti-kaiju task force, played to crisp perfection by David Strathairn (whose marvelous speech to the troops from the trailers is sadly missing from the final cut — perhaps because they figured we’d all heard it already). Ford kind of happens to stumble into the heart of all the action through a series of contrivances while just trying to get home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen — try not to think about the fact that she’s also playing his sister in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron) and their young son. Meanwhile, Serizawa tries to talk Stenz out of his plan to use a nuke as bait to draw in and kill all three kaiju, taking the position that Godzilla’s natural role is to restore balance and that we should let the monsters fight it out. It ultimately comes down to a confrontation in San Francisco, where the mommy MUTO (which was born pregnant, just like tribbles!) has laid its eggs — a plot point surprisingly similar to the third act of the ’98 Godzilla, which I would’ve expected this film to try very hard not to remind anyone of. Although it’s handled very differently here, more of a sidebar to the main confrontation between Godzilla and the MUTOs and to Ford’s attempts to get the nuke out of the city in time to save his family.

Yes, what’s surprising here is that Godzilla is pretty unambiguously the hero. That’s not what I expected, given this film’s effort to return to the serious spirit of the original. Most of the serious-minded Godzilla movies before this have cast him as the villain, or at best as a force of nature that had a right to exist but was very, very dangerous to the puny humans in its path. The idea of Godzilla as a defender of the Earth against more ruthless monsters is generally associated with the kooky, kid-oriented films of the ’60s and ’70s. But this Godzilla is almost tame. He does unthinkingly cause a lot of damage that threatens and probably kills a lot of humans — the “tsunami” in Hawaii, the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge (for the umpteenth time in film history) — but it comes off more as benign neglect than anything else, and the casualties are mostly off-camera, so it doesn’t really make Godzilla seem all that scary. Maybe it would be enough, though, if it weren’t for certain beats that make Godzilla seem almost solicitous of humans, like when he dives beneath an aircraft carrier rather than smashing it (although his wake does threaten to capsize some other ships), or at one moment where he’s fallen in battle and makes eye contact with Ford, his fellow protagonist, in what’s essentially a moment of bonding. We’ve seen other movies where Godzilla deigned to notice an individual human (King Ghidorah, Godzilla 2000), but in those cases he destroyed them a moment later. This is the friendliest Godzilla we’ve seen onscreen since 1975. Honestly I find that a little disappointing. Also puzzling, given that the first time he met humans, they tried to nuke him. You’d think he’d see us as more of a threat, or at least an annoyance. But I guess this Godzilla was designed with a franchise in mind — the alpha predator charged with preserving the Earth’s balance as more of those ancient radiation-feeding critters are drawn to the surface by the energies of the atomic age.

Still, in other ways, this Godzilla is very impressive. The visual effects are top-notch, though I’m inclined to agree with the critics that say the Big G’s new design is a bit too pear-shaped. And the 3D created a marvelous sense of scale for the kaiju. In that shot from the trailers where the soldiers in Hawaii fire the flares and Godzilla’s flank comes into view, even though I knew what was coming, the moment of the reveal still sent a shudder through me. Also in the railroad-bridge scene with the MUTO looming overhead, the 3D gave it a palpable sense of “it’s coming closer!” that really alarmed me on an instinctive level. The MUTOs are a cool design (although angular in a way that suggests a Gamera foe more than a Godzilla one). And Godzilla is truly huge and awesome here, the CGI letting us see him in a way we never really could before. Although in the final act he doesn’t seem quite as massive, both because he’s pitted against two monsters that match his size and because the camera is often at a higher vantage point to let us see the fight. There’s even a classic Godzilla-movie side-view shot of Godzilla and a MUTO facing each other down amid the skyscrapers.

And it is an excellent final battle, capturing one of Godzilla’s key characteristics: The fact that he’s not just about brute force, but is a clever and calculating fighter. When the enemy seems to have him on the ropes, he’ll suddenly rally with a sudden surprise move and totally trash his opponent. Although the greatest moment had to be when we first saw his spines begin to light up through the dust. That was classic. I’m glad they saved that for the right moment.

Which brings me to the question of pacing. I’ve seen a lot of viewers complaining that we don’t see enough of Godzilla in this movie, but I think the pacing was handled just right, very similarly to a lot of the Toho movies: The first act features mainly the villain kaiju with some hints of Godzilla, then he makes a big appearance in the top of the second act and has his first clash with the enemy, then we focus mainly on the humans trying to cope with the situation, and the bulk of the kaiju action is saved for the big battle in the third act. I think it was right not to overuse Godzilla in the first two acts, to build up anticipation. That’s a perfectly appropriate technique as long as the payoff is satisfying, which it was. As for the complaint that the human characters were boring, well, it’s true they didn’t have that much depth to them, but the performances and direction held my interest. It was appropriate to keep the focus more on the human-scale reactions to the ongoing disaster. Kaiju films are basically disaster films, and I think disaster-film protagonists tend to be kind of everyman/woman types so that we can identify with the universal dread we’d all feel in a similar situation.

The main issue for me with the characters is that I wish more of them had been Japanese. Godzilla is a Japanese creation and franchise, and I’d prefer it if Japanese characters played a larger role in the film. Even in the scenes set at the reactor in Japan, both in 1999 and 2014, most of the people in charge are Westerners. Why are so few Japanese officials involved in events happening in Japan? It didn’t help that the film was so heavily populated with the same actors who show up in every TV show made in Vancouver or Toronto. They had Garry Chalk, Hiro Kanagawa, and Terry Chen in the ’99 scenes. They had Brian Markinson and Ty Olsson at the reactor in 2014. They had Jill Teed as Mrs. Brody’s hospital coworker. I’m surprised Mike Dopud and Roger Cross didn’t show up too. It kind of undermined the Japanese flavor of the Japan scenes when they were so obviously shot in Vancouver. The movie did location filming in Honolulu and Las Vegas, so why couldn’t they do some filming in Japan, where Godzilla was born? I don’t mind Hollywood lending its budgets and talent and technical knowhow to realizing Godzilla like he’s never been seen before, but I don’t want the films to lose their Japanese flavor altogether.

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

Let’s see, what else? Well, I loved the opening titles. Lots of Easter eggs to be reviewed on DVD, with the text being “censored” as we watch. Plus it’s just great to see a movie using a full opening-title sequence.

As I said, for the most part, the 3D worked very well for me. But I feel it fell short at one point where it could’ve done wonders — the scene where Juliette Binoche and the people with her were running down that long corridor, trying to escape the radiation leak. It would’ve been great to get a really good sense of depth there to convey just how far away the end of the corridor was, but the scene seemed flat to me, lacking that sense of distance.

Not happy that they never quoted Akira Ifukube’s themes. This isn’t the first Godzilla film to omit them altogether, but they would’ve been nice to hear. Even if they weren’t used in the film proper, it would’ve been nice to hear them quoted in the end credits.

The new roar is pretty effective, but I wish it had been a bit closer to the classic roar. And they didn’t use the full roar with the upward flourish at the end very often, just a couple of times, it seemed. That was disappointing. Although one thing I found intriguing: The first time he gave the full roar, his nostrils changed shape in the final flourish, suggesting it represents an inhalation after the long outburst of breath. Interesting.

Keep an eye on my Godzilla: Final thoughts thread, which I’ll be editing to add discussion of this movie.

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