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Posts Tagged ‘Akira Kubo’

In the Earth Year 1965, Toho Pictures were on a bit of a roll with their loosely-connected series of mostly-knockabout, usually-underbudgeted SF and fantasy films. What had started off with a heartfelt and very serious film about the tribulations of Japan in the closing stages of the Second World War had by this point transmogrified into something with much more of a focus on pure entertainment, with a strong element of comedy often in the mix. A tendency to go a little bit crazy was always inherent in these movies, but it was to become much more apparent as time went on, and you could argue that it is particularly in evidence in Ishiro Honda’s entry in the series from that year, Invasion of Astro-Monster (also variously known as Monster Zero and Godzilla on Planet X).

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As things get under way, we are informed that scientists of the near future have been startled by the discovery of Planet X, a mysterious new world which is a satellite of Jupiter. Packed off to check the place out is rocketship P-1, piloted by astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams, imported to help with getting an American release). Planet X turns out to be a grim and unattractive place, with constant bad weather (suspiciously familiar-looking golden lightning crackles across the sky). Much to the Earth men’s surprise, however, Planet X turns out to be inhabited by aliens possessing strange unearthly powers and even stranger and more unearthly ideas about fashion:

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But the folk of Planet X (lore ascribes them the name ‘Xiliens’, though this isn’t used on screen in any of the versions I’ve seen) have a problem – their civilisation is constantly being raided by the three-headed space monster King Ghidorah, who they refer to as Monster Zero (‘Here on Planet X, we use numbers, not names,’ says the alien Commandant, helpfully, and no-one points out to him that ‘Planet X’ itself is actually a name). The Xiliens (oh, go on, it’s convenient) want to do a deal with Earth whereby they ‘borrow’ nuclear sea-dragon Godzilla and supersonic pterodactyl Rodan and use them to drive Ghidorah off, the pair of them having form in this department. In return they will provide humanity with a cure for cancer.

The lure of this to a 1960s world where everyone smokes like a chimney is sufficient to make everyone on Earth overlook how ridiculous and illogical the Xilien plan is, and at a meeting of the World Council not only the medical representative but the spokeswoman for the globe’s housewives are both all for loaning out the Earth monsters to Planet X.

While all this is going on, there are some slightly soapy goings on between Fuji, his sister, and her inventor boyfriend Tetsuo (Akira Kubo, a personable young actor who plays various roles in this series). He has invented what he calls the ‘Lady Guard’, which is basically a rape alarm, but is concerned that the corporation who has bought the rights to his gizmo isn’t doing anything with it. His main contract, the beautiful and enigmatic Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), is also the girlfriend of astronaut Glenn, which in any other film would count as an outrageous plot contrivance. Different priorities apply here, of course.

Fuji and Glenn grow increasingly suspicious of the Xiliens’ intentions, but not to the point of actually telling anyone or doing much about it, and the transfer of Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X goes off without a hitch. Ghidorah is sent packing with his tails between his legs (Godzilla appears to do the Highland Fling to celebrate his victory) and everyone can celebrate!

Or can they? It turns out that all the women on Planet X are clones, and they look just like Glenn’s chick Namikawa! Why are the Xiliens so interested in suppressing Tetsuo’s rape alarm widget? And what are they going to do with Godzilla and Rodan now they’re on Planet X? Well, it may not come as a total surprise if I tell you that the Xiliens are planning on taking over Earth and enslaving everyone, and if the Earthlings don’t do as they’re told, King Ghidorah (who was secretly under their control all along), Godzilla, and Rodan will be unleashed on the hapless planet…

It is customary to refer to Invasion of Astro-Monster as part of the main sequence of Toho’s Godzilla movies (as opposed to movies like Mothra and King Kong Escapes, which appear to take place in the same continuity but obviously aren’t Godzilla movies per se), but I think this is really one of those benefit-of-hindsight things. If you watch this movie expecting a proper kaiju movie, I suspect you will be rather disappointed – the three monsters get very little active screen-time and the scrapping between them is commensurately abbreviated. I think it makes rather more sense to view this movie as part of the flying saucer alien invasion genre, which just happens to include extended cameos from various members of the Toho monster stable.

Not that this actually makes the film better, or more logical, of course. Even while you’re watching it, the various incongruities of the plot leap out at you and you’re constantly going ‘What? Hang on a minute… Surely…?’ The plot of Invasion of Astro-Monster disintegrates as soon as you breathe on it, even if you don’t have nuclear rays or gravity lightning coming out of your mouth, and the film-makers seem to be under the impression that if they keep things rattling along at a fairly decent pace then no-one is going to complain too much.

Maybe they have a point, for this is a hard film to really dislike, for all of its rampant eccentricities and unanswered questions. Two things keep Invasion of Astro-Monster from becoming the hallucinogenic fever-dream of a movie it often feels like it’s turning into – first, the fact that things like cancer cures and rape alarms – both with all manner of rather downbeat real-world associations – are central to the plot, and second, Ishiro Honda’s inability to completely shake off the ‘proper’ sci-fi tone the film starts with. (The model work and special effects in this movie are fairly decent in a slightly sub-Gerry Anderson way.)

I used to think of Invasion of Astro-Monster as a sort of mid-range entry in the Toho monster  series, and it is an influential movie in its own way (the ‘aliens use monsters as invasion weapon’ idea was endlessly recycled in movies all the way up to Final Wars, where the Xiliens also appear). But looking at it again now, the sheer bizarreness of the plot, and its multiple inadequacies, mean I think this is a film you really can only view as an extended, unintentional piece of deadpan comedy. And as such it’s a bit of a triumph.

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The thing that distinguishes the Millennium series of Godzilla movies (released between 1999 and 2004) is that they attempt to recapitulate everything great about the character that had been established over the previous 45-50 years – along with, if we’re honest, quite a few things that were somewhat less than great. What makes these films a little awkward sometimes is that they have reconcile huge shifts in Godzilla’s characterisation over the years. Are we talking about a terrifying force of relentless destruction, a grandiose, anti-heroic figure, or a loveable defender of Japan and the world? Godzilla has been all of these things.

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How did this change in the character come about? Possibly the key film involved was 1967’s Son of Godzilla, directed by Jun Fukuda, and one of a pair of (relatively) more down to earth films in the series made around this time (the other being 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep). They eschew the pulp sci-fi elements that had begun to creep into the series and are slightly more traditional monster movies.

The action takes place on Sollgel island, one of those oddly-monickered places in the South Seas that keep popping up in kaiju movies. Here a team of UN scientists are hard at work on an experimental weather control process, led by the stern but decent Dr Kusumi (Tadao Takashima) – you can tell Kusumi is the boss because he smokes a pipe. Life on the island is fairly humdrum, apart from the fact that it is inhabitated by giant preying mantises, and things are livened up a bit by the arrival of keen young reporter Goro (Akira Kubo), in search of a story. He thinks he’s found one when he discovers a young woman (Beverly Maeda) living wild on the island.

(Of course, the audience already know what the real story is probably going to be, as a pre-credit sequence has revealed that strange radio signals are drawing Godzilla to the island.)

Well, the experiment goes a bit wrong and causes the giant preying mantises to become super-colossally giant. Goro christens them Gimantis in the English dub, but the Japanese lore calls them Kamacuras. The mantises promptly start digging and unearth a giant egg, which they crack open to reveal – yup, it’s a baby Godzilla, variously referred to as either Minya or Minilla (played by, and I kid you not, someone credited as Marchan the Dwarf).

(For some reason the renaming in this film is more noticeable than usual for a Godzilla movie – I mean, we’re all aware that in Japan Godzilla is Gojira, Rodan is Radon, Mothra is Mosura, and so on, and we’re fairly cool with it. And yet for some reason the original Japanese names for the monsters in this film seem to have acquired some traction, possibly because the American names are frankly not much cop. Quite why Beverly Maeda’s character is called Saeko in the original version and Reiko in the redub is also a bit mysterious.)

The mantises start picking on Minilla, who is of course rescued by his (presumed) dad. (The identity of Minilla’s co-parent, and indeed the whole circumstances of him being – um – laid, are discreetly left to the viewer’s imagination.) Some low-comedy business ensues (frankly, the film hasn’t been short on this so far) as Godzilla starts tutoring his son in the important monster skills of roaring and breathing nuclear fire (the low budget means that there are hardly any miniature buildings for him to tread on). However, things get (slightly) more serious as Goro and his young lady friend inadvertently awaken another monstrous resident of the island, a colossal spider… (Needless to say the name of the spider depends on which dub you’re watching – the Spiga in English, Kumonga in Japanese.)

You could be forgiven for assuming that Son of Godzilla is going to be one of the second- or third-division entries in the series. Quite apart from the fact that the plot doesn’t sound very promising, most of the key production staff are not the A-team – Fukuda directs, not Ishiro Honda, the music is by Masaru Sato not Akira Ifukube (the classic Godzilla theme doesn’t get used at all), and the special effects are by Sadamasa Arikawa (although resident genius Eiji Tsuburaya gets a ‘supervised by’ credit). And, to be honest, the story is kind of clunky and laborious, particularly in the way it intercuts between the storyline with the scientists and the one with the various monsters. This is before we even get onto all the slapstick cutesiness which every scene featuring Minilla is drenched in.

And yet, and yet… Despite all of that the story rumbles along briskly, in its clunky and laborious way – you don’t have to hang around looking at your watch waiting for the next monster appearance, as is sometimes the case with these films. Akira Kubo is one of the more engaging juvenile leads in the series (he would be asked back to play the astronaut hero in the following year’s Destroy All Monsters), and Beverly Maeda has a bit more about her (and gets much more to do) than the typical Godzilla movie heroine. And, as I mentioned at the start, there is surely some significance to the movie where they intentionally started to recast Godzilla as a protective, heroic figure, to say nothing of the fact that Minilla and the idea of ‘Monster Island’ (mentioned here for the first time) were to become significant concepts in many later movies. (Kumonga and Kamacuras were to prove less enduring – Kumonga shows up a few times in other movies, sometimes in reused footage, while Kamacuras’ only notable return is as an incidental opponent in Final Wars.)

I think it’s also worth mentioning that the special effects for this film are actually fairly ambitious – Godzilla and Minilla are both men in suits, obviously (well, a man in a suit and a dwarf in a suit, if you want to get technical), but the Kamacuras and Kumonga are all puppets – very big puppets, and moderately well-realised ones at that. They are a different kind of opponent for Godzilla – the downside being that their puppety nature means there is less monster wrestling here than is sometimes the case. The film also makes use of full-size props and cel animation to realise some of its effects, which is something you don’t often see in the later films in the series.

So while the film is every bit as campy as it sounds, it’s not necessarily done in a bad way, nor is it without points of interest. I can’t honestly describe it as a particular favourite, nor as one of the very best Godzilla movies. but this is as much to do with the film’s tone and creative choices as with its actual realisation. In nearly every way, there are many worse films than this in the Godzilla series, and few quite as influential on its direction and style.

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It occurs to me that I talk very casually about all of Toho’s output of kaiju pictures under the blanket headline of ‘Godzilla movies’, as though they all compose one big, rambling, colourful, utterly preposterous and incoherent narrative about the big feller. Latterly, I suppose this is true, as the makers of these films have engaged in much more attentive continuity management, and – for the most part – the focus has well and truly been on Godzilla himself.

But it was not ever thus. It seems to me that, back in the 60s, Toho’s output of monster movies wasn’t a million miles away from how Marvel manage their stable of superhero properties, albeit in an embryonic and semi-conscious sort of way. By this I mean they were nearly constantly making movies introducing new monster characters, the more successful of which would get sequels and appear in crossovers with each other. So, in addition to Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan were both launched in their own self-titled films, then crossed over into films with Godzilla (starting with Mothra Vs Godzilla and Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster respectively). If you were a very particular type of pedant you could argue that Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster or Invasion of the Astro-Monsters aren’t strictly-speaking Godzilla movies any more than The Avengers is solely an Iron Man movie: he may arguably be the biggest star involved, but there’s a whole universe going on here with other big-name inhabitants.

It’s a thought, anyway. If you are inclined to think in terms of this Toho Universe, then you’ll probably agree its most grandiose appearance – its Avengers moment, if you will – is almost certainly 1968’s Destroy All Monsters, directed by Ishiro Honda, the originator and grand master of the entire kaiju genre.

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Destroy All Monsters is set in the distant far-off space year of 1999, when there is a permanent manned base on the moon, and all employees of the United Nations are required to wear eye-catching custard-yellow uniforms. Perhaps most striking of all, all the world’s giant monsters have been confined to one island in the Pacific (it has, understandably, been re-christened Monster Island).

Monster Island is, of course, one of the great silly ideas in the history of bonkers genre movies, but it’s such a winning one that one almost overlooks the enormous questions the script of the movie dodges. As this and nearly every other Toho monster movie makes clear, the combined forces of the world have the most phenomenal difficulty persuading a rampaging kaiju simply to change its path – so how on Earth have they got them all to Monster Island? A really big trail of breadcrumbs?

Hey ho. A helpful, avuncular voice-over runs through how Monster Island and its research centre operate, and we are introduced to a few paper-thin human characters – the usual mixture of military types and boffins. Clean-cut leading man this time around is Katsu (Akira Kubo, a bit of a Toho regular), who flies the moon rocket, while his girlfriend Kyoko (Yukiko Kobayashi) works on the island. All is going very nicely, except for the odd lunar UFO sighting, until there is a sudden gas attack and everyone passes out (even the monsters – the bad guys in this movie really must have bought their knock-out gas in bulk).

Not long after, Toho’s cast of monsters start getting down to what they do best, as Rodan inexplicably turns up in Moscow and starts trashing the place, Manda does the same in London, Mothra appears in Beijing, and… well, one of the monsters rocks up in Paris and tears down the Arc de Triomphe. The script says it’s Baragon, but he must have phoned in sick that day, because it’s clearly Gorosaurus doing the tearing down. Admittedly, this is not the kind of blooper likely to make it into The World’s Greatest Movie Mistakes 3.

What little credibility the film has managed to retain – and we’re still only in the first act – bids a cheery adieu as the UN orders the crew of the moon rocket to fly back to Earth and investigate what’s happened to Monster Island. Yes, because the closest possible qualified personnel are all on the Moon. Katsu and his lads duly touch down and are greeted by Kyoko and some of the other island personnel, who are behaving in the traditional I’ve-been-brainwashed-by-aliens manner.

In a startling twist, this is because they have been brainwashed by aliens. Said aliens are the Kilaaks, who apparently emanate from somewhere in the asteroid belt, are made of metal, and behave and dress like extremely polite, rather modest synchronised swimmers. Giant monsters devastating cities notwithstanding, this is probably the best-mannered alien invasion in history, but Katsu and his men are not won over and manage to escape from the Kilaaks.

What follows is fairly standard alien invasion B-movie fare, garishly realised, somewhat informed by more terrestrial action flicks (let us not forget that James Bond had visited Japan only the previous year), and liberally sprinkled with giant monster action sequences. To be honest, there aren’t as many of these as I would’ve liked to see – Katsu flying around in his rocket and boffins earnestly discussing the ridiculous plot do get a little tedious fairly quickly – but they’re executed exuberantly and, for the period, well.

The first of the movie’s two stand-out sequences comes when the Kilaaks finally get around to attacking Tokyo – and when they do, they send in the big names of Toho’s monster stable, as Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan all put in a showing. Accompanying them is Manda, who is a rare example of a Toho monster not realised through suitamation: instead Manda appears to be a length of hosepipe with teeth glued to one end. Nevertheless this quartet have a jolly time bringing down the property prices in central Tokyo, assisted, it must be said, by a not-especially-well-aimed missile bombardment by the JSDF.

But the bit you’re really waiting for, and indeed possibly Toho’s finest hour and greatest moment of glorious mania, comes in the climax, as the various Earth monsters (now freed from Kilaak control) combine their efforts to attack the alien HQ near Mount Fuji. The ensuing battle is commented upon by a TV reporter rather as if it were a football match (‘Listen to the monsters and their cries of horror and sudden death!’).

The Kilaaks, needless to say, have brought in a ringer and recruited Godzilla’s arch-enemy King Ghidorah to defend them. Their wallets must have been fairly empty when the monster transfer window opened, as he is the only monster on their team. As a result, this is not the joyous free-for-all one might have hoped for, with numerous monsters on both sides, but towards its end more closely resembles a mugging, with Godzilla, Gorosaurus and Anguillas ganging up on Ghidorah and beating him to a pulp. Nevertheless, it’s a win for the home team, but I would have thought the coaching staff would have words to say to a few of the Earth monsters come the final whistle.

Here’s how I would have marked the home team:

Godzilla – a solid performance from a monster who is, after all, the biggest name on the team. Still clearly some way (another 23 years and 9 more sequels) from being able to tackle Ghidorah unassisted, which is clearly causing bitterness: stamping on an opponent’s neck once they’re down and out is the sort of thing that could be considered as bringing kaiju fights into disrepute. Score: 8/10.

Minya (aka Baby Godzilla) – only really here for experience, and possibly as the team mascot. Only has a pop at Ghidorah once he’s been battered almost into submission by the senior monsters – still, this is more than some of the others manage. 5/10.

Anguillas – a gutsy display by a veteran monster clearly hoping to get back into the big time. Possibly trying too hard (that thing with hanging onto one of Ghidorah’s necks with his jaws while he flies off is a bit over-ambitious). 7/10.

Rodan – not very impressive given he’s one of the senior monsters on the team: just stands there flapping his wings and flying out of the way when Ghidorah tries to zap him. Poor show, Rodan. 4/10.

Mothra – Mothra really doesn’t get a chance to show what he or she can do in Destroy All Monsters. He (or she) is stuck in his (or her) larval form for the entire movie, and there’s no sign of the Shobijin fairies either. Mothra comes across as a bit stupid and ineffectual as a result. Just sprays silk at Ghidorah from a distance. A huge disappointment from arguably the second-biggest name on the team. 3/10.

Kumonga – all right, so Kumonga’s a fairly obscure kaiju and a bit different from most of the rest of the team (being a giant spider and a puppet and all), so possibly a bit stand-offish as a result. And, to be fair, spraying silk from a distance is the only thing Mothra does, too. But still a poor show, Kumonga. 4/10 (higher mark than Mothra due to expectations being lower).

Gorosaurus – now here’s a monster hungry for the big time. Gorosaurus is about as bush-league as kaiju get (this is his first start in a movie with Godzilla), but puts in a tremendous work-rate and shows no fear in tackling Ghidorah up close. A major contributor to the Earth monster victory. Respect due. 9/10.

Manda – very poor, Manda. Turns up at the beginning but makes no real contribution to the match at all. Being made out of a hosepipe only excuses so much. 0/10.

Baragon – another virtual no-show from Baragon after the Parisian debacle at the beginning of the film. Barely visible, carried by the rest of the team. 0/10.

Yes, I’m giving marks out of ten to movie monsters, but Destroy All Monsters really demands this sort of response. It is a colossally silly film and utterly impossible to take seriously – and yet, no matter how preposterous the plot gets, the story remains engaging and fun. It’s quite impressive that the original run of movies featuring Godzilla rumbled on for another six outings after this one, because it really sums up everything memorable and distinctive about them. Not a very good film, but still – somehow – a great one.

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