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Posts Tagged ‘Godzilla’

In the Earth Year 1994, the Godzilla movie series was in fairly robust health – after fifteen years or so in the wilderness, with only one movie released between 1975 and 1989, they were back to cranking out a new sequel every year, and it didn’t hurt that the most recent movies had actually been pretty good, mostly. This is the situation into which Kensho Yamashita’s Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla, sixth film in the then-current continuity and twenty-first overall, was released.

As the movie gets underway, the Japanese establishment seems to have dissolved into a (rather counter-intuitive) alphabet soup of different agencies and initiatives: we hear of the Counter-G Committee, Project M, and Project T. Naturally, most of these things are concerned with the ongoing Godzilla problem. Project M is a new weapon developed to fight giant monsters, a piloted robot called Mogera. Project T, on the other hand, is a scheme to telepathically take control of Godzilla using the psychic powers of series regular Miki (Megumi Odaka). Yeah, like that’s going to work.

However, what nearly everyone is ignoring is the approach of a hostile extra-terrestrial organism, which to begin with looks rather like Superman’s spaceship from the 1978 movie with an even grumpier version of Godzilla sticking out of the bottom of it. This, of course, is Spacegodzilla, a mutant clone of the Big G created after some of his cells ended up in space, fell through a black hole, absorbed crystalline alien life-forms, and so on. As happens all the time in Japanese monster movies. The only one who notices Spacegodzilla is on the way is Mothra (not in the movie enough) who throughout proceedings is off in space doing the stuff that a giant mystic lepidoptera has gotta do.

Mothra’s spokesfairies, the Shobijin, tell Miki what’s going on, but before Spacegodzilla arrives, there’s some other stuff to cover, namely the attempts of Project T to take psychic control of Godzilla. This happens off on a desert island somewhere, and is hampered by the presence of traumatised army veteran Yuki (Akira Emoto), who comes across as a deranged survivalist: one of his buds was killed in a Godzilla attack, and now he plans on killing the big guy with a special hand-made bullet. Yeah, like that’s going to work.

Well, the execution of Project T is a qualified success, but interrupted by the arrival of Spacegodzilla, who starts harassing both Godzilla and his offspring Little Godzilla (an irksomely twee character who’s been hanging around the movie since the start). Spacegodzilla beats the crap out of Godzilla and drives him off, traps Little Godzilla in a crystal prison, and sets off to devastate Japan, with seemingly only Mogera left to stop his rampage. Yeah, like that’s going to work…

Prior to watching Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla, I would have confidently said that the Heisei sequence of Godzilla films (the 1984-1995 run) was absolutely your best bet in terms of your chances of finding a fun movie which was competently made and not too egregiously daft. My confidence has taken a bit of a knock, to be honest, for Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla is in many ways a throwback to the dodgier films of the early 1970s. And in a way the 70s feel is entirely appropriate: Spacegodzilla looks like a glam rock version of Godzilla, Mogera looks like a disco version of Mechagodzilla.

The main problem is that the story is simply not very good. The first act sets up the action, reasonably competently, and includes all the messing about on the island with Little Godzilla, Project T, and Yuki’s Godzilla revenge plan. The final act is a (very) extended battle between Godzilla, Spacegodzilla, and Mogera, which basically consists of the three of them zapping each other with ray blasts and Godzilla falling over a lot.

In between… well, the thing is that there isn’t really a second act. All that’s there is a frankly ludicrous subplot about the Yakuza kidnapping Miki so that they can use her to telepathically take control of Godzilla. This plotline comes out of nowhere. It goes nowhere. It’s just a lump of weirdness plopped down in the middle of the movie. However, there are lots of elements of this movie which just pop up from nowhere or disappear to the same place (not that this is always necessarily a bad thing: Little Godzilla is basically forgotten about after the first act).

My understanding is that the aim for this movie was to create something with a more light-hearted tone than the preceding movies, and also include more character development. How they got from this to a movie about a traumatised army veteran being put in charge of flying a robot, I’m not sure; I suppose Megumi Odaka gets slightly better scenes than usual, but you can’t go overboard on things like characterisation when it comes to a Godzilla movie: I was sitting there thinking ‘Yes, this is all very nice, but can we have some monsters, now, please.’

Of course, you should be careful what you wish for, because the actual monster battle at the end of the movie goes on forever and is repetitive to the point of being boring: it nearly put me into a coma. I glanced at my watch at one point and was dismayed to see the movie still had another twenty minutes left to run. This is quite long, for a Japanese Godzilla film – it could easily stand to lose at least ten or fifteen minutes of its running time. Many – perhaps even most – of the special effects shots are arguably sub-par too.

As I said, the Godzilla franchise was in pretty good shape in 1994, but the decision was nevertheless taken to put the series on hold after the very next film, Godzilla Vs Destroyer. Am I suggesting that Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla is so bad that it effectively killed off the franchise, or at least put it into suspended animation? Hmmm, well, maybe I am – not that I have any evidence for this, and this movie seems to have done pretty well at the box office. Nevertheless, I stand by my opinion: this is a poor movie, short on new ideas, seemingly without the imagination or affection for the Godzilla series that the best of the Heisei series have in buckets. A lowlight of the genre’s 1990s output.

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Well, with the Oscars out the way, the decks are clear for an onslaught of releases which a few years ago would have been cheerful, unpretentious genre movies. These days, of course, everyone wants a slice of the megafranchise action that Marvel Studios has been concocting over the last few years, regardless of whether or not their material really fits the bill: out in a couple of months is a DC comics movie that for once looks like it won’t be actively painful to watch, while we are also promised the actual real first episode of Universal’s, er, Universal Monsters franchise (Dracula Untold has apparently been stricken from the record), while first off the blocks, representing Legendary Pictures’ rather similarly-titled MonsterVerse (put those lawyers on standby!), is Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

The year is 1973, and the Vietnam War is coming to its messy conclusion. ‘Things are never going to be this messed up in Washington again,’ declares Bill Randa (John Goodman), which at the very least is a felicitously knowing first line for a movie these days. Randa is high-up inside a secret agency named Monarch, whose mission statement is to hunt down Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or giant monsters to you and I). However, Godzilla’s visit to San Francisco is still forty years off, and to pass the time until then Randa gets himself and his team onto a US government mission to a newly-discovered island in the Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm system and – perhaps – containing a bizarre ecosystem the likes of which no-one has even suspected before.

Providing a military escort for the explorers is the possibly-unstable Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, while also along for the ride are photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and ex-SAS guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Randa’s list of things to do on their visit to Skull Island, when they finally get there, starts with ‘drop bombs everywhere’ (the wafer-thin pretext is that this is to assist with a geological survey), which annoys at least one of the island’s inhabitants: one of the chopper pilots barely has time to say ‘Is that a monkey?’ before the squadron is involved in a pitched battle with…

Well, come on guys, the movie is called ‘Kong’, who do you think it is? It’s a bit of a divergence from standard monster movie grammar to wheel on the big beast in the first act, but the movie pulls it off, I would say. In the aftermath of the battle, the survivors regroup and start to think about getting home alive. But, naturally, it’s not going to be that easy, and many discoveries await: lurking on the island are all sorts of monsters, which seem intent on eating our heroes, and also John C Reilly as a stranded Second World War airman, who seems intent on eating all the scenery.

You could be forgiven for turning up to Kong: Skull Island with a degree of trepidation, for quite good reasons – 84 years on from the original movie, King Kong remains a movie icon like few others, but he’s an icon with a singularly poor track-record when it comes to appearances in subsequent movies – if films like King Kong Lives and King Kong Escapes have any value at all, it’s simply as glorious trash. You could also argue that to do a remake of King Kong which completely omits the tall building-related section of the story, and takes place entirely on the island, is also a rather bizarre choice.

However – and I can hardly believe I’m typing this – Skull Island is actually a really fun fantasy adventure film, with a lot going for it. The problem other King Kong projects have tended to encounter is one of tone – they either end up as silly, campy nonsense (the Toho and De Laurentiis projects, for example), or take themselves absurdly seriously (my main problem with Peter Jackson’s take on the great ape). Skull Island gets the tone just about right: it knows when to play things straight, and when to relax and have a little bit of fun with the audience.

There seems to me to be no pressing reason as to why this movie is set in 1973 (there’s some dialogue about how Kong is young and ‘still growing’, presumably to prepare us for a rather bigger present-day ape in a subsequent movie) – there are no overt references to the 1970s King Kong remake, anyway. It mainly seems that the film-makers thought it would be a cool wheeze to make, essentially, a Vietnam war movie that includes a load of giant monsters of different kinds. All the iconography of guys with assault rifles wading through swamps, and helicopters skimming low over the jungle canopy is here, and while it is just dressing-up with no thematic depth, it definitely gives the film its own identity (the classic rock soundtrack is also a definite bonus).

Kong himself (mo-capped by Terry Notary) is rather impressive, both terrifying and sympathetic at different times, as the story requires, and it seems to me the makers of this movie know their stuff when it comes to both this character and the whole giant monster genre – there’s a scene which seems to me to be a call-back to Kong’s love of calamari (first established in King Kong Vs Godzilla), and another which may be either a reference to a deleted scene from the original Kong, or an unexpected appearance by a new version of the Toho monster Kumonga (the fact that Kumonga is not one of the characters for whom Toho receives an on-screen credit – oh, yes, readers, there are big-name Toho monsters in this movie (sort of) – suggests the former). All in all, it’s an engaging new take on the character.

Even the stuff in this movie which is not especially brilliant doesn’t particularly detract from it as a piece of entertainment – Tom Hiddleston has an air of slightly detached bemusement throughout, as though he signed on for the movie without bothering to read the script, and I found this rather funny rather than annoying. I have to say that most of the actors are content to do big character turns rather than anything too subtle and nuanced, but again this is exactly what the piece requires.

If I’ve been at all excited by the prospect of Legendary’s planned monster franchise, then it’s really been more in hope than expectation – but Kong: Skull Island gets so much right that I’m actually really looking forward to future films in this series, provided they handle the tone and subject matter as deftly as this one. It’s certainly a much more nimble and straightforwardly entertaining movie than Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, to which it is technically a prequel. In fact, in terms of technical accomplishment, dramatic success, and ability to channel the spirit of the original film, I would say this movie gets closer to the original King Kong than any other featuring the character. An unashamedly big, crazy, fun monster movie, and a very pleasant surprise.

 

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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:

xiliens

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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As I have said before, the thing about the main characters of very long-running franchises is that they inevitably change over time, the trick being to balance keeping the stuff about them which is essential and iconic while updating the peripheral bits and pieces to keep up with changing public tastes and also maybe shifts in social attitudes. And generally, that’s a good and interesting thing, especially for those of us who spend far too much of our time thinking about pop culture. On the other hand, there’s always the question of how much change is too much.

I must confess this was something which was on my mind when details of the plot of Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Gojira started to emerge, for they did seem to promise a very radical reinvention of Japan’s biggest movie star. The English title for this movie is Godzilla: Resurgence, which is not quite an exact translation of the original – Shin means New, but can also be translated as True and even God. The use of the word is doubtless partly due to the existence of the latest American Godzilla movie, but also reflects some of the significant innovations introduced in the new movie.

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This is the first Japanese Godzilla movie not to function even implicitly as a sequel to the original 1954 movie, being a genuine remake instead. The film’s willingness to break with the established grammar and conventions of monster movies becomes apparent almost at once, as the traditional very long wait for the beast to show up is discarded, and everyday business in Tokyo Bay is suddenly disrupted – the water explodes into steam, a tunnel under the bay is breached, and so on. This happens at a fairly hectic pace and there’s a lot of found footage of the travails of the ordinary people caught up in it, intercut with the response of the government’s senior figures (which perhaps leaves quite a lot to be desired).

It soon becomes apparent that a giant aquatic life form is responsible for all of this, but before the government can decide what to do about it the creature has made its way up a river and then, to the astonishment of every scientific observer, goes ashore, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. But it is not recognisably the Godzilla we have all come to know and love: instead it is a gilled, goggle-eyed, reddish-brown crawling thing, with vestigial limbs. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the creature has a bizarre power of adaptive mutation, adopting the ideal form for whatever environment it enters. Nuclear powered, the monster is forced to return to the sea in order to cool itself down, leaving the government to ponder what to do next.

Handling part of the government’s response is ambitious young politico Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), who heads up his own task force working on a possible solution – rather than shooting at the creature, could it be possible to shut down its unique metabolism using scientific means? Help comes from an unexpected source with the appearance of one of his American counterparts (Satomi Ishihara), who has information on the creature’s origins – which, not entirely surprisingly, involve the dumping of nuclear waste going back to the 1950s. The American Department of Energy has been aware of the monster’s existence for some time, and already have their own code name for it: Godzilla…

So, I suppose the question is, do they get the balance right between the classic Godzilla elements and their own new ideas? I must confess to feeling rather unsure early in the film, especially during the sequence with the bizarre proto-Godzilla, but once the Big G evolves into something rather closer to his ‘classic’ form and commences rampaging through the city, most of my concerns were very much allayed. The traditional sequence where the JSDF is deployed against a looming kaiju and proceeds to have no effect on it whatsoever is very much present and correct; the special effects are generally superb and there is a neat little touch where (on the version I saw) the specifications of each new weapon being brought into play flash up on a caption. It’s a small thing but it really grounds the film in reality. And the actual rampage itself is as good as anything elsewhere in the series: the new Godzilla wreaks utter devastation on the city, radioactive beams and flaming breath erupting in all directions – it’s depicted as being rather akin to an actual nuclear attack on the city. (This is, of course, still a sensitive topic in Japan, but it’s one the film doesn’t shy away from.) The one thing that keeps it from having the same kind of visceral impact as the parallel sequence in the 1954 film is the fact it is presented almost solely in terms of property damage, rather than the impact on the people of the city. The film makes it clear that people are killed, but it happens at a remove; you never really feel it.

The only other film in the franchise which Shin Gojira genuinely seems to have much in common with is Godzilla 1984 (aka The Return of Godzilla). Partly this is because these are the only Japanese films concerned solely with a lone, antagonistic Godzilla, but also because there is a political element to both films. In both cases, foreign powers get involved with the situation, coming up with the slightly alarming solution of letting off thermonuclear weapons in Japan to kill Godzilla outright. In Shin Gojira it’s the Americans who are responsible, and a major theme of the last act of the film is, basically, the issue of Japanese self-determination – should they just roll over and do whatever Uncle Sam decrees, or stand up for their rights as an independent nation? The resonance of the USA wanting to use nuclear weapons in Japan is not overlooked – the bombing of Hiroshima is explicitly referenced (it’s actually perhaps a little bit too explicitly referenced, feeling intrusively on-the-nose, but then Japanese audiences would doubtless have a different attitude).

Elsewhere the film has other, reasonably topical concerns, particularly in its early stages. The Japanese government and particularly its response to a major national disaster is presented in an extremely critical manner – none of the senior officials seem to really have a clue what to do, and seem more concerned about how they’ll appear in the media and hang onto their jobs than in showing any real leadership. The film seems to be making some fairly trenchant comments on the handling of the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and especially the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and it seems to me that a Godzilla movie is a virtually perfect platform in which to do something like this. Allegorical social commentary is in some ways at the heart of this series, after all.

So on the whole Shin Gojira very much won me over by the time it concluded – there are still elements of it I’m not sure about (for instance, there seems to be a weird obsession with Godzilla’s tail, which does all kinds of new and peculiar things in this movie), and these films are always more fun with a monster battle in them at some point. I’m also not sure how long the rather austere and utterly serious tone of this movie can be sustained for, if Toho opt to make direct sequels to it. But on the whole this is perhaps the most interesting Godzilla film since the original; certainly the most intelligent.

 

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What makes things happen? Every cause has its own cause, and sometimes events have many sources. So to talk about the origins of anything is arguable a slightly dubious proposition. But for some reason it seems particularly questionable when talking about the original Godzilla (J-title: Gojira), the 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, which unleashed the great beast on an unsuspecting world.

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On the face of it, this is a monster movie in the classic style, albeit an unusually bleak and intense one. The story opens with a string of unexplained shipping losses in the Pacific, shortly after some H-bomb tests in the region. Fish stocks in the region also seem to have been devastated, causing some consternation to the villagers of Odo Island: one of the elders suggests that Godzilla, a legendary sea monster, is responsible. Then a powerful storm strikes the island one night, and something comes out of the sea and wreaks terrible havoc in the village, crushing buildings and their inhabitants.

Well, obviously the authorities in Japan can’t let that sort of thing go on, and they despatch top palaeontologist Dr Yamane (Takashi Shimura, who spends most of the movie looking haunted) to investigate – although, to be honest, given that Yamane is under the impression that the Jurassic Era was only two million years ago, his academic credentials seem a bit suspect. Fortunately (or perhaps not), the question of Yamane’s academic standing is soon, er, academic, as there is indeed a huge radioactive dinosaur running amok on Odo Island, although it soon takes to the sea…

Yamane is very depressed by the response of the Japanese government, whose sole aim is to kill Godzilla rather than do research on him, and almost completely ignores what’s going on in his daughter’s personal life: Emiko (Momoko Kochi) has decided to settle down with nice young sea captain Hideto (Akira Takarada), but is fully aware the anguish this will cause her former beau Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a brilliant scientist who was maimed in the war and has become a bitter recluse, and whose research has led to the development of a dreadful weapon, particularly effective against marine life…

The plotting of the bits with the human characters is always one of the special pleasures of the Godzilla series, and as you can see that was there right from the start: not only is there a melodramatic, soap operatic quality to all of this, but it’s also the most outrageous coincidence that nearly all the key human characters in the story should have this kind of pre-existing relationship. I suppose the film-makers would try to justify it by saying that a film as dark and fantastical as this one needs some kind of readily-accessible human story for audiences to connect to.

They would have a point, too, for the really memorable bits of Godzilla do not really concern the Yamanes and their friends, but Godzilla himself, particular the sequence in which the monster (initially referred to as ‘the Godzilla’, though this is quickly abandoned – the confusion may be due to the fact that there isn’t a definite article in Japanese) rises from Tokyo Bay and proceeds to lay waste to the city. Again, on paper this sounds like just another genre staple – the JSDF shoot at Godzilla a lot, which has absolutely no effect, and he goes on to tread on various buildings, set fire to others with his nuclear breath, and so on. However, on this occasion the realisation is very different: in subsequent films it’s extremely unusual for anyone to actually be shown dying in the course of a monster rampage, but on this occasion the death toll seems astronomical – Godzilla toasts fleeing civilians in the street, rips down towers and sends the onlookers in them plummeting to their doom, and so on. At one point we see a young woman, in the midst of the destruction, clutching her young children to her and telling them that they will all soon be together in heaven with their father. The aftermath of the main Godzilla attack is depicted like that of a major natural disaster, which is rather in line with how Godzilla is presented – an elemental force of devastation, like a tsunami or a typhoon, only much worse.

And here of course is where we come to the nub of the issue, namely what inspired Godzilla and what the film is really about. The film-makers themselves acknowledged The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as an inspiration, a movie which was itself based on a Ray Bradbury short story, but that film doesn’t have remotely the same sense of utter trauma about it. The truth behind the central metaphor of Godzilla is of course well-known, and it isn’t as if the film itself isn’t dotted with clues: it opens with a terrible disaster befalling a Japanese fishing boat, but (tellingly) this isn’t a Godzilla attack, but being caught on the fringes of an H-bomb test – clearly an allusion to events befalling an actual vessel in 1954, the same year the film was made. Serizawa himself is a tormented, Oppenheimer-like figure, much given to musing on the responsibilities of scientists when it comes to their research being used as the basis of dreadful weapons.

It’s not quite so much that Godzilla himself is a metaphor for the atom bomb, than that his attacks on Japan are in some way representative of what befell the country in the closing stages of the Second World War – Tokyo burned, thousands were displaced or died, and so on. It took the Japanese people a long time to come to terms with how the war ended, and there’s clearly some sort of catharsis going on here, with the fantastical nature of the film making it possible to address these issues in a way that would not be possible in a more naturalistic story. And, once again tellingly, the story of Godzilla is very much in line with the official version of Japanese history, as far as the war is concerned – Godzilla himself is roused not by the Japanese but the Americans (or so it is implied). Japan is an innocent victim of incomprehensible outside aggression.

The original Godzilla is a dark and complex film, and in a way it’s quite surprising that so much of this hefty underpinning was abandoned so quickly in favour of knockabout monster battles. This first one isn’t nearly as much fun as many of the sequels, certainly, and it does have its own issues as a film – primarily, the climax is rather underwhelming and flat given how strong the earlier Godzilla rampage sequences were. But it does have a gravitas and power that the sequels just don’t, and it’s surely this that explains why people are still making films about Godzilla over sixty years later.

 

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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) livng 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 already 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 central 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 significant 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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The 1971 Godzilla movie, Godzilla Vs Hedorah (aka Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster), was a) a heartfelt parable about the importance of protecting the environment and b) hallucinogenically bonkers. Longtime series overseer Tomoyuki Tanaka wasn’t keen on it at all, banished director Yoshimitsu Banno from the series, and set about producing something a bit more traditional for the 1972 film, which eventually emerged in the form of Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla Vs Gigan.

godzilla_vs_gigan_1972

(Banno probably got the last laugh, as he is the Japanese exec producer of the current run of American Godzilla movies.)

I first came across this film in the summer of 1990, when one of the British TV channels ran a short season of some of the Showa Godzilla films (the 1954-75 run). Even as a relative newcomer to the canon it was still pretty clear that the early 70s films suffered from limited budgets (and limited imagination), although this is to some extent offset by the vaulting weirdness that also ensues. Godzilla Vs Gigan is a pretty good showcase for all of this.

Our main character (who isn’t thirty storeys high and radioactive, anyway) is Gengo Kotaka (Hiroshi Ishikawa), an artist looking for a gig. With the help of his girlfriend he lands a job at the corporation responsible for the building of Children’s Land, a new theme park – although there appears to be some confusion over whether the theme in question is ‘peace’ or ‘giant monsters’ (maybe time to get the brand consultants in). The wunderkind chairman of the place insists on the former, but the centrepiece of the park is a life-size Godzilla Tower filled with offices and so on. The chairman even goes so far as to suggest that once the park is finished Monster Island (where Godzilla and his associates live happily, thanks to the wonders of reused footage) should be blown up. Clearly he is a bad ‘un.

Well, despite Gengo’s own ideas for new monsters being rubbish (he comes up with the Monster of Homework and the Monster of Over-attentive Mothering), he lands a job at Children’s Land. However, he soon finds himself caught in a web of intrigue, for there are rum doings going on behind the scenes at Children’s Land. Another employee seems to have disappeared and is being looked for by his sister and her weird hippy friend, and their investigations have turned up a mysterious spool of tape. Meanwhile their investigations reveal that the chairman and secretary of the park both apparently died in an accident the previous year, so what are they still doing walking around running a corporation?

Eventually the tape gets played, which answers a few questions and also provides one of the moments this movie is remembered for: the electronic bibbling that ensues just confuses the human characters, but it really annoys Godzilla over on Monster Island (much clutching of ears ensues). Having a busy schedule that day (we are invited to imagine what this may involve) Godzilla packs his fellow monster Anguirus (also known as Anguillas and various similar names, due to the wonders of English-Japanese transliteration) off to investigate. (Anguirus is a veteran monster from the Toho stable, but in this film he’s essentially Godzilla’s kid sidekick.)

Yes, this is the movie where Godzilla gets dialogue. How do you go about writing lines for a giant nuclear dragon? I’ve no idea, but I would suggest that making Godzilla say things like ‘Something funny going on! Go check it out!’ is probably not the best way to proceed. Anyway, Anguirus swims off to Japan, where he is promptly shot at a lot by the army and driven off (this probably constitutes the greatest single achievement in the history of the JSDF’s monster defence division), going back to Monster Island having found out pretty much nothing. Nice work, Anguirus.

In the end we find ourselves dealing once again with the spectre of an alien invasion, for the park is secretly being run by giant alien cockroaches from another planet, the humanoid inhabitants of which polluted themselves to death. The cockroaches (who can disguise themselves as dead people, it would appear) are going to use the mysterious tapes to control two space monsters, King Ghidorah and Gigan, and use them to devastate Japan as part of their conquest of the world. They are also planning to off Godzilla, naturally. Can our hero and his unprepossessing gang of friends do anything to help?

Oh, well: as I say, this is a pretty standard late-Showa Godzilla movie, with aliens trying to invade and Godzilla firmly ensconced in his position as a wholly non-threatening defender of Japanese society, complete with (as mentioned) kid sidekick. The monster suit is of the googly-eyed kind, and it does seem like the film is sometimes in a race against time to complete the story before the suit actually falls to bits, but as I say this is par for the course at this point.

Key opposition this time around is, of course, Gigan, who gets even less back-story than most antagonist monsters: he just turns up working for the giant cockroaches, the most distinctive thing about him being that he has a buzzsaw mounted in the front of his torso. I suppose this must count for something as Gigan has gone on to make a bit of a rep for himself, reappearing in Godzilla Vs Megalon and as the second villain in Final Wars. Certainly the buzzsaw makes for some striking moments: huge, Peckinpah-esque sprays of blood erupt as Gigan carves up Godzilla and Anguirus.

If the Godzilla and Gigan fight isn’t exactly prime stuff, at least it’s original to this film, which is more than can be said for a lot of the other monster action, which is recycled from other films in the series – one might even suspect that the main reason Anguirus and Ghidorah are in the film is because of their extensive stock-footage back-catalogues. It’s not exactly hard to spot, either, given the earlier films were differently lit and with higher production values.

In the end it boils down to the usual tag wrestling shenanigans – Godzilla gets the crap kicked out of him at extraordinary length before suddenly recovering to vanquish the opposition with startling ease – while the human characters dispose of the aliens and their Godzilla Tower with a deeply stupid plan (it involves hippies sneaking into the tower carrying big boxes clearly marked ‘TNT’). ‘Everything was going so well!’ wails a giant cockroach as it expires, and the Earth is safe again.

Many Japanese monster movies operate close to the intersection between fun/bonkers/silly/stupid, but Godzilla Vs Gigan crosses the line into ‘stupid’ more often than most of them. If you like Godzilla movies, then there is probably enough going on here to make the film a worthwhile and entertaining watch. If you’re still agnostic about the Big G, this really isn’t the best place to start.

 

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