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Posts Tagged ‘Hiroshi Koizumi’

You know that thing, when you meet a person and initially don’t get on, but after spending some time together and getting to know them, you actually become really close friends? That’s really what Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 film Godzilla Raids Again (also known as Godzilla’s Counter-attack and Gigantis the Fire Monster) is about – well, it illustrates the first part of the process, anyway. (I make no apologies for reviewing two Godzilla movies in a row, by the way.)

I was discussing this topic (Godzilla movies, not the process of making a friend) with Anglo-Iranian Affairs the other day. We are talking about possibly going to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters (again, in my case), and he expressed the hope that it was better than the last Godzilla movie we saw together, which was Shin Gojira (aka Godzilla: Resurgence), a couple of summers ago. I have to say that the response to this movie from my colleagues was neither kind nor especially positive, with the googly-eyed incarnation of Godzilla from the start of the film and the long scenes of dysfunctional committee meetings drawing particular stick. My response was to make the point that Godzilla movies are kind of like a lens, through which you can look at different things and get different responses: Shin Gojira is obviously a seriously-intentioned film with things to say about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in an oblique way, very much in the tradition of the very first Godzilla, while King of the Monsters, though not entirely bereft of subtext, is much more of a fun monster mash.

So what kind of a movie is Godzilla Raids Again? Well, it was made relatively quickly following the massive success of the first film, and you can almost detect the producers wondering just exactly what they’re going to do to avoid a simple retread. The idea they eventually hit upon is one that has sustained the series for over sixty years since it was made, so the film has that in its favour – on the other hand, as is wont to happen in these cases, the idea as implemented here clearly still has a few wrinkles to be worked out.

The film opens with the introduction of its two protagonists, Kobayashi (Chiaki Minoru, guaranteed immortality as one of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) and Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi), who are both pilots working for a tuna canning company in Osaka. It’s business as usual for the lads until Kobayashi’s plane has engine trouble and he is forced to land near a desolate volcanic island. Tsukioka goes to rescue him, and both pilots are shocked by the appearance of Godzilla, locked in battle with another giant creature. (The film is very clear about the fact that this is a different Godzilla to that in the first film, the original being dead at the bottom of Tokyo bay.)

The pilots report this discovery, rather to the dismay of the authorities. Nobody worries too much about where the monsters have come from (‘atomic testing’ is the handwave used), the big issue is how to stop them. The second monster is identified as Angilas (or possibly Anguirus, depending on which version you’re watching), a mutated ankylosaurus, although judging from his contribution, the chap doing the identification appears to be one of those escaped lunatics you often find pretending to be paleontogists in this sort of film.

The authorities hold a big meeting to decide what to do to resolve this new Godzilla crisis, which is honoured by the appearance of another of the Seven Samurai – Takeshi Shimura, reprising his role from the first film and making his sole contribution to this one. After showing some clips from the original film, he basically gives a big shrug and says that with the Oxygen Destroyer no longer available, Godzilla is essentially unstoppable and Japan is completely screwed. All he can offer is the idea that Godzilla is especially annoyed by bright lights and can be lured away from populated areas by dropping a ‘light bomb’ (basically, flares).

Well, it’s better than nothing, and when Godzilla resurfaces heading for Osaka, the authorities go for it, ordering a blackout and the use of flares. One of the real weaknesses of this film is that Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube don’t return as director and composer, but the following sequence does have an impressively eerie quality to it, the lights descending around Godzilla as he wades across the bay. Unfortunately, a group of convicts take advantage of the chaos to break out of custody, and end up crashing their stolen van into a gas refinery (as inevitably happens in these situations). The resulting fireball far outshines the flares and soon Godzilla is stomping into Osaka, looking intent on breaking things – and the news gets worse, as Angilas is not far behind, looking for a fight…

Yes, the main reason to see Godzilla Raids Again is the city-flattening tussle between Godzilla and Angilas which ensues. By the time the series entered the 1970s, Angilas was quite well-established as one of Godzilla’s key allies, even a friend, but there is little to suggest that here: the fight takes a surprisingly grisly turn, as Godzilla tears out his opponent’s throat with his teeth before setting fire to the corpse with his nuclear breath. The main reason to watch it may be, but it’s still not necessarily a very good one – in subsequent films, the film-makers had figured out that to make suitamation fights more convincing, they had to overcrank the camera so the creatures appeared to be moving more slowly and ponderously. Here, they hadn’t worked that out yet, with the distracting result that the monsters appear to be moving much too quickly and jerkily.

I’m not going to say that the discerning viewer may as well switch off at this point, but I do think that the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again is that all the interesting stuff is in the first half. The film is weirdly structured and badly-paced, with the monster fight that should really be the climax occurring round about the mid-point of the film. Following this there is a long and far from scintillating digression into the lives of the tuna canning factory owner, his family and employees. The first film’s subtext is clearly about the experiences of Japan during the Second World War; if this one has a subtext, it’s that the emergence of giant atomic monsters really complicates the business of running a tuna canning company. Godzilla burns down the factory! They have to think about relocating the company to Hokkaido, where there are at least fewer monsters (heh, just wait until King Kong and Legion turn up). There is a school reunion and a fairly well-mannered stag party, of sorts.

From here we go into a climax which just about deserves the name, as it is extremely protracted and not exactly gripping stuff: Godzilla is tracked down to another remote island, which is repeatedly bombed until he is buried under ice cubes. It is notably short on tension, though sadly not on sentimentality – once again, a heroic self-sacrifice is required to put a stop to the marauding monster.

That’s really the main problem with Godzilla Raids Again: too often, it just feels like a limp retread of the original, surprisingly formulaic even though this is only the second film in the series (the scene where the armed forces turn up and shoot at the monsters a lot, to no effect, already has a formal, almost ritualistic feel to it). Nor does it have the same kind of intensity or fire in its belly – the monster rampage in the first film is shocking for the horrendous casualties it causes amongst the civilian population, but here it just seems to be spectacle – pow, there goes Osaka Castle! – with no-one worth worrying about dying.

The monster suits are good, and there are some genuinely impressive special effects shots at various points in the film, but it really does suffer from the poor structure of the script and the lack of a strong final act. Although this film was a financial success, you can almost understand why it was six years before they made a third Godzilla film. Monster wrestling was to prove the future of the franchise (that, and regular appearances by aliens from Planet X), but the main problem with this film is that it’s treated as filler for the story, rather than the main attraction. It was not a mistake the series ever made again; this is obviously an important film in the franchise, but you would struggle to call it a great or even a particularly good one.

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Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. None of them exactly double acts in the same way as, say, Laurel and Hardy, but they tended to do their best movies together. And to this list I would like to add Godzilla and Mothra. There is a bit of a difference here, I suppose, in that (outside Japan, at least) Mothra is only really known as a supporting character in Godzilla’s own movies, but in terms of monsters with the ability to carry their own series of films, Mothra’s CV is rather impressive: not as extensive as that of Godzilla or Gamera, but a respectable (if somewhat distant) third place. We are promised some sort of appearance by Mothra (Rodan and Ghidorah too, apparently) in the next American Godzilla film: but will she get the treatment she deserves?

The original Mothra dates back to 1961 and was directed, as is so often the case with Japanese monster movies, by Ishiro Honda. At this point in time Toho was less reliant on annual Godzilla sequels and were trying out all sorts of variations on the monster movie formula, of which this is surely one of the most successful.

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Things get underway with a ship going down during a typhoon in the south Pacific, with the crew washing ashore on the mysterious Infant Island. There is much concern back home, with the island being heavily irradiated following recent atom bomb tests, but when the mariners are rescued they are completely healthy, something they attribute to the ministrations of the native islanders and their magic juice. Needless to say, the authorities are intrigued and an expedition is sent out to investigate further.

The expedition is largely made up of Japanese scientists and journalists (Frankie Sakai and Hiroshi Koizumi are the male leads), but in charge is the sinister and enigmatic Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito), who – despite all evidence to the contrary – is not Japanese at all, but from the little-known nation of Rolisika.

(Key facts from The Rough Guide to Rolisika (forthcoming): the locals are Caucasian and speak English with a pronounced American accent. One of the main urban centres is ‘New Kirk City’, notable for its many suspension bridges and skyscrapers. In short, it’s fairly obvious what game the film-makers are playing here – making the main villain American might not play well with the lucrative US market they had half an eye on, and so the transparent conceit of ‘Rolisika’ does an adequate job of letting them do so while still providing plausible deniability.)

On Infant Island, the scientists discover giant fungi, ancient inscriptions, blood-sucking carnivorous plants, and many other jolly things, but most interesting of all is a set of tiny twin women, the Shobijin (Emi and Yumi Ito, a noted J-pop duo of the time). Most of the expedition is all for leaving the island and the Shobijin in peace (‘sorry about the atom bomb tests,’ someone says), but Nelson turns out to be a ruthless main chancer and kidnaps the twins, drags them back to Tokyo, and puts them on stage in a musical extravaganza of his own devising. As you would.

Our heroes, now joined by plucky photojournalist Kyoko Kagawa, who wasn’t allowed to go on the expedition as she’s a girl, are outraged by Nelson’s ruthless exploitation of the Shobijin, but their uncertain legal status and Nelson’s Rolisikan citizenship makes it difficult to take action. The Shobijin regretfully inform them that matters are effectively out of their hands anyway, as the outraged natives of Infant Island have summoned the ancient defender of their people, Mothra, and she is already en route to Japan to rescue them, regardless of what collateral damage may be involved…

Yup, this is the one with the singing fairies, the enormous caterpillar/grub laying waste to Tokyo, and a humungous butterfly-moth creature hatching out of a cocoon in the ruins of Tokyo Tower. There is a sort of epic, beautiful weirdness about Mothra which simply isn’t there in most of the other early Toho kaiju movies, but it undeniably adds something to the formula. This is a much lighter and more colourful film than (for example) the original Godzilla – the monster rampages here are a spectacle rather than a tragedy, hardly anyone actually seems to die as a result of them, and the songs are pretty good too (the twins’ first performance of Mothra’s song is a genuinely spellbinding moment).

The lack of a body count is sort of understandable when you consider that the Japanese (and most of the Rolisikans, come to that) are innocent parties, and Mothra herself isn’t actually a bad guy either. Villainous duties are left solely to Clark Nelson and his goons, and the film has a solid don’t-be-an-exploitative-tool message at its heart, albeit one which is expressed through a variety of psychadelic imagery and monster movie tropes.

Latterday Mothra movies have occasionally been criticised for making Mothra’s adult form look rather like a plush toy, but it seems to me that this was there right from the start. Mothra is actually pretty well realised, although the fact that she doesn’t have to do very much other than just fly around probably helps. This does point up something of a weakness in the film, though, in that it doesn’t really have a strong climax – with them actually killing the monster not being an option, the script goes for another detour into strangeness with some stuff about church bells and the power of prayer. I suppose contriving another monster for Mothra to fight would just have complicated the script, as well as demand they figure out a way for the big moth to engage in battle (this latter issue would obviously be resolved by the time Mothra Vs Godzilla appeared).

In the end, though, Mothra is a film which predates the establishment of the kaiju movie formula – it’s much more of a traditional monster movie, and as you may be able to tell the plot is somewhat informed by King Kong (exotic island, sympathetic monster). It seems to me that there are some parallels with Gorgo, a British kaiju movie from the same year, as well. None of which would really matter if the film was no good – but this is a superior monster movie, simply in terms of its atmosphere and willingness to do something new and different with the genre. I am aware that the fact this film is about a giant moth who is friends with fairies may make it difficult for some people to get on board with it, but if you are one of these folk then all I can say is that this is your problem, not the film’s. Is it quite as good as the best of the movies Mothra appeared in alongside other monsters? Well, perhaps not, but this was my point at the start. Can a major American film company produce a version of Mothra which honestly does justice to the original? I am always ready to be pleasantly surprised.

 

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Most of the time when people talk about something being ‘formulaic’, there’s a very definite negative connotation going on, as though it were always a bad thing. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case, particularly when we’re talking about genre movies, and especially long-running series. One of the reasons why I was a little less delighted with Skyfall than a lot of people was that I didn’t think it stuck to the Bond recipe quite closely enough – I wasn’t overwhelmed by how introspective it was, and I missed the presence of a proper Bond girl. However, if we are going to talk about films which are formulaic in the best possible way, I would direct your attention to Masaaki Tezuya’s 2003 extravaganza, Godzilla: Tokyo SOS.

Fairly unusually for a recent Godzilla film, this is a direct sequel to the previous instalment, Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla. Now, I enjoyed that one a lot, although I would cheerfully concede it has a surprisingly straightforward and conventional story for a kaiju movie. If anything, Tokyo SOS fixes this particular problem by adding a big dollop of Toho bonkersness to the same formula.

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The movie opens with ominous stirrings on the sea bed, as Godzilla wakes up following the lengthy nap he’s been taking since the previous movie. At the same time, a UFO is picked up heading for Japan at supersonic speed – which, naturally, turns out to be a giant moth with an axe to grind.

It’s Mothra! Mothra is heading to Japan to have a chat with old acquaintance Professor Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi, reprising his role from the original 1961 Mothra – the two films are, broadly speaking, in the same continuity). Acting as Mothra’s spokesfairies are, as ever, the Shobijin (in a particularly winsome incarnation). They explain that by building Mechagodzilla from the genetic material and bones of the first Godzilla (funny, no-one mentioned the bones thing in the first film), the Japanese government has effectively created a gigantic cyber-zombie, an offence against nature of exactly the kind Mothra exists to destroy.

So the big word from the big moth is this: scrap Kiryu, or Mothra will declare war on the human race. But the Japanese government are strangely reluctant to get rid of their cyborg zombie mutant dinosaur protector, even though the giant mystic lepidopteran has offered to fill in should Godzilla turn up again. And the signs of Godzilla’s return are continuing, with the carcass of a giant turtle washing up on a beach (apparently this is an obscure old monster from an equally obscure movie called Space Amoeba).

Former Kiryu pilot and all-around cutie Akane (Yumiko Shaku) heads off to America after what’s not much more than a cameo (sigh), leaving the bulk of the human protagonist duties falling to youthful mechanic Yoshito (Noboru Kaneko) – it’s an interesting choice to make the hero a techie rather than a pilot, although this does mean the film struggles to find things for him to do in the second act. Anyway, repairs to Kiryu proceed apace, just being completed in time for Godzilla’s eventual re-emergence. But what part is Mothra going to play in the coming battle…?

Well, Mothra’s one of those eternal good-guy characters, so you know there’s never really any chance of him or her (Mothra’s gender in this film is sort of vague) helping Godzilla tear down the city. One of the strong points of the previous film was the quality and quantity of its monster battles and effects work, and they’re just as good here. Virtually the entire second half of the film is one long rampage through Tokyo by Godzilla, opposed by various elements of the JXSDF, Kiryu, and no fewer than three different incarnations of Mothra – Godzilla really does come across as a vicious, unstoppable force of destruction.

Mothra, on the other hand, seems to be having a bit of an off-day, having a tough time of it against Godzilla. She looks as good as she ever has on screen, though: it occurs to me that in terms of sheer affection for the character and its trappings, I like Mothra just as much as Godzilla, and Tezuya takes care to include all the things you want to see in a Mothra movie – the giant egg, the larva, the Shobijin, the Mothra icon, even the Mothra song.

Tokyo SOS‘s obvious affection and respect for its monster characters goes a long way to make up for the fact that the human story in this film is rather less engaging. Initially it looks as though it’s going to be about nice old Professor Chujo, but he sort of drops out of the centre of the movie after a while. For a little bit it looks like there’s going to be a romance between Yoshito and a female pilot named Azusa (idoru Miho Yoshioka, who, to be fair, is nearly as cute as Yumiko Shaku), but she just turns out to be support-character window-dressing. In the end the human focus of the film is on Yoshito’s relationship with the strange sentience of Kiryu, but this feels very much like a last-minute addition to the script and not really thought through.

I know I go on a lot about Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy when writing about kaiju movies, but this is simply because they’re the gold standard of the genre – it would be wilfully perverse not to mention them when talking about just how good this kind of film can be. Tokyo SOS has some of the brutality of these films in its monster battles – limbs are ripped off, monsters impaled on spikes – but also some of their grandeur and imagination. Best of all is the pre-credits sequence where a flight of jets come across Mothra in mid-air, shrouded by clouds, which seems to me to owe a huge debt to a similar scene in Incomplete Struggle.

Tokyo SOS is not a particularly innovative film in terms of its story, but, as I say, sometimes you sit down to watch a movie with strong preconceptions about exactly what it is you want to see. This film delivers the staples of a kaiju movie – multi-monster action, colossal property damage, a rather implausible plot – with confidence, charm, and skill, and I think it’s a shame Toho didn’t continue in this sort of vein for a few more films. Instead they chose to put the entire franchise on hold after the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink romp of Godzilla: Final Wars. That may have its merits as an anniversary celebration of the series, but as a ‘proper’ Godzilla movie, Tokyo SOS is at least its equal.

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