Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Ishiro Honda’

Watching Japanese tokusatsu movies, you almost instantly get a sense that these are films made in accordance with a very different cultural and artistic sensibility: non-naturalistic, stylised, more concerned with visual appearance than absolute realism. You see a few of these films and decide you’ve managed to get your head around this – you watch Mothra Vs Godzilla and Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and start to relax, feeling you’ve got the basics down. This may not in fact be the case – sure, you may have become acclimatised to the Godzilla series, but this is a distinct set of films with its own tropes and conventions; it is not the beginning and end of wacky Japanese genre cinema.

Which brings us to a film like Dogora (aka Dagora the Space Monster and Giant Space Monster Dogora), directed by Ishiro Honda. Honda, of course, is synonymous with the Godzilla series, and the rest of Toho’s A-team is also in the building for this film: it is produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, the script is by Shinichi Sekizawa, the music is by Akira Ifukube, and the special effects are by Eiji Tsuburaya. The crew were being worked pretty hard in 1964, starting the year with Mothra Vs Godzilla, moving on to this film, and concluding with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. It is startling to consider that the period when these films were basically being made on a production line also marks the time of some of Toho’s greatest successes in the genre.

Should we include Dogora in this group, though? Well, the most obvious thing about it is that there is a distinct whiff of Hamlet without the prince going on here, in that it looks and sounds almost exactly like a Godzilla movie, even including many of the same repertory cast members, but there is never even a glimpse of a man in a suit. This is the first way in which the film marks out its own rather peculiar territory.

Events get underway at the ‘Electric Wave Laboratory’, where scientists are overseeing orbital satellites. But then the instruments begin to register strange blobby shapes in the path of one of the satellites. Cue credits and a slow zoom from orbit down into urban Tokyo. Are we about to see some more scientists? Or perhaps a tenacious reporter?

No, we’re going to be spending a lot of time in this film with a gang of very unconvincing jewel thieves, some of whom have highly eccentric wardrobe preferences (one guy spends the whole film in a white suit with a black bowler hat). We find the gangsters attempting to break into a bank vault while the female member of their gang keeps watch outside in the car. She is played by Akiko Wakabayashi, best known to western audiences for her role in You Only Live Twice, and as breathtakingly beautiful in this film as usual. No wonder the local cops are so easily fobbed off. But then something else grabs their attention – a drunken salariman floats past, with no visible means of support. Shortly afterwards, the gangsters around the vault also find themselves having seemingly gravity-related issues and drifting off the floor.

In the midst of all this chaos some diamonds disappear from the bank, part of a string of diamond robberies taking place around the world. On the case is Inspector Komai (Yasuke Natsuki), who in addition to chasing the gangsters finds his time also taken up talking to expert crystallographer Dr Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura) and chasing around after Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham), a foreign diamond broker who also seems to be mixed up in all this. There is a lot of chasing about between the cops and robbers, to be honest, including a fair number of double-crosses and various characters not proving to be whom they initially claimed.

Meanwhile, other weird events continue, most of them concerning unlikely objects being drawn up into the sky: coal-heaps, trucks, factory chimneys, and so on, all to the bemusement of whatever cops or scientists happen to be in the vicinity at the time. Someone eventually has a brainwave and figures out the connection: all of this mysterious levitation is somehow connected to carbon – coal and diamonds, most obviously, but also other things associated with them. Komai comes up with his own theory as to why all this is going on – ‘I’m not one to jump to conclusions,’ he says, ‘but I think a giant space monster could be responsible for this.’

Naturally, this being a tokusatsu movie, he is correct, and soon enough Dogora itself materialises in the skies over Japan, pseudopods trailing menacingly downwards as it guzzles all the carbon in sight. Apparent it is the result of floating space cells being exposed to radioactivity (just for a change). Cue the usual scenes of the JSDF opening up with their full arsenal at the monster and it having no effect whatsoever, while scientists and their other associates stand around looking concerned.

Now, the danger when writing about Dogora is that you focus too much on all the stuff with the giant floating monster and the wacky pseudo-science, as this is the most immediately striking and outlandish element of the film. You would expect Honda and his team to do the same thing, after all. But no. The really weird thing about Dogora is the way in which all the material about the monster is essentially shuffled into the background while the film maintains a firm focus on the frantic convolutions of the cops and robbers plot about the Japanese police and the gang of diamond thieves. It is almost as if the creative team of the movie were determined to do their thriller runaround and only included the scenes with the levitation and the tentacles under duress.

It can’t really have been this way, though, for if nothing else the effects show no trace of being the work of people who don’t really care about their craft – the special effects in Dogora are amongst the best of any Toho film from the 1960s. Now, the fact the film doesn’t include any suitamation probably helps, as far as a modern audience is concerned, but the model-work, cel animation and optical effects are all excellent, even when the subject matter is as weird as it often gets here.

It certainly helps to keep the film engaging even when the plotting with the gangsters and cops becomes a bit, well, corny (perhaps I should say ‘even more corny’). But Shinichi Sekizawa’s script deploys his usual cheerful inventiveness and wit, which helps here too. That said, by the time of the climax everyone involved seems to be off their medication – the scientists cook up a plan to petrify or crystallise Dogora using wasp venom fired from tanks (no-one seems to have thought that petrifying a giant monster while it’s floating over your country might just lead to some collateral damage), while the cops and robbers have a gunfight that turns into a dynamite-throwing contest. Just another day in Japan, I guess.

Dogora is such a weird movie that it’s actually quite hard to compare it to anything else – the reliable monster-rasslin’ pleasures of the Godzilla series are not quite there – but it’s colourful and good-natured and knows not to out-stay its welcome. It’s probably not for everyone, but if you like oddball Japanese movies, oddball sci-fi, and weird stuff in general it’s a fairly safe bet for an entertaining hour and a half.

Read Full Post »

Before we go any further: Ishiro Honda’s 1964 movie Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is one of those which exists in various different versions depending on which country you’re in – the changes extend as far as certain plot elements (mostly ones communicated by the dialogue, which is of course dubbed for the English-language release), but there is also the question of the title, which is given on screen as Ghidrah (etc). As any fule kno, the three-headed monster spells his name with an O near the middle of it, and the title card therefore contains a blatant typo which I will be ignoring. So, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster it shall be.

The movie may be short on vowels but it’s certainly not lacking in plot, or outrageous coincidences. Things get under way at a meeting of the Flying Saucer People, which is also attended by perky young journalist Naoko (Yuriko Hoshi). The assembled goofballs mostly spout gibberish but also give ominous warnings of impending disaster, pointing out the unseasonal heatwave afflicting Japan. Actual flying saucers do not turn up (this being a mid-60s Toho monster movie, this is probably something of a surprise), but a shower of meteorites does fall to Earth.

It just so happens that in charge of the scientific expedition that hikes off to examine the largest of the fallen meteorites is Naoko’s friend and possible suitor (things are never allowed to get particularly soppy in these movies), Professor Murai (Hiroshi Koizumi). Murai is startled by the size of the rock, and also the weird electromagnetic anomalies that periodically manifest around it.

Also relevant to the story is Naoko’s brother, police detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki), who is given the important but strangely under-resourced job of protecting Princess Selina (Akiko Wakabayashi), heir apparent to the remote Himalayan kingdom of Selgina. The cultural distinctiveness of the Selginan people is amply established by the fact that the ruff remains an important part of their national dress, to the point where they resemble an entire country of birds who’ve swallowed plates. It seems that the former king has recently been assassinated in a communist plot, and the killers now have Selina in their sights. Chief assassin Malmess (Hisaya Ito) signifies his evilness by always wearing sinister dark glasses, which is an odd combination when paired with his ruff. But I digress.

The assassins succeed in blowing up Selina’s plane (bits of charred neckwear flutter down over many square miles), little suspecting she jumped out at the last minute, guided by a disembodied voice. Soon enough she resurfaces as a mysterious prophet, claiming to come from Venus (or Mars, depending on which version you’re watching), with no memory of her former terrestrial life.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on, but not much sign of any monsters so far. This changes (sort of) when Shindo and Naoko pause to watch TV, settling on what seems to be a sort of 60s Japanese version of the Michael MacIntyre show (God knows why). Making an appearance, for no adequately explained reason, are the Shobijin fairies, who provide an update on what Mothra’s been up to (in short, not much: just lying around being worshipped by the natives of his island – Mothra is male in this movie).

The plot does start to pick up pace now, as Selina the prophetess’ various predictions of disaster start to come true: tourists at the volcano Mount Aso are alarmed by the emergence of the giant pterodactyl Rodan, who has been hibernating in the crater, while her prophecy of doom for one particular ship comes to pass when Godzilla surfaces and nukes it. Unfortunately the only people who seem to pay her any attention are the Shobijin, who were due to go back to Infant Island on that ship and wisely changed their travel arrangements.

Worst of all, the meteorite cracks open and disgorges a golden, three-headed dragon, which Selina announces is called Ghidorah. It appears that, thousands of years before, Ghidorah devastated the ancient and advanced civilisation of Venus (or Mars), and Selina has actually been possessed by the spirit of one of the survivors who fled to Earth (the English dub, at least, is really not very clear on this point). Anyway, Ghidorah is now all set to lay waste to earthly civilisation as well – or at least that part of it not already flattened by some playful tussling between Godzilla and Rodan which is already in progress.

The reaction of the Japanese authorities does not really inspire confidence, and so our heroes propose an alternative to the committee in charge of Monster Crisis Response – given that Mothra managed to halt Godzilla’s last rampage (in Mothra Vs Godzilla), could the Shobijin persuade him to tackle Ghidorah as well? The fairies are dubious, given the new Mothra is still young and larval. It will take all three of Earth’s monsters to deal with the menace of Ghidorah – always assuming that Godzilla and Rodan can be persuaded to play ball…

Toho’s shared world of monster movies had got under way earlier the same year with Mothra Vs Godzilla, but in many ways this is the film that established the template for the Japanese monster movie as it is generally known today: freewheeling monster wrestling action in the background, a rather preposterous B-movie plot going on in the foreground, some bonkers sci-fi and fantasy ideas incorporated into the plot, marginal turns from the human cast, and so on. To be honest, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster deviates from this last point a little, as Malmess’ gang of hired killers give notably terrible performances even by the standards of a Godzilla movie. Possibly making up for this is the presence of a genuinely great movie actor, in the form of Takashi Shimura, whose celluloid immortality was assured by his appearances as Kambei in Seven Samurai and the central character in Ikiru. This is technically Shimura’s fourth appearance in the Godzilla series, having played one character in the first two films and a different one in Mothra – here he is someone else again, playing a brain specialist who wanders about with the heroes through the second half of the film. It’s hardly demanding for a performer of his calibre but he seems to be enjoying himself.

The film is probably more notable for the way it handles its monster characters, anyway. The big innovation, obviously, is the creation of Ghidorah, who would go on to appear in a pile of other movies and could make a decent claim to be Godzilla’s greatest enemy (Mothra’s too, come to that). I have to confess that – and here we go down the rabbit hole – I’ve always found Ghidorah to be a rather two-dimensional character, certainly compared to other monsters like Mothra and Mechagodzilla. It’s a striking design but the concept of the character – evil space dragon! – isn’t as engaging as many of the other Toho kaiju.

The other, less obvious innovation comes in the way that the film genuinely does start to treat its monster characters as characters. The original movie treats Godzilla as an implacable force of nature, not something with a personality that could potentially be reasoned with; here there is a scene in which Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan have an actual conversation (sadly, we only hear the Shobijin’s translation of it, but apparently Godzilla has a bit of a foul mouth) – it’s a relatively short step from here to the scene in Godzilla Vs Gigan with Godzilla and Anguirus talking to each other by speech bubbles. Perhaps this also explains why the film also displays the signs of the jokey tone first introduced in King Kong Vs Godzilla, which would become more and more prevalent as the series went on.

For the most part, though, this is a film which takes itself just seriously enough to be fun, without feeling ridiculous, with plenty of incidental pleasures to go with the grandiose kitsch of the monster battles. If you were going to show a kaiju movie to Hollywood in the hope they would really understand the attraction of the genre, then this might very well be the one. Always assuming someone hasn’t already done so – Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah have been working for a big American studio recently, after all, and the trailer for their new movie is already running in theatres. We can only hope it is quite as charmingly entertaining as their first film together.

Read Full Post »

When a once-popular and long-running series finally bites the dust, the natural conclusion to draw is that it must all be the fault of the final instalment, and this is often an entirely justified response: Carry On Emmanuelle, for instance, is pretty much guaranteed to stink out any venue where it is on, and the same is true of Batman and Robin (even though I personally find it marginally less gruelling than Batman Forever). But it is not always thus: Licence to Kill, for example, tends to have a bit of a bad rep amongst Bond fans, simply because it was the last movie before an unprecedented six-year gap between outings for the commander. People assume it was an artistic and commercial failure, even though this is really not the case.

Sometimes what happens is that a succession of substandard films does such damage to the critical and popular standing of series that it’s impossible for things to recover, regardless of whether there’s a turnaround or not – Licence to Kill is far from perfect, but it’s still arguably better than the films immediately preceding it. And the same is true of the movie which brought down the curtain on the original run of Godzilla movies, Terror of Mechagodzilla (also known as Mechagodzilla’s Counterattack, The Terror of Godzilla, and the eerily inaccurate Monsters from an Unknown Planet).

This is one of those films best-known outside Japan through the proverbial ‘international version’, although the results here are not quite as extreme as is sometimes the case. This movie reached America in 1978, three years after its domestic release, through the good offices of Henry G Saperstein, long-time associate of Toho and the man responsible for the appearance of so many anonymous American actors in earlier Godzilla movies. The American version of Terror of Mechagodzilla was produced by ‘The Mechagodzilla Company’ (an organisation perhaps not named with longevity in mind) and mainly differs from the original in the addition of a rather unusual pre-credits sequence.

This is basically a brief reprise of the entirety of the Godzilla series to this point, taking a few liberties with the actual facts along the way – the exact origins of Godzilla are left vague, and he is presented as an essentially innocent victim of human aggression. The arc of the series, such as it is, is recapped – Godzilla beginning as the unstoppable engine of destruction, before becoming the ally of humanity and defender of Earth against alien threats. All this concludes with the events of the previous film, in which Godzilla was obliged to take on his evil robot double. The execution of this whole sequence perhaps leaves a little to be desired, but it does set up the film quite well.

Things get underway shortly after the climactic battle of Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla, with an experimental submarine going in search of the wreckage of Mechagodzilla, which was dumped into the sea. The crew’s first shock is that there is no wreckage to be found; the second is that they come under attack from a giant amphibious dinosaur and the sub is destroyed.

(One of the slightly peculiar things about this film is that it features quite a few moments where people hear of this creature and go ‘A giant dinosaur?!? Really?!?!’ despite the fact that it is supposedly set in a world where Godzilla, not to mention the rest of the Toho kaiju, have been cheerfully running amok for decades. One more giant dinosaur shouldn’t surprise anyone.)

Well, the sub’s owners at the Ocean Exploitation Institute go to Interpol to complain, because the police are obviously the best people to deal with the problem of giant dinosaurs sinking submarines. Rudimentary investigations put our very forgettable heroes on the trail of Dr Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), a genius biologist and generally embittered mad scientist, who claimed to have discovered a surviving dinosaur in the oceans just off Japan – a creature he christened Titanosaurus. Tracking Mafune down to his remote house on the coast, the cops learn from his slightly creepy daughter (Tomoko Ai) that Mafune died years ago and she knows nothing about the Titanosaurus problem.

She’s lying, of course: Mafune is still alive, has Titanosaurus under remote control, and is planning to use the monster to exact vengeance on the world which refused to listen to his brilliant theories about fish farming. (As you would.) What is more, he has teamed up with the Black Hole Aliens (bad guys of the previous film), who basically seem to want to demolish Tokyo and redevelop the area. To this end they have just finished putting Mechagodzilla back together in their secret base, having pinched the wreckage from the sea floor in their flying saucers. (Interpol could track down the Black Hole Aliens’ operation very easily just by monitoring sales of bacofoil and silly hats.) Needless to say there is a lot of evil laughter when these guys get together.

Soon enough Mafune goes off the reservation and unleashes Titanosaurus ahead of schedule, just in time for the traditional scene of toy tanks and model planes attacking the monster to no effect whatsoever. The Black Hole Aliens are initially cross about this failure to stick with the masterplan, but eventually take a more relaxed view – Godzilla’s bound to turn up and fight Titanosaurus, and even if he wins, he’ll be so puffed out he should be easy prey for Mechagodzilla to deal with…

As mentioned up the page, Terror of Mechagodzilla takes a lot of stick it really doesn’t deserve, for while this is hardly a top-division entry in the Godzilla series, it’s still better than most of the early 70s films. We can probably attribute this to the presence of the series’ original director, Ishiro Honda, who hadn’t made a Godzilla film in the previous five years, and if nothing else he seems to be working hard to make sure it has some vestiges of integrity and craft to it. Honda is limited by the low budget he’s clearly been saddled with, but at least the film largely eschews attempts to smuggle in reused footage from previous entries, and the monster suits and modelwork are pretty good. (Although the back projection in this movie is woeful.)

The plot is the usual B-movie-influenced nonsense about alien invaders and ‘supersonic wave projectors’, but it is somewhat distinguished by the way that Mafune and his daughter are marginally better-characterised than your typical Godzilla-movie characters. The daughter in particular is clearly meant to be a tragic figure, laden with pathos – a lab accident years ago nearly killed her, and she has been turned into a cyborg by the Black Hole Aliens. Being half-human half-machine is clearly not fun for a young lady – ‘Your heart is withered and dry! Who could love a cyborg?’ sneers a senior Black Hole Alien, rather unkindly. Well, it turns out that one of the Ocean Exploitation Institute dudes can, though (you will be surprised to hear) this is not the most convincing romance in cinema history. Tragedy looms, however, although this does set us up for the best line in the movie, and possibly in the entirety of film as a medium: ‘Please kill me – Mechagodzilla’s brain is installed in my stomach!’

Pleasantly diverting though all this is, it doesn’t much help with the film’s main problem, which is that this is a movie called Terror of Mechagodzilla, and Mechagodzilla isn’t in it that much. The story is more preoccupied with the various doings of Titanosaurus, who is a reasonably well-designed monster, but even so. Mechagodzilla gets less screen-time than Titanosaurus, though it could be worse – Godzilla is the ostensible hero-monster of the movie, and he’s in it less than either of them. He barely gets mentioned in the first half, turning up unannounced out of nowhere to fight Titanosaurus, and everyone involved – both actors and film-makers – seems to take him entirely for granted. He’s almost just a plot device rather than a character or a participant in the story.

Still, this is far from the only Godzilla movie to have this particular problem, and it may in fact be a fundamental flaw in the genre. At least Terror of Mechagodzilla seems to be taking itself relatively seriously, and doesn’t include too many wacky elements. Nobody’s favourite Godzilla film, probably, but a creditable attempt at striking a balance between sticking to the classic formula and doing something slightly different.

Read Full Post »

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).

invasion_of_astro-monster_poster_a

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

gojira_1954_japanese_poster

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

mothra61

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

destroy_all_monsters_poster_0041

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »