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Posts Tagged ‘Mothra’

I have a friend who I generally get on quite well with, probably because he tends to say very nice things about me – he was the one, by the way, who suggested I should forget about the blog you are currently reading and become a YouTube sensation instead. The only thing which is a source of good-natured animosity between us is his passionate and apparently sincere belief that Batman Vs Superman is not only a good film, but a genuinely great one, comparable to Schindler’s List in terms of its artistic merit and thematic power. Well, as you can imagine, he gets a good deal of ribbing from me about this view – I mean, all opinions are of equal merit, yadda yadda yadda, there’s not accounting for taste, blah blah, and so on, but even so, we’re talking about Batman Vs Superman – my old role-playing group regularly improvised better superhero plotlines than the one that film possesses. My friend is, however, one of the biggest Batman fans I have ever met, which may explain why his objectivity has slipped a bit.

The boot may be about to find itself on the other foot, as I find myself poised to say very complimentary things about Michael Dougherty’s new movie Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a film which has received, shall we say, mixed reviews. Some of them have been downright hostile and even rather scathing, calling it ‘stupid’ and the year’s first indisputably bad blockbuster (I find myself quite ready to dispute that, by the way). I am aware that there are many elements of this film which do not fall within the realm of storytelling excellence as it is conventionally reckoned. I am aware this is an attempt to bring a traditionally mocked and derided movie sub-genre to a mass audience on a $200 million budget, and thus quite probably qualifies as folly on a breathtaking scale. Sorry, don’t care: I really enjoyed it.

I should mention that I am the world’s worst person to give an objective opinion of a new Godzilla film, as I have seen all of the previous thirty-four films in this franchise and – well, I was about to say there’s never been a Godzilla movie I didn’t enjoy watching, but nowadays you have take the three animated Godzilla movies on Netflix into account, and they comprise the most horribly boring interlude in the entire sixty-five year history of the series.

Still, Dougherty’s movie puts the franchise (or the American end of it, at least) back on track. The movie follows Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film, which saw the existence of Godzilla and other massive ancient creatures revealed to the world at large, since when monster-wrangling agency Monarch have turned up more than a dozen others, which they are containing and keeping tabs on. This is rather vexatious to the world’s governments, who would naturally rather see these ‘titans’, as the monsters are referred to, exterminated – even the ones which might be friendly.

A promising premise for a Japanese-style monster movie, then, and the film further demonstrates its familiarity with the tropes of the form by introducing a melodramatic subplot about some thinly-drawn human characters: we meet the Russell family, who were struck by tragedy off-screen during the 2014 film – Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiger) lost their son in the monster attack on San Francisco, leading him to develop a brooding hatred of Godzilla, and her to decide to build a gadget which will allow her to communicate with monsters using their ‘bio-sonar’. Needless to say, they are not on close terms any more, which is a source of angst to their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).

The monster-translator seems to be working out, allowing Emma to calm down a baby monster which hatches out in the facility where she is posted: this turns out to be the larval form of Mothra, who despite spraying silk everywhere turns out to be as mild-tempered as ever. The good news does not last, however, as eco-terrorists commanded by Evil British Person Colonel Jonah Alan (Charles Dance, enjoying himself) blast their way into the site, kidnap the Russells, and commandeer the monster-translator.

Monarch boss Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) is naturally alarmed to learn of this development, and he and his team naturally recruit Mark Russell in the hope he will know how to track the signals from the monster-translation gadget. He is not exactly a willing team-member, belonging to the ‘kill ’em all’ party where monsters are concerned. He is only strengthened in his views when it emerges that Godzilla is behaving unusually, showing signs of agitation before heading towards Antarctica. But why? Well, it turns out the eco-terrorists are planning to excavate and defrost a monster discovered frozen in the ice there: a triple-headed dragon code-named Monster Zero – an ancient rival of Godzilla, known in legend as King Ghidorah…

Well, it certainly brings a new meaning to the term ‘extinction rebellion’ – the eco-terrorists have decided that the best way to restore the natural balance is to get giant super-powered monsters to flatten civilisation as we know it. Not sure if Greta Thunberg would be on board with that. Here I suppose we come to the crux of the matter: either you will be thinking ‘that’s a fairly cool and authentically dingbat basis for a Japanese kaiju movie’, or you’ll be going ‘this sounds like the most moronic thing I have ever heard’. And I can empathise with the latter view, I really can.

What you have to bear in mind, though, is that all Japanese monster movie plots seem kind of moronic when you write them down in those terms. It kind of goes with the territory: they are predicted on the existence not just of ridiculously huge creatures performing physically impossible feats, but such creatures who also have distinct personalities and weirdly detailed inner lives. You can either get on board and enjoy the madness, the absurdity, and the extravagantly fantastic imagination of these films, or you can just dismiss the entire sub-genre as a stupid embarrassment to cinema as an art form and not go anywhere near them.

There is a lot about Godzilla: King of the Monsters which even I will agree is no good. The film has an oddly old-fashioned vibe to it, recalling Hollywood blockbusters from the mid to late 1990s, while Kyle Chandler (normally a perfectly able screen actor) is kind of useless as the film’s supposed hero; the character’s arc (it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal he goes from hating Godzilla to being a supporter and ally of the big G) is lumpenly detailed. The same can be said for most of the human characters; they are thin and seldom well-played (Watanabe shows he is a class act, however).

On the other hand, there are a lot of elements in the film which will probably look just as ridiculous to the casual viewer – but which are actually hugely satisfying and enjoyable if you know your monster movie lore. There’s a plot reversal where it is revealed that King Ghidorah, rather than an earthly monster, is actually a malevolent alien invader, contrary to what everyone previously thought. This sounds like a stupid plot contrivance, but it’s actually staying completely faithful to how this character has been traditionally portrayed. The same is true of the revelation of the traditional alliance between Godzilla and Mothra – ‘so these two have some kind of a thing going on?’ asks a sceptical minor character when they learn of it – by normal standards it is a deeply silly idea, but once again this is simply the nature of how these characters have always been presented. Likewise an attempt by the military to kill the monsters using a weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer – it’s only a dopey-sounding plot device until you recognise this is a call-back to the original 1954 film. (Ghidorah’s code-name as Monster Zero itself is taken from 1965’s Invasion of Astro-Monster.)

I feel like this is the first American movie to really embrace the history and traditions of the Japanese monster movie and try to have some fun with the form. It does feel like a genuine fusion of a traditional Hollywood blockbuster with the kind of film Ishiro Honda was making back in the early 1960s. Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah and Rodan all look and act pretty much as you would hope – they may be realised through state of the art CGI, but Godzilla is still temperamental and imposing, Mothra is essentially benign, Ghidorah is the villain, and Rodan the bad-tempered sidekick. The soundtrack incorporates terrific new arrangements of the classic Godzilla and Mothra themes by Akira Ifukube and Yuji Koseki, and, most surprisingly of all, there’s even a strong suggestion that a couple of supporting characters are actually Shobijin (something which will mean nothing or everything to you, depending on how steeped you are in the lore of Toho’s universe). Rather touchingly, the film is dedicated to Yoshimitsu Banno, long-time director and executive producer of the franchise, and Haruo Nakajima, the original Godzilla suit actor, both of whom passed away while it was in production.

In short, the film works tremendously hard to appeal to the existing fanbase of these movies and characters. I suppose this is kind of a go-for-broke move, as it could potentially alienate the mass audience who couldn’t give a stuff about which island Mothra usually lives on, or what Rodan’s special powers are. As I say, it quite possibly qualifies as a monumental folly by most rational standards. I honestly don’t know whether the film’s spectacle and action will be enough to lure in the sceptical in large numbers – what I found to be hugely enjoyable, and a film I feel like I’ve been waiting to see for many, many years, may seem to others to be an absurd, poorly-plotted mess.

This is the first American Godzilla movie to bear comparison with the better Japanese films in the series: it’s not afraid to be crazy and fantastical in a way that the films by Gareth Edwards and Roland Emmerich simply weren’t. Whether this ultimately proves to be a good idea or not remains to be seen – it’s less than a year until the next film in the series, Godzilla Vs Kong, comes out, and it will be interesting to see if they choose to sustain the same kind of tone. I really hope they do, because – from my entirely partial and biased perspective – this film was honestly a treat.

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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.

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The 2001 Toho movie Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (sensibly abbreviated to GMK by sane commentators) is kind of the movie equivalent of a fairly obscure artist releasing a record on a minor label, scoring a considerable critical success, and then being signed up by one of the big boys as a result to see if they can work the same kind of magic with considerably greater resources behind them. The director of GMK, Shusuke Kaneko, first came to the attention of Japanese monster movie connoisseurs with his trilogy of Gamera movies, made for Daiei between 1995 and 1999 – during a pause in Toho’s own production of Godzilla films, as it happened. Now, most of the Toho Godzilla films of the early and mid 1990s are not bad at all, but Kaneko’s Gamera films have a freshness, style, and depth which means they are inarguably better.

You can make out signs of Toho trying to assimilate all of Kaneko’s innovations in the films they made when Godzilla production resumed between 1999 and 2004, but the fact is that the 1999 and 2000 films, Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, are both sub-standard entries to the series. You can see why the studio decided to go direct to source and retained Shusuke Kaneko himself to co-write and direct the next movie, GMK.

GMK follows the usual convention of Godzilla movies from this period, ignoring all the previous films except the very first one – though they can’t resist doing a gag at the expense of the 1998 American Godzilla, revealing that a giant monster recently attacked the east coast of the USA – the Americans are sure it was Godzilla, but Japanese experts are much less convinced.

The story gets going with the loss of a nuclear submarine in the Pacific, and a Japanese submarine named the Satsuma is sent in to investigate (‘satsuma’ is an odd name for a sub, but I suspect this is a homage to veteran Godzilla suit-artiste Ken Satsuma). Sure enough, there are claw marks on the sunken wreck and a familiar set of dorsal plates are spotted lurking in the vicinity. Property values in the Kanto region instantly take a hit.

We then meet Yuri (Chiharu Niiyama), our human point-of-identification character for the movie. She is a reporter for what seems to be a fairly trashy cable TV show, doing a film about legends of monster sightings in various parts of Japan. She sees a mysterious old man in an equestrian safety helmet, shortly before there is a rather unusual earthquake: a road tunnel collapses, crushing an annoying biker gang, and a survivor in the area reports seeing a giant monster.

The weird events continue, with some irritating teens being dragged beneath the waters of a lake, their bodies later being discovered wrapped in cocoons (yes, it’s Mothra’s work, but probably best not to ask what he/she is doing at the bottom of a lake). Yuri and her friends learn of the legend of three Guardian Monsters who will awake to defend the islands of Japan should they be threatened. It turns out the old guy in the riding hat is convinced of the truth of this and is using special stones as some kind of spiritual battery, to wake up the Guardians. Meanwhile Japanese defence command is preoccupied by a series of distraught (and somewhat self-referential) committee meetings – ‘Why is Godzilla coming here again? Why can’t he pick on some other country for a change?’ appears to be the main item on the agenda.

Anyway, Godzilla eventually comes ashore and starts wreaking havoc, just about the same time that the first of the Guardian Monsters breaks cover: it’s Baragon, a relatively minor Toho monster from the 1960s who is not famous enough to get his name in the title of the movie. It soon becomes fairly obvious that Baragon is not capable of being much more than an hors d’oeuvre for Godzilla, and the heavy lifting come the climax of the film wil fall to the other two Guardian Monsters – giant mystic lepidoptera Mothra, and multi-headed golden dragon King Ghidorah…

Now, I know you, you are wise in the ways of the world. Right now you are saying ‘Wait a minute, Ghidorah’s the good guy? Since when does that ever happen? Ghidorah is the embodiment of monster evil in the Toho universe.’ And I would normally agree with you. It seems that Kaneko’s original idea was for the Guardian Monsters to be Baragon, Varan, and Anguillas (all second-division Toho kaiju), but the studio nixed this on the grounds that the series at this point needed the marquee value of appearances by Mothra and King Ghidorah. Thus we end up with the unprecedented spectacle of Mothra and Ghidorah actually teaming up to fight Godzilla.

I mean, it doesn’t quite kill the movie outright, but it does feel very odd: that said, there are lots of elements of GMK which just feel odd, and one wonders about the extent to which Kaneko’s vision for the film was compromised by Toho’s requirements for it. I watched the English dub of GMK, obviously, and I’m aware that the tone of the English dialogue can sometimes give a misleading impression. As a result I’m not sure if this really is as knowingly cheesy a movie as it actually seems, or whether the cheesiness is just an accident.

There’s nothing wrong with a certain level of knowing cheesiness (or even unconscious cheesiness), but it does sit very strangely in a film which occasionally attempts to tackle some quite serious and even dark subject matter. Kaneko has said he was attempting to make more of a fantasy take on Godzilla, which probably explains the film’s most striking innovation – the revelation that Godzilla is possessed by the angry spirits of all those who died as a result of Japan’s actions in the Second World War, which is why he’s always homing in on Tokyo in a bad mood. It’s a curious and provocative idea, and not the only time the film skirts sensitive topics – the first moment when Godzilla unleashes his nuclear breath is followed by a scene where a school teacher looks out of the window and sees the resulting mushroom cloud rising over her town. ‘Atom bombs!’ she gasps. (No, it’s not all that subtle, but this is a Godzilla movie, after all.)

But then we go from this to the comedy caricatures of Yuri’s workmates, or a scene where a couple of tourists spot Baragon yomping towards them. ‘He’s enormous, but kind of cute!’ says one of them. ‘Let’s take a photo, then run!’ says the other. Seconds later they are both crushed to death as Godzilla smashes through the hillside they are standing on. In yet another tonally very weird moment, we see a man apparently contemplating suicide, fashioning a crude noose from his tie so he can hang himself from a tree. But he falls off the rock he’s standing on and does a comedy pratfall down into the cave where Ghidorah is hibernating.

How much of this is down to Kaneko’s attempt to make a more edgy Godzilla I don’t know. For me, the best moments of the film are the more subtle and restrained ones – there’s an impressive scene where a group of people in a small building are terrorised by Godzilla’s passing. You never see the monster, but the whole set is rigged to shake and sway and collapse at the sound of his footprints. The reactions of individual characters to Godzilla give the film what resonance it achieves.

Most of the time, though, this just feels like an old-school monster bash, like something from 35 years earlier. As such it’s not too bad, but really nothing very special – the CGI is impressive, and the monster suits are not too bad – although there’s something about the Godzilla suit here which makes him look more like a fat dinosaur than is usually the case. The way the movie concludes with a succession of deeply weird moments  and plot developments is also arguably a bit of a problem.

Well, the least you can say about GMK is that it’s better than the two movies that preceded it. But the fact is that not only does it not come close to the standard of Kaneko’s Gamera movies, but it’s also not quite as good as the films in a similar vein which Toho themselves had been making ten years earlier. How much of this is down to Toho insisting on the inclusion of certain elements, and how much to Kaneko missing the presence of Gamera co-writer Kazunori Ito, it’s difficult to say. But this film is inevitably a bit of a disappointment.

 

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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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There is surely no better place to conclude this current extended ramble through Toho’s series of Godzilla movies (and associated films) than with a look at the Big G’s final outing to date, the 50th anniversary picture. Godzilla: Final Wars, released in 2004, was directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, and it’s a very different sort of film to most of the recent Godzilla movies that I’ve seen.

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I suppose that if I had to describe it, I’d say it rather reminded me of many recent comic book projects: the ones which take a long-established and much-loved mythology and reinterpret it in a massively knowledgeable, deeply affectionate, but also smart and relatively sophisticated way. There’s a sense in which this is the first post-modern Godzilla movie (at least, the first one that I’ve seen), although to say that might suggest Final Wars has a thoughtfulness and intellectual rigour which it honestly doesn’t possess.

Godzilla: Final Wars opens by establishing its own take on kaiju mythology – environmental damage and other scientific upheaval has resulted in a world where giant monsters have been appearing for decades. At the same time, a new breed of mutant human has emerged, and these have mostly (it appears) been recruited into something called Organisation-M where they crew air cruisers and occasionally engage monsters in hand-to-hand combat (no, really).

The most powerful and dangerous of the monsters is, of course, Godzilla, and the film opens with a battle in Antarctica between Godzilla and the Gotengo (a flying battleship with a pedigree in Toho movies nearly as long as Godzilla’s). For once, a piece of military hardware proves effective in scoring a clear victory over Godzilla, and the star of the movie is trapped in an icy prison.

A rather promising start is followed by a bit of a wobble as we are treated to internal tensions between the mutant soldiers of Organisation-M, and some protracted martial arts fights. (Quite what benefits the mutation these guys have is unclear: it just seems to make them all slightly effete. Then again, as super-powered defence agency titles go, Organisation-M isn’t much cop either. Hey ho.) Then a new version of the classic monster Gigan is discovered, having apparently been buried for 12,000 years, and research indicates the monster shares essential genetic material with the human mutants. Things get even more complicated when the Shobijin fairies, associates of the legendary lepidopteran monster Mothra, put in an appearance warning that a colossal battle against evil is imminent.

As you can see, this is a movie which isn’t afraid to liberally raid the back catalogue of the entire Godzilla franchise, and this impression is only strengthened as it goes into its first major set-piece sequence – monsters start appearing all over the globe and wreaking havoc, most of them well-loved characters not seen for decades. Anguilas attacks Shanghai! Rodan attacks New York! King Caesar attacks Okinawa! And Zilla (i.e. the American Godzilla from the ’98 movie) turns up in Sydney, but you can’t have everything.

Bizarrely, though, the monster with the most screen-time in this bit is Ebirah, who appears near Tokyo. In what’s almost certainly a first, the human mutants attack Ebirah hand-to-hand and proceed to turn him into scampi. I know Ebirah is really in the Vauxhall Conference when it comes to ranking Godzilla’s various opponents, but even so, getting done over by the tiny humans must be humiliating for any kaiju. Ebirah must have been really desperate to take the role.

Anyway, all the various monsters suddenly vanish, the credit for this being taken by aliens whose spaceships suddenly appear all over the world. The aliens announce (with commendably straight faces) that they are from Planet X and have come here in peace. The UN Director General, whom the Planet X aliens appeared to rescue from Rodan, is enthusiastic about this and abolishes the United Nations in favour of a new alliance, the (groan) Space Nations – yes, trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?

However, the collection of military, journalists and boffins who serve as the human protagonists in this sort of film are suspicious and soon enough discover that the Planet X aliens are bad ‘uns, intent on farming humans to harvest their DNA. However, the Planet X aliens have the power to control anything containing a certain genetic component, and this includes the human mutants and practically every monster on Earth (quite why this should be is not quite made clear, but in this sort of movie it’s an excusable plot device).

With most of the Earth in ruins and on the brink of falling to the invaders, the last few resisters pile into the Gotengo and head south on a desperate mission: to revive Godzilla (who is immune to the alien influence) and draw him into battle against the invaders. But can even the King of Monsters prevail against every other kaiju on the planet?

As you can probably tell, this probably qualifies as a loose remake of Destroy All Monsters, somewhat retooled to give Godzilla a much stronger role as the protagonist. To be honest, though, it didn’t really feel like that a lot of the time while I was watching it – instead I got the strong impression that Kitamura would much rather have been making a Matrix movie than one with Godzilla in it, because Final Wars is stuffed with impeccably-styled young people in swirly black coats doing unnecessarily ostentatious karate kicks at each other. Seriously: there is a lot of martial arts action in this film. Now, I like martial arts movies, and I like martial arts fight sequences, but there’s a time and a place for this sort of thing and I don’t think it’s in a Godzilla movie, especially when it’s intercut with (and thus keeping me from watching) a top-quality monster battle.

There are also other ominous signs – parts of this movie are fairly camp, but then that’s often been an acceptable part of the Godzilla formula. What’s new is a vague sense that parts of this movie have been made with the dreaded Ironic Sensibility. Now, some of the in-jokes in this film are pretty good – first and foremost being the scene in which Godzilla takes on his American counterpart and utterly annihilates him in well under a minute (‘good-for-nothing tuna-eater’ is the villain’s reaction). But elsewhere I got a strong sense that the film was winking at me and laughing up its sleeve.

However, this is mostly in the first half of the film – the second half, once Godzilla is loose and ploughing his way through the ranks of monsterdom, seems to me to be pretty sincere in its affection for the Godzilla movies of the 60s and 70s in particular. The majority of the monsters from the original run of films gets revived and Godzilla fights nearly all of them single-handed (his only ally is Mothra, who gets a respectable cameo). Now, I suppose you could argue that not every monster gets the screen-time they deserve, that the organisation of Godzilla’s dance card is somewhat eccentric, and that some of the battles become a little bit silly – even inane – in places. And I would agree with much of this – it does seem a little odd that an obscure monster like Kumonga gets a set-piece fight to itself while big names like Rodan and Anguilas are forced into a team-up with King Caesar (Anguilas rolls into a ball and the other monsters start playing football with him. Honestly), and the total omission of Mechagodzilla is a shame (but then Mechagodzilla got some big screen time in the two previous movies in the series). But I suppose there are limits to what even an anniversary film like this one can include, and if you treat it as a celebration of Godzilla’s whole history then it makes sense for it to pay homage to some of the wackier battle sequences from the early 70s movies. It’s also nice to see a film where Godzilla is unambiguously anti-heroic, rather than purely villainous.

Certainly the movie has energy and a sense of fun about it, and the whole look and feel of the thing is resolutely contemporary – it feels like a Godzilla aimed at the Playstation generation. Even the classic Godzilla march has been dispensed with in favour of an upbeat, percussive new theme which I actually rather liked.

I suppose your reaction to Godzilla: Final Wars will largely depend on whether you like monster movies, and whether you like your monster movies to at least appear to be taking themselves seriously. Final Wars certainly doesn’t: it’s a big, colourful, silly, cheesy ball of martial arts action and rampaging monster fun. Not all of this was quite to my taste – specifically the sub-Matrix martial arts stuff. Had they taken all this out and left this rest, this would be challenging for a place near the top of my list of favourite kaiju movies, simply for the quality and quantity of its monster action (Gigan gets to fight Mothra, for crying out loud!). As it is, this is a fun, slightly crazy movie that clearly loves Godzilla but somehow doesn’t seem to be trying quite hard enough to be a proper Godzilla movie itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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