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Posts Tagged ‘Shusuke Kaneko’

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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I have realised that my declared intention to do more Japanese movies has not really been followed up with action. Oh, I know that this year I’ve done Record of a Living Being and, quite recently, Grave of the Fireflies, but two films in five months isn’t much to celebrate. They’re also both quite worthy and earnest films, not to say actually depressing.

So, anyway: time for another Japanese movie, one with a real energy and sense of joie de vivre about it (or whatever the Nihongo translation is). I am speaking of Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera: Advent of Legion from 1997, one of a trio of brilliant, brilliant genre movies which Kaneko made with writer Kazunori Ito and special-effects artist Shinji Higuchi. This is the middle film of the three and the one which wears its classic SF influences most openly.

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The movie opens with a Stock Footage Alert at NASA, as a mysterious object approaches Earth from deep space. Inevitably, given this is a Japanese movie, it impacts in Hokkaido in the north of the country, but almost at once local scientist Honami (Miki Mizuno) uncovers strange anomalies: there are signs the meteor was slowing down before it landed. There are peculiar electromagnetic phenomena in the area. Bizarre creatures like giant beetles break into a local brewery and appear to eat all the bottles.

The movie handles all these classic B-movie tropes with enormous confidence and skill, and follows them with a sequence which appeared to me to directly reference Them – a subway train in Sapporo is derailed and the passengers gorily attacked by the same giant alien beetles. Almost simultaneously, a gigantic plant-like organism erupts from the ground in the centre of the city, a flower-like structure at its centre.

The scientists and military who are handling the crisis realise that both the beetles and the flower are components of the same alien gestalt creature, which they nickname Legion. They deduce that Legion is a parasite which creates the conditions to cause vast explosions, using them to propel its pods from one planet to another. One such blast is imminent, and predictions indicate that it will level Sapporo.

However, the city is spared, its saviour taking the unlikely shape of an 80-metre-high nuclear-powered flying turtle: yes, it’s Gamera! For anyone not following along, this incarnation of Gamera is the creation of ancient Atlantean science, programmed to protect the biosphere of Earth from just this sort of unusual threat. Gamera uproots the Legion plant fairly easily, but reckons without the Legion beetles, which are too small for him to effectively attack. The beetles swarm all over Gamera and bring him down, and he is only saved by a freak stroke of luck. (Given the subject matter and the fact that this isn’t what you’d call a big-budget movie, this whole sequence is breathtakingly well-mounted.)

Sapporo has been saved, but the main Legion creature survives and escapes, heading for Tokyo (as giant monsters nearly always do in Japanese movies). With the organism rapidly adapting to the threats posed to it by both Gamera and the Self-Defence Force, can the humans put aside their distrust and find a way to co-operate with their chelonian defender?

I have to say that for a long time I was inclined to dismiss Advent of Legion as by far the weakest of the Heisei trilogy of Gamera films (the others being 1995’s Guardian of the Universe, and 1999’s Incomplete Struggle), but having seen it again a couple of times recently I fear I may have been doing it an injustice.

Certainly it is a rather different film to either of the others, in terms of both its plot and tone. The other films share characters and themes – not to mention the same antagonists, in the form of the monstrous Gyaos – but, apart from a brief appearance from Ayako Fujitani as Gamera’s human soulmate, Advent of Legion can really stand alone providing you already know who and what Gamera is. It’s also much more of an SF movie than the others, which have a much stronger fantasy element to their storylines.

One thing the storylines of all these films share is that they are a definite cut above what you might expect from a Japanese kaiju movie. Let’s bear in mind that we’re talking about the genre where a film’s raison d’etre is the bringing about of a climactic battle between two or more men in giant monster costumes, and as such a different set of standards is necessarily in place – but having said this, Advent of Legion manages to include all the standard tropes and conventions of the genre and feature a number of brilliantly-staged monster battles, yet it never feels camp or silly and the plot does a good impression of making sense. It’s very hard to sufficiently stress just what a breakthrough this is.

The same is really true of Guardian of the Universe, of course; what Advent of Legion adds to the mix is its knowledge of American SF B-movie conventions, and a stab at including some plausible-sounding science. The stuff with Legion eating bottles ties into both the alien’s biology (it’s a silicon-based lifeform) and its life-cycle (if you extract all the silicon from glass, you’re left with pure oxygen, an explosive gas). The tendency of kaiju to home in on major cities, particularly Tokyo, rather than gambolling about in the countryside, is also addressed in a relatively thoughtful way. All right, so it’s not very rigorous science, but you’re still left with the impression that someone has really sat down and thought about this stuff.

The script is certainly something which has been carefully structured, in the classic three-act manner: each act concluding with a clash between Gamera and Legion. If the film has an actual weakness, it’s that the final battle doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The peripheral stuff with the SDF and the Legion beetles is fine, but the central clash seems to boil down to a lot of pushing and zapping. Perhaps the design of the main Legion monster is also to blame – it’s a weird-looking beastie, certainly, but also rather unwieldy and not really as charismatic as Gyaos.

legionqueen

Nevertheless, this is simply a hugely solid monster movie. It may not be a breathtaking update of the entire genre for a modern audience (that’d be Guardian of the Universe), nor an attempt to move it on and transform it into something wholly new and surprising (I refer, of course, to Incomplete Struggle). But it is still one of the very best movies of its kind ever made. I suspect that kaiju movies will soon be making a comeback in a big way – Del Toro’s Pacific Rim is out in a month, Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla this time next year – but when it comes to the gold standard of the genre, it’s movies like Advent of Legion that we’re talking about.

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An excerpt from the Hootoo Archive. Originally published 22nd November 2001:

…which leads us neatly into Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera: The Guardian Of The Universe, the first of the new-look Gamera movies. The story opens with Yanemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a young naval officer, escorting a freighter full of plutonium across the Pacific. The convoy runs into an uncharted floating atoll, which drifts off towards Japan. Meanwhile ornithologist and babe Muyami Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) is called in when a mysterious new species of giant lizard-bird devours the entire population of a small island. The government lures the bird-things (which we later learn are called Gyaos) to a sports arena on the mainland, hoping to trap them under the retractable roof (a useful fringe benefit of this feature which the architects of the new Wembley stadium might want to consider).

As the plan goes into action the atoll, now monitored by Yanemori and investigator Kusanage (Akira Onodera), enters the nearby harbour and turns out to be, startlingly, a 60-metre tall turtle (yes, this is Gamera, a rather good costume albeit with slightly boggly eyes). Gamera stomps his way to the arena and goes after the captive Gyaos. But what is the relationship between the two types of monster?

Well, thanks in part to Kusanage’s daughter Asagi (Ayako Fujitani, better known as Steven Seagal’s daughter) forming a psychic link with Gamera, the truth is revealed. It all turns out to be perfectly simple: 12,000 years ago the Gyaos, a genetically-engineered Atlantean life-form, ran out of control and destroyed their own creators. But not, however, before the Atlanteans were able to create Gamera to defend humanity from the winged menace. Now environmental damage has caused a clutch of ancient Gyaos eggs to hatch, and Gamera’s expertise is clearly required. (I said it was simple, not that it actually made sense.)

The movie zooms along at a manic pace, with vast amounts of property damage and some nifty special effects. Well, perhaps I should qualify that by saying that you’ll hardly ever be in doubt as to how any of the effects are achieved (the Gyaos are obviously glove puppets, Gamera is obviously a guy in a rubber suit), but they tell the story brilliantly. This was one of the first kaiju eiga to use CGI – for Gamera’s and the Gyaos’ breath weapons and some rockets the army use on them – and it adds enormously to the look of the picture.

I saw the dubbed UK Special Edition of this movie and inevitably this adds to the comedy value of the dialogue – it’s weirdly-accented, bizarrely-cadenced, and at some points it seems deliberately designed to raise a laugh – ‘Move along, there’s nothing to see,’ a rather-too-mellow traffic cop entreats the crowd at one point, while behind him an enraged giant turtle demolishes a national landmark.

The other interesting thing about the UK version is the music. Rather charmingly the UK producers thought that today’s sophisticated young audience would all rush to see an old-fashioned foreign monster movie as long as it had bangin’ techno tunes on the soundtrack. And so virtually the entire movie takes place to a pulsating backbeat. The first time I watched it this drove me up the wall in annoyance, but on subsequent viewings it really grew on me: it adds an odd kind of urgency to the story and is a refreshing change from the stilted march music that comprises the average Godzilla soundtrack.

I am, of course, aware that a lot of people would choose to donate a kidney rather than sit through a dubbed, foreign, not-exactly-big-budget monster movie. And while I respect this, I still think it’s a shame, because – if you’re in the right mood – this is at least as entertaining as your average Hollywood blockbuster. Of all the kaiju eiga I’ve seen – which is probably more than is healthy – the only one I’d even consider recommending over this would be the 1992 version of Godzilla Vs Mothra. Monstrously entertaining, and you should really give it a chance…

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