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Posts Tagged ‘suitamation’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the Earth Year 1965, Toho Pictures were on a bit of a roll with their loosely-connected series of mostly-knockabout, usually-underbudgeted SF and fantasy films. What had started off with a heartfelt and very serious film about the tribulations of Japan in the closing stages of the Second World War had by this point transmogrified into something with much more of a focus on pure entertainment, with a strong element of comedy often in the mix. A tendency to go a little bit crazy was always inherent in these movies, but it was to become much more apparent as time went on, and you could argue that it is particularly in evidence in Ishiro Honda’s entry in the series from that year, Invasion of Astro-Monster (also variously known as Monster Zero and Godzilla on Planet X).

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As things get under way, we are informed that scientists of the near future have been startled by the discovery of Planet X, a mysterious new world which is a satellite of Jupiter. Packed off to check the place out is rocketship P-1, piloted by astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams, imported to help with getting an American release). Planet X turns out to be a grim and unattractive place, with constant bad weather (suspiciously familiar-looking golden lightning crackles across the sky). Much to the Earth men’s surprise, however, Planet X turns out to be inhabited by aliens possessing strange unearthly powers and even stranger and more unearthly ideas about fashion:

xiliens

But the folk of Planet X (lore ascribes them the name ‘Xiliens’, though this isn’t used on screen in any of the versions I’ve seen) have a problem – their civilisation is constantly being raided by the three-headed space monster King Ghidorah, who they refer to as Monster Zero (‘Here on Planet X, we use numbers, not names,’ says the alien Commandant, helpfully, and no-one points out to him that ‘Planet X’ itself is actually a name). The Xiliens (oh, go on, it’s convenient) want to do a deal with Earth whereby they ‘borrow’ nuclear sea-dragon Godzilla and supersonic pterodactyl Rodan and use them to drive Ghidorah off, the pair of them having form in this department. In return they will provide humanity with a cure for cancer.

The lure of this to a 1960s world where everyone smokes like a chimney is sufficient to make everyone on Earth overlook how ridiculous and illogical the Xilien plan is, and at a meeting of the World Council not only the medical representative but the spokeswoman for the globe’s housewives are both all for loaning out the Earth monsters to Planet X.

While all this is going on, there are some slightly soapy goings on between Fuji, his sister, and her inventor boyfriend Tetsuo (Akira Kubo, a personable young actor who plays various roles in this series). He has invented what he calls the ‘Lady Guard’, which is basically a rape alarm, but is concerned that the corporation who has bought the rights to his gizmo isn’t doing anything with it. His main contract, the beautiful and enigmatic Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), is also the girlfriend of astronaut Glenn, which in any other film would count as an outrageous plot contrivance. Different priorities apply here, of course.

Fuji and Glenn grow increasingly suspicious of the Xiliens’ intentions, but not to the point of actually telling anyone or doing much about it, and the transfer of Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X goes off without a hitch. Ghidorah is sent packing with his tails between his legs (Godzilla appears to do the Highland Fling to celebrate his victory) and everyone can celebrate!

Or can they? It turns out that all the women on Planet X are clones, and they look just like Glenn’s chick Namikawa! Why are the Xiliens so interested in suppressing Tetsuo’s rape alarm widget? And what are they going to do with Godzilla and Rodan now they’re on Planet X? Well, it may not come as a total surprise if I tell you that the Xiliens are planning on taking over Earth and enslaving everyone, and if the Earthlings don’t do as they’re told, King Ghidorah (who was secretly under their control all along), Godzilla, and Rodan will be unleashed on the hapless planet…

It is customary to refer to Invasion of Astro-Monster as part of the main sequence of Toho’s Godzilla movies (as opposed to movies like Mothra and King Kong Escapes, which appear to take place in the same continuity but obviously aren’t Godzilla movies per se), but I think this is really one of those benefit-of-hindsight things. If you watch this movie expecting a proper kaiju movie, I suspect you will be rather disappointed – the three monsters get very little active screen-time and the scrapping between them is commensurately abbreviated. I think it makes rather more sense to view this movie as part of the flying saucer alien invasion genre, which just happens to include extended cameos from various members of the Toho monster stable.

Not that this actually makes the film better, or more logical, of course. Even while you’re watching it, the various incongruities of the plot leap out at you and you’re constantly going ‘What? Hang on a minute… Surely…?’ The plot of Invasion of Astro-Monster disintegrates as soon as you breathe on it, even if you don’t have nuclear rays or gravity lightning coming out of your mouth, and the film-makers seem to be under the impression that if they keep things rattling along at a fairly decent pace then no-one is going to complain too much.

Maybe they have a point, for this is a hard film to really dislike, for all of its rampant eccentricities and unanswered questions. Two things keep Invasion of Astro-Monster from becoming the hallucinogenic fever-dream of a movie it often feels like it’s turning into – first, the fact that things like cancer cures and rape alarms – both with all manner of rather downbeat real-world associations – are central to the plot, and second, Ishiro Honda’s inability to completely shake off the ‘proper’ sci-fi tone the film starts with. (The model work and special effects in this movie are fairly decent in a slightly sub-Gerry Anderson way.)

I used to think of Invasion of Astro-Monster as a sort of mid-range entry in the Toho monster  series, and it is an influential movie in its own way (the ‘aliens use monsters as invasion weapon’ idea was endlessly recycled in movies all the way up to Final Wars, where the Xiliens also appear). But looking at it again now, the sheer bizarreness of the plot, and its multiple inadequacies, mean I think this is a film you really can only view as an extended, unintentional piece of deadpan comedy. And as such it’s a bit of a triumph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The thing that distinguishes the Millennium series of Godzilla movies (released between 1999 and 2004) is that they attempt to recapitulate everything great about the character that had been established over the previous 45-50 years – along with, if we’re honest, quite a few things that were somewhat less than great. What makes these films a little awkward sometimes is that they have reconcile huge shifts in Godzilla’s characterisation over the years. Are we talking about a terrifying force of relentless destruction, a grandiose, anti-heroic figure, or a loveable defender of Japan and the world? Godzilla has been all of these things.

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How did this change in the character come about? Possibly the key film involved was 1967’s Son of Godzilla, directed by Jun Fukuda, and one of a pair of (relatively) more down to earth films in the series made around this time (the other being 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep). They eschew the pulp sci-fi elements that had begun to creep into the series and are slightly more traditional monster movies.

The action takes place on Sollgel island, one of those oddly-monickered places in the South Seas that keep popping up in kaiju movies. Here a team of UN scientists are hard at work on an experimental weather control process, led by the stern but decent Dr Kusumi (Tadao Takashima) – you can tell Kusumi is the boss because he smokes a pipe. Life on the island is fairly humdrum, apart from the fact that it is inhabitated by giant preying mantises, and things are livened up a bit by the arrival of keen young reporter Goro (Akira Kubo), in search of a story. He thinks he’s found one when he discovers a young woman (Beverly Maeda) livng wild on the island.

(Of course, the audience already know what the real story is probably going to be, as a pre-credit sequence has already revealed that strange radio signals are drawing Godzilla to the island.)

Well, the experiment goes a bit wrong and causes the giant preying mantises to become super-colossally giant. Goro christens them Gimantis in the English dub, but the Japanese lore calls them Kamacuras. The mantises promptly start digging and unearth a giant egg, which they crack open to reveal – yup, it’s a baby Godzilla, variously referred to as either Minya or Minilla (played by, and I kid you not, someone credited as Marchan the Dwarf).

(For some reason the renaming in this film is more noticeable than usual for a Godzilla movie – I mean, we’re all aware that in Japan Godzilla is Gojira, Rodan is Radon, Mothra is Mosura, and so on, and we’re fairly cool with it. And yet for some reason the original Japanese names for the monsters in this film seem to have acquired some traction, possibly because the American names are frankly not much cop. Quite why Beverly Maeda’s character is called Saeko in the original version and Reiko in the redub is also a bit mysterious.)

The mantises start picking on Minilla, who is of course rescued by his (presumed) dad. (The identity of Minilla’s co-parent, and indeed the whole circumstances of him being – um – laid, are discreetly left to the viewer’s imagination.) Some low-comedy business ensues (frankly, the film hasn’t been short on this so far) as Godzilla starts tutoring his son in the important monster skills of roaring and breathing nuclear fire (the low budget means that there are hardly any miniature buildings for him to tread on). However, things get (slightly) more serious as Goro and his young lady friend inadvertently awaken another monstrous resident of the island, a colossal spider… (Needless to say the name of the spider depends on which dub you’re watching – the Spiga in English, Kumonga in Japanese.)

You could be forgiven for assuming that Son of Godzilla is going to be one of the second- or third-division entries in the series. Quite apart from the fact that the plot doesn’t sound very promising, most of the key production staff are not the A-team – Fukuda directs, not Ishiro Honda, the music is by Masaru Sato not Akira Ifukube (the classic Godzilla theme doesn’t get used at all), and the special effects are by Sadamasa Arikawa (although resident genius Eiji Tsuburaya gets a ‘supervised by’ credit). And, to be honest, the story is kind of clunky and laborious, particularly in the way it intercuts between the storyline with the scientists and the one with the various monsters. This is before we even get onto all the slapstick cutesiness which every scene featuring Minilla is drenched in.

And yet, and yet… Despite all of that the story rumbles along briskly, in its clunky and laborious way – you don’t have to hang around looking at your watch waiting for the next monster appearance, as is sometimes the case with these films. Akira Kubo is one of the more engaging juvenile leads in the series (he would be asked back to play the astronaut hero in the following year’s Destroy All Monsters), and Beverly Maeda has a bit more about her (and gets much more to do) than the typical Godzilla movie heroine. And, as I mentioned at the start, there is surely some significance to the movie where they intentionally started to recast Godzilla as a protective, heroic figure, to say nothing of the fact that Minilla and the idea of ‘Monster Island’ (mentioned here for the first time) were to become central concepts in many later movies. (Kumonga and Kamacuras were to prove less enduring – Kumonga shows up a few times in other movies, sometimes in reused footage, while Kamacuras’ only significant return is as an incidental opponent in Final Wars.)

I think it’s also worth mentioning that the special effects for this film are actually fairly ambitious – Godzilla and Minilla are both men in suits, obviously (well, a man in a suit and a dwarf in a suit, if you want to get technical), but the Kamacuras and Kumonga are all puppets – very big puppets, and moderately well-realised ones at that. They are a different kind of opponent for Godzilla – the downside being that their puppety nature means there is less monster wrestling here than is sometimes the case. The film also makes use of full-size props and cel animation to realise some of its effects, which is something you don’t often see in the later films in the series.

So while the film is every bit as campy as it sounds, it’s not necessarily done in a bad way, nor is it without points of interest. I can’t honestly describe it as a particular favourite, nor as one of the very best Godzilla movies. but this is as much to do with the film’s tone and creative choices as with its actual realisation. In nearly every way, there are many worse films than this in the Godzilla series, and few quite as influential on its direction and style.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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It can sometimes be difficult to keep track of where you are in the arcane world of Godzilla continuity – you have to navigate your way around thirty-odd movies set in at least half a dozen different timelines, the connections between which are frequently rather obscure. Of course, most of the time this doesn’t really matter, because it’s not as if there’s some sort of breathtakingly subtle meta-plot unfolding – these are Godzilla movies, after all. But, for the diligent follower, it’s nice to at least try.

The movies made between 1955 and 1975 mostly stuck to the same continuity, as did the ones appearing between 1984 and 1995. The bunch of films which followed took a different approach and are notable for two things: firstly, they mostly stand alone and don’t refer to one another (with the exception of Tokyo SOS, which is a direct sequel to the preceding Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla), and secondly, they feature a Godzilla with ridiculously huge dorsal plates.

Actually, one convention which nearly every Japanese Godzilla continuity adheres to is that the original 1954 Godzilla ‘actually’ happened, they just disregard all the other intervening sequels. The one exception is Masaaki Tezuka’s 2000 movie Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, one of the aforementioned ridiculously-huge-dorsal-plate films, which makes some odd choices generally.

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Things start promisingly enough as the movie outlines the parallel world in which it is set: with Tokyo destroyed by Godzilla in 1954 (the key fact being that the big lizard was not killed by the Oxygen Destroyer in this timeline), the Japanese capital is moved to Osaka and reconstruction begins. Further attacks by Godzilla in the following decades leads to the abandonment of nuclear energy, as the boffins conclude an atomic pile is basically just a help-yourself buffet as far as Godzilla is concerned, and other non-renewable energy sources aren’t much better.

It’s an interesting tack to take, and it does make sense that the existence of giant monsters would inevitably result in a very different world. However, all the stuff about the capital going to Osaka and so on has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. The alt-history angle does not inform the plot in any significant way, and it just feels like the director and scriptwriters getting carried away with their own enthusiasm. Not for the last time.

Anyway, at this point we meet Tsujimori (Misato Tanaka), a hard-as-nails soldier, and laid-back young boffin Kudo (Shosuke Tanihara). Tsujimori recruits Kudo into an elite group of the JSDF, tasked with eliminating Godzilla forever. Again, fine in theory, but what code-name has this task force been assigned? They are… the G-Graspers. Yes, they will seek Godzilla out and firmly grasp him. He will be grasped as he has never been grasped before.

I mean, I suppose there are theoretically worse names to give your Godzilla-hunting task force than ‘the G-Graspers’, I just can’t think of any right now. And beyond this, the whole set-up and look of the… sigh… the G-Graspers, their vehicles, their uniforms, everything – it just feels like something that Gerry Anderson would have come up with if asked to think of an idea for a new series at very short notice while suffering from a heavy cold. A atmosphere of distinct cheesiness persists.

The task force want Kudo to help with their current plan, which is to shoot Godzilla with a satellite-mounted cannon which launches miniature black holes at its target. If you are anything like me, I imagine your imagination has just slammed on the brakes at this point. Giant nuclear-powered dinosaurs I’m on board with, but black hole cannon? Just how outrageously comic-booky, not to mention slightly silly, can you get?

Well, somewhat more, it turns out: the black hole gun is test-fired but briefly leaves a wormhole as an after-effect (the G-squad’s response is ‘oh well, that’s interesting’ before they completely ignore it). However, a giant insect flies through the wormhole and deposits an egg before returning from whence it came, and the egg, through a slightly ridiculous plot contrivance, ends up in the sewers of Tokyo, where it begins to divide and develop.

Before long giant predatory bugs are making the lives of hapless Edoites miserable. Apparently these things are Meganulons, making this a call-back to a bunch of minor monsters in the original Rodan movie, but the connection isn’t highlighted on-screen presumably because Rodan doesn’t exist in this continuity. The Meganulons pupate into giant dragonflies, although not before they somehow cause half of Tokyo to flood – and this isn’t just a get-your-wellies on flood, the streets are submerged to the depth of about thirty feet. How have the bugs managed this? It is never gone into.

Anyway, because they apparently home on energy too, the dragonflies zip off to hassle Godzilla just as the G-squad are getting ready to fill him full of black hole, confusing the issue no end (cue another sequence of a kaiju getting swarmed by a horde of smaller monsters, which was practically a genre staple for a while in the late 90s). However, due to the tech not being properly tested or something, the black hole cannon (apparently code-named ‘Dimension Tide’, which is just more evidence that the Japanese government needs to rethink how it code-names things) just doesn’t shoot Godzilla hard enough and he survives and heads off to Tokyo to complain.

However – and this is perhaps not 100% clear on screen – some of the dragonflies have also survived and zip back to Tokyo too, where they inject some of the juicy goodness they sucked out of Godzilla into a big chrysalis at the bottom of the swamp Shibuya has turned into. Sure enough, out of the chrysalis emerges a giant mutant dragonfly which a passing boffin helpfully names Megaguirus, and which is sure to make Godzilla’s looming visit to Tokyo even more fraught…

Writing about Godzilla 2000 a while back, I said that it wasn’t quite the textbook example of how to make The Bad Godzilla Film, but it was getting there. Well, this was the next film into production and their technique seems to have developed, but only in the sense that this is a much more comprehensively developed Bad Godzilla Film. You may have noticed the multiple ridiculousnesses and redundancies deftly woven into the story; well, I promise you there are a bunch more which lack of space has prevented me from mentioning. I haven’t even touched on how boring and unappealing the human characters are.

And it has to be said that, for a film called Godzilla vs Megaguirus, the fight between the two feels more like a contractual obligation than an essential element of the plot. The realisation of Megaguirus is, well, slightly dodgy, mainly because its wings just don’t beat remotely fast enough to let it hover the way it generally does, and the actual battle between the monsters only lasts as long as it does because Megaguirus somehow keeps managing to sneak up on Godzilla without him noticing. Once Godzilla has disposed of the big bug, your heart sinks when you realise there are still another fifteen minutes to go and that this will inevitably be filled with cheesy machismo from the G-Graspers and another frankly ludicrous plot contrivance (experimental and delicate the black hole gun may be, but it still works while the satellite it’s fixed to is burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere).

In short I would say this was an eminently dismissible Godzilla movie like few others since the early 1970s, but for the fact that the film does mount a certain kind of spectacle with a confidence and ability you would not expect given the quality of the script and direction. There’s a sequence in which Godzilla surfaces beneath a couple of characters in an inflatable dinghy, and one of them ends up clinging to his (ridiculously huge) dorsal plates as he swims along, and this is really well achieved. Some of the battles between the JSDF and Godzilla are also extremely impressive.

Are some good special effects enough reason to watch a movie with a silly script and no sympathetic characters? (Even Godzilla isn’t sympathetic, although that could be because the writers can’t seem to decide what their attitude to him is – if he’s the bad guy, shouldn’t we be cheering for (the otherwise evil) Megaguirus? If he’s the good guy, why should we be rooting for the G-squad in their efforts to blast him into a black hole?) That’s a decision each of us must make for ourselves. All I will say is that while there are many things this film does well – monster suits, special effects, plot insanity – there are many other Godzilla movies which are equally accomplished in these areas, and which don’t have the bizarre deficiencies this film also displays.

 

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Hey, kids, kidnapping people is wrong. I feel obliged to make this clear right from the start, just in case it seems like I might be endorsing the practice later on. Wow, this particular piece of nonsense has taken a wacky turn right from the start, you may be thinking. Stay with me, friends; stay with me.

People sometimes very casually talk about ‘crimes against cinema’ – the Daily Mail‘s pet critic said that about Kick-Ass, and was then cyber-bullied about it, for instance – and every once in a while, unfortunate on-set events result in a court case being brought, usually against producers who have managed to kill one or more of their employees. But for a movie to be the product of criminal activities? That’s still quite unusual, I think.

Which brings us to Shin Sang-Ok’s Pulgasari, released in 1985. This was a necessarily narrow release, given the movie was made in North Korea, and represents – to my knowledge at least – the DPRK’s sole entry into the giant monster fantasy genre. (Convenient shorthand for Pulgasari is that it’s ‘the North Korean communist version of Godzilla produced by Kim Jong-il’.) It gets weirder and weirder, doesn’t it? And we’re not even onto the synopsis.

pulgasari

To be honest, the story-behind-the-story is probably more gripping: in 1978 the director and his wife (a noted actress) were literally kidnapped by members of North Korean intelligence, whisked off to Pyongyang, and forced to make propaganda movies by the film-loving ‘dear leader’, not that he was actually in charge at the time. This was part of a systematic scheme by the North Koreans to forcibly recruit talented artists to their cause, although if Pulgasari is a typical representative of this program’s results, I would say the DPRK really needn’t have bothered.

The story unfolds in medieval Korea where honest, hard-working farmers suffer under the oppressive rule of their cruel masters. (You can perhaps already see where this is going.) Bandits are threatening the entrenched system of control and so the local governor recruits the beloved blacksmith (Gwon Ri) from a small village to make more weapons for him to fight them, even though this means melting down all the farming tools people need to survive. He refuses and goes on hunger-strike, and when his horrified family throw rice into his cell, all he does is mould it into the shape of a tiny monster and pray that his sacrifice, at the end of a life of virtue, will not go unnoticed by the gods.

Well, anyway, the blacksmith snuffs it and sortly afterwards the tiny monster, nicknamed Pulgasari after a mythical Korean beast, accidentally has a drop of blood splashed on it by his grieving daughter, Ami (Chang Son Hui). Lo and behold, Pulgasari comes to life. He may be small but he has a hearty appetite – even if he is a fussy eater. Yes, Pulgasari only eats metal, starting off with the contents of his mistress’ sewing box, then moving on to the bolts on the nearest door, and so on.

Meanwhile, the oppression of the decent farmers continues, with Ami’s cousin, the magnificently-mulleted rebel leader Inde (Ham Gi Sop), due for the chop. As luck would have it, however, Inde is saved when Pulgasari pops up in the nick of time and eats the executioner’s sword. A full-scale uprising results, with the evil king dispatching his top general to put down the farmers once and for all. But can he deal with the rapidly-growing monster that marches with them?

As you may have been able to gather, Pulgasari is a fairly weird movie, even by the standards of the kaiju genre (which it surely qualifies for, even if it isn’t strictly Japanese). The period setting, if nothing else, marks it out as being a bit different. To be honest, even without the monster, this wouldn’t really work as a stirring historical epic as the production values are just too low: I know we all keep reading in the news about how backward North Korea is and how low the quality of life has dropped, but watching Pulgasari you do get a real sense of this. It looks like an episode of Monkey, although the special effects probably aren’t as accomplished, and – it’s hard to say why – has more the feel of something made in the late 1960s than a product of what was, in the west, the Reagan-Thatcher era.

Then again, we’re dealing with a film which is the product of a totally different ethos. Actually, describing Pulgasari as ‘the North Korean Godzilla‘ is simultaneously spot-on accurate and rather misleading: because the monster effects which are central to proceedings were not the work of North Koreans alone, but made with the participation of the effects guys from Toho in Japan (this movie is roughly contemporaneous with The Return of Godzilla, which is a bit more technically accomplished). The guy in the Pulgasari suit is Ken Satsuma, a long-time and distinguished Godzilla suit actor, so the two monsters are, to say the least, brothers under the skin. (Pulgasari does look rather like Godzilla with all his dorsal plates removed and bull’s horns added.)

Now, you may be thinking that Pulgasari is bound to turn out to be a crushingly simplistic and obvious piece of old-fashioned communist propaganda. To some extent this is true, for all the human characters are there solely to serve a story of united workers overthrowing evil bosses, and most of the non-monster scenes have a rather laborious quality, as though the film is going slightly slowly just to ensure we understand the message. But as far as the central metaphor is concerned, Pulgasari is slightly more oblique.

The key thing is that Pulgasari himself is not the bad guy, the king is: the monster is sympathetic virtually throughout. Only at the very end of the film does it become apparent that his ever-increasing appetite for metal is bound to become a source of conflict and that the world will be a better place without him. It’s very hard not to draw the conclusion that the permanently-hungry, ever-growing beast is a metaphor for consumerism. But you would expect the DPRK government to be unequivocally down on that, whereas the movie implies it has a central role to play in creating a fairer society. The trick is to know when to get rid of your monster, apparently. It’s an unexpectedly subtle element of a film which isn’t really understated in any other respect, and sets up one of the most downbeat conclusions to any kaiju movie.

Shin Sang-Ok’s own tale had a slightly happier ending, as he and his wife were able to give their security detail the slip and escape to Austria the following year, and I believe the director has since disowned Pulgasari, as you would in the circumstances. That said, it’s not the hilariously bad piece of agitprop you might be expecting, nor even particularly poor as kaiju movies go. It’s just a bit too worthy and slow to be really interesting as anything but a historical curiosity.

 

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