Posts Tagged ‘Watanabe Ken’

Something has been a-stirring for some time now. Maybe it’s just my advancing age, or possibly my 60+ movies a year regimen is taking its toll, but it’s actually quite unusual now for me to get genuinely excited about a new movie. Too many disappointments, too much cynicism, I suppose. However, when I learned that Gareth Edwards, director of one of my favourite films of recent years (2010’s Monsters), was to oversee a big-budget American Godzilla movie (a franchise I have enjoyed rather too much for nearly a quarter of a century now), my interest level spiked, and it has stayed spiked ever since.


It has been sixteen years since Roland Emmerich’s first attempt at an American Godzilla – a film for which the word ‘reviled’ is probably not an overstatement – and ten years since Toho, creators of the great beast, decided to suspend production of Japanese-language Godzilla films following the release of the maddeningly uneven Final Wars, on the occasion of Godzilla’s fiftieth anniversary. Sixty years on from the first Godzilla movie, there are clearly a lot of expectations for this film, and if nothing else you have to admire Edwards’ ambition in attempting to combine the requirements of a typical Hollywood popcorn blockbuster with the very special conventions of a Japanese kaiju movie, not to mention producing something with merit as a piece of cinema, too.

Godzilla himself does not show up until well into the film, leaving the job of carrying the story to Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He plays Ford Brody, a young US Army officer whose life has been shaped by the death of his mother (Juliette Binoche, briefly) in mysterious accident at a Japanese nuclear plant some years ago. Brody has tried to move on, but his dad (Bryan Cranston) remains convinced there is some secret to the tragedy, and has been trying to sneak into the quarantine zone and find out what it is, forcing Ford to fly over there and try to sort him out.

They learn the ruins of the plant are incubating an enormous pupa-like object, containing a primeval creature which feeds on radiation. As luck would have it, they arrive just as the creature – dubbed ‘Muto’ by the attending boffins (Watanabe Ken and Sally Hawkins) – hatches out and engages in a little light rampaging. The Muto heads for the States in search of more fissile material, with the armed forces in hot pursuit. However, Watanabe has a suspicion that another, equally ancient predator may still be around, and keen to make lunch out of the Muto. Watanabe calls this creature Godzilla… but with the army and navy in trigger-happy mood, and signals suggesting a second Muto may also be on the loose, it looks as if the King of the Monsters may have a lot on his (glowing radioactive spiky dorsal) plate…

While it is almost indisputable that Edwards’ Godzilla is a vast improvement over Emmerich’s take on the story (a film which even Toho were publicly contemptuous of) , just how much you enjoy it may well depend on how steeped you are in the traditions and lore of Japanese kaiju movies. These are subtly different to the grammar and conventions of the American monster movie, for all that the two share a deep connection.

For one thing, Edwards understands that a classic Godzilla movie isn’t just about a giant monster wreaking havoc and being attacked by the armed forces: it’s about two or more giant monsters, more than likely with super-powers, ripping into each other on a grand scale. The inclusion of the Muto creatures means Godzilla has a couple of worthy opponents to take on in the final reel, which is one base covered.

Beyond this, though, the screenplay reveals a considerable knowledge and understanding of the genre – Max Borenstein’s screenplay puts a new and rather exciting spin on the core Godzilla mythology, and finds a new way of incorporating the obligatory mention of the 1954 A-bomb tests. And both visually and in terms of the general shape of the story, it seemed to me that this movie owes a considerable debt to Kaneko Shusuke’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe – not a Godzilla movie, admittedly, but still one of the highlights of the genre. (There are a couple of tiny shout-outs to the Mothra movies too.)

There are moments here, too, which are as good as anything in past films – the build-up to Godzilla’s first appearance is immaculately handled. Directors often talk about the big G as an implacable force of nature, but Edwards really gets this right – Godzilla’s approach is heralded by fleeing wildlife, storms and tsunamis, and he really does seem like an impossibly immense avatar of total destruction. (Watanabe’s performance – with just the right level of awed reverence – does as much as the CGI to sell this.)

On the other hand, the movie does subscribe to the current genre dogma that all giant monster fights must take place after dark and under conditions of poor visibility, which I found a bit disappointing. God knows what watching this film in 3D must be like, given the light-loss involved: a pitch-black screen and a lot of roaring, I suppose. It also seems for much of the film that Edwards is either being a total tease or trying to make an art-house Godzilla film – no sooner does a monster fight start or a city begin to be devastated than Edwards cuts away to something else. There is a very enjoyable monster battle at the end, but I could have happily watched a lot more of this stuff.

And it is all a bit po-faced, too. Perhaps wary of accusations that a film about an immense fire-breathing nuclear dragon could be considered a touch silly, the tone of the new Godzilla is very earnest. There is no winking at the camera, hardly any jokes, no sign of the more extravagant genre elements (alien invasions, time travel, giant mystic lepidopterae) that distinguish the best of the Japanese films. All Godzilla films are, on one level, absurd, but this film never quite summons up the self-confidence to relax and revel in this (perhaps slightly surprising, given one of the Toho execs credited is Yoshimitsu Banno, who directed the bonkers 1971 movie Godzilla Vs Hedorah).

So we are left with a film which has many of the usual flaws of a Japanese kaiju film – primarily the incredibly thin human characters and dubious plotting – but none of its sense of fun or imagination. Some very fine actors are absurdly underused in Godzilla, especially the women (as well as Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen gets hardly anything to do as Taylor-Johnson’s wife). The first act of the film is very nearly confusing to watch, as well, given this is supposed to be a Godzilla movie yet the plot focuses exclusively on the Mutos (I suppose you could argue that this is itself another sign of the film’s reverence for genre conventions, given how much the later Japanese films focused on their antagonists’ origin stories).

It would be wrong of me to say that this film lived up to my expectations, but then those expectations were immensely high to begin with. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, by any means. Any even halfway-successful attempt at an American Godzilla is always going to be a bit weird, and this film is halfway-successful at the very least. It’s not one of the greatest Godzilla movies ever made, but its treatment of the character gets so many things absolutely right that it’s almost impossible for me not to like it.


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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 21st 2004:

For fifty years now, samurai have cast a long shadow over world cinema. Their greatest advocate, Akira Kurosawa (son of a samurai family himself), invented the iconography of the samurai movie single-handed, as well as providing storytellers of all kinds with a set of archetypes that show no signs of fading with age. From The Magnificent Seven to the Jedi Knights to Ghost Dog, the outsider with ferocious dedication and terrifying martial prowess is part of the Tarot deck of modern culture.

Which makes it all the more ironic that Kurosawa was criticised in his native Japan for portraying an idealised and stereotypical version of the country on celluloid (which I suppose must make him the Richard Curtis of his day). Also the fact that he himself admitted that one of the biggest influences on his style was John Ford – a more monolithically American director could not be conceived of. But the imagery remains, the mystique persists, intact.

Ed Zwick takes a crack at doing Kurosawa’s legacy justice in The Last Samurai, a fictionalised retelling of the samurai rebellion of 1877, although, to ensure we gaijin turn up in sufficient numbers to recoup the sizeable budget, riding with the rebels is none other than Tom Cruise, even though he technically doesn’t make the minimum height requirement. Eh? How’s that work? I hear you wonder.

Well, Tom plays Nathan Algren, an embittered US Army officer racked with guilt about his role in atrocities committed against native Americans, reduced to being a salesman for the Winchester rifle company and trying to drink himself to death. But the appearance of old comrade Zebulon Gant (Billy Connolly – but don’t worry, somebody sticks a yari through him before very long) signals a new opportunity. The Emperor of Japan wants someone to train his new modernised army, and Tom and Billy are offered the job.

However, it turns out that not everyone is happy with the westernisation of Japan, and the Emperor has his hands full with a rebellion led by noble samurai lord Katsumoto (a fine performance by Ken Watanabe, squarely in the tradition of the great Toshiro Mifune). Despite his better judgement, Tom leads his half-trained army against the samurai and promptly gets the squaddies minced and himself captured. Inevitably, though, he comes to admire the spirit of his captors and begins to question his own loyalties…

It’s fairly clear that Tom Cruise would really like to win an Oscar for his performance in this film. If that happens, it will be rightly scorned by future generations, but there’s still much to enjoy about The Last Samurai. As I’ve already mentioned, Watanabe is extremely good as Cruise’s main sparring partner, and a little further down the cast list is a pleasing turn from Timothy Spall as an expat Brit (Spall’s presence in a couple of the Cruiser’s recent pics may be down to the great man apparently being a mad keen fan of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet). It’s very handsomely mounted and photographed – the first appearance of the samurai as they ride out of the fog, like intruders from a lost world, is wonderful – and the action sequences are extremely spiffy, ranging from Tom twirling his daisho like nobody’s business as he takes on five men single-handed, to a cool ninjas-vs-samurai skirmish, to a full-scale old-school pitched battle, of which Kurosawa himself might well have approved.

Having said that, it is rather long and a tiny bit predictable, and there’s a lot of dead wood in the cast list. (I think the end is a cop-out, too, but will say no more for fear of spoiling the plot.) And this is a film built around a very strange ambivalency. The story is partly driven by liberal angst over imperialist exploitation of Japan and elsewhere – western culture is basically depicted as mercenary and decadent. ‘Why do you hate you own kind so much?’ the villain asks Cruise at one point – I could ask the scriptwriter and director the same question. This is especially pertinent as the culture the film portrays as spiritually and morally superior to the west’s in virtually every way is that of the samurai. These guys are so noble and moral they make the Jedi look like pimps. This is a depiction of the caste far more idealised than anything Kurosawa ever put on film, and an unrealistic one (for one thing, the charming ritual where a samurai could summarily execute any passing peasant failing to show appropriate servility doesn’t make it into the film). This film is about the mythic samurai stereotype rather than the historical reality – a commercially wise choice, I suppose, but one which dumbs it down considerably.

But one thing the film is certain of: and that’s that Tom Cruise is a great, great guy. The samurai are wonderful, and they really like Tom – so imagine how much more wonderful that must make him! Yes, it’s the same old Cruiser narcissism that has so often bedevilled his attempts to be taken seriously as an actor. He doesn’t do the smile so much on this occasion, for which I suppose we must be thankful, but we do get lots of portentous voice-overs as he reveals his insights into the society of his new friends, and far too often things grind to a halt for a scene in which Tom gets to show off his range and talent for no real purpose other than to provide the award shows with a nice clip to accompany the nomination he’s hoping for. It’s this mixture of liberal angst, fetishistic hero-worship, and narcissism that takes the edge off an otherwise worthy piece of epic entertainment.

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