Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 37: Werewolves Through the Ages

Any time I upload an episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show to Youtube, I'm amazed when I don't get a copyright notice for some of the songs I used. I've gotten smarter about that and I guess it's smart enough to get around that. At least for now.

Anyway, here's our newest episode, in which we talk about werewolf movies. I'm fairly pleased with how this one turned out, for once. It's the classiest episode we've done in a while. The show is starting to get some traction on social media too, which is great.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1968)

9. Destroy All Monsters
Kaiju Soshingeki

By 1968, Toho’s science fiction and giant monster films had enjoyed over a decade of popularity. However, the last few Godzilla films had seen a decline in ticket sales. Thinking giant monsters might have played themselves out, the studio decided to retire their super-sized gallery of beasties. But not until after one last hurrah, an epic kaiju film that would mash together many of their creations for one giant monster rumble. Thus, “Destroy All Monsters” was born, bringing together eleven of the studio’s most popular monsters. (Though a few interesting choices were left out, some rather understandably.)

Set in the then future year of 1999, “Destroy All Monsters” takes place in a near-utopian world. A global science league has established far ranging scientific advancements. A command base has been set up on the moon and rocket trips there are routine. Most pressingly, all the world’s monsters have been rounded up and placed on Ogasawara Island, subsequently renamed Monsterland. The peace of this future world is interrupted when the Killaks, invading aliens, attack Monsterland and take control of the daikaiju. The monsters are then siced on the world, destroying major cities. Astronaut Katsuo Yamabe and his rocket team are tasked with hunting down the aliens and their supporters while the scientists attempt to stop the monsters.

Despite its reputation as a non-stop monster brawl, large sections of “Destroy All Monsters” play out without the kaiju. Big portions of the plot revolve around Katsuo and his crack astronaut team. After the Killaks take over Monsterland, they float down in their rocket ship. After the aliens explain their plan to them, a fight breaks, the astronauts shooting at the alien-controlled mooks. They capture one of the controllers, attempting to interrogate him. This doesn’t go as well as planned, ending with a dramatic dive to a beach and another shoot-out. A major middle portion of the film involves the astronauts returning to the moon, trying to shut down the Killaks' operation. A lot of time is devoted to the astronauts driving around in a moon rover, blasting through a door, and attempting to burn through the controlling device with a malfunctioning laser.

I’m not putting down these parts of the film. They’re actually a lot of fun. Akira Kubo, making his third Godzilla appearance, finds the character best-suited to his charm. Katsuo is a man of action, straight-forward and driven. His moments piloting a rocket ship or arguing for humanity’s strength against the Killaks' fascism work very well. Kubo manages to make moments when he smacks his alien-controlled love interest around actually charming. The moment on the moon, burning through the control antenna, is dramatically stretched out. The music mounts, the camera cutting between the laser, the antenna, Kubo’s face, and the burning cord. It’s a ridiculous moment but very entertaining, a good summation of the movie’s fun, goofy streak.

As always though, the monsters are the main attraction. The kaiju smashing is mostly isolated to four major sequences. We get a brief introductory tour of Monsterland, meeting the critter cast, displaying the specific safe-guards put in place to control each monster. After that the invasion starts, the monsters are let loose. “Destroy All Monsters” has a more global reach then previous Toho creature features. A quick montage shows the monsters wrecking specific cities. Rodan blows away the Kremlin. Gorosaurus wrecks the Arc de Triomphe. Godzilla burns down UN HQ. Mothra, rampaging through Beijing, crushes a… random train? When so many previous entries took place solely in Japan, it’s a real treat to see Toho’s kaiju crashing specific landmarks from all over the world.

Of course, all the action shifting away from Tokyo is misdirection. Four different monsters converge on Japan’s capital. Godzilla, Rodan, Manda, and surprise guest star Mothra wreck the city. And it’s spectacular. Manda proves a surprisingly dynamic creature, slithering around a bridge, shattering it with his coils. While this happens in the foreground, Godzilla burns down a bay in the background. The military is powerless, naturally, missiles bouncing harmlessly off the monsters' hides. My favorite moment from this set piece is when Mothra comes up through the subway, exploding out of a building. For monster fans, it’s a great sequence and puts a strong exclamation point in the middle of the movie.

“Destroy All Monsters” is building towards something though. There’s a cool, brief bit of monster action where Godzilla stomps a few tanks. After the human heroes best the Killaks, the UN scientists take control of Earth’s kaiju back. As a final defense, the aliens call in Toho’s resident super villain: King Ghidorah! This leads to the movie’s grand battle, six of Earth’s mightiest beasts against the space monster. Godzilla leads the show, climbing on Ghidorah’s back, holding the dragon down to Earth by its feet, blasting the multiple heads with some atomic breath. Anguirus, reappearing for the first time since “Godzilla Raids Again,” establishes his never-say-die attitude. Anguirus isn’t a particularly powerful kaiju but is endlessly tenacious, grabbing hold of one of Ghidorah’s throats and not letting go. Gorosaurus proves a surprising addition, jump-kicking the enemy monster in the back, taking a hit and keeping on tickin’. It would have been nice to have seen more of Mothra and Kumonga, both of whom stand back and spray silk, but their inclusion is fun nevertheless. Heck, even Minilla joins in, getting King Ghidorah with a smoke ring while he’s down. After defeating him, each monster lets out a victorious cry, roaring towards the heavens. Sure, the battles are spaced out evenly over the movie’s run time. Yet who can complain when they deliver like this?

Weirdly, the movie keeps going after that deeply satisfying conclusion. Katsuo climbs into his rocket ship against for an air duel with one of the Killaks’ saucer. A burning shield around it, the UFO crashes through a building and makes a nuisance of itself. However, the SY-3 shuttle proves stronger then that, even surviving when the burning saucer attaches itself to the ship. I really like the shots of the astronauts inside the ship during this moment, especially when the camera whirls around them. It’s kind of a strange moment though, for the action to continue after King Ghidorah is vanquished and Godzilla does a field-goal kick into the alien’s base.

Plot wise, “Destroy All Monsters” owes a lot to previous monster-fest. As in “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero,” Earth’s kaiju are controlled by alien invaders. Both movies feature flying saucers floating above the giant monsters. The twist is that the Killaks only appear human-like. They look like Japanese women in chain link ponchos but are actually silver worm-like creatures, made of steel and weak against heat. Unlike the Planet X residents in “Monster Zero,” we never get a proper explanation for the aliens’ invasion plan. The Killaks want to take over Earth but never provide a reason why. The movie had an obvious effect on the Godzilla series, many of the future entries featuring aliens with human disguises hiding grotesque appearances.

The Killak plot has quite a few holes in it too. The script does too. The monsters are controlled by silver spheres spread all over the world. The spheres aren’t hidden very well, perched in palm trees or on riverbanks. You’d think they'd be better hidden buried deep underground or something. The Killaks obviously underestimate humanity’s ability. It only takes a few laser blasts to knock down their moon base. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to have the monster battle take place right outside their doorstep. Their sleeper agents are controlled with implants behind the ears. Except for Kyoto, Katsuo’s love interest. Her mind-control probes are hidden as earrings. Maybe they could have done something less obvious? Or, at the very least, not send her walking into the human base. “Destroy All Monsters” progresses too quickly for its audience, especially its intended audience of kids, to notice.

Toho smartly brought back Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube for such an epic monster flick. Honda manages to sneak in a few memorable visuals. An interrogation is shown behind the strange, iron swirls on the wall. My favorite small moment involves the still Killak-controlled Kyoto smiling as the kaiju destroy Tokyo. Even if Honda was largely bored by these later kaiju flicks, he never let it show. As for Ifukube’s score, it’s a great bit of music. The heroes of the film are given a strong, militaristic score, driving and catchy. Ifukube manages to incorporate the monster’s traditional themes as well, blending the two fantastically.

The supporting cast of “Destroy All Monsters” has some stand-out players. Jun Tazaki has some campy fun as the head scientist on Earth. He cuts a stern figure, with his glasses and pencil mustache. Yet the infectious fun of the project gets to the actor too, like when he excitedly announces he’s taking back control of the monsters. Yukiko Kobayashi is also notable as Kyoko. She has good chemistry with Kubo during their earlier conversations. She actually manages to convey some sinister intent when under the alien’s control.

“Destroy All Monsters” ends with the heroic kaiju returning to Monsterland. From their helicopter, the human protagonists wave goodbye. The camera pans around the island, focusing in on each monster. They roar, each getting one final moment to themselves, even cameos like Baragon and Varan. Finally, we come to Godzilla and Minilla on the beach. The King of the Monster and his son wave back. If you know that “Destroy All Monsters” was intended to be the final Toho kaiju film, this scene plays very differently. Ifukube’s music is quiet and slightly forlorn. It’s a fond farewell to a lovable band of characters and, as an aged monster fan, tugs at my heart a little.

Of course, “Destroy All Monsters” wasn’t the last Godzilla film. The movie was a huge hit, reviving interest in the series and carrying it into the seventies. On one level, I would have missed the even crazier films of the late Showa period. On the other hand, this would have been a great note to take the series out on. Silly though it might be, “Destroy All Monsters” is massively entertaining and sure to please any monster fan. [Grade: B+]

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1967)

8. Son of Godzilla 
Kaiju-to no Kessen: Gojira no Musuko

Little kids have always loved Godzilla. Of course they do. He combines the perennial appeal of dinosaurs, monsters, and superheroes. In the latter half of the sixties, Godzilla’s image was getting progressively sillier, in order to appeal to those young viewers more. In 1967, Toho made the decision to take that connection even further. Godzilla was to become a father. Kids looked up to the King of the Monsters. And, now, a little kaiju would look up to him too. Deep down, “Son of Godzilla” isn’t any goofier then the preceding few films. On the surface, however, it sure seems that way.

The film’s protagonist is the latest in a series of young, hot-shot reporters. Goro doesn’t let anything get in the way of his story. Not even the combination of a rain storm, a strange signal jamming the radio, or Godzilla swiping at the plane is enough to deter him. Soon, he parachutes down onto mysterious Solgoll Island. There, a group of scientists have been experimenting with weather controlling devices. However, their work is regularly interrupted by the island’s native population of giant mantis. Those same mantis soon crack open a giant egg, containing a baby dinosaur of the giant variety. The little monster’s cries for help attract Godzilla’s attention. Throw in a giant spider, a beautiful native girl, some monster father/son bonding time, and it becomes very difficult to control the weather around here.

“Son of Godzilla” marks the sophomore effort from the series’ new creative team. The film has some superficial similarities to Jun Fukuda’s previous Godzilla film, “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster.” Both stories remove the monsters from their traditional urban setting, placing them on largely unpopulated tropical islands. Both have heroes hiding in caves from the battling monsters. Both end with the humans waving a heart-felt goodbye to Godzilla. However, “Son of Godzilla” has a more balanced tone and a stronger screenplay. Director Fukuda, composer Masaru Sato, and special effects director Sadamasa Arikawa are obviously more confident in their abilities this time. The film feels more like a Godzilla movie then the previous, oddball entry.

This poster is very groovy.
The best thing about “Son of Godzilla” is its soft, friendly, likable tone. It’s the first in the series since “King Kong vs. Godzilla” to feature no human villains. Like-wise, not a single building is smashed. Though the scientists want to complete their experiments, there’s no deadline. The movie has intentionally low-stakes. Instead, it captures a laid-back tropical atmosphere. Goro trades jokes with the scientist about vegetables and laundry. Beautiful native girl Saeko walks around collecting fruit. The humans, for the most part, live in harmony with the giant monsters. Even several crew members being stricken with a fever seems harmless, the men healed by the island’s magical red waters. Eventually, the appearance of giant spider Kumonga raises the stakes. Yet for most of its run time, “Son of Godzilla” is a whimsical, light-hearted film.

By this point, it was standard for the human adventure to be tied in with the giant monster rumbles. “Son of Godzilla” is no different in that regard. Plot-wise, the psychic distress call the still in-egg Minilla sends out is what jams the radios, stranding the humans on the island. A botched attempt at weather manipulation makes the Kamacuras, the giant mantis breed, larger. Later, a more successful experiment winds up helping Godzilla’s climatic battle. However, the balance leans more towards the giant monsters. The film frequently cuts back between the humans doing something plot relevant to Godzilla and Minilla goofing around. I love the giant monster stuff as much as the next fan but I honestly wonder if the split-screenplay might be a problem. The film comes off as slightly out-of-focus, a little schizophrenic in its goals.

The film’s kid-friendly intentions are obvious in the design of its title character. Minilla, the Son of Godzilla, is widely despised by hardcore monster fans. He’s definitely one of the least attractive creatures. Minilla looks less like a baby Godzilla and more like the unholy spawn of Kermit the Frog and the Pillsbury Doughboy. His drooping eyes and buck-teeth make him look slightly stoned and a little inbreed. Only his off-green coloration and budding back-spines mark him as a relation to the mighty kaiju king. The monster is very vocal. Occasionally he attempts a high-pitched version of Godzilla’s trademark roar. Usually, he brays like a donkey, moans in a haunting manor, or makes a weird noise that sounds vaguely like “Papa!” He blows comical smoke rings. Minilla is not a creature that could ever actually live. Instead, he’s a cartoon character.

Minilla might be one of the uglier Showa monsters. But I can’t hate the little guy. The slapstick kaiju comedy proves hysterical. The filmmakers seem to recognize that fans might react negatively to such a coying character. Minilla is abused from the beginning, poked by the giant mantis. Upon meeting him for the first time, Godzilla accidentally conks the baby in the head with his tail. The Kamacuris later hit him with a rock and, at one point, Godzilla seems ready to abandon the monster in the snow.

Eventually, however, the King of the Monsters warms up to fatherhood. The interactions between Godzilla and his foster-son range between hilarious and adorable. One of this silly film’s sillier moments involves Saeko tossing coconuts into Minilla’s mouth. She is about to feed the baby monster again when Dad stomps over, scaring the humans off. Just like a child, Minilla falls to the ground, swinging his limbs and crying, throwing a kaiju-sized temper-tantrum. Godzilla’s (hilarious) response is to roll his eyes, scratch his head, and drag the kid off by his tail. Later, a napping Godzilla is awoken when Minilla starts jumping around his tail. Turns out, a giant radioactive dinosaur isn’t really cut out to be a dad. In a moment simultaneously humorous and slightly off-putting, Godzilla threatens to beat Minilla when he fails to breathe fire. The monster really does care for his brood though. He lets the hatched critter hitch a ride on his tail. In the film’s genuinely memorable finale, Godzilla cradles his crying off-spring as both dragons are buried in snow, slipping into hibernation. As a moment, it’s bizarrely poetic and sort of adorable.

Godzilla himself gets a softened redesign. The suit is a little chunkier, more rubbery in appearance. The monster gains a pill-like head, a flat snout, and round, goofy eyes. The combined effect winds up making Godzilla look a bit like Cookie Monster. Most disappointingly, the script nerfs Godzilla’s fighting prowess. At the start, he is suplexing Kamacuras like it ain’t no thing. The mantises are set ablaze, their burning limbs sent flying. However, the final fight with Kumonga is embarrassing for our reptilian hero. The spider’s webbing is weak against fire, and weaker then Mothra’s similar attack, but Godzilla still gets caught up in it. He foolishly leans down to the spider, getting stung in the eye. All of this is done so Minilla can come to an unlikely rescue, proving himself to his dad. It’s sort of a bummer that Godzilla’s character has to suffer just so his kid can appear useful.

Kumonga and Kamacuras, on paper, might read as uninspired designs. After all, giant spiders and giant praying mantises had been done before. However, I don’t mind Arikawa and Tsuburaya putting their own mark on such stock critters. Both big bugs are brought to life through elaborate marionettes. I like the spindly legs on the mantis, their clicking jaws, and big bulbous eyes. Deliberately recalling the last film, the mantises also bound boulders between their claws like baseballs. Kumonga proves more memorable then most giant spiders. The spider’s bumpy thorax and lavender eyes are nice visuals. He’s a persistent villain too. The spider hunts the humans down, sticking his big leg into their cave or trying to web them up. They’ve never proven hugely popular but Kumonga and Kamacuras (or Spiga and Gimantis, if you prefer the American dub) are logical additions to the Godzilla-verse menagerie.

Even if there’s a bit of a disconnect between the plausible human story and the ridiculous kaiju elements, “Son of Godzilla” has a very likable cast. Akira Kubo, previously of “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero,” “Matango,” “Gorath,” and Kurasawa’s “Throne of Blood,” is very likable as Goro. He’s just enough of a smart-ass to distinguish him from previous reporter character. His drive and the actor’s natural charisma make a good combination. The best part in the film falls to Beverly Maeda’s Saeko. Maeda imbues Saeko with a child-like wonder, playing with Minilla and marveling at what Tokyo must be like. She also has great romantic chemistry with Kubo, like when the two are arguing about stealing. Beverly is beautiful too, spending most of the film in thin, clinging dresses. She even makes the combo of a straw hat, Hawaiian t-shirt, and baggy pants work for me.

One of the strangest things about “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” was Masaru Sato’s surf-rock score. Sato’s contribution this time is more like what you’d expect. It still lacks Akira Ifukube’s iconic themes. The music is quite exaggerated at times. Minilla’s every action is also paired with a goofy, thudding series of notes. Godzilla is greeted with a more dignified rumbling horn motif. When the monsters aren’t around, Sato’s music relaxes into a strolling, vaguely Caribbean beat. It might not have the moxie of his last score but the music is more in line with what you’d expect from a Godzilla flick.

As supremely silly as “Son of Godzilla” is, even goofier films awaited the King of the Monsters. However, you have to enjoy these pictures on their own goals. “Son of Godzilla” is endearingly silly and has a good sense of humor about its own ridiculousness. Watch it through the eyes of a child and you might wind up having a real good time. [Grade: B]

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1966)

7. Godzilla Versus The Sea Monster
Gojira - Ebira - Mosura: Nankai no Daiketto / Ebirah, Horror of the Deep

Toho’s philosophy towards the Godzilla films of the mid-sixties seemed to be “Shove the monsters into a pre-exisitng genre!” “Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster” had elements of both a James Bond movie and a Yakuza film. “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero” basically built a space epic around the kaiju. Godzilla actually wasn’t Toho’s most popular franchise of the day, that honor instead falling to a series of teen-oriented comedies. “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” suggest the protagonists from that series wandering into a giant monster flick. For good measure, a little Bond is thrown into the mix as well. The result is a film that, without deviating too heavily from the known Godzilla formula, still winds up feeling very different.

The change in style can be attributed to another factor. “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” features a completely different creative team from the last four films. Ishiro Honda didn’t direct, Akira Ifukube didn’t score, and, despite receiving credit, Eiji Tsuburaya didn’t direct the special effects. New director Jun Fukuda would handle most of the remaining Showa flicks while Tsuburaya’s apprentice, Sadamasa Arikawa, took over the effects. Akira Ifukube would return a few times but a host of different composers handled the soundtracks for the remainder of the series. The change in behind-the-scene crew is all too evident at times. “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” has a strange energy all its own, distinct from those pictures that came before.

The plot relies on a series of unlikely coincidences. Young journalist Ryota’s brother vanished at sea recently and he is desperate to find him again. The first coincidence comes when Ryota discovers a flyer for a dance contest and the prize just happens to be a boat. The two goofballs he meets there, Ichino and Nita, pick a boat at random. A boat that has just been thieved by good-natured safe cracker Yoshimura. While the four are crashing on the yacht, it just happens to drift out to sea. Fate sends the boat towards Devil Island, a place controlled by the Red Bamboo terrorist organization and guarded by their giant lobster, Ebirah. Very conveniently for our heroes, Godzilla is sleeping on this island. Also very conveniently, they come upon a sword that is crucial to awakening the monster. Later on, an implausible balloon escape takes Ryota right to his brother. The way Ebirah is turned on his controllers is absurd too. Even in a movie like this, suspension of disbelief only excuses so much. It’s says a lot that the film’s most unlikely elements aren’t the giant monsters but the events the protagonists stumble through.

Weirdly, the villains are one of the things about the film that doesn’t strike me as unusual. Red Bamboo is a nefarious organization producing nuclear weapons for presumably nefarious reasons. The movie never outright says it but the viewer can assume the island’s giant fauna is a side-effect of this research. Such a wide-spread, evil organization needs a lot of workers. So Red Bamboo kidnaps natives from Infant Island, which can’t catch a break in these movies. This is a fairly logical reason for Toho to stick another monster into the movie, the ever-popular Mothra. It also establishes the bad guys as awfully bad guys and gives the heroes a good reason to fight. The movie’s villains aren’t its problem.

At least not it’s human villains anyway. I think the real reason hardcore G-fans are so dismissive of “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” is because Ebirah is an uninspired monster. A giant lobster is consistent with the universe’s preexisting monsters. On paper, it’s no more absurd then nuclear dinosaurs, giant insects, or space dragons. Yet it’s certainly a lot less interesting. Ebirah is a somewhat awkward design, most of his body kept under water. The unwieldy design is clear since most of the fight scenes take place in extreme close-up. The lobster even has a shrill, annoying roar. Strangely, he’s the only Toho kaiju openly shown to be carnivorous, eating some would-be escapees. Ebirah’s lack of popularity is obvious since he wouldn’t reappear until 2004’s “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Adding to the disappointment, Ebirah doesn’t even get a proper death scene, swimming off at the end.

It’s pretty much a rule of the series by this point that Godzilla doesn’t show up until mid-way through the film. This holds true in “Sea Monster.” Despite this, the movie doesn’t really feel like a Godzilla movie. Godzilla is awoken by lightening, becomes infatuated with a human woman, smashes things with rocks, and gets pissed at Mothra. There’s an obvious reason for this. “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” was originally conceived as a King Kong vehicle. When Toho couldn’t secure the rights to Kong, Godzilla took the role, adsorbing most of the great ape’s characteristics. Even if you’re unaware of this going in, it’s fairly obvious, adding to the movie’s preexisting awkwardness. Godzilla even looks a bit worse for wear, the suit starting to tatter.

Despite its unlikely screenplay, disappointing monster, and out-of-character Godzilla, I still kind of like the movie. There’s a lot to like about the human cast. Akira Takarada returns to the Godzilla series. Yoshimura the thief proves more rogue-like then previous Takarada’s heroes, playing nicely to the actor's dashing charm. Kumi Mizuno returns as native princess Daiyo. The lovely Mizuno spends the whole movie scantily clad, which is nice. The pure, na├»ve Daiyo is a very different to “Monster Zero’s” femme fatale. Akihiko Hirato, last seen as the self-sacrificing Serizawa in the original “Gojira,” is cast against type here. He plays the eye-patch wearing villain, hamming it up nicely. Main leads Toru Watanabe and Chotaro Togin are a bit dull and comic relief Hideo Sunazuka is kind of annoying. But, mostly, I can’t complain about the players.

Even if the monsters are underwhelming, the monster action is still cool. The first rumble between Ebirah and Godzilla features, rather infamously, the two monsters passing boulders back and forth like a soccer ball. It’s ridiculous but still goofily entertaining, especially when a ricochet rock smashes a near-by building. Jun Fukuda has a very different style then Honda, directing the fight scenes with quick cuts and extreme close-ups. This winds up lending a frenzied effect to the battle. A sequence where Godzilla battles a fleet of jets is well handled. He pulls a jet out of the air, crushing it, snapping a plane in his jaw, crushing one with his tail. It’s a cool moment. When Godzilla starts stomping the bad guy’s base, that proves satisfying. The final battle with Ebirah is well executed, the lobster getting a claw torn off. The movie wraps up with Godzilla taking a hilarious belly-flop into the ocean.

Godzilla is fairly humanized by this point. As the heroes are flying away in Mothra’s net, they urge Godzilla to leave the island before it explodes. When he makes a last minute escape, everyone cheers. Godzilla might still be a destructive asshole but he’s a lovable destructive asshole. Mothra has an important role, plot-wise, though she winds up maintaining little of her personality. Even the fairies have been recast, played by pop duo Pair Bambi. I guess there’s nothing wrong with them but I think the Peanuts were better.

The movie’s oddest moment is when a random, wild giant condor appears. Interrupting the moment when Godzilla is crushing on Kumi Mizuno’s heroine, he is attacked by Ookondoru, probably Toho’s least loved monster. The condor looks more like a giant chicken and the puppet is sloppily animated. It’s a short-lived fight and oddly energetic. Godzilla quickly sets the bird ablaze, prematurely ending the battle. After winning, the King of the Monsters put a finger aside his nose, an apparent reference to Toho’s “Young Guy” series. The scene is likely to leave viewers rubbing their head in confusion.

Powering the movie’s oddball spirit is its unconventional score. Instead of Akira Ifukube’s melodramatic horns, Masaru Sato’s score is guitar-driven. There’s a frequent surf rock tone to it, which is quite unexpected. The music recalls the Bond films and Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. The music lends an energy to the movie that’s completely different from any other Godzilla movie.

You know the weirdest thing about “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster,” overall a pretty weird movie? The set design is excellent. The white hallways of the Red Bamboo base are interrupted by splashes of bright colors, bold yellows and blues. The nuclear reactor is particularly an art deco display. Even the miniature sets have that rounded style to them.

So I understand why “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monsters” isn’t well liked and agree with most of the criticism. Yet there’s a fun, cheesy energy to the flick that keeps me from disliking it. Obviously in the lower tier of the Godzilla series and wholly inessential but fun enough to enjoy with friends and a few beers. [Grade: B-]

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1965)

6. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero
Kaiju daisenso / Invasion of Astro-Monster

For many years, it was common practice for hardcore Godzilla fans to be dismissive of the latter half of the Showa Eiga. Godzilla had started life as a grim metaphor for nuclear annihilation. By 1965, his transformation into a goofy reptilian superhero, defending Earth from an increasingly absurd rogue gallery of enemy monsters, was just about complete. At one point in history, to be a true Godzilla fan, you had to turn your noses up at these sillier, later flicks, accepting only the serious Godzilla as legitimate. Luckily, mass opinion has shifted, making it okay for G-fans to appreciate a movie as goofily endearing and purely entertaining as “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero.”

The franchise was changing in other ways by ’65, too. “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” introduced aliens into the Godzilla lexicon. However, extraterrestrials were ultimately kept off-screen, giant monsters being the sole suspension of disbelief. “Monster Zero” changes all that by boldly moving the series into outer space, adding aliens, flying saucers, astronauts, and other planets to the program.

The plot concerns a space exploration to Planet X, a newly discovered moon of Jupiter. Upon landing, the American and Japanese astronauts Glenn and Fuji are introduced to a race of aliens. Seems Planet X has a problem with a giant monster, King Ghidorah making his sophomore appearance. In exchange for borrowing Godzilla and Rodan as their defenders, the Xians promise to give Earth a cure for cancer. Despite Glenn and Fuji having their suspicions, Earth takes the aliens up on this deal, loosing two city destroying monsters and gaining a miracle cure. Naturally, they should have trusted their instincts. The Xians plan on taking over Earth, turning the monsters back on us, and stealing our precious water. The extraterrestrial plot extends to Japanese industries, quickly scooping up Fuji’s sister Haruno, her inventor boyfriend Tetsuo, and Glenn’s new girlfriend Namikawa.

The sci-fi concept injects freshness into the execution, considering these are the same monsters we saw in “Ghidorah,” minus one. The opening sequence of a rocket landing on Planet X are handled extremely way, conveying proper isolation and a strange sense of grandeur. When a doorway extends out of the rocky terrain, prompting Fuji to pull a laser gun, the audience realizes what kind of movie they’re in for. The interior of Planet X has a distinct look to it. The hallways are long and white, almost glowing. The underground is filled with large golden stalagmites. The Xians’ designs are incredibly memorable. Their pointy hats, high collars, skin-tight latex outfits, and wrap-around visor sunglasses are campy and immediately recognizable. I suspect Devo and a few other New Wave bands were inspired by this flick. Moreover, the aliens act alien, speaking in a flat monotone and worshiping a logic-dictating computer.

The most impressive special effect, besides the monsters anyway, are the movie’s trademark flying saucers. Eiji Tsuburaya doesn’t stray too far outside of the recognizable look of a UFO while putting his own unique spin on it. The models look a bit like an old lawnmower motor, round with compartments on either end. Like the hallways on Planet X, they are pure white with a subtle glow. When emerging out of a lake or shaking through the sky, they make a particularly memorable image. Tsuburaya’s model work is typically excellent. Boats and tanks explode instantly, an effect both dynamic and humorous. Futuristic laser cannons would soon become a hallmark of Godzilla flicks. They get trotted out here but, comically, are exploded before they can be used. The soon-to-be-destroyed cityscapes are incredibly detailed, as you’ve come to expect from Tsuburaya.

Compared to the crowded screenplay of “Ghidorah,” “Monster Zero” is smoothly constructed. Future Godzilla flicks would follow a similar outline. Probably because it gets all the plot pieces in line easily. Aliens control the monsters for their own nefarious purposes, humans sabotage the aliens’ plot, monster turn on their masters. Glenn and Fuji prove to be likable human leads. Glenn’s love story with Namikawa, though a little underdeveloped, winds up adding an emotional heart to the film. The romance pays off quite nicely, helping the heroes out a bit. Another human element involves Fuji, his sister, and her boyfriend. Tetsuo has yet to prove himself successful as an inventor so Fuji, naturally, doesn’t approve of the union. Turns out, the Xians are suppressing Tetsuo’s invention, a hyper-sonic alarm system, strictly because high-pitch noise is their weakness. Is a supporting character holding the key to the hero’s intergalactic victory contrived? Eh, a little. The movie makes it work. Every plot element leads into the next, creating a smooth, satisfying pace.

It’s a good thing the human plot proves so entertaining, as “Monster Zero” is a bit stingy with the kaiju, at least at first. They look great, of course. Godzilla’s head gets a more personable redesign, looking more like a muppet with every progressing film. Rodan is a little less comical, moving more swiftly. Ghidorah gets an establishing moment early on, splintering Planet X’s surface with his lightening breath. Yet Godzilla and Rodan don’t appear until the forty minute mark, when the aliens finally air-lift them out. Their battle with Ghidorah on Planet X is very brief, lasting about two minutes. After that, the monsters stay off-screen for a long time. At least until the final thirty minutes, when a tidal wave of kaiju destruction is unleashed. Godzilla and Rodan wreck havoc on the Japanese countryside. The Big G sets fire to the near-by forest while Rodan overturn bridges and blows cars around with his wings. A particularly amusing special effect involves a giant prop of Godzilla’s foot. Repeatedly we see the foot swing through and stomp down on buildings, debris tossed everywhere. Boy, is that fun to watch. 

“Fun” is the word of the day. “Monster Zero” cemented the tonal shift that “Ghidorah” started. This movie is full of ridiculous shit. Upon awakening on Planet X, Godzilla stretches and yawns. He dodges behind a rock, avoiding Ghidorah’s energy blasts. Rodan drops big ass boulders on the villain’s heads. When the alien’s controlling signaled is interrupted, all three monsters fall to the ground, giant monsters having giant seizures. Giant monster seizures! The final battle is immensely entertaining. Godzilla punches at the dragon’s swinging heads like an old-timey boxer. For the final blow, Rodan grabs Godzilla’s back, lifts him up, the two combing their strength. Yes, the kaiju are goofier then ever. Yet the movie’s tone of goofy fun is infectious. The most infamous moment, Godzilla’s jaunty victory dance, conveys that the best. Who doesn’t love a giant dinosaur doing the Safety Dance? Even the actors get in on the fun, a choking Xian sticking his tongue out or Tetsuo falling through a ridiculous trap-door.

The cast helps too. This was one of three films fading American star Nick Adams did with Toho. Adams’ cocksure attitude is well-suited to his all-American hero, his charm going a long way. Akira Takarada’s Fuji is a different character compared to his previous Godzilla roles, the straight man to Adams’ romantic lead. Yoshio Tsuchiya is excellent as the commander of Planet X, speaking in a flat monotone, punctuating his statements with indecipherable hand gestures. Tsuchiya frequently brings a dry comedy to his dialogue, adding to the movie’s enjoyment. Kumi Mizuno is stunningly beautiful as Namikawa, wearing the alien neck brace with grace. Overall, the players are in on the fun.

Even among the light material, Ishiro Honda still has time to sneak in his pet theme of world unity. It’s notable that, upon landing on Planet X, the astronauts put down a flagpole adorn with a U.N. flag first, Japanese and American flags second. Earth is united against the alien threat, every country contributing to the effort. They are, ultimately, small moments. Yet they add to the movie’s light-hearted appeal, showing a brighter future where man and monster works together.

“Godzilla vs. Monster Zero,” or “Invasion of Astro-Monster” as Toho prefers you call it these days, might be my favorite Godzilla movie. It’s funny, swift, and a lot of fun, with enough giant monster action and sci-fi shenanigans to speak to anyone’s inner monster kid. The story concludes with the heroes laughing together, a perfectly amusing end to a purely entertaining flick. [Grade: A]

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1964) Part 2

5. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
San Daikaiju: Chikyu Saidai no Kessen / 
Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster

By 1964, Toho was in the kaiju business. “Mothra vs. Godzilla” had two of the studio’s most famous monsters facing off. Perhaps following the model set by Universal’s classic monster movies, Toho decided to elevate things even further with their next installment. Godzilla and Mothra would be back. Though he hadn’t been seen since 1956, Toho realized the flying Rodan was able to stand among their greatest creations. More-so then, say, Varan or Maguma anyway. Three popular monsters together wasn’t even enough. It was decided to cook up an even more elaborate kaiju, a villain powerful and dangerous enough that it would require three monsters to take him down. Thus, “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” was born.

“Ghidorah’s” ambitions didn’t end there either. The film doesn’t just mash up monsters but genres. The hard sci-fi horror of Godzilla blended well enough with Mothra’s light-fantasy. “Ghidorah” brings in more solid science fiction. Flying saucers, aliens from Venus, spiritual possession and prophecies were added to the mix. James Bond-style espionage was popular at the time and that too was tossed in. With all of these plot elements and monsters, the film still needed to make room for the human characters and their own plot lines. That double-stuffed nature is “Ghidorah’s” biggest problem. There’s so much going on

The film does its best to balance all these competing elements. The story starts with the Shindo siblings, Naoko and her brother. Naoko is a reporter for a supernatural mystery-based television series, interviewing a club of flying saucer devotees. Her brother, meanwhile, is a police detective tasked with protecting the imperiled princess of a near-by nation. The two plot lines collide when the princess disappears off of her airplane right before it explodes. She reappears a few days later, claiming to be a Venusian and predicting monster-related disaster for the world. The princess’ reappearance gets the interest of her assassins, who pursue her throughout the city.

Oh, yeah, also the monsters. Apparently, the events of the last film reaffirmed Infant Island’s trust in Japan as the Shobijin and surviving newly-hatched Mothra larva are willing to appear on a Japanese talk show. In addition to everything else that is going on, a meteor crashed right next to Mt. Aso, showing strange magnetic properties. Professor Miura, Naoko’s would-be suitor, is sent to investigate the meteor. In time, the meteor grows like an egg, its magnetism coming and going. Finally, the rock explodes, the mighty King Ghidorah coming forth.

The plot lines taken on their own aren’t problematic. Naoko, as played by Yuriko Hoshi, makes an especially likable lead. She has great chemistry with Yosuke Natsuki as her brother. The two’s good-natured competition powers the film’s most human moments. My favorite is when the two are at home, fighting over what to watch on the TV with their mother, playfully taunting one another. The male Shindo is immediately smitten with the princess’ picture. When he has an opportunity to meet her, his sister ends up blocking the meeting, an especially cute moment. Once the monsters and assassination plot take center stage, these endearing moments completely disappear, leaving the movie without a human heart.

The espionage part of the plot winds up being the least interesting. The assassins are generic bad guys, wearing sunglasses and fedoras. Their attempts to murder the princess feel out of place with the film. There’s little tension behind the attacks, the princess’ life never seeming in true peril. When the gangsters start messing with the electro-shock therapy machine, the plot line almost turns comical. The shooting and fighting that eventually arise are decent executed, as out of place as they seem. As is typical with these films by know, the monsters swoop in during the last act to kill off the human bad guys.

Centering far more of this plot line then expected is Akiko Wakabayashi’s powerful performance as the princess. She delivers her predictions in a trance-like state, Wakabayashi’s eyes locking forward with intensity. Considering most of her dialogue is actually bold-face exposition, her performance winds up working towards the film’s benefit. Wakabayashi’s best moment is when she rises off the doctor’s table, delivering a monologue about King Ghidorah’s destructive powers and his imminent arrival. Disappointingly, her subplot is resolved in a weak manner. A magic gunshot restores the princess’ original personality without explanation. That’s cheap, silly writing. A small scene between Wakabayashi and Natsuki near the end proves surprisingly sweet, both actors showing the characters’ attachment to one another. Also on the acting front, “Godzilla”-veteran Takashi Shimura puts in another appearance as the psychologist specialist. His performance is standard stuff but it’s nice to see him again.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the monsters yet. The first half-hour of the film is focused on setting up all the sprawling plot lines. Pass the twenty minute mark, Rodan shuffles out of the ashes of Mt. Aso. Soon after, Godzilla lumbers out of the sea, igniting a cruise ship. Rodan puts in some token destruction, sweeping up some buildings with his mach-speed wings. Godzilla mostly stomps around the countryside, not getting a scene of city destruction to himself. The main attraction isn’t the solo acts. Instead, like immortals, giant monsters are inevitably drawn to each other, ready to fight. Despite never crossing paths before, Godzilla and Rodan duel like long-time rivals. The fighting is exaggerated and borderline comical. Rodan peaks at Godzilla’s head, knocking him to the ground with back blows. Godzilla whacks Rodan’s head with his tail or tosses him over his shoulder. Easily, the coolest moment in the fight is when Rodan lifts Godzilla into the sky, dropping him down on a series of electric lines. Even if Rodan’s design is still a little stiff and awkward, the fight is a good time for monster kids.

Like all comic book crossovers, the fights precede a team-up. The anthropomorphizing of Godzilla and co. is completed by this point. Mothra scuttles up to the top of a cliff and tries to reason with the battling beasts. The kaiju don’t flat-out talk, the fairies translating, but they do everything but. Godzilla and Mothra roll their eyes, lulling their heads aside. They reveal a long standing resentment at humanity, an unwillingness to help save the world. Mothra has always been magical but Godzilla and Rodan’s conversation prove a little silly. There are other ridiculous elements. During the battle, Godzilla’s belly rumbles from energy attacks. Both the monsters openly laugh at each other’s misfortune. Godzilla’s not quite a superhero yet, still established as Chaotic Neutral after blowing up a boat. However, the series turn towards kid’s fantasy has irreversibly progressed. Later sequels would solidify this transition but the effect here is tonally uneven.

With everything else going in the movie, the script barely has time to introduce its titular monsters. The hour mark is nearly past when King Ghidorah finally burst from his meteorite. Monster fans are so used to King Ghidorah’s appearance that it might be easy to overlook what an achievement he was. Two massive wings, three slithering heads, two whipping tails, you wonder how Eiji Tsuburaya pulled it off, the wires not even visible. The creature is repeatedly described as massively powerful, capable of destroying entire civilizations. His initial appearance certainly makes an impressive. The monster flies over Tokyo, dissecting the buildings with his multiple lightening blasts. Entire blocks of buildings burst into flames. The monster’s seemingly satanic ability is established in a shot where he destroys a Shinto shrine, Ghidorah frame behind the gate in the distance.

As impressive as King Ghidorah is, he still falls short of his legacy. The four way battle between the heroic monsters and the deadly dragon has some great moment. Seeing Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra gang up on Ghidorah is a good time. Mothra crawling onto Rodan’s back, the two combining into a flying silk blaster, is especially memorable. Godzilla yanking on the monster’s tails is another amusing image. Ultimately though, for such an abominable, destructive force, Ghidorah proves awfully easy to defeat. He gets his heads cocooned, gets tossed over a cliff, and gets a few rocks thrown at him. This proves enough to dispel the mighty King Ghidorah. After all that build-up, it’s a bit of a let-down. The kaiju was naturally too memorable a threat to kill off forever but it certainly leaves the film without a strong climax.

Akira Ifukube once again provides his trademark score. Godzilla and Mothra get their respective themes, both used effectively. Ghidorah’s theme is a low brass note, not unlike King Kong’s theme in the third film. The Peanuts return again as the Shojibin, wondering around on miniature sets and talking in unison. Notably, they even testify in front of the Japanese congress. Once again, the two tiny singers sing an original number, this one about Mothra’s happiness or something. It’s definitely one of the Peanuts’ more sappy numbers and is inexplicably played twice throughout the film.

Like, “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” the film received a fairly respectful English dub. Ifukube’s score is once again replaced with generic library music which is disappointing. However, the second rendition of the Peanuts’ song is cut as well which might be an even trade. A few minor scenes, most involving the princess subplot, are removed and some others are shifted around. The dubbing is inoffensive and the pace is slightly snappier. The most pressing difference is that an “o” is dropped from Ghidorah’s name, rendering him King Ghidrah. It’s a funny little change, considering most of the future films would maintain the Japanese spelling.

“Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” is ultimately an overstuffed affair. The monster action, though a little silly at times, is still lots of fun. Doubling down on the monsters was a good decision and King Ghidorah remains one of the most iconic kaiju. However, the creature feature is almost forced out by the abundance of story lines, forcing a speedy, unsatisfying wrap-up. Future Toho monster mashes would be better balanced. There’s bound to be some bumps in the road. [Grade: B-] 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1964) Part 1

4. Mothra vs. Godzilla
Mosura tai Gojira / Godzilla vs. the Thing

After the massive success of “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” Toho recognizes the public's renewed interest in their mascot monster. It was clear Godzilla had to return. It was also clear that he probably couldn’t support another film on his own. Luckily, Toho had an extensive library of other giant monster movies at their disposal, creature characters they could use without paying royalties. Though they could have matched Godzilla against a number of monsters, the studio brain trust wisely decided on Mothra. The giant moth-goddess, previously seen in her 1961 solo debut, remains one of the studio’s most memorable, dynamic, and likable kaiju-creations. Pitting the reptilian Godzilla, a radiated mutant, against the graceful Mothra, a symbol of nature, was an inspired decision.

The story owes a debt to “King Kong vs. Godzilla” in another way. The two films share a very similar outline. During a typhoon, a massive egg washes up on the Japanese shore. Immediately, a pair of businessmen snatch the egg up with plans to exploit, building an amusement park around the egg and charging folks admission to see it. Naturally, the egg turns out to be the offspring of Mothra. Despite the pleas of the tiny beauties, Mothra’s miniature fairies, the greedy businessmen refuse to return the egg. Around the same time, Godzilla reappears, wreaking yet more havoc on Tokyo. The egg being threatened forces a truce between Mothra and the human world, both working together to deflect Godzilla’s attack.

The previous film was a parody on the greed and cynicism of the advertising world, a satirical comedy that also happened to feature giant monsters. “Mothra vs. Godzilla” handles a similar message from a slightly more serious approach. Greedy capitalist Kumayama, teaming up with unscrupulous millionaire Torahata, walks up to the giant egg on its first day in Japan, offering money to buy it. Later on, the heroes of the film present the men with Mothra’s magic fairies. Instead of being moved by their pleas, Kumayama instead offers to buy the miniature women. The movie mocks the greed of humanity, the men even refusing to return the egg after Japan is threatened by Godzilla. By film’s end, the two businessmen succumb to their own greed, violently turning on each other. The film comments on the path of greed without ever sinking to the silly parody of “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”

The Godzilla series have always had an ecological theme. “Mothra vs. Godzilla” brings this idea into sharp reflect. Midway through the film, the cast visits Infant Island, Mothra’ homeland. When last seen in ‘61’s “Mothra,” the island was a lush paradise, full of exotic, colorful flora. In this film, the island has been devastated by nuclear testing, reduced to brown, smoldering ashes. What natives have survived are hostile to outsiders, blaming them for the destruction. The pacifism of the Infant Island natives has been violated, their trust turned on. Even the fairies are reluctant to help the outsiders. Director Ishiro Honda’s anti-nuclear stance is enforced strongly without overdoing it. The script also provides a message of hope. Yoka’s pleas for help, accepting the burden of guilt onto her shoulders, begging for peace. Mothra, naturally, comes around, moved by the human’s prayer. By working together, Godzilla is repelled, the egg is saved, and order is restored. While shrouded in sci-fi monster movie metaphor, the movie’s message of world peace and cooperation is clear.

“Mothra vs. Godzilla” benefits from having one of the most likable human cast of any of the Showa films. A story device that would be used repeatedly in the future, the film’s heroes are news reporters. The newsroom cast has a quick chemistry with each other that makes for compelling viewing. Hero Ichiro Sakai is a handsome, wholesome crack reporter with just enough wry cynicism to make him interesting. Akira Takarada’s acting skills have obviously improved since his debut in the original “Godzilla,” as Ichiro proves far more charming then the bland Ogato. The female lead of the flick, Junko, proves to be the story’s emotional heart, her pleas for peace especially affecting. Yuriko Hoshi gives an excellent performance, providing warmth to the material. Even the newsroom bit players prove memorable. Hardboiled editor Arota, played by Jun Tazaki, is dryly hilarious, responding to the shenanigans around him with muted grouchiness. Tazaki has a great back-and-forth with Yu Fujiki, who plays the egg-obsessed Jiro, the frequent whipping boy of the editor. Too often the human elements of these kaiju films are dull and forgettable but the cast and characters here are memorable. You’d like to spend more time with these guys.

Even the film’s villains are unusually amusing. Yoshifumi Yajima hams it up nicely as Kumayama. He sinks his teeth into every line, his body language portraying a shyster nicely. Kenji Sahara is similarly despicable as Torahata, the movie’s other villain. A memorable moment is a phone conversation between the two greedy men. Kumayama swears silently to himself while asking for money, Torahata nonchalantly hitting on his secretary at the same time. The two make for very human villains, motivated not by a world-dominating plot but by simple human avarice. The two turning on each seems inevitable, their greed consuming them.

Ah, but what about the monsters? “Mothra vs. Godzilla” is focused more on the big bug, Godzilla not making an appearance until a half-hour in. Despite his belated appearance, the movie makes the most of the King of the Monsters. He gets an impressive entrance, his tail exploding from under the ground, the movement punctuated by Akira Ifukube’s music. The monster shakes the dirt off before continuing on his rampage. Godzilla’s behavior here is presented differently then in previous films. While marching through Nagoya, the monster gets his tail stuck on a television tower, stumbling forward, bringing down the tower and an additional building. Later, he trips over a small ledge, slamming into a castle. Godzilla’s rampage isn’t malicious. Instead, he’s a natural force, destruction simply part of his nature. The behavior frames Godzilla as even more of a classical monster then ever. He’s simply too big for this world. Godzilla’s neutral nature is further solidified when he winds up crushing the film’s villains.

Despite this somewhat sympathetic characterization, “Mothra vs. Godzilla” is the last time in the Showa era Godzilla would be a true villain. The monster can’t coexist with humanity, one likely to destroy the other. For the first time, the Japanese army actually has a proper plan to counteract the kaiju. The army pushes Godzilla away from the city with napalm, luring him into a trap. His weakness to electricity established by now, Godzilla is attacked with a high voltage lines and, later on, huge steel nets electrified with cartoonish energy bolts. Surprisingly, the army actually comes close to finishing Godzilla this time, getting him on the ground and on the count. Its man’s own hubris that winds up freeing the monster, perhaps feeding into the film’s theme of humanity’s destructive nature.

The effects are impressive too. While the previous film featured an impressive suit, the Godzilla suit here is another stand-out. The yellow eyes and longer claws are ditched. However, the monster’s head is more rounded, a perpetual grimace molded onto his face. His body is leaner and more flexible. The monster’s destruction is brought to life fantastically. Once again, he melts tanks and electric towers into hot, red, molten steel. At the end, the monster even melts rocks. A notable moment involves Godzilla getting sprayed with napalm, the suit’s head visibly aflame! Haruo Nakajima, by now a veteran performer of the character, actually gives an excellent performance. Godzilla has a personable body language. He rolls around on the ground, spraying his nuclear breath erratically. Nakajima gifts the monster with tiny character quirks, shaking his spines and head. Godzilla has never looked or acted better.

Mothra, always one of Tsuburaya’s most dynamic creations, also gets shown off. The giant insect is imbued with a great deal of personality, its head and legs quivering. The sped-up footage during the final fight is a little awkward but adds energy to the battle. The fight between Godzilla and mama Mothra is certainly an exciting conflict. Mothra drags Godzilla around by his tail, slamming into the monster. My favorite moment is the moth scratching at Godzilla’s head, quickly darting around him, delivering small blows in fast succession. Once again, Godzilla seemingly meets his match, covered with poison powder. That is before he gets in a lucky, fatal shot. Mothra slowly fluttering to the ground, using her last will of life to protect her egg, is actually sort of touching. Compared to Godzilla’s force of destruction, Mothra is protective and forgiving.

The sight of two Mothra larvae emerging from the egg is actually a decent surprise, a nice last act reveal. At first, the idea of two giant caterpillars getting one over on Godzilla seems unlikely. The movie pulls it off. The two larvae cocoon the King of Monster while dodging behind rocks, avoiding the monster’s atomic spray. It makes for an exciting climax, the less powerful kaiju getting the upper hand on the all-powerful Godzilla by out-strategizing him. The battle is further powered by Ifukube’s score. Godzilla’s theme makes a dark impact, providing a power behind the monster’s action. Godzilla’s trumpeting theme blends and contrasts nicely with Mothra’s lusher, romantic theme. Furthermore, the worms are fantastic creations. Their bobbing motion conveys a life-like energy. My favorite moment is the one larva shaking on the ground after getting a whack from Godzilla’s tail. The little Mothras never seem like stiff puppets but instead living beings.

The movie’s only major flaw is its somewhat awkward script construction. While Godzilla is still active in the city, the heroes move off to Infant Island, trying to get Mothra on their side. The villains are disposed with still a half-hour of run time to go. Godzilla defeats the mother Mothra and continues his rampage, the babies not making their debut for a while more. With most of the conflicts resolved, the script has to cook up a new problem in the last act. Suddenly, the newsroom trio have to rescue a stranded school teacher and her students while Godzilla rampages near-by. It, ultimately, distracts little from the movie’s enjoyment. However, it’s not exactly a smooth ride.

Unlike the previous three Godzilla films, “Mothra vs. Godzilla” wasn’t butchered upon arriving in America. The film was left almost completely intact, the story progressing the same, Ifukube’s score maintained. A new scene was inserted but, thankfully, it’s not a bunch of boring dudes sitting around and talking. Instead, the new sequence is Godzilla fighting a fleet of American battleships. It’s an exciting moment, full of explosions and special effects. I’m honestly not sure why it wasn’t included in the Japanese version. Most of the changes have to do with American International Picture’s baffling advertising campaign. The movie was retitled “Godzilla vs. the Thing” and Mothra’s identity was kept a secret. While referring to the giant egg as “The Thing” rather fits the character’s exploitative attitudes, I imagine Monster Kids of the time being rather disappointed that the Thing turned out to be, neither James Arness nor Ben Grimm, but a big bug.

Even the dubbing is pretty good. What little clipping did happen actually speeds things up a bit, making the American version arguably better paced. In either version, “Mothra vs. Godzilla” is a great kaiju flick, brisk, fun, and entertaining. It’s easily one of the high water-marks for the entire Godzilla franchise. [Grade: B+] 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1962)

3. King Kong vs. Godzilla
Kingu Kongu tai Gojira

After the mediocre critical and fan reaction to “Godzilla Raids Again,” the King of the Monsters was put in cold storage for seven years. During that time, Toho produced a number of other science fiction and giant monster movies, from “Varan the Unbelievable” and “The Mysterians” to eventual Godzilla co-stars “Rodan” and “Mothra,” most of them in searing color. Meanwhile, in America, original King Kong creator Willis O’Brien was shopping around a sequel to his seminal monster movie in which Kong would have battled a giant version of Frankenstein’s Monster. Through a convoluted series of events, the King Kong sequel idea made its way to Toho. Godzilla’s first film was inspired by Kong and, even in the early sixties, the giant gorilla was far more popular in Japan then their native monster. Even then, the studio realized that if Kong was to fight someone, it should be Godzilla. (The giant Frankenstein would eventually show up in a different movie.) “King Kong vs. Godzilla” was the first time Godzilla was seen in color. In addition to inspiring later monster crossover flicks, it revived interest in Godzilla and set the precedence for the many sequels to come.

It also signaled a major shift in tone. “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” at least in its original Japanese version, is boldly comedic, a satire of corporate advertisement. The film even seems to mock the sci-fi films of the era, when the sinister-narration-assisted opening shot of Earth is revealed to take place on a television set. The plot isn’t motivated by concerns of nuclear war but rather the petty whims of a pharmaceutical company’s advertising wing. You see, the science show the company sponsors has shitty ratings. The boss, Mr. Tako, decides a giant monster would be the perfect mascot for the company. Luckily, one of the show’s researchers says such a beast lives on near-by Faro Island. This, of course, turns out to be King Kong, who is quickly subdued and brought to Japan. Simultaneously, an American submarine crashes into the iceberg containing Godzilla, freeing the monster, setting him on a warpath towards Tokyo, naturally. It’s only a matter of time before the two titanic beasts met up and start rumblin’.

The advertising satire winds up being far more entertaining then it has any right to be. Upon arriving on Faro Island, hero Sakurai and comic relief sidekick Kinsaburo bribe the natives with cigarettes. Even a little kid wants one of the smokes. The native islander shtick is either hacky sci-fi writing at its best/worse or an intentional parody of similar portrayals in older films. When Godzilla first appears, Mr. Tako isn’t worried about the monster stomping on innocent people. Instead, he is enraged that another giant creature would dare steal his company’s lime-light. When Kong is discovered, and takes over the press, he is overjoyed, happy to see Godzilla out of the papers. Even when the giant ape is wrecking Tokyo, Tako is more concerned with his company’s image. You’d think the gorilla smashing a city would be bad for publicity… Some of Tako’s more slap-stick moments are hard to take but the film’s sense of humor proves surprisingly fresh.

The movie also gleefully pokes fun at itself. Even before Kong and Godzilla first meet up, people idlely chat about who would win in a fight. Tako states the idea as ridiculous, saying this is real life, not a wrestling match. The self-aware conflict becomes a running joke in the film, characters remarking several times on the outcome of the inevitable fight. Bets are even placed, money resting on the verdict. Compared to the grim tones of the previous two Godzilla films, “King Kong vs. Godzilla” shows a refreshing change of pace.

The shift in style also affects the film’s content. The movie is goofier overall which makes some of the sillier plot developments easier to swallow. A minor subplot involves Sakurai’s sister and her boyfriend Kazuo. Kazuo, out of nowhere, reveals that he has invented a super-strong but super-thin wire. This winds up being Chekov’s Wire. Later in the film, with the assistance of some huge hot-air balloons, the wire is used to transport Kong from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji. Another silly element involves the Japanese Self-Defense Force digging a massive hole in the ground, big enough to trap Godzilla. I mean, that’s a real big hole. But the movie goes one step further, covering the hole with a grass-covered mesh. Godzilla winds up falling for a trap that wouldn’t fool Daffy Duck. There’s even some dry humor when Japan’s prime minister keeps a stiff upper lip when faced with the news of the competing giant monsters. As absurd as some of these plot developments are, the audience takes it in stride. The script’s good-nature goofiness makes just about anything possible.

Ultimately, we’re here for the monsters and the film recognizes this. Both Kong and Godzilla get stand-out moments of their own before facing off. Godzilla was given a fearsome redesign for this film. His head is more crocodilian, topped off with striking yellow eyes. His back spines are larger and more jagged, his claws sharper and more pronounced. More muscular arms and bulkier thighs make him the kaiju-equivalent of a power-lifter. Even his roar is changed, gaining a slightly higher pitch, becoming the familiar skreeonk used throughout the rest of the series. It is surely one of the best looks the monster would sport during the Showa era.

Godzilla gets plenty of action too. His early attack on an Arctic army base is notable. Seems like the military was ready for the monster this time, tanks and missile launchers rolling out immediately upon his appearance. However, once again, the machines are powerless against the kaiju. One of the film’s most striking moments involves Godzilla melting one of the tanks with his atomic breath. I also enjoy his tail smashing the various buildings. A surprising amount of tension is generated when Godzilla attacks a train, the focus kept on the fleeing masses, Kazuo hoping to get to Fumiko before Godzilla does. Even the Big G’s tumble into the pit has a certain dynamism to it. While the movie itself has a silly streak, Godzilla is no less fearsome then in his previous appearances.

King Kong fares less well compared to his rival. In order to compete against Godzilla, Toho gave Kong a major size boost, quadrupling the big ape in size. Even more strangely, Kong was given a super power, drawing his strength from lightening and gaining a fatal electric touch. Perhaps these were hold-overs from the earlier Frankenstein concept? Kong proves to be an awkward fit for Toho’s house style. Despite obviously being the more sympathetic of the two monsters, Kong still stomps on homes and shatters skyscrapers with giant knuckle sandwiches. Most notably, he lifts a train, brutally killing all but one of its occupants. That scene exists mostly to get Fumiko in the big ape’s mitts. Because you can’t have a Kong movie without him climbing a building with a lovely lady in his hand. However, it’s a little out of character for this Kong, who showed no previous attraction to human females. Secondly, Toho’s jumbo-sized Kong looks a little silly straddling the Diet Building’s famous pyramid roof. (To show that kaiju know no political affiliation, Kong wrecks the Diet too, just like Godzilla did back in ’54.)

Kong looks silly for other reasons too. The gorilla suit used here is widely regarded as one of Toho’s least dignified kaiju suits. It truly is an unglamorous design. The brown fur is matted and ruffled. Kong’s exposed breasts make it look like he has Salisbury steak stapled to his chest. Awkwardly, the gorilla’s arms randomly change in length. In some long shots, he has clownish long arms, the motionless hands flopping back and forth. In other scenes, he has shorter arms and opposable fingers. The suit is weak looking but the hand-puppet used for close of his face is even worse. The eyes are too wide, shifting wildly, while his jaws extend out comically far. During his big entrance, Kong grapples with a giant octopus. You know something’s wrong when the octopus, brought to life through a combination of a real animal on miniature sets and a saran-wrapped puppet, outshines the top-billed beastie. No scene is more ridiculous then when the empty suit is air-lifted by the balloons. Man, does that look bad. Eiji Tsuburaya supposedly had a great love for Kong and wanted to put his own mark on the famous creature. Unfortunately, that’s what he wound up doing but in all the wrong ways.

The movie takes its time getting the two colossal combatants together. The kaiju cross paths at the film’s middle point. However, Godzilla gets the big monkey to flee with one blast of his fiery breath. The two monsters don’t come together until the final twenty minutes. The fight is worth the weight. The iconic tussle is given an iconic backdrop, the kaiju battling up and down Mount Fuji. Ironically recalling earlier comments, the fight is rather blatantly patterned after pro-wrestling bouts. Kong slides into Godzilla, rolling a ridiculous looking model down the mountain side. The gorilla sneaks up on Gojira, yanks on his tail. Kong tosses giant boulders at Godzilla, Godzilla kicks huge stones onto Kong. The monkey tackles the dinosaur and Godzilla thuds Kong on the head with his tail. Even with the lackluster gorilla suit, I imagine monster kids in 1963 were more then satisfied with this brawl.

The fight also predicts the direction the Godzilla series would take in future sequels. The two mothers are far more anthromorphized then in previous encounters. Of course Kong beats his chest. In order to compete, Godzilla has a habit of waving his arms around in victory. The combat is far more exaggerated and comical. Kong spins Godzilla around by his tail and flips him over his shoulder. In probably the film’s most iconic moment, Kong shoves a tree down Godzilla’s throat, causing his atomic breath to backfire on him. The fantastic suit performances are sometimes interrupted by unconvincing stop-motion or puppet work. Godzilla developing a weakness to electricity, contradicting the previous film’s events, might be a screenwriting cop-out. Sure. But you can’t deny its cool when the two monsters tear through Atami Castle before making their climatic tumble into the sea.

For both monsters’ belated return to the big screen, Toho reassembled Godzilla’s original fathers. Ishiro Honda was reportedly unhappy with the film’s more comedic tone. If that’s true, he didn’t let it get him down. Honda’s direction is as sharp as ever. I especially like a sharp cut between Kong’s roaring face and a roaring lion on television. Also back is composer Akira Ifukube. Boy, was he missed. Each monster gets an immediately recognizable theme. Godzilla’s iconic military march is refined into its more famous sound. Kong is signaled by a low woodwind and a following rumble. Even the big octopus gets its' own theme. The score is excellent and one of my favorite Ifukube works. Even the cast is solid, featuring future Bond girl Mie Hama, the stone-faced Sensho Matsumoto, and lovely “Sex and Fury” co-star Akemi Negishi as the most attractive dancer on Fero Island.

The original Japanese version is a real hoot, a delightfully comic-book duel between two of the greatest monsters to grace cinemas. The American version of “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” meanwhile, is a far less smooth affair. The majority of the humor is excised, all the advertising satire removed. Any of the humor that’s left is obscured by the awful dubbing, new lines about corns and atom bombs inserted. The new audio frequently doesn’t match the actor’s lips and none of the voice-over actors even attempt a Japanese accent. Worse, the action is constantly interrupted by new scenes filmed for the American version. The entire film is framed around a news broadcast, featuring a smug newscaster, a bland Japanese correspondent, and a rambling science expert who drops completely useless knowledge nuggets. The new edit even has the gull to cut away from the monsters back to these lame-os. As obnoxious as that is, at least most of the monster fight is retained. Less forgivable is Ifukube’s score being completely traded out for stock music. Listen for the notorious motif from “Creature from the Black Lagoon” to pop up a few times. Unfortunately, Universal maintains the North American rights and has shown no interest in releasing the Japanese version over here, not even on the upcoming Blu-Ray. Luckily, the Japanese original can be found with a little internet effort.

“King Kong vs. Godzilla” would be the most attended film in the Godzilla series and a huge hit for Toho. The movie’s success would prompt Toho to give Godzilla another chance, birthing the long-running, much beloved series. The film not only made future team-ups mandatory, it also signaled the series shift towards a lighter, more kid-friendly tone. [Kingu Kongu tai Gojira: A-] [King Kong vs. Godzilla: C]

Bangers n' Mash 36: Scream Queens

Here's a new episode of Bangers n' Mash. I'm too tired to say anything really pithy right now so... This one is about Scream Queens, you know, famous actresses in the horror genre. Hopefully, neither of us say anything super-sexist and offensive during its run time. Also, the video contains, go figure, screaming so you should probably turn your speakers down a bit.

Anyway, the Godzilla report card will resume tomorrow. I promise.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1955)

2. Godzilla Raids Again
Gojira no gyakushu / Gigantis, the Fire Monster

Godzilla was, more or less, the first of his kind. He certainly wasn’t the first giant monster on screen. However, aside from a possibly apocryphal unofficial King Kong sequel, Godzilla was the first Japanese Daikaiju, a giant monster brought to life through the magic of rubber suits and miniature city sets. The first ‘Gojira” was the most expensive film Toho had made at the time and also one of its biggest hits. Expectantly, a sequel was immediately rushed into production, released within six months of the original. It’s unlikely that anyone involved realized that “Godzilla Raids Again” would be the start of a sixty year, on-going legacy. It was the first Godzilla sequel and the first in which the monster battled another giant beast. It is also, unfortunately, nowhere near as good as the first one.

While the original “Godzilla” easily elevated itself above its B-movie roots with powerful subtext and sheer visceral intensity, “Godzilla Raids Again” is a far more typical fifties sci-fi flick. In the original, the monster didn’t appear until the twenty minute mark, the audience not getting a clear look at him until even later. In the sequel, Godzilla and his rival appear at the six minute mark, wrestling each other in full view. Instead of ransacking Tokyo, Godzilla burns Osaka to the ground. When Godzilla comes ashore, the military faces him with missile launchers and canons. Once again, the monster shrugs off the attacks, kicking the tanks around. Aside from blatantly emulating the original’s formula, the only concrete connection “Godzilla Raids Again” has to the first film is a brief appearance by Dr. Yamane. Yamane, played once again by Takashi Shimura, is meant to play as weary, his prophecy of another Godzilla appearing coming true. However, Shimura seems more bored then exhausted. He explains that Godzilla is unstoppable, the Oxygen Destroyer gets a mention, and some rather effectively silent stock footage from the first flick is shown. Aside from that, this Godzilla flick is stand-alone.

The main attraction of the film, as it would be with so many of the sequels, is the battle between the two monsters. Anguirus would later become the Robin to Godzilla’s Batman, his plucky but wildly under-prepared sidekick. Here, the two kaiju are at each other’s throat, fighting brutally. Anguirus is nearly as good of a design as Godzilla. Inspired by the ankylosaurus, and blatantly referred to such in the Japanese version, the monster has a distinctive crown of horns on his head. The spiked-lined shell on his back makes for a truly memorable image, topped off with a long, spiny tail. Another first is that Anguirus, unlike the bipedal Godzilla, walks on all fours. It’s not surprising that Anguirus would go on to become a fan favorite, as he’s a truly impressive character.

Unlike the theatrical pro-wrestling style battles of the sequels, the monster fight here is more up-close and personal. Godzilla and Anguirus grapple with each other like titanic sumo-wrestlers. The two slam into each other, clawing, biting, and slashing. The city is their battleground. The monsters stomp on buildings, splash through water, and roll around in the rubble. Compared to the lumbering motion of the first movie, Godzilla moves much more smoothly. He looks a little odd when standing on his hind-legs but Anguirus’ movements are effectively animalistic. While the sped-up footage of the fight is a bit distracting, it does add a level of ferocity to the battle. As in the first, the kaiju are sometimes played by stiff hand puppets, snapping at each other’s faces. While the puppets do not match the costume’s faces, I like them anyway, especially Godzilla’s snaggle toothed mouth. Godzilla’s finishing move, smashing Anguirus through Osaka Castle, is deeply satisfying. His death blow, snapping Anguirus’ spine with his jaws, is the King of the Monsters at his most brutal. The battle is easily the highlight of the flick and a blast for any kaiju fan.

Bafflingly, it’s also placed in the middle of the movie. Godzilla vanquishes his foe and slinks off into the ocean, Osaka left in ruins. Any pacing the movie had set up grinds to a halt as the focus shifts back to the dull human characters. The love triangle of the original “Gojira” was somewhat cumbersome but at least featured powerful performances and was organically woven into the monster action. Here, the human drama distracts substantially. Bland hero-type Tsukioka and his portly friend Kobayashi are pilots for a fish cannery. Tsukioka flirts over two-way radio with his radio operator girlfriend Yamaji. After the exciting city destruction, the movie bizarrely focuses on what the fish cannery business is going to do in the wake of the disaster. A long scene in the middle of the film focuses on Kobayashi’s possibly unrequited love of the company’s daughter. The daughter is a character kept completely off-screen, devaluing any investment the viewer might have in the subplot. A later scene, where Kobayashi asks Yamaji about what gifts girls like, works slightly better. The characters are quite thinly sketched but Minoru Chiaki and Setusko Wakayama give decent performances. However, by then, the damage has been done. The human subplots void much of the excitement the monster scenes generate.

Even more bizarrely, the film throws in another distracting subplot. As Godzilla is marching towards the city, we cut to a police transport truck full of criminals. They very easily, unconvincingly, turn the tables on the cops before escaping. This escape plan winds up servicing the plot, resulting in a fire that attracts the monsters back to the island. However, the tonal shift is truly inexplicable. Even after the monsters start wrasslin’, the movie returns to the escaped criminals. In his first quasi-heroic action, Godzilla winds up inadvertently killing the crooks. The monsters crash a building, causing a river to flood the subway tunnel, drowning the baddies. The flooding tunnel is an exciting special effect but the mating effect of the rushing waves is awkward.

The final act is even more awkwardly paced. Godzilla returns to the ice-choked island he was discovered on, the Japanese air force cornering him. Kobayashi sacrifices himself to start the avalanche that buries Godzilla. The audience barely has time to process the character’s death before the action shifts again. The heroes regroup, go back to the city, before returning to the island with more bombs. During this time, Godzilla somehow doesn’t escape. I guess he forgot he has an atomic breath weapon that can melt ice. While there’s something iconic about the classic monster being buried in ice, the film’s climax is unnecessarily protracted.

“Godzilla Raids Again” lacks much of the visceral punch of the original. The film is mostly concerned with kaiju fightin’ and makes no attempt to invoke the horrors of World War II. Save for one scene. Before Godzilla marches on the city, we see the romantic couple dancing in a nightclub. The scene is scored to a rather lovely romantic ballad, the camera sweeping over the dancing lovers. The music is interrupted by a sudden warning that the monster has been spotted outside the city. The sense of panic that overcomes the crowd is keenly felt. All the lights in the city turn off, bathing Osaka in darkness. The scene is silent, save for the drone of airplanes overhead. It’s an effective moment and the only one that compares to the intensity of the first feature.

The excellent monster action of “Godzilla Raids Again” winds up not being enough to save the film from its sluggish pacing and pedestrian drama. Even the score is less exciting, Masaru Sato stepping in for Akira Ifukube. The music isn’t bad, especially a driving military theme. However, it lacks the personality of Ifukube’s iconic work. Similarly, Motoyoshi Oda’s direction isn’t as strong as Ishiro Honda’s work on the predecessor. Oda’s direction is more concerned with moody scenes of characters talking in dark rooms. He shows little interest in building tension.

“Gojira” met some reediting in its state-side version but still maintain most of the original’s power. “Godzilla Raids Again,” meanwhile, suffered some serious rejiggering in its American release as “Gigantis, the Fire Monster.” The film was hampered by constant unending narration, some provided by the main characters, other by an omniscient narrator. Stock music crowds over many of the scenes, replacing the effective silence of the original with thudding noise. A film with existing pacing problems is further ruined by the random insertion of stock-footage, some of it from military newsreels, some of it from educational documentaries, some of it even from other movies. The dubbing is embarrassing, Kobayashi saddled with an obnoxious doofus voice. The dialogue, which features such gems as “Banana oil!” and “What a guy!,” is equally tin-eared. Strangest of all, a monster that is obviously Godzilla is renamed “Gigantis,” considered a brand new monster. Some time, Anguiles and the Big G even switch roars. “Gigantis the Fire Monster” makes the intrusive and sometimes awkward “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” seem elegant in comparison.

“Godzilla Raids Again” is a ho-hum sequel, despite introducing the kaiju battle concept. While profitable, its Japanese box office receipts didn’t meet the first film’s success. The American “Gigantis,” meanwhile, was ignored and derided. Godzilla wasn’t quite the multimedia superstar he would be in time, stumbling a bit on his sophomore rampage. It would take a royal rumble with an established monster superstar to turn Godzilla into the true King of the Monsters. [Godzilla Raids Again: C+] [Gigantis the Fire Monster: D+]