Thursday, November 23, 2017

Number 2 - "Son of Godzilla" (1967)



"Son of Godzilla" may be a lot higher on my list than most other Godzilla fans, but I feel this one has more charm and likability than any other movie in the franchise.

When I was a kid, I despised this film. I always considered the titular son of Godzilla, Minilla, as annoying, irritating, and made Godzilla look uncool. But as I've grown old, there was a child-like whimsy to Minilla that made me smile and I soon realized that he added much more to character of Godzilla than ever before.

As I grow older, the more I appreciate and love "Son of Godzilla." Which is odd, considering that it is the most light-hearted and comical Godzilla film. Then again, this does make it more endearing and relatable.

The plot revolves around a group of researchers have been running weather experiments on a island in the south pacific, while also avoiding the large mantis' running around the island. But when one of their experiments goes wrong, thanks to unnatural brain waves interfering with their equipment, unbearable heat and radiation is sent upon the island, mutating the mantis to the size of Godzilla.

These mantis', nicknamed Kamacuras, eventually track down the source of the brain waves - an egg containing a baby Godzilla. Before the mantis' can kill the baby, the adult Godzilla shows up to reluctantly raise his adopted son Minilla and raise him in the values he holds near and dear.

What I love the most about "Son Of Godzilla" is how it evolves the character Godzilla, by actually giving him a character. Before this film, Godzilla was just a monster - a living atomic bomb that could not be stopped and would fight any other monster that got in his way. But now, he has another life to worry about besides his own. And he intends to make his kid into another version of him, a cold, uncaring, unstoppable creature of destruction.



Minilla is a curious and playful child, which leads to many comedic scenes when he wants to play but Godzilla is uninterested. Some of the better scenes are just Minilla trying to have fun while Godzilla sleeps, like when he plays jump rope with his tail.

But over the course of the film, even Godzilla begins to realize that Minilla is not like him. Minilla does not want to destroy other living beings, as he seems to avoid fighting Kamacuras, and wants to make friends with the humans on the island.

Godzilla has to stop being a monster, and become a mentor. One of the better scenes in the film is when Godzilla has to teach Minilla how to properly roar and use his atomic breath. After Minilla lets out a loud shriek, rather than his usual donkey-like noises, Godzilla nods in slight approval, though still seems a bit disappointed.

My favorite touch in the film is that Minilla hides in fear when Godzilla uses his atomic breath. His eyes widen, as if he's afraid Godzilla will use it on him. Yet Minilla knows he can emit that same fire, but chooses not to. Which is probably why Godzilla threatens to get physical with Minya when his son does not want to practice anymore, giving us Minilla's comedic smoke rings and Godzilla stepping on his tail to finally get the atomic fire out of him.

The suit acting from both Godzilla and Minilla is superb here, displaying a varied range of emotions that make these scenes so enjoyable and hilarious. Instead of Godzilla's usual bestial presence, we get a more laid-back and slightly irritated Godzilla, while Minilla is as mischievous as he is adorable.

Although, if there is one complaint I have with this movie, it is the ugly Godzilla suit. The giant head and massive eye balls are really jarring, making it hard to look at after a while. But that's just a minor nitpick to an otherwise lovable movie.

One of the themes in "Son Of Godzilla" is the current generations need to protect future generations. The reason these scientists are on the island is so they can run their weather experiments, which they could use on non-fertile lands in Africa and South America in order to produce enough food to sustain the growing human population.

The same theme is used with Godzilla. He is not just one creature now, but the provider for the next generation. He has to sacrifice his own needs and desires, so that his race can survive long past himself.



The screenplay for "Son of Godzilla" is perfectly paced, with each line of dialogue carrying weight and every scene serving a purpose to the overall story. The human characters are likable yet flawed, especially the professor in charge of the mission, who is so focused on completing the experiment that he doesn't realize that this island is taking its toll on his students.

But what really made me fall in love with "Son of Godzilla" is its ending. My most memorable Godzilla films tend to have stellar endings - "Destroy All Monsters," "King Kong vs. Godzilla," "Shin Godzilla" and "Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II" save their best scenes for the ending, and "Son of Godzilla" does the same thing.

As the human characters start up their weather machine one last time, planning to use the ensuing storm to escape from the monsters, Minilla and Godzilla get in a battle with the other giant monster on the island, a giant spider named Kumonga. The fight is slower than most, but just as exciting when the spider injects his poison into Godzilla's eye. This allows Minilla to step up and finally show some courage to protect his father.



The fight gets even better when the snow storm hits the island and three continue even as the snow builds up around them. As far as I recall, this is the only fight in the series to take place in a snow storm, which adds to the visuals as the monsters start moving slower, as well as seeing the snow and ice building up on their bodies.

The two Godzilla's use their combined atomic breaths to defeat Kumonga and they share a hardy roar in victory. With the temperature dropping rapidly, it is becoming too cold for anything to survive. Godzilla has enough strength to leave the island, but Minilla is too weak, as he stumbles in the snow, reaching for Godzilla's help. While Godzilla thinks for a second about leaving Minilla there, he cannot bring himself to do that and turns around, embracing his adopted son in a tight embrace as the two are covered up in snow together, entering a long hibernation.

And so Godzilla's character development is complete. He goes from ruthless, cold and unforgiving to a creature with a purpose. This is the one Godzilla movie where it doesn't feel like Godzilla is a monster, but instead a flawed guardian trying to protect the next generation.



This is also the only scene in the series that makes me cry. Sad scenes in cinema rarely make me cry, but incredibly happy scenes where everything works out perfectly give me the biggest smile and tears of joy. The ending to "Son Of Godzilla" is one of compassion, sacrifice and pitch-perfect character development.

It is like watching a father realize how much he cares about his son. That he loves his child more than he loves himself and he would do anything to keep that bond alive. No matter what happens him, his son deserves to live his own life. This is nothing short of breath-taking and heart-warming.

The fact that any scene between two actors in rubber suits while being covered in thick snow makes me feel emotional is true test to the power of "Son Of Godzilla."

"Son Of Godzilla" is certainly the most unique and beautiful film in the Godzilla franchise. Complimented by a vibrant color scheme, great use of its island setting and a joyful score by Masaru Sato, this film is gorgeous to behold and listen to. Minilla is adorable in his child-like innocence and curiosity, and gives the film the emotional punch that it needs. The monster fight scenes are tense and interwoven into the plot without feeling forced or unnecessary. But most importantly, this film gives Godzilla a heart alongside his awe and power.

 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Number 3 - "Godzilla" (1954)



These final three films in my Godzilla-thon are, in my opinion, all perfect A+ movies. These three movies range from deep thought-provoking tales about the horrors of nuclear aggression, to an emotional and uplifting film with superb storytelling, to one of the most exciting and fun movies I've ever seen. Each of them is a masterpiece in their own way and it is almost impossible for me to pick one of them over the other.

In that case, this comes down to my choice of favorites and which film leaves a bigger impact on me. Which is why the original 1954 "Godzilla" only comes in at number three on my countdown. Make no mistake - the first Godzilla is not only the most important film in the franchise, but the most important daikaiju film ever made. It basically created an entire genre and style of filmmaking. And while that genre has been diluted and changed over the years, "Godzilla" remains just as shocking and poignant today as it was in 1954. This is the "Citizen Kane" of giant monster movies, transcending its genre to be a great movie in general.

Part of the reason "Godzilla" still holds up today is, like "Shin Godzilla," because of the focus on Japanese identity and its people. When this film came out, Japan was still healing from their defeat in World War II. The government was in shambles, major cities were still being rebuilt from the ground up, and they had a genuine fear after having two atomic bombs dropped on them. The Japanese people were broken at this time, still searching for their new identity in this world.

"Godzilla" emphasizes this by taking its monster attacking the city concept, but turns it on its head - Instead of being about the monster, it's about the city and the people being stomped and burned by the monster. Some of the most powerful moments in this movie are smaller moments that show individuals reacting to Godzilla, including shots of people looking up at Godzilla from inside their apartment complex just as the monster destroys the entire building without a second thought, or the brave firefighters attempt to put out Godzilla's radioactive flames but end up being surrounded by a sea of fire, or the survivors of Godzilla's attack watching helplessly as the monster tears apart their city, yet cheering their hearts out when fighter jets arrive to drive Godzilla away.



Even from the opening of the film, this focus on Japan's reaction to the terror is brought into the light. "Godzilla" opens with a fishing ship bursting into flames and sinking into the ocean. As soon as the Japanese officials find out about this, they send out another ship to investigate, only for that boat to be destroyed in the same way. Their headquarters are crowded with the families and loved ones of those who were on those ships, hoping, and waiting to hear news about the fate of the crewmen. When they get word there were two survivors, the room is sent into a state of panic, everyone hoping that its their loved ones that made it out alive.

Not a lot of focus is put on these grieving widows and loved ones, but it is enough to make a point that this is a tale about people coming to terms with the horror that they now face.

But the big sticking point in "Godzilla" is its focus on nuclear weapons. Not only is Godzilla awoken from his slumber by hydrogen bomb testing, but he has been transformed by the bomb, mutated to a point no creature should be able to withstand, yet he has survived. Godzilla's design screams of pain, from the many tiny bumps and wrinkles on his skin that suggests being burned and scarred by the blast, to his amalgamation of many dinosaurs, complete with creepy piercing yet unblinking white eyes.

On top of that, Godzilla is a physical manifestation of the atomic bomb. He is indestructible, cold, uncaring, and kills without prejudice or intent. Anything he touches is reduced to rubble or ash, contaminated with radiation that would kill everything else. You cannot fight it or reason with it, and all he leaves is a massive wave of destruction. You're only hope against something like this is run, but even then you probably can't run fast enough.



This makes his rampage through Tokyo one of the most chilling scenes I've ever seen, as the living atomic bomb tears through the city without remorse or feelings. Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects almost make this scene look like a documentary as Godzilla bites into the side of a tower with news reporters on it, watching them fall to their deaths while Tokyo burns. All the excitement and thrill of monster destruction is replaced with fear and sympathy in this scene, as we bare witness to a society's obliteration.

"Godzilla" sheds a different light on nuclear weapons though. It's one thing to say that all atomic weapons are bad and should be destroyed, but "Godzilla" takes it a step further with the character of Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who has developed a weapon that is stronger than a hydrogen bomb, the Oxygen Destroyer. Serizawa uses his creation to make an interesting point - man will always try to create a more efficient killing machine at whatever cost. This led to the creation of mustard gas in the first World War, then to nuclear weapons in the second world war, and that led to Godzilla's creation. We will always look for ways to pervert science to the benefit of weaponry and killing our fellow man, which is why Serizawa is so reluctant to hand over the Oxygen Destroyer to the rest of the world.



This not only makes "Godzilla" a sympathetic portrait of Japanese society, but a poignant film about the escalation of our weaponry, always attempting to make a bigger and better bomb than before. And the point of the movie is that we're now paying for that aggression and inherent destruction with a living incarnation of those weapons destroying us.

"Godzilla" is smart, chilling, mysterious when it wants to be, and yet surprisingly uplifting. It takes the idea of a giant monster's rampage and makes it about something relevant to the rest of the world by making it about people instead of the monster. This is one of the greatest monster movies ever made, and one of the most important movies to come out of Japan. If you only ever watch one daikaiju film, make sure it is the Japanese version of "Godzilla."

 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Number 4 - "Shin Godzilla" (2016)



I'm amazed at how divided Godzilla fans are about the newest entry in the series, 2016's "Shin Godzilla." It feels like fans are cut right down the middle, with half saying dubbing it "C-SPANzilla" and saying it is a bore, while the other half is absolutely in love with this film. Count me in the "love" portion, because I adore nearly every moment of this movie for one reason or another.

To me, "Shin Godzilla" is a smart, passionate monster movie that has one of the greatest senses of national identity I've ever seen. The film blends together a political drama about the bureaucracy of the Japanese government and a terrifying monster thriller that has more than enough twists to keep the film entertaining. This movie also acts as a nostalgic trip for Godzilla fans with its sound effects and music, but never focuses so much on it that the nostalgia is overbearing or forced.

That being said, I do understand where the negative criticism for "Shin Godzilla" is coming from. Fans come to these movies for Godzilla and, like the 2014 "Godzilla," get little of the monster. On top of that, this new Godzilla is a much different take on the classic kaiju, in terms of design, effects, and abilities. I've heard some fans argue this new Godzilla is just as disrespectful as the 1998 American Godzilla's design. The nickname "C-SPANzilla," while a bit unfair is fitting in that it focuses a lot on the busy government work that comes with a giant monster attack.

All of these criticisms make sense to me and I see where fans are coming from. With that said, I respectfully disagree with them.

To fully appreciate "Shin Godzilla," I think you have to look at it from the Japanese perspective and the state of their country at the time of the film's release. The country had recently been battered by tsunamis that leveled towns and even caused a massive nuclear disaster in Fukushima, yet the government was slow to react, getting around all the red tape and legalities of the situation before anything could be done.

In Japan, there is a massive focus on national identity over personal identity. One of their common phrases is "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down" meaning that anyone who tries to stand out or be different from others will be met with resistance and hardships until they join the rest of society. This phrase would never work in America, where individuality is often celebrated and praised. But Japan is a proud country that cherishes its society, not so much its people.

The film was a massive hit in Japan, but lukewarm in the United States and I think I understand why. "Shin Godzilla" focuses on strong Japanese values, including honor, infrastructure and the nation over the people. The Japanese hold onto those values like a tight blanket, while Americans do not necessarily hold the same values as highly.

The Japanese people came out of "Shin Godzilla" loving their country and society, while Americans went in expecting a giant monster movie and got a lot of government officials unable to do anything about a monster. Without the proper context, "Shin Godzilla" will have little to no impact on you.



I've already written up a detailed review of "Shin Godzilla" from last year and my initial thoughts on the film have changed little since I first saw the movie. I've rewatched the film a few times since it came out on Blu-Ray and I'm still in love with this well-crafted monster movie. So instead of another detailed review, I'll go over the aspects of "Shin Godzilla" I loved the most.

For those unaware of the plot, it is a return to basics - Godzilla attacks Japan and the government does its best to deal with the monster.

But the first aspect I love about "Shin Godzilla" is how incompetent and unprepared the Japanese bureaucratic system is at dealing with Godzilla. Where other Godzilla movies would be quick to attack Godzilla and come up with solutions to stop him, this film is methodical, taking out all the urgency of the situation until they've fully analyzed everything to come up with the best course of action. The government is cold and sterile about this whole incident, stopping to ask scientists and marine biologists to tell them what type of creature it is, only for them to be completely pointless and waste the prime minister's time.

This is helped visually by having many members of the government played by geriatrics and old men who have grown tired and see no reason to act quickly. It gives off the impression that these are old men comfortable in the position and power they have now, and don't wish to jeopardize that by making a crucial mistake with this monster. So they play it safe and easy, not realizing that there personal interests and lack of concern is killing hundreds if not thousands of people.

Yet, at the same time, our main character Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a young buck compared to the men around him and isn't afraid to speak his mind on any given matter. He's the first one to suspect that this could be a giant sea creature and not a new geological event. Of course, no one believes him and writes his claims off as insane ramblings until they are told otherwise. Yaguchi always seems to be three steps ahead of every other cabinet member, as he formulates plans to bring the greatest Japanese minds and people together to handle this, while the prime minister has a dozen voices surrounding him, trying to tell him what do, including foreign pressure from America.



If it weren't for Yaguchi, the first half of the film would fall apart. Watching the Japanese government stumble over themselves while Godzilla destroys the city is fascinating while Yaguchi is doing is best to make a difference and cut through all the red tape. Without him, it would feel more like a farce as the entire cabinet and Japanese government feel pointless. Watching the competent Yaguchi struggle to get even the simplest thing done with bureaucratic democracy makes for a surprisingly entertaining political drama.

But the only reason these scenes are so captivating is because they are fighting for something bigger than themselves. If this was just any other day for the Japanese government or dealt with a minor scandal, I would be bored out of my mind. Because this is a system that cannot handle a crisis, and they have a giant monster thrust upon them, that makes their incompetence stand out even more.

This brings me to the next thing I love about this movie - Godzilla himself. I have no problem saying this particular Godzilla is my favorite incarnation of the creature since the original, because of how jarring, terrifying and different he is from another Godzilla. Directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi take a lot of liberties with changing his Godzilla, some fans would argue too many liberties, but I feel all of the changes they made were for the better.

This version of Godzilla is an ever-evolving creature that can mutant and change itself to adapt to its current environment, or even create new defenses and weapons to better suit its needs. The first form we see him in is as a giant frilled shark that just learned to use its new legs. Its gills are red and continually spout blood as it learns to adapt to air instead of water. This is a creature that looks like it is in constant pain. His giant unblinking eyeballs and almost playful smile are jarring when you first see them.

Things get even creepier when he starts evolving in the middle of the city, nearly doubling in size and learning to stand up on two feet. Given his failed attempt to stand up in his first form, part of me believes this monster is trying to imitate the humans running away from him, like he's watching us.



At the halfway point in the film, we see that Godzilla has evolved once again and is now nearly three times bigger than his last form and this is one of the most chilling monster designs I've ever seen. His flesh looks like its bubbling from the inside, glowing bright red like his skin is smoldering, his utterly tiny arms and hands are skeleton-like with little flesh on them, and his tail seems to have a mind of its own including a distorted and warped face.

But the truly frightening aspect of this version of Godzilla is his face, with his tiny eyes you can barely see as the rest of his face dwarfs his field of vision and his messed-up teeth that have no rhyme or reason to them. Anytime this version of Godzilla is on screen, I get goose bumps just from looking at this abomination of life. This is a creature that screams of pain and agony, something that shouldn't exist, like a nightmare that found its way into our world.

And yet, I still see a traditional Godzilla in this design. Every aspect of Godzilla is there, from the massive tail, to the dorsal spines, this looks like an irradiated dinosaur turned monster. While it feels different from any other Godzilla, this version is different in all the best possible ways. Any changes made to the character of Godzilla is to add to the dread and mystery of this creature, to make him even more haunting than before.

This Godzilla isn't different for the sake of being different, but to create a more effective and memorable monster.



As soon as this form of Godzilla comes into the film, the monster scenes take on a whole new life, as we get some brilliant cinematography to showcase how Godzilla is impacting Japan. From shots of Godzilla kicking up massive amounts of cargo containers and buildings to a single take that starts a fair distance away from Godzilla and continues until the camera is underneath him, there is no shortage of wonderful visuals in this movie.

But my favorite scene that emphasizes this Godzilla's terror is when the Americans send in stealth bombers to blast Godzilla and he evolves to the point to use his atomic breath. The attack comes in three stages, first spreading a flammable gas over the city, then unleashing an unholy amount of flames that brings most of Tokyo down to a blazing inferno, and finally a concentrated beam of energy that he uses to destroy the bombers and slice through most of Tokyo's skyscrapers. There's a shot that shows an outline of downtown Tokyo's landscape as Godzilla lifts his head high into the sky, and we see a purple beam of destruction extend up into the sky with no end in sight. There's just something so hauntingly beautiful about something like that.

The final shot of Godzilla's rampage is a background of nothing but massive flames, while Godzilla's bestial form looms in the foreground, staring directly into the camera as he powers down from his first beam attack.

So not only do we get some fascinating political scenes about a government that is too caught up in the legality of the moment and the red tape, but we have this juxtaposed with a eerie monster that is constantly changing causing untold amounts of chaos and destruction.

This brings us to the third act where another element I love is on display - the pride and the strength of the Japanese people. In my initial review, I mention that "Shin Godzilla" doesn't have on particular main character and instead makes the country of Japan its protagonist. We get a nationwide response to nearly everything that happens in the movie. Not just the government's reactions, but also the businesses reacting to the ensuing stock market crash and Japan losing most of its money and funds, to the ordinary citizens protesting about scientists wanting to kill Godzilla instead of studying him. One of the biggest moments of this is when news is leaked that the Americans will be dropping a thermonuclear weapon on Godzilla while he's recharging in the middle of Tokyo. We get a reaction from nearly every minor character, each of them being distraught and on the verge of tears, learning that their country is about to destroyed in the vain hope of stopping this monster.



This is something I hope I'll never have to experience - witnessing my country get ripped apart by nuclear weapons once already, only for it to happen all over again. The film takes on a much more somber and defeated tone at this point, before the remaining members of the government announce that they will not allow their country to be torn apart by nuclear weapons yet again, even if that means going against the wishes and orders of other countries.

And while the scene with Godzilla's first use of his atomic breath is a wonderfully haunting scene, my favorite moment in "Shin Godzilla" is the final battle against Godzilla, where Japan sends in everything they have to win back their nation. This scene is a little silly at times, but is unbelievably triumphant and so rewarding to witness. The Japanese people think everything out logically, using drones to drain Godzilla's energy before sending their giant skyscrapers tumbling down on him. All the while, Akira Ifukube's heart-pounding military march plays that always brings a smile to my face.

This final battle against one of the most powerful and intimidating versions of Godzilla is one of the most exhilarating scenes in the entire series and ends "Shin Godzilla" on the highest note possible.

While I understand the hate "Shin Godzilla" gets, I can't help but love this movie. It is so different from any other Godzilla film, while still keeping the core elements of Godzilla. The monster is used to say something about the world we live in and told in a way that never feels boring or repetitive, while still being a terrifying monster in its own right. Every scene with Godzilla is visually stunning and the effects are top-notch. By making Japan its main character, "Shin Godzilla" becomes one of the most unique and intriguing monster movies I have ever seen.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Number 5 - "Terror of MechaGodzilla" (1975)



And so we come to the last Showa film ever made, "Terror of MechaGodzilla." Toho had planned to make several more films in the Showa series after this one, but none of them ever got off the ground after how poorly "Terror of MechaGodzilla" did at the box office, which had the worst numbers of any Godzilla movie. Though I attribute that to the poor state of Japanese cinema at the time, a sign that audience's had grown used to seeing Godzilla on television instead of the big screen, as well as a brewing recession.

"Terror of MechaGodzilla" brings back several of Godzilla's original creators, including Ishiro Honda to direct and Akira Ifukube to compose, their first Godzilla films in over five years. Honda brings a much different take than his typically upbeat, optimistic, and whimsical atmosphere in films like "Invasion of Astro-Mosnter" or "King Kong vs. Godzilla." Instead, this film is hardened and tough, as many of its characters fight a battle they cannot hope to win.

Of course, this is a direct sequel to the first "Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla," with the main focus being that the Black Hole Aliens have returned to Earth in an attempt to conquer it again, and plan to do so by rebuilding MechaGodzilla. But this time the aliens decide to be a bit more cunning and learn from MechaGodzilla's last fight that having two monsters is better than one, as they reach out to a disavowed Japanese scientist who has discovered an ancient dinosaur in the sea that he names Titanosaurus, so that they can more easily defeat Godzilla together.

The film opens with a recap of the events from the last film, but with two minor differences. One is that, at the end of the introduction, we see the surviving pieces of MechaGodzilla fall into the ocean. The other change is the music, as Akira Ifukube does away with Masaru Sato's catchy use of drums and horns, and replaces it with a menacing almost overpowering theme for the new MechaGodzilla.



I love how the Godzilla theme is incorporated into this theme, giving Godzilla just a tiny moment to shine, but his theme feels smothered by the rest of MechaGodzilla's theme, reflecting Godzilla's up-hill battle in this movie.

The experimental submarine Akatsuki is launched in Okinawa in an attempt to salvage the remains of MechaGodzilla. But the sub quickly finds out that nothing is down there except a giant aquatic dinosaur waiting for them, which attacks and destroys the submarine but not before they get off an S.O.S. The message is picked up by the Interpol agency, finding it odd that the message is cut off after they mention a giant dinosaur, and begin an investigation. Honestly, I'm more surprised that they find this hard to believe, given all of the other insane monsters that exist in this universe. It would be weird if a giant monster wasn't responsible for the sub's destruction.

We cut to a hotel room where the main leaders of the Black Hole aliens have gathered, discussing how cold and drab humans make life here on Earth. We learn that their plan is to start by destroying Tokyo, rebuilding it in their image, and working outward from there. They discuss how lively and grandiose this new city will be, and I can't help but love these aliens for their constant need to add style and flare to everything. They don't do anything small and love having a good time while they do it, as they enjoy booze and cigars regularly.

As great as the Xillians were in "Invasion of Astro-Monsters," the Black Hole aliens are my favorite for their style alone. Plus, unlike other aliens in the franchise, they get a second chance to take over the Earth again, learning from their mistakes.

The first part of their plan is forming an alliance with the controller of that giant dinosaur in Okinawa. Its controller is the shunned Dr. Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), who has thrown out of Japanese society 15 years ago when he performed some questionable experiments after discovering Titanosaurus and thinking he could control it. He succeeded and now has near perfect control over the giant dinosaur, but has grown to hate humanity and now wants revenge.

The Black Hole aliens work out a deal with him - Let them use Titanosaurus in their attack and they promise that Dr. Mafune and his daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai) will be treated as equals in their new world order.



After Dr. Mafune happily agrees to the aliens deal, since this would allow him to get revenge on the society that threw him out unfairly, the aliens reveal the next part of their plan - they have been rebuilding MechaGodzilla. It has taken over a year to do so, but MechaGodzilla is nearly complete and is said to be even more powerful than before, equipped with stronger weapons and a back-up system incase his head unit gets destroyed.

The Interpol agents resume their investigation and reach out to a marine biologist, Akira Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki), who recognizes the cries of Titanosaurus and leads them to Dr. Mafune's last known location. They are greeted by his cold and uninterested daughter Katsura, who lies to them and says her father died years ago and that she burned his notes and research on Titanosaurus. Akira is smitten by Katsura and the two meet up again multiple times to discuss her father's work.

This leads me into the best part of "Terror of MechaGodzilla" - the characters of Dr. Mafune and Katsura. These two are some of the best characters in the Godzilla series that are built on pain and suffering and ultimately lash out for reasons even they don't quite understand. Mafune is a tortured soul, losing everything he ever had, including his wife and daughter, and now grasps at just the slightest hope to regain that. While Katsura is actually a cyborg, kept alive by the technology of the aliens, and is as cold and lifeless as MechaGodzilla. Yet she, like her father, does her best to cling to her last shreds of humanity, even having second thoughts about the destruction Titanosaurus and MechaGodzilla will cause.



These two are tragic characters, brilliantly acted by Akihiko Hirata and Tomoko Ai to make them fully developed and sympathetic. Katsura being a cyborg that is conflicted between her programming and her humanity is unique to the Godzilla series and is just as interesting to watch as any monster scenes in this film.

The final phase of the aliens preparation is to create a better controller for MechaGodzilla, something that can't be easily destroyed like the last controls. The aliens decide to be extra creepy and put MechaGodzilla's controls inside of Katsura, so now she will be controlling both monsters. Dr. Mafune starts to have second thoughts about all this when the aliens start treating his daughter like a machine instead of a person, with the controllers reaffirming that she is more wires and circuits than blood and bone now.

In a desperate act of rebellion, Dr. Mafune sends Titanosaurus to attack Japan before the aliens are ready. But due to an earlier incident with Titanosaurus, Interpol is able to learn the dinosaur's weakness to supersonic waves and they begin working on a wave oscillator.

On his own, Titanosaurus is an alright monster. He has a unique design with his orange skin, fins and strange patterns on his body. Some Godzilla fans despise his roar, but I really enjoy it. It's like a weird monster cackle that has grown on me as much as this film has. He doesn't have many special powers, just the ability to create cyclone winds with his tail. If he were the only thing Godzilla was fighting in this movie, he'd be okay at it. So it's a good thing he's not the only evil monster in this movie.

An underrated aspect I adore about "Terror of MechaGodzilla" is how it makes Godzilla's fight to stop these other monsters feel hopeless. Not only does Godzilla have to fight two monsters at the same time, but one of them is an upgraded version of a monster that already kicked his ass, and he's lost the deus-ex-machina magnet ability that won him the fight last time. On top of that, Godzilla lacks allies. Even in his last fight with MechaGodzilla he still had King Caesar to help out, but now his best ally is the defense force that's still working on their supersonic wave oscillator.

Out of all the battles Godzilla had in the Showa series, his fight against MechaGodzilla and Titanosaurus by himself is his most difficult struggle.

We get a brief fight between Godzilla and Titanosaurus at night, which leads to one of Godzilla's best introductions as he fully embraces his super-hero attitude. But ultimately, Dr. Mafune makes Titanosaurus retreat after Katsura returns injured from sabotaging the wave oscillator. The aliens fix her circuits and also perform some modifications to make her truly loyal to the aliens.

Akira continues to make the moves on Katsura, and he ends up getting captured by the aliens for his troubles as they begin to put their plan into motion. Katsura emerges ready to command both monsters to attack and destroy Tokyo, while Akira is helpless to stop his girlfriend from killing millions of people.



The scene of MechaGodzilla and Titanosaurus destroying Tokyo is striking and grim, especially when just one blast from MechaGodzilla's new finger missiles literally uproot an entire city block before reducing it to rubble. There's a shot of the two monsters walking side-by-side while getting blasted with bombs and missiles, only for both to keep marching through the city. With Ifukube's moody music playing, it really does feel like the aliens will be successful this time.

Of course, Godzilla does show up again to fight the two monsters and we get a long, brutal fight where Titanosaurus and MechaGodzilla take turns pummeling the desperate Godzilla. Just when it seems like Godzilla gets the upper hand on one of the monsters, the other joins in and blasts him to the ground. Compared to many of the other 1970s Godzilla films, where it felt like Godzilla was hardly trying or came up with new powers, Godzilla gets scrappy and feels like the underdog most of the time in "Terror of MechaGodzilla."

I guess the reason I have this movie cracking my top five Godzilla films is because of how it perfectly balances these wonderfully tragic character moments with great monster scenes as Godzilla does his best against a much stronger opponent. Both blend seamlessly to make for a truly exciting piece.

The entire time Katsura commands the two monsters, Akira does his best to try and reason with her, attempting to bring her humanity back out and prove that she isn't a puppet of the aliens. It doesn't seem to work on her, but it does show Dr. Mafune that there are still good people out in the world and that he might be on the wrong side.



Help arrives in the form of Interpol, when they finish their wave oscillator to take care of Titanosaurus and find the location of the alien's hideout. The defense forces keep Titanosaurus busy so Godzilla can focus on fighting MechaGodzilla, leading to another all-out assault from the giant robot that sets Godzilla's spines on fire this time. Scenes like these are why MechaGodzilla is my favorite Godzilla villain.

Interpol storms the alien hideout, killing many of the aliens and fatally shooting Dr. Mafune as he tried to protect his daughter. The shock of seeing blood coming out of her is enough to bring Katsura's humanity back to the forefront of her mind, as she embraces Akira and reflects on all the terrible things she did.



But at this moment, there's a massive shift in the movie, depending on which version you're watching. In the English version of "Terror of MechaGodzilla," this is the point where Katsura's control over MechaGodzilla doesn't work anymore and he just shuts off, letting Godzilla finally kill his mechanical doppelganger. So in the version I watched for years, I was under the impression that MechaGodzilla was defeated by the power of love. Cue the Huey Lewis music.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I watched the Japanese version and learned the original version to this scene is drastically different. When Katsura learns that she's responsible for the destruction Titanosaurus and MechaGodzilla caused, she is heartbroken and inconsolable. She remembers that the controls to MechaGodzilla are inside of her and she does what she thinks is best for the entire world - she shoots herself in the chest, killing her, but destroying the controls to MechaGodzilla.

My jaw literally dropped when I saw this scene the first time. I understand why the English version cut that scene altogether, but it is one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the entire series as Katsura takes her own life. It is a fitting end to a grim and tragic story of a father and daughter shunned by society. Ever since I saw this scene the way the filmmakers originally intended it, I've been in love with "Terror of MechaGodzilla."

With MechaGodzilla defeated, the aliens attempt to flee in their saucers, but Godzilla manages to fight off Titanosaurus and blast their ships out of the sky at the same time, as we get one final badass Godzilla moment. Godzilla defeats Titanosaurus and returns to the sea, where we get one final shot of Akira holding Katsura's lifeless body in his arms.

I can see why some people wouldn't enjoy "Terror of MechaGodzilla." It is surprisingly dark, moody and grim, especially since it was directed by a man who normally makes upbeat and cheerful films. But I think, for that very same reason, this is such a worthwhile film. It pains the world of Godzilla in a way we haven't seen since the original Godzilla, where there are no happy endings and terror does lurk around ever corner.



If you ever watch "Terror of MechaGodzilla," do yourself a favor and see the Japanese version, since it paints a complete and tragic picture of Dr. Mafune and Katsura. As the final film of the Showa series, it is unfortunate that it had to end on a sad note, but it does give Godzilla one final chance to play the ultimate hero and go out on one of his highest notes. It is one of the best Showa films and one of the more underrated Godzilla movies.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Number 6 - "Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack" (2001)



With this review, we've officially moved into the final category of the Godzilla films - the "Great" ones. From this point on, every movie left in the franchise is not just a great monster movie, but a great film altogether. You do not need to know a lot about Godzilla or giant monsters to appreciate these six remaining films. With that said, let's look at the only worthwhile film in the Millennium series - "Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack."

Yeah I know, extremely long title. From this point on, I'll simply refer to the film as "GMK."

To appreciate GMK fully, here's a quick history of the film's director, Shusuke Kaneko. From a young age, he was passionate about giant monster movies and would end up leading the wave of the next great daikaiju filmmakers. Kaneko is mostly known for revitalizing the Gamera series in the 1990s with a trilogy of serious and good-looking monster films with everyone's favorite giant turtle, with each film being better than the last. This trilogy got the attention of Toho and in 2001, they asked Kaneko to be the director of the next Godzilla film, which he happily accepted.

The unfortunate backstory of GMK is that the final product is much different than Kaneko wanted it to be. In this film, Godzilla fights ancient guardian spirits of Japan, but he wanted the spirit monsters to be Baragon, Anguirus and Varan, since their earthy and more bestial designs worked better for Kaneko's vision. Toho thought the film wouldn't turn a profit if it had monsters the general didn't know, especially odd kaiju like Varan. Instead they replaced the roles of Anguirus and Varan with Mothra and King Ghidorah and removed Baragon from the title.

This has rubbed some Godzilla fans the wrong way, since this means that King Ghidorah, the monster that's always trying to destroy humanity and the planet, is now a guardian monster that fights alongside other kaiju like Mothra. I don't have that big of a problem with it since this happened due to Toho's interference and Godzilla and King Ghidorah are still natural enemies in this movie.

One final thing to understand what GMK wants to say is that it, like the first Godzilla film and "Godzilla vs. Hedorah," is a reflection of its time. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a growing consensus that Japan's youth had little to no respect for their elders, in particular those who fought in World War II. The older generation was becoming worried that the young generation would grow up to resent the sacrifices that were made to keep Japan a live and the past would be easily forgotten.

As such, a lot the dilemmas of GMK revolve around the past coming back to haunt the newest generation. Things that they believed were just "myths" or "legends" turn out to be real. In particular, this Godzilla is different from any other version of the king of monsters. Instead of a symbol of nuclear destruction, this Godzilla is a symbol of anger and resent, possessed by all the souls of those who lost their lives in WWII, and has returned to Japan now because the Japanese people have forgotten about their sacrifices.

The film is set nearly 50 years after the events of the first Godzilla film, with the world enjoying a long peace from giant monsters. But so much time has passed since Godzilla's initial attack that the younger generation thinks he's just a legend, a scary bedtime story you tell your kids. Things change though when an American nuclear submarine is attacked off the coast of Guam and we quickly giant claw marks on the sub, along with glowing blue spines nearby.

Our two main characters are a father and a daughter. The father, Taizo Tachibana (Ryudo Uzaki), is an admiral in the SDF. He lost his parents in Godzilla's first attack on Tokyo, but unlike other protagonists in the Millennium series Taizo doesn't hold a grudge against Godzilla, and instead is just devoted to his work. His daughter, Yuri (Chiharu Niiyama), is a reporter for third-rate digital group that only makes fake reports on supernatural events such as Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster...or in this case, Godzilla. The two butt heads on their vastly different ideologies, but still come across as loving each other when Yuri finds an ancient book about the Guardian Monsters.



After Yuri’s first assignment, she sees a creepy image of an old man in the woods just staring at her. Later that night, some disrespectful punks are driving their motorcycles through the Japanese countryside, terrorizing the locals and vandalizing everything they can get their hands on, including an unsuspecting statue. But while they’re going through a tunnel, it collapses in on itself, killing all of them, though a bystander does briefly see a giant red monster as the tunnel is destroyed. The bystander, in a moment of utter shock, says the monster is Godzilla.
Yuri looks into this matter a bit deeper and finds an ancient book from her closest friend and colleague. The text tells the tale of the three Guardian monsters Baragon, Mothra and Ghidorah. These are supposedly thousand year old creatures that will be awakened when the world is put in grave danger, sleeping inside of the Earth until they’re called upon. The text says that the Guardian monsters are more interested in protecting the planet, like the forests and mountains, and not necessarily humanity. And seeing how one of them was awoken due to some people’s arrogance, it is possible they see humanity as a threat.
 
This continues as the next guardian monster awakens, when another group of teens rob a gas station up in the mountains, vandalizing the area and breaking the statue sealing Mothra away. As they go out onto the lake to party, they’re thrown into the water and taken under "Jaws"-style by Mothra and killed.

At this point, Yuri becomes convinced that the guardian monsters are real. She tries to tell her father about them, but he remains skeptical, saying the true monster here might be the return of Godzilla, especially after he sees actual footage of Godzilla’s attack on the American sub. The admiral preps the defense forces for a battle against Godzilla, including sending out battleships to track down and find him.

Meanwhile, Yuri meets with the old man she saw earlier in the movie, who now only talks ominously about Godzilla’s return. He says that modern weapons will have no effect on him and that he’ll destroy all of Japan. The old man says Godzilla is filled with the souls of those who died in World War II, including both Japanese and non-Japanese souls. The foreign souls want to avenge their deaths at the hands of the Japanese, while the others wish to punish Japan for their attempts to forget about the wartime atrocities. He finishes by saying the only way Godzilla can be stopped is to awaken all of the guardian monsters.

The idea of this in a Godzilla movie is fascinating to me. Every film the franchise up to this point was typically based on science or technology to create its monsters. Even in its most ridiculous moments, with monsters like Space Godzilla, Biollante, Jet Jaguar and Megalon, you could trace all of their origins logically back to either being abominations of science or creatures older than humans. Suddenly, all of that goes out the window and we’re left with monsters steeped in mysticism and mythology. Godzilla is filled with the souls of the dead, while the guardian monsters are literal legends created to protect the planet.

This makes GMK a one-of-a-kind film because it feels more like a modern-day fantasy instead of a daikaiju film.

After some more strange incidents, including a trip to Japan's infamous "Suicide forest" where Ghidorah is buried underground, two major events occurred nearly simultaneously, as the giant red monster from the tunnel, Baragon, reveals himself to the rest of Japan, and Godzilla rises out of the ocean to terrorize the countryside.

There's something I've felt that was terrifying and off-putting about this Godzilla's design. Maybe its his bubbly spines that look like claws reaching out from hell, or it could be his stance that feels more like a return to the original Godzilla's body movements. But, who am I kidding, it's all about his eyes. Pure white, soulless eyes, as if they've been glazed over with hatred and anger, only adding to his inhuman qualities.

Godzilla is often at his most chilling when the filmmakers change up his eyes. It is true what they say about eyes being the gateway to the soul, and it is especially true with film characters. So when you give Godzilla eyes that don't have any color or pupils, or eyes that are ridiculously small compared to his body, it is just jarring enough that you feel uneasy around those kaiju.
 
 

This leads to one of the nicest looking rampages from Godzilla, as he thrashes his way through a coastal city, destroying an oil refinery with Mt. Fuji in the background and the town's people more confused than upset, since they thought Godzilla was just a legend.

One of the great things about Shusuke Kankeo's monster movies is that they take their time to slowly build up the strength and let everything sink in for a moment. There's a brief scene in this rampage of a woman watching Godzilla walk by her window, shaking with fear because she's convinced she is about to die. But Godzilla simply keeps on walking and everything looks fine, only for his tail to swing back around and destroy the hospital. Little moments like that add so much to the scope of this movie.

We also get a taste of Godzila's atomic breath in this film, which might be his most powerful beam yet. One blast of his signature weapon caused this explosion.

 

Since both Godzilla and Baragon showed up at the same time, the entirety of Japan is confused and ends up calling Baragon the "Red Godzilla."

While this does go a long way to show how out of touch this modern world is with its history of monster attacks, I can't help but feel bad for Baragon. This monster has had a long and sad history. In Japan, Baragon is one of the more popular kaiju, mostly because he looks like a cute giant red dog. But for some reason, Toho hates Baragon. In his first appearance in "Frankenstein Conquers the World," he gets his neck snapped and body thrown off a giant cliff. Then we had "Destroy All Monsters" where he was supposed to attack Paris, but they ended up using the Gorosaurus suit instead. In the first "Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla," it was supposed to be Baragon that attacked the fake Godzilla but they changed it to Anguirus at the last minute. Baragon was also supposed to be in the title of this movie, but Toho thought it was too long and so they cut him from it, making him a glorified guest star in this film.

Things get even more weird when you factor in the Gamera series, which had a kaiju named Barugon that looked a lot like Baragon. The main difference was that Barugon could shoot rainbows out of his back...yeah, I'm still confused by that. My point is that Baragon keeps getting screwed over even though there's never been any reason to screw him with.

Baragon-rant aside, we quickly learn that Godzilla and Baragon are heading towards each other. They eventually meet up near a mountain-side resort and engage in our first monster fight, which is more-so a beatdown from Godzilla. The only time Baragon gets the upper hand is when he digs around Godzilla's feet and makes him trip. Other than that, Godzilla tosses Baragon around like a rag doll, stomps him into the side of a mountain and flings him around with just his tail.

But another great thing that Kaneko does with his monster fights is incorporating the innocent bystanders and seeing this battle of goliaths from their doomed perspectives. As Godzilla arrives to the fight, he takes out half of a fairly big hill, and we watch as people try desperately to run away, but are crushed either by the massive rocks or under Godzilla's foot. There's a shot of Godzilla throwing Baragon around and we see the red monster flying towards the camera, with bystanders trying to flee but are too late to stop the beast from falling on them.
 
 

The fight ends with Godzilla blasting Baragon with his atomic breath and creating an explosion bigger than the mountain, killing the first guardian monster. But the death of one of them seems to have freed Ghidorah from his thousand-year slumber.

After that, we get some character development for Yuri, as she desperately tries to follow the monsters around to prove her worth to her father. Meanwhile, her father leads the charge against finding a way to deal with Godzilla. After watching Baragon try to stop the giant monster, he's convinced that the guardian monsters are real and that they can and should be trusted. This begins the lead-up to the final confrontation, as Mothra's cocoon appears on top of a lake, and Ghidorah has begun moving underground towards Godzilla.

One thing I've been steadily talking about in this review is the national identity of Japan throughout the film. It starts out pretty poor with the youths that were disrespectful to the locals and surrounding area, but then we get character's like Yuri and her father, hard working people who take pride in what they do. We meet a lot more people during this time, like a friendly bicycle shopkeeper who gives Yuri a bike as he's getting ready to run from Godzilla, as well as Yuri's boss who is as eccentric as he is passionate about supernatural events.

GMK paints a vast and wild picture of Japan, probably even more than "Godzilla vs. Hedorah" did, and I think the movie is better because of that. We see a country that has personality and flaws, making the entire country look like its own character.

As Godzilla makes his way to Yokohama, Yuri's father deploys every available ship, tank and soldier to fight the oncoming threat. At the same time, Mothra hatches from her cocoon in a beautiful display in the moonlight, and flies to join in the fight.

The admiral lays out his plan - The defense force recently created D-3 missiles, explosive war heads with giant drills on them. They're made to burrow into the sides of mountains and then explode, but the admiral is improvising with this. He plans to work in conjunction with the guardian monsters, waiting for them to open up a weak spot in Godzilla's defenses and then use the D-3 missiles to land a fatal blow.

Just as Godzilla arrives in Yokohama, Mothra is right behind him and the two engage in a short fight that once again highlights the slower moments, letting the audience appreciate how majestic Mothra can be sometimes. While this version of Mothra is far more insectoid than usual, it does have a certain charm to it, like I'm watching a beautiful wasp trying to fight a hopeless battle.

Things get a bit better though when Ghidorah shows up. One point worth mentioning is that this version of Ghidorah is more based off the ancient Japanese monster Orochi, an eight-headed dragon that is all powerful. It is said in the myth of the guardian monsters that Ghidorah would rest for three-thousand years to grow all eight heads, but only slept for a thousand years and only had enough time to grow three heads. Again, contributing to the mythological feel of this movie.
 
 

This leads into a great fight sequence between Godzilla and Ghidorah, as the two are relentlessly brutal to each other, with Godzilla nearly ripping off one of Ghidorah's heads. But the most brutal part is yet to come, as after Godzilla knocks both Ghidorah and Mothra away, the defense forces launch everything they have at Godzilla and ultimately accomplish nothing outside of pissing Godzilla off. All that's left for every ground troop is to be disintegrated by Godzilla's fury and rage.

Of all the scenes that involve Godzilla's atomic breath, the shots of him unloading this insanely powerful ray on a defenseless military is one of the more impactful moments, especially when you see bodies of soldiers flying in the background and their screams can be heard echoing from the city.

Godzilla's outburst leaves just one naval ship untouched. Just as he's about to blast it, Godzilla tricks everyone and destroys the weakened Mothra instead, who was trying to sneak up on Godzilla. This leads into the best scene of the movie when all of Mothra's energy transfers into Ghidorah and finally grants him wings, giving him the title of King Ghidorah. The music swells and the whole city is coated in a golden light as King Ghidorah takes to the skies to continue fight Godzilla, even sending his atomic breath back at him, creating a small wound in his shoulder that the admiral has been waiting for.

While Godzilla and King Ghidorah take their battle underwater, we get some final bits of character development between Yuri and her father, as the two talk about their dedications to their jobs and to each other. I admit that these two aren't some of my favorite characters in the Godzilla series, but they are likable and fully developed characters that have grown on me. Certainly the best written characters in the Millennium series.
 
 

From this point, the film goes with a much different ending than one would expect. Yuri and her colleague are blasted out of the bridge they were reporting from, King Ghidorah barely saves them from certain death after getting a power-up that finally grants him the signature gravity bolts, it still isn't enough and Godzilla blasts and kills King Ghidorah, but not before the combined spirits of the guardian monsters force Godzilla down into the ocean to allow the admiral to do something pretty reckless - he flies his small submarine straight into Godzilla's mouth and launches a D-3 missile from inside of Godzilla.

He successfully detonates the missile and blasts a huge hole in Godzilla's shoulder, though it doesn't kill him. As Godzilla tries to blast the helpless Yuri with his atomic breath, he learns that his beam now shoots painfully out of his shoulder wound. So, like a complete idiot, he keeps firing his beam over and over, seemingly forgetting about his wound, until he does it one too many times and blasts himself out of existence.

While Godzilla falling for the same mistake multiple times is a little annoying, I highly enjoy this ending. It is wonderful to see giant monsters and the defense forces working together to bring down an even bigger threat and this is one of the better executed ones, especially with the brave attitude of the admiral.

The film ends with Yuri's father emerging from his submarine and everyone rejoicing, knowing that Godzilla has finally been defeated. The admiral looks off into the ocean and salutes the many lives that had been lost fighting Godzilla, including the lives of the guardian monsters. The final shot pans down into the ocean to show Godzilla's still beating heart and the classic Godzilla theme music plays.

GMK is a different kind of Godzilla movie, but in the best possible way. It keeps the core elements of a daikaiju film while still developing its own identity as a fantasy movie, while painting a fascinating picture of the Japanese people, showing both the good and bad. It continues the tradition of using Godzilla as a means to showcase the problems with Japan throughout the generations, by addressing the fact that the newer generation is ashamed of the older generations sacrifices.

When it wants to be a giant monster movie though, it is stunningly beautiful, with great use of miniatures and practical effects. The film takes its time at just the right moments to showcase its scope and size, while the Godzilla suit remains one of his more terrifying designs. While it is unfortunate that Shusuke Kaneko didn't get to make the movie he wanted with Anguirus and Varan, the final product here is nothing to be ashamed of. This is a wonderful monster movie and one of the best Godzilla films since the end of the Showa series.
 
 


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Number 7 - "Godzilla vs. Hedorah" (1971)



If the original "Godzilla" is the "Citizen Kane" of giant monster movies, then "Godzilla vs. Hedorah" is the art-house equivalent for daikaiju films. This film is abstract, filled with all sorts stylistic choices from its director Yoshimitsu Banno that screams of the 1970s and Japan's counter culture. There's a lot of it that still doesn't make any sense to me, but helps contribute to its style over substance approach to make it the most unforgettable Godzilla film.

To appreciate "Godzilla vs. Hedorah" fully, let me set the stage - In 1971, Japan was suffering from a massive pollution problem. The country had become incredibly industrialized, and Tokyo was one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Millions of pounds of waste were produced every day, and the government did have a viable way to getting rid of it, dumping trash and nuclear waste into the ocean, while the air around most major cities became toxic. It got so bad in city that most people living there developed asthma.

If life in America was bad in the 1970s due to pollution, it was even more unbearable over in Japan.

On top of that, this was the point when Japan's youth fully embraced its psychedelic side and experimented with all sorts of drugs, music, and ways of rebelling.

When director and writer Yoshimitsu Banno visited the city of Yokkaichi, he saw the landscape covered in black smog and the ocean filled with foam from dumped trash and detergent. After that, he started formulating the idea of an alien monster that fed off all of our pollution and how it would grow unstoppable because of our arrogance towards waste.

When I learned this was how "Godzilla vs. Hedorah" was created, I immediately thought about how similar that is to Tomoyuki Tanaka's experience with creating the first "Godzilla" - Looking down at the ocean from a plane and thinking of a giant monster rising out of the sea. As we'll find out, this isn't the only similarity between these two films.

Banno submitted his idea of an alien monster that transforms because of pollution to Toho and they loved the idea, but of course thought the movie would sell better if Godzilla was involved. Toho gave Banno free reign with creative control over "Godzilla vs. Hedorah," but gave him an extremely limited budget and only 35 days to shoot the movie, including the monster sequences. This allowed Banno to try a few things that had never been tried in a kaiju film before.



As a result, "Godzilla vs. Hedorah" screams of the 1970s, filled to the brim with counter culture ideals and movements, like the underground dance sequence where there is clearly some trippy drugs in the air as a woman in a skin-tight body suit and long hair singing to a large group of teenagers. Scenes like these are typically followed by trippy or odd sequences, like one of our main characters, Yukio (Toshio Shiba), imagining that everybody in the club has fish masks on while they're partying.

Then there are just strange sequences that make no sense at all. There are three short animated scenes, showing Hedorah's growth and how he'll take over the world. At one point, Hedorah flies through the metal frame of a building, which is followed by the building collapsing in on itself with no sound whatsoever. Or a scene late in the film that is framed like the opening of "The Brady Bunch," with multiple screens that show people outraged about the government not doing enough to stop Hedorah, as well as one shot showing a baby trapped in a pile of sludge.

I don't think anybody will complain when I say "Godzilla vs. Hedorah" is the weirdest Godzilla film. And yet, I honestly love this film for its odd sense of unmatched style and brutal honesty against how the government was handling the pollution problem.

There isn't much to the plot of this film - A local doctor discovers an odd-looking tadpole-like creature that turns out to be from a much larger monster that has been attacking everything out at sea, in particular oil freighters. The monster leaves a wake of pollution and destruction in its path and continues to grow as he takes on more trash and toxic material. The doctor eventually finds out this creature came to Earth on a comet from another galaxy and has been slowly but surely growing larger off of our pollution. He suspects that if this monster, nicknamed Hedorah, is left unchecked, it could wipe out spread a giant wave of pollution over the planet and kill everything.

So how does Godzilla fit into this? This is the first film that officially makes Godzilla a planet-saving hero. In the first portion of the Showa series, there was no doubt he was the villain. After "Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster," there was a bit more ambiguity about who Godzilla was fighting for, but leaning more so towards fighting for himself. But now Godzilla is a super-hero for all of Japan, coming to our rescue to stop the threats we cannot hurt. In this case, our introduction to Godzilla is a breath-taking shot of him rising with the setting sun and roaring into the distance, followed by him blasting the waste-filled ocean with his atomic breath.



One aspect I find truly fascinating with "Godzilla vs. Hedorah" are its many similarities to the original "Godzilla." In particular, Hedorah's introduction is eerily similar to Godzilla's introduction - a monster that lurks beneath the sea and attacks unsuspecting cargo ships that causes a national panic. On top of that, Hedorah represents the biggest concern of the Japanese people at the time, and their growing fears of pollution affecting their lives, much like the original Godzilla reflected the world's greatest concerns in the 1950s over nuclear weapons.

And how ironic is it that the manifestation of the world's problems in the 1950s has to fight the reflection of those problems in the 1970s?

Hedorah is a terrifying monster, looking like a massive pile of sentient sludge aside from two giant red eyes. He takes on multiple forms and each stage is more striking than the last, especially his final two stages, a flying form that uses toxic gas as propulsion and an utterly massive from that reigns supreme over any other Godzilla monster from the Showa era. His attacks consist of firing acidic sludge balls and his corrosive body that continually gets stronger. This makes for one of the most difficult fights Godzilla has ever had.



As for the monster fights, these are some of the more brutal scenes in the entire series. Starting from the first fight, we have Godzilla throwing Hedorah around like a rag doll that sends acidic sludge all over the city that has disastrous results. In the final battle, Godzilla loses one of his eyes, all the skin on one of his hands and is dropped into a giant pile of Hedorah's sludge. Hedorah's composition and fight style makes for some of the more imaginative scenes involving Godzilla, especially since his atomic breath has no effect on the space monster, meaning Godzilla has to get close to a monster made of acid and smog.

Hedorah ends up dominating most of their fights, especially after their first encounter, so it is serial to see Godzilla trying so hard to defeat a monster and getting absolutely no where. He gets about as desperate and feisty as Anguirus did against King Ghidorah in "Destroy All Monsters." These fights don't have the best cinematography of the series, but they're different enough that I can't help but admire them.

And that's this film in a nutshell - This is the weirdest, most "out-there" Godzilla movie and I adore it for that reason. All of its little eccentricities and odd moments are honestly the highlights of the film, as Yoshimitsu Banno puts all of the problems and style of the Japanese in the 1970s out there for us to see in all of their abstract and bizarre behavior. These scenes take what would have been an average monster movie and turns it into one of the best examples of daikaiju art.

 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Number 8 - "Invasion of Astro-Monster" (1965)

 
 
If "Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster" is the dress rehearsal for what was about to come, and "Destroy All Monsters" is the grand finale to everything Ishiro Honda and crew worked towards, then "Invasion of Astro-Monster" (aka "Godzilla vs. Monster Zero") is the main act. This film takes everything that "Ghidrah" started and amplifies it, giving us a near perfect mix of the daikaiju and alien invasion genres that the Godzilla would try to emulate many times, but never get quite as great as "Invasion of Astro-Monster."

I like to think of this film as the final installment of a daikaiju trilogy that also includes "Mothra vs. Godzilla" and "Ghidrah," with each subsequent film building ever so slightly on top of the last one. One could even argue that the fourth film in that series of events is "Destroy All Monsters," even though two other Godzilla films happened between this and DAM. This is also the first Godzilla film to bring in a then-famous American actor in one of the lead roles, in this case Nick Adams, who had previously been in films like "Rebel Without A Cause," "Mister Roberts" and "No Time For Sergeants" even forming a solid friendship with James Dean. Adams would also go on to be one of the lead actors in "Frankenstein Conquers the World," while Toho would bring in other American actors like Russ Tamblyn to be in their monster movies.

One thing I would like to talk about first is the music. Once again, Akira Ifukube provides his usual impactful soundtrack for this movie, but for some reason the music is immensely effective this time, especially when the characters are in space. Ifukube gives us a soundtrack that feels like something out of "Forbidden Planet," while still giving us his typical grandiose flare. In fact, the piece Ifukube did for the space sequences was so effective that the American version made it the main theme.

And honestly, I think it's a much more effective theme than the Japanese version. This might be the one time where American version is superior to the Japanese film. In fact, here's the Japanese theme for "Invasion of Astro-Monster."



It's an effective military march and screams of triumph (this won't be the last time we hear this song in a Godzilla film), but it doesn't match the tone of the film that is about to come. "Invasion of Astor-Monster" is the closest the Godzilla films get to being a space opera, but this theme sounds like something you would see troops marching to. It's not bad, but not great either.

Now here's the American theme.




Every time I watch the American version and this theme starts up, I get chills down my spine. It's so isolated and distant, almost alien-sounding. As a kid, I was so scared from just this theme alone that I wanted to turn off the movie, even though the rest really isn't that scary. Even the part where you catch a hint of Godzilla's theme it sound eerie and foreign. I have no problem with this being the main theme for the American verison.

Anyway, the film begins in the year 196X...I guess they got so far into the future they just stopped using numbers for the years. Scientists have discovered a large planet, nearly as big as Mars, that had been hidden behind Jupiter until now. The planet has an interesting composition and the fact that it has just been discovered makes the world authorities send up a space ship to go travel to this new world, nicknamed Planet X.

Aboard the rocket are two astronauts, Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams). This again shows Ishiro Honda's desire to focus on the brotherly love between nations, since Fuji and Glenn are constantly exchanging jokes, talking about their troubles back on Earth, and enjoying a light-hearted atmosphere where the two act like they've known each other their entire lives.

Interestingly enough, when the movie was filmed, the entire cast spoke Japanese except for Nick Adams, who spoke all of his lines in English, yet everyone seems to understand each other perfectly. In the Japanese version, they dubbed over Adam's lines so that he speaks Japanese, while the English version restores Adam's original performance and dubs over everyone else. I've yet to watch a version of "Invasion of Astro-Monster" where everyone speaks in their native tongue.

Anyway, as the rocket approaches Planet X, they make some quick observations about the surface and how it looks like a sea covers most of the planet when it's really just oddly colored rocks, and how the gravity is a third of what it is on Earth. As they land on the surface, I'm still amazed their landing looks as good as it does. This looks like something out of "2001: A Space Odyssey," especially with the giant looming presence of Jupiter over them. Some of the other Toho alien invasion films had a tendency to look cheap at times, but this one goes all out to make it feel other-worldly, especially with its eerie music.

After Fuji and Glenn land on Planet X, they take a moment to see how different this planet is from Earth, like how it lacks visible atmosphere and appears to be nothing but barren rock, almost like the planet has been deserted. While they set up their international flags, Fuji sees some strange yellow lightning in the sky and his contact with Glenn is cut off. But the weirdest thing of all is that he returns to the landing site to find the rocket has disappeared.





As if things couldn’t get worse, an odd looking cylinder pops up out of the ground and politely tells him to step inside. He refuses and gets his gun shot out of his hand for good measure, and suddenly changes his tune and he is taken underground.

The introduction to these aliens, who refer to themselves as the people of Planet X but are more commonly known among fans as the Xillians, is slow and mysterious, building up this odd atmosphere where everything is cold and methodically calculated by the aliens. Their hallways are long and sterile, built only to serve their function while the lights are only lit on the necessary parts. Before we’ve even seen the aliens, we already know so much about them through their minimalistic yet logical environments.




Glenn and Fuji meet back up and we’re introduced to the leader of the Xillians, as well as their classic alien outfits, complete with visors that make it impossible to see their eyes. The leader claims that they are now their honored guests and that their rocket is safe, kept in an underground bunker. Before the two can ask why everything is underground, we find out exactly why Monster Zero arrives and starts to attack the surface.

As the Xillians make preparations for its attack, we learn that Monster Zero is actually King Ghidorah. The leader says that everything on this planet is numbered and categorized, which explains Ghidorah’s name change, and that Monster Zero’s initial attack destroyed their above ground civilization, forcing what was left underground.


After a short attack by Ghidorah, and a short pause when the Xillians’ water supply is damaged, the leader returns to say that everything is fine and that they have a request for the astronauts. Since they don’t have the ability to defeat Ghidorah, they want to borrow Earth monsters that have defeated the space dragon before Godzilla and Rodan.

The Xillians say that all they need is permission from the people of the Earth and they’ll handle the rest, even rewarding humans with a miracle drug that will cure all known diseases. They even know exactly where Godzilla and Rodan currently are on Earth and will transport the two of them to Planet X to fight King Ghidorah. While this is suspicious, keep in mind that we already know these aliens think much differently than we do, so it’s no stretch that their social and political etiquette would be far more alien to us as well.

The astronauts return to Earth and immediately meet with the world leaders to discuss the Xillians request. The leaders are a bit conflicted, unsure of the aliens’ true intentions and how they went about telling us their request. But the majority seems to be in agreement, this is a golden opportunity to kill
three giant birds with one stone. Not only would Godzilla and Rodan be moved away from Earth, but they’d have the cure to every known illness. Ishiro Honda’s idea of paradise would be complete!

The next big development comes when the Japanese defense force finds movement at the lake the Xillians said Godzilla was located in. But instead of finding Godzilla, a classic bubble-headed alien spaceship flies out of the lake and hovers over the defense forces. When I think of alien space ships, these white and blue crafts are usually the first ones to come to mind, especially with the alien sound effects they make.

The next morning, the Xillian leader reveals himself to the people of the Earth, apologizing for hiding on our planet without our permission but says that our two worlds will now work together as one people. The leader deploys two more space ships to get Godzilla and Rodan in the most outlandish yet stylish way possible by removing the two from their environments without waking them up and putting the monsters inside of a stasis bubble, allowing them to transport the two to Planet X safely.





I've always loved this particular sequence, because it is so strange to see vastly different effects and weapons used on these monsters. Even at this point, bombs and planes had been over-used, so to see Godzilla trapped in an alien bubble to be taken to another planet is a nice change of pace.

The Xillians head back out, bringing along Glenn, Fuji and their commander to return to Planet X. At this point, our two astronauts begin to suspect the Xillians are up to more than they are leading on. With stasis fields that can stop a creature of any size in its tracks, a fully functional underground world with far more advanced technology than us and space ships that can travel between Earth and Planet X in less than four hours, why would they have so much trouble with King Ghidorah?

Along the way, the Xillians reveal that their ships are controlled using brain waves and that their thoughts are electronically controlled by computers, meaning there is no emotion in what they do, only facts and logic. They worship their computers as gods - to disobey a direct order from the computer is to disobey all of the Planet X culture.

Eventually, they make it back to Planet X with Godzilla and Rodan in tow, and they begin working on getting the two out of their stasis bubbles. Of course, just as they are finishing up, King Ghidorah arrives to cause more destruction. The Earth monsters are freed just in time and we begin the only monster fight in the Godzilla series that doesn't take place on Earth.




One criticism fans have with "Invasion of Astro-Monster" is how there are so few monster scenes, with this fight coming halfway through the movie and the only other scene is at the end of the movie. For a while, I agreed with this criticism until I realized this is an alien invasion story first, and a daikaiju film second. The monsters are not the main attraction here, they are mostly just plot devices to move the Xillian story along. The monsters make it stand out from other alien invasion films, but so does changing the story so we come to the aliens first.

That being said, this is a memorable monster fight between Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah, if only for the landscape they are fighting on. It feels like more of the final battle from "Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster" but with improved cinematography and Godzilla's crazy body slam at the end that forces Ghidorah to flee. This leads into one of the oddest moments in the entire franchise - Godzilla's victory dance.

Although it provides to quick laugh to see Godzilla jumping into the air and striking a pose, part of me feels this is where it becomes clear that Toho was marketing these films towards little kids. Why else would they put this shot of Godzilla dancing after he forces King Ghidorah to flee? The only thing missing is Rodan joining him in the dance.

Speaking of Rodan, his contribution to the fight is dropping one big rock on King Ghidorah. As we will see later, Rodan doesn't do much in this movie other than serve as another monster for the poster.




In the middle of the fight, the astronauts start to explore more of Planet X and find out a couple things - Gold is a plentiful resource to them, water is valuable, and all of their women look the same. In fact, they all bare a striking resemblance to Glenn's girlfriend back on Earth, Ms. Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno). The two are captured by the Xillians and forced to leave the planet in a copy of their original rocket. The Xillians hand the recipe for the miracle drug on a tape to the commander and the three head back to Earth, taking one last moment to say goodbye to Godzilla and Rodan.

As the three make it back to Earth safely, they start the tape the Xillian leader gave them so everyone on the planet can hear the good news. Unfortunately, the tape does not have the recipe to cure all diseases, instead it's a command by the Xillian leader - surrender control of the Earth to them or they will wipe out all of humanity.

In this tape, they reveal their plan - They always had control over King Ghidorah, using their brain wave machine to use him as their puppet. Now that they have Godzilla and Rodan on their planet, they can do the same thing to those two. They've always had a base of operations set up on Earth, so they've always known what we were up to. Additionally, Ms. Namikawa is an Xillian agent who was sent to spy on Glenn. If the world leaders do not willingly give up the planet in 48 hours, they will unleash the three monsters under their command and destroy everyone.

Another criticism fans with this film is the Xillien's plan - Why go to all the trouble of befriending humanity if the only reason to do that was so they could gain control over Godzilla and Rodan? Couldn't they have just used their brain wave machines on the two monsters while they were on Earth? I've never had too much of a problem with this complaint, since this provides a great over-arching story that has a shocking twist halfway through the movie. If it just started with the Xillian's attacking Earth and demanding control, the first half of the movie would be lost and we wouldn't have had those atmospheric and eerie scenes on Planet X.




That being said, the first half of the movie is the strong portion. From here, we get a mad scramble by the scientists and world leaders to find a way to combat the Xillian's and their monsters. Fuji pulls out a file of a machine that just so happens to be their ace in the hole - a device that distrupts magnetic waves, which would cut off the Xillian's control to the monsters. Apparently, every stupid scientific idea was kept in that drawer, kept their until just the right occasion and it becomes useful.

The best scene in the second half of the movie comes when Ms. Namikawa and Glenn meet again, Namikawa wearing her Xillian uniform. She explains that, while she was sent to spy on him, she truly did fall in love with him, something she never expected to happen, especially since it went against what the computers told her to do. I find this is more effective than other lover-turned-spy reveals, because Ms. Namikawa's directive to follow only what the computers tell her and Kumi Mizuno's performance. This is a woman who doesn't regret falling in love with Glenn, but does regret that it had to be this way. For the first time in her life, she's feeling emotions and cannot cope with them.

Namikawa ends up sacrificing herself when an Xillian commander tries to take Glenn prisoner and he vaporizes her without a second thought. This leads to some William Shatner-like acting from Nick Adams, as he screams at the top of his lungs after watching his girlfriend fade into nothing.

Other than that, it's mostly movie science about disrupting the magnetic waves, Glenn learning about the Xillian's weakness to loud sounds and a last-ditch attempt to save the planet. The better parts are the scenes showcasing some unique effects, like an Xillian spaceship melting a massive radio dish until it caves in on itself with very little noise, like watching a hot air balloon deflate.





The Xillians figure out what the humans are up to and move their attack ahead of schedule, sending Godzilla and Rodan to attack Japan while the space ships head out to attack the magnetic wave disruptors, known as the A-Cycle Light Rays, which apparently have been mass produced in the last day and a half because now they've got about two dozen of these things.

The attack by the monsters is a mix of stock footage and new scenes, though blended together so the old shots don't feel tiresome or reused. While the new footage is pretty neat to see, since we finally see the defense force attacking both Godzilla and Rodan at the same time. The budget problems of "Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster" are finally solved here and we get that all-out assault I was asking for. King Ghidorah eventually joins the fight and we get some of the best city destruction from the Showa series.

Except for Rodan, who just flaps his wings a couple times and knocks a couple shingles off someone's roof.

At this point, the humans put their plan into action. They send out a nation-wide signal and order everyone to turn up their radios as loud as possible and emit the noise that the Xillians cannot stand. Apparently, this works on their ships too because they start to malfunction, giving the defense forces enough time to finish setting up the A-Cycle Light Rays without being blown up by the aliens.

This is the point in the movie when the main Japanese theme comes into effect, as everything comes together in Earth's plan to stop the aliens. Their ships are breaking down, the monsters have been knocked out when their signal is disrupted, and the Xillian's Earth base has been located and blown up by a squadron of tanks (though it still takes them about ten shots to hit one house in the middle of the forest). It is an effective triumphant moment to see the humans not only overcome three giant monsters, but also a computer and logic-driven alien race.





Of course, this isn't the end of the movie yet - Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah have only been knocked out. Godzilla is the first one to awaken, who immediately get both of the others up and is ready to resume fighting King Ghidorah. We get a much better fight out of it, as Godzilla continually gets blasted with Ghidorah's gravity bolts but still does his best to get up-close to the space dragon and knock his three heads around. The fight ends in a way that is similar to the finale to "King Kong vs. Godzilla," with the three monsters tackling each other and throwing themselves off a cliff and into the ocean.

King Ghidorah is the only monster to emerge from the ocean and flies off into outer space once again. I would assume that, if this is the same logic as "King Kong vs. Godzilla," Ghidorah is considered the winner. We get some final bits of character development, as Glenn and Fuji share one last laugh before their commander orders Glenn to return to Planet X and become its new ambassador, giving everyone one last good joke.

"Invasion of Astro-Monster" is arguably Toho's best and most fascinating alien invasion tale. The aliens feel like a vastly different people instead of actors wearing a funny mask, their world is unique and captivating, and the idea that we were the first ones to reach out to them feels works well here. While the monsters don't get a whole lot of screen time, it is just enough to add a greater sense of scope to the movie.

This is one of the few Godzilla movies I would recommend watching in English over Japanese. Not only do you get to hear more of that creepy theme, but seeing and hearing Nick Adams' natural charm and charisma is a big plus too. Overall, this is a classic Toho daikaiju film and one of the best. It's smart, inventive, charming and filled with great effects and cinematography.