Friday, April 18, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1992)

19. Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth
Gojira tai Mosura / Godzilla vs. Mothra

After the success of “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah,” the Japanese public had made it clear that what they wanted to see was the pumped-up nineties version of Godzilla battling his classic foes. Following that logic, Toho decided that Godzilla would next fight his most common supporting member, the mighty Mothra. The script would raise the stakes even further by introducing, essentially, Mothra’s evil twin. This proved a very smart decision for the studio. “Godzilla vs. Mothra,” released direct-to-video in America under the less-generic title of “Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth,” became the highest grossing Japanese film of the year and, unadjusted for inflation, the most successful of any of the Godzilla films. It holds strong nostalgic value for me, another favorite I watched over and over again on video back.

The story starts large, with a meteor falling to Earth, reawakening Godzilla. The event has an immediate effect on the Earth’s environment, causing a typhoon that washes up a massive egg. The story then goes small again, focusing on would-be Indiana Jones, Takuya Fujita. When his treasure hunting gets him locked up, Fujita is recruited by the government, along with his ex-wife Masako and a representative for a massive corporation. Exploring Infant Island, the trio discovers the giant egg, along with an ancient temple and a pair of tiny women. The fairies, referring to themselves as the Cosmos, explain the story of an ancient civilization, their protector Mothra, and the embodiment of the Earth’s rage, Battra. Right on cue, Battra and Mothra reemerge, coming into conflict with the newly rampaging Godzilla. The three monsters battle throughout Japan, while the greedy corporation attempts to buy the fairies and Takuya attempts to reconcile with Masako and their daughter.

“Godzilla and Mothra” doesn’t have the smooth screenplay construction that “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” had. Most of the events in the story just seem to happen without much correlation. The meteor just happens to crash right next to Godzilla, waking him. The environmental upheaval seems only partially related to the monsters. Battra reappears mostly because the script calls on him too. After having a wrestling match with Godzilla under the sea, both monsters are swallowed by the Earth, not reappearing until the second half. The middle section of the movie is suddenly devoted to Mothra’s own march through Tokyo. As Mothra is about to emerge from her cocoon, Godzilla and Battra both reappear. Battra changes form too, seemingly because its rival does so. In the last act, the different plots finally converge, the two flying monsters teaming up against the destructive Monster King. The movie attempts to tie together the subplots in a natural way but not smoothly.

As “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” added wilder sci-fi elements to the Heisei era, “Godzilla vs. Mothra” introduces heavier fantasy elements. The last film gave Godzilla a long overdue origin story. This film does the same for Mothra. The butterfly goddess is introduced as the creation of an alien society that colonized Earth millennia ago. The Shobijin are now known as the Cosmos, the last of their kind and the sole residents of Infant Island. The movie also subscribe to the Gaia belief, that Earth is alive and pissed-off. That rage manifests in another giant monster, Battra, a dark mirror to the kinder, gentler Mothra. Considering the Godzilla-verse has always mixed together a number of divergent sci-fi, horror, and fantasy elements, the Heisei era moving into similar territory is welcomed. The movie doesn’t feature many of the campier effects of the previous film while still managing to keep most of the fun.

The film references several of Toho’s past kaiju flicks. The giant caterpillar’s egg is transported to Japan on a raft pulled behind a ship, recalling both “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and the original “Mothra.” The movie is actually a quasi-remake of “Mothra vs. Godzilla.” A wickedly capitalistic corporation kidnaps Mothra’s fairies, determined to use them as advertising mascots. The human protagonists plead with the fairies’ captives, begging them to return the girls. However, the greedy businessmen refuse. The big bug’s rampage through Japan is motivated by this human greed and, once reunited with her emissaries, the kaiju relaxes and retreats. Tokyo Tower is destroyed by Battra earlier in the film, forcing Mothra to cocoon herself against the Diet building instead. Unlike the broad commercial satire of “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” this subplot winds up having little to do with the rest of the film and is forgotten before the end.

Even if the script was hastily assembled, “Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth” certainly delivers on the monsters. Godzilla is once again given a minor redesign, the suit slightly sleeker while still being uber-beefy. As with King Ghidorah, Toho’s effects masters knew not to mess around with Mothra’ iconic design too much. In larva form, the caterpillar gains a slightly flatter face and some distinctive tasks. As a butterfly, Mothra is far fluffier then ever before, special attention being paid to her massive wings. The design pushes up against cute while still seeming possible.

Battra, the movie’s primary contribution to the Godzilla universe, is a memorable creature. The creature is, essential, the death metal version of Mothra. Its larva form is topped off with a massive horn that, naturally, shoots lightening bolts. The monster is covered with spikes actually, spikes for legs and spikes on the end of its tail. The dark design is codified with its huge red eyes and black skin. I’m a big fan of Battra’s larva form and actually prefer it to the final form. The red and black wings are jagged and tattered, its legs long and covered with spurs. The head is topped off with a crown of spikes and a pincher-like mouth. Mothra’s evil twin, on paper, sounds like an idea out of fan fiction. The movie pulls it off though, making the monster a memorable and creditable threat.

The movie is probably the most action packed of the Heisei era, up to this point. The city destruction scenes are filled with explosions. Battra honestly gives Tokyo one of its most thorough trashing since maybe the original “Gojira.” Lots of buildings explode as the evil caterpillar blasts buildings with his laser beams. As Godzilla emerges from the ocean, Mothra immediately hatches from her egg, seemingly sensing the other monster. In another amusing callback, the larva bites Godzilla’s tail, the Monster King thrashing around in aggravation. The underwater battle with Battra features the film’s wildest moments, like when Godzilla slams his opponent into the ocean floor repeatedly by the tail. Despite being an angelic figure, Mothra still wreaks some carnage of her own, plowing through buildings, tank rounds bouncing off its skin.

The movie saves the best for last. The action set piece is the three-way battle royale between Godzilla, Mothra, and Battra. Godzilla battles the army and Mothra and Battra tussle a little but these scenes are just appetizers. Battra slices a building in half with its laser vision, burying Godzilla. This, however, is a short lived remedy, the mighty reptilian blasting his way back out. The fight features such memorable moments such as Godzilla bouncing Mothra back with his new trademark attack, the Nuclear Pulse. The entire fight is set against the background of Yokohama Cosmo World. This comes in handy when Godzilla tries to drop a giant Ferris wheel on a prone Mothra. However, Battra swoops in, grabs the giant wheel and slams Godzilla with it instead. Both moths have some fancy long distance weapons of their own. Mothra collapses Godzilla by bathing him in poison powder and casting lightening bolts from her wings. Somehow, said bolts reflect Godzilla’s atomic breath back at him. Working together, the two flying monsters are such a force that you truly believe that they can take down the King of the Monsters.

“The Battle for Earth” certainly has an awesome finale but concludes on an off-tone, somber note. Once again, Godzilla plummets into the ocean, taking his opponent with him, ready to return for the next sequel. Battra’s death is treated with a lot of weight, solemn music playing on the soundtrack. In its final minutes, the movie info-dumps some exposition on us. As Mothra retrieves her fairies, they talk about how Battra was supposes to destroy a planet-killing comet in the future. Mothra takes its twin’s responsibility, having made a death oath to, flying into space at the end. Not only is that an inelegant ending, it’s also a bit of a down note to take the film out on.

Even if the script is unfocused, the film’s human cast provides a lot of heart. Neither Tetsuya Bessho’s Fujita nor Satomi Kobayashi’s Masako are typical heroes. The exes’ relationship is at first played for laughs, the two sniping at each other in corny, sit-com style. Later, however, the relationship evolves in a surprisingly touching fashion. Fujita is wrecked with doubt and guilt, actually considering selling the Cosmos in order to provide for his family. Ultimately, the two forgive each other and seem ready to get back together at the end. Bessho and Tetsuya have great chemistry together and quiet scenes of the two eating dinner and talking prove more entertaining then you’d expect. My only disappointment about the cast is that Megumi Odaka’s Miki Saegusa is mostly pushed towards the background; her psychic abilities used only once, to confirm that Godzilla is still alive, something we all knew anyway.

“Godzilla vs. Mothra” was Takao Okawara’s first shot at directing a Godzilla film. He generally does a great job. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Mothra cocoons herself against the Diet building. Set against the setting sun, the caterpillar’s silk dances in the air, against the purple sky. A lovely, soft song plays, creating a very poetic effect. Akira Ifukube returns once again to score. The classic Mothra theme is skillfully incorporated in with the pounding, Godzilla march. Keiko Imamura and Sayaka Osawa play the Cosmos, singing a stripped down version of Mothra’s lullaby. I like the classic Peanuts’ version better but this rendition is more fitting for the darker film.

“Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth” was rushed into production to capitalize on the success of “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.” This shows in the film’s sometimes shaky screenplay. However, the film still provides some fantastically realized monsters and beautifully orchestrated battles between them. The previous entry is bit more fun but the 19th Godzilla film is still a blast.  
[Grade: B+]

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1991)

18. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah 
Gojira tai Kingu Gidora

“Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is an important film for the series. After the underwhelming performance of “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” the decision was made to bring back some of Godzilla’s classic opponents, starting with his original arch-nemesis, King Ghidorah. The move was wildly successful and finally got the Heisei series rolling at a decent pace, sequels coming annually from this point on. For me, personally, the movie is also important. It revived my interest in Godzilla. I had long since loved the character, having seen a few of the Showa films and the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. Excited for the forthcoming Hollywood version, ten year old me seeked out classic Godzilla flicks on VHS, finding this one and its immediate sequel at my local video store. I rented the movies over and over again, falling in love with the sleeker, more modern King of the Monsters. Out of all the films in the series, “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is the one I’ve probably seen the most.

A strange UFO is spotted over Tokyo, attracting the attention of Kenichiro Terasawa. As a writer for a paranormal magazine, Terasawa is reporting on the story of a Japanese squadron in World War II who encountered a live dinosaur. Terasawa believes this is the origin of Godzilla. The two plots collide when the flying saucer lands at Mount Fuji. Instead of aliens, time travelers from the future leave the craft. They bring a grave warning, saying Godzilla is going to destroy Japan. The quartet of time travelers, one of them an android, bring Terasawa, paleontologist Mazaki, and psychic Miki Saegusa onto their ship. The group travel back to Lagos Island during World War II, discovering Godzilla’s origin. After disposing of the dinosaur in the past, the travelers return to modern Japan. Instead of Godzilla, they are faced with a new, even more destructive monster: the three-headed King Ghidorah! A conspiracy revealed, the Japanese government has to revive Godzilla in order to stop this terrifying new threat.

“Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” adds outlandish new sci-fi elements to the previously more-grounded Heisei era. The story teases a Showa-style alien invasion before launching into an even crazier plot. The script revolves around time travel while also introducing villains with nefarious plots, a living dinosaur, teleportation, a super-fast android, laser guns, jet packs, genetically engineered pets, and even cyborg giant monsters. The previous two entries had human plots that revolved around political intrigue, cold war tensions, and corporate espionage. The film keeps the monster action gritty and grounded while injecting some goofy, sci-fi energy. As a result, the nineties series became more free and entertaining.

Another reason to like the film is that it finally gives Godzilla a definitive origin story. Godzilla was originally a dinosaur that somehow survived into the modern day, living on Lagos Island. After saving a group of Japanese soldiers from American troops in WWII, the dinosaur was assumed dead. However, it lived, only to be bombarded with nuclear radiation during Japan’s H-bomb tests in the early 1950s. There’s a mythic quality to the story of Godzilla, a time-displaced dinosaur, saving Japanese soldiers, making him a legend even before emerging as a city-stomping kaiju. It also confirms a number of long-rumored beliefs about the star monster, making it immensely satisfying viewing for long-time fans.

The origin story also changes the nature of Godzilla. Japan is now directly responsible for his existence. The film mostly shies away from the implications of this, Japan’s own war machine creating the monster that will destroy it. Instead, Godzilla is made an undeniable symbol of Japan. The Japanese soldiers of World War II are shown as honorable warriors defending their country. The American fleet that pins them down on the island aren’t much more then heartless butchers, gunning down men with machines gun. The budding Godzilla appears, crushing the Americans under smashed trees. He even survives being shot by an American battle ship, rising again to stomp on the remaining soldiers. The Japanese salute the wounded Godzillasaurus before leaving, marking him as one of their own. Godzilla has long been a pop culture icon of Japan. The film makes the connection more literal, Godzilla being a true patriot of glorious Nippon.

At least, that’s what it appears to be at first. In the present, the surviving Japanese commander, Yasuaki Shindo, is now a wildly successful businessman. He spends most of the film seated in a huge skyscraper, outwardly denying the existence of the dinosaur but inwardly remembering it. He repeatedly refers to Godzilla as Japan’s savior, especially when he reappears to fight off King Ghidorah. However, after vanquishing the three-headed dragon, Godzilla goes on one of his rampage, tearing through Shinjuku. Coming to Shindo’s tower, the old soldier and the kaiju make eye-contact. They seem to remember one another, Godzilla tilting his head, blinking slowly. After a moment of silence, the kaiju crushes the building, blasting it with his nuclear breath. It’s a haunting, quiet moment in a mostly action-packed film. Is it unintentional that a character so strongly identified with Japan’s military history is now destroying its economically advanced modern city? Godzilla is not just an anti-heroic, unpredictable force of nature. Now he’s a symbol of Japan’s sometimes troubling, conflicting history as a country.

Upon release, “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” caused some minor controversy for its supposed anti-American message. The film’s attitude toward the North is undeniable. The visitors from the future are identified as Americans and are unwaveringly villainous. They remove Godzilla, now identified as the country’s defender, from the picture. They create their own monster, the hideous, destructive King Ghidorah. The Americans cackle as the dragon blasts Japan’s cities to bits. The reason for their time travel treachery? In the future, Japan becomes the richest country in the world, buying up whole nations, even the U.S. The Americans look forward to preventing this future from ever coming to pass, crushing Japan’s upward mobility in the present. The movie is, therefore, a rather literal metaphor for Japan and the United States’ early nineties status as economic rivals. In this conflict, America is painted as underhanded and evil. It’s no mistake that the sole Japanese time traveler is primarily the film’s hero, saving the day with super-advanced Japanese technology. Also not a mistake is that Godzilla, now established as symbol of Japan’s power, saves the day, destroying the deceitful Americans.

Whatever the intended subtext might be, “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is mostly too much damn fun for the viewer to even notice. The sci-fi angle is an absolute blast. The time travelers wear pastel colored, shiny suits, raising some questions about the 23rd century’s fashion sense. Their space ships are beautifully realized models, somewhere between your traditional flying saucer and a modern helicopter. Most of the amusement comes from M-11, the future folks’ mega-powered robot. M-11 can run at super-sonic speeds. The film portrays this in a number of amusing ways. First, the actor slowly waves his arms back and forth, gliding through the scene on cables. Sometimes, the camera centers on his face, the background speeding away. Usually, the film is just sped up, M-11 and his robotic adversaries bouncing around at super-speed. It’s all ridiculous and absolutely hilarious. The film’s car chase is especially unconvincing, the android lifting a vehicle off the road. In the last act, M-11 even throws a few cheesy one-liners around, blasting the bad guys with a high-tech laser gun. Actor Robert Scott Field is either really good at playing a robot or incredibly wooden. Compared to the self-serious political plot of “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” this kind of sci-fi silliness is truly appreciated.

Whimsical as the action is, it all moves along at a brisk pace. The plot is off and rolling before you know it. The World War II sequence is sometimes awkwardly displayed. The Godzillasaurus swings through the trees, never convincingly interacting with the human actors. However, the scene is so energetic and so endearing that you don’t mind. The movie’s plot has an efficient A-to-B structure. The flying saucer leads to the time travelers. The time travelers lead to Godzilla’s origin on Lagos Island. That business sets up King Ghidorah which necessitates Godzilla’s return. The two battle, Godzilla crushing the time travelers and defeating King Ghidorah. The rampaging Godzilla is then defeated by the cybernetic Mecha-King Ghidorah appearing from the future. “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is an excellently constructed screenplay and the film is perfectly paced. It’ll leave you wanting more.

Some of the human-focused special effects are incredibly silly looking. Yet, as always, the monster effects are unparalleled. The Godzillasaurus is an interesting design. The long neck makes the head look very stubby while the slouching posture makes his movement cumbersome. Yet the suit successfully looks like both a plausible dinosaur and a Godzilla-in-the-making. The filmmaker’s knew not to mess with King Ghidorah’s iconic appearance too much. The regal dragon is slightly stockier and gains longer, more defined horns. Otherwise, it’s the same villainous King Ghidorah we’ve always known. The monster’s rampage through Japan is fantastically created. He explodes countless buildings with his lightning breath. His speed and strength is enough to shatter glasses and bring down bridges. My favorite moment comes when King Ghidorah lands atop a building, tearing the structure down with his feet. The film pays King Ghidorah proper respect as Godzilla’s greatest enemy.

Godzilla’s look in this film doesn’t deviate too much from his appearance in “Biollante.” His neck is lightly thicker and brow even heavier. Overall, the film maintains the excellent design. The movie also presents the first true kaiju rumble of the Heisei era. Godzilla and King Ghidorah trade blows, firing each other’s projectile weapons. Finally, the two start to wrestle, King Ghidorah ensnaring Godzilla with his multiple necks. The movie isn’t afraid to go a little bigger and broader with the fight scenes. In a move that recalls “Godzilla vs. Gigan,” Godzilla lifts King Ghidorah off the ground by his tail, repeatedly body-slamming him. Ghidorah, meanwhile, slams the heroic kaiju into the Earth with his feet. The enemy monster is truly damaged, its center head blown off, huge holes blasted in its wings. It’s all a lot of fun.

Yet the grand finale is by far its most impressive moment. The script one-ups itself by introducing Mecha-King Ghidorah, classic Ghidorah outfitted with a robot head, cybernetic wings, and a steel body. It’s a brilliant design. The battle between the two features a lot of collateral damage, including Godzilla stumbling into the Japanese tax building. The way Mecha-King Ghidorah defeats the monster king is especially amusing, the movie’s endearingly over-the-top sci-fi ideas at their height. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a cyborg space dragon carry a radioactive dinosaur over the ocean. The only kaiju in the film I don’t like are the Dorats, the sickeningly sweet Ghidorah prototypes. Their big, anime-eyes and cute cat-like faces don’t mesh well with their dragon-style bodies. They’re also kind of annoying. Luckily, they aren’t in much of the film.

The performances are mostly secondary. Megumi Odaka’s Miki Saegusa returns but isn’t given much to do besides stare off-screen at the monsters. Kosuke Toyohara is serviceable as Terasawa, if never as charming as the script wants him to be. Anna Nakagawa is probably the stand-out performances as Emmy, the good, Asian time traveler. Considering some of the bold exposition she’s given, the actress remains likable. The actors playing the Americans all go way-over-the-top. Chuck Wilson as the primary villain, also named Chuck Wilson, really over does it, cackling and plotting with evil glee. His sidekick, Grenchiko, is played by Richard Berger who looks all the world like Oingo Boingo-era Danny Elfman. His performance is ridiculous too. The human actors clearly aren’t the stars of the show.

Kazuki Ohmori’s direction is dramatic and memorable. I love the shot of Godzilla under the ocean, lit form behind, his powerful silhouette standing against the blue water. King Ghidorah is also given a memorable entrance, his massive shadow cast on the land. Akira Ifukube’s belated return to the franchise is greatly appreciated, his drastic score, as always, helping the ridiculous action play out as grand opera. I especially like his Godzillasaurus theme, which plays like a lower-key version of the classic Godzilla march. “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is one of the strongest of the Heisei era, a massively entertaining monster bash that perfectly balances what we love about both eras of Godzilla. [Grade: A-]

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1989)

17. Godzilla vs. Biollante
Gojira tai Biorante

How popular “Godzilla 1985” was upon release in Japan isn’t well known. Wikipedia says the film was a “reasonable” success, which I somehow suspect was under Toho’s expectations. Another sign that the studio wasn’t hugely happy with the revival film’s performance is that a sequel wasn’t immediately green lit. Nearly five years passed before another Godzilla film made it out. “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” based off a story idea from a contest winner/dentist, goes about correcting the previous film’s flaws while creating a Godzilla film not quite like any other.

The film opens in the wake of Godzilla’s ’84 rampage. While Tokyo lies in ruin, scientists attempt to collect skin samples the monster left behind. These G-cells are promptly stolen by a group of American mercenary before the mercenaries are shot to death by a Middle Eastern assassin. Some time later, a scientist named Dr. Shiragami, along with his daughter Erika, is working with a Middle Eastern genetics company to turn the desert into a fruitful oasis. However, those plans are squashed when a rival genetics company bombs the lab, killing Shiragami’s daughter. Five years later, volcanic activity at Mt. Mihara has made the Japanese government paranoid that Godzilla might return. Dr. Shiragami, obsessed with his daughter’s death (and, oddly, roses), is contracted to work on Godzilla’s cell to create a special bacteria, a super-bug designed to destroy radiation. From the doctor’s research springs Biollante, a massive rose-like monster, partially made from Godzilla’s DNA. A hodgepodge of human intrigue, all of it centering on the Anti-Nuclear Bacteria, climaxes when Godzilla is released, inevitably bringing him in to conflict with new monster on the block, Biollante.

One of the things I most like about “Godzilla vs. Biollante” is that it shows a Japan prepared for Godzilla’s return. In the five year period after his last defeat, the country’s military has thrown together all sorts of novel counteractions against the monster. Most of the plot revolves around the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria. Though inelegantly made, this plot device presents an interesting opportunity. By the late eighties, the cold war was defusing. Nuclear destruction, which Godzilla’s is a persistent symbol of, suddenly seemed less likely. Toho’s screenwriters accurately predicted that biological warfare would be the super-weapon buzzword of the future. A mega-germ that could eats radiation? Unlikely. However, placing Godzilla and Biollante at opposite ends of a super-weapon ideology remains a smart decision.

The military’s defenses against Godzilla don’t stop there. Despite being set in the then-modern day, “Godzilla vs. Biollante” exists in a more sci-fi oriented alternate future. ESP has been explored as an avenue to predict monster attacks. The government employs a young psychic named Miki who can talk to flowers and accurately realizes that Godzilla is still alive under the volcano. However, Miki is just one of a whole school of young espers utilized by the Japanese government. One of the movie’s best scenes involves the female protagonist asking a whole classroom of budding young psychics to draw their dreams. Each one of the kids holds up a bold, colorful crayon sketch of Godzilla.

The Super X, the supercharged flying tank, proved an underwhelming weapon last time. Its upgrade, the Super X2, is a little more interesting. In addition to missiles and machine guns, the hovercraft is outfitted with a giant mirror that can reflect Godzilla’s heat ray back at him. Naturally, this only holds the Big G back temporarily. He eventually melts the reflective surface but, at least, it’s a fresh idea. The Anti-Nuclear germ, once it’s retrieve from another subplot, is fired at Godzilla with bazookas. That makes for a fun image, soldiers shooting handheld rockets that immediately drill into the monster’s skin. The movie, in its last act, pulls an even crazier idea out of nowhere. Apparently, at some point, the military set up a device to generate lightning. Gee whiz, why didn’t they try that earlier? Godzilla has an (inconsistent) history of being weak against electricity, after all.

The movie handles its fantastic content with a great deal of creativity. If only the screenplay was constructed in as clever a manner. The movie has a number of subplots all competing for screen time. The story concerning Dr. Shiragami takes up most of film’s first half. With Godzilla’s emergence, the doctor fades into the background, not becoming important again until the very end. Large portions of the film are concerned with the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria. An evil American company and the sinister Arabians are pursuing the weapon, both after it for presumably nefarious reasons. Japan, meanwhile, wants to hold onto the MacGuffin in order to defend against Godzilla and, as the businessman who owns it repeatedly says, to make a lot of money. These competing factions mostly manifest themselves are shady men in cars watching people. American toughs speaking heavily accented English show up from time to time to throw a monkey wrench into the plot. Occasionally, they serve a deeper purpose, like releasing Godzilla with a bomb, being Biollante’s first victims, or showing up to clip a dangling plot line. However, all the rushing around proves mostly fruitless. The super-germ winds up not affecting Godzilla much at all and the ANEBs aren’t brought up in any of the further sequels. The script probably didn’t need a story this ambitious and complicated.

The busy screenplay has another side-effect. Because there’s so much going on, the movie never has much time for its characters. It’s presumed lead character, Kazuhito and Asuka, don’t have much to do. Most of their screen time is spent worrying about the other, more important characters. Asuka shows concern and looks off-screen at the rampaging monsters. Kazuhito mostly does the same before flying into action against the assassin at the very end. For what it’s worth, the actors, Kunihiko Mitamura and Yoshiko Tanaka, have decent romantic chemistry. Dr. Shiragami is too inscrutable while military hero Major Kuroki is especially bland.

The only human characters in the film I like are Miki and bit-player Lieutenant Gondo. Goro Gondo is, as the kids say, epic. First, he successfully shoots Godzilla with a rocket launcher. The massive beast standing outside of the window, he faces him down, firing another missile into the monster’s mouth. Godzilla kills him after that but looking the King of the Monsters in the face and launching a missile down his throat is still amazingly bad ass. Introducing psychics specially chosen to communicate with kaiju is a surprisingly clever idea. Miki is a character of few words, observing far more then acting. In a movie where the military has thrown together all sorts of gimmicks to stop Godzilla, having Miki mind meld with him is perhaps the most memorable. It doesn’t work but I like it anyway. Megumi Odaka gives a mystical performance and is especially intriguing. The Goji-verse was apparently waiting for someone like her too, as the actress and the character returned for the next five sequels.

The most obvious way “Godzilla vs. Biollante” is superior to its predecessor is in its treatment of the monsters. Godzilla enters the film around the forty-four minute mark. The kaiju king’s look for “Godzilla 1985” was workable but slightly awkward. He is given an impressive redesign for his second Heisei outing. The suit is even bulkier with a brawny chest and hugely muscled legs. The tail is longer and the back spines bigger. Godzilla gains a longer neck and snout, looking taller and more reptilian. A more streamlined face gives the King of the Monsters a more intimidating, perpetually pissed-off look. Godzilla regains his glowing spines and even a few new superpowers. He can now project nuclear energy from his whole body!

As if responding to the last film’s “clean” destruction, Godzilla truly wrecks havoc this time. Upon reappearing, he explodes a series of battleships with ease. A little later on, helicopters burst into flames under his atomic breath. In probably a callback to “Godzilla Raids Again,” he chooses Osaka as his stomping grounds this time. Whole buildings are wrecked, pushed aside. He tears skyscrapers apart with his claws and tail. I guess toiling inside a volcano for five years really toughened the guy up. I can’t imagine this Godzilla passing out from a single missile. Toho would stick with this effective, intimidating design and attitude throughout the rest of the Heisei era.

The movie also cooked up a creative, bizarre opponent for Godzilla to fight, his strangest this side of the Smog Monster. Biollante seems inspired by Audrey II, Mario’s Piranha Plant, and other giant carnivorous monster plants. You wouldn’t think a giant rose would be an especially effective enemy for such a powerful monster. The movie makes it work though. A giant towering rose, vines ending in razor-toothed flytraps, makes for a memorable image. The snapping teeth in the center of the bud and the pregnant, yellow pouch provide some interesting, Freudian imagery. Biollante tangles Godzilla up in her vines, distracting him momentarily, before getting blasted to bits. This proves a temporary victory though. Just in time for the final act rumble, Biollante returns from space in a powerful new form. Biollante Mk. 2 makes a startling re-entrance, exploding out of the Earth. The flower-monster gains a huge mouth lined with giant teeth, Godzilla’s narrow eyes, slouching posture, and dinosaurian armor. The killer plant holds its own, moving surprisingly fast, vomiting yellow slime into Godzilla’s face, and even impaling his limbs with his fearsome thorns. The dramatically filmed, special effects-heavy fight would set the standard for future entries.

The last two paragraphs might undersell how odd parts of this movie are. You see, Biollante isn’t just a giant monster made from the combined DNA of Godzilla and a rose. The female kaiju gains its gender from, get this, possessing the soul of Dr. Shiragami’s daughter. How exactly this came about isn’t expounded on. Having a human soul doesn’t affect the monster’s behavior much. Absurdly, upon being defeated, we actually see the late Erika Shiragami’s face floating out of the monster’s remains. Biollante’s pollen floats into space and then turns into a giant a rose blossom that orbits the Earth. “Godzilla vs. Biollante” mostly avoids the campy highlights of the late Showa period but oddball touches like these certainly don’t go unnoticed.

Also strange is the movie’s score. Koichi Sugiyama composed the music. Sweeping John Williams-style adventure music fills out most of the score. Occasionally, rocking guitars are heard, seemingly meant to punctuate the movie’s gun violence. Bizarrely, Sugiyama even throws in Danny Elfman style brass which is really distracting, especially when set against action sequences. Sugiyama at least has the brains to use Ifukube’s classic Godzilla theme and military march, which are truly appreciated when they show up. It’s not a bad score but certainly an unusual one.

Compared to the uncertain “Godzilla 1985,” “Godzilla vs. Biollante” is a more fun, creative, and self-assured film. The script is too ambitious, throwing in too many characters and subplots. However, when the movie focuses on its kaiju, it’s an entertaining, at-times innovative action romp. Considering how much more successful it is then its predecessor, it’s not surprising that the rest of the Heisei age would model itself after this film. [Grade: B]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1984)

16. Godzilla 1985
Gojira / The Return of Godzilla

For nine years, Godzilla slept. Weakening ticket sales brought the classic series to an end in the 1970s. However, the series never officially concluded. For years afterwards, producer and series grandfather Tomoyuki Tanaka kicked around ideas for new Godzilla films. A few of the ideas had Godzilla battling one of the Gargantuas, a giant military-built robot, infamous “lost” monster Bagan, and even a direct remake of the original 1954 film. In 1983, a re-release of the original 15 films revived interest in the franchise. This, combined with the monster’s 30th anniversary, allowed a new script to take hold, production finally beginning. Alternatively known as “Return of Godzilla,” “Godzilla 1985” or simply “Gojira,” the film attempts to re-contextualize Godzilla in the bigger, shiny 1980s.

Like the original ’54 film, “Return of Godzilla” begins with a fishing boat mysteriously being attacked by something huge and inhuman. A Tokyo journalist recovers the derelict boat, discovering several corpses, a giant mutated sea louse, and a shell-shocked survivor. Soon, the survivor confirms that Godzilla, the giant monster that burnt Tokyo to the ground thirty years prior, has returned. The Japanese government tries to keep this under wraps, hoping to avoid a panic. When the new Godzilla destroys a Soviet submarine, nearly sparking an international incident, the government is forced to admit Godzilla’s return. The United Nations argue about what to do while Godzilla inevitably surfaces in Tokyo, attacking the city. The journalist, the survivor’s sister, and a scientist, who survived Godzilla’s original attack, scramble to find a way to stop the monster. Will they succeed in time before rival nations drop nuclear bombs on the monster and the city?

1984’s “Gojira” is a very different film from 1954’s “Gojira.” Instead of focusing on the human drama amidst the monster’s attack, “Return of Godzilla” takes a bigger, world-wide view. Japan’s Prime Minister is a central character. The film pays a lot of attention to the hard decisions he’s forced to make, about covering up Godzilla’s return and his eventual admission of the monster’s existence. Japan’s national leader is poised as a reasonable, solid-head man when Russia and the United States demand to use nuclear weapons on the monster. We follow the country’s government as they struggle to contain the monster’s rampage and bring it to an end without sacrificing any human lives. The script’s shift in focus, from everyday heroes to the governments of the world, makes “Godzilla 1985” feel less like a traditional kaiju flick and more like a big budget disaster movie.

Godzilla had, over the years, remained a symbol of nuclear annihilation. Even his silliest adventures at least gave a passing mention to the monster’s roots. “Godzilla 1985” attempts to update this subtext for a new decade. Godzilla becomes correlated with Cold War tensions. The kaiju’s appearance on the global scene sends the world into panic. After devouring a Russian submarine, Godzilla nearly starts World War III. The U.S.A. and the Soviet Union get twitchy fingers, ready to launch nuclear missiles at any minute. The script attempts to generate suspense when the Soviets accidentally fire a nuclear rocket, Japan uncertain if the world can intercept the missile in time. Tying Godzilla in with the politics of the day is a bold decision but one the film can’t quite make work. Godzilla’s attack on Japan remains mostly separate from the world-wide tension and the story never makes much of a point about the Cold War.

Godzilla was updated for the eighties in other ways, too. Special effects had come a long way in nine years. American artists like Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Chris Walas had completely redefined what monster effects were. Toho’s effects master Teruyoshi Nakno isn’t quite up to snuff with those geniuses. However, Godzilla’s look is successfully updated for the new decade. The King of the Monsters is far stockier then ever before, with massive muscled thighs and legs. He’s bigger in general as not to be dwarfed by Japan’s growing cityscape. The acrobatic wrestler of the seventies is no where to be seen. Instead, Godzilla is returned to his roots as a slow, lumbering dinosaur. Animatronic effects allow for far more animation then ever before. Godzilla’s eyes blink, his lips twitch, his heart pumps, his face expressive and active. The monster gains a new mouthful of curving, sharp teeth, and perpetually barred fangs. A shorter snout and wider forehead gives him an almost feline appearance. Godzilla’s new look would continue to be streamlined through the Heisei era but, as far as reappearance goes, this one is fairly successful.

If only the movie’s other special effects were as successful. The movie can be broken up into three major set pieces. Godzilla attacks a nuclear power plant, absorbing the site’s radiation. Godzilla’s raid on Tokyo takes place in two parts, the monster being knocked unconscious before waking up to duel with the Japanese military. These attacks are framed in wide angles, robbing Godzilla of most of his scale. He never appears to be a giant monster devastating a city but instead as a man in a suit on miniature sets. The sets look very nice and are fantastically detailed. Yet they wind up defeating their own purpose.

Another problem is that this new Godzilla is kind of a wimp. His raid of a nuclear power plant works all right. He proves rather stealthy for a giant monster, sneaking up on the plant’s guard. There’s plenty of panicking inside of the building as the kaiju attacks. However, the sequence is cut short when Godzilla is distracted by… A flock of birds? That seems out of character. His initial appearance in Tokyo features some good moments. The monster resurfaces rather suddenly. He shoots helicopters and jets out of the sky with ease. His most impressive display of power comes when he ignites a series of missile launchers, on-foot soldiers obliterated by his fiery breath. However, upon setting foot in the city, the monster’s destruction is awfully clean. He navigates around buildings instead of through them. He picks up a subway train, the helpless folk inside screaming in terror. Instead of popping the train into his mouth, he just casually tosses it aside, the scene not building to a proper climax. The destruction is ultimately far too restrained.

The biggest indignity comes when Godzilla is knocked unconscious by a single missile. Sure, it’s fired from the Super X, a high-tech new jet that can withstand Godzilla’s breath weapon. Yet I can’t imagine any proper version of Godzilla falling to one projectile. The monster is awoken when some nuclear missile go off in the upper atmosphere, which is an effective moment. His renewed rampage is more successful, blasting straight through a building, igniting a series of silos, a car-packed bridge, and eventually dropping a skyscraper on that pesky Super X. Just as the rampage really gets going, Godzilla is called away from Tokyo by another plot device. The movie never conveys a real sense of panic. We see some crowds fleeing from Godzilla’s giant foot as he smashes bridge and cars. However, compared to the stark, horrifying original that successfully burned down the whole city, the destruction here seems somewhat tame. That’s not something you’d expect from a big budget reboot of a series famous for its collateral damage.

Godzilla’s sudden bad ass decay is most obvious in the way he’s defeated. Scientists realize early on that the monster is uncontrollably drawn to magnetic signals. He is lured away from Tokyo when the heroes whip up a high tech radio dish that puts off said signals. Godzilla ultimately stumbles into an active volcano, buried under the lava and rock. It makes the mighty king of the monsters seem more like a dumb animal, easily manipulated by smarter humans. Walking into a volcano of his own accord certainly isn’t as dramatic as being reduced to a giant pile of bones by the Oxygen Destroyer.

The monster is treated not as a symbol of nuclear war but as a neutral force of nature. Recalling “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” some of the monster’s damage is accidental. He steps into a subway tube, falling into a building. Later, his tail brushes against a tower as he turns around. The film’s heroic scientist, Professor Hayashida, can’t help but be sympathetic towards Godzilla. He repeatedly insists the monster is a side effect of man’s cruelty towards the world. Godzilla’s defeat is played as high tragedy. The professor and the prime minister nearly shed a tear as the monster sinks into a newly reactivated volcano. Reijiro Koroku’s score is overly flowery and melodramatic throughout. The score’s overdone tone peaks during that finale. As Godzilla sinks beneath the lava, crying out one last time, a weepy, maudlin requiem plays on the soundtrack. The original movie manages to create pathos towards the King of the Monsters but only after establishing him as an uncontrollable destructive force. Here, the script courts the audience’s sympathy to the point of neutering the proud monster. To add insult to injury, a love ballad plays over the end credits. The lyrics actually contain the words, “Take care now, Godzilla, my old friend!” Truly, it has to be heard to be believed.

By focusing on international affairs, the movie’s human cast ultimately takes a backseat. Hero reporter Goro Maki never gets much development. The movie teases a romance between him and Naoko, the sister. However, actors Ken Tanaka and Tasuko Sawaguchi have very little romantic chemistry. Naoko’s brother Hiroshi appears to be an important character at first but, ultimately, disappears before the end. Because Godzilla’s rampage ultimately seems minor, we never fear for these character’s lives. The trio are trapped inside a building that, despite suffering major damage, never feels like it’s about to collapse. Yosuke Natsuki and Keiju Kobayashi’s performances as the professor and the prime minister are on the same melodramatic level as the rest of the screenplay. The script’s strangest decision is to have a homeless person encounter the monster several times. Instead of running in panic like you’d expect, he brushes the monster off with quippy one-liners!

The Cold War elements never amount to as much as you’d expect. The whole tension about whether or not one government or another will drop a nuke on Japan merely sets up the second act turn. The missile is defused before reaching Tokyo, the fall-out reviving Godzilla. A lot of attention is paid to a brave Russian captain who tries to stop the launch, as well as tension between the US and Russia. Ultimately, after doing their duty of waking the monster back up, neither super power is heard from again.

“The Return of Godzilla” is historical as the start of a new Godzilla era. It’s also historical as the last film in the series to be drastically re-edited upon release in America. Roger Corman’s New World Picture released the film stateside, under the catchy title of “Godzilla 1985.” To further establish a connection to the original film, Raymond Burr was brought back to reprise his role as reporter Steve Martin. It’s a clever idea on paper but, in execution, is less successful. Martin never interacts with the Japanese cast, staying completely state-side. He spends the whole film in a Pentagon bunker, watching Godzilla’s rampage on a TV monitor, never in danger. Burr delivers some grave dialogue about the monster’s invulnerability and man’s hubris in the face of nature. The actors playing the US generals and soldiers around him are far too flippant, making pithy comments about the destruction on the screen. There’s nothing especially campy about the original movie which makes the English version’s attempt to yuck it up rather condescending. This is a shame since the American cut is, otherwise, leaner, faster paced, and better edited then the dragging Japanese original. (It also recuts the film to present the heroic Soviet general as a villain, a change so xenophobic it’s almost hilarious.)

Neither version of 1984’s “Gojira” is as successful as it sets out to be. Godzilla himself is impressive but the movie treats him with kids’ gloves, downplaying his destructive power. The characters are too thin and the script is unbalanced. I admire some of the things “Godzilla 1985” sets out to do but the Heisei era, as it would come to be known, got off to a rough start. [Grade: C+]

Monday, April 14, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1980)

8. Gamera: Super Monster
Uchu Kaiju Gamera

With the bankruptcy of Daiei, the Gamera series was brought to an abrupt end. The remnants of the studio eventually fused with the Touma Shoten publishing company, birthing a new Daiei. With the revival of the company, a revival of its trademark franchise was only a matter of time. Either the budget or the public’s appetite for giant flying turtles (Or, most likely, both) had run dry. The “Gamera” series has always been shameless about its use of stock footage. However, the would-be comeback film, “Gamera: Super Monster” pushes that attitude to unheard of new lows. It’s less a movie then a clip show, a best-of reel were nearly every monster appearance is recycled from an older film.

The plot, as it is, starts up when an evil space warlord named Zanon decides he wants to conquer Earth. However, first he must remove Earth’s protectors. No, not Gamera. The Superwomen, a trio of cape-wearing superheroes who can fly, change size, teleport, and turn their van into a bitching space ship. Unfortunately, whenever the women transform, it attracts the attention of Zanon’s laser beams and the female agent he sends to Earth. Instead, Gamera, who may or may not be a little boy’s pet turtle, has to protect the planet. In order to defeat the titanic terrapin, evil lord Zanon sends all of Gamera’s former enemies to battle him, hoping to best the flying turtle.

The cheapness of “Gamera: Super Monster” extends even beyond its liberal use of stock footage. The film shamelessly rips off other film and television series that were popular at the time. Right from the beginning, this is obvious. A space vessel, nearly identical to a Star Destroyer, passes over the camera in a shot ripped directly from “Star Wars.” Even the music is designed to bring to mind George Lucas’ genre-busting blockbuster. The rip-off game doesn’t end there. The Superwomen trio was obviously inspired by the Christopher Reeves “Superman” series, still climbing box office charts at the time. Their capes and flight are indebted to American superheroes, while a set they wind up on is like the low budget version of Richard Donner’s crystalline Krypton sets. The Superwomen also owe much to the Japanese superheroes that are perennially popular on television. Before transforming into their costumes, the women do a dance, cocking their arms at odd angles and spinning around. The trio’s van and cars don’t measure up to Kamen Rider’s motorcycle, instead being ordinary vehicles that undergo unconvincing transformations. In other words, the parts of “Gamera: Super Monster” that aren’t literally recycled from older movies are figuratively recycled from older movies.

The film’s derivative nature speaks to its massive laziness. We never actually meet the evil lord Zanon, the villain kept completely off-screen, only heard as an ominous voice. His female agent, the improbably named Giruge, is deeply incompetent. For most of the film, she nearly waits around for the Superwomen to transform in front of her. She does nothing to aide Zanon’s monsters. (Of course not, that would require new scenes be filmed.) Her proactive actions boil down to kidnapping the child protagonist, ineffectively, and one ridiculous kung-fu fight set on a playground. Giruge’s character arc - to be defeated by the heroes, abandoned by the villain, and converted to the side of good - is the kind of juvenile writing you’d find in countless Japanese manga. Perhaps this was intentional since the movie directly references manga early on.

The Superwomen aren’t the most impressive superheroes ever committed to film either. Each has a human identity. Kilara, the vaguely butch leader of the team, runs a pet shop. Marsha is a car salesman, allowing for some blatant product placement from Mazda. Mitan is a school teacher. When no one is looking, they do their little dances, switching into unflattering off-white body suits and red capes. The heroines’ flying ability is displayed early in the film. However, whenever they reveal their powers, they attract the villain’s attention. So, in a clumsy money-saving measure, the superheroes spend most of the movie in their citizen identities. Most of the time, they move around in their unimpressive vehicles, which they pilot with electric keyboards. The Superwomen dominate the first half of the movie, making you wonder when Gamera will show up.

For all the unrelated crap in the movie, “Gamera: Super Monster” is still a Gamera film. As you’d expect, the film has a child protagonist. Keiichi appears to be a lonely child, with few friends, who spends a lot of time in his room alone, practicing songs on an electric organ. His mother comes off as a control freak, forcing him to neglect hobbies he loves. After Keiichi adopts a turtle from Kilara’s pet shop, an animal he dearly loves, his mom passive-aggressively talks him into getting rid of the reptile. The movie is too thinly written to address the melancholies of childhood in any meaningful ways. Basically, the most interesting thing about the film is barely in it.

Which leaves us with Gamera. The movie, oddly, hints that Keiichi’s freed pet turtle is also, somehow, Gamera. This bit of whimsical magic realism is barely addressed. Gamera, when not brought to life through scenes from the earlier, better movies, is realized as an awkward hand-puppet. “Super Monster” is mostly free of hilarious bizarreness that makes the earlier films so much fun. Save for two moments. In Keiichi’s dreams, he sees Gamera flying along side Space Cruiser Yamato and the Galaxy Express 999. As in the famous anime space ships. As in cartoons. A rubber kaiju suddenly interacting with animated spaceships is a bizarre, amusing moment that appears without explanation or further elaboration. The movie needed more oddball touches like that.

It’s tempting to call “Super Monster” a best-of reel. It does, after all, feature the fight scenes from the previous movies, usually in their entirety. However, even the stock footage is handled clumsily. The new electronic musical score drains the crazy combat of much of its energy. The fights are awkwardly re-cut and presented in an odd order. Because the footage is untouched, Gamera flies to an alien planet midway through the film just to battle Guiron before flying back to Earth. By the time the fight with Barugon is recycled, the movie is nearly over, leaving little room for the footage to breathe. Gamera fans will have to watch the dam sequence from “Gamera vs. Barugon” for a third or fourth time. The movie at least has the sense to recycle the original film’s footage on a black-and-white TV.

The movie attempts to provide the series with a conclusion. Gamera sacrifices himself at the end to destroy the evil Zanon’s star ship. Giving the heroic turtle a proper send-off is appreciated. Yet “Super Monster” is a less then dignified film for the kaiju to exit on. Midway through Gamera’s Tokyo rampage, he overturns a poster for a “Godzilla” film. It’s a mean spirited jab at Gamera’s rival monster. And a wholly unearned one. “Gamera: Super Monster” is laughable and cheap but not in the fun, energetic way. The flying, fire-breathing turtle would end his classic era on a whimper.
[Grade: D]

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1971)

7. Gamera vs. Zigra
Gamera tai Shinkai Kaiju Jigura

Daiei continued to crank out Gamera movies on a yearly basis, racing neck and neck with Godzilla for the hearts and minds of Japanese children. However, studio misspending and executive shuffling led to Daiei going bankrupt in 1971, abruptly bringing the Gamera series to an end. How abrupt was it? A script existed for an eighth film in the series, “Gamera vs. Garasharp,” and pre-production was far enough along that storyboards exist. Seems to me the people working for the studio weren’t even aware of Daiei’s impending fate. So with no prior planning or expectations, “Gamera vs. Zigra” would be the final Gamera film of the Showa era.

After the more grounded approach of “Gamera vs. Jiger,” “Zigra” returns the series to outer space. Rather literally as well, as the film opens with a flying saucer attacking Japan’s moon base. On Earth, oceanographers Dr. Wallace and Dr. Ishikawa have no such concerns, worried more about their responsibilities at an aquatic wildlife theme park. Their six year old kids, Kenichi and Helen, are even less careless. That all changes when the doctors and their children witness the UFO landing in the ocean. The four are abducted by the alien, Zigra, and his brainwashed human servant. After hypnotizing the fathers, Zigra and friend set about conquering the world, a plot that mostly involves brainwashing more people and threatening radio broadcasts. It’s a good thing that the denizens of Earth have Gamera on their side. But will it be enough?

Proving once again that space is the place, the plot’s sci-fi silliness injects some much needed energy into the starting-to-sag series. To quote the film’s characters, “Gamera vs. Zigra” is groovy. The movie has a lot of fun with its human villain, the mysterious Woman X, another sinister space-babe in a tight-fitting suit. At first, she reasons that it would be easier to conquer Earth just by Killing All Humans. However, Zigra convinces her that a subtler approach is needed. Marching onto land, the woman hypnotizes a group of teenage sunbathers with her flashing eyes. Now clothed in a slinky bikini, providing even more eye-candy for the dads in the audience, she goes about conquering minds at the film’s Sea World-style setting. The most amusing moment in a film full of ludicrous bullshit is a chase scene. Now clad in a mini-skirt and go-go boots, Woman X chases the kid heroes around the park. They repeatedly get the drop on her, locking her behind doors and leaving her in the dust. When the chase attracts a crowd’s attention, humorously, the woman knocks the entire group unconscious with her eye rays. About thirteen adults go limp. By the way, all of this is set to a swinging seventies score, composer Shunsuke Kikuchi’s funkiest work yet. It is, in as few words as possible, fucking hysterical.

Yet the movie’s grooviest element is its kaiju final boss, Zigra. The monster resembles the goblin shark with its lilac-colored armor and pointed horn on its head. Zigra’s long fins and beak-like mouth also brings a bird to mind. The film seems to acknowledge this when it has Zigra fly through the air late in the film. To up the chances for the series’ trademark gore, Zigra is also covered with sharp edges, on his fins, face, and back. Most ridiculously, the fish-like monster even stands up and walks around on his hind fins.

However, oddball monster designs are par the course for the Gamera series. What truly makes Zigra special is the way he acts. This is a giant monster with a serious superiority complex. He wants to conquer Earth because he considers the planet’s ocean to be unworthy of humanity. Also, because humans are delicious and he wants to eat all of us. He reasons it’s fair for a sea creature to eat land creatures since land creatures eat sea creatures. Sound logic. First appearing as a disembodied head, Gamera frees Zigra when he blows up his space ship. Exposed to the ocean’s different pressure, Zigra grows to giant sizes. This seriously pisses him off. We know all of this because Zigra can talk. He speaks in a booming, reverberating voice, often dictating verbose monologues. My favorite is when he declares himself beautiful and plots revenge on humanity. By giving their monster a little more personality, Daiei created one of Gamera’s most entertaining enemies.

Once again, the series pairs up a Japanese kid and an American kid. However, the formula is shaken up a little bit. Instead of two sons, it’s a little boy and a little girl. The two act like brother and sister, despite not being related. They even live together, their mothers harping on them for different reasons. Amusingly, the two disagree on Gamera’s nature. Kenichi, of course, believes Gamera to be Friend to All Children while Helen is more skeptical. This attitude changes when Gamera swoops down to save the kids from Zigra’s giant fin, scooping their boat up. When put down on land, the kids encounter a strange man dressed in rags. Kenichi immediately deduces the pair has traveled back in time. Amusingly, the old man proves otherwise when he pulls a radio out of his pocket. Just to add to the fun, this character never appears again.

The movie diverts a little from the series’ formula, showing the filmmakers having a little fun. When Zigra starts his rampage, blowing up a few random boats, panic grips the coast town. The manager of the theme park tries to talk to the top animal trainer. Instead, the trainer says “to hell with humanity,” he wants to die with his animals. For all its fun shake-ups, “Gamera vs. Zigra” follows the series’ established structure closely. Gamera shows up and fights his opponent. They tussle for a few minutes, Zigra flying circles around Gamera, before the turtle hero goes down. This time, Gamera is knocked unconscious by Zigra’s eye-freezing ray.

A little too much of “Gamera vs. Zigra” is focused on the plight of the kids’ parents. Upon being taken aboard the space ship, Woman X drops a load of exposition on everyone, explaining the aliens’ motivation. The fathers are knocked unconscious by the woman’s glowing eyes, spending a large portion of the film in a catatonic state. Eventually, the kids realize they can wake their fathers up with super sonic sound. Is that the second or the third time sound has been used as a weakness in this series? The dads go down in a bathysphere to investigate the monster, the kids once again stowing away. The monster puts them in peril, leaving them to die. Too much time in the film’s middle section is devoted to this subplot. The way it resolves is disappointing too, the humans more-or-less tricking the monster into saving them. Worse yet, the humans don’t even end up reviving Gamera, that duty falling to a convenient lightning storm.

When Gamera awakens for the final round, the movie’s pace perks back up. The turtle’s shell protects him from Zigra’s energy waves, something he probably should have realized sooner. In the ocean, Zigra has the advantage, swimming around, slicing up Gamera’s belly. Once the fight reaches land, the tide turns. Gamera blunts Zigra’s nose-horn by sticking a big rock on it. Pinned to the ground, Gamera picks up another rock. He taps the rock against Zigra’s back spines, playing them like a xylophone. Naturally, he plays the Gamera theme song! Afterwards, the film’s soundtrack joins in, Gamera going into a spastic dance, swinging his arms back and forth, roaring repeatedly. Down for the count, Gamera sets Zigra ablaze with his fire breath, the shark monster burning to ashes in minutes. It’s not as gory a defeat as some of the series’ other enemies but it’s still strangely satisfying.

“Gamera vs. Zigra” ends on an educational note. As Gamera flies away in victory, the kids shrieking out his name, Kenichi’s dad stops them. He explains that humans have to be more protective of our oceans and take better care of its wildlife. This ecological moral is set up earlier, when Zigra briefly mentions that his home world was ruined by pollution. Notably, this film was released the same year as “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster,” another kaiju movie with an anti-pollution message. Considering the Godzilla film laid that message on thick while “Zigra” just tacks it on at the end, I don’t think this was an intentional emulation. Instead, environmental concerns seemed to, ahem, be in the air at the time.

It’s difficult to grade the Showa Gamera movies on any conventional metric. Even the best films in the series are most valuable for their campy imagery. “Gamera vs. Zigra” is not as smooth as “Gyaos” or as out-of-this-world as “Guiron.” However, it’s a noticeable step-up from the maudlin “Jiger” and features some delightfully screwy moments. As far as moments to take the classic series out on, a giant turtle playing music on a giant shark’s back isn’t bad. It isn’t bad at all. You might even call it groovy. [Grade: B]

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Series Report Card: Gamera (1970)

6. Gamera vs. Jiger
Gamera tai Daimaju Jaiga / 
Gamera vs. Monster X

The Gamera movies were cranked out so quickly that I’m not sure if the Daiei executives in charge even had time to take the previous film’s reaction to heart before working on the next one. In the unlikely scenario that they did, it’s easy to see “Gamera vs. Jiger” as a reaction to the sci-fi goofiness of the last two movies. Yes, for his sixth film, Gamera comes back down to Earth. Which isn’t to say the movie’s sane. There’s still crazy monsters jumping around and all that shit. But it’s slightly more reserved then the last few outings.

Set during the construction of the real world 1970 Worlds Fair at Osaka, the story follows two plot lines. The first involves Hiroshi, a Japanese kid around ten, and his best friend, you guessed it, an American boy named Tommy. Both boys have sibling, Hiroshi's bratty older sister and Tommy's high-pitched younger sister. Hiroshi’s dad, an unnamed scientist with - I’m not kidding - a Hitler mustache, has built a hi-tech new submarine for the fair. This will be important later. Tommy’s dad, and the starting point for the second plot, is an archeologist determined to remove a strange ancient artifact called the Devil’s Whistle from the exotic Wester Island. Sensing this is bad news, Gamera shows up to scare the scientists off. They don’t listen, removing the stone spire from the ground and heli-carrying it to Osaka for the Fair. They should have listened to the fire-belching turtle. The tower was holding back a giant monster, the horned, needle-spitting, parasite-implanting Jiger. The monster sets about wrecking havoc on Expo ’70, Gamera forced once again to save the day. When Jiger’s bag of tricks puts the turtle down, the kids have stand up and save their enormous reptilian friend.

“Gamera vs. Jiger” is strictly formula. The film follows roughly the same outline that the series has been using for a while now. For the third time in a row, the kid heroes are a Japanese boy and his American best friend. Like the radio-watches in “Viras” or the perfect aiming skills in “Guiron,” a minor plot element introduce early on helps the characters out of a jam later on. The submarine is reminiscent of a similar vehicle used in “Gamera vs. Viras.” As in every entry since “Gamera vs. Gyaos,” our turtle hero has several fights with the villainous monster. The first battle takes Gamera out of the story for a while, allowing the evil monster to wreck some havoc and for the human heroes to take the center stage. “Gamera vs. Jiger” actually does this twice, Jiger having two special abilities it can deploy. Rescued by his human friends, Gamera returns to gorily dispatch his enemy. Rinse, repeat.

The last two Gamera movies at least had the benefit of being fucking crazy. “Jiger” stripes away the aliens, flying saucers, and wacky sci-fi elements that characterized parts four and five. Jiger’s origins are, instead, rooted in Earthly mythology. The monster was contained eons ago by the lost civilization of Mu, the Devil’s Whistle being the sole remaining artifact. What was with Japan and lost civilizations in the early seventies? Atlantis popped up in all sorts of shit, “Ataragon” also featured Mu while “Godzilla vs. Megalon” featured Lemuria. Wester Island is clearly a stand-in for Easter Island, a connection “Megalon” would also make. The movie doesn’t even feature a contrived, ridiculous way to kill the monster. When Jiger’s weakness is revealed, it turns out to be high-pitched sounds, a rather mundane reveal. The Devil’s Whistle being a literal whistle is a clever move but Jiger’s weakness isn’t utilized much. By dialing back the craziness, Daiei made a very typical, middle-of-the-road kaiju movie without anything new to offer the audience.

Well, mostly anything new. Jiger is not the most outrageous of Gamera’s enemies but she is one of the best designed. First emerging from the ground, the creature gives the impression of a triceratops. Unlike the ungainly Barugon or the deliberately goofy Guiron, Jiger seems like something that could actually exist. The creature’s movement is lumbering but plausible, moving like a living animal. The horns on its heads and fin down its back make it look like a misplaced dinosaur. As realistic as Jiger looks and behaves, it wouldn’t be a Gamera monster unless it had some unlikely power. Jiger can actually fly, via compressed air jets shot on its back. It has three offensive weapons. Stabbing barbs shoot from the animal’s horn. A red ray projects from the center of it head, sending out a burning ring of energy. Finally, the monster can implant its offspring into other animals through a stinger on the end of its tails. Naturally, each of these powers is displayed in the movie. Jiger isn’t a flashy or over-the-top design but it is a very well executed one.

By this point, the Gamera series is a delivery system for ridiculous giant monster antics. The sixth film backs away from that a little bit, seemingly trying to recapture some sense of realism. Yet it wouldn’t be Gamera without some wackiness. The first battle between Gamera and Jiger is fairly straight-forward, the turtle slamming the reptilian monster around by the horns. The tide turns when Jiger impales Gamera’s limbs with the projectile barbs, preventing the turtle from pulling his arms into his shell. Suddenly, Gamera is a normal turtle, rolled onto his back, unable to right himself. He rolls around, swinging his arms and legs, eventually wrapping his tail around a rock. When he finally frees his legs and rockets into the air, a triumphant reprise of the Gamera song plays. As he sails over the sea, he pulls the spikes from his hands. Fuck yeah, Gamera!

Jiger’s rampage across Osaka is fairly unexceptional. The urban destruction feels very routine and lacks energy. The monster wiping out entire city blocks with its ray weapon is surprisingly bleak and treated in far too off-hand a manor. Humans are stripped down to the bone by Jiger’s ray, which is shown through bizarre, hilarious special effects. Gamera has returned to his habit of crashing into buildings when he lands. The funniest moment probably comes when the two monsters use a knocked-over tower as a seesaw. That second fight comes to a sudden conclusion when Jiger stabs Gamera with its stingers, the turtle freezing in its place, skin turning white.

The scientist exposition crew immediately figures out what’s happen, with some help from a giant, satellite-hosted x-ray machine. In order to illustrate the situation, the scientist shows some disturbing, real footage of an elephant, its trunk slit open to reveal masses of parasites. Stealing their dad’s submarine, Hiroshi and Tommy go under the ocean. The kids pilot the sub into Gamera’s mouth, entering the monster’s body. After wandering around Gamera’s insides for a while, they encounter the little baby Jiger. The small Jiger can shoot a glue-like substance and the boys, rather accidentally, discover that the monster is weak to radio waves. The monster twitching and dying from a walkie-talkie glued to its head is amusing. However, the sound weakness doesn’t come up again, only lulling the giant monster to sleep.

Healed again, Gamera enters the final fight. There are only a few highlights from this battle, set among the Expo buildings. Gamera smashes Jiger’s tail with a piece of wreckage, tearing off its stinger. Jiger’s heat ray proves ineffectual against Gamera’s shell. The best moment comes when the terrific terrapin shoves two telephone poles into his ears in order to block the enemy’s noise. That’s pretty funny. Typical, the evil monster is finished off in a surprisingly grisly way. Gamera retrieves the Devil’s Whistle and, as the two monsters fly towards each other, the heroic turtle stabs Jiger in the head with the stone structure. Ouch. To add insult to injury, Gamera carries the dead body off, returning it to its island home. Good job, you wacky giant turtle.

The boys at the story’s center are slightly older then what you’d expect from the last few flicks. Tsutomu Takakuwa as Hiroshi and Kelly Varis as Tommy aren’t particularly memorable. However, the kids don’t give bad performances either. The interaction they have with their siblings and adults is especially interesting. The boys frequently argue with their sisters about whether or not Gamera is a friendly monster or not. Those moments are amusing. Once again, the film is given a loose theme of adults needing to maintain the hopeful outlook of children.

Attempting to bring the series back down to Earth was an interesting tactic. The Godzilla series had, from time to time, some success with darker reinventions of the character. Even at his most serious though, Gamera is still a giant turtle that flies by farting fire. Backing away from the silly science fiction elements actually lessens the fun. Though still featuring some great moments, “Gamera vs. Jiger” is one of the more average entries in the series. [Grade: C]