Monday, January 27, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #5: GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ tumblr Rocket Number 09, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!
TRAVIS:
GOJIRA was Toho's first attempt to chase the sci-fi/monster market at a time when creature features dominated the theaters. By the mid 1960s, Godzilla would become a box office trend of his own. Not only would Toho attempt to pump out a G-movie every year, but they'd also squeeze out one or two new kaiju flicks featuring fresh monsters to threaten Japan. These overlapping productions would often include recurring filmmakers such as director Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, screenwriters Shinichi Sekizawa and Takeshi Kimura, SFX master Eiji Tsuburya, music composer Akira Ifukube, and suit actor (a.k.a. Godzilla himself) Haruo Nakajima. 1964 was a particularly busy time for them and the studio as MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA was released in April and then followed by DOGORA, THE SPACE MONSTER (a tale of giant jellyfish aliens that devour diamonds) in August. Before the year was over, however, December saw the release of Toho's biggest battle royale to date: GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER!
Here we begin to see the movies intentionally chase after audiences’ tastes of the time. The popularity of the James Bond films was certainly an influence on this particular entry, with the subplot of the royal assasins providing non-kaiju action and suspense in the form of gunfights and chases. This would later be ironic when actress Akiko Wakabayashi (who plays Princess Selina Salno) was cast as Bond girl Aki in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. We've mentioned before how the franchise started to steer towards kid audiences, and it's in GHIDORAH that we see the monsters now fully anthropomorphized. Godzilla and Rodan are the rowdy brothers while stern Mothra tut-tuts their selfishness. Some fans bemoan these changes as childish, but I personally get a kick from seeing them act so petty. Godzilla just keeps lobbing boulders at Rodan's head until he's picked up and dropped crotch-first onto an electrical tower. That's entertainment!
King Ghidorah himself is a spectacular monster and the first true archenemy of the King of the Monsters. The design of the creature was truly meant to be viewed in Toho-Scope (the studio's new fangled widescreen presentation). An impressive gigantic wingspan, three dragon heads that whipped out bolts of electricity, a distinct golden body, and an otherwordly screech make him one of the most memorable monsters in Godzilla history. He would also be the first alien opponent to grapple with Gojira (though he definitely wouldn't be the last). It's a testament to his power and magnitude that he's usually only defeated with the combined efforts of two or more monsters. Luca, in this case, we had FOUR kaiju duking it out! Could you handle it?!
LUCA:
MAHGAAAWWWWDDDDD Travis BAHGAAAAAWWWWDDDD it was truly a royal kaiju rummmmmble! The anthropomorphization of the monsters was the best thing that's happened to the series thus far. With every new movie, I'm having new favorite moments and GHIDORAH was no exception. My favorite bit in this particular movie was no doubt Godzilla sitting down on a boulder to listen to Mothra lecturing him and Rodan about the necessity of their cooperation. And what a couple of petty assholes they are! I was highly amused by the notion that Godzilla shouldn't help the humans because "they always bully me". Honda should have cut to some footage of Godzilla burning pedestrians alive from GOJIRA! Oh and dear readers, lest you think the monsters actually talk Japanese/English, it's actually their roars that are translated by the Mothra fairies. Speaking of which, goddamn, Toho! Killing one of the Mothra twins off between movies? "How are the twins?" "One has passed away!" ... okay! I also do not think any of the Mothra songs have been as good as the original one. MOSURAAAAA-YA MOSURAAAAAA!
Perhaps this is sacrilege, since I think Ghidorah is a pretty iconic monster, but he has the worst roar out of any kaiju I've heard so far! For such an impressive and powerful creature, BOOP BOOP BOOP certainly isn't a call worthy of him! It's such a disconnect seeing people run and villages be destroyed to the tunes of BOOP BOOP BOOP! Imagine if Galactus went BOOP BOOP BOOP, the only thing he'd need the Silver Surfer for was to tell people "no seriously this guy is actually really scary I promise". Rodan, on the other hand, needs no such introduction! In fact, Rodan just shows up from under some lava rocks. Is he supposed to be one of the two Rodans that were burned alive at the end of RODAN? Did I miss a movie inbetween? Will the explanation to this just be "it's a kaiju movie don't sweat it breh", Travis?
The human plot this time around was far more engrossing than in MOTHRA VS GODZILLA, since it covers completely new ground from what we've seen in this series so far. A princess being tracked by assassins? And she has Venusian heritage? The Mothra twins are voluntarily appearing on a kids' show? That renders most of the plots of the movies they've appeared in so far fairly redundant, as they apparently would have complied with every human villain's wishes if they'd only taken the time to ask the fairies nicely. Maybe I'm wrong in this, but l liked how the disparate character plot threads came together quickly and neatly. The professor investigating the Ghidorah meteorite is interviewed by the spunky lady reporter who turns out to be the sister of the cop tasked with protecting/finding the princess. Many of these characters are played by now-familiar actors such as Takashi Shimura and Akihiko Hirata, who've been in these movies since the original (mostly playing different characters each time) and Hiroshi Kozuimi, who's been with us since MOTHRA, and (in a first!) plays the same character over two movies -- professor Miura in both this and MvG (though he played a different guy in the original MOTHRA). Travis, should I start abandoning all continuity here and just ride out the monster wave?
TRAVIS:
When it comes to the Showa era (GOJIRA to TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA), try to think of the timeline as an elastic continuity. Inconsistencies will definitely pop up, but the films more or less exist in the same time frame. Just don't go crazy when attempting to explain why Anguirus was killed in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN yet lives on Monsterland in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. Keep calm and kaiju on. To put your mind at ease about Rodan's appearance though, he does emerge from the same mountain/volcano he and his mate perished in from his first movie. One assumes that it's one of the two Rodans revived or even another Rodan long dormant underground. With so many dinosaurs hiding everywhere, you'd think reporter Naoko wouldn't have trouble filling up stories for "Mysteries of the 20th Century".
She of course finds her big break in the princess who believes she's of Venusian descent, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of this film. This idea of extraterrestrials living on or visiting Earth hundreds of years ago comes from the real life belief/pseudo science of "ancient aliens". It makes for fine sci-fi pulp for our creature feature, yet the G-movies rarely touched on subjective mythology like this. Making it even stranger are the film's references to the Christian God, with the princess praying to Him before she's shot at and the Defense Secretary declaring that the hopeless Ghidorah situation is left in His will. This juxtaposition is even odder when considering that faith among the Japanese is primarily Shinto or Buddhist (both of which do not have a concept of God). Who knew a Godzilla flick could be so intensely studied for religious implications?
GHIDORAH could also be examined as a great example of GIRL POWER! Though women in the G-movies typically weren't damsels in distress, they certainly show that they aren't pushovers in this movie. Naoko is the most proactive character in the cast, hunting down the princess for her news program and ultimately helping her escape from the assassins. The princess herself doesn't take shit from her would-be killers! Her alien demeanor remains calm as a knife is traced around her face, and even after she comes to her senses, she bravely faces Malness to shout "TRAITOR!" as he tries to shoot her. The twin fairies too are quite active this time around. They switch off the lights to distract Malness and his gang and then warn Detective Shindo of their presence. They're also the ones who concoct the crazy plan to team up Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra to defeat Ghidorah. And don't forget that Mothra decides to take on the Three Headed Monster alone since Godzilla and Rodan act like stubborn jerks. Do you see positive female representation in a piece of brawly entertainment like GHIDORAH too, Luca?
LUCA:
Mothra herself has been the best feminist example of the series so far, I think. She's not intentionally sexualized (I put that caveat "intentionally" there cuz it's 2014 and the internet exists so you just know someone somewhere...), she's determined, responsible, capable, all that good stuff. I don't know how much I can agree with the statement that women haven't been damsels at all so far. Emiko definitely needed a fainting couch after seeing some fish die in the original, and I actually remember lawling at Fumiko not being able to cross a three-inch stream without tripping twice in KKvG! That said, I did notice the female characters taking a lot more action on their own, even if any action stuff was still handled by the men. It seems significant that this movie had the first female reporter -- previous movies had female photographer sidekicks to male journalists, which I thought pretty interesting since even in pre-feminist Western society, "reporter" was one of those patriarchy-approved "safe" occupations for women to occupy, as evidenced in pop culture figures as Rosalind Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY and of course Lois Lane.
The "ancient aliens" angle is a great new wrinkle! I love how malleable this franchise is. Even though it started out in a version of the real world (plus kaiju), it then morphed into a sort of Tintin-like kids' adventure world when they started adding fictional countries like Rolisika in MOTHRA and Selgina in this movie. Now it's just a complete comic book universe with alien life being a thing, and interplanetary destroyers like Ghidorah being yet another danger humanity has to contend with. Isn't it enough that all these HGH-infused atomic dinosaurs keep popping up left and right? Luckily, humanity has responsible Mothra to bring assholes Godzilla and Rodan in line! Maybe it's this constant apocalypsizing that makes the kaiju movies so susceptible to a Christian worldview? This movie isn't the first to bring in references to God, as the climax to MOTHRA actually takes place on a church's steps! I wasn't gonna make anything of it since it's set in Roliska, which seemed like a pretty obvious America-analogue, but the three Japanese main characters do pray along merrily to stop Mothra's rampage. Interesting, and a trend I'm curious to see endure or not in an increasingly secularized society as we move on through the eras of Godzilla.
Join us next time, as the team-ups aren't just between monsters, but also nations as Toho joined forces with UPA to bring us INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER or MONSTER ZERO or THE GREAT MONSTER WAR! (I love literally translated titles.)
















Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #4: MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ tumblr Rocket Number 09, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!
 

[Note: Travis’ laptop has given out, so for the foreseeable future this series will only be featured on Wholly on the Level.]

LUCA:

I think I've pinned down my feelings towards Godzilla at this point, Travis. He is Japan's very own kaiju-sized housecat! Mostly dormant, he wakes up every once in a while to create some ruckus and push everything off of everyone's desks. There is a certain glee to seeing him pop up again around the 30 minute mark of MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA, completely out of the blue. And perhaps this factors into MvG actually having my favorite Godzilla introduction out of any of the movies so far. The plot up to this point has completely centered around a greedy developer and his business partner laying claim to Mothra's egg that recently washed up on shore. But then -- BRRAAWWBRAWWBRAAWWW -- Godzilla pops up from some nearby reclaimed floodlands! Considering last we saw Big G he was somewhere completely different and also in the ocean, his appearance here really suggests some trolling motivations on G's part. Coupled with Ifukube's awesome music (later sampled by Pharaohe Monch in his song Simon Says) and the decision to have G slowly turn towards the camera... yeah, this was the first time I felt kind of elated at his introduction. "Awww yeah GODZILLA in the house!"
In preparation for this movie I also watched MOTHRA, which maybe was a mistake? I actually quite liked it, as it was different enough from the previous kaiju movies to be interesting. Interesting? No, let me rephrase that. What a WEIRD movie! Two little fairies are the keepers of Mothra on Infant Island (!), are kidnapped and taken to Japan for a career in showbiz (well, makes more sense than Kong's intended purpose in NY, I'll admit), and are rescued by Mothra. Unfortunately, MvG sort of rehashes the original's plot, with human villains (another first in the original MOTHRA!) laying claim to something that's Mothra's, and Mothra coming to get it back. I guess having the fairies with her makes Mothra far more relaxed, since she literally just fucks off back to Infant Island after the greedy villains deny the fairies' request to give the egg back.
Although overall, MvG has probably been the weakest entry so far, it has some killer sequences. There's the aforementioned favorite Godzilla intro, and one absolutely insane showdown between our two villains. Greedy developer Kumayama storms into his silent partner Torahata's hotel room, demanding he pay up. This partnership has been financially one-sided for too long! It's time Torahata start pulling his weight! The confrontation turns physical as the two men start tusslin'. Kumayama at one point pins Torahata to the floor and punches him in the face repeatedly until his nose gushes blood! Kumayama then makes his way to Torahata's office safe and starts collecting STAXXX. Moaning, the supine Torahata turns to the window and freaks out: GODZILLA IS APPROACHING THE HOTEL. Travis, I pretty much lost it. I was already highly amused by this movie's sudden turn into Coen territory, when that added bit of absurdity just completely drove it home. Torahata is just like "Aww MAN why this gotta happen to me?". There's another fantastically out-of-place act of violence that follows this, but I'll leave some surprises for any curious viewers. Travis, do you also feel we should protect the children from such wanton violence?


TRAVIS:
 
If I had my way, Luca, I would expose all children to acts of wanton kaiju related violence! A few years ago, when my parents were entertaining family friends at our house, I was put in charge of looking after the little ones. I fired up my DVD of GODZILLA 2000 and skipped to the set piece battle between Godzilla and Orga. Earlier the youngins were wandering around and finding out which objects were & were not toys, but as soon as G-man let out his roar and started swinging, they were transfixed. Not a peep, just staring at the screen. The sway and power these films have on us when we're little is a topic we'll get to later in our series, but there's no doubt about: Godzilla is kid approved!
 
Getting back to MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA, this is one of my favorite depictions of the big guy. Althoug he's certainly in the "bad monster" role this time, he doesn't have the same malevolence displayed in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. The performance of suit actor Haruo Nakajima suggests that he's just a wild animal that needs to be handled for our own good. Of course he knocks down a lot of buildings, yet Japan's architecture seem like an annoyance in his path rather than something he feels compelled to punch. Notice that the tall pagoda he encounters collapses mainly because he accidentally slips and falls on it. His aggression only turns on when retaliating against Mothra or the army. Speaking of the army fight, there's an insane shot where explosives are set off incredibly close to Godzilla, and his FRIGGIN' HEAD CATCHES ON FIRE. Holy hot shit!
 
Luca, one of my favorite things about doing these reviews are the parallels to other films you point out that I never noticed. The greedy business men definitely fall into unscrupulous Coen bros. territory, and the comeuppance of the approaching Godzilla now reminds me of the ominous tornado ending of A SERIOUS MAN. As you said before, the human villains and other plot points recall the original MOTHRA, but I think this movie has a good enough pace that it doesn't feel like a detrimental rehash. Where the two kaiju flicks differ is in their themes. Though both were directed by Ishiro Honda, MOTHRA seems to directly target America and Russia, with the nation of Rolisca standing in as an antagonistic force of Western big business. MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA addresses the universal issues of mankind, condemning its pursuit of money and careless destruction of nature (the lush Infant Island is now deteriorating due to nuclear weapons) but hopeful that people everwhere can band together in the face of catastrophe. In this sense, MvG is a more spiritual sequel to the original GOJIRA than previous entries. It's definitely one of the reasons why I actually think this is one of the strongest movies in the franchise. Luca, why did you feel that this one was kinda weak? Also, we had our reservations about Kong winning over the King of the Monsters, but did Mothra (in moth and double larvae form!) rightly earn her triumph over Godzilla?
 

LUCA:
 
Mothra how much u press breh? I'm not sure whether to find the AMAZING strength Mothra apparently has in her tiny little paws as much a deus ex machina as Kong's lightning powers, but I'll give her the benefit of the doubt since she didn't really use them in her origin movie. I'll also give her the benefit of the doubt because seeing that dainty butterfly yank Godzilla's tail and smash him into the ground is an absolutely hilarious sight. The babies' nearly infinite amount of webbing feels like a bit of a cheat but I'm not gonna be the internet asshole who says Godzilla should have LOGICALLY killed those cute larvae! I liked that there's actually debate possible on whether or not Mothra really won. I mean, all the factors! She was at the end of her life cycle, and runs away from the fight to die close to her egg. Concordantly, Godzilla gets his ass kicked by the babies' hit-n-run tactics, after being weakened by the fight with their mother. Such ambiguity! How to read it? The SERIOUS MAN comparisons are not hollow name-drops, folks!
The reason that it’s a weaker entry for me is the whole back-and-forth with the greedy businessmen for the first 40 minutes or so. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before in the original MOTHRA. Hell, I almost found it COMICAL that Mothra was actually there at the resort, hidden in the bushes, awaiting an answer from Torahata and Kumayama. Just lift up the egg and go back to your island, Mothra! Don’t send your fairies in to ask politely and then leave! As for the message, I actually think the morals in KKvG and MvG should be switched around. (I also just now realized that both movies end with someone giving a life lesson while waving off a monster that swims into the sunset. I'm starting to have quite some affection for these movies!) There's an explicitly environmental throughline in MvG, whereas KKvG addresses "greed" in a more general sense. Infant Island is actually ravaged because of man's ignorance in MvG, whereas nothing bad really happens to any natural habitats or fauna in KKvG.
Yes, Godzilla's tripping and falling into a pagoda has definitely been one of my favorite G-moments in the series so far. The big guy's just too big for this ole world, I guess! You know, Travis, it's funny how Godzilla's charm kind of snuck up on me like I was a greedy businessman or something, but he really went from "Monster From The Deep" to "Sort of an Asshole From The Deep". Maybe it's because I've seen him get his ass kicked four times now, twice by the military and twice by other kaiju, but his refusal to die coupled with his general petulance is really warming me up to him. I guess what holds me back from really starting to cheer for him is that he's always up against either people or the nicest possible monsters. But it's not something I really hold against the films, as getting the audience to feel anything for a guy in a monster suit is a pretty good achievement in and of itself!


TRAVIS:
 
To skip ahead A BUNCH OF YEARS, one of the many failings of the 1998 American GODZILLA was that the monster didn't have much of a personality. I guess you could feel sorry for him when he saw his dead Zilla babies, but no one should suffer death at the hands of Matthew Broderick. For all the CG money thrown at him, "Godzilla" just isn't as memorable as the so-called fakey, phoney guy in suit. It's a testament to the SFX crews and suitactors of Toho that these dinosaurs, aliens, and bugs are still fondly remembered to this day. They may not have looked realistic, yet your imagination could be captured by its reality.
 
I think one of the reasons for Godzilla's charm is that we never truly get inside the monster's head. Sure we see him react to kaiju and armed forces, and the Showa era movies have a few REALLY goofy moments of inner monologue, but what makes the King of the Monsters tick is a mystery. Though his personality is hardly a blank slate, fans can project their thoughts and feelings towards the big guy without any tortuous examination, casting him as hero or villain or whatever. He can be a dynamic character for the ages that doesn't come with the psychological analysis of someone like Batman. Speaking of superheroes, Toho would soon assemble their own AVENGERS as Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan team up to protect the Earth from GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER!
 

GODZILLA BOUT 2 POP OFF















Monday, January 13, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #3: KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ tumblr Rocket Number 09, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!




TRAVIS:

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the King of the Monsters would come face to face with the Eighth Wonder of the World. After all, it was the original stop-motion adventure that inspired Gojira keyfigures such as producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and SFX guru Eiji Tsuburaya to pursue a tale of monster on the loose. How these two monsters tangled in Technicolor (a first for both of them!) is a long story of various concepts and confused film rights, but to keep it simple, what started in America as a proposal for the great ape to fight a gigantic Frankenstein’s monster eventually mutated and travelled overseas to Toho. This came at a perfect time for the studio, which was celebrating its 30th anniversary and needed a blockbuster. It was the battle to end all battles (and maybe the world?)…. KING KONG VS. GODZILLA!

And what an enjoyable time it is! The human stories have a deliberate comedic tone, and the plot of a company and its scrambling employees trying to find ways to drum up business recall the Salaryman and Company President genres of Japanese cinema (their own takes on Office Space culture essentially). A more controversial decision would concern the monsters themselves. Tsuburaya always considered them to be kid friendly and accessible, while director Ishiro Honda would push against decisions to lighten the tone. Nonetheless, the choice to make the movie fun and bright won out, and King Kong vs. Godzilla would become the highest grossing film in the franchise.

Whether you feel that the decision helped or hampered Godzilla in retrospect, it’s hard not to crack a smile when Kong tries to shove a tree in big G’s mouth. The monsters are now fully anthropomorphic, entering arenas like sumo wrestlers and battling like superheroes. The suit actors are more than comfortable to toss each other over their shoulders. Now that’s what I call kaiju! It’s also fun to see the various SFX on display. Suitmation is of course the set piece, but we also see blue screen, puppetry, and real life animals utilized in the effect scenes. Heck, the original Kong film gets a shout-out when stop motion is used to animate Godzilla giving the ape a dropkick. It’s definitely a legendary creature brawl, but was it a fight for the ages for you, Luca?
 

LUCA:

It's definitely the most fun I've had with any kaiju movie so far! I'm saying "kaiju" in general rather than Godzilla movies cuz I actually watched RODAN before this and holy moly what a difference! True, there's about 6 years separating the two, but the tonal change is amazing. Where RODAN feels like Toho (and Honda) cannibalizing older material and just doing a GOJIRA redux (to greatly reduced effect), KING KONG VS GODZILLA represents them leaping assuredly into the age of Technicolor blockbusters. If Honda was against the brightening of KKvG, then I'm glad Tsuburaya won out! Humanization of the kaiju notwithstanding, the movie is also just flat out funny when they're not on screen. Three movies into my journey and I'm surprised at how much the humans, well, don't suck! Just another reason why one should never believe the internet! (Uhh except whichever blog you're reading this from obvs)

The guys at Pacific Pharmaceuticals sent to "Faro Island" to retrieve Kong reminded me of Mad Men's Ken Cosgrove and Harry Crane being sent out on an impromptu monster hunt, complete with ogling of native ladies and offering little children cigarettes in exchange for co-operation. Oh man, the natives! It probably reflects badly on me but I somehow found Japanese people in blackface even funnier than the whiteys I'm used to! And hey, Toho didn't apparently just start pandering to kids with this movie! The native dance in honor of Kong that goes on way too long has some hilariously chaste by our standards titty shakin' going on for all those 1963 dads who were dragged along. This movie also features a nice little surprise kaiju in the giant squid that attacks Main Dancing Mom and her Lil' Toker in their hut. They actually superimposed a regular-sized octopus over images of the set and foleyed in some squishy/slurpy sound fx, actually making it pretty effectively gross for me, since I'm not a fan of anything snakey and tentacly.

I was wondering how they'd work Kong into the movie, considering he died at the end of his own movie (spoilers lol) but it's pretty clear this is Toho's own take on the big ape. Yeah, he lives on an island with natives and other monsters, and uhh... that's about it, I guess! He still has a propensity for climbing buildings with ladies in hand (for reasons never quite explained), but he has a lot less trouble doing it in this version. Because he needs to go toe-to-toe with Godzilla, Toho's Kong is about ten times the size of his US counterpart, and the scene where he takes Kio-chan up a building is almost like a dude picking up a mouse to go stand on a stepladder. Let it also be a testament to this movie's charm that I liked it to the extent I did with the worst looking Kong out of ANY version I've seen yet (being the original, the Dino version and the Jackson one). Maybe all that electricity he absorbs melted his face and paralyzed his forearms. Cuz yeah, Toho's Kong is not just an animal the natives worship as a god, as in the '33 version, he actually DOES have some powers -- in this case, lightning powers as the thunder god of Faro Island! Travis: who, what, where, how?

TRAVIS:
 
Honestly, Luca, the best answer I can give you is that it’s a kaiju movie! Every monster can get supercharged by electricity! Now, Kong’s lightning powers might be a concept first developed when the project was originally King Kong vs. Frankenstein, but there’s no concrete evidence, and it’s still a wacky idea anyway. Toho probably felt they just needed to throw the ape a leg-up in the fight, because Godzilla does a pretty good job kicking the shit outta him for most of the movie. The high tower power lines and thunderstorms sure came in handy! Not even the American version of the film gives a reasonable explanation for Thor Kong.
 
And boy, the American cut sure likes to explain things! When Universal picked up KKvG for State-side distribution, new scenes were shot featuring a US news anchor broadcasting from the United Nations, reporting on all the exciting developments. Much of the exposition from the original movie about the monster action and Japanese army strategies is cut and instead parroted by Mr. News Man as the movie is constantly interrupted by breaking news flashes. These scenes tend to slow the pace, and the cheap looking news rooms look even faker than the two guys in monster suits. News Man is also joined by Senior Scientist Elder, who informs us that Godzilla has a pea-sized brain while Kong has a proportionate mind for his size (a “thinking animal” is how he’s described). Statements like that give the US scenes a strange, jingoistic tone, as though the producers wanted red, white, and blue audiences to root for good ol’ Kong to defeat the dangerous creature from the East. Even the US army gets a perfunctory mention at the beginning of the movie as News Man informs us that troops are being dispatched to help Chile recover from a recent devastating earthquake. No connection to anything else and never mentioned again! Also at the end, when Kong rises from the ocean and swims toward Faro Island, the anchor (and the world at large) wish him good luck on his victorious voyage home.
 
I wouldn’t have wished him good luck though. Gotta be honest: the ending never sat well with me as a child. How could my hero, my King of the Monsters, fall to a mere monkey? He has FIERY ATOMIC BREATH for God’s sake! Japan should’ve been feasting on teriyaki ape after the battle. Bestowing Kong with those electric powers was like giving him a gun to bring to a street match. Cheap I tell ya! Now as an adult, such monster match-up outcomes don’t affect me, but younger me couldn’t comprehend it. Paper just shouldn’t beat scissors! I obviously had a strong opinion because of my kaiju baggage, but did you think Kong was the rightful winner, Luca? Was it a fair fight?
 

LUCA:
 
I don't think it was a fair fight, since the monsters only square off twice in the movie, with the first time lasting all of twenty seconds, with G basically being all "back the fuck off bro you don't want dis" and Kong going "Damn... u right..." and slowly backing away. The humans have to sedate Kong and basically throw him on top of Godzilla (by BALLOON) to reinstigate the fight. And then he gets his ass kicked thoroughly AGAIN! It's only that damnable deus ignis ex machina that gives him a chance to win -- and the final blow isn't even lightning-related! They both fall off a cliff into the sea? And Kong's the only one to re-emerge? Case closed, boys! Ain't no way this is coming back to bite us in the ass!
Although logistically Kong shouldn't have won, story-wise there's no way Godzilla could have kicked his ass. Don't forget, Godzilla is pretty much still a villain at this point. He made that little girl cry in the first one and killed Kobayashi in the second one! Kong's biggest crime so far was looking like a big derp and although he really went above and beyond on that one, I don't think it measures up to Godzilla's mischief. I have to say I also liked the little moral at the end by Mr. Science Man. "I suppose we all ought to treat plants and animals better. Godspeed, King Kong!" Godspeed in-DEED!
Travis, I'm certainly warming up to the kaiju genre and its many flavors. Heck, besides the different cuts of the two first movies, I was simply going to do the Japanese ones wherever possible, but this prognosticating corns scenario has me reconsidering... I hope the crazy fun and variation keeps up in our next clash of titans -- although the secondary titan in our next outing isn't as big a name as Kong -- GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #2: GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955)/GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER (1959)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ tumblr Rocket Number 09, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!



LUCA:  

I had quite a bit of fun with GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, the first ever Godzilla sequel! Far lighter in tone than GOJIRA, it retains the focus on the human characters Ishiro Honda (now replaced by Motoyoshi Oda) brought, and even improves upon it a bit. Sure, the characters are still pretty much stock, but the movie lays out all the information it needs to convey about them in a clear, linear fashion, something the original, for all its strengths, failed to do. There’s nothing as sweet in the original as Kobayashi asking Hidemi what gifts she’d like for her wedding. Scientifically, GRA screws the pooch even more hardcore than GOJIRA! Cannery scouts Tsukioka and Kobayashi come upon two kaiju duking it out on an island, and report to authorities. One of them is a new Gojira, while the other is an ankylosaurus… also known as the monster Anguirus! I don’t know if paleontologists give their finds cool wrestling names dawg, but okay! The ankylosaurus was between 50 and 100 feet tall and lived between 60 and 70 million years ago (as opposed to 2 million year old Gojira last movie). It was a vicious carnivore who had a deep-seated hatred of war-like species! Oh no, Anguiruses and Gojiras are natural enemies! Their brawls will lay waste to this fair nation! I liked that “carnivorous” and “war-like” weren’t the same thing. Earth-G had one weird ass prehistory, lemme tell ya!

Japan was SUPER prepared this time, however. I guess nobody wants another Gojira on their hands, and the military is shown as being pretty adept at luring G away with light bombs, since Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura, reprising his role from the original in a small cameo) theorized that it was the “glare of the hydrogen bomb” that so disturbs slumbering Gojiras. I knew I wasn’t watching a movie as glum as GOJIRA when this plan to lure G back to the sea seemed to be working smoothly, until some CARTOON CROOKS decided to orchestrate a Keystone Kops style prison break and were chased through the empty streets of Osaka until one gang of assholes crashed into a fuel depository, and the fire’s lights lured G back to the city. STRICT MORALIST JAPAN also takes great pleasure in showing you the deaths of all the remaining escaped crooks as Godzilla and Anguirus destroy the (totally evacuated) city around them. Death has gone from tragedy to entertainment in a single movie!

The amount of LAUGHTER in this movie is a marked contrast from the first one too. After Godzilla is driven off for the first time, Tsukioka, Kobayashi, Hidemi and their friends go out to dinner to celebrate the opening of a new cannery (since the last one was trampled). They’re not even sad about being ruined! They just glomp on to this new and exciting direction life has given them! I found this all very entertaining and wasn’t bored one bit in the, say, 10 kaijuless minutes this resulted in. I even quite liked the barbs Tsukioka and Kobayashi exchanged! (“Apologies? From an INCOMPETENT MAN? HAHAHAHA” “You BASTARD HAHAHAHA”) How did this “versus”-less Godzilla movie hold up for you, Travis?

TRAVIS:  

This holds up really well!  RAIDS AGAIN is certainly a different type of beast (a hurr hurr) from Gojira, but I don’t think departing from the sad, somber tone of the first film was a bad decision.  We’ve now entered monster mash territory, and within the first ten minutes we see Godzilla and Anguirus duking it out!  What a rollicking adventure!  This movie pretty much sets the template for the rest of the franchise, and we’ll soon see how KING KONG VS. GODZILLA perfects the formula.

As you said, Luca, the characters make this a fun affair.  The acting in GOJIRA is great, but people like Serizawa and Emiko seem like downers to be around.  Tsukioka and Kobayashi seem like guys you’d grab a beer and hang out with!  Perhaps this peppy attitude was a reflection of the Japanese spirit at the time.  The ghosts of nuclear warfare still linger (the distant shot of the mushroom cloud-like smoke rising from Osaka is a great, haunting visual), but the tuna cannery marches on!  It’s an interesting (probably unintentional) contrast that a prevailing fishing business is our setting considering that the radiation scare of the Lucky Dragon 5 incident inspired the original GOJIRA.

I wanna talk about Anguirus!  He’s the first kaiju to rumble with Godzilla, and he’s also been my favorite of the monster sidekicks.  His spikes and bite are his only weapons, but he’s a tough little scrapper in these battles.  I love the little guy!  The fights are impressive too.  We’ll see more sumo and wrestling influences in later films, but RAIDS AGAIN features some nice, animalistic aggression that doesn’t occur often in the Showa era of films (1954-1975).  The way Godzilla and Anguirus toss and turn almost remind me of wild cats or reptiles.  Poor Angy is even killed by having his neck bitten into!  The monster matches are so good that they end up being the scenes least tampered with in the botched American version.  Luca, did you like seeing your first true kaiju-on-kajiu action, and did you also see the messed-up, edit-crazy US cut known as GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER?



LUCA:  

A special session of congress has been convened to ascertain just how many people have a VO in GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER! Maaaannn, they really didn’t trust audiences for a single second back then, huh? “Okay we’ve already dubbed these Japanese guys into English, but I have a feeling real red-blooded Americans won’t listen to anything an Oriental says for longer than five seconds! Better have voice overs explain everything! EVERYTHING!” It starts out with Tsukioka explaining what he’s doing up in his plane, but soon I was completely lost as to which disembodied voice was telling me where in the what now? It doesn’t help that, whenever they’re not just recounting the action that I am actually watching on screen, they’re just talking nonsense! The age of mechanical monsters… does man dare set foot on other worlds… (no mechanical monsters or other worlds are actually featured)??? The voice-over also tells us that dinosaurs are fire elementals??? I pretty much lost it when we cut to stock footage of Congress in a SPECIAL SESSION to decide what to do if THU JAPS couldn’t contain their monster-mess! (Spoiler: they can.) It’s like this story isn’t legitimized until we show that, hey, America is TOTES worried about Godzilla too! Uhhh I mean Gigantis. Or do I mean Anguirus? I swear they use Gigantis and Anguirus interchangeably in the briefing session with Professor Yamane!

Anguirus! What a lil’ scrapper! Yeah, this was my first kaiju-on-kaiju fight and I was definitely entertained. I didn’t know that about the sped-up footage, Travis! Makes sense, cuz the fights did have a certain ferocity to them men in suits may not have been completely able to provide. I felt a bit sorry for the guy playing (quadruped) Anguirus since in some shots it’s obvious he’s on his hands and knees, and a guy on hands and knees getting his ass whooped by a guy that’s standing up whilst both wear restrictive full-body suits makes me think I shouldn’t be watching other people’s home videos. Maybe it was those occasional glimpses of the guy on his knees but I somehow felt like Anguirus was a bit of a tutorial kaiju fight (SPOILER: Anguirus is defeated with around 30-35 minutes of movie left to go END SPOILER), and the focus was still on humans dealing with Godzilla. I didn’t mind that at all, since I liked all the humans. Poor Anguirus, he was just trying to get rid of a war-like fellow irradiated dinosaur!

Well, Travis, I certainly didn’t expect the series’ tone to veer away from seriousness so quickly. Is the tone set for a while now, or does the tone vary wildly from film to film? The next one is KING KONG VS GODZILLA, truly an epic showdown between two cinematic icons. Coupled with the fact that you say they perfected the kaiju-fight form for that one, I’m stoked for it! And tell me, do you not feel at least a little bit sorry for poor ol’ Anguirus?



TRAVIS:  

I feel bad for Anguirus’ defeat, but don’t count him out! Heck, I’d say he put up a pretty good fight until Godzilla went for the neck. As we’ll see in later films, he has no problems scrappin’ it with monsters way more powerful than him. It’s part of his charm and one of the reasons why Angy is one of my favorite kaiju. Whenever I find time to bust out the old Godzilla fighting game for Nintendo GameCube, I’m always playing as my spiky ol’ friend.

As far as the tone of the franchise, this would be the last movie for a while that would invoke WWII-like imagery. From here till the end of the Showa era in 1975, we’re in fun creature stomping times, but even as we go feature to feature, we’ll see the franchise attempt to chase the changing tastes of audiences. Kids will become a primary target for the movies, and the popularity of Gamera (kaiju headliner from rival studio Daiei and self proclaimed friend to all children) will drive Godzilla to pander even more to youngsters. We’ll also see the films try to take cues (sometimes bizarrely) from box office successes like James Bond and PLANET OF THE APES. For now though, it’s time for the big guy to make his bright Technicolor debut in the greatest monster legend smash-up of all time: KING KONG VS. GODZILLA! Stay tuned!