Monday, February 10, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #6: INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER (1965)

Blast-off! INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER/MONSTER ZERO starts off in space, for the first time in our Toho-trek. Astronauts Glenn and Fuji are on a reconaissance mission to Planet X, a newly discovered planet in our solar system. Why had we never seen it before? "It's very dark", says a scientist. Good enough for me! Back home, we meet Tetsuo and Haruno, two lovebirds who wish to marry, if only Tetsuo could get Haruno's brother's blessing -- astronaut Fuji. Tetsuo is a poor inventor who has invented an... electric rape whistle? It makes an annoying sound and is called "the Lady Guard", so I think that's what it's supposed to be? He hopes a deal with Ms. Namikawa from Educational Toys Inc (???) will bring him the financial stability necessary to impress Fuji. In any case, in the exciting subplot, Glenn and Fuji have a run-in with strange lightning phenomena on the surface of Planet X and are invited to join its people (I'll call them the X-men for short) in their underground lair. The X-men are a seemingly peaceful society, plagued by King Ghidorah, and short on water. They wish to "borrow" Godzilla and Rodan to rid them of the three-headed menace, and will richly reward Earth for their kindness -- a "tape" with the cure for cancer on it!
Lemme talk about one particular preconception that's been shattered in doing this series: "Godzilla vs. [x]". We're six movies in and we still haven't had a movie called "Godzilla vs. [x]"! I think this indicates an intention to make a (relatively) diverse array of sci-fi spectacles, movies that feature Godzilla, rather than "Godzilla movies". Travis, stop me if I'm wrong here! This movie definitely qualifies as "a movie featuring Godzilla", as G is basically reduced to a supporting player in the devious machinations of the X-Men in their attempts to colonize the Earth. (It's not much of a spoiler, people; As Glenn and Fuji travel back to offer the X-Men's proposal to Earth leaders, Honda closes the sequence out with a fade-out on a sinisterly chuckling X-Man with threatening music.) I can't help but feel a little short-changed here, Travis. I definitely didn't get as much kaiju-bang for my buck, especially coming off of GHIDORAH.
The aliens and their hilarious adherence to "the computer" are entertaining enough, but the most interesting thing about the alien menace is that they're a pre-2001 creation. Kubrick's movie was of course hugely influential in any Hollywood depiction of space/space adventure, so it's cool to see something predating that, and even Star Trek! I think they're a clone society? Or is that just the women? I'm not sure! Anyway, it's cool to have some far out sci-fi concepts in a kaiju movie such as rooms of gold and computer-mandated romance, but I wish the movie had paid off a little more in the monster mash department. What say you, Travis?
You're not wrong in observing the diminished kaiju content this time around. Planet X represents the strongest sci-fi content in the series yet, and of all the aliens that would show up in the franchise, they're probably the most memorable. Their shaded visors recall the style of the Yakuza, and I like how it's kept ambiguous if they're a robot or clone race. Their invasion of Earth is the real centerpiece of the plot with the monsters only being pawns in the grand scheme. Because Godzilla and Rodan are brainwashed for most of the movie, their brash personalities are kept to a minimum too. On top of all this, the actual smash up scenes feel shortened. Both the Planet X fight and the big ending battle are well done yet only clock in about a few minutes in length each. Not only that, but the three monster city destruction is padded with re-used footage from RODAN and MOTHRA. Definitely a let down from the four kaiju sushi roll known as GHIDORAH.
How to make up for the small amount of monster carnage? By getting dashing American movie star Nick Adams of course! Though it may be jarring to see a US actor fit comfortably among the Japanese cast, it was not uncommon during this time to see Hollywood performers head overseas for starring roles for Toho and other studios. ASTRO-MONSTER is actually Adams' second kaiju flick, having previously dealt with Baragon and a freakishly giant Frankenstein's monster in FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD. Though he was often labelled as a second rate James Dean (who he was famously friends with), he delivers a fine performance here, not a bit of irony detected when he shouts "you stinking rats!" at the X-men when they zap his girlfriend. Him and Akira Takarada also share some great astronaut buddy chemistry. "You should have left your sister packed in ice," teases Adams of Takarada's disapproval of his sibling's prospective fiance. Their palling and joking around actually reminds me of Tsukioka and Kobayashi back in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. How chummy!
With every review, we've tackled the slow anthropomorphism of the monsters. Director Honda and SFX master Tsuburaya would often disagree on this catering towards children, and it's in ASTRO-MONSTER that we reach the point of no return for the Showa era. After sending Ghidorah packing on Planet X, Godzilla proceeds to victoriously hop up and down in a joyful, gravity-defying dance ("A happy moment," the lead X-man observes in the English dub). Honda fought against it, but Tsuburaya always saw the movies as meant for kids, so Goofzilla's Party Jump was kept in. Luca, even though the original stark GOJIRA is my favorite, I have room in my heart to accept and enjoy the antics of Godzilla the Friendly Superhero. What did you make of that particular moment, and do you feel this "kiddie glove" handling of the kaiju has been detrimental or beneficial for the franchise?
Oh, I love the constant pandering to children that's going on! In fact, Godzilla's victory dance was the best part of the movie for me! It is, in fact, a bit of a bummer that we get such an awesome and characterful Godzilla moment in a film that otherwise relegates the kaiju to brainwashed weapons of mass destruction. Kaiju as WMDs is a very cool idea, honestly, but one that was perhaps best suited in a movie that doesn't have one of its main monsters dance a victory jig. This movie is essentially a step back in everything, huh? Not only do we get fewer monsters than last movie, we also get quite a very small amount of them. The X-Men were okay to me, but not quite weird or interesting enough to distract from the lack of monster action. The humans were, again, okay, but nothing great. I will say that I very much liked the interracial romance between Cpt. Glen and Space Clone Girl. Alright, technically it was an interspecies romance, but the X-Men are about as alien-looking as Kryptonians. So here we have a romance between for all intents and purposes a Japanese lady and an American man. That's nice for a 1965 movie! It doesn't end well, but their feelings were shown be sincere.
Oh, and I would be remiss not to remark upon the indignities suffered by Godzilla, dating all the way back to KKvG, in which Kong rammed a tree down his throat! In MvG, he is dragged by the tail by Mothra, in GHIDORAH he is picked up by Rodan and tossed crotch first onto some power lines, and in ASTRO-MONSTER the X-Men's saucer pick up a slumbering Godzilla with their telekinesis rays with his tail firmly tucked between his legs in a foetal position. Aw man, why you gotta expose a sleeping G like that to the world at large! Speaking of the world at large, Toho's fascination with western religions continues, as a random bishop/cardinal tells a united Japanese government yet again that "all [they] can do is pray to God". Adams' presence does indicate a stronger desire to really sell this movie in western markets, so I suppose this is the first movie where a nod to christianity shouldn't feel weird. Personally, I don't like such defeatism in my monster movies. Stop that, Toho!
Ghidorah is a tough sumbitch, huh? Adversary in two movies in a row, and he gets away both times. Granted, they could only make him retreat when it was Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan, so it would have been weird if Godzilla and Rodan alone would have killed him. But there's something pretty ballsy about having your villain very explicitly get away while your two hero monsters are MIA. Not that the movie is very pessimistic about them being gone -- hell, it's also hilariously blasé about DESTROYER OF WORLDS Ghidorah still being out and about, but that's another story. I cracked up when someone posited the very sensible question:
"Do you think Godzilla and Rodan are dead?"
and he gets the answer
"Probably not."
Japan knew the score in 1965 even. All in all, a so-so entry for me, Travis. Where does ASTRO MONSTER rank for you in comparison to the movies we've seen so far?

The word "fine" comes to mind when it comes to ASTRO-MONSTER. There's nothing significantly bad or painful per se when watching it. The story moves along well, the acting is believable, and the action scenes (though pared down) are still exciting and executed greatly by the Toho SFX team. Perhaps what makes the movie seem by the numbers is its lack of "hook". GOJIRA and GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN reflect post WWII Japan, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA pit the King of the Monsters against marque name monsters alongside lessons about nature and industry, and GHIDORAH was just a fun bento box of creatures, assassins, and Venusians. ASTRO-MONSTER in comparison has a routine science fiction story of seemingly friendly aliens who are up to no good. There's a bit of brainy stuff to chew on with Namikawa disobeying "the computer" by falling in love with Glenn, but we don't see enough scenes of them together to feel the weight of their doomed romance when she's killed, and it's a cliche theme that's overly familiar in the sci fi genre. And I agree too, Luca, that WMD kaiju is an exciting idea, just a bit lacking here. Wait till we get to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, and then we'll have some real mind controlled monster fun!
You also made a point earlier about how we haven't reached a true GODZILLA VS. (FILL IN NAME) title yet in the series. Was this intentional by Toho to distinguish the films from each other? I'm not sure. But don't worry, Luca, because next we'll have our first "properly named" versus movie with GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER! From space to the seas!

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