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Concluding our overview (expanded from comments on the SuperMegaMonkey Godzilla Chronology Project) of Toho’s Showa-era Godzilla films, plus two non-series kaiju eiga.

 

War of the Gargantuas (1970)

The letterboxed print aired on the Starz networks intrigued me. Both that and Monster Zero were shown dubbed rather than subtitled, and I presume the fact that they toplined gaijin Russ Tamblyn and Nick Adams, respectively, had something to do with it. Yet since the original U.S. release expunged the connection to Frankenstein Conquers the World, it couldn’t be that dub, since the F word (no, not that one) was flying thick and fast, and I now believe it to be another of Toho’s alternate “international versions.”

In fact, the bulk of the dialogue seemed to be devoted to the relationship between Frankenstein (sic) and the Gargantuas, although if they ever proferred a definitive explanation of exactly where Sanda actually came from, it eluded me. Aside from matching the actors with unsuitable voices—poor Kumi Mizuno’s is especially grating—the soundtrack is also extremely muffled and hard to understand. Perhaps most distracting, the voice ostensibly emerging from Rusty doesn’t sound remotely like his.

Well, in any language, or with any soundtrack, this is a pretty crappy picture. When I watch Haruo Nakajima or one of his successors play Godzilla, the fairly impressive suits enable me to suspend my disbelief enough that I actually “see” Godzilla. But here, he and his counterpart, Yú Sekita, are so obviously doofuses (doofi?) in crappy make-up that the whole thing just becomes risible. The Wikipedia page for this film features a hilarious still of Tsuburaya standing next to them on the miniature cityscape set, which drives the final nail into the coffin of verisimilitude.

This dub just renders the enervated Tamblyn’s performance even more somnolent, while the quasi-Nehru jacket he wears for mountain climbing—while his companions are all sporting suitable alpine gear—is a head-scratcher, and just what the heck is supposed to be his relationship with Kumi, who only ever addresses him as “Doctor?” Add to that the frequently lousy effects (e.g., when Sanda catches Kumi and places her back on the ledge, or the Mario Bava-style “volcano” that conveniently appears to swallow up the boys) and anticlimactic ending, and you’ve got a real turkey. “Special Guest Star” Kipp Hamilton’s rendition of “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” (later popularized by Devo), which prompted a most unwelcome standing ovation from Gailah, deserves special mention for endearing this film to Tom Flynn, the once and future Host with the Most.

 

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971, aka Godzilla vs. Hedora[h])

This was not one of the Showa entries included in the recent Starzapalooza, but since we’d bought my daughter—who has fond childhood memories of my introducing her to this loopy film—a nice DVD, she was kind enough to lend it to me when visiting for Christmas. Alas, that apparently uses Toho’s otherwise gorgeous widescreen, subtitled “international version” and, despite offering both English and Japanese audio tracks, inexplicably omits the memorable “Save the Earth” lyrics they’d taken the trouble to translate and record for AIP’s U.S. release. I think I even saw it in the theater back in the day, double-featured with Godzilla vs. the Bionic/Cosmic/Whatever Monster, although that may actually have been after it was broadcast on TV, especially given the three-year gap between the two productions.

In any case, I vividly recall being baffled by the off-kilter storytelling style of what may still be the weirdest Godzilla movie ever, at least among those I’ve seen, and wrongly blaming its incoherence on a botched U.S. edit at the time. It’s not too surprising that director Yoshimitsu Banno reportedly infuriated producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and torpedoed his own career with this one, since however timely the environmental theme may have been (and, sadly, still be), echoing the original’s anti-nuke stance, it’s handled so clumsily as to undercut any possible message, while the Big G takes another giant step downward by emulating Daiei rival Gamera’s power of flight. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its monumental goofiness, “Smoggy”—as we refer to both Hedora(h) and the film—remains a guilty pleasure of sorts, and in his own gross way is scarier than most G-foes.

 

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Although letterboxed, the prints of the three 1970s Showa series entries aired on Starz (no Godzilla vs. Hedorah or …Gigan) were all dubbed, an unfortunate example of why kaiju eiga are often dismissed. And while their ’60s counterparts are films I like, merely enhanced by elite presentation, this just makes mostly bad films worse, e.g., the grating voice attributed here to the whiny kid in the inevitable short-shorts. Those are my two favorite cinematic decades, but this is a ’70s movie in the worst possible way with its ugly photography, costumes, and sets; the inventor’s dangling-cube home is the kind of jaw-dropper born only in fever dreams of the most unhinged production designers.

Yes, I enjoyed the mix-and-match use of Toho’s, um, Big Three that was sustained over four films beginning with the so-called Godzilla vs. the Thing. But in the “Fukuda Trilogy,” the recurrence of selected kaiju (e.g., Gigan, Angilas), plus their increasing anthropomorphism—unlike, say, Mothra—and tendency to show up in groups of four at the climax, exacerbate the feeling that we’re watching pro wrestling on acid. And yet, unable to confirm without immediate access to them both, I might buck the conventional wisdom calling this Godzilla’s nadir, and say it may be a step up from Haruo Nakajima’s sad swan song, the arguably sillier stock-music-and-footage fest Godzilla vs. Gigan (“Hey, Angilas!” “Whattaya want?”).

So it’s Gigan, for whose return precisely nobody was clamoring, and the equally ill-conceived Megalon in this corner, with Ultraman-wannabe Jet Jaguar—whose growth spurt utterly ignores, for instance, the question of where his additional mass came from—and drive-by (swim-by?) savior Godzilla in the other. To give credit where it’s due, Megalon’s destruction of the dam is actually pretty impressive, despite the highly implausible survival of the cargo container’s occupants, who would presumably have been killed on impact. Unintentional hilarity: the Seatopian leader instructs his minions to contact their agents on Easter Island, and we immediately cut to a shot of the famous statues. “No, not those guys!”

At the risk of contradicting fnord12, I believe it was gaijin distributor Cinema Shares rather than Toho itself that invoked the De Laurentiis Kong when ballyhooing the film so heavily in the U.S. Mark Drummond commented on the accompanying comic-book version, which misidentified Jet Jaguar and Gigan as “Robotman” and “Borodan,” respectively. And the butchered version that, alas, marked the Big G’s first American prime-time network premiere was hosted by John Belushi in a Godzilla suit on NBC; I never saw it, which is probably just as well.

 

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974, aka Godzilla vs. the Bionic/Cosmic Monster)

Watching this after its direct sequel was a curious experience, emphasizing both similarities and differences. Many have pointed out the consistency in the casting of, and the relationships among, some of the characters (with Akihiko Hirata here mercifully free of fright wig, and actually aging gracefully in real life), although “consistency” is not a word that springs to mind when considering their respective screenplays. Yet while we may not think of kaiju eiga as a particularly director-driven subgenre, the difference between even cut-rate, latter-day Ishiro Honda and the disjointed storytelling of ’70s Jun Fukuda is more dramatic than anything seen in this picture.

Godzilla’s 20th-anniversary outing reportedly made more money than its predecessor, which is as it should be, but less than its far superior successor, a head-scratcher that helped lead to his hiatus of almost a decade. I’d forgotten that although he walks away from his jaw-popping by Mechagodzilla (a move that seems uniformly fatal in King Kong movies), Angilas is hors de combat for the remainder, sparing us the tag-team formulism of Gigan or Megalon. Speaking of whom, I never thought I’d see the day when any kaiju would make those two look good by comparison, yet King Caesar resembles nothing so much as an oversized mogwai with moth-eaten pelts randomly attached to his body.

You’ll also notice that, absent those WWE-style four-way matches, the two Mechagodzilla films reverse their climactic dynamics. Here, it requires two kaiju to square off against him, although Little Caesar brings relatively little to the table, whereas in Terror of Mechagodzilla, the original must hold his own against both his robo-double and Titanosaurus. I always liked Mechani-Kong from King Kong Escapes, so I rank MG pretty high among G-foes, especially amid the mostly lame ’70s competition—and of course we briefly get the spectacle of Godzilla apparently fighting himself!

As a lad, I saw this at the cinema near the Trumbull mall during its kid-oriented U.S. theatrical run, although I can recall neither which entry was the co-feature (I want to say Smog Monster), nor whether it was before or after Universal forced the speedy title change from Godzilla vs. the Bionic… to …Cosmic Monster, due to their Six Million Dollar Man bionic franchise. I do remember that they somehow managed to put one of the reels on backwards, which both exacerbated and epitomized the film’s already considerable WTF factor. Sharp-eared viewers will note that the score, in which Fukuda-fave Masaru Sato—this was the series swan song for them both—makes his bid for Mothra-esque glory with the Caesar-summoning song, also includes a nice cut from Son of Godzilla during one of the battles.

“That’s a powerful pipe” perhaps deserves special mention.

 

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

A viewing order determined at least partly by Starz has produced some interesting juxtapositions, e.g., plunging from the pinnacle of Godzilla vs. the Thing into the depths of War of the Gargantuas. In this case I moved in the opposite direction, soaring from Godzilla vs. Megalon to the letterboxed Honda/Ifukube/Hirata reunion that ended the Showa era on a high note, even slipping Kenji Sahara in as a general. Per Shakespeare’s Gay Boys in Bondage (via Monty Python), “And what a difference!,” plus I’m obliged to admit that even the dubbing’s not too bad.

Ironically, the satisfaction of this throwback to the 1960s Golden Age of kaiju eiga derives in part from a plot mechanism decades older, since Hirata’s disgruntled scientist could well have come from a ’30s or ’40s genre film: “I’ll teach those humans [And you are…?] for failing to recognize me. They mocked me—well, now they’re going to eat their words!” The tragedy of the Mafunes is strangely compelling, with the doctor’s allegiance to the aliens motivated as much by gratitude for their “saving” his daughter Katsura as by a desire for vengeance on his race, and Katsura herself torn between her innate goodness and her alien programming. Strange to see boobies in a kaiju eiga when she’s under the knife, but since I doubt Tomoko Ai had machinery in her belly in real life, they are evidently fake boobies, which may not count.

His oeuvre having been pillaged for stock cues in Gigan, Maestro Akira Ifukube makes a triumphal return with an impressive score that lends the proceedings the proper gravitas, especially in our first look at the reassembled Mechagodzilla, suitably emblazoned “MG2.” For the most part, Teruyoshi Nakano’s effects rise to the occasion, although for some reason I always find those extreme up-angle shots of Titanosaurus in bright sunlight jarring, and the laws of physics certainly take a beating when he picks Godzilla up by his snout. As is typical for these films, Godzilla is trounced with equal ferocity, even suffering a premature burial, when double-teamed by Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus—no fair!—but easily triumphs one on one.

Toho-footnote Titanosaurus will never win any Kaiju of the Year awards, but at least has the virtue of being organic in multiple senses, i.e., both “natural” (he’s a dinosaur) and “of a piece” (not a hodgepodge thrown together out of disparate parts, like Gigan or Megalon). Starz was Showa-ing—er, showing—the original Japanese version, minus the sloppy edits that caused some confusion about various plot points, e.g., the last-minute redemption whereby a wounded Katsura kills herself to destroy the control device. This also lacks the stock-footage prologue added by Henry G. Saperstein to pad out the film when, after its sketchy U.S. theatrical release as Terror of Godzilla, most of us gaijin first encountered it on TV in 1978…which is not to be confused with the indigenous stock footage in that weird split-screen “Disaster Monsters” interlude.

 

Final reminder: Godzilla expert Steve Ryfle will discuss and autograph his new book Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa at New York’s Japan Society at 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, February 21. The event is moderated by Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at the incomparable Film Forum, and the reception to follow will feature a display of rare Godzillabilia.

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Hi-Yo, SILVER!

What I’ve Been Watching: The Atomic Submarine (1959).

Who’s Responsible:  Spencer G[ordon] Bennet (director); Orville H. Hampton (screenwriter); Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Brett Halsey (stars).

Why I Watched It:  See below.

Seen It Before?  Long ago.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  8.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  5.

And?  This is part of my Self-Imposed Laserdisc-Viewing/Exercise Regimen (hereinafter SILVER), whereby I am working my way systematically through my LDs while riding my stationary bike.  In some cases, that will mean forcing myself to watch stuff I’ve been putting off for years, but in others, it’s a welcome opportunity to revisit films I remember fondly, albeit hazily here.  In particular, I’m hoping to confirm this definitively—as we did with the obscure Euro-horror entry The Murder Clinic (1966)—as the source of an image that has been locked in my friend Gilbert’s memory since childhood, in this case an “eyeball monster” that I think may well be the inhabitant of this film’s flying saucer.

The story is set in a then-near future when sub-Arctic civilian and military shipping has become commonplace, yet is now threatened by a series of unexplained disasters. Cmdr. Dan Wendover (Foran) is sent to investigate, his titular Tiger Shark packed with special weapons, gear (e.g., an experimental mini-sub), and personnel, including two underwater-demolition frogmen and noted egghead Sir Ian Hunt (Tom Conway).  Not all the baggage they carry is literal, because Dan’s exec, Lt. Cmdr. Richard “Reef” Holloway (Franz), has an iceberg-sized chip on his shoulder about the alleged pacifism of Dr. Carl Neilson, Jr. (Halsey), who created the Lungfish with his revered father and is its only qualified pilot.

Things get weird around the 40-minute mark as the Shark spots, and fires two torpedoes at, the undersea UFO—whose design prompts the nickname Cyclops—only to have one inexplicably miss and the other stop dead in a mass of apparent gel surrounding it; oddly, no mention is made of these two live nuclear weapons thereafter.  Dan, favoring a direct approach, rams Cyclops, which everyone naively assumes has “killed” it, but the prow of the sub has lodged within it, so the Lungfish is dispatched to try to cut them loose.  In the event, “killed” is more accurate than they realize, because Cyclops is not only inhabited by our tentacled eyeball but also alive and, more important, capable of regenerating itself.

This minor SF feature is a footnote to Bennet’s reign as the “King of Serial Directors” on Superman (1948), Batman and Robin (1949), et al., but the cast is headed by a quartet of the usual suspects.  Screenwriter Hampton ground out The Alligator People and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake that same year, and has genre credits dating back to additional dialogue for Rocketship X-M (1950), which teamed FX mainstays Irving Block and Jack Rabin.  That prolific pair designed and created this film’s effects with frequent partner Louis DeWitt, penned the uncredited story (per the IMDb), and worked on countless ’50s efforts such as Flight to Mars (1951) and Kronos (1957), plus the series Men into Space.

The male lead in the Rabin/Block Invaders from Mars (1953) and Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus (1958), Franz was cast by Edward Dmytryk in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and others, while Foran took a break from the saddle as Steve Banning in The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and …Tomb (1942).  Although he ironically worked with Mario Bava only on the spaghetti Western Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970) and the sex comedy Four Times That Night (1971), Halsey did star in Return of the Fly (1959).  Conway was, of course, a veteran of Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim (both 1943), and succeeded his brother, George Sanders, as the Falcon.

The supporting cast could have wandered in from one of the many war/sub movies this recalls in its early reels; naturally, I know sagebrush star Bob Steele, playing CPO “Grif” Griffin, best as Canino in The Big Sleep (1946).  An early fixture at AIP, producing such Roger Corman efforts as Day the World Ended (1955) before going independent, Alex (brother of Richard) Gordon also wrote Jail Bait (1954) and Bride of the Monster (1955) with Ed Wood.  But it is the Rabin/Block team—whose last feature this was—that makes it memorable, the micro-budget’s struggle to live up to their ideas giving it a ramshackle weirdness that I find of greater interest than a more conventional, empirically better film.

Carl’s passengers enter Cyclops through an iris (get it?) hatch and find…nothing, a plain black set with lighted ramps anticipating the Outer Limits episode “Nightmare.”  The rest are either fried by unspecified means or crushed in the iris, but after the alien hand puppet (voiced by John Hilliard) tells Reef they like Earth best of all the planets considered for colonization, and by the way would love some human specimens, he fires a Very pistol into its eye.  The Shark is extricated while it regenerates—via reverse footage—and when Cyclops flies off, a hastily rejiggered ICBM soon sets things right, leaving Reef and Carl to mend fences, hoping that their victory will forestall further visits from the evil aliens.

The laserdisc co-feature, Richard Gordon’s First Man into Space (1959), just…isn’t…very…interesting.

Continental Divide

In my profile of producer George Pal, I called Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), which he also unwisely directed, “disappointing on all counts,” noting that it “was hampered by Daniel Mainwaring’s unusually outlandish script, adapted from a play by Sir Gerald Hargreaves,” although I can’t imagine how they handled the climactic destruction onstage. After re-viewing it while working my way alphabetically through my vast laserdisc collection—since I don’t rent or stream, and am loath to regress to cable—I think my initial assessment may have been overly generous. The casting of nobodies Anthony Hall ( Sal Ponti) and lovely but soporific Joyce Taylor as the wooden, unengaging leads epitomizes Pal’s blatant penny-pinching, relying heavily on stock footage (e.g., Quo Vadis [1951] and his own The Naked Jungle [1954]), borrowed props and costumes, and even music cues recycled by Russell Garcia from Pal’s The Time Machine (1960).

Image result for atlantis the lost continent

When these are the most recognizable faces in the cast, you know you’re in trouble:

  • The guy who played the tacitly gay thrill-killer in Rope (1948), John Dall
  • The guy who played the Chief on Get Smart, Edward Platt
  • The guy who played another Chief, Wild Eagle, on F Troop, Frank DeKova
  • The guy who played the slimy studio, uh, chief in Nightmare in Wax (1969), Barry Kroeger

And speaking of familiarity, Pal-fave Paul Frees not only narrates the film, but also lends his unmistakable voice to the dubbing of at least three characters, including the fathers of both leads.

Maybe it’s me, yet I never did get how Princess Antillia (Taylor) came to be found bobbing around ancient Greece by Demetrios (Hall), who regrets rescuing and returning home with her to an Atlantis dominated by would-be world-conquering mad scientists with death rays and submarines. The “trial by fire” whereby the promptly enslaved fisherman wins his freedom is especially embarrassing, as his brutish opponent takes great care to miss him with every swing of his axe, while Demetrios takes equally great care to hit nothing but the guy’s shield with his sword. Mainwaring (aka noir mainstay Geoffrey Homes) shows none of the talent he displayed on Don Siegel’s seminal Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), throwing in an irrelevant Island of Dr. Moreau subplot before, as with Sodom and Gomorrah, divine justice destroys usurper Zaren (Dall) et al. via volcano while the lovers and slaves flee.

This one shoulda stayed lost.  Its laserdisc co-feature, The Power (1968)—an ill-fated reunion with Byron Haskin after Conquest of Space (1955)—is admittedly clunky but far more fun, with a nifty score by Pal’s fellow Hungarian, Miklós Rózsa, that even shows the cymbalum being played during the opening titles.

Continuing our overview (expanded from comments on the SuperMegaMonkey Godzilla Chronology Project) of Toho’s Showa-era Godzilla films, plus two non-series kaiju eiga.

 

Monster Zero (1965, aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, etc.)

I would call this neither the best nor my favorite of the Showa entries, which are not necessarily synonymous, but it might be considered a quintessential one, with the Honda/Ifukube/Tsuburaya “Dream Team” by now firing on all cylinders. The alien-invasion theme from The Mysterians (1957)—which I am overdue to revisit—and other Toho films is interpolated into the series here, and will figure ever more prominently in ensuing years. While there are some ominous signs (e.g., the reportedly first, albeit minor, use of stock footage in the battle scenes; Godzilla’s kid-friendly victory jig), it will be some time before those traits become truly troublesome, especially with also-ran director Jun Fukuda’s imminent injection of new blood.

Make no mistake, the plot is as loopy and full of holes as they come, yet somehow its failings seem more endearing than annoying in this case, and I sure loves me some Akira Takarada. Conversely, I’ve always loathed Nick Adams (whose off-screen persona apparently justified my dislike), although his appearances here and in Frankenstein Conquers the World must be considered noteworthy, being indigenous to the U.S. co-productions rather than shoehorned in à la Raymond Burr. And he gets no fewer than three immortally cheesy lines: “Double-crossing finks!,” “You rats—you stinkin’ rats!” and, of course, the notorious closer, “Whatever’s fair, pal.”

Among the things this film epitomizes is the fact that Toho did not reserve its greatest creativity for titles. The Giant Monster War, which I believe is the translation of the original Japanese, is pretty damned generic, and the endless permutations of Invasion of [the] Astro[-Monster]s for their “international version” aren’t much of an improvement. The Simitar DVD I watched in lieu of the Starz broadcast (a hand-me-down from our beloved Professor Joe Tura, Marvel University’s kaiju eiga authority) sells it as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. But I don’t feel that the title of every damned entry has to start with Godzilla versus… and, not too surprisingly, prefer the elegant and misterioso simplicity of the title under which most of us gaijin presumably first encountered it, Monster Zero.

This also displays Toho’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude toward continuity, as the aliens acknowledge that [King] Ghid[o]rah was previously driven off by Godzilla and Rodan, while conspicuously overlooking their erstwhile ally, Mothra. How the hell they wound up in Lake Myojin and Washigasawa, respectively, is anybody’s guess, and while I won’t even address the effect of the film’s nominally futuristic “197X” setting (as is explicit in some versions) on overall series chronology, I will make a mental note that “escaping into the future” is a handy euphemism for blowing yourself to kingdom come. But seriously, dude, don’t let these quibbles detract from the enjoyment of the fabulous 1960s production design, the awesome monster battles, the Controller’s wacky sign-language, or the magnificent and oft-sampled score, which in turn stole a march, as it were, from the original Godzilla.

 

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966, aka Ebirah, Horror of the Deep)

Amid stiff competition, this is my iconoclastic favorite Godzilla movie, partly for the same reason Mysterious Island is my favorite Harryhausen film (the island settings are one of several similarities), i.e., the story is almost good enough to stand on its own with no giant monsters. Of course, Ray had an edge: a perfectly good novel by Jules Verne—the sequel to 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, for those of you who came in late—into which they simply shoehorned his stop-motion critters. Interesting to note that both Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) there and the scientists in Fukuda’s island-set follow-up, Son of Godzilla, are trying in their own very different ways to address the problem of world hunger.

This was one of the four Showa entries not to be recently aired on the Starz networks, yet because I have a beautiful letterboxed and subtitled DVD, it seemed silly not to treat myself to a re-viewing and tack it onto my comments. It’s also nice that after being benched in Monster Zero, Mothra and the natives of Infant Island not only return, albeit with new fairies and song, but also are integral to the plot. That continues the tag-team effect among Toho’s Big Three (including Rodan) in the mid-’60s films, even if Godzilla forgets his recent alliance with Mothra—could it be because she’s no longer a larva?

I appreciate that while still clearly a guy in a suit, giant lobster Ebirah is—like the puppeteered big bugs in Son of Godzilla—less aggressively anthropomorphic than many a kaiju (it’s hard to watch him or Harryhausen’s crab without my mouth watering). Naturally, being half-submerged much of the time conceals “suitmation” actor Hiroshi Sekita’s legs, and I love anything nautical; even if I now recognize that the “underwater” scenes were mostly shot dry-for-wet, he and a waterlogged Haruo Nakajima (who played Godzilla from 1954 to ’72) still spent plenty of time in the tank. Since Honda set the precedent for their no-net volleyball match, we can’t really fault Fukuda for that, and somehow even Godzilla’s ultimate taunt, mocking a maimed Ebirah by clacking his own claw at him, didn’t bother me.

The score by frequent Kurosawa collaborator Masaru Sato (whose first name is misspelled “Mararu” in the translated credits, shorn from the original U.S. television release along with some early scenes) is less substantial than the one he composed for Son of Godzilla; significantly, this is the only one of the 15 Showa films not represented in my beloved Best of Godzilla 1954-1975 CD. It is also marred by a jazzy, hideously inappropriate cut when the Chin—uh, Red Bamboo jets attack Godzilla, and by an ill-advised reprise of the otherwise fun dance-contest music during one of his skirmishes with Ebirah, both wisely excised from the Stateside soundtrack. But there are some effective cues, e.g., those accompanying the appearance of Ebirah’s claws from the sea and the discovery of the slumbering Godzilla, whose entrance is preceded by some nice suspense.

Fresh from embodying the multiple Namikawas in Monster Zero, Kumi Mizuno is delightful as Dayo—putting to shame her island-girl successor in Son of Godzilla—with “Mr. Handsome” Takarada cast against type as the bank robber. Offsetting the youngsters, who are not Toho mainstays, is the villainous trio of Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, and Hideyo (aka Eisei) Amamoto, seen all together in at least one delicious widescreen shot; the format also does wonders for Godzilla’s Lego-fortress stomp. Ironically, Amamoto is best known to some of us as Dr. Who in King Kong Escapes (1967), the Rankin/Bass U.S. co-production that did get made after they rejected this script, Operation Robinson Crusoe, whereupon Toho retooled it as a vehicle for Godzilla.

 

Son of Godzilla (1967)

I won’t deny that Fukuda’s Godzilla vs. Gigan/Megalon/Mechagodzilla triad marks a low point for the Showa era, but I will champion his two mid-series “island films.” Yes, I know the desolate settings were at least partly a cost-cutting measure, yet I find them an enjoyable change of pace, with all of those wacky military or scientific installations giving the miniature-makers a breather from office buildings and the like. And while second to none in my admiration for Maestro Ifukube, whose work with Honda I rank among the great director/composer teams (e.g., Hitchcock/Herrmann, Leone/Morricone), I really enjoy Sato’s jazzier themes, especially when isolated on my trusty CD.

I guess my Maudlin Man sobriquet was assured from childhood, because while he can admittedly be annoying, little Minya has always tugged at my heartstrings. Even as a kid, I was especially moved by the snowy “father and child reunion” that gives the film its unusual ending (and how, um, cool is it to have the climactic battle staged in a blizzard?); my reaction nowadays can well be imagined by those who know me. In short, I am in no way arguing for the superiority of Fukuda/Sato over Honda/Ifukube—seems this was a second-string effort by the former team while the big guns were occupied with King Kong Escapes—only saying that each can be enjoyed on its own merits.

Because even if you loathe Minya on general principle, as I know many do, there are multiple compensations, not least the formidable ensemble cast of Hirata, Akira Kubo, Tadao Takashima, Yoshio (Controller) Tsuchiya, and Kenji Sahara. Granted, Kenji barely registers here after playing the lead in Rodan, but Toho’s overall use of its stock company reminds me of Takashi Shimura’s work in both kaiju eiga and the films the great Akira Kurosawa was making concurrently, often for the same studio and/or producer. One minute you’re the leader of the immortal Seven Samurai, and the next you’re doing a virtual cameo in Godzilla Raids Again. Dude, that’s range.

I’ve always been a big-bug guy (Them!, Tarantula, etc.), so I found the Kamacuras and Kumonga—or Gimantises and Spiga back in the day—quite welcome as adversaries and, again, a change from the usual anthropomorphic suitmation, with some nice suspense built up before giant spider Kumonga emerges. In one eye-opening moment, Kubo refers to the kaiju-infested setting as “Monster Island,” and you could almost see the lightbulb go on over producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s head; he also compares Godzilla to “the education fanatics in Japan,” prompting both Min and me to observe that he was the original Tiger Mom! She questioned the utility of the meteorological experiment, but I think the point was how completely they could control the weather in general, rather than that a flash-frozen tropical island was conducive to crop growth.

For the record, it’s confirmed in the version just shown on Starz that Minya—or Minilla if you prefer—was indeed the source of the mysterious “interference” that wreaked havoc with the experiment on the first attempt, however that was determined (because science?). Apparently Nakajima played Godzilla only in a couple of scenes this time out, most notably his watery entrance; they used him in an older suit there, due to the obvious concern over damage. To give Godzilla greater paternal stature, they also built a bigger one that had to be worn by two different actors, because one broke his fingers during shooting.

 

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

One of my fondest father/daughter memories—and one to which I’m sure Professor Joe can relate—is of taking Alexandra, still knee-high to a Gimantis at the time, to a modest Kaiju Con in Manhattan, where I then worked. As I recall, we didn’t do major damage in the dealer’s room, but the pick of the litter for me, back in the days before the ubiquity of DVDs, was a letterboxed and subtitled VHS copy of this film ostensibly straight from the horse’s mouth, i.e., Toho Video itself. Needless to say, I didn’t futz around with any Starz broadcast of that baby (although, upon re-examining it, I am now chagrined to suspect it’s a bootleg), and I saved it for my final viewing because…well, just because it’s Destroy All Monsters, which I’m sure occupies a special place in any true G-fan’s heart.

Yet it’s a bittersweet experience, and not just because it marks the end of my nostalgic trip down Showa Lane; I’m clearly not the only one who, while fond of it, was ultimately somewhat disappointed with this film. Apparently, Godzilla’s ticket sales had been declining, so after two cut-price Fukuda entries—which didn’t even score Stateside theatrical release—Toho bumped the budget back up, reconvening the Honda/Tsuburaya/Ifukube Dream Team one last time (Eiji outliving its release by less than two years) and pulling out all the stops for what was originally envisioned as the Big G’s swan song. Yet as great as “Gid[o]rah vs. Everybody” may sound on paper, the overall kaiju action is actually relatively modest, with the pace seriously flagging during such scenes as the sojourn on the moon, and even the climactic battle is a little less than the sum of its parts.

Obviously, we’d have trouble following the action if they crammed Ghidrah and all 10 of his opponents onto the screen at the same time, so there’s something to be said for the apparent approach as the sub-teams converge on him from opposite directions. In the event, though, the heavy lifting is done by only three monsters, two of whom had only one prior appearance apiece (Angilas in Godzilla Raids Again and Gorosaurus in King Kong Escapes), rather than relying on the “Big Three” who had defeated him before, as one might expect. In fact, I find most striking not how many kaiju are assembled for this extravaganza, but how disproportionate their screen time is; okay, Varan—whom they don’t even deign to identify—is justifiably obscure, but since he’s only glimpsed twice, having deteriorated during a decade in storage, you wonder why they bothered.

The story behind Baragon’s paucity of screen time is more complicated, not to mention interesting. The apparent gaffe of the newscaster announcing that it was he, rather than Gorosaurus, who had emerged from underground in Paris to wreck the Arc de Triomphe (Sapristi!) actually reflects what was scripted, and in fact his burrowing abilities were well established when he was introduced in Frankenstein Conquers the World. But the Baragon suit was also in a state of disrepair, having been lent to Tsuburaya Productions for cannibalization in various episodes of their TV series Ultraman and Ultra Q, hence the last-minute substitution of the conspicuously non-burrowing Gorosaurus.

I don’t wish to dwell on the negatives, however, and despite the uneven participation, that battle is admittedly a humdinger, with Angilas in particular earning his stripes, latching onto Ghidrah’s neck like a pit pull while lifted to, and then dropped from, a great height. Maestro Ifukube’s score is among his best, not only the stirring title march but also the brief pre-credit flourish as the monolithic title rises onscreen—still inducing a mild frisson in this viewer—and the frenetic “busy bee” music as the astronauts cut through the Kilaaks’ gizmo with the laser. Repertory players Akira Kubo, Jun (Atragon) Tazaki, and Yoshio (Human Vapor) Tsuchiya are of course always welcome, and the subtitled version eliminates at least some of the lunacy with the dialogue that fnord12 and Min lamented, leaving this a flawed yet still beloved last hurrah for Showa at its finest.

 

Godzilla’s Revenge (1969, aka All Monsters Attack)

Presumably like many others, I disdained this in my youth, yet have learned to cut it some slack over the years, because it was clearly never intended to be just another kaiju-smackdown series entry, but a children’s fantasy comparable in its own weird way to the great Robert Wise’s Curse of the Cat People. Even back in the day, I felt sympathy for lonely latchkey kid Ichiro, whose well-meaning parents were obviously struggling to make ends meet.

On that note, awareness of Tsuburaya’s ill health and other obligations, combined with Toho’s cost-cutting policy (can it really be true that fan-fave Destroy All Monsters underperformed at the box office?), has also helped to mitigate its threadbare, stock-footage-laden look. If nothing else, it’s certainly different—and how do you top DAM, anyway?—with its industrial-wasteland setting a marked change from Honda’s customary cosmopolitan cityscapes or Fukuda’s South Seas islands.

Speaking of changes of pace, I was quite surprised when I realized that Ichiro’s kindly inventor-neighbor was played by the previously dastardly Amamoto of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and, most especially, King Kong Escapes (as that other Dr. Who). Aside from the misleading title change, the film seems to have undergone far less tampering than some on its initial U.S. release, and replacing the in-your-face—or perhaps I should say “in-your-ear”—vocal version of the hectoring “Monster March” theme song with an instrumental was probably an improvement. Shades of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster’s “Save the Earth!”

 

Reminder: Godzilla expert Steve Ryfle will discuss and autograph his new book Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa at New York’s Japan Society at 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, February 21. The event is moderated by Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at the incomparable Film Forum, and the reception to follow will feature a display of rare Godzillabilia. The society is also showing the original Japanese version of Godzilla on Friday, February 2, at 7:00 P.M.

 

To be concluded.

As many readers may know, Godzilla’s cinematic career is divided into specific periods, with only the first of which, the Showa era (15 films spanning 1954-75), I am particularly familiar. Back in November, after noticing that Starz Encore Action was showing a boatload of Toho’s kaiju eiga—including at least two non-series films—I discovered why: Janus Films and the Criterion Collection had just acquired the rights to much of their Showa-era catalog. Many of those widescreen prints were subtitled, and some previously unseen in North America, giving me an excuse to revisit films that I had mostly never viewed in their original forms; by chance, I also had access to two of those they omitted, with only King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) eluding me…small loss though they were.

Now, you know I’m not gonna embark upon that kind of total immersion without documenting it for posterity somehow, yet with the travails of our recent relocation drastically reducing my writing time, I had to forego the traditional synopsis and/or review route. Instead, I welcomed an opportunity to spend some quality time on SuperMegaMonkey’s Godzilla Chronology Project (a kaiju counterpart to their invaluable Marvel Comics Chronology, so often cited on our Marvel University blog), which is where this material originally appeared in the comments sections, but as it grew and grew, it seemed a shame not to repurpose it in some slightly more enduring way. Thus, with minimal edits, rearranged into chronological order—which is not how I viewed them, as will be clear—and divided into what I hope are three readily digestible parts, here is the closest I may ever come to an overview of the Showa Godzilla, incomplete and scattershot as it is.

 

Godzilla (1954, aka Godzilla, King of the Monsters!)

Having missed the first recent Starz showing of Godzilla’s debut in its original Japanese version, which I saw only once years ago, I was looking forward to its Yuletide rebroadcast, yet when we finally relocated to our new home five days before Christmas, we got the disheartening (if not entirely unexpected) news that it was too arboreal for satellite service. Now sans TV, I knew I could still keep my hand in with the Raymond Burr-adulterated 1956 U.S. cut, since I own that in two formats, VHS and laserdisc. Normally, defaulting to the latter would be a no-brainer, but since the videotape was a hitherto-unopened relic from my erstwhile employer, the now-defunct GoodTimes Entertainment, I decided to show some retroactive team spirit; alas, it lacks the far superior jacket copy I later wrote myself for our DVD.

As a glass-half-full guy, I still find even this compromised version tremendously effective, and I don’t think it’s merely because the potency of the underlying material allows it to withstand the Stateside “improvements” that many of us would deem unnecessary. Giving credit where it’s due, I think “co-director” Terry O. Morse & Co. were really in there punching; sure, a trained eye can spot the filmed-from-behind doubles for Momoko Kōchi et alia that help give the Burr footage verisimilitude, but I’m impressed that they went to so much trouble to integrate it seamlessly, and his narration—which often has its own dramatic power, taking me viscerally back to my youth—obviates the need to cut or dub all of the Japanese dialogue. To me, their worst sin was voicing the great Takashi Shimura (who starred in Toho’s simultaneously produced [!] Kurosawa masterpiece, Seven Samurai) with somebody who can’t pronounce the word “phenomenon,” which he mangles at least three times, and perhaps not even consistently at that.

It may seem a stretch, but I would draw an analogy between this deadly serious monochrome classic’s relationship to its colorful, anything-goes sequels and that of the late George A. Romero’s immortal, ha ha, Night of the Living Dead. In each case, the follow-up films have their own undeniable merits, yet their styles are so drastically different as to leave the originals in a class by themselves, and although Maestro Akira Ifukube introduces many of the martial and/or monstrous themes that will become staples of the series, other cues epitomize an overall tone, in every sense of the word, that I can only call mournful. The scenes of devastated Tokyo still drive home the somewhat diminished anti-nuke message, while opening on them in medias res adds to the suspenseful build-up for Godzilla’s entrance (after 27 minutes in my version); the destruction so masterfully orchestrated by effects director Eiji Tsuburaya is somehow more personal here, emphasizing the human toll in a way that is usually sidestepped in later years, and the elaborate miniatures look a bit more like actual buildings.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt sorry for the denuded Godzilla at the end, when Shimura’s stricken face reminds us of Dr. Yamane’s idealistic assertion that he should have been studied rather than destroyed. Embodied by the suitably haunted-looking Akihiko Hirata, who reportedly switched roles with Akira Takarada at director Ishiro Honda’s behest, Dr. Serizawa is a truly tragic figure and, ironically, faces a Trumanesque decision (i.e., Should I employ this unprecedented destructive force in the service of a possibly greater good?), while his brief tussle with Ogata may be sparked as much by his unrequited love for Emiko as anything else. Underwater photography is always a plus for me, and his lonely suicide—presumably committed not solely to prevent his invention from falling into the wrong hands—adds to a final “victory” over Godzilla that seems anything but happy.

 

Godzilla Raids Again (1955, aka Gigantis, the Fire Monster; Godzilla’s Counterattack)

Actually, I would have re-watched this one anyway, since its rarity for so many years has left me less familiar with it than with so many others. Min (the equally entertaining partner of SuperMegaMonkey mainstay fnord12) tickled me with her observation that as he appears in this film, Godzilla “could benefit from a little orthodontic work,” since I said the same thing myself!

Mark Drummond, whose typically trenchant comments often grace the Marvel site, noted that, “According to Svengoolie’s recent showing of this film, the speeded-up monster fight was entirely an accident by the cameraman.” Just to expand on that, it seems the fight scenes were shot with multiple cameras, all of which were supposed to be set at the same speed, but some knucklehead overlooked the fact that one was set too slow, which of course sped up the action when played back. For whatever reason(s), they left it in, although I think it’s a definite debit.

The original plan for the U.S. release (outside of Japanese-language theaters that played the real thing) was to scrap everything but the monster footage and build a “new” movie around that, as Roger Corman did with several Soviet SF films. To that end, a new script entitled The Volcano Monsters was co-written by Ib (Reptilicus) Melchior, and Toho actually lent the Yanks some Godzilla and Anguirus suits to shoot new footage. But the company involved went under, and it was decided to go with a pretty drastic case of the more traditional dub-and-recut route, hence the notorious “banana oil” dialogue, oppressive narration, stock footage, and “clever” name change to Gigantis.

All of which I was mercifully spared while watching the subtitled original version…

 

Rodan (1956, aka Rodan, the Flying Monster)

Okay, these are not classics in the Citizen Kane sense, but by God, it’s heartening to see them treated with respect. Note to gaijin: we don’t need no stinkin’ stock footage! It’s especially interesting to revisit this early effort from the Honda/Tsuburaya/Ifukube “Dream Team” (I’m taking Tomoyuki Tanaka as a given since he produced all of Toho’s genre films). Although boasting a plethora of kaiju, it has not yet evolved, if that is the word, into the standard slugfest among them, and considerable suspense is generated in introducing them. It’s a full 17 minutes before the first Meganulon appears—said prehistoric insect popping up out of nowhere while the cast is still puzzling over how a human could have killed the victims in the mine—and another 20 before we get an even remotely recognizable shot of Rodan. I had a similar reaction when Shigeru identified it: “Yes, that’s definitely the giant monster I saw.”

Speaking of whom, I note that Kenji Sahara appeared in almost two dozen of these films, yet at least as seen here, his boyish face is far less indelibly etched in my memory than those of some of his colleagues. I’m going to try to use this total-immersion opportunity to get a better handle on some of them, since I’m ashamed to admit that they have hitherto somewhat blended together. Of course, Akihiko Hirata always looks naked without the eyepatch he sported as Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla. Unintentional hilarity: when Kashiwagi compares the photo recovered from the ill-fated groom’s camera with the Pteranodon image, it appears not only to confirm the species but also to match the exact shot.

 

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964, aka Godzilla vs. the Thing)

Reading up on this, I see that it’s widely, and in my opinion rightly, considered one of the best Godzilla films—or at least sequels—ever. But Ghid[o]rah is so cool that between them, the next two entries and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (my favorite) have more than once made me forget how great this picture is.

Often, when I watch one of these, my response is something along the lines of, “Well, that was fun…but [fill in the blank],” or “Hey, that was pretty good…for a kaiju eiga.” No qualifiers here. This is a damned good movie, period. Save for mild, allegedly comic relief like the egg-eating Jiro, Godzilla’s swan song as a straight-ahead villain is dead serious, and speaking of dead, I found the head shot with which Torahata kills Kumayama surprising for 1964. The evil businessmen, so ubiquitous in these films, pay with their lives, and the death of Mama Mothra, protectively placing her wing over her egg with her last breath, is poignant.

Overmatched though her daughter will be against Ghidrah in the next film, she’s a badass here, beating the crap out of Godzilla until he nails her with a lucky shot of his wildly flailing atomic breath. That battle is nothing short of spectacular, and the effects overall are excellent, e.g., the totally convincing shot of the Fairies in their little travel case, surrounded by full-sized humans. The storm footage at the beginning is equally impressive, as is Godzilla’s eruption from the ground, however the hell he got there.

Add to that the debonair good looks of Akira Takarada, perhaps my favorite Toho genre star; the slimy villainy of Kenji Sahara, poles apart from his good-guy role in Rodan; and one of Maestro Ifukube’s best scores, and you have a prize package that can’t be beat. Doubtless it didn’t hurt that it was left largely intact by U.S. distributor AIP.

 

Ghid[o]rah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Because we tend to default to the familiar, this will always be Ghidrah (i.e., sans “o”) to me. Speaking of which, since I have hitherto seen most of these films primarily or exclusively in dubbed versions, I never got familiar with the voices of the original casts, making it an unusual experience to recognize Akiko Wakabayashi’s from You Only Live Twice.

Apparently the U.S. version was subjected to a high degree of tampering, including the inexplicable change of Ghidrah’s home planet from Venus to Mars. The dialogue about one of the two larval Mothras having died in the interim was also altered to the effect that the adult Mothra died and the larva (singular) was still alive, raising for alert viewers the question of what happened to the other larva.

Vague in any version is the exact nature of the Princess/Prophetess transformation. A more or less straightforward “possession” by the Venusian intelligence seems to be the most obvious answer, although there’s also some suggestion that Venusian traits have been assimilated into humans over the centuries, rather like in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit.

Interesting to see both Godzilla’s transformation from villain to hero, or at least anti-hero, and the concomitant “tag team” progression from Godzilla/Mothra in the prior film through this one’s Godzilla/Mothra/Rodan/Ghidrah to Monster Zero’s (again, as I know it) Godzilla/Rodan/Ghidrah.

In addition to Godzilla’s and Rodan’s juvenile amusement at the other’s discomfiture when sprayed with Mothra-silk, another indication of the series’ increasingly kid-friendly tone comes just before the “summit meeting” among the three monsters (with, mercifully, no trace in the Japanese version of the Fairy’s stern “Oh, Godzilla, what terrible language”). When Godzilla and Rodan volley a boulder between them, they are intercut with reaction shots of Mothra’s head repeatedly going back and forth, as though she were watching a tennis match in some bizarre kaiju eiga version of Strangers on a Train. When Godzilla decides to nip Ghidrah’s smackdown of Mothra in the bud, I got a sense less of shaming, as fnord inferred, than of, “Hey, Mothra’s a pest, but she’s our pest!”

Min (who occasionally delights me with what I take to be Pogo-isms such as “mebbe” and “prolly”) and fnord make excellent points about how ill-conceived the shock-treatment gizmo is, e.g., why does it go up to 3,000 volts when 500 is supposedly fatal? But as for how Malness & Co. knew how to use it, I took it that the assassins were simply eavesdropping while waiting outside, and thus heard Tsukamoto’s explanation.

 

Addendum:  Steve Ryfle, whose 1998 book Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G” (presumably so titled to avoid the wrath of the notoriously litigious Toho) was invaluable in my research, has now written Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, which he will discuss and autograph at New York’s Japan Society at 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, February 21.  Since it is moderated by Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at the incomparable Film Forum, and the reception to follow will feature a display of rare Godzillabilia, the event is sure to be memorable.  The society is also showing the original Japanese version of Godzilla on Friday, February 2, at 7:00 P.M.; special thanks to Colon-san for alerting me to these events.

 

To be continued.

On December 20, Madame BOF and I finally took formal residence at our new house in Newtown after 19 years in Bethel, a mere five days before we were compelled to host a dozen adult guests—plus one baby—for Christmas, and almost nine months since we’d closed on the place back in March. The refurbishment and the relocation of our possessions are far from over even now, while the Yuletide gathering was understandably not without its hiccups, but all things considered, it went pretty smoothly, with everyone appearing to have a good time, and with the holiday madness waning at last, we are actually starting to settle in and remember why we loved the house enough to buy it. My pride and joy is, naturlich, the finished basement boasting two walls with built-in shelves (holding DVDs, laserdiscs, videotapes, hardcovers, and trade paperbacks), two walls now lined with freestanding bookcases (holding mass-market paperbacks) and, in the midst of the latter, the lesser of our two widescreen TVs, strategically placed opposite my exercise bike so that, while riding, I am literally surrounded by books and movies.

How’s that for a nexus of film and literature!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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