Posts Tagged ‘Toho’

Concluding our look at genre films on New York’s three independent stations (WNEW, WPIX, and WOR) during my youth.

With its crudely animated but absolutely unforgettable six-fingered-hand title sequence, WPIX’s Chiller Theatre competed with WNEW’s Creature Features, although I don’t think they overlapped 100%; as I recall, Chiller started at 8:00, and I faced a crisis of conscience every Saturday at 8:30:  stay on channel 11 or, more often, switch to 5?  Two films I’m pretty sure I remember seeing on there were Mario Bava’s What (which I always imagined giving rise to any number of who’s-on-first jokes along the lines of, “You saw What?”) and The Crawling Eye, although the latter appears to have migrated to WOR at some point.  In fact, WPIX was an excellent source for Bava’s early works—Black Sabbath, Black Sunday, The Evil Eye—some of them still in glorious black and white.

WPIX showed the fewest genre films of the three and, perhaps as a result, seemed to have the least clearly defined identity in that capacity, despite the presence of a number of heavyweights.  Toho, for example, was well represented with Godzilla, King of the Monsters and several of its sequels, as well as Atragon and The Mysterians.  My records also indicate a boatload of Hammer films (The Brides of Dracula, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, The Curse of the Werewolf, Demons of the Mind, The Devil’s Bride, Fear in the Night, Five Million Years to Earth, The Nanny, The Phantom of the Opera, Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile, Taste the Blood of Dracula), although I think many of those only debuted on WPIX in later years.

The Anglo-American oeuvre of producer Herman Cohen (Horrors of the Black Museum, How to Make a Monster, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Konga) straddled the Atlantic, while British-born Harry Alan Towers was an early master of international co-productions such as Against All Odds, The Brides of Fu Manchu, and Circus of Fear.  WPIX also offered films produced by Italy (Castle of the Living Dead, The Cat o’Nine Tails, Snow Devils), Spain (Cauldron of Blood, Dr. Orloff’s Monster, Graveyard of Horror), or both (Horror, Terror in the Crypt).  Sid Pink shot Journey to the Seventh Planet and Reptilicus in Denmark, while Gammera the Invincible and its sequels demonstrated that Toho did not have an exclusive on the kaiju eiga (giant monster) subgenre.

Last but not least, WOR was notable in a number of ways, including sheer quantity, with about as many genre offerings as the other two put together, a steady stream of which appeared on Fright Night and their Saturday-afternoon Science Fiction Theater.  The former aired at 1:00 on Saturday night or Sunday morning, depending on your point of view, and was all too often joined “already in progress”—to my intense and enduring rage—due to sports (mostly Mets games, as I recall).  They also showed plenty of movies during the week, and their library included such BOF favorites as Colossus: The Forbin Project, Count Dracula, The Day of the Triffids, Horror Hotel, The Last Man on Earth, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Psycho, The Thing, and Village of the Damned.

WOR had a lock on the Universal classics from Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and their many sequels to Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (the screenwriting debut of You-Know-Who) and the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy.  They also showcased Bela Lugosi’s work for lesser studios in The Ape Man, The Devil Bat, The Invisible Ghost, Scared to Death, Voodoo Man, White Zombie, and Zombies on Broadway.  And WOR’s parent company owned RKO, ensuring Thanksgiving Day screenings of King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young, as well as access to the Val Lewton canon (The Body Snatcher, Cat People, The Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, Isle of the Dead).

The early black-and-white work of master stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, It Came from Beneath the Sea, 20 Million Miles to Earth) and Bava’s later work in color (Baron Blood, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Lisa and the Devil) both aired on WOR.  So did that of Paul Naschy, the “Spanish Christopher Lee,” who starred in Assignment Terror, The Fury of the Wolfman, Horror Rises from the Tomb, The Mummy’s Revenge, and Night of the Howling Beast.  Further cementing the station’s international credentials, it showcased a myriad of offerings from Toho, including The Human Vapor, King Kong Escapes, The Last War, Varan the Unbelievable, Yog—Monster from Space, and innumerable entries in their long-running Godzilla series.

Globally, in fact, WOR had no peer, with genre films from Germany (Creature with the Blue Hand), Italy (Battle of the Worlds, The Cursed Medallion, Lightning Bolt, Mission Stardust, The Murder Clinic, Next!, Screamers, The Secret of Dorian Gray, The She-Beast, War of the Planets, Yeti), Japan (The Evil Brain from Outer Space), Mexico (Attack of the Mayan Mummy, The Brainiac, The Curse of the Doll People, The Curse of the Stone Hand), the Philippines (Beast of the Dead, The Island of Living Horror, Tomb of the Living Dead, Vampire People), and Spain (A Bell from Hell, Fangs of the Living Dead, Horror Express, The House That Screamed, Marta, Murder Mansion, Night of the Sorcerers, Ship of Zombies, Witches Mountain).

Domestic output was hardly overlooked, including 1950s SF epics from producer George Pal (Conquest of Space, When Worlds Collide).  AIP cut a wide swath with films by Roger Corman (Creature from the Haunted Sea, Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World, Teenage Caveman), Bert I. Gordon (Beginning of the End, War of the Colossal Beast), Herman Cohen (I Was a Teenage Werewolf), and Edward L. Cahn (Invasion of the Saucer Men).  Meanwhile, the mother country weighed in with smatterings from both Hammer (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Revenge of Frankenstein) and Amicus (Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., The Terrornauts, Torture Garden, The Mind of Mr. Soames).

But quantity does not always equate with quality, and another of WOR’s hallmarks was its high sleaze factor, which made me envision their headquarters as some squalid den of iniquity.  They featured bottom-of-the-barrel films by Al Adamson (Beyond the Living, The Creature’s Revenge, Man with the Synthetic Brain, Vampire Men of the Lost Planet), Larry Buchanan (Curse of the Swamp Creature, The Eye Creatures, In the Year 2889), and Del Tenney (Zombies).  And there were a few entries whose memories still give me the willies with their gore, grim atmospheres and/or grimy milieuxChildren Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Don’t Look in the Basement, The House of the Seven Corpses, Kiss of the Tarantula, and Silent Night, Bloody Night.

Read Full Post »

Ishirô Honda

On the occasion of his 99th birthday, we revisit this profile written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.

Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who oversaw the SF films produced by Toho Co., Ltd., for four decades, and director Ishirô (aka Inoshirô) Honda (1911-93) were two of the most consistent creative forces behind the kaiju eiga (giant monster) genre. Honda joined PCL Studios—later to be absorbed by Toho—in 1933, and rose through the ranks from cameraman to assistant director.

In that capacity, Honda often worked alongside rising star Akira Kurosawa, and went on to assist his friend, Japan’s most celebrated director, on Nora Inu (Stray Dog, 1949) and others. He alternated filmmaking with eight years of military service, including a period as a prisoner of war in China, and made his feature-film directorial debut with Aoi Shinju (The Blue Pearl, 1951).

Honda formed a talented troika with Tanaka and special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya on such early efforts as Minato e Kita Otoko (aka The Man Who Came to Port, 1952) and Saraba Rabaura (Farewell Rabaul, 1954). Along with composer Akira Ifukube and several key writers, this became the creative team that would stun the world with Gojira (Godzilla, 1954) and its ilk.

Having visited the ruins of Hiroshima in 1946, Honda evoked those memories in scenes of mass destruction by Godzilla, a mutated dinosaur that—significantly—levels Tokyo with his radioactive breath. A far cry from some of the more colorful sequels, the original was somber in tone and shot in black and white, co-starring Kurosawa mainstay Takashi Shimura as a scientist.

Gojira’s magnificent score by Ifukube introduced a theme that would be used throughout the series, and it featured soon-to-be kaiju regulars Akira Takarada and Akihiko Hirata. As with many Toho films, it was dubbed, retitled, and extensively recut, interpolating scenes of Raymond Burr for American appeal, when it was released here as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956.

Jû Jin Yuki Otoko (Beast Man Snow Man, 1955) underwent a similar fate, butchered and released in the U.S. as Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman (1957), with scenes featuring genre stalwarts John Carradine and Morris Ankrum. Like Gojira, the original starred Takarada and Momoko Kôchi, and was scripted by Takeo Murata from Shigeru Kayama’s story.

Honda and Murata began building a stable of kaiju “stars” with the titular pteranodon in Sora no Daikaijû Radon (Rodan, Monster from the Sky, 1956). Murata’s co-scripter, Takeshi Kimura (who began using the pseudonym of Kaoru Mabuchi in 1965), had worked with Honda on Saraba Rabaura, and they would eventually collaborate on ten SF films, kaiju and otherwise.

Chikyu Boeigun (Earth Defense Force, aka The Mysterians, 1957) substituted Mogera, a giant robot used by alien invaders—and added at Tanaka’s insistence—for the giant monster. Its cast included Shimura and other Gojira veterans (one of whom, Kenji Sahara, rose from his brief debut therein to leading roles in Rodan and more than a dozen kaiju entries over half a century).

Radiation resulted in another kind of monster in Bijo to Ekitainingen (aka The H-Man, 1958), as the crew of a ship that passed through an H-bomb test site became blobs and dissolved their prey. Having liquefied men in The H-Man, Honda later turned Yoshio Tsuchiya gaseous in Gasu Ningen dai Ichigo (aka The Human Vapor, 1960), courtesy of an odd scientific experiment.

The forgettable Daikaijû Baran (The Great Monster Baran, 1958) marked the genre debut of screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, who traded off kaiju scripting chores with Kimura. Subjected to more than the usual share of editing indignities—including an American star of strikingly low wattage, Myron Healey—it was belatedly released in the U.S. as Varan the Unbelievable (1962).

Uchu Daisenso (aka Battle in Outer Space, 1959) and Yosei Gorasu (aka Gorath, 1962) bore a resemblance to Antonio Margheriti’s roughly contemporaneous Italian space operas. The former featured astronauts battling alien saucers, while the latter concerned a runaway star on a collision course with Earth, plus a scene of a giant prehistoric walrus, Magma, added per Tanaka and then deleted in the U.S.

Sekizawa’s first major contribution to the Toho roster, Mosura (Mothra, 1961), appeared in both larval and winged forms, and attacked only to rescue tiny twin fairy princesses played by “The Peanuts,” singers Emi and Yûmi Ito. Kidnapped by an evil entrepreneur, they summon the giant moth from their native island with a catchy Ifukube melody heard in several of the sequels.

Motoyoshi Oda’s Gojira no Gyakushû (Godzilla’s Counterattack, aka Gigantis the Fire Monster, 1955) had introduced a minor creation, the spined dinosaur Angilas. Honda returned to direct the next four sequels, and for the first time Toho went outside its own mythology in Kingu Kongu tai Gojira (King Kong vs. Godzilla, 1962), as the two titans duked it out atop Mount Fuji.

Although undeniably exploitative, the U.S. title Attack of the Mushroom People was not inaccurate for Matango (1963), in which castaways consumed fungi with a transformative effect. Kaitei Gunkan (aka Atragon, 1963) concerned a Captain Nemo-esque scientist (Jun Tazaki) and his “flying supersub,” Atragon, with a brief appearance by a serpentine underwater beast, Manda.

Toho began matching up its major “stars” in Mosura tai Gojira (Mothra vs. Godzilla, aka Godzilla vs. the Thing, 1964), marking the last time in Godzilla’s classic period that he would be depicted as a menace. From then on, the havoc he wreaked would be more or less for the benefit of humankind as he defended the Earth from an increasingly bizarre array of aliens and monsters.

Honda varied his output with jewel thieves and a tentacled blob in Uchu Daikaijû Dogora (Dagora, the Space Monster, 1964). An odd mix of East and West, Furankenshutain tai Chitei Kaijû Baragon (aka Frankenstein Conquers the World, 1965) pitted a behemoth that grew from the Frankenstein Monster’s heart, irradiated in the Hiroshima blast, against the reptile Baragon.

In the interim, Honda and Sekizawa had provided Godzilla with his most enduring and formidable foe in San Daikaijû: Chikyu Saidai no Kessen (Earth’s Greatest Battle, 1964). Like the U.S. and Japan, former combatants became allies when Godzilla and Mothra teamed up with Rodan against Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, as King Ghidorah was initially known here.

Another important addition, Ifukube’s theme “Monsters Appear in Yokohama,” was used in the climactic battle of almost every Godzilla film from then on. Godzilla and Rodan, this time sans Monthra, were briefly controlled by evil aliens from Planet X in Kaijû Daisenso (The Giant Monster War, aka Monster Zero, 1965) before returning to their senses to tackle Ghidorah again.

War of the Gargantuas, the U.S. version of Furankenshutain no Kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira (Frankenstein Monsters: Sanda vs. Gaira, 1966), omitted the fact that the gargantuas grew out of tissue severed from “Frankenstein.” In a more overt follow-up, Toho’s Kong met a robot carbon copy in Kingukongu no Gyakushu (King Kong’s Counterattack, aka King Kong Escapes, 1967).

By now, Toho was casting American actors directly, rather than having them shoehorned in by U.S. distributors. Nick Adams starred in Monster Zero and the first Furankenshutain film, with Russ Tamblyn in the sequel, all co-produced by America’s Henry G. Saperstein, while King Kong Escapes was a spin-off of the Rankin/Bass cartoon King Kong, and starred Rhodes Reason.

Jun Fukuda directed Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no Daiketto (Big Duel in the South Sea, aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, 1966)—a highlight of the series, in this iconoclastic writer’s opinion—and Kaijûtô no Kessen: Gojira no Musuko (Monster Island’s Decisive Battle: Son of Godzilla, 1967). The mother of the latter’s overly cute offspring, Minya, remains a mystery, but he bears little paternal resemblance.

Honda returned to pull out all the stops with Kaijû Sôshingeki (All Monsters Attack, aka Destroy All Monsters, 1968), which opens with Toho’s kaiju stable conveniently centralized on Monster Island. As in Monster Zero, they are unleashed against humankind by yet another alien race, the Kilaaks, until the fiendish control is ended and they retaliate against Ghidorah en masse.

Spectacular scenes of destruction in the world’s major cities involved Godzilla, Rodan, a larval Mothra, Manda, Minya, Angilas, Gorosaurus (from King Kong Escapes), Baragon, Spiga (aka Kumonga, a giant spider from Son of Godzilla) and—in the briefest of fly-ons—Varan. The film also boasted one of Ifukube’s best scores and a cast of kaiju veterans headed by Akira Kubo.

In another co-production, Ido Zero Daisakusen (aka Latitude Zero, 1969), Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero fought for the fate of an undersea city. A low budget and Tsuburaya’s failing health forced Honda to use stock footage in Gojira-Minira-Gabara: Oru Kaijû Daishingeki (aka Godzilla’s Revenge, 1969), a fantasy in which Minya helps a lonely latchkey kid cope with life.

Toho’s first kaiju produced after Tsuburaya’s death, Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no Daikaijû (aka Yog: Monster from Space, 1970) is a lackluster affair about alien spores that inhabit and enlarge a variety of fauna. Along with several other cast and crew members who had long worked in the genre, Honda then took a hiatus, working mainly in television until 1975.

Following Yoshimitsu Banno’s Gojira tai Hedorâ (Godzilla vs. Hedorah, aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, 1971), Jun Fukuda presided over the nadir of the series. Gojira tai Gigan (Godzilla vs. Gigan, 1972), …Megaro (…Megalon, 1973), and …Mekagojira (…Mechagodzilla, 1974) were little more than wrestling matches, with tag teams in unusually outlandish costumes.

Honda ended the first cycle of Godzilla films with Mekagojira no Gyakushu (aka Terror of Mechagodzilla, 1975), but remained active in the industry until the end of his life. He worked on Kurosawa’s five final films—Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), Dreams (1990), Rhapsody in August (1991), and Madadoyo (1993)—in a wide variety of credited and uncredited capacities.

Read Full Post »