by Steve Habrat
In 1954, Japanese production company Toho Studios sparked a giant monster craze with their brooding epic Godzilla. While there was plenty of emphasis on stomping and smashing, Godzilla also took time to focus on a likable group of a characters, and dared to reflect upon a nation still coming to terms with the devastation of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the Kaiju craze in full effect, Toho quickly got busy working on a follow-up to Godzilla. Replacing original director Ishiro Honda with Motoyoshi Oda, Toho’s Godzilla Raids Again was a step backwards for the radioactive beast, as a good majority of the film was interested in cheap cardboard destruction and monster-on-monster brawls that resembled an unintentionally hilarious slapping match. Godzilla Raids Again was a success for Toho, but reaction from audiences and critics was far from positive, sending Godzilla off on an extended hiatus. Despite Godzilla showing signs of fatigue, Toho was still busy cooking up another beast of the Atomic Age. In 1956, audiences were introduced to Rodan, the first color effort from Toho Studios. At an hour and fifteen minutes, the short-but-sweet Rodan is an aerial thrill ride that still shudders over thoughts of the bomb, but also taps into the UFO paranoia sweeping across the globe.
Rodan picks up in a small mining community of Kitamatsu, where two miners, Yoshi and Goro, have recently gone missing after a freak flood. When a rescue party led by Shigeru Kwamura (played by Kenji Sahara) begins searching the mineshafts, they discover Yoshi, barely clinging to life after apparently being slashed by an extremely sharp object. With no signs of Goro anywhere inside the mine, the local authorities believe he may have had something to do with Yoshi’s injuries. Believing Goro is on the run, authorities are placed around entrances and exits of the mine, but it doesn’t take long for several more men to turn up with the same injuries as Yoshi. One evening, Shigeru visits Kiyo (played by Yumi Shirakawa), Goro’s grief-stricken sister, in an attempt to console her about the accusations aimed at her brother. During the meeting, Shigeru and Kiyo are suddenly and viciously attacked by a giant larva-like creature called a Meganulon. Local authorities arrive just in time to scare the creature off, and they pursue it back to the mines where it is revealed that there are countless more of the creatures. While the locals scramble to kill off the Meganulon, another threat quickly reveals itself in the form of Rodan, an enormous winged pteranodon that can fly at breakneck speeds and is capable of massive amounts of destruction.
Of the three major Kaiju films released by Toho between 1954 and 1956, Rodan is the effort with the least amount of character development. It doesn’t boast the rich love triangle that we clung to in Godzilla, and it doesn’t feature the complex buddy formula that kept Godzilla Raids Again from being a total disaster. While you’d think the light approach to the characters would set Rodan up for failure, director Ishiro Honda makes sure to keep the adrenaline flowing. It’s a non-stop rush of excitement that refuses to let up. The aerial battle between JASDF and Rodan are all appropriately high-octane, even if there are a few instances where the dated special effects take you out of the action. Where Rodan really shines is in the final stretch of the film, where the winged behemoth hovers over Fukuoka and levels buildings with each flap of its wings. The detailed miniature work in this sequence is undeniably remarkable as buildings crumble into dust, cars roll through the streets, and debris tumbles down into a waiting river. While this sequence features quite a bit to admire, Honda is also capable of infusing these sequences of destruction with a goosebump-inducing shiver that works its way up and down your spine. It may lack the darkened, air raid-like attacks in the original Godzilla, but the whistling fallout wind kicked up by the monster’s wings is evocative enough to make your arm hair stand on end.
There is no denying that the epic levels of destruction keep the film’s entertainment level high, but the main attraction of any Toho Kaiju film are the monstrous abominations that kick up the mayhem. After the addition of the somewhat dull Anguirus in Godzilla Raids Again, Toho redeems themselves with not one, but two Rodans and an army of shrieking and slithering Meganulon. Predating the enormous caterpillar that wormed its way through Mothra, the Meganulon are bug-eyed monstrosities that emit ear-piercing calls and attack with a flesh-tearing savagery that really makes up for their cartoonish appearance. While the Meganulon’s are a fun little appetizer, the main course are the Rodans that glide mightily through the skies. With their leathery wings, pointed beaks, and sleek horns that protrude from their heads, the Rodans are a spooky addition to Toho’s famous line of monsters. What makes them even creepier are what they are meant to reflect. Much like Godzilla was created as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, Rodan was created in response to the UFO paranoia of the 1950s. From a distance, the Rodans resemble an unidentified flying object darting through the clouds, as skittish jet pilots frantically try to make sense of what they are seeing. In the middle of the film, a montage of scenes featuring terrified Japanese citizens staring towards the sky and pointing in awe are smartly tuned in to the reports of saucer-like objects descending from the heavens and quietly revealing themselves. When Rodan lands in the middle of a city and begins a reign of terror, the famed Kaiju seems to take the baton from Godzilla and subtly mirrors the fear of the H-bomb.
While Rodan finds Toho getting their Kaiju line back on the right track, the film isn’t without a few flaws. Some of the scenes of Rodan gliding over the heads of curious civilians are simply stock footage filler of jets leaving contrails in the bright blue sky. With all the time and money clearly put into the film, you’d think that Honda would have refused the distracting stock footage contrails for something a bit more inventive and eye-catching. Another complaint would have to be the final minutes of the film, which are essentially a montage of explosions and rockets being fired into a volcano. It becomes increasingly clear that this fiery sequence is Honda’s way of filling out the runtime of the film. However, the explosions fail to turn our empathy for the suffering Rodans to ash, and it does send you away feeling sorry for the poor creatures despite the amount of death and destruction they brought in their wake. Overall, the colorful Rodan may not be quite as somber as the original Godzilla, but the pop art action and the thoughtfulness put into the script makes this one of the more terrifying monster movies to emerge from the mushroom cloud. A minor Kaiju classic!
Rodan is available on DVD.
Ghoulish Guests: John LaRue’s Five Favorite Movie Monsters
If you watch enough horror, eventually you start to realize that a monster isn’t just a monster. The supernatural is always a conduit for something completely natural in the real world, something still terrifying but blown into monstrous proportions by screenwriters, directors, make up geniuses, and special effects mavens. When Steve asked me to put together a list of my five favorite monsters, he surely didn’t realize he’d be getting a list straight from Durkheim or Foucault. But there you have it. Here are my five favorite movie monsters, and their contextual sociological meaning.
5. George Romero’s Zombies
The zombie genre has been overrun with a lot of brain-dead films. But at their very best, zombies are a wonderful vehicle for social commentary. Of course, sometimes this can be used in outrageous and embarrassing ways (see: White Zombie, 1932, and its interpretation of tribal culture). For George Romero in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, zombies reached their apex of sociological meaning. Granted, it isn’t subtle but that’s not the point. Its lack of subtlety endows the film with gobs of humor as Romero mercilessly skewers 20th century America and its suburbanized mass-consumer culture. The timing was perfect, coming just as the baby boomer generation was departing the free-wheeling, rebellious hippie era and entering the United States of Reagan. With one brilliant decision- placing his film in a mall- Romero asks his generational cohorts, “What happened to you guys, man? You used to be cool.” Lousy yuppies.
The original Gojira (1954), and really all of the classic radioactive monsters cooked up by Toho Studios, are Sociology 101. In the post-World War II film world, Italy nurtured neo-realism to illustrate that, despite their involvement with Hitler, they too suffered on the homefront. The French fixated on the horrors of the war. However, in Japan, something else was brewing. Because of the atomic bomb, they took on real life horrors that no other civilization had ever witnessed. If ever a situation needed to be shrouded in metaphor before reaching the big screen, it was Japan in the post-World War II era. Enter Godzilla, a radioactive monster who arrives from the sea, then cuts a swath of destruction that includes several islands, the navy, and finally reaches the mainland. In other words, Godzilla was the US military, and the radioactive pollution is tied directly to it. Godzilla and the Monsters (which sounds like a band name created by Gary King) were a brilliant snapshot of exactly what terrified Japan in the 1950s.
3. Frankenstein’s Monster
What I find fascinating about the cinematic Frankenstein’s monster is that he has strong roots in at least two other places. The first and most obvious is Mary Shelley’s novel, which the film borrows from thematically quite a bit. The second is the classic Jewish golem. Both involve taking inanimate matter and re-animating it into new life. And in both instances, the new life wreaks havoc, most notably on the maker. The only major step from golem to Frankenstein’s monster is the involvement of science- in particular, the science of cutting open corpses and seeing how they tick in the 19th century- with just a dash of a God complex.
Both of those concepts were absolutely horrifying to people from the 19th century on into the early 20th century when James Whale brought the monster to life on the big screen. It resonated especially in America, a very devout Christian country whose moral sensibilities would rock to their very foundation at the notion of a mad scientist playing God. And tying medical science into the equation doubles down on fears of the era. While medical science had progressed reasonably well in the 18th and 19th centuries, it wasn’t until doctors started opening up bodies and using corpses that real progress was made. To the average schmoe on the street in the late 19th and early 20th century, this is a horrific concept- taking a loved one and ripping apart their entire earthly being for corporeal knowledge. “MEDICAL SCIENCE IS ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE! AND NOW IT’S GOING TO DESTROY US ALL!!!”
2. Japanese Ghosts
Ok, ok… a ghost isn’t a monster, per se. But it’s still a fun and scary enough concept to make someone go boom boom in their britches. The beauty of the Japanese ghost story is how deeply rooted it is in Japanese culture. Unlike Godzilla and the radioactive monsters, there was no natural disaster that created the folklore of Japanese ghosts. No, these supernatural beings are actually quite natural. They’re tied to the importance of family in Japan. Traditionally, Japanese families are protected by their deceased ancestors as part of a social bargain. The living family gives the deceased a proper burial, with proper funereal rites, and the deceased return to keep harm away from their living ancestors. If the dead aren’t given a proper burial, however, or if they die violently, all hell breaks loose.
As you can see, this process leaves a massive chasm open for ghosts in Japanese culture. They can be protectors, they can be harbingers of doom, and they can wreak havoc. And the entire theme is tied to something that every family deals with quite regularly. Everyone dies (not just in Japan, but everywhere, except for maybe Batman), and everyone must face the mortality of their family members at some point. It makes the whole concept enormously relatable. Since the Japanese have been perpetuating this mythos for centuries, they understand the entire ghost genre better than anyone. There’s a reason that 95% of the Japanese ghosts you’ve seen wear white and have jet black hair. It’s a practice that goes back centuries, and has continued on through classic Japanese ghost films like Kwaidan (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) and even on to modern films like Ju-On (2002).
1. The Wolf Man (and werewolves in general)
I could write for days about the genius of The Wolf Man (1941). The entire film was allegorical for the Nazi regime. It was written by Curt Siodmak, a Jew exiled from Germany during the rise of the Nazi state. Thematically, it’s all about the way that his seemingly normal German neighbors and friends turned on him almost overnight. They were completely normal when the sun was up. But on the full moon, they turned hideous, seeking to destroy whoever bore the “mark of the beast.” It just so happens that the “mark of the beast” in Siodmak’s film was a pentagram, purposely designed to look like the star of David that marked Jews in Germany during the era.
Digging deeper, it’s biblical. It’s about faulty genes. It’s about the sins of the father, and his father before that, and his father before that, being visited upon the sons. Go another level down and you’ve got the heart of why I love werewolf films in general. They’re metaphors for transformation, for finding the deep, dark, terrifying parts of our own souls that we didn’t even know existed. These aren’t just monsters. They’re humans, wrestling with the better angels of their nature and ultimately losing in appalling ways. In Wolf (1994), it’s the depths that he’ll go for survival and success. In Ginger Snaps (2000) and quite a few others, it’s the shocking journey through puberty into adulthood. It’s a delicious built-in character arc that makes the characters more enticing to us, the viewer… and ultimately reminds us that the scariest thing out there is the damage that we can cause all by ourselves.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
by Steve Habrat
After passing on directing duties for the 1955 Godzilla follow-up Godzilla Raids Again, director Ishiro Honda was reunited with his radioactive beast on the 1962 monster-against-monster epic King Kong vs. Godzilla. With Honda returning to the director’s chair, you’d think that sparks would fly as these two legendary names squared off against each other, but that certainly isn’t the case with King Kong vs. Godzilla. The third entry into the Godzilla franchise was probably the worst of the Toho Studios bunch at that point, but the film went on to be a megahit anyway. In America, King Kong vs. Godzilla was picked up by monster movie juggernaut Universal Studios, who further drove the film into the ground with distracting commentary sequences, horrible dubbing, inane dialogue, and even reused the bone chilling score from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The horror doesn’t stop there, folks, as King Kong vs. Godzilla ends up being a shoddy horror outing plagued by overacting and an outrageously awful portrayal of Kong, a monster who simultaneously scared us out of our wits and earned our sympathy in his 1933 debut King Kong.
King Kong vs. Godzilla begins with the chairman of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, Mr. Tako (played by Ichiro Arishima), trying to figure out how to market an exotic berry that was just discovered on Faro Island. Mr. Tako soon learns that Faro Island is the home of the legendary monster King Kong, a beast that he believes would make a great face for his new product. Mr. Tako sends two explorers, Osamu Sakurai (played by Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo Furue (played by Yu Fujiki), to track the giant ape down and capture it. Meanwhile, an American submarine studying bizarre oceanic conditions gets trapped in the same iceberg that the Japanese government buried Godzilla in several years earlier. Just as help arrives, Godzilla breaks free from the iceberg and stomps off. On Faro Island, Sakurai and Furue manage to make their way past the natives and an array of exotic creature and track down King Kong. The duo captures the beast and secures him on a raft for transport to Japan. Along the way, Kong manages to break loose and head off to find Godzilla, who turns out to be his ultimate rival.
A disjointed mess from the get-go, King Kong vs. Godzilla does away with the dark atmosphere of the first two films and reintroduces these two titans of terror in glorious color. The color certainly does give the film plenty of personality, but also reveals the tackiness of the special effects. There are moments when superimposed natives or soldiers actually glow blue as they dart around and scream at the feet of the rubber monsters. The once spectacular miniature sets are now cardboard metropolises with glaringly obvious remote-controlled plastic cars and shiny train sets. Honda was able to conceal some of the cheesier moments in Godzilla because he plunged everything into moody darkness, but here, everything is presented to the viewer in broad daylight, which reveals all the screws, tape, and glue. They make you long for the days when Japanese officials ordered a black out as the radioactive Godzilla lumbered through the builds and spat a jet of fire down on the terrified citizens in crisp black and white. The rural sets fare much better than the city sequences, but these moments are marred by the two worst performances from men in rubber suits that you may ever see.
First, let’s discuss Godzilla. As it turns out, Godzilla’s slightly redesigned costume here is the one that his diehard fans adore the most. While the changes are minor (Godzilla has three toes here rather than four, he is a bit bulkier, and the eyes appear to be a bit bigger), the costume looks relatively the same. He still looks fierce with those giant fins on his back that glow white when he gets ready to unleash his fiery stream. The problem is the person inside the suit, who just swings their arms around and does something resembling a dance when he confronts his ape nemesis. Kong’s costume is the real eyesore of the two beasts, mostly because it looks like a cheapie Halloween costume that the filmmakers picked up at a grocery store. The Kong mask looks like a misshapen blob that has been used for a painting palette and the costume itself looks like an early gorilla suit that was dug out of one of the crew member’s attic. It is also clear that when Kong pounds his chest, the actor is wearing fake hands to give the illusion of longer arms. It is like a sick joke when held up next to the original stop-motion Kong, who was a hell of a lot more menacing than anything we see here. Just when you think that Honda can’t desecrate the Kong character anymore, he then informs us that Kong uses lightning to strengthen him up. Um, what?!
As far as the showdowns go between the two beasts, nothing really stands out as being particularly entertaining or exciting. It is largely like the battle you saw in Godzilla Raids Again, just sillier, shorter and in color. The first time the two beasts actually stare each other down, Kong throws boulders at Godzilla and Godzilla swings his arms around like he is trying to fly away. Perhaps the neatest action sequence of the whole film is the scene in which Kong battles a giant squid on Faro Island. It has some slimy special effects and some icky sound work that will pucker your face. As far as our human characters go, no one does anything remarkable with their character. Arishima just looks dumbfounded behind giant glasses and Takashima and Fujiki are there simply to add unfunny comic relief to the playtime action. Mie Hama also drops by as Sakurai’s sister, Fumiko, who is here as a stand-in for the original King Kong’s Fay Wray. Overall, while it may have seemed like a good idea to try to bring together the two biggest names (literally) in horror, King Kong vs. Godzilla is an empty-headed clash of two titans who mix like oil and water. Honda never hits a stride and his Americanized vision is tarnished even further with unnecessary additions. Godzilla should have stayed frozen and Kong should have remained on Faro Island.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is available on DVD.
Pacific Rim (2013)
by Steve Habrat
These days, it is extremely difficult and rare for a major Hollywood studio to take a creative risk, especially during the hot and humid summer months when audiences turn out in droves. The suits fall back on time-tested franchises, overdone remakes, comic book heroes with built-in audiences, and winded sequels that guarantee them a major worldwide hit. Take this summer, for example, as we have seen another Marvel megahit with Iron Man 3, a grim reboot of the Man of Steel, two familiar animated sequels (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2), a Brad Pitt led zombie blockbuster based off of a wildly popular novel by Max Brooks (World War Z), and another installment in the Star Trek series. While I have enjoyed all of the films I’ve pointed out here, I’ve still craved something fresh and creatively stimulating. Enter Guillermo del Toro, a man with a vivid imagination and a knack for serving up some seriously zesty cinematic efforts, both big (Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and small (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth). After a lengthy hiatus from the director’s chair, we finally have a new summer blockbuster from del Toro and that film is the astonishing giant monster-giant robot mash-up Pacific Rim, a pulpy blast of rainbow science fiction that is exactly what the cinema doctor ordered. Seconds, please!
Pacific Rim begins by explaining that giant monsters known as “Kaiju” have crawled out of a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean and stomped into our cities. Unable to bring them down with the weapons we already have, the world develops a new weapon called “Jaegers,” which are giant robots capable of tossing around the raging “Kaiju.” After several exhausting years of battle, the “Jaegers” grow less and less effective in keeping the “Kaiju” at bay. The united governments of Earth grow weary of the giant robots and they decide to cut funding for their construction. The remaining “Jaegers” are shipped off to Hong Kong, where they are left to rust away and fade from memory. The remaining “Jaeger” program is left to Commander Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba), who is determined to keep the “Jaegers” fighting the good fight. Stacker approaches washed-up “Jaeger” pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charile Hunnam), who piloted the American “Jaeger” Gipsy Danger but quit when he watched his brother die in combat, about rejoining the program in a final attempt to prevent the imminent apocalypse. Raleigh agrees and begins training to find a suitable co-pilot, which he finds in the scrappy “Jaeger” test pilot Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Meanwhile, bickering scientists Dr. Newton Geizler (played by Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (played by Burn Gorman) have assembled a machine that allows them to establish a mental link with the “Kaiju” and discovered that the giant monsters are in fact genetically-bred weapons sent to wipe out the human race so that their masters can colonize the planet.
While many will be quick to label Pacific Rim as a Transformers wannabe, the film has so much more to offer than one of those Michael Bay abominations. This candy-colored gem is an exhilarating ode to Toho Co., the Japanese production company that is responsible for releasing giant monster movies (called “kaiju” movies, which is Japanese for “giant monster”) like 1954s Godzilla. While Pacific Rim certainly tips its hat to Godzilla and his family of rampaging atomic beasts (Rodan, Mothra, etc.), del Toro’s vision is something completely singular. The story line is carried by the myriad of colorful characters, which consistently stand apart from the astonishing special effects and towering action sequences that are loud enough to wake up the two people sleeping through The Lone Ranger in the neighboring theater. In the vein of Toho, the action is relentless, especially the neon fist-fight between a handful of “Jaegers” and a couple of seriously nasty “Kaiju” in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. It’s a rock ‘em-sock ‘em moment of pure adrenaline ecstasy that will have adults and children cheering in delight. But the thrills don’t stop there, as del Toro keeps uping the ante and powering up his beasts for a show-stopping underwater brawl boosted by a nuclear fizz.
While the heavy metal CGI action is a must-see, Pacific Rim is a very human film and one brimming with performances that will beckon you back for more. Del Toro proves that you don’t necessarily need a Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Depp in the thick of the action to keep the audience absorbed in what is playing out before them. All you need is colorfully drawn characters with fragile emotion tucked delicately inside the layered armor. The relatively unknown Hunnam is out for blood as Raleigh, and I mean that in the best possible way. He is the all-American good guy—one that is nursing deep wounds but is eager to deliver a one-two hit to the massive monsters that wade through the Pacific. His chemistry is exceptional with Kikuchi, who isn’t the same old love interest (It is hinted at but never addressed outright. Perhaps in the sequel.). Kikuchi is heartwarming as the girl with a shy crush, but she is a lightning bolt of vengeance when we are allowed to glimpse inside her broken heart. These two animated leads are kept on a short leash by Elba’s no-nonsense father figure, who pops pills for a life-threatening illness and delivers pulse-pounding speeches about meeting the “monsters that are at our door” and “canceling the apocalypse.”
While our three leads do an incredible job, the supporting players are certainly something to behold. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day is a quirky and fun choice as the tattooed “Kaiju” scientist Newton, who rambles and shakes like a hipster lunatic in oversized specs. Surprisingly, he isn’t here simply to act as the comic relief, which really is a testament to his talent. Burn Gorman is great as Day’s uber-nerd partner Hermann, who pounds on a chalkboard and hobbles around like a comic book Albert Einstein with high-waisted pants and a cane. Clifton Collins Jr. is a treat as Tendo Choi, an Elvis-like greaser “Jaeger” whiz who is determined to spice up the role of the guy who simply sits behind the computer screen and acts as a guide to the heroes in the field. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are great tough guys as Hercules and Chuck Hansen, a tough-as-nails Australian father-son duo tasked with a beast of a mission. The pint-sized Mana Ashida is fantastic in her minor role as a young Mako Mori. She basically just cries and wanders around with a shoe in her hand, but she sent chills down my spine with her raw emotion. Last but certainly not least is the always-welcome Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a blinged-out black marketeer in sinister goggles who tracks down and deals “Kaiju” organs. He shares some wonderful moments with Charlie Day’s twitchy scientist.
Considering that Pacific Rim is a tribute to Atomic Age creature features, there are numerous nods to Godzilla and many other Toho releases. I certainly smiled when Hong Kong citizens were locked into an underground shelter and huddled together as “Kaiju” footsteps boomed overhead, something that called to mind the original Godzilla. There is also a sly little tribute to the flare tactic used to keep Godzilla away from a blacked out city in Godzilla Raids Again and there is a magnificent aerial moment that sung praises to Rodan and Mothra. If there is something I absolutely need to criticize, there are a few moments where the action was a bit incoherent, but these moments are few and far between. Overall, while Pacific Rim doesn’t ever get as political and poetic as those post-World War II efforts did, there is still something deeply personal about del Toro’s vision. It is coming from the heart and it is a beautifully written love letter to the monster movies that del Toro loved as a kid. This film is a labor of love, a carefully crafted summer epic that earns its action sequences and doesn’t ever forget to remain human.
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
by Steve Habrat
A year after Toho’s thunderous Godzilla took the world by storm, the Japanese production company quickly got to work on a follow up film to capitalize on the success of the first film. Director Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 sequel Godzilla Raids Again certainly isn’t interested in capturing the guilt and sorrow of a nation still reeling from the devastation of World War II and the detonation of the atomic bomb, but this “kaiju” film is one that is certainly determined to deliver a whole bunch of smashing and clashing. And deliver it does. Godzilla Raids Again is the first film in the Godzilla series to pit the legendary radioactive beast against another roaring adversary, something that would become wildly popular in Toho’s later work. While it is never as eerie as the first film and it doesn’t feature that sulking human soul, Godzilla Raids Again does succeed as a breathless action extravaganza, even if it does seem like Toho threw it together in a frenzied rush. The destruction doesn’t pack the authentic punch that it did the first time around, and the miniature destruction sequences seem drawn out to pad the runtime rather than send shivers down the spine of the drive-in audience, but boy, this sucker is a giddy rush. Let the battle begin!
Godzilla Raids Again introduces us to two pilots, Shoichi Tsukioka (played by Hiroshi Koizumi) and Koji Kobayashi (played by Minoru Chiaki), who are hunting schools of fish for a tuna cannery in Osaka. Kobayashi’s plane malfunctions, which forces him to make an emergency landing on Iwato Island, a jagged and uninhabited cluster of volcanic rocks. Tsukioka tracks down Kobayashi and finds him among the rocks, but the men make another horrific discovery. It turns out that the island is home to Godzilla, who is currently fighting with another bizarre creature. As the two creatures trade blows, they both fall into the water and disappear. Tsukioka and Kobayashi make their way back to Osaka and report what they saw to the authorities, who conclude the this new Godzilla is a second member of the same species brought back by the same hydrogen bomb tests that awoke the original Godzilla. As for the other monster, the authorities believe that it is Anguirus, a creature that has an intense rivalry with Godzilla. As the creatures bring their grudge closer to the shores of Osaka, the government orders a blackout of the city under the belief that the monsters hate light because it reminds them of the hydrogen bomb. Since neither of the monsters can be killed, the government uses flares to draw them away from the shore, but after a freak accident causes a fire, the two monsters bring their battle to the streets of Osaka.
Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla was a film that was packed plenty of splintered spectacle to marvel at, but the film had a heavy human presence and a meditative sorrow that forced the radioactive destruction to play out in the background. Honda took his time to work up to these spellbinding moments and he forced us to really identify with the terrified Japanese citizens who were convinced that they brought this horror on themselves. Godzilla Raids Again doesn’t take that same subtle approach, as the film launches head first into destruction and never looks back. It is still implied that Godzilla is a walking A-bomb, but his pounding footsteps never remind us of bombs being dropped from above. The only true form of suspense that we get in Godzilla Raids Again is the sequence in which Godzilla wanders towards the Osaka coast as flares glide over his head. It truly is a magnificent moment that brought the original film to mind. Outside of this, Oda can’t wait to have his beasts engage in their urban clash and reduce buildings to ruble. While the extended battle is zany fun, the annihilation never really makes the hair on your arm stand up and it’s not even half convincing, as it is painfully obvious that these are just two actors swatting at each other in rubber suits.
While the black out brawl in Osaka is quite a bit of fun, Godzilla Raids Again looses that fun spirit during the extended final battle that finds a stationary Godzilla battling jets that zoom over his head. This is the moment where our two fine but forgettable heroes get to do their he-man thing and sock it to the rampaging abomination. The climax is thick with an icy and vaguely apocalyptic atmosphere that certainly does get you to pay attention, but after a while, it just gets repetitive as the same hills blow up, the same rocks keep tumbling down, the same planes keep getting knocked out of the sky, and the same soldiers keep yelling the same orders, all while Godzilla just stands there and does absolutely nothing to get out of the line of fire. Why isn’t he trying to get away? Why doesn’t he charge at his foes? And do they really think that their approach to defeating him will really work? The entire climax feels like the filmmakers weren’t exactly sure how to bring this monster mash to a close, especially since their main grudge match plotline gets clipped way too early.
As far as our two main performers go, Koizumi is your typical action hero who woos a pretty girl and goes toe-to-toe with the roaring beast. He is likable enough but nothing really stands out about him, which is a shame when you think back to the complex heroes that we had in the original Godzilla. Chiaki fares better as the lovesick Kobayashi, a pudgy goofball who seems to be always coming in second place with the ladies. Together, the two men have fine chemistry and we really buy their friendship, but the film clearly isn’t framing itself around them. The only returning cast member from the original film is Takashi Shimura as Dr. Kyohei Yamane, who shows up to identify Godzilla and show a montage of Godzilla laying waste to Tokyo. Overall, while Oda’s vision may not be as clever, haunting, and poetic as Honda’s 1954 original, Godzilla Raids Again still packs hints of the atomic metaphors that loomed over the apocalyptic original. This follow up may peak a bit too early and suffer from a monotonous final confrontation, but Godzilla Raids Again still stands as a satisfying slice of creature feature drive-in escapism.
Godzilla Raids Again is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In 1954, Japanese director Ishiro Honda unleashed the grim and brooding radiation nightmare Godzilla on the world. Godzilla would go on to introduce audiences everywhere to Toho Studios, a Japanese production company that would become well known among horror and science fiction enthusiasts for their “Kaiju” (strange beast) films. While Godzilla is certainly the top monster in the long line of monster movies produced by Toho Studios, the second in command would most certainly be the 1961 effort Mothra, a splashier and sillier effort from Mr. Honda. Lacking the hypnotic appeal and haunting linger of Godzilla, Mothra is clearly the more upbeat monster movie. It has all the trademark elements of these Japanese “Kaiju” films that genre fans have come to know and love, but at times it seems to be a bit too silly, fantastic, and, dare I say, cuddly for its own good. While Mothra may not possess the thought and depth of Godzilla, the film still dares to show a few post-WWII scars under all the colorful action and adventure. There is still a shiver anytime the bomb or atomic radiation is mentioned, but it almost seems like the film is chuckling at itself, which is a pity because this monster movie could have mustered a roar just as mighty as Godzilla’s.
Mothra begins in the waters off of Infant Island, with a Japanese ship getting caught and running aground in a nasty typhoon. The ship’s crew gets stranded on Infant Island, which is presumably an uninhabited site for Rolisican atomic tests. A few days later, a rescue party finds several members of the ship’s crew alive and well on Infant Island. The crew is immediately taken to the nearest hospital for radiation sickness, but doctors are stunned to learn that the crew did not get sick due to juice that was provided to them by natives living on the island. The bizarre story is broken to the public by rotund reported Zenichiro “Bulldog” Fukuda (played by Frankie Sakai) and photographer Michi Hanamura (played by Kyoko Kagawa), both who obtained the story through posing as doctors. The Rolisican government soon responds by putting together a joint expedition to the island. Among the expedition is greedy entrepreneur Clark Nelson (played by Jerry Itou) and kindly linguist Shin’ichi Chujo (played by Hiroshi Koizumi). While exploring the island, the group stumbles across the shy natives and a pair of young women (played by The Peanuts) who are only twelve inches tall. The two girls plead with the group to halt the atomic testing on their island and to leave the natives in peace. The group agrees and quickly leaves, keeping their findings a secret from the public. However, Nelson secretly travels back to the island and abducts the two girls and forces them to perform a singing act in Tokyo. The horrified natives call upon their god, Mothra, to rise up and bring the girls back to their island.
Honda quickly sets Mothra apart from his deadly serious Godzilla through pop-art action and exotic adventure. There is a trip to a beautiful yet sadly mutated island with natives peaking between giant leaves and over twisting flowers as scientists in ominous HAZMAT suits parade around with machine guns. It almost feels like something out of King Kong, only done up in the most effervescent colors imaginable. There is also plenty of slapstick humor and wisecracks, especially from the instantly likable Zenichiro, who nervously giggles when he is backed up against a wall and manages to get tiny mice caught in his suit. Despite how lavish it all looks and how funny the jokes are, there is never a hint of the impending doom that loomed over the opening half of Godzilla. However, once the action of the second half kicks in to high gear, there are traces of Godzilla everywhere. Tension builds as a massive caterpillar inches its way towards Tokyo in an attempt to find the abducted girls. Japanese fighter jets swoop over and drop canisters of napalm down on the best, but it does no good. When it finally reaches Tokyo, it bashes and smashes through miniature buildings that certainly crumble realistically enough. Things take a cheeky turn when the caterpillar morphs into the iconic Mothra, who can whip up a wind storm just by furiously flapping her wings. You’ll certainly chuckle as toy cars get tossed around like, well, toy cars and fake builds tremble like… fake buildings. The longer it all goes on, the less it impresses.
In addition to the rocky action, the performances are never as gripping as what we saw in Godzilla. Sakai is charismatic and fun as the humorous hero Zenichiro, a nice change of pace over the square-jawed heroes that were battling giant bugs in America. The oafish Sakai doesn’t seem to be taking the picture too seriously, which is a shame, but he will certainly get you to chuckle at least once. Kagawa acts as the pretty-faced sidekick that follows Sakai around from one site of destruction to the next. Koizumi is passable but largely forgettable as the camera shy linguist who is basically the more handsome hero to Sakai’s Zenchiro. Itou is vile enough as the exploitative entrepreneur who leers over the tiny girls like a madman. It is interesting to see just how cowardly he is when Mothra comes calling. Rounding out the main cast in the twin-sister singing act The Peanuts, who are here as the tiny “Shobijin.” The Peanuts are tragic enough, but this is mostly due to their situation rather than their acting. While much of their performance consists of them huddling together and smiling at the camera, you will still find yourself hoping and praying that Mothra will come save them from Nelson’s clutches.
What really separates Mothra from the other monster movies is the fact that Mothra herself is more of an avenging angel rather than a snarling stand in for the atomic bomb. Even if she does look like one of your daughter’s stuffed toys, she is actually sort of neat in that respect. She isn’t a mindless abomination of atomic radiation and destruction, which really gives the film itself a bit more individuality. While it may lack the deeper meanings and the sorrowful meditation of Godzilla, Mothra is still a fairly resilient plea for peace and harmony. It may have been falling of deaf ears and drive-in eyes simply looking for the next destruction sequence, but at least it was giving it a try. Overall, while it has its lasting moments, Mothra begins to fall victim to a shaky third act set in a cardboard stand-in for New York City (here it is New Kirk City). There is too much interest in comic book fantasy and retina-shattering color blasts, which cause the film to feel more like a drawn-out cartoon rather than a serious minded work of art. It’s fun in small doses but maybe it should have taken itself a bit more seriously.
Mothra is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In the land of Atomic Age beasts, aliens, monsters, and blobs, one name makes all these other radioactive creatures quiver in fear: Godzilla. Made in Japan in 1954 by Ishiro Honda, Godzilla (or Gojira, as it was called in Japan), is perhaps one of the most significant science fiction films released in the wake of World War II and the Hydrogen bomb. It is even more essential because the country that witnessed the horror and devastation of the atomic bomb first hand made and released Godzilla. Over the years, Godzilla became more of a campy character rather than one that is meant to scare the pants off the viewer. He would rise from his watery habitat and stomp into downtown Tokyo to do battle with a slew of attacking mutant monsters (and King Kong), all while poorly dubbed Japanese citizens would dart around the dueling monster’s feet. They were a far cry from the suspenseful original, where the low rumble of Godzilla’s footsteps had the viewer holding their breath and gripping the arm of the couch just a little bit tighter. When the suspense and the downright impressive action sequences don’t have your attention, you’ll be transfixed on the intelligence of the script, which finds a country still reeling from the mushroom cloud devastation they witnessed in 1945. There is a reason the Criterion Collection picked this monster movie up, folks.
Just off of Odo Island, a Japanese fishing boat is destroyed by a blinding flash of light that appears to emerge from the bottom of the sea. Another boat is sent to investigate, but it meets the same fate as the first boat. As more boats are destroyed, salvage ship captain Hideo Ogato (Played by Akira Takarada) is called in for duty by the coast guard. Meanwhile, the villagers of Odo Island have been cursed with poor fishing and they blame it on a mysterious sea monster known as “Godzilla.” In the evening, the villagers perform ancient ceremonies to keep the beast at bay. That very night, a violent storm destroys Ogo Island, but many villagers claim that there was something else in the storm. Archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Played by Takashi Shimura) travels to Ogo and discovers a giant radioactive footprint. He then travels to Tokyo and presents his findings. He reveals that H-bomb testing has disrupted Godzilla’s natural habitat, causing him to emerge from the bottom of the sea and come to land. As fear of Godzilla spreads and more sighting are reported, Dr. Yamane’s colleague, Daisuke Serizawa (Played by Akihiko Hirata), who is also arranged to be married to Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Played by Momoko Kochi), has developed a secret weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer, a device that disintegrates oxygen atoms causing organisms to die of asphyxiation. As Godzilla’s attacks grow more and more devastating, Emiko and Ogato plead with the reluctant Serizawa to use the Oxygen Destroyer against the destructive beast.
Director Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata transform Godzilla from a simple monster movie into a surprisingly intimate human drama. We genuinely care about the characters that Honda and Murata have come up with and we especially hang on the fragile love story at the core of the film. Emiko is engaged to Serizawa, but she wishes to break off the engagement and marry the brave salvage captain Ogato. Meanwhile, as this love triangle plays out with devastating results, Honda focuses his camera on Dr. Yamane and his exasperation with the military and media, who are hellbent on killing Godzilla rather than trying to capture and study him. He continuously drives the point home that this creature has been exposed to heavy levels of radiation and lived through it. He then warns that if the world (meaning America) continues to detonate these weapons of mass destruction, we are bound to face another Godzilla-like creature. The warnings against these experiments extend to Serizawa, who fears that his Oxygen Destroyer will draw the attention of the military and they will force him to further develop another weapon of mass destruction, something he swears he will never do. It’s these meditative conversations about H-bombs, destructive weapons, and violence that pulls Godzilla out of the B-movie realm and places it firmly on the A-list.
Then there is the monster of the hour: Godzilla. At times, Godzilla is obviously a man dressed in a heavily detailed rubber suit, but he signifies so much more. The first few glimpses we get of him are effective teases, leaving us wanting just a little bit more, but fearing the terrifying wrath that is sure to accompany those longer glimpses of the legendary monster. When he is finally revealed in all of his glory, we can’t help but be awestruck by how cool he looks, even if his movements are a little jerky. He breathes down smoke (which is meant to resemble fire but this is 1954, folks) on the Tokyo skyline and produces a sea of fire that brings to mind the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. When he stomps through the buildings, he begins to resemble a living, breathing nuclear blast that is leveling everything in his path. Honda then pans over the twisted wreckage left in Godzilla’s wake, eerie images that call to mind the black and white photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla may be destructive, but he is also a sympathetic creature. He has been chased out of his home and he appears to be wandering aimlessly, simply looking for a new place to hide away from the world that wants to destroy him.
As if a weighty script, likable characters, impressive monster, and a human core weren’t enough to make Godzilla a must see, the action sequences will certainly convince you to seek it out. Sure, there are a few moments where it is blatantly obvious that rubber-suited Godzilla is stomping miniature buildings, but there are several pieces that have held up quite well over the years. Godzilla’s battle with several Japanese fighter jets will get the adrenaline pumping and his demolishing of a gigantic electric fence is a pretty nifty demonstration of his sublime power. You’re obviously not going to see destruction like you saw in Cloverfield, but you have to give Honda and his effects team credit for crafting some chilling smashing and crashing (wait for the sequence with Godzilla attacking a building loaded with press). The action sequences are made all the more effective due to the tension slowly built between each attack. Our dread really begins to get the best of us and Honda plays with this every chance he gets.
If you are one of those individuals who have written off Godzilla as a campy drive-in relic of the 1950s, you really should consider revisiting this moody monster mash. I’ll admit that even I had forgotten the power that this film wields over the years and I was very happy that I decided to both revisit and add the film to my horror/science fiction collection. If you have surround sound lining your living room, you’ll be giddy over how great Godzilla’s roar and thunderous footsteps sound. Overall, Godzilla is a haunting and influential epic that rewards the viewer with multiple viewings. It will shake your house down and bring you to your knees with one mighty roar.
Godzilla is available on Blu-ray and DVD.