Wednesday, March 9, 2011
I've long been a fan of Japanese giant monster movies (called Kaiju Eiga over there) for as many years as I can remember. They were one of, if not the very first types of fantasy cinema that attracted me to the wonderfully varied world of monster pictures. Below is a list of twelve films that I think are the best of the entire run of Toho's classic series. Some of these below are also favorites and not necessarily what I'd say were a great film in the truest sense of the word, but all below definitely entertain with some being more serious than others. So if you're a fan, get your monster on and prepare to stomp Tokyo in this Monster March of Godzilla adventures!
GODZILLA 1954 aka GOJIRA aka GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Born from the success of the American monster opus, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and the devastating effects of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, Ishiro Honda's timeless and universally frightening atomic allegory is just as potent today as it was over 50 years ago. Over the years this first film (and its succeeding ones) were generally dismissed by critics, but since its original Japanese version has become more widely known, it has garnered its long deserved respect and recognition in most circles. Sadly, these movies will always be the butt of jokes regarding their effects work, but there's no denying the raw power contained within Honda's maiden monster effort. Several scenes still pack a powerful punch even today.
The next film in the series, the quickly produced GODZILLA'S COUNTERATTACK, attempted to capture the grim atmosphere of Honda's original, but failed to recreate the doom-laden aura and the somber spirit of martyrdom inherent in Honda's effort. A brilliant work of artistry, GODZILLA is destined to become one of the most important science fiction films of all time not only for its historical significance, but what the film itself represents--a devastating commentary on Japan's grueling survival amidst post WW2 fallout. If you were to ever see just one Godzilla movie in your lifetime, it should be this film and in its preferred Japanese language edition.
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA 1962 aka KINGU KONGU TAI GOJIRA
Directed by Ishiro Honda
The third consecutive film to feature the gigantic radioactive lizard as a villain, Toho writers were granted permission to use King Kong in what would become the reigning box office champion of the entire Godzilla series to date. The script, such as it is, basically melds elements of the original KONG and GODZILLA biding its time till the plot finds a way to bring the two towering titans together for an epic confrontation.
The original Japanese version played up the comedic aspects of the script which was considerably toned down in the English version, a vastly different cut of the film featuring a musical score culled from other films (such as CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and even footage from Toho's THE MYSTERIANS (1959). While the Kong suit may be the source of much critical contempt from fans, the movie is fondly remembered and it has one slam bang of a battle royale, totally delivering on its title. The goofy charms foreshadow where the series would be headed by the end of the decade. A monumental meeting of the mightiest movie monsters and one helluva good time at the movies.
MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA 1964 aka MOSURA TAI GOJIRA aka GODZILLA VS. THE THING
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Simply put, one of the best of the entire series as well as one of the most thoroughly enjoyable science fiction films ever made from any decade. Honda's movie is armed with some of the best special effects of Tsuburaya's career. His non Kaiju films had a striking realism about them, but his work here is incredible. The frightful countenance of Godzilla seen in the first two B/W movies is reinstated for this fourth epic outing, which also happens to be the second appearance of the enduring Kaiju character, Mothra.
Never a favorite beast of mine, Mothra nonetheless is utilized extremely well here and the plot, the characters, the music, the effects and the performances all combine to create one of the best, most immersive of the Japanese giant monster canon. Released in America as GODZILLA VS. THE THING, that version was a first for the series--it had a monster sequence exclusive to the English dubbed cut. Outside of that, the dubbed version (like most of the first US releases of Godzilla pictures) is a respectable release in its own right. In typical AIP style, they tried to hide "The Thing's" true origin from fans leading patrons to believe it would be some multi tentacled titan facing Godzilla. Initially, I was disappointed when I learned it was Mothra as a kid. I wouldn't truly appreciate the majesty of this movie till much later.
GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER 1964 aka SAN DAIKAIJU: CHIKYU SAIDAI NO KESSEN (THREE GIANT MONSTERS: GREATEST BATTLE ON EARTH) aka GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Having had great success with the introduction of Mothra, Toho opted to create yet another new monster, only this time, the creature would bear a more vicious visage than the more passive deity of Infant Island. This creature came from space. The script (by frequent series collaborator, Shinichi Sekizawa) introduced threats from outer space for the first time in the series and in a serious form much like Toho's extravagant forays in sci fi fantasy seen in previous pictures.
After this, villains from beyond planet Earth were far more comic book in design, getting more outrageous as the series wore on. Here, the aliens are passive and are here to warn of an impending attack by a planetary demolisher named King Ghidorah, which arrives on Earth housed within an egg masquerading as a meteorite. The plot has its share of intricacies combining Kaiju conventions with Yakuza/spy antics. It's here where Toho's favorite son became a hero to the world much to the delight of children everywhere. Rodan makes its second appearance in a far less fearful guise. Toho went all out on this one and deliver a delightfully enjoyable movie that has something for everyone.
GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO 1965 aka KAIJU DAISENSO (GREAT MONSTER WAR) aka MONSTER ZERO aka INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER
Directed by Ishiro Honda
An absolute fan favorite, MONSTER ZERO is one of the long running series' most celebrated movies benefiting greatly from a superb, stunningly footloose performance from Nick Adams, an American actor whose ego was brought down a few notches after his failed rallying for a Best Supporting Actor award in 1964. He became a much loved component of the Toho crew and ultimately became a beloved friend to a handful of his co-stars, including Akira Takarada and Kumi Mizuno. His immensely likable, spirited performance endeared him to many fans of the Godzilla series and contributes greatly to the enjoyment of this massively fun little film.
The plot is pure juvenile joviality--aliens from Planet X wish to borrow both Godzilla and Rodan to rid their world of the conquering Kaiju, King Ghidorah. It all turns out to be a ploy to gain control of Earth's mightiest monsters in an insidious plan to take control of the Earth. So much good can be said here, but it's not all 'bells and whistles'. The practical use of stock footage in later films reared its ugly head here as a few stock shots from previous movies crop up. Monster silliness is also on hand, but really, if such things bother you, how can you call yourself a true fan of Godzilla?
GODZILLA'S REVENGE 1969 aka GOJIRA, MINIRA, GABARA: ORU KAIJU DAISHENGEKI (GODZILLA, MINYA, GABARA: ALL MONSTERS ON PARADE) aka ALL MONSTERS ATTACK
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Fans are uniformly divided on this one, a seriously compromised, but nonetheless fascinatingly personable monster film in light of its difficult production history. Unfortunately, the revered effects magician, Eiji Tsuburaya was immersed in numerous other projects at the time including action shows like ULTRASEVEN, MIGHTY JACK and the wonderful OUTER LIMITS type show, the little discussed OPERATION: MYSTERY. In addition, he was also hard at work constructing creatures and warships for the even more chaotic co-production, LATITUDE ZERO (1969).
The abundance of stock footage has been the major negative levied at the film. Generally dismissed by many, GODZILLA'S REVENGE is a heartfelt ode to latch key kids and the loneliness that surrounds them from overworked parents. Ichiro's only real friend is his vivid imagination. A unique motion picture in Toho's fantasy series, Godzilla is seen as just that--a hero in a boy's fantasy. There's even a HOME ALONE style sub-plot involving thieves who end up kidnapping the little boy. Bullied at school, Godzilla's son, Minya, teaches little Ichiro how to be brave and tackle his own problems which he does by films end. It's a touching film and a special film for a small number of fans, of which I am one.
GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA 1974 aka GOJIRA TAI MEKAGOJIRA aka GODZILLA VS. THE BIONIC MONSTER aka GODZILLA VS. THE COSMIC MONSTER
Directed by Jun Fukuda
The Godzilla series was on a downward slope during the 1970s. The use of stock footage became more and more commonplace, but for its 20th anniversary of Toho's leapin' lizard, the studio wanted something spectacular. A team of scriptwriters (including director, Jun Fukuda) came up with this wild and wacky tale that mixes simian aliens, spy movie shenanigans and ancient myths. Throw all these ingredients into the pot and you get something like GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, the first of five cinematic interpretations of the mighty metallic monstrosity. In yet another outer space invasion story arc, alien apes dressed in silver suits leave their home on the third planet from the Black Hole to take over the Earth using their colossal cyborg creation, Mechagodzilla.
Boasting an impressive roster of weapons, Mechagodzilla was inspired by the Mechani-Kong seen in KING KONG ESCAPES (1968), but this monster metal head was a far more impressive contraption. A legendary Kaiju in the form of King Seesar is also on hand as is Godzilla's friend, Angilas in a guest starring monster battle against Mecha G disguised as the real deal. Some rather extreme scenes of bloody violence, both on humans and monsters is evident here in a film that was originally released in America as GODZILLA VS. THE COSMIC MONSTER till Universal intervened. Masaru Saito's music is also incredibly catchy, if diametrically different from Akira Ifukube's more familiar sound. Mindless entertainment of the highest order and a must see for fans both old and new.
TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA 1975 aka MEKAGOJIRA NO GYAKUSHU (REVENGE OF MECHAGODZILLA) aka THE TERROR OF GODZILLA
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Honda's last Godzilla movie and one of the best, most serious entries of the long running Toho series. Gone are all the childish accoutrements that accentuated so many of the past movies. Not that they were a bad thing, but this more adult approach was invigorating and a refreshing change of pace. It was all for nothing, though, as the public was growing tired of Godzilla. Superior in its script and performances, it's a direct sequel to the previous production and carries some of the best characterizations mirroring any number of classic and likewise tragic Chambara pictures of the past. Ifukube's oppressively somber score matches the gloomy atmosphere and is one of the maestro's best compositions.
The Black Hole aliens are at it again, but now, their hidden simian features are replaced by a more mutant lineament. This time, Mechagodzilla has been recovered from the bottom of the sea and reconstructed with an increased annihilatory capacity by a disgraced human scientist. His discovery of an aquatic dinosaur led to his excommunication from the scientific community. His daughter, turned into a cyborg by the aliens, houses Mechagodzilla's brain in her stomach! This is easily the most "grown up" Godzilla movie of the 1970s and the best of that batch. The script is also successful in depicting both monster and man working together. This G film had one of the most confusing and tainted histories up until a few years ago when it was released in a definitive and uncut edition in America.
GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE 1989 aka GOJIRA TAI BIORANTE
Directed by Kazuki Omori
A direct sequel to 1984's GODZILLA, Kazuki Omori took the helm of this unusual, thoroughly bizarre, but nonetheless enjoyable film in Godzilla's 80s resurrection. Omori was an odd, but genius choice to direct a G film considering he didn't even like Kaiju movies. He brought a decidely fresh approach to the series that saw Godzilla's DNA being sought after by scientists, the US military and Middle Eastern terrorists! Dr. Shiragami uses Godzilla's irradiated cells to create a bio weapon to hopefully use against the great beast as a deadly deterrent. He also experiments with plant life genetically engineering a frightful creation that's part plant, part Godzilla and part the spirit of his dead daughter! If that weren't enough, there's also the first appearance of popular series character, Miki Saegusa, a psychic girl and the all new Super X2.
Godzilla is freed from his volcanic tomb and battles the military, the Super X2, confronts Miki the psychic and then dukes it out with Biollante on a couple of occasions, one of which sees our gigantic 'Little Shop of Horrors' transform into a combo crocodile and something out of Carpenter's THE THING! Released to DVD everywhere else in the world but America, it's become a fan favorite over the years. The Japanese disc in particular is packed with amazing extras. This was Koichi Kawakita's first outing as chief effects artist and still contains some of his most impressively inventive work. By 1995, his effects became tired, boring and repetitive. Quite possibly the single most diverse entry in the entire G series.
GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS: THE G ELIMINATION COMMAND 2000 aka GOJIRA X MEGAGIRASU JI SHOMETSU SAKUSEN
Directed by Maasaki Tezuka
Maasaki Tezuka was brought into the Toho fold for this creatively daffy entry about Godzilla taking on an interdimensional dragonfly beastie let into our world after the test of a new counter G weapon creates a rift in time allowing the prehistoric monster to enter our time. In all of the directors three G films, a female plays the main character, bearing a grudge against Japan's resident atomic fire breather. The anti G weapons and aircraft are wonderful additions to the mythos and the Meganulon monsters were last seen in RODAN (1956). Despite its lack of box office clout, Tezuka brought a freshness to the monster sequences that hadn't been seen since the old days. It's also a first in that a human character actually rides on Godzilla's back at one point in the film.
The special effects are a step up and would only increase with the next few films (minus the last one). The tone changes a couple of times. There's also some gory moments involving the Meganulons eating humans. Female composer, Michiro Oshima created a hugely enjoyable, bombastic score and contributed compositions for Tezuka's two other G films. My favorite Godzilla suit design is also on show here. Tezuka would also direct two additional entries in the Millennium, or 'X' series of Godzilla films between the years of 2000 and 2005. He was arguably the most capable of capturing the Honda style in his films. This is mostly apparent in his last in the series--GODZILLA X MOTHRA X MECHAGODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. (2004).
GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTER ALL OUT ATTACK 2002 aka GOJIRA, MOSURA, KINGU GIDORA: DAIKAIJU SOKUGEKI
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko
Shusuke Kaneko, the director of the GAMERA trilogy from the late 90s was courted by Toho to participate in this, the most successful picture of the Millennium series. For the first time in years, an obvious, if darkly sinister connection is made between Godzilla and the souls of those killed in WW2. The big G represents all those killed in the war and acts as their instrument of revenge on a society that has all but forgotten them. Ancient mythological elements apparently fascinated Kaneko as he ports those ideas from his Gamera trilogy into the Godzilla series, too. Kaneko's inherently dark style is extremely noticeable here producing the closest Godzilla ever came to an actual horror film since the very first GODZILLA back in 1954.
Three Earth guardians are destined to battle Godzilla in the form of Baragon, Mothra and King Ghidorah. Quite a few liberties were taken with the monsters here. Godzilla's look was overhauled and King Ghidorah was turned into a good guy and a major wimp who dies at least twice during the movie. Baragon is a hero creature as well and the only holdover from the script. Originally, Kaneko wanted Angilas and Varan in addition to Baragon as the battling beasts against Godzilla, but Toho disagreed allowing him one of his picks. The ending of the movie is very repetitive, but Kaneko's take on the material has quite a lot of good things going for it to maintain its status as a major fan favorite. It's also the only film to ever showcase mankind on an equal plane with the monsters and it's a man made weapon that actually brings down the Big G at the end. Things would "get back to normal" with the next entry.
GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA 2003 aka GOJIRA X MEKAGOJIRA
Directed by Maasaki Tezuka
Despite his moneymaking outing, Kaneko wasn't asked back, so action specialist, Maasaki Tezuka returned for this energetic and financially prosperous film that trots out Mechagodzilla one more time. Toho was wary to use new monsters in their films considering the lackluster returns of the ambitiously fun, if uneven MEGAGUIRUS, so familiar creations were employed. MG was one of the studios most popular and since his last incarnation in the mid 90s (GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA) was profitable, an all new design was called for. The plot shares similarities with MEGAGUIRUS with its lead female character, vengeful against Godzilla for the death of her commanding officer. A new military weapon, utilizing the bones of the original Godzilla, is constructed in the hopes of repelling the living, breathing natural disaster. Referred to most of the time as Kiryu, this robotic double battles the Big G in a series of tight action sequences rife with ingenuity.
One of the best scenes is where Kiryu malfunctions and goes on an uncontrollable rampage with no means to stop it till its batteries run out! Wild weapons include the Absolute Zero cannon, a freezing weapon built into the chest of Kiryu. Unlike its 70s incarnations, Mechagodzilla has been a man made monstrosity since its 90s rebirth. The character would feature in the next film, a direct sequel that plays out like an additional 90 minutes that was cut from this film. That one's even more an homage to Honda's 60s style, but aside from a new look to Mechagodzilla, it's more of a companion piece to this movie. Tezuka was unfortunately not chosen to helm the last Godzilla film for a number of years. Hopefully, he'll get a chance at another monster film in the future. His knack for imaginative set pieces is a strength that vibrates through all three of his Godzilla pictures, especially this one.
Assorted Bits & Pieces: New Asian Cult Blog, Japanese Film Festival & the New Flying Guillotine Movie!
Shaun Anderson of The Celluloid Highway and myself have joined forces to create a new blog exclusively reserved for the wild and wonderful world of Asian cinema. There you'll find respected works from classic directors clashing steel with wickedly wacky cult productions spanning Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Korea. It's all Asian all the time. The name of the site is LONE WOLVES & HIDDEN DRAGONS. Click the link below if you wish to take the journey to the Forbidden City and all the Kool and Kooky movies Asian cinema has to offer!
LONE WOLVES & HIDDEN DRAGONS
Next, the Japan Society has something special for Yakuza movie lovers. If you're enamored with some of the biggest and best names in Japan's violent world of gangster cinema, read on!
This season, Japan Society is proud to present the new Globus Film Series, Hardest Men in Town: Yakuza Chronicles of Sin, Sex & Violence. From March 9 to 19, Japan Society will be screening a series of 15 yakuza films, from 1960s productions featuring chivalrous kimono-clad, sword-wielding gangsters to today's ruthless gun-toting villains dealing in debt, dark trades and deeds. Featuring films by internationally acclaimed directors such as Takeshi Kitano, Seijin Suzuki, and Kenji Fukasaku (among many others), the series includes a large number of premieres and titles never-before shown in the U.S. Also introducing some of these screenings will be a few very special guests, including writer/director Paul Schrader, author Jake Adelstein, and director Takashi Miike.
The Yakuza – Directed by Sydney Pollack
Onibi: The Fire Within – Rokuro Mochizuki
The Wolves – Hideo Gosha
The Walls of Abashiri Prison (pt. 3): Longing for Home - Teruo Ishii
Brutal Tales of Chivalry - Kiyoshi Saeki
Theater of Life: Hishakaku - Tadashi Sawashima
Blood of Revenge – Tai Kato
Cops Vs. Thugs – Kenji Fukasaku
Battles Without Honor and Humanity A.K.A. The Yakuza Papers (pt. 3): Proxy War – Kenji Fukasaku
Youth of the Beast – Seijin Suzuki
Dead or Alive – Takashi Miike
A Yakuza in Love A.K.A. Villainous Love – Rokuro Mochizuki
Ryuji - Toru Kawashima
Yakuza Wives – Hideo Gosha
Outrage: The Way of the Modern Yakuza – Takeshi Kitano
The following links are for the Japan Society as well as their blog...JAPAN SOCIETY
JAPAN SOCIETY TUMBLR
Third and final on this Far East Film post is something that's been in gestation since 2009. There's been a number of remakes for Shaw Brothers Productions over the years and since the Celestial restorations of the old library of classics, some new remakes have turned up recently. One that's finally a go (and has been reported elsewhere) is THE FLYING GUILLOTINES (2011). Back in 2009, it was originally a Dante Lam (BEAST STALKER) movie and now, the team of Teddy Chan and Peter Chan (BODYGUARDS & ASSASSINS) returns for this (hopefully) faithful rendition of the Shaw Brothers classic original. The Shaw's produced a troubled official sequel and two additional rip off/spin off movies. If you're not up on your Chinese head slicers, you can get re-acquainted at the four links below...
THE FLYING GUILLOTINE
THE FLYING GUILLOTINE 2
THE DRAGON MISSILE
THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY