Sunday, March 30, 2014

March of the Mecha-Monsters: Toho's Mechanical Marvels

Giant robots both big and small are a staple of the Japanese science fiction lexicon. They span not just movies, but television, too. These types of monsters often surpassed those seen in American SciFi movies with their elaborate weapon arrays and spectacularly fictitious technological designs. Where US SciFi frequently had an air of believability about it, the Japanese counterparts tapped into the imagination literally in a BIG way. Of all the Nipponese robo-theatrics, Toho's robot monsters are likely the most famous examples of the form.


The first such mechanical menace from Toho surfaced in 1957s THE MYSTERIANS. Mogera was a towering juggernaut of alien invention. Equipped with those lovably old school 'beep beep' sound effects, Mogera looks like a cross between a metallic bird of enormous girth, and a tank. Other than its size, its main weapon is a splotchy, rapid fire blue laser that resembles those emitted from the warships seen in the original WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). Mogera also has burrowing capabilities via the large drill on its face. Seemingly indestructible, Mogera's path of destruction is brought to an end when the military blow up a bridge the giant, slow moving robot was crossing. With its inclusion being an afterthought, it's no surprise that the Mysterian aliens prove to be more of a threat than their giant robot. It would be nearly 40 years before Mogera would surface in a movie again -- minus the beeping.

Ten years later, Rankin/Bass and Toho joined forces with KING KONG ESCAPES (1967). Based on THE KING KONG SHOW, a cartoon co-production between R/B and Toei, this live-action rendition brought forth Toho's second big screen giant robot -- beeping sounds included. Mechani-Kong was a cool concept, and was an impressive looking robotic wonder. Unfortunately, Kong's mechanical double had little in the way of super powers. He had a hypnotic beam atop his head, and his eyes emit a blinding light. Other than that, the mighty machine's only other weapon is a utility belt aligned with grenades. Hiroshi Sekita does a fine job maneuvering inside the Mecha-Kong suit. Despite their convincing suits, future giant robots in Japanese monster films would make Mogera and Mechani-Kong look like outsized oil cans by comparison. Kong's robotic double has threatened to emerge again over the years, but pesky rights holders for Kong's likeness has incumbered his second coming.

The 50s Mogera got an upgrade in 1994 in GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA. For its 90s incarnation, Mogera (or M.O.G.E.R.A. -- Mobile Operation Godzilla Expert Aerotype) was a man-made creation piloted by a three-man crew, as opposed to being guided by alien controllers. Another drastic change was the robot could now transform into two separate mecha -- the Star Falcon and the land module that could burrow underground. The two machines had their own laser mechanisms, too. Once together, this newer version of Mogera has some additional weaponry its 50s counterpart didn't have such as spiral grenade missiles and a plasma laser that was implanted in its chest. It could also move around on tank tracks when necessary. Even with all the flashy laser effects from the SPX 'Master of Beam Attacks', Koichi Kawakita, this new Mogera was just as clunky, and stiff as its 50s predecessor; only shinier, and plastic looking. Mogera's inclusion here feels redundant since we'd already had a Mechagodzilla light show the previous year. Still, the filmmakers found plenty for the upgraded Mogera to do in the '94 Godzilla picture. Wataru Fukuda was underneath the Mogera suit.


In the early 70s Toho introduced two offbeat, quasi robo-kaiju, Gigan and Megalon. Neither looked all that robotic, but the metallic appendages and mechanical devices attached to their bodies signaled cybernetic inner workings. Gigan sports a metal outer shell (even if it does look like rubber) that has a ridiculous buzzsaw built into its chest. A Nebula M Space Hunter (are they neighbors with  the Third Planet Black Hole aliens?), Gigan doubled teamed Godzilla and his tag team partners in both GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972) and GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973). The most memorable aspect of Showa Gigan is that Kenpachiro Satsuma (then Kengo Nakayama) wore the monster suit in both films. Satsuma would find fame among fans as the most popular actor to play Godzilla next to perennial favorite, Haruo Nakajima.

Gigan surfaced once more with a modified origin in the horrific Ryuhei Kitamura mess, GODZILLA FINAL WARS (2004). Here he's a dormant, 12,000 year old intergalactic mummy. As much as I hate to say anything positive about GFW, Gigan looked spectacular in this with his upgraded, slimmer, heavy metal appearance -- even if his brief screen time had him doing incredibly stupid things. The upgraded Gigan (he is killed and reconstructed a second time) has a Gigeresque quality to his design. His weapon list include cables ejected from his scythe-like appendages that are used to pull enemies into his sawblade chest cavity. A cluster beam is fired from his eye, and his shoulders emit homing buzzsaw blades. In his second form, Gigan's scythe hands are replaced with chainsaws in the shape of claws. Kazuhiro Yoshida was underneath all the rubber.

Megalon ties with Gigan for most bizarre Toho monster in a motion picture. This robo-roach from the subterranean world of Seatopia has pointed, metal hands that can combine to form a giant drill. The Rhinoceros Beetle styled horn on his head fires a lightning bolt attack akin to King Ghidorah's (taking into consideration the use of some stock destruction footage, it IS King Ghidorah's lightning bolt attack). The outsized insect even spits out what can be described as potato shaped napalm grenades. Megalon also flies, but thankfully, this cockroach from beneath the Earth didn't spawn more Megalons. Hideto Odachi, under all that rubber, and a heavy looking headpiece, portrays Megalon with gusto even if his movie plays like an extended episode of ULTRAMAN guest starring Godzilla.

Speaking of the Ultraverse, Jet Jaguar was Toho's attempt at replicating an ULTRAMAN like success with a similar monster fighting hero. The result was a robot created by a scientist played by Katsuhiko Sasaki. JJ, who is anything but 'Dyn-O-Mite' has no major powers other than changing his size at will, flying ability, and bright highbeams that shine from his eyes. His fighting skill level is on a par with that of Anguirus, so it's more like a handicapped match for Godzilla. In keeping with the juvenile nature of GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, JJ was designed by an elementary school student, the winner of a Toho contest. Unfortunately, Tsugitoshi Komada never conveys a mechanized creation underneath the flimsy "robot" suit, even with an accompanying beeping sound. Jet Jaguar simply doesn't look much like a robot, either. He looks more like a masked wrestler late for his aerobics class. 


After receiving a massive throttling by the King of the Monsters, King Ghidorah is reconstituted in the 23rd century as a cyborg weapon. The now futuristic monster machine is then sent back in time to battle Godzilla. 

Mecha King Ghidorah is a highlight of the confusing, but entertaining GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH (1991). Having lost a head and much of its wings during its first encounter with Godzilla, the Futurians fashion the beast with a new mechanical head, chest cavity, wings, and leg braces. Whereas the organic KG was controlled by aliens, Mecha KG is piloted by a human -- in this case, the lovely Anna Nakagawa. Its limited weapon set includes electrified cables and a G-Grasper, a giant claw hidden inside Mecha KG's chest. This was the first, and so far only appearance by King Ghidorah revamped as a robot.

On a less monstrous note, Robert Scott Field portrayed the Futurian android, M-11. Despite stiffly reciting his lines (like most Anglo's in Japanese movies), Field's inexplicably manages to carve a memorable character for himself.


One of the earliest, if not the first robot kaiju came in the form of the silly looking MONSTER MARINE KONG (1959), a cyborgian aquatic monster that looked like a lizard on the outside, but, according to those who've seen the show, had mechanical parts on the inside. An extremely rare B/W television series, MARINE KONG was reportedly produced by a Japanese puppet theater company, and ran for 26 episodes split into two cours, MONSTER MARINE KONG and REVENGE OF MARINE KONG. It was seemingly instrumental in Tokusatsu programming gaining momentum on television. Toys of the Marine Kong (made by toy company Shikaruna Kobo) seem to be almost as rare as the TV show.

P Productions brought forth the transforming golden space giant, AMBASSADOR MAGMA -- a superhero who shot electric bolts from antenna on his head, and fired a flurry of rockets from his chest. It's a family affair, as Magma has a wife and son -- all of which transform into rocket ships. The main enemy is Space Emperor Goa, a fang-toothed, pointy eared villain with delusions of Earthly conquest. This series was unique in that it merged animation with live-action to get around its obvious budgetary limitations. AMBASSADOR MAGMA began airing  just a few weeks shy of ULTRAMAN's premiere, and ran for 52 episodes from 1966-1967. It was released here in America as THE SPACE GIANTS where it retains a cult following. 

Toei's GIANT ROBO (1967-1968) is among the most well known examples of live-action robo-theatrics. Christened JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT in America, this 26 episode series features an enormous robot bearing Egyptian features. Built by an Earth scientist, the giant robot is ultimately controlled by the little boy, Daisaku, and the duo battle Emperor Guillotine and his army of monsters and evil robots. Giant Robo has a vast arsenal of rockets, flame attacks, and power moves. AIP condensed a number of episodes to make a movie out of the series as VOYAGE INTO SPACE (1970). Like MAGMA before it, SOKKO has a healthy, if small cult following in North America.

P Productions struck again in 1971 with SPECTREMAN, a 63 episode program that, like many others, took its cue from ULTRAMAN. The villains were a race of alien primates led by the sinister Dr. Gori. Like most SciFi at that time, the series had a thick environmental theme wrapped around the typical 'conquer the Earth' motif. Spectreman was a cyborg agent from Nebula 71 (disguising himself as Earthling Joji Gamo) who fought against Gori's monsters with a number of energy attacks and bladed weaponry. Spearheaded by the huge success of ULTRAMAN, this was another Japanese import that became a minor cult item among monster kids who were lucky enough to get their giant monster fix regularly on television back in the day.

SPIDERMAN (1978) and BATTLE FEVER J (1979) were instrumental in popularizing the superhero/giant robot boom of the Super Sentai TV programs that emerged with extreme regularity. The former helped popularize the trend of piloting a giant robot to battle monsters on the small screen (backed by a kitschy disco theme). Spiderman fought both human sized, and giant beasts. Nippon Spidey owned a snazzy SciFi car that could fly; it was also armed with machine guns and missiles. The Marveller was Spiderman's spacecraft that transformed into the giant robot Leopardon. The latter series (the second in a deal between Toei and Marvel) was significant for being the first Super Sentai show wherein five colorfully costumed super heroes battle monsters and commandeer a giant robot. This template found its way to American shores in 1993 as MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS -- a wildly successful series that built its stories around footage imported from Toei's KYORU SENTAI ZYURANGER (1992).


Of all the big robots in Toho's repertoire, Mechagodzilla is easily the most popular -- in addition to being one of the most popular giant monster antagonists ever devised. There were three versions -- the Showa (70s), the Heisei (90s) and the Millennium (00s) Mecha G's. The human architect that precipitated this galactic terror and its robotic mayhem in the two Showa films was Akihiko Iguchi. For that, many a monster movie fan are eternally grateful.

First seen in GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA from 1974, and again in TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA the following year, the metal monster of the Showa period was built using Space Titanium by a race of alien apes masquerading as humans. An immensely impressive creation, MG was locked and loaded with an assortment of lasers and rockets that were fired from every orifice imaginable. Originally concealed inside a "Godzilla skin", once the alien creation reveals itself, Mechagodzilla's capabilities enable it to fly, as well as engage foes both in front of, and behind it; it can also rapidly spin its head around generating a tornado-like force field that does damage if touched. Rockets are fired from MG's mouth, hands, knees and feet. Lasers are emitted from the eyes and chest cavity. The lightning bolt beam fired from its chest can slice through dense objects. Kazunari Mori was underneath all that heavy metal for the two MG movies of the 1970s.

In the aftermath of the epic battle with Godzilla and the Okinawan god King Seesar, the wreckage of Mechagodzilla is recovered by the aliens from "the Third planet in the Black Hole, outer space". Rebuilt, and now known as MG2, this upgraded version is nearly identical with the additions of revolving missiles and a piercing beam hidden inside of Mechagodzilla's head. This revised version of the insidious machine is slimmer, less rough around the edges, and bears a blue and red 'MG2' emblem on its arms. The bright silver color of the previous film is replaced with a darker shade giving off a blackish hue. It looks like charcoal has been smeared over the suit, giving the appearance of battle scars. 

Working with an unusual script by Yukiko Takayama, she adds a melding of woman and machine to create an improved alien cyborg. By placing MG's brain inside the stomach of the female that controls him, the robot is deemed virtually indestructible -- so long as nothing happens to its host. The jagged, demonic appearance of MG would undergo radical alterations when it returned to the big screen 18 years later.

In 1993, Toho revived one of their most popular creations for the 20th entry in the Godzilla series. This new version of Mechagodzilla jettisoned its interplanetary origin by turning it into a G-Counter Weapon funded by the United Nations for use in their G-Force program. The design of MG in this movie (directed by Takao Okawara) is a mixed bag. Possessing a sleek, smooth outer shell (built using the Futurian technology taken from the remains of Mecha King Ghidorah), this benevolent looking, human piloted war machine has literally zero personality; but in its place there's numerous flashy lasers that make up the monsters anti-Godzilla arsenal. The outer coating of artificial diamond is a holdover from the Super X-2 first seen in GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989); a weapon which absorbed Godzilla's flame attacks, reflecting them back in his direction. 

For MG '93, the absorption of radioactive flame is concentrated into the Plasma Grenade, a weapon built into MG's waist. Once gathered there, it's then redistributed back at Godzilla. Tranquilizer missiles fire from its shoulders (later modified to be ejected from MG's hips), while Shock Anchors eject from its forearms -- a weapon that surges electric current into Godzilla's body. During the finale, the Shock Anchors become the G-Crusher, which will destroy Godzilla's spinal brain, permanently paralyzing him. This was suit actor Wataru Fukuda's sophomore effort as a suit actor. He would play the robot M.O.G.E.R.A. in the following years SPACE GODZILLA.

SPX artist Koichi Kawakita loved his laser beams, but a fascination with transforming mecha and monsters are here, too. A shelved Anti-G weapon, Garuda, is employed as part of MG's armory. Equipped with masers, the ship connects itself to MG's shoulders creating Super Mechagodzilla. With Garuda, MG is able to hover and fire its weapons cache in flight; something it couldn't do in standard flight mode.

Additionally, GVM '93 ports over the android plot point from GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH (1991) in the form of American actress Sherry Sweeney. She plays Lt. Berger, one of the MG pilots, and also an android. A sequence cut from the final version reveals this, yet her robotic line delivery of her few moments left in the film fail to give any hint of her android origins.

Less than a decade later, Mechagodzilla was primed for a return to the big screen in GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA (2002). With that sleek, friendly countenance now a thing of the past, Shinji Nishikawa envisioned a return to a much more serious look for MG. Streamlining the spiky, serrated constructure of the 70s version, the 2002 incarnation was far more impressive than its immediate predecessor from a visual standpoint. Like the '93 MG, this battle robot was man-made. But unlike the previous film utilizing futuristic tech for its blueprint, the '02 MG is constructed using spinal DNA from the skeletal remains of the original '54 Godzilla to create an organic, cyborgian monstrosity. Further differentiating itself from the Happy MG of '93, the upgrade is remotely controlled from a massive jet plane, the Shirasagi. There are three total, and when MG's batteries run down, the Shirasagi act as microwave receptacles to juice up Kiryu.

Referred to mostly as Kiryu (Machine Dragon) in both of Maasaki Tezuka's MG movies, the maneuverability of the new Millennium's MG surpasses its forerunners. In flight Kiryu moves with a speed only CGI could provide, despite its enormous size. The bio-machine goes old-school and gets down with some close quarters combat when it isn't unloading its stockpile of rockets, homing missiles and dual wrist lasers. A hidden sword that emits electric current is sheathed within its forearms. The main armament of interest is the Absolute Zero Cannon -- a powerful freezing weapon built into MG's chest. Inside MG is Super Sentai performer, Hirofumi Ishigaki. He plays Kiryu far more energetically than Wataru Fukuda was allowed to do in the '93 MG -- which favored rainbow colored laser attacks from a distance.

The following year brought a direct sequel with GODZILLA X MOTHRA X MECHAGODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. (2003). There was little difference between this Kiryu and its immediate antecedent. Since both films take place a year apart, MG is still being repaired after suffering serious damage leaving the bio weapon only 64% operational. When Godzilla unexpectedly shows up, Kiryu is pressed into action. Unfortunately the Absolute Zero Cannon isn't combat ready, either. The freezing weapon is scuppered and a giant 3-Way Hyper Maser takes its place. The jet pack/rocket cache is also modified, and given a more militaristic look. One of MG's hands is altered to transform into a giant drill that sends bits of Godzilla flying all over during the final battle (that takes up 3/4 of the films running time)

Mimicking the 70s MG movies, the color scheme is altered between the two Millennium pictures -- Kiryu was silver and blue in the '02 film, and goes for a silver and black look for the sequel. Another Super Sentai suit actor, Motokuni Nakagawa, was inside the impressive looking Kiryu costume.

The last two mechanized Millennium movies were very exciting, and it's a shame we got GODZILLA FINAL WARS (2004) as the series swan song as opposed to a third Kiryu adventure. America did jump on the Japanese style giant robot and monster melee bandwagon with PACIFIC RIM (2012). Lovingly directed by Guillermo Del Toro, these robots were likewise man-made, and battled reptilian creatures from the deep sea. A sincere homage to Japanese kaiju cinema, the film wasn't the monstrous success it was hoped for, and it surprisingly failed to capture the imaginations of Nipponese audiences. With all the weird and wild examples of robotic and cyborg monsters in Japan's illustrious history of science fiction in cinema and television, it's a shame we never got a Mecha Gamera movie. At least not yet.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

10 Emotionally Impactful Sequences in Japanese Giant Monster Movies and Television

Toho's kaiju films cornered the market when it came to creating pitiable monsters that often died rather spectacularly in spite of their penchant for mass destruction. This occasionally extended to human characters, as well. Ishiro Honda's movies had an uncanny ability to instill personality into their giant monsters while at the same time sapping an incredible amount of emotion from the viewer. Of course, Honda accomplished this with the combined efforts of SPX wizard Eiji Tsuburaya and the musicianship of Akira Ifukube. Many viewers may only see guys in rubber suits destroying miniatures when they think of these movies, but there's often much more going on if you look a little deeper. Below is a selection of some of Kaiju cinemas most powerful sequences.


I remember the first time I saw GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956). It was 1983, and this US version had just come out on videotape from Vestron. I'd already seen other Japanese creature features like MOTHRA (1961) and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975) on television, so this was a big deal to finally see the film that started it all. I wasn't quite prepared for the somber 79 minutes I was about to see. At times this US cut of the film felt like a horror movie (even more so in the Japanese original). Still, as terrifying as Godzilla was, I felt sorry for him at the end when Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) and Ogata (Akira Takarada) planted the Oxygen Destroyer below the oceans depths; and as Godzilla approached, Serizawa remained to die along with the leviathan unleashed by man's folly. As Akira Ifukube's powerful cue of finality swells on the soundtrack, Godzilla, in his death throes, rises one last time before man's device of devastation destroys him -- just as a similar weapon had created him. I felt more sorrow for Godzilla, strangely enough. It's an extremely moving scene that resonates on a much deeper level in its original version. An amazing feat considering an earlier scene of young choir singers mourning the deaths of thousands of Tokyo residents by Godzilla's destruction evoked a similar emotional response. As sorrowful as that scene is, the ending where a man and a monster lose their lives brought tears to my young eyes; and even today, it's just as affecting as it was all those years ago.


Rodan was the first Toho monster movie in color, and also the second giant monster movie I saw on videotape. Again, Honda and his crew created a frightening creature capable of massive destruction, yet was able to derive audience sympathy when the end came. This was another tearjerker finale, too. The English dubbed release added a voiceover narration from Keye Luke (Master Po in KUNG FU) that adds a little more punch to the proceedings. Spending roughly 70 minutes watching both Rodan's landscape and demolition whole cities in what would take human workers months to do, the viewer (at least I did) finds themselves feeling pity for the two creatures once their end draws near. After the military causes a volcanic eruption via a barrage of missiles, one of the flying creatures succumbs to the smoke and heat from the magma. The companion of the now dying Rodan descends, and in a surprising moment, commits suicide to perish with its mate. Honda, Tsuburaya and Ifukube replicate, albeit to a lesser degree, the finale of GODZILLA (1954). In the place of a human sacrificing himself, it's one of the reptilian birds. Keye Luke's ending narration is rather good, and adds to the emotional momentum, although the lack of any dialog in the original during this sequence works fine as it is.


After taking a comical jaunt with KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), Toho got serious for one last Godzilla go-round in this seminal entry. For Honda, Tsuburaya, and Ifukube, MVG contained some of the best work of their careers. At first, a match-up between the brute force of Godzilla and the less imposing Mothra didn't interest me in the slightest. Upon seeing the film for the first time via the Paramount tape, I was an enthralled little kid; and my enthusiasm quickly changed. I remember feeling gutted when the Infant Island fairies inform us that Mothra is in a weakened state, using the last weapon in her arsenal. A few moments later, the mighty moth takes a blast of Godzilla's heat ray at point blank range. Flying away, it becomes apparent Mothra is about to die -- which she does draped over the enormous egg she sought to protect. Once more Ifukube delivers a melancholic musical cue that raises goosebumps. This was the first of a few times Mothra bit the dust over the course of the series.


There really isn't much in the way of serious dramatics in this immensely entertaining, fitfully fun film directed by Ishiro Honda. What gets this one a spot on this list is the vigorous, overly energetic, and heroic performance of Nick Adams as astronaut Glenn, and his clashes with those "stinkin' rats" from Planet X. Easily the best Anglo actor to feature in Japanese monster movies, Adams, apparently humbled after a failed campaign for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1963, channeled his energy overseas in an all too brief foray in Japanese monster movies. The irony here is that Adams had previously stated he'd never appear in foreign pictures. Unlike Russ Tamblyn in WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), Adams is so good in his two Toho outings (the first being FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON), listening to him dubbed in Japanese on the Japanese release of MONSTER ZERO isn't worth a hill of beans. Justly so, Nick Adams won the hearts of the Japanese actors and crew, and also the millions who love this film -- doubtlessly made all the better because of his performance. Never again would a foreigner imbue a role in a Japanese monster movie with that amount of passion for the material. Adams died under mysterious circumstances in 1968.


I saw this episode a number of times as a kid, and aside from Jiras of episode 10 (the one with the Godzilla suit), this one stuck with me more than any other episode. The entire program is similar to the plot of Spielberg's E.T. (1982) in that Seabozu, a sad, solitary, child-like creature with a skeletal outer shell, is simply trying to go home. Arguably the most sentimental episode of the original series, where it really tugs at your heart strings is the scene where Seabozu climbs a tall building; and upon reaching the top, outstretches its arms signaling it wants to return to the sky. The harpsichord music cues enhance the melancholic tone, and the quasi silhouette shots of Seabozu from a distance at sunset reinforce the sadness of this episode. This episode also deals with regret, finding time to show us a grief-stricken, mournful Hayata and his alter ego having sent so many kaiju to the title dark land of this ULTRAMAN episode.


Many fans of Godzilla films despise this entry with a seething passion matched only by all Japanese giant monsters inherent disdain for Tokyo. There's no emotional crescendo here in this tale of a lonely little boy whose only friends are a kindly toymaker, and Minya on faraway Monster Island. The monsters are all in the boys imagination, mind you; and like the above entry, this films inclusion is simply because of its sentimental value to my own childhood. I totally identified with Ichiro as I was a latchkey kid who was alone more often than not; and my imagination was my closest confidant. It wasn't a bad thing, quite the contrary. I wasn't bullied at that age (that came later!), but Honda's film is, in this writers opinion, one of the finest examples of Japan's kaiju canon. I first saw GODZILLA'S REVENGE in 1981 on WSET-13 on their Late Movie, and it's remained a favorite ever since.


Katsura (Tomoko Ai), the daughter of Dr. Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), a disgraced scientist, is as tragic a character as any seen in Toho's Godzilla series. Totally innocent, she's coerced by her devotion to her father to follow his mad plan to aid evil aliens in conquering the Earth. Later in the film, it's discovered Katsura is a cyborg who has had Mechagodzilla's brain surgically implanted into her stomach! It's vague, but Katsura is somewhat oblivious to her mechanical innards till towards the end of the movie. She embraces her alien masters and controls the robotic terminator by her command. The kink in all this is that Katsura retains remnants of her emotions. Relationships usually aren't par for the kaiju course, but scriptwriter Yukiko Takayama finds room for one in her script between Katsura and marine biologist, Akira Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki). Things come to a tragic end during the finale when Katsura begs Ichinose to kill her; noting that MGs brain is inside her body, and that in so doing, will destroy the alien creation. He refuses, so Katsura lifts her weapon and shoots herself as Ichinose embraces her. This downbeat finish is comparable to the one in the '54 GODZILLA in somberness. 

I remember being extremely upset when this movie came to home video via Paramount, and their version was the G rated TERROR OF GODZILLA version with virtually all of the violence excised -- including the above mentioned suicide sequence. Even the title of the movie was missing. TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975) maintained a gloomy tone that hadn't been seen for over a decade. Unfortunately, audiences weren't interested.


Kazuki Omori directed two unique Godzilla pictures in the Heisei series. This was the lesser of the two, in my opinion. Still, Omori's complicated script contained one of the most powerful sequences in the entire Godzilla series. In it, wealthy businessman Yasuaki Shindo was previously a WW2 commander whose garrison was once under attack by American forces on Lagos Island. During the skirmish, Shindo and his troops were saved by a mysterious dinosaur dubbed a Godzillasaurus -- later to become Godzilla after being exposed to an atomic bomb. Mortally wounded by the US warships military hardware, Shindo and his unit give full service to the apparently dying creature that fought valiantly to repel the enemy forces. Shindo and his men survive to return to Japan. Flash forward to 1992. Godzilla is destroying Tokyo and is nearing Shindo's building. Refusing to leave, he instead wishes to once more come face to face with the creature that saved his life some 50 years earlier. What follows is a reunion scene both touching and tragic heightened by a superb, emotionally enhanced cue from Ifukube. It's striking in part that for the first time in the mostly forgettable Heisei series, Godzilla is humanized in a way not seen since the Showa period. It's also the only time the Big G has a flashback (not counting a similar occurrence in GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA from 2002). He remembers Shindo; and for a brief moment, the creature displays a moment of solace, and even understanding.


Heavily hyped with the death of the mighty radioactive lizard as its frontispiece, I was ultimately disappointed in DESTROYER (DESTOROYAH) upon seeing it in a fansubbed VHS edition. Godzilla's combatant looked overweight -- like a dressed up, and painted version of the Space Godzilla suit. Still, despite a few other negatives, Takao Okawara comes through for the finale; and again with bang up support by maestro Ifukube -- his last score. With Godzilla threatening to become a China Syndrome, burning a hole clean through the Earth, the military desperately attempt to cool him down before his final moment is reached. As he begins melting, the mighty monster is pelted with dozens of freezing weapons. As the sound effects dissipate, 'Requiem', Ifukube's sorrowful cue heralding Godzilla's death, takes over accompanied by a mournful chant eerily reminiscent of the choir theme from the '54 film. If nothing else, this last of the Heisei series succeeded in making me shed a tear or two for Godzilla. It was like growing up with this character, and that character was now dying right in front of you; ergo, the series was ending so that horrific American travesty could be made in 1998. DESTROYER is only a movie, of course, but it's a testament to the filmmakers to be able to make a connection with the viewer in this way. It was a huge event, and it was a depressing sequence that was masterfully pulled off even if the last shot kind of takes some of that poignancy away.

It's also worth mentioning the further adventures of Godzilla Junior is well handled, too. Without Ifukube's charming music, the scenes with G the younger would be far less engaging. His death scene is also well done, and almost as big a highlight as that of G the older. It's yet another example of Ifukube's genius what his touch of musical brilliance brought to a genre not always taken seriously by mainstream viewers.


Having impressed a great many fans with his GAMERA trilogy in the 90s, Shusuke Kaneko took the reigns of this next entry in Toho's Millennium series. Godzilla was returned to his evil roots for this film, ignoring the radically different, if very impressive new look the monster first sported in GODZILLA 2000 (1999). I didn't particularly care for this bulky, elephantine look, although the white eyes gave the monster a possessed, overtly demonic appearance. This ghoulish visage is key to his villainous aura in the film -- where Godzilla once again represents an atomic bringer of death. 

There's a wonderfully grim shot where Godzilla is standing at the front of a city in flames. If ever a monster was meant to represent the King of Hell, this is it. Godzilla then turns his attention towards an escaping battleship in the harbor -- the sole remaining one. At the same time, a battered, partially on fire Mothra rises from the flames like a Phoenix. Approaching Godzilla from behind, the beast turns quickly and disintegrates Mothra with his heat ray. It's all very quick and unexpected. It's so shocking, I assumed Mothra would return somehow or other; but it doesn't happen. The music of Kow Ohtani is drastically different from anything Ifukube (or any of his contemporaries) ever did. I didn't really like the score at first, but over time, it definitely adds something to this film that is strikingly different from the rest of the Millennium series -- much like FINAL WARS is different, but in Kaneko's vision, it's in a good way.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Kaiju Sized Moments of Absurdity, Hilarity, Shock & Awe in Japanese Giant Monster and Science Fiction Movies

Japan's unique brand of science fiction and monster cinema is home to many scenes that will leave you awestruck, stimulate your imagination, and also make your jaw drop, and your belly ache from laughter. This is a selection of fifteen of the silliest, the wackiest, the most outrageous moments in serious, and not-so-serious Japanese creature features of the outsized sort.


Overt goofiness in Japanese monster flicks began to seep in with this classic, and hugely entertaining monster mash. Whether it be the Japanese in black-face, Yu Fujiki complaining of his corns hurting, Ichiro Arishima's goofy Mr. Tako, or Kong getting drunk on berries, there's plenty of fun to be had regardless of which version of KKVG you watch. The 'Falls Count Anywhere' battle royale at the end is spectacular with both beasts getting in some cheap jabs; and they celebrate accordingly. Even though it's all intended with the most light-hearted touch, there are a few shots where Kong shows signs of some rare monster bone disease with arms that bend in ways arms aren't meant to bend. The Kong suit used here isn't one of the more popular among movie fans. Reportedly, a number of gorilla designs were rejected by Tsuburaya before this one was decided on, so it'd be great to see just how bad those earlier ones looked.


Ishiro Honda's ambitious and expensive SciFi tale of Armageddon is among the best examples of science fiction cinema. It works perfectly as a story about mankind contending with a gigantic star (the Gorath of the title) that threatens to decimate the Earth. But with giant monsters all the rage at the time, producer Tomiyuki Tanaka thought it'd be best if one found a home somewhere in the script. For approximately 5 minutes, GORATH's trajectory is stopped while Magma, a giant walrus freed from its icy tomb in the South Pole, runs rampant over miniature sets before being subdued by laser fire. It's jarring, but considering Japan is teeming with giant kaiju spread out all over the country, it fits. But try to imagine a giant sea serpent attacking Gene Hackman and the rest of the cast trapped inside the capsized ocean liner from THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972); or Charlton Heston faced with confronting a giant creature wrecking havoc in EARTHQUAKE (1974).... which might not be such a bad idea after all.


In Japan, three heads are better than one; not just as a proverb, but applicable for giant monsters, too. Mothra momentarily halts Godzilla and Rodan's monster melee to try and talk them into beating up King Ghidorah, the triple-headed playground bully of the universe. With humans watching on the sidelines, Mothra's twin fairies translate everything into English (in the dubbed print, anyways); all except Godzilla's "terrible language"! Godzilla and Rodan's batting boulders back at forth schtick was perfected in the "tennis match" between Godzilla and Ebirah in GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1967).


Japanese science fiction might seem silly, or even contemptible to some mainstream viewers, but there's no denying the level of creativity on display in them. With numerous live action and animated TV shows  featuring assorted mecha and transforming vehicles, Japanese SciFi is a virtual smorgasbord of imaginative ideas -- the ultimate sandbox for big kids. Some of the cool creations that come to mind are the Goten-Go, or ATRAGON (1963); an enormous, weapons-laden undersea warship that can also fly; the main warship of MIGHTY JACK was another flying submarine that also acted as an aircraft carrier. Melding the past with the future was a frequent theme in Japan-a-tainment, and one of the more surreal examples is the sailing ship spacecraft seen in Toei's goofy, gaudy STAR WARS style epic MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978). Think STARCRASH (1978) or BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980), only it's superior to the former and comparable to the latter.


After both he and Rodan rough up King Ghidorah, Godzilla does this goofy victory dance on the surface of Planet X, home to a race of emaciated New Wave rock musicians whose out of this world attire includes visor sunglasses, huge neck braces, and curly-toed boots. Anyway, our two hero monsters 'Whip It', and 'Whip It Good' in their rematch with KG. Known as 'The Jumping Shie' in Japan, Godzilla's Happy Dance is basically a jumping heel click. It's kind of jarring the first time you see it, but it grows on you over time.


Toho's mix of Shelley's novel with nazis and kaiju conventions was a bizarre marriage, but Honda and company make it work. With a title like FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON you're guaranteed a ticket into Drive In Heaven.  The heart of the Frankenstein Monster is eaten by a starving boy who grows into a giant neolithic caveman and battles a subterranean lizard; and it's all taken dead serious. The cream of the calamari crop is the inclusion of a giant, pissed off octopus. At the behest of impulsive American producers who went gaga over the octopi from KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), an alternate ending was shot where a tired Franky M. is assaulted by an angry cephalopod after a grueling 15 minute Japan Death Match against Baragon (unlike Daiei's Barugon, this one looks like a puppy dog). These same impulsive American producers were apparently fickle, too, as the ending was never used. The tentacled terror did get used in the sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MONSTERS: SANDA VS. GAIRA (1966), aka WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.


If Godzilla and Gamera can both get down and boogie, than why not this reptilian critter from South Korea? Korea shows they can do giant monsters just like their Japanese colleagues, only far less exciting. An hour in, Yongary wakes up from one of his oil drinking binges and inexplicably begins dancing while Korean surfer music blares on the soundtrack. A little boy encourages Yongary, and does the Korean Twist, himself. On a more serious note, Yongary will go down in history as the only known Asian monster to bleed from his ass before expiring. South Korea produced an even crappier remake in the 1990s titled YONGARRY. The country did a much better crappy monster movie in 1976 with A*P*E.


Kinji Fukasaku's unbelievably entertaining 'B' movie (B as in Bad) plays it straight, but I defy you to keep a straight face while watching it. The original Japanese version runs 77 minutes versus the US cuts 90 minutes; the latter of which emphasizes the love triangle between Horton, Paluzzi and Jaeckel when the creatures aren't lighting up their victims with their high voltage attacks. What generously aids in getting this tale of cyclopean, tentacled aliens wrecking havoc aboard a space station a spot on this list is the psychedelic, spaced-out groove tune by Richard Delvy called 'Green Slime'. If you're familiar with the original song (exclusive to the US release), get in the spirit of green globular goodness and sing along in your head with these new lyrics below...

What can it be -- where did it come from?
A film so bad, your mind goes numb
Laugh and cry and maybe scream
You'll wake and hope it's all been a dream
From Japan and oh so sublime
Eating away at your brain, it's Green Slime!


Throughout the 39 episodes of ULTRAMAN and its numerous spin-offs, there's been a generous supply of bizarre monsters to fill out the long-running series. Out of all the remarkably offbeat creatures, one of the most popular is the passive Pigmon. Highly irritating, yet modestly lovable all at the same time, there's no denying the 'hand on a chalkboard' level of annoyance evoked by this squawking, skeletal-clawed, pink-colored, fat-lipped chia pet. Kids love'em, and I do remember crying back then when I witnessed poor Pigmon being squashed while trying to help The Science Patrol. Aside from his ridiculous appearance, his hyper hopping, and hand flailing remained burned into my brain all these years later. Appearing occasionally throughout the various Ultraman incarnations, Pigmon starred in episodes 8 and 37 of the original ULTRAMAN -- and both times he died either crushed by boulders thrown by Red King, or smashed by the hand of Dorako. He was sort of the Kenny of the Ultraverse (Oh, my god! You killed Pigmon!).


If battling a monster from outer space with a big knife on his head wasn't bizarre enough, the creatures brightly colored alien home world has giant gymnast bars that the monsters can use to brush up on their agility. Gamera takes a brief moment to show off his acrobatic skills before Guiron attempts to make turtle soup out of him. In other weirdness, Guiron turns Space Gyaos into sliced bologna, and two alien women plot to eat the brains of the two young boys they capture!


For half of the original Gamera series, the makers tried to build an entire movie around two tykes exploring their surroundings -- aboard UFO's, other planets, or inside Gamera himself -- in between scenes with the monsters. Only GAMERA VS. JIGER (1970) was successful in not making a boring mess with this formula. In VIRAS, it's a cadre of octopi aliens traveling in a weird looking spacecraft made up of five glowing ping pong balls with bullseye's painted on them. Two boys are kidnapped by the aliens, and spend a lot of time walking around the ship. The monster money shot is Gamera water skiing on Viras's tentacles. In the meantime, you'll thrill to some 20 minutes of stock footage from previous Gamera films to pad out the picture.


Yoshimitsu Banno's acid trip kaiju opus not only had Godzilla battling Hedorah in a desperate bid to "Save the Earth", but there was also trippy animation sequences, tons of goop, irradiated humans and Japanese hippies. The highlight of it all is probably Godzilla tucking his tail between his legs and using his radioactive breath to fly and chase Hedorah in flying form. Godzilla going airborne was such a hit with producer Tanaka, he exclaimed Banno had ruined the series and promised he'd never direct another Godzilla movie ever again. Hedorah is quite the nasty jokester, too; it makes Diarrhea all over Godzilla in one of the films funnier moments.


Thankfully this was the last Gamera movie till 1980 when the gaudy, cheap, yet bitchin' stock footage fest of GAMERA SUPER MONSTER made all those scenes feel fresh and new again with tighter editing and a snazzy soundtrack. Before overcooking his big fish, Gamera rocks out by playing his own theme song on the spiky back of Zigra while doing a celebratory jig. Zigra, a talking alien shark, would have made a great ULTRAMAN series addition.


One of Japan's most revered, and popular Tokusatsu television programs, KAMEN RIDER began in 1971 (the first series ran from April 1971 to February 1973 for 98 episodes) and is still going strong today in its various incarnations on the big and small screen. There are many adjectives one could use to describe KAMEN RIDER, a TV show that's not only aimed at kids, but is both chintzy and freakishly violent at times -- towards both humans and monsters alike. To simply call the story about an ascot wearing, motorcycle riding humanoid cricket battling the forces of Shocker and their army of monsters weird is an understatement. KAMEN RIDER was popular in other Asian territories, and highly influential on the Shaw Brothers cult favorite, THE SUPER INFRAMAN (1975). Some of the monster designs in that movie were clearly inspired by similarly daft creations in the Japanese show. If you're into eccentric cinema and television, the world of Japanese Tokusatsu and Super Sentai is a veritable goldmine of gonzo themes and ideas.


Tsuburaya's 10th Anniversary film is a celebration of absurdity, yet it's oddly charming at the same time. If you dislike the more pronounced kiddie kaiju movies, you'll loath this beyond compare. However, this is first and foremost a kids flick. What makes this of peculiar interest is that the special effects surpass those of the Godzilla series that were coming out at that time. Other than some songs, a sort of Japanese Pee Wee Herman (before there was even a Pee Wee Herman), and humans training Daigoro for his big battle, the height of ridiculousness is reached in the last scene when Daigoro is seen exiting a gigantic outhouse!


GVM is one long tag team monster match, but by this time, there really wasn't much lunacy left for Toho's kaiju department to come up with. We got a giant cyborg cochroach, a giant cyborg chicken with a buzz saw in his chest (introduced in GODZILLA VS. GIGAN [1972]), and Jet Jaguar, an Ultraman style robot who would be more convincing if her were just a guy in a silver mask wearing a garishly colorful aerobics outfit. As a bonus, there's Robert Dunham in a toga and tiara with a Megalon head attached to it. All this inspired insanity needed was some Godzilla shenanigans -- which it got with that hilarious drop-kick maneuver -- not once, but twice.


Toei did scarcely few movies featuring giant monsters. Outside of the ninja fantasy, THE MAGIC SERPENT (1966), this torturous Japanese version of JAWS (1975) is the most well known. The gore is moist, meaty, and surprisingly well done with guts, body parts and half eaten horses strewn from one end of the screen to the next. Sadly, the monsters are the polar opposite; and among the worst ever put to film. A marionette play for kids would have better models. LEGEND OF DINOSAURS AND MONSTER BIRDS is Japan's version of THE GIANT CLAW (1957). It's a totally bizarre movie that any fan of kaiju films should experience at least once in their life -- even if you do regret it later.


This outrageously wacky movie, a re-edited version of the TV series DINOSAUR WAR IZENBORG, has dinosaurs taking over the Earth while poorly rendered anime characters thwart their plans; these include a brother and sister duo that combine to form Izenborg -- an Ultraman type character -- a concept similar to that of ULTRAMAN ACE (1972-1973). A cretinous Cretaceous dino named Emperor Tyrannus (Ururu in Japanese version) plans the destruction of mankind while barking orders like, "Destroy!" and "Kill them all!" at other dinosaurs. There's lots of miniatures and some of the worst stop-motion you'll ever see. The dinosaur suit from THE LAST DINOSAUR (1977) was slumming it here, but for this, he actually got dialog. As atrocious as it is, IZENBORG in its motion picture form is Honda level expertise compared to the series (and cobbled together movie) that preceded it -- DINOSAUR EXPLORATION TEAM BORN FREE (KYORYU TANKENTAI BORN FREE [1976]), aka RETURN OF THE DINOSAURS.

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