Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Godzilla vs. Gamera vs. Alien Metamorgus: A 'What If' Scenario

In 1991 I started a homemade Godzilla vs. Gamera vs. Ultraman comic book. It was just something I was doing for myself, not for sale, or anything like that. Like the half dozen or so other things I start simultaneously, I later redid it, and didn't finish it that second time, either. Sometime after seeing GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH (1995), I wrote a short story for a new Godzilla movie I'd like to see. It was extremely dark and violent; akin to melding Godzilla with John Carpenter's THE THING (1982). Below is a new story I wrote incorporating elements of that short tale (written on a piece of notebook paper) into a plot involving Gamera. Strictly for fun, I hope you enjoy it.


A massive underwater earthquake off Japan's coast so soon after the 2011 Tohoku disaster causes the nation to brace for another possible cataclysm. A research team is sent to investigate after an enormous object turns up on naval radar a few miles from where the quake occurred. The team of scientists and marine biologists find what appears to be Godzilla in a state of hibernation near the quakes point of origin. Having remained unseen for 60 years, the search party immediately assume Godzilla is the source of the undersea disturbance. They cautiously move on to the site of the quake and discover a vast chasm. Descending further, an entirely new world is uncovered -- a heretofore unexplored ecosystem that houses mysterious forms of life, as well as remnants of some ancient civilization. The research team find gigantic worm-like creatures, strange plant life, and many bones of what appear to be humanoid beings as well as larger, more monstrous lifeforms. Studying further in a mini-submersible, the scientists uncover a crumbling pyramid type construct that houses peculiar markings within its inner chambers. A multitude of crystalline objects are found, and an even more massive, oval-shaped artifact encased within the earth. After taking a slew of photographs, the research party leave with their findings along with a satchel full of the crystals. The plan is to return and attempt to study not only Godzilla, but also the gigantic, peculiar looking, barnacle covered object.

Upon notification that Godzilla is below the depths of the ocean not far off Japan's coastline, the government prepares for the worst. A conference is held with military officials to decide what plan of action to take. Should they do something now, or wait till the beast awakens? If he even wakes at all. While the conference is split on what sort of action to take, a decision is unanimous to perform some rudimentary tests on Godzilla to determine his stasis. 

An international committee of scientists conclude the radioactive monster is in some sort of a coma, but little else is known without further examination.

Meanwhile, Japan's UBI (Undersea Biological Institute) perform tests on the mysterious crystals brought back from the deep. 

Another search team is mounted to return to the site of the underwater earthquake to explore the newly uncovered terrain; and also ascertain just what the enormous shell-shaped object is. A specialized submarine with a science lab on board is sent. Once there, one of the scientists, Dr. Mitsuhara, learned in archaeology and ancient civilizations, deciphers some of the writings in one of the pyramid chambers. Recognized as Lemurian, it mentions two gods from the sky -- one good, one evil. The party also find traces of what appears to be Godzilla cells attached to some of the rock formations. The giant spherical object is deemed to be a UFO. The conundrum is in figuring out what the second sky god is since Godzilla, so far as known to man, has never possessed the ability to fly. Either way, these discoveries are the most significant finds science has ever seen.

Topside at the UBI, researchers learn the crystals are living organisms that become active when exposed to any kind of heated source -- whether that be body heat, or some sort of flame. The DNA of the creatures are unlike anything known on Earth. Their age is indecipherable without further testing at the underwater site. As they show more and more signs of life, the shape of the crystals slowly begin to change into something else.

Back below the sea, the lab techs study the Godzilla cells, as well as samples scraped from the large object. The G cells show signs of contamination by an unknown parasitic life form. Additionally, the scraped samples of the UFO reveal DNA not of this world. As the tests continue, a survey crew attempt to loosen the ground surrounding the object to get a better look at it, and to ascertain if it can be moved. While that is going on, the ocean floor begins to shake. Is it another earthquake, or is Godzilla moving? The crew hurries aboard the submarine. The ground below becomes even more unstable. A strange light emanates around the large UFO. It's moving! It begins to spin slowly, then faster as it rises. The massive force triggers an underwater volcano to erupt. The sub narrowly escapes the chasm as flame and rock engulf the area. They witness Godzilla's coma-induced body fall into the fiery pit seemingly to die inside the volcano.

Above water, the UFO bursts from the ocean heading into the sky, spinning wildly. It disappears into the clouds.

Back at the UBI, the lab tech records his findings as the crystals take on a blobular form. He decides to place a lab rat in the container. The blob-thing, using some sort of sensory mechanism immediately senses the rat and attaches itself to it. Absorbing it quickly, the blob once more changes growing slightly in size; tufts of hair sprout, and a mouth with jagged teeth emerge. Distracted by this frightening sight, the creature senses the heat source put off by the ogling human. It then latches onto the face of the scientist.

An emergency meeting with world leaders is called regarding this discovery, and the status on Godzilla. The Lemurian discovery, the UFO, the subsequent earthquake that has buried both the ancient pyramid and Godzilla within the undersea volcano are topics of discussion. With Godzilla presumed dead, a new plan is hatched to deal with the possible attack by this UFO that has seemingly disappeared into the stratosphere.

While the meeting continues, an aid at the UBI enters the lab where the crystals were kept and finds the lab wrecked and blood all over the place. Whatever happened, something has escaped through an air vent without detection, and taken all the crystals with it. 

The decision is split on contacting the authorities, but it doesn't matter as it's surmised the thing escaped into the sewer after a city crew turns up missing. The creature doesn't remain hidden forever, though. A search party armed with flamethrowers and automatic weapons scour the sewers for signs of anything out of the ordinary. 

At that time, some movement is detected out at sea about 10 miles from the Okinawa islands. A fleet of military ships are dispatched to the area to find out what this unidentified object is. Japan now has three possible threats from the land, sea and air.

In the sewers below Japan's bustling city, the search continues. Slime trails are found by the SAT's (Special Assault Team), and these are followed in the hopes they will lead to whatever it is that left them. Elsewhere, a subway train travels to its destination when suddenly, it smashes into something huge. 

At sea, one of the ships picks up an object just below them on their radar. It's ascending fast, and the size is enormous. A rumbling is heard; and once the ship commander realizes the object is rising just below them, it's too late. Ripping the battleship in half, Godzilla emerges from the water.

Back underneath Tokyo, tentacles quickly rip through the subway cars grabbing those trying to escape and snatches them away. One of the SAT units hears the commotion and reports. The group closest to the attack point is ordered to investigate. What they find is almost indescribable. With a snake-like head bearing rodent features, multi-tentacled arms with sharp, knife-like ends, legs like an alligator, and jagged, sharp teeth, the SAT's engage the monster (Metamorgus) and accidentally set off an explosion. Seemingly trying to escape the flames, the beast then rips through the ground right in the middle of a busy street. Cars go flying everywhere.

At sea, Godzilla is moving quickly towards Tokyo as the remaining fleet of battleships pursue and fire on the monster. Godzilla is oblivious to the assault as if he's on a mission. Like he has a purpose.

Meantime, Japan's Air Defense Force picks up the UFO on their radar moving fast towards Tokyo. Planes are scrambled to intercept it. They trail it and fire several missiles, but they have no effect. The giant spinning UFO is heading straight for the location of the frightening looking alien.

Metamorgus begins destroying the city, and consuming the fleeing citizens. As the beast wrecks buildings, it pauses -- looking skyward. It senses something approaching fast. Suddenly the giant spinning object emerges through the clouds. The monster tosses several cars and trucks at the spinning thing. The vehicles explode as they hit the disaffected airborne object. It then stops spinning. A head, arms and legs emerge from the open holes where the flames spit that kept the thing in the air. It's Gamera, the jet-propelled turtle. Gamera falls on top of the tentacled thing and immediately begins to slam it with his clawed fist. Metamorgus's head moves out of the way each time, grabbing Gamera's arm and flinging him away causing more city damage as the big turtle plows through buildings ripping up the street along the way. 

At that time, Godzilla enters Tokyo Bay. Japan is stunned as to what to do with three threats converging on their city. Citizens are ordered to evacuate. The Air Self Defense Force is ordered to remain on standby. The military form a perimeter around the three monsters. Godzilla approaches looking more enraged than ever before; but shows signs of a sickly pallor. He looks diseased. Maybe near death? It hasn't slowed him down, though. Gamera turns towards Godzilla, a monster it's never seen before. It then turns back to Metamorgus. As Gamera turns, tentacles lash out gripping Gamera's arms and legs. Its head elongates and bites into Gamera's neck. The titanic turtle then slashes the tentacles off with the sharp bladed edges of its forearms to get loose. The tentacles, also alive, scurry back and reform with Metamorgus. A blast of Godzilla's radioactive flame suddenly hits Gamera in the back. As the flames smash Gamera's shell pushing him towards his initial adversary, the turtle, seemingly unaffected, begins to charge up an attack of his own. He turns and lets loose a ball of fire that hits Godzilla in the shoulder successfully knocking him off balance. Distracted, Gamera is attacked from behind a second time. The alien wraps a  tentacle around his neck and easily tosses the turtle into the air. It then spits this green-hued acidic goo that melts everything it touches.

As the monsters brawl, two of the scientists (biologist Miki Nagawa and Mitsuhara) try to rescue those trapped below ground in the burning subway system. The archaeologist now knows Gamera is the good alien and Metamorgus is the bad alien. He concludes Gamera is apparently an alien itself, a possible bio-weapon created by an alien race from another galaxy. Gamera was chasing the alien through space thousands of years ago when the two monsters clashed on Earth, plummeting into the sea; and likely were responsible for the destruction of the ancient Lemurian civilization. During the battle, the alien became dormant without life forms to feed off of, and Gamera hibernated for centuries; lying in wait for when their grave would be disturbed whereby they would fight again.

Godzilla is actually uninterested in Gamera. It's sole aim is in dealing with the metamorphosing alien. But why? Both Godzilla and Metamorgus finally clash. Godzilla gnashes at its head and misses every time. The aliens tentacles spread out, its bladed tips aiming for Godzilla's body. Stabbing into him, the beast rears back in pain and lets out a roar. Unleashing his radioactive fire, bits of Metamorgus are blasted off. Some of the pieces re-attach with the Metamorgus, while others scurry away, sensing body heat nearby. 

As Mitsuhara and Nagawa get everyone out of the mangled subway cars, they hear a strange hissing sound. Something is scurrying across the tops of the cars. Everyone gets quiet. The few remaining SAT's stand ready. Suddenly something rips through the top of the car. It's one of the alien cells, having taken on the form of some mutant crustacean. It grabs a hapless victim and pulls them away. More of the creatures enter through the rear of the car. Everyone runs to find an escape. The SAT's begin shooting, but to no avail. Somebody flames one of the monsters. The creature cries out and seemingly dies due to being burned. The citizens and scientists try to run, but are overcome by the creatures that scuttle faster than they can get away. Trapped, it looks like the end. In the nick of time, more SAT members appear and burn the monsters to a crisp. The military is advised to mobilize Flame Tanks only. All other military hardware are ordered recalled from the clash zone.

The thing lashes out simultaneously at Godzilla and Gamera wrapping tentacles around their legs and whipping them around like they were sacks of potatoes, then slamming them down into the earth as explosions go off around them. Godzilla attempts to flame the alien a second time, but Gamera, knowing the result, manages to take flight and absorb the radioactive beam in time. Gamera then unleashes his own fire attack, which begins burning the alien. In pain, the creature sprouts wings and flies into the sky. Gamera pursues. Godzilla stands and watches the chase. Suddenly, he clutches at his chest, crying out in pain. Something is inside him. He then begins unleashing his radioactive flame all around him, toppling any buildings nearby. Mitsuhara and Nagawa's escape route is cut off, and they must find a way to escape the city amidst all the calamity around them.

Meanwhile, the military mobilize as many Flame Tanks as possible in a formation surrounding Ground Zero. Above, Gamera and the alien battle in the sky. Metamorgus appears to be trying to escape into space. Gamera charges up and unleashes a flurry of flaming balls. A few miss their target but some hit the monster. Through an evasive maneuver, the alien quickly turns and latches onto Gamera, clawing at him, cutting into his flesh. Gamera's head zips in and out of his shell to protect itself, but it refuses to let go. Both monsters plummet back toward the Earth. In freefall, Gamera gets an open shot. His bladed forearms light up like a laser beam and slice through the alien severing its head and multiple tentacles. As the pieces separate, they burn up instantly. Gamera then unleashes a massive blast of flame that hits the alien burning it to a cinder before it hits the ground. The charred remains crash into the Earth. Metamorgus is seemingly no more. Gamera lands, and turns his attention to Godzilla.

Breathing heavily, Godzilla turns to Gamera and lets rip his radioactive beam. It hits Gamera in the shoulder, successfully blasting away a small chunk of his shell. Gamera takes flight and rams Godzilla shoving him into a stretch of buildings that fall like dominoes. Explosions go off everywhere. Gamera hovers over Godzilla, who doesn't move. He emerges through a cloud of smoke, grabbing Gamera and slams him hard, face first into the ground. Gamera stands and Godzilla spins, whipping his tail that strikes Gamera square in the chest sending him flying backward into an oil refinery that explodes instantly. Godzilla is immediately hit with a flurry of flaming balls that rip into his weary, but tough hide. As Godzilla drops to the ground, Gamera emerges from the refinery flames.

Godzilla begins convulsing violently. He stands up and appears to be choking. To everyone's horror, he regurgitates a giant blob monster -- another Metamorgus! One of the aliens was gestating inside of him. Mitsuhara and Nagawa witness this and surmise Godzilla did cause the undersea earthquake; and battled the alien there once it came into contact with it. Attracted by the body heat from living organisms, it left its dormant state and infected Godzilla. Metamorgus immediately latches on to Godzilla's arm and begins to consume it. Godzilla hits it with his powerful flame attack, but instead of burning it, it blows chunks of the alien off. Gamera quickly acts and emits a widespread fire-shrapnel attack that sets the pieces ablaze. Gamera then hits the monster with flame pellets as it continues to eat away at Godzilla's arm. The injured creature moves away and takes Godzilla's arm with it! It quickly turns to Gamera and emits dozens of piercing tendrils that stab straight through Gamera causing the giant turtle to roar in pain. As it removes the tendrils, Gamera drops to the ground.

Metamorgus begins to grow, taking on a reptilian shape akin to both Godzilla and Gamera's genetic makeup. With but one arm, Godzilla punches into its mouth, the sharp teeth cutting into Godzilla's hand. He pushes his fist deeper into the monsters maw. Suddenly, it's head splits in two. Now there are two heads! Godzilla then punches into Metamorgus's chest, ripping out what looks like its heart. Tendons and blood vessels wrap around Godzilla free arm. He thinks fast and grabs the alien, moving towards the giant flames emanating from the destroyed refinery. He forces the creature into the flames as it slashes and cuts into him. The creature appears to melt into nothingness. Godzilla turns and stumbles away.

My interpretation of one of Metamorgus's forms.

But Metamorgus isn't dead. Partially on fire, the monster leaps onto Godzilla, knocking him to the ground. The alien stands over him. Gamera, badly injured, senses the end is near. He begins to glow. The ground shakes around him. The military perimeter is ordered to disperse as it appears another earthquake is about to hit. Gamera turns into a blinding ball of white flame and takes flight. The alien turns and sees the super hot flaming ball flying towards it. It attempts to escape, but Godzilla grabs Metamorgus and holds it in place. Stabbing into Godzilla, the alien is unable to free itself. Gamera, now a white hot ball of flame, hits Metamorgus and obliterates it instantaneously. The creature burns to a cinder, its ashes scattered in the wind. The battle is over. There is no sign of Gamera. A bloodied, and injured Godzilla stands to his feet and stumbles out of the city. His regenerative properties will heal his arm in time. The scientists and military watch in awe as he makes his way back to the sea. All traces of the scientific discovery are destroyed. No one knows if Gamera is alive or dead, or if Godzilla will ever return again; and if he does, will he attack mankind, or save them should another threat surface. 

After this devastating war of the monsters, Japan and world leaders come together to form the SIA, the Scientific Investigation Agency, a government facility formed to combat threats of monsters from both inner and outer space.


ADDENDUM: In the original story, a research team was already studying the underwater ecosystem. When the first team fails to report back, and communication is cut off, a second team is sent to find out what happened. They discover Godzilla near the quake site, and upon discovering the wrecked research station, they assume Godzilla was involved. They find experimental organisms in one of the labs and take them back, to which one of the members gets infected and the creature escapes, absorbing other organisms leading to a battle with Godzilla. Gamera was not a part of the original story.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Great Monster Laser Wars: Looking Back at the Heisei Godzilla Series (1984-1995)

There have been, up to this point, three eras of Godzilla films -- the Showa, the Heisei, and the Millennium periods. The Showa Era is the classic template that laid the groundwork for the two dozen films+ that followed. The Millennium series, born from the fallout of the theatrical disaster that was the US Godzilla film from 1998, rode the waves of creativity and stagnation leading to its own monumental meltdown in 2004. In the middle is the Heisei series. It, too, followed a similar trajectory of the later Millennium period. With each succeeding, and highly anticipated entry, that anticipation eventually grew into disappointment and indifference over the years towards this glossy time frame of the glorious Godzilla franchise. Still, seeing the 90s films via fan-subbed videotapes back then was an exciting time to be a fan of the genre.

Taking a few movies to both find and lose its voice, the Heisei period enjoyed a great deal of box office popularity in its homeland. Ironically enough, the eras most creative work were in its experimental beginnings; and these were the least receptive with audiences. Moviegoers apparently wanted formula and familiar faces; and they got that in spades with each sequel. Unique to this era was that each film carried over into the next movie, and all were connected to the '54 film only. The Showa period films didn't exist. Ultimately, the Heisei films became the most lavishly empty, repetitively unoriginal, soulless series of the three eras.


After TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975) failed to find favor at the box office in Japan, the series was put to rest for several years. However, the thought of Godzilla once more stomping cities underfoot simmered while the beast slept. The revivification of Godzilla was planned as early as February of 1978, but an actual script that was decided upon didn't occur till late 1983. With the hype of 'The Return of Godzilla' in full swing, Tomoyuki Tanaka was set to mount the most ambitious Godzilla movie ever. Mirroring the Dino disaster of '76 (the remake of KING KONG), an enormous 20 foot Godzilla cybot was constructed. Despite not being used much in the finished picture, this literal Big G came in handy for promotional purposes. It also marked the debut of Kenpachiro Satsuma inside the Godzilla suit. A promising new beginning for the Big G was taking shape.

GODZILLA (1984), or as it was known in its radically altered US version, GODZILLA 1985 (1985), was something of a bridge between the Showa period and the Heisei. Many of the old guard worked on the picture, and it would be their last once the new crew took over by the time the actual official Heisei film, GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), became a reality. Koji Hashimoto, an AD on THE SUBMERSION OF JAPAN (1973), got the Godzilla gig; and the results are occasionally thrilling, and also tepid. Seeing it at that time (especially in theaters), it was quite different from any previous Godzilla movie regardless of which version you saw. Another major difference was the lack of participation by Akira Ifukube. 

For a film that ignores all previous G films, and directly links itself as a sequel to the '54 original, it's difficult to fathom Ifukube not being a part of this project. Reportedly he was ill at the time and could not participate. Reijiro Koroku's score sounds totally unlike anything heard in the series prior; and yet it makes one wish that at least a single strain of any number of Ifukube's classic compositions would make an appearance. The implementation of Koroku's best cues is the one area where the US release improves upon the Japanese original. Another AD from THE SUBMERSION OF JAPAN (1973) would become an integral part of the Heisei series starting in the 90s, but first, this wobbly, if auspicious beginning (the Millennium series started off rather shakily, too) was about to make some ground.

I remember being stunned upon seeing some images from GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989) in a 1989 comic magazine. A theatrical release was planned, but one never came, unfortunately. I was even more riveted upon seeing it when it was dumped onto the home video market in 1992. A number of changes were immediately apparent. One of the most noticeable areas was in the SPX department. The script and music were others. BIOLLANTE, a direct sequel to the previous film, was a fresh, daring take on old material. Whereas the '84 film was passing the baton from the previous era, BIOLLANTE took the series in all new directions. That director Kazuki Omori (above in middle with Kawakita at right) wasn't a huge fan of giant monster pictures is key to the films uniqueness. This ambivalence carried over into his other G directing job with 1991s fascinating and confusing GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH. 

BIOLLANTE had an assortment of characters with varying agendas, and mixed Bondian elements with spirituality, espionage, psychic phenomena, and giant monsters in a heady stew for kaiju fans. Award winning composer Koichi Sugiyama's score (he was responsible for the memorable theme for THE RETURN OF ULTRAMAN) was yet another deviation from the familiar sound of Ifukube (some of his iconic music is used, though), but was far more majestic than what Koroku had done in the '84 incarnation. It was also here where the Heisei series carved its one singularly original idea that stood out from the other two eras -- the inclusion of a recurring character in the form of psychic girl, Miki Saegusa. The other key to the eye-opening spectacle of the Heisei films, and its ensuing redundancy was SPX director, Koichi Kawakita.

Teruyoshi Nakano and Koichi Kawakita in 2010

Koichi Kawakita joined Toho in 1962. He participated in various capacities both behind and in front of the camera before moving into special effects directorship as an assistant on Tsuburaya's ULTRAMAN ACE (1972-1973) and again on ZONE FIGHTER (1973-1974); the latter show was where Kawakita had his first encounter with Godzilla. His first SPX directing credit was on Toho's ZERO PILOT (1976). He formed his own SPX production company, Dream Planet Japan Ltd., in 2003. 

Whereas Eiji Tsuburaya's work was passed on to Teruyoshi Nakano, so was the case with Kawakita. Revered by some, there's no denying the man was talented, and loved his craft. Unfortunately, his ingenuity only went but so far as gauged by his continuous work on the Heisei Godzilla series.

Kawakita either lost interest, or just simply ran out of ideas as the Heisei series progressed. He was known for a few signatures in his work -- some of these were distinctive, while others grew stale quickly. He was fond of having things transform, whether it be the monsters or the assorted mecha featured in the films; examples being Biollante's rose form, and final toothy, crocodile form; Mogera (or M.O.G.E.R.A.) transforms into two separate battle crafts for land and air. This wasn't something he started; it had been done countless times before in Japanese monster/SciFi films and TV shows of previous decades. About the only thing he added to it were monsters transferring their life force into a dying beast to bring them back stronger than before. This meant lots of additional visual effects and laser beams -- an area the effects director would go hog wild beginning with GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH in 1991. 

Kawakita never tired of his brightly colored laser light shows that substituted for actual monster battles. His idea of a 'great monster war' was to have two giant combatants standing at a distance while firing assorted lasers at each other (see above pics from GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA [1992]). Virtually every monster would have laser attacks; and sometimes emitted from multiple orifices. Imagine Sanda and Gaira (from 1966s WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS) having a laser battle from a distance instead of the classic 'falls count anywhere' battle royal they indulge in; or try to imagine King Kong shooting beams out of his eyes and mouth in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962). I'd bet Kawakita would have done it. If he can give a Pterodactyl a beam attack (Rodan in GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA from 1993), he can give one to a giant gorilla.

Moreover, monster movie fans who were simply ecstatic at the idea of seeing a new Godzilla movie with subtitles, this sort of thing was insignificant at the time. However, upon subsequent viewings, the Heisei films don't hold up so well -- and much of this has to do with Kawakita's by-the-numbers, and predictable monster battles. There are only so many ways a monster can be slammed into a building, or so many times a monster can fire off multi-colored beams before you just want it to end. His long time love affair with beam attacks likely blossomed from his optical photography days at Toho back in 1963. As you watch any of his effects work, you'll notice patterns emerging. To summarize a KK monster battle sequence, see below:

1. Monsters should fire lasers intermittently for minutes on end.

2. In between firing lasers, push, shove, or use lasers to knock monsters into buildings.

3. Transform monsters, or mecha, and fire new, corresponding lasers.

4. Change color of lasers to indicate a stronger, more powerful laser.

5. Shake camera to accentuate the power of the multitude of explosions caused by a multitude of laser beams.

For all their flashy effects, acres of crumbling buildings, and enormous explosions, Kawakita's Heisei work sometimes looked strikingly low-tech compared with what Tsuburaya and his crew accomplished in the 1960s. Take the 90s Godzilla and Mothra match up for instance; in the 60s version, the Mothra model was far more animated with moveable parts such as the head and legs. Mothra in the Kawakita era looked to have arthritis. She looked like a plush toy by comparison with only the slightest mobility; and in spite of its fantasy origins, 60s Mothra felt far more realistic because she wasn't firing off laser beams from her antenna like in the 90s update. Beam attacks and pretty colors won out as the film became the biggest hit of the Heisei series, and led to a trilogy of cringe-inducing Mothra movies set in Kawakita's special effects world of Laser Land.

Improvements had clearly been made in this second tier of Godzilla films, yet Kawakita's methods grew increasingly tiresome with little to no variance. Where his approach to SPX on BIOLLANTE was alive with creativity, the repeated use of the same types of shots and techniques grew stale by 1993. By 1995, the effects artist had resorted to using what appeared to be toys for effects scenes! His composite work, at one time impressive, had gotten sloppy, too. Another oft repeated technique was having the monsters, when firing their beam attacks, aim at the ground and gradually make their way to the target. I guess this was an excuse to squeeze more explosions into the scene. Ditto for airborne monsters flying over the ocean resulting in pockets of water erupting skyward. 

Speaking of flying kaiju, for some reason, Kawakita didn't feel it necessary to make the wings flap with any consistency at all. Often times his monsters would just glide, or the wings moved stiffly. For example, King Ghidorah (in '91s GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH) can't make up its mind if it wants to flap its wings or not; and when it does, they barely move. The Destroyer (in 1995s GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER) is the Pillsbury Dough Monster of the Godzilla series; and for such a wide bodied beast, he manages to stay in the air with nary a bit of movement from its wings.

Possibly the best contribution to the series by Koichi Kawakita is in designing what is arguably the most fearsome look for Godzilla since the early Showa years. The King of the Monsters truly looked evil in BIOLLANTE and KING GHIDORAH. The latter film gave the beast a musculature that hadn't been done before. But while Godzilla is the King of the Monsters, Koichi Kawakita is the King of the Laser Beam Attack.


Teruyoshi Nakano, Takao Okawara, Maasaki Tezuka in 2011 discussing Mechagodzilla

Takao Okawara is another link in the Heisei chain, but the one who does the least amount of damage to it. He began as an AD on THE SUBMERSION OF JAPAN (1973), and moved on to GODZILLA (1984) in the same capacity. Of the Heisei directors, he directed the most films with three entries. He also jump-started the Millennium series with GODZILLA 2000: MILLENNIUM (1999). Additionally Okawara is notable for his '99 film being the first Godzilla movie garnering US theatrical release in 15 years. The Toho fantasy YAMATO TAKERU (1994) was directed by him as well. 

Okawara's style was arguably the most Honda-like. He ended the Heisei series much like Honda had begun it -- by killing off Godzilla. The Oxygen Destroyer did in the radioactive lizard in 1954, and he self-destructed, literally melting away in 1995. Even though Okawara's directing style brought about memories of master Honda, his films were often polluted with scenes lifted wholly from American films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and JURASSIC PARK (1993). Honda was an original through and through. Maasaki Tezuka, who inherited the Millennium mantle, mimicked Honda as well; and was at least able to wrangle some originality into his works unlike much of Okawara's output since nearly all his films are remakes of past, and better movies. 

For the most part, the Heisei series is little more than eye-candy bereft of characterization. At times, the monsters get so much screen time, you almost forget the Earth is populated by humans. Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka at right) is likable, but little is done with her character from one film to the next other than changing her hair style. A psychic with a link to Godzilla is an intriguing idea, but not much is done with this scenario. BIOLLANTE sets it up nicely, yet the concept flounders for the rest of the series. The scripts gave her little to do aside from standing on the sidelines looking worried about Godzilla and Baby G when he's introduced in the '93 version of MECHAGODZILLA. That middle film is the one that succeeds in deriving some emotional involvement with the bare minimum of characterization we're given for Saegusa; her conflict with being the deciding factor on killing Godzilla once and for all after a second brain is found near his spine. After this outing, an attempt was made to give her a love interest, but this too is squandered on special effects from an artist who seemed out of fresh ideas, and prone to rehashing old ones.


In 1995, Daiei reemerged with an all new Gamera series that showed a monster movie could balance action with exposition, and still be an enthralling experience. GAMERA, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995) hit theaters in March of that year while GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (Destoroyah) landed December 9th. The differences between the two films were unmistakable. Toho's film beat Gamera at the box office, but Daiei's innovative take on their old franchise was the one that got international critical recognition, limited theatrical release in America, and regular airplay on US cable television. Putting the two side by side, it was clear just how stale Godzilla had become at that time. The Godzilla movie had an excellent plotline to wrap things up, but lazy effects work, uninspired action sequences, and unengaged characters paled in comparison to what Daiei offered in their Gamera opus. Things only improved with the first sequel the following year, GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION. Incidentally, Daiei's new Gamera series featured a girl (Steven Seagal's daughter, Ayako Fujitani) with a bond of sorts to the giant jet-propelled turtle that lasted for three movies, and an unrelated fourth entry that surfaced in 2006.


Watching Toho's Heisei series now, it feels like a string of movies that mostly offer extravaganzas of laser battles with updated themes and ideas that were done better by past artists. Dotted with occasional moments of brilliance and poignancy, and nice odes to the classic era, the series quickly entered into a relationship with mediocrity that ended with the death of its main star. For the most part, the garishly bland monster battles coupled with threadbare exposition do not allow the pictures to hold up well to repeat viewings. They're entertaining in their way, but in the end, the laser lovin' Heisei entries will make one long for the seriousness of the 50s, the silliness of the 60s, and the second-rate, creative squalor of the 70s movies.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Leo Episode #4



When we last left Ultraman Leo, his color timer had run out after a seemingly fatal blow from Turuk sent the L-77 savior into the sea. Believing Gen Otori to be dead, Dan Moroboshi ponders what to do next. Amazingly, Gen is found alive some time later. Dan castigates Gen, ordering him to remain in his human guise till he's mastered his triple attack regardless of when Turuk appears again. Unfortunately for MAC and Japan, the monster returns sooner rather than later.

Picking up where the last episode left off, Ultraman Leo, and his human alter ego Gen Otori, are presumed to be dead. There's a reprise of the sorrow felt by Captain Moroboshi, but this time, it's over the loss of Gen, his Ultra acolyte. His lamentation is short-lived, though, as writer Taguchi Shigemitsu seemingly didn't have enough time to come up with a plausible reason for Gen surviving after his color timer expired. Instead of an explanation, he just turns up alive and he's rescued. 

In pretty good shape after the pounding he took from Turuk, Gen is only too happy to get back to Karate training despite throwing some serious temper tantrums this fourth go round. Dan reaches down deep to attain the most guttural voice possible to let Gen know he means business this time about the training. Speaking of which, Gen's training sequence makes absolutely no sense. He basically does what Gordon Liu did in 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978), but with far less expertise. He just punches at the water and that's it. He throws a huge fit when he fails to master "splitting the waterfall". For whatever reason, the secret to acing this skill lies in striking at some flower petals that fall down behind the cascade. All we know is Gen yells out, "I know the secret!" But nobody fills us in on what the secret actually is. Similar flowers are inside MAC headquarters, but again, Shigemitsu makes no connection between the two, nor sufficiently explains why this water chopping skill is able to turn Leo's arms into literal Karate choppers. 

Now the master, Leo suddenly gets the glow, and Turuk's sword strikes do no damage. Leo takes it to the hyperactive space creature with a string of throws and suplexes, and quickly finishes him with his new technique that allows his hands to slice through flesh. This is twice in a row that monsters have met a gory demise.

The balance of action and exposition of episode three is missing here. Four is fragmented, and feels sloppy despite its near non-stop monster scenes. For instance, the opening recap features shots not in episode three. One of these clips shows one of Turuk's blades come into closeup, yet it looks nothing like the monsters actual sword arms. At another point, the back of the Turuk monster suit is clearly open during the finale. The camera is at his front, but the suit actor energetically twists to the left and right, and the open back is briefly visible.

The lack of variety, and focus on city destruction was likely a move to appease the kids, but having Alien Turuk attack the city three times (if you include the tail-end that carries over from the previous show) gets tedious. It all looks like the same set each time even though a few composite shots mix up the monotony. There's an attempt to expound on Dan to the point where the episode feels more about him than Gen -- which is a huge mistake. This episode would have been superb had the focus been on the disappearance/death of Leo, whereby Dan must go it alone. Instead, only the latter point is realized.

Koji Moritsugi plays Moroboshi much like he did in ULTRASEVEN, but the friendly demeanor is all but evaporated. If not for Gen, one gets the impression he'd lose the will to live. He's dour the entire time, and never smiles. Up to this point, he's a far more interesting character than his impulsive disciple. Adding a layer of concern for his character, Dan uses his mind control ability for the second time in an effort to hold Turuk at bay -- this move exasperates his life force each time he uses it. 

Initially the Captain of MAC was to have been named Kawakami Tetsutaro, but it was eventually changed to Moroboshi of ULTRASEVEN.

The confusion as to what to do with this story continues during Dan's second air assault on Turuk. In it, he lures the monster onto some power lines. Electrocuting him doesn't work the way Dan had hoped. Turuk gets a charge out of the experience, and ends up using his sword extensions to absorb electric current when he returns to destroy the city at the end. Curiously, the beast never does anything with this new electrified ability when confronted by U-Leo at the end. Another missed opportunity.

The days of having actual storylines in Ultra shows was well past by 1974. The superhero shenanigans had taken over. There would be an occasional idea here and there, but everything gets drowned out in the 'Monster of the Week' mentality. There was really no reason for this being a two-parter outside of the cliffhanger of Leo in trouble, leaving the audience wondering how the spaceman would come back. And that's the one major area the second half fails in. We don't know how he survived, he just does.

ULTRAMAN LEO was considered a ratings failure compared with the previous series'. However, these first four episodes performed the best. From here on out, the series would struggle to maintain a 10-13% share of the viewing audience in Japan during its April 1974-March 1975 run.

As for episode 4, it's totally unnecessary as the second half of a two part story. Why the focus wasn't on Gen/Leo's supposed death is anyone's guess. That would have made for a much better conclusion than simply retreading the same thing already covered in ep. 3. The atmosphere of darkness is great, but that will be lifted soon (for a good stretch of episodes). Monster fans will be satisfied with the destruction scenes, even if it, too, offers little deviation from the first portion of this two part arc.

WEAPONS: MAC-2, 3; MAC Attack Jeep

To be continued in Episode #5: DON'T CRY! YOU ARE A MAN!!!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Leo Episode #3


Toru and Kaoru, friends of Gen and the MAC Team are being raised by their dad after their mother died. Leaving the MAC training facility one night, a mysterious creature kills the man in front of his kids and leaves a metal object at the scene. Gen Otori becomes seriously concerned upon seeing the object and notices it has the face of Ultraman Leo on it. Both Gen and Goro must now figure out who will take care of the newly orphaned siblings. MAC members, Suzuki, also a family man, decides to let the kids stay with him temporarily. After leaving, the deadly creature attacks once more, killing Suzuki and quickly leaves the scene. On another night, Captain Moroboshi is ambushed by the alien till Gen arrives and forces it to flee. Later, Moroboshi informs Gen the alien is named Turuk, an outer space monster with flesh-shredding blades for hands. To defeat Turuk, Gen must learn yet another martial arts technique to apply to his growing Leo skill set.

The dark aura that permeated the first two U-LEO shows courtesy of writer Taguchi Shigemitsu is maintained for these next two shows, another two-parter -- this one featuring a deadly sword-slinging alien that enjoys slicing humans in half. In this series the giant monsters also wreck havoc in human form, and Alien Turuk wallows in it. In a shocking bit of violence barely five minutes into the show, Turuk cuts two innocent humans in half -- in front of children no less!

As a man-sized alien, Turuk has a metallic appearance about the face, and possesses swords for hands. He is also proficient in martial arts style combat; much like all tokusatsu suit monster creations from this time period. 

In his giant monster form, Turuk looks totally different; more reptilian in nature. His sword arms are now extensions protruding from his forearms. He moves incredibly fast and dishes out some pain to U-Leo in the climactic fight. Tatsumi Nikamoto (underneath the Leo wetsuit) jumps, chops, and somersaults all over the miniature set when he isn't being pummeled by Turuk. He rushes to battle the monster prematurely before mastering his tri-attack maneuver to counter the giant monsters dual strike. There's a great cliffhanger where Leo's color timer runs out (he lasts for less time in Earth's atmosphere compared with other Ultra heroes), Turuk delivers a final blow sending Leo below the watery depths of the harbor.

The monster action is exciting and well choreographed; and the sight of Turuk splitting buildings and MAC ships in half gives these scenes additional punch. It moves very fast, and fans of karate/kung fu genre product get their kicks while tokusatsu fans get their suit action fix.

Furthermore, the human drama is handled well for a series that eventually wanders all over the map in terms of tonal shift. For now, things are consistently grim, and the series wholeheartedly embraces its downbeat tone later in the run with some shocking turn of events.

Dan Moroboshi gets as much, if not more screen time than Gen does. For all its action, the writer manages to squeeze in a bit of subtle exposition for its crippled Captain. Since he can no longer transform into Ultraseven, he acts as the Obi Wan Kenobi of the series -- training Gen in his human state to adapt martial arts skills that will accentuate his Leo techniques. There's one scene where Dan looks intently at his Ultra Eye -- knowing it is useless to him after his bone-shattering ordeal with the Gillas Brothers and Alien Magma in U-LEO's first episode. This brief scene, bereft of dialog, says more about his emotional state than any melodramatic monologue could.

Gen (Ryu Manatsu) is still an excitable hot-head, his eyes threatening to fall out of his skull at any given moment. The series continues its martial arts movie template by having Gen train in various techniques to battle the monsters all the while brandishing his best Sonny Chiba expression.

This episode not only marks the first appearance of the two kids Toru and Kaoru, but it's significant for its trend of killing off members of the MAC team. Suzuki barely recites his few lines before he's felled by Turuk's blades. Other affiliates of the Monster Attack Crew die, but not all given much audience connection outside of a face in the crowd, or the casual line delivery.

The impressive battle carrier, the MAC 1 (or the MAC Macky 1) returns, but is seemingly MIA after this -- remaining docked in the teams space station. Their attack jeep was seen in the series opener, and it gets some action briefly here. The MAC Attack Jeep has a mounted bazooka and some laser weapons. It's just as garishly colorful as the rest of the groups hardware and attire.

'Goodbye Tears' is just as strong a show as the opening two-parter. The action and drama finds a stable medium with which to further the story; and thus far ULTRAMAN LEO delivers quite a bit of everything that attracts fans to this genre. The series kind of loses its way later on, but for now, U-LEO is proving to be a radically different approach to familiar material.

MONSTERS: Alien Turuk (human sized and giant form)
WEAPONS: MAC 1 carrier; MAC #s 2,3; MAC Attack Jeep

To be continued in Episode 4: A VOW BETWEEN MEN!!!
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