Thursday, April 24, 2014

Unbelievable: Daijaiku Varan

In 1957, AB-PT ( American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres), a division of ABC-TV, approached Toho to make a few monster movies. One of these was The Volcano Monsters, which was co-written by Ib Melchior, who could later write the screenplay for Reptilicus. The other project to be orphaned when AB-PT collapsed was Daikaiju Varan. This bit of background is important if we want to understand the film.


Varan was not made for theatrical release. It was a cheap, fast, black and white film that was intended for television broadcast. NBC coukld not, in 1957, broadcast in color. When AB-PT died, Toho was stuck with a half-done film, no money to show for it. That said, Varan is an imporant film. It was made by Honda, Tsuburaia, Ifukube, and Nakajima. It's the old band that made Godzilla. It's also the first film for Shinichi Sekizawa, who would go on to write Atragon, Mothra vs Godzilla, and twelve more kaiju films, finally retiring in 1974, after Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla. And if his output became labored and trite with Godzilla vs Megalon and Godzilla vs Gigan, his early output are some of the most memorable Godzilla films of the sixties.

What's my excuse for wresking stuff again?

The film also demonstrates that in virtually all things, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya were innovators. This is the first film to make some use of recucled material. The original Godzilla recycled some of its own footage (you see a particular building crumble three times), but this is one of the first times that a film uses footage from a previous film, a practice that would become commonplace, especially in the Gamera franchise. But like so many other things, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya did it first. In addition, it is possible to hear a lot of Akira Ifukube's best music in early for here. Ghidorah's theme from Ghidorah the Three headed Monster is here in a prototypical form, as are themes and cues from Space Amoeba, Destroy All Monsters and War of the Gargantuas.

The film begins with a rocket launch. It's a scene that will be replayed several trimes in later films, including from Honda himself in Space Amoeba. The opening shows us the science which man has achieved, but wanrs us that there are still mysteries of the Earth that have not been explained. We then move on to Professor Sugimoto, who has been brought some butterflies that normally only live in Siberia. They have been discovered in a remote valley in Japan, referred to as the Tibet of Japan. They find a strange village which worships a strange god, a theme that would be revisited by the screenwriter three years later Mothra, and echoed in Gamera vs Barugon.

A rocket to a dropped plot point.

What separates Varan from other monster films of the preiod is its sense of humor. When the butterfly-seekers have arrived in the villiage of Baradagi, they hear a rumble. An earthquake? No. Should they go further, the timid one asks. Yes, says his bolder companion. It's too early for monsters the brave one of the pair says, acknowledging that this is what the audience is there to see. And then they are killed in a landslide.

Wait, are you smirking at the audience.

The villagers propriate Varan as a god. What separates Varan from Kong or Mothra, or even Take-Majin from Guilala's Counterattack: Lake Toya Summit Crisis is that Varan just wants to be left alone. He is angry because of the two interlopers, and the village undertakes chanting to soothe him. Unfortunately for everyone, Dr. Sugimoto has sent out a second team to find out what happened to the first expedition. The leader of the second expedition is perfectly willing to tell the villagers that they are ignorant and superstitious. And with crackerjack comedy timing, this is when Varan appears.

City Folk.

Wait, who doesn't believe in me?

Varan is an interesting-looking monster. It walks on four legs, sometimes on two, and has crystals growing out of its back, something like a cross between a stegosaur's plates and Anguirus' spikes. The design is partially based on monitor lizards, and its name is a shortened version of Varanopidae, an extinct family of lizards. Varan's roar is similar to Godzillas, and with the metallic grind that gives it an excellent sense of menace. The Varan suit isn't the best Tsuburaya ever build; the back gaps a bit when Varan is crawling around. But the intended low-res quality of fifties televisions would have made these shortcomings hard to spot.

A rocket to a dropped plot point.

After the reveal of Varan, one of the reporters comments after encountering it that it would wreak havoc in a big city. Hm. Untilling to leave a gigantic monster alive and kicking in Japan, the military arrives, poisons the lake, and then puts on the usual noisy but ineffective show. Maybe Varan would have laid low if they'd left it alone. But we'll never know.

But he couldn't possibly get to a city, could he?

As the military retreats, and Varan walks over military vehicles, they explode. Sadly, this catches the local trees on fire, and soon, Varan's reatreat is completely ablaze. And then Varan spreads his flying squirrel-like wings, and flies off. Once again, if the military had just left him alone, Varan would not have gone on a rampage in Tokyo.

But he couldn't possibly get to a city, could he?

In keeping with the 1954 Godzilla, the first people to feel Varan's wrath are fishmerman. Once again, if you're living in a kaiju-infested world, the last thing you want to be is a fisherman.

Aw crap. We chose the wrong profession.

Varan is then located by the military, and for the first and only time in a kaiju film, the military sends out a bomber. Usually, only the fighter jets to fire rockets at the monster, but here, we have a single bomber. Like all aircraft, it flies too close to the monster, and is swatted down.

A swing and a miss!

Later, the Navy gets involved, in scenes of depth-charges that are prescient of Gorgo, which was released in 1961. Of course, this doesn't harm Varan at all.

But he couldn't possibly get to a city, could he?

In a scene that is repeated in War of the Gargantuas, Varan makes landfall at Narita airport. The film's MacGuffin is a new type of explosive. whith they have to get Varan to eat. Since Varan likes to eat flares, the idea is hatched to get Varan to consume the explosive attached to a flare. Varan wanders into the ocean to die.

But he couldn't possibly get to a city, could he?

Varan comes with a lot of baggage, as mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry. It's not the most stellar kaiju film ever, but it's a very good film taken on its own terms. Despite the cheapness of the production, Varan's rampage is pretty good. The scrips is pretty sharp, delivering some very subtle humoe and awareness of the genre in which it operates. So there's a charm to the human side of the story. Very worth watching if you are interested in the development of kaiju film, and want to see a focal point where sort of stories told in these films changed. There's also an American version of the film. None of this paragraph applies to it.

Next up, a giant monster more unlikely than anything Gamera ever fought.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Flying Destruction: Rodan

I'm playing a little clean-up, plugging the gaps in my history of giant monster movies. Rodan, from 1956, is the first Toho kaiju film in color, and the first Toho kaiju to to star in a film that wasn't Godzilla. Rodan would go on to be a popular costar with Godzilla, teaming up with Godzilla to defeat Ghidorah in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro-Monster, and Destroy all Monsters. Rodan appears also appears in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II 1993, and of course Godzilla Final Wars.

Rodan, or Radon.

Like the original Godzilla, Rodan is a vehicle for social criticism. The film begins with coal miners. They have a dangerous job, yet they are the foundation on which civilization depends. Some of the hazards of mining are shown early in the film, and the Meganulons can be seen as a metaphor for the dangers of mining. Screenwriter Takashi Kimura often had a more somber tone than the other long-term writer of kaiju film Sekizawa. Mining is shown to be a dangerous task.

Those happy, happy miners.

Further, Rodan, like Godzilla, begins with an element of mystery. But this one is much more human. After a mine disaster, a miner is discovered slashed to death. Is the man he was always fighting with, Goro, responsible? This is early in the Kaiju film, and they were still treated as serious dramas. The miner's wife weeps for her dead husband. Two rescue workers are pulled under water before our eyes. This is kaiju film as horror, not kids entertainment, as ripples of the deaths spread throughout the small community. We see the women of the community weeping as their husbands vanish or die.

The hurt ones left behind.

More than any previouas film, the monsters in Rodan kill people. The Meganulon, which is really more of a standard monster than a kaiju, since it fits in a house. We are shown the bloody bodies of the two miners who are killed by the crawling meganulon.

Rodan, or Radon.

Woah. They look very dead.

Once the monster is established, the response is swift. The miners bring a machine gun down into the mine. The meganulon is, like so many other monsters, immune to bullets. But the Meganulons are not the major problem. They get a mining cart full of coal dropped on them. Everyone thinks the problem is solved, about half-way through the film, it's merely a precursor to the real threat, which eats meganulons; a giant pterosaurs. Rodan don't show up until thirty-six minues into the film.

I think it's just happy to be free.

And again, people are killed. The first pilot to track the monster is killed, and a discuassion held over his bloody helmet. A couple taking pictures vanish, the only clues of their fate the last pictures taken from their camera.

So, let's talk baout this over a bloody helmet.

After than, through t's another fifteen minutes before we get a good look at Rodan. Because this is an Ishiro Honda film, Rodan is destructive because of its very existence. It flies so fast that it creates a wake that destroys what it passes over. This is a first movie for Rodan, so it is not presented with another monster to fight.

Rodan emerged from a dormant.

Honda tries out a couple of new ideas. One is we see Rodan from the point of view of the pilots attempting to take it down, rather than steadfastly watching the miniatures spitting fire. The flying chase of Rodan over Fukuoka is like a traditional car chase. There are tracking shots behind the jet formations.

Rodan, or Radon.

Rodan smashes a bridge, which is successful and dramatic. Godzilla gets tossed into a bridge in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster.

And Japan'[s infrastructure suffers.

As much as the original Godzilla, Rodan also can be seen as a callback to World War II. With Rodan approaching Fukuoka, the air-raid sirens wail, and people batten down their stores and find places of safety. At the same time, Rodan evokes the Japanese familiarity with destructive earthquakes. Rodan comes from under the ground, and sets off minor earthquakes as it awakens.

Say Goodbye, pitiful works of man!

Although the scenes of Rodan's destruction are brief, they are excellent. The shot of tiles being stripped off a roof by Rodan's hurricane-force wake is exquisitely well done. For the first time, tanks roll over small obstacles, like fences, to get a better shot at the monster.

Tanks roll in.

This is also the only Showa film to show Rodan with a breath weapon. It is shown expelling some sort of mist from its mouth, but there doesn't seem to have a direct effect. Rodan's breath doesn't show up again until 1993's Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II.

One of the big twists in Rodan is that there are two of them. As Rodan is smashing Fukuoka, another one approaches. The military can't do anything to a single giant monster, what's it going to do against two of them?

Oh shit there's two of them.

The ending is unexpectedly sad. The Rodans nest in Mount Aso, and during a military bombardment meant to bury the creatures, the volcano erupts. The Rodans cannot seem to fight the instinctive need to return to the next. Ifukube plays a slow, mournful tune, and the end of the pair is sad, rather than the defeat of an enemy. Kiyo hides her face, as one monster burns. A second settles next it it, then ascends briefly, on fire, only to fall back into the lava. Consumed by fire, it still struggles as it burns. This is not a triumphant ending.

Burning like Icarus, it tries to ascend.

Well, that wasn't the triumph I thought it was going to be.

The King Brothers bought Rodan and brought it to American and English audiences. This proved such a success that they would later go on to bankroll thier own kaiju film, Gorgo.

Rodan s an early Kaiju film, and it shows. The tone is darker than the more lighthearted 60's and 70's films. The moral ambiguity, wondering which side is sympathetic, is creates a depth and shows the freedom that the creators had. Rodan's late entry into the film and the concentration of the plight of the miners feels fresh. Rodan is a classic of the ouvre, and rightly so.

Next, something unbelievable.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

If Wishes Were Giant Turtles: Gamera the Super Monster

It's no secret that I consider the Gamera series, the Showa series at least, to be an also-ran to the Godzilla films. Gamera films are made cheaper, with less attention to plot detail, and the miniature work is generally of lesser quality. And the relentless use of kids as protagonists really grates on me. Gamera, Super Monster was made in a desperate attempt to save Daiei from bankruptcy. In a franchise that was ruthlessly cheap to begin, with was made with as little money as possible. And it shows. The Daiei team used the technique which had served them well before; the reuse of footage from previous films.

The introduction of the film is literally filmed paintings. After which we get an overhead pass from space ship Zanon, an enormous wedge-shaped starcraft. Star Wars, the reader may remember, came out three years previous, and this could kindly be referred to as a borrow.


With television filled with Ultraman and its many imitators fighting giant monsters, it was inevitable that the super sentai form would overtake its kaiju projenitors. Even Godzilla fell to the influence in Godzilla vs Megalon. In a bold move, however, all the super sentai are women; a pet shop owner, a teacher, and a car salesperson. This might be in order to catch the interest of an audience that had grown up on Gamera and now was interested in the opposite sex. Or it could be a continuation of the deliberate sexiness exhibited in Gamera vs Zigra and Gamera vs Guiron, which featured women from space as antagonists.


The three space women are opposed by Giruga, the one-woman advance team from the Zanon. She has a taser touch, which she oddly doesn't use in the showdown with Kilara. So we get a late-movie catfight, which goes down pretty well, since Kilara is played by Mach Fumiake, a professional wrestler.

I think I can hear Tom Servo fainting.

The women are joined by Keiichi, the Gamera-standard child protagonist. We meet him as he's reading some manga with his friends. They decide to go to the park because a story in their magazine about a turtle that acts like Gamera. This deliberately blurs the line between reality and manga; they go to the policeman's station from the comic, and the man even has a turtle, although he deines the link between himself and the comic. Further, after Keiichi acquires a turtle, he sings the Gamera march to it, so the Gamera films must be part of his universe.

In about a year, he'll be looking at rather different magazines.

And then the stock footage begins. Hey, remember in Gamera vs Gyaos when that helicopter got cut in half? Remember when Gamera reduced Zigra to smoking ash? Or that entire fight when Gamera was speared through by a octopus-shaped lemon reamer? It's all there.

Immediately, there are logic problems. Kilara, one of the superbabes, transforms her van into a flying ball of light, lifting off from the highway, and no one notices. But they experience problems because Zanon can detect them when they're in their space woman form, so they aren't able to (lucky for the budget) transform into their super forms. So who's going to save Earth? Gamera, of course. Apparently, Gamera is fiction in this film, but Keiichi believes so hard that Gamera does come to rescue Japan from the rampaging space monsters. What? Head Space Woman Kilara is happy to watch Gamera kill invading space monsters, but won't kill Giruga because "To kill any living thing goes against my principles." And then there's the bit where Gamera performs a flyby of Space Cruiser Yamato. The animated one. The mixture of anime and live action is jarring.

Hello other franchise! Nice to see you!

In a generally unacknowledged nod to Mothra, when the super sentai themselves and stand in a carrying case, very remiscent scent of the Shobijin.

Timmy will later collect women's ears and put them in the same carryall.

There's a moment of intercompany rivalry as Gamera stomps past a billboard, knocking it down. It's a sign for a Godzilla film! This sort of thing will be repeated in Kraa the Invader and Godzilla Final Wars. It's a cheap shot, and tends to turn up in films that are insecure about themselves.


We also have the very strange experience of watching a television present Gamera in footage from the first film trash Tokyo. I should say it's footage from Gamera vs Viras, since it's color-tinted. But still, it's a bit weird watching Gamera trash Tokyo on someone else's television.

What I've been desiring for a long time; A film about people watching monster movies on a console television.

In the end, Gamera has to destroy the gigantic ship Zanon. We see the approach, but not the impact. But Keiichi, who has some sort of link with Gamera, tells us he's dead., tells me that the ending was changed. The writer and director agreed that this film would not bring back the franchise, so they killed Gamera off, without a resurrection as in Gamera vs Zigra. I'm not sure if this is true or not. Gamera's heroic sacrifice is foreshadowed by Giruga doing the same thing. This might be a trope in Ultraman-style shows, the villain is redeemed, but can't become a regular, so they heroically sacrifice themselves for the greater good. This does get referenced, sort of, in Gamera the Brave, although Gamera sacrifices himself against Gyaos in the film's backstory, rather than a space ship.

Overall? This film is bad. Out of a 92 minues of screentime, thirty-six are recucled footage, more than a third of the film. So if you have recently watched all of the Gamera films, a third of the film is a waste of my time. And the superhero stuff isn't particularly interesting either, which leaves me with a bg shrug. The film is what it appears to be, a microbudget piece of desperation. It's a sorry farewell, even for a series I don't particularly enjoy. There wouldn't be another Gamera film for fifteen years. But the resurrection of the franchise is something truly beautiful to behold.

With the two big franchises hibernating, the early eighties were a time of change for kaiju films. So I'm going to take about a month and step back in time, catching a few movies I didn't have when I began My Year of Monsters. These will be the more obscure (read 'expensive')but influential films like Varan the Unbelievable, Mothra, and Atragon. From there, I should be able to work a straight chronology (with the exception of the next Godzilla film) until 2015.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

It's Not All Glory Being the King: 1976 King Kong

The seventies were a time of transition for film industries, both in America and Japan. The Exorcist had rocked audiences, Dario Argento's Deep Red pushed the bounds of gore. Horror was changing, it was no longer a genteel fright that relied on a hidden monster. It didn't have to be a quick, cheap film. Large amounts of money could be wrung from the was not just a quick, cheap film. Universal had made a lot of money off the original King Kong, and so they decided to bring their monekmaker back in style, with an updated sensibility. The result, the 1976 King Kong remake.

But first a little explanation. King Kong would normall fall outside of my definition of a kaiju, and therefore My Year of Monsters, but as I have said in my work with the original King Kong, so much was born from Willis O'Brien's masterful film that leaving it out would be missing a significant chapter in the development of the film form. King Kong is so much the prototype of Godzilla: a strange monster out of its element in a city, so many tropes come from King Kong. But Kong is not a strange monster. He is simply a large ape. He lives with exaggerated monsters; dinosaurs and giant spiders, but he himself is nothing strange. No flight, no radioactive breath, nothing that makes it completely impossible. Yes, I understand that an ape that size is impossible, but Godzilla's heat ray, Varan's ability to fly, Ghidorah's gravity beams; all of these are patently, absurdly impossible, more the provenance of a fantasy film. This gives a kaiju film a more fantastic, even bizarre feeling than the giant creatire film. Them! is a great film, and a great monster film, but it's not part of the kaiju subgenre.

Not all kings get all the glory.

Further, kaiju films usually have a subtext that doesn't bother me. Godzilla was born of a nation dealing with an atomic detonation, and from the fallout of Castle Bravo, which threatened their food supply. Kong, and many of its imitations, are racism writ large. Why else would Kong, a gorilla, which is only found in Africa, share an ilsnad with natives who are always portrayed as African-derived, live in the middle of the Pacific? Shouldn't they look more like Pacific Islanders? This might have been excuseable in the thirties, but it has carried over into the 1976 and 2005 remakes. Further, Kong is the top of the island society, he is given bride sacrifices. However, the natives give him the blonde woman who comes with the party of white explorers. The maiden is distress is rescued, and the king brought in chains to the center of white civilization, New York City. Unable to deal with his imprisonment, Kong goes on a rampage and must be shot and killed for the good of civilization. The original King Kong could easily have had a much more offensive racial subtext if Willis O'Brien hadn't made Kong a fully realized, sympathetic character. This 1976 version makes Jack Prescott's assumption of Kong's sexual interest in Dwan quite clear. Many subsequent ape and giant ape films do not make their gorillas characters, and there's a limited amount of racism, veiled or not, conscious or not, that I'm interested in watching.

Sure, they look like Pacific Islanders.

As the Godzilla franchise sputtered out, Universal was looking to reinvigorate the character of Kong. The idea was kicked around for a few years until it landed in the lap of John Guillermin. And there was life in the old monster yet. King Kong was one of the highest-grossing films of the year, and won an Academy Award for its visual efffects, despite mixed reviews. The 1976 King Kong was realized as a lush, epic film, filmed in gorgeous tropical locations. The roles of the original 1933 Kong were changed around a bit. Film maker Carl Denham has been replaced with Fred Wilson, an explorer for Petrox, a petrolium company. His balance, and the audience's sympathy character, is Jack Prescott, replacing Jack Driscoll, a long-haired, well-off associate Professor who stowes away on the exploration ship. Jack is the love interest, the guy who knows everything. Fay Wray's just-discovered Ann Darrow is replaced with hippy-dippy Dwan, rescued off the ocean.

Kong is presented with a different technology this time. Originally stop-motion animated, this time he is a man, Rick Baker, in a suit. The suit is no great shakes, but it's still leaps and bounds better than the immobile-faced Kong from King Kong vs Godzilla.

It's a guy in s suit. I miss Willis O'Brien already.

The film also echoes a lot of tropes that have been carried over from Kong into other films. Fred Wilson falls into Kong's footprint. Kong details a subway train. In a rare addition to the film from other giant monster films, Kong encounters power lines, in the same way that the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms does. Soldiers herd Kong with a flame-thrower, echoing Gorgo.


Dwan has a lot more interaction with Kong than Ann did. Where the 1933 Kong spent all his prize from dinosaurs, this film concentrates on his interaction with Dwan. It's a little difficult, since she alternates simpering with rage and appeasment which sounds to my ear a lot like a woman negotiating with an abuseive husband. Kong is more powerful than she could ever physically deal with, but he does show a gentleness, washing her and then blowing her dry. Beauty can calm the beast, until he is again provoked.

It's famous. Buy her something nice after you rage at her.

What is in many ways sad is that the award-winning effects of this Kong don't hold up against the brilliant work of the original. The fight with the snake, Kong's only clash with megafauna, is Rick Baker wrestling a static snake. It's not nearly as interesting as the many-layered fights Kong has as constructed by Willis O'Brien. And although we spend more time with Kong in the 1976 version of the film (it's thirty minutes longer), he doesn't have nearly the personality O'Brien infused his creation with. This makes Kong much more difficult to sympathize with, especially sicne we've got Jack Prescott as our caring human and Dwan's love interest. Several shots were made with a 40-foot movable Kong, one of the few lif-sized giant monsters ever made. The shots that use the giant remote-control Kong are very clear. It looks terrible. This film as a number of failings, and the inability of the director to successfully integrate the miniatures work with other footage is clear. Toho had been doing it for years, and their practice shows.

Man, that looks bad.

The unveiling of Kong to new York City is more grotesque than it was in the 1933 version. Kong wears a crown, imprisoned in a cage, rather than chained.

Kong wears a Burger King Crown.

Notably, Kong is brought down by the military. Godzilla, Varan, Mothra, and their ilk are all immune to conventional weapons, forcing the humans to think of other ways to confine or destroy them. American monsters are subject to he law of the gun; weapons can solve the problem. This will happen in the 1998 version of Godzilla, also. Kong is, by the end of the attack, covered in his own blood before he falls from the World Trade Center. John Guillermin does manage to finally wring out a bit of sympathy for Kong, but he's spent a lot of time to get there.

Not all kings get all the glory.

Overall, the 1976 King Kong is a bit of a misfire. Kong isn't well-presented, and the first hour drags a bit. Less flattering, the attention that King Kong garnered during production inveitably led to imitations. APE, Queen Kong, and Mighty Peking Man all came out within a year of Kong, and all borrowed major elements.

Next up, more stock footage than the mind can bear. Gamera is back.