Thursday, June 26, 2014

Terrorism, Espionage, Godzilla! Godzilla vs Biollante

The Return of Godzilla sold enough tickets to warrant a sequel, but Toho was no longer the powerhouse it had been. The studi that had produced forty films in the sixties, made half as many films in the sixties, and only seventeen films in the eighties, two of them animated co-productions with Studio Ghibli. The studio would rebound in the next decades, producing progressively more and more films, but Toho was not in top financial shape. So the sequel to The Return of Godzilla took some time to produce.

Traditional Godzilla violence

When Godzilla vs Biollante appeared in 1989, there is a brief remember when sequence, so the viewer can ermember whan happened in the previous film, since the two are closely connected. Mostly, this consists of special effects shots of Godzilla and the Super X.

That said, this film stands quite apart from the Showa era films, and Ishiro Honda's idealism. Honda, a survivor of World War Two, saw science as the potential savior of humanity, and that an unspoken international brotherhood exised between all scientists. Nationalism was an ill concept in a country that had lost a war at great cost. The script, a contest winner heavily revised by director Kazuki Ohmori, shows both patriotism and a morally grey approach to science. This change of perspective reflects the times in which the film and script were created. As with the next film, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, non-Japanese characters are always self-interested, if not outright evil, and Japan develops the military might to not just slow Godzilla down, but appears to have a shot at taking the Big Guy down.

After the introduction, we watch the clean-up of Japan in the wake of Godzilla's 1984 attack. In the clean-up, some of Godzilla's cells are recovered. The discoverers are gunned down by Australians, or possibly Americans who are after the same thing. After a chase, these men are gunned down by the Agent, a superspy who will be intimately involved in the rest of the film. An agent for the middle-eastern country of Saradia, his presence and actions lend a James Bond feel to the film. And where Godzilla has followed James Bond before, in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, the conflict here is more grim, and there are a lot more bodies.

Hm. Godzilla bits.

Saradia is where the requisite scientist, Dr. Shiragami, works, and his daughter is in the lab when it is blown up, later revealed thew actions of the American company BioMajor, which plans to monopolize genetic research. This gives Shiragami the impetus to retuern to Japan, and his grief leads him to include his daughter's remains in his genetic engineering experiments, mingling her, in some off-screen way, with her beloved roses. The film also introduces us to Miki Sagusa, who will be a series regular through Godzilla vs Destroyah. As a psychic, her role varies greatly, but she is most demonstrably useful here. Importantly, she is a woman present on her own merits. She is not someone's daughter or girlfriend.

Traditional Godzilla violence

And although the tone of the film is usually grim, there are touches of subtle humor. Research Scientist Kirishima and his girlfrind Asuka discuss their future in the Godzilla Memorial Lounge, which has a skylight the shape of Godzilla's footprint, apparently inflicted during the 1984 rampage. It even has a cute logo.

Because Godzilla lounge

There's a beautiful and sinister reveal when a classtroom of psychic children reveal their drawings of a future to come, and all of them show a crayon drawing of Godzilla. Cue Ishiro Honda's ominous Godzilla march. It's interesting to note that several of the drawings are green, which Godzilla hadn't been at that time, except in American promotional materials.

Kids know what's coming

Japan has set up its first (of many) dedicated anti-Godzilla forces. Lt. Gondo is in charge, a bluff military guy who whishes, early on in the fil, that Godzilla would show up just so he will have something to do.

The first of many such agencies

The MacGuffin of the film is the Anti-Nuclear Bacteria, which consumes nuclear material. As with the previous film, Godilla is known to consume nuclear material, an attribute passed onto the MUTOs in the 2014 film. The American corporation is trying to get their hands on it, and the Agent is keeping them from doing so. because the bacteria have to be incubated in Godzilla's cells, this is the first film in the narrative trend that posits that the only thing that might be able to defeat Godzilla is another form of Godzilla. This film doubles down on the idea, as Biollante and the bacteria are made from G cells.

The Super X has been refitted, and nowe has a mirror, made of diamonds, to reflect Godzilla's heat ray. This is a more scienc-y version of King Seesar's energy-reflecting ability, again from Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla. Unlike the previous Super X, Super X-2 is an unmanned drone.

Super X-2 takes a pounding

Like Hedorah, Biollante changes form. It begins as a gigantic rose, reminiscent of a triffid. The details are intriguing. Initially, it is rooted in a lake, its rose-petal head has a center of sharp teeth. It has its own breath weapon, an acidic spraty, again similar to Hedorah's.

A rose is a rose... until it's crossed with Godzilla

Little tiny teeth

Forty minutes into the film, Godzilla emerges from Mount Mihara, where he fell four years ago. The suit is very good, one of my favorites. This is also the first to have practical lights in the spines.

No volcano can hold Godzilla

As in The Return of Godzilla, the confrontation with the Super X-2 actually manages to fend Godzilla off, rather than just slow him down while providing a show. We hear nothing about the cadmium missiles which were so effective four years ago, unfortuantely. And while Super X-2 manages to reflect a lot of Godzilla's heat ray, the miror develops a fault after taking a lot of abuse from Godzilla.

Flying Tank and Gigantic Monster

The military has a very differnt bearing, here. They make mistakes, they are presetned with setbacks, but they contonually reorganize, replan, and re-engage. In one embarassing error, the anti-Godzilla forces mass at Ise Bay, only to discover that Godzilla has emerged at Osaka Bay. Psychic Miki Sagusa is deployed, and manages to deflect Godzilla for a little while. Godzilla then stomps his way through Osaka. This is a stark contrast to the are way the military is portrayed in Godzilla vs Hedorah.

Wait, he's WHERE?

In the absence of the main military force, Super X-2 must engage Godzilla while five men with anti-nuclear bacteria set up. This does not go well for Super X-2, which cannot stand up to the repeated punishment of Godzilla's heat ray. So while the military can go toe-to-toe with Godzilla now, they cannot do so in a sustained fight. Yet.

Well, looks like another refit is coming

But the soldiers to manage to get some of the bacteria into Godzilla. It doesn't work as well as expected, because of Godzilla's low body temperature. Like all effective anti-Godzilla measures, this is never brought up in another film. The military is forced to bring another experiemental project, the Thunder Control System, into play. Lightning strikes, they reasonm, will bring up Godzilla's temperature. Lightning has been used on Godzilla before, to wake him up in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, and to power him up in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla. It revived him in The Return of Godzilla. Now it will heat him up. Masder tanks also return, a welcome callback after the more unsatisfying laser tanks from Return of Godzilla.

Little tiny teeth

In the midst of this, the final form of Biollante appears, a monstrous plant/Godzilla hybrid with dozens of fang-mouthed vines. I think Biollante is the largest of Godzilla's adversaries, towering over the Big Guy.


Godzilla demonstrates a new power in the fight against Biollante. It seems to swallow its heat ray, and sends out a pulse that clears everything off its skin. It's a good new power, and one that is used about once a film for the rest of the Hisei series. It's more plausible than the magnetic power displayed in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla.

Nuclear Pulse!

The fight is short but intense. It ends when Godzilla, overheated, stumbles away, and faceplants in the ocean. Biollante, essentially a benevolent monster, turns into a golden mist and ascends to the sky.

Nuclear Plant Breath!

The human drama comes to a close as Dr. Shiragami is assassinated by the Agent. Like Serizawa from the original Godzilla, he takes the secrets of his research to the grave. Godzilla then wakens and returns to the sea, apparently no longer interested in trashing Japan.

And I'm off!

What's refreshing about Godzilla vs Biollante is the complexity of the plot. There's a lot going on, and many characters with their own agendas. Certainly the script and direction label many individuals as evil, especially those that run countries or large corporations, but tightly intertwined nature of the complex narrative is unlike the often-flabby human stories in many previous Godzilla films. And overall, the dynamic nature of the monster fights combined with the strange nature of Biollante makes wacthing this film a pleasure. The film did not do well at the Japanese box office, leading Toho to believe that the unfamiliarity of Biollante was the reason. The next three Godzilla films would feature familiar foes from the Showa era.

The King

Next up, the Godzilla film with the most famous metatext. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Part of the fun of My Year of Monsters is tracking down really obscure kaiju films. And they really don't come much more obscure than North Korea's single entry in the genre, Pulgasari. This movie is more famous than it is watched, mostly because of the behind the scenes shenanigans. Which, admittedly put most other films to shame.

Pulgasari, the metaphoric North Korean Kaju marches to war

Kim Jong-il, future Dear Leader of North Korea, was known as a film buff. He loved Elvis, Rambo, Friday the Thirteenth, and Godzilla. But North Korea's film industry, despite adhering faithfully to his 1987 The cinema and directing, was unsatisfactory. It did not reach the international political acclaim that Kim Jong-il wished it to, so he had South Korean director Shin Sang-ok kidnapped in 1978. Shin Sang-ok made serveral films while in North Korea, the most famous being Pulgasari. In order to make sure that the spectacle looked good, the miniatures team, including Kenpachiro Satsuma, the suit man in The Return of Godzilla. Got that?

When the theme begins to play, obviously flutes on a synthesizer, the viewer understands that they are in for the most 80's experience that was ever put to film. The plot is just about bog-standard, until the kaiju comes along. The countryside is being repressed by an evil monarch and his evil governors. The poor but virtuous Inde and Ami love each other, but he is determined to fight the corrupt government.

Manly Inde and lovely Ami

All schools of acting have their tropes. They only become a problem when they are repetitive or do not communicate the intended emotion to the audience. I'm not Korean, so I am not the intended audience. but for the love of God, all the women do is cry. Less that seven minutes into the film, Ami is crying because Inde wants to go join the rebels. And she never seems to stop. She's crying about the arrival of the Governor's men less than a minute later. Someone else is crying because the government men are taking all the metal farming impliments in minute ten. A minute later, she's crying over her mother who has been kicked by the soldier. AND THE WEEPING NEVER STOPS. Women cry as they deliver their terrible news, which is the only way anyone finds out what is happening in other locations. Anytine anyone is hurt, there's a woman there to weep over it. I get that it's supposed to be a note to indicate the emotional tenor of the scene, but it's so overused. We cannot constantly feel sorry for the weeping everyone in the film, because we get no rest from it.


Pulgasari himself is interesting. He starts off as a tiny doll made of mud, rice, and tears (of course) as a starving blacksmith makes a little protector for the people. The doll only comes to life when his daughter pricks her finger and bleeds on it.

Magical virgin blood incoming!

Initially, Pulgasari looks like a metallic bear. The snout, the vestigial horns that look like a bears high-perched ears. And it snarls like a bear. Only minutes after its animation, Pulgasari begins to consume metal, primarily iron and steel. Once it reaches full size, the horns give the head a more bullish appearance. I wonder if this is intentional, satirizing the American stock market, with its bulls and bears.


As this is happens in Goryeo dynasty, the military has no tanks to throw at gigantic Pulgasari. They do come up with some interesting alternatives, though. Realizing that Pulgasari obeys the commands of Ami, they capture her, order Pulgasari into a giant wooden cage. And then they burn the cage.

Does it smell like smoke in here?


This results in a burning hot Pulgasari, or at least a Pulgasari with a strong red light on it. Pulgasari routs the army, then stumbles into a river and steams the heat off. Pulgasari is weakened, but not defeated.

Variant figure Buring Pulgasari

With Pulgasari at their head, the rebels decide to march on the capital. The government forces dig a giant pit similar to the one from King Kong vs Godzilla, while simultaneously exorcising him. This immobilizes him under tons of rock. The army then stomps on the rebels (cue Ami weeping as she learns about Inde's capture, and that he is hanged. Her little brother weeps on her wondering what they are to do. OH MY GOD THE WEEPING!). Ami decides to shed some more of her blood where Pulgasari is buried, and cue Pulgasari exploding from the ground.

Pulgasari doing... something. This isn't a good shot

The general tells the King of his defeat, and we get a magnificent view of their hats. Look at those hats!

Nize Hat

But the king has another plan up his sleeve. Giant cannon.

Giant Cannons will stop the iron monster

Pulgasari swallows the cannonballs and spews them back at the cannons. And then he goes to town on the palace in the first real spot of city-destroying in the film. The palace model is excellent, and Satsuma looks like he's having a great time trashing it.

Manly Inde and lovely Ami

Unfortunately, overthrowing the king doesn't sate Pulgasari's hunger. The victors now must find more and more iron to feed him. Although they are grateful to the creature that made their victory possible, even Ami quickly turns against it, now that it's not producing anything for her. Ami smuggles herself into a temple gong and allows herself to be consumed. Like the The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Pulgasari dies like an opera tenor.

Singing? Dying? Whio can tell?

Pulgasari has a lot more in common with the Daimajin trilogy than they do with Godzilla. The beast is beholden to humanty and has a sense of justice, where Godzilla is an indiscriminate force of nature. In the end, Pulgasari crumbles like the Daimajin statue, rather than retreating to the sea, or going underground. The last shot of the film is Ami's corpse, and the single single tear that streaks down her cheek. Even in death, SHE CAN'T STOP FUCKING CRYING.


I often like films that have a deeper social message. The original Godzilla's anti-nuclear testing message makes the film a richer expereince. Here, the subtext is confused, at best. However, observing the irony in which Kim Jong-il creates a story about peasants rebelling against their authoritarian government is about as eye-rollingly ironic as Disney making films supporting piracy.

Overall, Pulgasari's monster effects overshadow the stilted acting and the corny script. It's not a great kaiju film, but it has some fairly interesting moments.

In two weeks, it's Godzilla vs Bioengineering.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Big Guy's Back: The Return of Godzilla

Although it's only been several posts since I wrote about Godzilla, the franchise had been asleep since 1975's Terror of Mechagodzilla. There had been a Hannah-Barbara cartoon, which I'm just not interested in watching. Also, in 1977, Luigi Cozzi recut the American cut of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, adding footage from Godzilla Raids Again, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and most disturbing, newsreel footage of the devastation from World War II. It's also colored with gels, giving the film a sort of meltingly psychadelic look. This version has finally found its way onto youtube. It's worth a look, if you're into strange seventies cinema.

Drugs and Godzilla, not a good combination.

But Toho wasn't making new Godzilla films. This wasn't an offcial hiatus, just that no proposal seemed able to get off the ground. The interruption does make a difference in flavor of the Godzilla films, and divides the franchise into three rather neat eras. Films had gotten more grim, and from a 2014 perspective, more realistic. John Carpenter's 1982 masterpiece The Thing is extraordinarily different from the 1951 Howard Hawks film it remade. But after eight years, Godzilla came back to the screen with the Return of Godzilla.

If you live in a kaju-infested universe and want to meet a kaiju, become a fisherman. Because of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incdent, which influenced the original Godzilla. And The Return of Godzilla wants very much to be seen as similar to, comparable to, the first film. All continuity after the first film was discarded. Godzilla had come to Japan in 1954, and had never been seen again. So it establishes itself the same way the original does, with luckless fishmermen.

Dammit, we drifted into a kaiju film!

The abandoned ship is investigated by a pleasure-yachter, who discovers that the ship is infested with giant sea-lice, called Shokilas. The idea of the giant parasite is carried forward both Cloverfield and Pacific Rim. One fishermantrmains alive, and is able handed pictures of the original Godzilla which he identifies as the monster he saw before the mutated sea louse killed everyone.

Well, spiders will never bother me again.

As in the most recent Godzilla, a Soviet submarine is involved. Godzilla consumes radioactive material, it seems, and the nuclear-powered submarine is a necessary snack. However, the Soviet Union believes the desruction of the sub is an act of American aggression, which the Americans deny. The tensions escalate quickly. It's a frightening piece of theater that the revelation that Godzilla may have returned is an act intended to defuse tensions between the Nuclear Superpowers.

That's a Soviet sub captian looking worried.

For the first time, Japan establishes a Godzilla Emergency Counter-Measure Headquarters. In many subsequent films, a military, and even a civilian response team will form a sort of support network for protagonists.

Further demonstrating that Godzilla is consuming nuclear fuel for energy, the Big Guy shows up at the Ihama nuclear power plant in Shizuoka prefecture. He doesn't eat the power, rather holding it to himself and letting to charge him. His back fins light up so the viewer can tell it's working. But as he is finshing a flock of birds flies past, and Godzilla follows them. This becomes the science answer, Godzilla can be led with bird calls.


Although conventional weapons are useless against Godzilla, Japane's native invension, the Super X, has been developed in secret. This is a combination of using fantasy science to confront the monster, along with a growing feeling in the series that the military isn't quite to useless after all. Super X has weapons specifically designed cadmium ordinance to counter Godzilla.

Godzilla cleans up the waterfront.

In an interesting twist, especially for someone who has soaked in Hollywood films in whch politicians are portrayed as corrupt or weak, Prime Minister Mitamura is sympathetic. Although he stomps on our truth-seeking reporter's story concerning Godzilla, he reveals the story to reduce tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union and the United States both declare that they have to use nuclear weapons to destroy Godzilla, he very calmly refuses, citing Japan's "Three principles": non production, non-posession, non-introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan. In the face of some very ardent arguments, Mitamura remains adamant, and both the camera and script praise him for doing so. This is the heart of The Return of Godzilla, the protest against nuclear weapons and the mounting fear that was the Cold War.

What kind of idiot won't let us drop a nuke on a major city?

Like a moth to a flame, Godzilla is drawn to Tokyo. The military sends everything they have against him, but with a single sweep of his atomic heat rat, Godzilla destroys the Defense Forces. Godzilla is larger than he was previously, eighty meters tall, and he's lost his heroic side. Godzilla is in Tokyo to destroy, and spends a lot of time doing so.

A train? I love trains!

Although this takes place outside of the post 1954 Showa continuity, there are small nods to it. As Tokyo awaits the arrival of the Super X, laser, or perhaps maser tanks engage Godzilla. These look like updates of the tanks which first appeared in Mothra and War of the Gargantuas. These are weak, however. They don't even irritate Godzilla.


Of course, saying no to nuclear weapons isn't as easy as just sayng no. The Soviets have a back-up nuke ready, and Godzilla's destructive wake causes a launch. Oops. The Americans agree intercept the missile, which makes his a high-altitude airburst rather than a ground burst. Still, this causes lightning which is attracted to Godzilla, and wakes him up again, in a callback to Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla. This energizes Godzilla enough to recover from the cadmium shells.

That's what those are for!

The Super X is in essence a flying tank. It's heavily armored, hovers and flies by use of directional jets. It's blocky and unaerodynamic. But it is as effective a response as Japan will get before building Mechagodzilla. Three cadmium shells fires into Godzilla's mouth knock the Big Guy down. Of course, this effective defense, like high-voltage wires, is never used again. Godzilla then drops a building on trhe Super X.


Fortunately, science is there to take up the military's slack. Godzilla is lured to Mt. Mihara, an active volcano. There, the cliffside he's shanding on is detonated, and Godzilla plunges into the laval below. And although he's trashed Tokyo and a nuclear power plant, the music is sad, and Prime Minster Mitamura looks sad as he watches Godzilla falling into the crater.

Godzilla vs the Volcano

While the Godzilla work on The Return of Godzilla is good, the majority of the human drama is weak. The characters are pretty thin, and they are there mostly to witness the plot, rather than contribute to it. They do little to interact with Godzilla. The most powerful scenes involve the confrontation between the American and Soviet Special Emissaries, with the Prime Minister caught in between. But these scenes are sadly brief. But the film was enough to restart and energize the franchise, bringing Godzilla into a modern idiom.

Next up, the Godzilla team goes to North Korea to make a film according to Kim Jong-il's cnematic principles. Yes really.