Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hey Kids, Kaiju! The Rebirth of Mothra I

Although Godzilla was ostensibly dead and Tri-Star was gearing up for production of their 1998 Godzilla film, Toho didn't want to get out of the kaiju business. Toho was recovering from the crash of the eighties, and wanted to keep their hands in every sort of genre they could. Without Godzilla, they decided to make a series about their second most popular kaiju, Mothra, in 1996.

Mothra has always been the least comprehensible, to Westerners, of Toho's kaiju. It's a gigantic moth. How can that possibly be threatening? Mothra points out the difference between the Japanes perception of kaiju film, more as metaphor than realistic drama. The original Mothra film was a color spectacle that set itself apart from the darker and more brooding kaiju films of the period. And that legacy is evoked in the colorful title sequence of the film.

Look at the pretties! PRETTIES!

The film begins when a logging company. Mothra was one of the first films to add social commentary about the destruction wrought by greedy industrialists, both in the original Mothra and in the follow up Mothra vs Godzilla. But rather than working social commentary, the loggers uncover the magical seal that has kept the evil kaiju imprisoned for millions of of years. So the company is not portrayed so much as evil as unthinkingly destructive.

The Rebirth of Mothra is clearly aimed at a younger audience. The protagonists are children, Wakaba and Taiki, about the same age as the classic Gamera film protagonists. This does not endear the film to me, since the first thing we see the two kids to is fight over a book. Their father, of course, works too much, and dear mother is put upon.

A perfect reason why I hate the realistic portrayal of children in film

For the first time, the Shobijin, the Mothra-related fairies, gave names. Moll and Lora. Where previously, they have been shown in matching outfits, now they are dressed in orange and blue, in the first orange and blue contrast I can remember in a kaiju film. At least it's way ahead of the curve, because the contrast comes flooding into films after the turn of the milennium.

Hey, did you notice us?

Initially, everything is small, Shobijin-sized. There's a tiny Fairy Mothra, and formerly-imprisoned evil sister Balvera has Garugaru, a sort of dragon-like mount, and it's all very tiresome. But once Mothra Momma shows up, the pace and my interest pick up.

This can't be in continuity with the Godzilla series, since the Mothra from Godzilla vs Mothra: battle For the Earth departed for outer space. But continuity has never been Toho's strong suit.

Mothra is a lot smaller in comparison to its foe that it has been. In Mothra vs Godzilla, Mothra's wingspan is wider than Godzilla's reach. Here, Mothra is much smaller than Death Ghidorah. And I sort of miss the CHristian undertones of Mothra. Even the theme of self-sacrifice has gone.

Mother Mothra. Lovely.

Death Ghidorah is kind of cool, although the traditional cry has been changed. It's a quadruped, and can't fly, yet. The golden scales have been replaced with a more reptillian look, andgular and looking like rock crystals. And just to prove how tough it is, we are told it's what killed the dinosaurs. In an odd reversal of Toho's usual presentation, Ghidorah berathes flames, more like Gamera or Yonggarythan anything Toho has previously made. Once Ghidorah gets functional wings, however, the breath weapon returns to special effects.


The environmental angle does not clout us over the head quite as much as it does in Godzilla vs Mothra: Battle For the Earth. Or at least as often. Death Ghidorah is going to suck all the energy from the Earth, and it created a low-oxygen cloud that hurts the elderly.

Death Ghidorah gnaws on Mothra

And it's clear that Toho has been taking notes from the revitalized Gamera series. The kids get the talisman. When Taiki tried to use the amulet to heal the injured Mothra, he fails. When both Wakaba and Taiki try together, it works.

Mothra sees you when you're sleeping...

Larval Mothra, once again, does better against Ghidorah than imago Mothra. But not the silk itsn't just silk, it's got some sort of disruptive energy in it. Ghidorah is confused and enraged. Of course, all previous times that Mothra has tackled Ghidorah, Godzilla has led the attack. But Mothra has more powers than it had back then. It has the antenna rays, some sort of lightning attack from its wings, and even the larva has some sort of chest-burst attack as well as Predator-style comoflage. But even the combined might of the two can't take down Death Ghidorah. The fight is very good, the best of the film.


This is, incidentally, the first film in which the Mothra imago and larva get to work together. It's interesting and well-handled. Ironically, it is helping the larva that kills Mothra. Not by defending it against Death Ghidorah, but because it lets the larva down on the ocean, and then lands herself, becoming waterlogged. She struggles to remain on the surface, but cannot, eventually sinking.

Moths do well in water, right Mummy? RIGHT MOMMY?

Which is unexpectedly heavy for a kids' film. Because it's quite emotionally resonant without being sappy. Directly after this, we go to a hospital, something we really haven't done since the first Godzilla. It's not nearly as resonant or desolate, but it does reming us that people have gotten hurt.

People bleed? They never bleed in kaiju films!

Larval Mothra isn't the only monster to get an upgrade. Three quarters of the way through the film, Ghidorah has consumed enough energy to develop its wings, and fly.

Aw crap. Now Death Ghidorah can fly.

But the Mothra larva gets an upgrade, too, building a crystalis on a ten thousand year old tree, and being reborn. The new Mothra is more angular than previous Mothras, with feathery antennae, green eyes, and a black pattern on its head. It looks more combative.


And it is. It takes on Death Ghidorah head-on, and unleashes its most potent new power, being able to divide itself into thousand of tiny moths that form a cloud and blow Ghidorah up. OK, I have no idea what's up with that. But eventually, Death Ghidorah is imprisoned under the Sigil of Mothra.

Feel the wrath of a million moths!

I wasn't looking forward to this film because the first thirs is so kiddie-film bad. And once again, the dubbing is a major problem. I look forward to the subtitles Blu-Ray. But once the action gets going, and the script begins to focus on the monsters rather than the humans, this film is poignant, fun, and entertaining. If you're going to watch this, I'll totally suggest starting at Chapter 11. You won't miss much, and you won't hate the kids.

Where the movie really begins.

And since one of the major portions of My Year of Monsetrs is to poijnt out how these films are connected to each other, I should mention that director Okihiro Yoneda was a second unit director to Akira Kurosawa's later films, such a Dreams, Rhapsody in August, and Ran. There is therefore a direct link with Godzilla creator Ishiro Honda, who also worked with Kurosawa on his final films.

Next up, cheapo American production Zarkorr the Invader.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Gamera Is Completely Outclassed: Gamera 2: Attack of The Legion

A pattern emerges during the Heisei Godzilla series, and continues on to the Millennium series. When Godzilla has steam, few other kaiju films make an appearance. When Godzilla is not being produced, other films begin to show themselves. In 1995, two Kaiju films were made: Godzilla vs Destoroyah and Gamera, Guardian of the Universe. Gamera was the first non-Godzilla kaiju film since 1985's Pulgasari. The year following, 1996, had no Godzilla, and three kaiju films were released. The best is Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion.

Attack of the Legion has an advantage over the previous Gamera film in that it doesn't need to introduce us to the new Gamera. So it goes straight to introducing us to the villain, the Legion. Like some of the best bad kaiju, it arrives in, or possibly as, a meteor. With a little nod to Godzilla vs Destoroyah, and even as far back as Return of Godzilla, Legion has many small parts as well as a massive queen. This provides the humans with something they can combat and the giant monster something of its own size to fight, also. This is reflected a bit on Cloverfield, in which the gigantic monster has human-sized parasites, bringing the conflict to two different levels. In an interesting twist, humans attempting to deal with the giant pod do very poorly, and Gamera, when attempting to deal with the smaller Legion creatures, nearly gets killed.

The smaller Legion are sort of hunched-over bugs with one eye and a lot of pointy bits. Like Warhammer Tyranids spiky. It's very clear that they are not here for anything but conquest.

Do you have time to hear about your Lord and Savior, Legion?

Like Hedorah, the larger legion creature has a life cycle. It begins as a gigantic plant-like pod, and eventually hatches into the gigantic Legion queen.

Legion begins its journey as a delicate flower.

The Legion Queen is in a Serizawa class all by itself. With ten long claws, a protective shell, a huge horn above its face, and a scream like stressed metal, it's as menacing as any kaiju put to screen. It must have been insanely complex to pupeteer. And just when the audience wonders if it has an energy weapon, it's head-horn splits open, and Gamera gets zapped. The beam is so strong that it takes a chunk out of Gamera's shell. It can also direct energy out of its spindly limbs and create an barrier. Gamera's clearly outclassed. It's just a giant, fire-breathing turtle that can fly.

Holy crap, the Legion Queen is terrifying!

Like so many kaiju, the Legion Queen has redundency built in under its redundencies. When Gamera pulls off the two horns that deploy the blue cutting beam, and it has whippy energy tentacles that lash through anything.

Should'a busted that out like half an hour ago.

And there's plenty of monster action. Gamera initially fights the Legion queen to a standstill. But he errs when he attacks the second bloom, which opens in Sendai. It explodes in a massive, nearly nuclear, fireball, turning Gamera in a charred, immobile hulk.

I'm just going to lie here for a second

Asagi Kusanagi appears again, sheerly by coincidence, having going for a ski vacation before the monsters attacked. Once involved, however, she again proves essential to Gamera. With an accumulation of people around the burned, immobile Gamera, Asagi's amulet chanels their love, and heals the gigantic turtle. But the talisman breaks. The ramifications of this are explored in Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys. The film reuses the idea of the invader making the environment more comofortable for itself, but this time, they're producing more oxygen, and increasing pressure, for example. This is why the explosion of the second pod was so massive--all the oxygen build-up.

Big bada boom.

There's a certain weird, X-Files feeling to the initial quarter of the film. Electromagnetic disturbances make the sky glow green, and radios don't work properly. And why not? X-Files was hot at the time, and very popular in Japan. But the mysterious atmosphere is difficult to manintain is a Gamera film. Still,

Mulder, what's happened to the sky?

Again, the miliatry is valorized, even to the extent of cooperating with the science people, who are often at odds with the military in films following Ishiro Honda's style. A scientist who discovers and lures the smaller Legion swarm away, allowing Gamera to fight the Queen without having to take on the smaller creatuers. The military, finally realizing that Gamera is fighting against the Legion Queen, lobs some missiles at her, resulting in the loss of a couple of limbs. And the military takes care of the smaller Legion.

Take that, Legion Queen!

Gamera unleashes a new weapon. Having destroyed his connection to Asagi, and no longer able to draw power from humans, it draws it from the world itself.

By the Power of Greyskull!

This powers a huge power blast from its chest. And that's all for the Legion Queen.

Take that, Legion Queen!

Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion is one of the best the kaiju genre has to offer. The innovation of the two forms of the monster, each one something that only one force, Gamera or human, can handle, is a brilliant idea, executed well. It gives the humans something to do other than document the destruction and tell the audience how to feel. The execution of the film is excellent, the characters breathe, Gamera faces a tough challenge. Legion Queen is awesome. What more could you ask for?

Next up: Although Godzilla is dead, Toho didn't get out of the kaiju business.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When Did He Get This Awesome? Gamera, Guardian of the Universe

If you've been following My Year of Monsters, or even if you have seen the Gamera films yourself, you will be aware that that they are not held in high esteem. Not by me, at least. They were cheap, recycled their own special effects footage, and made little sense. The franchise ended in 1971, with one last sputtering gasp in 1980. But there are people who love the franchise. And one of them is director Shûsuke Kaneko. Kaneko seemed unlikely to bring the Terrible Terrapin back. Initially a director of soft-core porn films, he mad moved on to horror, directing a segment of Necronomicon, Book of the Dead. But how could anyone turn Gamera, a franchise about a jep-propelled monster turtle, into a notable watchable film? By taking the premise absolutely seriously.

I'm back, bitches!

The 1995 Gamera, Guardian of the Universe begins with talk of the advanced civilization of Atlantis. This is one of the aspects of of the original Gamera film that was left by the wayside in subsequent films. Gamera was from Atlantis, although in the original series, he was a demon of destruction, where here, he is much more friendly. The new Gamera series is not set after the previous Gamera films. Giant monsters are new to the characters.

This is a film that knows its roots. In homage to the original Godzilla, the film takes the audience to an island that has been wrecked by a mysterious and unseen force. In another nod, tghis time to Jurrasic Park, the bird expert plumbs a gigantic bird poop. There's another call-out to Godzilla as a woman at the supermarket complains about the price of fish, there's a train scene, with a pedigree that stretches all the way back to King Kong. And when it gets to Tokyo, well, Tokyo Tower gets broken. And just to prove that he's seen the last Gamera vs Gyaos, Gyaos loses a foot. And in the last five minutes, Gamera absorbs the heat and flame of the exploding oil refinery, another aspect, Gamera's hunger for heat, that was lost as the series went on.

Jurassic Park my ass!

The Gyaos of this film are similar to the ones in the original Gamera vs Gyaos. More bats than birds, there isn't any discussion of the two throats, but they certainly have the sonic cutting breath weapon. They also kill people. And pets.

Gyaos screaming.

Gamera is as he ever was. Right down to the squeaky belt roar. The suit has been improved, and so have the breath weapon special effects. Gamers not fires off balls of fire, rather than a blowtorch. At first, because he's moving slowly in the ocean, he mistaken for a floating island. But Gamera is no lionger the destroyer of a forgotten civilization. He's the protector agaist the Gyaos. When initially discovered, a number of talon-shaped talismans were discovered. This provides a link between the girl protagonist (who is fourteen or fifteen, sidestepping the hugely annoying boy protagonists of the previous films).

I'm back, bitches!

This talisman provides a psychic link between Gamera and Asagi Kusanagi, who holds it. When one it hurt or wounded, the others shows signs of it. In the end, however, we learn that it's powered by love, and with extra love, the wounds go away. Gamera is healed when Asagi's father holds her hand. This repeats at the endof the film. It's kind of weird and not well explained, but at least it's something that occurs after the movie is over, rather than disrupting the film with something clunkingly dumb.

One magic crystal

Gamera and Gyaos are both products of Atlantean genetic engineering. It's interesting to note the change in Japanese films towards technology. Although Godzilla was initially created by the nuclear bomb, the series started out as very positive towards technology, and negative towards the military. Technology would save us from the monsters. Godzilla was initially defeated by the Oxygen Destroyer. New technologies were constantly being rolled out to combat the monsters. Here, the trend has reversed itself. Genetic eingineering created these monsters, which then destroyed the civilization that birthed them.

A little military love.

And like many Godzilla films, specifically, Godzilla vs Mothra and Godzilla vs Hedorah, this film touches on environmental issues. But it does so with a pretty light touch. The Gyaos awoke because the environment has changed enough that they are again comfortable, an idea recycled into Pacificf Rim. And Gamera has returned in response to his natural prey being active again, which was a touchstone of 2014 Godzilla. When the military fires missiles at Gyaos, it loops around, and the missiles strike Tokyo Tower, which is similar to a scene in the 1998 Godzilla. Kaneko's Gamera is clearly influential on many of the kaiju films that follow it.

Missiles on target.... aw crap.

In its initial analysis, the government advisors decide that Gamera ios the greater thread, even though it hasn't killed anyone, the way the Gyaos have. The actively incompetent bureacerat is a new stock character that will show up more as the nineties pass into the millennium. It's an easy way to misdirect the forces of the film, and stretch out the idea. But it's not offensively abused here.

Biggest Monster trap ever.

One of the central scenes of the film takes place on a footbridge. The woman scientist is carryign a baby (of course) across a bridge and stumbles (of course). Our protagonist is saved at the last moment by Gamera's fire breath. One more shot, and one of the three Gyaos are down. One remaining Gyaos uses its sonic cutting beam, but Gamera puts a claw in front of the beam, saving the humans. And then the battle is over. But it's an excellent piece.

I just met you, and this is crazy.

There's a lot of military showing off, trucks going here and there, large pieces of hardware shifting and then locking into place. Because it is initially misdirected, believing that Gamera is the greater threat, missiles are launched at Gamera, knocking him out of the sky. From there, the military pounds away at him until the Gyaos shows up. Even as Gamera is retreating, the military continues to fire on him, rather than Gyaos.

Light him up. Here come the missiles.

And man, does Kaneko love his explosions. Gmaera unleashes a barrage of fire, each one missing the fast-moving Gyaos, and Tokyo erupts in flames. Gamera may be humanity's prtector, but he clearly doesn't mind doing a few billion yen in property damages. The final confrontation between Gyaos and Gamera takes place in the midst an oil refinery. The final fight is surprisingly quick. Gamera doesn't deploy a new weapon, but uses his firey breath, which we saw was quite effective against the previous Gyaoses.

Things that go boom

Gamera, Guardian of the Galaxy is an excellent kaiju film. The human characters are interesting, the monster fights are satisfying, and the plot isn't embarrassing. And it was done for a twentieth of the budget of Toho's Godzilla vs Destoroyah. The truly amazing part is that film got off the ground at all. Gamera is not a well-respected franchise, certainly not by me. But when a talented writer and an innovative director set their minds to making a film they want to see.

With Godzilla on hold, the 1996 sequel, Gamera: Attack of Legion is next.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Killin' it Old School: Godzilla vs Destoroyah

In many ways, this is the 40th anniversary film that Godzilla vs Space Godzilla was not. Momoko Kôchi returns as Emiko Yamane from the original Godzilla. Destoroyah is born of the Oxygen Destroyer from that film. Akira Ifukube has returned one last time to score the film. In many ways, this film is the acknowledgment of the end of an era. Which it was. Toho was about to turning the franchise over to Tri-Star, for their big budget American version of the character. The death of Godzilla here is in preparation for his metamorphosis into something else.

Even at first glance, the audience knows this film will be different. Godzilla shows up right away, two and a half minutes into the film, and he's glowing and smoking. There's a mass of glowing, pulsing red tissue on Godzilla's chest, and his spines now glow all the time. Something has changed, Godzilla looks more threatening than ever.

Godzilla gets heartburn, and everyone is screwed

Godzilla's heat ray has not changed permanently to the more powerful red spiral, as acquired when resurrected by Rodan in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla II. Godzilla used the red ray at the climax of the fight against Space Godzilla. In the latter film, it appeared to be an ability to be used at will. Now it seems to be the default.

Godzilla's upgrades heat ray

Our protagonists, Yukari Yamane and Kenichi Yamane are the children of Dr. Yamane's adopted son, tying us firmly to the original Godzilla in a way that no film has done previously, through the human characters. We finally get to learn about the aftermath of the film, from the human perspective, and it wasn't a happy ending. Emiko never did marry the handsome Ogata. She has become the Yamane childrens' aunt, too traumatized to marry, and still wakes up from terrible dreams of Serizawa's suicide.

Emiko Yamane, played with strength by Momoko Kôchi.

It's been some time since Godzilla stomped on a city that wasn't Japanese (probably Destroy All Monsters). This foreshadows Godzilla's identity as a potential global disaster, not just something Japan has to deal with, since the licence for the character was about to be shipped overseas. This is the first film in the Heisei series, and possibly since the first Godzilla vs Mothra, that looks at Godzilla's identity as nuclear metaphor. Sure, Godzilla has eaten nuclear reactors, but the link to the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: this film was released in the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings. This gives the film, for me, a more serious tone, and a sense of tragedy, at least when the dubbing doesn't get in the way. Godzilla's roar over the title credits is from the original film, a more raw sound than the audience is used to in the Heisei series.

the King of the Monsters becomes the King of Explosions.

Like Hedorah, Destoroyah has multiple forms. It begins as a swarm of car-sized critters. They have a flared head and a long neck, on top of a eight-legged crab-like body. The color scheme, charcoal with red highlights, is very reiminscent of Battra. Part of what gives it extra menace is that we don't know its powers. At the end of the initial confrontation, one of the creatures is hit bvy the flamethrower, and it just burns. It doesn't scream or thrash, but bits of burining material drip off it, and the audience is shown the flames touching the ground. What does the thing know something we don't? This sort of unanswered question is quite rare in kaiju film.

Do you have time to hear about your lord and destroyer Destoroyah?

Remember when I said that many of the Heisei films make homage to a Western blockbuster? This time it's James Cameron's Aliens. When the military goes in to investigate the initial outbreak of multiple car-sized Destoroyahs, the aurience is shown a tankless flamethrower that is supported by a boar belt, like Aliens' smart guns. That also have the motion detector. Later, the mini Destoroyahs deploy that second set of inner jaws that made the Aliens so menacing.

HR Geiger would be proud. If he got paid.

Second-stage Destoroyah looks much like the smaller versions, crab-like lower body, long neck, and a massive, shielded head on top. But it's the size of a building. Its legs are longer, and there appear to be some upper limbs. They mostly just wave around, however.

the King of the Monsters becomes the King of Explosions.

Third-stage Destoroyah has wings, again reminiscent of Herodah's recapitulation of phylogeny. It doesn't use this form to fight, but to move from one location to another.

Fly away, little bird.

Fourth-stare Destoroyah is a massive, perfect match for overpowered Godzilla. Finally walking erect, and also with wings, it looks the most demonic of all Godzilla's foes.

The Mountain that walks like a man.

The Super X III doesn't look like the previous iterations. it has wings, for one. The design seems to have been influenced by the F-1217 Nighthawk, as it's black and blocky, with a pair of tail fins. It is once again equipped with cadmium missiles, which we haven't seen since The Return of Godzilla. All the weapons on the Super X III are low-temperature, so they will help cool Godzilla down. Despite this, the victory is Phyrric. Even the Super X III can't keep Godzilla on ice forever.

Stealthy. Or maybe just blocky.

The next piece of the plot is Godzilla Junior. It has lost the cuteness it had of Godzilla vs Space Godzilla, and it's not missed. Junior appears to be more adolescent, looking angular, like a smaller, slimmer version of Godzilla senior. Junior is also green, which ins interesting, since Godzilla is often presented in American promotional material as green, but has always been a charcoal grey. Initially, Junior's role is to lead Godzilla to Destoroyah, but it serves several ends. Junior being on the receiving end of a curbstomp battle gives the audience a sympathetic note not usually found in Godzilla films as Godzilla mourns its offspring.

A nice walk on the beat with Godzilla Jr.

In the climactic fight, Junior is gravely inuured, and the movie makes this touching. Between the Afukube music, and reaction of Miki Sagusa, who has come to sympathize with Godzilla and family, the scene has an emotional impact unlike most other kaiju films. It's reinforced when Godzilla itself comes to look at its fallen offspring. When Junior closes its eyes, Godzilla thrashes around in inchoate rage, and I feel its loss. For orchestrating this genuinely touching moment with a creature that has been primarily an engine of destruction, this film stands out among the Toho ouvre.

Godzilla has a tender moment. Yeah, read that again.

Godzilla's temperature continues to rise, and the special effects crew has done an excellent job of showing us how much this is a problem. Godzilla's spines begin to melt. It begins throwing off waves of light from its back.

We're screwed, aren't we?

Destoroyah is rather summarily dispatched, leaving us with the final problem of Godzilla's impending meltdown. Again, the effects crew, combined with Ifukube's music, convey the tragedy that is unfolding. The sounds of the missiles and lasers are muted, and we are left with the beautiful and sad music as Godzilla's flesh begins to melt off its bones. Godzilla's death theme is a combination of the original "Prayer for Peace" from the original film, as well as a light rework of the Godzilla march, and it's beautiful. The scene is not a triumph for humanity, but the sad passing of a creature the audience has admired, like a great warrior.

And now, it walks like a man.

This sadness is mitigated by the re-emergence of Godzilla Junior, not a full adult, absorbing the old Godzilla's radiation and preventing Tokyo from becoming a permanent ghost city. After all, what is Godzilla without Tokyo to destroy?

Godzilla Junior all grown up.

Godzilla vs Destoroyah is a favorite of mine, because of the careful handling of the near-death of Godzilla Junior. The editing in the final fight is very much off, Destoroyah drops from the sky and dies with little acknowledgment. And ultuiamtely, monster fights are passable, but the first time since Godzilla Strikes Again, the monster fight isn't the point. Getting emotionally involved with Godzilla and Junior is. It's not a particularly well put-together film, and I know that part of that is the dubbing, which occasionally strays very far from the original script. Looking forward, again, to the subtitled Blu-Ray. But the impac of the film rests in the last half an hour, and I'm willing to forgive a multitude of sins for that.

Next up, a miracle. Someone takes Gamera seriously.