Sunday, August 27, 2017

Bigger, Nastier, More Amazing: Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla famously can mean 'True Godzilla' 'Pure Godzilla' or 'God Godzilla'. Personally, I find the Godzilla concept to be robust and flexible enough that Godzilla can be cast in a wide range of roles and still be satisfying entertainment. Godzilla has been a metaphor for nuclear destruction, protector of mankind, destroyer of hated industrialists, the living embodiment of Japan's war dead, a metaphor for natural disaster, and a walking method of world destruction. This new version, which draws heavily on imagery from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster, presents the viewer with a lot of interesting things to think about.

Shin Godzilla, lookin all kinds of unhappy

Structurally, it is closest to the 1954 Godzilla or The Return of Godzilla. But those two films do not have Godzilla fighting a monster. In Shin Godzilla Godzilla is pitted against the lumbering, inhuman monstrosity that is the Japanese government's bureaucracy. And in fact, this is exactly the sort of subtle humor that runs through the film. Despite being a grim depiction of a nation in crisis, there are tiny touches of humor that keep it from being an overwhelmingly dark experience.

Shin Godzilla's primary opponent: bureaucracy

The film is firmly rooted in Godzilla's history, very specifically, the 1954 film. Godzilla attacks twice. First it comes ashore and destroys the Shinagawa district, and then returns to the sea. It attacks again, is met with much stiffer resistance, and only after being attacked does it return fire with its atomic breath. At the same time, directors Hideako Anno and Shinji Higuchi (who directed the special effects for the Shûsuke Kaneko's Gamera films) maintain a very delicate balancing act between the past and the present. There is a lot of homage in the film. It starts with a boat, as did so many Godzilla films, but this time, it's the abandoned boat of a biology professor. And there are little details as to what happened that the film doesn't address: the shoes neatly placed next to each other indicate Professor Goro Maki killed himself. Why or even if he has, is part of the plot that needs unraveling. Many of Ikira Ifukube's cues are used, as well as many of the sound effects, including Godzilla's unique Showa-era roar. There's even a shot of Godzilla destroying the theater it destroyed in the 1954 film. But it's not entirely about the past. The film is relentlessly modern, involving social media, a government that trips over itself addressing a disaster, endless committee meetings, and science that involves genes, complex biological processes, and chemical topology.

Our protagonist is Rando Yaguchi, a modern career politician who suffers a bit from being always right. As a junior member of the Cabinet, he is not listened to, but as someone young, he pays attention to social media. While the rest of the Cabinet discusses what has damaged the Aqua-Line, he proposes it is a giant creature, because of a video he saw on social media. When given the freedom to solve the problem as he wishes, he sets up a flat organization of “lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, outcasts, academic heretics and general pains-in-the-bureaucracy” which does not stand on seniority. This team of mostly young mavericks gets results. Rando is fortunate enough not to take a ride on a doomed helicopter. He isn't insufferably all-knowing, and Hiroki Hasegawa is a good enough actor to make Rando interesting and magnetic. But he represents the wish for a newer, younger Japanese government that doesn't constantly have meetings, where talent is the means to ascent rather than bench time and party loyalty.

Rando Yaguchi, the man with the Script with him

He serves as a counterpoint to the government, which under the old guard, is always wrong. As Godzilla moves into the city, they wonder which governmental department's jurisdiction is comes under. The directors love smash cuts that underline the difference between governmental decree and reality. Literally just as the Prime Minister says that the creature won't be able to move about on land, we see the nascent Godzilla come ashore. As a self-evacuation plan is formulated, and every effort will me made to control traffic. As in 2014's Godzilla, there is another smash cut to utter deadlock on the roads.

The presence of the US is gradually felt more and more, like an oppressive hand bearing down. At first, the US is discussed in terms of backup to military action. Then we learn that they are claiming all the samples Godzilla has left behind. Then, following a telephone conversation with President Ross, the Prime Minister comments “A lot of unilateral requests. Typically Americans.rdquo; This is a more modern update of the political scenes in Return of Godzilla, in which the nuclear powers Russia and America both argue with the Japanese PM about nuking Godzilla. In 2016, we have a similar conflict, with the Russians and Chinese on one side, and the Americans on the other. Unfortunately, the UN agrees that if Japan cannot handle Godzilla, someone gets to drop a nuke on it. Fortunately, Japan has a lot more international swing that was presented in Return. In Shin Godzilla, Kayoko Patterson comes into the picture. Being both American and Japanese, she is more sympathetic to the Japanese government than the average American, and has the connections to release American information to the Rando. But Godzilla is not directly the fault of America, rather the creation of Goro Maki, who was employed by the American DOE, but acted on his own. America is not a fully trustworthy ally, but a large presence that cannot be ignored. However, it can be bargained with. Which is very different from the absolutist political climate in 984. Shin Godzilla feels more nuanced, more realistic, like there is a larger and more complex world outside what we are shown on screen.

In Legendary Godzilla, a Japanese professor working for Monarch (primarily an American organization) brings the name Godzilla from Japan, but doesn't refer to the name's origin. Goro Maki is apparently from Odho Island, the island Godzilla first landed on in the 1954 film, unreferenced in the franchise then. He adapted the name from Odho Island's obscure mythology.

Odho Island. That rings a bell

Godzilla itself, as with the Skullcrawlers in Kong: Skull Island, takes a certain amount of inspiration from Pokémon. Which I suppose is fair, since the main concept of Pokémon is to have Godzilla style monster vs monster fights. Shin Godzilla is self-“evolving,” like a Pokémon. However, the changes are properly referred to as mutation, rather than evolution. This sort of changing creature is well-established in earlier films in the series. Mothra, which has larval and adult forms, Hedorah and Destoroyah all changed forms. It is an important implication that all three of these creatures end up with wings. One of Rando’s scientists hypothesizes that Godzilla could, if given enough time to mutate, develop flight. But Godzilla has always previously kept to a single form. And I like the fact that its initial forms, the lungfish, and its initial upright mutation, all look awkward. It doesn't look like it has fully adapted to the land until its last form, the familiar upright stance with the toothy, dinosaur-like head.

Big, awkward Godzilla

The directors do an excellent job of making their CG critter feel enormous. Mostly, Godzilla is seen in parts, often too large to be contained in the frame. When it is seen as a whole, it’s from far away. This is also the most tortured Godzilla yet put on screen. Godzilla radiates a red hot glow from its interior, as if it were a walking volcano or hot lava field. The skin of the walking form is knobbed, recalling the keloid-like skin of the 1954 original, and also the appearance the pillow lava. Its arms are smaller than ever, and don’t move. The teeth are huge and jagged. Overall, it’s a terrifying new look for the King of Monsters.

Big, bad Godzilla

Of particular note is its tail. It's enormously long. It’s also the first glimpse we see of Godzilla. But more than any other part of Godzilla, the tail changes. When Godzilla first comes ashore, it has a flat tail oddly like King Ghidorah's. It even seems like it's the right color.

Godzilla's Ghidorah-like tail

Later, when Godzilla achieves its upright configuration, the tail looks very different. It’s been speculated that this is some sort of whale skull, but given everything, this seems to be the beginning of a second head. We later find out that even when Godzilla’s back lasers fail, it can use its tail to direct destructive energy to devastating effect.

Tail #2

The final shot of the film is of the tail, which is now developing into smaller, independent, human-like Godzillas. They appear to be human-sized, mostly of human form, but with the maple-leaf spines to diffuse the nuclear fission in them. And they are darn creepy. Was Godzilla stopped in time? Could some of these horrible things have escaped in the confusion?

That terrifying last shot

Godzilla kills. It's a walking, evolving disaster, and anyone in its way is destroyed. This is made quite clear early in the film when Godzilla topples a building, with a couple still packing for their evacuation are in a building when it falls. I don't expect they survived. There’s nothing soft-pedaled about the destructiveness of incarnation.

The other real strength of the re-design is that Godzilla has surprises up its sleeve. Or down its throat. As previously stated, Godzilla’s initial rampage in lungfish and then first erect form are not met with effective military action. But then the Americans drop bombs on Godzilla. And, like he always does, Godzilla responds by unleashing unimaginable fury.

Hurting Godzilla, that's a good idea, right?

Godzilla films have always had the destruction of cities as their centerpiece. The destruction in Shin Godzilla is awe-inspiring, even by Godzilla standards. Godzilla's fiery output is astonishing vomiting forth a massive river of fire. The fiery breath comes hosing out of Godzilla’s mouth, engulfing much of the city. Then, separating its lower jaw, it focuses that torrent down into a laser-like needle of destruction, and proceeds to cut through every building in sight. The destruction is constant and nearly overwhelming. I had a visceral reaction to it when I first saw it in the theater, astonishment at so much destruction.

That terrifying last shot

Like the Legendary Godzilla, as well as Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla and Tokyo S.O.S., there is an anticipatory indication when Godzilla is going to unleash his atomic breath. Godzilla's glow turns purple, giving the audience that delicious ten seconds of anticipation. There are a few new tricks up Godzilla's sleeve. It can concentrate its nuclear fire into a massively destructive beam, cutting through buildings, extending out perhaps two or three kilometers. And, because the film makers know their stuff, they make sure that they destroy the same theater Godzilla did in 1954.

Different breath, lots of destruction

But that’s not all. Attacked from behind, Godzilla develops destructive rays from its back, knocking down the American B-2 Spirit bombers that unleashed the MOP bombs on it. It’s a new trick for Godzilla, surprising and frightening, making an assault on the creature all the more difficult. It can shoot down anything behind it, while its atomic breath is able to carve anything else out of the sky.

That terrifying last shot

Even though this Godzilla levels buildings like the hand of God itself, the film doesn’t spend much time on the dead or dying. No scenes of children who make the radiation detector go nuts, no mother holding her children to her during the fiery holocaust. But it is not shy about showing the distress of people who are displaced because of the attack. We see a lot of people with filter masks, spend time in a food line. Godzilla’s rampage does not happen to no one. It uproots families, destroys homes, and has consequences.

I'm going to step back from what I said in my earlier post. The military is, although more valorized than it was in Ishiro Honda's day, it’s still there for show. It doesn't do anything other than show the scientists how Godzilla works. Godzilla drops a bridge on a tank division, and he smokes two of the three bombers that attack him. It is only with sustained assaults with multiple missiles that we are able to exhaust Godzilla enough to start the process of overheating his internal reactor.

As I have said before: This is a Japanese Godzilla film that knows the history of the franchise. So it solves its plot problem in the Japanese fashion: by sciencing the shit out of it. Against an international coalition that wishes to drop a nuke on Godzilla if Japan cannot solve their problem. Which makes for a good, tense third act. The threat of a nuclear detonation, in no way guaranteed to destroy Godzilla, makes an excellent countdown.

Whoever wrote the subtitles seems to have a wrong impression about what actually happens to stop Godzilla. Godzilla gets pumped full of blood coagulant (an idea first introduced in ). As in Return go Godzilla, Godzilla is a living nuclear reactor. The film’s solution to this is to pump it full of blood coagulant which will force Godzilla to shut down its reactor because it cannot circulate its blood, which serves as a coolant. Thus the reactor will become too hot. The coagulant does not freeze Godzilla. It stops taking the heat away from the central core reactor. Once the internal nuclear reactor is shut off, Godzilla is no longer hot enough to remain mobile. Or maybe the script doesn’t understand nuclear power as well as I hope it would.

Godzilla is then pumped full of anticoagulant. I have a little bit of trouble with this, but only because everyone refers to it as 'freezing' Godzilla. It's an attempt to induce a reactor scram, or shut down. This means actually increasing Godzilla's heat by thickening its blood coolant system until it realizes it's in danger, and its internal reactor shuts down, and it no longer has the energy to supply its own metabolism. So freeze is an inadequate word to describe the process for me. Two, the film uses the imagery of the Fukishima 50, who worked to keep the nuclear disaster under control. The use of the boom pumps is especially striking. But the film doesn't praise the people who get the job done, the boots on the ground. The first wave of boom pumps, and I assume their operators, is annihilated, but the politicians press on. They get the glory, not those who risked themselves.

Sciencing the shit out of Godzilla

It’s interesting to see the difference between the two points of view concerning nuclear weapons so close to each other. After all, we don’t know how close 1954 Godzilla was when it was awakened by nuclear testing, and here, it seems accepted that a nuke will destroy Godzilla. But the Legendary took a nuke to the face and was only slowed down. Maybe it’s that Americans like their nukes more than the Japanese, and therefore American Godzilla needs to be immune to them because we’re likely to drop one on him anyway. Or maybe the Japanese don't think anything will survive a direct hit form a nuke, having a bit more experience with them.

Holy crap that was a lot of buildings

A welcome change to the home video release is the elimination of the titles from the screen. Now everything and everyone that is identified is done so in smaller, discrete supertitles which do not block what’s going on, or crowd the subtitles. Thus, it’s much easier to get the joke that Rando is the “Cabinet Minister of State fort Special Missions Giant Unidentified Creature United Response Task Force HQ Bureau Chief & Deputy Director" as he’s talking about something else with the subtitles separated.

I enjoyed Shin Godzilla, both for its fresh take on Godzilla, and its demonstration that something new can be brought to the franchise. I'm very excited that we will have two Godzilla franchises, both the Legendary, as well as Toho's anime trilogy, beginning with Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, released in November. Shin Godzilla stands as one of my favorite Godzilla films, both for the impressive monster action and the excellent performances from the human actors.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Bog Beast Who Never Really Got His Due

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Weird Tales of the Macabre #2 The 1974 version of Atlas Comics (from Seaboard Publishing) was another attempt to compete with Marvel and DC that did not last long. No comic or magazine they put out lasted more than four issues. As there was apparently some sort of mandatory swamp monster requirement for every seventies comic publisher, they introduced their own. Meet the Bog Beast.

The Bog Beast is very different from other swamp monsters, so much so that I seriously considered not including it in the Muck Man list. But there are similarities. Bog Beast has been sent by an underground civilization to investigate the surface world, emerging from the La Brea tar pits. It looks like an emaciated human, bubbling over with tar. In the color stories, it is red, about as far from the green or brown of most other swamp creatures as possible. It is also an intelligent, self-aware creature. It has not been transformed, there was no fiery explosion that killed an otherwise normal human. It is not a typical member of its species, but as “The Sun-Spawn Walks” shows, it is one of the fittest members of its subterranean civilization. The Bog Beast is not, and never has been dead, nor was it ever human. There was no catalyst for its transformation, because there was no transformation.

On the other hand, it is immune to bullets, and inhumanly strong. And sort of goopy-icky. But the Bog Beast is, similar to many of the muck men, an outsider, who observes humanity from a remove. So it sort of fits, and hey, there are only four stories. So here we go.

Atlas Comics' Weird Tales of the Macabre #2
Bog Beast started off in Weird Tales of the Macabre #2 (Mar, 1975), a black and white magazine reminiscent of Skywald’s mood horror titles. The initial story details an odd mix of a recently-fired Hollywood special effects technician, and a put-upon newspaper photographer. The photographer is assigned to the La Brea tar pits, and witnesses the Bog-Beast climbing out on its mission to explore the surface world. He gets mixed up in a Hollywood production, and of course there are life-threatening problems, which the Bog-beast both causes and then solves. Bog-beast thinks clearly, but it cannot communicate, due to the language barrier.

That said, we've seen this story before. The Bog Beast invades a film shoot, in a manner reminiscent of a Heap story. When the rain machine goes haywire and causes a flood, the Bog Beast rescues a woman from drowning, as in the Glob’s initial appearance.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Tales of Evil #2
The Bog Beast appeared again in Tales of Evil #2 (April, 1975), and 3 (July, 1975), both in color. The first story, “The Fifty Dollar Body” is a crime story in which Bog Beast serves primarily as a passive observer. The Bog Beast runs afoul of two fugitives, a rather slow-thinking man, as well as a viciously unpleasant woman. Bog Beast tries to communicate with them, but fails. The Beast tangles with the cops, and eventually the two fugitives turn on each other. Bog-beast is freed by the fatally-wounded, who then dies himself. Bog-beast, bewildered by the very human cruelty, moves on. The final frame is very familiar, similar to Len and Bernie's famous "If tears could come they would" ending from the original Swamp Thing story.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Weird Tales of the Macabre #3
Bog Beast turned up again in Tales of Evil #3, in an untitled story. While visiting the Mount Palomar observatory, Bog Beast discovers bodies torn to shreds, and a woman still alive. She turns out to be a werewolf, and Bog Beast must fight her. Throwing her off a cliff, he attracts the attention of the police, who then net and capture him.

This is the first fantastic story of the Bog Beast. Everything else has been noir or crime, but here we have our first story with supernatural elements. Swamp Creatures meet with werewolves often. Swamp Thing and both the Hillman and the Skywald incarnations of the Heap did. Likely the ferocity of the werewolf makes for a good opponent for the Swamp Monster: Although the werewolf is usually frenzied, the Swamp Monster is slow and tough. Few of them have been as appealing to male gaze, however.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Fearful Spectres #3
Atlas folded in 1975, and the Tales of Evil 3 was long believed to be the last Bog Beast story, the Internet has shown one that surfaces in an Australian anthology comic Fearful Spectres (1982) from publisher Gredown Comics. As far as I understand it, the story was likely sold since it was complete, and there was no sense it letting something that could bring in money go to waste, even if wasn't published under the Atlas banner. “The Sun-Spawn Walks” initially shows a new power Bog-Beast has not previously displayed. He is able to turn into a goopy, boneless form and flow through bars of a prison. And in a more comic-book story, Bog is attacked by an entity that seems to be made of living flame, and defeats it by turning to liquid form and smothering it.

Atlas Comics' Bog Beast from Fearful Spectres #3

Although it's unlikely have influenced it, this story also has an antecedent to psychic girl "Casey" from the Pasko and Yeates Swamp Thng. Bog meets a woman who is deaf mute from birth, and has therefore developed telepathy. By the end of the story, she has been badly burned, and their psychic link is severed. Thus Bog is alone again.

And that was the end of Bog, and the end of Atlas Comics. Unfortunately, Bog never developed doesn’t have much personality. This might be due to its bouncing around between writers (Gabriel Levy for its first appearance, John Albano for the second outing, Levy again in Tales of Evil and the unknown author of “The Sun-Spawn Walks”). It's tangential to the usual run of Swamp Monsters, but interesting to see the concept stretched, if not to the breaking point.

Next time, I'll be yammering on about the second iteration of Marvel's Man-Thing. See you then.