Sunday, January 31, 2010

Peter H. Brothers is Satan

Apparently, back in the dim, dark 1970s—during the most shadowy of my shadowy youthful years—I sent fellow daikaiju enthusiast/author Pete Brothers some original pen-and-ink drawings of Japanese monsters. Never expecting these ancient cave renderings to resurface, I was taken aback when he posted copies of a couple of them on Facebook. My word! I never!

Evidently, I took myself to be a far better artist than I really was, but it's kind of a hoot seeing these again—especially since I don't remember doing the specific drawings in the first place. Click on the pics to enlarge (if you're feeling masochistic).

Saturday, January 30, 2010

It's Pitch White Outside

A picturesque covering of snow on the ground today, though considerably shy of the eight to ten inches some were predicting. There's quite a variation in the amounts, even in the immediate area—some folks within ten miles of here got an additional two to four inches. It's a good day to get some writing done and watch a monster movie or two....

Speaking of which, I hope that "Daikaiju Month" here at the Blog Where Horror Dwells has been entertaining. I've made a page on my Web site that compiles all the reviews so they'll be handy for future reference (go to and select the Daikaiju Review button in the left-hand column). I had written a few others for About, such as Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Godzilla: Final Wars, which I evidently deleted at some time in the past; I may yet provide new ones sometime in the future.

I started watching my old VHS copy of The Day Mars Invaded Earth late last night. It's a favorite from the '50s; ostensibly science fiction, but atmospheric and creepy. I think I'll finish watching it and then write the liner notes for Dark Shadows: Blood Dance, which is due from Big Finish this spring.

The Frankenstein Brothers

War of the Gargantuas
(Furankenshutain no Kaijû: Sanda Tai Gaira, 1966)

DVD Description:
Released by Classic Media; double-feature with Rodan, the Flying Monster; Japanese and English versions of both films; documentary

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Russ Tamblyn, Kenji Sahara, Kumi Mizuno, Nobuo Nakamura, Jun Tazaki, Yoshifumi Tajima, Ren Yamamoto

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Originally titled The Frankenstein Brothers: Sanda vs. Gaira, the film is a sequel to 1965's Frankenstein Conquers the World (released on DVD in 2009 by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock). The Japanese version makes the connection clear, though the English dialogue is altered to remove any references to Toho's Frankenstein. It's of little consequence, as the gargantuas are both "offshoots" of the monster in the preceding movie.

Over the years, the terms most often used by reviewers to describe War of the Gargantuas are "cheesy," "tedious," "insipid," "goofy," and so forth, though genre fans often rate the movie relatively high on the daikaiju scale. Me, I put it right at the top of the daikaiju scale, and I'll unabashedly state that it's one of my all-time favorite monster movies. I would be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half or so.

It's a rare situation indeed in which the U.S. release of a Toho movie is superior to the original Japanese version, but War of the Gargantuas is one of them. Its running time is slightly longer; the editing of the original work print is arguably more skillful; and, of all things, the alteration of Akira Ifukube's original score—usually one of the worst things the domestic release of a Toho film can suffer—is mostly beneficial. While I am a diehard fan of Akira Ifukube's music—both his film scores and classical compositions—I just can't abide the monotonous military march that rambles on endlessly behind the action scenes throughout the Japanese version. The generic music that replaces it in U.S. cut may be nothing to write home about, but at least it effectively underscores the action. Thankfully, the best of Ifukube's music—the eerie, theramin-based main theme and the re-orchestrated motifs from Frankenstein Conquers the World—are left intact. In some places, cues from Monster Zero have also been inserted; they're not really necessary, but neither are they distracting. My understanding is that Henry Saperstein, the U.S. producer (and Toho's co-financier), had no love for Ifukube's martial themes either and felt no shame in "fixing" them. Can't fault him for that!

For a Toho daikaiju pic, War of the Gargantuas is unique in several ways, one of the foremost being that Gaira, the green one, is shown devouring humans. In fact, the whole reason for his rampage is to find food. There's something far more menacing about a monstrous critter with an appetite for human flesh than one that comes to town because it likes to dine on fissionable materials. Secondly, the anthropomorphic monsters act and interact with distinct intelligence, unlike the reptilian monsters that generally attack like some impersonal force of nature. Relevant to this point, the monster suits are constructed so that we see the actors' actual eyes, rather than painted Ping Pong balls; as such, the Gargantuas' faces are more than customarily expressive, and Gaira's face in particular can be quite horrifying. In numerous scenes, the lighting and camera angles imbue him with a distinctly demonic look. Let me tell you, if I were out geocaching one day and saw Gaira pounding through the forest toward me, my drawers would be shitting themselves.

At the movie's time, Eiji Tsuburaya's special effect work was at its pinnacle, and he and his crew outdid themselves for this one, particularly during Gaira's rampage through the mountainous countryside and the subsequent military attack. I find the well-staged, tactically sound counterattack on the monster(s) highly engaging, especially the all-out laser and maser-cannon assault on Gaira, just before Sanda's appearance (which, again, is better staged in the American version). It's one of those rare moments in Toho's monster history when the human forces very nearly come out on top, and the monsters suffer and express physical pain.

Toho's cast of regulars, including Kenji Sahara, Kumi Mizuno, Jun Tazaki, Yoshifumi Tajima, and others, are joined by Russ Tamblyn, who undeniably sleepwalked through his role as Dr. Stewart. However, he's perfectly acceptable in the part; he looks and sounds just like one of the physicians I knew back in my old hometown at the time. If anything, Dr. Southworth might have been less animated....

At any rate, this release of War of the Gargantuas actually had me excited about a giant monster movie again. That's certainly been a long time coming. There's not much in the way of Classic Media's customary extras in the package (though there is an hour-long documentary called "Shrinking Godzilla Down to Size," produced by Steve Ryfle and my friend Ed Godziszewski), but for two versions of two very worthwhile movies, it's damn near a steal.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Baradagi, The Unbelievable

Varan, the Unbelievable
(Daikaiju Baran, 1958)

DVD Description:
Released by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock; additional material: trailers for upcoming Tokyo Shock DVD releases, audio commentaries, Japanese TV release version

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Kôzô Nomura, Ayumi Sonoda, Fumito Matsuo, Koreya Senda, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Sera

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

One of Toho's most obscure giant monster flicks, the original Japanese version of Varan, The Unbelievable has long been an object of desire for collectors. The Tokyo Shock DVD presents the original black-and-white film, uncut (sans Myron Healy, who starred in the 1962 American version), in anamorphic widescreen, with numerous extras, including an abridged, alternately scored version originally made for Japanese television release.

The 1962 American release of Varan, The Unbelievable featured bits and pieces of Toho's Daikaiju Baran, but in the context of an entirely new movie starring Myron Healy. The result was an insipid B-flick with some exceptional monster scenes. Virtually none of the original plot or characters survived the Americanization, and stock music by Albert Glasser had replaced Akira Ifukube's dark, atmospheric score. Also missing was a brief but memorable scene of the monster taking flight.

Toho's last black and white daikaiju film, Varan features some of Eiji Tsuburaya's most impressive special effects work, and the monster suit is quite elegant, usually shot at high speed and from low angles to convey a sense of great size. The human drama, however, falls far short of Toho's usual standard, partly due to a lackluster cast—especially the stony-faced Kôzô Nomura as the lead protagonist, and Koreya Senda as the inevitable scientist, whose screen presence utterly fails to engage. Regardless, the Tokyo Shock DVD of Varan is itself a superior product, and the movie's visual strengths certainly make it a more-than-worthy entry in Toho's daikaiju universe.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Yog, Monster From Space

Space Amoeba
(Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai No Daikaijû, 1970)

DVD Description
Released by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock; additional material: trailers, commentary, documentary

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Yu Fujiki, Akira Kubo, Kenji Sahara, Atsuko Takahashi, Yoshio Tsuchiya

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Better known as Yog, Monster From Space, this Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock DVD release is another welcome addition to its expanding daikaiju library. With a healthy complement of extras, it features a beautiful, widescreen print and a choice of the original Japanese soundtrack with subtitles or English dubbing—though not the Titra dub that accompanied the 1971 American International release of Yog; this is the inferior international dub created in Hong Kong.

An unmanned space probe splashes down in the south Pacific, bringing with it an alien life form that transforms specimens of the local fauna into rampaging behemoths. An expedition sent to scout the remote Selgio Island for commercial development run up against the big critters—and the alien force—with fairly ugly results.

Outside of Space Amoeba, I don't think you'll find another movie that features a gigantic squid walking upright on its tentacles. But Gezora, the cuttlefish in question, despite being so obviously a man in a rubber squid suit, has some pretty wicked moments on the screen. With its bulging eyes and writhing tentacles, Gezora possesses a demeanor almost intimidating enough to temper the obligatory chuckles. Ganime, the giant crab, and Kameba, the mutant turtle, also have some entertaining moments, particularly when menacing their diminutive human quarry.

The well-constructed, relatively large-scale miniature sets, colorful cinematography, familiar cast, and Akira Ifukube's driving score make Space Amoeba an enjoyable flick, despite a weak screenplay and dialogue that's lame even in the original Japanese.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Son of Godzilla
(Gojira No Mosuko, 1967)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for upcoming Sony DVD releases

Directed by Jun Fukuda

Starring Akihiko Hirata, Akira Kubo, Bibari Maeda, Tadao Takashima, Yoshio Tsuchiya

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

A group of Japanese scientists set up a station on Solgel Island to conduct weather control experiments. However, an accident causes their experiment to go out of control, and several gigantic, mutated preying mantises are created. In turn, they unearth a gigantic egg, from which an odd reptilian creature emerges—Minira, a.k.a. Minya, the son of Godzilla (once dubbed "Tadzilla" by Forry Ackerman in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the name stuck). Soon, Godzilla emerges from the sea to save his offspring from the predatory monsters. He has no sooner defeated them when another mutant, a hideous giant spider, appears, and the monsters engage in another ferocious battle. To save themselves, the scientists commence a new weather experiment, this time turning the island into a frigid, snow-covered wasteland, forcing the monsters into deep-frozen hibernation.

Son of Godzilla is often maligned by fans, citing Godzilla's "cute" offspring and the decidedly inferior Godzilla suit as its primary weaknesses. However, the story is highly imaginative, and the ensemble cast includes some of Toho's finest talent. The giant, mutated island creatures—a trio of monstrous preying mantises (known as Kamakiras) and a huge spider (Kumonga, a.k.a. Spiga)—come off remarkably well, particularly in the battle scenes.

While Son of Godzilla ventures farther into juvenile territory than past entries in the series, it features some clever humor, exciting action, and occasionally brilliant special effects. The film never received a theatrical release in the United States, and having been relegated for years to airings of second-rate prints, the movie is done reasonable justice by Sony's beautiful-quality DVD. No extra features of any note, alas.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Mysterians Want Our Women!

The Mysterians
(Chikiyu Boeigun, 1957)

DVD Description:
Released by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock; additional material: trailers for upcoming Tokyo Shock DVD releases, audio commentaries, still gallery, isolated music track

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Fifty years after its original release, The Mysterians (Chikiyu Boeigun) has landed in America on DVD, courtesy of Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock, not only uncut, but in its original widescreen format (2.35:1). And unlike the Sony 50th anniversary releases of numerous Godzilla films, this package contains a number of special features (which are reportedly identical to the Toho [region 2] release). Choices of audio include 5.1 surround sound (Japanese and English), mono (Japanese, English, and Spanish), an isolated music track, and commentary (by former SPFX directors Koichi Kawakita and Shinji Higuchi); English subtitles are available. The DVD also features storyboards, a still gallery, and previews of other upcoming Tokyo Shock titles (which include Dogora, Gappa, Matango, and Varan.)

Some of us no doubt remember watching the RKO version of The Mysterians on television in the 1960s—usually a poor-quality pan-and-scanned print, with an oddly warbling music track; I've met few, if any, individuals fortunate enough to have seen it during its original domestic theatrical run. I can vividly recall watching the movie on our black-and-white TV set when I was in elementary school and being gripped by the moody atmosphere of its first half and dazzled by the action in the second. (As an aside, it can be safely said that this film contributed significantly to my incipient, juvenile pyromania; I once incurred the wrath of God by pouring lighter fluid around the bases of our household shrubs, striking a match, and then running to tell my parents, "Look…all the trees. They're burning from the roots!") The Mysterians was the first non-Godzilla Toho movie I saw as a kid, and to this day, it remains my favorite.

During the 70s and 80s, the film virtually disappeared from American television. Eventually, as did many of us who collected all things Toho in the 80s, I picked up a copy of the original Japanese version, though sans subtitles; of course, having memorized the English soundtrack (thanks to audiocassette) during my teens, I was able to provide my own mental dialogue for the film. Still, for so many years, the only option for acquiring a decent quality, wide-screen, subtitled copy of this, and virtually any other Toho film, was to go the bootleg route. Toho has spent lord knows how many fortunes combating bootleggers, mostly unsuccessfully; however, during the past year, we have strong evidence that the obvious answer has dawned on them at last, and this DVD edition of The Mysterians is a shining example of how money might be channeled away from unauthorized outlets and back to Toho.

The Tokyo Shock DVD features a good quality print; on one TV screen, it struck me as slightly faded and a tad reddish, but on my other, the colors appeared lush and true. Scratches and skips are virtually nonexistent. The Japanese soundtrack suffers from a bit of background noise—hissing, popping, and crackling—but the stereo separation and depth of sound, especially on the musical track, are surprisingly good. The English dub is not the original U.S. version, which featured a memorable job by Jay Bonafield (supervisor), Carlos Montalban, and Peter Riethof, but a recent re-recording by Bang Zoom Entertainment (I kid you not). Alas, the new dubbing is insipid, with ridiculously exaggerated, non-Japanese accents and poor matching of voices to characters. In fact, one of the voice actors is billed as John Smallberries (and if you've seen The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, you'll know about John Smallberries). Also-though the English vocal track is crystal clear, the volume of the music and sound effects is significantly lower than on the Japanese track.

The Mysterians offers one of the most interesting depictions of aliens speaking in an Earth tongue, by way of using two vocal tracks. When a Mysterian speaks, his "natural" voice is a low, muttering tone, and the translated line is layered above it, slightly delayed. Unlike the RKO version, which merely gave the Mysterians somewhat tinny, scratchy-sounding voices, the Bang Zoom dub preserves the original alien voice beneath the translated one. However, given the English track's inferior quality, I am personally inclined to forget it exists and stick with the Japanese soundtrack and subtitles.

Although the opening credits are not translated, at the end of the film, full credits roll for the Japanese, English, and Spanish productions, accompanied by the urgent strains of The Mysterians battle march.

Apart from the horrendous English dub, the flaws of the Tokyo Shock package are relatively miniscule, and the extra features add value to what I consider an essential film. The Mysterians is one of Toho's science fiction masterpieces, with a first-rate cast, some of Eiji Tsuburaya's most noteworthy special-effects work, and an unforgettable Ifukube score. It's high time it received a decent presentation in the U.S., and I'm excited to see that Tokyo Shock will be releasing several more daikaiju flicks in the near future—hopefully of comparable quality to The Mysterians.

This review originally appeared in G-Fan magazine.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Avatar in 3D

First "modern" movie I've seen in 3-D, and it was pretty impressive, visually. A far cry from the 3-D flicks of yore, which gave you a headache in the first five minutes. An entertaining enough movie overall, though the story and its slam-bang heavy-handed political parallels were distastefully stereotypical, not to mention simplistic. I'm glad I saw it once — in 3-D — but much like Cameron's The Abyss, now that I have, I don't think I'll have any interest in seeing it again, particularly not on a smaller screen.

The Egg Belongs to Mothra...the Mighty Thing!

Mothra vs. Godzilla
(Mosura Tai Gojira, 1963)

DVD Description:
Released by Classic Media; additional material: audio commentary, poster gallery, trailer, Akira Ifukube documentary

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Akira Takarada, Hiroshi Koizumi, Yuriko Hoshi, Kenji Sahara, Yoshibumi Tajima, Jun Tazaki

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Mothra vs. Godzilla features one of Godzilla's finest screen appearances, with human drama and spectacular monster action coming together to create a near-flawless daikaiju picture. Classic Media presents an excellent DVD release, with both the original Japanese version and the 1964 American International Pictures release (under the original A.I.P. title Godzilla vs. the Thing). This film is one of the few Toho monster fests whose American release version surpasses the original.

This Toho classic depicts Godzilla at his all-time best, featuring one of the most impressive Godzilla suit designs and some of Eiji Tsuburaya's finest special effects work. Virtually every scene featuring Godzilla was composed to be visually spectacular, and the innovative effects work holds up admirably, even after 40+ years. Akira Ifukube composed a memorable score, which perfectly complements the film and establishes motifs that have become synonymous with Godzilla over the years.

While the original Japanese version contains a few minor scenes that aren't present in the American release, it is missing one of the best-realized effects sequences shot for the film—the Frontier missile attack scene. Most likely, this is because the attack is carried out by the U.S. Navy, which, at the time, would have flown in the face of Japanese sensibilities.

The Classic Media DVD is superb, although the aspect ratio of the U.S. version is cropped to be narrower than the original widescreen (due to it otherwise being the best available print, I understand). It's a small issue, so this DVD release receives top recommendation.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Attack the Summit of Bad Actors!

Monster X Strikes Again: Attack the G8 Summit
(Girara No Gyakushu: Tôya-ko Samitto Kikiippatsu, 2008)

DVD Description:
Released by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock; additional material: trailers

Directed by Minoru Kawasaki

Starring: Natsuki Kato, Kazuki Kato, Hideo Fukamoto, Akira Matsushita

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Back in the early days of my very odd personal development, I was introduced to Greg Shoemaker's Japanese Fantasy Film Journal by way of issue #4—late 1970, there or about. In its pages, I found mention of a creature named Guilala, which was unknown to me at the time. Fascinated, I wrote letters to Mr. Shoemaker and other fans of my acquaintance, trying to determine just who or what this Guilala actually was. "Oh, that's The X From Outer Space," came at least one reply. The cryptic nature of this title—especially the "Outer Space" portion of it—really snagged my attention. So when in a later issue of JFFJ there appeared an actual photo of said beast, I looked upon this thing in wonder and said to my very young self, "That's weird."

Long about age 15, I discovered that The X From Outer Space was scheduled to run on a weekend TV monster movie, so I was antsy all week, anticipating the advent of this semi-mythical daikaiju. Finally, the film began, and here I was, watching the exploits of Spaceship AAB-Gamma and its crew of rockin', silver-clad astronauts. Wow. Lounge-lizard space sets, cute little miniature buildings, and…what's this? A rubber turkey with bobbing antennae that could turn into a floating red rubber ball. Not only that, eventually, Guilala became a big old pile of non-mentholated shaving cream!

"That's weird."

Over the years, I was treated to numerous showings of The X From Outer Space, and with each viewing, I seemed to find it a little bit weirder. Now, in my advancing middle age, I learn that Guilala has been slated to return-wilder and woollier than ever. Cool.

Saw a trailer or two, some photos in G-Fan magazine...and I actually got to thinking that the revival of Monster X might actually be a good thing.

When the Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock DVD arrived, I was pretty eager. Looked like Guilala hadn't changed a bit from his familiar old self. Wonder if he's going to toss tankers on wires into tall wobbling smokestacks? Well, let's find out.

Okay, we have a bunch of peculiar politicians spewing corny jokes, all gathered in Hokkaido for the newest G8 summit. Meanwhile, a couple of young reporters, Sumire Sumidagawa (Natsuki Kato, who is too cute for words) and Sanpei Toyama (Kazuki Kato), wander into the forests near the Lake Toya and discover a hidden village where they sing and dance and worship something known as Take-Majin. On the village temple, we see an image, not just of Take-Majin, but of a somewhat familiar-looking, flying saucer-headed, bobble-antennaed critter. Before we know it, a fireball streaks to earth, blows up some buildings, and from the conflagration emerges…Guilala. Yay! But wait a second. Is that stock footage?! Goodness gracious me. Say it ain't so.

But it is.

Ah well. The politicians panic and contemplate evacuation, only to be told by the U.S. President—who mimics a few of Dubya's more aggressive mannerisms—that the world leaders should be ashamed for being afraid After all, if they come together and defeat the monster, they will look just dapper in the polls. With something of a poke at Japan's constitution, which allows its military to function only in defensive capacity, the Japanese forces—headed by Yosuke Natsuke (star of Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster; Dagora, the Space Monster; and Godzilla 1984)—take on a purely supportive role.

Okay, time for the rest of the world to go on the offensive. Guilala stations himself in a particular corner of the landscape set and waits there for the challenges. One after another, each nation devises a new, novel plot to destroy Guilala—from lethal gas attack to brain-scrambling radio waves to digging a big hole he's suppose to fall into (and what…break his crown?). Each fails, of course. None is terribly spectacular, but there are some amusing scenes of each country's flag lowering to half-staff after its unsuccessful attack. Also pretty funny: as each nation takes its respective helm, a hustling staff person rushes onscreen and changes the title banner of the G8 conference room to reflect the name of the upcoming operation. While all this is happening, scenes of interviews with the local populace indicate that they wish they were in a Toho film—i.e., it would have been better if the monster were Baragon or Varan. Indeed, much of the action music is clearly patterned after Ifukube's battle marches. Cute. Sort of.

As things begin to look bleaker and bleaker, the Japanese prime minister (Hideo Fukamoto) suffers an acute case of irritable bowel syndrome and excuses himself, only to be replaced by the former PM (Akira Matsushita), who appears happy to take charge. But what do you know—in a wild twist, the old PM isn't the PM, but North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il! And crimey, just to show everyone what for, the imposter launches a nuclear missile to destroy Guilala and contaminate the Japanese countryside. Oh, no!

Meanwhile, the young reporters seen early in the film, told by a young member of the aforementioned remote village that humans can't kill Guilala, decide that they must awaken Take-Majin to do the job. At first, the villagers don't like the idea of Sumire joining in the ceremony, but she's just so gosh-darned cute that, really, how could this village of mostly men ever say no?

Dancing and singing ensues. It's a pretty catchy ceremonial song. I like it. And at last, from a little statuette, which holds in its hands a fire extinguisher and an umbrella, the giant Take-Majin comes to life. This cross-eyed, golden-armored, multi-armed battle-ax takes flight and goes after Guilala, only to come between it and the North Korean missile. The nuclear projectile does a distinctly uncomplimentary number on poor Take-Majin, but he takes it with good humor and promptly goes into battle with Guilala. Without explanation, Take-Majin's multiple arms vanish, and an Ultramanish wrestling match ensues, with Take-Majin, needless to say, flying happily off into the sunset.

But no shaving cream, dammit.

Directed by Minoru Kawasaki (The World Sinks Except Japan, Pussy Soup, et. al.) this incarnation of Guilala is certainly weird, though its character is radically different from the original. The political satire, such as it is, comes across as juvenile in the extreme, though it occasionally manages to be engaging—particularly the "surprise" appearance of the Kim Jong Il chap. Unfortunately, the more expansive monster scenes happen as a result of stock footage (yeah, believe it or not, given the limitations of the original). The monster, for most of the movie, is relegated to a very small set, onto which towers or buildings are occasionally dropped in haphazard fashion to make it appear that he has moved. And the battle with Take-Majin offers little of the excitement, novelty, or old-fashioned fun that you'd expect in such a wacky daikaiju fest.

Regardless, overall, Monster X Strikes Again: Attack the G8 Summit! somehow manages, at least on occasion, to appeal to my sense of the ridiculous. I don't hate the thing, but now that I've seen it a couple of times—once in the company of some fellow lovers of all things daikaiju, resulting in the inevitable faux-MST3K experience—I doubt I'll watch it again; at least not until I have an insatiable craving to watch Natsuki Kato dance around with a bunch of crotchety old dudes in the forest.

Check it out once and forget it. It'll never replace the original The X From Outer Space as a pinnacle of truly bizarre daikaiju cinema.

This review originally appeared in G-Fan magazine.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Fungus Among Us

(Matango, 1962)

DVD Description:
Released by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock; additional material: commentaries, trailers for other Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock DVDs

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Hiroshi Koizumi, Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Kenji Sahara, Yoshio Tsuchiya

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Based on the William Hope Hodgson short story "A Voice in the Night," this 1962 Toho horror classic could almost be titled "Gilligan's Island Goes to Hell." Seven shipwrecked survivors find themselves on an island haunted by the ghosts of previous wrecks—or so it seems. The castaways soon discover that the crew of one abandoned vessel was conducting experiments with a mutated fungus known as "Matango"—and may not actually be dead but weirdly transformed.

Amid the production of its colorful, fantastic daikaiju flicks, the Toho tried at its hand at several very grim horror stories, of which Matango is arguably the most successful. Avid Godzilla fans will see many familiar faces in Matango, which featured one of its typical ensembles of extraordinary talent. The Media Blasters/Toho Shock DVD offers a gorgeous, widescreen print with the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles (or English dubbing for those who prefer it).

The film was released directly to television in 1963 with the lurid title Attack of the Mushroom People, and was rarely seen in subsequent years except on the occasional late-night horror show. The story is unrelentingly dark, claustrophobic, and misanthropic; none of the characters are particularly likable (though extremely well-portrayed), even those with whom we ought to feel a measure of sympathy. The build-up to the final horror is inexorable, without a shred of comic relief for the viewer. The eerie sound effects and unsettling score add to the mood, making Matango a true horror classic, now available as it was originally meant to be seen by Tokyo Shock Productions.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Monsters From Bloodrock

Latitude Zero
(Ido Zero Daisakosen, 1969)

DVD Description:
Released by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock; additional material: English and Japanese versions, trailers, stills gallery, commentary

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring: Joseph Cotten, Cesar Romero, Richard Jaeckel, Linda Haynes, Akira Takarada

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Over the past few years, Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock has treated tokusatsuphiles to some mighty fine goodies, and its release of Latitude Zero has been among my most anticipated. I first saw this 1969 Toho film in August, 1978, during a memorable visit with Japanese Giants guys, Ed Godziszewski and Bill Gudmundson, and I was immediately taken with its action-packed storyline, colorful cinematography, and superb musical score. A somewhat underrated film, Latitude Zero has remained one of my favorites from Toho, so a first-rate U.S. release on DVD is a welcome thing indeed.

Latitude Zero's screenplay, written by Ted Sherdeman, based on his original radio dramas, Tales of Latitude Zero, is typical of action-oriented science-fiction films of the era—fast-paced, weak in science but high in fantasy, with well-defined protagonists and villains. The direction is classic Ishiro Honda—dramatic staging, effective cuts, and the distinctive theme of humanity's potential for greatness (and its frequent perversion) running like an undercurrent behind the action. The film is very much a classic comic-book story adapted to live action.

Latitude Zero was not the first Toho production to feature English-speaking actors alongside the studio's ensemble of regulars, but it was unique in that the film was shot mostly in English, the Japanese actors speaking their lines phonetically, with varying degrees of success. In an unusual twist, it is the Japanese version that is dubbed, in Japanese, rather than its American counterpart. In general, the cast members and their performances are of Toho's typically high caliber, and Joseph Cotten deserves special credit for playing his role while suffering from acute liver disease. Richard Jaeckel and Linda Haynes turn in rather wooden performances, but in spite of themselves are adequate for their parts since they are only a portion of a very capable ensemble. As Malec, Cesar Romero brings much of the same sinister exuberance he brought to his role as the Joker in the Batman TV series from a few short years before.

The production values for Latitude Zero are generally excellent, with special effects that rank among Toho's best to date—particularly the underwater scenes with the Alpha and the Black Shark, most of which were filmed on a soundstage, the illusion of being underwater provided by expertly rendered optical effects. The "Tohoscope" widescreen cinematography is put to excellent use, especially in scenes that show the submarines in profile. On occasion, one can glimpse the wires suspending the vessels, but the subs' movements are so natural, without a trace of wobbling or swaying, they actually appear to be maneuvering underwater.

The undersea volcano and the climactic destruction of Bloodrock also rate highly in Toho's history of spectacular explosion effects. As in Atragon, the former effect was achieved by dumping dye into a water tank and filming it with the camera inverted, giving it the appearance of erupting upward. Combined with high-speed camera work and perfect lighting, the dye effect makes for one of the most convincing volcano eruptions Toho ever achieved.

Unfortunately, it's the monstrous critters that are the weakest link in the film. The bat mutants, the giant rats, and the lion/gryphon are all costumed actors, and none of the creature suits comes close to the excellence of the miniature effects work. They are, in fact, utterly laughable, and their poor designs can't help but diminish the quality of the effects as a whole. It's a shame that in this film, Toho falls so far short in the area where it so often excelled-creating monsters that, if not thoroughly believable, excited the imagination.

Akira Ifukube's score, to my mind, is one of his all-time best. A wealth of distinctive compositions are inserted strategically into the film; the same few themes are not just repeated over and over, as in Space Monster Dogora, Terror of MechaGodzilla, or Space Amoeba. A muted harpsichord theme plays as a backdrop to scenes of Latitude Zero, accentuating the antiquity, despite its advanced science, of the underwater society. The action themes bring to mind a number of Ifukube's most memorable pieces from Atragon, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and War of the Gargantuas, but none are merely derivative; each possesses a unique identity. For a most satisfying stand-alone listening experience—if you can find a copy—I highly recommend the Latitude Zero soundtrack CD (Futureland TYCY-5506).

Tokyo Shock provides the English and Japanese versions on two separate DVDs, and the package also includes a separate disc of trailers for other Media Blasters releases. The restored prints are beautiful—so clear that the aforementioned wires on the Alpha occasionally appear where I've never been able to see them before. Extra features include deleted scenes (some from Latitude Zero, others from Atragon, The Grand Fleet, and what appears to be Submersion of Japan), a stills gallery, and commentaries by assistant director Seiji Tani and special effects directors Teruyoshi Nakano, Koichi Kawakita, and Motoyoshi Tomioka.

Despite its oftentimes-juvenile character, Latitude Zero manages to be an exhilarating, imaginative picture, and Tokyo Shock finally gives it a most worthy release on our side of the water. A+ for the overall package.

This review originally appeared in G-Fan magazine.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Godzilla vs. Raggedy Ape

King Kong vs. Godzilla
(Kingu Kongu Tai Gojira, 1962)

DVD Description:
Released by Universal Studios; additional material: none

Directed by Ishiro Honda (Japanese version); Thomas Montgomery (American version)

Starring Kenji Sahara, Tadao Takashima, Mie Hama, Akiko Wakabayashi, Michael Keith, Harry Holcombe

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

One of the all-time classic monster duels comes to DVD—a beautiful print presented in anamorphic widescreen. Unlike the recent Sony and Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock releases of Toho classics, which include the original Japanese versions, this Universal release offers only the American version produced by John Beck in 1963 (Universal owns the rights, which frees them from having to wrangle with Toho for licensing).

The Americanized version of King Kong vs. Godzilla is a travesty, but a fun one. The original Toho film took a clever tongue-in-cheek approach, which the American producers managed to decimate with heavy-handed editing and inserting new scenes featuring Michael Keith as a news reporter and Harry Holcombe as a scientist. To U.S. audiences, the Japanese actors come off as buffoons, whereas in the original, they're playing nudge-nudge, wink-wink with viewers—especially Ichiro Arishima as the irrepressible Mr. Tako. One of the most infuriating excisions from the original Japanese version is Akira Ifukube's alternately somber and rousing score; in its place is stock Universal library music, including the main title from The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Fortunately, most of the monster scenes survive intact. Kong himself resembles a moth-eaten, Raggedy Ape doll, which might rightly insult fans of the original Kong, but most daikaiju aficionados accept it as part of the film's silly charm.

King Kong vs. Godzilla is half of a double-DVD release, the other half being the Toho/Rankin-Bass production King Kong Escapes. Highly recommended for its fine video presentation.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

King Kong vs. MechaniKong

King Kong Escapes
(Kingu Kongu No Gyakushu, 1967)

DVD Description:
Released by Universal Studios; additional material: None

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Rhodes Reason, Akira Takarada, Linda Miller, Mie Hama, Eisei (Hideo) Amamoto

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A Toho/Rankin-Bass co-production, King Kong Escapes offers an imaginative, engaging story, with some surprisingly good special effects, and a first-rate musical score by Akira Ifukube. This is the first and only movie to feature MechaniKong, one of Toho's most popular creations. With a few nods to the original Kong as well as the Rankin-Bass cartoon that spawned it, King Kong Escapes makes for some of the best escapist fun anyone can have at the movies.

As colorful and imaginative as it is ridiculous, King Kong Escapes is one of several films Toho co-produced with U.S. studios in the late 1960s to expand its international audience. Although the King Kong suit itself is awfully cuddly (meant to appeal to kids who enjoyed the Rankin-Bass King Kong cartoon), the big ape turns in an entertaining performance—falling head over heels for almost-actress Linda Miller, fighting the giant rubber dinosaur Gorosaurus, and wreaking havoc at the North Pole. The crowning grace of the movie, though, is MechaniKong, the simian's 60-foot metal counterpart, engineered by that international Judas, Dr. Who (played by Eisei Amamoto). Toho's special effects department went to town with King Kong Escapes; it's a beautifully photographed, very colorful movie with some highly impressive miniature work.

The American version presented here is virtually the same as the original Japanese; only a few minor differences exist between the two. This Universal DVD, though bereft of extras, offers such a beautiful widescreen print that I consider it an irresistible item. This is half of a two-fer from Universal, the other half being King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Monday, January 18, 2010

SOS! More MechaGodzilla!

Godzilla: Tokyo SOS
(Gojira Tai MekaGojira Tai Mosura: Tokyo SOS, 2003)

DVD Description
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for upcoming Sony DVD releases

Directed by Masaaki Tezuka

Starring Noboru Kaneko, Miho Yoshioka, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kumi Mizuno, Akira Nakao

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Godzilla: Tokyo SOS is a direct sequel to Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (2002), as well as the original Mothra (1963), and features the return of “Kiryu”—the fourth incarnation of Godzilla’s mechanical counterpart. After a virtual stalemate between Godzilla and Kiryu in the previous film, Mothra appears to join in an epic battle between the monsters, and Tokyo is once again in a big heap of trouble.

Following on the heels of 2002’s Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla, Godzilla: Tokyo SOS might easily be considered the “second half” of its predecessor; both films feel incomplete in the absence of their companion pieces. Like the rest of the Millennium Godzilla series, these two entries disregard the existing Godzilla mythos (except for the original 1954 Godzilla), though the ties to the original Mothra (1963) are clear and very refreshing—especially return of the likeable Professor Chujo, played by Hiroshi Koizumi, who originally starred in the role. Sadly, Koizumi gets entirely too little screen time here, but his scenes do add a certain poignancy for those familiar with his work in the classic Showa-era Toho films. Kumi Mizuno, one of Toho’s exceptional female stars of the 60s, also reprises her role from Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla as Japan’s prime minister.

Godzilla exudes that certain charming menace that has characterized him throughout the Millennium series, and Mothra has never looked better. Exciting monster battles and high-quality special effects largely make up for substantial shortcomings in the story and characterization departments.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Godzilla #2: Gigantis, the Fire Monster

Godzilla Raids Again
(Gojira No Gyakushu, 1955)

DVD Description:
Released by Classic Media; additional material: audio commentary, poster gallery, suitmation featurette

Directed by Motoyoshi Oda

Starring Hiroshi Koizumi, Setsuko Wakayama, Minoru Chiaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The first of many sequels to the original Godzilla, this relatively obscure film suffers in comparison to its predecessor, yet still stands out as an innovative entry in the series. In 1955, Toho was just cutting its teeth in the daikaju genre, but managed to produce a film with some remarkable special effects work and atmospheric cinematography. Viewed in context, Godzilla Raids Again remains a treat for Godzilla fans.

Giant monster movie fans may remember this film its original American release title: Gigantis, the Fire Monster. The excellent Classic Media DVD release presents both the original Japanese version as well as the 1959 American release, and features an informative commentary by daikaiju authorities Steve Ryfle, Ed Godziszewski, and Stuart Galbraith IV.

Unlike the original Godzilla, which was a powerful allegory about the horrors of nuclear war, Godzilla Raids Again plays more as a standard 1950's monster-on-the-loose melodrama, and stands as the first in the cycle of monster-vs.-monster movies for which Toho is famous. However, the often-superb special effects and moody cinematography elevate this one well above most of its contemporaries. Godzilla's first foe, Angilas (who, over the course of the Godzilla series, became one of Toho's most popular daikaiju), makes a striking debut in this picture. Oh, and by the way—regardless of the spelling "Anguirus," which Toho has officially trademarked, I will never, ever, EVER refer to this monster by such a name. The original Katakana characters spell AN-GI-RA-SU, so either "Angilas" or "Angurus" work fine; but never An-GWEER-us." Ack, gack, and double yack. Anyway, if we went by Toho's Anglicized spellings, we'd be flying on "Japan Air Lens" today. I'll take a pass.

Unfortunately, the Americanization of Gigantis, supervised by Paul Schreibman, is a farce, and results in the entire production playing as unintentional camp. Flawed though it might be, the original Japanese version stands as a noteworthy entry in the Godzilla series, and is highly entertaining in its own right.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

GMK: Meanest Godzilla Ever

Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
(Gojira, Mosura, Kingu Gidora: Daikaijû Sôkôgeki, 2001)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for upcoming Sony DVD releases

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

Starring Chiharu Nîyama, Ryudo Uzaki, Masahiro Kobayashi, Hideyo (Eisei) Amamoto

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Nearly fifty years after the first Godzilla laid waste to Tokyo, a new one rises from the sea—not merely a rampaging, radioactive prehistoric horror, but a demon animated by the souls of those killed in the Pacific during World War II. Three guardian monsters from ancient legend—Baragon, Mothra, and King Ghidorah—appear and engage Godzilla in battle, intent on saving Japan from total devastation.

This 2001 entry in the Godzilla series is easily the most "controversial" of his films; it is either panned or praised, with few taking the middle ground. Godzilla's revised origin—as the manifestation of angry human spirits—departs from his traditional science fiction roots and follows the fantasy-oriented path director Shuseke Kaneko introduced in his three Heisei-era Gamera films. While some approve of Kaneko's reworking of the Godzilla mythos, the fantasy story unfolds clumsily, and lacks the development that such a drastic new approach requires to succeed. Godzilla himself appears strikingly different than ever before, with pure white eyes to accent his villainous character. However, the flabby and rather ungainly suit often comes off as more comical than menacing. And the inclusion of an anemic-looking King Ghidorah—traditionally the most evil kaiju in the Toho universe—as one of mankind's benefactors falls on its face.

GMK features some excellent visuals as well as a unique electronic score by Kow Otani, which perfectly augments each scene. The human drama is a tad more engaging than in most of the Millennium series, so even with its shortcomings, the film manages to be entertaining.

Friday, January 15, 2010

GxM: Big Bugs From the 8th Dimension

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus
(Gojira X Megagirasu, 2000)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for upcoming Sony DVD releases

Directed by Masaaki Tezuka

Starring Misato Tanaka, Shosuke Tanihara, Masatô Ibu, Yuriko Hoshi, Toshiyuki Nagashima

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus presents a true "alternate universe" Godzilla, in which Japan's social, economic, and technological development has been shaped by the threat of the monster. The capital of Japan is not Tokyo but Osaka, nuclear power has been outlawed, and the perfection of plasma energy is the new frontier of science. In hopes of destroying Godzilla, scientists create a weapon that produces a miniature black hole, but its use brings unforeseen consequences—an extra-dimensional horror called Megaguirus.

With a suit design similar to the one used in Godzilla 2000, Godzilla has never looked more reptilian and outright dangerous. Director Masaaki Tezuka has produced a well-paced, energetic monster flick that is reminiscent of the most enjoyable Showa-era Godzilla movies, its unlikely premise presented intriguingly enough to make it palatable. Composer Michiru Oshima, with the first of her three Godzilla scores, proves herself a worthy successor to maestro Akira Ifukube, whose distinctive musical scores have become synonymous with Godzilla. Adding to the fun is the appearance of actress Yuriko Hoshi, who appeared in Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster in the 60s. All in all, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus comes across as the best, most entertaining entry in the Millennium Godzilla series.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

GxMG: And Another One...?

Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla
(Gojira X MekaGojira, 2002)

DVD Description
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for upcoming Sony DVD releases

Directed by Masaaki Tezuka

Starring Yumiko Shaku, Shin Takuma, Kana Onodera, Akira Nakao, Kumi Mizuno

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Like the rest of the Millennium Godzilla series, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla offers a new origin for the "current" Godzilla, ignoring everything in the series except the original 1954 film. Godzilla appears less impressive than in the previous, very enjoyable Masaaki Tezuka outing, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, the suit being overly bulky with a disproportionately small head. The new MechaGodzilla ("Kiryu"), however, appears both impressive and believable—at least in context.

After nearly 50 years, Godzilla reappears in Japan…though a visually exciting opening relates that, during these years, other monsters (including Mothra from the 1963 film of the same name and Gaila from War of the Gargantuas) have raided the nation. To fend off the King of the Monsters, scientists create a powerful mechanical beast known as Kiryu (Sacred Dragon)—built over the skeleton of the original Godzilla (killed by the oxygen destroyer in the original 1954 film) and controlled by computers powered by Godzilla DNA. During its first battle with Godzilla, Kiryu's DNA reacts to the new monster's presence, and MechaGodzilla goes berserk.

Eventually regaining control, the defense force once again pits Kiryu against Godzilla, and the two engage in a ferocious battle. Kiryu is piloted by a brave young woman named Akane Yashiro (wonderfully played by Yumiko Shaku), who has been emotionally devastated by the loss of her CO to Godzilla during its first raid. An agreeable human drama augments the exciting battles, although the ending is abrupt and rather flat, leaving one feeling ultimately unfulfilled.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Kinder, Gentler MechaGodzilla

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II
(Gojira Tai MekaGojira, 1993)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for other Sony releases

Directed by Takao Okawara

Starring Masahiro Takashima, Ryoko Sano, Megumi Odaka, Yusuke Kawazu, Kenji Sahara, Akira Nakao

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

"MechaGodzilla II" is no relation of Godzilla's mechanical doppelganger from 1974's Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla and its 1975 sequel, Terror of MechaGodzilla. The original was a destructive tool designed by space aliens intent on conquering Earth, while this one is the brainchild of G-Force, the agency charged with protecting human civilization from Godzilla. The Sony DVD offers a good widescreen print, with a choice of English dubbing or original Japanese language with subtitles.

After 1992's rather lame Godzilla vs. Mothra, Toho rebounded with a new incarnation of MechaGodzilla, this time conceived as humanity's best weapon against Godzilla, manufactured with the aid of future technology (left over from 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah). Though the design of the artificial daikaiju isn't as impressive as either the original or the Millennium series' version (known as Kiryu), its confrontations with Godzilla are often masterfully staged. A new version of Rodan, the flying monster, makes an appearance here, though its design and execution are both somewhat lackluster.

Godzilla has a new offspring, realized with considerably more success than in 1967's Son of Godzilla. Despite some inevitable parallels to Gorgo, the scenes with the baby Godzilla add a somewhat surprising measure of pathos to the story, as does the well-timed inclusion of some insight to Godzilla's nature.

With a decent cast, excellent special effects, a better-than-average plot, and a top-notch musical score, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II stands out as one of the most impressive entries in the Heisei (1989-1995) Godzilla series.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bionic or Cosmic?

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla
(Gojira Tai MekaGojira, 1974)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for other Sony releases

Directed by Jun Fukuda

Starring Masaaki Daimon, Kazuya Aoyama, Akihiko Hirata, Hiroshi Koizumi, Reiko Tajima

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The first of Godzilla's romps with his mechanized counterpart, the original Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla centers on—surprise!—space aliens bent on conquering the earth. These fellows look as if they stepped out of an amateur Planet of the Apes costume contest, but MechaGodzilla himself is one of Toho's most impressive beasties. The Sony DVD features a beautiful widescreen presentation, with a choice of English dubbing or the original Japanese soundtrack with subtitles.

This Toho monsterfest originally came to town in 1977 courtesy of Cinema Shares International under the title Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster, but Universal objected to the use of the term "bionic," which they coined for their The Six-Million Dollar Man TV series, so Cinema Shares changed the title to Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster. Sony has wisely released the movie under its original production title.

While the story mimics some of Toho's most enjoyable daikaiju outings, such as Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters, the production suffers from the budget constraints typical of that lean period for the studio, and director Jun Fukuda and special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano frequently opt to amuse rather than impress. The Godzilla, Angilas, and King Seesar suits are inferior (the latter resembling a mythological Asian lion on a bad hair day), so MechaGodzilla stands out as the only noteworthy member of the kaiju cast. The appearances of veteran actors Akihiko Hirata and Hiroshi Koizumi lend some weight to the people scenes. With its frenetic battles and amazing pyrotechnics, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla at least provides some colorful bang for the buck.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hedorah, the Smog Monster!

Godzilla vs. Hedorah
(Gojira Tai Hedora, 1971)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for upcoming Sony DVD releases

Directed by Yoshimitu Banno

Starring Hiroyuki Kawase, Toshio Shibaki, Akira Yamauchi

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

A gigantic, tadpole-like creature appears in polluted Japanese coastal waters, and Dr. Yano, a biologist, ventures underwater to investigate the horror. His encounter with the monster proves nearly fatal, for the creature burns him with an emission of concentrated sulfuric acid. Soon, Hedorah, as the thing is called, metamorphoses into a gigantic amphibian that consumes the very pollution emitted by Japanese factories. Godzilla arrives and engages the monster in battle, but is unable to destroy this creature composed of living sludge. Undergoing even further transformation, Hedorah takes to the air, spraying deadly sulfuric acid in its wake. Godzilla and the military quickly find themselves in a violent, all-out battle to prevent the total destruction of Japan.

Frequently ranking as one of the most bizarre motion pictures ever made, Godzilla vs. Hedorah (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) is an anomaly in the series, its story unapologetically “socially relevant,” its style nothing less than experimental. Moments of exceptionally brutal violence are interspersed with bizarre humor, cartoon animation, and psychedelic hallucination sequences. Plus there’s Godzilla.

The anti-pollution message in Godzilla vs. Hedorah comes across like a flashing neon sign, but the smog monster itself is one of Toho’s most fascinating creations. Despite its undeniable air of silliness, the movie features a grimmer, darker tone than in any since the original 1954 Godzilla. Like the rest of the Sony Godzilla 50th Anniversary releases, the DVD offers a beautiful, widescreen print of the original Japanese version with the option of English subtitles or English dubbing—the original Toho-licensed Hong Kong dub, which is definitely not a treat.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Godzilla on Monster Island

Godzilla vs. Gigan
(Gojira Tai Gaigan, 1972)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for upcoming Sony DVD releases

Directed by Jun Fukuda

Starring Zan Fujita, Yuriko Hishimi, Hiroshi Ishikawa, Toshiaki Nishizawa, Minoru Takashima, Tomoko Umeda

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

A cartoonist and his friends discover that a Godzilla-related theme park is actually a front for space aliens bent on world domination. When the cartoonist plays an audio tape stolen from the aliens, Godzilla and Angilas, on Monster Island, detect it and set out to discover the source. Meanwhile, the aliens summon King Ghidorah and a new monster, Gigan, from outer space to wreak havoc on Earth. Godzilla and Angilas are soon pitted in a grand, occasionally bloody battle with the two space monsters.

After the experimental Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Toho returned to the more familiar theme of space aliens invading Earth with Godzilla vs. Gigan (a.k.a. Godzilla on Monster Island). The result, however, is a mish-mosh of stock footage, canned Akira Ifukube music, and juvenile monster antics that fall far short of the fantastic daikaiju romps of the 1960s. If not for a few shining moments of monsters destroying civilization, the lackluster cast and foolish script would make this a totally forgettable entry in the Godzilla series.

Despite featuring one of Godzilla's coolest-looking foes, the movie carries silliness to its utmost extreme, the monster battles largely being pale imitations of those in such classics as Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster; Monster Zero; and Destroy All Monsters. Extensive use of stock footage ruins any number of the sequences, and many of the new special effects scenes fall laughably below the standard set by the series' earlier entries. Still, the high-quality, widescreen DVD presentation greatly enhances the cheesy fun factor, and the movie can be recommended for the sheer amount of monster action.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

GODZILLA 2000: Get Ready to Crumble!

Godzilla 2000
(Gojira Ni-Sen Mireniamu, 1999)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for upcoming Sony DVD releases, audio commentary

Directed by Takeo Okawara

Starring Takehiro Murata, Hiroshi Abe, Naomi Nishida, Mayu Suzuki

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

After the universally panned Tristar Godzilla (1998), Toho decided to correct some of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s mistakes. They only partially succeeded. Godzilla 2000 returns Godzilla to his rightful place as a rampaging, powerful, radiation-scarred daikaiju, rather than an oversized, cowardly iguana, but—unfortunately—it also features long stretches of uninspired people scenes and a monstrous opponent that fails to impress.

Originally, Sony proclaimed that the 50-year anniversary release of Godzilla 2000 would feature the film’s original Japanese version. However, the 2004 DVD contains only the American release produced by Mike Schlesinger (the same as the original 2001 Sony DVD release). To some, the U.S. version is actually an improvement, since it trims the original running time by 12 minutes, only a fraction of which includes monster scenes. However, the English dialogue comes off as distinctly more tongue-in-cheek than the original Japanese, mostly to the film’s detriment.

Regardless, Godzilla 2000 is an entertaining film that stands head and shoulders above the 1998 Tristar farce. Toho presents a fearsome Godzilla, much more in keeping with his traditional, malevolent image. The plot, slow as it is, offers an interesting look at Godzilla’s regenerative powers, and the special effects are often exceptional. However, Godzilla’s opponent, Orga, is much more interesting in concept than execution, and the long stretches of movie that prompt one to ask “where’s the monster?” weaken what might otherwise be a Toho classic.

Friday, January 8, 2010

No, Not Dog. Jellyfish. From Outer Space.

Dogora, the Space Monster
(Uchu Kaiju Dogora, 1964)

DVD Description:
Released by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock; additional material: trailer, still gallery

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring: Yosuke Natsuke, Robert Dunham, Yoko Fujiyama, Akiko Kobayashi, Hiroshi Koizumi, Seizaburo Kawazu

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

With their first-class DVD releases of Varan, The Unbelievable; Matango; and The Mysterians, Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock showed folks on the wrong side of the water just how it ought to be done. Essentially repackaged versions of the Toho Region 2 DVDs, the aforementioned releases have included all the original extra features as well as a choice of English subtitles or dubbing (except for Varan, which offers subtitles only). The newest Tokyo Shock release, Dogora (a.k.a. Space Monster Dogora, a.k.a. Dagora, The Space Monster) comes to us without the benefit of a Region 2 release to work from, and the difference between this package and the others is quickly evident. It features no commentary tracks, featurettes, or other noteworthy extras typical of Toho's domestic DVD releases. Though it does provide a still gallery and original theatrical trailer (sans subtitles, alas), compared to the previous products, Dogora seems somewhat bare bones.

Know what? I don't care very much. I've yet to peruse all the extras on the other DVDs anyway (though I eventually will, to be sure). I pick up these DVDs for the movies themselves, and while I love having the extra goodies, by no stretch do they make or break the package's value for me. In the case of Dogora, the near-pristine print, wide-screen presentation, and choice of subtitles or dubbing makes this release another clear winner. A few reddish marks appear on the print during the opening titles of the film, but otherwise, the visual presentation appears flawless. As is generally the case, the Japanese audio track is much higher quality than the English one, with deep, full-bodied sound even in mono; the English audio track is recorded at a much lower volume and sounds very tinny. On the positive side, the dubbed soundtrack is the same one used in the original 1964 American International release and is of reasonably high quality—unlike the redone English audio production on Tokyo Shock's DVD of The Mysterians, which is downright horrible.

In a nutshell, Dogora is about an odd life form that has developed in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and has a singular taste for materials composed of carbon. At the beginning of the film, an unknown force destroys a new satellite as it orbits the earth; soon afterward, significant quantities of diamonds begin disappearing all over the world. Naturally enough, investigators believe that human culprits are responsible, but as more and more people witness large amounts of carbon-based material, such as coal, being suddenly sucked into the atmosphere, it becomes clear that something else is doing the pilfering. (Not that this revelation sways our intrepid authorities from stubbornly staying on the trail of a notorious gang of diamond thieves.) As the space creature devours more carbon, it continually mutates—or evolves—until it becomes a gigantic, airborne, jellyfish-like creature with an insatiable appetite.

Dogora is one of Toho's most unusual daikaiju films for numerous reasons, perhaps most notably for the fact that the monster is something of a minor character. Though the "outer space cell" may be the catalyst for the story, most of the movie's running time is devoted to the antics of our fairly amusing diamond thieves and the efforts of the detectives who want to stop them. As a youngster watching this movie on TV for the first time, sometime in the late 60s, I found it all rather dull and boring and without imagination; in later years, however, I repented and began to enjoy the movie for its unique merits. The plot still seems a wee bit convoluted (but it does makes a weird kind of sense if you hold your mouth just right), and the intriguing human drama never runs out of steam. Above all else, from a dramatic standpoint, Dogora showcases the talents of American-bred actor Robert Dunham, who stars as the enigmatic (read silly) "Diamond G-Man" Mark Jackson. Though Dunham may have later shouted his way to something like fame as the emperor of Seatopia in Godzilla vs. Megalon, it's in Dogora that he really chews up the scenery and proves, once and for all, that Japanese soybeans have a nice flavor. Unlike most Caucasian actors in Toho productions, Dunham spoke excellent Japanese, which meant that his lines did not need to be dubbed for the Japanese language release. Thankfully, his dubbed voice in the English version preserves much of the humor present in the original, and if anything, the dubber's frequently exaggerated delivery makes the Mark Jackson character all the more memorable.

The cast of Dogora comprises many familiar faces from the pool of Toho regulars. Playing almost the same role he played in Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster, Yosuke Natsuki makes for a likable police detective named Komai, who first falls victim to trickster Mark Jackson, but eventually becomes an effective foil. In the course of his investigation, Komai meets an aging scientist and "young soldier"—a gag that is repeated a couple of times in the film—named Munakata, who is working to develop artificial diamonds, hence his interest in a diamond-eating space monster. Komai also takes a romantic interest in Munakata's lovely assistant Masayo, played by Yoko Fujiyama, who is, as anyone who has seen Atragon can testify, the prettiest girl anyone has ever seen outside of a dream. Masayo also happens to be the sister of satellite mission control director Kirino, played by Hiroshi Koizumi, though his part is so small as to be nearly negligible.

The diamond thieves are a fairly colorful lot, led by a Mr. Big-type villain played by Seizaburo Kawazu. Akiko Wakabayashi, familiar to western viewers from her appearances in You Only Live Twice and What's Up Tiger Lily? (not to mention King Kong vs. Godzilla and Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster), plays her rather treacherous character with cat-like charm. And eccentric as always, Eisei Amamoto (best known as Dr. Who from King Kong Escapes and the ghostly "prophet" in Godzilla - Mothra - King Ghidorah - Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), renders some comic relief as Eiji the Safecracker. While the movie provides little in the way of well-rounded characters, the cast moves with the vitality typical of Toho's early-to-mid 60s fantasy fare, and as such can't help but be entertaining.

Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects are less extensive in Dogora than in many of his prior and subsequent efforts, but the film does feature a number of highly impressive sequences. The opening outer space scenes come off fairly well, highlighted by an eerie Akira Ifukube score. Most impressive are the shots of Dogora sucking columns of coal and debris into the sky-particularly once it has developed into its gigantic jellyfish form. Swirling cyclones form above piles of coal outside the huge refineries and draw the black matter skyward, the effect being utterly convincing. Certain other effects, though, such as a truck leaving the road and being drawn into the air, are less successful.

Dogora's most dramatic appearance comes late in the film, in the sky above Kyushu. Suspended in the air just as if it were floating in water, the immense creature lowers its perfectly articulated tendrils from the clouds, and with the use of obvious but interesting cartoon animation, destroys a suspension bridge. The model bridge does not rate as one of Tsuburaya's best miniatures, but the scene is the only major interaction between Dogora and the earthly environment. Given the airborne monster's remarkably lifelike aspect, the scene stands out as one of the highlights of the film.

Because of its unique and often peculiar storyline and characters, it's easy for modern audiences to hurl stones at Dogora. However, that very peculiarity also serves to make the movie all the more endearing should one be inclined to give it an opportunity. Tokyo Shock has once again given us a chance to enjoy a Toho monster movie in its original glory, and I will hereby happily give it a (radioactively) glowing recommendation.