Sunday, February 7, 2010
Invasion of the Astro Monster (Kaiju Daisenso, 1966)
Released by Classic Media; additional material: commentary, trailers, Tomoyuki Tanaka biography, still gallery
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Starring Nick Adams, Akira Takarada, Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Keiko Sawai, Jun Tazaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya
Classic Media presents another first-class release with Invasion of the Astro Monster (a.k.a. Monster Zero, its 1970 U.S. theatrical release title, used on the English version here, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, its U.S. television/video release title).
Back in those wonderful days of monster movie matinees and drive-in grindhouse shows, I caught the double-feature release of War of the Gargantuas/Monster Zero at our local theater, and the pair made a more powerful impression on me than just about any other film experience to that time. Perhaps strangely, given my special fondness for Godzilla, I found that I much favored War of the Gargantuas (and still do, for that matter). Like all of Toho's fantasy-oriented daikaiju films of the 1960s, Monster Zero is quite silly, and ever since childhood, I've preferred my monsters played straight, as in the original 1954 Godzilla. But Monster Zero is undeniably a colorful, action-packed, superbly crafted monster flick that features some of Eiji Tsuburaya's most accomplished special effects work (if also, sadly, some of his least). Much as its predecessor, Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, the greater part of the movie revolves around its people scenes, which can be most disheartening for a young monster enthusiast; fortunately, in both films, the human story plays out as fun and engaging—even more so in Monster Zero than in Ghidrah.
In the same way that Ghidrah maintained some direct continuity with Mothra vs. Godzilla, Monster Zero's script, by veteran screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, builds on some of the dramatic cues from Ghidrah, such as the Godzilla-Rodan tag team that previously defeated King Ghidorah (though there's no mention of Mothra, who played a pivotal monster role in the earlier film). Toho had already used the space-aliens-invade-Earth theme in prior films, such as The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space, but Monster Zero is the first that directly involves Godzilla. When Monster Zero came to the theater in 1970, I had already seen Destroy All Monsters, whose similar but somewhat grimmer storyline and distinctly superior depictions of the monsters—Godzilla in particular—made Monster Zero seem lacking in comparison. In retrospect, however, Monster Zero contains many finer elements, particularly the great chemistry between Nick Adams as Mister Astronaut Glenn and Akira Takarada as Astronaut Fuji. Although this film boasts fewer special effects scenes than Destroy All Monsters, the beasties' rampages, particularly King Ghidorah's, stand out as among Toho's all-time best.
In Ghidrah, the monster battles were played for laughs to a greater extent than in any previous Toho daikaiju film, with the possible exception of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Monster Zero continues the trend of anthropomorphizing the terrestrial monsters, although the humorous moments tend to be somewhat more palatable here than in Ghidrah—particularly since the monster interactions contain a few more "straight" moments. Design-wise, the Godzilla suit constructed for Monster Zero doesn't fare as well as the "Mosu-Goji" costume used in Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidrah, but the Rodan suit works somewhat better, especially when shown in the distance and in flight. In the audio commentary of Classic Media's Ghidrah release, author David Kalat posits that the original, "demonic"-looking Rodan suit from 1957's Rodan, the Flying Monster would have appeared out of place in such a light-hearted fantasy, and there may be some merit to this argument; however, if it were up to me, I would have happily seen the original Rodan costume duplicated for these films, and the whole tone played more seriously. Then again, they didn't ask me—possibly because I was a wee lad at the time and didn't work for Toho.
The lighter tone for these films was established by screenwriter Sekizawa and effects director Tsuburaya, whose penchant for entertaining young people was, by this point in their careers, so firmly cemented that their days of making monster movies with grim, semi-realistic undertones were long behind them. Yet director Ishiro Honda felt—as I always have—that the monsters should have maintained the dignity of their great stature. He was pained by scenes of Godzilla acting a clown and bouncing ludicrously in a "shie" dance after overcoming King Ghidorah on Planet X. Would that Honda's attitude might have prevailed. I mean, I was a young people back then, but I was also the most fervent possible advocate of very monstrous monsters.
Although the Japanese and American versions of Monster Zero are almost identical, the Japanese version is arguably superior, with a couple of possible exceptions. In the U.S. version, Akira Ifukube's opening theme—a rousing military march based on the depth charge attack motif from the original Godzilla—has been replaced by the far more ominous-sounding track titled "The Electromagnetic Capsule" from later in the film, and to much better effect. During Godzilla's aforementioned "shie" jig, the roars and booming sound effects in the American version offer at least some slight improvement to the otherwise ridiculous and utterly useless scene. However, a handful of special effects scenes—good ones—were excised from the American cut, and, more significantly, a number of lines in "X-ian" language, improvised by Yoshio Tsuchiya as the Controller of Planet X, were also cut.
Both the U.S. and Japanese prints on the Classic Media DVD are of very good quality, far better than the one used on the Simitar release of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero from 1998. As for extra features, the most noteworthy is kaiju authority Stuart Galbraith's informative commentary on Henry Saperstein/UPA's U.S. cut. Additionally, the bio documentary of Tomoyuki Tanaka, narrated by Mr. Ed Godziszewski, is highly enjoyable. For Godzilla fans, this release of Monster Zero is a necessity, and I suspect that even more casual monster movie viewers will have a rocking good time with it.