Saturday, March 29, 2014

GodzillaMania #6: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster/Invasion of Astro-Monster

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Ghidorah Grade: 64/B

Toho had cracked the code: one kaiju good, two or more kaiju better. Mothra vs. Godzilla was so successful that Toho got moving and churned out another film featuring giant monsters doing battle with each other. The fifth official film in the series, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster wasn’t quite on the same level as its predecessor, but it’s nevertheless an important installment in the Godzilla franchise.

Detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki) is assigned to protect Princess Selina or Selgina (Akiko Wakabayashi) on her visit to Japan because of a suspected assassination plot, but the princess disappears shortly before her plane is destroyed. When she shows up again, she claims to be from Jupiter and to have information about horrible events in Earth’s future. Sure enough, Godzilla and giant pterodactyl Rodan (from another kaiju film, the tepid Rodan) return and wreak havoc. Worse, when an asteroid hits the earth, out comes the three-headed lightning-spitting monster King Ghidorah, destroying everything in its path. Selina’s prophecies reach the Shobijin (Emi and Yumi Ito), the tiny fairy guardians of Mothra, and they come up with a last-ditch effort to save the world: convince Godzilla and Rodan to band together and fight against Ghidorah.

Ghidorah was released only six months after Mothra vs. Godzilla, so it's not surprising that the script has a rushed feel. The political assassination subplot never really connects to the main narrative as well as it should, and feels like a needless distraction because of it. Shindo’s a bland hero, and the  human villain, assassin Malness (Hisaya Ito) never transcends his generic hitman type. Selina’s shift from princess to prophet is never explained – she’s seemingly possessed by an alien spirit until she isn’t anymore. Wakabayashi is good at projecting a removed, alien mood, but it never pays off. Granted, the human storylines in the Godzilla films are rarely as exciting as the monster action onscreen, but they never felt as perfunctory as they do here (I didn’t even mention the flagrant waste of Takashi Shimura as a psychiatrist who tries to find out what’s going on with Selina).

That isn’t to say that the film is dull before the monster material gets underway. Regular Godzilla team of director Ishirō Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa do a good job of setting up a mood of foreboding between the odd magnetic pull the meteorite has on objects to the casual what-the-hell moments of the princess just up and jumping out of a plane. Honda also gets a nice comedic moment out of a particularly obnoxious heckler of Selina’s prophecies going to retrieve a hat from the place Rodan is said to rest just as she tells him not to (it goes about as well as you’d expect). And credit to Honda and effects director Eiji Tsuburaya for the lead-up to Ghidorah’s reveal, where the meteorite starts inexplicably expanding in size before the three-headed terror breaks out.

And what a monster it is. Taking inspiration from traditional Japanese dragon legends and the Greek mythological figure Hydra, Ghidorah is a crueler sort of beast. Rather than something created by man’s own meddling with nuclear technology, this is a beast from beyond earthly realms, something seemingly ancient and evil. Where Godzilla breathes radioactive fire, Ghidorah breathes pure, destructive lightning bolts. Devastation is its design, and there’s a definite sense of earth’s need to rally against an otherworldly creature. That makes for some great fight scenes between Ghidorah and the trio of earthly monsters, with some of the stronger effects sequences up to this point, from Ghidorah using his lightning to the point where Rodan cowers to Godzilla offering his tail to Mothra so as to get closer to the three-headed monster. There’s some disappointment that Godzilla doesn't use his radioactive breath on Ghidorah (I dunno, that seems like an ideal point to me), but otherwise it’s among the most satisfying monster action in the series so far.

There’s an interesting shift in Ghidorah between the Godzilla of the previous films and the Godzilla of the future: in this case, Godzilla isn’t an instigator or a symbol of terror. Sure, he’s responsible for plenty of destruction anyway – the first thing he does upon awaking from his undersea slumber is destroy a cruise liner – but there’s a sense that Godzilla and Rodan are only back because of a great disturbance. Furthermore, this is the first film where Godzilla takes on the role of a protector of the earth rather than an aberration. After he and Rodan fight, Mothra (still a larva from the previous film) convinces them that the earth belongs to them too, and that they have to fight for it. It’s a bit of a silly scene, something the film acknowledges (“What are they saying?” “What do I know? I don’t speak monster language!”), but it’s the first step in turning Godzilla into the fun heroic figure he would be for the rest of the first series (or Showa series).

Astro-Monster Grade: 69/B

The next film in the series was more or less a direct sequel to Ghidorah, albeit without Mothra’s presence. Invasion of Astro-Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) sees Honda and company doubling down on the alien elements from the pervious film, but this time they actually develop them. The result is one of the most self-consciously B-movie oriented films in the series, and one of the most entertaining.

Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (American actor Nick Adams) are a pair of astronauts on the Rocketship P-1 on the way to Planet X, which as we all know is just behind Jupiter. The two encounter a group of aliens who implore the earthlings to lend them Godzilla and Rodan in order to battle Ghidorah, who terrorizes their water-barren surface. In exchange, they promise the cure for cancer. Earth acquiesces, but soon finds that it was all a ploy to get Godzilla and Rodan under the same mind control that the aliens have Ghidorah under, and they begin their invasion and colonization of earth. Now Glenn and Fuji must find Fuji’s sister’s boyfriend, Tetsuo (Akira Kubo), an inventor who’s created a loud alarm that the Xians find extremely upsetting, in order to thwart their plan.

Astro-Monster’s spaceman storyline reflects the times in a few interesting ways, first in its fantastical depiction of the space race, and second in the fear of what might be found. The casting of Adams (an Academy Award-nominated actor who, in a bit of meta-revenge, is hilariously dubbed into Japanese) may be a bit of international marketing, but it’s also a continuation of Ghidorah’s theme of earthly cooperation against horrible outside forces. Granted, it’s not exactly a grand sweeping statement on the Cold War, given that the Japanese and Americans weren’t enemies at the time, but it’s still an encouraging trend for the times.

Honda’s clearly working on a low budget, but Glenn and Fuji’s journey to Planet X is surprisingly one of the tensest non-monster moments in the series. There’s a slow build in Akira Ifukube’s score as their ship approaches the planet, and an appropriate “what the hell” vibe after Fuji discovers humanoid footprints on the surface. Even better is Honda’s use of limited perspective and lighting to create suspense: after Fuji finds the footprints, he turns around to find Glenn and the ship missing, and a voice imploring him to enter a bright cylinder/elevator down under the planet’s surface. When Fuji rejoins Glenn, they find a number of corridors that only light up as they walk through them, never giving them a perfect picture of where they’re heading or where they’ve come from. The exaggerated use of angles in this sequence is nice, too – it’s not exactly Fritz Lang, but it’s proof that Honda still had some ingenuity in him six films into the series.

That sequence brings a sense of mistrust between the earthlings and the aliens, which helps mitigate the fact that the Xians’ appearance is pretty goofy. Then again, there’s a certain amount of humor built into the film, starting with the bizarre clucking laughter the Controller of Planet X (Yoshio Tsuchiya) bursts into following the exit of the earthlings and culminating in the most gloriously silly moment the King of the Monsters ever had. Honda went on the records that he wasn’t completely pleased with the more lighthearted direction his creation went down, but that doesn't mean that he wasn’t willing to commit to it. 

After a relatively quick-paced first half, Astro-Monster starts to get a little poky as the aliens take control and certain story elements are given the short shrift. Fuji disapproves of his sister marrying Tetsuo in one scene, but his concerns don't really come up again in the film. Tetsuo himself is sidelined too early after he’s captured by the Xians. Glenn has an intriguing romance with one of the Xians (Kumi Mizuno), but we never see the two get an emotional scene together until she’s finally dispatched of by her masters. And when the Xians do start to take over earth, Honda makes the strange decision (probably budgetary) to have the earth’s furor play as sound of war and crowds over stock photos as a narrator speaks of mass protests (which I highly doubt would prove effective against laser-wielding aliens).

But sound also plays an important role in the climax of the film. Honda and co. layer the screeching of Tetsuo’s invention with another device that blocks the mind control signals from the kaiju, the destruction of the Xians’ spaceships, and the sound of the monsters losing consciousness. Sound has always been a major element in the success of the Godzilla series, but Astro-Monster is the first to actively draw attention to its importance.

As for the monster fights, they play like improved versions of what we saw in Ghidorah, proving that to be a bit of a dry run for this more successful effort. On top of more consistent teamwork between Rodan and Godzilla (and Godzilla actually using his radioactive breath on Ghidorah), there’s the added bonus of seeing the three under mind control in an onslaught of destruction and terror before they snap out of it. Astro-Monster also continues Godzilla’s journey into anthropomorphization, as the big green guy exhibits joy (see: that silly dance from above) and anger, and even seems to start boxing Ghidorah at one point. It isn’t quite the Godzilla from the original, but it’s a new version that’s satisfying in its own right.

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