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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Stomp Tokyo

Some old thoughts on some of my favorite kaiju.

Can I just mention how much I love kaiju movies? I think over the last few weeks, I've seen Tokyo demolished at least 30 or 40 times by Godzilla, Gappa, Gamera, Rodan, Mothra, Megalon, etc. The movies are silly, silly and even stupid, yet I can't get enough of them.

Most of these movies have a similar plot. It goes something like this: a bunch of reporters and scientists are doing stuff. Somehow, something that group of people does ends up requiring a giant monster to defend or destroy Japan. Other monsters show up, often times in a clip recycled from a previous movie, and there's a fight leading up to the title fight (usually referenced in the name of the film.) A young boy, sometimes joined by a Causasian pal, shows up in Dasy Dukes, is granted unrestriced access to the Japanese military and saves the day. The ending is always ambiguous, leaving the viewer unsure if the monsters are dead or not.

There's generally two lines the films follow; a more serious tone where the starring creature is the heavy (the original Godzilla, for instance) or lighter, kiddie fair (as in Gamera, "friend to all children.") The rabid fans seem to prefer the more serious films, based on the fan sites I've seen out there. Personally, I prefer the more childish films as they're always weird, crazy psychedelic and just more fun.

I want to talk about a couple of films that don't follow this formula to the letter and are two of the more psychedelic examples of giant monster movies. Purists don't care much for either of these, but they're two of my favorites in the genre.

The first film I want to talk about is misleadingly called "Godzilla's Revenge." It's probably the most kid oriented of all the Godzilla films, with a story that's actually about the young boy rather than having him solve all the problems. The main story concerns the boy Ichiro being bullied and left home alone as a latch key kid. Hey, that's something I can relate to, well, could relate to anyway.

Anyway, there's an eccentric inventor guy down the hall who looks in on the boy and there's also a subplot about bank robbers on the run. So, where's the monsters? Well, Ichiro learns courage from dreaming trips to Monster Island and hanging out with Godzilla's son Minilla and watching essentially a clips reel of some of Godzilla's greatest fights. Minilla also learns courage and stands up to his nemesis, Gabara.

There's a lot of trippy stuff in this flick. The first trip to Monster Island is borderline fever dream. Minilla, who looks like someone tried to make a S'more out of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man, talks and has a voice like Barney to boot! (He also seems to share Jet Jaguar's ability to change his size as he's shorter than Ichiro yet he comes up to Godzilla's armpits.)

The plot is very silly and there's a lot of Home Alone type antics when Ichiro meets the bank robbers. The film also takes a lot of flack for recycling most of it's fights from older Godzilla flix, though I think it kind of works as a greatest hits film.

So, what's good about this movie? I'm not really sure. Maybe it's the fact that I remember digging this one as a kid. It's different in that it deviates from my monster movie archetype up there. There's no military, the inventor is as close as we come to a scientist and the reporters only come in at the end when the robbers are caught. Hell, Tokyo doesn't even get leveled in this one!

I guess it's just that the story is kind of sweet and it makes no bones about being something other than a kid's movie. Yeah, they recycled a lot, but they also put effort into the new bits. Maybe it's the scene where Godzilla is trying to teach Minilla to breathe fire. Still cracks me up, cheesy as it is.

My second one is another overtly kiddie one, Attack of the Monsters. AOM will be better known to MST3K fans (and VHS renters) as Gamera vs. Gurion. More on that later.

What you've got here is two boys who hop a ride in a UFO which landed in a field. The UFO zips them to Terra, Earth's sister planet which somehow has never been discovered. There the boys meet two hot Japanese...err...Terra women who explain to them that they are the last people on Terra as it been attacked by Gyaos. Their last line of defence is Guillon who kind of looks like a pocket knive with legs.

The Terra women seem real nice, but actually they want to eat the boys brains and then return to Earth and conquer it. I'm not sure why someone would send an empty space ship to Earth, hoping to lure two boys into it for lunch, but what do I know? Well, of course, Gamera is having none of that and swoops in to save the day. Apparently Gamera can hear across space, breathe with no oxygen and spot weld a UFO that was cut in half. It's pretty amazing stuff.

I like this movie a lot because it's just over the top. At the time this was made, Daiei was starting to feel the hurt financially and it shows a bit in this movie. The models just don't look as good as they used to (check the scene where Gamera does his little gymnastics stunt. Cheepnis, indeed!) The fight scenes are pretty cool though. The inside of the spaceship and the Terra base are pretty dang groovy though.

It's almost like to make up for the budget, or lack there of, they delivered a crazy story line. I mean, little in this movie makes sence. But that's part of the fun, I think. Yeah, it's stupid, but it's a fun, over the top stupid with some serious heart.

Both of these movies are pretty easy to find, though the Region 1 discs currently avalible are pathetic. Both films were originally shot in a wide aspect ratio but all R1 DVDs currently avaliable are Pan and Scan. There's a Widescreen "Godzilla's Revenge from 1998 which isn't too hard to find though.

As for "Attack of the Monsters", this film has a strange history in the US. Like most of the Gamera films, this was picked up by American International Pictures to pad out their TV Syndication packages. The films were dubbed, cropped, edited and sent out to TV. I think only the first Gamera film (released here as "Gammera the Invincible") actually had a theatrical run.

In the 80s, the films were picked up by Sandy Frank Enterprises for TV and home video. Rather than using AIP's prints, they went back to the Japanese versions of the films, redubbed them, cropped them, gave them the international titles and put them out there. These are the versions Joel and the bots riffed on in seasons 0 and 3 of Mystery Science Theater 3000. These are the versions of this series I remember growing up watching.

(Incidentally, the Sandy Frank dubbing is very poorly done. AIP hired the same studio that did Speed Racer and the results are very good, as far as these things go. Sandy Frank's version has the Terra ladies speaking like they're from Georgia and Akio is obsessed with traffic accidents. Both versoions seem to confuse planets with stars though. Heh.)

Apparently the AIP versions of these films have gone public domain in the states now which means there are more versions of these films on DVD than you can count. If you wish to recreate the expirence of watching one of these films when they were broadcast on UHF stations in the 70s, you're in luck as all these discs I've seen are taken from fuzzy, scratchy 16mm TV syndication prints. Though I'd love to see better discs, I think for these films the expirence is almost enhanced by these crappy looking prints as that's how most of us saw these films.

So, there's two giant monster flicks I don't think get any respect. They're both cheesy and juvenile, but I love them both.

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