15 November 2008

Movie Review: Gorath

Gorath (1962)
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Starring Ryo Ikebe, Yumi Shirakawa, Takashi Shimura, Kumi Mizuno, Ken Uehara, Akira Kubo, Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, Kenji Sahara

We come now to the third and final movie in Toho’s “Space Opera” trilogy from director Ishiro Honda and special effects supervisor Eiji Tsubaraya. And once more, I’ll turn the podium over for a moment to Japanese film expert Stuart Galbraith IV, quoting from his book on Japanese science-fiction and fantasy movies, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo:
Possibly the best Japanese science fiction film of all. . . . [Gorath’s] relative failure (compared to the huge success of the less expensive King Kong vs. Godzilla, made that same year) resulted in fewer ambitious, more monster-filled opuses and, in essence, signaled the end of an era.
Not that I mind those monster-filled opuses, but Galbraith is correct that we wouldn’t see many more science-fiction films from Japan on the scale of Gorath after 1962. Atragon does comes close, however, in tone and intent. And is Gorath Japan’s greatest science-fiction film? Like Galbraith says, “possibly.” I hesitate to nominate any of my favorites in the Honda-Tsubaraya canon as the supreme work, but Gorath would make the short list. That the U.S. hardly knows of its existence is one reason that Ishiro Honda has never gotten his full day in court in front of American critics.

Just as you might consider Battle in Outer Space the Japanese answer to The War of the Worlds, and Godzilla the answer to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gorath is the Japanese When Worlds Collide, the 1951 George Pal classic about Earth trying to find a solution to its imminent smack-up with another planet. When Worlds Collide remains one of its decade’s best science-fiction movies, which gives Gorath a lot to live up to. However, the history of deadly collision movies since 1962 include such duds as Meteor, Deep Impact, and Armageddon. With that kind of competition, Gorath only needs to show up.

It does a lot more than show up. The first fifteen minutes alone make Armageddon look shallower than a kiddie pool during a drought. Act I: Spaceship JX-1 Is Doomed makes a helluva a curtain-opener, not just with spectacle but with its imposing gut-punch to the sentimental stomach and its extreme “Japaneseness.” Spaceship JX-1 takes off for an exploration of Saturn, but receives orders to investigate a “mysterious star” named Gorath (the Japanese title Yosei Gorasu translates as “Mysterious Star Gorath”) with a mass six thousands times that of Earth. Gorath appears to move on a path that will take it close to Earth. Captain Sonoda (Jun Tazaki) and crew move their craft toward the target, until they realize two crucial facts: 1) Gorath will definitely collide with the Earth, and 2) the JX-1 cannot escape Gorath’s gravitational pull, and they’re all going to die.

Hail Jun Tazaki, the master of the stoic military character in Toho’s stock company! As Captain Sonoda, he delivers a stirring farewell address to his crew as they fall into Gorath’s pull, his voice choked with pride and sorrow:
Crew, listen to our situation. Our ship has reached the end of its mission. There is no way that we can escape from this mysterious star, Gorath. But, the data that we collect may help all mankind on Earth to avert this disaster. Everyone, please continue to do your best. Arigato.
Tremendous stuff. Honda and Tazaki execute this with perfect pitch, and the crew’s cheers of “Bonzai!” as they plunge to their noble deaths make this a special capture of the Japanese sense of honor and sacrifice. The effects for the sequence are superb, but here’s a place where it doesn’t matter what they look like.

Back on Earth, where the Japanese celebrate their unusual take on Christmas, mourning sets in for two women who lost loved ones on JX-1: Captain Sonoda’s daughter, Tomoko (Tumi Shirakawa), and First Officer Manabe’s fiancée, Takiko Nomura (Kumi Mizuno, one of the most loved stars of the genre). The playful pilot Kanai (Akira Kubo) will soon step in to take up Takiko’s affections—as well as his role as human surrogate for the coming danger.

With the human story now well underway, we move into Part II: Did the Earth Move for You Too? The data from JX-1 leaves Earth scientists with the inescapable conclusion that Gorath is on a collision course with the planet. Which is really bad. The science team that breaks that news, and that forms the core of the defense team against Gorath, consists of the heroic trio of young Dr. Tazawa (Ryo Ikebe, doing essentially the same role from Battle in Outer Space), and elders Dr. Kawano (Ken Uehara), and Dr. Kensuke Sonoda (Takashi Shimura), brother of the deceased Captain Sonoda. Japan and the U.N. work together for a solution to the “Gorath Crisis.”

As usual with Japanese science-fiction films, Gorath at this point starts to pack together too many characters whose relations to each other aren’t always distinct (for example, what exactly is happening between Tazawa and Tomoko?), but Honda makes it clear the danger the Earth is in, and how people yet do not understand the seriousness of what the scientists and government have realized.

The planet now faces two choices: destroy Gorath, or move Earth out of its way. Tazawa at the U.N. suggests using the latter, and in an amazing moment of world solidarity, all countries agree to release their scientific data for blast engines at the south South Pole that will push Earth out of Gorath’s path.

Really, I’m serious. That’s the plan. This beats all the other cosmic collision movies for sheer audacity. You don’t believe it for a moment? Fine, no one is expecting you to. We’ve got Eiji Tsubaraya to pull off all the magic and make it look great even if it doesn’t make any sense.

Honda indulges in his Utopian fantasy of a humanity united. All the governments of Earth agree to give the important decisions to the scientists who can save them. All humans stand shoulder-to-shoulder to begins the arduous task of creating a bank of polar engines to push the Earth along. Setbacks and disasters in the project will put Earth on a close timer to avoid disaster.

The JX-2 prepares to launch to further study the approaching nemesis. The joyous crew, including Kanai, celebrate the coming blast-off with one swinging party—although Kanai slips away to make time with Takiko in the most insensitive way he can imagine, by tossing her dead fiancée’s picture out the window. Smooth, Kanai.

JX-2 heads off into space, with Captain Endo (Akihiko Hirata) and First Mate Sakai (Kenji Sahara—him again) adding further to Honda’s utopia with comments about the unity seen between the various nations’ different space stations. The camaraderie among the ship’s crew is strong, even though there’s an abundance of characters and their relations aren’t always clear; this sets Gorath aside from Battle in Outer Space, where there’s almost no sense of characterization at all, only spectacle.

Earth operations are underway to build the titanic fusion reactors in Antarctica. And now Tsubaraya starts moving his extensive models of tankers, helicopters, and construction equipment to build the reactors on ice. These are some of Tsubaraya’s most enormous visual effects sets. Maybe not the most realistic, but impressive in scope nonetheless. The collapse of one of the tunnels in a huge accident results in more awesome “disaster” effects. Had he lived to the 1970s and the Disaster Movie era, Tsubaraya would have had a grand old time.

Kanai makes a run at Gorath in a capsule and discovers that the star’s mass is increasing because of the debris it collects. The sequence turns into Kanai’s desperate attempt to escape from the wave of debris crashing toward the star. Kanai appears to lose his mind from the trauma of the event with Gorath, so add that to the further heap of complications we have going on. JX-2 returns to an Earth orbit space station to provide their new data.

The U.N. at last puts the completed fusion boosters to work—another large-scale set of amazing effects—and the planet starts to gradually move. However, will it move far enough? I’ll admit, the correlation between the burners going off and the epic shots of the Earth moving seems a touch off. But you get to see the Earth jetting along on a rocket trail, quite a sight.

However, humanity isn’t out of the pit yet. With Gorath growing in mass, Dr. Tazawa wants to build more engines to push the Earth farther. But a fatalism has set in among the “older generation.” (A very good scene between Uehara and Shimura, two great Toho veterans.) Dr. Tazawa now fights an uphill battle. Even victory in the film starts to feel like defeat.

But right now it’s time to run to the snack bar during Intermission: I Am the Walrus. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka sledgehammers another giant monster into the story. Unlike Mogera the Big Robot in The Mysterians, who is relevant and effective, and Manda the Big Serpent in Atragon, who is relevant and semi-effective, Magma the Big Walrus is irrelevant and ineffective. Funny, maybe, but funny isn’t appropriate in Gorath, and I’m sure screenwriter Kimura had a fit when he saw the final product with the goofy walrus wandering about.

Wait, how did a mega-walrus get into this story? Aside from producer interference? Melting ice from the burners freed the monster from its ancient sleep, and it is ticked off that someone raised the thermostat. Our scientists shoot some lasers at it, and that’s the end of this weird plot cul-de-sac. No one ever mentions Magma again.

Now, for our finale, Act III: Close Shave(s). Gorath devours Saturn’s rings (amazing!). All Earth receives warnings of the disasters that will follow even if Earth manages to get out of Gorath’s way. Kanai with his amnesia comes home to his already distraught lady-friend. Kanai’s condition becomes the human angle on the coming disaster, a human map to match the map of Earth’s disaster, a very effective device to individualize the global horrors.

Okay folks, it’s big-whopping disaster time. Earth must hold tight and try to survive the close pass with Gorath. Tsubaraya’s effects team gets incredibly busy. Floods wash through whole cities! Gorath devours the Moon! Towns fall into cracks in the earth! Mountains crumble to the seas (which means a lot of people are going to have to stop loving a lot of other people). Rising waters threaten to shut down the crucial jets! Lots more things with exclamation marks! More exclamation marks as the clock ticks toward Gorath’s closest pass!

Honda’s ability to create a sense both of worldwide panic and celebration at this moment is quite amazing: “Mankind is capable of doing the impossible,” one character boasts. And we close with Honda’s wish for cooperation, for the work has only started. (I should probably mention that since the Earth no longer has a moon, tides are going to be a bit of a problem.)

And there you have it, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsubaraya’s most epic work. High fives to everybody involved: you pulled off one of the most potentially goofy stunts in science-fiction—moving the planet using polar jets—and made it believable, dramatic, and personal. And really cool looking too, I might add.

I would like to draw some attention to our screenwriter, Takeshi Kimura. In discussing these science fiction epics from the East, I’ve paid most attention to director Honda and effects man Tsubaraya, with plenty of nods to the actors and the composers. I’ve said nothing about the screenplays, but I need to shed some light on the dark-specter of Toho science-fiction, Takeshi Kimura. Kimura and fellow screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa turned out the huge majority of Toho’s science-fiction scripts during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Sekizawa wrote ten of the fifteen Godzilla films as well as two other films I have reviewed here, Atragon and Battle in Outer Space. Sekizawa loved monsters, and had a flair for comedy and characterization. Kimura was the grim and dour opposite to Sekizawa. He wrote only two of the Godzilla films, but penned The Mysterians, War of the Gargantuas, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and the masterful horror movie Matango. Gorath show his characteristic seriousness and is arguably the best thing he ever wrote.

There is one noticeable change in the creative line-up for most of the Honda-Tsubaraya canon: the absence of composer Akira Ifukube. Kan Ichii provides the music instead, but no complaints—he does an incredible job that compares to Ifukube in top form.

Gorath has never gotten much respect or even exposure in the U.S. The distributor Brenco Films did a dubbed version (using only four voice actors) released in 1964. They cut Magma from the movie—no big deal, actually, but it’s still a major effects sequence—added new sound effects, and according to Stuart Galbraith, shrouded some of Tsubaraya’s miniatures in an “optical fog.” I’ve never seen this version; even when I was a child it had mostly vanished from TV, and there was only a single cropped VHS release available in the early days of the medium.

Of all the Honda-Tsubaraya films that haven’t made it to DVD, Gorath needs the treatment the most. I don’t know who owns the rights to the U.S. dubbed release, but considering what I know of its quality, a DVD distributor should consider using Toho’s own uncut dub of the film (referred to as an “International” version of the film).

Next week: The end of the sudio era—Space Amoeba.