05 November 2009

Movie Review: Godzilla Raids Again

I’ve gained enough momentum on my National Novel Writing Month Book, reaching 21,607 words today, that I thought I could throw a review at you. And it’s been far too long since I reviewed a Japanese special effects film.

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
Original U.S. title: Gigantis the Fire Monster (1959)
Directed by Motoyoshi Oda. Starring Hiroshi Koizumi, Setsuko Wakayama, Yukio Kazama, Minoru Chiaki, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Haruo Nakajima.

Godzilla Raids Again is the first sequel to Godzilla (1954), the film that gave Japan a new genre and the world a new iconic monster. Chances are good that, unless you’re a fan of Japanese cinema, you haven’t heard of Godzilla Raids Again—or at least, not under that name. Usually, the second installment in a long-running series is one of the best-known, but that isn’t the case with Godzilla Raids Again. Although it is an inferior film to the first by a substantial margin, its obscurity has more to do with the way it was released in the U.S. in 1959 than with its substandard quality. After all, Godzilla vs. Megalon is atrocious, and it’s one of the most widely seen of all Godzilla films. (Unfortunately.)

Paul Schreibman, the producer of the U.S. version of Godzilla Raids Again, decided to re-title the film Gigantis: The Fire Monster. Not only did Godzilla lose his name on the marquee, but the dubbing stole it away from him as well, changing the film from a sequel to a “new” movie with a “new” monster. Schreibman misjudged the possible box-office appeal of the name “Godzilla” (and, to be fair, the monster only had a single film to his credit at the time) and tried to pass this off as a different monster. It was poor decision, as evidenced by the general anonymity of this film among the public. Not until 2006 did Godzilla get his name back on the film stateside, when Classic Media released a DVD of both the original Japanese and Americanized versions. They even digitally added the title Godzilla Raids Again over the spot where Gigantis: The Fire Monster had appeared on the American version… although the dubbing still insists on calling the creature “Gigantis.”

Godzilla Raids Again (Japanese title: Gojira No Gyakushu, literally “Revenge of Godzilla” or “Godzilla’s Counterattack”) went through a strange process toward turning into Gigantis: The Fire Monster, but for the moment I want to spend time on the original Japanese film. It’s no favorite of mine; few G-Fans consider it with high regard. Toho Studios created the movie speedily and with less money than the original film, and it reached theaters only six months after the first. The speed with which the film was made damages it: even though there is some superb VFX work from Eiji Tsubaraya and his team, fresh from Godzilla, the movie lacks passion and a reason to exist aside from cashing in quick on the first movie’s success. The nuclear metaphor of Godzilla gets toned down, and the human fringe of the tale is trite and uninvolved in the monster-happenings.

The rushed production schedule also meant that a key figure in the success of the original Godzilla would not be available, director Ishiro Honda, who was already busy directing Love Tide for the studio. Honda had brought immense personal vision and earnestness to the first film. Journeyman director Motoyoshi Oda, who took the director’s chair for Godzilla Raids Again, lacked any sort of personal investment in the film. He handles the direction with the same blandness as if it were any other assignment from his undistinguished career.

Also missing from the credits is composer Akira Ifukube. His replacement is one of the great composers in Japanese cinema, Masaru Sato, but his score here is unmemorable; he was still early in his career, and remarked in later life that the score to this film sounded like “a kid trying to learn.” He would later do some great work for the Godzilla series, such as the groove of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and the tropical fun of Son of Godzilla, but here his work brings little to a film that needs a shot of energy.

The monster plot of the story is easily summed-up, and requires almost no reference to the main characters in the human story. Another Godzilla (again played by stuntman Haruo Nakajima), belonging to the same species as the one that perished in Tokyo Bay in the previous movie, is sighted on an island near Japan, fighting with another huge prehistoric monster, a spiky-carapace creature related to the Ankylosaurus called “Anguirus.”
Godzilla heads toward Osaka, which braces for an attack. The military, after consulting with scientists who feel there is no hope for halting the monster, uses flares to distract Godzilla away from the populated port city. But three convicts escaping from a paddy wagon (a whole sequence that seems to be dialing in from another movie) drive a gas tanker into a petroleum plant, igniting an explosion that lures Godzilla back to shore.

As Godzilla makes landfall, so does Anguirus, and the two monsters commence their titanic tussle while leveling the center of the city—including its beautiful feudal castle. Godzilla kills Anguirus with a vicious bite to the neck and then roasts the corpse with his radioactive breath. Satisfied with the victory, Godzilla wades back out to sea, leaving Osaka a smoking ruin—although a much less impressive ruin than the wreckage of Tokyo in Godzilla.

The monster moves toward the northern island of Hokkaido, and Japanese Self-Defense Force Jets attacks the monster on a snow-covered islet with high peaks. Unable to destroy Godzilla directly, they use missiles to cause an avalanches of ice, which eventually buries the monster in a deep freeze, immobilizing it until the next movie.

The main draw of Godzilla Raids Again is the battle between Godzilla and Anguirus, the first fight between two monsters in the history of Japanese kaiju (giant monster) movies. Anguirus turned into one of the most popular supporting monsters in the series, although in its later appearances it was usually Godzilla’s pal, as in Godzilla vs. Gigan. Anguirus was often anglicized as “Angilas,” which must sound more “reptilian” to English ears. “Anguirus” is meant to have a phonetic similarity to the Japanese pronunciation of Ankylosaurus.
The fight is staged in an animalistic fashion different from the later anthropomorphized battles in the series. Godzilla and Anguirus fly at each other in a fast-moving fury of biting and clawing. At one point, the fight goes into hyper-motion, apparently a mistake by an inexperienced effects cameraman who set his camera at a lower speed, but it ends up working surprisingly well as it comes as such a shock when the creatures seem to go fully ballistic.

Effects master Eiji Tsubaraya devised some ingenious camera angles to film the fight, and the opticals mixing fleeing people with the destruction give a great sense of the monsters’ size. There’s one superb effects shot of the fleeing convicts consumed with water rushing into a train station tunnel that’s almost seamless. The model of Osaka Castle is the most impressive miniature in the movie, and the animated shots of it starting to crack before Godzilla smashes Anguirus into it for the huge smack-up build great tension as the fight reaches its climax. The castle demolition must have inspired Tsubaraya, since he knocks down feudal castles in the next two films, King Kong vs. Godzilla and Mothra vs. Godzilla. (If you wish to see the castle as it was rebuilt in the decade after the monsters destroyed it, click here. The restorationists did a great job.)

The avalanche attack on Godzilla at the end is almost as impressive in the effects work, although it doesn’t have the same action rush. It’s one of the most creative way of destroying a giant monster to appear in any film of the genre, and Godzilla composed against the massive ice-crusted cliffs makes for a number of stunning shots. It’s unfortunate that the screenplay paces the attack in a way that it breaks in the middle while everyone goes back to base to re-load their planes. The build of the suspense gets hacked down here right when it seems ready to peak.

The human story is soap opera piffle about the employees of a fishing company in Osaka whose lives keep intersecting in unbelievable ways with the monster affair. Our heroes Tsukioka (Hiromi Koizumi) and Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaki) pilot planes to spot schools of fish to guide the company’s trawlers. It makes sense that two pilots might find themselves on a island where the monsters will appear, but after their discovery they don’t have much else to do with the story. In other movies, they would be minor characters used to introduce the monsters, and the focus would then shift to the scientists and military men who have to halt the titanic dangers. But after a debriefing scene—which contains the only appearance of a character from the first movie, Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura)—Kobayashi, Tsukioka, Tsukioka’s girlfriend Hidemi (Setsuko Wakayama), and the other employees at Kaiyo Fishing Industries continue to hang around through contrivance. For example, after the massive wreck in Osaka, the company decides to send the main characters north to Hokkaido—so they just happen to get in the way of Godzilla’s movements. They also have a few good laughs standing in the demolished office in a leveled city, which feels wrong on many levels.

Most of the human interaction is dull. If it sometimes seems somber, that’s probably just the fault of the pacing, quiet soundtrack, and gloomy black and white photography. (This was the last Godzilla film shot in B&W.) After the move to Hokkaido, the movie almost grinds to a complete halt for a ten-minute scene of a dinner party at a restaurant and Kobayashi looking for love. The supposed “sacrifice” of Kobayashi during the final strafing run on Godzilla is supposed to be the movie’s emotional capper, but Kobayashi only dies in a foolhardy accident, and that the Japanese Self-Defense Force gets the idea for the avalanche from his crash is also an accident and nothing Kobayashi planned. Tsukioka’s final words to his dead friend after Godzilla’s icy burial is the only moving moment to come out of this character death.
The other human moment that stands out among the humdrum soap suds is Hidemi watching the city of Osaka burn from her hilltop house. The matte painting of the flaming city, made to resemble a mushroom cloud, is beautifully grim, and we can imagine what thoughts are going through Hidemi’s head knowing that her beloved is down there among the horrors—and as someone who probably lost friends and family in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s a brief moment where Godzilla Raids Again embraces the nuclear metaphor that made the first film so memorable. The film needs much more of this, and fewer jokes about match-making.

However, it’s always a pleasure to see one of Toho’s great science-fiction faces pop up: Yoshio Tsuchiya, also a favorite of director Akira Kurosawa, appears as a member of the Self-Defense Force who pilots the final attack on Godzilla. Tsuchiya appeared in a number of Godzilla films, most notably as the Controller of Planet X in Invasion of Astro Monster, a.k.a. Monster Zero (1965), and the saurian-worshiping World War II veteran in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991).

So what happened with the U.S. release that stole away Godzilla’s name and dropped the film into the Cavern of Fandom Obscurity?

Stateside, a group of financiers, many of whom had bought the rights to the first Godzilla film, purchased Godzilla Raids Again and then made a deal with a fledgling production company, AB-PT, to re-craft the movie with new footage into a film called The Volcano Monsters. Only the special-effects would remain from the Japanese film, and a new story with U.S. actors would get shot around it. Danish author Ib Melchior, later director of Angry Red Planet, and his roommate Edwin Watson authored a screenplay to fit with the existing monster footage, and Toho even sent an Anguirus and Godzilla suit to Hollywood so the crew could shoot a few new effects. The Volanco Monsters came very close to production, but AB-PT’s backers pulled out of the enterprise after releasing only two films, the company closed down, and The Volcano Monsters went into limbo. The surviving script shows that it might have been interesting watching how the U.S. movie would use the Japanese effects within a new story, but I’m not heavily mourning the loss.
Godzilla Raids Again was once more on the international market, and in 1958 it was purchased by Paul Schreibman, Edmund Goldman, and Newton P. Jacobs. They made a deal with Warner Bros. for distribution in a package with the classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie Teenagers from Outer Space. The new owners made no attempt to do a re-haul in the manner of The Volcano Monsters. Instead, Schreibman settled for a cheaper route, but one that ended up radically altering the film. The film was dubbed at Ryder Sound Services with a script overseen by Hugo Grimaldi that contains unintentionally hilarious lines (such as the infamous “Banana oil!”) and nonstop narration from Kobayashi (voiced by Keye Luke) that is literally a play-by-play of the action. Most of Sato’s music was excised, and a wall-to-wall score of library music was laid down to make the film seem more urgent. Schreibman also dumped enormous amounts of stock footage into the film to up the action quotient.

The result is a ludicrously funny B-picture, and it leaves no doubt as to why people ignored the film on its original release. Although ostensibly altered less than Godzilla was when it was Americanized as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Gigantis: The Fire Monster actually retains far less of the spirit of its original. It even robbed its star, Godzilla, of his name! But it does merit watching for its weird amusement. A number of famous voice-over artists lend their talents to the film, including Marvin Miller, the aforementioned Keye Luke, future Star Trek legend George Takei, and the ubiquitous Paul Frees. But all of them turn in hammy, cartoon performances, probably at Grimaldi’s insistence, and the delivery of the already ludicrous lines only amps up the camp value. Especially entertaining is the film that Dr. Yamane shows to the council of generals and scientists to explain the threat of Godzilla. In the original Japanese movie, the footage is from Godzilla’s rampage in the first movie, played silent except for the eerie sound of the projector. It fits with the quieter and gloomier tone of the film, and even if it isn’t that exciting (thanks, I’ve seen Godzilla) it does make an impression. The version of this scene Gigantis: The Fire Monster contains constant music, redundant explanations from the person voicing Yamane, and best of all, horrendous additional footage from children’s educational movies explaining the looniest theory of the development of the Earth ever foisted onto a ‘50s SF flick.

The DVD from Classic Media contains both the Japanese original and Gigantis: The Fire Monster on the same side, with commentary from Steve Ryfle available on the U.S. version. Ryfle’s commentary is both insightful and frequently hilarious when he goes into the screwy changes made to the U.S. version.

I enjoy Godzilla Raids Again more than I once did. I had never seen the U.S. version on television when I was a kid—it was almost a lost film after the early ‘60s, with its owners never making an effort to sell it to TV—so my first viewing was of the Japanese film on imported DVDs. Since it can’t hold up to the film that preceded it, it never excited my interest. That feeling is widespread among kaiju fandom. But seeing it a few more times and comparing it to the craziness of Gigantis: The Fire Monster has given me a greater appreciation for what does work in the movie: the special effects. Once I maneuver around the bland state of the rest of the movie, I can thrill to the two big set pieces of Godzilla vs. Anguirus and the avalanche assault, both of which have some jaw-dropping visuals. Even the U.S. hack-job can’t mess this up, not even with the unnecessary music and Anguirus’s roar stuck in Godzilla’s mouth.

But my greater fan appreciation still can’t make me think that Godzilla Raids Again is anything but the weakest of the first six Godzilla films… and appropriately, it’s the only of the first six without director Ishiro Honda. On one side of it is the bleak masterpiece of Godzilla, and on the other the colorful thrills of the full-blooded Japanese kaiju phenomenon. Poor middle child, the Fire Monster.