20 January 2014

Godzilla Interruption: All Monsters Attack (Godzilla’s Revenge)

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

I now interrupt my continuing “History of Godzilla on Film” to bring you an Up Close and Personal look at one particular movie: 1969’s All Monsters Attack, also known as Godzilla’s Revenge.

It’s seems like an out-of-left field pick, since this movie has a poor reputation among the kaiju fans. As film historian Richard Pusateri says on the audio commentary for the current DVD: “Fans cannot decide if this is the worst movie of the series, or the second worst.”

However, I picked this movie for spotlight attention because it rarely receives any attention. Most Godzilla fans have seen it all the way through only once—probably in the English-dubbed version—and then left it on the shelf. With its chunks of stock footage lifted from earlier Godzilla films, fantasy elements that relegate the monsters to existence only in the imagination, and q target audience of third- and fourth-grade children, ­All Monsters Attack is easy for adult viewers to dismiss.

However, the movie contains elements unique among the classic Godzilla series that make it worthy of discussion. And for good or bad, it does have SF legend Ishiro Honda in the director’s chair in his penultimate Godzilla movie.

So let us go pay a visit to late-1960s industrialized Japan and meet a bullied latchkey kid with dreams of monsters.

16 January 2014

A History of Godzilla on Film, Part 3: Down and Out in Osaka (1969–1983)

Other Installments
Part 3: The Heisei Era (1984–1997)

Sayanora, Tsubaraya—and Sayanora, Golden Age of Japanese Cinema

The end of the Golden Age of Japanese Giant Monster movies coincided with the end of the most productive era for the Japanese film industry. Starting in the early 1950s, the country’s film industry experienced a meteoric rise. The major studios released a combined average of 450 movies to theaters each year. But the growth of television in the 1960s started to erode film attendance. In the late-‘60s, audience levels dropped precipitously, numerous theaters closed, and the studios faced cutbacks. Contract directors and stars were released, departments were scaled down or eliminated, and the studio responsible for the “Gamera” and “Daimajin” films, Daiei, was forced out of business entirely.

Science-fiction and monster movies had it particularly rough because of the growth of television. Popular superhero TV shows offered a cheaper alternative for young audiences to get their giant monster fix. The children who increasingly made up the viewership for Godzilla movies could now see kaiju action daily from their living rooms.

Ironically, the person most responsible for the growth of SF television was Eiji Tsubaraya, Toho Studio’s master of visual effects and one of the four “Godzilla Fathers.” Tsubaraya formed his own independent company, Tsubaraya Productions, in 1963 to create special-effects television programs. The 1966 hit show Ultra Q led to the monumental success of Ultraman the next year. Each week, Ultraman pitted its giant-sized title hero against a new monster. Clone shows sprouted everywhere, and the monsters of cinema screens started to bring in less money.

In January 1970, Eiji Tsubaraya died. Minoru Nakano, one of Tsubaraya’s protégées, recalled: “I respected him so deeply. My world was Eiji Tsubaraya. He was that important. When he died, I didn’t know how to live.” It seemed Japanese science-fiction films didn’t quite know how to live after Tsubaraya’s death either, although they struggled on. Toho shut down its once legendary Special Effects Department, the place where Tsubaraya once ruled over a kingdom of fantasy films. In its place was a smaller unit with restricted budgets. The Godzilla series continued, but at only a fraction of its former splendor.

06 January 2014

A History of Godzilla on Film, Part 2: The Golden Age (1963–1968)

Welcome back… the double holiday interruption delayed this march across (and on top of) the Tokyo skyline. But now the Big-G is back and about to enter the Golden Age of Japanese Fantasy Cinema and the peak of kaiju movie greatness.

Other Installments

The Godzilla Masterpiece: Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

The astronomical success of King Kong vs. Godzilla made Toho Studios commit to yearly Godzilla movies for the rest of the decade, as well as increasing their giant monster output in general. The studio shifted away from broader science-fiction epics like The Mysterians: the same year that King Kong vs. Godzilla ignited the box-office, Toho’s more ambitious and expensive science-fiction movie from the team of director Ishiro Honda and special effects creator Eiji Tsubaraya, Gorath, made a poorer showing. From now on, Toho would push that they had monsters and were ready to hurl them against each other for audience’s viewing pleasure.

After briefly considering King Kong re-match, G-series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka turned to a hometown hero: Mothra, the monster-goddess from the popular 1961 Ishiro Honda film of the same name. Mothra was the point where the Japanese kaiju film came into its own as a specific cultural style different from the U.S. model that first inspired it. The lovely yet powerful Mothra was a perfect foe to put in the opposite corner from Godzilla—at least in terms of box-office appeal. From a story and special-effects perspective, it was a trickier idea: Godzilla fighting a giant mystical moth?

But the creative team came through in an astonishing way: Mothra vs. Godzilla is the height of the Godzilla series and one of the finest monster epics ever put on film. This is the movie to show people at the start of a Godzilla odyssey, since it captures so well the Japanese interpretation of the giant monster genre, has Godzilla at his most charismatic yet menacing, and is more fun than most amusement parks.  Eiji Tsubaraya was at his zenith with visual effects; after some wonky optical work in King Kong vs. Godzilla, the effects here are seamless, especially the scenes featuring the miniature Twin Fairies (the shobijin, played by pop singing duo the Peanuts). The two monster battles, with Godzilla against the adult Mothra and then against two larval Mothras, are thrillingly staged and scored.