By Kyle Anderson on August 16, 2010
As a student of film of all kinds, I often feel it necessary to watch movies I don’t especially have a yen to see. Recently, I decided it was high time I did some learnin’ about the giant monster movies from Japan. Did you know that giant monsters that attack buildings are called Kaiju? Well now you do! I wasn’t expecting much from the movies; I had seen a few of the many Godzilla films prior. “Godzilla vs. Megalon” is one of the more ridiculous ones, featuring Godzilla fighting a number of silly creatures, eventually being aided by a robot named Jet Jaguar, who was invented just to sell little Japanese kids merchandise and eventually get his own set of movies. He never appeared again. But the movie did end with a nifty song about him. Listen to the Jet Jaguar song!
But I figured I’d go back to the beginning and check out not only Godzilla, but some of his contemporaries. I was pleased to discover that they didn’t start out very dumb at all. In fact, they were done very seriously and actually well for the time period. The thing that was most amazing is the care that was given to the model work. Obviously, the conceit of these films is that there’s a guy in a rubber suit marauding a mini version of Tokyo (or whatever city it happens to be) and to do so, there needs to be a mock-up of the city. The models look really fantastic and they’re shot to showcase this. You can tell they’re fake, but they’re the most realistic kind of fake you can have. Reminds me of when I was a kid watching Thomas the Tank Engine. Remember how elaborate those sets were that the toy trains were driven around on? It’s just like that, only with big guys in suits destroying everything.
The first film in the cycle, the first Kaiju film ever, is “Gojira” (1954). This is actually a super suspenseful movie, and, like “Jaws” after it, much is done to keep the giant lizard hidden for the better part of the movie. It’s aided by the black and white photography and the majority of the attacks take place at night. Practically, this is also a way to keep the effects from being too noticeable. A few of the closeup shots in this film are actually done with a hand puppet, which went by the wayside later on. The story is pretty simple: nuclear bombing has caused mutations in a dinosaur creature living on a remote island. He gets enormous and attacks Japan, and it’s up to scientists and the military to destroy him before the country is decimated. True of the first few of this movement, “Gojira” actually develops its characters realistically and there’s even a tragic love story. The film is also a obvious allusion to the horror of nuclear warfare that befell Japan only a few years before. There’s a portion of this movie where displaced women and children huddle together in a makeshift shelter and wail at the loss of their homes and husbands. It’s a much darker moment than one would expect from a giant monster movie, and was completely cut out of the American release.
After that came the immediate sequel, “Godzilla Raids Again,” (1955). This movie suffered from sequel syndrome and things didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It also lacked the direction of Ishiro Hondo, who would become synonymous with Kaiju films until his final entry, “The Terror of Godzilla” in 1975. In “Raids Again,” Godzilla fights a big ol’ Ankylosaurus called Anguirius. The version I saw was dubbed into English, and badly. I wouldn’t suggest watching this one unless you’re like me and doing a retrospective on them. There’s a cool fight by an ancient-looking temple and that’s about it.
My first break from the big green guy came in the form of “Rodan” (1956). Rodan is, apparently, one of the big three in Kaiju, and is a big pteranodon. The interesting thing about this movie is that it’s only 75 minutes long and Rodan is only present for the final 15. The bulk of the movie depicts a group of miners who are digging far into the Earth’s crust only to discover a clutch of giant, prehistoric insects called “Meganulon.” They’re about the size of a horse and attack and kill a number of people in the small mining community. These beasts turn out to be nothing more than food for the two Rodans who hatch from giant eggs and attack the entire world. The last 15 minutes of this movie, though, are almost worth the rest. Again, great effects, and watching a big dinosaur fly around and crash through buildings and shit was pretty spectacular.
Next up was “Mothra,” (1961) and is possibly my favorite of the bunch. It follows the exploration of an irradiated island and the discovery of a primitive culture thereupon. Among the strange peoples, the explorers find tiny little twins who sing. Not like midgets, but indeed twin miniature Japanese women. And did I mention they sing? Well they do. What do they sing about? Well, Mothra of course. When the rich and greedy Nelson, the financier of the exploration, kidnaps the sisters to exploit them for monetary gain, the sisters sing their Mothra song and summon, you guessed it, Mothra, a massive caterpillar-like creature who hatches from a big-ass egg and makes a swimming b-line to the sisters in Japan in order to save them. A scientist, a reporter, and a photographer who were on the mission take it upon themselves to try to free the twins before Mothra destroys everything. It takes them a long, long time, enough time for Mothra to create a cocoon around itself and metamorphose into the flying insect creature we expected from the name. It continues destroying everything in its search for the girls until they’re finally delivered by the good guys. Then everyone waves as Mothra takes them back to the island. No hard feelings I guess.
Really no hard feelings, since the next film is “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” (1964). A similar storyline to the first film with the exception of Godzilla added to muck things up. A giant egg is washed ashore and examined by a slew of people. Turns out the egg belongs to Mothra and the tiny twins reappear to warn everyone to give the egg back, lest they feel Mothra’s wrath, but of course they are immediately ignored, cuz they’re little, and again enslaved for theatrical purposes. After getting freed by the same collection of good guy jobs as before, the girls return to their island. Good thing too, as that is the exact moment Godzilla decides to rise from under the ground and attack the city. Luckily, Mothra has come to claim her egg and in a considerable show of niceness, decides to fight Godzilla, but gets killed. The egg then hatches and two Mothra larvae are born and do battle with Godzilla. This movie, while not as entertaining as the first Mothra, is still fun and is the last film to feature Godzilla as an all-out bad guy.
The final film I decided to watch was “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster,” (1964). The plot to this film is SUPER convoluted and involves a princess who may or may not be from Venus warning the people of Japan that King Ghidorah, the horrible three-headed monster is coming to decimate them. What exactly he’s king of is anyone’s guess. While this is all happening, Godzilla and Rodan appear and decide to fight each other, to the detriment of the surrounding cities. Larvae Mothra arrives with the twins to convince the other two evil things to help it fight Ghidorah. Theres’s a whole sequence where the three beasts speak to each other in their respective growls and chirps with translation provided by the tiny twins. That’s the moment I knew that I was done watching these movies and they’d passed irreparably to the realm of hokeyness. The three good creatures fight the bad creature with the three heads and then it’s over. Good production value and typically fun, this movie is marred by too many Kaiju and a nearly incomprehensible plot for the human actors to be involved with.
There are a plethora of other Kaiju films, like “Gamera,” (1965) the giant turtle creature movie produced by a rival company to Godzilla’s Toho, but I decided to stop there. Before they got TOO silly. But, just to let you know, Gamera is filled with turtle meat. It says so in the song.
Watch these movies for good fun happy times.