12 January 2014

REVIEW ALL MONSTERS! - STUPID AND YET CUNNING. A VERY RARE SPECIMEN INDEED

After having been quite horrified by the outlandish weirdness (even by the standards of Japanese pop culture!) of 1971's Godzilla vs. Hedorah, series producer Tanaka Tomoyuki had one demand, and that was for the next year's movie to be a sane and normal Godzilla movie like all the other Godzilla movies. And by God, but that's exactly what he got: Godzilla vs. Gigan is about as derivative as the franchise could possibly be, and not just because its plot is the third, barely-altered incarnation of the scenario already presented by Invasion of Astro-Monster in 1965 and Destroy All Monsters in 1968 (that is, an alien race wants to colonise Earth and uses mind-control on giant monsters to do it, with King Ghidorah as their biggest weapon). The even more literal debt the film owes to its forebears is that as a cost-cutting measure, a huge portion of the kaiju action comes in the form of effects footage from earlier films, primarily Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and Destroy All Monsters. What I find even more galling is that the musical score is likewise raided from the Toho vaults, consisting almost in its entirety of cues Ifukube Akira had composed for earlier Godzilla films, and these cues are not chosen randomly or without some intent, but the results are still flattened and generic in their fashion. And Ifukube is given an onscreen credit, which is downright nasty.

Just about the only thing Godzilla vs. Gigan can claim for its very own is an especially loopy and out-there visual sensibility that pairs well with the dimwitted B-movie spy antics that seemed to be the constant result of director Fukuda Jun and screenwriter Sekizawa Shinichi putting their heads together. I would go so far as to say, in fact, that Godzilla vs. Gigan is downright pleasant to look at, especially in its first half, when the film is still busily introducing us to its weird sci-fi sets and costumes (the former courtesy of designer Honda Yoshifumi; there doesn't seem to be a credited costume designer), and Hasegawa Kiyoshi's camera is free to soak up the très 1970s oranges and silvers that everything a simultaneously gaudy and sleek futurist glow. Bright colors abound in Godzilla vs. Gigan; that is the one thing I take away from it more than anything else, and certainly it's one of my only largely positive responses to the movie.

The protagonist, as befits a bit of pulpy trash aimed at a young audience, is a kids' manga writer, Kotaka Gengo (Ishikawa Hiroshi). His two latest monsters - one representing unfinished homework, the other strict mothers - are unbelievably dumb, and he's unable to sell them to his editor; this causes his girlfriend, Tomoko (Hishimi Yuriko) to ride him even harder about finding real work than we can presume she usually does, and that's how he ends up at the offices of Children's Land, a new theme park dedicated to the twin ideal of giant monsters and world peace - its big eye-catching central structure is a giant tower in the shape of Godzilla straddling an elevator shaft. It's okay if that seems weird even for a Sekizawa screenplay; it's not sane humans putting this together. The fact is, the head of the park development, Kubota (Nishizawa Toshiaki) and his eerily young head of technology, Sudo Fumio (Fujita Zan) are really alien body snatchers who've taken over a pair of human corpses to be their vessels in a plot to take over the planet. We don't find that out for a little bit, and it's a bit later still that we find out their reason: their homeworld was destroyed by pollution, and they now want to kill all humanity before we can do the same thing to Earth, thus rendering it unsuitable for a takeover. To fight the aliens' champions of King Ghidorah and the stunningly odd new daikaiju Gigan, who should be making a beeline from Monster Land in the Pacific to Japan, but our old buddies Godzilla and Anguiras.

That's streamlining things a lot, because Godzilla vs. Gigan is bursting at the seams with plot details that feel inexplicable and tacked-on; I didn't even find room to mention Gengo's partnership with Shima Machiko (Umeda Tomeko) and her hippie friend Shosaku (Takashima Minoru), hunting for her brother who has gone missing while working at Children's Land, since it doesn't end up informing much. Nor the matter of Godzilla and Anguiras speaking in the sound of tape distortion. For a film that's awfully busy and awfully manic, Godzilla vs. Gigan turns out to be quite a dreadful slog, undoubtedly because the ideas seem so unbelievably stale, and the plot doesn't flow so much as hopscotch.

In part, I have little doubt that this was because of a tremendously compressed schedule, owing to how many times the project was re-conceived before it was finally put in front of cameras. Godzilla vs. Gigan began life unrecognisably, as a far more ambitious movie with King Ghidorah and several new monsters squaring off against Godzilla. Extreme budget limitations turned that into a new project, and then that one had to be simplified yet again into the sublime exercise in cost-cutting that we see before us now, where every choice was seemingly made from a cost-cutting perspective (down to the casting of Anguiras as Godzilla's ally; that suit, built for Destroy All Monsters, was in the best shape of any of the series dramatis personae). The results are generally dismal: the shifting quality and design found in the various pieces of stock footage end up making the movie look as much like a clip reel as anything, and the new footage is almost uniformly worse than all of it, as effects director Nakano Teruyoshi lacked either the skill and comfort (this was his second Godzilla film, after Hedorah), or simply the time and money, to do things right. There are over-lit models that look more like plastic miniatures than anything in any Godzilla film prior to this; an interior shot of a department store that Gigan is destroying desperately tries to make vinyl baby dolls look like mannequins. The Shoshingeki-Goji suit, built for DAM and used in every film since then, was starting to look just awful, and even the not-terribly-attentive viewer can literally see it falling apart in some close-ups during the climactic battle scene. Such a terribly sad farewell this turns out to be for Nakajima Haruo, whose last performance as Godzilla this would prove to be (he would, however, put in stock footage appearances in the future). Surely, he deserved something better to do in his final turn as the character he did as much to define as anybody, than to look like he was wearing a ratty rubber area rug and being prohibited from moving too vigorously, lest he tore something.

Counterbalancing all this, if it could ever be done, is Gigan, easily the strangest-looking Toho daikaiju to that point. Not always well-executed, mind you; the vertical buzz saw emerging from his abdomen is brought to life by a thoroughly unconvincing effect. But then, did you notice what I just said about a buzz saw in his abdomen? AND the digitless metal spikes he has for arms, AND the mechanical beak-face, and the glowing red single eye - it's gleefully weird and impossible in all ways, a sign perhaps of a certain sense of "let's just fucking do this, because screw logic" infecting the franchise as it began to bottom out in earnest.

Anyway, something had to smack of inspiration in all of this. It wasn't the story, certainly, and it wasn't Fukuda's sloppy directing, which sometimes has the distinct foulness of a scene that had to be shot with a minimum number of set-ups that didn't necessarily cut together well, because there wasn't enough time to do it right. But a crazed steampunk-dragon kaiju, and dazzlingly colorful style; that is, at any rate, more than Son of Godzilla ever thought to give us, and Godzilla vs. Gigan at least has the decency to be relaxingly dull in its stupidity, instead of actively painful.

5 comments:

Sssonic said...

"Godzilla vs. Gigan" is a weird movie for me. It's not, as you say, even remotely close to good; the first half is frightfully dull and confusing, and the second half is frightfully dull and incredibly stupid, the near-omnipresence of stock footage to stand in for actual Effects Work rivals "All Monsters Attack" in how thoroughly and lazily the film relies on it (even the soundtrack is comprised of nothing but re-used tracks from other Ifukube scores), and the Alien Invaders Using Monsters As Their Weapons plotline had run well past "running thin" at this point with this film offering nothing new or at all exciting about it.

And yet, for all that, there are all these little details, many of which are most likely not even intentional on the part of anyone involved with making this movie, that add up into juuuuuuuuuust barrely enough that I cannot outright hate this one.

Gigan, you've already covered; his is a design plainly more in keeping with the then-burgeoning Tokusatsu television shows like "Ultraman" or "Kamen Rider" than anything relating to Godzilla, yet for that very reason he makes for a surprisingly memorable enemy. It probably helps a lot that he is the first of Godzilla's enemies to make the King of Monsters himself bleed (and profusely, at that; when I was a kid, watching my favorite character of all time get his shoulder torn open and start gushing blood out of it tramautized the SHIT out of me), and takes such visible glee in doing so. That latter point is especially important, I think; Gigan has a clear and particularly vicious personality, and taken together with his Living-Weapon design, it makes him hard to forget or ignore.

The other detail of note for me is Anguirus. As you say, it is entirely a matter of cost-cutting that casts him as Godzilla's ally, but for that very reason this movie did a lot to define his character, because it's the first time Godzilla's really HAD an ally. In previous films, when Godzilla's teamed up with other monsters, it's always as a result of circumstance more than active choice; here, though, he deliberately picks Angurius to accompany him, and as such it's hard not to view the mutant ankylosaur in a new light; he may have been Godzilla's first opponent, but now, for a lot of fans, he is much more akin to Godzilla's first real friend. I find that oddly endearing, honestly, and this movie is responsible for that, so I feel it deserved a bit of credit there.

Just...not for much of anything ELSE it does.

Sssonic said...

Oh, I also find it kind of hilarious that its original U.S. release title was "Godzilla on Monster Island", despite Godzilla spending a grand total of, like, a minute and a half of screentime, tops, on Monster Island; as the Angry Video Game Nerd put it, "that's kind of like calling 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' 'Indiana Jones in Shanghai', but even that's being generous."

It does, however, bring up another interesting little tidbit about this movie I forgot to mention before, which is what it does to the continuity of the original Godzilla movies. Which, of course, was never all that tightly knit to begin with but which here gets just completely shot to Hell. This movie, after all, is explicitly contemporary to the time it was made, yet it acts as if Monster Island is a thing that has always existed...except that "All Monsters Attack" only ever used it as a Dream Location, while "Destroy All Monsters" makes it clear it's not supposed to exist for another twenty-odd years.
That would seem to suggest that the movies have started retroactively treating "Destroy All Monsters" as if it did, in fact, take place in the present (which in and of itself isn't too far-fetched, honestly; it's not as if the technology seen in DAM's vision of 1999 was all that different from what the series had already begun making fairly frequent use of). But that raises the question of how Ghidorah is still alive, since we pretty clearly see him die on-screen at the end of DAM.

This is, to be clear, a result of nothing but sheer laziness on the part of the film's writers, but it's another of those bizarrely interesting little details I can't help but sink my teeth into. It does speak volumes about the move itself, however, that the most interesting things about it are all obscure little this-and-that's rather than anything to do with, y'know, its plot or visuals or anything actually important about it.

Chris D said...

I pretty much hate Godzilla vs Gigan. I think the general consensus is that the next film in the series is worse, but as inane as it is I find it to be not half as draggy as this one. Probably my next least favourite from this entire era of Godzilla after Son of Godzilla.

The only things that really stand out to me at all here are Gigan's design, the newfound bloodiness that Sssonic mentioned (the scene of Anguirus getting his face sliced up by Gigan's chest blade fucked me up and I saw the film for the first time last month) and the faintly delightful scene where the cockroach aliens are played by actual cockroaches, although it's too little too late.

This movie also really doubles down on what I've always thought was one of Fukuda's worst habits: apparently thinking poorly-staged scenes of human characters awkwardly struggling with each other is in any way an adequate replacement for kaiju action or any kind of meaningful incident.

Tim said...

I'm definitely on team "Megalon is the Worst", but you're right that it's less draggy. In fact, I don't know if any of the films are this draggy.

And Sssonic, I can't believe I didn't realise that about the blood! I mean, it's obvious that this film is bloody, but it didn't occur to me that this was the actual first time we saw Godzilla bleed. Good call.

Brian said...

As a kid, I owned exactly two Godzilla films on VHS, despite being a pretty big fan. I watched whenever Godzillafest happened, things like that.

One was King Kong vs. Godzilla, because of course it was. On an absurdly cheap commercial VHS. A neighbor borrowed it and somehow accidentally taped over it (It apparently had the tab on it that allowed such things, for... reasons?)

The other was Godzilla vs. Megalon. So, it holds a very, very special place in my heart. But I haven't seen it since I was probably 12ish. So, I kind of dread ever rewatching it.