Blu Notes: Gamera vs. Gyaos

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Gamera vs. Gyaos (大怪獣空中戦 ガメラ対ギャオス / Daikaiju Kuchusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Gamera vs. Gyaos is available both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.37:1 / color
Mpeg-4 AVC / 32.3 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: theatrical trailer

And slowly but surely, we make our way deeper into Kadokawa’s high-price Gamera Blu-ray boxed sets from 2009. After two of these I already feel a bit like a broken record, so I’ll be keeping this article even shorter than usual. Those who have read our coverage of Gamera and Gamera vs. Barugon know what to expect here – a Blu-ray sourced from the same HD master used by Shout! Factory for their domestic DVDs, with no English-friendly language options and only a trailer as an extra. Gamera vs. Gyaos isn’t just my favorite of the Showa Gamera series, but my favorite of all the Gamera films and one of my favorite giant monster movies, period. This disc won’t be to everyone’s taste, but yeah, I had to have it.

Image-wise the comparison below pretty well covers it all. Color, contrast and detail all tighten up well in comparison to the SD equivalent, though the picture can look a bit thin and over-yellow in places. All of the other Kadokawa Gamera HD masters have been artificially sharpened, including the ’90s films, and Gamera vs. Gyaos is no exception. Grain is course and angular, an issue no doubt exacerbated by the edge enhancement, and lends the image a gritty quality in motion. There is no window-boxing this go around (or for any of the subsequent films, thankfully), and though presented in 1080i the tech specs are certainly robust – the feature is Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded at a high average bitrate of 32.3 Mbps. The film sounds much as it has in the past, though perhaps a touch less muffled by virtue of an uncompressed LPCM encode. The old-school monophonic mix isn’t going to impress anyone, but it remains faithful to the intentions of the original production, and that’s just fine by me. There are no subtitles, English, Japanese, or otherwise.

DVD leftBlu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click each to view full size.

 
 
 
 

What else is there to say, really? Gamera vs. Gyaos looks and plays better on Blu-ray from Kadokawa than it does in its domestic DVD equivalent, but it still has its problems, and with a retail price of  ¥4,935 (more than $60 USD) it’ll be a very tough sell for most. Recommended for crazies like myself whose lives just won’t be complete until they’ve owned the Gamera films on every format imaginable. For the rest, just sit back and enjoy the pretty pictures.

Blu-ray shots were captured as full resolution .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to enlarge.

Gamera vs. Gyaos is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Gamera (1965), Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), and Gamera vs. Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).

Blu Notes: Gamera vs. Barugon

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Gamera vs. Barugon (大怪獣決闘 ガメラ対バルゴン / Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Gamera vs. Barugon is available both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.29:1 / color
Mpeg-4 AVC / 27.4 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: announcementtheatrical trailer

Another day, another classic Daiei effects fantasy on Blu-ray from Kadokawa Entertainment. Released in Japan in August of 2009 (the film is as yet unavailable on Blu-ray outside its home territory) Gamera vs. Barugon is another high-price Blu-ray that will have limited appeal elsewhere. Audio is Japanese only, no subtitles are included, and supplements are limited to an original theatrical trailer and a “special announcement” trailer both Barugon and its original co-feature Daimajin. With an asking price of ¥4,935 (roughly $64.00 USD) this is going to be a tough sell for most, but one indisputable fact remains – for those looking to own Gamera vs. Barugon on Blu-ray this disc is currently the only option.

Like Giant Monster Gamera this Blu-ray is sourced from the same HD master previously used for both the Japanese 40th anniversary Gamera Z-Plan DVD boxed set (issued in 2006) and Shout! Factory’s more recent DVD, and the improvements across formats, while notable, remain pretty modest. Before my thoughts, a brief comparison:

DVD leftBlu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click to view full size.

 
 
 
 
 

Kadokawa’s slightly windowboxed 1080i Blu-ray presentation improves in the expected areas, with detail, contrast, and color each tightening up appreciably in most areas, with the more modest effects photography seeing the least improvement. Still, this is an old HD master (six years at the youngest, and possibly older) and it looks it. The film texture is rendered in a noisy fashion that’s really anything but film – I was actually reminded of the look of some of the laserdiscs I used to own, though the effect is much more subtle here by virtue of the resolution. Detail is reasonably crisp, but a level of artificial sharpening has been applied and some edges display with modest aliasing artifacts (see the rim of Onodera’s glasses in the final shots above). I didn’t find any of the issues here overly distracting in motion, but anyone anticipating anything beyond a reasonable home presentation from this Blu-ray will be sorely disappointed. In the end it’s just the latest link in the chain of improvement for a series that I’ve owned in practically every format imaginable, with plenty of room left for improvement.

Technical specs are less robust than on the other Kadokawa Gamera Blu-rays by virtue of the length of the film (like the rest this is only a single layer BD25), but still substantial enough to support the modest transfer. Gamera vs. Barugon receives an Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a healthy average bitrate of 27.4 Mbps, and compression artifacts are never an issue. The Japanese audio is presented in 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic, and despite some flatness inherent to the original mix it sounds quite good. As previously stated there are no subtitles (English, Japanese, or otherwise) and the only supplements are an original theatrical trailer and a “special announcement” trailer for Gamera vs. Barugon and its original co-feature Daimajin. Each is presented in 1080i HD from native HD transfers. The disc appears to be all-region compatible, and played just fine both in my PS3 (Region A) and in my Region B secondary deck.

This is another disc without much of an audience beyond the more ardent Gamera devotees out there, and whether or not it will be worth it to you depends entirely on your expectations and how well you can justify the exorbitant expense. I had the disposable income available and wanted Gamera in HD, so it works for me. Your mileage will definitely vary.

Blu-ray shots were captured as full resolution .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to enlarge.

Gamera vs. Barugon is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Gamera (1965), Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), and Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Great Evil Beast Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Great Demon Beast Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).

Blu Notes: Giant Monster Gamera

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Giant Monster Gamera (大怪獣ガメラ / Daikaiju Gamera). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Giant Monster Gamera is available now, both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set, from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.28:1 / b&w
Mpeg-4 AVC / 37.5 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: theatrical trailer (1080i HD)

What can I say – I love Gamera in all of his various incarnations, but thanks to their staple status in the television syndication packages of my youth my heart will forever belong to the original Showa-era films. I grew up thrilling to every moment as that most unlikely of heroes fought Barugon and Gyaos, Guiron and Zigra, and while it is those imaginative color spectacles that remain my favorites the humble, black-and-white Giant Monster Gamera is where it really all began. Produced on a B-budget by Daiei Co. in 1965, Giant Monster Gamera is beset by all the usual problems associated with first-of-their-kind productions (it was Daiei’s first true giant monster film) and quite a few others besides, but it’s an interesting effort despite its many limitations, and still a heap of fun provided you’re in the right frame of mind.

Given the absolute dearth of critical coverage (in Japanese or otherwise) of Kadokawa’s high definition releases of the classic Gamera films it was with some small reluctance that I invested (and investment is the word!) in the company’s pair of Showa-era Blu-ray boxes – two collectible packages that together comprise all 8 of the original Gamera films. I knew I was bound to be happy either way. Having lived through the days of Sandy Frank and Just 4 Kids’ ep VHS travesties I was excited at the very opportunity to own the original series in HD, but with an asking price of over $40 per film I couldn’t help but wonder just what I had gotten myself into.

It seems important to note that neither Giant Monster Gamera nor its co-features are English friendly in any but the most taunting of ways (the titles are listed on the packaging in both Japanese and English, and exclusively the latter on the disc art). Indeed, even hard-of-hearing Japanese audiences are out of luck here, as no subtitles have been included in any language. The feature audio is pure and simple 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic Japanese only.

Additionally, those expecting some order of supplemental heft will find Giant Monster Gamera and its Blu-ray cohorts sorely lacking in that department. All that’s included with these discs – and I mean all – are the original theatrical trailers for each film. Similarly the two boxed sets offer little of note beyond their significantly reduced per-film prices. The Showa Gamera Blu-ray Boxes (I and II) arrive with attractive outer boxes and include a protective plastic sleeve and obi. First pressings – which mine evidently are – also include a limited lenticular 3D cover art, but no additional paper extras.

Now, what of the film? Giant Monster Gamera premieres in HD digital at the appropriate (if oddball) theatrical ratio of 2.28:1 by way of a slightly windowboxed transfer in 1080i (the rest of the Gamera Blu-rays are interlaced as well). I suspect this to be the same HD master that was originally prepared by Kadokawa for the 11-film 13-disc megabucks Gamera Z-Plan DVD Box from 2006, and it is the same HD master sourced by Shout! Factory for their domestic DVD edition. Seen in its native resolution the HD master offers an appreciable improvement in clarity and detail over the latter (comparison below), though whether or not that’s worth the investment will be up to your individual preferences. Otherwise this is a rather modest show, with an overall aesthetic that reminds of some of Fox’s older black and white HD masters. Contrast is the real weakness here, but the dull original photography appears more to blame than Kadokawa - Giant Monster Gamera has always looked pretty flat, and too much of a bump to the black levels and contrast risks rendering some of its shots downright unintelligible. There’s a certain analogue noisiness to the grain that renders it both more noticeable and less refined than it perhaps should be, but in motion I was undeterred. Otherwise the image retains a reasonable level of detail throughout, and while I suspect some sharpening has been applied it was not of sufficient stuff to distract from my viewing.

Image comparison – DVD left, Blu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click to view full size.

 
 
 

Though only single layer Kadokawa have not skimped on the technical front - Giant Monster Gamera‘s modest charms receive a robust Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a high average bitrate of 37.4 Mbps. The lossless LPCM audio complements the image nicely, and while personal tastes will vary I found this a pleasing-enough presentation overall.

The more I see Giant Monster Gamera the more I appreciate it. That it’s derivative of Toho’s own Godzilla is undeniable, from its concept right down to many of its narrative tropes, but there’s an offbeat quality to the film that attracts me more and more. There are those who will doubtless expect more for their money from Kadokawa’s Blu-ray (which appears to be all region compatible, and played fine in my region B secondary deck), but them’s the breaks – those who want to play the Japanese import game have to learn to live with top tier pricing, the virtues of value be damned. As for the disc, I wanted Gamera in HD and I got it. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not up to the standards the format is capable of, but it’ll do. Recommended for the HD-hungry Gamera devotees out there. As for the rest, enjoy the pretty pictures.

More Blu-ray shots. These were captured as full size uncompressed .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Giant Monster Gamera is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), Giant Monster Dogfight: Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), and Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Great Evil Beast Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Great Demon Beast Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).

Daimajin

The 1960s were a time of flux for the Japanese film industry, with the postwar cinema boom finding itself at odds with both lavish import epics and that old Hollywood nemesis – television. Of the prosperous studios of the time it was Daiei who made the biggest gamble towards competing with the West abroad and the tube at home, going so far as to invest in and implement large-format film equipment as a means of differentiating themselves from their domestic competition. It was a bold move that elevated the expense of practically every picture Daiei produced, but one that failed to pay off. By the middle-60s a financial disaster was already brewing at Daiei and in 1971 the company collapsed outright. While the Daiei story doesn’t end there – the studio would see resurrection under Tokuma Shoten in 1974 and survive until 2003, when it was absorbed entirely under the Kadokawa banner – it was certainly the end of an era.

In this context Daiei’s Daimajin films, a series of three high profile special effects vehicles produced back-to-back in 1966, takes on renewed significance, not just as one of the more interesting diversions of the decade’s kaiju boom, but as one of the last gasps of the grandeur that had marked the studio’s postwar career. “Great Films are Daiei Films” the ads said in a pun on the company name, and for a time at least they spoke truth. The production of the first Daimajin (titled simply enough Daimajin [大魔神]) proved particularly ambitious, with Daiei’s Kyoto studio undertaking the project simultaneously with Daiei Tokyo’s production of the A-list Gamera sequel Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon (Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon) – the two films would premiere as a much-publicized double bill on the April 17, 1966.

Penned by Tetsuro Yoshida, a regular contributor to Daiei’s jidaigeki fantasies and chanbara actioners, and directed by studio veteran Kimiyoshi Yasuda, Daimajin plays for the most part as a straight period drama, albeit with an important fantasy twist. The vile Samanosuke, a drifter taken in and made chamberlain by the kind Lord Hanabusa, rises up against his master and takes the feudal lands of Yamanaka Castle as his own. The elder Hanabusa and the majority of his confidants are murdered, but household samurai Kogenta escapes with the lord’s two young children – daughter Kozasa and son Tadafumi – and takes shelter with his aunt, a priestess of the local mountain god. With Samanosuke ever vigilant the priestess leads the usurped to the only safe haven around, the forbidden holy mountain of her god, where the surviving Hanabusa’s rest uneasily, praying for a day when they might reclaim their kingdom.

In the meanwhile Samanosuke consolidates his power, striking bargains with surrounding warlords and raising an army with which he hopes to conquer Edo. His citizens are forced into slave labor building a monstrous fortress and taxed to the point of starvation and homelessness. Gatherings are forbidden, and much to the priestess’ horror the local faith falls by the wayside. In ancient times it is said that the mountain god did battle with the evil spirit Arakatsuma, whom he defeated and imprisoned in a giant statue of his own likeness – a great stone warrior. With gatherings banned the rituals to appease the mountain god and keep Arakatsuma, the dreaded giant Majin, at bay go undone, and as the years pass the god grows very, very angry.

Things come to a head in the tenth year of Samanosuke’s reign, when Kogenta and young lord Tadafumi are captured in their attempt to infiltrate Castle Yamanaka and slated for crucifixion. As though that weren’t bad enough, Samonosuke also murders the mountain god’s priestess and orders the guardian statue – now known as a Hanabusa safe haven and a rallying point for local rebellion – destroyed. But there are consequences for inviting the wrath of a god. Just as any hope for peace in the territory seems abolished the angered deity takes action, loosing the devilish, unstoppable Arakatsuma against Samanosuke’s fortress…

There was a decidedly DeMille-ian influence upon Daiei’s upper echelon productions in the ’60s, courtesy of that director’s recent VistaVision smash The Ten Commandments, and nowhere (except Kenji Misumi’s monstrous 1961 production Shaka, Daiei’s most direct answer to Western epics and Japan’s first 70mm film) is that influence more obvious than in the Daimajin trilogy. Indeed, strip away its distinctly Japanese sensibilities and the first Daimajin feels a lot like a thematic retread of DeMille’s swan song, complete with peasant-oppressing iron-fisted overlord, ill-advised heresy, and a climactic third act loaded for bear with Old Testament-style divine intervention (and for anyone doubting the DeMille influence, just wait for Daimajin part two!). In terms of dollars the end result was much what Daiei had hoped – a whopping success home, even if the international impact left something to be desired. Stateside Daimajin went unseen theatrically, and was instead integrated into American International Pictures’ television syndication packages as Majin, Monster of Terror.

Inspiration for the giant Majin himself, identified here for the only time in the series as Arakatsuma, came from Julian Duvivier’s 1936 film Golem (another retelling of that oft-filmed folktale), memories of which Hisashi Okuda carried with him until he became production director for Daiei Kyoto. In stark contrast to his simplified portrayal in successive films the giant Majin here is quite morally ambiguous, unleashing his monstrous vengeance not just against Samanosuke, but the oppressed villagers as well. Even his one demonstrably heroic act, the saving of lord Tadafumi from crucifixion, has a malign undercurrent, giving the impression that the Majin would just as soon have killed him, too. It’s a poetic device, not any personal sense of “mission accomplished”, that eventually ends Majin’s rampage and sends him on his way. Moved by the tearful pleas of young Kozasa, whose prayers raised the devil in the first place, the Majin’s spirit speeds off in a ball of light, leaving its physical form to crumble back into the earth.

Though well produced in terms of its drama the human element here is pretty formulaic, and ultimately just a narrative means-to-an-end to draw audiences in to the real star of the show – its ace special effects production (advertising proudly proclaimed Daimajin as “Japan’s first full-scale special effects samurai spectacular!”). So important was the effects production deemed that director Yasuda is billed alongside special effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda in the opening credits. Even today the effects for Daimajin are captivating, not only in their superior execution but in their considerable style as well. The Majin’s arrival is heralded by grim clouds and blood-red skies, and his reduced stature (around 20 feet) in comparison to the usual kaiju combines with a sense of vengeful purpose (and some tremendous large-scale model work) to lend his attack a potent immediacy. Contemporary critics took note, and the film’s standard-setting effects photography earned cinematographer Fujiro* Morita the Miura Prize from the J.S.C. in 1966.

*The supplemental subtitles for this release say “Fujio”, and I’ve no idea which is accurate. Online translators are unhelpful, though amusingly so, translating the name as “Shiro Moritani wealth”.

Daimajin has been available in America before, but never like this. Original television airings were predictably pan-and-scanned from the original ‘Scope ratio, and dubbed into English besides. ADV (now defunct) went a long way towards remedying both problems with VHS and later DVD releases of the film, sourced initially from the Japanese laserdisc masters and later from those prepared for remastered DVD editions. Though better, these releases were still imperfect, with unreliable translations and image quality that just doesn’t hold up to contemporary standards. Since the folding of ADV bargain-bin proprietor Mill Creek have taken up their stead, and contrary to what some might have expected they’ve done a hell of a job bringing Daimajin to Blu-ray.

Daimajin arrives in great form, sourced from the latest HD masters and progressive at the original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1. Rather than just ordinary 35mm anamorphic ‘Scope Daimajin was photographed using the same large-format VistaVision equipment that had earlier been put to use for Daiei’s epic Shaka, and the resulting image is of terrific quality. Detail is very strong where the photography allows, as in the close-up that follows this paragraph, and the filmic quality of the original elements is blessedly retained courtesy of a fine, unobtrusive layer of unbastardized film grain. Unlike rival Toho’s recent HD restorations of their tokusatsu properties, which can look quite pale and over-bright (more on that in our upcoming review of Destroy All Monsters), Daimajin presents with contrast and color that are each at lovely, natural levels. I’m unsure of what degree of restorative work was undertaken here but I noted no damage beyond a few wayward specks and scratches and the usual grit associated with the film’s practical effects techniques – in motion this makes for a wonderful presentation.

Where Mill Creek have been found lacking in the technical department on earlier releases (like their single-layered double features from a couple of years back) they leave nothing to complain about here. Daimajin is paired with its sequel Daimajin Ikaru (The Giant Majin Grows Angry, under the title Return of Daimajin) on a dual layer BD50, and while the encode is only single layer (the same is true of the Japanese Blu-ray releases) the support is more than substantial enough. Daimajin receives an average video encode in Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 20.6 Mbps, but artifacts are kept well at bay and the fine grain is well maintained throughout. Audio is provided in two flavors of DTS-HD MA 2.0, one being the original Japanese and the other being the same English dub that graced the Majin, Monster of Terror TV version. The original Japanese sounds precisely as it should, notably flat in comparison to modern mixes but significantly more robust than in past iterations – the lows of Akira Ifukube’s score (very similar to, if less bombastic than, his work on War of the Gargantuas the same year) have punch hitherto unheard. The big news, however, may be the quality of the English dub which, despite some additional flatness, sounds practically pristine. Optional English subtitles are included and, with the exception of some unintended humorous moments (“Gasp!”), are very well translated. Aside from its two co-features Daimajin Ikaru and Daimajin GyakushuDaimajin arrives on domestic Blu-ray accompanied by an interview / SFX discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r?)o Morita (28 minutes) and the original Japanese theatrical trailer, both in HD. The two-disc release (2x BD50) comes housed in standard side-lock Blu-ray case and fancy slipcover, and retails for $24.98.

I came into this Daimajin triple feature Blu-ray fully expecting to find the plethora of minor faults that have plagued many of Mill Creek’s past Blu-ray editions, and to have to defend those faults with a low price tag. Instead I find one of the best genre releases of the year hiding in plain sight, offering domestic fans the same kind of quality the Japanese are charged six times more for. This isn’t just a recommended release, it’s unskippable stuff, and the best deal to arrive on the Blu-ray shelf in ages. I literally cannot recommend it highly enough.

Daimajin is available now at Amazon.com

Daimajin is available now at Amazon.com

Agon: Atomic Dragon

a.k.a. Maboroshi no Daikaiju Agon /
Giant Phantom Monster Agon
directed by
 Norio Mine & Fuminori Ohashi
1964 | Fuji TV | 24′ (4 episodes) 

Agon is a series consisting of four twenty-five minute episodes that make up two storylines that are distinctive enough in tone and substance to not treat the short series as a traditional four part mini series, but rather as an aborted attempt at a kaiju show.

In the series’ first half, atom bomb explosions awaken and mutate a prehistoric monster and hobby Godzilla impersonator soon to be dubbed Agon (that’s a Japanese English short form for “Atomic Dragon”). Agon has the munchies, so it soon attacks an important nuclear research facility that comes complete with its own nuclear reactor to get at all that tasty, tasty uranium. While its at it, Agon also causes a nuclear explosion, but thanks to this being the 60s, there are no repercussions to that at all.

Anyhoo, Professor of SCIENCE(!) Ukyo (Nobuhiko Shima), shaving-impaired cop Yamato (Asao Matsumoto), roving reporter Goro (Shinji Hirota) and professional professorial assistant Satsuki (Akemi Sawa) are taking on the case of the hungry kaiju. Well, actually, after an unsuccessful fight between Agon and library footage of the JDF, they just lure Agon back into the sea with more tasty morsels of uranium. The End.

Of course, Agon returns in the second storyline to walk into a plotline about two yakuza and a suitcase full of drugs that soon finds the still hungry monster walking around with a small fishing boat and a little boy in its mouth, while vaguely stomping on a small industrial town. Fortunately, our heroes contrive to poison Agon with the suitcase full of drugs, a fantastic plan that at least drives the monster back into the sea. The End again.

  
  

Agon surely is not one of the high points of kaiju film making, but at least the show has an interesting story behind it. I have to admit to certain doubts about that official story that explains why the Fuji TV series was only broadcast in 1968, four years after it was made. Officially, Toho complained that the film’s monster was resembling their very own Godzilla too closely, seemingly not knowing that the monster was designed by an apprentice of their very own Godzilla-creator Eiji Tsuburaya and the much superior first two episodes were written by the frequent Toho kaiju writer Shinichi Sekizawa. Supposedly, when Toho learned of that fact four years later, they suddenly had a change of heart and allowed Fuji TV to go ahead with the broadcasting.

I can’t say that story makes much sense to me, especially when we have the much easier explanation of the utter crapness of its last two episodes for Agon‘s absence from the screen. The Sekizawa episodes, both directed by Norio Mine (says Wikipedia), are actually pretty decent stuff as far as ultra-generic kaiju romps go. There’s nothing about it anyone hadn’t seen in the genre by 1968, but it’s decently enough paced, and rather cleverly written around the problems of a TV budget.

It also helps the series’ beginning’s case that Mine does some quite decent work, too, using clever editing and well-chosen camera angles to let the few extras he has look as much as panicking crowds as possible, and using shots of modernist buildings and models of modernist buildings to get the proper pop art city-smashing mood going even though he doesn’t actually have a city for his monster to smash. The slightly pop art-y mood is further enhanced by the strange sepia-toned black and white stock the series is shot on, which, I assume, is the best way to colour-code things when you can’t afford to actually colour-code your sets. Then there’s Wataru Saito’s strange little score that consists of some jazzy beats and a lot of weird synthesizer warbling that suggest a Japanese version of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and really help to pull the first two episodes into the realm of the cheap yet formally interesting.

  
  

The special effects themselves are all over the place; there are some very fine model shots, but there are also horrible moments like the one where a very bad Agon doll just stands in a pool of water standing in for the monster appearing out of the sea: The Agon suit itself does look good enough from a certain angle, but there’s a lack of detail in its face and an immobility about its whole head – especially the eyes – that’s never convincing, but is survivable as long as Mine shoots around it.

Unfortunately, Fuminori Ohashi, the director of the final two episodes does not keep up with these minor aesthetic achievements at all. The director instead opts for a bland point and shoot style that seems ready-made to show off all the worst sides of the series’ effects work, with Agon walking around with a boat model crammed into its mouth for about twenty minutes being one of the most embarrassing – though of course really pretty funny – things I’ve ever seen in a kaiju picture; and I’ve watched all of the original Gamera movies by now. For some reason, Saito’s music isn’t put to any decent use at all anymore, either, warbling around ineffectively and utterly divorced from what’s going on on screen. It’s difficult to watch these final two episodes and not think nobody involved in the production actually gave a damn about what they were doing.

Apart from Agon’s boating trip, the so crap it’s funny part of the later episodes also includes long shots of the monster standing around not moving a muscle (one suspects the suit actor was on holiday), and one of the more undignified methods of getting rid of a kaiju I’ve ever had the dubious luck to witness. Don’t do drugs, giant monsters, okay?

The rapid decrease in quality is a bit sad, really, for while the script of the show’s first storyline doesn’t have an original bone in its body, its execution speaks of enthusiasm and creativity behind the camera, and it’s not difficult to imagine the show the first two episodes promise to be a lot of fun to watch.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Daimajin Trilogy on Blu-ray from Mill Creek in September

Fans of giant monsters and jidaigeki alike should mark your calendars for September 18th, as that’s the date Mill Creek will unleash Daiei’s inimitable Daimajin trilogy on domestic Blu-ray. Those who want a primer on the films should check out our article here. Each and every of them is a long-time favorite of mine, and needless to say, I’m excited.

Quoting from Mill Creek:

In 1966, the Daiei Motion Picture Company – the studio behind Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON and the Gamera series – released a trilogy of films that combined elements of the popular daikaiju (giant monster) and jidaigeki (period drama) genres.  Set during Japan’s “Warring States” era, the Daimajin movies told the story of Majin, a giant statue of an angry god that would come to life in times of desperation to punish evildoers. But when Majin’s rage was unleashed, it could be directed at both the wicked and innocent, alike.

Acclaimed for their serious tone and spectacular special effects, DAIMAJIN, RETURN OF DAIMAJINand the rarely-seen DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN present a unique take on a monster who is both savior and devil.

CONTENTS:

1. DAIMAJIN 
2. RETURN OF DAIMAJIN
3. DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN

Bonus Features – All New English language track for DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN

Mill Creek’s Daimajin 2-disc Blu-ray collection streets September 18th with a retail price of $24.98, and is currently available for pre-order through Amazon.com.

Godzilla King of the Monsters!

dir. Terry O. Morse
1956 / Jewell Enterprises / Trans World / 80′
written by Al C. Ward
director of photography Guy Roe
edited by Terry Morse
starring
 Raymond Burr, Frank Iwanaga and Mikel Conrad
Godzilla King of the Monsters! is now available, along with Godzilla, in a deluxe Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection

“This is Tokyo, once a city of six million people. What has happened here was caused by a force which up until a few days ago was entirely beyond the scope of man’s imagination. Tokyo, a smoldering memorial to the unknown – an unknown which at this very moment still prevails and could, at any time, lash out with its terrible destruction anywhere else in the world. There were once many people here who could have told of what they saw. Now, there are only a few.”

Though a phenomenal success in its native Japan, garnering nearly 10 million admissions during release, Godzilla remained relatively unknown abroad – unknown, that is, until the international distribution rights were secured by Jewell Enterprises (otherwise best, and seemingly only, known for the Mara Corday crime picture Girls on the Loose and the shabby cavegirl adventure Untamed Women, one in a long line of shows that repurposed the creature effects from Hal Roach’s One Million B.C.). The firm would would go on to hire Terry O. Morse, an experienced film editor with limited directing experience, to oversee their American adaptation of Godzilla, and cast recognizable talent Raymond Burr, here just before his rise to fame on television’s Perry Mason, as their new star. The resulting film would eventually be seen world wide, even in Japan (where it was retrofitted for ‘Scope projection for a 1957 release), and bestow upon its eponymous attraction a title still familiar to this day – King of the Monsters.

Though drastically restructured for its Stateside adaptation, the meat of Godzilla King of the Monsters!’ narrative remains familiar. Ships are disappearing off the Japanese coast, their survivors recounting stories of boiling seas and brilliant light. Officials are at a loss for why until an expedition to an isolated island near to the disappearances reveals the terrifying truth: Godzilla, a monster right out of prehistory, has been torn from its undersea niche by Pacific H-bomb testing and is making a bee-line for the Japanese capital. Impervious to all known armaments, Godzilla seems unstoppable until a young inventor reveals his own horrifying discovery – a new elemental power with more deadly potential than the atom.

The difference lies in the framing, accomplished through new footage starring Raymond Burr as American press correspondent Steve Martin, who recounts the majority of Godzilla‘s events in flashback. On layover in Tokyo, Martin takes to investigating the shipping disappearances out of a natural journalistic instinct, but soon finds himself witness to the utter destruction of Tokyo.

Though filmed in a matter of days, the footage that serves as Godzilla King of the Monsters!’ backbone is remarkably ambitious for its type, with a good deal of effort made to match locations and even actors (with doubles only seen from behind) so that the new story line fits properly with the old. One can question just how Martin so insinuates himself into some of the film’s lesser drama, like an underlying romantic triangle, but writ large the material works quite well, and no future attempt at the same would ever be so successful. A lot of that success is undoubtedly linked to the casting of Burr, who could deliver a stereo manual with thrilling authority, but the script by seasoned television writer Al C. Ward is no slouch either. Martin’s narration remains sensible and intelligent throughout, even when he’s privy to unlikely plot details, and the few new dramatic scenes – largely between Burr and Frank Iwanaga, playing a Japanese official – are well drawn and plot-driven. It’s much more than could be said of the comparable Half Human, the American adaptation of Ishiro Honda’s second monster feature Ju Jin Yuki Otoko, which has John Carradine ponderously spilling the full details of its foreign action from the comfort of an office chair.

Despite being shorn of some of its original drama (including all overt references to World War II) and re-structured with a distinct focus on action, Morse’s Godzilla King of the Monsters manages to retain much of the feel of the original. Morse shows a notable respect for his material throughout, something lost on the purveyors of many of these fantasy and science fiction imports, remaining true to the Japanese source during the occasional dubbed scenes (much of the dialogue is retained in Japanese) and leaving Akira Ifukube’s phenomenal score untouched. He even gets away with some critical commentary on the H-bomb, courtesy of Dr. Yamane’s dubbed remarks, an intellectual thread dismissed by critics at the time. “We assure you that the quality of the picture and the childishness of the whole idea do not indicate such calculation,” notes a condescending Bosley Crowther, writing for the New York Times in May of 1956. “Godzilla was simply meant to scare people.”

Regardless of contemporary critical opinions Godzilla King of the Monsters! was immensely successful upon release, and helped to pave the way for the colorful kaiju boom of the 1960s, as well as for the original Godzilla‘s more recent rediscovery. Indeed, with memories of the unvarnished Godzilla so fresh in mind I was a little surprised to find that this still works as well as it does, fifty-six years after it first stomped onto domestic screens. That’s not to say that Godzilla King of the Monsters! is a perfect film, not by a long shot, but it’s better than it really should be and a bona fide piece of film history besides, and worthy of the care and attention it has finally received.

disc details:
released January 24, 2012 by the Criterion Collection
disc:
dual layer BD-50
video: 1080p | AVC | 1.37:1
audio: 24-bit LPCM 1.0 English
subtitles: English 
supplements: commentary by David Kalat, theatrical trailer, plus the original Godzilla (featuring its own commentary, interviews, documentary subjects and more)
retail price:
$39.95
Available now from Amazon.com, and also available on 2-disc DVD

When the Criterion Collection’s Godzilla arrived I actually watched Godzilla King of the Monsters! first, and with some reservations I was duly impressed. Those familiar with the history of the film know that Toho has no elements of their own for the title, and as such no new transfer from quality material has been minted for decades. The 2002 Classic Media DVD and their later 2-disc edition, as well as earlier VHS releases from Simitar, Paramount and others have all been sourced from the same transfer, but change (for the better) is finally afoot courtesy of Criterion, who tracked down privately owned 35mm and 16mm elements from which to mint their new HD transfer.

Sourced from a combination of fine-grain 35mm master positive and 16mm dupe negative at the original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, Criterion’s new 1080p transfer of Godzilla King of the Monsters! represents the best that can be expected of the title at this point in time. There is damage, of course, plenty of which was inherent in the materials from the start, but don’t let that dissuade you. Godzilla King of the Monsters!, like its Japanese counterpart, finally exports a level of detail consistent with its 35mm photography, with excellent contrast to match. Guy Roe’s photography shines in close-up, even if lighting is flat compared to the Japanese footage. It all looks quite good overall, though there are issues worth noting for those wishing to give the transfer a closer look. Godzilla King of the Monsters! suffers most from Criterion’s efforts to stuff everything onto a single BD-50, and its modest 17.6 Mbps AVC encode just isn’t healthy enough to support the finer points of the transfer. Grain artifacts are evident throughout and the image just doesn’t hold up consistently to really close scrutiny, but it’s important not to overstate the issue (this is nowhere close to being an encoding disaster on the order of Horror Express). In motion I must admit that this looks very good, and ultimately I’d rather have the film available, even in a slightly insufficient encode, than not have it at all.

Screenshots were taken as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 95% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Comparison shots were taken from the 2002 Classic Media DVD of Godzilla King of the Monsters! in VLC in .png format, and compressed to .jpg using the same method as above. Frame matches in comparisons are exact. See our review of Godzilla for screenshots from the original version of the film.

More Blu-ray Screenshots:

Audio is again presented in uncompressed 24-bit LPCM, and the limitations of Godzilla King of the Monsters!‘ low budget mix are readily apparent. The track is clear enough (Criterion’s restoration has worked wonders on some of the crackle and damage) but sounds quite flat, and both the sound effects and score lack the dynamism evident in the original Japanese. That said, it also sounds perfectly accurate to the source, and I wouldn’t ask for more. Criterion have even provided optional English subtitles, leaving me no room to complain on that front. Supplements are limited for this cut of the film, unsurprising given that it’s a supplement itself, and include another commentary from critic David Kalat and the original theatrical trailer (featuring some of my favorite film ad phrasing – “A cyclonic cavalcade of electrifying horror!”).

Godzilla King of the Monsters! may not be enough to recommend this Criterion Blu-ray outright, but its inclusion certainly helps, improving upon an already strong release. Like plenty of others I know this is the Godzilla film I grew up with, watching it on TV or renting it from the video store at every opportunity before some enterprising adult finally decided I deserved a copy all my own. Seeing it looking as good as it does here was a real treat, and fans should be very pleased.

War God

Original Title: Zhan Shen   a.k.a. The Big Calamity (Da Zai Nan)
Year: 1976   Company: Xinghua Pictures / Prince Pictures   Country: Taiwan   Runtime: 85′
Director: Chan Hung-Man   Writer: Lam Ching-Gaai   Cinematography: Lai Man-Sing, Lam Chi-Wing, Wong Shui-Cheung    Music: Wong Mau-Saan   Cast: Gu Ming-Lun, Tse Ling-Ling, Cindy Tang Hsin, Chan Yau-San   Choreography: Ho Ming-Hiu    Special Effects: Koichi Takano   Producer: Fu Ching-Wa

Poster for War God under its alternative Chinese title The Big Calamity

Pre-review note: English sources on the cast and crew of this film are practically non-existent, and the information above was gleaned from a combination of a meager HKMDB listing and a Chinese Wikipedia entry.  Accuracy is not guaranteed.

War God, alternatively known online under the unofficial titles Calamity and Guan Yu vs. the Aliens, was once among the rarest of the rare in Taiwanese fantasy, stuff the likes of which we Westerners could only ever dream of seeing in the flesh.  Like Poon Lui’s Devil Fighter and Yu Hon-Cheung’s Monster From the Sea, War God was until recently thought of as un-seeable, with only a handful of advertising images and contemporary newspaper articles arguing for its existence at all.

One can imagine my surprise, then, when a hard-subtitled rental VHS copy of War God found its way into torrent circulation, and the film once thought unobtainable practically fell into my lap!  The future is a wonderful place, my dear readers, a wonderful place indeed.

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Terror of Mechagodzilla

Origintal Title: Mekagojira no Gyakushu Alt.: The Terror of Godzilla
Year: 1975   Company: Toho Co. Ltd.   Runtime: 83′   Director: Ishiro Honda
Writer: Yukiko Takayama   Cinematography: Mototaka Tomioka   Music: Akira Ifukube
SPFX Director: Teruyoshi Nakano   Cast: Tomoko Ai, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Akihiko Hirata,
Katsumasa Uchida, Goro Mutsumi, Toru Ibuki, Kenji Sahara , Kotaro Tomita, Ikio Sawamura
Godzilla: Toru Kawai   Mechagodzilla: Kazunari Mori   Titanosaurus: Katsumi Nimiamoto
Order this film on DVD (Japanese and English versions) from Amazon.com

It’s 1974… Toho Co., LTD’s famed Godzilla series is dying a slow unnatural death. The 20th anniversary came and went and the celebratory film, GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, was a bigger success than usual at the box office. But the audiences just weren’t flocking to the cinemas to watch monsters when they can watch them for free thanks to Tsuburaya’s seemingly endless lineup of superhero shows. Desperate for some new blood and ideas to infuse into the series, Toho held a contest to come up with the story of the next entry of the Godzilla series, already slated to be a follow-up to MECHAGODZILLA. This is what won:

It’s some time after the fierce, jazz-driven, spaghetti western and Sonny Chiba-inspired showdown between Godzilla and Mechagodzilla and Interpol has sent out an exploratory submarine to find the remains of Mechagodzilla off the Bonin Islands (you’re not supposed to remember that Godzilla destroyed Mechagodzilla on Okinawa. Shhh!). Their detectors can find nothing of the metal beast (but not for the obvious reason) and suddenly they are beset by an underwater cyclone. Attempting to surface, they are attacked by the sea dinosaur Titanosaurus (Nimiamoto) who promptly makes short work of the sub.

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