Godzilla

dir. Ishiro Honda
1954 / Toho Co. ltd / 96′
written by Shigeru Kayama, Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata
director of photography Masao Tamai
music by
 Akira Ifukube
director of special effects Eiji Tsuburaya
starring
 Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Sachio Sakai, Katsumi Tezuka and Haruo Nakajima
Godzilla, along with Godzilla King of the Monsters!, is now available in a deluxe Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection

Unleashed upon an unsuspecting Japan to massive popular success in late fall of 1954, the original Godzilla was one of those rare perfect storms of cinema, a picture so tremendous in its impact that it ushered in not only a distinct new genre of Japanese film, but a bona fide pop culture revolution as well. It also touched a chord with a post-war Japan fresh from years of occupation, and finally allowed to openly discuss the full sum of its wartime experiences. Godzilla‘s considerable box office take all but ensured the long run of increasingly silly sequels that followed, and those familiar with those alone might be forgiven for expecting the same here, but the father of them all is an intelligent and at times downright cerebral affair, possessed of a raw power not seen in the genre since. Much more than just another monster movie, Godzilla is a spectacular public exorcism of the specters of World War II, and the tumultuous, emotional expression of a nation’s struggle to come to terms with its history as both a perpetrator and victim of incalculable wartime devastation.

The story, for those unfamiliar, begins with a series of dreadful shipping accidents off the coast of Japan, an investigation into which leads reporters and government officials to remote Odo Island, a sparsely populated speck of land near where the accidents occurred. There they find no answers beyond the superstitious ramblings of one of the island’s elders, who is convinced that the mythical Godzilla – a mysterious sea beast the Odo Islanders once sated with human sacrifice – is responsible for the maritime troubles. No one believes a word of it until something comes ashore one storm-torn evening, leveling several of the island’s residences and leaving a set of impossibly huge footprints in its wake.

A scientific expedition headed by noted zoologist Dr. Yamane (the great Takashi Shimura) is swiftly mounted to survey the destruction and investigate its cause. Once the scientists are on the island they make a series of surprising discoveries. The footprints left behind are intensely radioactive, and the area around them dangerously contaminated. What’s more, they’re littered with ancient sediments and the remnants of primitive life long thought extinct, leading Dr. Yamane and his team to the conclude that the impressions were made by something straight out of prehistory. It isn’t long before more conclusive evidence arrives in the form of a mountainous Jurassic-age monster, the Godzilla of legend, who has his sights set on Japan’s thriving metropolitan heart – Tokyo.

Co-written by director Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata (Rodan) from an original story by Shigeru Kayama (which he also novelized), the basics of Godzilla‘s narrative development are pretty traditional, writ large, the origins for the monster having been freely adapted from elements of the classic King Kong (an island, a legend, talk of human sacrifice) and the contemporary The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (about a prehistoric monster roused from its icy slumbers by an atomic test in the Arctic). Indeed, the idea of a dinosaur wreaking havoc on modern civilization was nothing new in 1954, having been seen previously in the silent The Lost World, Max Fleischer’s Superman short The Arctic Giant, as well as in Godzilla‘s most direct inspiration, the aforementioned Beast. The difference, as ever, is in the details.

Under the creative auspices of Honda, Kayama, Murata, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and even composer Akira Ifukube1, Godzilla‘s eponymous monster becomes one of the most singularly loaded metaphors in cinema history. Through references, both overt and subliminal, to such events as the irradiation of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru by the Castle Bravo H-bomb test, the fall of radioactive rain resulting from Soviet atomic tests, the firebombing of Tokyo and the A-bombing of Nagasaki, Godzilla becomes a fearsome and direct manifestation both of the horrors of World War II and the new and frightening realities of the Atomic Age. The monster’s steady, methodical destruction of modern Tokyo is a sequence unlike anything before it. Godzilla advances with the unrelenting force of an atomic blast, sending whole blocks crumbling into smoldering rubble and engulfing the city’s skyline in a curtain of nuclear flame. Dialogue clarifies whatever doubts may be lingering as to the rampage’s symbolic significance – “Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head…

In Godzilla’s wake millions lie dead or dying, both of physical injuries and radioactive contamination, while countless traumatized survivors wonder what terrors are yet to come. The imagery here – endless corridors filled with the wounded and an entire city reduced to wasteland – is potent, and evocative not only of the haunting aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but of the wartime razing of Tokyo as well. Even Godzilla himself is granted a history of victimization, with Dr. Yamane insinuating that, much like Japan’s A-bomb survivors, the creature is traumatized by its recent brush with American nuclear might. “Don’t shine searchlights on Godzilla!” he gravely begs of a military officer, fearful that they might remind of the blinding flash that tore him from his deep sea niche and send the monster into a deeper rage. Of course Godzilla is not just a victim, but an aggressor as well, and the vision of a dragon rising from the Pacific alludes strongly to the ugly flip side of Japan’s wartime misfortune – the fact that through their own militant nationalism, and the brutal campaign of conquest that resulted from it, they had brought that misfortune upon themselves.

To that end the central dramatic conflict of the film might be viewed as an allusion to the position of the Allied forces during the war. Godzilla, awakened by the H-bomb and impervious to all modern munitions, seems unstoppable, but a brilliant young scientist – Dr. Serizawa (a convincing young Akihiko Hirata) – may have found an answer. The problem? His discovery has such immense destructive potential that any use of it, however good the cause, could prove catastrophic. It’s a narrative development that dramatically echoes the creation and eventual use of the Atom bomb in the final days of World War II, and that implies a certain understanding by Honda and his crew of the position of the Allied forces at the time. With a marauding force like the Imperial Japanese at large, do you set aside your most powerful weapon for fear of the horrific consequences of its use, or do you use it in spite of them? What the Allies decided is history, and their decision is paralleled by that of Dr. Serizawa – the result is that Godzilla is stopped, though at a tremendous cost. Another elemental force, as horrifying as the H-bomb, has been let loose in the world, and the film concludes with a grave Dr. Yamane wondering what other Godzillas might be unleashed as a result.

In terms of drama Godzilla has certainly aged in the decades since it was made, and a forgettable love triangle between Toho’s brightest young stars (top-billed Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi and Akihiko Hirata) will be of minimal interest to modern viewers, but the complex substance of the thing remains, its power undiminished over the near-60 years since it was fresh. Godzilla is perhaps the best of its kind ever made, the ultimate, indelible atomic monster experience and the birthplace of an unlikely pop-culture icon. It’s must-see material, folks, and that’s all there is too it.

1 Some of Ifukube’s cues for the film, both the elegiac pieces set to Godzilla’s aftermath and demise and the descending motif that accompanies the earlier ship disasters, are highly evocative (and in the latter case a direct adaptation) of his past work on Kaneto Shindo’s Children of Hiroshima (a somber, thoughtful film about the human toll of the Hiroshima bombing), an allusion that only further cements Godzilla‘s connection to World War II and the burgeoning Atomic Age.

disc details:
released January 24, 2012 by the Criterion Collection
disc:
dual layer BD-50
video: 1080p | AVC | 1.37:1
audio: LPCM 1.0 Japanese
subtitles: English
supplements: commentary track with David Kalat, interviews (star Akira Takarada, suit actor Haruo Nakajima, effects men Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, composer Akira Ifukube, critic Tadao Sato), composite test footage, The Unluckiest Dragon illustrated audio essay, theatrical trailer and Godzilla King of the Monsters! (also featuring a David Kalat commentary and theatrical trailer)
retail price:
$39.95
Available now from Amazon.com, and also available on 2-disc DVD

The Criterion Collection has certainly started the year off right, getting one of their most anticipated releases of 2012 onto store shelves right from the start. A few niggling video issues may keep their high definition presentation of Godzilla from being the end-all be-all of the format, but compared to what’s come before (an awful edition from Classic Media and a dull, over-processed alternative from Toho itself) it’s a revelation. Those simply wondering as to whether or not their Blu-ray is worth the price of admission need read no further – of course it is, so get out there and buy it you fools!

The thorn in Godzilla‘s side is just a case of Criterion cramming too much stuff (and there’s a lot!) onto one disc – this really should have been a 2-disc Blu-ray, a la the simultaneously released 2-disc Criterion dvd, and the video presentation suffers a bit for it in the form of artifacting. The AVC-encoded video for Godzilla, running a modest average bitrate of 23.5 Mbps, does well by the majority of the show, but moments of flatter contrast and more ambiguous detail (like the underwater finale) present with notable, if not exactly damning, grain artifacts.

Otherwise I’ve nothing to complain about with this 1080p presentation, which Criterion have sourced fresh from a fine-grain 35mm master positive (the original negative for Godzilla is long gone) with excellent results. Detail improves handily over past editions, finally appearing at a level in keeping with the show’s 35mm photography, and contrast is dead-on. The usual limitations associated with Godzilla are all here, including some flicker and an assortment of damage, but Criterion’s work to clean up the material will be obvious to anyone familiar with past iterations. There’s a lot of obtrusive, large-scale damage I’m used to seeing that just isn’t here, and Criterion have struck their usual attractive balance between cleanliness and source authenticity. It may not be pristine (given the state of surviving elements it was never going to be – the first three Godzilla films are all in rather dire condition, with King Kong vs. Godzilla evidently having no usable 35mm elements at all for some scenes), but for the first time ever the film looks as good as it rightly should. This gave me the most satisfying viewing of Godzilla I’ve had to date, enough so that my boundless devotion to the 2006 BFI dvd has finally been broken, and those with realistic expectations for the title should be thrilled.

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. See our complementary review of Godzilla King of the Monsters! for screenshots from that version of the film.

Strong as the image can be, my minor quibbles aside, the audio is tremendous. Criterion present Godzilla in its original Japanese courtesy of a robust uncompressed 24-bit LPCM 1.0 track that restores the film’s sound mix to its original luster. I usually complement the score with regards to these uncompressed jobs, and Ifukube’s work sounds better than ever here, but it’s Godzilla’s roar that really hooked me on this track. There’s a visceral depth to it that I had never caught onto before, in my many viewings of the film, and at times it can be downright chilling. Complementing the audio is a wonderfully translated new set of subtitles that are more complete than those on the BFI edition.

Supplements are stacked, beginning with the full 80 minute American edition of the film, newly transferred in 1080p from a fine-grain 35mm master positive and a 16mm dupe negative, which comes with its own commentary track and trailer (see our review of Godzilla King of the Monsters! for more details). Otherwise there’s a fine commentary with critic David Kalat, as well as a solid slate of interviews, most newly-produced, and a substantial piece on the Daigo Fukuryu Maru. The standout for me is a retrospective interview with late composer Akira Ifukube, recorded in 2000, that runs a whopping 50 minutes. Everything here appears to be rendered in HD (though a couple of pieces are upscaled from SD), and the menu is conveniently accessible disc-wide. Bill Sienkiewicz’s packaging design is earning no end of fan ire, and I can confirm that which has so many in an uproar – that is, in fact, one of the Millennium-series Godzilla designs illustrated on the interior pop-up (itself a bit of an oddity, but kudos for thinking outside the box). Having finally seen it in person I can’t say that I mind – the art has terrific impact, particularly the front cover image, and those for whom the offending bits are an honest distraction will find them easily enough avoided in the Blu-ray edition (you have to fully unfold the two-fold digipak-style interior to see the pop-up, and the disc can be accessed without doing so). A booklet featuring a nice essay by J. Hoberman rounds out the package.

There’s some lost potential here with regards the encode (spreading the content over two discs instead of just one would have readily solved that problem, which is much more pronounced in Godzilla King of the Monsters than it is here), but overall the Criterion Collection’s Godzilla is as strong as fans might have hoped. The film has never looked, sounded, or read better than it does here, and that alone makes this Blu-ray more than worth the price of admission. Recommended!

Continue to Godzilla King of the Monsters!

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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Mothra vs. Godzilla

Origintal Release Titles: Mosura tai Gojira / Godzilla vs. The Thing
Year: 1964   Company: Toho Co. Ltd.   Runtime: 89′   Director: Ishiro Honda
Writers: Shinichi Sekizawa   Cinematography: Hajime Koizumi   Music: Akira Ifukube
SPFX Director: Eiji Tsuburaya   Assistant SPFX Director: Teruyoshi Nakano
Cast: Akira Takarada, Yuriko Hoshi, Hiroshi Koizumi, Yu Fujiki, Emi Ito, Yumi Ito,
Yoshifumi Tajima, Kenji Sahara, Ikio Sawamura   Godzilla: Haruo Nakajima
Order this film on DVD (Japanese and English versions) from Amazon.com

In the wake of a powerful typhoon a gigantic egg is found drifting off the coast of Japan.  Seen as a bad omen by some, the egg is soon taken over by an enterprising young billionaire and his sidekick, a greedy talent agent, who intend to make it the centerpiece of an amusement park.  There’s just one catch – the owner of the egg is none other than the god-monster Mothra, and she wants it back!

Enter reporter Sakai (Takarada) who, along with his photographer girlfriend Junko (Hoshi) and the helpful Professor Miura (Koizumi), takes up the cause of Mothra and her envoy, a pair of twin foot-tall princesses (the Ito sisters).  Before anything can be done about the egg another disaster strikes – buried in the muck left behind by the typhoon is Godzilla, who emerges from his temporary prison to lay siege to the Japanese countryside.  Sakai and his friends must travel to the nuke-blasted Infant Island, home of Mothra and her peaceful followers, in hopes of convincing the only good monster in the neighborhood to help save Japan and its people from the unstoppable onslaught of Godzilla.

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Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster

a.k.a. Sandai Kaiju Chikyu Saidai no Kessan,
Monster of Monsters Ghidorah!

company: Toho Company, LTD.
year: 1964
runtime: 93?
country: Japan
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Yosuke Natsuki, Yuriko Hoshi,
Akiko Wakabayashi, Hiroshi Koizumi,
Emi & Yumi Ito
writer: Shinichi Sekizawa
cinematography: Hajime Koizumi
order this film from Amazon.com

1964 turned out to be a prolific year for Toho Studios and their kaiju eiga output. The studio’s Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) had reaped massive success at the box office and Dogora the Space Monster (1964) wasn’t the box office disappoint one might assume. And next year’s Godzilla movie was on the horizon… But there was one hitch for Toho that year—the shooting of Akira Kurosawa’s current film Red Beard (1965) was running over schedule and was not going to meet its December 1964 release date. Toho was in a pickle. They needed a big New Year’s release and Kurosawa’s new film was out of the question. So much like the characters in the resultant film, they turned to Godzilla to bail them out, and the movie that would have been released in 1965 wound up being pushed into production to replace Kurosawa. If there’s one force on earth that could accomplish such a task, it’s the King of the Monsters and did he ever deliver…

As we begin our story, an intrepid reporter named Naoko Shindo (Hoshi) is investigating a group of scientist/stargazers who are hoping to find some evidence of the “saucer people” in hopes that they may explain the great heat wave Japan is suffering in the middle of January. No saucers (or for that matter, saucer people) are spotted, but a meteorite shower does bring an unwanted cargo to the earth. One such meteor strikes the earth near the famous Kurobe Dam.

That same night, young Princess Selina Salno (Wakabayashi) is on a flight to Japan to avoid assassins in her home country of Selgina who hope to end the monarch rule and bring about communism. Before going to bed, Princess Salno’s unconscious mind tells her that she must leave the plane, and she summarily jumps out the escape hatch. Seconds later, the plane explodes.

Professor Murai (Koizumi) and a team of geologists hoof it into Kurobe Gorge to study the fallen meteorite. They nearly get lost when their compasses begin pointing the wrong direction and are flabbergasted to find that the meteorite has a strong magnetic pull.

Back in Tokyo, Salno’s would-be chaperone and Naoko’s brother, Detective Shindo (Natsuki) discovers that a mysterious vagabond woman who claims to be from Venus (Mars in the U.S. version) that has popped up warning people of future dangers bears a strong resemblance to the princess he was supposed to protect. Naoko is assigned to follow the mystery woman, who appears at Mt. Aso warning of the reappearance of Rodan (Masaki Shinohara). The Venusian is met with jeers but almost immediately, Rodan breaks forth from the crater of the volcano and wings it into the air.

The conspirators in Selgina have since discovered the story of the Venusian and believe her to be Princess Salno, but aren’t 100% sure. The lead man (who, along with his fellow Selginians, is dressed like a harlequin) orders his top assassin, Malness (Hisayo Ito) to travel to Japan to finish the job. Malness and his gang (which includes a thin-mustached Susumu Kurobe—Hayata from Ultraman) arrive on the island nation and begin plans to find the Venusian and discover whether she’s truly Princess Salno or not.

The doll-sized Shobijin (the Ito sisters) of Infant Island have been visiting Japan and doing television broadcasts (why is never explained) but are planning to return to their home via cruise ship. The Venusian appears out of nowhere and warns that the ship mustn’t set sail. Covering the Shobijin’s egress, Naoko takes the Venusian away to do a story about her.

Once in a Yokohama hotel room (but unfortunately, exactly across the hall from the assassins) and after discovering the Shobijin listened to the warning, the Venusian again explains that the ship shouldn’t have set sail. Out at sea near the ship, a pod of whales surface and fearfully swim away. Just behind them is Godzilla (Haruo Nakajima), having returned to activity after his defeat in the previous film. In a magnificent optical effect, Godzilla’s back lights up and he incinerates the cruise ship with his heat ray.

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King Kong Escapes

part of the Goin’ Bananas B-movie roundtable:

a.k.a. Kingu Kongu no Gyakushu
rating:
company:
Rankin/Bass Productions
and Toho Co. ltd.
year: 1967
runtime: 96′ / 104′
country: Japan / United States
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Rhodes Reason, Mie Hama,
Linda Miller, Akira Takarada,
Eisei Amamoto, Shoichi Hirose,
Toru Ibuki, Nadao Kirino
writer: Takeshi Kimura
cinematographer: Hajime Koizumi
music: Akira Ifukube
special effects direction: Eiji Tsuburaya

dvd company: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
release date: November 29, 2005
retail price: $14.98
details: Region 1 / NTSC / Single Layer
feature: progressive / 2.31:1 anamorphic
audio: Dolby Digital English (2.0 Mono)
subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French
order this film from Amazon.com
single disc
| double feature with King Kong Escapes


Plot: The evil Dr. Who conspires to mine the mysterious radioactive Element X using his mechanical King Kong.  It’s up to commander Nelson and the real King Kong to stop them.

The second and last of Toho Co. ltd.’s King Kong cycle is a real doozy of a motion picture.  Co-produced with Rankin / Bass Productions (of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Last Dinosaur fame) and based on that company’s earlier collaboration with Toei Animation, The King Kong Show, it’s easily one of the sillier things to originate on Toho’s lot.  But that’s okay, as King Kong Escapes is immense fun regardless.

Baring no relation to the earlier King Kong vs. Godzilla, with the exception of the fact that the character of Kong is in it, King Kong Escapes concerns UN submarine commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason, younger brother of Rex This Island Earth Reason) and his scientific interest in the Kong legend.  When his submarine runs into mechanical trouble near the island where Kong is said to live, Nelson and his friends, Lt. Commander Nomura (Akira Takarada) and Lt. Watson (Linda Miller), decide to take the opportunity to investigate it.  There they find living dinosaurs (rather, a living dinosaur and a giant sea snake), a single elderly native, and the giant ape King Kong, who takes a shining to Lt. Watson after saving her from the jaws-n-claws of of a scaly island inhabitant.

Meanwhile at the North Pole, the fiendish Dr. Who (Eisei Amamoto), arch nemesis of Commander Nelson, is using his super-machine Mechani-Kong (the plans for which the fiendish Dr. Who fiendishly stole from Commander Nelson) to mine for the rare radioactive Element X.  But Mechani-Kong is no match for the power of the element, its delicate wiring destroyed by Element X’s deadly emanations.  With Mechani-Kong out of commission until repairs can be made and the country backing the project threatening to pull financing, Dr. Who is left with no alternative but to fly to Kong’s island and kidnap the real thing . . .



Writer Takeshi Kimura (Attack of the Mushroom People, Rodan, Gorath) must have had quite the time trying to craft a half-way serious story around the basic framework of the Rankin / Bass cartoon show (the villain Dr. Who, Mechani-Kong . . .), but the result, even if it is little more than an exercise in high camp (complete with heroes, villains, and a hypnotized giant ape), isn’t half bad.  The past relationship of Commander Nelson and Dr. Who goes largely unexplored, though they certainly behave as stereotypical old enemies that they are, playing chess and chortling about the futility of each other’s plans.  A bit of human interest is a boon to the silly dramatics, and the G-rated romance between Lt. Commander Nomura and Lt. Watson figures well into the climactic Kong / Mechani-Kong battle.

The focus of proceedings is, as it should be, squarely on the monsters, and there is no development in the full running time that doesn’t somehow involve them.  Even the representative of the unnamed country financing Dr. Who, a beautiful Mie Hama (You Only Live Twice) in her final giant monster film appearance, has a change of heart at their behest, deciding that nuclear domination of the world isn’t worth a few thousand human casualties at the hands of Kong and his mechanical alter ego.  Kimura’s story brings the human cast and their monstrous counterparts together early and often, a fact that’s sure to make genre fans happy.

There’s a strong sense of humor running throughout the film, and while Kimura and director Ishiro Honda never allow the picture’s self awareness to interfere with the storytelling comedy is still an important part of the proceedings.  Dr. Who’s hard-hatted henchmen are played with a distinctly comic edge, and when introduced to Commander Nelson and his crew his Mechani-Kong (a machine seemingly ready-made to break down at the worst of possible moments) offers up a friendly wave.  Dr. Who himself, full of over-the-top schemes and brimming with ego in spite of his utter lack of success, is the kind of villain you almost hate to see get his just deserves.

Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects production is on the fantastic and colorful side, appropriate for a film inspired by a cartoon series.  The miniatures still look great after all these years, and even the smallest (a toolbox that drops onto Kong’s face, spilling its contents) are rich with detail.  The best part of the show remains the climactic Tokyo showdown, which sees the dueling Kongs exchanging blows atop a massive reconstruction of Tokyo Tower.  Limits on time and budget rear their ugly heads in a few snippets of stock footage and in the constrained scope of the miniature downtown Tokyo, though the lively action keeps them from being as distracting as they were in films like Monster Zero.



King Kong Escapes fared well when imported for American distribution in 1968, receiving an English dub well above the norm for the genre and a slight edit that tightens the pace while adding a few shots and angles nowhere to be found in the Japanese release variant (a la War of the Gargantuas).  This 96 minute cut, around 8 minutes shorter than the Japanese, is my favored cut of the film, and the slight editing only really becomes an issue in the few moments where it clips Akira Ifukube’s score (notably during the Tokyo Tower sequence).

Universal Studios, the American distributor of the film, had been sitting on renewed rights to King Kong Escapes since 1996, only stepping up to release it on home video in 2005.  Like the simultaneously released King Kong vs. Godzilla disc, those hoping for any kind of deluxe release will be disappointed as Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s DVD is about as bare as bare-bones releases get.  That said, the film itself looks better than ever before – a big win for kaiju fans here in the States.

Universal presents King Kong Escapes in its original scope (actual aspect ratio 2.34:1) for the first time stateside since its original theatrical release.  The detailed progressive transfer is smooth in motion and remarkably void of damage, save some light speckling.  The bright color scheme really pops and contrast looks spot on.  This is a gorgeous transfer with some visible grain and great detail, and one of the best of an older Toho SPFX film that’s been seen in the States.  Audio is presented in a fine Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic English track that sounds quite good, retaining nice punchiness in the low end and doing justice to Ifukube’s excellent score.  Optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are available, and there are no supplements.

For a disc with such horrendous packaging design (from the menus to the disc art to the sleeve, the graphics are consistently awful throughout), it sure does a fine job of presenting the film in question.  I was very late catching up to this (four years, and I call myself a fan!), and have no problem recommending the release or its double-feature pairing with King Kong vs. Godzilla to those who have yet to pick it up (a lot of retailers appear to be dumping the two pack from their stock, and I got my copy at well below the Amazon price – shop around!).  As for the film, it’s one of the more enjoyable of Toho’s late ’60s product and a fixture of my memories of growing up on aging UHF stations. Highly recommended.

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection

casecompany: Sony
release date: August 18, 2009
retail price: $24.96
details: 1x DVD5 + 2x DVD9 / NTSC / Region 1
subtitles: English
film: The H-Man
a.k.a. Bijo to Ekitainingen
company: Toho Co. ltd.
year: 1958
runtime: 86′ / 78′
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa,
Akihiko Hirata, Eitaro Ozawa
film: Battle in Outer Space
a.k.a. Uchu Daisenso
company: Toho Co. ltd.
year: 1959
runtime: 93′ / 93′
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Ryo Ikebe, Kyoko Anzai,
Koreya Senda, Yoshio Tsuchiya
film: Mothra
a.k.a. Mosura
company: Toho Co. ltd.
year: 1960
runtime: 101′ / 90′
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi,
Kyoko Kagawa, Jerry Ito
Order this collection from Amazon.com


This has been a long time coming from Sony / Columbia Pictures, who have been sitting on renewed rights to a trio of Toho-produced science fiction and fantasy classics for the past 20 years.  The good news is that this Icons of Sci-Fi collection [hopefully the first of many more to come] is well worth the wait, a few nagging caveats aside.  I think it best that we get those out of the way right now.

The biggest complaint I have is with just how cheaply the set appears to have been put together – this is a far cry from the excellent slim-case packaging of the earlier Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman Collection.  The cover is a aesthetically off-putting blob of photoshop madness that’s far beneath what we know Sony can produce when they put their minds to it.  The packaging itself is a single Amaray case with a single hub used to house all three discs in a small stack, making scratching during removal all but inevitable [this reviewer’s first action after opening the set was to put each disc in a proper case of its own and chuck the one provided in the garbage].  Then there is the labelling of the discs themselves, which is just printed text on the silver DVD surface.  I expect this kind of garbage from companies like Mill Creek or Navarre, but from a major studio it’s nigh on unacceptable.

Less a complaint than an admission of personal disappointment is the lack of supplemental material [beyond the two fine audio commentaries, to be discussed below] for the set.  Both Toho and Sony / Columbia Pictures have trailers for these films in storage, but they are nowhere to be found on this set.  The most we get is a bit of cross-marketing via a trio of previews for unrelated releases that can be found on the disc for THE H-MAN.

That said, the set’s retail price is low and the sale price at most online retail outlets even lower – I snagged my copy for less than what a bootlegged disc of any one of these films would have cost from popular fan venues like Video Daikaiju and for a third of what a R2 Toho disc can be imported for.

It’s also important to note that all three films in this set received digital restorations from Sony, which recreated the English dubbed editions through a combination of their own less than stellar  elements with new interpositives provided by Toho Co. ltd.  The image quality remains consistent between the English dubbed and original Japanese versions, as shown in the second and fourth captures from THE H-MAN.  While some dust, speckling and minor damage is still present, the transfers are very satisfying to behold and will be a real treat for stateside fans.

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THE H-MAN is a film I fondly remember waking up early to see on the precious few occasions that it aired through the late 80s and early 90s, but my younger self couldn’t have appreciated the true spectacle of the thing from the cut and cropped version that kicked around on US television.  The film follows the interweaving stories of a woman on the run, detectives out to solve a gang-related missing persons case and a young researcher looking to prove his radical hypothesis that exposure to intense radioactivity can liquify living tissue.  It’s a bizarre mix of crime noir and Quatermass-inspired science fiction goodness and one of the most memorable of the non-daikaiju efforts Toho was producing at the time.

The script by Takeshi Kimura [MATANGO] from a story by Hideo Unagami is played essentially straight and offers up plenty of opportunities to showcase the horrific powers of the titular menace [and, vicariously, nuclear weaponry].  The H-men [or liquid humans, as they are referred to in the original Japanese] are the bi-product of nuclear testing in the Pacific and a unique metaphor for mankind’s more destructive tendencies.  Kimura’s end message is clear – more tests mean more H-men, and more H-men mean no humans.  Ishiro Honda’s direction is deft and assured, and he allows the picture to retain a welcome darkness in spite of its primary focus on entertainment.  Special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya are more limited with this effort than with the other two in the set but are no less accomplished – who can forget those oozing swaths of green slime or the vistas of Tokyo waterways engulfed in flame.

Sony offers up two transfers of THE H-MAN, the original Japanese cut and the shorter English dubbed American theatrical cut, on a dual layer disc.  The general details are the same, with the restored sources being presented in fine 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 Tohoscope with great color and solid contrast.  Hajime Koizumi’s vivid scope cinematography is well served.  Audio is presented in the original 2.0 stereo for both the English dubbed and Japanese versions, with the latter having the best fidelity overall – Masaru Sato’s lively score, one of the best out of his early work, punches through nicely.  Separate easy to read English subtitles are provided for both versions.  For an older Toho title THE H-MAN looks very good here, and I’ve no complaints with the presentation.

This film gets the short end of the stick in the supplements department and is the only one of the set not to feature a commentary track – a pity, really.  The only supplements are a trio of trailers for unrelated Sony product.

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BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, Toho’s big sci-fi special effects blockbuster for the New Years season of 1959 / 1960 plays like a thematic sequel to THE MYSTERIANS from two years earlier [there are no direct plot connections to the earlier film, though a few characters share names with characters from that film], but with the bulk of the action moved beyond Earth’s atmosphere.  The story concerns a moon-based assault on our planet by the war-mongering people of Natal and the efforts of the United Nations to stop the invaders.  The fantasy quotient of BATTLE is spot on.  Audiences are treated to a lunar offensive by way of ray-gun armed super vehicles that look like a cross between the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile and the landmasters from DAMNATION ALLEY, an outer space dogfight between alien saucers and Earthly fighter craft and the uprooting of downtown Tokyo by the Natalian mothership.

Unfortunately the drama of BATTLE is strictly bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.  Romantic interest must have been deemed necessary late in the game and seems to have been tacked on as an afterthought, with the relationship between stars Ryo Ikebe and Kyoko Anzai relegated to two brief scenes in which the former is a complete jackass.  The rest of the screenplay is devoted exclusively to military / scientific babble and the stereotypical threat-speeches from the Natalian invaders.  The only really promising element is the character of Iwomura played by the eccentric and ever-reliable Yoshio Tsuchiya, and his arch from scientist to Natalian slave to self-sacrificing hero is still shortchanged by the writing.

Inept as it is in the drama department, Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects direction is top-of-the line for the genre.  The lengthy moon offensive and it’s bevy of blue screen work is particularly impressive, as is the first-of-its-kind outer space dogfight.  Tsuburaya’s work is enough to make BATTLE a must-see for genre aficianados.  Akira Ifukube’s rousing score, one of his best for the genre, is another high point of the film – the dark and melodious themes that accompany Earth’s astronauts on their first visit to the moon are not to be missed.

BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE was not edited in regards to running time by Columbia Pictures, though new titles were made and much of the Ifukube soundtrack removed in favor of bland library cues.  Sony presents the film on a single layer DVD5 with seemless branching between the original Japanese and English dubbed variants.  The transfer is 16:9 enhanced in the original Tohoscope ratio and looks splendid, with vibrant colors and contrast – I’ve seen this film in all manner of disrepair over the years and the restoration here is a revelation.  While the vast majority of the transfer is encoded for progressive playback, the branched opening and closing segments are interlaced and a drop in quality is noticeable [particularly at the end of each version].  Audio is presented in Japanese and English, both in their original 2.0 stereo formats.  Unfortunately someone seriously goofed on the subtitle front, and the only option available are the subtitles made for the English dubbed varient.  That version’s talkiness leads to many subtitled lines that simply don’t exist in the original Japanese and the dub-titles are, predictably, not always accurate to the Japanese dialogue that is present.

Supplements are limited to a fine commentary track by authors Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, two of the best in the business as far as genre commentaries are concerned.  The two keep the discussion lively, entertaining and, most important of all, informative.  Thanks to the branched structure, the commentary track is accessible from both the English and Japanese cuts of the film.

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Rounding out the collection is one of the most highly regarded of Toho’s giant monster efforts, the big budget fantasy MOTHRA.  The story has a bit of a KING KONG vibe, with two young women substituted for the giant ape as the exploited centerpiece.  Novel to this film is the concept of a giant monster as an impartial guardian, concerned only with the well being of the two Infant Island princesses.  The peaceful culture of Infant Island exists in stark contrast to the rest of the world in MOTHRA, even with the Cold War literally knocking at its door through its use as a nuclear weapons test site by the country of Rolisica [a fictitious stand in for Cold War superpowers Russia and the United States].

MOTHRA was a huge undertaking for Toho, warranting a higher budget than was typically alotted their already largely budgeted genre pictures, and it shows.  Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya is at the absolute height of his talents here, creating vast cityscapes for the larval and adult Mothras to destroy.  Some of the models are quite large and, as such, feature an amount of detail rarely seen in miniature work – seeing them smashed to bits by the unstoppable monster-god is pure old-school spfx bliss.  A sequence in which the larval Mothra destroys a dam is simply astounding and was recreated by Teruyoshi Nakano, albeit on a smaller scale, for the much maligned GODZILLA VS. MEGALON.

The drama in this case is, in contrast to BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, quite good and balances out the picture nicely.  Frankie Sakai and Kyoko Kagawa are wonderful as a trouble-causing reporter / photographer team, two characters who would be recycled [with different actors] in 1964’s MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA.  Hiroshi Koizumi, one of my favorite genre actors, plays the eccentric linguist Chujo, who is forever at odds with Jerry Ito’s greedy opportunist Rolisican Clark Nelson.  Nelson is one of the most ridiculous and audacious villains in Toho history, and is so identifiably bad that it’s hard not to boo and hiss whenever he’s on screen.  A prime example of his character comes just before he is killed at the conclusion of the film, with Nelson stealing the cane from a hobbling elderly man and hurling it into the street.  Then there is the twin sister musical act The Peanuts [Emi and Yumi Ito], whose reasonable performances and exceptional voices hold MOTHRA together.

Sony presents MOTHRA on a dual layer disc with two unique transfers – one for the English and another for the original Japanese variants of the film.  Both are presented in 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 Tohoscope and are progressive, with exceptional color and contrast.  The level of detail is a notch higher here, and Hajime Koizumi’s work as cinematographer is well served once again.  This is easily the best looking film of the set.  Audio is presented in 2.0 stereo for both films, with the original Japanese element being the most aurally satisfying.  Seperate subtitles in an easily readable white font are provided for both variants.

Another choice commentary track by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski is on board as the only supplement, but it’s a welcome one.  The pair are as entertaining and informative here as ever, and provide extensive background and production information for the title.  The commentary track is available for the shorter English dubbed variant of MOTHRA only.

While more supplements and [especially] better packaging could have improved my reception of this set, I found myself growing more and more satisfied with it as I watched.  The films all look fantastic [brief interlacing on BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE aside] and the addition of the English dubbed US theatrical variants is just what my inner child ordered.  This one is an easy recommendation and a must-buy as far as I’m concerned.  Now if whoever is sitting on the U.S. rights to the Brenco Pictures distributed Toho classics GORATH, THE LAST WAR and THE HUMAN VAPOR will just get with the program . . .

Details of the upcoming Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection announced!

Quoted from Sci-fi Japan:

“Now for the first time on [Region 1] DVD— and in their original Tohoscope aspect ratios— Sony Pictures presents three Honda classics that display the enormous breadth of the Toho magic during its glory years. THE H-MAN (Bijo to Ekitai Ningen, 1958), BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (Uchu Daisenso, 1959), and MOTHRA (Mosura, 1961) have been digitally re-mastered for the best possible picture and sound quality, and include the original Japanese versions and the U.S. versions, plus commentaries for two of the films.”

Read the full article here: Sci-fi Japan

The big news has been answered for me in that both the Japanese and U.S. theatrical versions of all three films are to be included – awesome news indeed.  That two commentary tracks by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godzizewski will be included [on MOTHRA and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE] just sweetens the deal on what is already a must-buy set.

Do yourself a favor, and help out a webmaster in need, by picking up this set from Amazon.com, where it is currently on pre-order for a ridiculously low $17.49 (retail $24.96).  The set streets on August 18th.

Monster Zero

a.k.a. INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER / GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO / KAIJU DAISENSO
Toho Co. Ltd [1965] 96′
country: Japan
director: ISHIRO HONDA
cast: AKIRA TAKARADA, NICK ADAMS,
cast: AKIRA KUBO, KUMI MIZUNO

It’s confession time here at Wtf-Film. When I was growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s I saw all of the regularly syndicated Godzilla films, be it MEGALON or GIGAN making their rounds on the local UHF or the UPA editions of TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA and the film reviewed here today filling up time slots at TNT. As a youngster my quotient for wanton kaiju destruction seemed endless, but MONSTER ZERO tested it time and time again – I fell asleep more than my fair share of times while watching it, and can only claim to have seen it all the way through on a handful of occasions. More recently I had the opportunity to view it again, both via the ancient Simitar DVD release and the much newer Classic Media disc from last year – the results were, unfortunately, much the same.

Very recently, Toho, courtesy of the Japan Specialty Movie Channel, unveiled their brand new high definition restoration of this, as well as the other Godzilla films from 1954 to 1975 – effectively giving me an opportunity to make good and realize why this film proves to be the fan favorite it is, just in time for my first annual Kaiju Christmas Spectacular.

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The Mysterians

a.k.a. Chikyu Boeigun
company: Toho Co. Ltd
year: 1957
runtime: 88′
country: Japan
director: Ishiro Honda
cast: Kenji Sahara, Akihiko Hirata,
Takeshi Shimura, Yumi Shirakawa,
Momoko Kochi, Yoshio Tsuchiya
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Back in the late 1950’s when Toho Co. Ltd’s sci-fi production schedule was not dominated by the an increasingly absurd Godzilla franchise, the company was taking honest chances at creating films the likes of which the world had never seen – it was the half decade of creative fruitfulness that gave us such classics as RODAN [1956], THE H-MAN [1959], and THE SECRET OF TELEGIAN [1960], not to mention the noble misfires of VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE [1958] and BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE [1959]. Without a doubt, the biggest science fiction project of that time period was THE MYSTERIANS – the first Japanese sci-fi effort to be filmed in scope and color and presented in 4-track stereophonic sound. Produced by the legendary Tomoyuki Tanaka, directed by Ishiro Honda, and featuring spfx direction from Eiji Tsuburaya and a score by Akira Ifukube, THE MYSTERIANS was a cinema spectacle to rival anything put out by Hollywood at the time.

Scientist Shiraishi [Akihiko Hirata] seems to have resigned himself from the social life of other Earthlings – after breaking his engagement to Hiroko [Momoko Kochi] and relocating to an isolated village, he spends his time obsessing over a scientific theory. He believes that the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter were once the fifth planet – which he calls the Mysteroid. Soon strange things are happening around the town – forest fires and unexplainable phenomena of nature. When a landslide completely destroys the town, Joji [Kenji Sahara] investigates, discovering odd residual radiation that seems to appear and disappear at will. Hot on the trail of the mysterious radiation, Joji sees a gigantic robotic monster [named Mogera – based on the Japanese word for mole (mogura) – but never referenced as such in the film] emerge from a mountainside. Soon the beast is rampaging through rural Japan, crushing buildings beneath its massive bulk and scourging the land with heat rays.

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Ju Jin Yuki Otoko

a.k.a. HALF HUMAN: THE STORY OF THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN
Toho Co. ltd. [1955/1958] 94′ / 63′
country: Japan
director: ISHIRO HONDA [American segments – Kenneth Crane]
cast: AKIRA TAKARADA, MOMOKO KOCHI, AKEMI NEGISHI,
cast: NOBUO NAKAMURA, SACHIO SAKAI, KOKUTEN KODO,
cast: JOHN CARRADINE, MORRIS ANKRUM, RUSSEL THORSON

Odds are that those of you who are Toho fantasy aficionados have heard of this film, though the likelihood of any of you having seen it is considerably more slim. This early monster picture from the company has become something of a cult legend over the years, thanks in large part to its status in Japan. Like the much later produced PROPHECIES OF NOSTRADAMUS, ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN has been pulled from all distribution due to a lingering studio-imposed ban. Made around the same time as GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN was the first of Toho’s human-sized monster efforts, a trend that would continue with the admittedly obscure but entirely available THE HUMAN VAPOR and THE H-MAN, amongst others.

The film concerns a missing Alpine Club member, who disappears during a blizzard in the Japan Alps – only a tuft of animal hair and a gigantic not-quite-human footprint [as well as the lifeless body of the young man’s friend] are left behind as evidence. The man’s sister Machiko [Kochi] and fellow club member Iijima [Takarada] embark on an expedition led by Professor Tanaka [Nakamura] to locate him and, hopefully, the creature responsible for his disappearance. Catching wind of the expedition is animal exhibitor Oba, who forms a considerably less noble party to track down, capture, and sell the beast Tanaka hopes to study.

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