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The Japanese Science-Fiction and Monster Film Weekend, Part 2

More reviews of the screenings at the American Cinemateque

By Steve Biodrowski     July 27, 2000

In Part One of my review of the American Cinemateque's Japanese Science Fiction and Monster Film Weekend at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, I focused on the opening night screening of a newly struck, subtitled print of Gojira, the seminal 1954 film (re-edited and released in the U.S. as Godzilla, King of the Monsters) that launched the Japanese science fiction film industry. The film was one of seven screened over the course of the July 14 weekend festival (which coincided with G-Fest 2000 at the nearby Roosevelt Hotel), but it deserved special attention because it was such a rare opportunity for American audiences to see the film in its original form. Although I've seen subtitled versions on videotape, there is no equaling the experience of seeing a film you love in a crowded theatre filled with appreciative fans. The response of the near capacity crowd was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, creating an almost galvanic atmosphere that far exceeded the opening night reaction to seeing the misbegotten TriStar Godzilla two years ago. If there was any damper on the evening, it was the realization that, even with subtitles, an English-speaking viewer is never going to appreciate the dialogue fully. The subtitling was different from the videotapes I've viewed. Much of it amounted to the same meaning expressed in different words, but in some cases points were made in the theatrical version that had been missing on video, and in other cases, the video contained lines that were missing from the theatrical print. Maybe it's time that more G-Fans started learning Japanese.

The remaining films in the festival included Makaraga: Moon Over Tao (1997) on Friday night. On Saturday, there were screenings of Son of Godzilla (1967), Godzilla Vs. Destroyah (1995), and Ultraman Tiga: The Final Odyssey (2000). Sunday wrapped things up with the Japanese hit horror film Ring (1997) and the third in Toho Studios revived Mothra franchise, Rebirth of Mothra 3 (1998). Easily the most well attended screenings were the Godzilla titles (not surprising, considering that a Godzilla convention was only blocks away), but all the films drew enthusiastic audiences.

The second screening on Friday night, after Gojira, was Makaraga, another off-the-wall science fiction-fantasy-adventure from Keita Amemiya, who previously directed the cult hit Zeram, about an alien bounty hunter pursuing an escaped monster to Earth. If you've seen that film, then you have a good idea what to expect from Makaraga, which fuses numerous elements together to create an unlikely but entertaining tale. The film starts off like a straight-ahead samurai film, with only a touch of the fantastic: a search for a metal from which swords can be fashioned that cut through solid rock. But things keep building from there: The overlord who found the metal is a sorcerer bent on using it in his plans for domination. The metal turns out to be from outer space, so three female aliens land to retrieve it. Even worse, the metal was used to entrap some undying monster that will be reborn now that its prison has been melted down and used to make swords. The monster turns out to be the product of genetic engineering by the alien speciesa sort of biological weapon that grew too strong and had to be captured (apparently, it can't be killed).

To a large extent, this convoluted plot serves simply as an excuse to stage several fight scenes: at first with conventional samurai-type action, then with more fanciful action as the aliens enter the fray, and finally with the monster when it revives in the third act (a combo of live-action effects and CGI). There's even a magical duel between the evil sorcerer and one of the heroes, who's dedicated himself to stopping the villain. As a result of the emphasis on action, the narrative occasionally grows confusing. For instance the three aliens, who one would expect to be working together, pretty much end up killing each other off, apparently in some dispute about what to do with the monster (apparently, two of them want to re-imprison it, but the third wants to go back to using it as a weaponagainst whom, we're never sure).

The parallel with Zeram is obvious: once again we have human characters who stumble into a situation where super-powered extra-terrestrials having come to Earth to deal with an alien menace; in fact, Yuko Moriyama, the female bounty hunter from Zeram, returns in a similar role in Makaraga. In both cases, much of the fun comes from the juxtaposition of (relatively) primitive Earth people with the advanced aliens. The difference is that Zeram played this conflict for laughs (humanity was pretty much represented only by two cowardly goofs from the Tokyo electrical company, who panic a lot while the woman handles all the action), whereas Makaraga is a fairly straight melodrama, with the comic relief relegated to supporting players while the leads are all courageous and noble.

All in all, it is an entertaining effort, especially for American viewers who have seldom seen anything quite like it. More seasoned fans of Fant-Asia cinema will recognize elements similar to those seen in Hong Kong fantasy films, and truth by told, the action scenes, though exciting, are not quite up to the level of work seen in Tsui Hark productions like A Chinese Ghost Story. Still, the print was in beautiful shapescope widescreen, subtitled, with beautiful colorand the audience clearly loved what they saw. After the screening, director Amemiya answered questions from journalist August Ragone, but the format (working through a translator) yielded little information, perhaps because Ragone, suffering (by his own admission to the audience) from jet lag and/or stage fright, was pressed into service at the last minute and given little time to prepare.

Saturday was the festival's big day, with three films on view: Son of Godzilla, Godzilla Vs. Destroyah, and Ultraman Tiga: The Final Odyssey. Unfortunately for G-Fans, the two Godzilla films were not subtitled. Son was a print straight from the Toho Studios vaults, but as if often the case with their product, it was a dubbed-for-international-distribution version. At least it was in a scope aspect ratio (approximately 1:2.35). Destroyah, on the other hand, was shown in a print from Columbia Pictures (who released Toho's '90s Godzilla films on tape after their own big-budget remake hit screens in 1998), and it was not only dubbed but also matted to a 1:1.85 aspect ratio. These complaints aside, both screenings provided a welcome opportunity to see the films on the big screen with audiences who were more than happy to overlook their shortcomings.

Son is of course from the goofy era when Godzilla was turned into a hero, and the suit used in the film is infamous among fans for being one of the worst in the serieswith big white eyes that give a Muppet-type look to the king of the monsters, apparently in an attempt to make him more human and likable. Even with these changes, there is little resemblance to his son, who is mostly used to comic effect. Strangely, the film is enjoyable despite these problems. By this time in the series, the serious tone of Gojira had given away to a light-hearted fantasy approach, and if you're willing to accept that, the results are amusing. The tropical island scenery is beautiful; the action and music are fast-paced and exciting; and the effects are colorful, even if transparentwires are often clearly visible.

To be fair, effects director Sadamasa Arikawa (taking over for Eija Tsuburaya, who had moved on to television work on series like Ultraman) uses numerous convincing composite shots to combine monsters with humansa type of effect that was becoming in short supply in the films of the era, due to the costs and difficulty. And the movements of the giant mantis and spider that Godzilla fights are all impressive in their choreography. This is definitely a camp movie, but a thoroughly enjoyable one, and the scene of Godzilla and son going into hibernation together as the snow covers them is a surprisingly effective one.

Afterwards, Arikawa and suitmation actor Haruo Nakajima answered questions from Stuart Galbraith IV (author of Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo). Ironically, despite on on-screen credit, Son is one of the few classic Godzilla films that doesn't feature Nakajima in the suit: he appears only in brief water scenes near the beginning of the film; then a taller actor takes over, in order increase the size difference between Godzilla and son. Still, some interesting information emerged, such as Arikawa's explanation that it took twenty puppeteers to manipulate the wires for the eight-legged spider.

Unlike the frivolous Son of Godzilla, the day's second and final G-film, Godzilla Vs. Destroyah is a mostly successful attempt to revive the sense of impending nuclear doom that energized the first film. In fact, some smart parents took their kids to see Son but left before the start of Destroyah, realizing that it might be too intense for really young viewers. Not that the film is anything more than a PG (at most) fantasy, but it does take the subject matter seriously, and manages to recapture some of the feel of the original, to which it hearkens back in several ways.

In what was to be the last Godzilla film (until Godzilla 2000 reinvented the franchise by abandoning continuity), Godzilla is reaching critical mass, approaching the point where he will either explode like a nuclear bomb or melt down like a nuclear reactor. The only hope seems to be to recreate the Oxygen Destroyer from the original film, but the moral implications are disturbing: if Dr. Serizawa killed himself in the first movie to prevent the re-use of the Oxygen Destroyer (because it's power is potentially more devastating than Godzilla), then does it dishonor his memory to revive the fearsome weapon?

The point becomes mute when it turns out the original Oxygen Destroyer has mutated some surviving microscopic life forms that soon grow into crab-like creatures and then combine into one monster of Godzilla-sized proportions, dubbed Destroyah. G-Force has Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) use her telepathic connection with Godzilla Jr. to lure the creature into a fight with Destroyah, knowing that Godzilla himself will follow in order to protect the only other member of his species. Junior dies in the fight, but the combined forces of Godzilla and G-Force put an end to Destroyah before Godzilla melts down in a spectacular display of special effects. As the radioactivity spreads toward Tokyo, threatening to turn the city into a graveyard for centuries to come, suddenly the levels drop, and Mike's telepathy senses the presence of Godzilla Jr, who has been revived by the radiationnot only revived but enlarged to the size of Godzilla. As the newborn creature emits its birth cry, the film fades to black, followed by a montage of past Godzilla movies.

This last moment is worth mentioning because it was omitted from Columbia Pictures video and DVD releases of the film. There has been much speculation that deficiencies in the home video release were the fault of Toho, supposedly because the company did not want foreign import tapes and discs competing with its own domestic releases. But this print clearly showed an example of something that was supplied intact by Toho but intentionally omitted by Columbia. In any case, the film's dubbing was adequate: on the one hand, the voices weren't too cartoony; on the other hand, there was not a great deal of effort put into finding actors who matched the appearance of the characters on screen. Although the subtitled version ultimately seems to be preferable (if you can find it), the dubbed version was of interest. The translation was at times notably different from subtitled videotapes available through import companies. Mostly this was a matter of phrasing, but at times certain points were clarified; in other cases, lines from the subtitled version seemed to be missing.


Watching the film on the big screen was revealing in other ways. The larger image size reveals more flaws in the special effects, but it also emphasizes the effects that work. The miniatures, even when not totally convincing, really do look big when projected on a theatre screen, and even some of the smaller-scale scenes were noticeably more effective. For example, the battle between armed soldiers and the Destroyah creatures in smaller form (a scene intentionally reminiscent of moments in Aliens) packs more punch; the monsters seem more threatening, and a sequence that seems to drag too long on the small screen actually builds some suspense in the theatre. Unlike the '60s G-flicks, which were all spectacle with no danger, viewers actually were worried about what would happen to the characters under attack.

As with Gojira, the audience reaction was wildly enthusiastic, with rounds of applause surging through the theatre during several key moments. Even more surprising was that the film managed to pull a few heartstrings. Miki Saegusa's tearful realization that she has led Godzilla Jr to its death is a great moment of wordless acting, and her tearful expression on the big-screen worked its magic on the audience. The brief ripple of applause when Godzilla radioactive breath briefly revives Junior quickly died away as the light in the creature's eyes faded away to a blank, glassy stare, apparently for the last time. This almost cruel moment of audience manipulation (raising hopes just to crush them) paid off with the final shot of the fully revived creature roaring in triumph at its return to life. Listening to the deafening applause, you'd have thought you were in an opening night screening of the next Star Wars movie.

After the screening, the film festival had its final question-and-answer panel, hosted by Steve Ryfle (author of Japan's Favorite Mon-Star: The Unofficial Biography of 'The Big G'). Attending were actress Megumi Odaka, suitmation actor Kanpachiro Satsuma (who played Godzilla in all the films from Godzilla 1985 through Destroyah) and special effects director Koichi Kawakita (who assumed that position with 1989's Godzilla Vs. Biolante). As with the other panels, difficulties with translation slowed things down. Few answers emerged in detail, but at times a brief to-the-point answer was all that was needed.

The best example of this was when Ryfle questioned Odaka about a break in continuity between Destroyah and Godzilla Vs Space Godzilla. The plot for that previous film revolves around a romance for Odaka's character, Miki, and a member of G-Force, with the two falling in love by the final fade out. Yet there is no reference to this development in Destroyah; it's ignored as completely as the Bond girl in each new 007 movie. Asked about the reason for the breakup, Odaka's reply was succinct: 'I have no idea!'

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