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The Japanese Science-Fiction and Monster Film Weekend, Part 3

The American Cinemateque wraps up with RING and MOTHRA 3.

By Steve Biodrowski     July 30, 2000

On Saturday, July 15, after screenings of Son of Godzilla and Godzilla Vs. Destroyah, the second day of the American Cinemateque's Japanese Science-Fiction and Monster Film Weekend wound up with the U.S. premier of Ultraman Tiga: The Final Odyssey (2000, Tsuburaya Productions, 90 min.). Except for distant memories of the original television show, I've totally lost touch with the Ultraman franchise, which has undergone numerous permutations, but the basic premise remains the same: some human character (in this case named Daigo) has the power to transform himself into Ultraman, a super-sized superhero who dukes it out with Godzilla-type monsters. In this feature-length spin-off of the most recent Ultra TV series, Daigo has lost the power to transform, but some archeological dig unearths three Ultra-villains who want him to regain his power and join them in their conquest of Earth (seems he used to be their ally eons ago, before turning to good).

It's a decently entertaining piece of work, and some of the CGI effects show that the Japanese film industry is no longer content to rely solely on man-in-suit effects. But the essential conflictthat Daigo needs to regain his Ultra-power to defeat these villains but if he does he may succumb to the temptation to join themnever comes across (although it does lead to a nice dream sequence wherein he smashes [off-screen] a cute little girl with a balloon). The film is further weakened by a story that pits Ultraman only against other Ultramen (and Ultrawoman, come to think of it) instead of having him face off with some outrageous monsters. And most of the battle action is set in the ruins of an ancient citynot too badly done, but it hurts not having the giant adversaries smashing their way through modern skyscrapers.

Unfortunately, the print was one of the weakest shown at the festival: a video-projected version that looked washed out on the big screen. Several fans who might have been interested in seeing the film (which had good advance word-of-mouth) opted out upon hearing this news ('Fuck that shit!' said one, leaving the theatre). Adding to the disappointment, the announced appearance of producer Kiyoshi Suzuki was canceled at the last minute. Still, if you could tolerate the relatively poor image, it was worthwhile to see a new Ultra-adventure in a theatrical setting, particularly since it was a subtitled version. It didn't actually make me yearn to see the most recent Ultra-television series, but I wouldn't turn down the chance, either.

The third and final day of the film festival ended with two wildly different titles, Ring (1998, Pacifica International/Fine Line, 96 mins)and Rebirth of Mothra 3 (1998, Toho/Columbia, 90 mins). The first is a smash hit horror film in Japan, where it has already spawned sequels, imitators, and tie-in merchandise. The later is the third (and for the time being final) entry in the new Mothra franchise, which Toho initiated in 1996 after killing off Godzilla in Godzilla Vs. Destroyah(1995). Unfortunately, neither screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with guest filmmakers, but the films themselves were rare treats.

Ring, although quite different from the other titles on the weekend program, was one of the festival's highlights. The word was out among fans of Japanese fantasy films, who crowded into the Egyptian Theatre for the Sunday afternoon screening. As the theatres movable side panels, loaded with speakers, rumbled into place, the tone of eager anticipation, mixed with dread, was perfectly set. What followed was an eerie, suggestive horror film that benefited from a moody soundtrack presented in unnerving stereo.

The film stars with an urban legend related by one of the characters: A boy accidentally sets his VCR to record a blank station, but instead of ending up with a tape full of static, he plays back the image of an evil woman warning him that he will die in a week. After viewing the tape, his phone rings, and a strange voice says, 'You watched it.' Then, a week later, he dies for no apparent reason.

The story is apparently a popular one among teens, who retell it in different variations for a reporter doing a story on the legend. But when a group of friends, who all apparently saw a weird videotape, die simultaneously on the same night, the reporter begins to think there may be some truth to the story. She manages to track down the tape and view it, putting herself at risk, and the rest of the film involves her search to find the source of the haunting in the hopes of placating the angry ghost responsible for the tape.

The result is a plot that unfolds like a good mystery story, with few if any shocks for most of the running time. After the opening scenes (which builds up great tension but cuts away before we see anything happen), most of the horror emerges from anticipation. Particularly effective is the mysterious videotape, which somehow manages not to be a letdown when finally seen, despite the kind of build up that seems impossible to live up to. There is nothing outright horrifying in it; instead, it is a series of incomprehensible images that convey a sense of unease through their very disjointed, fragmented nature (the easiest point of comparison would be to Luis Bunuel's surreal short subject 'The Andalusian Dog').

When the scare sequence finally does emerge, near the end, it is an effective climax to the careful buildup, which includes Lovecraftian suggestions of isolated seaside communities and interspecies miscegenation. The ending manages both to provide an adequate conclusion to the specific story being told, while clearly implying that the evil force is spreading wider and wider, with an ever widening circle of people doomed to see the cursed tape.

Director Hideo Nakata's film is a minor masterpiecea low-budget horror gem that far exceeds the overrated Blair Witch Projectand one can only hope that Fine Line will opt to release it on a wider scale in the U.S. (instead or proceeding with a rumored Americanized remakedoesn't anyone remember 1998's Godzilla?). If you missed this exciting screening (a good print by the way, with excellent stereo sound and subtitled Japanese dialogue), you missed one of the best horror films that will play anywhere in the U.S. this year. If it shows up near you, on tape or in a theatre, make the effort to catch it.

Following Ring, the festival's last films was a major disappointment. Rebirth of Mothra, directed by Okihiro Yoneda, is an obvious attempt to move Toho Studios giant monster films into the kiddie arena. The adult characters are pushed into the periphery, while children take center stage, and much of the action lacks a real sense of danger. In the story, King Ghidorah (yes, him again!) lands on Earth and begins kidnapping children. That's right: he doesn't just kill them outright; he somehow teleports them into some large, egg-like structure in a forest near town. Why? No reason I could glean from the dubbed dialogue. Some reports indicate that the original Japanese dialogue may have suggested that Ghidorah needs to 'drain' the children's energy (if so, why?), but in any case, the real reason is that it provides a rescue-type situation for the plot. Must save the children from that awful monster!

This is the film you may have heard of where Mothra decides Ghidorah is too powerful to defeat in the present, so the insect god travels back in time to the Cretaceous period to fight the three-headed dragon before it was fully grown. (Ghidorah, you see, was apparently responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.) Unfortunately, the dinosaur effect are really lame; in order for the reptiles to be in the right scale with the man-in-the-suit monster stomping and chewing on them, the dinos had to be created with very small-scale puppets that look like something you'd buy in a toy store. There is at least one great moment, however: after Mothra apparently defeats its foe, Ghidorah's severed tale, still alive, slithers beneath the surface. A T-Rex and a Triceratops halt their battle to stare in surprise at this sight, then turn to each other with perplexed expressions, as if to say, 'Did you see what I saw?'

The dialogue and story scenes are slow and often tedious, but many of the modern-day special effects scenes are quite nicely handled, if a bit reminiscent of similar work by Koichi Kawakita in the '90s era Godzilla films. The film suffers from a few too many designs (both Mothra and Ghidorah are seen in multiple forms), particularly Ghidorah, whose new horns resemble a deer's antlers. Still, there are some memorable shots, as when the flying dragon shoots between two side-by-side buildings, his wings cutting through both of them as he blasts through.

As with the other print provided by Columbia Pictures for the festival (Godzilla Vs. Destroyah), Mothra 3 was presented in a dubbed version with a 1.85 aspect ratio for the image, instead of the wider 2.35 aspect ratio of the original Tohoscope image. Even with this compromise, the film was colorful enough that it managed to maintain some level of interest, despite the low ambitions and obvious flaws. It wasn't exactly a way to end the series on a blaze of glory, but with so many other wonderful films having already been screened over the weekend, it would be ungracious to complain.

I personally hadn't seen a Godzilla film on the big screen since the Nuart Theatre in Los Angels presented a washed-out print of Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster in 1998, shortly after the release of TriStar's Godzilla. With that memory firmly in place, I have to say that all of the prints screened by the American Cinemateque in the Egyptian Theatre (even Ultraman Tiga) were in superior shape, affording a rare and welcome opportunity to see these films as their creators meant them to be scenein a theatre filled with an audience that is enjoying both the movie itself and the sense of being in a crowded room with like-minded fans. It was an experience that could only whet one's appetite for the arrival of Godzilla 2000 on August 18.

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