Saturday 16 November 2019

Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films 1954 -1975

For their 1000th release, Criterion has made good on their promise of releasing something 'Big' - in more ways than one. 15 films spread over eight Blu-ray discs, presented in a package many may find virtually unshelvable (how many bookcases is this going to find itself sitting flat on top of?), GODZILLA: THE SHOWA ERA FILMS 1954 - 1975 collects all the movies to feature the titular character made by Toho studios during the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926 - 89) aka 'Showa'. It's been a long time since I've watched these (and a few of them I've never seen) so for fun I thought I'd post my notes & thoughts as I go. Therefore this isn't a 'review' as such - if you want to know about all the extras they are well documented at the Criterion website. Okay - once I've stopped posing with the box we can get started!

Godzilla (1954)

Here he comes! Hello Godzilla! A Japanese folk legend gives a name to the gigantic prehistoric creature unleashed by H-bomb tests which then proceeds to smash Tokyo to bits. 65 years old and still a terrific piece of work, this 1954 original contains perhaps the broadest swings from man-in-a-rubber-suit-crushing-models mayhem to a deadly serious approach to the catastrophic effect such a disaster can have on human life. Destroyed at the end, Godzilla's body sinking to the bottom of the sea is both reminiscent of the fate of Universal's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (released the same year) and Christopher Lee's DRACULA in the 1958 Hammer Film with Godzilla dissolving to dust beneath the waves. Which reminds me - I've always thought the newest Hollywood versions of GODZILLA treat him a bit like Hammer did Lee's Dracula, in that they don't really seem to know what to do with him. 
      This is the most extra-packed disc of the set, btw, with interviews, commentaries, & the US version GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS if you want to see Raymond Burr.

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

They can't pull the metaphorical stake out of Godzilla's dusty heart to bring him back, so the professor from part one is on hand at the beginning here to tell us that the Godzilla in this sequel is a different one. And this is quite the different film, dwelling far less on loss of human life and far more on the squabbling-children-in-a-model-store smackdown between Godzilla and ankylosaur 'buddy' Anguirus, picked out by the pilot who identifies him from a rogues gallery of pictures in a kid's dinosaur book. To continue our extremely tenuous Hammer connection, in their first Dracula sequel DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS Christopher Lee perishes beneath the ice. Guess what happens to Godzilla at the end of this one?

King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1963)

A submarine crashes into the iceberg in which Godzilla was imprisoned and sets him free. Meanwhile a TV crew travels to Elton John island where the natives wear the cast-off gear from some of the legendary singer's concerts. The object of their worship is a mighty ape / man in a gorilla suit who likes getting squiffy on their special berry juice. Taken back to Japan King Kong escapes and ends up being transported to Mount Fuji with some massive balloons so he and Godzilla can tumble about merrily on the slopes. The Criterion disc offers us the US cut with some Japanese footage removed and American sequences added to help explain things. If you want the original Japanese cut you have to go to the supplementary material on disc 8. Both versions ends the same way, btw, but we get a Godzilla roar on the Japanese one which is presumably dinosaur for "The world will hear from me again". Also interesting to spot that some of the US version's music score has been culled from old Universal movies, including Herman Stein's  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON theme (a lot) and (I think) FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN for one of the Kong sequences. 

Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964)

Before he became the saviour of Japan from all things monstrous, Godzilla was more the Russell Crowe of kaiju cinema. Here, a land reclamation project results in Godzilla being dug up from where he fell into the sea at the end of the previous film. No sooner is he on his feet than he's staggering about, tripping up and falling into buildings, and constantly on the look out for something to beat up. When Mothra's egg gets washed ashore (and is threatened with being turned into an amusement park item), you can just see the 'hurry up and hatch so we can have a fight' look in Godzilla's eye as he approaches it. When it does two caterpillars defeat his brute strength with the fashion designers secret weapon: silk. This one takes a little while to get going but once it does there's more monster action than in either of the two new reboots. Which I appreciate isn't difficult. 

Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Where IS he then? we were wondering over halfway into this and that suspicious-looking meteorite still hadn't hatched. When it finally does we get my favourite kaiju creation. If Godzilla in his early days was the Russell Crowe of kaiju then Ghidorah is more its Oliver Reed, causing controlled chaos and destruction while all the time actually knowing what he's doing. A man's hat falls into a volcano & Rodan awakens (sadly not wearing said hat). Godzilla pops up out of the sea. They fight like two irresponsible schoolboys until the Mothra caterpillar calms them down with a chat. Then all three of them set their sights on King Ghidorah. There's also a princess from Venus and the two tiny twins. The 'anything goes' philosophy of Toho continues to develop apace. 

Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)

The mysterious 'Planet X' has been discovered. Two astronauts travel there but don't follow the letters like Duck Dodgers did. They encounter aliens who look like a proto-Devo rock group. The aliens plead for the use of Godzilla & Rodan to defeat King Ghidorah (presumably they don't like moths or it's just Mothra's day off). But it's all a trap! And a jolly longwinded one at that, one which results in the least monster action of the series so far. The final smackdown is loads of fun but you have to endure a lot of bath-time fun toy flying saucer stuff first. Oh, and Godzilla does that little jumping thing of his which you'll either find endearing or utterly ridiculous. "I didn't create Godzilla for this" director Ishiro Honda is known to have said.

Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)

Now this is more like it! A much more bouncy, fun, and monster-packed adventure picture than the previous entry, one that manages to cram in a James Bond-style evil atomic bomb-creating organisation (the Red Bamboo!), Godzilla, Mothra, some sort of ginger vulture thing and best of all my second favourite Kaiju monster - an overly aggressive crustacean - in his only starring role. Ebirah the giant lobster gets a great introduction as we see a giant claw rising from the waves to a John Barry-style surf guitar theme. Once up and about he proves he's good at catching and playing bat and ball and is only vanquished when Godzilla pulls one of his claws off. Referee! 

Son of Godzilla (1967)

On a budget-saving island in the Pacific scientists are trying to solve the problem of world hunger. Taking a leaf out of Leo G Carroll's spider-chewed notes they somehow cause the island's already pretty huge mantises to get even bigger. They gang up on a egg which hatches to reveal Godzilla's 'son' which begs the question: Did Godzilla lay the egg? If not, where's Mrs Godzilla? Like EBIRAH this is another brightly coloured fun and monster-filled outing that as well as the title character gives us some excellent giant mantis marionette work (three of them!) and my third favourite kaiju creation, the giant spider Kumonga. All of these help to take the edge off some overly silly 'father and son' sequences (accompanied by just a bit too much clumsy-bumbly music) although the final shot of Godzilla and son in the snow is actually rather touching. 

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Director Ishiro Honda is back and so are space aliens (different ones with cake tin flying saucers this time) who gain control of all our kaiju favourites (plus some we've not seen before in the Godzilla series) and use them to wreak havoc around the world. Gorosaurus looks like the dinosaur The Goodies find buried beneath their office while Manda has a distinct resemblance to REPTILICUS - if only he had been sent to Copenhagen. Like ASTRO MONSTER, this one has a bit too much alien chit chat and not enough monster action, although the climactic 10-15 minutes is fun, with a special appearance by King Ghidorah. I know this one's a favourite of many but I have to admit I preferred the previous two Jun Fukuda-directed entries. 

All Monsters Attack (1969)

This one's a very different beast indeed from what has gone before, and is actually rather a sweet film. A small boy lives in Japan's equivalent of Hull. His parents have to work all hours and during his daily walk to and from school through an industrial wasteland he is plagued by bullies. Small wonder, then, that when he can he retreats into a fantasy world populated by clips of his favourite kaiju creations from previous entries in the series. In new footage he befriends Minilla (Godzilla's son) and learns how to stand up to both his peers and two criminals who are on the run with a sack of cash. Working with no money at all compared to previous pictures, director Ishiro Honda comes up with something that's surprisingly watchable. In fact I was quite surprised by how much I liked it. 

Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (1971)

Oh Lordy - it's time for The One With The Smog Monster. Starting with the grooviest song ever to feature the words 'sulphuric acid' and 'oxidants', we're soon wondering whose big red eyes those are poking out of the water. Is it tadpole Hedorah, anthropomorphic Hedorah, or daft flying saucer / trilobite Hedorah? Actually it's all three because the pollution-gulping star of this one can change shape. A slimmer than usual Godzilla's arrival is announced by a the kind of music usually reserved for comedy drunks. The two face off and make rude gestures to each other. The only Godzilla film where the closest thing the film has to a hero spends most of his time lying down, even when he's in a car, this one's most notable for the extremely peculiar scene where Godzilla pulls the smog monster's testicles off and then flies backwards through the air at high speed. 

Godzilla Vs. Gigan (1972)

Giant cockroaches from M Space bring to earth King Ghidorah and some kind of immense metal chicken with a buzzsaw in his chest. I can still remember John Brosnan's bewildered review of this one in House of Hammer magazine ("...and what happens if you're the one who plays the Giant Turnip Monster From Beyond The Moon & it suddenly becomes unpopular? Do you just take a long walk into the deepest bit of the Toho effects tank?"). Released in the UK several years later as WAR OF THE MONSTERS & surfacing on HTV shortly after, which is when I first had my brain scrambled by it.  The (far) older me found it far more fun than I expected, with lots of the proper daft monster action that was so lacking in the previous entry. Oh, and this is the one where Godzilla and Anguirus speak to each other in speech bubbles. In the English dub it sounds like Godzilla badly needs the lavatory. Unfortunately that track isn't available on Criterion's Blu-ray, but it looks so lovely compared to my DVD that I will forgive it that omission. And Akira Ifukube is back doing the music. Thank goodness. 

Godzilla Vs Megalon (1973)

Nuclear testing upsets our friends on Monster Island. It also upsets the residents of Seatopia, an Atlantis-like city beneath the sea that's furnished in the style of an early 1970s amusement arcade. Fortunately they have a massive beetle / cicada-type monster called Megalon they can release to wreak havoc when such things happen so that's what they do. Because that's not enough they also contact the M-Space giant cockroaches from the previous film (who would have guessed they were friends?) and they despatch Gigan the Giant Chicken to help out. Earth's only hope is Godzilla. Oh, and a robot called Jet Jaguar that can increase its size to kaiju proportions to help kick some monster bottom. If this all sounds a bit desperate that's because it is, and while GODZILLA VS GIGAN was fun, the use of the same footage yet again from old Godzilla films means it all feels a bit samey. There are only so many times you can watch the same model tanks melt and the same Mobil station get set on fire. And the music is once again terrible. Mind you, the bit where Megalon destroys a dam is really rather good. I suspect they didn't have the money to do much else. 

Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)

I hate to say it's aliens again's aliens again. Warty green-faced space apes from Black Hole Planet 3 have built a robot Godzilla. They keep it in their base inside Mount Fuji. It pops out and beats up Anguirus (boo!). Godzilla does his best to avenge his friend. Meanwhile some ancient underground caves have been discovered that tell of a prophecy, parts of which are now coming true. They include the return of a big hairy dragon / dog called King Caesar who wakes up after he's been sung to at a point when the monster action really should be kicking in. He joins Godzilla for the final battle during which Godzilla turns himself magnetic. No I don't know either, but that, in around 100 words is the plot of this barking mad, slightly desperate film. 

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

Director Ishiro Honda and composer Akira Ifukube are back for the final Showa outing. Those pesky monkey aliens from Black Hole Planet 3 are still around and they've managed to put Mechagodzilla back together after he got his head puled off by guess who at the end of the last film. They've also teamed up with a mad scientist who has discovered a giant underwater dinosaur called Titanosaurus. Both Titanosaurus and Mechagodzilla end up under the control of the mad scientist's cyborg daughter. Lots of Tokyo gets smashed / zapped / burned / blown up before Godzilla appears to sort them out. The climax resembles a wrestling free for all amidst colourful fireworks, and if that's what you want from a Godzilla film (and my goodness who doesn't?) then even this, the fifteenth in the series, is worth your time.

And that's it! I can honestly say I've had a blast watching & writing a bit about every one of these films. In fact I've enjoyed the Showa era so much I wish I could go straight on to the Heisei era, but I haven't got them. Maybe if a set gets released then I can review those as well. Until then Sayonara Godzilla! Sayonara King Ghidorah! Sayonara Anguirus! Sayonara to all the other Showa kaiju as you wade off into the deep end of the Toho effects tank! It's been lovely meeting you all again. 

Criterion's 8 Disc Blu-ray set GODZILLA: The Showa-Era Films is out in the US now and is due out in the UK on 25th November 2019 

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