Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Random Paperbacks:
The Moonraker Mutiny
by Anthony Trew

(Fontana, 1973)

Boy, talk about yr ‘tough guy literature’… I found this one at a charity donation stand in the foyer of a branch of Tescos in South West Wales recently, and couldn’t say no. It’s in terrible condition, effectively unreadable – looks as if it’s led a harder life than any paperback deserves (stashed next to the whisky and the chart books on somebody’s yacht, I’d like to think), but… that cover.

I think this one is up there with Three Day Alliance in my Awkwardly Staged Cover Photos Hall of Fame. Just imagine all the trouble they must have had to go to to recruit these two salty sea-dogs (a challenging assignment for the modelling agency), to mock up a background with a convincing porthole, to sort that chap on the right out with his string vest and fake tattoo, to find a prop rifle from somewhere…. at some point I would bet, some harried editorial assistant must have been heard to declare, “..remember the good old days when we’d just hire some nice man to paint a picture and pay him twenty quid?! Jesus wept!”

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Kaiju Notes:
(Ishirō Honda, 1954)

Like many genre movie obsessives I suspect, this month has seen me grovelling in supplication before the monolith that is Criterion’s Godzilla: The Showa Era Films box set, which landed on my doormat with an appropriately earth-shaking thump a few days after Halloween.

“Box set” is actually a bit of a misnomer in this case, as Criterion have housed these fifteen movies in packaging which more closely resembles an over-sized hardback book. I’m not usually one to geek out over the packaging of physical movie releases (well, not in public, anyway), but Yuko Shimizu’s newly commissioned artwork on the front, back and inside covers of this thing looks absolutely stunning at full size, and most of the interior content (both text and illustration) is equally impressive.

Although I’ve not had much of a chance to dig into the discs themselves yet (this could take years, frankly – I’ve only just finished off Criterion’s equally formidable Zatoichi box, a full five years after I first received it), I nonetheless feel confident in recommending this release as an object which will enrich your life and enliven your home in all manner of wonderful ways.

Obviously more important than any of that however is the access this set provides to the films themselves. With the exception of the original 1954 ‘Godzilla’, these Showa-era kaiju movies have long suffered from a chronic lack of availability, particularly here in the UK. When I first started trying to track them down around a decade ago, I found myself resorting to a mixture of pan-and-scan VHS releases, imported DVD box sets of similarly poor quality and low-res mp4 downloads - all, without exception, featuring the American release versions of the films with English language dubbing.

Admittedly, these English dubs often proved quite endearing, if not outright hilarious (I’ll never forget the deliriously absurd voiceovers applied to ‘Ebirah, Terror From The Deep’ and ‘Terror of Mechagodzilla’ in particular). In fact, my only criticism of the Criterion set thus far is the fact that many of these dubs have not been carried over as alternative audio options, which makes me slightly sad. BUT, never mind - the point I wish to make here is that opportunity to experience these films as their makers intended, with the original Japanese audio tracks and (in the case of the thirteen post-1960 films) the proper scope ratio, promises to be an absolute revelation for most viewers in the Western hemisphere, and is surely cause for celebration.

I’m not planning to write full reviews of these films as I watch them – I mean, I’m sure you don’t need me to provide a full run-down on the artistic merits of ‘Destroy all Monsters’, for goodness sake – but I will do my best to write up a few notes on things which occur to me during each viewing, whether high-falutin’ insights on the way the series developed over the years, or just picking out scenes or moments which seem particularly strange or noteworthy, and we’ll just see where we end up, I suppose.

So, we begin, of course, with the big daddy of them all, and, viewed purely in serious, cinematic terms, the best kaiju film ever made by a considerable margin - Ishirō Honda’s original 1954 ‘Godzilla’.

Just the lad himself.

Ever since the original cut of Honda’s ‘Godzilla’ was restored and re-released in the early ‘00s, finding itself justifiably reappraised as a stone-cold classic of post-war Japanese cinema in the process, viewers who grew up with a very different idea of what Godzilla movies were all about have found themselves emerging, suitably shaken, from arthouse and festival screenings, scratching their heads and wondering how and why Toho’s signature monster franchise went on to become so silly, so quickly, over the course of subsequent instalments, despite the fact that the auteur responsible for this initial masterpiece frequently returned to the director’s chair.

Well, I for one tend to believe that the dramatic tonal shift which followed this first film’s success in fact makes perfect sense when one takes into account the strange emotional disjuncture at the heart of ‘Godzilla’.

What I mean to say is, for around 80% of this film’s running time, we’re watching a sombre, mature and deeply sad meditation on scientific morality in the 20th century and the very real terrors and threats to individual human agency which can result from man-made societal catastrophe.

For the remaining 20% of the film however – the portion basically encompassing all of the footage in which The Big G is on-screen - we basically forget about all that, and instead just find ourselves simply thinking, FUCK YEAH, GODZILLA!

I’m not sure to what extent a big rubber suit can legitimately be deemed ‘charismatic’, but from the very moment he first pokes his bonce above that hilltop on Odo Island and unleashes his inimitable elephantine roar, Eiji Tsuburaya’s creation here is just so immediately likeable, it’s difficult not to be overjoyed by his appearance, and correspondingly enthused by his lumbering, apocalyptic antics. As a result, the conflicting emotions we feel as Godzilla first stomps his way to shore on the mainland and cuts a bloody swathe through Tokyo’s metropolitan area are strange indeed.

In keeping with the film’s more serious agenda, what we are shown here for the most part is something we would rarely see again in a kaiju movie - real human misery on a vast scale. People’s homes, livelihoods and families going up in smoke as they frantically try to pack their remaining possessions onto hand-carts and shopping trolleys; a circumstance which must have been horribly familiar to many in the film’s original domestic audience, less than a decade after the Pacific War left much of the nation in ruins.

As the shadow of the Godzilla’s colossal paw looms above the Ginza streets, one famously harrowing shot shows us a single mother – a war widow, presumably - attempting to comfort her daughter as they crouch helplessly in an alleyway; “it’s alright, we’ll be joining daddy soon,” the mother tearfully exclaims. Devastating. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by this simple, appalling vignette.

BUT, as soon as we cut back to the next model city / special effects shot and get another look at the big galoot causing all this mayhem, we’re immediately back on a more comfortable footing. FUCK YEAH, LOOK AT HIM GO; Godzilla doesn’t give a fuck about your stupid power lines! Look at him, swatting missiles out of the air like Mosquitos! COME ON! This is amazing! Godzilla rules!

How are we to deal with this tonal disjuncture, to reconcile these conflicting impulses? As soon as the initial box office receipts started to come in, Toho dealt with it by entirely ditching the brooding, serious aspect of Honda’s film and instead doubling-down on the kiddie-placating Monster Fun in subsequent kaiju films, significantly watering down their portrayal of the damage wrought upon Japan’s citizenry by Godzilla and his fellow cyclopean sluggers.

And, it’s easy to see why the studio went with the path of least resistance and took this decision, just as it’s easy to see why The Big G romped his way through fourteen more essentially light-hearted sci-fi adventures over the next twenty years. He has such an innate capacity to make an audience (especially, I dare-say, an audience of excitable ten year olds) just so damned happy, it would be a crime for him to have not been given the opportunity to do so, just for the sake of, you know, art and human dignity.

(By some accounts, Honda himself was initially unhappy with this shift in emphasis, but at the end of the day, he was a company man, and as a life-long SF enthusiast, I suppose he must have simply decided that being ordered by his employers to keep on making movies full of space-ships, doomsday weapons, model cities and giant alien monsters wasn’t exactly the worst thing that could have happened to him, all things considered.)

Until my most recent viewing, I had never really appreciated the extent to which ‘Godzilla’, in its first half in particular, basically plays as a horror movie. In stark contrast to everything which was to follow in the Godzilla franchise, Masao Tamai’s photography here is extremely dark and brooding, utilising heavy chiaroscuro effects and unconventional, chaotic framing to establish a palpable sense of foreboding only emphasized by the relentless crashing of waves against the rocks of Odo Island, and the baleful majesty of Akira Ifukube’s legendary score. (Metal fan in particular will likely appreciate the extent to which Ifukube just plain lays down some killer riffs here.)

Scenes such as the one in which an as-yet-unseen Godzilla undertakes a nocturnal attack against a character’s isolated cliff-top home feel as if they could have come straight from the play-book of innovative kaidan horrors such as Kaneto Shindô’s similarly war-haunted ‘Onibaba’ (1964) or Hiroshi Matsuno’s contemporary-set oddity The Living Skeleton (1968), whilst in some sense Honda even pre-empts the island-bound terrors of Hideo Nakata’s ‘Ring’ films, nearly half a century later.

(Odo Island, where Godzilla is first encountered, is widely considered to be a fictional stand-in for Oshima, the sparsely populated volcanic island around 30km out to sea from Tokyo bay where the family of the dread Sadako make their home in the ‘Ring’ mythos.)

With its dark coloration, striking red lettering and montage of fearful figures, the film’s Japanese poster (see above) certainly resembles a contemporary kaidan poster, and the temptation to see ‘Godzilla’ as a horror film is further encouraged by the fact that the tragic Dr Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) appears for some reason to reside in a Western-styled gothic crypt, where he keeps his extremely impressive array of Frankensteinian machinery in a subterranean burial chamber – the signifiers of a Hollywood horror movie perhaps acting here as a canny metaphor for the reckless, predominantly American, scientific advancements which have guided the tormented doctor (himself a traumatised war veteran) toward the construction of his oxygen-destroying “doomsday device”.

Thinking further, these horror-ish vibes are actually very much in keeping with several of the more low-key, and perhaps more personal, sci-fi films which Honda subsequently directed in-between his kaiju commitments (1958’s ‘The H-Man’ and 1963’s nightmarish ‘Matango: The Mushroom People’ immediately spring to mind). From another angle meanwhile, they also allow ‘Godzilla’ to fit neatly into an interesting international sub-set of ostensibly ‘scientific’ ‘50s alien / monster movies characterised by their brooding, overtly gothic visual aesthetic – Edgar Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X, Gerardo de Leon’s Terror is a Man and Riccardo Freda & Mario Bava’s ‘Caltiki: The Immortal Monster’, to name but a few.

Given that Japan bore the brunt of the worst extremes of mass destruction that the 20th century had to offer, whilst its densely populated shores continue to abide beneath a more-or-less-constant threat of natural disaster, I’ve always been struck by the extent to which the nation’s culture has portrayed the collapse of its urban infrastructure with an almost unnerving level of enthusiasm.

In fact, there is a whole pantheon of popular Japanese art which has gleefully fetishized this forthcoming, full scale decimation to a nigh-on crazed degree, creating an entire new aesthetic of twisted girders, disintegrating concrete, bridges and overpasses swinging through space like loose tree branches, fire and debris raining down on all sides, and so forth.

Although Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s ‘Akira’ probably represents the pinnacle of this kind of “disaster-porn”, the original ‘Godzilla’ is surely also a major landmark in its development, and the terrifying beauty which Honda and his collaborators bring to Godzilla’s central rampage sequence remains absolutely startling. Looming, expressionistic shadows, vertiginous low angle camerawork and wild swatches of inky blackness all lend a genuine horror to proceedings that would never, ever be replicated by the comparatively quaint, full colour kaiju rampages which would follow through the ‘60s. Throughout its running-time in fact, ‘Godzilla’ succeeds in evoking an almost physical sensation of leaden, stomach-churning dread in its viewers, ensuring that, all these decades later, its status as the ‘Citizen Kane’ of monster movies remains unsurpassed.

Back in Business.

Before I (attempt to) get back into a regular posting schedule tomorrow, I just thought I’d drop in a quick note to say thanks so much to everyone who read or commented upon my October Horrors posts last month, ort dropped me an email – it’s always hugely appreciated, and I’m really happy that this blog continues to attract such an enthusiastic and insightful response from readers; that’s more rewarding than any amount of google-boosted visitor numbers, to be honest.

I’m very sorry that I didn’t get around to replying to everyone’s comments – I was a bit busy at the start of this month, and pretty much took a couple of weeks off from the entire internet to be honest (it was quite nice). I’ve got the train back on the track now however (or whatever other clunky metaphor you favour), and hope I’ll be able to get some good content lined up leading up to xmas and…. dear god, it’s going to be 2020 soon, isn’t it? Pretty much all of our favourite science fiction movies now take place in the past. Takes some getting used to.

Anyway – new posts starting tomorrow hopefully, and humble thanks again for your continued interest.