BluRay/DVD Reviews

RODAN / WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS

By • Oct 12th, 2008 •

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Fortunately you can’t hear me, as I’ve been practicing sounding like Rodan the flying monster for about a week now. Generally, I wave my arms up and down as if they were wings to get the full effect. All this is a clever way of saying I’ve been waiting impatiently for the Japanese version of RODAN to come out on DVD, and it’s a real revelation. Both versions (the disc includes the original Japanese and US edits) start with a wavy mosaic of red and blue over which comes the scream, high-pitched and mesmerizing, of the title monster. That sound rooted me to my chair as a six year old, and it’s still highly evocative today. In fact, I’m so excited by the visual splendor and humanist (that’s right, humanist) underpinnings of this film, I’m not sure where to begin.

RODAN impressed itself upon my six-year-old consciousness in a manner both beautiful and audacious. Beautiful, because there was this gigantic hand-painted billboard that suddenly appeared on the roof of my neighborhood theatre. It captured the essence of the title character, a prehistoric flying monster, with an avalanche of brush strokes in swirly red and green. Audacious, because this was the first time the theatre management had gone to such trouble for what was ostensibly a one-shot deal, shown only that coming Saturday in a kiddie matinee. Naturally, almost everyone in my first grade class was there.

The following Monday in school, Jeff Altman and I had a huge argument about the film during an air raid. (Jeff was the only one of my childhood friends to actually achieve immortality by reaching number 35 — for PINK LADY AND JEFF — on TV Guide’s list of the worst 50 television shows of all time.) We were supposed to hide under wooden tables in the street-level cafeteria by a plate glass window. It didn’t seem very safe, so I guess we distracted ourselves by talking about movies. Jeff insisted GODZILLA was the better film, because it was in black and white and starred Raymond Burr. Somehow the conversation turned into a discussion about God. Considering we would probably be covered with glass shards (among other things) if an atomic bomb ever went off, our focus on theology was understandable. In many ways, I’ve never evolved beyond the first grade. I guess life isn’t really a straight line at all, but more like concentric circles.

Now here I am watching RODAN again after 51 years. The film takes place in a coal mine on the southern island of Kyushu near Mt. Asao, a still active volcano covered with a thick residue of reddish-grey ash. We’re immediately thrown into this heated conflict between two miners, Goro (Rinsaku Ogata) and Yoshizo (Jiro Suzukawa). Chief Engineer Shigeru (Kenji Sahara), Goro’s friend, tries to mediate. But there’s a sense of tension that permeates all the miners. Once inside the tunnel, a dark and inhospitable place covered with electric wiring but little source of light, the miners hear the sounds of screams. Yoshizo’s neck has been almost severed from his body, and Goro is nowhere to be found. The news of this bloody encounter soon spreads around the miner’s community until Yoshizo’s wife tries to attack Goro’s sister, Kiyo (Yumi Shirakawa). Shigeru tries to protect Kiyo, and a sudden feeling of affection grows between them. Shigeru walks Kiyo home to discover this gigantic parasite with spooky, silvery eyes. (Of course, it’s really a guy in a rubber suit, but when I was six, I found this really scary.) The miners, led by Shigeru, chase the gigantic insect back into the tunnel, through a landscape of dried lava. There, with the police and national guard in support, Shigeru discovers a whole colony of overgrown parasites. (The insects shimmy back and forth like they’re learning to dance the funky chicken.) The walls of the tunnel cave in suddenly, leaving Shigeru trapped. Attempting to find a way out, he discovers an underground cavern, where an even more frightening sight awaits him. A gargantuan egg is slowly cracking. From this egg emerges- Rodan!

Inoshiro Honda, the director of RODAN, was an assistant to Kajiro Yamamoto, who made documentary-styled films (HORSE, a neo-realist film about horse-breeding shot on location in wintry, difficult terrain, is probably his best known in the West) that were a huge influence on Akira Kurosawa as well as the Japanese documentary movement. Although RODAN is a commercial monster movie, unconnected to politics or aesthetics, one can see the example of Yamamoto in the first half hour, as the film examines life among the miners in intimate detail, placing cameras in the carts as the workers descend into the tunnels, as well as showing the family members and officials living around the mines in what appear to be authentic settings, often with hand-held cameras that move across people’s faces and quickly dart from one room to another.

Because of Honda’s attention to detail and the working-class orientation of his characters, the monsters, when they finally appear, seem to have a metaphorical heft that would otherwise be missing. Although the scenes in the mines are quite realistic, there are no shots from any individual’s point of view. Rather than one hero, the film seems to take on the viewpoint of the community of miners, as when the camera tracks into the depths of the tunnel, for instance, imbuing a real location with a sense of the theatrical. This “presentational” method of filmmaking, traditionally Japanese, with its focus on the emotional cohesiveness of a community of performers instead of one charismatic star, forms a viewpoint that seems to come from the mercurial and rough-hewn landscape itself, setting the scene for the appearance of Rodan.

Someone, I think it was Glenn Erickson, recently wrote that great movie monsters were defined by both their emotional liveliness and metaphorical aptness. Rodan, the follow-up monster to Godzilla, was meant to appeal to the new generation of children of the 50’s. Rodan is also, in many ways, a metaphor for their existence. Rodan, though its size makes it monstrous, is still a baby, playful in its discovery of simple pleasures like flying. It doesn’t realize its huge wings create a sonic boom that can cause untold destruction. Rodan’s wings make one think of traditional Japanese kite construction and puppetry, linking this most modern of film genres to the past. While made from foam rubber, there’s something light and fluid about this monster as it thrashes about knocking over miniature houses, forming a feeling of protectiveness on the part of an audience. (The delicate yet broad movements of monster suit actor Haruo Nakajima immeasurably helps this sense of audience identification.) Rodan is also an ode to sleekness, its unfurled wings spread outward in a manner that is overpoweringly pleasurable to watch.

Of course, there are two Rodans, male and female, and their mating dance–or should say one say flight?–forms a parallel to the budding relationship of Shigeru And Kiyo. The dual Rodans’ discovery of life also has the quality of new love that is growing between Shigeru And Kiyo, creating a symmetrical structure to the film that is very moving as well as emotionally involving.

(Watching RODAN again, I was surprised to see how many monster films of recent vintage have borrowed imagery from this film. For instance, the egg hatching scene in ALIEN is nearly the same, including the compositions and camera angles, and the plot device from last year’s CLOVERFIELD, of gigantic parasites that crawl through subway tunnels, is very similar to the parasites that emerge from the mining tunnels in RODAN. )

This is special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya’s first film in color. His team of designers, including Yasuyuki Inoue, who was responsible for creating the miniature sets, have crafted a world of tiny buildings and thoroughfares with such attention to detail, these shapes form an alternative existence close to the one we know, simultaneously mystifying and enchanting the eye. (For instance, balconies have laundry hanging to dry, and the street signs are marked by cracks and stains.) I’m a huge fan of Tohoscope, but there’s something about the standard frame that gives the miniatures in RODAN more depth and charm. I especially like the climatic destruction of Fukuoka, where Rodan, surrounded by rubble, is set off compositionally by a blue and red neon sign still flashing its unseen message.

The film was shot mostly on location in a muted color scheme of pale yellows and deep blues, evoking the woodcut prints of Hokusai. There’s volcanic ash and dried lava near the miner’s camp, creating this desolate beauty that has science-fiction overtones, and evokes an image of nuclear desolation that is the film’s underlying theme. (Rodan, like Godzilla before him, has grown to enormous size because of US nuclear bomb testing.) Unlike the Japanese version of GODZILLA released on DVD in 2006, which had a flurry of intermittent scratches, this transfer of RODAN is almost perfect, both in color as well as print quality.

The US version included here is watchable but kind of grainy. The color has also faded, with flesh tones turning pinkish-orange and backgrounds greenish-blue. I suppose for some of a certain age, the faded color will invoke the Summer of Love, adding another layer of nostalgia. (I’m fairly certain this is the same transfer that was released by Sony in 2002.) The US version cuts out many of the personal interactions in the plot, including most of the romance between Shigeru and Kiyo (making for a number of hilarious discontinuities in wardrobe). By replacing the dialogue with a training film-like narration read by George Takei, the film seems longer, though the running time is 10 minutes less than the Japanese version. (I’m afraid when I first saw RODAN, I asked the theatre manager if they were showing a documentary by mistake. I must report he wasn’t amused.)

WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, which takes up the second disc of the set, is a great film to see in the wrong state of mind. The film has many shifts of tone and style, in addition to a number of sequences that elicit a “wow, I can’t believe they did that” response. At this point, due to losing a large part of their audience to television, Toho had cut back on budgets. The spare, fake-looking sets and cheap latex suits are accentuated by the Tohoscope frame, leaving all this empty space. The film also has a resolute stiffness and sentimentality (though still visually arresting) that is characteristic of Inoshiro Honda’s later output. On the other hand, there’re a number of Eiji Tsuburaya’s best special effect sequences here, including a ship being attacked by a gigantic octopus, and an underwater volcanic eruption.

WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS begins with a freighter seemingly adrift on a stormy sea. Flashes of lightning illuminate an otherwise impenetrable fog. The first mate is at the wheel when he notices a long tentacle curling behind him from an open window. He chops at the appendage with an axe, but three more tentacles grab him and begin pulling him overboard into the open mouth of a scary-looking giant octopus. Suddenly, a big bluish-grey head billows up from the depths. This belongs to Gaira, a scaly 50 ft. monster, who proceeds to rip the octopus in two. Gaira then splits the boat in half for good measure, sending all the crewmen flailing about.

The next evening, in a cocktail lounge at Tokyo airport, a young woman (Kipp Hamilton, who co-starred in 1955’S GOOD MORNING, MISS DOVE) warbles a song in English off key. The audience, made of middle-aged Japanese women in kimonos, smile happily, though they clearly don’t understand a word. Suddenly, Gaira’s huge hand smashes through the window, grabbing the singer. He then tries to eat her, whether from hunger or as a critique of her performance, it’s impossible to tell. What then ensues is a series of confusing and often contradictory plot points, mostly expressed by actors reciting swatches of expository dialogue in front of fake looking sets, as in an agitprop play by Brecht.

WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is the follow-up to 1966’s FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE, which made almost no sense. This film makes even less sense, but it’s more fun to watch. Apparently, Frankenstein, or Furankenshutain, in the Japanese pronunciation, has split into two separate entities, Sanda and Gaira. Gaira, according to Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn), Frankenstein’s creator, grew from a piece of Frankenstein’s flesh that was torn off at the end of the previous film. Whereas Sanda is peace loving and protects humans, Gaira is violent and eats people. This setup leads to a number of sumo-styled wresting matches between the fur-covered, rubber suited actors. The writers manage to work a kind of love story into all this sublimely silly wreckage, through the figure of Akemi (Kumi Mizuno), Dr. Stewart’s comely assistant. In a flashback, we see Akemi caring for a young Sanda (a little boy in a fur suit). Throughout the film, Sanda seems to be around to save Akemi from various terrible fates, including becoming a tasty appetizer for Gaira. Russ Tamblyn, who was co-starring in WEST SIDE STORY five years before, is clearly on a downward career curve here (his next project was SATAN’S SADISTS), but has great screen presence, even when dubbed in Japanese.

The Japanese version of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is almost flawless, with beautiful color and crisp sound. (In Akira Ifukube’s scary monster theme music, you can hear each individual horn during the ensemble passages. Now that’s fidelity!) Although the color is pretty good, the US version is slightly soft, and has a fair amount of scratches and grain.

BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE, the documentary included as an extra on the RODAN disc, is a must-see for anyone interested in Japanese-styled special effects. In addition to a long fact-filled biography of Eiji Tsuburaya (who died in 1970), most of the running time of the documentary is taken up by an extended interview with special effects art director Yasuyuki Inoue and many of the crew members who worked with him. At one point, Mr. Inoue walks into a room of his house and pulls out a series of drawers that have all the original design sketches and storyboards for every Toho monster movie. Monster suit actor Haruo Nakajima is also on hand, in addition to the two other actors who played Godzilla after him. The documentary is climaxed by Mr. Inoue and his team of special effects artists recreating an underwater volcanic eruption (from WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and others) by pouring red, black and grey paint into a fish tank simultaneously (the film is reversed to get the desired effect), forming a crescendo of lovely, painterly swirls, as if Jackson Pollock decided to collaborate with Monet.

RODAN is Highly Recommended. BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE is Recommended. WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is Recommended only for monster film fanatics and connoisseurs of cinematic silliness.

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