Film Review: Shin Godzilla (2016)

Also known as: Shin Gojira (Japan), Godzilla: Resurgence (alternate)
Release Date: July 25th, 2016 (Tokyo premiere)
Directed by: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
Written by: Hideaki Anno
Music by: Shirō Sagisu
Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara

Toho, Cine Bazar, Funimation, 120 Minutes

Review:

“What is that glow?” – Rando Yaguchi

I saw Shin Godzilla in the theater last October but I didn’t review it then because I was taking a long (and much needed) break from writing. I figured that I would tackle it, once the Blu-ray version came out and I could relive the experience. Plus, I was curious as to how the dubbing would come out.

This was one of the most anticipated Blu-ray releases of all-time for me. In fact, I don’t actually buy hard copies of movies anymore unless it is something exceptional or I want to add the latest chapter of a series I have been collecting to my film library. I own a DVD or Blu-ray of just about every Godzilla movie, so I had to buy Shin Godzilla.

The film is slightly less effective and impactful on a smaller screen and for a second viewing. However, it is, without a shadow of the doubt, one of the greatest kaiju pictures ever produced.

Shin Godzilla is truly the first film to recapture the magic of the original 1954 Gojira. Other series reboots and American remakes have tried but none of them really hit the mark like this film. Shin Godzilla really brings back the horror element to the series. As much as I liked the 2014 American Godzilla, it didn’t bring with it a true sense of dread and terror and the title monster was a good guy. Here, we have Godzilla like he was originally intended, a gigantic force of nature that will destroy absolutely everything in his path without question.

To be completely honest, I have always been more of a fan of Godzilla as a hero and protector. I have also been a fan of kaiju movies having kaiju on kaiju action. However, the roots of the franchise are steeped in Godzilla being a destroyer and being so menacing that there was no need for a monster for him to battle. He was originally a living, breathing, rampaging force of nature that wouldn’t stop unless he was defeated by man.

Shin Godzilla is a departure from the hokier tone of the vast majority of Godzilla pictures. It focuses on human politicians and scientists as they are caught off guard by the appearance of this giant monster. They have to act fast and try to figure out the best way to stop the beast in a race against time, as the Americans are threatening to level the monster (and Tokyo) with a nuke. Japan obviously doesn’t want to experience another bomb being dropped on their soil, so they must come together and find a way to stop Godzilla.

This is the best acted Godzilla film that there has ever been. It is also the greatest, as far as scope and cinematography. While Ishirō Honda’s Gojira was a visual marvel for its time, Shin Godzilla is a pristine and super realistic approach to what Honda’s original established from a stylistic standpoint. While the original still looks beautiful, this newest incarnation of the series isn’t limited in scope and it gives a much more wide open and vast presentation. You truly understand the scale of Godzilla, compared to his surroundings. Plus, Tokyo is much larger than it was in 1954 and this film needed to showcase that while making the kaiju significantly larger, as well.

While purists weren’t initially happy with Godzilla being a creation of computer graphics over a rubber suit and more practical effects, I don’t think that anyone can argue against the change after seeing the picture. That is, unless some of these fans wanted something more akin to the sequels. Frankly, we’ve had sequels and rubber suits for over sixty years and it was time for the Godzilla franchise to catch up to the technology available. This certainly wouldn’t have had the same dramatic and realistic effect had we gotten another actor in a rubber suit. Besides, kaiju filmmaking of this style still exists. Just watch any modern Ultraman show if you need to see rubber suit kaiju. Godzilla and Toho are the godfathers of the genre and they really needed to take the monster into the future for the franchise to have new legs and live on for another sixty years.

I think it is hard to knock the special effects in this film, anyway. Toho did a magnificent job in making something that looks this good in a day and age where ILM and Weta have completely changed the game. Sure, Shin Godzilla‘s effects aren’t as good as the latest Star Wars films but for a smaller studio working out of Japan, this is a top notch movie, through and through. It actually turned out much better than I thought it would, as my biggest concern about making the monster digitally was the limitations Toho would face compared to bigger budget American blockbusters. Toho absolutely nailed it though. Besides, the same fanboys bitching about a digital Godzilla where the same ones praising the digital kaiju in Pacific Rim just a few years ago.

The only negative I can come up with, and it’s not even really that big of a negative, is that this film doesn’t play as good on a small screen. But then, what kaiju movies do? You want to see large monsters as big as possible. Also, on the second viewing, it isn’t as interesting simply because so much focus is on the humans in the story trying to solve the problem. I already know the answers and it makes some of these scenes just feel really drawn out the second time around. Granted, I try to look at a film from the perspective of how it effected me as a first time viewer and I can’t really say a bad thing about it in that regard. The first time I saw this, I was captivated and pinned to my seat at full attention, as the politicians and scientists tried to stop a seemingly unstoppable menace.

Shin Godzilla was a much needed reinvention and it will be interesting to see where Toho goes from here, as the bizarre twist ending opens up all sorts of questions and avenues that can be explored. I do hope that we do get to see Toho’s modern reinvention of some of the other classic monsters as well but as good as this film was with just Godzilla, it really isn’t necessary. But maybe King Ghidorah will show up and Godzilla might eventually return to being the protector Earth needs.

No matter what happens going forward, we will always have this movie, which is better than anything I could have anticipated.

Book Review: ‘Godzilla FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the King of the Monsters’ by Brian Solomon

I have read a lot of books about the Godzilla franchise and kaiju in general over the years. Godzilla FAQ is, by far, one of the best books I have ever picked up on the subject.

If you have read extensively on the Godzilla films, as I have, this is a good refresher on a lot of the information that has been available elsewhere for awhile. But this isn’t just a rehash of older books. Godzilla FAQ digs deeper than most books and it is well organized in chapters specific to different elements within the production and history of the franchise.

It gives good bios on some of the producers and actors, unlike any other publication I have come across. It talks a great deal about those involved in the franchise from the American side of the Pacific Ocean too.

The book also extensively covers each of the 30-plus films, the monsters within those films and just about anything you could think of and then it throws in some stuff you wouldn’t have thought of. The book is exhaustive and awesome.

It also benefits from a lot of photos, which is rare in a book about Toho’s films, as they are notorious for going after those who violate their copyrights. I’m assuming the publisher did the right thing and got Toho’s permission, otherwise, this might not last on shelves very long.

The best thing about this book, is that it just came out and is as current as a printed book can be. It covers the 2014 American remake, the 2016 Shin Godzilla film and even mentions this year’s Kong: Skull Island as well as the other upcoming American films in the works.

I’d say that this is a “must own” for avid kaiju and tokusatsu fans or just fans of Godzilla, the true king of monsters.

Film Review: The Return of Godzilla (1984)

Also known as: Gojira (original Japanese title), Godzilla 1984 (alternate title), Godzilla 1985 (US version), Godzilla: The Legend is Reborn (UK video title)
Release Date: December 15th, 1984 (Japan)
Directed by: Koji Hashimoto, R.J. Kizer (American scenes)
Written by: Shuichi Nagahara
Based on: The Resurrection of Godzilla by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Music by: Reijiro Koroku
Cast: Kenju Kobayashi, Ken Tankaka, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Shin Takuma, Yosuke Natsuki

Toho, New World Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“A living nuclear weapon destined to walk the Earth forever. Indestructible. A victim of the modern nuclear age.” – Dr. Hayashida

In 1984, after Godzilla had been put to rest for nine years, Toho decided to resurrect the famous beast. Ignoring the lighter tone of the Shōwa era Godzilla sequels, this one directly follows the original 1954 film and cancels out the sequels before it. It was made in an effort to reboot the franchise and thus, launched the Heisei era of Godzilla movies.

In the same vein as the original Godzilla, this film has a heavily edited American version. And also like that film, the American version of this Godzilla featured actor Raymond Burr, reprising his role as Steve Martin from the original feature.

Like every kaiju film that has an American re-edit of its content, the Japanese version is far superior and that is the one I watch most of the time. I really only check back in on the American remake out of respect for Burr and his involvement in making Godzilla a household name in the United States. Without Burr, there is a strong possibility that I wouldn’t have met my favorite monster.

The American version featured a few narrative changes. Mainly, the edits made it more confusing. One of the notable changes however, is that it really paints the Soviets as enemies. Also, it was littered with Dr. Pepper logos in an obvious and over the top attempt at promoting the soft drink that featured Godzilla in some of its advertisements.

The film starts with a Japanese vessel being attacked by Godzilla, who was disturbed a few weeks earlier by a volcanic eruption. A large island near the boat appears to move and suddenly, it is revealed that it is no island but that it is in fact, the resurrected Godzilla.

The monster attacks and destroys a Soviet submarine and this brings in the Soviets and the Americans who insist on using a nuclear missile to destroy the giant beast. Japan refuses to allow nukes to be used on their soil again and we get to see a real world view of how Japan often times felt like a helpless and powerless country during the Cold War.

Godzilla starts to appear in Japan in an effort to feed off of nuclear energy. Japan then unveils its secret flying battle fortress the Super-X. Japan does a good job of getting the best of Godzilla and eventually, lures him into a volcano where he is assumed dead. Of course, he returned five years later to fight Biolante.

The Return of Godzilla is a return to Godzilla as a villain and a real threat to the world. Toho didn’t channel the lovable kaiju that became a protector of Japan. They went back to the series’ roots and turned out a solid film.

While The Return of Godzilla didn’t feature a big kaiju battle, it wasn’t necessary. The Super-X battle fortress made for a good opponent and helped keep this film on course with what the filmmakers intended. Another monster would have complicated the formula and it would have been difficult to paint Godzilla as a destroyer.

The tone of the film is perfect. It’s dark and it’s haunting. While Godzilla is dwarfed by some of the Tokyo skyscrapers, the scale works wonders. It has a magical and surreal feel to it and from a special effects standpoint, holds up in the same vein as a lot of the 80s action films from the United States. Sure, Godzilla is still a man in a rubber suit but Toho created a larger scale robot for more detailed shots. Besides, Godzilla doesn’t feel right when it isn’t a guy in a rubber suit.

The score by Reijiro Koroku is a departure from the more famous Akira Ifukube scores of the Shōwa era films but it is really good and it has a dark and intense vibe to it. I feel like the music from this film isn’t as beloved and appreciated as the Shōwa era themes but it is effective. The opening titles get you pretty pumped for this new version of Godzilla and it greatly accents the vibe of the new Heisei era.

The Return of Godzilla might not be every fan’s cup of tea but it was a step up in production value and effects. It opened the door that allowed Godzilla to continue to rampage for another decade before taking a second break for a few years.

The film failed to attract an audience in the States and was the last Japanese Godzilla film to be released in US theaters for quite some time. Regardless, once the Heisei era films became available to American audiences, the response was mostly positive.

Film Review: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)

Also known as: Gojira Tai Mekagojira (Japan), Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster (US alternate title), Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster (another US alternate title)
Release Date: March 21st, 1974 (Japan)
Directed by: Jun Fukuda
Written by: Hiroyasu Yamamura, Jun Fukuda, Shinichi Sekizawa, Masami Fukushima
Music by: Masaru Sato
Cast: Masaaki Daimon, Kazuya Aoyama, Akihiko Hirata, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kenji Sahara

Toho, 84 Minutes

Review:

“When the red moon sets, and the sun rises in the West, two monsters will appear to save the people.” – Saeko Kaneshiro

In 1974, the Godzilla franchise had really run its course. Well, at least as far as audiences were concerned. Frankly, I’d take one of these movies every year and be happy about it. And yes, I mean the ones where the monsters are men in rubber suits because this is still the superior way to create kaiju action.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla came out just a year after Godzilla vs. Megalon but it is a huge step above that film and sort of got the ship back on course. While I don’t have an issue with the Megalon flick, many people did as it was very kiddie and lacked in the budget department. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla had a larger budget, however, and it feels like a more grandiose movie overall.

This was the second to last of the Shōwa era Godzilla films but it was also the first part in a great duology that also included the final picture, Terror of Mechagodzilla.

While this chapter in the film series introduces audiences to the friggin’ awesome Mechagodzilla, it also was the debut of one of the coolest Toho kaiju of all-time, King Caesar. Unfortunately, Caesar would not appear in a ton of films like Mechagodzilla (and his many incarnations). Regardless, Caesar has a great introduction in this movie and he brings a much quicker and more athletic style to the Toho kaiju universe. While most monsters are slow hulking brawlers, King Caesar is like a rabid jackal on crack. Bouncing around and jumping onto his opponents.

The film also features one of Godzilla’s best allies in Anguirus. Even though I’ve seen this picture more than a dozen times, the scene where Mechagodzilla (posing as Godzilla) rips Anguirus’ jaw apart with his bare hands until blood spews out, still gets me every time. Anguirus is a fan favorite and seeing him brutally squashed is still a sad sight to see but it sets up just how vicious and strong Mechagodzilla is. Without the help of King Caesar, Godzilla would have had a much tougher time besting his robotic doppelgänger.

Coming as late as this did in the original run of films, it’s surprising that it is as good as it is but this is definitely one of the best Godzilla films of all-time. The monsters are all great, the plot isn’t fantastic but it is engaging and the Okinawa setting and culture added a new dimension to the series. Did I mention how cool King Caesar is? Did I mention how cool Mechagodzilla is?

The story deals with an alien invasion, which was a typical threat in these films. The aliens this time were the Simians (also known as Black Hole Planet 3 Aliens) and as their name implies, they were apes and a very obvious ripoff of The Planet of the Apes franchise, which was hugely popular, at the time. Unlike most alien races in the Godzilla mythos, the Simians would return later in Terror of Mechagodzilla. The Simians controlled Mechagodzilla in an attempt to get Godzilla out of their way in an effort to conquer Earth.

This picture features some Toho regulars: Akihiko Hirata, Kenji Sahara and Hiroshi Koizumi. All three of them have been in several Toho movies, especially in the Godzilla film series.

Jun Fukuda, the second best kaiju director after Ishirō Honda returned to direct this film and he is just on a different level, as far as framing shots and staging some great action and creating a rich atmosphere. One scene in particular that really stands out is when you see Godzilla marching up and over some hills. It is a fantastic shot and one of the best in the entire film series.

Additionally, the night battle where the true Godzilla confronts his disguised doppelgänger, as the ground is in flames around them, is spectacular. It is one of my favorite sequences that Fukuda has ever directed.

The music in this chapter was handled by Masaru Sato. It is pretty unique and adds an interesting tone to the film. Sato’s score carries the spirit of the early Godzilla themes composed by Akira Ifukube but it has its own identity and gives this film a nice boost.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, at this point in the franchise’s long history, shouldn’t have been as good as it was. It was a perfect storm comprised of several elements that just came together and worked incredibly well. Looking back, this should have reinvigorated the series but unfortunately, there would only be one more movie before Earth’s favorite kaiju would be shelved for almost a decade.

Book Review: ‘The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters’ by Jason Barr

Jason Barr’s The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters is really a mixed bag. It is a book I tried to like and get behind but ultimately, couldn’t.

It comes with several great reviews on Amazon but I guess I’m in the minority here.

The book is essentially a theoretical analysis of kaiju films throughout history. The author uses all kinds of examples to support his theories on the deeper meaning of all these films and how they change with the times. He covers politics, weapons of mass destruction, economics, foreign affairs, etc.

The problem is that the author just reads way too far into these films. Most people who are fans of the original Godzilla film understand the meaning behind it and the warnings it presents. However, most kaiju film after that were purely entertainment. Japanese culture certainly sprinkles in their philosophy and their view on life in many of these films but Barr digs so deep it feels like we are left to bear witness to him trying to make his theories stick.

It reminds me a lot of how conspiracy theorists over analyze things for so long that they can make anything into a conspiracy without much evidence and just a lot of theorizing and speculation. I feel like a lot of this book is cherry picking to fit the conclusions that Barr wants to make. It reminds me of Room 237, that conspiratorial documentary on The Shining, where the bulk of the rhetoric just seems like academic babbling.

Also, Barr takes sides on some of the issues and paints a picture that supports his stance. He also presents his theoretical analysis as if he is speaking factually and not simply theorizing.

In the end, most of these movies were made to capitalize on the kaiju craze of the 1960s. Many of the non-Toho films were just poor ripoffs of Gojira (the original Godzilla film). I just can’t buy into the idea that the writers, directors and producers sat down and tried to stuff so much political and social consciousness into these films, as Barr implies.

Ranking the King Kong Films

When King Kong came out in 1933, I doubt that anyone thought it would be a film that would continue to resonate for over 80 years. Throughout the years it has had reboots, remakes and sequels of those films. There have been four separate film series and one standalone, in that time.

The original King Kong spawned Son of Kong the same year.

In the 1960s, King Kong vs. Godzilla spawned its own sequel King Kong Escapes.

The Dino de Laurentiis 70s remake, also just called King Kong, spawned a sequel in the 80s, King Kong Lives.

Coming off of the heels of his success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson did his own remake in 2005. That was the first to not get the sequel treatment.

Then, earlier this year, we got Kong: Skull Island, which leads into Kong’s eventual meeting of Godzilla in an upcoming joint sequel between the American versions of the two monsters.

So with all these King Kong pictures, I figured that I would weigh them against each other and attempt to rank them. While I’m sure everyone won’t agree with me, that’s what makes these sort of lists fun.

And now, the list!

1. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
2. King Kong (1933)
3. King Kong (1976)
4. King Kong Escapes (1967)
5. Kong: Skull Island (2017)
6. Son of Kong (1933)
7. King Kong Lives (1986)
8. King Kong (2005)

Film Review: Varan the Unbelievable (1958)

Also known as: Daikaijū Baran, lit. Giant Monster Varan (Japan)
Release Date: October 14th, 1958 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Ken Kuronuma
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Kozo Nomura, Ayumi Sonoda, Fumio Matsuo, Koreya Senda, Akihiko Hirata

Toho, 87 Minutes

Review:

Varan the Unbelievable was a kaiju film that I was never a big fan of. It was a total drudge to get through. However, I had only seen the English language version, which is vastly different than its original Japanese counterpart.

The American version is a short 68 minutes or so but it is edited into a completely different film and lacks the suspense and the terror that makes the Japanese version infinitely superior. The American version was also bogged down by a love story between an American soldier and a Japanese girl that felt forced and superficial.

The Japanese version, which is the one I just watched and for the first time, was an absolute delight. Finally, I got to see the monster Varan in the way that his creators intended. He was menacing, looked terrifying with his dagger like spikes and he felt like a real credible threat.

The film was made by the Toho dream team of Ishirō Honda (the director), Eiji Tsuburaya (the special effects maestro) and Akira Ifukube (the greatest kaiju film composer of all-time). While these three worked together quite often over a decade or so, one could always rest assured that when the three were a part of the creative process, as a unit, you were certainly going to get a quality kaiju epic.

Unlike most of the earlier Toho kaiju pictures, this one doesn’t recycle a lot of the acting talent. The only notable cast member in relation to their work with Toho is Koreya Senda, who played Dr. Sugimoto. He also worked in the other Toho pictures The H-Man and Battle In Outer Space, neither of which were kaiju movies but fit the general tokusatsu genre.

The film plays out similarly to the original Godzilla picture. A monster appears, gets hellapissed and decides to take his anger out on humans. The majority of the story is Varan fighting the military, as the heroes try to find a way to get rid of the giant beast.

There are some fantastic looking scenes. The one that shows Varan taking shelter underwater as the military drops depth charges is marvelous. Also, the scene where the military is dropping poison into the lake is beautifully shot and vivid, even in black and white.

The miniature work is good for a black and white picture, as it hides some of the imperfections but ultimately, Tsuburaya’s work wasn’t as good as it would become once Toho switched to making all these films in color.

Varan is an evil looking creature and he can take flight similar to a flying squirrel. Additionally, he would also go on to live in the Godzilla mythos as he appeared years later in Destroy All Monsters and the Nintendo video game Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, where he was the boss of one of the stages and continued to appear throughout the game.

Varan isn’t as popular as Godzilla, Mothra or Rodan but he is similar in that he got a solo debut film. While he didn’t appear as sporadically as the other three kaiju, that may have been a missed opportunity for Toho. A straight up Varan versus Godzilla showdown would have been interesting to see.

If you can get a hold of the Japanese version of the film, you definitely should check it out. If all you can find is the awful American version, put it back on the shelf. The easiest way to tell the difference is the running time, as the American version has twenty minutes chopped off.