Film Review: Stray Dog (1949)

Also known as: Nora Inu (Japan)
Release Date: October 17th, 1949 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura

Shintoho, Film Art Association, Toho, 122 Minutes

Review:

“Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him. Are you gonna let it destroy you? Depending how you take it, bad luck can be a big break.” – Police Inspector Nakajima

I really liked Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and it inspired me to look at more of his work that wasn’t specifically historical samurai films, also known as jidaigeki. I also picked this one, as it is essentially a Japanese film-noir. Plus, it stars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, two of Kurosawa’s regulars.

In this tale, we are taken to post-WWII Tokyo during a summer heatwave. A rookie homicide detective named Murakami (Mifune) has his Colt pistol stolen while on a trolley ride. Not soon after, police forensics discovers that Murakami’s pistol was used in a crime. He then teams up with a veteran detective, Satō (Shimura), in an effort to track down his Colt and to stop the criminal responsible.

The story is pretty intriguing and it has been borrowed several times since it was first used here. At least, I have never seen an older version of this tale. Hell, an episode of Louis CK’s Louis was based off of this concept, when Louis’ idiot cop buddy (Michael Rappaport) loses his pistol and they have to try and track it down. Not to get sidetracked here, but I know a lot of people have probably seen that episode.

This film is an example of Kurosawa on the cusp of greatness. He already did the near perfect Drunken Angel but he hadn’t quite gotten into the high point of his oeuvre yet.

This is a gritty and real feeling film. It displays an era in Tokyo that most Western audiences haven’t really seen. It’s a genuine look into the blossoming of a modernized Japan. It even gives us a solid glimpse at old school Japanese baseball, which I just wish was featured in a lot more movies because I love the sport and have always loved the country.

What we also get with this film, is Mifune and Shimura kind of giving birth to the buddy cop formula. While it isn’t so much a comedy, it is a solid crime thriller, their camaraderie foreshadows a long lasting trope that would become a norm in police movies and television shows.

Additionally, this is also a precursor to the police procedural film. While this is a formula that started around the same time in film-noir, it didn’t truly become widespread in entertainment until police procedurals made their way onto television sets in the 1950s.

Stray Dog was a film that was just ahead of its time. Furthermore, it is well directed, well acted and has some great cinematography. The big finale is one of the best cop versus criminal showdowns in history. It almost has a western vibe to it, as both these men come face to face.

While this isn’t Kurosawa’s best, it is better than most directors can dream.

Film Review: Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Also known as: Kaijū Sōshingeki (Japan), All Monsters Attack (alternate), Monster Attack March (alternate), Operation Monsterland (UK alternate)
Release Date: August 1st, 1968 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Takeshi Kimura, Ishirō Honda
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kenji Sahara

Toho, 88 Minutes

Review:

This was the Shōwa era Godzilla film that literally had it all. It was jam packed full of kaiju, had aliens and a ton of kaiju action and really good action sequences that didn’t even involve monsters. It isn’t the best Godzilla film of its era but it is probably the film that is the most fun. And when I am introducing friends to the Shōwa era and old school kaiju pictures, this is usually the one I pop on just for the non-stop action and overabundance of giant monsters.

Usually these sort of films get convoluted by trying to wedge in too much. Look at the modern Avengers movies versus the solo Marvel films. Destroy All Monsters throws a dozen kaiju at you but they all mostly get to shine without stepping on anyone’s toes or complicating the plot. Granted, a few were used minimally but that was due to their rubber suits being in bad condition due to age and the effects of previous films.

While the story here is decent for a kaiju picture, it really doesn’t matter. This is the Royal Rumble of Godzilla movies and all these fantastic creatures come together. Initially, they are controlled by evil aliens and attack different parts of the world. Godzilla even takes out the United Nations building in New York City. Eventually, the monsters are free from alien control, which brings in King Ghidorah because every sinister alien group seems to have a Batphone to King Ghidorah’s study in his stately manor.

The highlight of the film is when all the good monsters gang up on Ghidorah and just kick the living shit out of him. I love Ghidorah but the mud hole stomping finale is friggin’ glorious! Then the film is capped off by our Earth heroes in a cool ship fighting a phoenix. I mean, really? How cool is this movie?

Eiji Tsuburaya handled the special effects, Ishirō Honda returned as director and Akira Ifukube returned to score the film. Honda and Ifukube took a hiatus from the series, after being instrumental in giving it life and longevity. The reason for their return, is that this was initially planned to be the final picture for Godzilla. However, Toho didn’t even make it a year before they were working on All Monsters Attack a.k.a. Godzilla’s Revenge, a universally panned sequel but probably gets a worse rap than it deserves.

This film is set in the future, at least at the time of its release, so the chronology is a bit confusing after this movie but I’ve always seen this as the real final chapter and the Shōwa films that came out after this one as events that happened before this picture. So when King Ghidorah dies here, he really dies and his return later in the series in Godzilla vs. Gigan was set before Destroy All Monsters.

I love Destroy All Monsters. It is not my favorite Godzilla picture but it is exciting for old school kaiju fans.

Film Review: Godzilla 2000 (1999)

Also known as: Gojira Nisen: Mireniamu (Japan), Godzilla 2000: Millennium (alternate)
Release Date: December 11th, 1999
Directed by: Takao Okawara
Written by: Hiroshi Kashiwabara, Wataru Mimura
Music by: Takayuki Hattori
Cast: Takehiro Murata, Hiroshi Abe, Naomi Nishida, Mayu Suzuki, Shiro Sano

Toho, 107 Minutes

Review:

Godzilla 2000 was the start of the Millennium era of Godzilla films. It was the second attempt at a reboot and was Japan’s big middle finger to the atrocious 1998 American Godzilla adaptation. While this is the weakest reboot out of the Japanese Godzilla movies, it was much better than the American crap that came out a year earlier.

Also, this started a trend, where every film in the Millennium series of pictures were all self contained stories and essentially their own reboots. That is, except for Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., which was a direct sequel to Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla.

This is one of my least favorite films in the Godzilla franchise. It wasn’t well done and even though it beats out the first American film, it got the Millennium series off to a bad start.

Godzilla’s threat in this film is Orga, which starts off as a poorly created CGI UFO that looks similar to the ship from Flight of the Navigator. This film is thirteen years older, however, and the effects are atrocious compared to Navigator. While the UFO is similar, this one looks dull and amateurish, almost like it is from a CGI test reel.

Orga then turns into a jellyfish looking UFO for about a minute or so and then becomes an actual beast for Godzilla to fight. The suit is hokey and although it is very detailed, it feels like a one-off kaiju from an Ultraman episode. It doesn’t quite have an iconic look or come off as something that should be featured on the big screen.

The coolest thing about this movie, though, is how Orga dies. Godzilla allows himself to be swallowed by the beast, down passed his torso. Once most of his body is inside, he unleashes a violent burst of his radioactive breath, which incinerates Orga. This was awesome to the point that it almost made up for the poor 90 minutes that lead up to it.

Godzilla 2000 is just a fairly boring movie but at least the Japanese version of the King of Monsters returned. Although, I didn’t like his new look.

Film Review: House (1977)

Also known as: Hausu (Japan)
Release Date: July 30th, 1977 (Japan)
Directed by: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Written by: Chiho Katsura, Chigumi Obayashi
Music by: Asei Kobayashi, Mickie Yoshino
Cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Ai Matubara, Kumiko Oba, Mieko Sato, Eriko Tanaka, Masayo Miyako, Yōko Minamida

Toho Co. Ltd., 88 Minutes

Review:

“She eats unmarried young girls. It is the only time she can wear her wedding gown.” – Gari

I don’t think that anyone can argue that House is not one of the most bizarre motion pictures ever made. It’s certifiably insane but I mean that in the best way possible. Frankly, it is one of the most unique film experiences I have ever had. It’s so unique that I’m not surprised it hasn’t reached a larger cult status.

It is hard to describe what the film is. It’s like someone strung together a couple old Japanese folktales of yōkai, handed the directorial reigns over to Dario Argento and told him he had to take a bunch of LSD before rolling the camera.

The story itself is fairly simple. We follow seven Japanese schoolgirls who go into the country to stay at the house of an auntie of one of the girls. Except when they get there, things start to get weird and girls start going missing.

The cool thing that sets all the girls apart, is that each one is a stereotype of some kind with a nickname that fits the stereotype. Kung Fu is a badass martial arts chick, Prof is a brainy girl, Fantasy tells stories with lots of embellishments, Melody plays the piano, etc.

The film also utilizes trippy animation and physical environments constructed of very obvious matte painting backdrops. While this may look cheap at first, it creates a true fantasy world that doesn’t even scratch the surface with how weird this film will get as it continues to roll on.

The special effects for a lower budget Japanese film in the 1970s aren’t much to write home about but this film makes the most out of its limitations and because of the strange environment, the effects are easy to accept. This is a film that you just have to roll with but rolling with it is actually quite easy. It has this endearing hokiness that is infectious.

The acting is on par with a 1970s Japanese tokusatsu program. If you’re a fan of the UltramanKamen Rider or Super Sentai franchises, you know what I’m talking about. It isn’t great acting but it is comedic, physical, overstated and fun. Most of the actors are amateurs but they handled the material well and felt like authentic girls being themselves.

There is some really artistic gore in this but nothing too disturbing. A lot of it is mixed with animation or as a part of a visual collage. Also, the colors are vibrant and the gore is reminiscent of what you would see at the height of the Italian giallo movement. The film could even be described as a Japanese folktale mixed with Alice In Wonderland and some vivid blood splatter.

Trying to quantify what the entirety of this picture is with words isn’t an easy task. Maybe the trailer below will help. Regardless, this is a film worth experiencing at least once in your lifetime.

Film Review: Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Also known as: Gojira no gyakushû, lit. Counterattack of Godzilla (Japan), Gigantis the Fire Monster (US – original title)
Release Date: April 24th, 1955 (Japan)
Directed by: Motoyoshi Oda
Written by: Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata, Shigeaki Hidaka
Music by: Masaru Sato
Cast: Hiroshi Koizumi, Setsuko Wakayama, Minoru Chiaki, Takashi Shimura

Toho, 81 Minutes

Review:

Godzilla Raids Again was a quickly pushed out sequel to the original Gojira. And like its predecessor, the film was shot in black and white, making it the only film in the franchise, apart from the original, that wasn’t released in color.

In the United States, despite the success of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the American re-edit of Gojira, this film didn’t take the Godzilla name and was initially release as Gigantis the Fire Monster. In fact, English dubbed versions of the film still make reference to the monster being called “Gigantis”.

This film introduced the beloved kaiju Anguirus, who fought Godzilla in this picture but would go on to be a top ally for decades. And this is actually the film that gave birth to kaiju battles, as the previous Godzilla picture only featured the title monster.

Compared to the original, which was an exceptional motion picture, this is a very poor sequel to it. While it was successful, maybe Toho wasn’t keen on its quality, as Godzilla was shelved for seven years until he was brought back to battle King Kong in one of the best kaiju epics of all-time.

There are several reasons why this film is lacking compared to the two chapters that sandwich it.

To start, while tokusatsu master Eiji Tsuburaya did handle the special effects, some mistakes were made during the production. The frame rate of the camera was not set correctly and the big kaiju battles are fast paced to the point that the monsters move around at impossible speeds and it almost plays like a slapstick comedy segment every time that Godzilla and Anguirus tie-up. It just looks hokey and doesn’t match up with the action of any other Toho kaiju picture. Plus, it is missing audio effects and the battles just sort of happen to music, looking like a goofy spastic dance.

Another reason why the film suffers is that Godzilla mastermind Ishirō Honda was not behind the camera. Additionally, the script was written by people that weren’t mainstays in the franchise in the same way that Shinichi Sekizawa and Takeshi Kimura were.

The film is still enjoyable for Godzilla fans and it does have its positives.

Toho regulars Hiroshi Koizumi and Takashi Shimura star in the picture and give good performances.

Also, the overall visual look of the film is fairly solid. The scene where Godzilla comes to shore and the military fills the sky with flares looks really cool and holds up well. Also, the scene where Godzilla is walking through the snow covered valley, surrounded by icy mountains, is a beautiful sight where the contrast between the monster and his environment is enhanced by the black and white presentation.

In the long history of Godzilla films, this one is mostly forgettable other than the debut of Anguirus and the kaiju versus kaiju concept that would become the standard in just about every kaiju movie made after this one.

Book Review: ‘The Big Book of Japanese Giant Monster Movies: The Lost Films’ by John LeMay

I am a big fan of John LeMay’s first two big books on kaiju film history, so when I found out about this one, I had to get a copy.

The subject of this installment also really peaked my interest, as I already knew a lot about existing kaiju pictures but this book was all about the lost films in the genre. It looks at films that were actually made but are now lost or destroyed, films that went into production but were never made, alternate versions of films that were scrapped, as well as some fan produced movies.

This is one of the best books I have ever read on the kaiju genre and it is certainly a must own for kaiju fans. It was just stacked with so much information on films that the vast majority of people have never heard about. It truly digs deep and fleshes out all these kaiju pictures that were lost or just not meant to be.

With a third book on the subject, John LeMay, in my opinion, has become the best English speaking writer on these types of films. I can’t imagine how much time was devoted to researching all the titles covered here. There are literally dozens of films discussed and analyzed with a few appendices added on at the end for dozens more where he wasn’t able to get enough info to write up anything larger than a blurb.

I have always been a big fan of “what ifs”, especially in regards to movies. This book is cool as hell and a lot of fun. LeMay deserves a ton of props for the work that went into this. I hope it pays off, in that this book lives on for years to come.

Video Game Review: Godzilla: Monster of Monsters (NES)

*written in 2014.

Back in the day, just about every kid in America had a Nintendo Entertainment System. Truthfully, I feel for those who didn’t. Reason being, at that time in history, the NES was Americana! Sure, it is a video game console imported from Japan but it was just as much a part of American culture as it was Japanese.

Like today, you can’t say Call of Duty isn’t American. Even though it is played on a Japanese console and part of a monstrous industry created in Japan. I guess Godzilla fits that mold to a degree, as well. A Japanese creation hat has transcended an industry and also become a part of American culture.

Well, putting video games and Godzilla together in 1989 gave us Godzilla: Monster of Monsters. It was released on the Nintendo in a time when I was at the height of both my video game playing and Godzilla worship. When the game dropped, I was at the store to buy a copy as soon as I had earned enough money to afford it.

Godzilla: Monster of Monsters certainly isn’t a game without flaws and in many ways, it is very repetitive. However, some of my fondest video game playing memories, from that era, where when I was fully engaged in this game. It was fun and in a time before fighting games were a normal thing, Godzilla introduced me to the style with its awesome one-on-one monster battles.

The monster battles were actually the big highlight of the game. There were literally dozens and dozens of levels, many of them just rehashes of themselves, which added to the repetitiveness of the game. The problem was that all one wanted to do was fight giant monsters and the levels became too abundant and too much of a roadblock to get to each epic kaiju battle. Honestly, that is my biggest complaint about the game.

The only other real complaint is that the mechanics of the monster battles are very primitive and tedious at times. In retrospect, it didn’t bother me back in 1989, as there wasn’t a lot to compare it to. It doesn’t play great today but at the time, it was awesome. The other issue with it, in regards to the battle mechanics, is that the fights tended to be super long, especially the further you went into the game, as the monsters become increasingly more powerful.

Today, despite the issues, I still find the game enjoyable and fire it up from time-to-time. And I should also make note of the graphics, which were pretty impressive for 1989 on an 8-bit console.