Godzilla! One plaintive cry of fear, accompanied by the roar of the biggest baddest monster of the nuclear age, created a cinematic icon that has lasted for well over fifty years. Godzilla, and the associated kaiju movies that sprung up in its destructive wake, not only captured the cultural imagination of people worldwide in the 1950s, but carved out an incredibly vast new genre of science fiction movie that lasts well into the new millennium.
Welcome to Toho Kaiju Monogatari, a year-long weekly series that hopes to not only share the joy of these Godzilla movies, but all the kaiju movies that came out of Toho Studios from 1954 to 2004. Not just Godzilla, but Rodan, Mothra, Japanese King Kong, kaiju-Frankenstein, and dozens more! And you can play along with the adventure, following the full weekly schedule HERE, as we watch men in suits stomp miniatures of famous cities flat for not just our entertainment, but for the history of cinema itself!
Today’s movie is something of an aberration on this list, and is perhaps one of the few movies on this list that technically doesn’t count as a kaiju movie. There’s no giant monsters, and the genre veers much more sharply into the broadly sci-fi (or even space opera). That said, there are reasons to cover it, not least of which is because it’s a pseudo-sequel to one of the movies we’ve already covered. Also, it furthers the secondary development in the history of these movies of embracing a broader cultural pallate in telling these stories. So let’s hop on the international space train (no, that’s just a euphamism, sadly the movie doesn’t have one of those) and check out…
The year is 1965, and several years have passed since humanity’s first brush with alien life when they encountered the hostile Mysterians (as seen, surprisingly enough, in The Mysterians). Now humanity is blossoming under a space golden age, already having made the trip into orbit where the huge international J-SS3 Space Station is currently hanging in space, with people going about their days doing science and watching for further evidence of alien visitation. Suddenly, the radars flare up with sudden signs of life: a few unknown ships, small and fast, fly out of nowhere with lasers blazing. The space station tries to put up a defense, but its feeble experimental beam weapons have no effect. The station explodes, killing everyone aboard, and setting off an international incident.
At the Japanese Space Research Center, a whole bevy of international diplomats meet to discuss the crisis. Not only did this happen, but around the world strange incidents are occurring nearly simultaneously: a levitating railroad bridge causing a wreck, a ship lifted out of the ocean to be deposited on land, and more. Something is causing weird gravity disturbances, and that something is everywhere on the planet at once. Thankfully, Japan’s top scientists (who have names, but they’re just some actors who don’t really matter so whatever) have a theory: aliens are among us, and affecting the flow of human life.
The science, which is all very scientific (and actually supposedly period-accurate, showing you just how far science has come since 1959), runs thus: the aliens have some sort of freeze ray, as evidenced by the frostbite victims seem to suffer. When they hit something with the freeze beam, it slows the kinetic energy of the atoms as they lose heat, which in turn changes their weight until they are no longer affected by gravity and simply float away. Science! And since human technology can’t do that yet, obviously it must be aliens. In fact, humans have just barely begun to improve upon the crude beam weapons they used several years prior to fight off the Mysterian threat—simple heat rays that don’t make anything float so much as explode.
At the same time, the Iranian delegate is abducted from the balcony of his office only to appear and try to sabotage the heat ray experiments. He’s caught before he can do too much damage, but the scientists discover the truth in the scuffle: he was under the influence of aliens, who appear briefly as they try to vaporize evidence of their meddling. Everyone’s worst fears are true: aliens are not only here, but they’ve been here and have means to control our minds. Quickly, an international team is put together to go to the Moon, where they theorize these aliens must be hiding in order to avoid detection from orbit.
What follows is this: an international team gets put together to head to the moon. Among them? The older professor and the younger man who has a heartfelt goodbye in a field with the professor’s daughter who he’s dating, a thing the professor seems to disapprove of. They take two ships to the moon, where they land and depart in two giant moon buggies to try to approach the alien base from two separate angles for redundancy’s sake. This is wise, because one of the crew members is incapacitated by space madness (alien control) and manages to nearly kill everyone on one of the two buggies. But everyone manages to pull together, and at great cost of personal life (including the older professor sacrificing himself in a last stand) they manage to get the job done.
Now here’s my question to you: did I just give you a rundown of Battle in Outer Space, or did I poorly summarize Armageddon?
Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it’s kind of amazing/hilarious/bewildering to recognize one of the defining summer films of the eve of the Willennium in the blood of a strange, semi-obscure Japanese science fiction movie. It’s all there, not played for as many laughs and without the gross butt rock power ballad, but enough to be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s paying attention. One of those finds that reminds me why I do the things I do: making dumb connections like that is the most rewarding part of movie nerdery.
Either way, the stuff going into space is actually really fantastic. 1959 was before people had even been far enough into space to do a lot of great orbital photography, but the way space and the Earth and the Moon are depicted are stunningly detailed and have a verisimilitude that’s surprising given the typical cornball nature of these types of movies (especially The Mysterians). Deep down, this is a movie that tries to be very scientific about everything it does, to the point of making up landing procedures for rockets on the moon that isn’t that far removed from what NASA eventually did with lunar landers a decade later when they accomplished the real thing.
Sadly, once they get into space and onto the Moon the movie takes a turn for the silly. The aliens turn out to be these short helmeted humanoid creatures called the Natal, who don’t really have any sort of identified purpose because they never manage to really make contact in a meaningful way. There’s a big shootout, and then the humans retreat to warn Earth forces, and the movie ends with a big space battle involving flying saucers and Earth rockets that is basically the big kid version of what I imagine children in the 1950s did every day with their toys. Hell, I would have done it too, except I was the nerdy child who wanted to play Captain Picard and talk to all the aliens instead of shoot at them.
More interesting than the plot, though, is the increased focus on the international group that the Japanese lead. There’s an interesting nationalistic bent that feels very Japanese, in that the team is going to be a big United Nations sort of group, but the Japanese will lead it. Not a huge deal, but it’s in stark contrast to most American versions of this, which involve the international group dragging their feet until the Americans go it alone, a trope we’ve seen so many times that Cowboy Diplomacy is more fact than fiction now, if it ever wasn’t more than just a thing that happened in the movies.
This international bent serves two purposes, though: not only does it open up the scope to locations more exotic than Japan, but it allows them to cast foreign (usually English) actors, which means that the movies are easier to sell to an international audience that is dominated by English focused film distribution. Sure, there’s only a handful of Europeans or Americans in this movie, and they’re hardly the focus, but they’re always there and they always have a key thing to do, enough to cut a trailer around for any international market you desired to sell the film in.
While it’s a curiosity now, this will become increasingly a part of many of these movies, as they become more than just domestic money-makers but sources of licensing revenue both in Japan and abroad, which requires a sort of adaptability that means stripping a lot of the specific national and cultural flavor out of it in favor of something unique to these kaiju movies, a sense of the world that doesn’t quite depict reality as it is, but as it would be in a world where people were regularly banding together to fight giant monsters. Regardless of your opinion on whether that’s good or not (at this point I’m fairly ambivalent, and amused at the Japanese version of European ethnicity), it’s certainly a far cry from the very topical, specific origins of Godzilla only five years prior.
Zilla’s American Counterpoint
Not much to say here. There’s some music changes, but for the most part it’s a straight if fairly uninspired dub job. I have to say, though, I don’t understand the thinking behind these dub jobs. Everyone has these awful Asian accents that aren’t quite racist but definitely sound like you got actors (probably Asian-Americans who could speak perfect English, ironically enough) to dub over these lines that are supposed to be in native tongues in English that isn’t broken but is certainly heavy on the accent. It doesn’t make sense. The movie still seems to more or less delineate that everyone is speaking different languages, but it presents it in the context of everyone just speaking various forms of accented English. At least the Japanese version has the decency to give everyone their own language and subtitle the hell out of it.
Regardless, it’s not like this is an emotion-heavy movie either way, though I’ll admit it’s far harder to take movies like this seriously when everyone’s overplaying every single line that was delivered straight and soberly on the day. But if you’re into making fun of old movies for being old (and thus being an asshole, but that’s your right I guess), then go nuts. You won’t lose a thing.
- space ships
- laser beams
- remote mind control
- being humanoid and thus squishy
- also kinda lame