Movie Review – “Dersu Uzala” (1975)

 

 

This is another case where the story of how the film got made is better than the film itself. Even though we now praise Akira Kurosawa as the greatest Japanese filmmaker of all time, and one of the most inspirational filmmakers ever, that was not the case when he was making films in the 1960s and 70s. For the most part, Kurosawa’s films were hated in Japan because they were “too western,” which was really made worse when his previous film, “Dodes’ka-den,” was a flop with both critics and audiences. After it failed, no Japanese film studio wanted to work with Kurosawa, basically blacklisting an amazing filmmaker.

At this point, Kurosawa entered a very dark and terrible portion of his career, even attempting suicide at one point because he couldn’t make his movies. But eventually, Kurosawa was approached by Mosfilm, a Russian film studio, to do an adaptation of the famous 1923 memoirs of a Russian explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev, as he charted the Sikhote-Alin region in far east Russia and the native trapper he met and befriended along the way, named Dersu Uzala. Kurosawa happily took the job, saying that he had wanted to adapt the memoirs since his career started in the 1930s, but felt it could only work if he could film it in Russia.

The only way Kurosawa could continue to make movies at this point was to work out of a different country entirely and make a film in a language he didn’t speak. To me, that speaks volumes of how much Kurosawa loved making movies and his dedication and passion for his craft.

 

 

The result is “Dersu Uzala,” which adores the vast emptiness and wilderness of the Russian landscape as “Doctor Zhivago” did. Every shot in this film is breathtakingly beautiful, especially when the sun is setting over the cold frozen tundras, showing us how stunning this part of the world can be but also how deadly and unforgiving, which is why these explorers keep coming back.

Other than that, the story is fairly generic as an ongoing tale of survival and exploring the wilderness, though it is not helped by the rather slow pacing at points later on the film as Dersu starts to lose his touch. Supposedly, the role of Dersu was originally offered to Toshiro Mifune, which I think would have made Dersu’s strength and resolve far more fascinating. Instead, we get a quiet and subdued Maxim Munzuk, who isn’t bad but leaves no impression on me either.

Overall, “Dersu Uzala” is worth watching to see Kurosawa recreate his style and visual storytelling in a vastly different environment and language, but the story itself is rather unimpressive. It is visually rich and surprisingly vibrant, but that’s to be expected from Kurosawa. If you’re curious to see the type of film Kurosawa made in the darker point of his career and what a Russian-Japanese co-production looks like, “Dersu Uzala” is worth checking out.

Final Grade: C+

 

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Movie Review – “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972)

 

 

The early 1970s were an interesting time for Hollywood. This was the era when filmmakers could finally tell more hardened and outlandish tales, without having to worry about the harsh restrictions that were present since the beginning of Hollywood’s golden age in the 1930s. This led to the creation of R-rated films and eventually summer blockbusters. But in the middle of all that, a new genre was created – the big-budget disaster movie.

Started by films like “Airport,” “The Towering Inferno” and “Earthquake,” they followed a very simple formula that led to extravagant sequences of tragic events and how a small group of people (typically big name actors) respond under these dangerous and deadly situations. While these types of movies were certainly made before the 1970s, producer Irwin Allen changed this up by adding much more money to give these events the Hollywood treatment and the addition of the all-star ensemble cast, meaning if you weren’t entertained by the effects then you at least had some of your favorite actors working off each other.

And although “Airport” was one of the first films to do this, the one that people keep coming back to is “The Poseidon Adventure,” mostly because of how it takes that genre-type story and flips it on its head, literally. The story follows an old cruise ship, the S.S. Poseidon, on New Years Eve on its way from New York to Athens. As the clock strikes midnight, the ship is hit by an enormous tidal wave, capsizing it.

Very few people survive the initial hit, and the ones that do survive are trapped on a slowly sinking ship. They quickly figure out that the ship has been flipped upside down, and that the only way out is upward towards the bottom (now top) of the ship, through the outer hull. Most of the survivors think this is a crazy plan and that they should just wait to be rescued, but a few people take matters into their own hands. They include an unorthodox reverend (Gene Hackman), an aging police detective (Ernest Borgnine), the sole survivor of the New Years band (Carol Lynley), an old married couple on their way to Israel to see their grandchildren (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters) and the injured bartender (Roddy McDowall), as they traverse the upside down and sinking ship for their slim chance at survival.

 

 

What I enjoy about “The Poseidon Adventure” is that this doesn’t necessarily feel like a group of random stereotypical people throw together to please certain demographics. They all strangely have some things in common that you don’t really think about, like how most of them have been so focused on their careers and plans that they don’t make time for love. Red Buttons plays a hypochondriac that has spent his whole life working, and is now passed the point of finding love, yet he undergoes a personal journey as he develops a friendship with the singer. Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters’ married couple admit that they can’t remember the last time they took time away from work and made time for each other, or even when the last time they said they loved each other. This broken desire for love is actually the driving force behind their motivation to keep going, so that they can have another chance to fix it.

Of course, with our main character being a Reverend, there are constant themes and messages about God and religion, but without being forceful and overbearing. Gene Hackman’s character believes that we shouldn’t pray to God to save us, but to pray to the piece of God inside of you to show you the way. Hackman very rarely mentions God throughout their journey, but continually gives the other the motivation to keep going, to remind them why this is a struggle worth overcoming. He is both nurturing and forceful at the same time, which works amazingly well for this story.

For 1972, these effects and set pieces are wonderfully detailed and creative. They went all out on making this upside down cruise ship feel like its own character, which each room feeling just as dangerous and ominous than the last. Even though this is certainly a character driven piece, the action pieces are just as intense as anything else in the movie.

Overall, “The Poseidon Adventure” is the best example of a disaster movie done right. It takes full advantage of its unique situation while giving us broken yet likable characters that we want to see overcome all these deadly traps. The film has a surprising amount of things to say about love and religion, which makes it worth watching more than once. Even for 1972, this film still looks amazing today. If you want to see where every disaster movie came from, look no further than “The Poseidon Adventure.”

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “Amarcord” (1973)

 

 

If there’s one foreign director whose work does nothing for me, well it would probably be Ingmar Bergman’s movies, but a close second would be Federico Fellini. Granted, I’ve only seen his films “8 1/2” and “La Dolce Vita,” but both nearly put me to sleep where it feels like they wander around aimlessly with no purpose other than to be artsy. There is little to no substance in his movies that it’s hard to find a reason to recommend his movies.

But I will say there were scenes in Fellini’s “Amarcord,” that I genuinely enjoyed for their laid back, small town approach to it all. The film follows teenager Titta (Bruno Zanin) and his every day life and troubles while growing up in a small village on Italy, surrounded by eccentric and colorful people, in the 1930s just as the Nazis were coming into power.

On the whole, “Amarcord” doesn’t do much different from Fellini’s other films, since it doesn’t have a major over-arching story, just a bunch of small vignettes revolving around the many people in this town and Titta’s family. But there’s this small village charm that I found adorable about “Amarcord.” It starts in the opening scene when everyone comes together to celebrate the end of winter in a joyous bonfire in the center of town. They all have their own unique way of celebrating, especially the teenagers who want to play with the fire and the local motorcycle rider who drives right through it, but it’s clear that everyone is having a blast.

 

 

This passion and joy for life sticks out above other Fellini films and makes the aimless plot worth observing. Scenes of Titta trying to put the moves on the local town hottie Gradisca (Magali Noel) or watching Titta’s father (Armando Brancia) try desperately to control the crazy people around him and failing, put a smile on my face because they feel so nostalgic and vibrant.

“Amarcord” is like listening to a painter as he creates a portrait of his childhood and hearing about all the highs and lows of his life.

If you ever watch one Federico Fellini movie, give “Amarcord” a shot. It never tries to be about anything other than the life of a teenager with a lot to learn, which is so refreshing to see from Fellini. It is filled with colorful characters and equally vibrant comedy that makes it all feel laid back and nonchalant about it all. The film still moves at a slow pace, but gives each scene enough time to leave an impression on the audience.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “THX-1138” (1971)

 

 

Unless you are a diehard movie fan, the biggest thing to come from this movie is that it gave way to that annoyingly loud introduction to DVDs in the 2000s from THX.

“THX-1138” is George Lucas’ directorial debut and is about as minimalistic of a depiction of the future as possible, with lots of empty white and blank landscapes, with every character wearing the same plain jumpsuit and shaved haircut. Set in the far off future, humans now live a robotic lifestyle underground where their given designated tasks, take pills to suppress emotions, and can no longer have sex. Everything is done automatically and mechanically, including the production of offspring, psychological treatment and even a Mecha-Jesus to act as a confessional. People don’t even have names anymore, just numbers like a bar code.

Basically, imagine “WALL-E” if we went underground instead of into outer space.

The making of “THX-1138” is the most fascinating part of the movie – George Lucas originally made this movie while he was in college but found the final product unsatisfactory. After he graduated, Lucas was taken directly under the wing of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of “The Godfather” movies and “Apocalypse Now,” where Lucas would help Coppola in pretty much every aspect of filmmaking. For one of Coppola’s bigger projects, Lucas basically acted as the “assistant to everything,” but Coppola couldn’t find the best way to pay Lucas for doing all that work. The best thing Coppola came up with was to fund Lucas’ directorial debut entirely. Lucas used this as an opportunity to redo and reshoot his final college project, and this time with a nearly $800,000 budget and A-list actors like Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence.

 

 

Lucas made “THX-1138” as a direct response to the rise of consumerism, with television, newspapers, and magazines forcing products and advertisements down our throats, treating us like mindless drones that will buy anything that’s put in front of us if it has enough pretty colors. The film is also a slam against then-President Richard Nixon, as the villain of the film takes direct excerpts from his speeches to propagate his evil point-of-view.

And that’s about all that’s interesting with “THX-1138” – Everything else is pretty standard for a dystopian science fiction film where everything from emotions to duties to society is handled by computers. Maybe it is because of the blank voids this film uses for backgrounds, or the bland designs of the characters, but because everything looks and feels the same, nothing truly stands out. This movie just feels like one giant shade of gray.

If you’re curious how the creator of “Star Wars” got his start and the his first attempt at science fiction, then give “THX-1138” a shot. But if you’re truly interested in watching a worthwhile dystopian science fiction, look to other more visually interesting tales in the genre and save this one for a rainy day.

Final Grade: C

 

Number 5 – “Terror of MechaGodzilla” (1975)

 

 

And so we come to the last Showa film ever made, “Terror of MechaGodzilla.” Toho had planned to make several more films in the Showa series after this one, but none of them ever got off the ground after how poorly “Terror of MechaGodzilla” did at the box office, which had the worst numbers of any Godzilla movie. Though I attribute that to the poor state of Japanese cinema at the time, a sign that audience’s had grown used to seeing Godzilla on television instead of the big screen, as well as a brewing recession.

“Terror of MechaGodzilla” brings back several of Godzilla’s original creators, including Ishiro Honda to direct and Akira Ifukube to compose, their first Godzilla films in over five years. Honda brings a much different take than his typically upbeat, optimistic, and whimsical atmosphere in films like “Invasion of Astro-Mosnter” or “King Kong vs. Godzilla.” Instead, this film is hardened and tough, as many of its characters fight a battle they cannot hope to win.

Of course, this is a direct sequel to the first “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla,” with the main focus being that the Black Hole Aliens have returned to Earth in an attempt to conquer it again, and plan to do so by rebuilding MechaGodzilla. But this time the aliens decide to be a bit more cunning and learn from MechaGodzilla’s last fight that having two monsters is better than one, as they reach out to a disavowed Japanese scientist who has discovered an ancient dinosaur in the sea that he names Titanosaurus, so that they can more easily defeat Godzilla together.

The film opens with a recap of the events from the last film, but with two minor differences. One is that, at the end of the introduction, we see the surviving pieces of MechaGodzilla fall into the ocean. The other change is the music, as Akira Ifukube does away with Masaru Sato’s catchy use of drums and horns, and replaces it with a menacing almost overpowering theme for the new MechaGodzilla.

 

I love how the Godzilla theme is incorporated into this theme, giving Godzilla just a tiny moment to shine, but his theme feels smothered by the rest of MechaGodzilla’s theme, reflecting Godzilla’s up-hill battle in this movie.

The experimental submarine Akatsuki is launched in Okinawa in an attempt to salvage the remains of MechaGodzilla. But the sub quickly finds out that nothing is down there except a giant aquatic dinosaur waiting for them, which attacks and destroys the submarine but not before they get off an S.O.S. The message is picked up by the Interpol agency, finding it odd that the message is cut off after they mention a giant dinosaur, and begin an investigation. Honestly, I’m more surprised that they find this hard to believe, given all of the other insane monsters that exist in this universe. It would be weird if a giant monster wasn’t responsible for the sub’s destruction.

We cut to a hotel room where the main leaders of the Black Hole aliens have gathered, discussing how cold and drab humans make life here on Earth. We learn that their plan is to start by destroying Tokyo, rebuilding it in their image, and working outward from there. They discuss how lively and grandiose this new city will be, and I can’t help but love these aliens for their constant need to add style and flare to everything. They don’t do anything small and love having a good time while they do it, as they enjoy booze and cigars regularly.

As great as the Xillians were in “Invasion of Astro-Monsters,” the Black Hole aliens are my favorite for their style alone. Plus, unlike other aliens in the franchise, they get a second chance to take over the Earth again, learning from their mistakes.

The first part of their plan is forming an alliance with the controller of that giant dinosaur in Okinawa. Its controller is the shunned Dr. Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), who has thrown out of Japanese society 15 years ago when he performed some questionable experiments after discovering Titanosaurus and thinking he could control it. He succeeded and now has near perfect control over the giant dinosaur, but has grown to hate humanity and now wants revenge.

The Black Hole aliens work out a deal with him – Let them use Titanosaurus in their attack and they promise that Dr. Mafune and his daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai) will be treated as equals in their new world order.

 

 

After Dr. Mafune happily agrees to the aliens deal, since this would allow him to get revenge on the society that threw him out unfairly, the aliens reveal the next part of their plan – they have been rebuilding MechaGodzilla. It has taken over a year to do so, but MechaGodzilla is nearly complete and is said to be even more powerful than before, equipped with stronger weapons and a back-up system incase his head unit gets destroyed.

The Interpol agents resume their investigation and reach out to a marine biologist, Akira Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki), who recognizes the cries of Titanosaurus and leads them to Dr. Mafune’s last known location. They are greeted by his cold and uninterested daughter Katsura, who lies to them and says her father died years ago and that she burned his notes and research on Titanosaurus. Akira is smitten by Katsura and the two meet up again multiple times to discuss her father’s work.

This leads me into the best part of “Terror of MechaGodzilla” – the characters of Dr. Mafune and Katsura. These two are some of the best characters in the Godzilla series that are built on pain and suffering and ultimately lash out for reasons even they don’t quite understand. Mafune is a tortured soul, losing everything he ever had, including his wife and daughter, and now grasps at just the slightest hope to regain that. While Katsura is actually a cyborg, kept alive by the technology of the aliens, and is as cold and lifeless as MechaGodzilla. Yet she, like her father, does her best to cling to her last shreds of humanity, even having second thoughts about the destruction Titanosaurus and MechaGodzilla will cause.

 

 

These two are tragic characters, brilliantly acted by Akihiko Hirata and Tomoko Ai to make them fully developed and sympathetic. Katsura being a cyborg that is conflicted between her programming and her humanity is unique to the Godzilla series and is just as interesting to watch as any monster scenes in this film.

The final phase of the aliens preparation is to create a better controller for MechaGodzilla, something that can’t be easily destroyed like the last controls. The aliens decide to be extra creepy and put MechaGodzilla’s controls inside of Katsura, so now she will be controlling both monsters. Dr. Mafune starts to have second thoughts about all this when the aliens start treating his daughter like a machine instead of a person, with the controllers reaffirming that she is more wires and circuits than blood and bone now.

In a desperate act of rebellion, Dr. Mafune sends Titanosaurus to attack Japan before the aliens are ready. But due to an earlier incident with Titanosaurus, Interpol is able to learn the dinosaur’s weakness to supersonic waves and they begin working on a wave oscillator.

On his own, Titanosaurus is an alright monster. He has a unique design with his orange skin, fins and strange patterns on his body. Some Godzilla fans despise his roar, but I really enjoy it. It’s like a weird monster cackle that has grown on me as much as this film has. He doesn’t have many special powers, just the ability to create cyclone winds with his tail. If he were the only thing Godzilla was fighting in this movie, he’d be okay at it. So it’s a good thing he’s not the only evil monster in this movie.

An underrated aspect I adore about “Terror of MechaGodzilla” is how it makes Godzilla’s fight to stop these other monsters feel hopeless. Not only does Godzilla have to fight two monsters at the same time, but one of them is an upgraded version of a monster that already kicked his ass, and he’s lost the deus-ex-machina magnet ability that won him the fight last time. On top of that, Godzilla lacks allies. Even in his last fight with MechaGodzilla he still had King Caesar to help out, but now his best ally is the defense force that’s still working on their supersonic wave oscillator.

Out of all the battles Godzilla had in the Showa series, his fight against MechaGodzilla and Titanosaurus by himself is his most difficult struggle.

We get a brief fight between Godzilla and Titanosaurus at night, which leads to one of Godzilla’s best introductions as he fully embraces his super-hero attitude. But ultimately, Dr. Mafune makes Titanosaurus retreat after Katsura returns injured from sabotaging the wave oscillator. The aliens fix her circuits and also perform some modifications to make her truly loyal to the aliens.

Akira continues to make the moves on Katsura, and he ends up getting captured by the aliens for his troubles as they begin to put their plan into motion. Katsura emerges ready to command both monsters to attack and destroy Tokyo, while Akira is helpless to stop his girlfriend from killing millions of people.

 

 

The scene of MechaGodzilla and Titanosaurus destroying Tokyo is striking and grim, especially when just one blast from MechaGodzilla’s new finger missiles literally uproot an entire city block before reducing it to rubble. There’s a shot of the two monsters walking side-by-side while getting blasted with bombs and missiles, only for both to keep marching through the city. With Ifukube’s moody music playing, it really does feel like the aliens will be successful this time.

Of course, Godzilla does show up again to fight the two monsters and we get a long, brutal fight where Titanosaurus and MechaGodzilla take turns pummeling the desperate Godzilla. Just when it seems like Godzilla gets the upper hand on one of the monsters, the other joins in and blasts him to the ground. Compared to many of the other 1970s Godzilla films, where it felt like Godzilla was hardly trying or came up with new powers, Godzilla gets scrappy and feels like the underdog most of the time in “Terror of MechaGodzilla.”

I guess the reason I have this movie cracking my top five Godzilla films is because of how it perfectly balances these wonderfully tragic character moments with great monster scenes as Godzilla does his best against a much stronger opponent. Both blend seamlessly to make for a truly exciting piece.

The entire time Katsura commands the two monsters, Akira does his best to try and reason with her, attempting to bring her humanity back out and prove that she isn’t a puppet of the aliens. It doesn’t seem to work on her, but it does show Dr. Mafune that there are still good people out in the world and that he might be on the wrong side.

 

 

Help arrives in the form of Interpol, when they finish their wave oscillator to take care of Titanosaurus and find the location of the alien’s hideout. The defense forces keep Titanosaurus busy so Godzilla can focus on fighting MechaGodzilla, leading to another all-out assault from the giant robot that sets Godzilla’s spines on fire this time. Scenes like these are why MechaGodzilla is my favorite Godzilla villain.

Interpol storms the alien hideout, killing many of the aliens and fatally shooting Dr. Mafune as he tried to protect his daughter. The shock of seeing blood coming out of her is enough to bring Katsura’s humanity back to the forefront of her mind, as she embraces Akira and reflects on all the terrible things she did.

 

 

But at this moment, there’s a massive shift in the movie, depending on which version you’re watching. In the English version of “Terror of MechaGodzilla,” this is the point where Katsura’s control over MechaGodzilla doesn’t work anymore and he just shuts off, letting Godzilla finally kill his mechanical doppelganger. So in the version I watched for years, I was under the impression that MechaGodzilla was defeated by the power of love. Cue the Huey Lewis music.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I watched the Japanese version and learned the original version to this scene is drastically different. When Katsura learns that she’s responsible for the destruction Titanosaurus and MechaGodzilla caused, she is heartbroken and inconsolable. She remembers that the controls to MechaGodzilla are inside of her and she does what she thinks is best for the entire world – she shoots herself in the chest, killing her, but destroying the controls to MechaGodzilla.

My jaw literally dropped when I saw this scene the first time. I understand why the English version cut that scene altogether, but it is one of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the entire series as Katsura takes her own life. It is a fitting end to a grim and tragic story of a father and daughter shunned by society. Ever since I saw this scene the way the filmmakers originally intended it, I’ve been in love with “Terror of MechaGodzilla.”

With MechaGodzilla defeated, the aliens attempt to flee in their saucers, but Godzilla manages to fight off Titanosaurus and blast their ships out of the sky at the same time, as we get one final badass Godzilla moment. Godzilla defeats Titanosaurus and returns to the sea, where we get one final shot of Akira holding Katsura’s lifeless body in his arms.

I can see why some people wouldn’t enjoy “Terror of MechaGodzilla.” It is surprisingly dark, moody and grim, especially since it was directed by a man who normally makes upbeat and cheerful films. But I think, for that very same reason, this is such a worthwhile film. It pains the world of Godzilla in a way we haven’t seen since the original Godzilla, where there are no happy endings and terror does lurk around ever corner.

 

 

If you ever watch “Terror of MechaGodzilla,” do yourself a favor and see the Japanese version, since it paints a complete and tragic picture of Dr. Mafune and Katsura. As the final film of the Showa series, it is unfortunate that it had to end on a sad note, but it does give Godzilla one final chance to play the ultimate hero and go out on one of his highest notes. It is one of the best Showa films and one of the more underrated Godzilla movies.

 

Number 7 – “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” (1971)

 

 

If the original “Godzilla” is the “Citizen Kane” of giant monster movies, then “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” is the art-house equivalent for daikaiju films. This film is abstract, filled with all sorts stylistic choices from its director Yoshimitsu Banno that screams of the 1970s and Japan’s counter culture. There’s a lot of it that still doesn’t make any sense to me, but helps contribute to its style over substance approach to make it the most unforgettable Godzilla film.

To appreciate “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” fully, let me set the stage – In 1971, Japan was suffering from a massive pollution problem. The country had become incredibly industrialized, and Tokyo was one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Millions of pounds of waste were produced every day, and the government did have a viable way to getting rid of it, dumping trash and nuclear waste into the ocean, while the air around most major cities became toxic. It got so bad in city that most people living there developed asthma.

If life in America was bad in the 1970s due to pollution, it was even more unbearable over in Japan.

On top of that, this was the point when Japan’s youth fully embraced its psychedelic side and experimented with all sorts of drugs, music, and ways of rebelling.

When director and writer Yoshimitsu Banno visited the city of Yokkaichi, he saw the landscape covered in black smog and the ocean filled with foam from dumped trash and detergent. After that, he started formulating the idea of an alien monster that fed off all of our pollution and how it would grow unstoppable because of our arrogance towards waste.

When I learned this was how “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” was created, I immediately thought about how similar that is to Tomoyuki Tanaka’s experience with creating the first “Godzilla” – Looking down at the ocean from a plane and thinking of a giant monster rising out of the sea. As we’ll find out, this isn’t the only similarity between these two films.

Banno submitted his idea of an alien monster that transforms because of pollution to Toho and they loved the idea, but of course thought the movie would sell better if Godzilla was involved. Toho gave Banno free reign with creative control over “Godzilla vs. Hedorah,” but gave him an extremely limited budget and only 35 days to shoot the movie, including the monster sequences. This allowed Banno to try a few things that had never been tried in a kaiju film before.

 

 

As a result, “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” screams of the 1970s, filled to the brim with counter culture ideals and movements, like the underground dance sequence where there is clearly some trippy drugs in the air as a woman in a skin-tight body suit and long hair singing to a large group of teenagers. Scenes like these are typically followed by trippy or odd sequences, like one of our main characters, Yukio (Toshio Shiba), imagining that everybody in the club has fish masks on while they’re partying.

Then there are just strange sequences that make no sense at all. There are three short animated scenes, showing Hedorah’s growth and how he’ll take over the world. At one point, Hedorah flies through the metal frame of a building, which is followed by the building collapsing in on itself with no sound whatsoever. Or a scene late in the film that is framed like the opening of “The Brady Bunch,” with multiple screens that show people outraged about the government not doing enough to stop Hedorah, as well as one shot showing a baby trapped in a pile of sludge.

I don’t think anybody will complain when I say “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” is the weirdest Godzilla film. And yet, I honestly love this film for its odd sense of unmatched style and brutal honesty against how the government was handling the pollution problem.

There isn’t much to the plot of this film – A local doctor discovers an odd-looking tadpole-like creature that turns out to be from a much larger monster that has been attacking everything out at sea, in particular oil freighters. The monster leaves a wake of pollution and destruction in its path and continues to grow as he takes on more trash and toxic material. The doctor eventually finds out this creature came to Earth on a comet from another galaxy and has been slowly but surely growing larger off of our pollution. He suspects that if this monster, nicknamed Hedorah, is left unchecked, it could wipe out spread a giant wave of pollution over the planet and kill everything.

So how does Godzilla fit into this? This is the first film that officially makes Godzilla a planet-saving hero. In the first portion of the Showa series, there was no doubt he was the villain. After “Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster,” there was a bit more ambiguity about who Godzilla was fighting for, but leaning more so towards fighting for himself. But now Godzilla is a super-hero for all of Japan, coming to our rescue to stop the threats we cannot hurt. In this case, our introduction to Godzilla is a breath-taking shot of him rising with the setting sun and roaring into the distance, followed by him blasting the waste-filled ocean with his atomic breath.

 

 

One aspect I find truly fascinating with “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” are its many similarities to the original “Godzilla.” In particular, Hedorah’s introduction is eerily similar to Godzilla’s introduction – a monster that lurks beneath the sea and attacks unsuspecting cargo ships that causes a national panic. On top of that, Hedorah represents the biggest concern of the Japanese people at the time, and their growing fears of pollution affecting their lives, much like the original Godzilla reflected the world’s greatest concerns in the 1950s over nuclear weapons.

And how ironic is it that the manifestation of the world’s problems in the 1950s has to fight the reflection of those problems in the 1970s?

Hedorah is a terrifying monster, looking like a massive pile of sentient sludge aside from two giant red eyes. He takes on multiple forms and each stage is more striking than the last, especially his final two stages, a flying form that uses toxic gas as propulsion and an utterly massive from that reigns supreme over any other Godzilla monster from the Showa era. His attacks consist of firing acidic sludge balls and his corrosive body that continually gets stronger. This makes for one of the most difficult fights Godzilla has ever had.

 

 

As for the monster fights, these are some of the more brutal scenes in the entire series. Starting from the first fight, we have Godzilla throwing Hedorah around like a rag doll that sends acidic sludge all over the city that has disastrous results. In the final battle, Godzilla loses one of his eyes, all the skin on one of his hands and is dropped into a giant pile of Hedorah’s sludge. Hedorah’s composition and fight style makes for some of the more imaginative scenes involving Godzilla, especially since his atomic breath has no effect on the space monster, meaning Godzilla has to get close to a monster made of acid and smog.

Hedorah ends up dominating most of their fights, especially after their first encounter, so it is serial to see Godzilla trying so hard to defeat a monster and getting absolutely no where. He gets about as desperate and feisty as Anguirus did against King Ghidorah in “Destroy All Monsters.” These fights don’t have the best cinematography of the series, but they’re different enough that I can’t help but admire them.

And that’s this film in a nutshell – This is the weirdest, most “out-there” Godzilla movie and I adore it for that reason. All of its little eccentricities and odd moments are honestly the highlights of the film, as Yoshimitsu Banno puts all of the problems and style of the Japanese in the 1970s out there for us to see in all of their abstract and bizarre behavior. These scenes take what would have been an average monster movie and turns it into one of the best examples of daikaiju art.

 

 

 

Number 14 – “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” (1974)

 

 

The 1970s were an interesting time for Godzilla movies. At this point, there was no doubt that these films were made for little kids and that Godzilla was pictured as a super hero. But starting with “Godzilla vs. Gigan,” it felt like Godzilla’s threats were becoming less and less world threatening and more silly, like a Saturday morning cartoon. This was especially the case with “Godzilla vs. Megalon,” when Godzilla used kung-fu to fight a cockroach monster alongside a giant smiling robot.

Well the next Godzilla film, “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” sought to fix that problem by making a film that took Godzilla and his opponent seriously while still keeping the tone and atmosphere light-hearted enough for children and adults to enjoy it. This was also Godzilla’s 30th anniversary film and introduced us to my favorite Godzilla villain, MechaGodzilla.

The film was directed by Jun Fukuda, who had previously directed the last two Godzilla films, “Gigan” and “Megalon,” as well as “Ebirah, Horror of the Deep” and another Godzilla film we’ll get to much later. In his later years, Fukuda would go on record to say that he wasn’t a fan of Godzilla but was under contract to make Godzilla movies for Toho. He once said that he wasn’t proud of any of the Godzilla films he did, which is a shame because he made some great monster movies, this being a pretty good one. Fukuda did admit that he would rather be making spy movies, which he did with “ESPY” in 1974, though one could argue that he got to do a spy film with “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” too.

Our story begins, oddly enough, in Siberia, where Anguirus has awaken and seems to sense that something is wrong. He roars out and, somewhere in the world, the side of a mountain erupts in an explosion and Godzilla’s roar can be heard. This opening always confused the hell out of me. In the VHS print of the movie, you cannot tell that Anguirus is in Siberia, it looks like he might be underground instead since he’s just surrounded by rocks and dirt. And is it supposed to say that Godzilla was in the side of the mountain? Given what we see later, that’s probably not the case.

We cut to Okinawa, where an ancient royal Azumi family ceremony is taking place but is cut short when one of the dancers breaks down and has a vision of a “great and terrible monster that will destroy Japan.” Oh, it must be Tuesday. Time for another monster to try and destroy Japan!

One of the witnesses, Gosuke Shimizu (Masaaki Daimon), later discovers a long lost cave in Okinawa and, after searching through the cave for about four minutes, discovers a statue in the shape of the Azumi family’s ancient guardian, King Caesar, along with a strange shiny piece of metal. He dislodges the statue and finds a phrase engraved on it – “When a black mountain appears above the clouds, a monster will appear to destroy the earth.” Gosuke takes the statue with him back to Japan so he can have his friend, a professor (Hiroshi Koizumi), look it over. But on his way back, he looks out his airplane window to find a massive black cloud that looks exactly like a mountain, exactly what the prophecy had predicted.

He finds out from the professor that there is more to the prophecy. “When the red moon sets and the sun rises in the west, two more shall appear to save humanity.” The professor is also able to find out that the metal Gosuke discovered is similar to titanium, but is not from our planet. Meanwhile, the entire time Gosuke has made is trip, there have been people watching him from every corner, including a man with sunglasses and a trench coat. In the middle of the night, a thug breaks in and try to steal the King Caesar statue from him but fails and flees.

 

 

Shortly after this, a giant meatball-shaped rock explodes out of Mt. Fuji…I don’t make any of this up, I just report it to you guys as it happens. Once the rock lands, it explodes and out pops Godzilla, but with a different roar. This Godzilla’s roar is more like a high-pitched screech and far more mechanical. Everyone starts to fear that the prophecy is coming true and that Godzilla is the monster that’ll destroy the world.

Godzilla beings his rampage through the countryside, destroying several buildings with his bare hands while also moving just a bit differently. In the middle of all this, Anguirus pops up out of the ground and starts attacking Godzilla. Our characters find this odd, since by this point Godzilla and Anguirus are supposed to be best friends. But as Anguirus continues to attack Godzilla, he chips away some skin on Godzilla’s shoulder to reveal a shiny metal interior, showing that this isn’t the real Godzilla.

This leads to possibly the most brutal beat down in the history of the Godzilla movies, as the Fake Godzilla kicks Anguirus around, tosses him by his tail and then breaks his jaw like King Kong loves to do T-Rex’s. Luckily this doesn’t kill Anguirus, who just walks away with a destroyed jaw and bleeding like crazy. Gosuke goes through the wreckage of the fight to find more of that strange titanium, but in greater quantity.

 

 

We cut to a few hours later, when Fake Godzilla has made his way to an oil district of Tokyo and has set the entire area ablaze with his flamethrower breath. And I have to say, I love this entire sequence as it uses the entire miniature set to good use and shows the scale of this Godzilla’s destruction. But it gets even better in the middle of his attack, when a building near the pier is destroyed to reveal the real Godzilla ready to fight.

As a kid, my jaw dropped when I saw this scene. Two Godzilla’s at the same time, one good and one evil, ready to duke it out to see who was better. The fight uses the entire miniature set and each explosion make their conflict feel even more grand, especially with a strange yellow tint to everything.

 

 

The real Godzilla chips more of the fake Godzilla’s skin away and the professor finally deduces that the Godzilla that flew out of Mt. Fuji is a cyborg. And without any justification, the film cuts to a man in a silver jump suit smoking a cigar who says, “Damn Godzilla. You’re mistaken if you think your power is a match for MechaGodzilla.” He then proceeds to flip a couple of switches to burn away all of the fake Godzilla’s skin and reveal MechaGodzilla in all his cheesy, badass glory.

The reveal of MechaGodzilla is one of my favorite moments in all of these movies. Perfectly paced to build up mystery, while still keeping the mystery of MechaGodzilla’s creators hidden, while the first shots of MechaGodzilla show how he is decked out in stylish weapons. The music is flashy yet cool, and the setting of the burning oil refinery is unique and adds some great lighting to this whole scene. To top it off, MechaGodzilla unleashes his attack on Godzilla and downs him on his first missile strike, showing off how much more powerful he is than Godzilla. It’s only thanks to a clash of beams that ends the fight in a draw, but Godzilla certainly gets it worse as his blood coats the ocean.

 

 

Shortly after this, we learn a lot more about MechaGodzilla’s creators. They are aliens from another galaxy, whose planet is slowly being consumed by a black hole. They’ve come to Earth to claim it as their own and intend to use MechaGodzilla to wipe out humanity.

As a kid, I always wondered why they made their robot look like Godzilla and why they disguised it as the real Godzilla at the beginning of the movie. For that, I like to look at the short scene we had earlier with the guy who talked about MechaGodzilla’s power and how relaxed he was with his cigar and cool voice. These aliens are all about style, they want to have all the power but look good while doing it. So of course they would design their giant killer robot in the shape of our greatest champion, it is to demoralize us and show how much better they are. And to be fair, after their first encounter, it is clear that MechaGodzilla is far superior to the original.

Noticing how screwed Earth is if the Black Hole aliens get what they want, our heroes take the second part of the prophecy to heart and find a way to make it come true. They head back to Okinawa to see what they can do. Weirdly enough, the aliens know about the prophecy as well and send more thugs and goons to get the statue and destroy it so that King Caesar cannot be summoned.

This is where “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” becomes more of a spy/action film than a monster film, since our heroes are being hunted down for their statue and have to fend off multiple attacks while onboard a ship heading to Okinawa. This goes on for about half an hour, as the goons attack, the guy in the trench coat returns but continues to be sneaky until it’s revealed that he’s an Interpol agent who is trying to find his fellow agent, supposedly kidnapped by the aliens.

 

 

It’s at this point that it stops feeling like a Godzilla movie and more like a James Bond film. It does the spy and action scenes fine, but after the great set-up they had with the scene at the oil refinery this all feels like a bit of a letdown.

Eventually, our heroes get back to Okinawa and outsmart the goons and thugs and get the statue onto the ancient pedestal just in time to complete the prophecy and open the side of a mountain that reveals the hidden location of King Caesar, who is still asleep.

This leads to the stupidest moment of the movie when the Azumi family dancer from the beginning of the movie sings to King Caesar to wake him up. Not only does she sing to a sleeping monster, but she sings the same song twice, and all while MechaGodzilla is slowly walking towards King Caesar. MechaGodzilla is literally letting her sing to him when he could just fly over to destroy King Caesar or blast him with his beams or missiles while he is asleep.

Anyway, she is successful and King Caesar is awoken from his slumber. King Caesar’s design is unique, with a lot of visible fur and expressive ears. He moves like is made of rock but looks like a dog monster, so he’s certainly no slouch on the visuals. My biggest problem with King Caesar is his roar, not that its bad, just that his roar is identical to King Kong’s roar from “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”

Which brings me to an grievance I have with this film – With how King Caesar is a up-front and physical fighter against MechaGodzilla, and sounds like King Kong, how much cooler would this film have been if King Caesar was replaced with King Kong? That would bring everything full circle, where Godzilla and his first big opponent have to team up and fight his strongest enemy yet. Not much would have to be changed, since both Kong and Caesar have an entire religion and mystery surrounding them, and the two pretty much act the same also.

But King Caesar is such a huge focus on the plot of the film that it is ultimately disappointing once he finally shows up. Our heroes spend about a third of the runtime trying to bring Caesar to life and all we get out of it is a short fight between the two that ends as Godzilla shows up again to join the fight, completing the prophecy that two monsters would fight the threat that could destroy the world.

Actually, the fight between MechaGodzilla and King Caesar is comical. Caesar can reflect MechaGodzilla’s eye lasers back at him…but only if the eye lasers hit Caesar in his eyes. MechaGodzilla quickly figures this out and simply targets his eye lasers at other parts of King Caesar’s body or just uses other weapons that cannot be reflected. Then Caesar just ends up hiding behind a mountain like a scared puppy until Godzilla arrives.

 

 

But once Godzilla gets back into the fight, things get awesome again as the two Godzillas duke it out. Godzilla proves to be the most resilient he’s ever been, switching between quick physical strikes and his atomic breath and refusing to go down against MechaGodzilla’s attacks. But MechaGodzilla is still able to counter Godzilla at every turn, especially with his ability to fly and shoot beams and missiles that ground Godzilla. Even when King Caesar rejoins the fight, after cowering the corner for a little while, MechaGodzilla still finds a way to overpower both monsters at the same time.

One of my favorite bits is when Godzilla and King Caesar have MechaGodzilla front and back, but MechaGodzilla turns his head 180 degrees to Godzilla has to face missiles and bombs, while Caesar gets the eye lasers. And just for good measure, after MechaGodzilla blasts both monsters to the ground, he uses his finger missiles on a couple of nearby houses. The movie always takes full advantage of the fact that MechaGodzilla is a robot and can do all these weird things with his mechanical body.

But the best moment is when MechaGodzilla unleashes his all-out assault, literally unloading all of his missiles and beams on the helpless Godzilla and King Caesar. There’s missiles coming out of every possible spot on MechaGodzilla, including his toes, knees, fingers, mouth, and a piercing beam from the center of his chest. Godzilla and Caesar are tripping over themselves trying to avoid every attack and the entire landscape is destroyed in the carnage. MechaGodzilla has become an entire armory of kaiju-busting weapons.

Eventually, Godzilla barely manages to get through MechaGodzilla’s all-out assault, but then has to take the attacks at point-blank range, leading to Godzilla spewing blood everywhere and getting some finger missiles stuck in his neck. This leads to my only complaint with the monster scenes in this movie, Godzilla’s deus-ex-machina new power that he developed after getting struck by lightning multiple times and becoming a magnetic pole.

 

 

Remember kids, if you get struck my lightning several times in a row, it’ll turn you into a magnet!

The problem with this is that it feels like it comes out of nowhere. While there was a scene earlier to show Godzilla getting the power, that doesn’t mean it suddenly makes sense or that it works for the story. They did it because they wrote themselves into a corner and couldn’t come up with a better idea so Godzilla could beat MechaGodzilla.

With the ability to turn himself into a magnet, Godzilla forces MechaGodzilla to come to him, even reeling MechaGodzilla in like he was a fish on a hook at one point, and grabs MechaGodzilla from behind. King Caesar rams into MechaGodzilla a couple of times for good measure before Godzilla twists his mechanical clones’ head off to finally defeat his cosmic foe.

At the same time, the Interpol agent and the professor work together to disable the Black Hole aliens controls, kill their leader and escape their exploding base alive, ending the threat of MechaGodzilla and the aliens once and for all. Godzilla returns to the sea, while King Caesar goes back to sleep and peace is resorted to Okinawa and the world.

“Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” is one of the few Godzilla films I have no problem popping in every once in a while just to watch the monster scenes and skip the human scenes. Not that the human scenes are terrible, but that they are weak compared to how amazing the monster scenes are. Both of the confrontations between its titular monsters are highlights of the entire Showa series, showcasing a much more vulnerable Godzilla that offers a nice change of pace. For once, it feels like Godzilla isn’t uberly strong and has to work much harder to achieve victory, facing off against a monster that is just as cool as him. The music by Masaru Sato is heart-pounding and catchy with its use of horns and drums. Still, so much focus on the ultimately pointless King Caesar does bring this film down but not enough to say this is a bad film. This is an extremely fun monster movie, but a below-average spy thriller.