Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 1-3

The recent Blu-ray release of Ultra Q is my first chance to watch this legendary 1966-67 Japanese sci-fi series. Created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects master behind the original run of Godzilla movies, Ultra Q is often described as cross between Outer Limits and X-Files. It is the adventures of a team of reporters, pilots, and scientists who investigate and deal with weird events, usually involving giant monsters.

Ultra Q team

Which leads us to the 500,000 lbs. kaiju in the room. While in its time this was a very expensive TV show to produce, today the special effects in Ultra Q, with its floppy monsters suits and miniature sets, can look cheap and ridiculous – though I’m not sure if the rubbery CGI common today is really that much better. If your reaction is that this all looks worthy of only a Mystery Science Theater treatment, Ultra Q isn’t a show for you. If you sincerely like Godzilla movies, and can appreciate the craft, ingenuity, and imagination that went into such a show, it’s a lot of fun. In those ways, Ultra Q is rather like the older seasons of Dr. Who, which was airing in England at the same time.

The right way to approach Ultra Q is that it, again like Dr. Who, is fundamentally a children’s program, one with entertainment value for older viewers as well. Besides the monsters smashing buildings, over the first three episodes more and more thoughtful ideas are introduced. Episode one “Defeat Gomess” is the troupe of a nerdy kid who could solve the monster problem if only adults would listen to him. “Goro and Goro,” like most stories with a giant monkey, has King Kong inspired themes, that fear and aggression make monsters out of nature and that for some problems: ”You don’t need weapons, you just need a heart.” By episode three, “Gift from Space,” we are considering whether humans reaching out into space might be breaking cosmic laws and customs we are too ignorant to understand, and that space aliens aren’t contacting us because we are still too violent and destructive for extraterrestrial civilization.

Martian Slug

The third episode also has already taken our monsters from a reused Godzilla suit to a slimy giant slug from Mars. A lot of the fun of this show is from seeing what kind of crazy creature will star in each episode. I’m also wondering where the world view of the show, the portrait of a technological society on the brink of discovering a much greater universe will go. More thoughts to come as I watch further episodes.

The Return of Godzilla

I first saw the movie that was then known as Godzilla 1985 during its original American theatrical run. The producers of this English language version did something that was both clever and ridiculous: just as Raymond Burr has been edited into the American release of the original 1954 Godzilla, he was now brought in to reprise his role as newspaper reporter Steve Martin and edited into this new film. In neither case does the character have much of anything to do with the actual story.

Move Poster

Released in Japan in 1984 as The Return of Godzilla (sometimes also with the title Godzilla 1984), Return was the first new Godzilla movie since 1975. It is significant for just being a new Godzilla movie, what we’d call today a “reboot” of the franchise, and the beginning of a new series of films that ran until 1995. It is presented as a sequel to the 1954 Godzilla, ignoring all the other movies since then. Which was a wise choice, since Godzilla movies had degenerated into low-budget children’s films of decreasing popularity.

And Return is not a film for children. The opening sequence is more like a British Hammer horror film with a gore spattered ghost ship, desiccated corpses, and blood sucking giant insects. The design of Godzilla is also fiercer and more threatening. His long sharp teeth are prominent and animatronics were used to give him a mouth that could sneer and snarl. While we don’t see him actually eat anybody, this is a Godzilla that looks you in the eye before smashing the building you are in or hurling your train car to the ground. The film is a rare one in the giant monster genre where Tokyo is not fully evacuated before Godzilla begins smashing it up. People get hurt and bleed in this movie. Not only is there mass destruction, we see corpses and witness individual deaths.

The human perspective on Godzilla is emphasized. His shadow looms over crowds and there are many shots looking up as he towers above puny humans. People are often shown with just Godzilla’s feet and huge claws (life-sized mechanical foot was built for some of these shots – it works about as well as you’d expect).

At the end of the first Godzilla film, the monster is definitively killed, reduced to dissolving bones. When Godzilla Raid Again was made in 1955, a character proclaims that this must be “another Godzilla” and the matter was never mentioned again. Here a scientist muses that Godzilla must be “immortal” and once more no one mentions it further. Godzilla’s 1954 rampage is part of history and is vaguely referred to. Many of the elder authorities and politicians featured must have actually lived through that attack, though their reaction aren’t as intense as one might expect.

I was surprised by the resemblance between this movie and the 2016 Shin Godzilla and would say this film was Hideaki Anno’s model for his own reboot. There is the prominence of onscreen announcements of locations and characters’ official titles. There are plenty of political meetings and planning sessions. Sequences of military operations and equipment are on display in detail. These frequently are elements in Godzilla movies but they get a lot of screen time here. What Shin Godzilla added was making meetings and internal politics the center of the film and ramping it all up to satirical proportions. Issues of Japan standing up against the rest of the world, particularly regarding the use of nuclear weapons come up in both films. The economic disruptions that a giant radiaoactive dinosaur could cause are at least mentioned.

Godzilla himself here also resembles the star of Shin Godzilla. He is not played by the long time actor Haruo Nakajima and has none of the usual sumo or professional wrestling stances from earlier films. He moves stiffly with arms uprasied, serpentine tail lashing behind him, again much like in Shin. This Godzilla is also taller than before, which is important for the environment he moves through. In 1954 Godzilla was gigantic against the Tokyo skyline. Now, even at 80 meters, many buildings in the heart of the city are taller than him, and Godzilla moves as if through cliffs and canyons. That he is able to blast through or knock over these structures only emphasizes his strength. By Shin Godzilla buildings were even taller, and so was Godzilla, over 118 meters, more than twice his height in 1954.

While overall this movie tries to make Godzilla the scary threat he was back in 1954, there are some shifts in tone and story that conflict with that goal. In his first few appearances in the film, Godzilla is portrayed as an animal seeking food — radiation in his case. He attacks an atomic submarine and comes to shore to absorb the energy of a nuclear power plant. He is most destructive though when he attacks Tokyo, no atomic power source in sight. He is actively seeking to destroy the works of mankind and, as I mentioned, stares down at us judgmentally as he does so. And then he is lured away from this seeming revenge by the artificial migration signal the humans have created, becoming an animal acting on instinct again. Other shifts include a comic relief bum stealing food, put into the middle of otherwise nightmare of devastation and death. Most of the film, again like Shin Godzilla, is realistic except for the existence of the monster — until a futuristic flying battle ship is introduced. The X-One deserves some recognition by actually defeating Godzilla. Its skilled crew and atomic dampening cadmium missiles would have won the day, if radiation hadn’t revived Godzilla after he’d be knocked out. In Shin Godzilla was also defeated using a similar approach. The strangest shift in tone occurs at the very end, after Godzilla has been sent plunging into a volcano. After a film full of Godzilla being a horrific walking disaster of death and chaos, characters look at his (presumed) death throes with sadness, and over the closing credits a mournful voice sings “Take care Godzilla, my old friend.”

A few thematic elements appear in the film, reminiscent of the ideas in the 1954 movie. Questions about the choice between personal desires and the greater good, about mankind throwing the natural order out of balance and birthing monsters that punish us. These don’t really go anywhere, unlike the first film where they were at its center. The main purpose of this film is to update the classic monster and have him join the wave of relatively high budget science fiction and adventure films that were filling theatres. In that it was a modest success, not a blockbuster, but beginning a new series of Godzilla films that would continue with Godzilla Vs Biollante in 1989. I saw that one in the movie theatre as well, and had it on laserdisc for awhile. Unfortunately it is out of print on DVD currently, so I will have to skip it in my plans to rewatch this era of Godzilla’s adventures.

The One With The Giant Lobster

I am pretty sure now that I have seen every Godzilla film at least once (I don’t count the 1998 Roland Emmerich film with Matthew Broderick; who does?). It is a little embarrassing from a nerd perspective that it has taken me this long. I don’t know why Ebirah, Horror of The Deep (Jun Fukuda, 1966), or Godzilla vs the Sea Monster as the English dub was called, was not part of the rotation of monster films on TV in my childhood. Son of Godzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1967) was another I didn’t see until much later in my life. Sequences of both those films are familiar though, as they were reused in a later film Godzilla, Minilla, Gabara: All Monster Attack (Ishirō Honda 1969), known in the US as Godzilla’s Revenge. Godzilla’s Revenge was shown on TV frequently, despite being a uniquely odd entry in the series, something I’ll return to later.

Movie poster

Overall the story of this film is a light children’s adventure. This film was originally intended to feature not Godzilla, but King Kong. The title of that version, Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs. Ebirah evokes the idea of a shipwreck adventure with dangerous creatures, colorful native people, and menacing pirates (specifically in this case a paramilitary organization making nuclear weapons). It wouldn’t really take much rewriting to not have any hero monster at all, but I guess it needed a “star,” and someone to have fights/wrestling matches with the giant lobster, Ebirah. Those battles, featuring impressive water (and underwater) special effects and monster suit work, are entertaining, but don’t actually add anything to the plot.

Knowing that Kong was originally intended explains the more monkey-like behaviors we see from Godzilla, such as throwing rocks and even sitting down and taking a nap at one point. This may be the only Godzilla movie where we see him sit down. There also a trace of a Fay Wray plot, where Godzilla ends up helping the humans after a pretty south sea island woman warns him about a giant eagle that attacks inexplicably at one point.

One fun element of watching Godzilla movies of this era is spotting the actors who show up in other films of the genre. Akira Takarada, Akihiko Hirata, and Kumi Mizuno are among the actors here who appear in many Toho Company studio monster films, though rarely if ever playing the same characters. Even Godzilla Final Wars (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2004) had many cameos by these performers. It is also always worth mentioning that Godzilla himself was played by the same actor, Haruo Nakajima in 12 movies from 1954 to 1972.

The Japanese titles of these movies are always much more dramatic than the English names they are given. Godzilla vs the Sea Monster is meh, Ebirah, Horror of The Deep is fine, but Godzilla, Ebirah, Mothra: Great Duel in the South Seas is even better. It was the seventh Godzilla movie made. Godzilla was well on his way to becoming more of a “good guy”, rather than a relentless embodiment of destruction as in his debut, but not quite the superhero he became by the 70s. Given that All Monster Attack, aka Godzilla’s Revenge, is literally a boy fantasizing about how to deal with a bully, one could make a case that the last six movies of this era are just stories made up by an imaginative child. I mentioned Godzilla’s Revenge was often on our local TV. It aired once with the first Godzilla film, a double feature our city newspaper described as:
Godzilla (1954): Giant rubber-suited monster destroys Tokyo. With Raymond Burr.”
Godzilla’s Revenge (1969): Giant rubber-suited monster destroys Tokyo. Without Raymond Burr.”

Here’s a delightful alternative poster for the movie from Zornow Must Be DestroyedZornow Poster

“Godzilla Raids Again”: beginning, break, rapid

After five decades of watching kaiju eiga — Japanese giant monster movies — there were still two Godzilla movies I had not seen. I just scratched one of those off, by watching the second Godzilla film produced, 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again.

Movie posterThe English dub of this film doesn’t even call him Godzilla. It is known as Gigantis the Fire Monster and the owners of the domestic version didn’t keep it in distribution, which is why I never is saw it on any of the late night or afterschool creature-feature shows on my local TV stations. Where I did just see the Japanese original was on, of all the places, the Criterion Channel streaming service. I have no idea why this movie is in their collection along with the works of Welles, Bergman, Kurosawa, etc. Godzilla Raids Again is not a good movie. Yet it has some interesting aspects worth considering, for the genre it helped create, and for styles of Japanese storytelling that go back to medieval times.

The film was produced in a rush after the success of the original Godzilla the year before. It is not even directed by Ishiro Honda, who was responsible for most of the classic “Showa” era Godzilla films of the 1960’s and 70’s. At least the special effects were handled by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya, though even that aspect of the film is problematic. Some camera mechanical issues resulted in much of the monster action appearing sped up – rather than slowed down as one would expect, to increase the sense of scale. In spite of that there are actually some impressive special effects in the film, such as the crushing of Osaka, including its famous castle, beneath two wrestling kaiju. There are also some shots looking down on Godzilla from an airplane high above, which is not how the king of monsters is usually depicted. That these shots make him seem small and non-threatening is something I’ll return to later.

The plot of this film is mostly a slice-of-life about a fishing company and its employees – that just happens to have Godzilla as one of the issues they have to deal with. The economic impact of Godzilla is something that doesn’t come up often. The first issue this sequel has to deal with is that in its predecessor, the 1954 Godzilla, the monster was pretty thoroughly killed – we not only saw the body, we saw it dissolve into bones and then into nothing. This film’s solution? There’s another Godzilla. Enough said. And there’s second monster, Anguirus, who is identified as a type of dinosaur, the ankylosaurus. The film is unequivocal that Godzilla and Angurius are dinosaurs. As a dinosaur nerd myself it was amusing to hear the film’s experts go on and on about what a vicious and aggressive predator ankylosaurus was – since most any schoolchild could tell you that it should be included in the list of placid plant eating dinos. Anguirus, along with Godzilla II, is assumed awakened by H-bomb tests.

The movie has three acts that work more like three episodes of a serial, rather than one movie. The first act spends plenty of time introducing the fishing company and its two spotter pilots, Tsukioka and Kobayashi. They are the ones who discover the second Godzilla, already locked in combat with Anguirus. This film introduced the trope of Godzilla fighting other monsters, a main element in most subsequent movies of the franchise. Often there is a convoluted plot to get the kaiju brawling, but in this movie it just happens. Our two heroes barely escape to report their discovery.

The second act starts out with a lot of meetings and planning about what to do. Eventually a scheme is concocted to use flares to scare Godzilla away, should he come to shore. This is another tradition: making up an arbitrary weakness for Godzilla that are only mentioned for a short sequence and then forgotten. Bright lights are frightening because they remind him of the H-bomb test that awoke him..? Additionally the story has already forgotten that this not the same monster that attacked Tokyo the year before. That fact is never mentioned again in the franchise, as far as I know.

After much tracking and careful observations, everyone seems ready when Godzilla shows up at Osaka. Another trope introduced is the evacuation sequence. The first Godzilla was memorable for its scenes of injured survivors in makeshift hospitals suffering the consequences of the monster’s attack. The parallels with the devastation of World War II bombings being obvious. In subsequent films there is a requisite sequence where citizens are warned that monsters are coming and they need to flee. By the time buildings are crumbling and exploding, the city can be assumed empty. When this convention is ignored, as in Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy, the results are brutal and shocking. In Godzilla Raids Again, while Osaka is reduced to flaming rubble, there are few signs of any causalities outside the military.

The meticulous plan goes awry when, first, escaping criminals accidently set an oil refinery ablaze, and then Anguirus happens to show up again. While humans watch helplessly, the monsters have their vicious rematch, destroying the city. Godzilla wins, biting and then incinerating Angurius. That’s it for the ankylosaurus (until an identical monster reappears in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters). Yet there’s still more movie to get through. That Godzilla’s main opponent is dead half way though the film is not the only odd thing about the story structure here.

In the third act, the fishing company has shifted its main operations to its northern offices, on the snowy island of Hokkaido. Pilot Kobayashi has settled in to his new assignment and is hoping to get married. Things seem to be going well — until Godzilla shows up again and sinks a fishing trawler. The pilots track him down to remote island and Kobayashi attempts to distract and delay the monster to give the military time to act. Sadly he is killed, but his plane crash revealing a possible means of finishing off Godzilla: trigger an avalanche and bury him in ice. The second pilot, Tsukioka, joins the military to avenge his friend.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how Asian traditions of storytelling show up in works of popular culture. There is the four-act Kishoutenketsu dramatic structure, which I’ve mentioned some in these posts, but also there is the pattern of Jo-ha-kyū, which has origins in medieval Japan and 14th century Noh plays. When I watch something from Japan that has a puzzling structure, I try to think if I am looking at it from too Western a perspective. Godzilla Raids Again was a strange candidate for this approach, but it seems to have some application.

Roughly, Jo-ha-kyū is “beginning, break, rapid.” An example that comes to mind is the classic confrontation between samurai warriors which you see all the time in movies, manga, and anime. Rather than a prolonged duel of clashing blades, these fights tend to consist of two samurai appearing on the battlefield. They stare at each other, then slowly draw their katanas, taking a few steps, then building to a run. They pass each other, making a single slash with their swords. There’s a pause, and one falls dead. An introduction, a buildup to a crisis, and then a very swift resolution. Beginning, break, rapid. This is also the pattern of two cowboys gunslingers meeting for a showdown: one of the many reason why the cowboy and samurai genres intermix so well.

All three sections of this movie have slow introductions and build ups. We see a lot of how this industrial fishing operation works, from its airplanes looking for schools of fish, to the crews of the fleet, to the administrative structure of the company. Those are the “Jo” sections. These people are really just trying to do their jobs, but Godzilla keeps showing up and interfering with their production schedule. That’s the “Ha”: when the menace has made itself known and everybody has to plan how to deal with it. When Godzillas attacks come it is a sudden escalation of danger and destruction — “Kyū”

Some of the odd scenes in the movie have a clearer purpose when put into this structure. For instance in the third act, to celebrate the recovery of their business, the company has a sake drinking party at a local inn. While there, Tsukioka meets up with some old war buddies (now part of the Japanese Self-defense Force). The only narrative function of this long, complicated sequence is to reconnect him with his military friends so that, at the end, he can request to join them in their final assault on Godzilla. Nothing else actually happens in this sequence. It just shows the lives of these characters, going about their business — until the news of Godzilla upsets things. From a Western storytelling perspective it seems filler, something to give the movie feature film length, but as a “Jo” section it moderates the pacing, giving more emphasizing on ordinary life, contrasting the unnatural events to come.

This may sound like I am presenting this movie as having unappreciated value — but not really. Many plot events just happen at random. Basic facts shift as needed — is Godzilla frighted of lights, or attracted to flames? Why would barrels of burning oil drive off a giant radioactive dragon? In the final act Godzilla comes off as a hunted beast. Godzilla trapped in a valley, with snow covered mountains towering over him is a strange image. He seems more like a lost, out of place animal. One might think he is meant to be pitied, but no other element in the movie supports that.

The rush to start a series of Godzilla films in the 50’s did not go well. Godzilla Raids Again was not a big success. There would not be another until Ishiro Honda returned to direct the color King Kong vs Godzilla in 1962. The remaining Godzilla film I have yet to see is the 1967 Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, aka The One With the Giant Lobster.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters — and a little bit of Proust

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Michael Dougherty, 2019) was better than the previous U.S. Godzilla film, Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014), but still pretty bad. That earlier film was so awful it left a lot of room between it and “okay” for other bad films to live. I don’t intend this as an extensive negative review, but rather a comparison of what didn’t work in this film with what I do enjoy in more successful movies of this genre – movies I frequently wished I was watching instead of this one. What I thought of most often was Godzilla: Final Wars (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2004) with its frantic energy and love of all things crazy and over the top in “kaiju eiga,” — the giant monster movies which Godzilla epitomizes. A better example to call on though is Hideaki Anno’s 2016 blockbuster Shin Godzilla.

The biggest thing that American Godzilla movies seem to miss is that a sequence showing giant monsters fighting should be *about* giant monsters fighting. The titanic, city-wrecking melee shouldn’t be functioning just as a background for humans playing out an uninspired family drama. It is like the film’s creators have a hesitancy or lack of faith in the very monsters that are supposed to be their stars. Shin Godzilla itself has a lot of focus on its human characters, their scenes were their scenes. It is fundamentally a film about people, but once monster action started, that’s what we were meant to focus on. If a sequence did involve both monsters and humans, it was about their actions and reactions to each other, not an “A” plot and a “B” plot to cut between.

The Godzilla: King of the Monsters battle scenes were technically impressive, but rarely left much emotional impact. They played out just as you’d expect. If you tried to imagine what this film looked like from a few still pictures, you’d probably be on target. Marcel Proust wrote that we often approach art by seeking the familiar, what we know we like and have liked in the past. What truly moves us though is discovering the unexpected. One of the most classic Godzilla tropes is his powering up for his atomic breath. A glow begins along the scales on his tail, moves up the large spines along his back, building up to a radiant blast from his mouth. We’ve seen this many times, and both recent America films make a big deal of it. It is “fan service” giving us what we are supposed to want in such a familiar way that we know exactly how it is going to play out. Shin Godzilla sets this up this familiar situation – only to unsettle us by having Godzilla belch out not firey incandescent vapor, but a torrent of black bile that ignites into a napalm-like holocaust that incinerates entire city blocks. Godzilla’s jaw enlarges and splits unnaturally as the energy focuses into a brilliant laser knifing through skyscrapers.We’ve watched Godzilla use his atomic breath for decades, but we have never seen or expected it to appear as it does here, and so it shocks, amazes, and terrifies — things Godzilla: King of the Monsters never does. Shin Godzilla has several such moments that throw the viewer off balance, messing with our expectations, and leaving us almost unbelieving that we are really seeing what is there on the screen. Godzilla’s first appearance on land in a floundering, tadpole-like form leaves us unsure what we are meant to be feeling. Is it funny or an incomprehensible nightmare? Godzilla: King of the Monsters, like most Hollywood epics, never really tries to surprise us and telegraphs exactly what it expects us to feel as it runs through its check-list of set pieces and tropes. And if ever those feelings risk developing any weight, there’s always a character available to make a wisecrack or funny profanity to keep us from actually experiencing anything lasting.

Making an effective giant monster fight is a serious challenge for any film. The best Godzilla films present the conflict as humanity against an elemental force. We are struggling against a walking atomic bomb, an untouchable natural disaster, or the embodiment of supernatural vengeance. It is more problematic when a film pits Godzilla against another giant monster. Through the history of the franchise most of Godzilla’s fights have looked like professional wrestling matches. That has been part of the fun and can be appreciated as the stylized dance performances they, like pro wrestling, are intended to be. Trying to be more serious or “real” is a problem. Director Shusuke Kaneko approached the issue with his trilogy of Gamera moves between 1995-1999 by breaking the rules and playing with the expectations of the genre in his own way, but that’s a big enough topic for another day. The recent American Godzillas – as well as other giant monster films such as the Pacific Rim series – try to deal with the issues by throwing vast amounts of money into the visual effects. The results continue to be uninspiring.

One of the best realized giant monster fights in live-action or animation is in End of Evangelion, an earlier work of Shin Godzilla’s director Hideaki Anno. This was the feature film conclusion to the anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The fight is climatic confrontation between the character Asuka in her giant robot/cyborg Eva Unit and a squad of faceless winged giants. There is balletic combat, horrific violence, and an environment torn apart by this deadly dance of gods. In the midst of all this auction, the real the focus is on the very human Asuka. Every aspect of the titantic external battle is representative of the character’s personal story arc and ultimate mental breakdown. The two elements, internal and external, of character and conflict are united.