Thursday, January 23, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla Raids Again

Godzilla's lightning fast counterattack.

After the original King Kong made its premiere in March of 1933 and became a smashing success, RKO Pictures and the producers rushed a sequel into production, getting The Son of Kong out to theatres by the end of December 1933. Likewise, when Gojira was released in November of 1954 and was a massive hit, Toho Studios and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka rushed a sequel to their monster movie into production. And beat RKO's Kong turnaround time.

Godzilla Raids Again, also known as Godzilla's Counterattack, was on the screens of theatres in Japan by the end of April 1955, less than six months after Gojira was first projected on them.

Screenwriter Shigeaki Hidaka shares credit with the original's writers Shigeru Kayama and Takeo Murata, but two behind-the-scenes names who made the first film so effective - composer Akira Ifukube and director Ishirô Honda - were unable to return to the world of Godzilla so quickly, being replaced by Masaru Satô and Motoyoshi Oda, respectively.

Oda was known as a man who could get a movie made quickly, that's what he did for Toho. They had him making up to seven movies a year, so he was the obvious go-to director when they wanted to get a sequel to Gojira out within a matter of months. With the successful completion of this film, Motoyoshi Oda had made his only directorial project to ever be screened outside of Japan.

It may seem insane that Counterattack/Raids Again was put together in under six months, but when you take into account the fact that the first movie was entirely conceived and made between the Lucky Dragon 5 fishing boat accident on March 1, 1954 and its release on November 3, 1954, you see that the schedules of the two weren't that far off from each other.

The story of the sequel centers on former fighter pilots Tsukioka and Kobayashi, who now work as spotter pilots for the Kaiyo Fishing Company. During a routine day at work scouting for tuna, Kobayashi experiences engine trouble and is forced to land on a small island. Tsukioka flies to the island to pick his friend up, and that's when, just 8 minutes into the movie, Godzilla makes his first onscreen appearance.

A voiceover by paleontologist Kyohei Yamane at the end of the first movie had warned us that there could be other Godzillas in the world, and they too could be awoken by the continued use and testing of nuclear weapons. He was right. While the first Godzilla was liquified into a pile of bones at the bottom of Tokyo Bay, the island that bad luck has brought Tsukioka and Kobayashi to is inhabited by another of the creatures. And that's not all.

When the pilots first see this new Godzilla, he's locked in brutal combat with another creature left over from a prehistoric era, a spiky shelled, quadrupedal Angilosaurus, "otherwise known as the monster Angilas (or Anguirus)".

Escaping from the island and reporting what they've seen to mainland authorities, Tsukioka and Kobayashi are brought in for a meeting with officials and experts, where we get some exposition on Godzilla's dinosaur foe - Angilosaurus was one of the strongest dinosaurs of its day, it's a carnivore that stands between 150 and 200 feet tall, and it has a violent hatred for war-like predators, which explains why it would be fighting with Godzilla. Yamane is at this meeting, with actor Takashi Shimura reprising his role for a brief cameo, mainly to show film clips of the monster's attack on Tokyo some months earlier and tell everyone that, since the device used to kill the previous Godzilla, the Oxygen Destroyer, and the information on how to make it perished with its creator, there are no effective countermeasures to take against Godzilla.

However, Yamane does have a new observation to share on the first Godzilla - it seemed to have a sensitivity to light; when emergency lights were pointed at it, they seemed to make it angrier. Perhaps it was the glare from an H-Bomb test that awoke this second Godzilla... and perhaps this sensitivity to light could be used against it in some way.

Despite the knowledge that Godzilla is somewhere out there in the sea, life goes on on the mainland. The film continues to follow Tsukioka and Kobayashi in their personal lives - Tsukioka is engaged to marry his boss's daughter Hidemi, who also works at the fishing company and whom Kobayashi secretly has a crush on. Even more than on them personally, we see how the presence and destructive activities of Godzilla have an effect on the Kaiyo Fishing Company throughout the film.

When Godzilla reaches the mainland, this time in Osaka rather than Tokyo, the movie, like its predecessor, is effectively evocative of wartime Japan. Citizens are warned over loudspeakers that danger is imminent, the lights in the city are shut down as during air raids, people are evacuated to shelters.

The plan that was created based on Yamane's light observation is put into motion... and at first seems to work. A squadron of planes fly over Godzilla's head as he wades toward Osaka and start dropping flare "light bombs" in an effort to lure him back away from the shore. Godzilla takes the bait, following the stream of flares back out to the sea.

Unfortunately, among the people being evacuated to shelters are the convicts from Osaka's prison, and one truckload of criminals decides to take this opportunity to make a daring escape. On the run, a trio of prisoners choose a tanker truck as their getaway vehicle... and the ensuing car chase ends with the truck crashing into an oil refinery, setting off a huge explosion.

The burning refinery provides a much more enticing beacon of light to Godzilla than the flares, so he turns around and makes his way back to Osaka. As the military does their best to stop the monster, this Godzilla proves that he, like the Godzilla before him, has received a high enough dose of radiation to develop the ability to exhale blasts of scorching, flame-igniting radiation from his mouth.

The military's weaponry does nothing to deter Godzilla. He makes landfall. Within moments, Anguirus has also arrived at Osaka, and the two monsters immediately engage in a knock-down, drag-out rematch that is the highlight of this film, and is when it becomes apparent that this sequel is taking a much different approach to the destructive sequences than the first movie.

While Honda focused on the horror and the human consequences of the destruction Godzilla wreaked upon Tokyo, here Oda is working within an Osaka that has been emptied of civilians, making it, essentially, simply a ring for Godzilla and Anguirus to do battle within. There are no human lives at stake beyond anonymous soldiers and the escaped prisoners. This movie is all about the spectacle of watching two monsters clash. The most emotion on display comes from the owner of the Kaiyo Fishing Company as he watches his business go up in flames.

The monster brawl is when the work of returning special effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya really comes into the forefront, as we watch his creature suits in action. Inside Tsuburaya's suitmation creations are Haruo Nakajima, reprising the role of Godzilla in a suit that was redesigned to fit him better, and Katsumi Tezuka, who also wore the Godzilla suit in the previous film, as Anguirus. As the monsters tear into each other in action that was shot while undercranking the camera, they make a mess of Osaka, most notably causing the destruction of the towering Osaka Castle, which was first constructed in 1583.

When the battle ends, Godzilla leaves Osaka behind. But this isn't the last dealing Tsukioka and Kobayashi will have with the iconic monster. As the climax of the film nears, the fishing plane pilots may have to again become fighter pilots...

While everyone did a servicable job this time around, Godzilla Raids Again still comes off as very lacking when compared to its predecessor. The particular brand of magic that Gojira had, its scope and its emotional effectiveness, were not recaptured.

I try not to judge it too harshly, because following up an immortal classic is a daunting task, but while there are some good moments within the film, I do find it to be rather forgettable overall. The structure and story feel a bit awkward and scattershot, the drama unengaging, although Kobayashi does become more of an intriguing character as the film goes on. Aside from moments of depth that he provides, the story among the characters feels very superficial to me.

The selling points of this film are Godzilla and Anguirus, the effects of Eiji Tsuburaya, the awe of seeing the Osaka miniatures destroyed. In that area, the film is not lacking at all, and when that's going on, it's a fun, rousing monster movie. Those scenes are memorable. It's the moments between Godzilla's appearances that aren't as interesting.

Gojira came together exceptionally well on a short schedule, but Godzilla Raids Again could've used a little more time in the development stage.

Oddly, when American producers showed interest in bringing the film over to the states, none of them were out to cash in on the successful U.S. release of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956. One company's plan was to take the monster footage and shoot an entirely new story, written by sci-fi screenwriter Ib Melchior (Death Race 2000, the U.S. version of Planet of the Vampires) for a film to be titled The Volcano Monsters. When that company went out of business, the movie ended up in a hands of a group of producers that included Edmund Goldman, the man whose $25,000 purchase of the international rights to Gojira led to the making of King of the Monsters. But even though Goldman had success with Godzilla before, the English-dubbed version of Godzilla Raids Again was titled Gigantis, The Fire Monster when it was released (in a double bill with Teenagers from Outer Space), all references to Godzilla dubbed to refer to him as Gigantis. A very strange and counterintuitive choice, and of course audience members saw right through this attempt to call Godzilla by a different name.

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