Friday, March 7, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Invasion of Astro-Monster

It's Godzilla vs. Monster Zero in the Great Giant Monster War!

In the mid-'60s, an American producer named Henry G. Saperstein, head of the company UPA, which worked primarily in animation, making cartoons featuring characters such as Mister Magoo, Dick Tracy, and Gerald McBoing Boing, was beseeched by U.S. marketers to bring more monster movies into the country, so Saperstein went to the company behind the biggest monsters of all, Japan's Toho Studios.

Saperstein was instrumental in getting the U.S. distribution rights for Mothra vs. Godzilla to AIP, but was looking to distribute these pictures directly through UPA. He struck up a co-distribution and investment deal with Toho, the beginning of a business relationship that would last for decades. The first Toho movie Saperstein was involved with was Frankenstein Conquers the World, a project that was already in the works before he came aboard, but he had some input and most importantly contributed funding. Saperstein/UPA would have more say in the production of the following year's sequel, The War of the Gargantuas, but before that, the first Toho production that Saperstein was fully a part of was the sixth film in the Godzilla series, Invasion of Astro-Monster (a.k.a The Great Monster War, a.k.a. Monster Zero, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, etc.)

Saperstein's influence on the film, directed by Ishirô Honda from a screenply by Shinichi Sekizawa (this was the fourth Godzilla movie in a row for the team of Honda and Sekizawa), is clear from the beginning, as Saperstein had suggested that the movie should launch right into the story and introduce its lead characters right up front so as not to test the patience of the American audience.

Saperstein was also behind the casting of American actor Nick Adams as one of the leads. Former star of the television series The Rebel and an Oscar nominee for 1963's Twilight of Honor, Adams had recently sworn that he would never star in a foreign produced film, saying actors working outside of the country was harmful to the American film industry... but his career was slowing down, so he had to take the opportunities that were presented to him.

Adams plays World Space Agency astronaut Glenn Amer, who is, as the film begins in the not-to-distant future of the year 196X, on a mission in Spaceship P-1 with his co-pilot K. Fuji to investigate Planet X, a dark planet that has recently been discovered to be orbiting Jupiter and from which strange radio waves have been emanating.

Waiting for Fuji back on Earth is his sister Haruno, with whom he has a very old fashioned relationship. As her older brother, Fuji has say in Haruno's life, and when he returns he's set to meet with his sister's fiance, a young inventor named Tetsuo Teri, to decide whether or not to give the couple his blessing. Waiting for Glenn is his girlfriend Miss Namikawa, who works for the educational toy manufacturer World Education Corporation, and is the company's representative when they seek out a gadget newly invented by Tetsuo, a self defense alarm called the Lady Guard, which lets out a loud, piercing shriek when activated. The company, which is headed up a man who seems very strange, buys the Lady Guard from Tetsuo, and then... seems to do nothing with it. He receives no updates on the product's status and doesn't get the money he was promised.

Concurrent to Tetsuo's misadventures, Glenn and Fuji have some very strange experiences of their own. Soon after landing on the surface of Planet X, the astronauts witness flashes of what appear to be a sort of lightning, accompanied by an odd noise. Much more disconcerting is the fact that Fuji finds human footprints in the planet's soil.

Cylinders arise from the ground and a voice beckons the astronauts in. The cylinders take them underground like an elevator, into a bunker where they are introduced to the planet's Commander and his similarly uniformed men. Although Planet X is advanced technologically, architecturally, and mentally (their spaceships run on brain waves), the world has been ravaged by a threat they have depleted all of their resources trying to defeat, unsuccessfully. They have been forced into an underground existence by the monster King Ghidorah... It was the rays that Ghidorah fires from his mouth that Glenn and Fuji witnessed, not lightning.

The Commander offers Earth, through Glenn and Fuji, a deal for an exchange - if we allow the monsters Godzilla and Rodan, who defeated Ghidorah on Earth in the previous film, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, to be transported to Planet X for a planet-saving rematch, we will get an audio tape in return that contains the secret to curing cancer. This is, of course, an offer we can't refuse.

Glenn and Fuji return to Earth with the offer, and the World Council agrees to the deal. During their time back on their home planet, Fuji meets with Haruno and Tetsuo, and does not support their relationship. Glenn reconnects with Namikawa, who begs him to marry her immediately. But he has to focus on this Planet X business right now.

When Godzilla is located right where the Planet X Commander said he would be, resting at the bottom of Lake Myojin, the men of Planet X reveal themselves to be shady and duplicitious, although they present their questionable actions in the most innocent and considerate ways possible - Planet X flying saucers have been on Earth all along, Earth's agreement to the deal was irrelevant, they've been waiting in hiding to begin the transportation of the monsters. The Commander explains that this was merely a security precaution, to make sure Godzilla and Rodan didn't awaken and go on their usual rampages before the ships could arrive.

The Planet X flying saucers generate an energy that lifts the sleeping Godzilla out of the lake 38 minutes into the movie and then they remove the sleeping Rodan from the Washigasawa area, where he was somehow entombed in rock. Cocooned in these energy fields, the monsters are flown off through space, back to Planet X, with Glenn and Fuji catching a ride with the Commander in one of the flying saucers to observe.

As soon as Godzilla and Rodan are dropped off on Planet X and awaken from their slumbers, King Ghidorah attacks them.

In the monster suits designed by special effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya are regular Godzilla performer Haruo Nakajima and, reprising their roles from Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Masaki Shinohara as Rodan and Shôichi Hirose (the man who played King Kong during his fight against Godzilla) as Ghidorah.

Tsuburaya again did some tweaks to the Godzilla costume, changing the shapes of Goji's head and body and making some alterations to his fingers and claws. Although this suit would only be the primary costume for this film and the next one in the series, it would continue to be used as a stunt double suit through several more films.

The rematch between Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah is very quick, but my favorite aspect of this particular fight is how Godzilla participates in it as if he were a gunfighter at one point, ducking behind a rock formation and choosing opportunities to get out from behind his cover just long enough to let off a shot - but instead of firing a pistol, he's blasting at Ghidorah with his atomic breath.

Godzilla and Rodan are able to send Ghidorah flying for safety rather easily, the problem that has been plaguing Planet X is solved within just a couple minutes. As Ghidorah makes his retreat, Godzilla does a silly little victory dance. Director Honda and performer Nakajima objected to the idea of this dance, but Tsuburaya gave it his full support and here it is, captured for perpetuity in the finished film. This dance certainly would have been utterly absurd if it had been included in one of the earlier films, when Godzilla was a nightmarish villain, but after the end of the previous film, he's a good guy, and the movies have become more kid-friendly. This is where Godzilla was at this point, and the dance is fine for this particular film.

Snooping around in the underground during their second visit to Planet X, the WSA astronauts making a shocking and, to Glenn, very disturbing discovery - the women of Planet X all look exactly like Namikawa. Fuji seemed to have an issue with Glenn dating a Japanese girl, but as it turns out he has actually been dating an alien!

Fuji and Glenn are caught in an area of the underground that they don't belong in, but due to "hospitality" the Commander does not punish them. He gives them the audio tape that is said to contain the cure to cancer and sends them on their way in a duplicate of the Spaceship P-1, built according to details of the original ship that were copied by and stored on the super-advanced computer all Planet Xians rely on.

How much the perception of Godzilla has changed by this time in the series is demonstrated as Fuji and Glenn prepare to take off - seeing Godzilla and Rodan standing on the surface of Planet X, watching the Spaceship P-1 duplicate, the astronauts express remorse at leaving the monsters behind. Despite all the death and destruction Godzilla and Rodan have caused in their histories, brushed off as the pair "causing trouble sometimes", Fuji and Glenn feel sorry for leaving them behind on this alien planet. The people of Godzilla and Rodan's first films would've been relieved and overjoyed to be able to ship them off to a world far away.

The first stop when Fuji and Glenn get back to Earth (just reversing their rocket ship through the atmosphere and landing on the launch pad like backing a car into a parking space) is to deliver the audio tape to the World Council. When the tape is played, everything comes crumbling down, as the true intentions of the Planet Xians is revealed: rather than the cure for cancer, the people gathered around the tape player hear the voice of the Commander demanding that Earthlings become subservient to him. Earth is to be a colony of Planet X, ruled over by the Commander and his computer. If the people of Earth do not comply, they will be destroyed by King Ghidorah, Godzilla, and Rodan, who are all under the control of electromagnetic waves from Planet X.

With the evil secrets of her people revealed, Glenn confronts Namikawa and finds that while she did indeed get involved with him at the order of the Commander, her feelings for him are real. Although the people of Planet X are emotionless and calculating, her time on Earth with Glenn has taught Namikawa how to love and she has truly fallen for him, against the wishes of the Commander and the advisement of the computer. She still wants Glenn to marry her and become a citizen of Planet X, but he vows that the people of Earth will fight against the alien threat... And then Glenn is captured by men from Planet X, who execute Namikawa with their ray guns for breaking the law of their homeworld. She showed emotion.

As time counts down to the assault the Commander threatened Earth with, the people of our planet scramble to find a way to thwart the Planet Xians. Fuji leads a scientific team in trying to construct an A-Cycle light beam generator that could disrupt the electromagnetic waves controlling the monsters. Glenn finds himself in a soundproof cell with Tetsuo, who was captured for being too nosy around the island headquarters of the World Education Corporation. With information provided in a posthumously delivered note from Namikawa, Glenn and Tetsuo realize they might have the key to defeating the Xians: the people of Planet X cannot tolerate the sound emitted by the Lady Guard, that's why the Xian-led toy company tried to buy it from Tetsuo and halt its progress.

Glenn and Tetsuo make a jailbreak and rush to let the others know about the Planet Xians' weakness to the sound of the Lady Guard... But before anything can be done about it, the assault on Japan begins ahead of schedule. The Planet Xians didn't stick to their word, as usual.

Godzilla, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and ray-blasting flying saucers begin to lay waste to Japan, causing so much damage that stock footage from Rodan and Mothra is even, unfortunately for those who want to see all new action, cut in to make the destruction look all the more impressive. If Fuji, Glenn, and Tetsuo's efforts fail, Japan could be completely destroyed... and after that, the world.

Invasion of Astro-Monster is very much a continuation in the same vein of the previous year's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. Ghidorah expanded the scope into outer space and established that threats could come from beyond our planet, this film takes that idea and runs with it. In fact, the existence of the Planet Xians and their flying saucers could even be taken as filling in a plot hole its predecessor had: could visitors from Planet X have been the flying saucers that the scientists at the beginning of Ghidorah were hoping to make contact with?

Even though he's briefly under the evil control of the Planet X Commander and computer, Godzilla continues to earn a good reputation for himself, working on the side of Earth when he's in his own mind.

The whole set-up of Planet X and the shady dealings of its people is great, Shinichi Sekizawa's screenplay is quite good and it all plays out well. Even though I enjoyed Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, I find this one to be a big step up from it. Whereas Ghidorah was the second Godzilla movie to be released in the year it came out, there was a full year between it and the release of Astro Monster, and the finished film clearly benefits from having that extra time in development. The sequels that are put out especially fast always seem to suffer for it, to varying degrees.

I like Nick Adams a lot in the role of Glenn. I've always found Adams to be an enjoyable presence in movies, and though I've seen several of his films over the years since, Invasion of Astro-Monster was the first time he was ever on my screen. Unfortunately, he passed away just a couple years after this film was released, at the too young age of 36.

Although there was American money, American influence, and an American star at play in Invasion of Astro-Monster, it is still fully authentic Toho. I believe the suggestions Saperstein and UPA made only helped the film in its pacing and international appeal, and the resulting film is a highly entertaining sci-fi adventure.

The scope of the Godzilla series seemed to be getting bigger and bigger, but the next film would pull the reins way back on that, as Goji would return in a film that he wasn't even originally intended to be in...

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