March 01, 2009

Notes From A DVD Geek

by Jeremy Lassen

This month I want to talk about Kaiju . Giant monsters! Men in rubber suits! The destruction of large cities by rampaging beasties. How can one go wrong with that? And while bad Godzilla knock-offs can get old after a while, there’s enough variation to be found in the genre (giant alligators in the sewer, giant snakes in the jungle, etc. etc.) to keep things fresh.
The godfather of Kaiju is of course "Godzilla," created by Toho Studios and released in 1954. This movie captured the imagination of post-war Japanese society and Tokyo has been destroyed innumerable times by countless monsters and robots ever since. Until a few years ago, it was not easy to get the original Japanese versions of these Toho Studio classics, but Sony has been releasing very nice deluxe editions of many of them, containing both the original Japanese version, and the often very different US versions of the same movie. Any one of these deluxe editions is a great place to start exploring the magic of Kaiju.

Right now there is box set called “The Godzilla Collection” which contains all of these deluxe American releases. This is a must-own for any self-respecting Kaiju fan, and it is also a great place to start exploring the original Toho Studio’s Kaiju films. The box set contains both US and Japanese versions of "Godzilla," "Godzilla Raids Again," "Mothra vs Godzilla," "Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster," "Invasion of the Astro Monster," "Terror of Mecha Godzilla," and "All Monsters Attack".

Some may argue that the first Kaiju movie was actually "King Kong," since that hit the big screens in 1933. And it would be a good argument, so let's take a look at all things Kong. Since Peter Jackson’s big budget remake, it’s now possible to find most everything on DVD. There are four “versions” of King Kong to keep an eye out for.

There was the original ground-breaking stop motion masterpiece from 1933, with the return-to-Skull-Island follow-up "Son Of Kong" being released in the same year.

Dino De Larentis produced a version in 1976, set contemporaneously, and featured Kong climbing the World Trade Center with Jessica Lang. Linda Hamiliton starred in the often (and rightfully) forgotten De Larentis-produced sequel "Kong Lives" (1986).

The most recent incarnation of Kong was the 2005 Peter Jackson remake, which featured innumerable dinosaurs and giant bugs and Jack Black. It had a running time longer than both the original 1933 movies put together. ‘Nuff said.

It could be argued that Kong wasn’t really Kaiju until Toho Studios got their hands on the Universal property, made him roughly equal in stature to Godzilla, and brought him to Tokyo. This happened in 1962 with "King Kong vs. Godzilla," and again in 1967 in "King Kong Escapes" (which was actually a live-action remake of the 1966 joint Japanese/American cartoon "The King Kong Show"). One of the monsters introduced in "King Kong Escapes" — Gorosaurus — appeared a year later in "Destroy All Monsters". It’s really nice to see all this internal consistency and rigorous world building coming out of Toho Studios. The Toho-verse is a splendid, multi-layered masterpiece.

Never let it be said that the tendency in popular culture to create knock-offs and copycat product is an entirely bad thing. One of my favorite Toho knock-off creations is Gamera . . . the giant turtle who can fly, breath fire, and is a friend to all children. The backstory on Gamera evolved over time. "Gamera the Invincible" came out in 1965, and was followed by 6 other films by 1971, all from the same production company. After this company's demise, there was one more Gamera movie -- "Gamera Super Monster" -- within this continuity, in 1980, in which our beloved giant turtle was killed off.

In 1995, "Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe" came out, kicking off five new giant turtle movies, the latest of which, "Gamera the Brave," features the young offspring of the original turtle protector of the universe. Sadly, this series hasn’t received the kind of attention and care on home video that the Godzilla series has, and the offerings are kind of hit or miss – usually miss, and usually poorly-dubbed English language editions.

Outside of these main franchises, there are many one-off Kaiju movies, some of which are NOT Japanese productions. On of my favorite American Kaiju movies is "Q The Winged Serpent" . . . a classic 80’s movie staring David Carradine, featuring a giant pterodactyl-like monster roosting in the rafters of the Chrysler building. This one was directed by Larry “God Told Me to Kill” Cohen, and was far better then it had any right to be.

Another movie that absolutely transcends its b-movie status is “Lake Placid” . . . The best giant alligator movie ever made. It features some stunningly awesome performances from Betty White, Brendan Gleeson, and Oliver Platt. This one should not be missed.

Another fun series of American giant monster movies is the Tremors series. You can get all four movies in one DVD pack, and its definitely worth the price of admission.

I hope you’ll understand if I gloss over the two giant Kaiju films in the living room . . . the abominable US "Godzilla," and "Cloverfield". I didn’t really care for either, but "Cloverfield" was definitely the better of the two New York destroying efforts.

A modern classic Kaiju film is the recent Korean epic, "The Host". This one mixes classic themes of monsters arising out of pollution, and combines it with a family melodrama. The young female protagonist in this one is absolutely compelling, and there won’t be a dry eye in your living room after watching this one.

Set for theatrical release in Korea this year is a prequel to "The Host", "The Host 2". It’s supposed to be filled with political allegory to contemporary Korea, which might be kind of opaque to a non-Korean audience, but I’m hopeful. Because, to paraphrase Harvey Milk . . . you gotta have hope. Even when it comes to Kaiju . . . you gotta have Kaiju hope!

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