Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Random Movie Report #76: Godzilla Raids Again (a.k.a. Gigantis the FIre Monster)

DVD cover and Amazon link

I’ve been meaning to dive back into the Godzilla films for a while, and maybe this time I’ll stick to a semblance of chronological order. Having already reviewed the very first movie (twice!), I now have the privilege to review the very first sequel. GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, which was sometimes known as GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER in America for reasons I’ll get into, was rushed into production after the first film was a hit, and released the following year. It has the feel of an old-school cash in; while the original was an epic and solemn science fiction film with a really aggressive anti-nuclear message, RAIDS AGAIN is a cheaper, more straightforward monster movie which doesn’t bother dwelling on allegory.

Which doesn’t mean it’s bad. The film drags a little, but it’s buoyed by good character work, good effects, and the distinction of featuring Godzilla’s first ever battle with another monster. It’s a slight entry of the series, but worth seeing. And then there’s the US version, a fairly elaborate re-edit of the original which makes some downright weird choices. Classic Media have, true to form, released both versions on DVD (on a single disc), with some very nice extras, so Godzilla’s first scrap is being well treated.

The film centers around the lives of two pilots, Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaki), who work as spotters for fishing boats for a company in Osaka. Engine trouble forces Kobayashi to land on a remote, barren island, and Tsukioka goes to rescue him. There, the two witness a battle between a pair of gigantic prehistoric beasts. One is Godzilla- not the one disintegrated in Tokyo Bay in the first film, but pretty much the same down to the cool fins and radioactive breath. The second, Anguirus, is like a giant toothy ankylosaur. While fighting, the two tumble into the ocean, and as the military track the two beasts, it becomes clear that they’re both Osaka bound, intent on dueling to the death.

Battles with other monsters were really the next logical step in Godzilla’s career. One of the things that attracts kids to dinosaurs is that, according to dubiously researched but well-illustrated books on the subject, dinosaurs fought constantly. This was reinforced by films like the original LOST WORLD and KING KONG, where battles between dinosaurs and the occasional giant ape were the highlight. For the fights in this film, Godzilla was slimmed down, and instead of slow motion, some of the action is actually undercranked- the effect is sometimes a little silly, but it’s not overused.

After the first film’s focus on scientists and government officials, it’s interesting to see the common man taking center stage for once. Tsukioka and Kobayashi are likable characters, as is Tsukioka’s girlfriend Hidemi (Setsuko Wakayama), and we do get some nice additional drama from the threat that the monster attacks pose to the business they have depended on all their lives. Some good wrinkles appear in the third act, up in snowy Hokkaido (not to spoil too much, but Osaka gets pretty damn wrecked).

Still, it’s impossible to avoid a sense of padding in this modestly-budgeted followup. The effects sequences deliver, but there’s a lot in between, from a recap of the original film, to a cameo by Takashi Shimura pointing out that the whole “Oxygen Destroyer” option is off the table, to a very protracted sequence involving escaped prisoners that ends up being necessary to the story in a roundabout way. Even individual scenes seem a bit overlong, as though the filmmakers were worried about the picture being too short.

This one had a weird journey to the states. For a while, the film was going to be reworked as “The Volcano Monsters”, from a script by Ib Melchior. The American-cast film would be about two monsters discovered in suspended animation brought to San Francisco, where they would do battle in the city’s Chinatown district (which looks almost but not quite entirely like Osaka.) New suits for the “Tyrannosaurus” and “Ankylosaurus” were made, but the project was shelved when the production company collapsed. Instead, Warner Bros. released the film, but they made changes of their own.

Apparently not interested in marketing this as a sequel to GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (which they hadn’t released), Warner dubbed the picture GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER. The story is effectively identical, but Godzilla is called “Gigantis”, and a relationship between the two monsters is drawn via a montage of really cheap special effects showing the evolution of primordial “fire monsters.” The footage of Godzilla’s first attack is still shown, but he’s never referred to by name- rather he’s just a previous Gigantis monster. Anguirus is sometimes confusingly referred to as “the Gigantis monster of the Anguirus family”, and at several points Godzilla is overdubbed with Anguirus’ roar, presumably to emphasize the connection. (His original roar is still there too, which just confuses things.)

The human actors sadly come off worse. Since Kobayashi is pudgy and slightly comic in the original, the dub gives him a weird Lou Costello voice. Sukioka narrates, in an absurdly over descriptive manner, layering the film over with a track that describes all the action past, present, and future, and all the relationships between what is happening now and what we have seen before. I really hope the voice actor got paid handsomely for this, because he must have been in the studio for weeks. Pointless stock footage serves to pad the picture (even though the overall cut is shorter), and this includes World War II propaganda footage and scenes of a Buddhist ceremony which are optically censored to block out swastikas. It’s less effective as a movie, but at times it can be funny in its own unintended way.

GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN is a minor picture. It doesn’t have the apocalyptic drama of the first or the eye-popping imagination of later entries, and definitely betrays its rushed origins. (The film’s Japanese release was a mere six months after GOJIRA opened.) But it does have some solid characters, good action, and a touching climax, adding up to a worthwhile experience. Godzilla would lay dormant for 7 years after this, but when he came back, it was big.

From the novel “Gojira” by Shigeru Kayama
Screenplay by Shigeaki Hidaka and Takeo Murata
Directed by Motoyoshi Oda

Grade: B-

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