Godzilla doesn’t turn up anywhere in the three-film Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection, but the movies are so terrifically entertaining he’s hardly missed. Godzilla and friends stomped across my childhood and continue to leave their imprint courtesy of beautifully handled DVD editions like these. As a kid, I didn’t mind the awful dubbing, dreadful image cropping, careless content removal, and obnoxious replacement of music scores that afflicted them when they aired on Channel 7’s “The 4:30 Movie” or on Channel 9’s and Channel 11’s weekend monster movie programs here in New York. I was enthralled by all that city-smashing excitement—and disappointed that the ’70s films took place largely in barren rockscapes. Not even the Big G was immune to downsizing and budget cuts.
But the themes also made an impression. The original Godzilla (1954) ends with a scientist sacrificing himself with his own doomsday weapon to destroy the menace, an act that haunted me as a boy (and one that made for lively conversation when I screened the film for my movie-watching group in 2004). The fraternal bond at the center of 1966’s War of the Gargantuas, my favorite non-Godzilla Toho picture, is unexpectedly moving—you don’t figure on being touched by a movie about two genetically mutated trolls. It’s gratifying to revisit the films in the “Icons” set in uncut, original-language versions that restore the colorful Tohoscope (2:35:1 aspect ratio) framing and unique scoring, allowing the imagery and ideas to put their best claws forward.
Don’t be put off by the packaging. The artwork is hodgepodge and, much worse, the three discs are mounted on a single spindle hub, all but guaranteeing frustration and scratches. Once (carefully) removed, they prove a fitting homage to “the father of Godzilla,” as director Ishiro Honda is referred to on the front cover. Indeed, the trio—The H-Man (1958), Battle in Outer Space (1959), and Mothra (1961)—celebrates the complete paternity of the Toho Company’s illustrious kaiju eiga (monster movie) legacy, including special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the various composers, and the iconic actors who appeared in the films, like the avuncular Takashi Shimura (who led The Seven Samurai for director Akira Kurosawa, Toho’s other giant talent, and appears in Mothra) and Yoshio Tsuchiya, who specialized in neurotics and bad guys and always stood out.
I hold a special place in my movie-going heart for The H-Man and Battle in Outer Space. These films largely bypassed the syndicated movie packages that brought me semi-weekly fixes of Godzilla, Rodan, etc. on the small screen, and I first saw them on my very first visit to New York’s venerable repertory theater, Film Forum, in the summer of 1994. It turned out that the prints provided by Columbia, their U.S. distributor, lacked subtitles, but no one really cared.
With or without them, The H-Man doesn’t make a lot of sense—it’s as if two American movies made that year, Nicholas Ray’s gangster picture Party Girl and The Blob, were absorbed into the kaiju sensibility. Literally: the film is about a Yakuza moll (Yumi Shirakawa, a veteran of Toho terrors who had already survived Rodan and The Mysterians) who draws the attention of radioactive green goop that eats criminals for lunch. (The original title translates to “Beauty and Liquid Men,” a great name for a band.) What the “H-Man” is isn’t, err, well-defined—the film is stronger on underworld atmosphere and surprisingly grisly special effects than a coherent story, with great sequences like the fiery ending in the Tokyo sewer system. (I hope that the frogs liquefied in two separate sequences were reconstituted after the scientists in the movie finished with them.)
All three discs offer the Japanese and dubbed American versions of the movies, for easy compare-and-contrast scholarship. For The H-Man the U.S. credits were redone, obliterating most of the spooky ghost ship beginning; also gone from the U.S. print is a racy nightclub musical number, set to Masaru Sato’s eclectic jazz score. Columbia didn’t mess with Tsuburaya’s excellent melting man effects, which must have thrilled audiences when this played as a double feature with the none-too-tasty The Woman Eater 50 years ago.
Battle in Outer Space unites the A-team of kaiju eiga, Honda, Tsuburaya, and composer Akira Ifukube, who wrote the classic scores of the genre, most of them permanently lodged in my musical memory banks. (One of his last efforts, 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, is one of my very favorite film scores.) The setpiece-driven Battle gives him a lot to work with, as the tiny, Moon-based “Natalians” overcompensate for their size by zapping the Earth with bridge-lifting antigravity weapons and mind-control devices. Astronaut Tsuchiya, natch, is the one controlled as a U.N.-backed coalition flies to the Moon to thwart the invaders. Set, optimistically, in the future year of 1965, the sets and backdrops are a good guess as to what a lunar expedition might actually encounter.
Including a Star Wars-style dogfight in space between Natal and the astronauts, Battle in Outer Space revels in destruction. The final assault on New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo as the antigravity armaments lay waste to the cities had my seen-it-all Film Forum audience cheering; Tsuburaya marshaled cardboard miniatures, wires, and compressed air like nobody’s business, and the effects are just as impressive on the DVD. But Honda, the pacifist son of a Buddhist monk, was equally invested in the peacekeeping side of these films, and struck a balance between might and right largely absent in American monster movies of the Cold War period, where the military always knew best.
Mothra is one of the great kaiju fantasies—and one of the more pointed. A scientific expedition to the irradiated Infant Island finds two bite-sized beauties, who are kidnapped by the dastardly Clark Nelson (the Japanese-American actor Jerry Itoh), a native of the warlike country “Rolisica.” “The Peanuts,” as the songstresses (played by twins Yumi and Emi Ito) are dubbed, don’t mind being put on display in Nelson’s Tokyo theater, where they cause an immediate sensation. (Somewhat strangely, since even in their fairy tale finery and carriage they’d be impossible to see without super-strong opera glasses.) The reason for their complacency is that each performance of their hit tune, “Song of Mothra” (a gorgeous composition by Yuji Koseki), rouses Infant Island’s mammoth insect god, whose larval form heads for the city and, after wreaking havoc, cocoons on Tokyo Tower. The adult Mothra, the most resplendent of movie monsters, then flies to Rolisica to save the girls from the escaping Nelson’s clutches.
Toho’s monsters endure more for their tremendous personality than their tremendous size. Mothra is a gentle giant, simply getting his job done (I always thought of Mothra as her, and always will, but the subtitles indicate otherwise) while showing the heavily armed and suspicious Rolisicans a thing or two about the abiding mysteries of existence. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R, which Rolisica stands in for, may have nukes, and God on their side (a quick scene of one of the Japanese characters fumblingly making a sign of the cross outside a Rolisican church was cut for the American release)—but demilitarized Japan has Mothra, who after chastening Godzilla in the followup Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964) converted the bulk of Earth’s monsters to heroes. Mothra, the Obama-monster, would surely get a health care bill passed. (The mean-faced U.S. poster was clearly designed by a Repub…Rolisican.)
Battle in Outer Space and Mothra have informative commentary tracks by kaiju experts Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, who come in well-prepared (as they did on Classic Media’s line of Toho monster movies on DVD) and also riff, good-naturedly, on the quirkier aspects of the films. (Battle, as they point out, doesn’t have the greatest script, but hearing the stock lines delivered in Japanese, rather than the comatose English of the dubbed version, makes all the difference.) We’re overdue for a new kaiju, as the old-school menagerie has been in mothballs since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. As we wait, this trio been treated with the respect due Icons.
Buy Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) at Amazon on standard DVD.
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