The audience amasses for SHIN GODZILLA at the Village East Cinema on October 11.
2016 was my first full year of retirement. I made 33 trips to movie theaters, the most trips I’ve made in a single year in over two decades, and I saw 34 movies there. Ten were Hollywood films, 19 were foreign films, mostly from Japan, and the rest were indies. Five were documentaries and eight were animated.
I picked 15 films to highlight from the year, eight new films seen in New York theaters, three revivals, two films seen in theaters in Japan, and two more recent Japanese films seen on the airplane flight to Japan. One of the revivals is generally considered to be a masterpiece, while the film at the top of the list may one day be considered one. As for the others, their virtues outweighed their flaws enough to put them on such a list. Nine of the fifteen are Japanese. Four of the fifteen are documentaries. I only saw ten current Hollywood studio releases in theaters this year and only one is on this list. When the final tally for the U.S. boxoffice is announced, there’ll be very few films in the top ten—or the top 100—that I’ve seen. Since I’m no longer at the office discussing superhero and comic book movies with my younger co-workers, I no longer feel the need to rush out to see these films. My two favorites of the year are at the top of the list. The rest are grouped this way: films I saw in theaters in New York; revivals; films seen in Japan and on the flight to Japan. Most of these descriptions are taken from the notes I composed for my daily film log after seeing the films. Where applicable, I’ve included links to complete reviews I did, including blog entries and IMDB reviews.
62 years ago today, on November 3, 1954, the Japanese monster movie, GOJIRA, premiered in Japan. Directed by Ishiro Honda, the film established a whole new Japanese film genre, dubbed kaiju (giant monster). When the film was picked up by an American distributor, Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures, it was re-edited and partly dubbed in English, with new scenes added to it featuring an American actor (Raymond Burr) playing a reporter visiting Tokyo when the monster strikes, and retitled GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS for its April 1956 U.S. release. Godzilla became a worldwide phenomenon and more such films were made, 32 in all, several of which I’ve covered on this blog, including the very latest, SHIN GOJIRA (aka GODZILLA RESURGENCE), which was released this year.
Also on November 3, 1954, approximately 1300 miles to the southwest of Japan, in Taiwan, a baby girl was born and named Lin Ching-hsia. 19 years later, Ms. Lin would begin making movies in Taiwan, mostly romantic comedies and contemporary melodramas, with a brief trip to Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio to appear in the leading male role of Jia Baoyu in the literary adaptation, DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (1977). A few years later, she would return to Hong Kong to appear in Tsui Hark’s groundbreaking “wire-fu” fantasy adventure, ZU: WARRIORS OF THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983), where she played a high-flying warrior priestess called the Countess who resides with her band of priestess followers on the title mountain, and her career took a whole new direction.
SHIN GODZILLA (2016), co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi (who also supervised the special effects), is the first new Godzilla movie to be made by the Japanese since GODZILLA FINAL WARS in 2004 and was released to theaters in Japan in July 2016 and given a limited release in the U.S. in October. (In some listings the film is referred to by its English release title, GODZILLA RESURGENCE.) Coming two years after Hollywood’s most recent attempt to duplicate the success of Godzilla (see my piece of May 25, 2014), this film takes the Godzilla franchise in a completely new and different direction, setting it in the current political landscape of contemporary Tokyo and functioning as if Japan has never seen a giant monster before. How would the Japanese government and its bureaucrats and various ministries react to the appearance of an actual giant monster in Tokyo? What would it take to get the Prime Minister to make timely decisions and get the various departments to work together? This is not an atypical scene from the movie:
Nick Adams was the first American star to go to Japan to appear in Japanese films that would get significant distribution in the U.S. He made three films there and I wrote about his first, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965), here on July 8, 2013. His second was GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1965), as the film is widely known today, although its original U.S. title was MONSTER ZERO and its official English title, as decreed by Toho Pictures, was INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER. (The original Japanese title, KAIJU DAISENSO, is translated as THE GREAT MONSTER WAR. KAIJU DAISENSO remains the best-sounding and most dramatic title.) Americans had appeared in two earlier Godzilla films, but only in scenes added to the re-edited versions shown in the U.S., most notably GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956), in which scenes of Raymond Burr, as American reporter Steve Martin, were newly written and shot for the American release version two years after its original release in Japan under the title, GOJIRA (1954). The other one was KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963), in which a few scenes with American character actors were added to the U.S. release version. Adams was a co-star of MONSTER ZERO right from the start, in both its Japanese-language and English-dubbed versions. Adams’ third film in Japan, THE KILLING BOTTLE (1967), is a detective film that was never released in the U.S. although it was, according to IMDB, dubbed into English.
Back on June 1, 2014, I wrote about “The Poetry of Kaiju,” as found in the 1964 kaiju (Japanese monster) film, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (aka GODZILLA VS. THE THING), with its stunning images of Mothra eggs and the otherworldly twin fairies who guard them.
This past month I opted to watch three additional films about Mothra, the giant caterpillar-turned-butterfly, and its fairy guardians, in search of similar poetic imagery.
At the end of my previous entry, a critique of GODZILLA (2014), I offered a teaser of this one, with five images from the first classic Godzilla movie I went back to after seeing the new one. After taking a number of screen grabs, I thought I’d make an entire entry composed of scenes from the film to show how poetic imagery infused the entire film (and other Japanese kaiju–giant monster–films) in a way that seems alien to the creators of the remake. By happy coincidence, I’ve been reading a book of academic essays called In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage (Palgrave Macmillan 2006), edited by William M. Tsutsui and Michiko Ito, and it happens to contain an essay called, “Mothra’s Gigantic Egg: Consuming the South Pacific in 1960s Japan,” by Yoshikuni Igarashi. The essay looks at the first two Mothra films, MOTHRA (1961) and GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1964, aka GODZILLA VS. THE THING, as it was called in its U.S. release in 1964), and discusses Japan’s relationship to the South Pacific, where Mothra originates, in its history and popular culture and how the South represents an “innocent past” and a “mirror of Japan’s desire to escape the effect of its economic success—consumerism.” Igarashi goes on to discuss GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA and how Godzilla “represents a threat to Japan’s postwar prosperity” while Mothra has become “an emblem of Japan’s consumerism.”
Following are images from the film interspersed with excerpts from the text of Igarashi’s essay: