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Life Meets Godzilla

6 Sep

Life Magazine recently published a special issue devoted to Godzilla, which I found in the magazine rack at my local Walgreen’s. After thumbing through it, I decided to purchase it despite the excessive price of $14.99, since it seemed to be a rare instance of a high-profile mainstream American media outlet covering a Japanese pop culture phenomenon. Granted, it was timed to promote the recent Warner Bros. release of the latest Hollywood Godzilla movie, GODZILLA VS. KONG, but there were enough pictures of the original Japanese Godzilla in the magazine to pique my interest. (Last I checked, Life Magazine and Warner Bros. were both part of the same corporate empire, although that may have changed recently.)

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Gamera, Hercules, Ninjas and Giant Robots: American International Television, 1964-1970

12 Mar

Screenshot_2021-02-26 Watch Voyage Into Space Prime Video(19)

I recently watched VOYAGE INTO SPACE (1970) on Amazon Prime, a feature compilation of episodes of “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot,” an English-dubbed live-action Japanese series that aired in syndication on American TV beginning in 1969. This compilation was never released to theaters but was sold to TV stations as a movie by American International Television, the TV distribution arm of American International Pictures (AIP), which ruled the drive-ins and grindhouses of the 1960s with all manner of low-budget genre and exploitation films.

I had seen VOYAGE INTO SPACE on television around 40 years ago and seeing the AI-TV logo again triggered a memory of quite a few other Japanese films I’d seen from that era that bypassed theaters completely and went straight to TV. Foremost among these were five Japanese movies featuring Gamera, the giant turtle, that had been retitled for American television, all of which I’d seen on TV back then, usually on Channel 7’s 4:30 Movie (WABC), with four of them completely omitting “Gamera” from the titles: WAR OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. BARUGON, 1966), RETURN OF THE GIANT MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GYAOS, 1967), DESTROY ALL PLANETS (GAMERA VS. VIRAS, 1968), ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS (GAMERA VS. GUIRON, 1969), GAMERA VS. MONSTER X (GAMERA VS. JIGER, 1970).

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Gamera, Frankenstein, Sabata and Zatoichi: The Genre Films of 1970

30 Dec

50 years ago, in 1970, neighborhood theaters offered quite a varied landscape of cinematic fare, although it took me some time to find it all. I managed to see lots of 1970 releases in theaters in the years 1970-72. (Films sometimes took months or years to reach my local theaters.) Most of these were Hollywood films of varied genres or American independents. I would see everything from PATTON to M*A*S*H, KELLY’S HEROES to ZABRISKIE POINT, FIVE EASY PIECES to LOVE STORY and RIO LOBO to WATERMELON MAN, sometimes on double features! It would take years of TV watching, visits to revival theaters and, much later, cable TV and home video, before I caught up with all the great foreign genre films released in 1970, including England’s Hammer horror, Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. martial arts adventures, French crime thrillers, Japanese samurai, Japanese kaiju, and Italian westerns. One of my favorites from the year is one I first saw in 2018. So there are always new ones to be discovered or rediscovered after decades.

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From Wake Island to Gamera to Perry Mason

23 Nov

In 1942, Hollywood made WAKE ISLAND to commemorate one of the earliest battles in the Pacific War. As depicted in the film, the American marines on Wake Island, vastly outnumbered by attacking Japanese in the early months of the war, fought back valiantly for weeks before finally being overrun and killed. In the film, Brian Donlevy plays Major Geoffrey Caton, the Marine commander on the island, and Albert Dekker plays Shad McClosky, a civilian engineer heading all construction on the island. McClosky resents having to take orders from Caton, but when the fighting starts, he demands weapons for himself and his men. Caton says no. When the Japanese finally storm the beaches en masse, Caton and McClosky man a machine gun together in a foxhole and fight to the death.

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Godzilla, Zatoichi and the Monkey King: The Best Foreign Genre Films of 1968

30 Dec

I’ve already written about my Hollywood favorites from 1968 in an earlier piece, so I wanted to focus on my favorite foreign genre films from 1968 before the 50th anniversary year was over, a group that has, in my opinion, held up much better critically over the years than their Hollywood counterparts. A lot was happening on the genre front back then, especially in Japan, Hong Kong, Italy and England. In Japan, there were numerous samurai, yakuza, giant monster and blind swordsman movies. Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio gave us a host of swordplay mini-epics, several starring that swordswoman extraordinaire, Cheng Pei-Pei, as well as musicals, crime films and melodramas. Italy was turning out western after western, with all three major Sergios–Leone, Sollima and Corbucci–shining that year. England’s Hammer studio gave us exemplary horror films and France gave us BARBARELLA and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

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Our First TV Set: 1955-1962

24 Dec

This picture shows my older brother Dennis playing in front of the TV set in the living room on Christmas Day, 1955. This is the only picture I have of the family set that I did all my early watching on, from 1955 to the spring of 1962, when it broke down for good. We watched tons of movies on that set, as well as all manner of TV shows, from cartoons to the Mickey Mouse Club, the Three Stooges to Abbott & Costello, westerns, crime shows, adventure shows, sitcoms and assorted kiddie hosts. From about the age of five, I paid enough attention to remember the titles of most of what I saw, especially the movies, so I thought I’d reminisce about the viewing highlights of those years. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

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2016: The Year in Film

30 Dec

The audience amasses for SHIN GODZILLA at the Village East Cinema on October 11.

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.

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The Best Films of 1956

18 Dec

The older I get, the more I like watching films from the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, especially the mid-1950s. I like revisiting my favorites from that period and continually discovering new films from that time, be they westerns, dramas, crime movies, historical epics, musicals, sci-fi, horror, etc. It was a unique period for filmmaking, as Hollywood was undergoing a transition from the studio era, its ironclad contracts and ownership of theaters to one of independent production, independent theater chains, a loosening of the Production Code, more location shooting and greater acceptance by the public of foreign films. The old guard was still turning out exemplary work, as seen in the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and King Vidor, all of whom had gotten their start during the silent era, while younger directors with bolder visions and new stylistic approaches had emerged during and after the war, including Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. In addition, a host of new talent was emerging from television, Broadway and documentaries and quickly finding their way to Hollywood, including Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Robert Altman. These overlapping waves of directors offered an unprecedented talent pool the likes of which Hollywood has never seen since. It’s no coincidence that a group of French film critics developed the auteur theory around this time.

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November 3, 1954: Brigitte Lin and Godzilla

3 Nov

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.

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SHIN GODZILLA: Japan’s Newest Godzilla Movie—and One of the Best!

15 Oct

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:

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