Saturday, October 27, 2018

For the Love of Toho II

GORATH (1962)
In its original Japanese version, Ishirō Honda’s GORATH is a masterpiece. Science fiction, drama, love, unrequited love, sacrifice, tragedy, sentiment - it has it all, but it also seems to me possibly Toho’s top technical achievement. It features some of the finest space effects filmed prior to 2001 (there is evidence in the film that Kubrick used it as reference) as well as spectacular demonstrations of matte painting and miniature set design - combining immense engineering skill and artistry, though much of it onscreen only fleetingly. As a film, it may not be as exploitable as the company’s kaiju eiga (one giant walrus aside), but considering this was made in the same year as KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, it’s clear where the filmmakers’ hearts most resided.

If you have only ever seen the American version of this movie, you owe it to yourself to find a way of seeing the Japanese version, subtitled or not. Toho obviously went into the film with the intention of producing a blockbuster, and it was, but - as with the original KING KONG (1933) - it includes a critique of the blockbuster mentality. in this case a rather broad one. There is much to commend this film on a technical level, even though it falls somewhat short of the studio's highest standards, but it is plainly not the film it should have been and, for some of us who saw it at a magical point in childhood, not quite the film we remember. (Of course, the version released in America by Universal was quite different, including American onscreen commentators and a rummage sale of library tracks for replacing Akira Ifukube's epic score, included on the Japanese Blu-ray in its original stereo.)  Godzilla himself (looking more believably reptilian here than in most other films) is kind of a blur throughout the film, not doing much but lumbering around and demonstrating his prowess, and King Kong (a badly made suit, though well acted from inside) is kind of giant gorilla variation of a dad reclining in front of the television and tossing back intoxicating berry juice like so many cans of beer (or bottles of saké, as the case may be). The monsters meet in a few short, unimaginatively choreographed battles and, after dismantling the most elaborate miniature in the picture, tumble into the sea. There is no particular victor, unless the victor in a battle is the one who recognizes its pointlessness and swims away toward more promising vistas. If you are going to watch this film, I've found it vital to do so on the largest screen you can find; this is not something that can be accurately experienced on the average TV screen. Looking at Toho's Region 2 Blu-ray on my 70" screen, I found the movie acquired a whole different feel when I was sitting five feet away from the widescreen, as opposed to my usual ten. With this minor adjustment of seating, suddenly the main titles were as powerful as the opening of ALTERED STATES.

MATANGO (1963)
To watch this movie is to realize how few horror films Ishirō Honda actually made. Everything about this somber picture strikes an atypical note: the slow yet masterful orchestration of its encroaching suspense, the nerve-scraping score, the close combustibility of its action, the eerie details that put us one step ahead of the doomed characters (like the broken mirrors discovered aboard the ghost ship), even the way characters mirror each other as if caught in a psychological prism (the singer who is the mistress of the yachtsman, who also “bought” his skipper by putting him through school, and the passenger who later delights in making him pay exorbitantly for turtle eggs). “There’s nothing money can’t fix,” someone says early on, but the film lays bare the illusion of all that money can buy. In broader terms, however, this adaptation of the William Hope Hodgson story “The Voice in the Night” (1907, acknowledged by a text screen on the BD before the film plays) is Japan’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (the shots of the mushrooms swelling and expanding in the rain recalls the effect of the pods in the greenhouse scene of Don Siegel’s film), with its own chilling depiction of the loss of love to a stronger power, as well as an inversion of John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?” (filmed as THE THING) replacing arctic isolation with shipwreck on a humid island, the need for sleep with hunger, alien with radiation-tainted vegetation - while also adding sexual tension to the mix. It all builds to one of the earliest downbeat endings in horror (this was made the same year as Bava’s chilling BLACK SABBATH), as the lone survivor gazes out his asylum window at an elaborate yet patently artificial Tokyo cityscape, and reflects on the hell he escaped, “I might have been happier there.”

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.