Thursday, May 31, 2018

Godzilla Chronicles: Invasion of the Astro Monster

Picking up where we left off last year in the Godzilla Chronicles, last time I talked about the movie directly preceding today's subject. It was a movie I did not grow up with, or even get to see until my 20's, that being 1964's Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster. That movie established the character of Ghidorah, the space dragon, a being who would become, in many ways, Godzilla's Arch-Nemesis, and certainly most powerful and dangerous foe. I wish I had seen that movie as a kid, because I would have adored it. But even if I had, I still feel that I would have loved the movie I'm about to talk about, far more.

This is a very special entry, for me, in this particular sub-series. The entire series is special, because Godzilla himself and most especially those old Showa Era films, are very dear to my heart, and were a huge part of my childhood and pre-teen years. But the movie I first knew as "Godzilla vs. Monster X" was, as I seem to recall, one of the first two Godzilla films I owned on VHS tape, when we first got a VCR around 1989 or 1990. It's a special entry, because this movie very quickly became, and has remained, my favorite Godzilla movie of all time, and one of my top favorite movies of all time, period.

Astronauts Fuji and Glenn

Now as I may have mentioned in previous entries, in a very real way, all of the Showa Era Godzilla films, and even Toho monster and sci-fi movies that didn't feature "The Big G" at all, can very well be argued to exist in the same "shared universe" (to borrow a modern buzz term). But even so, certain movies would not always perfectly line up with those preceding them, you kinda have to use your imagination to make the pieces all fit. But with Ghidorah, it did get what is essentially a fully direct sequel, in the form of 1965's Invasion of the Astro Monster (the original Japanese title).

Me personally, I am a bit more fond of the American title (or the most used one anyway), Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Neither title uses the name Ghidorah directly, that much is true. Both "Astro Monster" and "Monster Zero" are rather vague, and really, "Astro Monster" is just a vague reference to Ghidorah being from space. To my mind, at least "Monster Zero" is a direct reference to the movie, as it is explained (most directly in the English Dub), that on Planet X, everything is numbered, not named, and they refer to King Ghidorah, as "Monster Zero". But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Dudes from Planet X can pose like nobody's business.

The basic plot, is that it is some time in the future, where man is making his way out into space. If one is to consider the Showa Toho sci-fi films to be connected, then technically man already made his way out into space, somewhat, with films like The Mysterians, Battle in Outer Space, and Gorath. But I digress. Astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams), are on a mission to explore a newly discovered "planet" hidden on the other side of Jupiter, dubbed Planet X. When they land, they quickly discover that this strange, seemingly barren new world, has inhabitants of its own.

The people of Planet X, who seem to be strangely lacking in individuality or diversity from one another, live in an elaborate underground network, they claim in part, to protect them from the space monster who is terrorizing them, King Ghidorah, whom they call "Monster Zero". They seem friendly enough, and offer Earth an exchange that the Astronauts find they cannot pass up: If Earth allows Planet X to "borrow" the monsters Godzilla and Rodan, to help drive of Ghidorah, they in turn will give them "the cure for all disease" (in the Japanese dialogue I believe it was simplified to curing all cancer). Sufficed to say, Earth cannot refuse the chance to advance medical science and ease human suffering, so they agree. Problem, is, things with Planet X are not quite what they seem.

Monsters in Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

For anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with Godzilla movies, and more specifically these old 50s-70s Showa Era movies, the one thing that is bound to jump out immediately and stands apart about this film, is that it holds the singular distinction of being the ONLY Godzilla movie where the action leaves the planet Earth at all. There are other films, multiple in fact, where aliens from other worlds come to Earth to try and invade or what have you, but this is the only instance where we the audience get to see another world. And far more importantly, it's the only film where Godzilla goes to another world, and battles a space monster!

Now granted, this was NOT the first time that Godzilla and Rodan fought King Ghidorah. Obviously, they both encountered, and managed to somewhat defeat the three-headed demon, in the previous movie. That is why the people of Planet X claim to want Godzilla and Rodan's help driving Ghidorah away from their planet,  because that is essentially what they did in the last movie, managing to defeat him JUST enough, to make him leave the Earth and fly back out into space. It seems that he flew to Planet X, and has been messing their shit up since.

In point of fact, in Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, it took the combined might of Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra (in larva form), to defeat Ghidorah. And Mothra was originally supposed to be in this sequel as well, but they cut her out, having something to do with Toho being cheap and it costing more to have an additional monster. Nevermind that these Godzilla movies were becoming something of a cash cow for Toho, otherwise they wouldn't have started pumping them out on an annual basis for many years. But in all honesty, as neat as it would have been to have Mothra (in larva or moth form) in the movie, even as a cameo, the movie doesn't lack or suffer from the loss either.

Let's Get Ready to Rumble!

In one of the coolest parts of the entire movie (as a child and still as an adult), Planet X show up on Earth a bit early, making humans a bit nervous, and they proceed to use their high technology to capture the sleeping behemoths, and transport them safely through space. Once on Planet X, they wake the old boys up, and just in time, as Ghidorah rears his ugly heads, and a brawl for the ages ensues! It is a neat, albeit slightly short, battle, mainly because, again, it takes place on another planet. After G&R (no, not Guns 'n Roses) seemingly manage to drive Ghidorah off, the Earth folks are given their shiny golden tablet, holding to secret to curing all disease, and they take off, on a perfect replica of their original rocket, leaving poor, forlorn looking Godzilla and Rodan behind, presumably to keep Planet X "100% Ghidora Free".

Of course, when they get home to Earth, they eagerly play the tape for the world to hear, only to hear the REAL truth behind Planet X: that it's been a set-up this whole time, and they are told to surrender themselves to Planet X control, or suffer the consequences. As it turns out, Planet X is short on water, their most precious resource, and something Earth has plenty of. So the X dudes figure, you know what, let's just move to the cooler planet, and set up shop, because what the hell are those stupid humans going to do about it anyway? After all, they already have killer UFOs at their disposal. And as it ALSO turns out, they were controlling Ghidorah the whole time, and now they also have control over Godzilla and Rodan too! Those bastards.

The dangerous and tragic Miss Namikawa.

So, in the meantime, a somewhat silly (and mildly annoying to the ear) sub-plot of the story, is that Fuji's sister Haruno, is dating an aspiring inventor named Tetsuo, whom Fuji naturally disapproves of. Thing is, Tetsuo's only invention so far, is this crappy little noise-maker thing, that he calls the "Lady Alarm", which emits a shrill sonic barrage that you can hear for blocks. Nobody wants the damn thing, nobody that is, except for the "World Education Corporation", an alleged maker of educational toys and other such things. It's a real mystery why a toy company would want an obnoxious noise maker for kids to drive their parents nuts with (and also maybe go deaf from), but they still offer Tetsuo big money to buy the rights off of him.

And at the same time, it seems that slick ol' Glenn, has been getting an education of his own on the side, from none other than the representative who wants to buy Tetsuo's crap, Miss Namikawa (played by Kumi Mizuno). But then while snooping around on Planet X like the renegade he is, Glenn discovers other women there who all look JUST like Namikawa! Turns out, she's an advance spy from Planet X, and wants to buy that stupid thing from Tetsuo, because it seems that noise REALLY bothers Planet Xians. At one point, after this is all revealed, Namikawa admits to Glenn that she is from Planet X, and tries to convince him to join her peacefully, but he refuses. When he is then captured, she tries to warn him that he'll be destroyed, because it turns out she really has come to love him (even though Xians are supposed to be emotionless), and for her action they tragically kill her instead.

Three Gravity Beam Spitting heads are better than one.

In the end, it turns out that Tetsuo's stupid invention, just so happens to not only seriously disable Planet X dudes, but the principle behind its garbage ass noise, also leads Earth to discovering how to disrupt Planet X control over the monsters. So then, in the climax of the story, Godzilla and Rodan, after having briefly gone back to their old ways of trashing human cities, are finally free of control again, and turn on their new "pal" King Ghidorah. It would seem that what three monsters barely managed the first time, would be even harder for just two to accomplish, but G&R do manage to beat Ghidorah's ass in just enough to make him fly off again.

My original VHS copy.

On a minor side note, as you can see above, this is the VHS box art for my original childhood copy of this movie, which by some miracle I managed to hold onto (along with several other old VHS tapes). This copy is seemingly unremarkable, except that in searching around the internet to try and find a picture of this box (before just taking a picture myself), I discovered that this specific version may well be pretty rare, I guess. Because I couldn't find this exact box art anywhere, no one else seemed to have it. Even the website Toho Kingdom didn't have it listed. So if it really is rare, I guess that's pretty neat. It is the 1990 release, by a company called Simitar Entertainment Inc., which seemed to specialize in many things, but most especially home video releases.

All in all, there are many reasons that I love Godzilla vs. Monster Zero the best. For one thing, it just seems to have everything going for it. It's a great old school science fiction tale, it's got space aliens, Planet X, monsters being controlled and then being good again (a theme that would be reused later), one of the best scores by composer Akira Ifukube, etc. It is greatly because of this movie, that I love Akira Takarada, whom I call my favorite Japanese actor, and Nick Adams. Nick Adams, I feel, was  a really good actor in his day, who just didn't get the recognition and success he perhaps deserved.

But I just feel like everything works so well in this movie. The pacing is great, the story is intriguing, it doesn't ever really "drag" in spots a certain other Godzilla films do. Ghidorah is hands down the coolest Godzilla rival ever created, and the Planet X people are far and away the best "evil invaders from space" Toho (or almost anyone else for that matter) ever managed to come up with. Hell, even the infamous "Godzilla Victory Dance" that he does after the initial defeat on Planet X, that even many Godzilla fans mock and deride, is honestly pretty great. I loved that moment as a kid, and I'll still back it as being great now, and for the rest of my days.

As kids are often known to do, I watched my VHS copy of this, as well as Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster and others, over and over again as a kid. Outside of the original 1954 Gojira (or Godzilla: King of the Monsters), if you were only inclined to ever watch ONE Godzilla film, then Monster Zero would be my top recommendation for you. It contains and embodies everything that was great about the Showa Era movies, especially their 60s prime. So please do yourself a favor, and give it a whirl!

Until next time, keep watching the skies, and keep your "Lady Alarms" handy.