The Toho Legacy: 1963 – 1964

Part Two: 1963 – 1964
by Greg Shoemaker with editorial assistance by Randall Larson


Original Article Published in JAPANESE FANTASY FILM JOURNAL # 13 – 1981

The Japanese Fantasy Film Journal (JFFJ) was the first significant American Kaiju fanzine.  Created, published and edited by Greg Shoemaker, JFFJ was published on a yearly basis from 1968 to 1983. JFFJ covered the entire spectrum of Japanese fantasy film, but with an emphasis on live-action SFX films, especially the Godzilla series.  Highly regarded by Kaiju fans both then and now, JFFJ was well-designed by Mr. Shoemaker and offered skillful analysis of it’s subject. Earlier issues were mimeographed, with the last few being printed offset. JFFJ was never mass-marketed, but was made available only to a select population of Kaiju enthusiasts.  Though JFFJ ceased publication in 1983 and lasted for only 15 issues, it is universally considered both the insparation and the standard for all later Kaiju-related fanzines.

a churl in every port…

Another sf spectacular, ATORAGON, known in the U.S. as ATRAGON, follows closely upon the heels of GORATH. This time the depths of the ocean are probed, an area associated with innumberable myths and legends.  The fabled underwater continent of Mu is the focus, which, having survived its cataclysmic sinking ages earlier, exists beneath the sea. Its people, armed with unique and powerful weapons, threaten to surface and dominate the Earth. But the Mu people are defeated by Atoragon, a colossal flying super-submarine which defeats even Mu’s mightiest of defenses, Manda, a huge sea serpent.

This incongruous fighting machine of Mu, whose entanglement with Atoragon proves its own undoing, is actually a marionette. With close-ups portraying Manda as a frightening performer, illusion is shattered by a few jerky, puppet-like motions (and improper camera speed) showing the serpent in long shot. Atoragon’s vapor cannon quickly dispatches Manda, freezing it to an apparent death on the ledge of an undersea ridge.  The indestructible Atoragon is legitimate star of the film. All is centered around the super-sub, injecting it with psuedo-human vis vitae. Cheering the craft onward cannot be considered irrational. Super-warships may be old hat, but they are amazingly effective as heroes in science fiction, with time adding only those refinements en- visioned by modern technology–and a vivid imagination.

The parallel between Jules Verne’s Albatross and Atoragon is provoking. The Vernian machine compares favorably to the versatile Japanese ship in its prowess through the elements and in its intended utilization for pacifistic survey. Verne’s tragi-hero, Robur, is not unlike Captain Shinguji. commander of Atoragon, in his tireless struggle against the proponents of war and their weapons. The idealism of Robur eventually destroys him, but Shinguji is persuaded to offer up himself and his ship into service to defeat the Mu forces if only to preserve world peace from one front.

In SAMURAI PIRATE, the sea is again a battleground, of battles hard fought and won not alone by experienced sword handling and human cunning, but by magic and mystic cunning as well. The enemies of the film’s villain are turned to stone under the glare of the sorceress in his sway, and she and the hero’s wizard duel as minute insects to succor their respective military forces. Such magic, accomplished by the use of cartoon animation supered over live action footage, and rousing action sweeps the viewer into a world of fantasy and sword play, adventure and romance, not unlike an episode from the “Arabian Nights.”

The action occurs in an Orient of the 16th century where piracy is an on-going activity. It is here that Luzon the pirate and his ship is set upon by other brigands, yet he eludes death by swimming to an island, there meeting a wise, old wizard who offers shelter, food and a story of the islanders’ domination by the ruthless Lord Chamberlain, leader of the men who attacked and looted Luzon’s ship. The Lord Chamberlain has his eyes on the throne and the daughter of the land’s invalid king. Luzon stops the wedding ceremony when he glides into the fortressed city on a giant kite, thus saving the kingdom and regaining his stolen treasure.

Due to the American version’s inclination to gloss over references to locale and time frame, and by virtue of the average American viewer uneducated in Japanese history and terminology, Anglicizing SAMURAI PIRATE to LOST WORLD OF SINBAD by American International, who double-billed the picture under an Italian quickie titled WAR OF THE ZOMBIES, cannot be faulted since the film works just as well in the Sinbad mythos, swarthy characters and all, profiting by the athleticism of an ageless Toshiro Mifune as Luzon/Sinbad and Eiji Tsuburaya’s novel special effects. But there the similarities taper off for never did the originators of the Sinbad mystique dream of the adventure their fictional character would encounter in the film SAMURAI PIRATE. The ogres, supernatural beings, and frightening machines of destruction are definitely inventions of the modern world.  Director Senkichi Taniguchi’s epic formulation and enchanted atmosphere rank LOST WORLD OF SINBAD as the best of the non-Harryhausen Sinbad films and SAMURAI PIRATE as one of the best Japanese sword films, winner of the Italian “Trophy of Five Continents” for the “best specialized film” of 1963.

Premiering with ATORAGON at the Trieste Science Fiction Festival in 1963, MATANGO, eventually saddled with American International’s degrading televison title, ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE, is a curious appellation for a curious film whose plot aspects bear a similarity to W.H. Hodgson’s short story “The Voice in the Night’ (1907)  Shipwrecked on a mysterious island, seven people are desperately in need of food and drink.  Starvation is temporarily allayed by some canned food stocked in the galley of a beached ship. Records on the wreck disclose that the only edible food on the island is “Matango,” a delicious tasting mushroom, yet also a deadly feast since eating the substance causes a person to become mad, gradually turning into a mushroom-like creature as the poisonous oils of the fungus are absorbed into the body. One by one the members of the group succumb, save for one who manages to escape in the rudderless boat which brought him and the six others to the hellish island. As he turns to face the doctors to whom he has just completed the incredible narrative, it is revealed he is one of “them,” having eaten of the mushroom, and is slowly being transformed.

Rolling off the tongue like some native curse, “Matango” is many things. It is a somewhat nondescript and elusive term for a species of mushroom, as well as the psychosis stemming from its ingestion. It is a fear of the loss of human identity, of individuality. And it is incredible horror, foreshadowed by the ocean storm which threatened the spirited ocean voyagers in the film’s prologue, as the castaways, having tasted of the mushroom, willingly accept their fate.

Though one might wish to label MATANGO a monster film, the assertion would only be half correct, for the picture is first psychological horror, an area uncommon to Toho. Implications extending beyond the conclusion add weight to an already unsettling situation. Do the doctors believe the “madman’s” testimony? If the man’s claim goes unsearched, the deaths of past present and future victims drawn into the maelstrom of the island are a tragedy. However. if an investigative expedition is sent will it too be caught up in the web of terror, or will it be able to destroy the threat? Perchance the whole affair is an aberration of the mind, a drug-induced hallucinogenic nightmare. For MATANGO there is no catharsis.

The film fails when the mushroom monsters, provided by man-in-suit latex costumes, are shown in full view in the bright green light of the jungle forestation. They are floppy, rubbery “Pans” in their own manner, giggling in high, child-like voices, leading the survivors to their doom. Editing of full-shots of the mushroom people to shorten on-screen time or their total deletion with a substitution of dark, mist-bound interiors and moving shadows of hinted-at shapes would have intensified the horror.

things that go bump…

Diamond thieves, effecting a truck  robbery, are suprised when the truckload of jewels soars mysteriously into the sky. The whereabouts of the gems remain a mystery, with everyone blaming everyone else for the foul-up except the real culprit, Dogora, amoeboid cells from outer space that combine to create several enormous jelly-fish-like forms. They thrive in the Earth’s atmosphere through consumption of carbon-based materials sucked up into their huge maws. When the menace turns its attention to a city in Japan, the defense forces fire into the creature causing a structural change releasing the original cells. The unleashing of a newly discovered toxin into the air causes the cells to crystallize and fall to earth, crushing everything upon impact, including the criminals attempting to make good an escape.

DOGORA presents an entirely new brand of demon — nothing of revived prehistoric behemoths or mutated giants. The space cells are perceived as vague electric charges zapping through space, taking on an almost cube-like shape, their effects department composition unknown. The phosphorescent jelly-fish construction is just as hard to pin down, and because of their masterful handling in the film are an intriguing visual delight, appearing real yet otherworldly. Solution to their makeup proves elusive, but marionetting is a possiblity.

Cartoon animation is the answer to a miniature bridge destruction sequence, the hand drawn tentacles wrapping around the grid work and then tossing the structure into the miniature river it spans, helped along of course by overhead wires. The vacuum force of the feeding Dogora is accomplished by dropping miniature railroad cars and a psuedo-coal onto scaled down sets and filming at high speed. Reversed and run at 24fps, the sequence simulates the sucking motion of the Dogora. To this add footage of miniature smokestacks and buildings breaking apart and being pulled skyward by wires, and the composite produces an eerie and awesome touch. The demise of the villains at the climax is accomplished by printing the running actors into a miniature beach set and dropping a huge “cell” onto it, the matted image removed at the approximate collision with the ground. One reviewer feels the sequence is as offensive as the denouement in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE where the vampiric element is revealed as a play put on by actors to force the hand of the guilty party. The climax is disturbing because of its suddeness and coincidence of timing, but the film, itself so patently off-the-wall, is deserving of an obtuse conclusion.

Also disturbing is the lack of corroborative information explaining the discovery of the toxin, the creation of the toxin cannisters (parachuted from planes to spray the toxin into the air) and the giant toxin cannons (the cannister theory on a much larger scale, ala THE MYSTERIANS’ “Markalite” cannons) Their instanteous generation, possibly as a result of Americanization in regards to editing and dubbing, is in opposition to the tendency of Toho to over-emphasize the mechanical marvels in their films.

DOGORA is demeaned by Nippon misrepresentation of the Western cops and robbers formula, instead mocking our thirties and forties villains, an outdated and unrealistic view of characters chewing up the scenery as slick, suited, sunglassed lechers, leering and cackling in voices that range from very gruff to child-like high, spouting dialogue that breaks in mid-sentence for assimilation into the Japanese actors’ lip movements. The film is updated by four-letter words sprinkled indiscriminately throughout the script. As a result, and due to a storyline that is quite far-fetched, the extremes are the film’s own undoing.

ONIBABA (also known as THE HOLE) is a coproduction between Toho and Kindai Eiga KyokaL the latter formed by two directors, Kaneto Shindo, ONIBABA’s director and later director for Toho’s KURONEKO, and Kozaburo Yoshimura, upon leaving Shochiku in 1950. The film takes place in ancient Japan during an age of wars. People are starving. Two women, one a middle-aged mother and the other her teen-aged daughter-in-law who is waiting for her husband to return from the war, are living in a thatched hut on a deserted moor. Murder is their trade, ambushing deserting soldiers, then butchering them, stripping them of their weapons and armor and disposing of the bodies in a dry well, trading the booty for rice to sustain themselves during this troublesome period. When a local framer stops at the hut and informs the young girl that he saw her husband die in battle, he attempts to seduce her, but the mother-in-law intervenes, suspecting the girl’s husband still to be alive and that the farmer is trying to take advantage of the girl in her grief. The older woman is also jealous and wants a night with the man herself, but he wins the disagreement and the young girl sleeps with him. Following a general’s murder, the mother-in-law uses the devil mask he wore to frighten the superstitious girl. When she discovers she cannot remove it, the young girl learns who has been haunting her. She agrees to help the older woman under the condition that she be permitted to sleep with the farmer whenever she chooses. The older woman relents, but the mask proves difficult to remove so the girl strikes it with a hammer to break it. The mask fractures, but the woman’s face has been disfigured as well. The girl flees in panic with the woman in pursuit not realizing how hideous she is. The chase leads towards the dry well where the woman plunges to her death.

According to Donald Richie in Japanese Cinema, ONIBABA marks the beginning of change away from sentimentality, away from purity, retaining the social criticism, political propaganda, Shindo’s sense of rhythm and pictorial composition that were the basis of his preceding films. ONIBABA, containing “the sound of wind-whipped reeds and… views of the sunlit swamps, (is) full of something quite alien to Shindo’s earlier pictures–sex. That sex and politics are bedfellows is not a new observation, but given the suspiciously pure pictures of Shindo, the reevaluation comes with a certain suddeness.”  “Shindo depicts a period of bestial killing and animal sexuality in his ghost story” Japan’s Svensson’s evaluation begins. “In daytime an idyllic sun glitters in the waters, but at night a lurking full moon gives the film the tone of a legend. The excellent photography creates mood and suspense, with the waving reeds as a recurrent motif. Shindo makes full use of the resources of Nobuko Otowa, his favorite screen actress, as the bitter, brooding woman.”  ONIBABA is recipient of several 1965 Panamanian awards, receiving the “Sphinx Grand Prix” for “best film, best screenplay, and best actor (Kei Sato ).”

The success of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA prompts Toho to return to this monster-meets-monster format for two films in 1964, and for most films in the years to follow. GODZILLA AGAINST MOTHRA pits these two behemoths in earth-trembling duels skillfully staged by Eiji Tsuburaya.  Godzilla again returns to Japan with a vengeance, but encounters the gigantic egg of Mothra which washed ashore, extricated from Infant Island during a violent storm and now awaits hatching in a huge incubator built by promoters for financial gain. Mothra is summoned from its home by the Ailenas who have sided with a newspaperman and woman photograher to regain the egg. The giant moth falls under the flaming radioactive breath of Godzilla, but the egg hatches and two caterpillars emerge, each spraying the prehistoric anachronism with a wrapping of silk. Unable to retain his balance, Godzilla topples into the sea to return renewed someday from the place that gave him life.

The most engaging factor of this fantasy is the characterizations of the three leads, Professor Murai, Yoka the photographer and Sakai the correspondent, whose interplay keeps the film alive during the non-monster sequences. The dubbing for the American version is an asset, missing only those idioms that present real dialogue.  “Hogg” of Variety agrees in his September 23, 1964 review and adds a kudo to the two young ladies playing the Ailenas once again. However, their song, adapted by Akira Ifukube from Yuji Koseki’s original MOTHRA score, and the natives’ over-extended posturing to Mothra for the egg’s return, carried throughout much of the middle of the film, bores from repetition. Yet, the film moves at a lively pace, due to direction and script, and builds to tense climactic scenes.

Law enforcement and government bear the brunt of the screenplay’s unusual attack on red tape, bureaucracy, playing of favorites and bribery as impediments to the proper handling of the egg, and thus to the protection of the populace affected by the ensuing consequences of the egg’s mismanagement. This is quite a precedent compared to Toho’s routine pokes at nuclear testing and radioactivity. The screenplay continues this path by pointing to the caterpillars’ victory over Godzilla as nature’s way of taking care of the balance of things. Mankind and his machines are never connected with the reptile’s defeat. All concerned are left to watch the dramatic conclusion from the sidelines while the good forces of nature win in the end. Modern technological man has been unstaged.

The U.S. release title of GODZILLA AGAINST MOTHRA, GODZILLA VS. THE THING, is fraudulently misleading. Confusion stems from the inference that “The Thing” is the resuscitated vampire alien of Howard Hawk’s 1951 classic motion picture. The ad campaign furthers the ambiguity by showing a stylized, sleek Godzilla in the shadow of a giant question mark from behind which emerge a plethora of reaching tentacles.  While GODZILLA AGAINST MOTHRA, GODZILLA, and GIGANTIS maintain a high standard in the area of screenplay, photography and characterization within the monster vs. monster framework, and while KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, though short-changed in these facets. is interesting if only as a curiousity piece.

MONSTER OF MONSTERS, GHIDORAH, based around the activity of four creatures and released in America as GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, begins the gradual decay of Toho’s monster cinema. A confusing script, cheapening of character development and increased percentage of film in the monsters’ favor hint at what is to come which will weary the viewer with battle fatigue.

Implanted with the thoughts of benevolent Martians in her brain, a princess has become a prophetess to warn Earth of impending doom. A newspaperwoman is the only person to befriend the young girl until her brother, a detective, takes the princess/prophetess into police custody for protection against a group of former subjects who are determined to see her dead. The prophesied doom arrives when a meteorIte which crashes into a mountain in Japan releases Ghidorah, a winged, triple-headed monster, flames spewing forth from its multiple mouths. Abnormal heat in Japan frees Godzilla and Rodan from their hibernation, and they are prevailed upon to destroy Ghidorah by the Mothra caterpillar summoned from Infant Island by the Ailenas. Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan join forces in a monumental battle against the menace from outer space and send Ghidorah flying back to the black void from whence he came.

GHlDORAH’s first half, up to the tri-domed beast’s inception, Is exciting monster fare, well-conceived and plotted. The film builds slowly, introducing tho featured players, both lead male and female roles oddly identical to those in GODZILLA AGAINST MOTHRA, and the monsters, cutting back and forth between the respective creature’s resurrection and inevitable path of destruction. Tension peaks at Ghidorah’s spectacular formation as fire and energy, belching skyward from the split meteorite/egg, slowly coalesce into the solid form of the monster from space.

Decline follows, introduced by what at first seems to be an amusing, if not unique concept, showing Mothra pleading with Godzilla and Rodan atop Mt. Fuji for their cooperation in the elimination of Ghidorah. The three, each with its own ululation, argue the problem, embellishing their opinions with foot-stompings and head-shakings. The sequence proves deadly as it is allowed to run over-long. Follow ing immediately is “the biggest fight on Earth,” the film’s preproduction title, a less than serious and improperly photographed beast war, an unbecoming event for the monster cinema as tails are grabbed like worms, and protection obtained behind gigantic boulders is played as a kind of “Peek-A-Boo, I See You.”

Ghidorah, interesting with three heads and two tails, appearing awesome with cartoon animated rays spurting from eoch gaping mouth, rays which viciously tear into city structures, fails to reach his potential. His awkwardness, compounded by a man inside the monster suit whose hands are folded across his chest as the suit indicates, the uncontrolled quavering of the heads, as best as can be governed by wires from above the set, and bending of the necks at impossible junctures and angles forestall the threat that at one time appeared imminent. Amazing is the crediblity Eiji Tsuburaya’s animated rays, timed to correspond to the unplanned mouth movements of Ghidorah, return to the mammoth creature when it appears his machismo has been dissipated.

Next up: 1965 – 1966

Original Article © 1981, 2006 Greg Shoemaker. All rights of the original publisher reserved.
Kaijufan OnLine © 2006 John Rocco Roberto/Daikaiju Productions