Film Review: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Also known as: Chikyû saidai no kessen, lit. Three Giant Monsters: The Greatest Battle on Earth (Japan), Monster of Monsters: Ghidorah (Worldwide English title), Godzilla vs. Ghidorah (Finland), Frankensteins Monster im Kampf gegen Ghidorah (Germany)
Release Date: December 20th, 1964 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Shinichi Sekizawa
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Yosuke Natsuki, Hiroshi Koizumi, Yuriko Hoshi, Akiko Wakabayashi, The Peanuts, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Kenji Sahara, Susumu Kurobe, Haruo Nakajima, Shoichi Hirose

Toho Co. Ltd., 92 Minutes

Review:

“Yes, it is possible for someone to be saved from an exploding aircraft. If we understand the curvature of space, we know that the continuum surrounding any spherical body such as our world is composed of different dimensions. The force of the explosion created a gap between these dimensions, and fortunately for her, she fell into it.” – Alien Expert

I’ve put off reviewing this film in the Godzilla franchise for awhile. The main reason, is that I wanted to save it for the week that the new American Godzilla movie was coming out, as that one features the same four monsters featured in this film. So if the new American film is remaking anything, it is closest to remaking this film.

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster isn’t just one of my favorite Godzilla movies, it is one of my favorite monster movies… ever.

King Ghidorah is, hands down, one of the coolest and most iconic monsters ever created. While he might not be as popular as Godzilla or Mothra, he is most definitely the best villain in Godzilla lore and the true king of Toho’s baddies. He’s also much better than any of the evil kaiju creatures from any other Japanese series whether it be GameraUltraman or anything else. Personally, Gigan is my favorite but I can’t deny the greatness and dominance of Ghidorah.

What’s also really interesting about this film is that it is where Godzilla really becomes a good guy and a protector of Japan and Earth from worse monsters. He teams up with Mothra, after the two of them fought in Godzilla Vs. The Thing and he also encounters Rodan for the first time, which starts off as a big fight but eventually ends with the two of them becoming strong allies.

Ghidorah has three heads, so I guess it makes sense needing three good monsters to fight him. Also, it sort of helps to build up the mystique of the new villain. For the first time ever, Godzilla alone can’t take on another monster. Granted, Godzilla, over time, would evolve to be far more powerful than the standard Ghidorah.

The story of this one is also interesting in that it introduces a monster threat from outer space, as well as bringing in alien races and a new sort of dynamic to the Godzilla franchise, which changes all the movies going forward.

Additionally, this movie was helmed by the A-team of Toho tokusatsu: director Ishirō Honda, writer Shinichi Sekizawa, special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya and composer Akira Ifukube. It also features the top Toho actors, the real core of the studio’s talent at the time: Hiroshi Koizumi, Kenji Sahara, Takashi Shimura, Akiko Wakabayashi and Akihiko Hirata.

While I like the original Godzilla and King Kong Vs. Godzilla more than this, this chapter in the franchise is almost a perfect storm where everything just sort of went right. It ups the ante in new ways, is a hell of a lot of fun and it’s the one film that really sells you on how menacing and dangerous King Ghidorah is.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Shōwa era Godzilla movies.

Film Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

Also known as: Shichinin no Samurai (Japan), The Magnificent Seven (US premiere title)
Release Date: April 26th, 1954 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Katō, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kokuten Kōdō, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Eijirō Tōno, Jun Tatara, Atsushi Watanabe, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yukiko Shimazaki

Toho Co. Ltd., 207 Minutes, 160 Minutes (international), 202 Minutes (2002 re-release), 150 Minutes (original cut), 190 Minutes (1991 re-release), 207 Minutes (restored), 202 Minutes (DVD)

Review:

“What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all!” – Kikuchiyo

Akira Kurosawa is absolutely one of the greatest film directors to ever live. Hell, he could be the best but there are other elite talents in that discussion and taste is subjective.

But for a man that is such a master of his craft, it is hard to imagine that there is one film that stands above all the others. This is that film.

Seven Samurai is at or near the top of most legit film critics all-time best lists. It is cinematic perfection, a film of the highest artistic caliber. I can’t call it my favorite of all-time but it is definitely the king of Asian cinema and boasts a story so rich and beloved that it has gone on to inspire countless other movies, television shows, novels, comics and stage plays.

I know that I am really talking the film up but what I’m saying is not an oversell. From top to bottom, everything about Seven Samurai is top notch. So good, in fact, that it is hard to break it all down and review it.

The direction is superb, the acting is captivating and convincing, the narrative and the plot’s pacing are intriguing and perfect, this boasts incredible cinematography, lighting, shot framing and employs an understanding of mise en scène that allows this film to exist on a level that most other filmmakers will never be able to achieve.

Seven Samurai is truly a perfect storm. It is one of those films that I assume that everyone claiming to be a “film aficionado” has seen.

Sure, it is very long, which is something I tend to be annoyed by with many films but there isn’t a dull moment and every scene has genuine purpose.

But I also get that a three and a half hour, subtitled, black and white movie about samurai and farmers in 1500s Japan won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s also not as action packed as action fans would hope for but the combat situations are still quite compelling.

This is a drama more than it is an action or adventure story, however. But that is also why this stands shoulders above other films in the jidaigeki genre. Seven Samurai is about life, perseverance and heroism. It is a tale that most people are familiar with and should love.

If you’ve made it this far in life and have never seen the film but fancy yourself a real film fan, you need to correct that injustice. You owe it to yourself.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other films by Akira Kurosawa: The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, Rashomon, etc.

Film Review: Godzilla (1954)

Also known as: Gojira (original Japanes title), Godzilla: King of Monsters! (US version)
Release Date: November 3rd, 1954 (Japan)
Directed by: Ishirō Honda
Written by: Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata, Ishirō Honda
Music by: Akira Ifukube
Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Kenji Sahara, Raymond Burr (US version)

Toho, 96 Minutes (original), 80 Minutes (US version)

Review:

“I can’t believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species… But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again.” – Kyohei Yamane-hakase

There are two different versions of this film: the original Japanese version, which was released to theaters in 1954, as well as the English language American version from 1956 that featured new scenes starring Raymond Burr.

This is primarily a review of the original Japanese version of the film, as it is the superior version, in my opinion. Also, the American version loses some of the context and political themes within the picture.

Out of all the Godzilla movies ever made, there are now over thirty, this one is still the best of the lot. It’s just got such a dark and brooding nature that the tone is vastly different than the more kid friendly entries that would follow it. And I’m not saying that I don’t love kid friendly Godzilla, because that’s the Godzilla I fell in love with, but this is a film that had a deeper and more meaningful purpose than just counting kaiju sized piles of cash.

Godzilla makes a very bold statement, a statement that can still be felt today and it is still very relevant.

For those who might not know, Godzilla was created as a commentary on the horrors of nuclear bombs and their side effects. Coming out less than a decade after Japan was bombed by the United States to end World War II, the Japanese were certainly justified in making an artistic condemnation of nuclear technology. Plus, mass destruction was something that everyone in Japan had already lived through and it was still very fresh in their memories.

While the film gives us mass destruction in a different way, Godzilla, the monster, is unleashed on Japan due to the use of nuclear bombs and his rampage throughout the film is just as catastrophic. But at least with the monster in the movie, the Japanese people were able to find a way to defend themselves and bring the horror to an end on their own terms. That’s not to say that another Godzilla doesn’t show up later but within this movie, Japan perseveres, even if it comes at a great cost.

The special effects in this are dynamite, especially considering that this came out in 1954 and was made by a country that didn’t have the resources of a big budget American studio. Eiji Tsuburaya was the man behind the effects and his work here created a whole new genre, which would make his career, as he would go on to do many kaiju films for Toho, as well as creating his own studio, Tsuburaya Productions. Tsuburaya would later create the Ultraman franchise and other famous franchises beloved by the Japanese and fans of kaiju and tokusatsu films and television.

This was director Ishirō Honda’s big break and doing this film would pave the way for the rest of his career, as well. He ended up directing a ton of Godzilla movies, as well as other kaiju and tokusatsu pictures for Toho. In fact, he was pretty much the godfather of the two, overlapping genres.

Godzilla is a chilling film. The monster is truly a monster, which fans of the later films might be shocked by. It is this film that had the greatest impact on moviegoers upon its release, however, and it is why every single Godzilla reboot goes back to this well and presents the title character as a true harbinger of doom.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other Shōwa era Godzilla movies.

Film Review: Rashômon (1950)

Release Date: August 26th, 1950 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa
Based on: In a Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki

Daiei Film, 88 Minutes

Review:

“It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.” – Commoner

Kurosawa is one of the best filmmakers of all-time. I have a deep admiration for a lot of his pictures. However, Rashômon isn’t at the top of my list, even though it really brought him worldwide notoriety and won an Academy Award.

It’s still a really good film but I always gravitated to his action heavy samurai epics like Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo or his crime films like Stray Dog and Drunken Angel. But this film is still very engaging and maybe more intimate than the others, as it has a very small cast and really just focuses on a single event.

The purpose of the film is to tell the story of this event from four different perspectives. Kurosawa did this because he wanted to show how different interpretations can greatly vary. Also, within that, Kurosawa wanted to show how memory or bias can sway factual accuracy.

Initially, Japanese critics weren’t too fond of the film and they were a bit baffled when Western audiences praised it. Ultimately, this film opened the gates for Japanese cinema, as it was now being appreciated by audiences across the world.

The film deals with some heavy subject matter, especially for 1950. The story deals with the rape of a woman and the apparent murder of her husband. I don’t really think that this is a film that could have been made in America, at the time. I also think that its gritty realism is what caught audiences by surprise and captivated them, as Hollywood films were typically so clean and pristine. Even the grittiest of film-noir pictures didn’t get this dark.

Historically, this is one of the most important foreign films of all-time. It paved the way for other directors and new genres that made their way to the States. It allowed Kurosawa to have the respect and freedom to make better films, some of which became the best movies ever made.

I don’t want to take anything away from this. It’s doesn’t necessarily resonate with me like a lot of Kurosawa’s other work but I can’t deny it’s place in history, its influence and the great craftsmanship it took to bring it to life.

Also, the sequence where the dead husband speaks through a medium is legitimately creepy. I did love that part of the film.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other Kurosawa films of the late ’40s and early ’50s.

Film Review: Sanjuro (1962)

Release Date: January 1st, 1962 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Based on: Hibi Heian by Shugoro Yamamoto
Music by: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi, Yūzō Kayama, Reiko Dan, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, Takako Irie, Masao Shimizu, Yūnosuke Itō

Kurosawa Production, Toho Co. Ltd., 95 Minutes

Review:

“You tired of being stupid yet?” – Sanjuro Tsubaki

Sanjuro is a sequel to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which was such a success for the director and Toho that the script for the novel that this was based on, was rewritten to include the famous Toshiro Mifune character from the previous movie.

Yojimbo would go on to inspire Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” character over his trilogy of films. It would also inspire countless other spaghetti western movies and other samurai films, as well. But this here, is the one and only true sequel to the Yojimbo story.

The best part of this film is that it was a sequel made by the original director, a true auteur, and its original star. Granted, Kurosawa and Mifune were no strangers to one another and worked on several films together.

This isn’t the masterpiece that Yojimbo is but it is still a damn fine motion picture of the highest caliber for its time and for its scant budget when compared to the rest of the motion picture landscape, which was dominated by bigger budget Western films.

In this story, the famous ronin helps a group of young samurai combat a corrupt politician, who is involved with organized crime and who has framed and imprisoned the uncle of one of the samurai. The story has several twists that make it interesting and unpredictable. Most of the time, Sanjuro puts a plan in motion and somehow the young samurai find a way to muck it up. It isn’t until the end, that they follow Sanjuro’s orders and succeed.

While this is a serious drama, it is also comedic at times, which was a great strength in Kurosawa’s storytelling ability. He lets you know that his characters exist in a somewhat harsh world but he keeps things fairly grounded and lighthearted enough to not allow his films to get too dark. I’ve always been a person that has dealt with pain and tragedy by using humor. So, in a way, Kurosawa’s style speaks to that part of me and I think it speaks to others in the same way.

This film’s action and violence come off as mostly PG rated. Then, in the final showdown, there is a moment where it literally feels like the screen goes red with blood, even though it is still presented in black and white. The final blow to the enemy was violent but effective because it eclipsed anything else in the film and is sort of shocking the first time you witness it. But it is an amazing and beautiful sequence, captured by Kurosawa’s magic.

Sanjuro may even feel a bit more polished than Yojimbo. It doesn’t feel as gritty, anyway. Some of that could be due to a lot of the movie taking place at night where I remember Yojimbo being brighter and happening much more during daylight hours. Plus, Yojimbo was dustier and had the look that would become synonymous with all the spaghetti westerns that tried to emulate it’s visual presentation.

Both movies work so well together and they also compliment each other. Sanjuro gives a little more depth and character to the famous Mifune ronin. If anything, this just enriches the world that Kurosawa gave us in his previous film.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: Yojimbo (the film before it), as well as any Kurosawa jidaigeki picture.

Film Review: Stray Dog (1949)

Also known as: Nora Inu (Japan)
Release Date: October 17th, 1949 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura

Shintoho, Film Art Association, Toho, 122 Minutes

Review:

“Bad luck either makes a man or destroys him. Are you gonna let it destroy you? Depending how you take it, bad luck can be a big break.” – Police Inspector Nakajima

I really liked Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and it inspired me to look at more of his work that wasn’t specifically historical samurai films, also known as jidaigeki. I also picked this one, as it is essentially a Japanese film-noir. Plus, it stars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, two of Kurosawa’s regulars.

In this tale, we are taken to post-WWII Tokyo during a summer heatwave. A rookie homicide detective named Murakami (Mifune) has his Colt pistol stolen while on a trolley ride. Not soon after, police forensics discovers that Murakami’s pistol was used in a crime. He then teams up with a veteran detective, Satō (Shimura), in an effort to track down his Colt and to stop the criminal responsible.

The story is pretty intriguing and it has been borrowed several times since it was first used here. At least, I have never seen an older version of this tale. Hell, an episode of Louis CK’s Louis was based off of this concept, when Louis’ idiot cop buddy (Michael Rappaport) loses his pistol and they have to try and track it down. Not to get sidetracked here, but I know a lot of people have probably seen that episode.

This film is an example of Kurosawa on the cusp of greatness. He already did the near perfect Drunken Angel but he hadn’t quite gotten into the high point of his oeuvre yet.

This is a gritty and real feeling film. It displays an era in Tokyo that most Western audiences haven’t really seen. It’s a genuine look into the blossoming of a modernized Japan. It even gives us a solid glimpse at old school Japanese baseball, which I just wish was featured in a lot more movies because I love the sport and have always loved the country.

What we also get with this film, is Mifune and Shimura kind of giving birth to the buddy cop formula. While it isn’t so much a comedy, it is a solid crime thriller, their camaraderie foreshadows a long lasting trope that would become a norm in police movies and television shows.

Additionally, this is also a precursor to the police procedural film. While this is a formula that started around the same time in film-noir, it didn’t truly become widespread in entertainment until police procedurals made their way onto television sets in the 1950s.

Stray Dog was a film that was just ahead of its time. Furthermore, it is well directed, well acted and has some great cinematography. The big finale is one of the best cop versus criminal showdowns in history. It almost has a western vibe to it, as both these men come face to face.

While this isn’t Kurosawa’s best, it is better than most directors can dream.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Also known as: Gojira no gyakushû, lit. Counterattack of Godzilla (Japan), Gigantis the Fire Monster (US – original title)
Release Date: April 24th, 1955 (Japan)
Directed by: Motoyoshi Oda
Written by: Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata, Shigeaki Hidaka
Music by: Masaru Sato
Cast: Hiroshi Koizumi, Setsuko Wakayama, Minoru Chiaki, Takashi Shimura

Toho, 81 Minutes

Review:

Godzilla Raids Again was a quickly pushed out sequel to the original Gojira. And like its predecessor, the film was shot in black and white, making it the only film in the franchise, apart from the original, that wasn’t released in color.

In the United States, despite the success of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the American re-edit of Gojira, this film didn’t take the Godzilla name and was initially release as Gigantis the Fire Monster. In fact, English dubbed versions of the film still make reference to the monster being called “Gigantis”.

This film introduced the beloved kaiju Anguirus, who fought Godzilla in this picture but would go on to be a top ally for decades. And this is actually the film that gave birth to kaiju battles, as the previous Godzilla picture only featured the title monster.

Compared to the original, which was an exceptional motion picture, this is a very poor sequel to it. While it was successful, maybe Toho wasn’t keen on its quality, as Godzilla was shelved for seven years until he was brought back to battle King Kong in one of the best kaiju epics of all-time.

There are several reasons why this film is lacking compared to the two chapters that sandwich it.

To start, while tokusatsu master Eiji Tsuburaya did handle the special effects, some mistakes were made during the production. The frame rate of the camera was not set correctly and the big kaiju battles are fast paced to the point that the monsters move around at impossible speeds and it almost plays like a slapstick comedy segment every time that Godzilla and Anguirus tie-up. It just looks hokey and doesn’t match up with the action of any other Toho kaiju picture. Plus, it is missing audio effects and the battles just sort of happen to music, looking like a goofy spastic dance.

Another reason why the film suffers is that Godzilla mastermind Ishirō Honda was not behind the camera. Additionally, the script was written by people that weren’t mainstays in the franchise in the same way that Shinichi Sekizawa and Takeshi Kimura were.

The film is still enjoyable for Godzilla fans and it does have its positives.

Toho regulars Hiroshi Koizumi and Takashi Shimura star in the picture and give good performances.

Also, the overall visual look of the film is fairly solid. The scene where Godzilla comes to shore and the military fills the sky with flares looks really cool and holds up well. Also, the scene where Godzilla is walking through the snow covered valley, surrounded by icy mountains, is a beautiful sight where the contrast between the monster and his environment is enhanced by the black and white presentation.

In the long history of Godzilla films, this one is mostly forgettable other than the debut of Anguirus and the kaiju versus kaiju concept that would become the standard in just about every kaiju movie made after this one.