Story Delivery Vehicle: Dioramageddon! – “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero”

Kaijū Daisensō (1965)

What is it? – The sixth Godzilla feature finds our titular monster pitted against giant pterodactyl Rodan and the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah.  Meanwhile, humanity faces off against an alien race bent on world domination.

How do I get it into my brain? – you can watch it on Netflix (instant streaming), or buy it!  The DVD actually has the original Japanese version on it, too.


Though my original exposure to them was through the classic cheese processing facility known as Mystery Science Theater 3000, I have developed an appreciation for Japan’s particular kaiju–or “strange beast”–genre.  The first, most popular and most enduring of these is definitely Toho Studios’ Godzilla.  Originally envisioned as a metaphor for the devastation of nuclear weaponry, Godzilla (or Gojira in his native land) soon became a mascot of sorts, owing to his portrayal as a powerful yet misunderstood creature.  A 165 foot-tall nuclear Frankenstein’s Monster, a sympathetic beast that was roused to defend itself.  Longtime franchise director Ishiro Honda had said at one point, “monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy”.  The original Japanese Godzilla is a dark, spooky, and ominous film, but future iterations would find the monster’s menace diminished as he became more of a heroic figure in the films.  Here in the sixth feature, Godzilla is in full-on sympathetic portrayal mode, even comedic at times.

Look, by no means is this a particularly great kaiju flick.  It’s hardly the best Godzilla film, either.  Even among its peers, it’s goofy, awkward, and inconsistent.  But it has its charms, and what did I say before?  Sometimes, a flawed story is more interesting to dissect!  In a nutshell, aliens from Planet X are menaced by King Ghidorah, whom Godzilla and Rodan had exiled to space in the previous movie.  Desperate for a solution, they send a signal to Earth.  Earth sends astronauts Glenn and Fuji, from America and Japan respectively, on an exploratory mission, and they are met by the resident race, the Xiliens (a name not used in the film but established in later Godzilla lore).  They offer a cure for cancer in exchange for Earth’s mightiest monsters.  Earth agrees, the Xiliens retrieve the monsters, and then reveal their true plans: subjugating Earth and using the monsters, now mind-controlled, in order to keep us in line.

Human Events

Spectacle stories work best when the outlandish scenarios are counterbalanced with a simple, believable human drama.  The original Godzilla does this very well, placing a young woman in a quandary between the desires of her father (a paleontologist who does not want to see Godzilla harmed), her fiance (a member of the coast guard who thinks Godzilla is a threat and should be eliminated), and an ex (a scientist who has a weapon that could defeat Godzilla but also doom mankind if it fell into the wrong hands).

In this film, there are some interpersonal dramatic frameworks established but never fully utilized.  Fuji and Glenn, in addition to being astronauts, are good friends.  Fuji is staid and reserved, Glenn more freewheeling and easy-going.  Fuji has a sister, Harumi, who thinks Fuji is over-protective.  Harumi is in love with a crackpot inventor, Tetsui, whom Fuji does not consider worthy of his sister’s attention.  These are all good, sturdy conflicts that we would certainly hope are resolved by the end of the picture!  That’d be satisfying, right?

Oh, missed opportunities.

Fuji is having none of this.

First, between Glenn and Fuji, I’d expect them to teach each other a lesson about the downfalls of living life at their respective extremes. Glenn winds up in a relationship with an alien invader from Planet X working incognito on Earth, which proves to be a bit of an issue.  Fuji… doesn’t really get in any trouble, even though his reservedness is presented as a character flaw.  Fuji spends most of his time in a lab working on a countermeasure to the aliens, would a little subplot about finding romance with a lab assistant in the face of possible annihilation be out of the question?

Glenn could easily learn a lesson about getting too involved too quickly, through the alien girlfriend Miss Namikawa.  After his first rendezvous with her, he’s already talking about getting married, for cryin’ out loud.  Ultimately, things go sour when the Xiliens discover her feelings for Glenn.  In a final confrontation, she gets vaporized before his eyes by the Xiliens, but Glenn takes it surprisingly well.  Sure, he gets angry at the Xiliens, but that’s about the extent of it.  He gets tossed in a makeshift prison soon after, which would have been a nice place for a moment of reflection.  Tetsui had been captured earlier, and that could have been a nice little moment between the two and served as a “nut up” moment for Tetsui as well, wherein he could resolve to impress upon Fuji his worthiness.

For Tetsui, the film already possesses a moment where he could resolve his conflict with Fuji, but they botched it.  Tetsui’s invention turns out to expose the Xiliens’ weakness (LOUD NOISES!), and a plan is developed to broadcast the noise to disorient the Xiliens (kinda like in Mars Attacks!)  Glenn is the one who explains it to Fuji, but this would have been the perfect time for Tetsui to be assertive and stand up for himself, but instead he remains meek and sidelined.  Fuji ultimately accepts Tetsui and Harumi’s love but, without any action on Tetsui’s part, it feels flat.  This could have also served to resolve the tension between Fuji and Harumi, showing her that her brother had softened somewhat and was newly supportive of her relationship.

Alien Notions

This Godzilla film is a minor milestone in that it’s the first time heavy space opera elements are incorporated, namely interstellar travel and confrontations with an alien civilization.  Dwelling on a newly discovered moon of Jupiter, referred to simply as Planet X (good ol’ Planet X!), they present humankind with a pretty sweet deal.  See, in the last movie, Godzilla and Pals teamed up to deal with King Ghidorah, a three-headed golden dragon.  They scared him off and he flew away into space (why not?) and apparently settled on Planet X, taking out his aggression against the planet and ravaging the surface, forcing the Xiliens underground.  Earth, upon measuring strange radio and magnetic waves originating on the planet, has mounted an expedition to the planet to see what’s up.  In their underground base, the Xiliens outline the proposal for Fuji and Glenn to take back to Earth: X wants to borrow the monsters that chased off Ghidorah the last time, and they’ll even let Earth have their cure for cancer!

Free cure for cancer, and get rid of a pair of romping, stomping forces of destruction?  How could we possibly refuse?

Now, I know this is all ridiculous on its face.  Giant monsters, aliens, easy transit between Earth and Jupiter.  Yet, when a story establishes outlandish rules from the get-go, the audience requires less supporting justification than if these concepts were introduced or revealed partway through.  When a story, no matter how fantastical, ignores its own internal logic, though, Houston we have a problem.

On the subject of monster exchange, no mention at all is given to what it would mean for Earth.  Everyone is just so damn jazzed about the cancer cure (including a lady who represents the Housewives of Japan, though in the US version, it’s the “Organizations of Women”, plural).  We’re a half-dozen Godzilla incidents in by now… he’s fought off Mothra, King Kong, Anguirus, Ghidorah, and Rodan.  Sure, we rid ourselves of Godzilla and Rodan, but who knows what other threats we may be exposing ourselves to?

Xians

Are we not men?  No, you aren’t (yes you are not?)

Turns out it’s these guys!

Now, I don’t really mind that the Xiliens look silly.  There is a way for a weird-looking alien to turn out to be menacing, and the juxtaposition can heighten the effect, but it requires that the aliens are effective as antagonists.  Unfortunately, the Xiliens do not overcome their appearance in this regard.  For a force intent on global domination, we are only ever shown their activities in Japan.  They may have agents in other nations, though it’s not likely, as they seem to operate on Earth out of a secluded house which is referred to as the Earth Base.  Not the Japan Base, the entire Earth Base.  When they reveal the truth of their plot (that they stole Earth’s monsters and enslaved them with mind control technology, and will unleash them if Earth rebels), the reaction is global, but only illustrated through a newspaper montage.

Easy fix!  Quick montage of X aliens in sight of national landmarks.  A couple matte effects and you’ve established that this really is a global enterprise.  It’s also peculiar that, in the entire world, the only Achilles’ heel for the Xiliens exists in the form of Tetsui’s noisemaking device, a prototype which he has had no luck in selling, so how the hell did they find out about it?  Ah well, they buy up the designs through a front corporation and sit on the patent (actually the severe-faced commander of Earth forces burns the blueprints after a sunbathing session, for serious!)

Japan is also the only place we see any monster destruction, though it’s mentioned in passing at one point that King Ghidorah was spotted over North America.  Just sightseeing, I guess?  They coulda had him blow up Mount Rushmore or something.

Now, there is a yarn spun from the first act events on Planet X that they need to synthesize water.  Ghidorah’s initial attack damages an underground water plant, and the astronauts muse later that the Xiliens may have ulterior motives for dealing with Earth.  Take the monsters, then steal the water… why didn’t Glenn and Fuji have these doubts before they got everyone together in the Diet Building and promised Earth a cure for cancer?  Coulda saved everyone a bunch of trouble.

The Xiliens probably wouldn’t care about water, since they are either robots or cyborgs… it’s never clearly established which.  What we know is their actions are regulated by supercomputers, rendering them a kind of proto-Borg collective in rejected Devo tour outfits.  They are also clones (or identically designed robots?), as Glenn and Fuji discover on their return trip to Planet X.  While Godzilla and Rodan are mixing it up with Ghidorah, they sneak off looking for answers regarding their water hypothesis, only to stumble upon a gold mine being tended to by women who look identical to Miss Namikawa.  Female robo-clone slavery!  These Xiliens don’t fuck around.

They do like to talk about their plans, though.  While outlining the conditions of their subjugation of Earth, they explain in sufficient detail how their monster mind-control technology works.  If the Xiliens were informed enough to know about Tetsui’s noisemaker, how did they miss the fact that Earth’s scientists were close to perfecting technology that would interfere with the magnetic waves they use to control the monsters?

Speaking of their plans and the execution thereof, this is something that took me several viewings to figure out, even rewatching between dubbed and subtitled versions of the film.  As mankind nears completion of their interference device, the Xiliens decide to accelerate the monster attack timetable.  Here’s the dialogue from the dub, where the Controller and associates are in their mobile command hub… they’ve given Earth a 24 hour ultimatum to surrender before they unleash kaiju hell and are still several hours away:

Xilien 1: “Controller, sir!  Computer shows a discrepancy.”
Controller: “Why?  Computer 5, what is the trouble?”
Computer 5: “We’re checking.”
Controller: “All right… we change our plans.  We begin the attack on Earth now.”  <he presses a button.>  “Read the tape.”
Xilien 2: “The tapes show… red dots are decreasing.”
Controller: “Good.  Monster 01 and 02, commence the attack.”
<Godzilla and Rodan awaken and go on a rampage.>

This makes no goddamn sense.  What is the discrepancy?  What is the significance of the red dots?  Why launch the attack before all the facts are in?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  It’s actually a somewhat sophisticated concept but horribly delivered.  The Xilien computers seem to be running thousands of simulations to determine the best course of action, both for this invasion and for moderating Xilien society overall.  As humans come closer to completing their interference weapon, the simulations begin showing more and more failed outcomes (the ‘red dots’), though the details are not revealed to the Xilien controller.  He changes the parameters, asking the computers what the outcomes look like if he begins the monster attack immediately.  Red dots decrease, the chance of success improves.

Man, I knew there were a lot of things wrong with the Xiliens, but dang.  I could keep going, but I’ll cap them with this highlight.  Tetsui, inventor of their dreaded noisemaker device, sneaks onto their base and is captured, thrown into a soundproof jail cell.  That’s a wee bit of foresight.  But they let him keep his belongings in the cell, including… the noisemaking device, which was in his jacket pocket!  Once they put 1 and 0 together, Tetsui and Glenn are able to easily overpower their captors simply by using the noisemaker, which apparently is too noisy even for the soundproof jail.

 

Stomping Rounds

Okay, what’s the main draw of a giant monster or alien invasion movie, really?  We want to see stuff blow up!  Why is engaging in this nihilistic fantasy so cathartic?  Do we secretly yearn for the downfall of civilization and to be free of all its restrictions, expectations, stratification and morays?  Are we projecting our frustrations into the scene, purging them as the buildings explode into dust and rubble?  Is it a thrill that comes from playing with the taboos of vandalism and destruction?  Whatever the reason, monster movies invest heavily in making sure we come away satisfied.  The original Godzilla spent a third of its nearly $1,000,000 budget–one of the most expensive movies ever produced in Japan at the time–on effects.

In the age before computers and physics simulations, the best way to portray the destruction of buildings was through model work.  I would love to see a behind-the-scenes documentary on what lengths the effects crew went to in building these miniatures.  The level of detail is remarkable, especially at this scale and when considering the models’ ultimate fate.  Dozens of city blocks worth of structures were prepared in anticipation of the destruction sequence, which they surely only had one shot at.  The buildings even have lovingly realized internal structures, framework, furniture, signage, and windows.  The interior structures may seem a small detail or unnecessary, but they go a long way in supporting the illusion when the buildings are crushed and blown apart.  The streets are lined realistically with plants, trees, power lines, phone booths, benches, fences, guard rails, and on and on.  Through high-speed photography, the scale and speed of destruction can be fudged, but even in stills, the buildings are sometimes hard to tell from models.

The level of intricacy and care is mostly revealed, and dramatically so, during the destruction.  When Rodan is beating his wings, sending great gusts of wind across the diminutive country structures, thousands of individually placed roof shingles peel off and blow away.  Structures sway and collapse, and debris goes flying as Godzilla stomps and kicks all in his path.  To accentuate Ghidorah’s lightning breath effects, explosive charges are integrated into the buildings, causing swaths of damage to cut across them.

Godzilla’s a real blockbuster.

In addition to the city, a countryside is constructed… you’ve got the lake Godzilla’s hiding out in, which is also where the Xiliens’ secluded cottage base is.  Dozens of military vehicles roll along winding mountain roads, from jeeps to tanks and sci-fi vehicles carrying the interference weapon arrays.  Let’s not forget Planet X either, with its monumental crags and hidden alien structures, large hatches built into mountain faces and hidden elevator cylinders which sprout up from the ground like mushrooms.  The rocket ship that Glenn and Fuji arrive on Planet X in is of a classic finned cylindrical design.  I was particularly impressed by a rather practical design element on the ship: the cockpit is of course several stories up in the air, so the hatch swings out perpendicular to the ship and rides up and down its length as an elevator platform.  Nifty!

So what does all this handiwork get us?  The film has three action set-pieces, spaced pretty evenly throughout the movie.  The problem is that the first two take place on Planet X, which isn’t that interesting compared to Japan.  The first one doesn’t really count, if you get down to it, since it’s only King Ghidorah doing a flyby on the planet’s surface.  Some lighting breath, some surface damage.  It serves a story purpose insomuch as it sells the Xilien pitch to the astronauts, but it wouldn’t hurt to show some remnant Xilien surface architecture, or the effects of the cave-in that took out their water plant.

The second action sequence, again on Planet X, finally gets us some monster tussling, but I don’t know… without building death I just don’t feel it as much.  The set’s nice and alien-worldy, but without much room for visually interesting destruction.  Lots of smoke effects and some thrown boulders.  Certainly, we are engaged by the spectacle of fighting monsters… maybe I’m being too hard on Planet X battle just because of how vastly it is overshadowed by the Japan battle.

As if to say, “yes, we know this is what you’ve been waiting for”, this flick does not disappoint when it comes time for the finale.  The sequence, which finds the Xiliens unleashing the mad wrath of the three beasts as humankind scrambles to both break the mind control and weaken the Xiliens with the Achilles Noise, is an engaging and exciting sequence, and long!  Nearly the entire final 20 minutes are peppered with effects work, with a solid eight minutes of uninterrupted monster mayhem starting it off.  Buildings are crushed in vivid detail, the army unleashes an impressive battery against the monsters, people run in panic in the streets.  Visually, it’s the good stuff, but emotionally, it’s not as viscerally satisfying.

In the original Godzilla, there was buy-in to the destruction because there was dramatic build-up and time invested on preventing it, and because the real-world repercussions were illustrated on-screen.  If buildings are being destroyed, the weight can come from several angles.  If they are monuments or otherwise recognizable/important buildings, their destruction can be seen as a humbling of mankind as a whole.  Our feats of engineering and our cultural or societal centers crumble in the face of a new external power.  This is the principle upon which the original Godzilla works, as do many subsequent spectacle films, such as Independence Day or Cloverfield.

Alternately, the human element can be the source of dramatic pull.  Show us that these are the homes of people, and not just structures the monster stumbles over.  The original Godzilla did this as well.  Bonus points if any of the buildings destroyed have importance for the characters we’re sympathizing with.  Tetsui comes from humble origins in a regular neighborhood… if it was shown that his home was among the destroyed, and we were reminded he still had family there who were impacted, boom!  Greater dramatic resonance to the spectacle of destruction.

This is not to say what we are shown isn’t at least fun to look at.  When Rodan is beating his wings, sending great gusts of wind across the diminutive country structures, thousands of individually placed roof shingles peel off and blow away.  Structures sway and collapse, and debris goes flying as Godzilla stomps and kicks all in his path.  To accentuate Ghidorah’s lightning breath effects, explosive charges are integrated into the buildings to cause rips of destruction.  It’s gotta be one of the best-looking destruction sequences in the Showa-era Godzilla films, if not the most symbolically impressive.

Mad Monster Party

So, it’s come to this.  Godzilla, king of all monsters, born as a figurehead of atomic testing and a nightmarish echo of the devastation of World War II, is now Japan’s 165-foot tall superhero (a hero who just can’t help but stomp a few buildings as he saves the day).  Ah well.  A Godzilla for all seasons.  As Japan evolved, so too did Godzilla.  Perhaps this whole yarn, whereby Godzilla is taken from Japan and weaponized against them serves as a parallel to Cold War anxieties and fears that Japan may not be able to defend itself.  Article 9 of their post-war constitution forbids the maintenance of an army by that name, after all.

Anyway, Godzilla is definitely portrayed lightly here, and any mayhem he wreaks can be justified as due to the Xilien’s mind control.  If there’s any doubt that we’re supposed to be on Godzilla’s side, consider that after the battle on Planet X, this is totally a thing that happens:

He even gets a little pugilistic against Ghidorah in the final battle, throwing a few boxing punches and shuffling around as though switching stances.

Speaking of King Ghidorah!  He’s a golden lightning-breathing dragon with three heads, two tails, and zero coordination.  A pretty bizarre creation, its snakelike necks flail around wildly as it spews lightning everywhere.  Honestly, it’s a wonder he hasn’t accidentally cut off at least one of those heads himself yet.  But, in spite or perhaps because of these uncontrolled attacks, Ghidorah is an oddly compelling and effective monster, a bit of a whirling dervish.  He barrels into combat against Godzilla, and definitely gets a few good hits in throughout the movie.

Rodan… well, Rodan is also in this movie!  He’s on the sidelines for most of it, and whenever he’s shown it feels like it’s just to remind us he’s there.  He feels strangely detached from whatever action Godzilla and Ghidorah are involved in… while those two are wrecking up the more commercialized parts of the city, Rodan seems to have wandered off and is fanning high-speed wind in a rural area.  He helps out in the fight against Ghidorah a few times, providing a distraction so Godzilla can get a few good shots in, but I can’t help but feel there would be a way to better integrate him into the action.

Now how about a group photo?

You Say Potato, I Say Imo

(Imo is Japanese for ‘potato’.  GET IT!?)

When I started writing this article, I hadn’t seen the Japanese-language version of the film, but I discovered the DVD and it was really affordable, so I went back and re-watched.  The production of this film was interesting due to the presence of the American actor Nick Adams, who portrays Glenn.  A contemporary and friend of both James Dean and Elvis Presley, he brings a suitably American swagger and smirk to his role.  The movie was shot bilingually, with Adams delivering all his lines in English amongst his Japanese co-stars.  This was a measure Toho took so they could leave his voice untouched for the international version of the film.  So in Japan, only Adams is dubbed, but internationally, only Adams is original.

Adams’s performance is pretty fun.  He’s got a really expressive face and, despite the language barrier during the production, never seems to be reacting incorrectly, and his line delivery is never incongruous.

Oh, to live in a world where the phrase “no, it’s actually a pretty good dub” were unnecessary.  Unfortunately, dubbing is wildly inconsistent across the medium of film.  Monster Zero’s dub isn’t bad, per se, but it ain’t great.  It rests comfortably on the plain of mediocrity, occasionally slipping into awkwardness (Xiliens especially).  Dubbing has the effect of flattening the delivery of lines, so watching it in Japanese is, I think, preferable.  Though my understanding of Japanese is scattered, I’ve been exposed to enough of it to pick up on the patterns of their inflections, and hearing the original actors is more engaging on that primal linguistic level.

As for Adams’ role, he is dubbed by a very prominent voice actor, Goro Naya.  In addition to providing the voice for prime antagonist Inspector Zenigata in the classic anime Lupin III, he was often the dub voice for such American superstars as Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, and John Wayne.  Oh yeah, and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  A voice lent to many legendary characters.  On the English side of things, the only dub actor whose identity anyone is sure of is that of Fuji, who is performed by Marvin Miller, a radio announcer perhaps best known for providing the voice of Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet.

Unlike some of the other Godzilla movies, the contents of Monster Zero are largely unchanged from the original, though the destruction of the big finale is tightened up in editing (there are a few shots of tanks firing and Godzilla crushing buildings that are literally repeated three times in succession in the original).  There are a few peculiar details and one particularly large one that get twisted up, though.  In the Japanese version, the Xiliens are shown speaking in their own language at one point, which is cut from the English version.  This is a minor moment, but does establish elegantly that the aliens have ulterior motives, as there are things they are only willing to say to themselves.

In the English version, the Xiliens promise a cure for all disease, whereas the Japanese one is specifically a cancer cure.  That doesn’t change much, but in the Japanese version, one of the participants at the Diet meeting muses that they may have other secrets beyond just the cancer cure, and that cooperating may entice the Xiliens to share more of their knowledge.

The ‘red dots’ scene I mentioned before is translated differently in subtitles, so it’s a little less bizarre but no less confusing.  As their plans and ships quite literally crumble, the Xilien controller (referred to as the Commandant in subtitles) has a farewell speech which he delivers before initiating a self-destruct sequence… it is oddly poetic, but moreso in English:

“We’ll escape… we’ll escape into the future!  Into that dimension we’ve never seen!  All of you, join me in escape!” and then they explode.  Dang, yo.  The Xiliens would not be seen again until 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars.

So, there’s just one more bone I’d like to pick.  Holy crap, I just realized what that idiom means.  After a meal, sifting through the scraps, trying to gnaw the last bit of good meat off… wow.  Funny how that happens sometimes.  But where was I?  Oh yeah.  So we stand in resolution… the Xiliens have been blown the hell up.  King Ghidorah has run off to space again, his tails between his legs.  Godzilla and Rodan have tumbled into the lake, possibly dead, but probably not.  Tetsui and Harumi’s relationship survives and Fuji can’t really justify piling the hate on the wormy inventor anymore.  What’s next for Glenn, so visibly unfazed by the evaporation of his alien girlfriend?  Back to Planet X with you, apparently!  He never really mentioned the fact that the subterra is inhabited by unseen legions of clones who look exactly like his dead love interest, so maybe the grieving process won’t be so rough for him, eh?  Eh?

Salacity aside, consider that Planet X is the home planet of a devious and expansionist alien race.  In the English version, Glenn alone is chosen to become the first ambassador to Planet X.  Are we really expecting whatever remaining Xiliens or computer brains or whatever to meet the insulting defeat at the hands of puny Earthlings with a willingness for diplomacy?  Fortunately, this absurd detail is not quite as absurd in the Japanese version, whereupon it is decided that both Glenn and Fuji together will return to Planet X to conduct a full survey.  Should they perhaps bring a few soldiers with them?  And what if King Ghidorah decided to retreat to that last home he had known?  It is a hasty decision, and one that leaves me with many questions, none of which have any hope of being answered in a sequel, because Godzilla’s next romp is on a remote island versus a giant shrimp monster.  Poor radioactive 165 foot-tall slightly dopey amphibian monster just can’t catch a break, can he?

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