With the upcoming release of the new American Godzilla movie, there’s been an upswing in interest in the Japanese films, right down to some of the harder-to-find classics getting snappy new DVD releases. And even if it turns out to be a massive sloppy turd, we can console ourselves with new copies of Godzilla vs. Gigan as we dig the new film a shallow, unmarked grave in a landfill. But as new-found kaiju fanatics, spurned on by the new movie, start digging through the treasure trove of Toho Studios’ back catalog, it’s important to note that Toho made a lot of science-fiction films that didn’t involve Godzilla. Arguably some of its best movies fall under this category. So this week, let’s have a look at some of my favorites.
In the 1960s, the Japanese studio system was not what you’d call a good environment for auteurism. Directors were often assigned films and promoted based on their willingness to step in line rather than put an individualistic stamp on their work. This is why Godzilla vs. Hedorah, arguably the Godzilla film with the most artistic vision of the whole lot (for better or worse) was met with hatred by the producers as soon as they saw it, and the director was exiled from Toho.
But bigwigs and moneymakers like Ishiro Honda, director of the original Godzilla, were given a little more leeway, or were at least clever enough to sneak in a bit of themselves into certain projects. Matango is one of these, often read as being about Honda’s frustration at the changing climate at Toho and the move towards more lighthearted, populist movies.
After a yacht gets caught in a storm and washes up on a mysterious island, the crew — mostly working class sailors, rich assholes and pompous intellectuals — find an abandoned ship and a mysterious breed of mushroom called Matango. One by one, the crew begin eating the mushrooms, turning into sinister zombies.
Matango is probably the darkest, most atmospheric and genuinely scariest film Toho’s ever made (at least that I’ve seen). A weird, often surrealist nightmare that seems equal parts Ingmar Bergman and Robert Weine, but with more giant cackling mushroom people. If you know what’s going on behind the scenes and what Honda really seems to be saying between the lines, it takes on an intensely personal feel. If not, it’s just a weird, spooky as hell movie about ‘shroom people. Either way, it’s a hell of a ride.
In 1954, a Japanese fishing boat called the Lucky Dragon was caught in the fallout cloud of an American H-Bomb test that drifted off the predicted course, killing all aboard and inciting massive outrage from Japanese citizens calling it “the second atomic bombing of Japan”. The H-Man (short for hydrogen man) is a direct reaction to this, using the incident in the same way the first Godzilla used the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a springboard for a science-fiction parable.
Say what you will about Toho’s early science-fiction output, they weren’t afraid to experiment, often mixing and matching genres to see what stuck. The H-Man feels like an odd mix of horror, sci-fi and cop movies. The mysterious killing of a mob figure, in which the victim is seemingly dissolved, sparks an investigation from the Tokyo police with the aid of a determined young scientist. The gang eventually discovered that an incident similar to what happened to the Lucky Dragon has created a hydrogen-based life form that dissolves its victims and is now on the loose in Tokyo.
The H-Man is an odd little hybrid of a movie, as much a classic cops vs. yakuza thriller as a monster flick. It takes a little while to get off the ground but when it does it has a darkness akin to the original Godzilla, as much an anti-nuclear parable as a bit of sci-fi fun. And the fact that it came out the same year as The Blob seems like an odd, interesting coincidence, given how similar the films can be in some respects.
While the other two movies I looked at this week are dark, broody and loaded with subtext, Latitude Zero couldn’t be more different. An effects-laden 60s cheeseball of the highest order, Latitude Zero is just plain fun. And surprisingly enough, they all come from the same director.
After a bathysphere accident (the silent killer) leaves two scientists and a reporter trapped at the bottom of the ocean, they’re taken in by the captain of the Alpha, a high-tech submarine built by Latitude Zero (a secret, undersea utopia built by idealistic scientists). But of course, there’s an evil genius bent on the captain’s destruction for…reasons, and an epic adventure kicks off.
Latitude Zero has everything you could ever want in a fun, if massively hokey, 60s/70s sci-fi movie. Jet packs, evil scientists, women in gold bikinis, monsters and did I mention jet packs? The film still bears a lot of Ishiro Honda’s personal stamp, namely a near deification of scientists and a Utopian ideal of a perfect, borderless society dedicated to science and understanding.
What makes Latitude Zero especially odd is that the majority of the cast are actually American actors speaking English and even the Japanese cast members speak their lines in broken, phonetically pronounced English. Star Joseph Cotton stalks around looking as natural as a 50+ year old man can in an open collard buccaneer shirt and ascot and Caesar Romero chews scenery like a fiend while turning people into genetic monsters seemingly stuck together with duct tape and glue.
I poke fun, but the effects by the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya — Latitude Zero being his last science-fiction film before his death — are pretty impressive at times. It may not be as deep or edgy as Matango or H-Man, but Latitude Zero makes up for it with a great sense of fun and adventure. And the gold bikinis. Can’t forget those.