Giant Monsters: Negadon, Yokai, Gamera

Event Date & Time: American Cinematheque film festival
Location: Egyptian Theatre 6712 Hollywood Blvd in Hollywood
This year’s installment of the American Cinematheque’s annual “Giant Monsters” Festival got off to a start with a four-and-a-half hour marathon session on Friday evening that included prizes, trailers, a short subject (NEGADON: MONSTER FROM MARS, and the Los Angeles debut of two new feature films (THE GREAT YOKAI WAR and GAMERA THE BRAVE). It was almost a case of kaiju overload, but the enthusiastic, boisterous audience ate it all up and left wanting more.

It was not a perfect evening. The opening raffle and comments seemed to go on forever, prompting some eager viewers to begin interrupting with shouts of “Start the movie!” Some of the movies were on 35mm film; some were on Digi-Beta or DVD, requiring frequent lulls in the program while the projectionist changed over from one to the other. This left the rambunctious audience in the dark, whistling the “Godzilla march” to pass the time.

The raffle featured items from Anime Jungle. There were baby Gamera figures, classic Gamera figures, and posters up for grabs, and if you didn’t win, you could purchase the items at the table Anime Jungle set up out in the theatre courtyard, where they were selling a nice selection of their excellent kaiju merchandise.

As for the films, they were, unfortunately, not quite good enough to live up to the excitement of the event itself.

NEGADON: MONSTER FROM MARS is a computer-generated short that seeks to be a tribute to classic giant monster movies from the past; in fact, its computer-generated imagery frequently forsakes pristine digital “realism” in favor of recreating the look of old-fashioned Toho-style miniatures. Unfortunately, the short subject is interminably slow in its first half, when it is setting up the story. In fact, it barely resembles a narrative film at all; it seems more like a demo reel put together to show off the technique of the digital artists. It’s all about a probe to Mars (which is being terraformed for colonizaiton) which crashes back to Earth and unleashes a monster. There’s also an old, guilt-ridden scientist whose given up his dream of creating a robot since his experiment resulted in the accidental death of his daughter ten years ago. Fortunately, things pick up in the later portions, after the titular creature has arrived to wreck mayhem upon Tokyo (in the grand tradition of Japanese giant monsters), and the scientist pulls his giant Gigantor-like robot out of the moth-balls to do battle. At this point, the film does a reasonably good job of living up to its intetions, which is to create a nostalgic vibe by echoing familiar motifs from classic kaijur films. The battle is fairly well realized, and the whole thing even ends on a touching note.

THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (a.k.a. YOKAI DAISENSO) screened in a beautiful new print that was eye-popping in its color and effects. Directed by Takashi Miike, this film is an attempt to revive the spirit monsters that starred in three 1960s fantasy films (one of which was titled YOKAI DAISENSO, although the new one is not a direct remake). This film has a great trailer that makes the film look absolutely wonderful (including a great CGI shot of the snake-necked woman), and the material seems perfect for a modern version using up-to-date special effects. Sad to say, the result is almost a complete botch, and I suspect most of the fault lies with cult auteur Miike. Although I’ve enjoyed some of his past work (“Box” from THREE…EXTREMES and ONE MISSED CALL, for example), he is perhaps too quirky and idiosyncratic a talent to pull off a children’s fantasy film with conviction. Or to put it another way: no matter what genre he works in, he always delivers a Takashi Miike film that will appeal primarily to his fans; those who come to enjoy the traditional genre elements may be in trouble.

Miike adopts a somewhat campy attitude here, as if he considers himself above the material. The plot is long-winded and, frankly, boring, with no foward momentum. It frequently stops so that he can show off special effects or some gratuitous gross-out (like the human faced calf that prophesizes the coming yokai war — and is promptly forgotten, with no impact on the narrative).

The lead character, a young boy chosen as “Kirin Rider” at an annual village festival, is a one-note character, always cringing and screaming at each new monster, and the act grows repetitive in the first reel — then continues for the rest of the movie, almost without variation! Meanwhile, the CGI work is frequently cartoony and unconvincing (which is perhaps acceptable in a kids film), and the Yokai actually have little to do with the movie, which mostly features the evil villain’s mechanical robots.

By far the worst thing about the film is its contempt for the unsuspecting audience who comes to watch a Yokai film (rather than a Miike film). The best thing in THE GREAT YOKAI WAR is a tiny little cute Yokai that befriends our hero early on. Miike can’t resist abusing and torturing cute little creature throughout the movie — it’s a big “fuck you!” to the general audience, much to the delight of his fans, who chortle at each new atrocity. I am not completely immune to the appeal of this kind of black humor, which seeks to undermine expectations and twist genre conventions, but it doesn’t work here, for one big reason: the abused little Yokai (which somewhat resembles a guinea pig) is easily the best thing in this overwrought movie. Its appearances provide some life in what is otherwise an empty exercise in special effects and directorial ego, so beating up on it simply robs the film of its best entertainment value.

Finally, a Digi-Beta version of GAMERA THE BRAVE screened. This was a bit like watching a letterboxed movie on a TV screen: the widescreen image was scaled down to fit into a much smaller area of the movie screen, decreasing the impact of the outsized monster imagery. The color was reasonably clear, but the image was slightly soft — not terrible, but a bit of a letdown after the beautiful print of YOKAI.

This is the first new Gamera movie since 1999’s GAMERA III. This one breaks continuity and abandons the adult tone of the 1990s trilogy directed by Shusuke Kankeo, in favor of returning to the childish tone of the 1960s Gamera movies. As bad as that sounds, the result is not as bad as it sounds. GAMERA THE BRAVE is actually a pretty decent kids movie that has special effects and production values on part with its immediate predecessors, even as the script shifts the emphasize onto younger characters.

The film starts with the Gamera made familiar in the previous films self-destructing in order to defeat a pack of the flying Gayos monsters that are about to get the better of him. This sequence seems designed to suggest a continuity with the ending of GAMERA III, which had the giant flying turtle marching off to face a swarm of these monsters; however, the opening of GAMERA THE BRAVE is set way back in 1973. Over thirty years later, a young lad discovers an egg from which a new Gamera hatches. The middle of the film is actually quite funny as the tiny turtle grows larger overnight, displays abnormally intelligence for a reptile, and begins to display the familiar powers (flying, spitting fireballs).

Things turn from amusing to exciting when a new man-eating monster arises, and Gamera, sensing his destiny to be a protector of mankind, turns from being a friendly pet to being a faithful guard dog. The new opponent, perhaps not unintentionally, seems to resemble the Sony 1998 Godzilla; it’s a very effective, frightening design, that is perfectly realized with a combination of suit-mation, puppetry, and CGI. Unfortunately, the new Gamera design is a disappointment, replacing the fierce look of the defender of Earth with a kid-friendly face featuring big blue eyes, like something out of a bad anime.

The special effects are mostly good, although the miniature work is apparent at times. The acting and script are better than expected, considering that the appeal is mostly to kids. Things only really start to fall apart near the end. There is a cornball sequence wherein a string of kids act as a sort of relay to carry an object that will revive Gamera (kind of like spinach for Popeye) so that he can defeat his opponenet. This is just barely works, in a cornball kind of way. But then it really gets bad when our hero finally delivers the object (a scarlet pearl) but first gives a long speech demanding that the turtle not self-destruct in order to kill the monster that’s eating people left and right. As if this were not bad enough, there’s an even cornier moment after that battle, when all the children cordon off Gamera to keep the authorities at bay, so that the turtle can fly away to fight another day.

Still despite these missteps, the film is mostly entertaining – a good effort for parents to watch with their children. As is realizing that the baby Gamera was actually the most endearing part of the movie, the final credits rolls with outtakes running on the left side of the screen, with the tiny creature wandering around looking cute. All in all, GAMERA THE BRAVE succeeds where YOKAI WAR fails, because the filmmakers did not treat the material with contempt but instead tried to make the best of it.

The Giant Monsters festival continues tonight with screenings of GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS and a double bill of GODZILLA 2000 and GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK.

There will be posters handed out to the first hundred viewers at the GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS screening, which will also include a Q&A session with Terry Morse Jr, son of the man who directed the additional footage for the Japanese film’s American release.

And Michael Schlesinger, who produced the Americanized version of GODZILL 2000 will be on hand to answer questions after that film.

Both screenings are at the Egyptian Theatre. GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS starts at 6:00. The double bill starts at 8:30pm

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