Tape Deck: King of Snake (大蛇大戦 / Python Wars) AVA Nippon VHS

King Of Snake 001

Every time I revisit the 1984 giant monster oddity King of Snake I go in hoping I’ll like it at least a little more than I ever ultimately do. Chui Yuk-Lung’s yarn about a gargantuan snake, the girl who loves it, and the gangsters who beat the shit out of her parents is essentially 100 minutes of tonal inconsistency spruced up with some neat-o SPFX flair (courtesy of future Toei effects director Nobuo Yajima). Titanic rat-snake Mosler steals what little there is to take of the show, shaking Taipei to its miniature foundations in an ill-fated hunt for his kidnapped owner, an obnoxious adolescent named Ting-Ting.

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Beyond the giant serpent antics there’s just not much to love here, but they (and perhaps Yajima’s involvement in them as well) were enough to assure King of Snake what little legitimate home video presence it was ever to have – a pair of high-priced VHS releases through Japanese outfits WOO Video and AVA Nippon. Showcased here is the latter, released in 1990. Like the earlier WOO Video edition, AVA Nippon’s presents King of Snake in its native widescreen, with original Mandarin audio and relatively non-invasive Japanese subtitles. Overall quality suffers a bit in comparison to the other release – this one flickers throughout, and looks perhaps a generation degraded.

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At least the cover is pretty sweet, dominated by bold orange and red by way of Mosler’s fiery Taipei rampage. With regards to wear and tear my copy looks like it could have been minted yesterday – this package wears it’s 25 years pretty darned well. Like most videos of its origin and generation, the price point here is pretty staggering: King of Snake would have set you back a cool $100 at average 1990 exchange rates, consumption tax courteously included.

Sampled below is a bit of what this AVA Nippon release has to offer – the opening logo, video generated Japanese title (with English sub-heading), and a bit of snake-tastic footage from the feature itself. Yahoo Auctions Japan is the place to go for those looking to score a copy for themselves – King of Snake doesn’t show up there very often, but when it does the prices tend to be pretty low.

Disc Love: The X From Outer Space
「宇宙大怪獣ギララ」 (Shochiku Blu-ray)

My thoughts on director Kazui Nihonmatsu’s oddball kaiju opus Space Monster Guilala The X From Outer Space haven’t changed all that much since I reviewed it a couple of years back in conjunction with the it’s domestic DVD premiere. remains a gigantic mess of a picture, an awkward mix of swinging space travel, lethargic romance, and ludicrous giant monster action that appears as though it were edited together by someone with no knowledge as to what story it’s various bits were supposed to be telling. I would be remiss, however, in saying that I hadn’t softened a bit more to the film over those ensuing years. There’s a definite charm to be found in its propulsive sort of pointlessness, a euphoric brand of utter silliness that could only have been born in the space-crazed ’60s, with the Apollo program on the rise. This is the antithesis of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the recent Interstellar – post-Kubrick science fiction has about as much interest in lunar surface bounce-party diversions and impromptu astronaut cocktail shindigs as X does in actual science, but then that’s the greater part of X‘s appeal.


I suspect there will be plenty of reappraisal of X‘s willfully goofy space-age charms in the wake of its latest video edition, a fine blu-ray offering from Shochiku in Japan which presents the film in its first new transfer in more than a decade (from Shochiku’s ‘Collector’s Edition’ in 2001 to Criterion / Eclipse’s release in 2012, X‘s DVD editions have all regurgitated the same lackluster SD master). Released as part of the company’s new The Best of Films in Those Days Shochiku Blu-ray Collection (あの頃映画 the BEST 松竹ブルーレイ・コレクション), X and its minimal supportive content receive a well-encoded single layer BD25 treatment at the bargain price (by Japanese standards) of ¥3,300 plus tax. Better yet, the disc looks to be all region compatible (it played fine on my Region B secondary deck), and while English subtitle support has not been included an English dub for the film has. I suspect this one will turn up on many a tokusatsu fan’s shopping list this holiday season, and with good reason.

Shochiku’s new HD master for The X From Outer Space presents the film in full 1080p at the proper Shochiku GrandScope ratio of 2.39:1, and adeptly corrects the many weaknesses of the DVD master that preceded it. Framing is now consistent and stable (the old master was fond of showing ragged frame edges), mid-range contrast is no longer boosted beyond the pale, and the finer detail of the 35mm photography finally shines through. The image here is darker and richer overall than has been evidenced in the past, and the more balanced color still packs plenty of pop. The image loses trace amounts of information at the edges in comparison to the DVDs, but most of this was never intended to be seen by viewers – the jagged extremities of the 35mm frame should never have been allowed onscreen in the first place, and their loss here is a positive. has also been digitally restored, albeit only to a point. The image is still afflicted by traces of splice gunk and dust and specks crop up from time to time, but the major damage (particularly during the film’s frequent optical effects) has been corrected, leaving X looking better than it would’ve when new in many instances. Detail advances as much as one might hope in comparison to the old DVD master (the comparisons below will tell more in that regard than I ever could), and there’s a subtle layer of grain tinkering about attractively in the background. Technical specs provide more than ample support – X receives an Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 29.3 Mbps (with peaks to 40.0 Mbps), and I noted nothing in the way of significant artifacts. It all adds up to a fine looking video presentation, and fans should be very pleased indeed.

Criterion / Eclipse DVD (L) vs. Shochiku Blu-ray (R)
Frame matches are not exact in all cases.

Audio isn’t likely to wow anyone with regards to The X From Outer Space, but Shochiku have done quite well given the limitations of the film’s original mix. There are no artificial bumps to contend with, just the original Japanese monophonic recording presented in lossless 2.0 LPCM (48kHz / 24-bit). I noticed no significant wear and tear (pops, hiss and the like) and aside from some shrillness at the high end the track sounds very nice. A set of optional Japanese SDH subtitles are offered in support. Included as a bonus is Shochiku’s own English dubbed track for the film, which is in a bit rougher shape than its Japanese counterpart, but still perfectly presentable. The English track, too, is given a lossless encode, albeit at a lower bit depth – 2.0 monophonic LPCM (48kHz / 16-bit). A second set of optional Japanese subtitles is offered in support of the English dub track.


As with all of the titles in Shochiku’s …the Best blu-ray line, supplements are extremely limited. The original theatrical trailer (4 minutes) for The X From Outer Space is included, as is a short theatrical dispatch (~40 seconds) announcing the production (this was a treat, as I’d never seen it before). Though unrestored, each is presented in native 1080p HD with lossless 48kHz / 24-bit audio – one can’t ask for much more in that regard. Strangely absent is a second, longer dispatch for the film that was included on the original Shochiku DVD, which featured Guilala’s fanciful naming ceremony. The first pressing of the blu-ray also includes a miniature lobby card replica, in this case a familiar shot of Guilala on the lunar surface with the FAFC moon base and Astro-Boat AAB Gamma tooling about in the background.

There’s not much else to say, really. While a bit more supplemental heft would have been appreciated (isn’t that always the case?), it’s tough to argue against Shochiku’s efforts here. This is an excellent and affordable presentation of a real oddball of a film, and I’ve got no complaints. The X From Outer Space was released December 3rd, and is readily available for purchase through Amazon.co.jp, HMV, and the other usual outlets.

Cover (w/ OBI):


More Blu-ray Shots: 

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King Kong vs. Godzilla
「キングコング対ゴジラ」 (1986 Laserdisc)


Man, has it been a long time since I last fired up my laserdisc player. It’s a gorgeous old Pioneer unit (a CLD-V2800 for anyone curious) with a remote control roughly the size and shape of a brick, and still runs like a champ. As someone who’s become increasingly content to stream the majority of his entertainment, buying discs only in those increasingly rare must-own situations, I don’t use this thing nearly as much as I’d like. In spite of and perhaps because of how antithetical the format is to modern viewing expectations (what, I have to physically work to watch the other half of a movie?), I still love laserdiscs. There’s a certain visceral thrill to holding one of those hefty silver platters in your hands, or hearing a player purr quietly into action. For all their obvious advantages and superiority, modern formats will just never compare.

Presented here today is the second oldest disc I own (Paramount’s 1982 issue of DeMille’s Samson & Delilah beats it by a stretch), a release almost exactly two years my younger. This edition of King Kong vs. Godzilla dates back nearly thirty years, premiering in October of 1986 at the bargain price of just under $100 (¥9500). Toho are using a very similar cover design for their upcoming blu-ray, which is due in less than a month. I certainly can’t blame them – the jacket design here is pretty sweet.

Outside of the cover I must confess that there isn’t a whole lot of reason to actually own this release these days. Toho re-issued the film on laserdisc in a superior restored version just five years later, rendering this edition largely obsolete in the process. The one significant catch is that this 1986 release presents the film with its original alternate monophonic track (as it would have been heard in cinemas that either didn’t get or couldn’t play the 4-track stereo mix). This track has been absent from video releases for decades now, an issue Toho finally seem to be remedying with the upcoming blu-ray. It’s slated to include the 4.0 stereo mix and 5.1 surround remix, as well as the monophonic track for the first time since this LD.

The only other point of interest is the state of the re-instated footage here. A 16mm ‘Scope dupe (from which rental prints were struck) has long been the only extant source for the original 97 minute cut of King Kong vs. Godzilla, but I never realized what lousy shape that source was in until I saw the footage here in its raw, un-restored state. It makes one appreciate all the more the efforts Toho took to restore the footage a few years later, even if those efforts fall far short of modern expectations. As in subsequent editions the majority of the footage is sourced from the 35mm elements for the shorter Champion Festival cut of the film. The differences in quality between the two are staggering even on this old disc.

And that’s it really – a cool cover, and a decent film presentation in so far as 30-year-old home video is concerned. This isn’t a must-have by any means, but it’ll have a home on my shelf for a long time to come.

Screenshots – 16mm footage

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Screenshots – 35mm footage

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Back Cover:


「ゴジラ」 Godzilla (1954)

With the new Godzilla due in theaters in but a few days time the Film Society of Minneapolis – St. Paul, in conjunction with Rialto Pictures, have returned the 1954 original to its rightful place on the big screen. 「ゴジラ」 Godzilla can be seen at the St. Anthony Main Theatre from May 9th through May 15th. Click here for details.

Unleashed upon the Japanese public to massive popular success in late fall of 1954, Godzilla was one of those rare perfect storms of cinema, a picture so tremendous in its impact that it ushered in not only a distinct new genre of Japanese film, but a bona fide pop culture revolution as well. It also struck a chord with a post-war Japan fresh from years of occupation and only just allowed to openly discuss the full sum of its wartime experiences. Godzilla‘s considerable box office take all but ensured the long run of increasingly silly (albeit much beloved) sequels that followed, and anyone familiar with those alone might be forgiven for expecting the same here, but the father of them all is a somber and often downright cerebral affair, and possessed of a raw power not seen in the genre since. More than just another monster movie, much more, Godzilla is also a spectacular public exorcism of the lingering specters of World War II, the grim expression of a nation’s struggle to come to terms with its history as both a perpetrator and a victim of incalculable wartime devastation.

The story begins with a series of dreadful shipping accidents off the coast of Japan, an investigation into which leads reporters and government officials to remote Odo Island, a sparsely populated speck of land near to where the accidents occurred. There they find no answers beyond the superstitious ramblings of one of the island’s elders, who is convinced that the mythical Godzilla – a mysterious sea beast the Odo Islanders once sated with human sacrifice – is responsible for the maritime troubles. No one believes a word of it until some thing comes ashore one storm-torn evening, leveling several of the island’s residences and leaving a set of impossibly huge footprints in its wake.

A scientific expedition headed by noted zoologist Dr. Yamane (the great Takashi Shimura) is swiftly mounted to survey the destruction and investigate its cause. Once the scientists are on the island they make a series of surprising discoveries. The footprints left behind are intensely radioactive, and the area around them dangerously contaminated. What’s more, they’re littered with ancient sediments and the remnants of primitive life long thought extinct, suggesting a destructive force from straight out of prehistory. It isn’t long before more conclusive evidence arrives in the form of a mountainous Jurassic-age monster – the Godzilla of Odo Island legend – with its sights set on Japan’s thriving metropolitan heart.

Co-written by director Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata (Rodan) from an original story by Shigeru Kayama (which he also novelized), the basics of Godzilla‘s narrative development are pretty traditional, writ large, with the origins for the monster having been freely adapted from elements of the classic King Kong (an island, a legend, talk of human sacrifice) and the contemporary The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (about a prehistoric monster roused from its icy slumbers by an atomic test in the Arctic). Indeed, the idea of a dinosaur wreaking havoc on modern civilization was nothing new to cinema at the time, having been seen previously in the silent The Lost World, Max Fleischer’s Superman short The Arctic Giant, as well as in Godzilla‘s most direct inspiration, the aforementioned Beast. The difference, as ever, is in the details.

Under the creative auspices of Honda, Kayama, Murata, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and even composer Akira Ifukube1, Godzilla‘s eponymous monster grew to become one of the most singularly loaded metaphors in film history. Through references both overt and subliminal to such events as the irradiation of the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru by the Castle Bravo H-bomb test, the fall of radioactive rain resulting from Soviet atomic tests, the firebombing of Tokyo and the A-bombing of Nagasaki, Godzilla becomes a fearsome and direct manifestation both of the horrors of World War II and the new and frightening realities of the Atomic Age. The monster’s steady, methodical destruction of modern Tokyo is a sequence unlike anything before it. Godzilla advances with the unrelenting force of an atomic blast, sending whole blocks crumbling into smoldering rubble and engulfing the city’s skyline in a curtain of nuclear flame. Dialogue clarifies whatever doubts may be lingering as to the rampage’s symbolic significance – “Godzilla’s no different from the H-bomb still hanging over Japan’s head…“

In Godzilla’s wake millions lie dead or dying, both of physical injuries and radioactive contamination, while countless traumatized survivors wonder what terrors are yet to come. The imagery here – endless corridors filled with the wounded and an entire city reduced to wasteland – is potent, and evocative not only of the haunting aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but of the wartime razing of Tokyo as well. Even Godzilla himself is granted a history of victimization, with Dr. Yamane insinuating that, much like Japan’s A-bomb survivors, the creature is traumatized by its recent brush with American nuclear might. “Don’t shine searchlights on Godzilla!” he gravely begs of a military officer, fearful that they might remind of the blinding flash that tore him from his deep sea niche and send the monster into a deeper rage. Of course Godzilla is not just a victim, but an aggressor as well, and the vision of a dragon rising from the Pacific alludes strongly to the ugly flip side of Japan’s wartime misfortune – the fact that through their own militant nationalism and the brutal campaign of conquest that resulted from it, they had brought that misfortune upon themselves.

To that end the central dramatic conflict of the film might be viewed as an allusion to the position of the Allied forces during the war. Godzilla, awakened by the H-bomb and impervious to all modern munitions, seems unstoppable, but a brilliant young scientist – Dr. Serizawa (a convincing young Akihiko Hirata) – may have found an answer. The problem? His discovery has such immense destructive potential that any use of it, however good the cause, could prove catastrophic. It’s a narrative development that dramatically echoes the creation and eventual use of the Atom bomb in the final days of World War II, and which implies a clear understanding by Honda and his colleagues of the position of the Allied forces at the time. With a marauding force like the Imperial Japanese military dangerously at large, do you set aside your most powerful weapon for fear of the horrific consequences of its use or do you use it in spite of them? What the Allies decided is history, and their decision is paralleled by that of Dr. Serizawa. The result is that Godzilla is stopped, though at a tremendous cost. Another elemental force, as horrifying as the H-bomb, has been set loose upon the world, and the film concludes with a grave Dr. Yamane wondering what other Godzillas might be unleashed as a result.

In terms of drama Godzilla has certainly aged in the decades since it was made, and a forgettable love triangle between Toho’s brightest young stars (top-billed Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi and Akihiko Hirata) will be of minimal interest to modern viewers, but the complex substance of the thing remains, its power undiminished in the 60 years since it was made. A waking nightmare of both the past and future and the unlikely birthplace of a pop culture icon, Godzilla is perhaps the best of its ilk ever made, and still stands as the ultimate, indelible atomic monster experience.

1 Some of Ifukube’s cues for the film, both the elegiac pieces set to Godzilla’s aftermath and demise and the descending motif that accompanies the earlier ship disasters, are highly evocative (and in the latter case a direct adaptation) of his past work on Kaneto Shindo’s Children of Hiroshima (a somber, thoughtful film about the human toll of the Hiroshima bombing), an allusion that only further cements Godzilla‘s connection to World War II and the burgeoning Atomic Age.

This article originally appeared on the now-defunct Wtf-Film in January of 2012 (in conjunction with the Criterion Collection issue of the film on home video), and has been significantly edited and revised for its publication here.

宇宙大怪獣ギララ / Space Monster Guilala, Wrecking House

InternationalHeraldDespite featuring one of my favorite of the many monsters to emerge from Japan during the heyday of tokusatsu cinema, it is only rarely that I find myself revisiting Shochiku’s freshman daikaiju effort Space Monster Guilala (『宇宙大怪獣ギララ』, or The X From Outer Space in its English iterations). The reason for that is simple enough – it’s just not a very good, or even interesting, movie, especially in comparison to its fantastic Shochiku contemporaries. That’s not to say that I despise Guilala, and I do find myself dragging it out of the archives every so often. Through their Eclipse sub-label the Criterion Collection have now given me my best excuse yet to do so: Guilala‘s premiere on domestic digital video.

While popular opinion on the matter may disagree Space Monster Guilala was actually a big-deal production for Shochiku Co., who hoped their first turn into tokusatsu territory would lead to a strong performance at the box office – especially in foreign markets. With a financial assist from an association for film export promotion Guilala‘s budget leapt to a reported ¥150 million, half again that of Daiei’s superior 1966 effort Daimajin and a quarter less than that of Toho’s 1968 epic Destroy All Monsters, and such acts as the naming of the film’s title beast became heavily-publicized industry events. The production also attracted a veritable boon of experienced talent, including director Kazui Nihonmatsu (a long-time assistant director at Shochiku under the likes of Kurosawa and Kinoshita), actor Eiji Okada (Woman in the Dunes) and effects supervisor Keiji Kawakami, a veteran of Toho Co. and Tsuburaya Productions and a member of Akira Watanabe’s special effects company (who collaborated, sans Watanabe, with Guilala‘s production). Future star Hiroshi Fujioka (Submersion of Japan) even makes a brief appearance, playing a nameless moon-base technician.

GuilalaLobby005On paper it’s all so promising, particularly for a major studio’s first ever tokusatsu outing, but as a finished product Space Monster Guilala fails to click. The trouble begins with the writing, a mix of tired genre tropes and even duller melodrama credited to Shochiku staffers Moriyoshi Ishida and Eida Motomochi as well as director Nihonmatsu, but compounds quickly from there. From the performances to the effects to the ceaseless drone of Taku Izumi’s score, there’s nothing much about Guilala that actually manages to meet the expectations set for it. This is no genre gem marred by a few minor shortcomings – this is minor shortcomings, the movie.

Playing a bit like two stories clumsily conjoined as one, Space Monster Guilala begins as an earnest space mystery and quickly devolves into torpid romance and banal sci-fi fluff. The crew of the atomic space ship AAB-Gamma, led by the dashing and emotionally stunted Captain Sono, are tasked with investigating the cause of a series of disappearances that have brought Earth’s efforts to conquer Mars to a standstill. In between trips to a swinging moon-base (full bar, no cover charge) and a dubious subplot involving space-biologist Lisa’s attempts at romancing Captain Sono (who is spoken for, naturally) the AAB-Gamma team discover the cause of the disappearances – a crispy-fried UFO that jams the ship’s communications and sends it packing back to Earth with a load of sparkly cosmic spores on its tail. It is some 40 minutes into the picture, when a sample of these spores is returned to terra firma, that the second and more amusing half of the film’s story begins, and Space Monster Guilala finally sets about earning its space-monster pedigree.

GuilalaLobby003I’ve nothing but love for the second half of Space Monster Guilala. From the moment the eponymous critter erupts from a Japanese hillside the film becomes an absurd, chaotic, boundlessly amusing mess, with Guilala wobbling, stomping, and even flying his way from one corner of Japan to the other as various brands of officials (not to mention the screenwriters) try desperately to keep pace. That the monster, a puffy, pointy reptilian something-or-other with a Snork-style appendage and two doodly-bobs sticking out of his forehead, is such an unlikely thing is the majority of the appeal here, and enough to keep the sub-par effects work (Watanabe’s company, and Watanabe himself, was busy with Nikkatsu’s Gappa the Triphibian Monster around the same time) from distracting from the mindless fun of it all. It may never make much sense, and the bogus scientific exposition piles up to a hysterical degree in response to Guilala’s disjointed appearances, but so long as the monster is on-screen (and he’s on-screen a lot once the second half of the film is underway) Guilala can really do no wrong.

It’s a pity that Space Monster Guilala chose not to distribute its mind-boggling kaiju antics a bit more evenly, instead of overloading its front end with such dismal and pointless space-bound drama. Even the flying saucer mystery that jump-starts the picture goes effectively nowhere, just another clumsily concocted means-to-an-end that’s forgotten by Guilala as soon as its meager purposes are served. It’s just so unsatisfying, especially when one considers the stylish and intellectually ambitious Shochiku fantasies that were to come. This is ultimately just a one-trick monster show, and while the title creature’s ludicrous charms are enough to prevent Guilala from slipping completely into obscurity, they aren’t enough to make it any damned good.

After years of being on the Criterion back burner Space Monster Guilala has finally made its way to domestic home video in a properly subtitled widescreen version courtesy of Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku. Like the rest of the films in this collection (Vampire Gokemidoro, The Living Skeleton and Genocide – War of the InsectsGuilala is sourced from a Shochiku DVD master nearly a decade old. Of the four this is the weakest, windowboxed and interlaced with middling detail, dull contrast, and an overall smudgy appearance, but until Shochiku gets around to minting a new video master this is as good as things are going to get. Audio is monophonic Japanese or English dub (Shochiku-produced, not the AIP Television), and an excellent set of optional English subtitles are provided. Per the norm for the Eclipse imprint there are no on-disc supplements, though Chuck Stephens contributes a lengthy liner essay. Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku is available now from Amazon and other retailers.