Saturday Monster Matinee:
Ebirah – Horror of the Deep
「ゴジラ・エビラ・モスラ 南海の大決闘」

An unlikely series of events land a bank robber, two go-go dancing yacht enthusiasts, and one determined, naive youth on an isolated South Seas island crawling with comic book baddies and giant monsters in this silly seventh entry in the Godzilla series. Though initially pitched as a return adventure for King Kong, still under license to Toho at the time (after 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla – he would re-appear in the more lavish King Kong Escapes the following year), Ebirah – Horror of the Deep instead became a vehicle for the company’s own star monster, and effectively finalized Godzilla’s transition from living nuclear nightmare to dependable tokusatsu hero in the process.

It’s perhaps best not to dwell too much on Ebirah‘s narrative details – regular series scribe Shinichi Sekizawa (Invasion of Astro-Monster) and director Jun Fukuda (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla) certainly did’t, but that’s not really a bad thing. The film’s oddball band of good-humored heroes are propelled into action setups early, often, and with a good deal of tasty pulp contrivance to spare. After a perfect confluence of inclement weather and ill-wanted kaiju intervention leaves them stranded on unfamiliar shores Ebirah‘s considerable heroic cast finds itself in trouble yet again, fleeing the island’s resident bad-guys – the insidious Red Bamboo organization, who are dabbling in human trafficking, slave labor, and gargantuan prawn husbandry on their way to nuclear domination of… well, something. Good-guy thief Akira Takarada gives the Bamboo plenty of his own brand of trouble, stealing into its island base with his mad lock-picking skills and making asses of them with their own munitions stores, but not without some unfortunate consequences. One among the heroes is captured and put to work manufacturing the chemical the Bamboo use to keep their guard-monster Ebirah from biting the hand that feeds, while another is whisked by errant spy balloon to nearby Infant Island (which the Bamboo have been using as their personal slave emporium).

With their numbers dwindling and the Bamboo hot on their heels Takarada and friends make a strangely fortuitous discovery. Deep within their secret cave hideaway sleeps Godzilla, a slumbering giant Ebirah‘s heroes hope to wake for their own benefit. Elsewhere the ever-oppressed yet ever-positive natives of Infant Island pay endless musical homage to their massive insect god Mothra, trusting that she will rise to aid them when they are most in need. With two monsters against them and another’s allegiance hanging by the slenderest of manufactured threads the odds are soon stacking up against the once mighty Red Bamboo, but their fit of in-the-crosshairs desperation may well spell doom for everyone…

As much substance as there had been to the Godzilla series in its fledgling days, where it served as a reflection both of Japan’s wartime experience and of the anxieties born of a newly nuclearized world, by 1966 it had devolved into pop cinema pure and simple. While Ebirah – Horror of the Deep pays some lip service to the no-nukes messaging of the past (a character briefly ponders the future of nuclear proliferation, just before the owari rolls) it is far more concerned with its own goofy fantasy thrills than making any kind of meaningful statement. Despite its obviously diminished production values and similarly diminished narrative ambitions (the island-based action is scaled down significantly from the prior year’s Invasion of Astro-Monster, which sent Godzilla and Rodan into space and had them thwarting an alien invasion back at home) Ebirah succeeds well enough as escapist entertainment, adeptly shuffling us from one colorful action setup to the next before attentions wane or the palpable cheapness of it all has a chance to set in.

And cheap it can certainly appear. Godzilla himself, a retrofitted suit from the previous year’s Invasion of Astro-Monster, has obviously seen better days, and Haruo Nakajima’s nose and brows make occasional guest appearances from the openings in his well-worn neck. The newly-crafted Ebirah fairs well enough for what it is, a big bug in the same vein as the later Kamakiras and Kumonga, but monster-god Mothra is short-changed early and often, appearing as an unconvincing matte painting for much of the picture and falling victim to some truly dreadful process photography later on. The tokusatsu action isn’t particularly inspired either. Godzilla’s conflict with the Red Bamboo amounts to a duel with the organization’s excessively wobbly air force and a protracted assault on their base of operations – a nondescript patch of dirt studded with some of the series’ least convincing miniatures. It’s a pitiable sight at times. Once at the cutting edge of its particular brand of effects magic the Godzilla series was now simply doing the best it could in the midst of falling attendance and diminishing budgets, and with Toho’s pre-eminent effects personality Eiji Tsuburaya increasingly busy with his television productions (Ultra Q premiered that same year) it was left to his long-time assistant Sadamasa Arikawa (The Mighty Peking Man) to somehow make it all work.

In the case of Ebirah – Horror of the Deep tone is the great equalizer, and most of Arikawa’s setups are wisely played for kicks (with a hefty assist from Masaru Sato’s raucous, surf rock inflected score). Case in point are Godzilla’s pair of battles with big-shrimp Ebirah, the first of which is punctuated by an impromptu boulder volleyball match with a bit of fun collateral destruction as its end result. The aforementioned air force battle plays better in context than its meager effects would suggest, scored as it is with rock and roll dance music to which Godzilla busts the occasional move (shades of The Great Monster Yongary). Still, amid all the goofy fun even Ebirah manages some indelible series moments. Godzilla’s first appearance, bursting from the side of a mountain as a storm rages, has legitimate visual impact, and his stylish lightning-fueled awakening would be repeated for 1984’s big franchise reboot Return of Godzilla.

I watched Ebirah – Horror of the Deep a lot as a kid, either on tape (one of the first I ever owned) or in its innumerable television airings as Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, and while its more ragged aspects may have become more obvious it remains a good heap of fun. You get Akira Takarada as a charismatic burglar, Kumi Mizuno as a comely Infant Islander, a trio of Toho heavies as the evil Red Bamboo (Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, and Eisei Amamoto at their sinister cartoon best), as well as explosions, dubious Bond-esque secret labs, a deadline atomic plot device, and a trio of giant monsters in varying degrees of conflict with both the human cast and each other. This is monster cinema reconfigured as pure primary-colored pop escapism, and it’s pretty good stuff.


G004_GVTSMThe screenshots in this article are sourced from the Japanese Blu-ray of Ebirah – Horror of the Deep, which was released by Toho Visual Entertainment in August of this year to commemorate Godzilla’s 60th birthday. While some will consider the transfer inferior to the domestic Blu-ray (in terms of detail it certainly is, though I prefer Toho’s color saturation and framing in this case), the Japanese release makes good by offering a heap of supplements and an alternate cut of the film besides (the shorter Champion Festival version). I’m reticent to recommend, with Toho tinkering with 4k technology and all, but those interested can find the disc through Amazon.co.jp, Cdjapan.co.jp, and the other usual outlets. The American edition is also still available, and at dirt-cheap prices.

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

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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:

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「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.

The Kraken Wakes: A First Look at Ebirah, Gigan, and Hedorah on Blu

I usually try not post too much straight video coverage here at once, but this is something of a special occasion. I managed to snag Kraken Releasing’s trio of upcoming Godzilla blu-rays a full month ahead of their street date thanks to the good folks at RightStuf.com, and thought I’d share the joy. I’ll be reviewing each of the films individually as time allows, but will keep my comments as brief as I can here. For those who like what they see, the discs are available through these links – Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster / Ebirah: Horror of the Deep, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster / Godzilla vs. Hedorah, and Godzilla vs. Gigan / Godzilla on Monster Island – and can be pre-ordered through the other usual outlets as well (Amazon, etc.).

The technical specs across all three discs are pretty much identical. Each film gets a single layer BD25 and only the original theatrical trailer (with optional subtitles) as an extra. The packaging is quite misleading in this respect, using the word “Extras” on the back of each instead of specifically listing what’s on the discs. You get the film plus trailer – that’s it. Transfers for each are at the appropriate ‘Scope ratio, and each film receives a serviceable if middling Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 23.5 Mbps. While I’d have preferred more robust encodes (none of these discs is close to hitting capacity) I didn’t notice any obvious instances of artifacting.

As for the transfers themselves, this is a bit of a surprise. I was expecting Toho’s own HD masters (a la Media Blaster’s Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. Megalon), with the original Japanese titles and supers in place, but what Kraken Releasing were provided look to be exactly the same materials from which Sony minted their DVDs all those years back. Titles are in English (film-sourced for The Smog Monster, and video-generated for Gigan and The Sea Monster), and as with the earlier DVDs some of the English supers for The Smog Monster as well as the Japanese dialog bubbles in Gigan are absent. Otherwise the screenshots give a good idea of what to expect. The Sea Monster looks the best, with a relatively smooth appearance and subtle grain, and excellent color, contrast, and detail. The Smog Monster and especially Gigan can appear a bit harsher in their textures (akin to the Universal Kong blu-rays I just covered), but still improve quite drastically over past editions with regards to clarity and detail. These all look very good in playback, and perhaps better than many were expecting.

Audio options are identical across all three titles – original Japanese and (International) English dub, each robustly encoded in 2.0 monophonic DTS-HD MA. I’ve only listened to The Smog Monster and The Sea Monster in any extensive way, but those tracks sounded very good. As is typically the case, the scores for these films improve the most from the move to a less compressed format. Optional English subtitles translate both the spoken Japanese dialogue and the incidental Japanese text that crops up from time to time (with the text bubbles also missing, the monster dialog in Godzilla vs. Gigan is not subtitled). Those concerned about the prospect of dubtitles should know that some of the lines certainly match up, but that many do not, and some scenes play very differently between the dubs and the subtitles (a good example is when the Nebula M alien monologues about his planet in Godzilla vs. Gigan) – this is the case on all three films. Each disc is locked to Region A, as confirmed with my Region B secondary deck, so importers in Europe and elsewhere should take note.

For the low price point Kraken Releasing is asking ($14.98 SRP, with most retailers selling them for less) these are an easy recommendation, even if they’re far from the definitive editions fans crave. They look good, they sound good, and I imagine most will be pleased.


Screenshots were made by my usual method – they were captured as uncompressed .png in Totem Movie Player and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93%. No filtering has been applied.

Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster

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Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster

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Godzilla vs. Gigan

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Blu Notes: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963) & King Kong Escapes (1968)

Note: This article is concerned with the Blu-ray editions of King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes as opposed to the films themselves. While no coverage of the films currently exists at ExB, old articles about each can be had at Wtf-Film. You’ll find them here and here respectively. 

Well this is a bit of a surprise. After so many years without decent home video representation who would ever have thought we’d be sitting around discussing new blu-ray editions of the two Universal-released Toho-produced Kong pictures? The fact that this pair has made the leap to HD home video in the US is obviously just an advantageous move on Universal’s part, what with Godzilla ’14 little more than a month away, but I can’t be bothered with cynicism at a time like this. The American cuts of King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes are two long-time favorites, and I’m just happy to have them in HD regardless of the circumstances. Let me have my fun.

John Beck’s heavily Westernized cut of King Kong vs. Godzilla receives a modest and bare-bones blu-ray debut, with only a pop-up menu available for navigation and language selection options (the film starts immediately after the requisite company logos and anti-piracy statements). Though only single layered the 1080p transfer receives a technically sound encode, Mpeg-4 AVC at an average bitrate of 32.3 Mbps, and while it has its problems it remains a huge improvement over Universal’s nearly decade-old DVD.

Working with the same master, but with some extra attention paid to color timing, Universal’s blu-ray of King Kong vs. Godzilla tends toward a darker overall appearance in comparison to the older DVD. While some may find it pesky I barely noticed myself. The additional color balancing work was unmistakable, however, and is much appreciated. Though there are subtle improvements throughout I found it most noticeable during Kong and Godzilla’s first meeting, a scene which has always looked rather sickly and hazy in past editions – the colors here finally ring true. Detail takes a huge step forward, allowing better appreciation of both the intricate miniature setups and of the suit work (one of the series’ best Godzilla designs, and that ratty love-it-or-hate-it Kong). Beyond the possibility of some minor edge enhancement there looks to have been little if any untoward digital manipulation of the image (sometimes a little neglect is a good thing), but it just wouldn’t be Universal if all was well. Despite looking pretty good in other respects and presenting with only minor print flaws, King Kong vs. Godzilla is an exceedingly noisy transfer at times. I didn’t find it especially troubling in motion, obvious as it can be in spots, but those viewing on larger screens may find it a more damning issue.

DVD (upscaled, top) vs Blu-ray (bottom):KKvGDVD KKVGBlu

Audio comes in one flavor only – 2.0 monophonic DTS-HD MA English. Where compressed tracks served to obfuscate certain issues with the film’s original mix this track lays it all bare. Certain among the stock music cues (notably the one that accompanies the main titles) can sound very flat, while others (as from Heinz Roemheld’s The Monster That Challenged the World) can sound quite vibrant. The clumsiness of some of the new sound effects editing is now readily apparent as well. That said, this is precisely what the English mix for King Kong vs. Godzilla should sound like, so I’ve no complaints. Optional subtitles are available in two varieties – English SDH and French. Otherwise there’s literally nothing else on the disc to discuss. King Kong vs. Godzilla was released April 1st, is all region compatible (it plays just fine in my region B secondary deck), and has an SRP of $19.98.

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King Kong Escapes follows in much the same vein, and presents the film on a bare-bones BD25 with only a pop-up menu for navigation (again, the film begins immediately after the logos / warnings). The encode is once again Mpeg-4 AVC, though this time at a fractionally lower average bitrate of 32.2 Mbps. For whatever reason King Kong Escapes shows a bit more in the way of artifacting than does the earlier film.

There was less wrong with King Kong Escapes on DVD to begin with, so many of the blu-ray’s improvements are quite subtle – like truer colors (particularly flesh tones) and tighter contrast. Detail improves mightily in most respects, and it’s easier than ever to admire the intricacy of the film’s effects work (there’s a lot of it in this film to enjoy). Texture still isn’t quite settled, with at least as much noise here as grain, but the issue isn’t as pronounced as on King Kong vs. Godzilla. Overall the image looks fairly good, particularly in motion, though the framing is worth mentioning – King Kong Escapes looks to be cropped more tightly here than on the older DVD, leading to some loss of image information at the edges of the 2.35:1 frame.

DVD (upsacled, top) vs Blu-ray (bottom). Note the framing:KKE_DVD_Framing KKE_Blu_Framing

Audio is again English only in monophonic DTS-HD MA 2.0, but I have no complaints. The original score goes mostly unmolested in the dubbed version (less a few cuts during the final reel), which is great – it’s among the very best of Ifukube’s tokusatsu work, and it packs some decent punch in this track. The rest sounds just fine, including the slightly alienated post-dubbed dialogue. I can never get enough of Paul Frees in any capacity, and his Dr. Hu/Who is a killer (when the madman is exasperated at the end of the show, Frees dubs him as though he’s been up drinking all night). Optional subtitles are once again available in English SDH and French, and that’s it for this bare-bones disc. King Kong Escapes was released on April 1st, is all region compatible, and has an SRP of $19.98.

I’d say “good enough” is the operative phrase for each of these releases, and the benefits of the blu-ray iterations versus the older DVDs are more than enough to make up for their other limitations. These get an easy recommendation for fans, particularly if you can find them going for cheap.


More screenshots. These were taken as uncompressed .png in Totem Movie Player with no filters applied, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 93%.

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A Brief American History of The Final War 「第三次世界大戦 四十一時間の恐怖」

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The above publicity still was shamelessly swiped from Greg Shoemaker, who posted it (along with a few other stills) here. While the text may suggest otherwise, the image itself is sourced from Toei’s straight sci-fi effort Invasion of the Neptune Men.

In a perfect world The Final War‘s modest spread in LIFE Magazine (one paragraph of light coverage and two production stills) might have served to elevate the production in international markets, but sadly this was not the case. The page certainly isn’t well-calculated as advertising. The story notes the film only by the incomplete title 41 Hours of Terror, and fails to mention production company Toei at all. While markedly different in both its approach and its tone, the Toei film does have something big common with its lavish Toho successor The Last War beyond the shared focus on nuclear destruction – each received a rather paltry distribution on these shores. The Last War eventually turned up on video at least, both in its domestic dub through Video Gems and in its unaltered Japanese form courtesy of Toho in Japan. The Final War, on the other hand, has never seen an official home media release anywhere.

Still, that The Final War was once in active distribution here is inarguable. While theatrical distribution, if any (I could find no evidence of it in the few archives available to me), was exceedingly limited, the film did manage a significant if short-lived run in television syndication.

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The above (emphasis mine), sourced from the television listings of the Los Angeles Times circa November of 1965, is the earliest record I was able to locate of The Final War‘s domestic career. A similar listing, culled from an edition of the Chicago Tribune from September of the following year, reveals that syndication of the feature was likely quite widespread, and certainly more so than many a modern tokusatsu fan (including myself) might have suspected. It may not have been so ubiquitous as items like Prince of Space  or AIP’s Japanese imports, but it was definitely out there. While the majority of the listings I was able to locate merely outlined the basic plot, the TV editor for the Chicago Tribune circa September 1972 proved significantly snippier, penning the following: “Japanese sci-fi yarn trying to show the war to end all wars. Bombs out.” The late Anna Nangle, working for the same paper, had been far kinder in her appraisal a few years earlier – in May of 1966 she wrote, “This Japanese film is about a war that actually could end all wars,” and awarded the film a rating of 7/10.

The Final War‘s last gasp on American television appears to have arrived with the middle-’70s, coinciding neatly with the cessation of new production by its distributor Sam Lake Enterprises, itself a somewhat closeted entity – the only newspaper evidence I could find of them was a leasing notice for the address listed in the still at the head of this article. Credited as “Sam Lake Associates, Inc” in the still, Sam Lake Enterprises was concerned primarily with the distribution of adults-only films and was active from the late fifties through the early ’70s. The last airing I could dig up for The Final War was a nondescript notice of a 3:00 pm showing in the Los Angeles Times, dated April 27th 1974. No synopsis is offered, and the show was given a minor two-star recommendation.

While it’s relatively easy with a bit of due diligence to roughly determine the beginning and end of The Final War‘s domestic life, finding details of just what its American version was like is another story all together. The film was obviously dubbed, and given the 90 minute slot noted in the television listings the total feature running time should be comparable to that of the Japanese version – a brisk 76 minutes.

NeptuneMenThe streets of Tokyo explode during a climactic saucer-attack in Invasion of the Neptune Men.

One detail that is known, courtesy of both the accounts of those who saw The Final War during its brief run on television and the publicity still provided above, is that the cut of the film produced by Sam Lake Enterprises looks to have been spruced up a bit with additional effects sequences from Toei’s 1961 sci-fi effort The Space Greyhound (「宇宙快速船」) – more commonly known under its domestic release title Invasion of the Neptune Men. The impressive scenes of city destruction from that film were long (and erroneously) attributed to the more obscure The Final War, which is actually quite light on effects (two Tokyo landmarks and one each from San Francisco and Moscow are destroyed). The truth of the matter is rather stranger, evidencing a bizarre case of two-way cinematic cannibalism.

Invasion of the Neptune Men does cull a few fleeting shots from The Final War‘s excellent but limited effects portfolio (the destruction of Tokyo Tower, for instance), but when The Final War was picked up for American distribution it found an odd way of returning the favor. While how much is uncertain, at least some of Invasion of the Neptune Men‘s saucer-attack finale looks to have been repurposed for The Final War, and its all-too-obvious extraterrestrial trappings accounted for with a clever (or not…) dub cover-up. The saucers were no longer alien in origin, but a new Soviet super-weapon! Astute viewers might easily have outed the conspiracy – Invasion of the Neptune Men, by way of Walter Manley Enterprises, was already making rounds on television by the time the dubbed The Final War appeared on the scene in late 1965.

NeptuneMenSaucers_fromstillJust how sourced-from-Invasion of the Neptune Men is the Sam Lake Enterprises publicity still? Judge for yourself.
NeptuneMenSaucers_fromfilm

Special thanks to Brett Homenick, Jules L. Carrozza, Greg Shoemaker and August Ragone, without whom the past few articles would likely never have happened.

NeptuneMenAd
A vintage print ad for Invasion of the Neptune Men, circa April 1965.

 

Atragon (Kaitei Gunkan / 海底軍艦) 2010 Toho Blu-ray

Earth sees itself invaded from within in this eccentric 1963 science fiction thriller from Toho Co., produced at the height of the studio’s turn-of-the-decade genre domination. Kaitei Gunkan, better known to domestic viewers as Atragonfollows the doomed imperialist exploits of the sunken civilization of Mu, who use their ill-explained scientific superiority (they still party like it’s a few thousand years B.C.) to quake cities to rubble and bring our shipping lanes to a grinding halt. All that stands between the Muans and utter conquest is ex-Imperial Navy Commander Jinguji (Jun Tazaki in his greatest genre role) and his fantastical weapon of super-science, the Goten – a gigantic all-purpose submersible warship with a drill for a prow and the ability to fly. There’s just one problem: Jinguji, a reclusive relic of the War, is still fighting for the glory of his fallen Japanese Empire, and intends to utilize the Goten only towards those destructive ends.

It falls upon ex-Admiral Kusumi and Jinguji’s daughter (left in Kusumi’s care since the war’s conclusion), along with an unlikely bunch of tag-alongs (including bumbling magazine photographers Tadao Takashima and Yu Fujiki), to convince Commander Jinguji otherwise, and with the Muans laying so much of the globe to waste the stakes couldn’t be higher…

Though ultimately just another variation on Toho’s past alien invasion efforts, Jinguji’s struggle to reconcile his fervent nationalism with Japan’s new position in a greater global society lends Kaitei Gunkan a great substantive heart. The Muans play the surrogate of Japan’s recent imperial history, from their thirst for conquest right down to their penchant for suicide attacks, and the film plays up the antiquated nature of their world view through the antiquity of their civilization. Though technologically superior the Muans are bound to mankind’s farthest past, and the foundation of their undersea empire is built upon blocks of ancient megalithic stone. When Jinguji finally sees the error of his ways his epic onslaught against the Mu empire doubles as a battle against his own war-mongering ideology. In the end Mu’s ambitions of conquest only serve to hasten their destruction and, as with the imperial Japanese before them, the Muans find the mettle of their militarist resolve tested in an unforgiving crucible of atomic fire.

There’s just enough substance underpinning Kaitei Gunkan‘s colorful fantasy thrills to keep it interesting half a century after the fact, but there’s little denying that this is more pulp than politics. Though adapted (freely) by Shinichi Sekizawa from Shunro Oshikawa’s turn-of-the-century novel of the same name (ironically a celebration of Japanese nationalism and the nation’s then-current imperial agenda) there are plenty of elements here not to be found in the original work – like the Muans, who take the place of the novel’s Russians. Sort of. Indeed, I suspect Fox’s ludicrous 1961 production Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea had as much an influence on Kaitei Gunkan as Oshikawa’s novel. That film also follows a rebellious sort who saves the world from the brink of disaster with his own super submarine, and some of its effects highlights certainly feel familiar. Key among them is a scene in which one submarine pursues another, only to have one suffer explosive decompression from diving beyond its specifications. Here the setup is amplified with a grimly effective visual highlight – a view of the pursuing submarine’s hull as it crumples and contorts just before exploding.

Another Voyage influence may be found in the brief appearance of Kaitei Gunkan‘s requisite monster, the gargantuan serpentine god of the Mu empire, Manda. As the Goten makes its advance on Mu’s deep sea base of operations Manda attacks, constricting about the ship’s hull in a vain effort to stop it. Commander Jinguji doesn’t skip a beat, however. With the flip of a switch the hull of the Goten electrifies, setting Manda fleeing and giving the ship a prime opportunity to attack. With regards to its action the scene plays much as it does in Voyage, albeit with a more memorable opponent than that film’s generic octopus. The scene in Voyage of course owes itself directly to the epic squid confrontation from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – it would seem that in the wake of the Fleischer film electrified hulls became standard issue for cinematic super-subs.

As for Kaitei Gunkan‘s namesake, the undersea warship Goten absolutely steals the show. The sleek, colorful mega-machine looked cool enough to me as a kid even as it sat in dry dock doing nothing at all – you can imagine my enthusiasm  when it took not just to the sea, but to the air, retracting its conning tower and rocketing through the sky at supersonic speeds! It certainly doesn’t hurt that it was backed by one of composer Akira Ifukube’s finest martial themes. Those pesky Muans never had a chance.

Kaitei Gunkan made its way to Blu-ray courtesy of Toho Visual Entertainment in March of 2010 as part of the studio’s as yet final wave of high-definition releases from their extensive tokusatsu library. The company has received no end of flack, some informed, much not, with regard to their high definition restorations over the years, and unfortunately Kaitei Gunkan isn’t likely to sway any of the detractors in their favor. While the release has its strengths the quality of the feature itself is rather a mixed bag, and with a pretty good DVD edition available domestically for less than $20 the near-$65 (¥5,700 pre-tax) the Blu-ray commands will undoubtedly take precedent over its modest improvements for many.

There’s nothing at all wrong with the disc’s technical specs, making them as good a place as any to start. Kaitei Gunkan is presented in full 1080p at its original TohoScope ratio of 2.35:1, and is allowed to drift comfortably into dual-layer territory by way of a robust Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 32.0 Mbps. Audio sounds excellent in two flavors, original monophonic in lossless 16-bit LPCM and the 2003 5.1 surround remix in Dolby TrueHD. There are no English audio or subtitle options, but the disc comes with two optional Japanese subtitle tracks, one for the full feature and another just for a brief English-language scene. Kaitei Gunkan appears to be all region compatible, and while it would play in domestic hardware problem-free regardless (Japan and the USA share the same Blu-ray region code) it also functions just fine in my Region B secondary Blu-ray deck.

Now, for the transfer itself. Kaitei Gunkan now sports more natural color and contrast than in its previous DVD edition (viewers here may still need to adjust their television settings for the contrast to meet domestic expectations), and opens up quite a bit to the left, right, and top of the frame, revealing substantial amounts of information lost in the DVD. See the comparison below for a good example of all of this – DVD (upscaled to 1920×1080 resolution for ease of comparison) appears first, followed by the Blu-ray.

DVDBus BlurayBus

That said, all is still not right with the color all of the time. While the substantial yellow push of the DVD has been effectively remedied, highlights still don’t look quite right, and occasionally betray a slight reddish or pinkish hue. Given the more natural tone of the color in general this didn’t really bother me, but your mileage may vary.

More problematic for many will be the new transfer’s level of detail. The old anamorphic shooting process limits fine detail from the get-go, and additionally Kaitei Gunkan appears to have been transferred from elements at least a couple of steps removed from the OCN (not surprising – the original elements for many films from this period in Japanese cinema are long gone due to the low priority placed on preservation at the time). Still, one can’t help but think that more could have been done with the materials to squeeze out a touch more detail. Kaitei Gunkan appears rather soft overall, and while the tightness of available detail does improve (see the brims of the civil defense helmets or the rivets on the bus in the capture above) there’s very little in the way of additional detail or texture beyond that which was already evident in the DVD edition. I was also expecting a touch more in the way of film texture – aside from a few dupe shots here and there the grain here is quite subdued. I’m not sure how much of this is post-processing and how much is just a product of the original transfer or even the film elements themselves, but at least the tell-tale plasticine ugliness of DVNR is nowhere to be found.

Kaitei Gunkan is relatively clean, if not so much so as other Toho Blu-rays I’ve seen, but aside from some occasional dirt and speckling throughout and a few scratches and a bit of static grunge baked into the film’s opticals there’s very little in the way of damage to complain about. The biggest improvement over the DVD edition may be in the motion, which is crisper and smoother here at 24p than on the smudgier progressive DVD. Even with limited detail and only modest improvements elsewhere, at least Kaitei Gunkan now plays like film.

Toho’s tokusatsu Blu-rays command a significantly higher price point than many of their contemporaries (Kadokawa’s Gamera series Blu-rays street for around $10 less), but they also provide something many of their peers do not – gobs of supplemental goodies. Chief among Kaitei Gunkan‘s extras is a complete secondary cut of the film, the 75 minute version screened with Destroy All Monsters in 1968 – this version is presented in upscaled 1080i (and advertised as such, for those wondering), and is Mpeg-4 AVC encoded at an average bitrate of 19.6 Mbps with monophonic Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.

Newly produced for the Blu-ray is “Kaitei Gunkan” Study Guide, a substantial 33 minute HD featurette whose two subdued hosts guide viewers through a mountain of memorabilia pertaining to the film, from pre-production sketches and storyboards to behind-the-scenes photos, props, toys, and even other ships inspired by the Goten (including the outer space variation from Toho’s War in Space and the classic-style Goten seen in Godzilla: Final Wars). A brief reel of unused and alternate effects takes (SD, 4 minutes) and a theatrical trailer in native HD round out the video supplements, while an audio commentary with chief assistant director Koji Kajita is carried over from the 2003 DVD to round out the special features. The disc comes in a standard Blu-ray case with an attractive outer slip cover.

While Toho’s Blu-ray of Kaitei Gunkan gave me an undeniably superior presentation in direct comparison to the DVD, it also fell plenty short of expectations. Had it a healthier range of detail, and had a bit more effort been put into color correcting the transfer, this might have been a necessary addition to any fan’s tokusatsu Blu-ray library (as some of the company’s other discs certainly are). As such this disc offers a modest feature upgrade at best, with some legitimate supplemental heft helping to sweeten the deal. I’m not displeased with the purchase – I doubt I’ll ever have cause to buy the film again – but those interested in picking it up would do well to know what they’re getting into, and check their expectations accordingly.

More DVD / Blu-ray comparison shots. DVD shots (upscaled to 1080×1920 for ease of comparison) appear first, followed by Blu-ray.