Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Oh no! There goes Tokyo!

This week (and next) we’ll be looking at a particular genre of fantasy filmmaking. Aficionados of the genre call it kaiju eiga, which means, basically, "monster movies." The genre (and basic formula) originated in America, with 1933’s KING KONG, but it’s the Japanese who have really made it their own, mixing cultural memories of atomic devastation with a Shinto mythology rich with demons and monsters.

To most Americans, the Japanese monster genre is synonymous with bad acting, cheap special effects and hokey stories, a belief held up by endless television airings of horrendously edited, cropped, and ineptly dubbed prints. U.S. distributors, in their efforts to make the films more palatable to Western audiences, were merciless with their scissors, excising subplots, re-arranging scenes, and sometimes adding new, quickly shot footage with minor Western actors. And the dubbing, no matter how carefully done (and usually it wasn’t), always added an extra layer of cheese to the proceedings.

But thanks to DVD, we here in the West can finally see these films the way their creators intended. Many of the most recent batch of kaiju films to be released on disc have been presented in their correct widescreen aspect ratios, finally allowing the skillful compositions of the cinematographers to be seen and appreciated. They’re also frequently available in their original language, with English subtitles. You’d be surprised how much better the acting appears when the dialogue matches the actors’ lips! Even the high resolution of the DVD image sometimes helps these films, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into building all those finely detailed miniature skyscrapers and rubber monster suits.

Not all Japanese monster movies are created equal, though. While some, like Shusuke Kaneko’s GAMERA trilogy from the mid-Nineties, are incredibly accomplished fantasy films, easily on the level of Hollywood’s best Summer blockbusters, others are just as hokey as you remember. But even lesser entries, like some of the Seventies GODZILLA films and GAPPA, can be entertaining excursions into a wild and wacky world where towering behemoths are omnipresent threats, giant robots seem a reasonable way of battling them, and Japanese insurance companies are very unhappy.

So what’s out there on disc?

Well, to begin with, Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock offers the 1967 Nikkatsu production, GAPPA THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTER (DAIKYOJÛ GAPPA).

Known to TV audiences of the Sixties and Seventies under the inaccurate title, MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET (and available under that title – in a pan & scan TV print from Retromedia Entertainment, among others), GAPPA tells the well-worn tale of a group of explorers who discover a giant egg on a South pacific island. Despite the protests of the natives, they bring it back to Tokyo, where it hatches, revealing a rapidly growing "triphibian" creature. (A "triphibian," according to the film, is a creature than can move and live on land, underwater and in the air. Never covered that one in high school biology.)

Well, before long, the comical little tyke’s parents come calling – several hundred feet tall and righteously pissed off. The Gappas are odd-looking gargoyles – they look like some unholy union of a parrot and an iguana, with scaly hides and tails, bat-like wings and parrot-like beaks. And, sure enough, they can fly, swim underwater and tromp toy cars with the best of them.

Director Haruyasu Noguchi’s spoof of Toho Studios’ Godzilla films moves along at a sprightly pace, but doesn’t have the production values of its big studio rivals. That’s not to say, however, that the movie isn’t fun. It is, and director Noguchi contributes some nice touches, managing to give the creatures some personality. But it’s a lesser entry in the genre from a studio that never again attempted another giant monster movie.

The Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock DVD is a nice package. The film is offered in two versions: the dubbed English-language version and the original Japanese. Both versions are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen transfers, with good color and very little obvious print damage. Some scenes seem a little dark, and some parts are a bit grainy, but for a nearly forty-year-old film from a small studio, it looks great. The only extras on the disc are some very informative text liner notes by kaiju genre expert August Ragone and English subtitles.

Ultimately, GAPPA is an entertaining oddity, and if you’re a fan of the genre, the Tokyo Shock disc is well worth picking up.

BUY: Gappa, the Triphibian Monster