Another feature of...
The regular, if not constant, site for this annual Godzilla fan con happens to be about a mile from my house. By which I mean the Radisson Hotel in Arlington Heights, IL. They’ve probably run about four of them there, along with perhaps two others at a hotel that was several miles further away. The con is organized primarily by J. D. Lees, the Canadian school teacher who for many years now has put out the bimonthly periodical G-Fan in his ‘spare’ time. Soft spoken and seemingly possessing a superhuman reserve of patience, Mr. Lees comes across as one of nature’s truly nice people. (An image reinforced by the sight of him roaming the hotel with his young daughters in tow.) Thanks for everything, as always, J.D.
Being a gigantic Godzilla nut, this con is my bread and butter. However, it’s also true that I’m not really comfortable at conventions. Being among my own kind -- i.e., nerds -- can make my skin itch. In addition, I’m by no means a ‘people person’ at the best of times. I generally find being among folks I don’t know to be discomforting. (That I was able to establish so quick and comfortable a rapport with my fellow B-Masters is a credit to what a kindly bunch they are.) In any case, my experiences as recorded here should not necessarily be counted as average ones. Given the circumstances, I was able to cherry pick those programs I was interested in and stay home during the rest. So, unlike those staying in a hotel literally filled with their fellows, the social gathering component of the con was for me rather slight.
Then there’s the con itself. It’s a wonderful thing, and gets better every year. Frankly, though, there’s not a ton of lectures and stuff that I find really up my alley. There are role-playing games run throughout, and a steady slate of programs on model building. Those areas aren’t my bag, however. Sure, I’ll stroll the dealers’ room a time or two. Yet I’ve already lots of stuff sitting around, so I try not to buy just to buy anymore. Last year, for instance, I don’t think I purchased much of anything. For me, this year’s con would mostly consist of attending a few programs and, more importantly, the movies they’re showing.
Friday, July 12th
11:00 A.M.: I stop by the registration desk at the hotel, get my attendee’s packet, and head back home. I’ll pick up my free Burning Godzilla figure, which I’ve being given for being one of the first 500 to register for the con, tomorrow.
1:00 P.M.: Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
In a very nice move, the convention elders had arranged for this year’s screenings to be held in Park Ridge’s beautiful and historic Pickwick Theater. (Which is literally a hundred yards from where I work!) This sports more than enough seats for the con, hence all but eliminating the chance that someone would not have an opportunity to see the movie. The screen is quite large, and the stereo system solid. Besides that, it’s a gorgeous facility, having been built back in the ‘20s. I hope the convention uses this facility again whenever it’s held in this area.
GvD was to be the last of the Toho Godzilla movies. The idea being that the American film and its sequels would continue on in its place. Obviously this didn’t happen, and a few years later Toho resumed making them with Godzilla 2000. However, that and the two other films that followed – Toho tends to churn out one a year – have each established a new continuity and are not meant to follow the more recent films. Meanwhile, a new one is again due out in Japan this December, and yet again brings back Mechagodzilla.
Rather than avoiding continuity, however, GvD finishes the cycle of films that began with Godzilla 1984. This series of films skips continuity with all the older Godzilla movies, save the first one. In any case, with the purported Sony Godzilla on the horizon, Toho decided to send off the real Godzilla with a big finish.
The film is, fittingly, an ode to the first movie, Gojira (aka Godzilla, King of the Monsters, 1954). This is probably the coolest thing about it. It introduces characters that are relatives of Gojira’s learned Dr. Yamane. In a nicely sly bit, we even revisit Yamane’s study as seen in the first picture. That model of a stegosaurus skeleton sitting near the window is the giveaway. Meanwhile, the actress who played Emiko, Gojira’s female lead, returns forty-plus years later to assay the same character.
Gojira had been, to this point, the only one were Godzilla perishes. He was destroyed by the Oxygen Destroyer. This was a weapon so terrible that it’s inventor committed suicide after finishing off Godzilla, so that the world would be safe from it. Now, however, a modern scientist is on the verge of recreating the device. (I’m not going to go into the science of these things, which is always ludicrous. Let Lyz do it.) Moreover, the original use of the device has resulted in the mutation of microscopic prehistoric life. These have now grown about as big as a car and, duh, threaten the world.
Not as much as Godzilla though. An unexplained nuclear incident on Bass Island, where Godzilla and Little Godzilla have been living – see the previous films – has supercharged Godzilla’s internal fusion reactor to the point that its breaking down. The Big G is literally burning himself alive. When the reactor goes entirely it will result in either and explosion or meltdown that will DESTROY THE WORLD.
Humanity’s only chance is to set Destroyah – the big-ass conglomerate monster made up of all the previously mentioned little ones – against Godzilla and hope they are both destroyed. Then the use of "freezing lasers" (!) may contain the effects of Godzilla’s meltdown to Toyko alone, albeit leaving the city a radioactive meltdown. And so it occurs. Until, that is, the levels of radiation seems to magically dissipate, revealing…
I’ve already mentioned the nostalgic nods to the first film. Neat bits include using footage from it for flashback purposes. The tying in of the Oxygen Destroyer device is especially nifty. Moreover, there’s no doubt that watching Godzilla die, literally melting into a puddle as his own internal power source goes awry, is a powerful moment. Flaws aside, and there are several, there’s a lot of good stuff here.
The film’s real strength though is Little Godzilla. Hatching from an egg in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1993) as a fake-looking baby, it soon became Minya-sized and much worse looking in the lackluster Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla (1994).
In this continuity, Godzilla was the result of radiation mutating a "godzillasaurus," a T-Rex type dinosaur. Up to now, Little Godzilla has remained a godzillasaurus. However, the events on Bass Island have turned him into an actually Godzilla, although sort of a teen version who’s half the size of his adopted parent. Noting the change, the characters in the film dub him Godzilla Jr.
Godzilla Jr. proves as much a scrapper as his role model, and he lays the hurt on Destroyah while the latter’s in his penultimate form. However, the final form is about twice the size of Godzilla itself. In an extremely disturbing scene, the creature snatches off the now comparatively puny Godzilla Jr. and basically beats him to death. Or does he… In any case, Godzilla Jr. won a lot of fan affection with his one appearance here.
3:00 P.M.: Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (1996)
Anybody in Hollywood who’s assigned a ‘comic book’ movie, and feels that the material is too risible to be taken seriously, should be made to sit down and watch the recent set of Gamera movies. If you can build a brilliant science fiction trilogy of movies around a giant, flying, flame-breathing turtle – and director Shusuke Kaneko most assuredly has – then you can, with the right attitude, turn any concept into cinema gold.
Kaneko’s work can be most usefully compared to that of comic book prodigy Alan Moore. Both have taken elements from goofy kid’s properties of the ‘50s and ‘60s, stripped them down and reconfigured them in fascinatingly adult ways that nonetheless remain entirely true to the source material.
In this film a meteor shower carries alien life forms to Earth. A colony of gigantic insects is soon established, one with a symbiotic relationship with a gigantic flowering plant. Should the plant be allowed to spore, the seeds will carry for hundreds of miles and become unstoppable. Helping the human race stop his menace is Gamera, an ancient being bioengineered to protect the Earth.
I don’t know what the thinking was behind the schedule, but the decision to go with GvD first was wise. Although that movie is fun, its woefully lacking compared to any of the three recent Gamera movies. These emphasis, when held up against the same period’s Godzilla films, harshly reveal the stolid nature of Toho’s films. GvD would have looked much the worse had it followed Gamera 2 rather than preceding it.
For instance, let’s look at Gamera 2’s climatic battle. Take the typical Godzilla movie of the time. The opponent monster would generally fight Godzilla, lose, assume its ultimate form and beat on Godzilla for a while. Then Godzilla’s basic invulnerability would come to the fore. Since he’s basically unkillable, it’s only a matter of time until Godzilla ends up destroying his foe. Then he’d walk off until next year’s movie was released.
Gamera, in contrast, is all too mortal. In fact, has any hero in film history sustained the sort of horrible damage that Gamera routinely absorbs? Moreover, he triumphs here only because Japan’s armed forces come in on his side. The swarm of ‘small’ insects, which had nearly killed Gamera earlier in the film, is deflected from attacking him by their overriding attraction to power sources. Just when it looks like they’re going to eat our hero alive, the humans turn on a power plant grid and redirect the swarm away.
Then there’s the giant form of the monster, which Gamera faces at the film’s climax. Unfortunately, the creature has a natural defense to neutralize Gamera’s primary range weapon, his oral plasma bursts. Equipped with a ring of antennae, the beast is able to generate a force field that blocks Gamera’s blasts. However, a battery of missiles defeats this field. This proves not as effective at blocking multiple simultaneous attacks. While the majority of missiles are intercepted, a few slip through and blow off a couple of the antennae. This diminishes the purity of the defense field and Gamera’s next blast neutralizes it entirely. At this point the fight becomes rather more even.
In the Godzilla series, in contrast, humans are never allowed to accomplish much of anything. Basically they stand around watching some monster brawl, moaning about how they polluted the planet and brought about the creatures they’re now viewing. Other than that, no matter what their efforts, they always end up on the sideline waiting for Godzilla to take care of business. In the Gamera movies the humans are both a force for good and for evil. In the first film, the Japanese military almost killed Gamera in an attack, which would have doomed the planet.
Meanwhile, although Gamera is generally presented as the protector of Life on Earth, he appears to rank the safeguarding of humans as less than his primary task. This is brutally revealed in the third film. There a battle against some of the evil Gaos – man-eating, laser-firing pteranodons, essentially – takes place in the middle of a crowded city. Gamera defeats the Gaos, but seems unconcerned that tens of thousands of human have died in the process. This, by the way, is hands down the greatest giant monster scene in film history.
Moreover, Gamera’s final efforts here to defeat his foe result in a consumption of much of the Earth’s ‘manna’ field. This is a mystical power source that protects the planet, and Gamera taps into it and absorbes much of it to power up enough to kill Legion. The Earth is saved, but at a cost. The reduction of manna allows the Goas to reproduce much more easily. This will have severe ramifications in the next movie. This sort of nuanced, sophisticated scripting represents something the Godzilla series proved noticeably lacking in.
And, in case I need to say it, seeing Gamera 2 in a theater was worth the whole thing right there.
After the shows I headed home for a while. However, I
returned to the hotel to watch the ten o’clock projection-screened
presentation of the old Jabootu favorite The Last Dinosaur. The
host, Mr. Lenell Bridges, actually had a letter to written to us attendees
– there were maybe eighty people in the audience for this – from the
film’s star, Joan Van Ark. The note was short and sweet, and most
interesting for confirming the rumors that lead actor Richard Boone was
pretty much bombed out of his gourd during every minute of shooting.
Needless to say, I got a pretty good kick out of this presentation.
I arrived before noon to secure a seat for one of the few lectures/programs I was interested in. This was a presentation by Kaiju movie historian Peter Brothers of the production genesis of the initial Gojira back in 1954. This was extremely well done, and although much of the material was familiar to me, it was a quality job.
Being early for that lecture, I sat in on a bit of the preceding program. This featured a Q&A session with Koichi Kawakita, the director of special effects for most of the ‘90s Godzilla movies. Translation was provided by Robert Scott Field, the American actor who played the android M11 in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). I’m usually not so much into this sort of thing, but the twenty minutes or so I ended up hearing proved exceedingly interesting.
After the Gojira talk, I wandered around a bit. Last year I didn’t buy anything in the dealer’s room. I already have plenty of toys gathering dust in my back room. Moreover, the prices for these imported figures can run pretty high. This year, however, I couldn’t pass up a very slick 6" Gamera figure going for a quite reasonable $13. This now joins the two other Gameras currently sitting on my computer. The new figure is based on the third film of the aforementioned Gamera trilogy. It’s a very cool black rather than the usual green. The toys it joins represent the ‘classic’ Gamera from the old films and a slightly larger model based on the first of the ‘90s movies. I considered leaving the tag on my latest acquisition, so as to maintain its ‘collectible’ status, but my heart’s never in that stuff. It just ruins the look of the thing.
At two o’clock the con presented a DVD-projected showing of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. This was accompanied by live commentary provided by the extremely amusing Robert Scott Shield, who also ably translated the remarks of f/x chief Mr. Kawakita and Japanese suitmation actor ‘Hurricane’ Ryu, who played Ghidorah in the movie. Needless to say, this program proved quite a treat, despite some minor technical glitches. Mr. Field, meanwhile, proved himself a gentlemen by refusing to comment on gossipy stuff about backstage romances and such.
At seven P.M. the con held some of their traditional fan
activities. These included homemade film and costume contests. As well,
they apparently this year added a music video competition. I usually
attend these, but the timing would have had the end of them bumping up
against the start of that night’s feature film at the Pickwick. So I
headed home at about four in the afternoon.
Later that evening I picked up my comrade in arms, Andrew Muchoney. We got to the theater early, to secure good seats, and waited for that evening’s presentation to start. To my excitement, this was to be Godzilla vs. Megaguiras (2000). By special arrangement with Toho, this film, officially unseen in this country since it was made, was to have its first showing here. I was especially thrilled because I’d never seen this one before. Even better, this was a subtitled rather than dubbed print.
(Sony will decide what happens to it now. There’s yet another Godzilla film that was made after that one – and it was directed by the fellow who made the aforementioned Gamera trilogy! Needless to say, I’m dying to see that one.)
Toho can be prickly, and J.D. appeared to pass on their wish that any "professional reviewers" get themselves a refund and leave the theater. I’m pretty sure that my comments here aren’t what was meant by that designation. Still, in the spirit of things I’ll keep my remarks on the film brief. Certainly what I’ll reveal here is less than what one could already find on the Internet.
Megaguiras is another ‘insect swarm’ monster, like those in both the Godzilla and Gamera movies seen the day before. They were loosely based on the big bugs seen in the beginning of 1959’s Rodan.
However, the influence of the Gamera series was finally beginning to make itself felt here. In earlier Godzilla movies the insects just would have popped up and then eventually merged into a big monster to fight. Instead, and more akin to the Gamera trilogy, the monsters are a credible biological species with a well thought-out and plausible reproduction cycle. The end result is the same – one honking big bug – but much more believable. Aside from the film displaying more intelligence, there’s also a bit of surprisingly gruesome violence when two humans fall prey to the creatures in their early stage.
The Godzilla featured here is roughly the same one as in Godzilla 2000. (Despite this, the film again has its own distinct continuity.) So we’re talking an actually green Godzilla, as opposed to the traditional gray, and with the larger, purple-tinged back scales. I’m not sure I really am in favor of this look, but one remaining element I like a lot. Which is that it takes Godzilla five or ten seconds to crank up his radioactive blast weapon. This is precipitated by slower and much more dramatic bits of his back scales gradually lighting up, accompanied by a crackling sound effect. Great stuff.
There are three big Godzilla scenes. In one, a member of the anti-Godzilla military unit ends up riding on Godzilla’s flank as he swims through the ocean. There’s never been a sequence like this in the series’ long history, and it was pretty interesting. Then there were two major battle sequences. The first had Godzilla fighting the swarm, and employing many of the same tactics as a bear would in fighting off a swarm of bees. This was really quite neat, and the special effects were some of the best I’ve yet seen in a Godzilla picture. The climax, meanwhile, is obviously an extended battle with the Big Bug. This also is one of the more memorable Godzilla sequences I’ve seen in the last ten years or so.
On the whole, I really liked this movie. I personally found it to be easily the best one since Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla back in 1993. Certainly I liked it better than the Stomp Tokyo boys, although maybe seeing it in a theater rather than on a bootleg tape had something to do with it. In fact, if you read Keith Allison’s review, well, what he said. Only more so.
There’s a stripped down feel to the film that really works well for it; it’s not nearly as busy as most of the recent Godzilla series have been. This keeps things moving in a straight line and gooses the pacing. In any case, since the chances of this hitting theater screens in the U.S. seems unlikely at this point, I can only hope that Sony gets off its butt and put the film out on DVD.
Again, this screening alone would have justified the Fest for me.
I hadn’t actually figured on making the 10:00 annual review-of-the-con meeting. The movie the night before started after 11:00, and when it was over Andrew and I stopped by Superdawg for a late night repast. Then when I got home I futzed around and didn’t get to bed until about four o’clock.
However, I woke up at 9:00, for some reason, and made the chat. J.D. came in, looking exhausted. He really puts himself out there for the convention. Thanks again, J.D. Anyway, options for next year were discussed (obviously I hope they stay right where they are), as well as for the 2004 mega-con that will go to Japan for Godzilla’s 50th anniversary. Anyone who can save three grand or so in the next couple of years might want to look into this.
After the meeting I stopped by the dealer’s room again. I picked up the latest G-Fan and the new, once-in-a-blue-moon issue of Japanese Giants. Then I stopped by the table for XPlusUSA, a new company making precision cast resin Godzilla figures. They had provided, for free, 500 4" ‘chess piece’ figures of Burning Godzilla – the one from Godzilla vs. Destoroyah – produced especially to be handed out to convention attendees. (Since the three-day pass was $29, and the figure presumably worth at least $20, you can see what a bargain this represented.) According to J.D., the figures were held up as they were being cleared by the finicky Toho company and had to be overnight shipped to the con from Hong Kong. (!!)
Unsurprisingly, I wanted to support these fine fellows (plus their products are cool and a half), so I bought a set of five chess piece figures they were selling for $85. This included a gorgeous old-school Rodan figure, Hedorah the Smog Monster and three different Godzillas, those from 1954, 1968 and 1995. These pieces are just spectacular, and come with bases to set the figures on. However, in this case I probably won’t have the guts to remove them from their boxes.
They also sold 12" statues with diorama bases for a more than reasonable hundred bucks a throw. Figures of this quality I would have expected to sell for upwards of double that. However, I didn’t bite, although I was severely tempted. (And I’m sure I’ll regret not buying some of them. Only a thousand of each is being produced.) Even so, I couldn’t resist two 8" Gamera toys they were selling as a set for $46. Twenty-odd dollars for such toys is pretty damn cheap, as collectors of such can attest. The modern Gamera sitting on my computer, for instance, was selling at numerous tables for $50. Anyway, they had run out of these, but promised to mail them to me the following morning.
And so, having blown roughly a hundred and fifty bucks, although very happy with my purchases, I headed home. This was around 11:00. I had planned on returning for a couple of the last programs at 3:00 and 4:00 that afternoon. Yet I was tired, and the Cubs were on TV trying to win their first sweep of this especially pathetic season. So I stayed home and kept from spending more money.
This concludes my report. See you next year.
-by Ken Begg