Sunday, March 9, 2014

They Came From Shochiku: The X From Outer Space (aka Uchu Daikaiju Guirara, 1967)

Always fun to consider just how dominant TOHO studios was throughout the 1950s-the 1960s, while others did their part to have a slice of the tokusatsu/genre cinema pie. All it took, really was one giant behemoth of a lizard to send audiences into a frenzy, and the competition naturally and steadily mapped out quick ways of stealing a little of that fire. And even if those attempts weren't nearly as successful, at least they weren't in the company of the late-blooming Shochiku, who's over decade-late foray into sci-fi/horror remains something of a head scratcher. Largely important in what became known as the Japanese New Wave, the studio seemed parched for some of that profitable elixir that TOHO and DAIEI were drinking, so perhaps a little dip into more family-friendly fantasy films seemed natural. Whatever the case, Kazui Nihonmatsu's Guirara is something of a baffling curiosity, and much less an enthused entry into an already crowded genre that was quickly becoming campy kids fare.

Dispatched toward Mars after receiving bizarre signals, the international space vessel AAB Gamma encounters a shifty UFO. Helmed by a largely Japanese male team, led by Captain Sano (Toshiya Wazaki), the mission is to close in on the erratic craft. Upon closer inspection the alien ship emits a gooey plasm that sticks directly onto the AAB, which is inevitably brought back to Earth, harboring with it a spore that will grow to become quite a nuisance to the AAB crew, and the rest of Japan. Ultimately it is up to Sano, his crew (including the egregiously devoted, Lisa, played to bland perfection by American, Patricia Neal), and the powers that be to repel the advance of space monster Guilala before he really makes a mess. All the while, the soundtrack informs us either to bop happily to jazz, singing the praises of space, or cowering in monotone fear. That's the tune of TWO songs.

So, when considering the overall feel and rhythm of a space age monster movie in the 1960s, languid is not the first word that comes to mind-BUT. Suffering from a pacing that seems an ill-fit for such a genre in this era, Guilala never seems to find itself off the ground. From the launch, the investigation, and the love subplot involving our lead's unrequited love on a moonbase, nearly everything is either treated like a vacation or an afterthought. Adding greater salt to this particular wound are some of the more obvious cases of botched shots ever witnessed on a supposedly big studio film, and some truly lethargic performances. (Kind of hurts to witness Eiji Okada of Hiroshima, Mon Amour & Woman In The Dunes shambling along here.) It is until the stunted, overlong finale that the film seems to exhibit signs of life, and only then does it sink in just how indifferent the film as a whole really is.

This unfortunate series of events is only made moreso by the appearance of said monster, which is perhaps one of the most ill-conceived ever put on celluloid this side of parody. Once on Earth and on the rampage, one cannot help but feel sorry. Not for the people of civilization, not for the mobilized military machine that is on the receiving end, not for the much needed buildings, roads, bridges, etc. But feeling bad for the poor soul, tasked with bringing this shambling bother to life. That's right. Guilala as a stomping mad monster is a creation of unbelievably sub par proportion. From his poofy, old-school rumba singer arms, to his often painful gait, to the even sadder mashup of a shuriken-shaped head(this creature sports not one, but THREE distinguishing additions to its head from bug eyes, a snork-like protrusion, and antenna), this is a kaiju product of either too many cooks in the development kitchen, or the rough designs of a crew member's child. Tasked with the film, this is perhaps a rookie effort for a nascent crew taking on what Eiji Tsuburaya had mastered by this point. Even if one attempted to declare a certain cuteness in regards to all in display here, it is often because of how new this seems to all involved. Aside from some of the space effects(let us not start discussing the diminished gravity scenes here), a lot of this work is decent at best.

One might go ahead and consider this review to be a completely negative one, and one might be right. But the film ultimately shines as a healthy reminder of what makes kaiju films of this era most fun, and not as worthy of derision as so many critics shared at the time. Even at some of their worst, the films of Honda, Fukuda, and others carried with them an enthusiasm that went a long way. It's something that genre cinema has long struggled with - keeping a sense of fun, while offering up new reasons to watch men in suits roll around on giant dioramas. While Guilala definitely deserved a long belated shellacking with a 2008 send-up, one can also look to this destructive space spore as a lesson in what to respect in regards to the kaiju film. Imitation is far from enough. And a comfort with the absolute ridiculous is required. 

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