The Ultimate Showa Film: MONSTER ZERO
Author: Sean Kotz
MONSTER ZERO (Kaiju Daisenso) comes right in the dead center of the 1960s (like me) and it is one of those films that has been needled by critics for its limitations and zanier elements–like Godzilla’s cartoonish victory dance on Planet X. As the TV Guide review put it in back in 2004:
“This sixth entry in the Godzilla series is one of the last to make a pretense that it will be viewed by anyone over the age of 12. Evil aliens attempt to take over the Earth in a plot that does little but kill time prior to the climactic battle among Godzilla, the three-headed dragon Ghidrah, and the flying lizard Rodan.”
Despite the derisive tone, the comment about the age of the audience is accidentally rather astute. In fact, Godzilla films in the mid-sixties were in a transition from more serious attempts at science fiction drama to outright children’s fantasies. On one hand, adult and teen audiences were still shivering in the cold war shadow of the atomic age that Godzilla embodies in general. On the other hand, a backlash response to the cold war is emerging in 1965 and reflects the positive, “kids can save the world,” attitude just around the corner.
Unfortunately, in MONSTER ZERO, critics typically only see three guys in rubber suits wrestling, and thus, the film has little more than a campy appeal. However, beyond the rubber suits we have a serious reflection of the times played out in a Toho Scope daikaiju extravaganza. Though not necessarily intentional, the film is a snapshot of 1965–the height of the Cold War, the cradle of a political youth culture globally, and the tightest legs of the space race–in its strange mix of idealism, political and social attitudes and visual futurism.
Color and Design
While it might be more traditional to outline the plot first, it seems appropriate to begin with the general visual impact of the film and consider MONSTER ZERO’s chronological position in the Godzilla mythology. GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER, MONSTER ZERO and GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (as they are best known in English), all came out within two years of each other (1964-1966). When compared to all the Showa era films except for the original, these shine as a high water mark of visual production value; and of the three, MONSTER ZERO is the most fantastic, cohesive, and dare I say it, visually beautiful. All are filmed in glorious Toho Scope (Eastman color), and unlike most previous daikaiju films, these take full advantage.
Ghidorah alone is a visual spectacle, with his flailing heads, shimmering coat of golden scales and irregular lightning bolts, standing in sharp contrast to Godzilla and Rodan, the muted denizens of earlier days. What makes MONSTER ZERO special, however, is that Toho does not stop with Ghidorah.
Visually, the film is full of intense color. It opens with a shot of the “World Space Authority” spaceship P-1 cruising through a deep blue (not black) space toward Planet X, a newly discovered orb behind Jupiter emitting strange radio waves. Later in the film, this same colorful vision of blue space serves as a backdrop in a restaurant (which, among other things, allows for a nice scene cut). As they travel in bright orange space suits, astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams) pass the swirling clouds of Jupiter to see a new landscape of purple, rust, orange and ochre.
The film never stops playing with color. Unlike the white cotton Toho love interests of the past, the principle female characters–Haruni Fuji (Keiko Sawai) and the exotic Miss Namikawa (played by the relatively versatile Toho monster regular Kumi Mizuno) wear bright clothing and elegant, fashionable dresses. When he is back on earth, Glenn tools around in a gleaming red sports car as well. And while the villains from Planet X have serious fashion limitations, their underworld home is strewn with ostentatious gold and their technological design preference is for psychedelic and iridescent colors.
The function of all this color becomes clearer when we compare it to the principle threat in the film–the people of Planet X. Most scientifically minded kids of the 1960s and 1970s knew from our How and Why Wonderbooks that THE hot debate among eggheads was the existence of a tenth planet . . . “Planet X”. The mere use of this name evoked a sense of wonder and mystery, a world in which your schoolbooks might be wrong and the universe was broad and open. However, the people of Planet X, “governed by electronic computers” and an emotionless “Controller,” represent the dark side of mystery rather than its futuristic possibilities.
Though much remains mysterious about the X-men (so to speak), they are apparently a unified, highly efficient and tightly organized group. Their actions are dictated without question by “The Controller,” a stone cold calculator of a man in a lifeless, antennaed gray and black jumpsuit–which is the required clothing on Planet X. The Controller is down right surreal in his mechanical gestures and reactions, and in so far as that is the goal, Yoshio Tsuchiya gives a convincing performance. And, as we find out through Miss Namikawa, an agent of X, love is not permitted there, nor is there any reason to think independently. We even get to see two bolts in the back of the invasion force commander, suggesting that they may be part machine already.
The Cold War Debate
The society of Planet X, in its notable contrast to Americanized Japan, clearly reflects the Western media’s vision of Soviet and Chinese society during the Cold War. During the Sixties, mainland Asia was the primary playing field for ideologies while Japan watched from a close sideline. With Korea a divided nation, South East Asia became a literal battleground between the promise of the orderly utilitarian societal potential of communism and the promise of freedom and individual potential in capitalist democracy.
This is played out in the film at several levels. For example, when Glenn and Fuji (“Fuj” as Adams character calls him) return to earth, they address the world governing council, “The Earth Committee” (never mind the fact that they are ALL Japanese–this is a fantasy film after all.) Planet X has offered a deal to earth: in exchange for Godzilla and Rodan, whom they supposedly need to drive off Ghidorah, Planet X will provide a formula for a “miracle drug” that will cure all diseases. It is a trick, of course. The aliens want to use all three monsters to subdue the Earth. However, unlike Planet X, which has sacrificed individual opinion for “progress,” Earth is unified by a belief in democracy, which allows for debate and perhaps ill advised, good-faith decisions now and then.
Love, American Style
Moreover, in spite of the TV Guide assessment of the film as being relatively plotless, there are actually several plots, all of which circle around the problem of this ideological clash. Besides the umbrella story of Planet X’s invasion and its ideology, there are two love stories to consider. First, we have Haruni Fuji and her boyfriend, Tetsui Teri (Akira Kubo). The young man is an inventor who has invented a personal security alarm for women. As it will turn out, this device emits a high frequency oscillation that disables the people of Planet X. For this reason, Miss Namikawa poses as an interested buyer from “World Education Cooperation” to secure the deadly device on behalf of Planet X.
This is important in and of itself. As an inventor, Teri works independently, relying on a combination of personal drive, intuition and intelligence. In the totalitarian world of Planet X, there is no place for such a man with his own ideas and inspirations. It should be no surprise, then, that this is the very force that brings about the destruction of the alien forces in the end. The film is released twenty years after WWII and while it is clearly set in a not too distant future, Tetsuo represents the post war generation upon which Japan is relying to lead the nation into the future. As was the case in other nations, this generation was more independent than those before it were and thus, Tetsuo’s eventual success (he saves the world after all) represents a victory for both youth and independent thought in general. This kind of message, which is overdone in other films, actually has an appealing resonance.
Much of the early plot revolves around the fact that Fuji does not approve of his sister’s choice in men. The simple fact that she is given a choice is interesting. There are no parents involved here (implying a disconnection from the past and perhaps even the legacy of WWII), which makes Fuji the patriarch of the family and gives him the right to not only reject Haruni’s choice but also enforce one of his own. But, Fuji does not do this. He discourages the relationship but never vetoes it. It puts power in the hands of women, a radical concept at the time, and is thus consistent with the “Organization of Women” who are represented as deserving a voice later in the film. While we might not think much of these facts today, in 1965, this was forward thinking.
Meanwhile, there is the love affair between Planet X’s Miss Namikawa and the sometimes painfully American character, Glenn. Nick Adams, who was nominated for an Oscar only a few years before, delivers Glenn as a mixture of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and William Shatner. This relationship is interesting for a number of reasons. First, there is the fact that for the 1960’s, the interracial implications are a bit brazen. In the context of the story, of course, it is even more extreme since the two are from different planets. In other words, this is a signature of a brave new world of personal freedom and choice that breaks away from the old world and is directly represented by an American in Japan. Add to that the subtle but clear admission that Glenn and Namikawa are sleeping together (Glenn recounts a story of awakening to find Namikawa missing from the bed and speaking with the Controller), and you have a film that is directly embracing a different kind of future determined by free choice.
As for the love affair itself, Glenn discovers while he is exploring the Controller’s complex on a return trip to Planet X that Miss Namikawa is an alien herself. On that planet, all the women look exactly alike and Glenn quickly realizes that he has been duped. While he is falling in love, she is collecting information . . . or so it seems. In fact, Namikawa falls for Glenn and her self-proclaimed love for him motivates her to betray her society and slip the alarm device into his pocket just before she is vaporized for breaking the Planet X anti-love laws.
The surface message is clear. Love overcomes logic in the end. But Glenn’s intensity and charm are clear reflections of his American nature and perhaps we are seeing an unconscious (or maybe even conscious) selection for a democratic social direction (as opposed to a communist one) as well. Either way, the limitations of Planet X’s social order are exposed and we can chalk up one more for individualism.
All of this tells us that this is meant to be more than just a kiddie movie. The monsters themselves are there for spectacle more than plot, which may account for Godzilla’s sudden exploration into interpretive dance. That part is for the kids, no doubt, to keep adding something just a little more unbelievable each time . . . even if it is silly. On the other hand, the principle actors are all in their mid-thirties or late twenties, and as such, they appeal most to movie goers who are just a little younger–high school and college aged youth who will inherit their position soon. The target audience is the generation that will be shaping the new Japan and director Ishiro Honda and writer Shinkichi Sekizawa are clearly appealing to the fantasies of that age group, too.
Also, unlike GOJIRA and RODAN, which were essentially films about dealing with monsters that represented the angry and unleashed forces of nature, MONSTER ZERO is about an external social threat. In fact, all three films between 1964-1966 give us the idea that a human(oid) force is more of a threat than the daikaiju and aliens will return to the Godzilla universe repeatedly from 1964 on.
Days of Futures Past
In perfect communion with these themes is the way the film picks up futuristic visual and dialog elements that border on the surreal. Beyond the color elements addressed above (did I mention Nick Adams’ tangerine colored hair?) there are two other interesting factors–the notion of a world destined to enter space as a single entity and Planet X’s technology and apparent design codes.
It is perhaps difficult to remember this now, in 2006, but we were supposed to be living in the Space Age and not the Information Age. The very competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that seems to underlie the film also fueled the greatest jumps in technology–space sciences–and dictated a vision of the future in which space travel would be easy and common, and for a short time, kids actually wanted to grow up to be astronauts.
As we see in many 1960’s visions of outer space, from STAR TREK to MONSTER ZERO, the same themes pop up repeatedly about the future–including the idea that space travel will overcome nationalism in one way or another. In fact, in this film, it would appear that all space travel begins in Japan and Glenn tends to defer to Fuji on a regular basis, but repeatedly, the world as a whole is represented as unified.
Since the actual mechanics and machines of space travel in the 1960s were both obscure technically and boring visually, art directors for this film and others freely borrowed from the best elements and left the rest to imagination. If one looks back at fashion trends in the middle sixties, for instance, and furniture and architectural design trends as well, we see striking similarities and you have to wonder who is drawing from whom.
Without going into another essay here, suffice it to say that the uncluttered surfaces and curved, smooth lines that mark the interior of the Planet X compound are typical of the way the future would be envisioned in many films to come. To appropriate the comments of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER’s Tom Servo regarding the interior of a spacecraft in GAMERA VS. GUIRON (a film that borrows heavily from MONSTER ZERO): “Nice use of colors. It looks like a Ramada Inn from 1968.”
More interesting are the psychedelic colors the otherwise uninspired aliens seem to require to navigate the universe. Pulsating lights of various colors are common on Planet X, whose Controller seems to use mental power to control the ship more than knobs and buttons. When attacked by Ghidorah, the room turns red and when the P-1 is sent back to Earth, it departs from a tube with spiraling blue lights. Most compelling is an undefined device that looks like Timothy Leary’s idea of a wishing well. The large table seems to be a control device and its array of colors and shades (from pastel tranquility to violent primary colors depending on the urgency) is remarkable.
Ultimately, the control table flashes out in a feverish display of colors as the aliens are destroyed. In the death scene of the Controller, we have strange dialog to go with the extreme visuals. Realizing that his invasion is doomed, the Controller terminates everyone from Planet X in an act of communal hari-kari. With a grimacing expression somewhere between agony and bliss, he says: “Escape. Escape into the future . . . into that dimension which we have never seen. All of you join me in . . . escape!” Obviously, this future (one of free will and unity?) has been beyond the Controller’s vision, and so, his future is limited to destruction. If MONSTER ZERO was made as a compare and contrast film, we see which side has won.
So what does all this mean about MONSTER ZERO?
Well, for one thing, it has the mega monster battle we love to see in the Godzilla films, but it has much more going for it than a mere daikaiju spectacle. In fact, the monster theme is almost secondary to the plot and it is possible to see how this film might have been done without that element. There is a subtle but real social/political undercurrent winding through the film that comes out in the plot, dialog and art direction. It certainly reflects its times in that sense.
Moreover, this film sets the tone for Asian science fiction and perhaps influences the United States film industry to some degree, too. And it ends with a type of optimism, promising to send Fuji and Glenn back to Planet X as emissaries. A bit hokey perhaps, but it strongly shapes the direction of the rest of the Showa era and anticipates the peace movement to come in just a few years.