It’s another CineSavant review of a movie largely unavailable, especially the original Japanese version. This third Ishirô Honda / Eiji Tsuburaya outer space action epic is probably the best Toho science fiction feature ever, an Astral Collision tale in which the drama and characters are as compelling as the special effects. Nothing can stop a colossal planetoid heading toward Earth, but science comes to the rescue with the biggest construction job ever undertaken by mankind. The fine screenplay generates thrills, suspense and human warmth. It also takes place in the far, far future: 1980.
CineSavant Revival Screening Review
Not On Region A Home Video
1962 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 88 83 min. / Yôsei Gorasu
Starring: Ryô Ikebe, Yumi Shirakawa, Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Akihiko Hirata, Kenji Sahara, Jun Tazaki, Ken Uehara, Takashi Shimura, Seizaburô Kawazu, Takamaru Sasaki, Kô Nishimura, Eitarô Ozawa, Hideyo Amamoto, George Furness, Ross Benette, Nadao Kirino, Fumio Sakashita, Ikio Sawamura, Haruo Nakajima.
Cinematography: Hajime Koizumi
Film Editor: Reiko Kaneko
Original Music: Kan Ishii
Special Effects director: Eiji Tsuburaya
Special Effects art director: Akira Watanabe
Written by Takeshi Kimura story by Jôjirô Okami
Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Directed by Ishirô Honda
As with last month’s CineSavant Revival Screening Review of The Flame Barrier, I’m again reaching into the mystery column of interesting pictures not available on disc here in the United States. This particular movie is caught in the quicksand of conflicting rights… or, at least it was the last time I asked. For all I know there may be a beautiful transfer available in Japan, but Japanese discs of Toho science fiction and Kaiju seldom come with English subtitles. Knowing how the world works, it also may be available on a streaming service. If someone out there can enlighten us to any legit source, we’d love to hear from you.
Gorath, or Yôsei Gorasu has always been a frustration here in the states. Its only U.S. release was through a distributor called Brenco Pictures, which also distributed Toho’s The Human Vapor and The Last War. They removed a full thirty minutes from the nuclear war movie, but that was nothing compared to the wholesale chop job done to Gorath. If you’ve seen the English-language version you need to know that it was radically cut, with new narration and new ‘explanatory’ scenes added. And it’s still five minutes shorter than the original.
Daiei’s earlier science fiction film Warning from Space (1956) mixed the basic astral collision formula with an alien visitation theme. Gorath is the third film in Toho’s unofficial Space Trilogy, preceded by the alien combat epics The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space. By this time Toho’s producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was heavily invested in big, spectacular all-ages fantasy attractions. 1961-’62 were the years that the Ishirô Honda / Eiji Tsuburaya special effects spectaculars really took off, filling enormous sound stages with vast, detailed sets of cityscapes: Mothra, King Kong vs. Godzilla. Gorath may be the most ambitious of them all in terms of special effects spectacle, both in outer space and for awesome earthbound disasters. It is essentially Toho’s answer to George Pal’s When Worlds Collide, a film that it betters in several ways.
The biggest surprise is the relative maturity of the story. Although the science particulars are still juvenile the dialogue isn’t all technical exposition. We get no big speeches about international cooperation, just the observation that the competing space stations have now banded together. As in most Japanese Sci-fi Japan is ahead of the world in space science. But Takeshi Kimura’s screenplay takes a decidedly serious attitude to the people on screen — no funny-funny salarymen or clownish sidekicks provide comedy relief. The drama is emotionally involving — the characters have more depth than we’ve come to expect. We end up caring very much about what happens to them. We know that Gorath is different when its one Kaiju sequence ends on a thoughtful, melancholy note. In this movie we even care what happens to the monster.
In the year 1979 (!) Saturn-bound space rocket JX-1 is detoured to investigate an unknown celestial body approaching Earth. Captain Raizo Sonoda (Jun Tazaki) discovers too late that the new planetoid is only 3/4 the size of Earth but is incredibly dense: the JX-1 won’t be able to escape its tremendous gravitational field. Sonoda urges his crew to send back useful data as long as they can. Back on Earth friends Taiko Nomura (Kumi Mizuno) and Tomoko Sonoda (Yumi Shirakawa) have personal reasons to despair: Tomoko has lost her uncle and Taiko her astronaut fiancé Manabe (Nadao Kirino). Tokyo’s first reaction is diplomatic confusion: the Finance minister seeks a scapegoat for the loss of the billion-dollar spaceship. But Science Minister Dr. Kono (Ken Uehara) gets things back on task by appointing astrophysicist Dr. Tazawa (Ryô Ikebe) to explain his project to the United Nations. The unwelcome planetoid is given the name ‘Gorath.’
At the Mount Fuji Interstellar Exploration Agency, a new team of spirited astronaut cadets can’t get any news from their Captain Endo (Akihito Hirata) so they go for a joy ride in a helicopter. They then jump the chain of command and volunteer for the next Gorath mission directly to Secretary of Space Murata (Kô Nishimura). Cadet Tetso Kanai (Akira Kubo) tries to get close to Taiko, but she still mourns Manabe; Tomoko does her best to interest the brooding Tazawa when he visits her father, paleontologist Kensuke Sonoda (Takashi Shimura).
Kono & Tazawa’s plan to save the Earth requires using hundreds of rockets at the South Pole to push our planet 400,000 miles out of its orbit so that Gorath will pass by harmlessly. Earth will still be rocked by massive tidal and geological disruption during Gorath’s near miss. The cadets are dancing at a bar when the order comes to launch JX-2 for another Gorath mission. Meanwhile, thousands of ships and millions of tons of equipment land in Antarctica to support the building of several fields of rocket engines. It’s the biggest construction job in human history, being done on a rush basis.
Will Earth survive Gorath? The JX-2 sends the daring Kanai out in a probe ship to get close to the dangerous planetoid, and he returns suffering from total amnesia. Dr. Tazawa endures his own stress problems when the government refuses to authorize even more rocket installations at the South Pole. Tomoko and Kumi worry about their men. A cave-in complicates the Antarctic construction. Kono and Kensuke Sonoda must personally fly to the South Pole, when the heating of the area causes a previously unknown giant monster to attack the rocket installation.
If that last bit of the synopsis sounds out of place it’s because the monster was a last-minute addition by producer Tanaka, who believed that success in the market required some kind of Kaiju attraction. According to author Stuart Galbraith IV, Tanaka was correct — released later the same year, Toho’s King Kong vs. Godzilla did more business than Gorath and cost much less.
Just the same, in its original Japanese version Gorath is one of Toho’s very best fantasy films. The pacing is excellent, most of the special effects are above par and the large cast is used well. A dramatic highlight occurs in every reel. When the crew of JX-1 realizes that they’re all going to die, they use their last moments to send back data, and then share a moving ‘Banzai!’ shout of solidarity. Driving back through Tokyo at night, Dr. Kono observes the teeming sidewalks and wonders out loud if anyone can really conceive of the world ending, all at once. The giddy rocket cadets conduct a sing-along in the helicopter with exaggerated enthusiasm, and in a later nightclub dance swing their partners in unison. The ‘aren’t we cool?’ choreography is awkward at best, but perhaps Japanese audiences responded well to such expressions of team happiness.
Kanai is determined to project ‘The Right Stuff’ when he volunteers for the suicidal probe mission. The editing showing him overwhelmed in the presence of the ‘horrifying’ Gorath is quite good, and more than a little like astronaut Bowman confronting Stanley Kubrick’s mind-blowing Star Gate. Kanai’s relationship with Taiko is nicely laid out: she rejects him when he throws Manabe’s photo off her balcony, but rushes to his side when he comes back psychologically damaged. These scenes are especially good in comparison to the undeveloped dramatics of The Mysterians and the even thinner characters in Battle in Outer Space. When Dr. Tazaki is too frustrated to speak Tomoko chooses the moment to embrace him for the first time, to make the first move. It’s not exactly method acting but in this context the emotions feel genuine.
Frankly, we didn’t know that director Honda had these subtleties in him. The obligatory ‘mass congratulation’ scenes in Toho sci-fi are usually terrible, but the master shot of Tazawa sharing the joy in this show works extremely well. Helping greatly with the emotional effects is the dynamic soundtrack score by actor-composer Kan Ishii. Two or three themes lend weight and power to the space scenes and construction vistas at the South Pole. At least one of the cues is genuine ear-worm material.
Ummmm … does this film have any Special Effects?
The visual effects in Gorath include some of Eiji Tsuburaya’s finest work. The quality is mostly superior and the quantity much greater. The spaceships fly more smoothly and the animation used to create their rocket jets is better than ever. The space vistas are sharp and colorful, and the angles better designed than in Battle in Outer Space. Only a few times does anything wiggle. Kanai’s probe ship was constructed as a full-sized mockup, which helps; the few times that human figures are matted into miniature scenes, the optical quality is greatly improved.
Gorath itself is a bit of a weak link — to make it seem more threatening it’s been designed as a glowing candy apple orb, similar to but not as good as the asteroid that menaces the Mars ship in George Pal’s Conquest of Space (1955). Gorath wobbles a bit too much to convince as being almost Earth-sized. Close-ups of fire and lightning exploding on the planetoid’s surface are much better. Its immense gravitation pulls in asteroids and other matter as it progresses, adding to its mass. Gorath first consumes the comet Carina. As it passes Saturn it draws away the planet’s rings. The cel animation of the rings ‘bleeding away’ is not the greatest. Gorath eventually gobbles up our Moon. These collisions aren’t much more than visual suggestions, but various views of Gorath sharing the sky with a crescent Moon are beautiful.
The effects back on Earth provide spectacle on a scale that would not be approached until the advent of CGI effects. The matte paintings are excellent, a huge improvement over the weak, perspective-challenged views in Battle and Mothra. On the way to Antarctica we witness vast miniatures of ships cruising through the ice; even the less convincing ones work because they’re simply so ambitious. The miniature scenes look big because the cameraman pumped in the light to enable an extreme depth of field. As slow, field-distorting anamorphic lenses are generally useless for miniatures, my theory is that a lot of Tsuburaya’s Tohoscope miniature work was actually filmed flat, with a ‘scope slice taken out optically, just as with the Super-35 format.
Another cute trick to look out for: the window view from Taiko’s apartment is not a painted backdrop but an elaborate forced-perspective miniature cityscape, with moving train traffic, etc. The effect is weird… the live-action and miniature settings are a stylistic match because both are miniatures. This engagingly artificial technique can be seen in Matango and Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell, and Quentin Tarantino reproduced it for his Kill Bill.
The Antarctic construction scenes are the most complex in Toho fantasy — Honda’s camera pans, trucks and cranes through enormous miniatures of gantries, towers, conveyor belts, vehicles, etc.. The inspiration for the wordless episode could have been the pyramid-building sequence in Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs. Kan Ishii’s music gets a major workout as the camera takes in the many levels of construction activity. Miniature helicopters fly through most every shot. A fantastic earthmoving machine is filmed much the same way as similar futuristic excavators in Alexander Korda’s Things to Come. Only once does our suspension of disbelief really break down: the drivers of several bulldozers at work are obviously little plastic toys.
The giant monster attack on the South Pole base is unlike any other Toho Kaiju scene. His name is Magma, and he’s basically a giant walrus, tusks and all. Dr. Sonoda theorizes that Magma is disturbed by the rockets’ raising the temperature of his home. He’s just the wrong animal in the wrong place. Unlike other Kaiju he’s easily killed, which the scientists regret having to do. The last aerial view of the dismembered creature is strangely sad, an ecological tragedy. Its gory finality reminds us that an appalling real-life wildlife kill-off is presently in progress, especially at the warming poles. Actually, the whole world is now in jeopardy from global warming, a slow-motion Gorath.
The effects hit a peak as Gorath passes, starting with fireworks in the sky. The tidal-flood sequence will remind viewers of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. The ocean surges onto the land, knocking a train off its tracks and flooding Tokyo. One overhead view of a city-scape fooled me completely ↓ — I thought it was real until the flood arrived a minute or so later. Only once or twice do we see shots that could have been repurposed from earlier films — a building collapsing, perhaps. At one point a big section of the city collapses as if undermined, which happens again in the next year’s Atragon.
The epic Gorath is more than a parade of wonderful toys and trick photography. Its appeal transcends that of its predecessors by virtue of a well-constructed story and more involving characters. The finale does leave us scratching our heads, however: only after we’ve been successfully shifted out of Gorath’s way do Tazawa and his Yankee assistant Gibson (Ross Benette) begin to wonder how the hell they can possibly return the Earth to its proper orbit. We can envision a cut to a B&W shot of Leo McKern from Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire, filmed the previous year: “The stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards! They’ve finally done it. They’ve shifted the tilt of the Earth.” One problem at a time, I guess.
I’ve been able to compare the original Yôsei Gorasu to the American 1964 release Gorath. The American distributor Brenco Pictures re-dubbed all the voices and cut the film to ribbons. They dropped all kinds of material — dramatic scenes, the antics of the space cadets singing in the helicopter and dancing at the night club. Then they added a couple of boring astronomy lectures, apparently because now the movie was too short.
Daily Variety’s review (May 20, 1964) shows that Brenco replaced a minimum of twelve minutes of Toho footage: “There is still need of sharp editing particularly in its opening, which for seven minutes concentrates on several shots of various constellations and a lecture, no less, on astronomy and movement of the heavens.” Believe me, this lecture is enough to get anybody to walk out — it’s just padding that doesn’t even make much sense.
Also dropped by Brenco was the entire scene with the giant Walrus Magma, something we once thought we might never see. Forry Ackerman kept on telling us about it, but I forget if he ever printed a photo. The best theory is that Brenco got rid of Magma because audiences might laugh at him, as they surely would have laughed at the jolly astronauts singing and dancing. Someone at Brenco must not have liked the final special effects episode — they darkened the entire nighttime flood sequence, superimposing smoke over everything. How were these decisions made? It’s as if the boss said, “This is a perfect movie for us. Let’s buy it and then disavow and jettison everything in it.”
Fans of Japanese movies will be impressed by Gorath’s large cast. The faces are familiar even if the names are not. Everyone recognizes Takashi Shimura from Seven Samurai and a score of other Kurosawa classics. In Toho sci-fi and Kaiju he’s most often a thoughtful scientist. The other distinctive Godzilla veteran is the lean-faced Akihiko Hirata. Toho-Kurosawa connections are made with Jun Tazaki (High and Low, Ran), Seizaburô Kawazu (Yojimbo) and Kô Nishimura (The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo).
Of the romantic foursome Ryô Ikebe filled all kinds of leading roles, although no Kurosawas — he’s also the star of Battle in Outer Space. Yumi Shirakawa is in an Ozu masterpiece but was also an Ishirô Honda favorite, starring in Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man and Secret of the Telegian. Handsome Akira Kubo split his time between samurai pictures (Sanjuro) and fantasies (Matango). Cute Kumi Mizumo is granted a sexy bathtube scene in Gorath. She appeared with Kubo in Matango, not to mention Honda’s pair of ‘Furan-ka-shu-tain’ epics Frankenstein Conquers the World and War of the Gargantuas.
Also worth mentioning is the distinctive Hideyo Amamoto. He may be just the bit player ‘Man in Bar’ in this show, but we immediately recognize him as none other than the evil Dr. Who from King Kong Escapes. Gary Teetzel sees an inspirational story here, about a sad addiction to alcohol. Happily, ‘Man in Bar’ reformed, turned his life around and founded an evil organization to fulfill his quest to build the world’s largest Magilla Gorilla toy.
So come on, Toho — license some restored, remastered & subtitled Blu-rays of your sci-fi and Kaiju classics!
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
March 25, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson