Review: Guilala’s Boyish Grin

Girara-no Gyakushuu Touyaku Samitto Kiki Ippatsu [lit. Guilala’s Counter Attack: the Touyaku Summit One-Shot Crisis; aka Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit!] (2008; dir. Minoru Kawasaki)

Though the Japanese daikaiju eiga subgenre of giant monster films was arguably initiated by Gojira (Godzilla) in 1954 and its development — both in periods of refinement and decline — was largely governed by the career of the King of the Monsters, there were plenty of other contenders for the crown along the way. Some of these were vaguely credible threats — such as Gamera and Mothra. Others, however, were one-off aberrations that have survived in the affections of kaijuphiles not for the quality of the films they were in, but because of their charming idiosyncrasy. As such they encapsulate an important aspect of the subgenre — its essential absurdity. In most of these films, realism is not an issue. The kaiju thrive through their fantastic weirdness and their charm.

One of the most endearingly weird of the 1960s kaiju is Guilala, otherwise known — thanks to an unimaginative international translation* — as “the X from Outer Space”. The Giant Space Chicken (as he is also sometimes referred to) starred in Uchu daikaiju Girara [trans. Giant Space Monster Girara] (1967; dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu), a film that was cheap and awkward and doesn’t represent the genre at its best, but which does have an abundance of 1960s space-kitsch charm.

X poster small with black edges

The late 1960s through the 1970s wasn’t generally a good time for daikaiju eiga. Some were still being made — because they were a mainstay of the industry — but falling attendance was forcing available budgets downward … and despite perceptions to the contrary, the use of monster suits and miniatures made the films comparatively expensive. As a result of declining profit margins during this period, the SFX and production values were undermined by the sort of corner-cutting that (along with bad dubs) created prejudices toward the genre that still exist in the world-view of the general public: that Japanese monster flicks are cheap, juvenile, clumsily directed and generally laughable. This was never universally true, of course, and still isn’t — but the image has stuck.

In fact, what the “best-of-the-worse” of them had, regardless of technical faults, was charm.

The charm of the medium is a major emphasis of “whacked-out” comedy director, Minuro Kawasaki. His re-visiting of one of the most characteristic monsters of this period of daikaiju eiga history — Guilala himself — is an affectionate embracing of the techniques of the 1960s and, particularly in its kaiju-rampage scenes, comes over as totally authentic. This is so much the case that moments that I suspect were taken directly from the earlier picture are hard to separate from the new ones — such cannibalising being in itself a characteristic of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Unlike the first Gojira (1954) and many of the other Godzilla films, as well as the 1990s Gamera trilogy, the 1967 Uchu daikaiju Girara had little “serious” intent, metaphorical or otherwise. It wasn’t a comedy — though often funny — but it was light-hearted (and -headed) in approach. In his own Guilala, Kawasaki adds to this lightness heavy doses of satire and a conscious tongue-in-cheek humour that doesn’t mock the genre, but embraces its absurdities with affection. With films such as Calamari Wrestler, Executive Koala, Kabuto-O Beetle, The World Sinks Except Japan and assorted Den Ace Ultraman parodies on his resumé, it’s hardly surprising that his giant monster movie is absurd (he uses the term “whacked-out”) and full of social and political satire.

The plot is typical of the period, though placing the monster attack during the G8 summit adds a political dimension that wasn’t in the original. There are really two human character threads: the G8 leaders arguing ineffectually about how to handle this incursion by an alien monster and a tabloid reporter (Natsuki Kato) and her photographer (Kazuki Kato), sent to cover the summit, who instead find themselves on the trail of a solution to the dilemma that is more traditional and metaphysical than the G8 leader’s tally of increasingly useless weapons of mass destruction.

Guilala attacks

The satirical depiction of the various world leaders is fairly risible in both a positive and negative way, though in the end too much time is given over to their bickering, racially stereotyped interaction. The quality of the dialogue and acting by the typical non-Japanese unknowns is simply not strong enough to last the distance. Here we have an idea that is quite humorous — and provides moments of genuine laughter — contained in a mishmash of slow-paced non-event that leaves you idling, waiting for another shot of the monster doing his thing. The Japanese actors are fine — and despite the fact that the G8 satire was clearly to the fore of Kawasaki’s intent, I suspect the film would have been more interesting as an entertainment, if he had allowed the “journalist seeking the truth” thread to develop more fully.

I must say, though, that the Mothra-like dance routine, used as the villagers’ ritual to summon help, is a highlight. It is well choreographed and very funny, especially when the sophisticated Tokyo journalist eagerly joins in.

I saw the film during the Japanese Film Festival in Sydney in early December. The audience was patchy, but cautiously enthusiastic, and duly laughed in most of the necessary places. I suspect the film encouraged the prejudices against the genre that some clearly had going in, and left those without a pre-existing disdain for daikaiju eiga less than satisfied. But many were willing to take it as it was and a few entered into the spirit of the ensuing Q&A with director Minuro Kawasaki with knowledgeable relish.

Festival promo for \
Two-sided promo sheet (click on image to see it large)

One of the more interesting aspects of the film was the presence of Beat Takeshi as a multi-armed, giant, god-like figure (Takemajin) summoned by the ritual song-and-dance cabaret act of the villagers. When asked the question: “Was that really Beat Takeshi in the suit?” Kawasaki answered (as filtered through his interpreter and my memory):

That was the original intent. But Takeshi-san is getting on in years and when he climbed in the suit he found he couldn’t do it. So in the end he just supplied the voice and someone else was in the suit.

Gulala and Take-majin face off

But the Takemajin kaiju was inspired by Takeshi in its general features and its mannerisms are a homage to him, including, according to Kawasaki, the peculiar crotch-focused dance performed by the unsophisticated villagers Who Know What Is Going On. Kawasaki also pointed out that in its design the Takemajin references the Daimajin film series (as well as King Seesar from the 1974 Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, I would have thought) and is an amalgamation of a wide variety of Japanese gods, despite the multi-armed Indian qualities of his non-combative appearance.

Takemajin

When asked about whether the dubious accent of the British representative to the G8 Summit was deliberate, Kawasaki smiled and said “No, it was a mistake”, adding that it was a very cheap film. Indeed, the film’s low budget is obvious from the relatively few large-scale scenes of destruction and military response, the limited time Guilala spends in cities as distinct from more easily created miniature countryside, a lack of obsessive detail in the building construction and streetscapes, the dinky toy cars that he kicks around when he’s in a temper, very little simultaneous sharing of the screen by monster and humans, and a relatively small proportion of cuts per scene. More money would probably have gone some way toward fixing some of these problems, as well as allowing for the signing up of some more experienced non-Japanese actors.

“Why did you decide to use this particular form of SFX?” someone asked. “Why do you like it?” Kawasaki compared the genre (in its use of men-in-suits rather than CGI) to kabuki, seeing it as a stylised artform in which the old technologies play a major role. It’s not about “looking realistic”, he said, but about indefinables such as charm and traditional artistic depth. His movie uses no CGI, he said. Even the explosions were in-camera physical effects. Through the use of computer graphics you can gain an increase in realism, he added, but you lose out in charm.

Kawasaki claimed that there was only one studio left in Japan that could deal with the sort of techniques required and that he would be very sad to see the traditional approach to kaiju eiga disappear — as it would inevitably do. “However,” he added, “I’ll be making them until the day I die.”

Kawasaki and friends
Director Kawasaki with his retro-SFX buddies

In the end, despite any artistic reservations I may have had, I enjoyed the film and was completely sincere when I went up to Kawasaki after his Q&A, shook his hand and thanked him. His polite very-Japanese acknowledgement and the boyish, slightly sardonic smile he gave me were totally winning and I reflected that this represented the essential qualities of the film itself.

  • Note: Keith Aiken of the excellent SciFi Japan tells me that the title “The X From Outer Space” wasn’t a concoction of the US distributors. Instead, “that name was created [by] Shochiku for marketing the film outside of Japan”.
  • Keith also commented that he was surprised I had difficulty “telling the stock footage from the new material in MONSTER X STRIKES BACK. THE X FROM OUTER SPACE was shot on film while the MONSTER X was digital so the changes in film grain and quality was glaringly obvious when I saw the movie at AFM last month. Except for a couple of insert shots of buildings blowing up, all of Guilala’s city scenes were lifted from THE X FROM OUTER SPACE.” What can I say? Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention — but also I assumed some of the city-trashing had to be new, and therefore couldn’t tell what was new and what wasn’t … because in fact it was all the same. Of course, it’s also true that the new Guilala suit wasn’t identical to the old one, so you have to make allowances for me speaking in an impressionistic way rather than giving the image a close examination.
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4 Responses to Review: Guilala’s Boyish Grin

  1. Avery says:

    WOW!! Fantastic review Rob!! Can’t wait till I get my chance to see it.

  2. Backbrain says:

    Thanks, Avery. It was, as I say, patchy but fun. You’ll like it.

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