Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Yog: Monster From Space (1970)

Original title: Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaiju

aka Space Amoeba

A space probe that was supposed to travel to Jupiter is taken over by a blue glittery space creature. Yog, as the Japanese version of the film never calls it, turns the space probe right back to Earth, where it crashes into the ocean near a very idyllic tropical island. Somehow, nobody realizes that the probe returned to Earth (I blame budget cuts) except for the photographer Kudo (Akira Kubo), who just happened to look out of an airplane window at just the right moment. Because Kubo didn't make a photo, nobody at his newspaper believes his story.

While Kudo's angrily planning to return to the place where he witnessed the crash and make underwater photographs of the probe, he is approached by Ayako Hoshino (Atsuko Takahashi). Ayako works for a company that is trying to turn a tropical island - including a full set of authentic, Japanese-adoring "natives" who still love the Japanese from when they used the island as a military base during World War II(!) - into a tourist resort. For some reason, the company thinks Kubo would be just the right guy to go on a little photo expedition there for them. The photographer declines at first, but when it turns out that the island in question just happens to be situated right where he saw the probe crash down, and the expedition just happens to include the biologist Doctor Mida (Yoshio Tsuchiya) who just happens to be an old friend of Kudo's, the awesome power of ridiculously overused random chance in the script convinces him otherwise. Oh, and Mida has a vague theory about the island being the home of monsters.

For my tastes, the so-called "expedition" is a bit short on members, what with it consisting of Mida, Kudo and Ayako (whose job will be to scream when she sees a turtle, scream some more, cry, stumble at inopportune moments and cry while holding an emotional speech about the human spirit). The trio gets rather unpleasant reinforcement in form of the anthropologist Obata (Kenji Sahara) who is on his way to investigate the culture of the "natives" on that very same island. I'm sure his wearing of a white suit, a goatee and tinted glasses, as well as his propensity to smoke, do not hint at him being lying about a few things.

Once on the island, our heroes stumble into a dangerous situation. One of the two company men stationed there has been killed by a giant squid with the curious habit of walking on land. On its tentacles.

Of course, one monster attack is not enough, so the squid thing - Gezora for its friends - will continue its entertaining/horrible work, until the united expeditionary forces of three and the "natives" can do away with it. But even then the ordeal isn't over, for the strange blue glittery space creature turns out to be the responsible party for the monster rampage that's only the first stage in some sort of vague invasion plan and just takes over other innocent animals - first an adorable giant grab (aka Ganime), then an equally adorable turtle (Kameba, not Gamera, you hear). Only excellently ridiculous science, the power of rubber bats and the indomitable human spirit that rests even in the breasts of goatee-wearers can save humanity now!

Yog is another of the less loved movies of the great Ishiro Honda, which comes as not much of a surprise given how very, very silly it is. If you only like Honda when he's in full-on serious humanist mode - but with monsters, Yog will be like silver bullets unto a werewolf for you. That's not to say that Honda isn't - at least in general - walking the philosophical walk he always did in his career, it's just that he demonstrates his humanist ideals with the cartoony broadness that is the whole of Yog's tone. That broadness makes some of the usual problems with Honda's films more visible. The "natives", for example, are just as problematically drawn here as they were in other Honda films like Varan, and Ayako is the sort of female character that has been annoying friends of genre cinema since the 1920s. Of course, neither the treatment of the "natives" nor that of Ayako is in any way or form mean-spirited, and is generally more benign than that in many contemporary films from Japan or the world, but rather seems to show Honda or his scriptwriter Ei Ogawa falling back on secure genre tropes instead of thinking their philosophical ideals through to their logical end point.

I'm honestly not sure if this particular film could even have survived a more dignified treatment of women and racially undefined islanders, because it, quite unlike most other films made by Honda, does seem to be constructed to be a manga-like monster movie first, and anything else forty-second. Once I managed to recalibrate my expectations accordingly, I began to be able to enjoy the whole affair. There's an air of relaxed silliness hanging over much of the film that's impossible to resist for the likes of me, with Honda and his experienced crew for once just leaving their ambitions behind and making a movie that could - apart from a handful of timely elements - have been made any time between the 1930s and the 1980s, and having a bit of fun.

I, for one, am pretty helpless against a film that features a squid using its tentacles like legs, characters who discuss earnestly how there must be a way to defeat the squid because "it's only a monster", Kenji Sahara mugging and eye-rolling for all he is worth (that is, a lot), weaponized rubber bats, and monsters rampaging through grass huts instead of Tokyo. It's not Mothra (not to speak of Gojira), but it sure is fun.

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