Gorath (Ishiro Honda, Japan, 1962)

Thanks to the sacrifice of Rocketship XJ-1 commanded by Professor Sonoda, the Earth learns that an approaching planetoid named Gorath is on a collision course. Dr.Tazawa (Ryo Ikebe) persuades the United Nations to co-operate in the construction of a massive nuclear engine at the South Pole, the idea being that once the huge engines are ignited the thrust can literally push the Earth out of Gorath’s path. As construction on the engines begins a second manned space mission to gather data on Gorath leaves astronaut Kanai (Akira Kubo) with amnesia to the point that he can’t even recognise girlfriend Taiko (Kumi Mizuno). At the South Pole the success of the mission is threatened when the heat of the atomic engines releases a prehistoric walrus from deep freeze. Meanwhile Taiko, Kanai and Professor Sonoda’s daughter Tomoko (Yumi Shirakawa) await their fate back home as Gorath’s passage across the sky results in earthquakes, hurricanes and tidal waves battering Japan.

Along with Mothra, Matango and The Human Vapor this is my favourite Ishiro Honda movie. It’s SF but it hews to the template established by the director’s monster movies and it distills all that is enjoyable about the genre he pioneered into one smooth and quite polished package. A likeable cast and good pacing also mean the director’s heartfelt plea for co-operation between nations doesn’t get bogged down – as it sometimes does in his other movies – by long-winded scenes of bureaucratic speechifying. It helps that everyone here from top level scientists and diplomats to an amusingly complacent taxi driver and mordant barfly get to weigh in on the significance of Gorath’s approach. There’s more humour too. The Sonoda family’s teenage son gets some hilarious lines; refused a whiskey by the adults he declares, “If Gorath’s going to strike the Earth I should be allowed at least one drink!” It’s one of the film’s nicest touches that it’s this kid whose fanciful musings about using explosives on Gorath sparks the idea in Dr.Tazawa’s mind that ultimately leads to Earth’s salvation.

Epitomised by its group of cadet astronauts led by Kanai (frustrated at not being given the go ahead for investigating Gorath, the lads hijack a helicopter and vent their frustrations in an aerial sing-song over Tokyo!) there’s a boisterous, youthful optimism coursing through Gorath that contrasts really well with the film’s grimmer aspects. Honda’s oft repeated message that if humanity were to just put aside its differences and co-operate then there’d be no difficulty that couldn’t be overcome has rarely seemed so infectious. Yet Honda isn’t above acknowledging the generation gap here. It’s quite a surprise when, after the successful ignition of the South Pole engine, Tazawa’s associate Dr.Kono (Ken Uehara) bluntly states that no one at the UN has any faith, short of divine intervention, that the Earth can be saved. “The younger generation.. just can’t understand that”, he says. It’s a sobering moment but the bridge between two generations turns out to be Dr.Tazawa, himself exhausted and reduced to tears at this point but given the strength to carry on after a heartfelt pep talk from girlfriend Tomoko. Speaking of which I really liked the two female leads, Yumi Shirakawa as Tomoko and Kumi Mizuno as Taiko. They’re both cute as buttons and seem more realistically drawn than their American contemporaries. Perhaps because they’re not simply reduced to being homemakers or sobbing when their men go off.

As competent as the character stuff is it’s the disaster spectacle we’re all here for and Gorath doesn’t disappoint on that front, offering a variety of spectacular and ambitious setpieces on earth, in the air and in space, plus one genuine monster. It seems evident that Toho spent more than usual on this and under the direction of special effects expert Eiji Tsuburaya the result is not just one of the best looking but one of the best, Japanese disaster movies. Initially, Gorath is just a glowing red orb but the closer it gets to Earth the more we see it sucking in debris and growing in size, its surface roiled by explosions, sparks and bursts of flame. One especially nice touch has Saturn’s rings being sucked into Gorath’s mass as the planetoid passes nearby. The meticulously detailed model sequences of the nuclear engines under construction at the South Pole, with its icebreakers and cranes busily unloading cargo onto conveyor belts while helicopters fly over – aided by a thumping Kan Ishii score – is likely to thrill anyone who ever got a kick out of putting together an Airfix model kit. It really doesn’t matter that the models mostly look like miniatures because something about them (which includes some quite convincing back projection work with real people in the foreground) stirs the blood. There’s plenty of action in space too including a well done spacewalk from a rocket ship to rescue an unconscious Kanai, adrift in his shuttle after a terrifying close encounter with Gorath, that blends miniature effects and live action.

One of the nice touches here is that the film exudes a genuine wonder for space exploration. This is a world (set in 1982!) in which the UN has established a succession of manned satellites stretching out into deep space. As Gorath closes in we see the satellites coming in to land at a spaceport on Earth. Honda successfully creates a detailed world here that seems busy and convincing beyond just the threat of Gorath. And as we near the climax with everything beginning to look a touch too predictable the film throws in a wonderfully imaginative flourish with the arrival of a giant prehistoric walrus which begins wreaking havoc at the South Polar base. Seems the heat from the nuclear engines thawed it out from deep beneath the ice! You share the wistfulness of Dr. Kono and Dr.Tazawa as they’re forced to kill it with their aircraft’s laser even though they’d like to let it live. There’s a palpable ambition and confidence through Gorath, so much so that Honda can cross-cut between Kanai regaining his memory while watching Gorath on TV and the floods, earthquakes and hurricanes raging outside, and sell both with equal conviction. The scenes of a flooded Tokyo with the tops of office buildings and pagoda’s sticking up out of the waves are so good they almost don’t look like models. Even the scenes at the South Polar base as humble Dr.Tazawa finds himself the centre of a frenzy of cheers, hugs and backslapping from the international crew he’s been working with feel really well earned.

Virus/Resurrection Day (full 156m version) (Kinji Fukasaku, Japan, 1980)

In East Germany in 1981 a renegade scientist passes onto the Russians a doomsday virus illegally developed by the US military (the well-meaning but foolhardy intent on its part being to ensure a continued balance of power between the two nations). It isn’t long before disaster strikes and the virus escapes. In Italy the victims of ‘Italian Flu’ begin dying in large numbers. The ‘Flu’ – actually the virus which is capable of mimicking other pathogens and thus impossible to identify – proves unstoppable. Hospitals around the world overflow with sick and dying patients and mass panic erupts. Overwhelmed, the authorities begin burning mounds of corpses in the streets. Meanwhile the US President (Glenn Ford) tries to identify the source of the virus. Is it an enemy attack on the West? A fanatical military general (Henry Silva) believes it is and demands the activation of an automatic nuclear response system but a wily senator (Robert Vaughn) ferrets out the truth. It’s too late though. The virus can’t be stopped and the only survivors are those in Antarctica where the extreme cold renders the inhabitants of scattered research bases immune to the virus.

A wholly undeserved flop on its release Virus remains one of the most memorable entries in the end-of-the-world/post-apocalypse genre. With a large Japanese and American cast – the latter includes Glenn Ford as the US President, Robert Vaughn as a wily senator, George Kennedy as a naval captain, Olivia Hussey as a scientist, Henry Silva as a war mongering general and Chuck Connors as (don’t laugh) a British submarine captain – and location shooting in both the Antarctic, Japan and the US at a reported budget of 16 million dollars (a big sum for a Japanese movie), it’s an impressive production. Virus opens with a British nuclear submarine surveying Tokyo and to the horror of the sub’s sole Japanese occupant Yoshizumi (Kusukari Masao), finding nothing but corpses (the true meaning of this on Yoshizumi will become apparent only much later). The film then flashes back several years to show us how this nightmare came about and director Kinji Fukasaku (a reliable studio director who made his reputation with Yakuza movies but was versatile enough that he could turn his hand to pretty much any genre) depicts the unfolding chaos of the early scenes through a mixture of archive news footage and sharply dramatised scenes set in a Tokyo hospital in which the staff end up completely overwhelmed by the dying. Some of the news footage here is distressingly graphic but the overall effect is undeniable; you really do feel like you’re witnessing total societal collapse. The final scenes between Ford and Vaughn in the Oval Office, both of them wracked by the disease, are really moving. In a last call to scientists, diplomats and military staff in Antarctica, who alone have survived unaffected because the extreme cold inhibits the virus, the dying President begs them to ‘This time, try and work it out together.’

Virus’s first half essentially culminates in a disturbing scene in which a nurse from the Tokyo hospital – who appears to be the only plague survivor in the whole of Japan – understandably embraces suicide so she can be with her partner in death. In a poignant moment the film cuts to her husband, a scientist at an Antarctic research station, who seems to telepathically sense his wife’s desire and before anyone can stop him simply runs out into the cold to die so he can be with her. As melodramatic as that might sound (and it actually isn’t) it’s disturbingly persuasive. Why, after all, would anyone want to stay alive finding themselves in a hellish situation like that? It’s a mark of the film’s integrity that it doesn’t back off from what would be an all too plausible choice for some of those unfortunate enough to have survived the initial disaster. Refocusing on the inhabitants of the Antarctic research stations the film quickly re-establishes a likeable protagonist in Kusakari Masao’s workaholic geologist Yoshizumi and sets up a poignant romantic attraction with Marit (Olivia Hussey), one that can’t be consummated because Yoshizumi is psychologically unable to accept the death of his wife and the accompanying guilt he feels over his couldn’t-care-less attitude to her pregnancy back in Japan (glimpsed in flashback). It’s only on reflection that one realises the emotional significance of that opening scene for Yoshizumi’s character in which he – on board the British sub – sees for himself the cobwebbed skeletons that litter the streets of Tokyo and the reality of his wife and child’s fate finally hits home.

The script by Kiji Takada, Fukasaku and Gregory Knapp and based on Sakyo Komatsu’s novel avoids getting bogged down in soap opera sub plots, preferring instead to examine the challenges presented by attitudes that now seem outdated. Members of a Norwegian base camp shoot each other dead over a pregnant woman whose future seems too bleak to contemplate. The woman, Marit (Olivia Hussey) and her child survive to be rescued by a Japanese expedition. But her arrival immediately raises another issue. With 800 men and just eight women traditional notions of a mate for life are no longer tenable and of necessity the breeding imperative is paramount. In a sober and heartfelt speech one of the women acknowledges the reality of the situation to the dismay of her sisters but wonders whether it is even possible for them to overcome their natural instincts. When the film jumps ahead a year later there’s a charming party scene in which the women are all sitting there with their new babies, the men all suitably attentive toward them (which makes perfect sense because if you think about it if nobody knows who the real fathers are then everybody can feel they have a stake in the future) and the prospects for the colony seem, if not assured, then at least a damn sight brighter than they did a year earlier.

With effective thumbnail sketches of the various nationalities – a sort of mini UN – that exist on the base there’s a particularly good moment early on when the inevitable, childish jostling about who’s in charge in the new world order are abruptly resolved when the virus stricken crew of a Russian sub threaten to make landfall. Their arrival will of course kill everyone. But when a British submarine also turns out to be in the area it’s the Russian representative who ultimately grants the Brit captain (Chuck Connors with an acceptable English accent) permission to ‘Do what you have to.’ The showdown between the two subs is excitingly staged but in that moment you can also sense the old ideological differences between the survivors melt away. Yet the old world casts a long shadow. The biggest challenge turns out to be the prospect of nuclear armageddon from automated American defence systems that will interpret the seismic shock of an upcoming earthquake as a Russian nuclear strike and retaliate unless a team can reach Washington DC and shut down the system that Henry Silva’s mad General activated before his death. It’s a fascinating notion. Humanity may have all but wiped itself out yet the survivors must continue to struggle not just with the new world but the poisonous legacy of the old.

With the survivors having to flee the Antarctic colony because it’s been targeted by the Russians as a military installation, Yoshizumi and a US naval man journey by sub to Washington DC but the quake hits early and the nuclear strike is triggered. As Yoshizumi watches the monitors in the control room relaying images of nuclear silos across North America discharging their deadly cargo he calls the sub commander. In an echo of Glenn Ford’s last words he asks the crew to ‘Please remember .. we tried.’ If Virus were remade today the nuclear holocaust would no doubt be presented with all the digital sound and fury a visual effects house could muster … but you know what – I bet it wouldn’t be half as effective or memorable as those poignant words. In an evocative coda Yoshizumi stumbles through a post-nuclear wasteland to a striking encounter in a South American church where a surreal dialogue ensues with the skeletons of a mother and child who question the extent of Yoshizumi’s commitment to Marit and her baby. Here, in a crucial moment that illustrates how he’s changed, Yoshizumi insists on his love for the pair and reunite with his beloved Marit and a greatly reduced number of survivors he ultimately does. ‘Life is beautiful’ he whispers through cracked lips. Yet far from sounding risible the words seem oddly appropriate for a film that exhibits a touching faith in the ability of human beings to survive no matter how bad things get. Are there any flaws in this epic? Sure, a couple of scenes tip over into melodrama, a few minor performances seem a bit OTT and there’s a bland title ballad as a main theme. But this is all minor stuff and far outweighed by its strengths.