25 Minutes with "Negadon" Beats Two Hours With a Green Ogre
The tone for Negadon: The Monster From Mars is set early, when the words “Showa 100” (indicating the year 2025) flash across the screen. The Japanese number their years according to the current emperor’s reign. We’re now in the Heisei era, but the reign of Emperor Hirohito, which encompassed the years 1926 to 1989, was marked by the era name “Showa.” It just so happens that Showa was also the golden age of tokusatsu eiga, or “special effects film,” the Japanese monster movie genre typified by the Godzilla and Ultraman series. In the world of Negadon, this era has continued into the present and the future—a clever way of placing this labor of love among its forebears.
If you knew all that already, you’ll get a huge kick out of what’s to come. Otherwise, the title card is going to fly over your head, like so much else in this meticulous homage to classic Japanese camp.
The typical American’s mental image of Godzilla involves Raymond Burr’s buzzing baritone and giggles at those wacky Japanese, but the original Godzilla actually had very serious thematic ambitions, caught up as it was with the Japanese people’s contradictory, overwhelming feelings of guilt and victimhood in the aftermath of World War II, alongside global ambivalence toward the atomic age, military technology, and the United States. The tortured scientist Daisuke Serizawa holds the key to killing Godzilla, but fears that this new weapon will only lead to human suffering on an even greater scale. Meanwhile, the giant beast ravages the still-rebuilding Tokyo. In one shot, a mother holds her children close under a collapsing building and comforts them by saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll be with daddy soon.” It’s embarrassing to compare a film that can be so heartbreaking to its American remake.
Those interested in seeing the original are in luck: It recently became available on DVD in the U.S. for the first time ever.
Like Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla, Negadon‘s Dr. Narasaki has a spotty relationship with his invention, the Miroku, a giant combat robot whose construction led to the death of his daughter. (Both are also missing an eye – yet another of those little touches that make Negadon so delightful.) And like in Godzilla, a new technology—in this case the attempt to explore and terraform Mars—has unleashed nature’s vengeance upon the human race, in the form of a flying monster.
But Negadon does not pretend to be an earnest continuation of the social and political themes that Godzilla raised (for that, check out last year’s stunning Korean monster flick The Host). This is just a 25-minute CGI love letter from a group of Japanese animators to their sweaty, rubbery idols, and if you’ve seen enough kaiju, you’ll want to join in.
As you can tell from a glance at the poster, director Jun Awazu and his crew have made every effort to simulate as closely as possible the retro tone of Showa-era kaiju, with period clothing, deliberately flimsy-looking spaceship models, and lots of flashing lights and tube monitors. They’ve even done their best to “age” the film through atmospheric effects and layers of virtual grain and grit. What results is a very compelling visual experience (one that’s naturally explained by Jun himself in a DVD extra).
The Negadon is sufficiently menacing, but the Miroku robot itself ends up the star with its rusty plate armor and fantastic drill weapons. I always found drill weapons by far the most satisfying (if impractical) things one could put on a robot—they throw up huge amounts of sparks, glance off objects very dramatically and when they find their targets they completely tear them apart.
If you’re obsessed by this genre you’ll already be getting a great experience, but if you’re not, Central Park has provided a crutch in the form of liner notes that play along with the feature, letting you in on a few of the kaiju in-jokes you might have missed. Also included are two of the shorts that preceded Negadon and a fascinating look at how the film’s visuals were put together. It may get old for some, but I simply never get tired of watching the deconstruction and reconstruction of CGI in action.
Negadon may be short, but a lot more heart went into this film than went into some of our full-length summer sequels-upon-sequels. And it’s only $19.95! You’ve got to be a crazed space monster with lasers for eyes to not see that value.