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Yosei Gorasu (Gorath) (1962)

"We have two chances, gentlemen: we must either change this invading sun’s orbit, or - move Earth...."

09.jpg (12318 bytes) Director: Ishiro Honda

Starring: Ryo Ikebe, Akira Kubo, Ken Uehara, Yumi Shirakawa, Kumi Mizuno, Takashi Shimura, Jun Tazaki, Nadao Kirino

Screenplay: Takeshi Kimura

Synopsis: As 1979 draws to a close, the Earth is subjected to violent storms and strange weather patterns, with rising tides causing deep concern in Japan. Satellites indicate a disturbance in the Van Allen belt, while Pluto’s orbit has deviated markedly. Japan’s space-fleet begins to explore the cause of these events, a strange cosmic force code-named "Gorath". The ship JX-1, known as "the Hawk", is sent into space under the control of its captain, Dr Sonoda (Jun Tazaki), and his second-in-command, Dr Manabe (Nadao Kirino). Scientists calculate that Gorath is 6,000 times as large as the Earth. However, the crew of the Hawk is unable to locate it. As they approach the orbit of Saturn, the men make visual contact with their target, discovering to their horror that they are dealing with an object that is only half the size of the Earth, but 6,000 times its mass. A British space ship is caught in Gorath’s massive gravitational pull and destroyed when it crashes into its surface. The Captain orders the Hawk to evacuate the vicinity of Gorath, but it is too late: the Hawk, too, has been caught by Gorath’s pull. Realising that they are doomed, the Hawk’s crew continues collecting and transmitting data to the very last moment…. On Earth, Dr Konno (Ken Uehara) and Dr Tazawa (Ryo Ikebe) of the Astrophysical Committee attempt to make Japan’s politicians understand the threat posed by Gorath, which is on a collision course with Earth. Dr Konno suggests that the Hawk’s sister-ship, the Eagle, be sent into space to gather more data. However, the crew of the Eagle is dismayed and angered when the budget for their mission is denied. Konno and Tazawa call upon Dr Sonoda (Takashi Shimura), the father of the Hawk’s commander and a great scientist and philosopher, to discuss possible ways of saving the planet. Tazawa is attracted to Kiyo (Yumi Shirakawa), the granddaughter of Dr Sonoda. A facetious remark by Kiyo’s younger brother makes Tazawa see that there are only two options for the Earth: either Gorath must be destroyed, or the Earth’s orbit must be altered so that the two do not collide. Konno and Tazawa address the United Nations, convincing the world to unite against the threat from space. The Eagle is given the task of trying to destroy Gorath. Before the ship leaves on its mission, Tatsuo (Akira Kubo), one of its crew, calls upon Ari (Kumi Mizuno), his former fiancÚ with whom he is still in love, and who was engaged to Dr Manabe at the time of his death. Locating Gorath, the crew of the Eagle discovers that it is growing ever larger and more powerful by drawing all matter in its vicinity into itself, and that they cannot destroy it. The fate of the Earth is in the hands of Tazawa, who is heading the team attempting to move the planet by building enormous, powerful jet engines beneath the South Pole.

Comments: Gorath is Japanese science fiction at its most serious. People whose idea of this genre is limited to men in rubber suits stomping on miniatures are likely to get a severe shock from watching this film, which is both uncompromisingly grim and surprisingly uplifting. And it doesn’t even have a monster in it! (Well, it did, but.... Anyway, more on that subject later.)

Like When Worlds Collide (1951), Gorath deals with an imminent threat to the Earth in the shape of a celestial body on a collision course with our planet, and follows the band of scientists who must first convince the world of the reality of the threat, then find a way to avert it. Where Gorath differs from its predecessor - and, indeed, from most of its successors - is in the optimism and generosity with which it works out its storyline. Underlying this film is the belief - naive, perhaps, but rather touching - that when the worst really comes to the worst, the human race will put aside its political, cultural and religious differences and unite - and enthusiastically, at that.

This charitable view of mankind can be found in a number of Japanese science fiction films of this era, although none possess it so blatantly as Gorath; and it makes for a stark contrast with the generally hostile outlook found in most contemporary American and Russian productions. It is not surprising, perhaps, that in 1962 neither of these powers felt inclined to be generous towards the other. However, it is depressing to reflect that seventeen years later, things had changed so little that Meteor could offer the same basic plot as Gorath, but have the world on the very brink of destruction because the Americans and the Russians wouldn’t stop squabbling long enough to do anything about saving it. (Okay, so maybe this is closer to reality….)

The other notable thing about Gorath is that it never falls into the jingoism trap. While Japanese scientists head the rescue effort, there is never any suggestion that only Japan is capable of saving the world, or that the Earth’s salvation can be achieved through anything less than a totally united effort. Even allowing for the positive depiction of science and scientists generally found in Japanese films of this era, Gorath expresses these views to a remarkable degree. During the Earth’s crisis, politicians are given extremely short shrift, shown worrying about budgets instead of the danger, and unable to understand the most fundamental scientific principles (there is an hilarious scene when the Minister of Science tries to explain to his uncomprehending colleagues the difference between size and mass). Even the military is allowed little say in matters. The scientists hold the floor right from the outset, when the Hawk is sent to investigate the cosmic disturbance.

The wholly unexpected destruction of the ship and its crew starts Gorath on an unusually grim note. When it becomes apparent that the mission is doomed, the men commit themselves to transmitting data right to the last moment. (In fairness, I should point out that Captain Sonoda tells his men that, while they are scientists, they must "die like soldiers".)

The mission then passes into the hands of Dr Konno and, particularly, Dr Tazawa, who turns out to be the film’s real hero. The definition of heroism takes on an interesting shading here, since Tazawa’s contribution is almost entirely cerebral. It is he who conceives of the possibility of moving the Earth; he who must convince the United Nations of the feasibility of the plan; and he who heads the Antarctic project. Placed in contrast to Tazawa is Tatsuo, the closest Gorath gets to a conventional cinematic hero. As played by Akira Kubo, Tatsuo is supremely annoying right from the outset, when he offers the suggestion that his ex-girlfriend broke off their relationship for monetary reasons. (May I take a moment to point out that the notion that someone might marry a scientist for his money is without doubt the most unbelievable thing in the whole movie!?) Later, Tatsuo is seen clowning during space training before hijacking a helicopter. His final action before going into space is to force his way into Ari’s apartment and throw the photograph of her dead fiancÚ off the balcony. Now, as you can tell from this synopsis, Tatsuo bears a strong resemblance to many a science fiction or action film protagonist, the apparent jerk who will nevertheless prove himself a hero when the chips are down (did someone say Top Gun?). But Tatsuo never gets the chance to be a hero. His mission in the Eagle is a failure. (I really do have to lodge a protest here and say that I do not believe for one second that the Japanese space ships were actually called "Hawk" and "Eagle"!) Having conceded that there is no way of destroying Gorath, Tatsuo ventures too close to the deadly celestial body and suffers the consequences, lapsing into a state helpfully defined by his best friend as "amnesia – possibly brain damage!" (Tatsuo’s behaviour has been so irritating that this spell of catatonia comes as a welcome relief!)

The possibility of destroying Gorath dismissed, it is up to Tazawa to save the world, which he does with a minimum of fuss. The special effects in Gorath are, as usual, a mixed bag. The space sequences are fairly well done, particularly the scenes of Gorath moving inexorably through space and absorbing all matter into itself. The moment when Gorath draws away Saturn’s rings is quite disturbing. The depiction of the damage done to the Earth by Gorath’s passing also varies in quality. The initial scene of a train being swept away by rising waters is convincing, but in other shots the model work is painfully obvious (little plastic machines are one thing; little plastic people are another!).

During the making of Gorath, the studio (in an action worthy of AIP) insisted that the film must have a monster. The building of the jet engines at the South Pole is therefore halted by the sudden appearance of a giant walrus! This critter, named "Magma", has been excised from all American prints of Gorath. However, scenes of a helicopter attack on the monster have, oddly, been left intact, severely disrupting the flow of the climactic sequence. (Much as I love monsters, and would dearly love to see an uncut print, for once I would have to agree with the US tampering: this simply isn’t a monster movie!)

The performances in Gorath are uneven, a fact not helped by some awkward dubbing. Ultimately, most of the better performances come in the smaller roles, notably from Jun Tazaki as the ill-fated Captain Sonoda. There are also welcome appearances by Takashi Shimura and – in a role that is far, far too brief – Akihiko Hirata, who played the heroic Dr Serizawa in Godzilla (1954). Gorath’s screenplay could also have been better. It too often strays into soap-like melodrama instead of staying with the central crisis. Indeed, the film as a whole would have been better off without the Tatsuo-Ari subplot, which contributes nothing. Still, I find myself quite taken by Gorath’s suggestion of what constitutes female social success. As with the contrasting of Tazawa and Tatsuo, the film also holds up Kiyo Sonoda and her friend Ari for comparison. At the outset, Ari is unrepentant about breaking off her engagement to Tatsuo, and congratulates herself on bagging a scientist. However, Ari has made the mistake of bagging a scientist who is "also a soldier", and after Manabe’s tragic death has little option but to return to Tatsuo. Kiyo, on the other hand, has her sights set firmly on the unshakeably earthbound Tazawa; and the script leaves no doubt that Kiyo has made the right choice. Just one of the highlights of this flawed but thoroughly interesting film is the sight of a scientist being held up as the ultimate marital goal; something that gives a whole new meaning to the expression science fiction.