In regards to one opinion on the late Japanese special effects director Koichi Kawakita there is no disagreement: he was a man of repetition. He started directing effects for television and feature-length motion pictures in the early-to-mid 1970s and following the departure of Teruyoshi Nakano about a decade later became Toho’s go-to man for visual effects. It did not take him long to adequately declare his style. A style that continues to draw a fair amount of criticism. Simply put: some feel Kawakita was too redundant in the way he would stage and dramatize effects sequences.
It’s a fair criticism. No matter my personal affection for the man’s work, I will not deny Kawakita liked to fall back on the same tricks again and again. The depiction of giant monsters who, for the most part, discarded physical combat in favor of constantly spraying animated rays at one another—beam wars—did feel superfluous toward the end of the Heisei series. And as much as it played into the fantasy element, one does wonder if the effects team was capable of dramatizing a film without one or more of the monsters changing shape and form: something that happened, without exception, in all six of Kawakita’s Godzilla movies as well as the first two Rebirth of Mothra films. (The trend continued in 1998’s Rebirth of Mothra III under the care of former assistant Kenji Suzuki.)
I will concede Kawakita was repetitive to a fault. However, there were instances in his films where I’d argue returning to familiar territory was not only welcome but, in a sense, justified. For Kawakita had the capacity to improve his technique with practice. Sometimes a second attempt at a particular effects trick or scenario would completely dominate and make up for a disappointing first try.
Sometimes being repetitive paid off.
1. Volcanic Eruptions
Godzilla’s grand appearance out of an erupting volcano in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) is a prime example. The pyrotechnics in this scene are efficient but could have done more. The eruption, which is supposed to have been set off by terrorist-planted explosives, produces little more than sparks and a couple localized columns of flame. (Teruyoshi Nakano would have insisted on more dynamic explosions and lighting.) As is, much of the scene’s effectiveness stems from the impressive appearance and filming of the monster costume in action, aided by the inclusion of Akira Ifukube‘s classic Godzilla theme on the soundtrack. It is a very good sequence overall, but one which probably should have upped the spectacle.
A great display of special effects, one that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Kawakita’s second chance came three years later with Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), and this time he did not disappoint. Seen on the above image on the right, the mid-movie eruption, with Godzilla emerging from the famous Mount Fuji, is a masterful tour de force of camerawork, lighting, and pyrotechnics. All coming together and forming a genuine highlight. By staging the scene at night (as opposed to its daytime counterpart in Godzilla vs. Biollante), Kawakita could take full advantage of dynamic, colorful lights. The crimson glow cast upon—sometimes silhouetting—Godzilla makes for sheer eye candy that would not have been possible under a sunny sky. Compositional tricks come into play as well. At key points, the camera shakes—not to distort the imagery but to enhance the illusion of the earth undergoing a tumultuous eruption. And the combination of explosions, smoke, and fountains of sparks outshine any previous volcano-set scene in the franchise; the brilliant touch of electrical disturbances (a phenomenon caused by volcanic activity in real life) makes the scene even more amazing to behold. There also comes a shot in which Kawakita succeeds where many other special effects directors have struggled: filming the Godzilla costume from a high angle without losing the sense of scale.
2. Godzilla’s Nuclear Pulse
This second point concerns not so much the physical (or optical) execution of special effects but rather the editing of them. Editing is an absolutely fundamental part of filmmaking, so I feel it is very much worth drawing attention to. Let’s consider another first attempt in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). It is during the final battle of this film that we are introduced to Godzilla’s nuclear pulse: when the monster attempts to charge his atomic breath as something wraps around his neck or torso and he discharges all the energy outward from his body in the form of a shock wave, devastating anything within close proximity. It’s a brilliant concept and something new for the monster’s arsenal. It’s also plausible, in the parameters of this universe, that something preventing Godzilla from discharging his heat-ray would result in a chain reaction.
However, in Godzilla vs. Biollante, the editing of this special effect feels rushed and incomplete. All due to a single truncated shot. The key shot of one of Biollante’s tendrils constricting around Godzilla’s torso cuts off much too early for its own good. And the good of what happens next. Had the camera been allowed to linger long enough for us to see the tendril complete its motion and tighten its grip around Godzilla’s body (giving us some visual emphasis), the illusion would have been better sustained. But since the most important shot ends before it can really make its point, it all comes across more as a clumsy moment than a breathtaking battle technique.
But Kawakita learned from his mistake and made sure not to repeat it when he returned to the nuclear pulse in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). During the first battle sequence, a fallen King Ghidorah lunges up from the ground, collides head-on into a perplexed Godzilla, and coils his middle neck around the adversary’s neck like a giant golden python. Godzilla writhes his head about and futilely claws at Ghidorah in wide shots, unable to break free. A little later, foam starts bubbling from his maw, accompanied by agonized gurgles. The extended amount of time spent on this buildup and the brilliant use of Foley allows the audience to viscerally feel and understand that Godzilla is unable to breathe or use his heat ray.
What’s more: by drawing things out, Kawakita builds suspense. For the second time in the course of this battle, Godzilla appears to be on the losing end. And it is therefore all the more spectacular—and dramatic—when Godzilla’s body starts emitting patches of blue light and the shock wave casts outward, tearing King Ghidorah away and hurling the dragon-like monster onto its back with a thunderous crash. The payoff is heightened thanks to the tension.
In future entries, Kawakita employed the nuclear pulse mostly for aesthetics. (Godzilla used it without something cutting off his energy charge; although it could be argued the regular use of the nuclear pulse in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) reflects his constantly increasing power.) Nonetheless, in Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, Kawakita makes sure the shock waves occur in well-paced and unobstructed wide shots so that the audience is not left scratching their heads, wondering what just happened.
Very much like the films they appeared in, Kawakita’s effects are often credited with eradicating monster anthropomorphization: no longer did the skyscraper-sized beasts toss rocks at each other, perform bounding dances of victory, homage Yuzo Kayama with nose-scratches, etc. Kawakita’s 90s effects helped prove Japanese monsters could be straight-forward again; they also proved, however, that improvements in technology did not always yield improvements in believability.
As certain effects in Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) vividly demonstrated.
The Mothra larvae in the 1992 box office smash leaves a lot to be desired. Despite retaining a segmented exoskeleton, the creature, when in motion, mostly slides across the ground rather than undulating the various parts of its body like a real caterpillar would. There is very little sense of it moving under its own power. (Too many close-ups revealing its completely inert legs only amplify the damage.) There is some mobility in the head while it “crawls,” but not enough to 1) maintain the illusion and 2) believably match the speed at which the model is moving. And this is a significant downgrade considering the degree of fluctuating movement Eiji Tsuburaya and Sadamasa Arikawa evoked from their Mothra larvae all through the 1960s. In spite of the resources, Kawakita’s attempt was a step down.
That is, until he took another stab at the character.
For the prop utilized in the first Rebirth of Mothra (1996) is not only a vast upgrade; it is arguably the best depiction of Mothra’s infant stage to date. Equipped with far superior capacities for movement, the prop undulates in a completely smooth and lifelike manner that surpasses even the work of Tsuburaya. A nice touch: as the larvae crawls, the rounded segments of its exoskeleton separate very slightly, organic tissue underneath.
Kawakita further redeems himself by pulling off other complicated tricks. At one point in the mid-movie battle with Desghidorah, the larvae is hurled against the ground, lands partially on its side, rights itself, and proceeds to crawl for cover. The performance is superb, conveying intelligence and survival instincts; and each movement—the fall, the regaining of balance, the escape—is carried out immaculately. Kawakita has once again proven his ability to improve with a second try.
The same can be said to a somewhat lesser degree about his adult Mothra puppetry. Kawakita never fully mastered winged monsters; although, to his credit, very few special effects directors since the Tsuburaya years have been able to pull off this illusion in a convincing manner; and the imago Mothra in Godzilla vs. Mothra suffered similar problems as its larval stage. Stiff movement. The wings rarely flapped enough to make the audience believe it could really fly, and until the end of the final battle, its six legs did nothing more than hang in a fixed position from the body. Another significant downgrade, performance-wise, from Eiji Tsuburaya’s absolutely masterful work several decades prior.
However, returning to Rebirth of Mothra, even though Kawakita still failed to match his former master, he did display some moments of personal growth. There are numerous shots of Mothra flying in which her legs are flexing—helping convey the impression this is, in fact, a living creature. Excellent close-ups of the head, antennae constantly twitching, enhance the realism even further. And even though the giant insect’s wings still move a little too stiffly, a boost in creativity shines in the wirework. In one beautifully composed wide shot, Mothra is hit by one of Desghidorah’s energy bolts, and the puppet visibly jitters, struggling to stay in the air. This too is an improvement over Kawakita’s previous adaptation of the character, who seemed to take every ray fired by Godzilla and Battra without much of a physical reaction.
And then comes one of the milestones in Kawakita’s career—in which his best Mothra larvae prop and his best Mothra imago prop were both used to their utmost potential.
Unable to defeat Desghidorah, the dying adult Mothra plucks her offspring from the ground and carries it to safety out in the middle of the ocean before losing her stamina and crashing into the water, where she eventually drowns. The special effects director’s ability to generate a performance out of inanimate objects comes through in this highly emotional sequence. As she gradually loses her ability to stay airborne, the adult Mothra reels back and forth. She allows her child to land in the water, knowing it can swim, and tries again to keep herself in the air—to no avail. After its mother crashes into the sea, the larvae rushes to her aid. Mothra tries again and again to rise up, the water weighing her down and plunging her deeper; the larvae frantically tries to support her. Eventually, Mothra’s exhaustion, old age, and injuries prove too much; and her lifeless form sounds into the depths. The devastating emotional impact triumphs due to the sublime coordination and performance of the special effects. Kawakita improved his technique and, more importantly, he instilled his creations with personality, with life, with feeling, and evoked an empathetic reaction from the audience.
And that in and of itself is a true accomplishment.