The Deal with GUNHED

GUNHED is pretty bad. Thus, this review of the film will be written in such a manner.

One can think of it as this: director Masato Harada is going through the news and Koichi Kawakita is talking about what is probably his greatest work: Gunhed. Harada would think, "Shut up Kawakita". Except for the production designer Fumio Ogawa, composers Toshiyuki Honda and Takayuki Baba, and special effects director Kawakita, Gunhed is probably a stain on the resumes of those who worked on it. It is an oddity of the type one rarely sees. A blunder which will make people critical of films like GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS think twice about what is an actually bad Toho film.

It seems GUNHED was to be released internationally in theatres.* We have some characters speaking fluent English, including Brenda Bakke from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and a black guy who falls under the stereotype that the black guy gets killed first. Turns out, GUNHED was based on one of the stories turned into Toho’s GODZILLA 2 contest. It seems there were three winners. You have Shinichiro Kobayashi, whose script lead to GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE. Then there is Guy Tucker who was unaccredited for the creation of Miki Saegusa and would go on to have elements used in future Godzilla films (a la the intro to GODZILLA VS. DESTROYAH). Finally, there is Jim Bannon. His script was turned into GUNHED. This is what his original script was basically:


What we got was Gunhed, directed by Alan Smithee (I thought that the use of that pseudonym was an American tradition). Alan Smithee is actually Masato Harada… which if you keep with credits, Harada is a Japanese Academy Award nominated director who we Americans most likely know as… the main antagonist from THE LAST SAMURAI with Tom Cruise (?). Guess there has been odder stuff out there.

The story of GUNHED goes something like this: In the year 2005, a whole island was used for the building of a super computer. Being used to make robots, the system KYRON 5 (Vista model) decides that humans are unnecessary a la TERMINATOR. Instead of risking war on a global scale, they fight the computer on its own island. What better to fight off robots than with more robots. Humanity brings in GUNHEDS, which are not too unlike Gundams or as some internet bloggers have likened too, Transforming tanks. Kyron 5 fights them off with biobots, which are robots made from humans put in a green liquid, and the Aerobot, which is a gargantuan leviathan of a robot. These little Gunheds are like David against the Aerobot Goliath. Two big outreaching claws and three "eyes" which shoot out explosive lasers. Even more ballsy, the Aerobot doesn’t even care about breaking through the compound’s walls and pipes (this island’s structure is like the Dante’s inferno of robot cities) just to get to it’s target. It is a truly bad ass robot. Long story short, the Gunheds were effective enough to make ongoing fighting of Kyron 5 unnecessary. These people nipped that Judgment Day in the bud.

Back in the outside world though, computer parts become scarce enough that they are more valuable than gold. Enter our heroes. Flying aboard the Marry Ann (might make you think of COWBOY BEBOP in passing. If anything, it will make you think of Lone Star‘s ride from SPACEBALLS), you have a bunch of bandits who scavenge to sell on the black market. You have the black guy, an Asian chick who can speak English, two Japanese guys who are going to get killed just as easily as the two aforementioned members, Bebe, and our main protagonist, Brooklyn. As in Brooklyn Dodgers. He wears a Dodgers uniform under his clothes (yet his character claims he doesn’t know what it means).

The bandits fly down to the island to grave rob the Gunheds (which, at least the one Brooklyn revives latter on in the film, have a real personality to them, so it is pretty bad). Already, they are off to a bad start. Not only will exploring for severed Gunhed parts going to be difficult, but they see that there is a (Walker) Texas Ranger Helicopter smoldering in the background. Something’s up.

As the Bandits go through the 200+ levels of the compound, they find some interesting things. Such as an advanced Pepsi dispenser. They also find a surviving member of the Texas Rangers helicopter, Nin (the Star Trek chick). Together, they go looking around. The bandits find what they want, but along the way they end up wanting what Nin was sent to the island to get, a vile of Texmexium (yes, ridiculous I know). Turns out, Texmexium has taken over Nuclear capabilities as the ultimate power source (imagine if Godzilla had some of what those super computers were smoking).

It seems as if the Kyron 5 system is still alive enough though. Out of the blue, a biobot knocks Bebe into a vat of green stuff which in turn turns her into a biobot (SUPERMAN 3 anyone?) who is out for one thing: the vile of Texmexium our heroes have. With the Texmexium, Kyron 5 will be back to being fully operational and after a hopeful clean up of the island, will start to rage war on humanity. I could stop now, but there is one other thing which needs to be mentioned in this summary - on the way, Nin and Brooklyn run into two kids - Seven and Eleven. 711. A gas station reference. God.

Manga by Kia Asamia

C’mon man… there is more cheese, but you’ll have to buy the film to experience it.

The direction on the human side of things is nothing spectacular. The writing is full of cheese. The editing (as many internet bloggers have attested to) is of the caliber that should have been bestowed onto Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM. Yet the SFX, the production design, and the score help. The film has a definite feel to it. Atmosphere of the type is something not easy to achieve (the opening sequence is really good at this). There is a feeling that you are watching a live action anime (not to make someone think of the craptacular G-SAVIOR). That helps. In fact, it might answer for some of the film’s oddities (such as Seven’s random mannerisms).

The important question is how could things like this get so messed up? Like said, the script was cannibalized into something else. What elements were added to the film? Midnight Eye interviewed director Harada and an interesting bit of information came up: "At one point, I wanted to do a sort of remake of SAHARA with Humphrey Bogart, and that kind of story was incorporated into the Gunhed story." Those who want to make comparisons can read what this page has http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahara_(1943_film)

On top of that, Harada seemed to have already known that Japanese post-production services sucked (At the time). In fact, Harada did some interesting stuff with this information, using it to involve an American company. "So I need the Lucasfilm people to work on the Gunhed sound effects. They agreed with that, so we went to the Skywalker Ranch, near San Francisco, and I had really nice discussions with the staff there. I had already designed all the different sound effects, like one hundred different tones, 10 different sounds for Gunhed alone." Then Toho comes into the picture. "…Toho, when we talked about the budgeting, just cut the post-production part. So although that was a basic condition between me and the producers, they just totally ignored it. And then I had to compromise with the sound people in Japan. So certain things I was promised didn't show up…"

But of course, the editing is something which we have to come back to. It’s been an American tradition that the director sits with the editor to edit the film together. Isn’t that the way it is in Japan? If not, it damn well should be, because director Harada seems to have a good head on his shoulders, he was just fucked with a good bit. Editing for GUNHED was done by Yoshitami Kuroiwa (probably doesn’t help to note that the first name has the word "shit" in it). GUNHED is plagued with bad editing. That is something which is not debatable. What is debatable though is weather this was the work of a bad editor or if it was an age thing. For my money, it is the latter. Looking up resumes, Kuroiwa - as it turns out - was a major editor. THE RETURN OF GODZILLA and BYE BYE JUPITER are little in comparison to titles like SWOD OF DOOM and KILL (both of which got Criterion releases). GUNHED was made the 55th year of Yoshitami’s being in the industry. He made his bones early on in the late 50’s and all through the 60’s. Either age was getting to him or Toho’s system changed or he didn’t have director Harada sit down with him. Point being, this is not the work of a bad editor.

On the thespian side of things, only one thing can be said: If acting was a priority in this film, then it would only be a priority to two people - Masahiro Takashima and Brenda Bakke/ Masahiro Takashima does a straight foreword job with his role. It is totally believable and isn't as bad as his Japanese or Asian co-starts. Brenda Bakke is an interesting actress though. She plays it all cool, calm, and collective. The fact she does it as much as she does makes it seem as if she is over-doing it. It works in some cases, but not all cases.

Now we can start talking about the good things with this film. Upfront is the soundtrack. Though called repetitive and such, it has a distinct Japanese feel to it. Synth heavy, the work by Toshiyuki Honda and Takayuki Baba gets certain moods out which help compliment the film quite well. Such as the main theme (the video above). It mixes the obligatory techno-feel that the soundtrack should have (due to what the film is about), but other beats in the piece help give the film the general feeling of a technological jungle (which Island 8J0 is).

The production design is the best aspect of the film. For $10 million, Fumio Ogawa really pulls it off. Except for some shots durring the main battle, the matting is great. Especially when paintings are used (hence why they are great in comparison to the aforementioned battle shots - paintings don’t move). Another simplistic effect are the wire frames. Considering this came out the same year as GODZILLA VS. BIOLANTE (which used wire frames for some of the pre-battle sequences), GUNHED blows the kaiju film away. Of course, they would be CG enhanced with Kawakita’s Japanese Academy Award winning GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH, but this is really a great exhibition of such a technique. There is even use of CG in the film which, considering the Godzilla series’ progression under Kawakita, was a surprise. A floating mine attracted to human voices featured in the film are rendered in CG are good looking. Why the wait till GODZILLA VS. DESTORYAH for some proper use of CG (this is not including things which can be interpreted as computer simulations a la some shots of SPACEGODZILLA and MECHAGODZILLA) via helicopters? Heck, if the CG used here was of the same quality as the alternate version of Mothra’s wing unfolding, I’ say Kawakita should have kept the shot. Not to mention that the Godzilla films had bigger budgets than this film.

Of course, Kawakita isn’t known for his matting shots and his wire frames. He is known for his in camera work. There is no suits, but rather models. But what models. The large canvas the matte paintings serve to illustrate the island with is replicated with models quite nicely. Of course, it is a no-brainer that the most famous aspect of the film - the 1:1 scale models of the Gunhed and Aerobot (made of fiberglass) - help a lot. Of course, these seem to be used only in close up shots (this is not a Ridley Scott film) and there are models (much smaller I’d assume) which do most of the job. But, when it comes to "most of the job" the models here succeed. Maybe because these mechanical monsters are much closer to the size of a human than Godzilla is or that these mechanical structures are more reality-based, but the effects like the Gunhed’s triple-barreled Gatling gun’s effect is one which the viewer would thin "I bed it’ll resemble the effect tanks have on Godzilla, tanks shooting flares". While it is the case, it is much improved thanks to the scale. Of course, of note is the intro to the film, which combines all of the above along with a nice clouds ‘n thunder shot. This really was Kawakita’s masterpiece. If one was to see this via the R2 DVD, one could argue that this should have been the film Kawakita was to have gotten a Japanese Academy Award for. It should also be noted that this film is a favorite of James Cameron. Any Terminator comparisons are warranted, but take note that the AMP suits in Avatar look a good bit like Gunheds.

In the end, GUNHED is just Toho’s equivalent of a Michael Bay film. Great visuals, crappy execution of the story. At least GUNHED has a cool story which deserves to be revisited (especially in this post-Matrix world). As for why the story is executed so poorly, it is all in the post production. It seems Toho just did not give a damn. Maybe because of changes within the entertainment industry at the time, things were being changed around and GUNHED was a victim of it. Maybe Toho is just poor that way. To note, turns out Kadokawa (who would buy out Daiei a decade plus some later) co-produced the film. Could this be a reason why a GODZILLA VS. GAMERA would not happen (speaking on a business level)? With Toho’s crooked way of doing things, I wouldn’t doubt it. I’m just happy that the score, along with some aspects of the film at least make the film undeniably Japanese (making it seem as if we follow one specific Gunhed the whole film through, and that Gunhed seems to have a kami, along with a very Japanese-felt soundtrack).

*Why I say that GUNHED was aimed for international distribution and that such things as the inclusion of an American actress is not something that was a limitation of the script - Toho could have changed that.

http://www.youtube.com/user/Gunhed2039 http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/masato_harada.shtml

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