For some younger DAILY GRINDHOUSE readers, MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 provided kids around the world with their first glimpse of Godzilla and Gamera. Who better to talk to about giant Japanese monsters than Tom Servo himself, Kevin Murphy. Murphy, Bill Corbett and Mike Nelson still take on kaiju flicks as part of RIFFTRAX and took MOTHRA to task just last month. Assistant editor Mike Vanderbilt spoke with Murphy about his favorite monsters, licensing hang-ups, and why kaiju movies are prime for maximum riffage.
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: What do you think made the kaiju genre so perfect for MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 and RIFFTRAX?
KEVIN MURPHY: One of the things that we look for are stories and movies take their subjects very, very seriously. A lot of these kaiju movies seem to take themselves dreadfully seriously. They build all this drama around the inevitable fact that a giant monster is going to invade some major metropolitan area of Japan yet children are always involved in every level of government, security, and defense in little shorts and baseball caps. It’s those odd little twists and they’re not dealt with any irony or comic sense.
The key is that these movies are very earnest. They really want you to believe with all their hearts—even with the cheesy effects—in the sense of drama and it never works. We enjoy it because it’s so goofy.
With the first GODZILLA movie, you can see how at the time, it was about an atomic mutation, and how it’s going to be a horrible problem and we have to pay the piper. After that one, they started getting silly almost immediately. Same thing with Gamera, same thing with Mothra. They don’t take long to go off the rails. And then when Godzilla’s son comes along, it’s like, now you’re not even taking yourselves seriously. You’re just appealing to the kids.
DG: When did you find out they were called “kaiju?” Growing up, they were always just giant Japanese monsters to me.
KM: I only heard kaiju a couple years ago; I didn’t know it was a thing. I think when I saw BIG MAN JAPAN I started hearing the term kaiju being thrown around. Suddenly, this thing became an object of pure satire with that movie. I actually quite enjoyed BIG MAN JAPAN. It’s wonderful and just so bizarre. It captures the spirit of those movies very well, but in a very winking way.
DG: I always feel like there’s never enough of the big monster in these big monster movies, for my tastes. There are too many kids in government meetings and so much melodrama. You guys just did MOTHRA for RIFFTRAX recently.
KM: Mothra shows up in worm form pretty early on and then you don’t actually see the damn moth until the last ten minutes of the film. But if you think of something like ALIEN, which is one of my favorite scary movies, it’s pure suspense and they hold off showing the full monster until the very end, and even then its very brief. In that sense, its what you don’t see that scares the hell out of you. I don’t think that same theory holds up for kaiju movies.
DG: Was there a reason why you went with MOTHRA for RIFFTRAX
KM: Sometimes we do things because they’re available and MOTHRA was on the list. We thought, “Well, on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER we touched on Godzilla and Gamera and thought Mothra would be a nice fit. Mothra is a weird character because she goes in and devastates the place, but he’s got supporters. The reporters and the scientist just think Mothra’s just misunderstood. She’s coming back to claim the tiny women who sing, that’s the reason she’s there. It’s not willful destruction of Japan; she’s taking a defensive stance here. We have to lighten up. Let her destroy New Kirk City—I always thought of NEW JACK CITY—she’s just doing what she does. Give her back her singing maidens and she’ll be fine. At the end one of the reporters says, “Come back and visit us again.” I’m thinking everyone else in the whole country is saying, “no, no, please.”
DG: You guys did a lot of GAMERA movies on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER…
KM: Gamera was fun for us. He starts out in the first movie like Godzilla as a horrible menace, a catastrophe in turtle form that’s going to decimate Japan. Then, he becomes the friend of children and he’s actually helpful to Japan after wreaking havoc and destroying the place. He becomes a sort of superhero character, different from all the other monsters that are coming out of the ocean, from the mountains, or from the skies. It was a weird transition for Gamera.
DG: One of the oft-forgotten kaiju movies you did on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 was GORGO.
KM: That was an English film, I believe.
DG: Where does Gorgo rank against Godzilla and Gamera?
KM: I thought Gorgo was lower tier. The Japanese films never try to scientifically rationalize these monsters, they just are. It’s due to the atomic bomb, so deal with it. With GORGO, the cultural leap does not happen. There’s a cognitive dissonance going on. This monster doesn’t belong in Piccadilly; this monster belongs on Tokyo Tower. It just seemed displaced.
DG: GORGO was almost a lost episode. You guys lost the rights to the film after it aired twice. Do you have any insight into that situation?
KM: With MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 as well as with RIFFTRAX, we have to do everything we can to make sure the rights to these things are available or that they’re public domain. What happens with some of these films, it might be the case with GORGO, Comedy Central used to clear the rights for us, and they may not have been able to find the owner of the thing. You can do a lot of research, spend a lot of money and find out that nobody actually owns this thing. Something happened and it turned out that someone else had the rights and probably didn’t want us to have them.
DG: Sandy Frank took you guys to task a bit, didn’t he?
KM: Famously so.
DG: TIME OF THE APES is one of my favorite episodes and that one wasn’t legally available on home video for sometime. I think SHOUT! FACTORY has that one out now though. Did Sandy Frank finally let up on that?
KM: I think the folks at SHOUT! did some magic. They spent a whole lot of time researching, re-negotiating, and relicensing a lot of the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER titles. Someone worked some magic or Sandy Frank became too old to care. They’ve done a terrific job packaging the MST3K stuff.
DG: Who is your favorite Japanese monster?
KM: Gamera. He’s so limited. He can fly, but he really can’t move very well. He’s the friend of children so that assures there’s going to be some kids who can just walk into the Japanese Defense Ministry and insist that Gamera is friend of children and so we need to support him in every way. I love that aspect of these films.
DG: Are there any kaiju that you just can’t stand for one reason or another?
KM: Guiron, who’s head is a big sharp knife, like a big kitchen knife. Barugon was the most boring. I think he shot flames, just sort of boring in that world. I always figured with that name he was part of LORD OF THE RINGS.
DG: RIFFTRAX is doing CARNIVAL OF SOULS this Halloween. Mike Nelson hates that movie, eh?
KM: I think that movie is ideal for us. The thing that’s fun about it is that none of us think much about the film itself, but the film community itself; there are certain pockets that think it’s a work of genius. We glibly stomp on it, but here’s the thing. For people that love the film. We didn’t break it. You can still go out and buy it. You can even get a very nice version of it from Criterion.
Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett will be making fun of CARNIVAL OF SOULS live on October 27th with an encore on Halloween night, October 31st. Tickets can be purchased through Fandango.