It’s literally been years since the last good kaiju film. I’m not one of those who counts Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) as one of them, so don’t get me started on that bloated piece of poop. Somehow though, the subgenre lives on albeit in different (and high budgeted) forms. There was Hitoshi Matsumoto’s meta-kaiju film Big Man Japan (2007), Bong Joon-Ho’s monster hit (pun intended) The Host (2006), not to mention Hollywood’s yuppie stomp flick, Cloverfield (2008). But, as far as pure old-school kaiju fun goes, fans have been forced to be more excited about throwbacks such as the moptopped Long Haired Giant Monster Gehara (2009), the Guilala retread, Monster X Strikes Back: Attack of the G8 Summit (2008), and even old man Godzilla’s cameo in Toho-produced Always: Sunset on Third Street 2 (2007) than the the latest kaiju iterations. Death Kappa, a 2009 film directed by Tomoo Haraguchi, is another entry into this cycle.
The film is not just a nostalgic throwback, though. Coming from the producers of The Machine Girl (2008) and Tokyo Gore Police (2008), Death Kappa also has plenty of new-school crass absurdity mixed with its old school kaiju sensibilities. Kanako (Misato Hirata) is a young woman returning to her hometown after her failed stint as a J-Pop idol in the big city. Cut to Kanako’s grandmother who is run down by a carful of delinquents. With her dying breath, the old lady tells Kanako that she must protect the ancient kappa, a water goblin whose shrine the old lady has tended to for a long time. The kappa then comes to life and, at first, all is fine. However, the kappa and Kanako are both then kidnapped by an evil nationalistic paramilitary group whose mad scientist leader wants to use the kappa‘s DNA to make an army of super soldiers who they will use to restore Japan as military power. In the process of attempting escape, an atomic explosion occurs causing the kappa and a giant, surprise, Godzilla-like creature to grow to epic-size proportions. From there, the kappa must protect the town from the giant lizard in a duel to the death.
If the synopsis to the film sounds pretty nonsensical, it is. Not only is it nonsense, though, it’s all held together by the barest of threads. The subplot involving the military group, for example, feels all but forgotten once the kaiju action starts, giving the impression that the script was written on the spot or, even more likely, at drinking parties after each day of shooting. Even worse than the story, though, is the humor. Screenwriter Masakazu Migita (Monster X Strikes Back: Attack of the G8 Summit, Executive Koala, 2005) takes the quantity over quality approach to the humor, with numerous repeating and one-off sight gags. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem with the right rhythm and pacing, but that’s not the case with Death Kappa. The humor is so groan-inducingly bad and so desperate to be “wacky” and “crazy” that the film’s relatively short 90 min running time feels like an absolute chore to sit through. The lyrics to one of Kanako’s J-Pop songs will give you an idea of the humor level in the film:
Someday, we’ll be together, you and me
I’m wearing panties again today
The stars above are all lucky, happy
I’m going to end up putting our secret inside a treasure chest
I promise I’ll bleed with a smile on my face near the seashore.
What Death Kappa has going for it, though, is some pretty nice effects work and models. Haraguchi, normally known for his effects work in films such as the two mid ’90s Gamera films, Bullet Ballet (1998), and most recently, Air Doll (2009), stretches his the film’s obviously low budget very far. This is especially considering most of the effects are practical using rubber suits, miniatures, and models, just like the old days of kaiju. Unfortunately, these scenes are few and far between, with too much of the film’s relatively short running time dedicated to the set-up. The ten or so minutes that make up the final battle scene hardly make up for the mess of the first 80 minutes. Death Kappa is just too many missed opportunities and aborted attempts at humor. That its failure to emulate a genre of film that proudly aligns itself in the B-Movie world is telling of many things, the quality of its script being the first.