Jewel Thieves & Giant Monsters: DOGORA (1964)

After reading and writing about Peter H. Brothers’ book Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda recently I was motivated to watch Dogora (1964), which is one of Honda’s lesser-known films and one that I hadn’t had the opportunity to see yet. I’m not sure how I managed to overlook this little gem involving a giant jellyfish from outer space with an appetite for diamonds but I’m glad that I finally caught up with it on DVD. It’s undoubtedly one of the oddest monster movies produced by Toho Studios in the 1960s and it has quickly become one of my favorite Honda films.

Dogora aka Dagora, the Space Monster stars the Japanese actor Yosuke Natsuki (Yojimbo; 1961, Chushingura: 47 Samurai; 1962, Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster; 1964, etc.) as a detective named Komai who is investigating a rash of strange diamond thefts plaguing Tokyo. He enlists the help of an aging scientist (Nobuo Nakamura), his female assistant (Yoko Fujiyama) and an American G-Man named Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham) to him my sense of things but the film take a strange turn when it’s discovered that creatures from outer space are responsible for many of the thefts.

The monsters from space feed on carbon-based matter and they soon begin to inhale Tokyo’s coal supply while causing massive destruction throughout the city. Naturally the military fights back but these bizarre events don’t slow down a group of jewel thieves who are desperate to get their hands on some diamonds. Detective Komai is forced to do battle with organized criminals as well as space monsters in this entertaining and unusual genre hybrid.

The film seems to divide fans of Japanese kaiju (“strange beast” or “monster”) movies. Some (like myself) love the fact that Dogora managed to creatively combine film genres and boldly deify expectations. But many monster movie fans don’t seem to appreciate the film’s imaginative approach to its subject. Dogora has also been criticized for having minimal action, a convoluted script and sloppy direction but these seem to be common criticisms aimed at Japanese fantasy films. The film does have its faults but there’s so much to enjoy that I was quickly won over by its impressive style and fresh concept. I love a good heist movie and I also enjoy a good monster movie but I rarely come across a movie that tries to be both. Dogora may have overextended itself but I appreciated the film’s ambition.

The script was written by Honda’s longtime collaborator Shinichi Sekizawa and based on a story by the Japanese science fiction writer Jojiro Okami. According to Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda, Shinichi Sekizawa was influenced by the popularity of the James Bond films at the time so he intentionally added a lot of international intrigue as well as judo fights and a beautiful femme fatale into the script. It’s also important to note that crime films were becoming increasingly popular in Japan thanks to directors like Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku. The executives at Toho Studios were undoubtedly aware of this and I’m sure they were excited about the prospect of making a monster movie that also featured tough criminals who wore slick suits and carried big guns.

Giant tentacled monsters have appeared in Japanese fantasy and fiction for centuries so it’s no surprise that they often showed up in Ishiro Honda’s monster movies. Besides the giant squid-like jellyfish found in Dogora, you’ll see a giant octopus in Honda’s King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) as well as War of the Gargantuas (1966) and Space Amoeba (1970) features a monstrous cuttlefish. Honda worked closely with the Japanese special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya early in his career and Tsuburaya’s personal fascination with deep-sea creatures often manifested itself in the monsters he designed for Honda’s movies. Even while they were working on the original Godzilla film together Eiji Tsuburaya expressed a desire to base the monster’s design on a giant octopus but Godzilla ended up looking more like a giant lizard or dinosaur.

Eiji Tsuburaya’s monster design for Dogora isn’t as popular as some of the other creatures he created during his lifetime but I think its one of his most intriguing inventions. Tsuburya constructed the miniature monster out of plastic and it was shot in a water tank that makes it appear as if the creature is swimming in space. You won’t find any men wearing rubber suits in Dogora but Tsuburaya’s work here is surprisingly effective. The movie’s limited budget often gets in the way of the SFX but there are some genuinely eerie moments in the movie as we watch the giant monster floating above the city of Tokyo at night. The soundtrack for the film was composed by Akira Ifukube who regularly worked with Honda and you can clearly hear the addition of a musical saw as well as theremin in the film’s score. These unusual musical elements emphasize the monster’s unearthly nature and highlight the movie’s surreal qualities.

I was also impressed with the miniature planes Eiji Tsuburaya designed for the movie. The tiny cityscapes were not very expansive but there’s a thrilling bridge attack by the monster in Dogora that reminded me of the giant octopus assault on the Golden Gate Bridge created by Ray Harryhausen for It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). It Came From Beneath the Sea is one of my favorite giant monster movies due to the simple fact that it takes place in San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area and first saw the movie when I was just a kid so it terrified me. To this day I can’t drive over the Golden Gate without thinking that a giant tentacled monster might rise up from the depths of the Pacific Ocean and swallow the bridge.

One of the best things about Dogora is that it provided the Japanese actress Akiko Wakabayashi (Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster; 1964, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?; ;1966, You Only Live Twice; 1967, etc.) with one of her most interesting roles. In the film she plays a lovely jewel thief named Hamako who uses her feminine charm, exotic beauty and wits in a failed effort to seduce the “Diamond G-man” Mark Jackson. When that doesn’t work she decides to try and steal the diamonds for herself. Unfortunately she doesn’t succeed but it’s sure fun to watch her try! Akiko Wakabayashi looks absolutely gorgeous in Dogora& and Ishiro Honda was clearly fascinated with the actress. We’re treated to countless close-ups of her throughout the movie. She may not have been the star of the film but she’s the character you’ll remember when the movie ends.

The other interesting performance in Dogora comes from Robert Dunham who plays the “Diamond G-man” Mark Jackson. Dunham was a US Marine who was stationed in Yokohama and spoke fluent Japanese. After he was honorably discharged from he Marine Corps, Dunham started acting in commercials and appeared in some popular Japanese science fiction films including Mothra (1961) and The Green Slime (1968) but the actor’s best role can be found in Dogora. As the mysterious Diamond G-Man, Dunham got a lot of screen time and he’s obviously enjoying himself in the role. He often comes across as a wisecracking American in the same mold as Steve McQueen but he doesn’t have McQueen’s good looks or natural charisma.

Besides the lovely Akiko Wakabayashi, the rest of the Japanese cast is rather forgettable. They rarely seem as committed to their roles as Dunham obviously is. Executives at Toho Studio were so impressed with Dunham’s performance in Dogora that they supposedly sent him to Hollywood when shooting ended so he could pitch a series of films based on his character. I personally would have loved to have seen more of the Diamond G-Man’s adventures but sadly that was not to be. Hollywood executives weren’t won over by Dogora and Robert Dunham returned to Japan where he spent the next few years appearing in Japanese movies such as Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) until he finally retired from acting in 1975.

Dogora was an unexpected treat and I’m glad that I finally got around to watching it. If you’re unfamiliar with Honda’s films it’s probably not the first movie you should watch since it’s very different from his other work. On the other hand, if you’ve seen a few Japanese monster movies and want to watch something with an original script and some standout performances, you should give Dogora a look. I think the movie has aged better than a lot of similar efforts and I genuinely appreciate the creative way it managed to combine genres. The impressive pool of talent working at Toho Studios may have had limited funds but they had a lot of big ideas.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written in 2010 and published on TCM.com