WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS!
Many years ago, when video stores still existed and Blockbuster Video was king, I discovered a film that would stick with me well into my adult life: THE LEGEND OF DINOSAURS. Thinking it was just another kid-oriented dinosaur flick, my overprotective mother allowed me to rent it. Based on the cartoonish VHS cover art, it’s now easy to see why she didn’t feel compelled to preview it, and in many ways I’m thankful she didn’t.
Skip ahead to sometime in 2005 or 2006, where thanks to the internet, I would rediscover this dark film from my past. I managed to snag two fan-made DVD-Rs of the film which included three versions of the movie (uncut Japanese, the German cut, entitled GIGANTEN DER VORZEIT, and the American cut that I had seen as a child), plus a multitude of extras. Once it arrived at my door, I eagerly popped it into my Blu-ray player and sat down to take it all in.
Old memories came flooding back, and by the time it was all over, I discovered that in some strange way, I loved this movie. And now here we are today, several decades after I first discovered LEGEND OF DINOSAURS AND MONSTER BIRDS. Having revisited again, I have to say that I’m still a big fan of this cult oddity. From its groovy disco-funk soundtrack, to its overly artsy cinematography, I still adore the final feature-length film of the late Junji Kurata.
Set in the Summer of 1977 in the Lake Sai region of Japan (located near Mount Fuji), LEGEND OF THE DINOSAURS AND MONSTER BIRDS teases us almost instantly with the birth of one of the film’s titular creatures. A suicidal woman falls into an ice cavern and witnesses a hatching egg. She goes mad and flees the cave after seeing a bright yellow eye glaring back at her, and is discovered by some construction workers. Her story instantly becomes the main headline for all the news stations, and catches the eye of a geologist named Takashi Ashizawa (Tsunehiko Watase).
Deciding that he’d be better off financially as a fossil hunter, the severely impulsive Ashizawa leaves his job, and heads to Lake Sai seeking fortune and glory. When he arrives, he ends up rekindling a romance with a former lover named Akiko (Nobiko Sawa), and slowly develops a theory that something prehistoric may be alive and well in the lake. It turns out that Ashizawa is right on the money, because there is in fact a huge Plesiosaurus stalking the waters of Lake Sai.
The creature doesn’t really make it’s presence known at first, choosing to stealthily snack on unsuspecting victims. But as its attacks increase, the giant aquatic beastie begins to get bolder and more reckless, forcing the authorities to finally act. (Biting Akiko’s friend Junko in half was the last straw!) But just as they decide to start dealing with their problem before it swims up and bites them in the ass (with depth charges no less), another giant out of Earth’s prehistory descends upon the would-be kaiju slayers.
A giant pterosaur called a Rhamphorhyncus attacks the crowd of police and onlookers standing beside the lake. While defending themselves, one of the panicked officers accidentally fires into a stack of depth charges. The resulting explosion drives off the winged menace, but almost certainly kills everyone nearby. The Rhamphorhyncus flies off and eventually goes wing-to-flipper against the rampaging Plesiosaur.
Takashi and Akiko are trapped by the struggling creatures, when suddenly things go from bad, to worse: Mount Fuji has begun to erupt! As the earth beneath them begins to crack and shake, while lava, fire, and roaring monsters surround them, Takashi and Akiko grasp on to each other in the hellish maelstrom. Will they make it out alive? Will their love persevere?!
Well uh… not to spoil things, but we never find out. This is one of those frustrating endings where you have to decide the fate of the characters on your own. Personally, I think they’re toast. But at least in their final moments, with the world ending around them, they cling to one another, each knowing that they are about to die in the arms of someone that truly loves them. Kind of poetic, no?
In comparison to most other dinosaur and kaiju flicks released in the ’70s, Toei Company’s LEGEND OF DINOSAURS AND MONSTER BIRDS is definitely the “black sheep” among them. In the giant monster films being released by other Japanese production companies (namely Daiei and Toho), the death and destruction is widely implied. We see buildings crumble and fall, and military vehicles explode. Though we never see anyone actually die, the deaths of thousands are implied.
Here in LEGEND OF DINOSAURS, the filmmakers had a more Western sensibility for the dinosaur attacks and violence. When someone gets attacked by the film’s creatures, we see the victim’s limp body hanging out of a prehistoric monster’s maw, or watch as they scream themselves silly while in the enormous claws of a gigantic predator that should not exist. Plus we get one decapitated horse, one half-eaten girl, and several mangled corpses. All of this gore and violence is sort of taboo.
But don’t take that as a complaint, in fact, take it as a compliment from yours truly. It is a breath of fresh air to see a Japanese giant monster movie where the star attractions do what is expected of them. Dinosaurs have been munching on fleeing humans in Western cinema for decades, but it seems that most of their Eastern relatives have forgotten how tasty people are.
Another thing that sets this film apart from its contemporaries is the music. Composed by Masao Yagi, the film’s soundtrack is an odd, though catchy, mixture of disco, funk, and jazz. While this doesn’t seem like an appropriate choice of music for this type of film, it oddly succeeds in matching the movie’s tone. The only time the music seemed out of place was at the climax, but in retrospect, I suppose the optimistic “love theme” fits the moment, seeing as how the two lovers in peril are desperately reaching out for each other.
While the combination of the offbeat music and unexpected violence has already resulted in a strange viewing experience, the film’s weirdness is further increased by the overly artsy cinematography. I can safely say that I have seen few kaiju films that put this much effort into their camerawork. Director Junji Kurata seems like he was a bit of an auteur, with many close-ups on the eyes of both humans and dinosaurs. It’s said that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and that could very well have been the driving force behind his creative decisions.
As for the film’s prehistoric monsters (who technically are not dinosaurs, according to experts), they are brought to life via life-sized mock-ups, puppets, and a man in a rubber Plesiosaur suit. There are a few eerily effective moments with the full-size Plesiosaur, particularly when it attacks and tortures poor Junko.
The creature toys with her before biting her in half, thus leaving a nasty surprise for Akiko, and it is a tad disturbing. The Rhamphorhyncus on the other hand has the most exciting segment in the film, as it dive-bombs fleeing humans, and causes a massive explosion. However, it’s menace is severely undercut because it is often portrayed by a clumsy-looking puppet.
Many of the effects in the film look fairly dated now, but I still find them to be impressive, especially during the volcanic climax, or any time the man-eating beasties interact with their human prey. But these precious moments when man and monster share the screen are too few and far between.
We don’t even to see the Plesiosaurus until forty minutes into the film, and we have to wait even longer to get a glimpse of the Rhamphorhyncus, who shows up about twenty minutes before the movie ends! It is this severe lack of dinosaurs and monster birds that truly hurts this film, especially since the human drama is often stunted and dull.
Takashi Ashizawa is kind of a terrible protagonist (if you can even classify him as one), as his primary concern seems to be making money. He walks off his job to find fossilized eggs to sell, then discovers a live dinosaur and attempts to get his former employer to back a monster hunting campaign. He eventually has a change of heart, but it’s not clear why, or what his new intentions are. Originally I thought he was eager to track down the dinosaur in order to prove his father’s paleontological theories, but that never happens.
Instead, he declares to Akiko that he just plain wants to see a live Plesiosaurus and “burn the image into his memory forever,” with no regard for his own well-being. (Yikes, this guy is the personification of impulsive behavior, isn’t he?) But none of this matters because there are no character arcs. No one really changes or grows, and even if they did, their deaths are pretty much assured, so what is the point of it all?! Could this be the first (or rather, only) nihilistic, arthouse, dinosaur-on-the-loose film ever made?!
LEGEND OF DINOSAURS AND MONSTER BIRDS is a bizarre movie and I truly appreciate the boldness of the filmmakers (and the production company) for making such an outlandish film. Truthfully I don’t think that half of you who are reading this will actually watch and fully enjoy it the way that I do. I doubt that even die-hard kaiju film enthusiasts would be able to revel in this odd, and sometimes surreal, monster movie.
I can’t quite explain my infatuation with LEGEND OF THE DINOSAURS AND MONSTER BIRDS. All I do know is that this film is often overlooked and criminally underseen. So let me ask a minor favor from anyone that is reading this review: Give it a chance. It may bore you, it may disappoint you, but at least give it a shot to see if something clicks for you, like it did for me.
While it isn’t a contender for my list of all-time favorite movies, I really dig this LEGEND OF DINOSAURS and have no problem with giving it a solid:
The Packaging: LEGEND OF DINOSAURS comes in a standard DVD case with a slightly retooled version of it’s original theatrical poster art. For some reason, Media Blasters kept the tagline from the film’s VHS release.
Audio & Video: The disc offers up two separate audio tracks in 2.0 Mono: English dubbed, and Original Japanese audio with English subtitles. I have no complaints about either track – everything sounds just fine! The film is shown in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the picture quality is quite good. Nothing to cheer about, or complain about here.
Extras: This is a pretty bare bones disc. We get the original theatrical trailer, a “special announcement” trailer, trailers for other Tokyo Shock titles, and a photo gallery.
Final Verdict: Though severely light on extras, the film’s presentation is clean and clear, and that alone makes it a must have for fans of Kurata’s odd monster-piece. If you know what you’re getting into, then absolutely order this disc. Otherwise, buy at your own risk.
Though I think they could have done much more with this disc (it pales in comparison to the fan-release from the now defunct wtf-Film label) this is probably the best release we’ll ever get. Perhaps we’ll get more material or a soundtrack CD if LEGEND OF DINOSAURS gets a Blu-ray release? I suppose only time will tell. For now though, I believe I’ll give this current Media Blasters’ release a rating of: