After bringing the bulk of Toho's A-list monsters back to prominence over the course of Godzilla vs. Mothra in 1992 and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II in 1993, the crew led on the latter of those films by director Okawara Takao sat out 1994's entry in the Godzilla franchise, leaving Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla to the ministrations of a largely green team of creators. There is a time and place to tell the story of just what the hell happened there; for now, we shall turn our gaze to the project that Okawara, screenwriter Mimura Wataru, effects director Kawakita Koichi, cinematographer Sekiguchi Yoshinori, and others were busying themselves with elsewhere in the same period: a fantasy adventure called, in English, Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon, which resembles not at all the simple cleanness of the Japanese original, Yamato Takeru, which is simply the name of the protagonist, a great mythological hero. It's literally the exact same thing as if one of the billion filmed versions of the Hercules legend had been titled The Multi-Headed Hydra. In fairness, I would watch the hell out of that movie.

The movie thinks big: it opens with nothing less than the creation of the universe in the explosion of the Death Star. Not, like, the actual footage from Star Wars, though God knows that Orochi isn't remotely ashamed to loudly trumpet its willingness to steal from Star Wars. So anyway, the universe begins - everything up till the Big Bang is oddly narrated by a pinched, bland English speaking man, after which a Japanese woman explains how the gods were born in the same act of creation. And eventually, we arrive in Japan, many hundreds of years ago, where the emperor of Yamato (Sahara Kenji) has just become father to twin boys. His wise man, Tsukinowa (Fujioka Hiroshi) immediately pegs this as a bad omen, but you only have to look at Tsukinowa for a minute to know that he's our designated bad guy for the evening. At any rate, it's enough for the emperor to leave the young child to die, but then the White Bird of Heaven - a curiously chrome-looking beast, for ancient Japan - swoops down and rescues the child, Osu, taking him to his aunt, who raises him to maturity.

As a young adult, Osu (Takashima Masahiro) attempts to take his place in the Yamato court once more, but his mother dies of an untimely illness soon thereafter, and his brother attempts to kill him, certain that it's a curse. But some kind of magic energy beyond Osu's control erupts out of him, killing his brother and bringing down the emperor's wrath. The young prince is effectively banished on a doomed mission to Kumaso, where he is to kill or otherwise subdue the emperor's enemies in that region. Along the way, he encounters the magical princess Oto (Sawaguchi Yasuko), fights a fire demon, returns to his father's kingdom to find a very chilly reception, and discovers that he has been chosen by the gods as the Earth's champion against the invading evil god Tsukiyomi (Abe Hiroshi), coming to wreak destruction in his guise as Yamata no Orochi, a massive eight-headed dragon.

Prior to its failure at the Japanese box office in 1994, Orochi was intended to be the kick-off for an entire series centered around the exploits of Yamato Takeru, as Osu is renamed for feats of strength and bravery. One wishes they had started a little earlier: this film already has two entire and complete plots to balance, in effect, and it does a simply dreadful job of it. One film about Osu's Kumaso's campaign, and one separate film about Yamato Takeru's fight to stop Tsukiyomi would have smoothed out the hectic, damn near screwball pace of the plotting, though it also would have pushed all of the decent effects work and monsters out of the first film and resulted in something even worse. So it's an unsolvable problem, perhaps; maybe Orochi was never going to tell a coherent story in a clean, enjoyable way.

At any rate, the film's brutally cramped story and hastily-sketched characters is one major problem; the shocking cheapness of much of it is another, particularly knowing that this was a big-budget production for Toho at the time. It's as slapdash and chintzy as a kid's video from the same era, with sets and costumes that don't merely look like artificial, too clean and bright and synthetic; they look like the costumes somebody picked up at Target to make their Dungeons & Dragons fan movie. Visually, the only clue that we have that this is a movie from 1994 is the CGI morphing that makes its ugly presence felt in a few scenes; virtually everything else from the props to the film stock to the frequent overlighting in effects shots makes it look like something made in the early '80s (Kanno Yoko's weird smooth jazz score, meanwhile, makes it sound like an erotic thriller from the early '90s), the age of Star Wars knock-offs and barbarian films happily sharing space and frequently overlapping with one another. Really, that's all Orochi is: an early '80s European fantasy adventure with just enough of a distinct Japanese sensibility in the themes and dialogue to mark it out. And the giant monster suits, of course.

Boy, does the movie ever need those monsters. They're honestly not even all that great; the fire demon Osu fights in Kumaso is a particularly weak effort from the typically reliable Kawakita, and while Orochi is a fantastic piece of design - the mean look on the dragon's eight faces is perfect - the puppetry on his eight necks is a bit stiff and nowhere like the serpentine beauty in the '90s incarnation of King Ghidorah. The less said about the prop for the White Bird of Heaven - a flying puppet so flat it makes even the worst Mothra look fluid and organic - the better.

Still, the sheer variety (fire demon made of stone, dragon, giant samurai robot, sea monster) makes up for the occasional dip in quality, and the inconsistent quality of the visual effects (which bottom out with the green beams Yamato Takeru shoots from his eyes, done at the level of sophistication of an old TV show, and reach up to the level of the genuinely lovely "creation of the universe" scenes). What works, works well, and the fantastic register allows the filmmakers to come up with some monsters a bit more colorful and playful than the mostly realistic designs in the contemporaneous Godzilla films.

Fun monsters only go so far, though, and the rest of the film is a well-intentioned, tonally imbalanced wreck, shifting from frothy adventure to serious drama with a speed that leaves the actors completely unable to adjust - Takashima is an appealing matinee-style lead, but he's out of his element in the more dramatic scenes, and Sawaguchi has a jarringly modern way of acting through most of the film - while calling attention to how unsatisfying the production values are for anything that wants to be more than fizzy lark. The film exacerbates Okawara's generally plain style as laid out in his Godzilla movies, which becomes a real liability here; what already reeks of amateur theater is made to look unusually flat and bland, sucking any last hint of fantastic excess out of it, and leaving us with a movie that has neither fun nor gravity on its side, and feels like absolutely no effort was spent in its creation, when that's the exact opposite of the case.