Thoughts on Godzilla: Back to the Showa Era (spoilers)
As promised in my last post, here’s the first part of my followup on the Shōwa era of Godzilla movies, which I’ve fortunately been able to complete sooner than expected, though it turned out long enough that I’ll post it in two parts.
Last time I covered the Shōwa-era Godzilla films, I focused mainly on the first decade or so of the franchise and was kind of dismissive of the second decade, where the films generally got goofier, cheaper, and more juvenile. But since then, I’ve had occasion to watch some of the later Shōwa films, including several that I discovered were available on Hulu (with ads, but in Japanese), and I figured I should flesh out my review series accordingly. At first I was just going to cover the films that were convenient to watch online, but my compulsive personality demanded that I watch them all, even the ones I really didn’t want to. So here we go…
The last films I covered before were the two consecutive King Ghidorah films from 1964-5, which began the transition of Godzilla from villain to hero, the role he’ll play for the remainder of the Shōwa era. The next film was 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster — the first of five Godzilla films to be directed by Jun Fukuda. Now, all those people complaining that the 2014 movie didn’t show enough of Godzilla would hate this one; he isn’t even seen until about a third of the way into the film, and then he’s sleeping until the last third of the film. This is mainly the story of a young man who’s desperate to obtain a boat to search for his shipwrecked brother, and who, through a series of misadventures, ends up stealing a yacht that was already stolen by a master thief (played by Akira Takarada, lead actor of the original 1954 film and portrayer of multiple roles throughout the franchise, including a cameo deleted from the 2014 film), with a couple of comic-relief dudes somehow getting roped in as well. They get attacked by the titular Ebirah, a lobster kaiju, and end up on an island controlled by the Red Bamboo, a nebulously evil military organization building nukes for world conquest and using slave labor from Mothra’s Infant Island, including the requisite pretty girl that the heroes team up with when she escapes. Yes, Mothra’s technically in the movie too, but she doesn’t wake up until the last ten minutes. Eventually the heroes decide their best bet for evading the bad guys is to awaken Godzilla and hope he’ll do more damage to the bad guys than to them; he’s still seen as a danger by the characters, but one they hope they can turn to their advantage against a worse threat (“Let them fight” comes to mind). Once Godzilla actually does get awakened and dragged into the story, it kind of loses focus. The monster fights in the last half-hour are kind of a jumble, both conceptually and in editing. There’s a weird sequence where Godzilla and Ebirah basically play pickup baseball with boulders before Godzilla wades in for the actual fight. And later Godzilla is attacked completely at random by a giant condor named Ookondoru, which means “Giant Condor” (oh, the creativity). It’s a very short and unsuspenseful battle. And one of our heroes tells the Infant Islander slaves how to turn Ebirah against the Red Bamboo, a very obvious plan that they somehow failed to think of themselves.
The first hour or so isn’t as lame as it sounds, as long as you forget that it’s supposed to be a Godzilla movie. The characters are kind of a fun group, which helps given that most of the movie is more driven by their travails than by the monster stuff. The music, by Masaru Sato, is pretty good too. And at least it has the advantage of not having a child as the main character, something that won’t often be the case from here on.
The next film, also directed by Fukuda, was Son of Godzilla, introducing Godzilla’s adopted baby, Minilla. The first third or so is a rather boring story of a reporter, Goro (Akira Kubo), crashing a secret weather-control project on a Pacific island. (One of the scientists is played by Akihiko Hirata, who was Dr. Serizawa in the original film; he’s playing a friendlier character here.) Goro spots a “native” woman that the scientists refuse to believe exists, and even Goro is oddly unconcerned by their assumption that the extreme heat caused by their freezing experiment’s backfire probably killed her (though it didn’t). Anyway, the radiation used in their experiment causes the already horse-sized mantises on the island to mutate to kaiju size, whereupon they’re named Kamacuras (a variation on the Japanese word for mantis — the English dub calls it “Gimantis”). The Kamacuras discover and break open the egg of a rather ugly baby Godzilla, which the real Godzilla arrives just in time to rescue, though he turns out to be a reluctant, halfhearted, and not very gentle parent to the rapidly-growing newborn. The woman (Beverly Maeda), who turns out to be a Japanese girl named Saeko (Reiko in English) who grew up on the island after her archaeologist father died there, bonds with the baby, who’s never actually called Minilla in the movie. The scientists are oddly unconcerned by the rapid maturation of the baby and the prospect that there could soon be two adult Godzillas rampaging across the world. The idea that Godzilla could be a threat to anyone other than evil kaiju receives no more than lip service.
Anyway, the rest of the movie follows Godzilla training the baby and fighting off the Kamacuras while the human cast deals with island hazards, and it comes to a head when the scientists are attacked by the local spider kaiju, Kumonga (called Speiga in English), which for some reason fires its webs out of its mouth like a Mothra larva. It webs the researchers inside Saeko’s cave and the fight between it and Minilla threatens to collapse the cave ceiling, so the scientists resolve to use their experiment to freeze the monsters before it’s too late. Except… suddenly they’re able to come and go from the cave freely in order to activate the experiment, which makes it kind of pointless to proceed anyway; why not just run for it? Not to mention that the radioactive capsule that was part of the re-warming after the first cooling experiment is now suddenly part of the cooling process itself. Basically it’s all rather incoherent. Minilla isn’t particularly endearing, and is accompanied by an obnoxious sitcommy musical leitmotif every time he shows up. And the new kaiju aren’t very imaginative; in the past two films, all we’ve gotten are a giant lobster, mantis, and spider, plus a cameo by a giant condor. By this point, the franchise seemed to be getting tired and lazy.
Next came Destroy All Monsters, which is available on Metacafe. This was originally intended to be the last film in the series, and was thus a grand celebration of all Toho’s various kaiju. It was also the last film reuniting Godzilla’s original creative team: director/cowriter Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, FX producer Eiji Tsuburaya (albeit in a supervisory capacity only), composer Akira Ifukube, and Haruo Nakajima as Godzilla.
The opening narration establishes that the film is set in 1999, when Earth has built a base on the moon — no, sadly, not that one. Square-jawed rocket captain Yamabe (Akira Kubo again, playing a very different character than last time) has a girlfriend, Kyoko (Yukiko Kobayashi) who works on Ogasawara Island, aka Monsterland, a high-tech nature preserve where all the daikaiju are safely contained and living in improbable harmony. (I wondered if this might be the same island from Son of…, which was referred to in dialogue as “a monster island,” but apparently not. Minilla is there too, looking the same as he did in Son of… even though it’s supposed to be 32 years later.) But Monsterland’s control center comes under mysterious attack, and then the kaiju are suddenly free and destroying major cities around the world. Godzilla himself — presaging the ’98 movie — shows up in Manhattan, blowing up the UN building. Eventually it turns out that a race of very polite, silver-skullcapped alien women from the asteroid Kilaak are mind-controlling both the Monsterland personnel and the kaiju themselves. They’ve attacked everywhere but Japan to distract from their establishment of a base near Mt. Fuji, but then Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and Manda (a serpentine kaiju from the film Atragon) gang up on Tokyo, and a mind-controlled Kyoko delivers an ultimatum: The Kilaaks will gladly coexist with us so long as we obey all their commands, and if we don’t, the monsters will destroy us. Naturally, Yamabe is too square-jawed to tolerate that, so he roughs up his girlfriend in order to rip off her mind-control earrings — which are decidedly not clip-ons. He and Godzilla could compare notes on tough love.
So our heroes figure out that the mind-control signals are coming from the Moon, so they raid the Kilaak base and win with surprising ease; they have more trouble detaching the Kilaak control module from its support than they have actually overpowering the base in the first place. And they don’t even use the module, because the scientists back home have rigged their own control system. They sic the kaiju on the Fuji base en masse, with reporters giving color commentary like a sporting event while the monsters gather. The Kilaak call in King Ghidorah for the big fight, and it takes multiple critters ganging up on KG to defeat him. The Kilaaks manage to destroy the humans’ monster control center — but, freed from control, Godzilla still knows who his enemies are and trashes the Kilaak base on his own initiative.
The first time I watched this film in recent memory, I thought it was kind of fun but rather superficial. Seeing it again in the context of the films that surround it, I recognize why it’s so well-regarded. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the ’54 original, it’s surely the pinnacle of the second decade of the Shōwa series. It’s vastly more ambitious in scale than its two predecessors or even the first two Ghidorah films, with tons of kaiju destruction and battles on a more global scale than ever before, though naturally it all focuses on Japan (plus the Moon) by the second act. Even though the film features the kaiju population as a whole, Godzilla is still more heavily featured than in either of the previous two films or many of the following ones, and anchors several key action sequences. It’s the last time in the Shōwa era that Godzilla is at all menacing, although it’s while he’s under mind control. The movie also features one of Akira Ifukube’s most impressive scores, although it’s also a very repetitive score, with four or five main cues that get tracked into several different scenes each. It’s off-putting when the Tokyo-battle cue is reused later and you hear Rodan’s theme over a scene featuring a solo Godzilla.
What I find particularly notable about DAM is that it contrasts with a lot of the earlier Godzilla films, and those in the Heisei era onward, by treating the kaiju as animals that could be controlled and managed by sufficiently sophisticated technology. So many other G-films have focused on the folly of believing that humans could contain the sheer power of nature (as represented by kaiju) and the devastation we bring down on ourselves when we try. The kaiju in DAM were tamer in comparison, both in-story and metatextually. And perhaps that shows how the whole franchise had become rather tame by this point, even despite all this film has going for it.
The next film, the similarly-titled All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge), couldn’t be more different from its predecessor, despite also being directed by Ishiro Honda. In fact, I question whether it actually counts as part of the Shōwa universe. It’s about a latchkey kid living in a polluted dystopia (aka 1969 Tokyo) and mildly tormented by a bully named Gabara. Unhappy with his real life, the kid, Ichiro, retreats into a dream world consisting mostly of stock footage from Ebirah, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, and the like, wherein he flies to Monster Island (as it’s called in the English dub streaming on Netflix) to visit his idol Minilla (called Minya in the dub). There’s nothing in the film to suggest that the kaiju really exist in Ichiro’s world rather than simply being movie characters — although there’s nothing to prove they don’t exist either. But given that Ichiro’s dreams consist of actual footage from previous movies, I’m inclined to believe this is just a story about a real-world kid who daydreams about movie monsters. (Actually one sequence of Godzilla training Minilla to breathe fire looks at first blush like stock footage, but I’m pretty clear it was a new re-enactment of the same sequence, since the setting is different.)
Anyway, Ichiro runs afoul of a couple of bumbling bank robbers and some proto-Home Alone antics ensue, only more boring and less comical, and he somehow wills himself into REM sleep while in their clutches (not exactly a healthy response to imminent mortal peril) and has a dream about Minilla, egged on by a tough-loving Godzilla, battling a bullying monster who’s also named Gabara (the film isn’t exactly subtle), which looks like a pebbly-skinned, tailless green godzilloid with a catlike face. Seeing Minilla (and then Godzilla) beat Gabara gives him the courage and mad skillz to defeat the bandits. Afterward, he has the confidence to take on the real Gabara, and… ugh. This film’s message is basically that you should deal with bullies by becoming exactly like them. First Ichiro beats up Gabara, then he plays a mean prank on a random bystander in order to win the respect of the bullies. This is supposed to be a triumph? The rest of the film is just dumb; the ending is genuinely terrible.
I remember seeing this movie on TV periodically when I was a kid, and I remember recognizing the sequences it reused from other movies. Even then, I knew it was a clip show. I don’t recall how I, a bullied child myself, reacted to the film’s ultimate message, but I’m happy to say I wasn’t inspired to become a bully myself and start beating up other kids. I guess I never liked this film enough to be influenced by it in any way. It’s hugely disappointing to see the series backslide so radically after rallying with Destroy All Monsters.
Next comes Godzilla vs. Hedorah, aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. And wow, this is the weirdest, trippiest film in the entire franchise. It’s a bizarre piece of filmmaking from director Yoshimitsu Banno, who was never allowed to direct another movie for Toho after this. Basically it’s an anti-pollution allegory in which our sludge and smog create or sustain a mutant inorganic tadpole monster from space — or something — that grows into the giant, lethal Hedorah, which threatens to kill us all and erode our civilization with the sulfuric-acid mist it gives off after its crystallized-carbon cells convert carbon smog into sulfur (note: chemistry does not work that way). Godzilla is treated here as the unambiguously heroic defender of the Earth, and the film is told largely from the viewpoint of boy hero Ken, who adores Godzilla as his hero and is even able to psychically sense his approach, apparently. It’s got weird bits of surreal imagery, random digressions into animated sequences like a child’s drawings, a dreamlike montage or two, a collage of TV screens showing vox-pop interviews in a fashion reminding me of Frank Miller’s Batman comics, even a completely random bit in a very psychedelic dance club where one of the male leads hallucinates all the dancers as having fish heads. I can’t help wondering if the writing and production of this film involved psychedelics in more than just the aesthetic sense. Although it could be that the film implicitly has the same conceit as All Monsters Attack — i.e. the whole thing is really Ken’s daydream about Godzilla — but executes it with much more originality. At the very least, the events of the film are filtered through Ken’s childlike perceptions.
As for the kaiju action itself, there’s a lot of it compared to something like Ebirah, and Hedorah is certainly a difficult adversary for Godzilla; but the fighting tends to be languid and dull and sometimes rather incoherent. After the initial, somewhat understated confrontation on land, we’re told by a newscaster that 32 buildings were destroyed even though the onscreen tally was approximately zero. And in the climactic battle — again around Mt. Fuji — the action jumps between different stages of the fight without any transitions, so that in at least one case we don’t see how Godzilla got out of a trap Hedorah sprang on him.
Still, as trippy and bizarre as this film is, at least it isn’t phoned in or predictable. Banno made a real attempt to bring new ideas and energy to the franchise. Also, it’s an astonishingly dark and violent Godzilla film for this era, with a lot of onscreen fatalities (even Destroy All Monsters largely avoided those). And it was trying, in its clumsy way, to have a real message, in the allegorical spirit that began the franchise. So I wouldn’t call it a good or particularly successful film, but I respect the daring and innovation behind it. It is anything but ordinary.
Next, I finish out the series with the last four films.