Wednesday, April 2, 2014

GodzillaMania #7: Ebirah/Son of Godzilla/Destroy All Monsters

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Ebirah, Horror of the Deep: 13/D

Ishirō Honda guided the Godzilla franchise through most of its early days, but in 1966, for the first time in over a decade, he wasn’t available to work on the next one. With Honda committed to another kaiju film, The War of the Gargantuas, Toho brought on Jun Fukuda, a director better known for comedy than big budget horror. Fukada’s had the same series screenwriter has Honda, Shinichi Sekizawa, but either the franchise was running thin or Fukuda and Sekizawa just came up with a particularly poor scenario, because Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster) is one of the weakest films in the series.

Yata (Toru Ibuki) has lost his brother, Ryota (Toru Watanabe) at sea, but a psychic tells him that he’s still alive. Yata nd his friends steal a boat belonging to a bank robber on the run (Choutarou Tougin), but on the way the group is attacked by the giant lobster Ebirah and are washed ashore. There, a terrorist organization known as Red Bamboo is brewing chemical weapons and has enslaved natives from Infant Island for their purposes. The natives hope that Mothra will rescue them, but Yata and company come up with a new plan: revive Godzilla, who’s sleeping in a cavern.

On top of Honda’s upcoming The War of the Gargantuas, Toho’s budgets were going down as Japanese theater attendance declined with the growing popularity of television (having Akira Kurosawa’s expensive Red Beard in their books probably didn’t help any). Right from the beginning, it’s clear that Fukuda is working on a much tighter budget. While the film is mostly shot on location rather than expensive sets, the film still feels cheap, with poor effects and endless time wasting on an uninvolving espionage subplot in order to keep the monster fights to a minimum.

Even with the budget aside, however, this is shoddy work. Fukuda’s broad comic instincts make for some irritating moments, from the mugging of the hero’s two friends to goofy music to a moment where our heroes are hanging upside down (it’s wacky). On top of that, Sekizawa’s human plot is needlessly convoluted even for a Godzilla movie, with too many heroic characters, character bits that don’t pay off (the bank robber’s past), and the needless delay of Godzilla coming back into action.

Speaking of which: the big green guy takes nearly an hour to show up in an 87-minute movie, and when he does, much of his behavior doesn’t feel quite right. Toho originally intended for the film to star King Kong instead of Godzilla, but they didn’t change the script when they switched monsters. Consequently, Godzilla’s frequently acts like Kong did in King Kong vs. Godzilla: he’s resurrected by lightning, he fights more often with boulders than with his radioactive breath, and he attacks Mothra when he shows up to save the day, despite their being friends in their last joint outing. And even if we’re to ignore that, the fight sequences are incoherently shot and dull, whether Godzilla’s fighting Ebirah (a lame antagonist in any right) or a giant condor in what’s essentially a shitty retread of the Godzilla/Mothra/Rodan fights. Poorly directed, plodding, and almost totally without interest, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep is one of the worst Godzilla movies.

Son of Godzilla: 37/C

That said, it was still reasonably successful, so Toho barreled ahead with another one the next year. Fukuda and Sekizawa returned, armed with an even lower budget than before but a surefire idea to keep Godzilla popular with the kids: give him an adorable, comical son. Given the level of backlash that Son of Godzilla has received among friends from making the King of the Monsters even more innocuous than he had been in a few years, it’s a welcome relief to report that it’s not as mind-numbingly dull as the previous installment. Is it still plenty dull? Oh, lord yes.

Goro Maki (Akira Kubo, who played the inventor in Invasion of Astro-Monster) is a reporter who parachutes onto down (just go with it) to get a scoop on the scientists doing odd tests on an island. When an experiment goes awry, a bunch of 2-meter tall giant praying mantises grow even larger and start to terrorize the island. The mantises (called Kamacuras in the Japanese version and Gimantises in the English version) dig up and attack an egg, which contains Minilla, the son of Godzilla. Godzilla rescues and raises his son, who befriends a woman on the island but inadvertently awakes a giant spider, Kumonga.

That’s not so much a plot as it is a bunch of stuff happening, so it’s hardly even worth getting into the human material. The least that can be said is that the movie isn’t quite as slow as Ebirah, but it does give a bigger showcase to Fukuda’s excruciating sense of humor (see: man washing his vegetables in a sink, only to find that’s where another man washed his underwear). The whole feel of the film is wrong, down to the littlest details – the musical score from Masaru Sato sounds more at place in a Jerry Lewis movie than here.

Most of the new monsters rival Ebirah for dullness, with the Kamacuras looking decidedly unthreatening next to Godzilla and Kumonga serving as your average B-movie giant spider. The biggest complaint for fans comes down to Minilla, the Scrappy-Doo of the Godzilla series. Minilla isn’t quite as irritating here as he will be a few films from now, and for the kids movie angle the film is shooting for, the film isn’t torture. But Godzilla fans’ tolerance for the movie largely depends on how much they can take of Godzilla acting like a deadbeat dad and Minilla acting cutesy. The former is occasionally a mitigating factor, with Godzilla showing little patience for his kid’s shit when he’s training him to be a big bad monster (he can only blow radioactive smoke rings, which isn’t enough for big Godzilla). But a little of Minilla goes a long way, and by the time he’s put in peril in the film’s finale, it’s hard to not want to ever see him again.

Destroy All Monsters; 68/B

Minilla returns for Destroy All Monsters, but in a limited way. Who was back in a big way? Ishirō Honda! As ticket sales declined for Son of Godzilla, Toho brought Honda back as a director and co-writer (along with his War of the Gargantuas collaborator Takeshi Kimura) for what was planned to be the final film in the series, complete with a larger budget. Honda and Kimura had a hell of a plan to go out on: bring back the successful space elements from the Ghidorah elements, and throw in damn near every monster who’d ever appeared in a Godzilla film, with a few extra Toho monsters to boot. The result wasn’t the end-all-be-all of the series, but it was a welcome return to form.

All of the monsters in the world have been captured and contained on Monsterland, which keeps the likes of Godzilla, Minilla, Rodan, Anguirus, Kumonga, Gorosaurus, Manda and Mothra (even though he’s never harmed humanity) in a well-maintained area, complete with force fields and a research center to study them. When all communications are cut off on Monsterland, Captain Yamabe (Kudo again) is sent on his spaceship to investigate. They find that a group of feminine aliens known as the Kilaaks have taken control of the scientists and the monsters, who they have transported to different locations around the globe to wreak havoc until humanity surrenders. Yamabe and company discover that the Kilaaks are using their lunar base to transmit signals, and they attack it to break their control of the monsters and win back the world.

It’s a bit of a retread of Astro-Monster, but who cares? Production value, and lots of it! The film starts with a sense of grandeur as we get to see all of the monsters together, living in peace, and better space sets than ever. The aliens still look silly, but Honda uses an echoing sound design to make them feel otherworldly and menacing. And while the human plot is never going to be as interesting as the monsters on display, there’s genuine suspense in the story as the brainwashed scientists start behaving unpredictably, committing suicide to avoid questioning. There’s even some impressive make-up work at one point as the heroes have to perform an autopsy to find out how they’re being controlled and they find small metallic devices buried underneath the characters’ ears.

More to the point though: monsters! All of them! And they’re not just in Tokyo. The sheer excitement of watching Honda and co cut between Rodan attacking Moscow, Godzilla in New York, another monster destroying the Arch de Triumph is incredible. When it comes to an all-out attack on Tokyo, Honda uses space better than he ever has before, utilizing the foreground and background of the scene to showcase just how overwhelming it is.

The finale comes with a bit of a cheat, reintroducing King Ghidorah at the drop of a hat, but it’s hard to complain when holy shit a monster Royal Rumble with everyone vs. King Ghidorah you guys! Perhaps it’s not exactly the most suspenseful fight in the series, given how outmatched Ghidorah is, but the teamwork on display and the clarity of the fight more than makes up for it as Anguirus chomps down on one of Ghidorah’s necks while he’s lifted off the ground as Ghidorah flies, or as the group whales on Ghidorah to the point where even Minilla is getting in on the action, blowing a radioactive smoke ring that goes around the monster’s neck like a horseshoe (see: Minilla actually being funny, Fukuda!). Destroy All Monsters was too successful for it to be the last in the series, but it would have made a fitting conclusion.

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