Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1966)

7. Godzilla Versus The Sea Monster
Gojira - Ebira - Mosura: Nankai no Daiketto / Ebirah, Horror of the Deep

Toho’s philosophy towards the Godzilla films of the mid-sixties seemed to be “Shove the monsters into a pre-exisitng genre!” “Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster” had elements of both a James Bond movie and a Yakuza film. “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero” basically built a space epic around the kaiju. Godzilla actually wasn’t Toho’s most popular franchise of the day, that honor instead falling to a series of teen-oriented comedies. “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” suggest the protagonists from that series wandering into a giant monster flick. For good measure, a little Bond is thrown into the mix as well. The result is a film that, without deviating too heavily from the known Godzilla formula, still winds up feeling very different.

The change in style can be attributed to another factor. “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” features a completely different creative team from the last four films. Ishiro Honda didn’t direct, Akira Ifukube didn’t score, and, despite receiving credit, Eiji Tsuburaya didn’t direct the special effects. New director Jun Fukuda would handle most of the remaining Showa flicks while Tsuburaya’s apprentice, Sadamasa Arikawa, took over the effects. Akira Ifukube would return a few times but a host of different composers handled the soundtracks for the remainder of the series. The change in behind-the-scene crew is all too evident at times. “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” has a strange energy all its own, distinct from those pictures that came before.

The plot relies on a series of unlikely coincidences. Young journalist Ryota’s brother vanished at sea recently and he is desperate to find him again. The first coincidence comes when Ryota discovers a flyer for a dance contest and the prize just happens to be a boat. The two goofballs he meets there, Ichino and Nita, pick a boat at random. A boat that has just been thieved by good-natured safe cracker Yoshimura. While the four are crashing on the yacht, it just happens to drift out to sea. Fate sends the boat towards Devil Island, a place controlled by the Red Bamboo terrorist organization and guarded by their giant lobster, Ebirah. Very conveniently for our heroes, Godzilla is sleeping on this island. Also very conveniently, they come upon a sword that is crucial to awakening the monster. Later on, an implausible balloon escape takes Ryota right to his brother. The way Ebirah is turned on his controllers is absurd too. Even in a movie like this, suspension of disbelief only excuses so much. It’s says a lot that the film’s most unlikely elements aren’t the giant monsters but the events the protagonists stumble through.

Weirdly, the villains are one of the things about the film that doesn’t strike me as unusual. Red Bamboo is a nefarious organization producing nuclear weapons for presumably nefarious reasons. The movie never outright says it but the viewer can assume the island’s giant fauna is a side-effect of this research. Such a wide-spread, evil organization needs a lot of workers. So Red Bamboo kidnaps natives from Infant Island, which can’t catch a break in these movies. This is a fairly logical reason for Toho to stick another monster into the movie, the ever-popular Mothra. It also establishes the bad guys as awfully bad guys and gives the heroes a good reason to fight. The movie’s villains aren’t its problem.

At least not it’s human villains anyway. I think the real reason hardcore G-fans are so dismissive of “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” is because Ebirah is an uninspired monster. A giant lobster is consistent with the universe’s preexisting monsters. On paper, it’s no more absurd then nuclear dinosaurs, giant insects, or space dragons. Yet it’s certainly a lot less interesting. Ebirah is a somewhat awkward design, most of his body kept under water. The unwieldy design is clear since most of the fight scenes take place in extreme close-up. The lobster even has a shrill, annoying roar. Strangely, he’s the only Toho kaiju openly shown to be carnivorous, eating some would-be escapees. Ebirah’s lack of popularity is obvious since he wouldn’t reappear until 2004’s “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Adding to the disappointment, Ebirah doesn’t even get a proper death scene, swimming off at the end.

It’s pretty much a rule of the series by this point that Godzilla doesn’t show up until mid-way through the film. This holds true in “Sea Monster.” Despite this, the movie doesn’t really feel like a Godzilla movie. Godzilla is awoken by lightening, becomes infatuated with a human woman, smashes things with rocks, and gets pissed at Mothra. There’s an obvious reason for this. “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster” was originally conceived as a King Kong vehicle. When Toho couldn’t secure the rights to Kong, Godzilla took the role, adsorbing most of the great ape’s characteristics. Even if you’re unaware of this going in, it’s fairly obvious, adding to the movie’s preexisting awkwardness. Godzilla even looks a bit worse for wear, the suit starting to tatter.

Despite its unlikely screenplay, disappointing monster, and out-of-character Godzilla, I still kind of like the movie. There’s a lot to like about the human cast. Akira Takarada returns to the Godzilla series. Yoshimura the thief proves more rogue-like then previous Takarada’s heroes, playing nicely to the actor's dashing charm. Kumi Mizuno returns as native princess Daiyo. The lovely Mizuno spends the whole movie scantily clad, which is nice. The pure, naïve Daiyo is a very different to “Monster Zero’s” femme fatale. Akihiko Hirato, last seen as the self-sacrificing Serizawa in the original “Gojira,” is cast against type here. He plays the eye-patch wearing villain, hamming it up nicely. Main leads Toru Watanabe and Chotaro Togin are a bit dull and comic relief Hideo Sunazuka is kind of annoying. But, mostly, I can’t complain about the players.

Even if the monsters are underwhelming, the monster action is still cool. The first rumble between Ebirah and Godzilla features, rather infamously, the two monsters passing boulders back and forth like a soccer ball. It’s ridiculous but still goofily entertaining, especially when a ricochet rock smashes a near-by building. Jun Fukuda has a very different style then Honda, directing the fight scenes with quick cuts and extreme close-ups. This winds up lending a frenzied effect to the battle. A sequence where Godzilla battles a fleet of jets is well handled. He pulls a jet out of the air, crushing it, snapping a plane in his jaw, crushing one with his tail. It’s a cool moment. When Godzilla starts stomping the bad guy’s base, that proves satisfying. The final battle with Ebirah is well executed, the lobster getting a claw torn off. The movie wraps up with Godzilla taking a hilarious belly-flop into the ocean.

Godzilla is fairly humanized by this point. As the heroes are flying away in Mothra’s net, they urge Godzilla to leave the island before it explodes. When he makes a last minute escape, everyone cheers. Godzilla might still be a destructive asshole but he’s a lovable destructive asshole. Mothra has an important role, plot-wise, though she winds up maintaining little of her personality. Even the fairies have been recast, played by pop duo Pair Bambi. I guess there’s nothing wrong with them but I think the Peanuts were better.

The movie’s oddest moment is when a random, wild giant condor appears. Interrupting the moment when Godzilla is crushing on Kumi Mizuno’s heroine, he is attacked by Ookondoru, probably Toho’s least loved monster. The condor looks more like a giant chicken and the puppet is sloppily animated. It’s a short-lived fight and oddly energetic. Godzilla quickly sets the bird ablaze, prematurely ending the battle. After winning, the King of the Monsters put a finger aside his nose, an apparent reference to Toho’s “Young Guy” series. The scene is likely to leave viewers rubbing their head in confusion.

Powering the movie’s oddball spirit is its unconventional score. Instead of Akira Ifukube’s melodramatic horns, Masaru Sato’s score is guitar-driven. There’s a frequent surf rock tone to it, which is quite unexpected. The music recalls the Bond films and Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. The music lends an energy to the movie that’s completely different from any other Godzilla movie.

You know the weirdest thing about “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster,” overall a pretty weird movie? The set design is excellent. The white hallways of the Red Bamboo base are interrupted by splashes of bright colors, bold yellows and blues. The nuclear reactor is particularly an art deco display. Even the miniature sets have that rounded style to them.

So I understand why “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monsters” isn’t well liked and agree with most of the criticism. Yet there’s a fun, cheesy energy to the flick that keeps me from disliking it. Obviously in the lower tier of the Godzilla series and wholly inessential but fun enough to enjoy with friends and a few beers. [Grade: B-]

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