Saturday, May 10, 2014

Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966)

It's not uncommon for a movie to have to compensate for an actor not being available for a movie planned specifically for them. Schedules, salary disagreements, and just plain lack of interest can all conspire to keep a planned project from coming together as intended, and sometimes a filmmaker can manage to pull it together with a different actor. But a case of the monster you wanted to use being unavailable? That's a bit more uncommon.

That's exactly what happened with Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, though. In the mid-1960s, American producers Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, whom I've previously discussed here, secured the rights to make a cartoon series about King Kong. As part of the deal, they had to produce a live-action feature film. Knowing this, they turned to Toho Studios for a collaboration--since Toho could easily produce a film that would cost less than the average American studio.

The first draft of Toho's King Kong film saw a group of teenagers in a sailboat finding themselves marooned on the island base of a terrorist organization, guarded by an enormous lobster. When the teens find King Kong sleeping in a cave, they wake him up to use as a defense against the terrorists and their pet crustacean.

However, Rankin & Bass weren't interested in this script. It was too different from their show for their tastes, so it was set aside and the next draft, which was more faithful to the show, would become King Kong Escapes. Toho obviously saw promise in the unused script, so with a quick bit of find and replace, King Kong was replaced with Godzilla.

And the rest is history.

Ryota (Toru Watanabe) lost his brother at sea several months ago. However, their mother visits a medium who insists that Yata (Toru Ibuki) is not in the land of the dead, so he must still be alive. Unfortunately for Ryota, the Japanese authorities don't really feel a medium's word is a good enough reason to expend resources searching the South Pacific for one guy. So when Ryota sees an ad for a dance contest where the prize is a sailboat, he rushes to get to it.

Unfortunately, it's an endurance contest that started 3 days ago. You can't very well join an endurance contest at the last minute. Ichino (Choutarou Tougin) and Nita (Hideo Sunazuka) have just washed out of the contest when they bump into Ryota. Apparently amused by the country boy's fascination with sailboats, the pair take him down to the docks to look at some.

They go aboard a fancy yacht, the Yahlen, only to find its apparent owner, Yoshimura (the imminent Akira Takarada), waiting for them with a rifle. Bizarrely, he agrees to let them stay the night as long as they're gone by morning. This proves a mistake, as Yoshimura, Nita, and Ichino wake up in the morning to discover that the Yahlen is already well out to sea, thanks to Ryota.

Oh, and Yoshimura's rifle is fake, he has a mysterious briefcase, he turns off a radio news broadcast right after it shifts from news of an American movie producer's stolen yacht to a report on a bank robber, and he makes skeleton keys for fun. But he's totally not a bank robber, you guys.

The Yahlen was fully stocked for an ocean crossing, so the four are doing just fine--until they run afoul of a storm. The storm quickly wrecks their helm and sets them adrift. However, that's a minor concern when an enormous lobster claw appears and obliterates their vessel. Luckily, they all wash up on the shore of a mysterious island alive. However, they quickly find the island isn't uninhabited. It's the base of a shady military organization, which they discover when a ship spraying yellow liquid arrives at the dock--and disgorges its cargo of captives from nearby Infant Island.

Three natives escape, one of them being gunned down in the process. The Guard Captain (Akihiko Hirata, wearing an eye-patch yet again) orders his men to cease pursuit when the two remaining fugitives make it to a canoe. The canoe doesn't get far before the giant lobster rises above the water, crushes the canoe, and them impales the two men on its claw to eat them like a kabob. In all the excitement, Dayo (Kumi Mizuno, long a fan favorite despite appearing in only two Godzilla movies prior to the Millennium series) escapes from the guards and runs into Yoshimura and the others. Unfortunately, the guards are in hot pursuit and now they know the castaways are here.

Luckily, the group is able to hide in a cave on a cliff. Dayo explains that the soldiers are the Red Bamboo, the giant lobster is Ebirah, and they are using the Infant Island natives as slave labor. Mothra is, oddly, napping throughout all this and ignoring the prayers of her people. So clearly the Red Bamboo are at least aware of the fate "Rolisica" suffered and did not lay a finger on the Shobijin (singing duo Pair Bambi, marking the first time the twin fairies are not played by Emi and Yumi Ito).

Ignoring the pain and suffering of her chosen people. Typical God behavior, really.

Dayo also reveals that Yata is alive and well on Infant Island. Yoshimura decides that the group should sneak into the Red Bamboo base to find out what they're up against. Ryota and Dayo are up for it, but Nita and Ichino would rather stay in the cave--until Nita happens to notice that the cave is not as empty as they thought.

Fighting space hydras really takes it out of ya.
Not eager to hang around a sleeping Godzilla, the whole crew attempts to infiltrate the Red Bamboo base. They manage to steal some smoke bombs and Dayo grabs a coil of copper wire to use as a necklace, but after discovering the base is a heavy water factory--to make nuclear bombs--the Guard Captain finds them. In their escape attempt, Ryota gets tangled in a weather balloon and floats away and Nita is captured. Nita quickly discovers the natives are being forced to crush yellow berries into juice--apparently these berries have a repellent effect on Ebirah, which allows the Red Bamboo ships to come and go unharmed. Nita proves smarter than he looks and suggests that they whip up a batch of the repellent using only the leaves so that it will be useless against Ebirah the next time a Red Bamboo ship tries to leave.

With the Red Bamboo combing the island for the castaways, Ichino comes up with an idea so crazy it just might work: use lightning to wake up Godzilla.

Ryota, meanwhile, lands on Infant Island and is reunited with Yata. Somehow, despite having been on the island long enough to know Dayo, Yata has not heard of the Red Bamboo. He can't bear to think of people suffering, so he and Ryota load up a canoe with barrels of yellow juice and head back to what the Shobijin term "Devil's Island." Unfortunately, a storm whips up and washes away their barrels--so they have no defense when Ebirah appears.

Luckily, the plan to wake up Godzilla worked beautifully. Godzilla bursts out of the cliffside and challenges Ebirah. The two bat rocks back and forth, until one rock goes astray and smashes a guard tower--alerting the Red Bamboo of Godzilla's presence. Ebirah proves oddly resistant to Godzilla's radioactive breath, but after a scuffle underwater the lobster retreats.

Ryota and Yata reunite with the group, but their attempt to sneak into the Red Bamboo base just results in them being pursued again. Dayo gets separated from the group and winds up at Godzilla's feet. Oddly, Godzilla seems a bit interested in Dayo--but then, she is played by Kumi Mizuno. When Godzilla begins to take a nap, the others move in to rescue her...

...only for a giant condor to appear out of nowhere and attack Godzilla. I imagine in the original script this played like a recreation of the King Kong vs. Pteranodon fight from the original King Kong. In the final film, though, the condor annoys Godzilla for a bit until it discovers the true price of taking on something that spits radioactive fire when you're covered in feathers.

Godzilla attempts to go back to sleep, only for a squadron of Red Bamboo fighter planes to appear. Godzilla's destruction of the plains is, delightfully, set to surf guitar music. The plane attack serves only to annoy Godzilla into destroying the Red Bamboo base, which allows Yoshimura and Yata to free the captives--but they're too late to stop a Red Bamboo scientist from triggering a self-destruct device that will obliterate the whole island in two hours. And when Godzilla crushes the building, the falling debris makes the shut-off switch impossible to reach.

Now all the heroes can do is hope that Mothra will finally wake her damn ass up and come rescue them before the whole island is vaporized.

As a kid, this was unquestionably my favorite Godzilla film. This was partly because it was among the ones I had the most access to because a neighbor recorded it off the Disney Channel for me. I once drove a babysitter to madness because of how often I wanted to watch it. Even now, though, it delights me to no end.

That the film was meant for King Kong is painfully obvious, of course. Godzilla had, after all, just spent two movies fighting King Ghidorah--one of his most powerful foes. A giant lobster with zero offensive weapons is a step down in every conceivable sense. What's more, most of the fight scenes require Godzilla--an amphibious creature--to behave as if he is out of his element in the water.

Ebirah dragging its opponent back down to the ocean floor after he attempted to get a breath is a suspenseful moment--if the opponent is a giant gorilla. We've seen Godzilla taking naps under the ocean repeatedly. It's no skin off his nose to be unable to reach the surface. For that matter, I'm not certain that Godzilla would even have been harmed by the island exploding if he didn't leave in time, unlike Kong who would definitely have been killed.

Plus, there's the whole "beauty and the beast" moment. Again, it's Kumi Mizuno we're talking about here and it is played down a lot more than it would be with Kong, but it's still odd that Godzilla would have any interest in a tiny human woman at all.

"Society and all its Maser cannons can never stop our love!"
So, yeah, Godzilla's opponent is less than impressive and the film is set on a tropical island, which cuts down on the city destruction significantly. This seems to be the major beef that many older Godzilla fans have with the movie. This movie is also a far cry from the dark and starkly terrifying 1954 film, so I'm sure the newer fans who seem to think that Godzilla should only ever be serious and a grim nuclear allegory would hate this film with every fiber of their being.

Nuts to that, on both counts. This movie, to me, exemplifies one of the aspects of Godzilla that is oddly forgotten in most discussions--the character's versatility. Yes, in the long run there's only so much you can expect out of a 150-foot radioactive dinosaur, but he can be anything from the dark avatar of nuclear weapons to valiant protector of the Earth. Godzilla is a character, not just a metaphor. And Godzilla is one of the few fictional characters to go from villain to hero and back again--and have it make sense every time.

This film is not meant as a metaphor. It has no message. It is meant to entertain only. So does it succeed at that goal? And how!

This film was the first time that Jun Fukuda would sit in the director's chair, making it only the second Godzilla movie not to be directed by Ishiro Honda. It's also the second film in the series to feature Masaru Sato as composer, but thankfully in this film Sato is allowed to use his own style--as opposed to Godzilla Raids Again, which saw him shamelessly ripping off Max Steiner's King Kong score.

Jun Fukuda was a very workman-like director. Unlike Honda, he didn't really have a knack for disctinctive framing choices and leitmotifs. However, that didn't stop this film from having a lush, candy-colored palette--it looks amazing on Blu-ray, where its technicolor glory truly pops.

If you ask me to chose Akira Ifukube or Masaru Sato as my favorite Godzilla composer, I'd have to honestly think hard on it before choosing. While this film is not Sato's finest work on the series--that honor goes most definitely to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla--his score here is delightful. It takes manny of its cues from surf rock, as befits a film set on a tropical island. And while Sato's version of the Mothra song is hardly equal to the traditional theme, originally composed by Yuji Koseki, it's a nice spin on it that manages to be its own thing.

The effects for the film are largely great--provided you're not so lacking in imagination as to automatically label anything involving men in suits and miniature buildings as "bad effects" without any appreciation of the effort involved--though the monsters are a bit of a mixed bag. The Godzilla suit--originally used in Invasion of Astro-Monster--is actually one of my favorites, despite its resemblance to Cookie Monster, but it does look a bit haggard. It's possible that this was filmed after the suit was used as Jirass on an episode of Ultraman, so having to repaint it and cover up the spot where the frill was attached would account for some that. Mothra, on the other hand, looks godawful. The puppet looks, fittingly, moth-eaten and dirty; as though it was taken out of storage minutes before filming. Cripes, it even has a cigarette butt on the side of its head in one shot.

Maybe Mothra was like Steve McQueen in The Blob and she just refused to stop smoking during filming?
Ebirah, on the other hand, looks amazing. The creature is constantly in motion: its eye stalks wiggle, its feelers wave, and its mandibles are continually working. Add to that the fact that the creature was largely a man in a suit, yet the actor's legs--which would jut out at the totally wrong angle to be convincing as a crustacean--are never visible, and you have a fantastically realized monster.

Oh, yeah, and the giant condor looks okay, I guess.

The human story is ultimately where any monster movie fails, though. Sure, we come to see the monsters, but a movie that is 90 solid minutes of monster action is simply not feasible so the non-monster sections need to be compelling or it will be an exercise in boredom or frustration.

Luckily, this film's human story is great. The teenagers and the Red Bamboo don't really make much of an impression outside of the always reliable Akihiko Hirata charmingly evil Guard Captain, sure, but Kumi Mizuno is always welcome--and not just as a pretty face. The real standout is Akira Takarada as Yoshimura, though. This was Takarada's fourth and final Godzilla film until he returned to the series briefly in 1992's Godziilla and Mothra: Battle For The Earth and in 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars, and it is easily my favorite character of his. Yoshimura is a charming rogue with a hidden moral compass that actually points due North, similar to what made Han Solo so popular. The film would definitely not be as enjoyable without him.

In the long run, if you're expecting a serious Godzilla film with a strong central message, you need to look elsewhere. If you want a film that's entertaining, light-hearted, and fun? This will fit the bill perfectly.

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