Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Oddball Film Report: GODZILLA VERSUS THE SEA MONSTER (1966)
First, Toho's special effects workhorse Eiji Tsuburya took his talents to television. There he produced the moody horror series Ultra Q, a sort of The Outer Limits with a weekly giant monster. This success would soon be followed by Ultraman, and the rest is history. It was much like when television began airing original product in the 1950's, when the movie studios had huge animation departments and made cartoons for theatrical showings. Early TV cartoons were predicted to be a flop due to the constraints of a TV budget on animation. Then the truth hit executives right between the eyes, the quality of the animation wasn't important as long as the cartoons were well-written and funny. Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, and several other stars eventually left the movies to find work in the new medium of television, joined by countless new personalities like Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, and Clutch Cargo. So what happened in Japan when it became clear that a weekly series could duplicate the formula of the Godzilla feature films? Crude imitations sprung up like ragweed, on the big screen and the small. GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET, THE MAGIC SERPENT, MAJIN, MONSTER OF TERROR and several others began to crowd their way into theaters, while TV screens suddenly saw shows like Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot, The Space Giants, and Ultraseven across the dial. While the fad for feature films died out in the 70's, the TV product flourished and continues to operate today.
Second, and partly the byproduct of Item One, Toho began to reduce their budgets in order to keep their films profitable. KING KONG VS GODZILLA, GODZILLA VS THE THING, and GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER had been lavish affairs increasing ticket sales by giving audiences multiple giant monsters in each film. Starting with 1965's MONSTER ZERO, the budgets were cut back to accommodate rising costs. Thus, the film features the first heavy use of stock footage in a Godzilla film. All in all though, the film is still an impressive display of Tsuburya's craftsmanship, and also benefits from having one of the best scripts in the series. Still, those model buildings don't come cheap. The studio needed a more economical way to make Godzilla movies. The solution was pretty simple, make stories that don't involve cities. So Godzilla got an extended working vacation to produce what are called the Island Pictures.
It's much easier and cheaper to toss together a miniature jungle than a miniature city, so Godzilla's adventures for the next couple of films took place on tiny islands in the South Seas. Also, the films were turned over to a new director and composer. Gone were Ishiro Honda's brooding darkness and Akira Ifukube's pounding scores. Instead, the lighter hand of helmer Jun Fukuda gave these adventures a real 'pop' feel, and the music provided by Masuro Sato had an ear toward light adventure and occasional comedy. Rather than damage the series, though, GODZILLA VERSUS THE SEA MONSTER and SON OF GODZILLA remain two of the most entertaining entries in the entire run of films.
Unfortunately, they feel more suited to TV, and that's just where they landed here in the States. While the other films in the series had been, and would continue to be released theatrically in the United States (although the previous film, MONSTER ZERO, wouldn't see US release until 1970!), GODZILLA VERSUS THE SEA MONSTER and SON OF GODZILLA were released straight to television. This means that those seeking an English language version of these films must choose between the US TV prints (which are cropped, but have decent dubbing) or the 'International' prints which saw theatrical issue in England (which are scope and uncut, but feature horrible dub tracks recorded in China on the demand of the Japanese studios). For me, personally, SON OF GODZILLA's US dub track makes it a no-contest decision. On the other hand, there's GODZILLA VERSUS THE SEA MONSTER. The American dub is much, much better, with more natural sounding voices for the characters (the comic relief guy has a deeper voice than the others, while in the International version he is given a grating, high-pitched voice, like a mutant Jerry Lewis or something). Oddly, though, the dialog tends to be better in the International print. That version, by the way, is actually titled EBIRAH, HORROR OF THE DEEP. I have both versions, and count them as two different movies. In a perfect world, though, I could lay the American dub and title over the International print and have the best picture and sound possible. In fact, had I more money and the equipment to do so, I would make custom versions of the films. I'm that fanatic about it, and one day hope to arrange a deal with Toho to theatrically issue my 'ultimate' versions across America on a fantastic double bill. It's nice to have dreams.
While the budget for effects have been scaled back, there's no skimping on the actors in either Island film. Here, we get the Cary Grant of Japan himself, Akira Takarada in the lead role. The Girl, meanwhile, is played by Kumi Mizuno, who may be the most famous Japanese actress in the world, since there are actually a fair number of Americans and Canadians who actually know her face and name. She remains quite popular in her home country, and has appeared in a liberal number of fantasy films in her career (thus her American visibility). She remains most famous among Godzilla fans as the seductive Miss Namikawa in MONSTER ZERO. Her exotic (even by Japanese standards) beauty and natural screen presence make her a welcome addition to any movie. Also on hand, among others, is Akihiko Hirata. Like Takarada, Hirata had starred in the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. There, he played the tragic tortured scientist Dr. Serizawa who ultimately destroyed the first Godzilla and took his own life to keep the secret of his terrible weapon. In other words, he was the guy with the eye patch. He's wearing another eye patch in this movie, as the cruel Captain of the Guard of a renegade army operating a heavy water plant. Those wondering what a crossover between Godzilla and James Bond would be like need look no further than this film, and the next year's KING KONG ESCAPES*.
*It was originally King Kong, not Godzilla who was supposed to face off against the Sea Monster! Toho had the project all planned out, but had to substitute their own famous giant at the last minute when rights issues to Kong became tangled. Happily, the problem would be fixed and the next year saw screens graced by KING KONG ESCAPES, which was actually based on a Saturday morning King Kong cartoon series!
Some editing has been done to start things off with a bang, as a sequence from the middle of the film showing The Sea Monster sinking a sailboat has been lifted and tacked on just after the title card. The only credit we get here is the title (the only title in the franchise to spell out the word 'versus'), while the International print featured a full credit sequence. Said sequence occurs over a piece of music rather more soft and melodic than the American distributor, Walter Reade-Sterling, may have wanted to open with. (Then there's the opening to SON OF GODZILLA, -which cuts a whole opening scene with Godzilla- removing all of the credit plates, yet keeping the sequence intact!) While this move makes sure the kiddies in the audience will be hooked enough to sit out the ensuing human drama until the monster surfaces again, the move also serves to diminish the monster's first appearance later in the film (not that the title doesn't let us know ahead of time that we'll be seeing a sea monster). This move makes it even weirder that the pre-credit monster scene in SON OF GODZILLA got trimmed. Another issue raised by this re-edit is that you can see the crew of the sailboat that gets clawed, and its the same group of people who run across the Sea Monster "three months later....."
There has been a disaster at sea (which as we can see in our version of the film is a future projection of attack by a giant claw that rises from the waves and crushes a tiny sailboat), and some fishermen have gone missing. The superstitious mother of one of the men has consulted a mystic of some kind, and the report is that the son is still alive. The younger son (who I'll call Ed, because despite all the times I've seen this film I can't recall any of the character names) also believes his brother to be alive, and sets out to find him. (In the International print, there's a short scene where Ed goes to the police to seek help, but they can't really do anything when the only lead is a mystic's confirmation that the fella isn't dead. Seeing an ad for a dance contest that awards a sailboat first prize, Ed takes his leave of the police station.) Back in the American print, Ed shows up at the dance contest, which is in its third day. There's a number of twisting couples who look tired, but frankly they don't look like they've been twisting for three days straight (can you imagine how badly the place would stink? Surely they've been getting rest breaks, and more if the perfect makeup and hairdo's of the female contestants is any clue)! This contest of endurance has taken its toll on two wheezing figures, I'll call them Bob and Bing, who collapse and crawl to the sidelines where Ed is standing. Ed asks if there's any chance for him to enter the contest, but he's told he's three days late. Still, Ed really needs a boat. With nothing better to do, apparently, Bob and Bing drive the lad down to the pier to look at all the boats.
On the dock, the gang spots a luxurious sailing yacht, the YAHLEN, and decide to poke around a bit. Like Goldilocks, the guys wander in and snoop around. When one of the gang wonders aloud what the owner looks like, they find dashing gent, er, Dean (Akira Takarada) aiming a rifle at them. Explaining they meant no harm, the guys manage to talk Dean into letting them stay the night (although Dean does chastise them for being too loud). The next morning, Dean finds his rifle gone. Ed has dismantled it ("I thought it was a toy") and this riles Dean, who orders the men off the boat. (Later, it is confirmed, however passingly, that the rifle was indeed a toy. Dean is a professional thief, you see, having recently swiped a huge amount and is currently hiding out on the YAHLEN. The toy rifle shows that, while Dean might be a thief, he's not looking to hurt anyone. His hobby is picking locks, a skill employed quite a bit later in the picture, and Takarada gives a great performance as he nearly salivates every time he sees a new kind of lock, a new challenge for a master craftsman. Upon opening one door, one of the others asks if safe cracking is really so easy. Confirming how seriously Dean takes his work, he counters with "Only amatuers think that.")
On deck, it is discovered that the boat is far out at sea. Ed has set out in the night to search for his brother, believing the boat to be a gift from "the gods" and that it would be disrespectful not to take advantage of it. Bing and Bob wonder if they and Dean can take the boat back to Japan. Dean gets uneasy and decides there's no harm in humoring the kid (apparently Bing and Bob don't have jobs to get back to). (This is another moment handled slightly better in the International dub, where it's a bit more obvious that what makes Dean so nervous is talking to the authorities upon return to shore. In the US dub, it isn't quite as obvious he's nervous about the cops. He just seems to get bugged in the middle of a conversation.)
On the voyage, Dean's identity is betrayed by the radio announcer who notes the thief has made off with a yacht belonging to an American film producer (given the name of "Walter Riener" in the International dub). With Bob and Bing seasick, they really aren't in a position to apprehend this criminal, so they hang out together for a few more days at sea.
With the food supply beginning to run low, the men are talking about taking the boat away from Ed and heading home. Ed suddenly needs their help, though, when storm clouds start moving in. The YAHLEN gets swept into a raging storm. One of the men spots a huge claw rising from the sea (complete with spy-movie guitar riff theme). Since we saw the boat attacked at the start of the movie, here we just fade out (which could have been a nice effect, actually, if it weren't so obvious the scene had simply been relocated). Fading in, we find the gang has washed up on the beach of an island somewhere. Dean's stolen money has been claimed by Davy Jones. Keeping perspective, Dean bitterly notes the loot won't help them now. The logical first step is to climb to the highest point of the island and look around. On the climb up, Bob (the comic relief guy) finds an ivory-handled sword. At least they have a weapon now, and proof someone else is, or has been, on the island.
From the cliff, the men see a ship coming in. They run down to the jungle to get a better look, as Dean smells something fishy. Indeed, the ship is hauling human cargo to work as slave labor for a bunch of soldiers wearing white uniforms. Among the slaves is Diao (HER name I remember! Kumi Mizuno makes a delectable native girl), who manages to sneak away when some of the slaves make a break in the other direction. Though a couple of the slaves make it to a boat (and what was a native boat doing just sitting on the beach of THIS island?), they are eaten when the Sea Monster, a "mammoth lobster" surfaces. The ship the soldiers use sprays a yellow liquid all around when entering or leaving the harbor, this chemical repels the monster (Ebirah in the International version, though unnamed here) which stalks the waters surrounding the island. No one else can enter or leave the island. The Captain of the Guard, aided by this demonstration of the monster's ferocity, let's the slaves know there is no escape before herding them off. The Captain's CO, via television monitor, lets him know the girl has escaped, and he saw this action on camera (why he waited so long to let his Captain of the Guard know this isn't clear, but presumably it's to let the guy know he should stay on his toes. This doesn't strike me as the kind of organization that would tolerate much incompetence). A detail is sent out to find her.
About this sea monster issue. At no time are we told if Ebirah was somehow created by the soldiers, maybe as a byproduct of their heavy water experiments, or if the monster was already living near the island when the soldiers moved in and they simply took advantage of an impressive natural resource. The monster's existence is known of on another island, but with no indication of how long anyone has known about it. Even more puzzling is a giant condor which shows up later, literally out of the blue. We're given no clue as to if this bird is a natural inhabitant of the island or or he's been contracted by the soldiers to attack Godzilla. If it is the second story, where did the soldiers get a giant bird? (One item, Godzilla is already on the island, sleeping within a giant cave. Yet, the monsters don't seem to have run into him before he's revived this time around. So.... maybe the soldiers imported the giant lobster and bird from somewhere else....?)
Diao, running through the woods, runs across our heroes and forms a quick alliance with them. Spotted by a balloon-mounted camera (and interesting, if theoretically problematic method of spying on the island's goings on), the group flees. They manage to evade the pursuing soldiers by taking refuge in a cave beneath a cliff, creating the impression that they have fallen into the sea. We now learn that Diao's people have been abducted from Infant Island, home of the mighty Mothra! (This is Mothra's third showing in a Godzilla movie, having first confronted the big blue dinosaur in what is widely considered the best film of the series, GODZILLA VS THE THING. It was Mothra who set Godzilla on the side of right when the bug talked Godzilla and Rodan into joining forces to protect the earth from GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER. Mothra seems to be a supernatural creature of sorts, with a strong mental link to a pair of foot-high twin girls. These "fairies" speak in unison and keep peace on the island by acting as a go-between for the natives and their weird deity. Of note, this is the last film of the original series to feature the Fairies, or the natives of Infant Island. With their passing (?), Mothra reverts to a far less supernatural giant insect for the remainder of the series.)
(The Fairies are for the first time not being played by The Peanuts, a novelty twin singing group quite popular in the early 60's. Here, the parts have been turned over to the Pair Bambi, who actually have a more exotic 'islander' look than the oh-so-Japanese Peanuts. I guess the Pair Bambi didn't have much of an impact, though, for this is the last we see of them, or the Fairies. On a personal note, I think the Bambi twins are actually a bit cuter than the Peanuts. I wonder how many a geek war I've started with that sentence......)
We'll occasionally cut to the island to see the natives doing a big dance number in the hopes of waking the snoozing Mothra. On the upshot, Infant Island is much more lush than when we last saw, meaning I guess that Mothra's monstrous appetite has been curbed since the creature's very existence in Japan spelled doom in fear the bug would start eating once hatched from its egg (such was the concern of the Fairies in having Mothra's lost egg, having washed up on a Japanese beach in GODZILLA VS THE THING). (Another issue the island faced in earlier chapters was lingering sickness from radioactive fallout, although the natives themselves were immune thanks to a berry juice they drank which counteracted radioactivity. By GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER, this was no longer an issue. Which only makes sense, as bomb testing near the island would have been halted once it was discovered a civilization existed there, and unlike the natives of Bikini, there'd be a colossal, indestructible insect to reckon with if the islanders are relocated. Also, unlike you see in much popular culture, fallout doesn't do permanent damage to an area, so it makes sense that life on the island would be returning to normal. But what happened to the natives after this adventure? For the next time we see Mothra, in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, the giant bug has been relocated to Monsterland on Ogasawara Island.) At any rate, Mothra hasn't been able to keep the soldiers from raiding the island periodically to steal slave labor. (In the International dub, the unnamed soldiers are said to be the Red Bamboo. Possibly this detail was dropped from the US version to make the enemy more mysterious?)
Diao lets Ed know his brother is alive and has washed up on Infant Island, so one plot thread is starting to tie off. Another item for our party is that the cave they've taken refuge in also houses Godzilla, sprawled out in the cavern far below. It also turns out, he's still alive! (Actually, I'm not sure why hearing his heartbeat echo through the rocks would be so shocking. It's not like Godzilla has been out of action for very long. Excluding GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, where he actually did get destroyed, Godzilla has been buried alive twice, and dumped into the ocean with a silk bag over his head. MONSTER ZERO breaks continuity by taking place sometime in the future, despite making direct reference to the previous chapter, but that climax also found Godzilla supposedly buried alive under the sea. Starting with our subject today, the big blue dinosaur would be allowed to conclusively live out the end of each picture.) After sneaking into, and escaping from, the enemy command center, the gang decides they can get the pursuing soldiers off their hands by waking Godzilla (although there is some concern over Godzilla's causing more damage in the long run than the soldiers and their A-bombs). During the escape, by the way, Ed gets tangled in a spy balloon and floats away, and Bob is captured and tossed into a dungeon where the Infant natives are kept busy making the yellow liquid that repels the sea monster (add your own drawn butter joke here). Ed meanwhile is carried to Infant Island (!) where he just happens to find his brother, eh, Tom, I'll call him.
Tom is a restless crusader who cringes upon seeing human oppression (one wonders how he felt living so close to Red China) and he intends to set out to to rescue the slave natives, single handed if need be. He and Ed are given a small boat and supplies to return to the other island, Letchi, I think they say (this is the first time I've had a chance to listen to the American dub in years, as the US version has yet to be issued on DVD, at least officially. I had to track down an old Video Treasures VHS to see this gem again). The Fairies make sure to include some of the yellow liquid to use against the sea monster (so the Infant Islanders have already been making the stuff for a while now, and seems to be the only reason the soldiers abducted so many of their number. Again, where did the giant lobster come from? How long has it been around? Did the soldiers go to the island where it lived or did they have it imported to the island they took over?).
Back to Dean and the others. How to wake Godzilla? Shock treatment. Diao had earlier taken a loop of copper wire from the enemy supply room to wear as a necklace. Using the sword Bob had collected -a weapon which belonged to one of Diao's people, making one wonder why the soldiers allowed a native to keep his sword when they abducted him- as a lightning rod, Dean and Bing uncoil the copper wire and lay it out so it makes contact with Godzilla. The idea is to jump-start the dinosaur with lightning. And thus we have another major step in Godzilla's evolution. While the first Godzilla was immune to electric shock, high tension wires DID work against the second Godzilla! This allowed the JSDF to direct the big blue dinosaur away from populated areas. Unfortunately, King Kong was made stronger by electric current and he destroyed these structures, sucking the juice out of them. In the climax, Kong's life is saved when lightning strikes him and he is able to overcome Godzilla. The ape is so charged with energy that his hands issue sparks whenever he makes contact with Godzilla, and this action seems to cause Godzilla pain. In the next film, the JSDF use artificial lightning against the beast. While Godzilla isn't as repelled as much as before, the operation does work. Huge metal nets are dropped on the monster and electric towers blast away at him with Tesla-like bolts of energy. Godzilla comes very near to defeat in this sequence, but the generators overload and the power dies long enough for Godzilla to regain his feet and make short work of the towers. Here, he's revived by lightning. In a later film, he will draw strength and vitality from an electrical storm, just as Kong had done earlier. In fact, he'll store this energy and later transform himself into a giant electro-magnet to defeat Mecha-Godzilla! (When Toho restarted the series with GODZILLA 1985, the monster again drew power from lightning, souped up by radioactivity from an exploded nuclear missile in the upper atmosphere!) Over the series we see Godzilla develop an immunity to electric discharges, and eventually incorporate the power into his system. Talk about adapt and overcome!
So Ed and Tom are returning to the island when a storm hits. Their supplies washed overboard, they have no protection when the sea monster surfaces (they'll make it to shore, though, or else the movie would be over). Right on cue, the makeshift lightning rod system works and Godzilla is awake! Breaking out of the mountain, he and the sea monster size each other up before round one. No need in spoiling it for those who haven't seen the film yet, so I'll stop there with the detailed plot examination.
One sequence I must mention is when Godzilla is attacked by a squadron of MIGs. Although hampered by the cropped image of the TV print, this scene features some of my favorite footage of the entire series. One shot in particular that always impresses me is a shot tracking a jet as it closes in on Godzilla's legs, only to be swiped from the air by his tail. The shot is simply hypnotic. The scene in general is great stuff, if not for the formatting for television.
After this South Seas adventure, Godzilla and Ebirah would work together again (sort of) in GODZILLA'S REVENGE. That film was mostly about a child with an overactive imagination who gets abducted by bank robbers. All the monster stuff is seen in dream sequences! If this takes place in 'our' world, or the world where the other films are set, though, remains a mystery. Basically, the kid leans lessons in self-defence from Godzilla's son, Minya, while to pair watch a number of stock footage battles from earlier films. (An actual, original, shot-for-this-film battle does occur, though, as Godzilla and Minya must face off against Gabera, a sort of cat-faced ogre.) GODZILLA'S REVENGE has to be the weirdest film of the series. For some reason, UPA brought the film to US theater screens, where American audiences could at least see the fight scenes (including the sequence with the MIGs) from GODZILLA VERSUS THE SEA MONSTER and SON OF GODZILLA in their glorious wide scope. Godzilla, of course, would go on to many more adventures. Ebirah would return (briefly, like all the other monsters) in GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, the last Godzilla movie to date. (I doubt that status will last long, however.)