21 November 2009

Movie Review: Son of Godzilla

Son of Godzilla (1967)
Directed by Jun Fukuda. Starring Tadao Takashima, Akira Kubo, Bibari “Beverly” Maeda, Akihiko Hirata, Kenji Sahara, Yoshio Tsuchiya.

By the second half of the 1960s, Japanese cinema was coming to the height of kaiju (giant monster) craziness. Ironically, at this time the Godzilla series took a bit of a budget hit and shifted its direction. Toho placed much of its top kaiju talent on films such as Frankenstein Conquers the World and King Kong Escapes. The Godzilla movies moved away from massive city-stomping epics and instead went off to the islands for a cheaper vacation.

Son of Godzilla (Kaiju Toh No Kessen: Gojira No Musuko, “Showdown on Monster Island: Son of Godzilla”) was the second of the “island” pictures, and also the second Godzilla film directed by Jun Fukuda. Much of the same crew that worked on the previous year’s Ebirah, the Horror of the Deep (a.k.a. Godzilla versus the Sea Monster) came back for this second tropical adventure. Along with Fukuda, there was also effects director Teisho Arikawa and composer Masaru Sato. Although it is tempting to call this the “B-squad” of monster-movie making, they ended up crafting two fine and underrated films in the series. After the heavy SF spectacles of the previous films, the adventure movie aspects of both are refreshing.

I never liked Ebirah, the Horror of the Deep much as a child—perhaps because I found the big lobster opponent such a bore—but I always liked the spunky energy of Son of Godzilla, and I enjoy it even more today. The film features a cute tyke monster, but it also presents a serious action and adventure story; the adorableness of the baby Godzilla scenes are a bonus to lighten the film and never derails the consequences of the human story and the very real dangers on Solgell Island. That director Fukuda and screenwriters Shinichi Serizawa and Kazue Shiba manage this balancing act is quite a feat, but they make this the most genuine “family movie” of all the Godzilla films, and a pleasant adventure story.

There’s no pulse-pounding mayhem here, as in the Ishiro Honda classics. The monster fight scenes are tame in comparison. But when I sit down with Son of Godzilla and block out the other parts of Godzilla history and the heavy-metal kaiju action, I always enjoy the film 100%. I even like the cute scenes. They’re so innocent and played with such charm.
The human story forms the film’s framework, as it does in Ebirah, the Horror of the Deep. This is a huge change from the other movies in the series, where the human story develops as a consequence of the monster action—indeed, a reaction to it. But here, the monsters are obstacles for the heroes, instead of the heroes’ focus, and the script and Fukuda’s direction do a great job creating a solid group of characters and running them through one danger after another. This manages to compensate for the lower budget and lack of enormous FX sequences of humanity trying to stop a monster invasion.

The movie begins with a scene that did not make it to the original U.S. release from the Walter Reade Organization: a radio-monitoring plane in a storm picks up intense “brain wave” activity which they chart must be coming from uninhabited Solgell Island in the Pacific. Godzilla rises up from the ocean and starts making his way that direction, leaving the plane’s crew wondering why the great monster is so interested in these bizarre brain waves. Why the first U.S. version chopped this out makes little sense: North American distributors often complained that Godzilla films took too long to get to an appearance of the monster, and yet the Big-G pops up only half a minute into this film. The U.S. version did find a way to put Godzilla up-front, but simply as a shot of the monster standing by a jungle in a storm, with a quick cut to the movie’s title. But it’s a much less satisfying choice. The English-dubbed version of the Sony DVD has the full original opening.

Solgell Island currently has human inhabitants: a Japanese scientific research team working under the aegis of an international organization to help increase food production. The goal of the team is to find a way to freeze the island and create a tool for making worldwide food preserves. The research squad is filled with great Toho studio players, many of them familiar with science-fiction movies and favorites of director Ishiro Honda. They show just as much enthusiasm for their parts under director Fukuda. Leading the team is the pipe-smoking Dr. Kusumi, played by Tadao Takashima. Takashima best-known for his great comic work in King Kong vs. Godzilla and Atragon, but he’s wonderful here as the determined scientist who believes in his mission, and keeps the scientific project moving ahead even as the island changes into a monster-ravaged inferno. Included in the team are radio operator Fujisaki (Akihiko Hirata, one of the stars of 1954’s Godzilla), Murio (Kenji Sahara, the most ubiquitous SF actor in all Japanese cinema), and Furukawa (Yoshio Tsuchiya), a man on the verge of going completely insane from isolation on the boiling tropical island.
Tsuchiya, a performer in Akira Kurosawa’s stock company, usually got the juiciest, craziest roles in SF films, and he loved playing them. He steals every scene he’s in as the convincingly disintegrating Furukawa, ready to snap at any moment and go wild with his rifle. It’s interesting to compare his role here to that in another Godzilla film I recently reviewed, Godzilla Raids Again. Tsuchiya had a dull stock role there; the studio apparently didn’t know what potential they had with the actor. By the time of Son of Godzilla, Tsuchiya was in full bloom as one of Japan’s top character actors.

(Tsuchiya’s best special-effects film performance is arguably the “Controller of Planet X” in Invasion of Astro-Monster, but his weird vocal performance disappears in the English dub. )

Two intruders come into the scientific quarantine. First, reporter Goro Maki (Akira Kubo) parachutes down onto the island, thinking there’s some sort of “scoop” here. I have no clue where he got the idea, but maybe he lost his job at the newspaper and latched onto a vague “secret” project in the Pacific. The team can’t send him back—no transports are scheduled—so they put him to work as cook and photographer for when they all become famous. It’s Kubo who finds the island’s other human inhabitant, the girl Saeko (Bibari Maeda), the orphaned daughter of an earlier scientist who lived on Solgell. Saeko has gone native for survival.

Kubo, another mainstay of Toho SF pictures from such films as Gorath (1962) and later star of Destroy All Monsters (1968), brings a childish energy to the group, and once he joins the team on Solgell it almost feels as if we’ve got a Howard Hawks film going in the Pacific. Maeda, on the other hand, is the human cast’s only disappointment. She certainly is no threat to Kumi Mizuno’s native girl from Ebirah, The Horror of the Deep.

Actually, three intruders pop up on Solgell: don’t forget that Godzilla is making waves for the island. And the site does have some other “natives”: human-sized mantises that Kubo calls “Kamacuras” (“Gimantis” in the first U.S. dub).

Accompanied by an exciting theme from Masaru Sato, the team prepares for the full-scale freeze of the island—which goes horribly wrong and results in a radioactive storm. The crew survives, and Dr. Kusumi thinks they can pick up the pieces and try again, but the storm has shot the Kamacurases up to humongous size. The big mantises dig up the source of the strange brain-waves, an egg that hatches a pudgy Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man who is supposed to be a baby Godzilla. The poor infant’s cries bring Big Daddy onto land (right as Furukawa goes completely nuts for the first time) in a great effects moment. Godzilla, on his way to save the baby, crushes most of the scientific station.

The remainder of the movie has the science team trying to salvage their project, hiding in the caves where Saeko has survived for years, while avoiding the threat of getting stomped by Godzilla (sure, he/she/it is acting paternal, but still doesn’t give a damn about any humans he/she/it might stomp on), eaten by the Kamacurases, or webbed up by a giant spider called Kumonga (“Spiga” in the old dub). I hope these folks got enough grant money to make this worthwhile.

Godzilla’s son, Minira (also called “Minya” and “Minilla” in U.S. publicity material) is adorable to the limits of the law, and also poses a ton of questions. Is this acutally Godzilla’s “son,” and if so, what gender is Godzilla? How did reproduction occur? Most writers refer to Godzilla as masculine, as do the films sometimes, but this is never clear in any of the Toho movies. I tend to think that Minira belongs to the same species as Godzilla, and the Big-G adopted it—but that’s merely “personal canon” or “fandon” on my part. Minira’s antics are charming, and getting itself into trouble with the other creatures on the island gives real menace to the monster sequences.

Godzilla is one of the film’s troubles, however, since the suit designed for the film is one of the worst in the series. As a child I disliked how the dark saurian beauty of the character was muted, and my opinion of it hasn’t changed. The suit is awkwardly large, apparently to make Minira look even smaller, and Godzilla has gotten a “Muppet Makeover” with his big eyes and shortened snout. The stuntman’s head also bulges noticeably in the neck. The Godzilla suit from Ebirah, The Horror of the Deep appears briefly when Godzilla emerges at the shore of Solgell, and this is also the only place where Hauro Nakajima, the stuntman who played Godzilla more times than any other performer, got into the suit. Two taller stuntmen played the part for the remainder of the movie.

Godzilla remains dangerous, but the presence of Minira humanizes him (her? it?) to a degree the series had not yet seen before. He takes times to “teach” its son the ways of monstering: how to roar, breathe radioactive fire, etc. Minira is a delight in these scene, but Godzilla seems strange and far from his origins. Godzilla also appears psychically weaker in this film, having a tough fight with the giant spider Kumonga, which he could trounce in minutes in his other incarnations. In 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, the Big-G eliminates Kumonga in moments, grabbing onto its web and flinging it into oblivion.
Kumonga and the three Kamacurases are executed using wires to avoid the typical man-in-suit appearance. Although not as fearsome as many of Godzilla’s other enemies, they do pose serious dangers to the humans, which is unusual for a kaiju film. Normally, the giant monsters are oblivious to the tiny creatures at their feet, but in Son of Godzilla they actively pursue and attack them. The enormous mantises compare favorably to the ants in Them!, and Kumonga is often truly disgusting-looking: as I kid, I had a hard time watching the grotesque spider threatening to kill Minira with its poison spike.

Although Toho’s master of special effects Eiji Tsubaraya has a credit on the movie as a “supervisor,” he was occupied with King Kong Escapes at the time, so most of the VFX work on Son of Godzilla fell to his long-time assistant, Teisho Arikawa (credited on the international cut as “Sadamasa Arikawa” for some reason). Arikawa also did the VFX on Ebirah, The Horror of the Deep, doing great work on a smaller budget in the island setting. Arikawa gets great “performances” from the puppetry of the Kamacurases and Kumonga, and the optical work that brings the humans into compositions with the monsters still looks impressive. A scene of the science team trying to frighten off a Kamacuras with rifles as it threatens their base contains nearly flawless mattes of the miniature set and the human footage. Shots of Kumonga and Kamacuras passing behind the balloon tower while the human cast hides in the foreground give a great sense of the creatures’ scale.

The monsters in general seem smaller than in other G-films, which allows for some good human interaction with them. A full-sized Kumonga leg prop attacks the scientists inside their cave, giving the actors a rare chance to perform with something physical on the set.

Despite much of Arikawa’s good work, the monster battles in Son of Godzilla are a bit tepid; this is also a problem with Ebirah. The finale of the film has a more exciting human angle, as Dr. Kusumi and his team race to freeze the island before the monster conflict crushes the cave where they’re hidden. Godzilla and Minira vs. Kumonga is a minor battle in the annals of Godzilla showdowns. However, the coda with Godzilla and his son huddling together as they slip into hibernation during the icing over of Solgell is moving, and the best kaiju work in the film.

Musician Masaru Sato returns for his third Godzilla score. He wrote the uninteresting music from Godzilla Raids Again in 1955, but over twelve years matured into one of Japan’s greatest film composers, and one of the best world-wide. His music for Ebirah, the Horror of the Deep suited the island setting and espionage plot, and he goes one better here, turning in what is arguably the best non-Akira Ifukube score of the classic Godzilla series. Minira gets a jolly motif, strange percussion rhythms herald Kumonga and the Kamacurases, and an energetic “jungle work” theme drives the scientists as they do their dangerous business. Sato’s concluding music for “father and son” helps make the scene so moving.
Son of Godzilla suffered the indignity of being the second film in the G-series to skip getting a U.S. theatrical release. Henry Sapirstein of UPA, who had co-funded Invasion of Astro-Monster in 1965, apparently passed on both Ebirah, The Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla, and the Walter Reade Organization picked up the U.S. rights for both films instead. However, while the company previously released the 1964 Godzilla classic Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster to theaters through its Continental subsidiary (in some places on a double-bill with the Elvis Presley movie Harum Scarum; the mind-boggles at such a double feature!), the North American theatrical market for Japanese monster films was drying up in the late ‘60s, and Walter Reade instead syndicated the two island adventures to television. Both would have long lives on local stations and then on VHS, and now they have excellent DVD presentations from Sony.

The current DVD of Son of Godzilla features an uncut widescreen print of the film which captures all the wonderful colors and special-effects compositions. Like all of Sony’s recent Godzilla releases, it contains the film in Japanese with subtitles, and an alternate audio track with an English dub. The dub, however, is not the one that the Walter Reade Organization hired Titra Sound to do, but a dub that Toho commissioned from Frontier Enterprises for distribution to other English-speaking markets—and it’s a far inferior a job. This doesn’t bother me much, since I always listen to the Japanese language track, but many fans will miss hearing the voicework from their childhood. Titra Sound always did superlative dubs. However, Sony does not own the rights to that particular dub, so they had to go with the one that Toho commissioned.