Saturday, April 19, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla's Revenge

Every boy needs a friend, even if it’s a monster.

Director Ishirô Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa had worked on most of the Godzilla movies made up to this point, but the entry in the series they delivered to theatres just in time for Christmas 1969 was anything but a typical installment.

This movie was originally titled Godzilla, Minilla, and Gabara: All Monsters Attack, the latter part of which sounds somewhat misleading when you take into account the fact that it's following the epic Destroy All Monsters. It brings to mind the possibility that events in this follow-up could reach the large scale level of that movie. They certainly do not.

Henry G. Saperstein, the American producer and distributor who had partnered with Toho on Invasion of Astro-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and The War of the Gargantuas, picked the movie up for distribution in the U.S. Apparently there was some consideration given to titling the English version Minya, Son of Godzilla, but since the 1967 Godzilla movie had already been called Son of Godzilla, the American distributors cooked up the title Godzilla's Revenge. And perhaps never before or since has there been a more inappropriate title for a movie. There is nothing dark or vengeful about it.

What Godzilla's Revenge truly is, is a uniquely strange children's movie, the most direct appeal to the youngsters in the audience the series ever made. You'd think most of the films had been kid-friendly enough up to this point, but this one goes much further. So far that the lead character is a reflection of the Godzilla-loving kids in the audience.

Young Ichirô Miki is a Japanese grade schooler who doesn't see much of his parents. His mother works late, his father works long hours on the railroad while dreaming of moving his family out of the busy, polluted city and into the countryside. Ichirô doesn't seem to have many friends, either. Just his female classmate Sachiko and Shinpei, an eccentric, middle-aged toymaker who lives in his apartment building. When he gets home from school, Ichirô has to pick up the key to his apartment from Shinpei's place, and the man gives him a sneak peek at the computer toys he's working on putting together. Then Ichirô heads home and whiles away the hours by getting lost in his daydreams... Daydreams of Monster Island (which had been called Monsterland in Destroy All Monsters) and the monsters that inhabit it.

Ichirô is enamored with the monsters that populated the previous Godzilla movies, and of course with Godzilla himself. Godzilla's Revenge seems to be set in our reality, where the Godzilla movies are just movies. From how other characters react when Ichirô goes on about the monsters, it doesn't seem like they live in a Japan that has regularly been ravaged by those creatures. Ichirô is an obsessed fan of the Gojira franchise, and everyone else around him can apparently take or leave them.

In Ichirô's daydreams, he visits Monster Island and hangs out with Godzilla's son, who you can call either Minilla, Minira, or Minya. Take your pick. Minya should tower over Ichirô, but for the purposes of this film he has been given the ability to grow or shrink at will, and spends most of his screentime at the natural height of his suit performer, Little Man Machan. At that size, Minya may even be smaller than little Ichirô. Also for the purposes of this movie, Minya is able to speak, and while I haven't heard the Japanese version of his voice, the English dub has given him one of the dopiest voices imaginable.

Minya and Ichirô bond over the fact that they're both smaller than their peers, and more than that, they both have a bully named Gabara. Ichirô's Gabara is a boy who is always picking on him after school, Minya's Gabara is a monster, able to zap electricity from his hands, who roams the island being mean and letting out a horrible-sounding laugh. Both Ichirô and Minya are too afraid to stand up for themselves... which is the issue both of them must overcome by the end of the movie.

The interactions between Minya and Ichirô and the scenes involving Gabara are basically the only new monster footage that was shot for Godzilla's Revenge. The 70 minute running time is padded out with moments of Minya and Ichirô watching from a distance as Godzilla deals with multiple threats, and these Godzilla scenes are actually stock footage from the series' other island-based entries. Fights with Ebirah the lobster, Red Bamboo jets, Daikondoru/Daiwashi the condor, Spiga the spider, and the Kamacuras mantises are all reused from Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla, as is the SoG scene of Godzilla trying to teach Minya how to fire atomic breath blasts.

The use of stock footage was partly a money-saving technique, and also due to the fact that there was no separate special effects unit on this movie. Suitmation pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya is given a credit on it, but wasn't really involved, and unfortunately passed away in the month after its release. Ishirô Honda directed the special effects with Teruyoshi Nakano.

In the real world portion of the film, there's also a subplot about the search for two criminals who stole fifty million yen from a bank. These robbers are hiding in an abandoned building near Ichirô's apartment, and when the little boy finds one of men's driver's license while snooping around in the building, the robbers attempt to kidnap him. To gather the strength to get through this situation, Ichirô must make a mental visit to Monster Island to imagine Minya finally standing up to Gabara. And once Minya has proven that he's not a coward, daddy Godzilla (played once again by Haruo Nakajima) steps in to help teach the bully that his family is not to be messed with.

Having found his own courage by imagining these events, Ichirô engages the criminals in the sort of shenanigans Macaulay Culkin would be dishing out to criminals in Home Alone more than twenty years later, and then goes on to stand up to his own Gabara.

And after that, Ichirô plays a rude and unnecessary prank on a sign painter. I guess the message is that it's alright to be a little punk sometimes, just as long as you're not a wimp.

Godzilla's Revenge is one movie, the fact that it even exists is kind of confounding to me. It's not one that I'm very enthused to get to when I'm watching my way through the series, but as strange as the story is, what really impedes my enjoyment of it is the extensive use of stock footage. I can buy into the whole "little kid learns to stand up for himself by daydreaming about Monster Island" thing, just don't waste my time with clips from other movies. If I wanted to see those scenes, I'd watch them in proper context in the movies they were taken from.

However, those stock footage scenes do keep the movie motoring forward at a good pace (as does the lively, very '60s funky score by Kunio Miyauchi), making this a good film for the intended audience. This would be an excellent installment to show to a kid who has an interest in watching Godzilla movies. Adults might not get so much out of it, but as long as some children out there are getting enjoyment and learning to love Godzilla by watching it, there's nothing wrong with that.

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