What to do when your movie franchise’s swan-song becomes an international cult phenomenon? You desperately scramble to paper over the hilariously wrongheaded conclusion that your franchise was on its last legs. In plain language: you cash in.
But by the time Destroy All Monsters‘ recipes arrived, Godzilla’s owners at Toho Studios had already doubled-down to their dismissive “giant monsters are for the kid’s after-school TV” attitude. They committed most of their spare change, and Godzilla’s original creator/director, Ishiro Honda, to the submarine war/Mad Scientist/Lost Island epic Latitude Zero. Meant to be another international hit (starring Citizen Kane‘s own Joseph Cotton, and TV’s The Joker, Cesar Romero!) it became one long cost over-run, remembered now only by fans of Japanese sci-fi, the director, or the actors involved. If at all. Desperate, out of cash, and biting nails over their experiment in using gaijin stars and Spy-fi gadgets, Toho hired Honda to direct one last Godzilla movie. The results would prove to be the most controversial entry in the series.
Don’t misunderstand: no fandom is homogeneous. Every Godzilla film generates its share of heated discourse. Each of the twenty-nine films (extant at the time of this writing) has their share of proponents and detractors, and you’ll always find someone (especially on the internet) willing to call [insert title here] “the best/worst Godzilla film ever made.” Godzilla’s Revenge (originally titled something very much like All Monsters Attack) is just the starkest example, as its opponents and detractors are each equally vocal about their positions.
On the one hand, detractors rightly call this a cheap sequel, made fast and dirty with a deplorable excess of stock-footage. Against that, the defenders counter that this is an all-ages fantasy film with an uplifting message about overcoming fears and quite the parenting aide, to boot. It’s a “safe” way to pass your love of kaiju films down to your kids without all the death, destruction, mayhem and charred corpses you’ll find in entries from the 1950s, or the ’90s…or even the very next film in the series, Godzilla vs. Hedorah.
I tend to think both sides are full of tight-assed pricks more interested in broadcasting their own identities than analyzing a movie. So let me speak to both for a bit.
To the people who hate this film, I say: those who like it harbor no wish to infantilize your favorite entertainments. In fact, most consider themselves in the midst of a loosing battle as the intellectual properties they enjoyed as children are perpetually repackaged in this year’s line of Grim and Grit. From their perspective, the worst part is the insulting notion that their childhood favorites are being dragged through the muck of “realism” for them. For their benefit. “Look!” the pop culture Control Machine says with a thousand voices: “We’ve de-coupled [insert franchise here] from the ‘childish’ elements lazy people cite whenever they want to make fun of it. Now you can enjoy [insert franchise here] free of social embarrassment!”
To which the average fan replies, “Sounds like somebody’s projecting, Hal. We were never embarrassed by our love of [insert franchise here]. Maybe you were, but we don’t have to fake-smile our way through obsequious Entertainment Industry parties out here in the real world. If you’re butt-hurt about how you can’t get no respect from your peers by working on [insert franchise here], maybe you should get better peers. Don’t take it out on us. We just want a movie we can watch with our kids. One that won’t make our kids ask uncomfortable questions.”
To the people who like this film, I say: those who hate it harbor no ill-will towards you, your children, or your family movie time. They want a Godzilla movie. Since there are almost thirty of the damn things by now, the term “Godzilla movie” will obviously mean different things to different people. But most define it with the general terms Godzilla Raids Again set down and King Kong vs. Godzilla made orthodox: “A movie where Godzilla fights other monsters. The End.” Godzilla’s Revenge…technically has that. But above and beyond the inevitable unevenness you’d find in any film made from the bits and pieces of at least three others, it’s tonally all over the place. And those tone shifts muddle whatever message its creators meant to get across. The result is a confusing mash of stock footage, social commentary, and sickening amounts of pandering to a largely-imaginary ideal of this movie’s target audience, circa 1969.
Know what really burns my balls? The screenwriter behind all this, Shinichi Sekizawa, is one of my favorites. He wrote the original Mothra, the aforementioned King Kong vs. Godzilla, and (thanks to the success of that) the next five films in Godzilla’s series. He’d go on to write one more while receiving story credit on two others and you can tell which ones are Sekizawa’s. Here’s how: Unlike the to-the-point, proto-Disaster Movies of Takeshi (Rodan, Destroy All Monsters) Kimura, Sekizawa’s Godzilla films always leaned more toward Character Studies. Sure, the characters usually concluded their arcs watching monsters fight from Minimum Safe Distance, but they usually went through something awful on the way there, overcame it, and found themselves changed for the better, or reassured that they were already awesome to begin with – it’s the rest of the world that’s all fucked up.
Godzilla’s Revenge starts off seemingly going for the latter (after the stock-footage heavy credit sequence, but I’ll give them that – it’s the credits). The first shot of your movie is generally considered important by those who consider movies. And the first shot of this movie (the first several shots, in fact):
is of an industrial hellscape choked with smog and smog-belching factory stacks. Zoom in on a group of unsupervised children, free to dodge traffic and casually abuse each other as they walk home from school. Ya know – for kids! And we know it’s for kids because this depressing imagery’s counter-posed by an ear-splitting, too-cheery song. You see what I mean, about the tonal clashing? I know prog-rock albums with a more unified sound than this and we haven’t even met our main character.
He being Ichiro, the world’s one and only Minya fan…no. Wait. That’s my hate talking. I’m sure there’s more than one. Somewhere. Just as I’m sure the makers of this film, a good many of whom worked on the first Godzilla film, making them Godzilla’s fathers, had an incomplete understanding of their creation’s appeal. Specifically, his appeal to children. For them (especially Honda, I’d imagine) the idea that a child might identify with the walking embodiment of city-annihilating conflagrations was probably anathema. Better to create a ersatz representation of those children in an attempt to deflect their identification onto a safer, softer, Pillsbury Doughboy-shaped target.
So Ichiro’s dad (Kenji Sahara) works on the railroad all the live-long day, and well into the night besides, hoping to save up money to move his family out of the city. Because that’s much easier than making a good life for his family in the city by – oh, I don’t know, say, for example – being present in his child’s life. This is still the late-60s, so I guess that’s still Ichiro’s mom’s job, but she calls home halfway through to say, “Sorry, hon – mom’s gotta cover for some goldbricking co-worker who decided to be sick tonight. Cake’s in the fridge.”
Meanwhile, all the adults in the film are buzzing about the two bank robbers who recently evaded a police dragnet with 50 million of other people’s yen in tow. The constant, full-court newspaper/radio coverage suggests they might be hiding out somewhere in the neighborhood…
But that’s Adult Stuff Ichiro could care less about. He and his not-girlfriend, Sachiko (Hidemi Ito) are busy avoiding the local gang leader, Gabera (Junichi Ito), and his pack of rats, who’ve already claimed the junkyard/abandoned building by Ichiro’s apartment complex as their personal playground. Thankfully, this movie’s set back before everyone thought their neighbors were child molesters, so at least Ichiro has the toymaker across the hall to confide in and feed him dinner. Sure, if this were Superman’s Metropolis I’d be looking at Shinpei Inami with growing suspicion (never mind the fact that he’s played by Hideyo Amamoto, last seen around here playing “that international Judas, Dr. Who” in King Kong Escapes) but Ichiro’s Metropolis has much more in common with Fritz Lang’s. Workers toil amid the soot and grime of their society’s industrial by-products, semi-permanently isolated from each other, and especially from the children they’re supposedly raising. If I were Ichiro, I’d take a nap before dinner and catch the first flight out on Fantasy Airlines, too. Especially if it offered nonstop rides to Monster Island.
So I get it, fans of this film. It’s an entirely sympathetic portrayal of one young man’s escapist fantasies, packaged and sold as another one of those very same fantasies. And there is something to love in that, even on the extreme levels of its meta-narrative, where I generally hang out when I’m not nitpicking production inconsistencies (of which there are plenty to pick). Adult society as a whole has abandoned Ichiro to his own devices without even meaning to, so he’s learns to take solace, comfort and problem-solving skills from the self-constructed world in his head, where Godzilla movies are stuck on Repeat. He is the Boy of Tomorrow, and by now he’s long-since grown into the Man of Today: a perfect narcissist for a perfectly narcissistic generation that’s since raised two more.
Honda et. al. meant this to be a reflection of Godzilla’s fanbase when in fact it’s their projection of that fanbase, directed back at the children who were still packing theaters at the time (on occasion – if the movie was worth it). Problem is, this projection lacks the vibrant energy of authentic childhood, which is far more violent, and far more enterprising, than adult-made representations of it would generally have you believe. The monsters in Ichiro’s fantasies could easily wipe away the industrial hellscape that strips him of his parents and exposes him to dangerous predators (like Gabera, or, by the third act, those bank robbers everyone keeps talking about). But they don’t. They did once, but Honda was young man then and he held nothing back. His fire was still rising. By 1969 it had dimmed past the point of effective illumination. So this movie’s really an elaborate self-help training course Ichiro’s brain concocts in order to break him out of the following conversational runaround:
Adult: Why didn’t you stand up to [that bully Gabera]?
Ichiro: He’d just knock me down.
Adult: So what? You get your ass back up again. Here, listen to this Chumbawmba song. It explains everything:
Indeed. And the average child figures this out through the simple expedient of hanging out with other children. Since this is a movie, it must stretch this lesson out to feature length. So, on Dream Monster Island, Ichiro watches the “role call” scenes from Destroy All Monsters (“there’s Anguirus!” “there’s Rodan!”) Godzilla’s first confrontation with the giant mantises from Son of Godzilla (albeit with better music) and the incoherently-filmed battle with that giant bird (named Oowashi, apparently – I’ve had to keep reminding myself of that all my life) from Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (without any additional music, which is sad).
Afterward, a stock footage mantis from Son of Godzilla spots Ichiro and, angry at being recycled, peruses him until he falls down a pit. Thankfully, this is a dream, so he suffers no more damage from his technicolor dream fall than the average Choose Your Own adventure protagonist. He can’t climb out of the hole, so it’s up to Minya to lower the rope. I hope the symbolism of all this is obvious enough by now. It’s interesting: this talking, child-sized version of Minya (‘Little Man’ Machan, reprising his role once again) is a projection of Ichiro’s mind and the first character in the film to mention Ichiro’s parents in dialogue. A subconscious wish for his parents to be around when he gets home from school…?
Wait…what am I saying? There’s nothing subconscious about it. There it is, right there. Yet Ichiro and Minya only have time for these little chats because Minya’s purposefully avoiding his father and his father’s inevitable lessons in “fightin,’” as Minya’s dub-actor puts it. That may be a subconscious manifestation of Ichiro’s own fear of confrontation, or fear of his own, absentee dad. Or both.
A little later, during Ichiro’s second dream sequence (there are three in the film, because Rule of Threes) the topic of Gabera inevitably comes up and Ichiro asks the obvious (for a three-year-old) question: “Can’t you just get your dad to beat him up?” The Father Figure is omnipotent precisely because he is not present. When dads are gone, you can construct this perfect image of them in your head, and reality will never rise to challenge that. And the Ideal Father Figure will always tell you what you want to hear, a.k.a., what you already know. As Minya/Ichiro’s subconscious says: “Godzilla feels I have to fight my own battles, ya know?” In a world without parents, you grow up Alone…along with your equally-lost friends, whom you could always reach out too if you really wanted, but you don’t.
In that spirit, Ichiro and Minya watch the fight with Ebirah from vs the Sea Monster. And I mean all of it – both fight scenes are edited together into a double-time highlights real. So the action switches from day to (slightly washed out to match the day shots) night several times, to the point of hilarious distraction. Then the planes from Sea Monster show up to bedevil Godzilla once again. At least that scene already took place during the daytime, so there’s no need to process the fuck out of old footage. Then we watch half of the fight with Spiga from Son of Godzilla. Minya even ineffectually helps out in exactly the same way.
Finally, after forty-four minutes that feel like an eternity, the film stoops to give us a bit of new monster footage. Unfortunately, it’s a short, hilariously one-sided fight between Minya (having gained Ultraman’s ability to change size because this is a dream) and his Gabera – some weird cat demon with electro-shock hands. It concludes with Minya’s running away, because that’s how it must conclude until the Inevitable End.
Then we get a remake of that scene from Son of Godzilla where the Big G “teaches” Little G how to breathe proper atomic fire by stepping on his tail. Apart from showcasing Godzilla’s adherence to classical children-raising philosophy a.k.a. Physical Abuse, this scene also showcases how even the “original” elements of this film are recycled. The bank-robbers are stock Inept Criminals that could’ve stepped from a 50s comedy. Three idiots just like these brought about the destruction of Osaka back in Godzilla Raids Again. The Toymaker is an older version of Tetsuo from Monster Zero – what Tetsuo might’ve been had aliens not sabotaged his get-rich-quick-with-electric-rape-whistles scheme.
Ichiro’s awakened from this dream (just as Minya belches out a blast of that breath, which he always seems to un-learn how to use between films) by his own kidnapping. Always essential to your “children’s” film, kidnapping. Some of the best fairy tales are horror stories, and this one’s shaping up to be no different. The robbers kidnap Ichiro because he found one of their wallets while playing in an abandoned building and contracting twelve different kinds of tetanus. What are the odds those robbers would be hiding out in that very abandoned building? Almost as long as the odds against him escaping that building.
But what sounded like an air-raid siren drove Ichiro out before he could find the robbers, or vice versa. The one I’ll call Shades commanded the one I’ll call Stupid to “follow the kid home and get your license back.” Stupid does, but we still have to wait through the dream sequence/stock footage fights described above, plus a scene of Ichiro and Toyman’s dinner…and a redundant scene where the cops show up to tell Toyman to lock the car he’s selling in the driveway, before we get to the kidnapping. Redundant because we’ve already seen Stupid eyeing the car outside, but it’s mentioned twice because it’s officially a Plot Point and nothing says “plot point” in a “children’s film” like redundancy.
Tied up on the floor of that abandoned building (and no doubt inhaling clouds of asbestos) Ichiro retreats back to Monster Island, where he can play the hero and help Minya blast “his” Gabera in the face. With no effective modes of action from his parents to draw upon, Ichiro’s forced to make up his own from the bits and pieces of Godzilla movies. Minya’s final fight is a lot better than his first, since Minya uses his size (and size-changing) to his advantage, displaying the same strategic thinking Ichiro will utilize against the robbers. This makes sense, since, again, Minya is Ichiro. By helping Minya, Ichiro helps himself.
Gabera (also a projection of Ichiro’s mind) helps too, making the last mistake of his life by attacking Godzilla. Their fight is even shorter than Gabera vs. Minya, as it must be, because the money’s run out and the monster action is over. But also because Godzilla, as the Idealized Father Figure, must be omnipotent and therefore cannot be present. What other point could all that stock-footage possibly underline? But there’s a moment, after the battle, where Dreamzilla stalks toward Ichiro and reaches out his hand, almost as if to crush the boy for distracting his own son from the important duties a Prince of the Monsters must attend. Ichiro pleads that he’s Minya’s friend, that they were just playing, and the scene cuts to black before anything truly horrific can happen.
As one of Godzilla’s three fathers, Honda still, even in the midst of making a children’s film, carried an image in his head of Godzilla-as-Apocalyptic-Nightmare. As Death From Above, wanting only to reach out and flatten you like an ant. I’ve always enjoyed that. It’s the one good scene in a film that physically pains me to describe.
And the worst part is, there’s twenty minutes to go! This is the part that breaks people, after Godzilla disappears and the movie asks us to really care about Ichiro’s kidnapping. It’s ironic, because these last twenty minutes are a technicolor noir dream – a nod to the gangster movies that were the real Japanese box office draws of the late-60s and most of the 70s. Except these are, again, inept gangster stereotypes, almost twenty years behind their time, easily captured in a sequence that prefigures Home Alone. Though Ichiro’s inspirations are more obvious (and reinforced by flashbacks to earlier in the film) than Kevin McAllister’s.
In the end, Ichiro’s a hero, and he starts the next day eating breakfast with mom, which is really all he wanted in the first place. She’s sad over her son “growing up too fast” when she should really be worried about his growing up without her. But it’s far too late for that and there’s nothing she could do anyway. Whether she knows it or not (she does) and likes it or not (she doesn’t – hence her ending the scene in crying jag) she and Dear Old Dad have sacrificed their son’s childhood in the name of contributing to the “miracle” of Japan’s post-WWII recovery. To make that miracle a reality, a whole generation had to lose their parents and turn to new gods for immortal wisdom.
The Japanese version of this film makes that explicit through Uncle Toyman’s message to the be-suited news jackals camped out in their apartment building’s foyer, nosing around for The Scoop: “In a man’s world,” Toyman says, “we have our god. In a child’s world, it’s not difficult to view Minya as a divine guide.” And a world where children’s only options are “Minya” or “nothing” is a sad old world indeed.
Yet I find myself strangely happy. Godzilla’s Revenge has given me a lot more to think about than I thought it would. It’s an incredible mess, much more interesting to mull over than actually watch. Because it’s made of hard breaks between “reality” and “Ichiro’s dreams” the filmmakers built their movie out of dream logic – equal parts free association and desperate, last-minute decisions. Or did I just say the same thing twice?
Whatever. As a dream-movie, Godzilla’s Revenge gives us a great peek into the worldviews of the people who originally dreamed it (the filmmakers) and the people dreaming it today (the audience). If David Lynch directed this, enough doctoral dissertations about it would exist to fill a library. But it’s an Ishiro Honda movie with “Godzilla” in the title so the only people who might bother to think about it call it “the worst movie in the series” and stop, without considering its implications, or the implications of their own blithe dismissal. It’s not “not a Godzilla movie” (that comes later) but is it the “worst.” By what standard, wildman? Most don’t even bother to put that much thought into it.
Well, it’s pretty boring when you’re stuck in the middle of it. Neither of Ichiro’s actors (flesh or dubbed) are very charismatic, and even as a child I found him more hateable than identifiable. Just deck your damn Gabera or pick another route home from school. I’d have picked that second option, because I am a coward, though I understand seeing dad go by in his train is the major attraction.
Nevertheless, Ichiro’s our window into a world of hopelessly trapped people living automatic lives dictated by machines that they somehow consider a “responsibility.” That’s not inherently interesting, especially when compared to previous entries in the series, where active protagonists and antagonists rushed to achieve their goals, even if their goals were as superficial and shallow as “save the princess” or “try and take over the world.” Ichiro has a clear and simple set of ways to achieve the one goal he can reasonably hope to achieve (until he’s kidnapped by bank robbers) but instead of picking any of them, he goes to Monster Island.
I can’t fault his choice of vacation spot, but I don’t think anyone else really needs to watch the resulting slide show.