Submarines and sci-fi stories go together like fish and chips, as anyone who’s read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea already knows. And if you thought that book hit it big in the English speaking world (I’m not even going to try and count how many times it’s been adapted to film) you should see the influence it had on Japan. Once Jules Verne hit the home islands his books sparked an SF craze that, in most respects, has never really gone away.
Local rip-offs were inevitable, the most important for us being Shunro Oshikawa’s Kaitei Gunkan (“Undersea Battleship”), published around 1900. The first in a series of what we’d now call “young adult adventure novels,” Undersea Battleship followed the crew of its titular device through a futuristic version of the Ruso-Japanese War that was, in reality, just around the corner. Like a lot of Japanese fiction at the time, it was enthusiastically imperialist, fiercely nationalistic, and (one would think) completely anathema to a post-war movie audience raised under the Constitution of 1945, with its explicit “wars are bad, m’kay” stance.
And yet…the popularity of Oshikawa’s books managed to survive both his death and the death of Japan’s imperial ambitions. Why wouldn’t it? They’re all about manly men doing manly things in service to manly causes. To a movie studio struggling to establish itself internationally as the age of James Bond dawned, that sounded like a recipe for success. And who better to bring all that to the silver screen than the people who brought you Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, VaranandThe Mysterians? That’ll make for a guaranteed-great movie…right? Continue reading Atragon (1963)→
You’ll have to get over a few hurtles to enjoy Son of Godzilla, the first being its title. Japanese audiences knew this as Kaiju-shima no Kessen Gojira no Musuko. Obviously its American distributor changed the title to force a parallel with King Kong’s 1933 shameless cash-in sequel (which I like sooo much I rarely even speak its name). Nowadays, after decades of watching this film on television, there’s no way John Q. Public would ever pick up a copy of Monster Island’s Decisive Battle: Godzilla’s Son. What the fuck is that, when you can just call it “Son of Godzilla?” So Son of Godzilla it will forever be, with all the baggage that implies.
I’ve been alive long enough to see the stock of all twenty-nine Godzilla movies rise, fall and rise again…except Son of Godzilla. The fan view of this film remains as firmly divided as the two sides of the Grand Canyon. Half the fanbase loves it and consider it a childhood classic they would gladly pass down to their own children. As I type this, my skin’s aching to peel itself off and crawl away from the computer in terror…but Son of Godzilla really is one of the first “family friendly” monster movies in daikaiju history. There’s some…iffy stuff here, sure…but nothing too hard for the little rugrats (or, more importantly, their skittish parents). No longer an avatar of nuclear horror, Godzilla’s story here is the story of a reluctant foster parent, trying to be the dad he never had. It’s Toho’s Disney movie, and its fans argue that makes perfect mulch for any budding G-fan. They’d recommend it to everyone, kids from one to ninety-two, with no reservation whatsoever.
There is no human achievement more complex, daunting or inspirational than the “conquest” of outer space. I put “conquest” in sarcastic quotes because we really haven’t conquered jack shit. We’ve played golf on our nearest satellite and left a plaque for the cockroaches to find. By the standards of SF in the mid-60s, we’re way behind schedule.
We should’ve discovered our tenth planet by now. Instead we’re down one and the space shuttle’s been mothballed. Robots do all our exploring for us because it’s cheaper and “safer.” As if anyone said space would be “safe.” We’ve known there were monsters out there since before we knew how out there could really be. Martians invaded in 1898, 1938 and1953. Earth itself faced off against (not just any ol flying saucers but) theFlying Saucers in ’56. The Mysterians came for our women in ’57, Krankor came for our rocket fuel in ’59, and in ’61 the Neptune Men came for…umm…yeah…something…I forget because that movie was so boring. King Ghidorah’s arrival in 64 was only the icing on the cake. And in 196X, we discovered Planet X. Continue reading Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)→
The international success of King Kong vs. Godzilla ensured it would be a major moment in the careers of its two top-billed stars and the director behind both of them, Ishirô Honda. Prior to directing the original Gojira ten years earlier, Honda specialized in slice-of-life dramas with the occasional break into that new, Hot Genre of the 1950s: the Workplace Comedy. No matter the story, these films were usually quiet pieces set on a slow boil, focused (like his much more famous monster movies) on small groups of ordinary people overcoming something or other through their unwavering hope for a better tomorrow.
These films were a refuge for Honda: small-scale, relatively everyday productions he could always escape to in between monster movies. Then he made the mistake of directing a workplace comedy/daikaiju eiga hybrid. After that, his professional goose was cooked. And thank God. Because, after three mediocre-to-shit sequels, Honda and the metric tons of talent he brought with him finally gave us a Godzilla film I can unconditionally rave about.
Given King Kong‘s one of the most successful and popular monster movies of all time, it’s enjoyed numerous revivals over the years. Including one in the early 1950s that directly inspired the American atomic monster craze and the daikaiju eiga of Japan. Kong‘s direct sequel, Son of Kong, and its kissing cousin, Mighty Joe Young were…less than successful.
But that didn’t stop special effects wizard Wells O’Brien from conceiving yet another sequel. Something that would retain all the grandiose power of the original but do away with that slapdash, chash-in feel that made Son of Kong suck. It would be a conscious throwback to that Golden Age of Monster Movies: the 1930s, the age of O’Brien’s primes. And it would climax in a gigantic fight scene in the streets of San Francisco, with Kong squaring off against a gigantic Frankenstein monster composed of animal parts and, presumably, a constantly-beating heart, irradiated by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
By 1960, O’Brien had a treatment all worked up, but the projected cost of the stop motion animation necessary to pull all this off made Hollywood skittish. The producer O’Brien hired, John Beck, began to shop the movie around overseas. He eventually wound up at Toho, who liked the idea of a giant Frankenstein so much they sat on it for three more years…after they made this. Continue reading King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)→
This is a return to glory for everyone involved after the gigantic backward step that was Varan. Even uncut versions of that are painfully rehashes of previous Honda monster movies, symptomatic of those Ancient Enemies of all good film: lack of time and a low, low budget.
Mothra is a full-180 turn, the first daikaiju masterpiece of the 1960s. Like Rodan, it follows a small cast of actually-interesting characters. But unlike Godzillaand Rodan, Mothra is more of an urban fantasy than a depressing polemic against the horrors of nuclear weapons and the ethically-challenged March of Progress that overlay this entire age of world history. After all, it’s 1961: JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X are still alive! The Space Race is in full swing! The Rodans are dead and Godzilla was last seen at the bottom of an icy rock slide. All is right with the world! What could possibly go wrong? Continue reading Mothra (1961)→
Reviews with swear words and sociopolitical analysis from David DeMoss