Until recently, I’ve had a huge hole in my exposure to Japanese monster movies. I’m working hard to change that and have gone on a Godzilla binge these last couple of weeks in anticipation of the upcoming feature film.
Which brings me to this edition of Three Flicks. My rules for Three Flicks are that I watch three films unified by a common theme, actor, director, or character and write about my initial impressions. I prefer to choose movies that I’ve never seen or that I haven’t seen in a long time and don’t remember.
I watched all three of these movies on Netflix, who have added no fewer than six Godzilla films to their streaming service. That’s the good news; the bad news is that none of these movies are presented in their original Japanese versions and all are the inferior American dubs, often with footage cut from the films. For instance, instead of the 1954 film Gojira, the original Japanese film that introduced Godzilla to the world, Netflix has the 1956 American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, which removed plot points and dialog and inserted Raymond Burr as an American reporter into the action. So, boo. I get it, but boo.
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Released in America by AIP as Godzilla vs. the Thing, this was the fourth film in the Godzilla franchise. It was made by the Toho production company and was directed by Ishiro Honda, the same man who directed the original Gojira in 1954. In fact, he directed all three of the films I watched, and eight of the original 15 Toho Godzilla films. It’s interesting to me how the tone had shifted in decade between the first film and this film. Mothra vs. Godzilla doesn’t quite go for full comedy and there is still quite a bit of terror and destruction, but the tone is lighter and more playful than that original film. While Godzilla definitely wreaks havoc, people seem to be more like “well, there’s Godzilla again” than fall into full panic.
Apparently Mothra was the star of his own earlier kaiju movie in 1961, also directed by Ishiro Honda for Toho titled, surprisingly, Mothra. So this was like a crossover, I guess. This was peanut butter meeting chocolate for monster movie fans. And it’s fine…but I have to admit that the whole thing is kind of boring for me. I like Godzilla as a monster and whenever he’s on screen I’m pretty engaged. Mothra, on the other hand, I just don’t get. He’s a MOTH. He doesn’t really do anything other than fly around and eat holes in all of Godzilla’s favorite sweaters. When that pesky egg eventually hatches things get slightly more interesting. But not much.
Godzilla’s Revenge (1969)
The second Ishiro Honda film that I watched was the director’s seventh outing with the monster and the tenth in the series, overall. The title on Netflix, Godzilla’s Revenge, is a bit of a misnomer. It movie seems to be more well-known by the name All Monsters Attack. I don’t know why they called it Godzilla’s Revenge, considering Godzilla is friendly here. From now on whenever I suffer from bad sushi, I’m going to refer to that as Godzilla’s Revenge.
This is essentially a kid’s movie and I had no idea what I was getting into, but I loved every single second of it. The film starts with a funky, swinging song and a montage of Godzilla’s greatest hits, complete with freeze frames. It feels like you’re watching an early 70’s kung-fu movie, only with monsters instead of people fighting. In other words, it’s the greatest thing ever.
The “story” centers around a little boy named Ichiro, essentially a latchkey kid whose mom and dad are always working and never at home. Ichiro spends part of his time running from bullies and the other part immersed in his own imagination. He falls asleep while fantasizing about life on Monster Island, which allows the movie to show us what he’s dreaming of. Roughly HALF the film is Ichiro’s BALLS-CRAZY dreams.
Meanwhile, back in the waking world, Ichiro has managed to piss off some criminals who are on the run from the law by finding one of the bad guys’ wallet and driver’s license and slipping it in his pocket. So now the thugs are after Ichiro and are willing to hurt him in order to make a clean getaway. Can he use the lessons he’s learned on Monster Island (which he’s only IMAGINED that he’s been to) in order to defeat the bad guys AND the bullies he’s always running from?
This movie is ridiculous, but I honestly feel like it knows it and embraces it. It appears to have been made for a grand total of $3.25 (or $16.50 if adjusted for inflation and the international conversion rate). It’s clearly geared toward children; my step-daughter LOVED this movie. I haven’t heard her guffaw so loud since she watched Schindler’s List. We exchanged many percipient glances during the film, acknowledging that what we were watching was pretty awful, yet by the end of the movie we were both won over by the film’s sweetness and sincerity. Consider me a big fan of Godzilla’s Revenge/All Monsters Attack.
Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
This is the last film in the series to be directed by Ishiro Honda and also the last of the original Toho cycle of films. The series entered a nine-year hiatus after this installment and wouldn’t return until 1984’s The Return of Godzilla, when the creature, filmmaking, and the world had changed quite a bit. As the last of its kind, Terror of Mechagodzilla is pretty awesome.
The narrator continues, explaining that these space invaders have control over monsters, using them against the people of earth. At some point Mechagodzilla was created as a giant robot to fight Godzilla but the machine was destroyed in battle. This film picks up with Mechagodzilla being repaired and the Spacemen from the Third Planet collaborating with the evil scientist Dr. Mafune, who has control over the giant and evil Titanosaurus. Dr. Mafune also has a half-cyborg daughter with unclear loyalties.
That’s a lot of setup and a wacky premise, but Terror of Mechagodzilla ties things together in a way that totally satisfied me. For the first hour or so it’s a bit like James Bond with lots of espionage and secret meetings in giant underground industrial facilities. Godzilla isn’t really seen after that opening montage until an hour into the film. When he finally does appear and the table has been set, it’s on like Donkey Kong. There’s even a three-way face-off, a la The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.
Seriously, I LOVE this movie. It’s like professional wrestling, with colorful opponents taking each other out in creative and impressive ways. When Godzilla suplexes Titanosaurus from the top rope of the ring, the crowd goes wild.
I’ve definitely come out of these movies as a fan of Godzilla and will be tracking down as many of these movies as I can for my own personal collection. I’m eager to watch them in their original Japanese and see if any scenes were cut for American release, which is thankfully an option with so many new DVDs and Blu-rays hitting the market.
But if there’s a downside to what I’ve discovered, it’s that the 2014’s Godzilla will not have the sense of fun and adventure that I’ve discovered in these movies. It’s bound to be a grim affair. I’ve really come to appreciate how the Japanese films were born out of the darkest moments in history in the aftermath of World War II, yet didn’t languish in the shadow of fear. They faced that fear head-on and turned it into something different, even optimistic. I respect that a lot. And now, thanks to the publicity around the new movie, there’s one more Godzilla fan.