Friday, August 31, 2018

Godzilla Chronicles: Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster

The Godzilla Chronicles continues! Last year, as a lead in to my annual "Halloween Countdown",  I talked about a movie I didn't get to see until my adult years, but one that had major significance to the Godzilla franchise as a whole, that being Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster. And then this past spring, I finally got to talk about what is easily my TOP favorite Godzilla movie of all time, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (aka Invasion of the Astro Monster).

As I've explained before, while it's entirely possible that I saw some Godzilla movie or other at a younger age, likely on TV if at all, the first Godzilla movies I REMEMBER seeing, coincided with the first VCR we finally got. As I've also explained, I grew up a fairly poor kid, being raised by a single grandmother, which in and of itself was a journey, to put it mildly. Similar to how I didn't get an NES (and thus the genesis of my true video game love) until the second half of 1990, we didn't get a VCR until, I'd say, no earlier than 1989. Prior to that, anything and everything that I saw, had to have been playing on cable TV. But once we got that VCR, it helped open up a whole new world for me, of classic (and not so classic) movies.


What you see above, is the VHS cover art of what was very likely the first Godzilla movie I ever saw, let alone owned. Taken on its own, it's not amazing art, though it's hardly BAD art either. But to me, that box art is solid gold. I'm going to get this out of the way early, but I absolutely love Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. Not AS much as Monster Zero, because as far as I'm concerned, that movie takes the cake when it comes to the purest, most entertaining representation of classic "Showa Era" Godzilla. But in this man's mind, Sea Monster is a reasonably close second.

An alternate VHS cover.

I will acknowledge that my opinion of Sea Monster being "one of the best" Godzilla movies to ever exist, is not one that is widely held by other Godzilla fans. But that's perfectly fine, because I feel like I have plenty of good reasons to hold it in such esteem. For one thing, yes, there's the Nostalgia Factor. If this really WAS the first Godzilla movie I ever actually saw as a kid, that alone for most people is a reason to continue loving something and giving it high value as an adult. And I'll fully admit, that factor for me is strong here. This was a movie that sold me on how bad ass and cool Godzilla was, it was knee-deep in that mid-60s era when they transformed the "Big G" from a terror to humanity, to being a HERO. And he very quickly became MY hero.

But I also think the movie stands up on its own merits, and deserves recognition for what it is. It certainly has arguable weak points, for instance, the titular "Sea Monster", Ebirah. While I like him, one does have to admit that a giant lobster isn't exactly the MOST threatening enemy for a walking nuclear furnace of destruction like Godzilla. There is also a questionable (and brief) fight scene against a giant condor who appears out of nowhere, which I'll talk about a bit later. But overall? I think this movie has far more going FOR it, than against. For example, just straight off the cuff, I will name drop Akira Takarada. I don't mind telling you that he's my favorite Japanese actor of all time, and YES, it is 100% because of the classic Toho films he's been in. Being honest though, Mr. Takarada IS a badass, and perhaps never moreso than in this film. It also has veteran Toho actors like Jun Tazaki (aka Mustache Man), and Akihito Hirata (who bears an eye-patch here just as he did in the original Gojira film), as classic style villains. For bonus points, although that's getting ahead of ourselves, it also features a cameo appearance by (adult form) Mothra! And last but not least, it has a very unique "James Bond" type of vibe to the whole affair, which sets it apart from other Godzilla movies.

Most of the main cast.

As far as story goes, the main thread here, is that a young fisherman, Yata (Toru Ibuki), has been mysteriously lost at sea along with his ship. His younger brother Ryota (Toru Watanabe), sets himself out to find him, believing he is still alive. Being something of a "simple country boy" type, he isn't quite sure how to do this, with the authorities giving him no real help. But he spots a poster for a marathon dance of sorts (that kind of thing was all the rage in the 60s), with the grand prize winner receiving a boat. This inspires him to try and enter the dance, but he discovers that he's arrived considerably too late to enter. By a stroke of Fate, Ryota encounters two teenaged friends, Ichino and Nita, who as it so happened, had both just exited the competition from exhaustion, as Ryota had arrived. Ryota explains that he needs a boat, and thinking him some weird kid who is "boat crazy", the two decide to take him on a joy ride to the harbor to go look at boats.

Once there, the boys decide to just show themselves aboard such a boat, a yacht called the Yahlen, just to take a look around. But once on board, they find that the boat's "owner", a shotgun wielding man named Yoshimura, is not happy about the intrusion. But after the guys explain that their friend just loves boats THAT much that he had to see inside this one, Yoshimura suddenly has a change of heart, and tells them they can stay the night, but have to BUZZ OFF first thing in the morning. Just on its face, like, who would actually invite trespassers on their property to stay the night, right?

The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed...

Fast forward to morning, where Yoshimura awakens to find that his "shotgun", in actuality a realistic looking toy gun, was broken. Assaulting the sleeping teenagers, thinking they had done it, to get them off of his ship, the three of them emerge topside only to discover that they are sailing out on the open sea. It turns out that good ol' Ryota, being a strong believer in the Shinto religion, believes he has been given this boat as a "Gift from the Gods", and as such he intends to use it to find his lost brother. And seeing as none of the others, not even Yoshimura, knows how to drive a boat, OTHER than Ryota, they are "left with no choice" but to go along with his crazy scheme. Yoshimura, for his part, seems mysteriously not nearly as upset as you'd think, considering his boat just got hijacked.

Well as it would turn out, ol' Yoshimura is actually a bank robber, and the Yahlen isn't even HIS boat (SPOILERS!). He just hid out on it, and the boys happened to find him. So their adventure at sea begins, with Ryota combing the fishing lanes to try and find his brother's wreck. Unfortunately for Ryota and Company, they are hit by one hell of a monster storm (literally), and while helpless to the thrashing waves, their boat is wrecked by what looks very much like a gigantic lobster claw (because IT IS!). They fortunately all survive, only to be washed ashore on some remote, unknown island.

The Red Bamboo.

Much to our heroes' misfortune, it would seem that this island, called Letchi Island, was the adopted home of a clandestine terrorist outfit who call themselves "The Red Bamboo". These Bamboo chaps seem to have their eyes set on becoming a nuclear power unto themselves, and to that end, have set up a base, complete with a "Heavy Water" installation. The boys hear the siren heralding a ship approaching the island, and at first think they are saved, only to quickly learn that it is actually these Red Bamboo jerks, bringing another shipment of kidnapped slaves. The slaves are natives to an island that has popped up in the Toho-verse previously, Infant Island, home to the monster known as Mothra!

As a couple of Infant Islanders try to escape, getting gunned down in the process, a native girl slips away making her own run for it. The girl, Dayo (played by Kumi Mizuno),  runs into the gang hiding out in the forest, and at first runs from them in fear, but they later convince her that they're not with the Red Bamboo. The group then go on the run together, being discovered by the soldiers, and wind up finding a seaside cave to hide in. The only problem? They ALSO discover that, for whatever random reason, the cave happens to be the current residence of a sleeping Godzilla!! After a near disastrous expedition into the enemy base, that sees one of them get caught, and another get literally carried away by a huge weather balloon, the group decide on a plan of action: They're going to try and wake up Godzilla, in an effort to distract or defeat The Red Bamboo, so they can free the slaves and escape.

Bitch SLAP!

Wake the sleeping giant they do, utilizing some MacGyver type tactics involving some metal wire and a sword they found, which acts as a lightning rod. The lighting succeeds in jolting poor Godzilla awake, and he busts out of the cave, literally smashing through the cliff-side out to the beach, understandably grumpy. I mean, he was having a really peaceful power nap, and then THIS shit happens! Well, the island ALSO happens to be home to an enormous (titular) Sea Monster known as Ebirah, a huge lobster, who patrols its surrounding waters territorially. A fact that The Red Bamboo capitalize on, using a yellow juice made from local fruit, that apparently lobsters HATE, to keep Ebirah away from their ships, while at the same time utilizing him to keep everyone ELSE away from the island (and to keep slaves from escaping).

When Grumpy Godzilla meets up with Crabby (Get It?) Ebirah, shit gets REAL, and we the audience finally get the fight we've all been waiting for. In all honesty, while somewhat silly as a concept, Ebirah isn't all that bad of a monster. And fighting Godzilla in his own element (the sea), he does manage to hold his own. He even engages Godzilla in a game of catch featuring a giant boulder! The two monsters actually fight twice in the film, the first ending in a bit of a stalemate after Godzilla (literally) toasts Ebirah's ass and he swims off. So while our heroes hope that Godzilla will take it to those evil Bamboo guys, meanwhile, Ryota is brought by fair winds to Infant Island, where he finds his brother alive and well! The two brothers plan to set out to rescue the others, while the Infant Islanders set about a sweet song and dance routine, led by those adorable Fairy Twins, in hopes to awaken their god Mothra, to have her go save everyone. And without spoiling the ending, that's the basic rundown of the plot.

Safety Dance!

As I said before, this film has a very unique vibe that you don't really find in any other Godzilla movies, and I like that about it. It has a VERY 60s soundtrack, featuring very Bond-esque surfer guitar work. Not the classic Akira Ifukube fare of so many great Godzilla films, but it's catchy, and I consider it classic in its own right. Another possible reason for this film's unique tone, is that it is one of only a small handful of Godzilla films from the 50s and 60s NOT to be directed by the great Ishiro Honda (whom I just recently revealed as one of my Top 5 Favorite Filmmakers Ever).

Instead, it is directed by Jun Fukuda, aka the second most prolific Godzilla director of the Showa Era. Along with directing the little-known but actually rather good sci-fi thriller Secret of the Telegian, he also directed this, the following Son of Godzilla, and he went on to become the main Godzilla guy in the 70s, directing three more films (Gigan, Megalon, and the first Mechagodzilla). While I do vastly prefer Honda's work, I have to give Fukuda major props for what he accomplished as a G-director. He DID, after all, direct this, which is basically my second favorite Godzilla film of all time. And while the 70s movies did get a bit hokey, and dipped in quality (due to Toho budget cuts), they still have heart, and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is another of my favorite Godzilla movies.

The Giant Claw....?

There are a couple of negative points the film DOES deserve. The first of which being the aforementioned fight with a giant bird. See, right after his first fight with Ebirah, all Godzilla really wants to do is go back to sleep. So instead of crawling back into the cave, he just sits down and naps out in the open. But seeing as he's so huge, he makes himself a giant target, and the first thing to attack him, is a gigantic condor, who swoops in and just starts pecking the shit out of his face. Now the CONCEPT of a fight with a giant bird is pretty solid. Unfortunately, what makes this fight a negative point, is that the film must have already busted its budget on everything else, because the bird is arguably the cheapest looking Toho monster ever put to film. The poor thing looks so rough, that the camera barely focuses on it, and after being a brief annoyance, Godzilla tells it to PISS OFF, burning it to a crisp with his death breath, and it plummets into the sea.  

The second negative point is actually something that had nothing to do with the filmmakers. It has everything to do with the post-production English dubbing. There was an English dub made, which is on the original VHS tape I own (and can be heard in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring this film), which in my opinion was actually rather good. The actors actually TRY, it has a sense of dramatic timing and the voices fit the characters. However, upon buying the widely-available DVD for my collection in the 2000s, I discovered to my horror, that they did NOT use that dub! Instead, they used some OTHER shitty "International Dub", with completely different voice actors, who basically just phone it in with the laziest cartoon style acting imaginable. The single worst offender, is the voice for Nita, the "comic relief" character of the story. In my cool VHS dub, yeah, he's a goofball, but he's still a cool character. In the SHIT dub from the DVD, he now sounds like a whiny, high-pitched cartoon character, apparently played for laughs but actually just annoying. And that sucks, because as stated, the OTHER dub actually fits the movie and characters very well.

Coaching up The Boys before their next big fight.

As the story goes, similar to another mid-60s Toho film, Frankenstein vs. Baragon (aka Frankenstein Conquers the World), this movie was allegedly originally supposed to feature King Kong, whom Toho had the rights to use after their Kong vs. Godzilla film, and would later use in their movie King Kong Escapes. But they thankfully decided to use their marquee star, Godzilla, instead. Don't get me wrong, King Kong vs. The Sea Monster has a certain ring to it, and I'm sure it would have been a delightfully bizarre escapade. But I'm personally very glad it stars Godzilla instead, both because I feel it's overall better that way, and because this movie led me to discover my childhood love/obsession for Godzilla. And that on its own means an awful lot to yours truly.

Overall, while this movie lacks the monster star power of a SUPER memorable opponent for Godzilla, like a King Kong, or a Mothra, or a Ghidorah. I feel that it hits enough of the right notes, and stands out with enough of its own particular vibe, that it merits a recommendation from me. Is it "campy" and "cheesy"? Yes. But as I've said in past articles, Toho's use of "suitmation" (actors in rubber suits), and elaborately detailed miniature sets, while it may strike modern audiences as "cheesy", or "cheap", it was anything but at the time. Most of the budget on these films, small as the already were, went directly to the special effects, and they were (and are) an artform all their own. An artform that I really wish Toho would remember, and honor, today.

If you only feel like ever watching ONE Godzilla film ever, I'd probably recommend the original 1954 classic Gorija, or my top favorite, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. But if you're inclined to watch more than one, I would recommend Sea Monster as a very fun and trippy ride. It is an enjoyable movie from beginning to end, at least I think so. Just a word of warning: If you DO watch it, which I hope you do, if at all possible, just watch the original Japanese audio with subtitles, because I'm telling you, that "International English Dub" is terrible!

As for what's next on the Retro Revelations docket? Well, hold onto your butts, because this was just a taste of the Halloween goodness to come...Stay Tuned!!!