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The Showa Series Part 2- The Roaring 70’s
By the time the 70’s rolled around, Japan’s entertainment landscape was quite a different place than it was when Godzilla first stepped on it 15 years prior. Rival movie studios in Japan all had a giant monster movie of their own. Eiji Tsuburaya, one of Godzilla’s four fathers and special effects pioneer brought monsters to TV screens with his smash hit monster shows, Ultra Q, Ultraman, and Ultra Seven. Each show featured a different monster showing up to ravage Japan episode by episode, often battled by a giant hero from space who aided earthlings in their weekly fights. Tsuburaya’s monster formula proved a smash hit with audiences, and would spill into a legion of small screen imitators that continue to run strong to this day. Among them are icons in their own right like Masked Rider and Super Sentai (released and reedited in America as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and its numerous sequels and spin-offs). As television expanded in popularity and potential, audiences and studio executives flocked to explore the opportunities it presented for new kinds of storytelling, markets to mine, and monster havoc to display.
For theatrical features though, things were different. As Toho saw new markets rising and audiences for theatrical monster movies dwindle, they gradually scaled back their budgets, ushered in new creative directors into their classic Godzilla series, and redefined its focus. Theaters across the country were closing and Toho needed a new game plan to keep their franchises profitable. Fortunately, they had one very reliable audience to mine—kids. Much of their Godzilla releases from 1969 onward were strictly targeted at these younger audiences. Combining this with lower budgets and a redefined sensibility for portraying giant monsters in film, Toho’s new game plan produced the strangest movies Godzilla would ever star in and a whole lot of campy material. Godzilla wasn’t quite what he was in the 60’s, but damned if his 70’s movies weren’t interesting in their own right—and most worth exploring.
Toho’s basic game plan from here on out revolved around producing new Godzilla films on a yearly-ish basis for release in their tri-annual kiddie centered Toho Champion Film Festival. The first of these, All Monsters Attack, was a pretty effective mission statement for that new game plan. It’s a kid’s movie through-and-through. It’s also one of the most loathed by fans. Most of the monster fights are stock footage from other movies cobbled together, and all of the monster scenes are dream sequences taking place in the imagination of a young Godzilla fan. I would argue though, that a lot of the venom this movie draws is pretty unfair.
The movie takes place in something close to our universe, and centers around a young boy named Ichiro, who draws on fantasies of visiting Monster Island and watching Godzilla fight to inspire him to stand up to bullies and eventually some comical gangsters. Evaluating All Monsters Attack purely in terms of what it is—a kid’s movie—there’s real value to be found in it. There’s a really positive message here about standing up for yourself, and I would argue that this film pretty accurately captures the mindset of a young Godzilla fan, or at least mine at that age… and maybe now… Anyway, it’s another one of those I don’t really feel compelled to pick up unless I’m marathoning the series, but it’s a definite work of value.
Hooo boy is this one strange. Undoubtedly, this is the single weirdest Godzilla film ever made. His opponent is a sludge monster who can rotate between being a tadpole, a bipedal blob, and a flying saucer, there are weird animated interludes basically just because, and there’s this. The film’s pacing is a bit lumbering and sluggish, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting Godzilla films out there. The hot button social issue tackled this time around is pollution, and there’s not an ounce of subtlety to be found as we cut to disgusting footage of a sludge-covered ocean and hear a recurring song about saving the planet in the soundtrack. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is also one of the few Godzilla films to not shy away from the human toll of a monster attack, as innocents are shown being smothered and burned by Hedorah. Definitely a good one to crack open some beers to. You get a ton of memorable scenes here, and one of Godzilla’s most interesting and memorable foes in Hedorah.
This is an old childhood favorite of mine. Time and maturity have made me much more aware of its shortcomings of course. Most of the human stuff, again featuring an invading alien race, is pretty much a series of derivative, generic beats to take us to the monster stuff, but the monster action itself is really well done. This movie would continue an ugly trend of reusing stock special effects footage in monster scenes, an obvious budget saving tactic poorly disguised by adjusted lighting and color, but the new footage is full of character. It’s a departure from the Tsuburaya days for sure though. Teroyoshi Nakano, who would be in charge of effects for the next few movies, takes a far more colorful, goofy approach to filming monsters. Fights are surprisingly bloody, and the “wrestling match” quality of the fighting is kicked up several notches. The climactic duel is actually one of my favorites in the series, stock footage aside. Godzilla and Anguirus’ duel against the deadly team of Gigan and King Ghidorah is tightly paced, fun to watch, and imbues tons of character into the monsters. This movie really defines the character of Anguirus, presented here as Godzilla’s most trusted ally with a go-getter attitude. Gigan, making his debut here, is wild as well, sporting a wicked, oddball design and a dickish, cocky sense of personality that makes him one of my favorite monsters.
I have to admit I’m biased. This was the movie that really sold me on Godzilla when I was a wee lad of seven. I have fond memories of that fateful family trip to California where I picked up this film at a Toys-R-Us bin and devoured it when we got back to our hotel room. This one wins epic nostalgia points from me and I still love it, but I also can’t pretend it’s good. There’s a profound sense of cheapness to the whole production. There’s even heavier use of stock footage than in Godzilla vs. Gigan, the human story is an empty time-sucking void, and all of the monster action happens in an expansive countryside set instead of the trademark city. Most of this is definitely related to Toho’s tighter budgets, but there’s also a real feeling of scraping the bottom of the barrel. The story and characters seem to be just a series of bullet-points and cookie cutter plot devices. There’s another invading civilization with a giant monster under their control, another cutsey child character wearing short shorts, and another team up brawl at the climax. Even with all that, there’s still a lot of entertainment to come from this film, and energy that isn’t there in better-made but less inspired films that would come later. The designs of Megalon and Godzilla’s robot sidekick Jet Jaguar are laughably ridiculous, and the climactic monster fight between the teams of Godzilla/Jet Jaguar and Megalon/Gigan (showing up again) is a great bit of fun that gives us this golden moment. A lot of the campy reputation Godzilla carries in popular culture probably comes as a result of this film (it had quite the marketing campaign and home video/TV circulation back in the day) and while I can’t deny the damage it did, I also can’t deny how much fun I have with it.
For Godzilla’s 20th anniversary film, Toho kicked up the budget a couple notches above the last couple films, as well as the quality. The human characters aren’t much to write home about and the story again recycles alien invaders as antagonists, but the rest of everything is a lot of fun. Masaru Sato’s jazzy score gives us some of my personal favorite themes in the entire series, Teruyoshi Nakano’s monster fights and effects are consistently memorable, and Jun Fukuda keeps things moving at a lively pace even when the characters aren’t particularly interesting. Mechagodzilla proves an exceptionally vicious opponent for the King of the Monsters, and it’s easy to see why the machine was brought back for future movies. Another favorite of mine.
By 1975, Godzilla movies weren’t quite the box office draw they once were. Ticket sales were getting increasingly disappointing and it was tough finding a rationale to keep the series going. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla proved to be a ray of hope, taking in respectable financial gains and convincing producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to try and gather all the successful elements from the series’ past he could find. Hence, not only did he bring back Mechagodzilla, but director Ishiro Honda and composer Akira Ifukube to the fold. Things get a lot darker with this one; the tone and story are far more serious, and the odds get stacked against Godzilla as he’s pit against not only a rebuilt Mechagodzilla, but an ancient dinosaur named Titanosaurus, who’s also fallen under alien control.
Despite the points this movie gets for bringing back some of the series’ most reliable creative talent and pulling off a more serious tone, I actually prefer the previous Mechagodzilla film. The plot takes a while to get going with this one, and Godzilla isn’t much more than a plot device to make the final battle happen. It’s far from bad though. Mechagodzilla’s climactic attack on Tokyo is awesome, and the final fight is thrilling and brutal.
Despite all Tanaka’s efforts to reingnite the Godzilla series though, fate was not on his side. Terror of Mechagodzilla ended up pulling the most disappointing box office results for the series yet and convinced Toho to finally put Godzilla on their shelves. Following this movie, Godzilla would go into a nine year hibernation, from which he would awaken fresh and ready to redefine his place in cinemas.
The 70’s were a trying time for the King of the Monsters. The genre he helped ignite had all but migrated to TV screens, and his name was no longer a reliable box office draw. Despite reduced budgets and increasingly formulaic plots though, the 70’s films are actually some of the most interesting and entertaining to watch in the series. Some of the monster designs are balls-out weird, and the increased focus on entertaining children gives us fun monster fights much more comical in nature. Though I would call only one or two of these films objectively good, they’re all at least interesting, and very much worth a watch.
Check out the next two parts: