It's hard to believe, but in the last 20 years there have been nearly as many new Godzilla movies as were produced between 1954, when the series began, and 1975, when the last of the "classic" movies limped into theaters. Most of these more recent films -- Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994), Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) -- serve mainly as proof that the earlier, 1954-75 series was far superior in almost every way, even lesser entries more than a trifle silly, like Son of Godzilla (Kaijuto no kessen -- Gojira no musuko, literally "Showdown on Monster Island -- Son of Godzilla," 1967). This becomes even more apparent in Columbia/TriStar's stunning DVD, one sure to knock the socks off those who've only ever seen it on TV dubbed and panned-and-scanned via those awful 16mm syndication prints.
Son of Godzilla takes place on a remote island in the South Pacific where a group of scientists (headed by Tadao Takashima, and including genre veterans Akihiko Hirata, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Kenji Sahara) are conducting weather experiments. They want to control the island's weather. If successful, they plan to use their high-tech technology to turn barren deserts into fertile farm land. As the story opens, a free-lance reporter (Akira Kubo) parachutes to the island, looking for a story, and eventually finds a beautiful Japanese woman (Bibari "Beverly" Maeda) living on the island. But the scientists' first attempt to change the island's weather has a disastrous effect: radioactive clouds turn the already-stiflingly hot island into a veritable sauna and, a la H.G. Wells' Food of the Goods, transforms the island's already man-sized praying mantises into Godzilla-sized behemoths.
Meanwhile, an egg containing a baby-sized Godzilla, Minira, hatches and when the giant mantises (called Kamakiras in the film) threatened to eat Baby G for lunch, proud papa Godzilla comes to his rescue.
Son of Godzilla was the second of two consecutive films (the other was 1966's Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster) directed by Jun Fukuda, with music by Masaru Sato (Yojimbo), and special effects more or less helmed in both films by Sadamasa Arikawa. These three especially gave the increasingly redundant series a badly-needed shot in the arm, and stylistically their work is the antithesis of the three men usually associated with these movies: director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube, and effects giant Eiji Tsuburaya.
Both films are lighter, more energetic and, most significantly, lean heavily on action-adventure driven by a single story thread. By contrast, the Honda-Tsuburaya films often juggled multiple plot lines and monster action, sometimes with story threads only tangentially related to the others. Both Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla, on the other hand, stick with a small group of characters faced with a conflict independent of the monster action. When the monsters do appear, their actions create (and sometimes eliminate) new conflicts for the human characters while working as independent action running parallel to the main story. With very few exceptions (e.g., Godzilla vs. the Thing/Godzilla vs. Mothra, 1964), all the best Godzilla sequels use it.
This storytelling structure is really what works best for this type of Godzilla sequel. In these movies, Godzilla can be personable, likeable even, yet remain a basically indiscriminate monster, a force of nature, like a typhoon, best avoided.
Curiously, almost all the Godzilla sequels, both the Honda-Tsuburaya and Fukuda-Arikawa ones, were written or co-written by the same man, Shinichi Sekizawa. Whether Sekizawa adapted these scripts to fit Fukuda's established style, or perhaps was instructed by series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to tailor them to the series' increasing younger audience (by 1967 mostly teenagers and children) is unclear.
The addition of Minira surely had many die-hard Godzilla fans cringing, but then again this is a film so removed from the noirish, cautionary dread of the first Godzilla (Gojira, 1954) that to complain about it is beside the point. On its own terms, the scenes with Minira are quite charming, a strong contrast to the ghastly attempts to sorta revive the character in Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla. What made the classic Godzillas so memorable is their willingness to experiment. (And, for that matter, why the recent ones are generally so unmemorable; they rarely experiment, and when they do it's always in the wrong ways.)
Simply put, the series wouldn't have lasted as long as it did if Toho had simply made the same movie over and over again, which is exactly what they've been doing for the last dozen years. Even the alarmingly goofy ideas that turn up in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster are admirable in that there's at least an effort to show audiences something new.
The special effects, under the direction of the much-underrated Sadamasa (not Teisho) Arikawa, are ambitious and plentiful. In Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Arikawa introduced Godzilla's first water-based menace, and here surrounds the Big G with elaborate monster marionettes, inspired creations unique in the genre. Both the mantises and Kumonga, a giant spider, must have been fiendishly difficult to manipulate, and though the elaborate wireworks are visible in a few shots, for the most part they work wonderfully well. They genuinely seem alive at times, in the suspension of disbelief sense, and coupled with low-angle photography and a plethora of matte work (there are more optical effects putting the human and monster characters in the same shot than perhaps any other entry) really seem huge. And, unlike most movie monsters manipulated via overhead wires, the creatures here seem heavy and massive as well as big.
Minira likewise is manipulated, not very well, by wires in his first scenes. Perhaps because this method proved so unsatisfying, in all his later scenes Minira is played by a man in a costume, a wrestler who went by the stage name Marchan the Dwarf. Haruo Nakajima plays Godzilla only in scenes involving water; for the rest of the picture, the part is alternated between Hiroshi Sekita and Seiji Onaka.
As with Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, another big plus is Masaru Sato's generally light score, one perfectly suited to the tone of the picture. Especially notable is his cue for the mantises, and a final cue heard during the oddly touching finale, orchestrated with to what sounds to this reviewer's untrained ears like a piccolo and a bassoon.
For the record, Son of Godzilla is the eighth Godzilla entry. It was followed by Destroy All Monsters (1968).
Video & Audio
Godzilla fans rejoice. Columbia/TriStar has been cranking out Godzilla titles at a pace long dreamed of: Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, and Godzilla vs. Gigan were all released earlier this fall in superlative 16:9 anamorphic transfers that, at long last, did those pictures justice and then some. Son of Godzilla looks equally fine, and that's especially gratifying as this was never released theatrically at all in the U.S., and except for some illegal bootleg tapes and pricey Japanese DVDs and laserdiscs, has never been available in widescreen format. The Toho Scope image (2.35:1) is fantastic, with Fukuda's lively direction and Kazuo Yamada's spectacular photography (heavy on bright primary colors) a knock-out. The opening titles, incidentally, are the original international version, complete with a title logo design created for English theatrical posters that essentially went unused. Included also is the film's original prologue, heretofore cut for U.S. release. The film can be enjoyed in its original Japanese with bright yellow English subtitles, or in a bad "international" English dub best avoided. The Dolby Digital mono is okay, but the mix tends to drown out dialogue when the music track heats up.
The only extras are a batch of trailers and previews, including a 16:9 spot for the label's Godzilla line.
Son of Godzilla is a fun movie, perfect family entertainment, and representative of the classic series at its most goofily charming. Highly recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.