Before we get into this article, let me get something off my chest and, in the process, confess to you all that I am going into this movie with a considerable chip on my shoulder. You see, as can be ascertained from the title, this movie deals with a journey to the planet Uranus, and as anyone can tell you, it is the God-given right of people discussing this planet to make as many “Uranus” jokes as they can (and believe me, I can make a lot of them). Especially when a movie turns out to be as dull and uneventful as this one, we who regularly engage in discussion of such films need those Uranus jokes to make it through to the end credits. Now some movies will try and head you off at the pass, using the alternate “Urine Us” pronunciation, but as you can see, even though it is less versatile, that pronunciation comes with its own cargo of hilarity.
As of this writing, Godzilla is in hibernation following his last attempt at a cinematic swan song, 2004′s dreadful Final Wars. Come the teens, however, I am pretty confident that Godzilla’s masters at Toho will take him out of mothballs again to reinvent him — as they have done in the two previous decades — for a new era and prevailing sensibility. In the nineties they gave us an appropriately touchy-feely Godzilla series, with Mothra recast as a new-agey Earth Mother and a teary-eyed psychic on hand to clue us in to the monsters’ feelings. The Godzilla of the 00′s was leaner and meaner, aided by the fact that all of those shots of collapsing skyscrapers now had a disquieting edge of verisimilitude. I have no idea what version of Godzilla Toho has in store for us in the future, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be the goofy superhero we saw in his movies from the late sixties and seventies. That incarnation, I’m afraid, is one that’s lost to the ages.
Still, I’m happy to at least see evidence of a more forgiving attitude emerging with regard to movies like Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and its much maligned director, Jun Fukuda. For years it seemed that the more affable version of Godzilla presented therein and the man most associated with it were held in utter revulsion by those who considered themselves serious fans. As such, they became central to an official narrative of decline – a woeful spiral or ruin traced from the minute Godzilla did that little victory jig in Monster Zero and cemented into inevitability with the replacement of series mentor Ishiro Honda by the upstart Fukuda, leading inexorably to that dark day when Godzilla and Anguilas would speak to each other via cartoon speech balloons in Godzilla vs. Gigan.
Behind all of this ire seemed to be this notion that the “real” Godzilla had been hijacked and replaced by a buffoonish impostor, an idea that seemed to be what fueled the comparatively serious-minded tone of the G films of the nineties and beyond. But what this stance refused to acknowledge is the fact that Godzilla’s rich and varied history gives him all the chameleon-like properties of a true pop icon — that he is a piece of imaginational public property capable of being to each person whoever that person wants him to be, without encroaching in the least on the next person’s conception of him. Those who enjoy Godzilla most as the symbolism-freighted destructive juggernaut seen in his debut film can do so without having that enjoyment dampened in the least by the fact that, later down the road, he would be pitching cartoon boulders at a giant lobster, just as those who enjoy that later version are free to do so untroubled by the fact that, early on, Godzilla was a bit of a dick. Godzilla is a bit like Madonna in that way (while Madonna, as time passes, is increasingly like Godzilla in a number of other ways).
Sadly, the cropping up of misguided and pointlessly self-limiting orthodoxies in the realm of pop culture is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to see if you allow for a backwass notion like “serious fandom”, which, to me, is like the flipside of “casual zealotry”. I mean, I’m both capable of being serious and a fan of many things, but I strongly believe that when the notions of “seriousness” and “fandom” collide, only trouble, heartache and — in the unforgiving lense of hindsight — deep, gnawing shame can result. I feel this especially acutely in this case. because, to my thinking, to be too critical of Godzilla after a certain point becomes dangerously close to taking Godzilla for granted, which is something we should never do. You see, I’ve reached an age where I’ve taken stock of my life and determined which things matter to me the most. And I can tell you in all honesty that Godzilla ranks right up there with fine liquor, warm summer nights and the love of a good woman among those thing that make life most worth living. Sure, I wasn’t crazy about Final Wars, but if you told me that having no Final Wars meant having no Godzilla, I’d have to say, sure, go ahead and give Ryuhei Kitamura the keys to the franchise and let him have at it.
All of this ties in with what I think determines which of Godzilla’s different manifestations will be the one a particular person will hold closest to his or her heart, which can basically be described as a sort of primary attachment theory of Godzilla. In short, it’s all about which Godzilla was your first. In my case, it was Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. If memory serves — which it may very well not — the encounter took place via a short-lived Saturday night horror movie package called Shock-It-To-Me Theater that aired on one of the Bay Area’s local UHF channels. The host was a goateed guy called Asmodeus, who always wore a smoking jacket and dark glasses — and who actually puffed away on a cigarette as he introduced the movies, which should give you some idea of how long ago this was. Not long after, Asmodeus and Shock-It-To-Me would be driven off the air by the popularity of a competing horror show on another local channel, Creature Features, which was hosted by the recently departed Bob Wilkins, an unassuming guy in an off-the-rack suit and glasses who had a perpetually bemused demeanor and a lacerating, bone-dry wit.
Thinking back, it must have been tough for Asmodeus, who was more what would have been considered a traditional horror movie host at the time — complete with ominously intoned, pre-scripted dialog and a cobwebbed, gothic castle set from which to intone it — to be knocked off the air by a guy like Wilkins. Little did we know at the time that, with Wilkins, we were seeing the first glimmer of an ironic hipster sensibility that, by the time of Mystery Science Theater, would become part and parcel of our attitude toward “B” cinema as a whole. Anyway, it’s just as likely that I first saw Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster on Wilkins’ Creature Features. But, if that’s the case, at least my lapse in memory gave me an opportunity to give Asmodeus a shout-out, because, even though I was among the horde of young viewers who ditched him in favor of Creature Features, he was still a formative influence.
Anyway, what matters the most out of all of this is that my initial viewing of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, whatever setting on the TV dial it emanated from, had a soul-stirring effect on me. I remember being struck by a sense of wonderment at the fact that adults, who at this point in my life seemed to merely serve as delivery system for everything — vegetables, outdoor activities, Summer swimming lessons — that I wanted to have nothing to do with, had taken the trouble to create something that was so completely awesome — something that, judging by how it conformed so closely to my seven-year-old mind’s conception of what was cool, appeared to have been designed specifically with my pleasure in mind. Here were giant monsters fighting; perilous jungle adventures; an army of exotic, uniformed bad guys lead by a dude with an eyepatch; futuristic looking sci-fi sets; toy boats and planes that acted just like the real thing, and lots of explosions, all set to a driving, sort-of-rock-and-roll-sounding musical score that practically screamed at me that I was watching probably the most exciting thing ever seen.
Some time later I would see — and years later, come to love — the original Godzilla, but at the time it was the one film in the series that struck me as being the departure. My Godzilla was the grumpy but ultimately lovable defender of the Earth that I had seen in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, or in Monster Zero — or the grumpy but ultimately loving and protective father figure seen in one of my other youthful favorites, Son of Godzilla. And that hasn’t changed much in my adulthood, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, given that the list of things I consider cool has changed very little since I was seven, and has only been amended over the years to commemorate my discoveries of things like girls, punk rock and beer.
Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster began life as Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs. Ebirah, a rejected script for a proposed co-production between Toho and America’s Rankin/Bass Productions (yes, the Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer guys) that was intended to tie in with the latter’s King Kong Saturday morning cartoon series. That fabulous bit of synergy finally saw fruit with 1967′s wonderful King Kong Escapes, but before that transpired, Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka determined the need for a new Godzilla film for the upcoming 1966 holiday season, and further decreed that said entry should be oriented toward a teen audience and feature a South Seas theme. In response, the Operation Robinson Crusoe script was hastily retooled — primarily, it seems, by crossing out the name “King Kong” wherever it appeared and penciling in “Godzilla” in its place — and then mashed up with another shelved script, this one for a sequel to director Jun Fukuda’s successful spy spoof 100 Shot/100 Killed, titled 100 Shot/100 Killed: Big Duel in the South Seas. The resulting Frankensteinian creation was a beast bearing the cumbersome title Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas.
For all the coulda-beens and shoulda-beens of its detractors, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, viewed today, seems like it was inevitably the Godzilla movie that was going to get made in 1966. This was, after all, the year in which the author of James and the Giant Peach was commissioned to write a James Bond movie in which spaceships eat other spaceships and a villain’s space-age compound is housed within a hollowed-out volcano. The collision between the stodgy, adult-driven popular culture of the early sixties and the encroaching influence of sixties youth culture and it’s defining mistrust for authority had resulted in camp becoming the dominant aesthetic in seemingly every pop culture producing country in the world, and it was no longer safe for any pop icon born of the old order to be presented without a conspicuous display of tongues being placed firmly in cheek. (In this sense, the Batman TV series sort of served as the signal head-on-a-pike to mark our crossing over into this new territory.) Also, recent years had for the first time seen the vast majority of Television shows and movies being produced in color, something that producers were demonstrably eager to exploit via the widespread use of pop art-inspired, comic book-like palettes of bright primary colors, a tendency that is well in evidence in some of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s sets. Lastly, the influence of the aforementioned Bond films had reached critical mass by 1966, becoming so pervasive that even the Beatles couldn’t resist the urge to spoof them in Help!, which makes it unsurprising that Godzilla’s handlers would draw upon their tropes as well. In short, all of these trends listed above come together in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, resulting in it being probably the most overtly comical, modish, and giddily irreverent film in the Godzilla series.
Facilitating this new tone was the fact that a number of the key members of the creative team behind Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster were younger than those who had worked on the previous G films. Director Fukuda, here taking the reigns of a Godzilla movie for the first time, was not only thirteen years younger than Ishiro Honda, who had directed all but one of the previous six Godzilla films, but also lacked Honda’s strong attachment to the giant monster genre. Instead, he drew upon his previous experience directing fast-paced action and comedy films for his approach to the material. Composer Masaru Sato — who had previously scored Godzilla Raids Again, the one Godzilla film that you are most likely to have completely forgotten existed — was likewise a decade-plus behind the man he was replacing, Akira Ifukube. In contrast to Ifukube’s ominous, deliciously portentious scores to the preceding Godzilla films, Sato here delivers a soundtrack that is alternately whimsical and full of manic, cartoonish urgency, and also can be credited with being the first to place twangy, surf-music inspired guitars amid Godzilla’s musical backing. Finally, taking the helm as director of special effects for the first time — despite Eiji Tsuburaya’s credit here — was Tsuburaya’s first assistant, Sadamasa Arikawa, a transition due largely to Tsuburaya having his hands full with the production of his television series Ultraman. Though working, thanks to Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s reduced budget, on a smaller scale than what Tsuburaya usually had to deal with, Sadamasa does a fine job, and even puts his own stamp on things with some camera work that departs significantly from his mentor’s typical style.
One member of the team who was not a stranger to Godzilla was screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, who had in fact had a hand in writing most of the previous entries in the series, as well as such other high profile kaiju films as Mothra and Varan. Despite this, he was able to raise himself — or lower himself, depending on your perspective — to the task of concocting for Godzilla a story that was enough of a briskly paced and carefree piece of froth to make the monster’s previous film forays seem like sober dramas by comparison, incorporating teen-friendly elements from the current beach party, action and spy films as he went along. This emphasis meant that the aspects of the story involving the film’s human characters would be front and center for much of the film, which is actually not that unusual for Godzilla’s movies. All of them depend quite a bit on their human-based storylines to fill out their running time, and to my mind those storylines are precisely what keep the Godzilla movies fresh, because you never remember them from one viewing to the next. With every screening it’s like you’re seeing — and then forgetting — them for the very first time.
In the case of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, what you are forgetting is about sixty percent of the movie, because Godzilla doesn’t really enter the action until about the fifty minute mark. Until that time we have the story of Ryota (Toru Watanabe), a kid who is determined to go off in search of his fisherman brother, who has been reported lost at sea, but whom Ryota is convinced is still alive. Ryota’s first stop in his quest is a dance marathon in which a sailboat is the first prize, an episode that gives Masaru Sato an opportunity to contribute some swingy go-go music — complete with suspicious echoes of the Batman theme — to the soundtrack. Finding he’s arrived too late to compete, he enlists the aid a couple of goofballs who have already been eliminated in helping him to steal a boat from a nearby pier, a boat that turns out to be the hiding place of fugitive safecracker Yoshimura (played by ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Akira Takarada). For reasons that are not entirely clear, the four men all decide to spend the night on the boat, but awake to find that Ryota has set sail during the night without their knowledge, and that they are now somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, Everyone takes this pretty much in stride, until, after a few days’ journey, their boat is cleaved in two by a gigantic claw that thrusts up from beneath the ocean’s surface.
Ryota, Yoshimura and the other two all wash up on the beach of Devil’s Island, which they soon discover to be the hideout of The Red Bamboo, an army of crisply uniformed terrorists who are building an arsenal of nuclear missiles within their space-age compound there — and who bear no resemblance to the Chinese whatsoever. The island’s coastline is guarded over by the sea monster Ebirah, a giant lobster/shrimp thing that is almost exclusively seen from the waist up, with its lower body hidden beneath the water line, and who, in an especially memorable and rare instance of kaiju movie gruesomeness, spears a pair of escaping fishermen on the end of his claw like shish kebab. In order to keep Ebirah at bay while they ferry supplies back and forth, the Red Bamboo must use a yellow liquid refined from vegetation found on the island that has special, Ebirah-repelling properties, the production of which they delegate to an army of slaves who they have captured from nearby Infant Island. Said slaves, of course, are those peaceful inhabitants of said island who are able to remain peaceful solely by dint of them having the giant moth Mothra on hand to kick ass whenever anyone gives them any trouble. As Ryota and his pals watch the unloading of the latest shipment of slaves, one of the females, Daiyo (also-ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Kumi Mizuno) breaks away from the pack and makes a run for it. The boys come out of hiding to aid in her escape and soon become the object of pursuit for the one-eyed Captain Yamoto (played by designated Godzilla series eyepatch model — see his role as Dr. Serizawa in Gojira — Akihiko Hirata) and his machinegun-wielding troops.
Meanwhile, over on Infant Island, the remaining inhabitants are trying to raise Mothra from her slumber to go and save their enslaved loved ones, aided, as always, by those tiny twin singing fairies of Mothra’s — who, for the first time, are not portrayed by The Peanuts, but instead by another twin singing act called Pair Bambi. This scene provides an opportunity for another one of the high points of Sato’s musical score, a version of the usual ‘hey, Mothra, wake up” ritual song that would fit right in on one of those late nineties lounge-exotica compilations. Mothra proves difficult to rouse, however, a delaying tactic that gives us the nagging feeling we’re going to be seeing some Mothra ex machina action during the final minutes of the picture.
It turns out, however, that Mothra isn’t the only sound sleeper among the monsters in the neighborhood, because, in the course of scrambling frantically around the island in their attempts to evade Capt. Yamoto and his men, Ryota and company stumble upon Godzilla, out like a light at the bottom of a deep subterranean pit in the island’s interior. As momentous a discovery as this is, the boys file it away for future reference, as there is still much more frantic scrambling around to be done, in and out of the Red Bamboo’s compound and the various caves and fissures of the island, all the while being narrowly missed by fusillades of machinegun fire from their pursuers. Finally, in the course of one of these pursuits, Ryota finds himself tangled in the lines of an observation balloon which comes loose from its moorings and sails away from the island. In one of the film’s most willfully preposterous moments — and the final red flag for anyone who’s actually been trying to take any of this seriously — Ryota’s involuntary balloon ride deposits him right at the feet of the Infant Island natives at the very moment that their Mothra waking dance seems to be taking effect. Not only this, but, In response to Ryota’s inquiry, the islanders produce Ryota’s missing brother, who has been among them all along.
Ultimately, the good guys’ escape from the island and the Red Bamboo’s comeuppance cannot be accomplished without Godzilla on hand to deal with the villain’s fearsome guardian lobster, and so a hastily contrived lightning rod and the felicity of frequent tropical downpours are employed to bring him to. A little groggy at first, and obviously not too keen on doing any heavy lifting, Godzilla’s first reaction upon seeing Ebirah is to lazily chuck some boulders at him to see if that will do the trick of driving him off. It doesn’t, and Ebirah just bats the boulders back at Godzilla, who in turn head-butts them like soccer balls back in his direction, making this the most gleefully stupid prelude to a monster battle in the series thus far. Finally, the battle is joined in earnest, and involves a lot of underwater sequences that were reportedly quite perilous for the suit actors, weighed down as they were by hundred-pound-plus monster costumes in addition to being submerged in gallons of water.
One of the common complaints about Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is that it is cheap. It is indeed true that the financially troubled Toho assigned the film a budget that was meager in comparison to that of its predecessors. Still, this is not a film that overreaches its limits, and, for the most part, its planning and scripting evidences a shrewd allotment of resources, allowing it to be a slick and handsome looking entry despite it being staged on a somewhat smaller scale than earlier Godzilla movies. Though the setting of the action on a remote island cut costs by alleviating the need for Sadamasa Arikawa and his crew to build entire miniature cities for the monsters to trash, what miniatures there are are well up to the standard set by the other films, and the need for fewer indoor sets allowed the producers to invest more in the colorful interiors of the Red Bamboo’s compound.
The only evidence of shoddiness that is too glaring to overlook is that no one seems to have bothered, during the transitioning of the script from one featuring King Kong to one featuring Godzilla, to put much work into differentiating the latter from the former. For the most part that isn’t much of a problem, since both meet the screenplay’s primary requirement of being giant rampaging monsters, but it definitely becomes a bit troubling during the section of the film in which Godzilla seems to be taking an amorous interest in Kumi Mizuno. Admittedly, this episode is a bit of a low point for the Big G, especially since much of it involves him guarding over Daiyo while hunkering down on his haunches and just kind of staring off into the middle distance. It’s not a good look for Godzilla, and I couldn’t help thinking that all he needed was a newspaper to complete the appearance of him sitting on the can. Also a bit puzzling is the fact that the water-bound Ebirah seems like he would be even less of an appropriate opponent for King Kong than he is for Godzilla, making it hard to imagine what exactly Toho might have been thinking there. This is not to say that Ebirah is entirely crappy as kaiju go, but he does prove to be a bit overmatched, and, at the end of the day, it’s pretty obvious why he came to take his place alongside King Seesar and Hedora the Smog Monster in the pantheon of one-shot Godzilla movie monsters.
Despite its obviously misguided intimations of Godzilla’s interspecies horniness, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster also affords its mon-star his fair share of iconic moments, including an entrance that involves him busting out of the side of a mountain. There is also an instance of classic Godzilla bad-assery in which, after tearing off one of Ebirah’s claws, he clacks the thing together like a giant castanet in order to taunt him. Elsewhere, perhaps less iconic, but still indelible is Godzilla’s battle with the Red Bamboo’s air force, which is set to a musical accompaniment that would be more appropriate for the dancers on Shindig. Still, it isn’t these isolated moments that make the film so enjoyable, but rather the infectious and undeniably good-natured enthusiasm that courses through the whole thing. It just careens along like a hyperactive toddler on a sugar rush until the end credits roll, leaving you with a mild but entirely pleasant sense of exhaustion. Seriously, I don’t expect everyone to hold this movie in as high regard as I do, but it seems to me that to hate it would take quite a lot of concentrated effort.
After Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Jun Fukuda helmed the similarly silly Son of Godzilla before handing the reigns back to Ishiro Honda for Destroy All Monsters (the first of many “final” Godzilla films) and Godzilla’s Revenge, soon after which he returned to direct some of the most maligned entries in the series, including the almost universally reviled Godzilla vs. Megalon. It is perhaps for this reason that Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is held by some in a negative light; not so much for what it actually contains, but for the fact that the glimmer of Godzilla vs. Megalon can be seen in its eye. Personally, I like the later Fukuda films — Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla especially — but, more importantly, I love Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and to an extent that I could never hope to justify with rational explanation. Suffice it to say that I am helpless to its charms, and even today when I watch it I can’t help but bust out into a big goofy smile. Of course, that should be entirely understandable to anyone who loves Godzilla. It was my first, after all.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akira Takarada, Kumi Mizuno, Chotaro Togin, Hideo Sunazuka, Toru Watanabe, Toru Ibuki, Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, Ikio Sawamura, Pair Bambi, Haruo Nakajima | Director: Jun Fukuda | Writer: Shinichi Sekizawa | Music: Masaru Sato
The fact is that, when I’m writing about a movie, I’m much less interested in telling you how good or bad it is than I am in justifying the time I spent watching it. As such, I’m looking for those points of interest — either contained in the film itself or in the circumstances of its production — that will make the whole endeavor seem worthwhile, and prevent me going to my grave fretting over how I could have better spent that six hours I invested in repeat viewings of Tahalka.
Providing a break from the rigors of that approach are those occasions on which I encounter films whose WTF quotient is so high that they exist on a plane beyond simple judgments of good or bad–the mystery of whose very existence overshadows any questions of quality. Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen is such a film. And like another fine example of the species, the Turkish superhero mash-up 3 Dev Adam, Hanuman achieves that rarified WTF air by means of positioning some very familiar elements within a very foreign context. It’s just hard to dismiss a shockingly gory movie that teams the world’s most beloved giant Japanese superhero with the Hindu monkey god for not measuring up to some notional standard of “coherence” or “watchability”. That’s not to suggest, of course, that there aren’t those who consider Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen bad — or who, in fact, revile it. None of them, however, are going to argue that it’s not one weird little foo dog of a movie.
The thing about Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, though, is that once you start looking into the circumstances that surrounded its making — and the events that occurred in its aftermath — the actual content of the movie itself begins to seem less and less strange. In fact, the story that Hanuman sits at the center of is so insane that, now that I’ve become more familiar with its details, I’m worried that my summary of the movie, if I ever get to it, will be a little on the blase side, like “Oh, and then Hanuman and Ultraman gleefully tear the flesh from one of the monsters until there’s nothing left but a giant skeleton puppet which dances around a bit before collapsing in a heap. YAWN!” Still, I promise to bring all of my not-very-considerable professionalism to bear on the task of telling it, without losing site of my greater goal of bringing the movie itself to life for you with the magic of language.
That story begins in 1962, when a young man by the name of Sompote Saengduenchai left his native Thailand for Japan, having been granted a Thai government scholarship to study cinematography in that country. His studies would include an apprenticeship at Japan’s legendary Toho studios, during which Saengduenchai would come into contact with Eiji Tsubaraya, the master of Japanese special effects. Tsubaraya was in the middle of his career peak at the time, having over the past several years been a primary engine in the creation of such classic Japanese movie monsters as Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra. He was also on the verge of starting his own company, Tsubaraya Productions, which would go on to achieve great success in the world of television, in addition to continued success in motion pictures. Saengduenchai would eventually characterize his youthful encounter with Tsubaraya as the beginning of a long and close friendship, though, in truth, its exact nature and details would later become the subject of dispute. Whatever the case, however, there is no doubt that it had a profound effect on the path that Saengduenchai’s career would take — and grave repercussions for Tsubaraya and the company he was to found.
Upon returning to Thailand, Saengduenchai formed his own company, Chaiyo Productions, and went about fashioning himself as a sort-of Thai version of Eiji Tsubaraya. He began to produce and direct a string of special effects-driven and giant monster movies the likes of which had not previously been seen in the Thai film industry, and would continue to produce such films well into his career. (Of all of these, the only one to receive an English language release was his 1981 contribution — under the name Sompote Sands — to the Jaws-but-with-a-crocodile micro-genre, Crocodile, which featured a giant crocodile whose proportions changed radically from one shot to the next.) One of the first of these was 1973′s Ta Tien, which featured a kaiju-style battle between reanimated giant statues of Yuk Wud Jaeng and Yuk Wud Pho, two demon-like guardian spirits from Thai folklore. Of course, on the way to presenting that climactic battle royal, Saengduenchai also provided his audience with scenes of a giant suitmation frog smoking a giant cigarette, a discomfitingly ponderous dinosaur fight, and one of the most extensive and gratuitous skinny dipping sequences in cinema history.
The above serves to underscore a major difference between Tsubaraya and Saengduenchai, which is that, while Tsubaraya’s work was generally infused with a sense of fun and wonder that made it for the most part family friendly, watching Saengduenchai’s films, it’s easy to find yourself wondering who they were intended for at all. A good example of this is Hanuman and the Five Riders, a direct sequel to Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, which, along with its very kiddie-cozy depiction of masked superheroes from the Japanese Kamen Rider series and its offshoots fighting with men in rubber monster suits, also features tons of cheap-but-nonetheless-extreme gore and a Coffin Joe-like vision of Hell that includes copious amounts of female nudity. Suffice it to say that, cultural differences aside, when you watch these movies, you definitely get the idea that Sompote Saengduenchai is one weird dude.
As for Tsubaraya, in the years immediately following his first meeting with Saengduenchai he would produce what would become one of his most loved — not to mention lucrative — creations: the skyscraper-sized kaiju-fighting superhero Ultraman. Ultraman would make his way to the States just a couple of years after his 1966 Japanese debut and begin a long life in syndication on American television. As such, he would become a favorite of successive generations of our great nation’s hyperactive ten year old boys, not to mention the cause of untold playground injuries, and the inspiration for some of those ten year old boys, once grown, to inflict Power Rangers on generations to come.
But while America had only the very manageable one Ultraman to account for, the Japanese had a whole army of them to keep track of. This is because, whenever one Ultra series would end, Tsubaraya Productions, rather than simply producing a second season, would instead create a sequel series featuring a whole new Ultra hero. The initial wave of Ultra hero series, between 1966 and 1975, resulted in seven separate, successive shows, including Ultraman, Ultra Seven, Ultraman Ace, Return of Ultraman (which, despite the name, featured a completely different Ultraman), Ultraman Taro and Ultraman Leo, all of which included, in addition to their main Ultramen, ancillary Ultra characters as well. This proliferation has continued, with some interruptions, to the present day, with the depressing result that a concept as simple as a giant superhero beating up men in monster suits has grown to become as needlessly complex as the Lord of the Rings cycle.
One of the many places where Ultraman was very popular was Thailand, and in 1973 Sompote Saengduenchai approached Tsubaraya Productions with the idea of coproducing a series of films that would team their heroes with figures from Thai folklore and mythology. Sadly, Tsubaraya senior had passed away by this time, and his son Noboru was now in charge of the company. For whatever reasons, Noboru saw fit to give this idea the go-ahead, and the first of these features, Giant and Jumbo A — a teaming of the aforementioned Thai giant Yuk Wud Jaeng with one of Tsubaraya Production’s lesser heroes, Jamborg Ace — went into production. Following immediately on the heels of Giant and Jumbo A came Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, which featured Ultraman, Ultra Seven, Ultraman Jack (from Return of Ultraman), Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro and Ultraman Zoffy (a supporting Ultraman introduced in the original Ultraman series) joining with Hanuman to defeat an assortment of monsters salvaged from past Ultra episodes. (That, if you’re counting, only adds up to six Ultramen, which suggests that the “7″ in the title includes Mother of Ultra, the matriarch of the whole Ultra clan, who’s seen only in the sequences on the Ultra brothers’ home planet, M-78.)
To me, a mystery equal to that of the circumstances surrounding Ultraman and Hanuman becoming partners on screen is how figures of Hindu mythology such as Hanuman came to be part of the culture of Thailand, a predominately Buddhist country. Of course, Hanuman was an important character in the Ramayana, a central epic of the Hindu religion. The flow of trade between India and Thailand insured that the Ramayana would eventually make its way to Thailand and, when it did, it apparently became quite the hot read. As a result the Thais adapted their own, more culturally and geographically specific version of the Ramayana in the form of the Ramakien. Though practitioners of pure Hinduism never became more than a minority in Thailand, the symbols and characters from the epic became so entrenched in the culture of the country that today most Buddhists there see no incongruity in paying tribute to Hindu deities alongside their observance of traditional Buddhist practices. Shrines to Hindu gods such as Ganesh, Vishnu and Hanuman can be found throughout Thailand, and they are visited by Hindus and Buddhists alike.
Figures from the Ramayana play a part in the prologue to Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen, as do the members of the Ultra family. In fact, the whole film strikes an interesting balance between being a Bollywood style “Mythological” and a kiddie sci fi movie. Scenes of scientists in space-age control rooms launching rockets are interspersed with those of Hanuman traversing the heavens to make appeals to Rama as he circles the Earth in his flaming chariot. Representing a sort of meeting-in-the-middle is the fact that Ultraman and company are presented in a seemingly more God-like manner than in their usual incarnations, constantly watching over the Earth from their perch in the heavens and descending from the clouds to intervene in times of trouble.
At the opening of the film, Thailand is suffering a severe drought, and we see a group of children doing a ritual dance in the ruins of an old temple in the hopes of bringing rain. The obvious leader of the group is a boy named Piko, who is wearing a Hanuman mask and doing a dance involving lots of scratching and monkey-like capering that we will have become well familiar with by the movie’s end. While the kids dance, a gang of bandits comes into the temple and steals the head from a statue of the Buddha (something that Ong-bak has already taught us is a very bad idea). Piko sees this and takes off after the bandits, grabbing onto the back of their jeep as they make their getaway. It is at this early point in the movie that we get our first notice that, despite the advertised presence of Ultraman, someone very different from who you’d normally expect is calling the shots, as one of the bandit’s response to this is to draw a gun and shoot Piko point blank in the head, after which we get a nice shot of the kid screaming with blood pouring down his face.
Fortunately, the Ultra family has been watching all of this transpire from their Olympian perch up on M-78, and the Mother of Ultra reaches down from the clouds with an enormous hand to pluck Piko’s lifeless body up and whisk it back to their home in the Land of Light. Just as each of the Ultra heroes was created by being merged with a human who could transform into him at will, the Ultras restore life to Piko by merging him with Hanuman, which, again, makes them seem pretty God-like. (It also makes me wonder if the Ultra’s life-restoring procedures are faith-tailored; for instance, if Piko had been a Christian, would they have merged him with Jesus?) The Ultras then return Piko to Earth where, now granted the ability to transform into Hanuman at will, he sets about getting some big time monkey payback on the trio of thugs who killed him.
And Hanuman, when he appears — a gigantic, pure white monkey in elaborately ornamented traditional raiments, with hollow eyes and a creepy fixed grin — is pretty terrifying, and made nonetheless so by all of his constant jabbering, scratching and capering. This initial impression of him is backed-up by the treatment he gives the bandits once he’s caught up with them; one he simply steps on like a bug, another he crushes under a tree, and a third he grabs in one fist and smashes with an outstretched palm, jabbering and laughing nightmarishly the whole time. Then, with vengeance swiftly dealt, he levitates the Buddha’s head back into its proper place, then takes a surreal victory lap in the skies over Bangkok before taking off into the heavens to chat up some of his fellow deities. Meanwhile, a dashing young scientist at a high tech meteorological research facility is launching the first of what looks like a huge arsenal of cloud-seeding rockets into the atmosphere. This appears to work, but since we’ve also been watching Hanuman’s efforts up in the heavens to strike a deal with Rama on the Earth’s behalf, we’re not sure whether to credit this win to science or faith.
I was initially convinced that the aforementioned dashing young scientist, Professor Virut, was played by the actor Sombat Methanee. That is not just because he looks like Methanee, or because Methanee starred in both of Saengduenchai’s preceding films, Ta Tien and Giant and Jumbo A; but also because it’s very difficult to find any Thai film from the seventies that Methanee didn’t star in. Methanee was Thailand’s biggest action star of that decade, a position he stepped into on the occasion of Thai cinema king Mitr Chaibancha’s accidental death in 1970. (Chaibancha died while performing a stunt for Insee Thong, one of several films in which he portrayed the masked hero Red Eagle.) Similarly to other Asian film industries, the work ethic of Thai movie stars at the time was truly a world away from that found in Hollywood, where being a star meant having the luxury to appear only in the one or two hand-picked prestige projects you’d deigned to appear in that year. For a Thai actor, being a star meant maintaining a constant presence on the country’s movie screens, week in and week out — a practice which, in Methanee’s case, meant appearing in as many as a dozen films a year, and which now accounts for him having over 600 film roles under his belt.
However, as more scrupulous research on my part later revealed, Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen was in fact not one of those over 600 films burdening Sombat Methanee’s belt loops. That is because Professor Virut is instead played by Yodchay Meksuwan, another dashing young Thai actor who — if I may be so churlishly reductive — seems to have starred in all of those Thai movies from the seventies that Methanee couldn’t fit into his schedule — and even starred opposite Methanee in Killer Elephants. Meksuan, like Methanee, would become a familiar face in Saengduenchai’s films, not only starring in the aforementioned Hanuman and the Five Riders, but also 1977′s Yod Manut Computer, a bizarre hybrid combining Thai folklore with a sweded version of the Six Million Dollar Man. All of which is to say that I owe Mr. Meksuwan a profound apology for my previous oversight.
Anyway, bolstered by the success of his first rocket, Meksuwan’s Professor Virut launches a second with far less satisfying results. The rocket explodes on the launching pad, leading to an impressive sequence of Thunderbirds-style miniature mayhem as a chain reaction causes all of the many rockets on the pad to explode. In turn, the Earth underneath the launch base is rent apart, and the five bad guy monsters come marching single file out of the bowels of the Earth to wreak havoc. These monsters include Gomora, one of the most iconic beasts from the original Ultraman series — and here equipped with Godzilla’s roar — plus a trio of Monsters recycled from Ultraman Taro. Also in tow is a fifth monster from another Tsubaraya hero series, Mirrorman, who I guess must really be called “Dustpan” because — as hard as I find that to believe — I can’t find any source that refers to him otherwise. At first, most of the monsters’ havoc-wreaking consists of them just bouncing from foot to foot while waving their arms around and rearing their heads back as if they were laughing as everything blows up around them. There is also a lot of garbled Thai dialog on the soundtrack that seems to suggest that the monsters are supposed to be talking — and from the tone of it, they’re heckling, maybe even calling the assembled human race “bitches” or something. Mutual back slapping can also be observed among the monsters, and at times they appear to be on the verge of giving each other high-fives.
Because nobody wants to see a bunch on giant monsters high-fiving one another like drunken frat boys, the Air Force is called in, and soon toy jets are being swatted out of the sky left and right. Finally, Piko transforms into Hanuman and, between dancing, scratching and jabbering, manages to put up a pretty good fight against the chatty creatures. Just when it looks like they’re about to get the drop on him, the six Ultra brothers sweep down from the sky, signaling the beginning of the real mayhem. At this point, the monsters are so outmatched that the simple substitution of tragic music would have revealed the fight for the brutal slaughter that it is. Monster heads are sheared off, torsos bisected, bodies incinerated, and finally, as alluded to earlier, one ogre-like beast has the skin unceremoniously stripped from his bones. When it’s all over, standing amidst the steaming offal that was once their adversaries, the Ultras watch, perhaps in bewilderment, as Hanuman does one final dance for them. The monkey god then gives each of the brothers a hug, bidding them farewell before they take off back to their home planet. The end.
The fact that Tsubaraya’s effects team participated in the production of Hanuman is obvious from the final thirty minute sequence described above. The special effects and model work are quite impressive, and actually better than a lot of the work done on the various Ultra TV series. One of the reasons for this is that the producers wisely narrowed the scope of the action, limiting all of it to the area around the rocket base. Because of this, only a small number of models needed to be built, and what budget there was could be devoted to making them look as good as possible. On top of that, the physical action is very nicely choreographed, with both Hanuman and the Ultras doing all kinds of crazy flips and cartwheels in the course of the battle, all while constant, large explosions are going off on all sides of them. This frenetic activity helps a great deal to distract from the somewhat restricted scale of what’s going on, and contributes to making Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen a pretty wild ride overall. Some people who hate the film for other, largely understandable, reasons name as one of its many sins that it’s shoddy looking, but they’re clearly looking at it through jaundiced eyes. You can certainly complain that this film makes no sense (it doesn’t), but there’s no getting around the fact that the kaiju battle action it delivers is wholly first rate.
As mentioned earlier, Sompote Saengduenchai quickly followed Hanuman and the 7 Ultras‘ 1974 release with a sequel, the noticeably seedier Hanuman and the Five Riders (which was, in contrast to the two Tsubaraya co-productions, completely unauthorized by Kamen Rider‘s copyright holders). His appetite for co-opting Japanese Tokusatsu characters seemingly quenched, he then continued in his pattern of making movies about giant lizards, snakes and statues well into the nineties, leaving everyone outside of Thailand, excepting those unfortunates heedless enough to rent the VHS of Crocodile, largely unbothered for the next twenty years. Tsubaraya productions, for their part, would continue on in the lucrative Ultraman business, creating their sixth Ultra hero series with Ultraman Leo in 1975, and then a seventh with Ultraman 80 five years later. Though production of new Ultramen would slow down a bit for a while after that, the fact that Tsubaraya’s original creation was one of the most recognized characters in the world insured that fees from licensing and merchandise would continue to stream uninterrupted into the coffers of the company he founded. Life in the Land of Light was indeed ultra good.
Then, in 1995, Noboru Tsubaraya died, and very soon thereafter Sompote Saengduenchai made a dramatic re-entrance into the lives of Ultraman and his corporate guardians. On this occasion, Saengduenchai produced a contract that he alleged had been made between Noboru and himself in 1976, granting Chaiyo Productions exclusive international rights to all of the Ultra series made up to the time of Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen‘s production, as well as to the series Jamborg Ace and the two co-produced movies. While it’s true that a previous contract had been made between the two companies granting Chaiyo television broadcast rights to those same properties, this was something of an entirely different magnitude altogether. Saengduenchai would claim that Noboru had granted him these rights in order to settle a debt — a debt that arose in part as a result of Noboru entering into a licensing agreement with Shaw Brothers Studio for the Hong Kong rights to Hanuman without Chaiyo’s approval. It would later be shown, however, that it was in fact Saengduenchai who had entered into that contract with the Shaws.
Still, Saengduenchai’s dubious assertion of Noboru’s debt was only one of many compelling reasons for Tsubaraya to consider his contract a joke. For one thing, there was the matter of the wording in the contract itself, which misspelled or misnamed not just the titles of most of the subject TV series, but also that of Tsubaraya Productions. But most damning of all was the simple fact that Saengduenchai had stayed quiet about the contract for twenty years — never stepping forward to assert the rights it allegedly granted him, while that whole time Tsubaraya was happily exploiting its licenses across the globe — and only came forward with it once the only person who could dispute its contents with firsthand knowledge had been silenced forever. Still, astonishingly, the Thai Intellectual Property and International Trade Court largely affirmed the legitimacy of the contract in a 2000 decision, which was in turn upheld by the Japanese district court in 2003, saying that, while Tsubaraya retained the copyrights to all of the characters and series covered, the contract did grant Chaiyo license to exploit those series outside of Japan.
This legal victory seems to have emboldened Saengduenchai, for not only did he quickly begin to robustly exercise his newly legitimized rights by licensing as much Ultra product as he possibly could within the shortest time possible, but also to expand exponentially upon the grandiosity of his claims. Soon Saengduenchai was saying that he had, in fact, contributed to the creation of Ultraman, suggesting to Eiji Tsubaraya back in 1963 that he create a character whose appearance was based on Thai statues of the Buddha. Even Ultraman’s name, it turned out, had been Saengduenchai’s idea; he would later claim that, with the idea of evincing the mien of an armored Turkish warrior, he had suggested the name “Ottoman” to Tsubaraya, and that that had been the inspiration for the character’s final appellation. In a further suggestion of a sort of creepy assimilation, Saengduenchai and his associates began referring to an entity called Tsubaraya Chaiyo Co., which would be the home of all of their future Ultraman related projects.
More damaging was the fact that Saengduenchai’s tendency to confabulate extended beyond just the nature of his relationship with Eiji Tsubaraya and his involvement in the origin of Ultraman, but also to the scope of the contract itself. Though subsequent court decisions would actually limit Chaiyo’s rights, it seems that Saengduenchai continually chose to view them as expansions of them. As a result he began talking up all kinds of grand schemes, from the creation of an Ultraman theme park in Thailand to the production of new series featuring Thai-specific Ultraman characters that would be the exclusive property of Chaiyo, one of whom was to be called Ultraman Millennium. Providing a further suggestion of what were beginning to seem like some fairly complex motivations on Saengduenchai’s part, to say the least, his lawyers announced plans to initiate a lawsuit again Tsubaraya, projecting that the outcome of such a suit might be Saengduenchai actually taking over the company!
It took until February of 2008 for Tsubaraya and the courts to deliver a final legal smackdown to Saengduenchai, though not before Chaiyo had invested a lot of money in a new Ultraman series starring Ekin Cheng that probably no one will ever see. Looking over the cold facts of the case now, its hard to find any overt clues to the personalities involved. But in the case of Saengduenchai, it’s very easy to see the whole affair as an extreme case of over-identification. There are reports that Saengduenchai had a framed portrait of his good friend Eiji Tsubaraya prominently displayed in his home, and I can’t help imagining based on that that he also had a secret room off of his bedroom plastered with disturbingly lipstick-smeared snapshots of Tsubaraya, and perhaps newspaper clippings in which Tsubaraya’s name was scratched out and Saengduenchai’s crudely written in with pencil.
Though it’s easy to hate — or at least be mildly creeped out by — Sompote Saengduenchai, perhaps our judgment of him can be tempered somewhat by the fact that, somewhere within the confused tangle of his motivations, was a certain misguided affection. For myself, the fact that Hanuman and the 7 Ultramen — a film that’s very enjoyable to watch while drunk — was a product of that affection goes a long way toward seeding forgiveness within my heart. I’m easy that way. However, had Saengduenchai succeeded in his scheme to introduce yet more Ultramen into the world — and perhaps, in the process, inspired other countries to pitch in with their own versions, prompting a sort of Tokusatu equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest — forgiveness would not have come so easily. There are just too damn many of those guys.