I am breaking little new ground when I point out that the original 1954 film Godzilla was a serious sci-fi horror film that is taken seriously by serious critics (seriously!), even the more annoying ones who usually refuse to give genre films the time of day. Few people would argue that it was a cinematic milestone, that it was to the crossover scifi/horror film what Citizen Kane was to movies about grumpy newspaper moguls and what Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was to the road trip film. Whatever the franchise may have become, Godzilla’s contribution to film history was as big as the monster itself. Any movie that big will get a sequel, whether it wants or needs one or not. They made the sequel and it was pretty forgettable, but by the third film, they struck franchise gold, and the Godzilla industry was born.
Over the years, Godzilla underwent a series of evolutionary steps, most of them fostered by either ideological trends or, more realistically, the desire to make even more money off the monster. The long and winding road eventually transformed him from menacing destructive force to toe-tappin’, jig-dancin’ superhero good guy. Like many children of the 1970s, I grew up watching dubbed imports of Godzilla’s superhero adventures. When I was but a wee sprout toiling in the fields, I found myself most attracted to a little gem called Godzilla’s Revenge. I absolutely loved the film. I mean, here was a movie that showed me if a kid is psychotic enough, he can travel to Monster Island, hang with monsters, and defeat criminals. Here was a movie that taught me the valuable lesson about dealing with your problems by resorting immediately to physical violence. And here was the movie that gave us Minya.
Yes, Minya. Godzilla’s chubby, squealing adopted son. Minya, the most despised of all Godzilla monsters. I remember running around pretending to blow atomic smoke rings. In this lies the greatest power of Godzilla’s Revenge, as well as the thing people most often just don’t get about it. It’s a movie for children, with a character for children. I’ve said it before, but it bears saying again: few things annoy me more than older scifi film fans complaining about how goofy and childish Godzilla’s Revenge is. Well, it’s a damn children’s movie. What the hell did you expect? I’m no armchair psychologist so I’d rather not speculate, but it seems to all boil down to a desperate need to have one’s childish interests and hobbies justified as serious adult pursuits. Thus things like the “comics aren’t just for kids” campaign, or the demand that movies about a giant lizard knocking over major metropolitan areas be darker and more adult oriented. Even if I am old enough now, whatever that means, to see how shoddy the film is, even if I recognize all the stock photography and entire scenes lifted wholesale out of other Godzilla movies to pad out the running time, even if I see how bad it all is through adult eyes, I remember how completely and unconditionally I loved the film as a child. At that time, it becomes easy to remove the filter of bitterness and condescension that is adulthood, allowing me to watch the movie as I did when I was a wee one, but with the added dimension of wisdom.
The film begins with a cool fuzzed-out surf guitar/spy movie music theme song. Right there you have reason enough to dig this movie from the get-go. We then meet young Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki). Ichiro is a kid who a lot of kids could relate to at the time. His dad worked all day, and his mom worked evenings, so he rarely sees either of them. His only neighbor is an inventor toy-maker type guy (Hideyo Amamoto). This guy is just sort of, well, you know. Maybe not the guy you trust to take care of your kid when you are away. He looks like he was probably heavily involved in experimental theater during the 1960s. To make matters worse, every day when Ichiro walks home with his gal pal, he is pestered by a bully named Gabera. When you see these kids, you will realize that it’s akin to being bullied by, say, a gang consisting of Eddie Deezen, Matthew Broderick, and that guy who played Conan’s goofy sidekick in Conan the Destroyer.
Because his parents are never around, and his only friends are a prudish little girl who doesn’t like trespassing in old buildings and a hippie neighbor, Ichiro has created a disturbingly elaborate fantasy world. When he is alone and feelin’ blue, Ichiro gets out his home-made matter transporting radio device and tunes in to his own subconscious. Ichiro’s trip through his own strange and twisted brain transports him to Monster Island, home of Godzilla and plenty of other monsters. But to get there, Ichiro has to board a commercial jet liner that is completely empty and driven by auto-pilot. A telling subconscious symbol of his latchkey kid lifestyle? The plane deposits him alone on Monster Island, where he gets to hide in bushes and watch stock footage from various Godzilla films, most frequently Son of Godzilla and Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster.
After a hard day of watching Godzilla sort of walk around just randomly kicking the collective asses of his neighbors, one starts to wonder if this is how it is every day. I mean, does Godzilla wake up every morning, crack his knuckles, and think, “Well, whose ass am I gonna kick today?” Do they start shit with him, or does he simply pick the fights himself like some drunken redneck in a trailer park? What is an average day like for Godzilla? Not those special days when the Earth is threatened by strangers from another world and their big golden dragons, but rather, those days when there’s not much to do and no one invading our planet by building a robot that looks exactly like Godzilla instead of spending the money on something more useful and effective. What is the Godzilla equivalent of kicking around the house in your underwear watching a little television?
Luckily, Godzilla’s everyday life consist primarily of getting into fights. Through the miracle of recycled footage, we see Godzilla rumble with Spiga the Spider, those giant praying mantises, and other old faves. When Ichiro is menaced by one of the monsters, he hauls ass through the jungle and falls down a hole. At this point, I would have imagined myself some wings. Ichiro, being more committed to realism, goes instead for a vine rope being lowered by Minya. Minya is able to shrink down to Ichiro size and speak English (or Japanese if you are watching the original version) with a “hyuk hyuk hyuk aw shucks, hoss” sort of Country Bear Jamboree accent. Incidentally, Minya looks a lot like Ichiro. They’re both spherical in shape, and like Ichiro, Minya comes from a single parent family. That parent, Godzilla, is often absent from home. And hey, Minya is even constantly picked on my a big monster bully named Gabera! This Gabera is a little more menacing than the other Gabera, though the shock of bright red hair undermines his appearance somewhat. It also looks like they started to add a tail to Gabera but then ran out of money. He’s got a saggy ass and really looks like he needs a tail to complete the whole picture. But at least Gabera can shoot electricity out of his hands. I don’t know if the Gabera picking on Ichiro could do that, but I suppose anything is possible in that crazy land we call Japan.
Just when things are getting good, Ichiro is disturbed and snapped back to reality. This happens several times so that we can set up the real world subplot about a bank robbery. The bank robbers, who are apparently not so good at robbing banks, happen to be hiding out in the old abandoned industrial hazard in which Ichiro likes to play. One of the bank robbers drops his wallet, which Ichiro promptly finds, which then means they must kidnap him. But first, Ichiro must dream, dream, dream himself away to sweet, sweet Monster Island, where Minya introduces him to an unimpressed Godzilla, who would rather swat airplanes out of the sky than talk to his stupid son’s friends (who wouldn’t?). Minya also has a scuffle with Gabera, during which he grows to the size of “little monster” and loses the ability to speak English in favor of making a “bwaah-bwaaah” sound. Gabera not only kicks Minya’s ass, he even does that thing where you hold your smaller opponent at bay by pressing your outstretched arm against their forehead, thus causing them the be too far away to hit you with their wildly-swinging stubby little arms. This is a good way of fighting the short of stature, but you have to watch out because eventually, you’re going to do that one time too many, and they’re going to drop down and headbutt you in the balls.
All the scenes involving Gabera are new to this film, and in a curious turn, rather than simply cut in stock footage of the infamous “learnin’ how to blow atomic breath” scene from Son of Godzilla, they recreate the entire sequence here. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s the one where Minya can only blow harmless rings of blue smoke until Godzilla stomps on his tail, thus shocking him into blowing destructive atomic fire and honking like a donkey in heat. This is cool and all, but the real world so often gets in the way of fantasy. In an imaginative segue way, Ichiro is attacked by jungle plants, only to wake up and find himself being kidnapped by the bank robbers. As bad as they are at robbing banks, they are even worse at kidnapping. Using all the wits and wiles afforded a kindergarten boy, Ichiro befuddles and defeats his captors in a sequence that was no doubt the inspiration for the later Home Alone films. Yay! He’s a hero now!
But not before dozing off one more time to see the final fight between Minya and big bully Gabera. This time, rather than cowering, Minya stands up to Gabera and manages to get a few cheap shots in until Gabera accidentally bites Godzilla, at which time Godzilla decides fun time is over and just kicks the shit out of Gabera himself. Since Gabera is about the same size and Godzilla, you gotta wonder why he was making Minya fight the monster to begin with. I mean, that’s like a father telling his seven-year-old to stand up to a bully like Mike Tyson. Inspired by this show of familial violence, Ichiro wakes up with renewed vigor and, in front of his girlfriend, struts up and beats the crap out of his own Gabera in a fight that consists mainly of jumpcut shots of the two young boys pulling on each other shirts. At the end of the day, Ichiro has beat down Gabera, impressed the little lady, and gained the respect of all his peers. So come on! What’s not to love? I mean, this movie is every little kid’s dream!
Godzilla’s Revenge was directed by Ishiro Honda, the man who gave us the dark and ominous original film, as well as most of the Godzilla films from the 1960s that people remember as the best of the bunch. In interviews, he expressed disappointment in the movement of Godzilla from an icon of terror into a do-gooder hero under pressure from the studios to make the series more consumer-friendly. While I understand his sentiments, he should also look at the fact that while Godzilla did indeed lose his power as a warning about the follies of man, he also became a symbol of hope about the future. While the later Godzilla films did not shake the world with portents of doom, they made children happy. They, in their own weird and colorful way, even taught children the lessons adults failed to learn from the original. I started thinking about environmental issues as a kid after seeing Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster. As goofy and as immature as movies like Godzilla’s Revenge may seem to adults, and even to their creators, they do serve a genuine purpose. Godzilla’s Revenge is practically an adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, the children’s book in which a depressed young boy travels to the land of cavorting monsters and generally has a hell of a good time.
I won’t pretend that Godzilla’s Revenge doesn’t have its short-comings, or that I am completely able to overlook them all the way I did when I was in first grade. Yeah, the movie is cheap. The majority of the monster scenes are from older, better movies. When they do attempt a special effect, like when Minya jumps off a cliff to foil Gabera with the ol’ “bad guy standing on the end of a teeter totter” type move, it’s pretty sorry. At the same time, as goofy as he is, Gabera always seemed cool to me when I was little, and it’s always good to see Godzilla kick some butt, even if most of it just consists of his greatest tropical island hits. And of course you may be wondering at what point Godzilla actually gets any revenge. Well, he doesn’t really, unless you count the thrashing he gives Gabera in the final monster scene as revenge for the one time Gabera bit him. Seems a pretty small incident in the greater scheme of things. I’d like to thing that the revenge to which they refer is what they get now any time an overly serious Godzilla fan watches this movie. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. All’s fair in taste. But don’t dislike it because it’s childish. If that’s your complaint about it, then do yourself and someone else a favor: give the movie to a child.