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, and not even Michael Medved will argue that one. Or maybe he will. I don’t really know him personally, so I can’t account for him.
Any movie that big will get a sequel, whether it wants or needs one or not. Or so it was back then. A movie had to be a success before it could get a sequel. I don’t know what has gone wrong these days that allows there to be theatrically released sequels to movies like The Flintstones and Problem Child, but then again, who am I to second guess the business strategy of Satan? Anyway, they made the sequel and it was pretty forgettable, but by the third film, they struck franchise gold and the Godzilla industry was born, along with thousands of American tourists going to Japan and shouting “Oh no! Is Godzilla!” and thinking they are the first ones to think of doing that. What will you cards think of next!?!
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. To put it in terms comic book readers can understand, he went from the dark spooky Batman to the Adam West Batman. Curiously enough, I always liked the Adam West Batman, just as I always liked the goofball heroic Godzilla. I could just imagine Godzilla turning to his trusty boy wonder of a sidekick, Angilas, and calling him “old chum.”
Like many children of the 1970s, I grew up watching dubbed imports of Godzilla’s many adventures, though unlike many children of the 1970s, I never grew out of the films, just like I never grew out of toys or messy sticky-up hair. My love for Godzilla, and my understanding of the movies, only grew as I tacked on year after year. And 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. During recess in school, we’d all run out to the playground and decide whether or not we were going to play Star Wars or Godzilla. When it was Star Wars, I was Chewbacca, albeit it a rather short version and without so much hair, the cool Sergio Leone bandoleer, and the laser crossbow (what was up with that thing anyway?). If we played Godzilla, I wanted to be Minya.
Yes, Minya. Godzilla’s chubby, squealing adopted son. Minya, the most despised of all Godzilla monsters ever. I remember running around pretending to blow atomic smoke rings, then insisting that my friend who was pretending to be Gabera let me beat them up so we could accurately recreate scenes from the movie. I remember lining up Shogun Warriors and knocking them down, gleefully ignorant of how valuable they would eventually become. In this lies the greatest power of Godzilla’s Revenge, as well as the thing people most often just don’t get about it and Minya. It’s a movie for children, with a character for children. I’ve said it before, but it bears saying again: nothing annoys me more than twenty-five year old scifi nerds complaining about how goofy and childish Godzilla’s Revenge is. Well, no crap, Spock, it’s a damn children’s movie. What the hell did you expect? It’s like this annoying wannabe gangster rap guy who has this shitty show on Manhattan public access cable where he reviews video games and steals wrestling news from various websites and passes it off as his own stuff. I remember watching one episode (don’t ask why) where he was playing “Yoshi’s Revenge” or some game like that and complaining about how childish it was and how it wasn’t a good game for extreme gamers like himself.
I don’t really know what these people’s problem is, and 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. Well you know what? Most Godzilla movies are childish. Reading comic books is childish. Being a grown man who dresses up as Sailor Moon is both childish and disturbing, but you know what? That doesn’t make any of these things wrong or unenjoyable.
Face it — adult stuff is miserable. Adult stuff is paying taxes and watching Gray’s Anatomy. Adult stuff is trying to get a mortgage, listening to adult contemporary music, and going to see Italian films that don’t star Steeve Reeves. Childish stuff is listening to snotty punk rock, reading comics, talking about Star Trek, going to goofy conventions, wearing costumes, playing with dolls, and being open to learning new things. Being childish does not mean being irresponsible. Being childish is stealing a sneak peek at porn, hiding a copy Penthouse inside a copy of Dragon magazine so you can look at it in the Waldenbooks mall store. Being childish is loving what you love without shame, no matter how society may frown upon or disapprove of your passion. Being childish is going through life wide-eyed and amazed, unhindered by societal hang-ups about how one race shouldn’t get along with another, one age group shouldn’t like the same things as another. As an adult, I look at people around me and, despite my liberal view of all things social, I still see blacks, whites, Asians, whatever. I still see men, women, gays, lesbians, heteros. I don’t discriminate or disapprove, but I still see categories far more often than I see people.
As a child, I remember growing up watching Ultraman and Godzilla films, playing with Shogun Warriors and pretending I was Jason in Battle of the Planets. At the time, I didn’t buy Japanese toys; I bought toys. I didn’t watch Japanese movies; I just watched movies. I didn’t have friends who were Japanese, Chinese, white, black, Mexican, boy or girl; I just had friends. Never once did it occur to me that I should not relate to these people because they were different from me, because not once did it occur to me that these people were all that different. Sure, we ate different things, were different colors, but what did that really matter? I was a different color than lots of people. We liked a lot of the same things and had fun together. It wasn’t until I began my journey to adulthood that I was taught lessons about alienating others because of their race, culture, gender. It wasn’t until later that I was told I couldn’t relate to Ultraman, because those were Japanese actors and not Caucasian ones. It wasn’t until adulthood that passion about learning, about having fun, and about doing things that made me happy became taboo and shameful.
Being childish is a wonderful thing, something adults don’t do enough of except for the part about whining and crying about not getting your way. For some reason, everyone seems happy to maintain that aspect of childishness in their adult life, but they leave behind and even scoff at the wonder, curiosity, and willingness to experiment and learn. I have no reservations about being childish. If I’m drenched in a sudden downpour, oh well. Might as well splash around in the puddles and run wild. If I see a grassy hill, I might as well roll down it. If I see a toy I like, or a movie that amuses me, I might as well not cover that up under some repressive delusion of being “mature” or sophisticated. If I’m alive, I might as well try to enjoy as much of it as I can.
And this spirit of being childish, this beautiful immaturity that allows us to shed the chrysalis of mundane adulthood in which we must cocoon ourselves so much of the time, is the energy which keeps me supporting the so often maligned Godzilla’s Revenge. 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. In that way, Godzilla’s Revenge has gotten even better for me with age.
The film begins with one of the coolest fuzzed-out surf guitar/spy movie music theme songs I’ve ever heard. “March of the Monsters” ranks up there on the swankometer right alongside movie themes like “Our Man Flint” and “Shaft,” and is every bit as weird and funky as those songs. Right there you have reason enough to dig this movie from the get-go. We then meet young Ichiro. Ichiro is the lad who, among other things, showed us just how small a little kid’s micro-shorts could become. Little shorts are as much a defining icon of the 1970s Japanese monster movie as they were to Catherine Bach in Dukes of Hazzard, though given the choice at age seven of watching Ichiro in Daisy Dukes or watching Daisy Duke in Daisy Dukes, I would go with Daisy every time. I’m childish; I’m not insane.
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 a creepy inventor toy-maker type guy who is not nearly as cool as the inventor and his hard-bodied little bachelor pal from Godzilla Versus Megalon. 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 fruity hippie neighbor, Ichiro has created a disturbingly elaborate fantasy world which may or may not be augmented by the fact that those shorts he wears must restrict the flow of blood through his body, making it more likely that he would live in a happy hallucinatory land of make-believe. When he is alone and feelin’ blue, Ichiro gets out his home-made matter transporting radio device and tunes in to his own subconscious. Ahh yes, back when kids used their imagination and played make-believe.
Ichiro’s trip through his own strange and twisted brain is pretty interesting. His radio 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 older 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 on Monster Island, one starts to wonder if this is how it is every day. I mean, does Godzilla wake up every morning and think, “Well, who’s 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, like a neutron bomb. What is the Godzilla equivalent of kicking around the house in your underwear watching a little television? I’ve always been fascinated by pondering stupid questions like this. Like what does the Pope do when he isn’t out Poping? Does he read the paper? Does he own normal clothes or just those glittery Liberace robes? Does the Pope have a jogging outfit?
I wondered the same thing about Darth Vader, too. I mean, sure, there are days when he has to be all “Your powers are weak, old man” and throwing boxes around with his mind, but those days are probably few and far between in the greater scheme of things. So what was his average day like? Filling out paperwork? Going to long, boring meetings about revisions to the zoning laws? I mean, the guy was helping run an empire and all. There’s a lot of work involved with that sort of thing. The elevation of the mundane to art. Just once, I would like to see Captain Picard stepping out of the bathroom stall. Unfortunately, attempts to answer these questions often end up looking like The Star Wars Holiday Special. Or there are those late era Santo films where he’d already beat all the aliens, vampires, mafia, and devils Mexican theater could throw at him, so you had movies that consisted of stuff like Santo (in three piece suit and wrestling mask) driving to the bank or doing his taxes. At these times, I realize my fascination with seeing mundane everyday aspects of the lives of fantastic characters is usually not as cool in practice as it is in theory.
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, which I think was a song by CCR, and falls down a hole. Actually, he falls into a really awful special effect which, along with a later scene of Leapin’ Minya Poffo, will show you exactly why they chose to rely mainly on stock footage from other films for most of the effects shots. At this point, I would have imagined myself some wings, and probably a princess who looked just like Penny Robinson from Lost in Space. Ichiro goes instead for a vine rope being lowered by Minya. Incidentally, Minya looks a lot like Ichiro. They’re both very spherical in shape. 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.
In a deep psychological move, Minya is very much like Ichiro in more ways than just being round. Minya comes from a single parent family, and 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 Johnny Rotten hair undermines his appearance somewhat. Additionally, it 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. Imagine Godzilla without a tail. Yep, pretty silly. 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.
Hey you know what I just realized? Godzilla’s Revenge is just a movie 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.
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 sub plot, conveniently broadcast over the Plot Point Specific Radio Broadcasting Network as listened to frequently by Gilligan and the Professor and many other people in b-movies and bad television shows. Pretty much every broadcast was about a storm, a bank robbery, or the fact that the Harlem Globetrotters plane went down over the Pacific Ocean. This one broadcasts the thing about the bank robbery, though it would have been pretty funny if Ichiro found Curly and Meadowlark Lemon stranded on Monster Island with him. 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 nerdy friends (who wouldn’t?). Sort of like if you had a fat, beer-swilling dad who sat on the back porch ignoring you in favor of swatting mosquitoes and flies. Hmm, when you think about it, Godzilla is a pretty bad parent. 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 lame “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. Happens every time.
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 a rather imaginative segueway, Ichiro finds himself being 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 in micro-shorts, 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.
Anyway, everyone has fun beating up Gabera, and 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 two young boys pulling on each other shirts. Actually, it’s a pretty realistic fight in that it is clumsy and really sucks. 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!
The movie was directed by none other than Inoshiro 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 and watching episodes of Spectreman. I started, honestly, thinking about the follies of war after seeing how much trouble it caused in Godzilla and other scifi films. 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. A couple years ago, with my blessing, my best friend back in Louisville gave her six-year-old daughter my copy of Godzilla’s Revenge. A Godzilla fan was instantly created. She forsook her interest in Teletubbies in favor of more Godzilla films, started pretending to be Minya instead of pretending to be a cat, and hasn’t stopped exploring since then. And you know why? Because she’s a child. Because she has that spark that keeps away the walls of prejudice, fear, suspicion, and bigotry that creep in as we get older. Like me when I was her age, she doesn’t know Japanese from American and doesn’t discriminate on such arbitrary grounds as race. She simply knows what she likes and wants to learn more about it.
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, Ichiro is annoying, so annoying in fact that I was inspired to invent the Ichirometer, the scale by which all annoying cinematic children are measured. And yeah, the movie is cheap. The majority of the monster scenes are from older, much better movies. When they do attempt a special effect, like when Minya jumps off the 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.
It also signaled the end of the “golden age” of Godzilla films and kicked off the “right silly age’ under the guidance of new official Godzilla director Jun Fukuda. Of course, I adore most of those films as well, all full as they are of cyborgs and space monkeys and corn-on-the-cob-loving hippies. 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.
1969, Japan. Starring Kenji Sahara, Machiko Naka, Tomonori Yazaki, Eisei Amamoto, Sachio Sakai, Kazuo Suzuki, Ikio Sawamura, Shigeki Ishida, Yutaka Sada, Chotaro Togin, Yutaka Nakayama, Yoshifumi Tajima, Little Man Machan, Haruo Nakajima, Hiroshi Sekita, Midori Uchiyama. Directed by Inoshiro Honda. Buy it from Amazon.