Friday, May 09, 2008

Random Movie Report #47: All Monsters Attack

And now let’s go back a bit. ALL MONSTERS ATTACK (or GODZILLA’S REVENGE as most in the US know it) was a turning point for the series in a number of ways- it marked the departure of Eiji Tsubaraya, the special effects director, it was Inoshiro Honda’s last movie for a while, and it was the first Godzilla movie aimed explicitly at children. Fan opinion on this one has long been divided at best, and there’s an obvious reason for this; it’s not really a Godzilla film, or even really a monster film at all. All of the familiar genre elements that we see exist inside the head of a young boy, and it’s a film about his imagination and how he uses it to confront real world problems. An abundance of recycled monster footage also does little to endear the film to fans, but of course we here try to take movies on their own terms. The movie is a slight one, barely reaching 69 minutes (hey, you in the back, stop giggling) and not as fully developed as a lot of fantasy-as-gateway-to-maturity narratives, but it has a certain integrity to it and also makes a few good comments about the state of Japanese society circa 1969 (I said stop it!)

The protagonist of the film is Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki), a latchkey child whose parents are almost never shown outside of their place of work. (His dad works on trains, his mother is some kind of very well-dressed maid. At least I think so.) Ichiro is a shy kid, picked on frequently by the local bully, named Gabara. To escape his troubles, he dreams of travelling to Monster Island, home of Godzilla and all his monster pals, including his son Minilla- who in this installment can talk and shrink himself down to kid-size. Minilla is being picked on by Monster Island’s own bully, a big blue demon thing that also goes by the name of Gabara. Minilla’s too scared to stand up to Gabara, but he says that Godzilla wants him to learn to fight on his own. Ichiro, however finds himself with more than bully problems when a couple of local robbers try to hide out in the area, and eventually hit on the idea of using the kid as a hostage, forcing him to outwit them in a way that thankfully only slightly resembles HOME ALONE.

A number of elements behind the scenes worked to make ALL MONSTERS ATTACK the movie that it is. Primarily, and sadly, Eiji Tsubaraya, who had handled the effects for the entire series to that point, was bedridden throughout production, forcing director Honda to handle a limited amount of original effects footage and rely on stock footage from earlier Godzilla adventures (most prominently SON OF GODZILLA and GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER) to fill out Ichiro’s Monster Island adventures. Tsubaraya, who died of a heart attack in January of 1970, is credited out of respect and, one suspects, because most of the footage is stuff he did anyway. So much of this is a sort of clip show, and we all know how popular those are. (One side effect of using this much stock footage is that, since Godzilla frequently changed appearance between films, you’ll see different versions of him popping up in different shots.) To be honest, seeing this again is still fun, and I do have to give the shorthanded effects team credit for Gabara, a nicely surreal monster with warty blue skin, red eyes, and a truly bizarre cry.

Aiming this film at the kiddie crowd was, apparently, a calculated response to the success of the Gamera films, which had portrayed their heroic turtle monster as a friend to all children and featured a child protagonist in all but one entry. Ichiro is reasonably sympathetic, if not hugely detailed; maybe a little self involved, but who isn’t at that age? The scenes with the robbers don’t quite work that well- they’re not memorable characters themselves, and that part of the plot seems padded and not very well planned out. It might just be that there’s not a lot to it, but I will give Honda credit for setting the human drama in a particularly drab and bleak part of town. There’s actually a good sense of loneliness and isolation conveyed by the small cast and decaying warehouses and the like- not too intense, mind you, but unexpected. I also wonder if the film isn’t making a comment on Japanese society overall, my certainty hampered by the fact that I don’t know recent Japanese history and can’t say whether or not latchkey kids and working class families having to work excessive hours were particularly big problems at the close of the Sixties.

It’s hard to divorce one’s perceptions of ALL MONSTERS ATTACK from one’s expectations of what a Godzilla movie will be. But if you can see what Honda and company were trying to do- albeit with limited resources (it’s around this time, as I’ve mentioned previously, that the budgets for these kinds of films started to drop precipitously)- it’s a qualified success, not quite as compelling as other takes on this narrative but well done. Knowing that this was the last film Tsubaraya was connected to- if only through previous footage- makes the proceedings a kind of tribute to him as well. In a film that deals with Godzilla and company as fictional characters, we’re reminded of the iconic power they possess, especially through the eyes of children. In a line near the end, the father even describes Minilla as a kind of “god” for children (the word may also mean “spirit” in Japanese), and this heads right back to the idea of kaiju as mythological figures. So it’s got some neat things going on, even if it passes too quickly for them to leave an impression.

Written by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: B-

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