Friday, January 27, 2012

Random Movie Report #98: Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster

Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster DVD cover and Amazon link

After Monster Zero, Ishiro Honda took a break from the Godzilla series, and the series itself took a vacation. In one of those great stories of Tinseltown, a script originally intended for King Kong was instead messengered over to Godzilla's people, deals were struck, and Godzilla traded Tokyo for the South Seas. It was a move that allowed Toho to save a little money on miniature city sets, and Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, under the direction of Jun Fukuda, turned out to be a really neat change of pace. It's a jaunty, colorful romp in which four Japanese guys get mixed up with island natives, international terrorists, a giant dinosaur, a giant moth, and one very angry shrimp.

Through circumstances that are way too crazy to condense properly, four men end up on a boat- a thief named Yoshimura (Akira Takarada), two dance marathon contestants named Ichino (Chotaro Togin) and Nita (Hideo Sunazaka), and Ryota (Toru Watanabe), a man searching for his brother who was lost at sea, but who the local fortune teller guarantees is still alive. A storm overtakes the boat, and it's destroyed by a giant claw coming from up out of the sea, and the men wash ashore on a remote island. That island turns out to be the home of the Red Bamboo, a mysterious terror organization interested in manufacturing nuclear weapons. The Red Bamboo also use slave labor from nearby Infant Island (home of Mothra and her miniature twin heralds) to manufacture a liquid which keeps Ebirah, the local giant shrimp monster, at bay, while letting him serve to keep unwanted people off the island. The men meet up with the lovely Daiyo (Kumi Mizuno) who helps them discover more about the Bamboo, and also happen across Godzilla slumbering in a cave. When the bad guys start to close in on our heroes, they soon see no alternative but to wake up the big guy in hopes that he'll stomp on the right people.

The script for this movie was originally going to be used to make another King Kong movie, since Toho still had rights to use the character. The switch to Godzilla (Kong ended up fighting a robot version of himself, and that's a whole other story) puts our scaly hero in some uncharacteristic situations, such as grabbing jets out of the sky with his bare hands and taking an uncomfortable interest in Daiyo. He even gets revived by a bolt of lightning in what was probably a callback to Kong's electrical abilities in King Kong vs. Godzilla. It's an interesting tweak on Godzilla's normal mindless rampaging, and probably ended up helping make him a more heroic figure- even in this film, the human characters assume he'll be on the right side when he wakes up.

A note on Ebirah- "ebi" is Japanese for shrimp, and so, yes, Ebirah is a giant king prawn. He's not the most intimidating of monsters, truth be told, and the fact that he's bright red makes it look like he's already been boiled. Still, he has a certain charm, as do most all of Tsubaraya's creations. Mothra's reappearance in a minor role is a nice creative use of the character. The monster action is as fun as ever, and the story integrates it well with what the human characters are doing, rather than just having them run along in the foreground.

In comparison to Honda, Jun Fukuda brings a looser, more kinetic feel to the Godzilla series. He uses a lot of close-ups and occasionally jittery camera work, and combined with Masaru Sato's jazzy score (complete with surf guitar for Ebirah), the feeling is ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek. Of course this was an element of the screenplay from the very start (an early exposition scene takes place at a dance marathon), but Fukuda proves particularly adept at capturing this feel. There's something pleasantly relaxed about the film, even as the craziness mounts.

Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster isn't as ambitious as earlier entries, but it plays around with the formula to good effect. It's an enjoyable and often-rewatchable picture, well-made despite its goofiness. It was a shake-up the series needed, lest it grow stagnant repeating the same "monsters destroy civilization" story over and over. We'd get back to that soon enough.

Written by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Jun Fukuda

Grade: B+

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