Defending Godzilla in the ’70s: Part 1

    In the first half of the 1970s, Toho released five Godzilla films: Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). The 1970s marked a sharp steer towards children’s entertainment for the Godzilla series, up to and including several Godzilla cameos in Toho’s Ultraman-inspired Zone Fighter (1973) television series. Whilst the Godzilla of the ‘60s had been steadily anthropomorphised, it was a gradual change, and Godzilla’s heroic feats rarely lost him the fear of the protagonists. When Godzilla comes ashore in the witty and light-hearted Son of Godzilla (1967), our heroes flee and cower at the sight of him, and Masaru Sato’s score certainly befits the appearance of a creature to be feared.  

    By 1971, Godzilla’s appearance was that of the selfless hero – complete with fanfare. Many fans and critics have either outright decried or only begrudgingly accepted Godzilla’s personality change. Time and again, critics who lavish praise on Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Godzilla are quick to dismiss the rest of the franchise as a shadow of Honda’s masterpiece, and the films of the 1970s are the go-to fodder for criticism. If you want to dismiss any merits the rest of the Godzilla series may have, then look no further and regurgitate, “but Godzilla flies in this one! It’s ridiculous!” – and for good measure, tack on a comment on how “no” other film in the series comes close to the thematic prowess of the original. Does it matter that your statements are questionable at best? Of course not, you’re a film critic, my son.  

    Sarcasm aside, whenever the Godzilla outings of the ’70s are discussed, it’s rarely positive; and if it is, any serious attention is glossed over in favour of just seeing them as children’s entertainment. That’s not to say that these films weren’t aimed at children; they were regularly released on double bills with theatrically-screened episodes of Return of Ultraman as part of Toho’s Champions Festival (a children’s entertainment event held three times a year). However, such thinking is emblematic of how we view children’s media. That is to say, we tend to view children’s media as without highbrow merit by virtue of being for children. Invariably, this is arguably why good films (which happen to be animated) are often incapable of reaching beyond the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards because animation must be for children’s consumption only (see: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). We don’t have time to unpack all the nuances of children’s media in the realm of critical analysis, but we do have time to talk about Godzilla in the 1970s.  

    Is it possible to discuss films aimed at children with an academic perspective? Yes, of course it is. Let’s take a look at Yoshimitsu Banno’s daring Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Upon its 1975 release in the United Kingdom, the Monthly Film Bulletin commented that the film’s themes of pollution were, “designed specifically for the edification of children.” By all means, pollution is an issue for younger generations, but the implication that the topic’s inclusion renders the film inaccessible to older viewers is perplexing. On the contrary, certain sequences, such as when Hedorah’s sludge drowns several Mah Jong players, are enough to question that “strictly for kids” judgement. Indeed, such moments of stark horror are reflective of how forceful Banno is with his commentary. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is a children’s film, one that’s bold and striking with its message. Unless critics and fans can recognise that its moments of uncomfortable imagery are part of, and not juxtaposed to, a children’s film, then we won’t be able to see films like this for their genuine brilliance. It is derided as a children’s movie, but criticised as if it were a film for adults that’s too inept to do anything worthwhile. Film historian Steve Ryfle characterises this dichotomy when he opines that, “if not for its prevailing juvenile attitude, this could have been a very chilling film.” Is it not possible for it to have and be both?  

    Drowned in sludge.

    When we describe a film as a children’s picture, it comes with certain connotations. A rotted, charred skeleton bathed in toxic sludge is unlikely to be one of them, and so our critical perception of Godzilla vs. Hedorah is to say, “watching this film is like going into a drug-induced mind trip!” – as Cinemassacre once said. Instead of recognising this as a more complex film than first thought, one that entertains children whilst presenting them with difficult images, we just deride it. Uncomfortable with how it defies rigid categorisation, we ignore any merits it has, call it a kids’ film, and proceed to ignore it as we do any other.  

    1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan is unfortunate in its construction, relying heavily on mismatched stock footage to pad its monster battles. To the discerning eye, the Godzilla suit switches from shot to shot, and no number of filters can disguise the contrast between the daytime footage from Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster (1964), and the night-time shots of Gigan. Nevertheless, what Godzilla vs. Gigan has is eccentric charisma in a way that often defies its low budget trappings.  

    In the 1970s, the Japanese film industry was in rapid decline, facing fierce competition from television. Godzilla at the cinema faced direct competition from Tsuburaya Productions’ The Return of Ultraman (1971 – 1972), Ultraman Ace (1972 – 1973), Ultraman Taro (1973 – 1974), and Ultraman Leo (1974 – 1975) series – why pay to see monsters brawl on the big screen when you can see it at home for free? It’s something of a miracle that Godzilla survived the ’70s considering the preceding decade saw the theatre-going audience in Japan shrink by 75% and half of the studios in the country go out of business. That the Japanese film industry was in free-fall, and that genre cinema in the West was becoming mainstream with hits like Star Wars and Alien (leaving little room for imported low-budget monster fare), the cards were stacked against Godzilla from the get-go. 

    Whilst this critic doesn’t excuse the genuine shortcomings of Godzilla vs. Gigan, it’s important to understand the cultural and industrial contexts that forced these films to be made so ruthlessly.

    As well as stock footage, reliable narratives were also recycled to keep Godzilla afloat. Whilst Shinichi Sekizawa’s scripts of the 1960s are some of the wittiest and smartest scripts the Godzilla series has to offer, the story for Gigan is tired. The film recycles the ‘aliens control monsters’ story (first used in 1965’s Invasion of Astro-Monster) but without the scope of previous incarnations.  

    Godzilla discusses a plan of attack against Gigan with Angilas.

    So, what does Godzilla vs. Gigan offer to defend itself from the scorn usually hurled at the ’70s Godzilla films? What Sekizawa lacks here in terms of his overall narrative, he more than makes up for with a great ensemble cast. We have Gengo, a manga artist trying to sell his idea for a monster that represents strict mothers (and another for homework), his girlfriend, Machiko, a no-nonsense, assertive martial artist, and a hippy couple trying to thwart the plans of a mysterious Children’s Land theme park (actually a front for cockroach invaders who’ve escaped their doomed planet). This eclectic and often funny group are always entertaining when onscreen. Whilst the budget likely hindered any depiction of the world-threatening event on a scale that befits the danger, director Jun Fukuda is able to get so much out of this cohesive gang. 

    What’s more, readings can be drawn from the narrative despite its setbacks. The cockroach invaders from Nebula M SpaceHunter are from a world much like Earth, whose dominant species ruined the planet through pollution. Cockroaches, as animals, are known for their hardiness. This has translated to film in pictures like William Castle’s Bug (1975), and Guillermo Del Toro’s 1997 creature feature, Mimic. Indeed, their supposed ability to withstand much higher levels of radiation than humanity has prompted many fantastic interpretations across fiction. So, for these cockroaches of Godzilla vs. Gigan – intelligent cockroaches, no less – to have fled their world, its ecology must have been in pieces. What we see of their planet looks exactly like Earth, somewhat implying that we are on the same trajectory. The images of their planet are made up of stock footage taken from Godzilla vs. Hedorah, likely as a budgetary measure, and yet it inadvertently makes this possible reading more potent. It ties their experience of pollution to ours. How much more damage can we inflict on the environment before our own cockroaches – who can tolerate so much – decide to escape to the depths of space?

    Tony Rayn’s Monthly Film Bulletin review for the film’s UK release in 1977 (under the title War of the Monsters) commented that “What the Toho films have lacked, of course, is any solid, credible human focus amid all the special effects pyrotechnics, and War of the Monsters remains true to type by centring on a gaggle of ‘youth identification figures’ (including a token hippy) whose charm is distinctly elusive for Western audiences.” That such archaically-described “youth identification figures” apparently present a cultural barrier to understanding is strange. Of course, how one responds to the film’s characters is up to one’s own sensibilities, and some may indeed not like them. However, there’s arguably very little that culturally separates Gigan‘s protagonists from those of a Western counterpart.  

    The charismatic ensemble cast of Godzilla vs. Gigan.

    Much can be criticised in Gigan’s thin plot, but there is entertainment here. That’s okay. Godzilla films can be fun! The problem comes when we divorce fun from significance. To believe that films that are fun are lesser, or that fun films carry no deeper meaning is a fallacy. When we praise the sombre 1954 Godzilla but claim that the sequels are inferior because not all of them strive to be as immediately thoughtful, we do ourselves a disservice, closing our minds to how the character can be presented. It’s often said that there’s a Godzilla for everyone, given the diverse range of perspectives, artistic imaginings, and readings of the character. There’s truth to that statement. Films like Godzilla vs. Gigan are light-hearted affairs, entertaining in their characters, and fun in their monster brawls (sans the stock footage). That it is fun doesn’t tarnish the meaning of the original, and Godzilla vs. Gigan arguably still has something to say even if it isn’t laboured over. It doesn’t betray Ishiro Honda’s vision. In fact, it grants these films greater accessibility – here to children.  

    Significantly, there’s fun to be had in the palpable friendship between Godzilla and Angilas. That gentle nature would be front and centre in the next film (perhaps the most child-friendly of the series), and would exemplify what this critic considers to be the strongest aspect of the kid-focussed Godzilla outings.  

    Click here to read Part 2 of this article where we discuss Godzilla vs. MegalonGodzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, and Terror of Mechagodzilla

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