Defending Godzilla in the ’70s: Part 2

    Before reading this article, please read Part 1 for the introduction!

    With film canon, it’s generally accepted that “good” movies are those with extensive character development, complex narratives, and flawless production values. This, of course, is a crock. Film is subjective, but film criticism has long held to certain notions of what qualifies as a “good” film. Despite their merits, Godzilla films have rarely qualified – neither have monster movies in general. Even many Godzilla fans will claim that they don‘t actually think these are “good” films. This act seems oddly like self-flagellation to prove their film taste; a repeat of the pre-teen act of aggressively disowning your childhood interests to prove how “grown-up” you are. It is also an act that this author thoroughly disagrees with, not least because these films have abundant value. 

    This critic has seen many great films with extensive character development, complex narratives, and flawless production values. I’ve also seen a lot of bland films with these elements that I’m in no rush to revisit. 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon has a plot thinner than Gigan, no character development whatsoever (though the characters are wonderful), and once again uses extensive stock footage. But, is it bland? Never. Godzilla vs. Megalon is joyous in how silly and intentionally funny it is. Arguably, that makes it a good film. 

    Humour in the Godzilla series seems to be missed by many Western critics who’ll cast aside moments of comedy as clunky mistakes. In fairness, for decades Western critics have only had the American (or sometimes the International) dubs of these films to view, which sometimes (but not always) missed the substance of the original scripts. 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla suffers awfully in this regard, with Shinichi Sekizawa’s razor-sharp satire played relatively straight in the US cut, robbing it of its power. Consequently, the comedy that ensues in Kong and Godzilla’s brawl becomes jarring. With meaning sometimes struggling in the English-language versions of these films, one can’t always blame a critic for misunderstanding the tone that some of these films assert. On the other hand, the comedy is so clear in Godzilla vs. Megalon, that to miss it seems almost wilful.  

    The mighty Godzilla.

    Make no mistake, Godzilla vs. Megalon is a funny film. Godzilla slides on his tail to drop-kick the beetle-like Megalon. It’s a laugh-out-loud moment. Is this the same Godzilla who ravaged Tokyo in 1954? No. Is that a problem? That is for the individual to decide, but for a series to survive, not least a series in the midst of domestic industry collapse and dwindling international release opportunities, things must change. It’s worth mentioning however, that whilst without the nuance of earlier Godzilla films, Megalon’s opening arguably directly addresses a real-world issue. Megalon opens with a gigantic earthquake following an underground nuclear test. In 1971, the US carried out Cannikin, a five megaton underground nuclear test; an event that directly led to the formation of Greenpeace. In the film, the subterranean people of Seatopia are enraged that the surface dwellers continue to test such nuclear weapons, and launch their monster-god Megalon to attack the surface world. Whilst activists and scientists in the real world feared tsunamis and earthquakes in Cannikin’s wake, the film posits a giant beetle out for revenge. Far from the subtle commentary of Honda’s original, Megalon still has something to say, even if it doesn’t labour over it.  

    But as a children’s film, Godzilla vs. Megalon has a more significant meaning. In his New York Times review following the film’s 1976 US release, Vincent Canby gave a surprisingly positive take. Canby wrote that the film, “demonstrates the rewards of friendship, between humans as well as monsters, and it is gentle.” Gentle. There’s truth to that assessment. As the film concludes, the audience is treated to a fabulous image of Godzilla and giant robot Jet Jaguar shaking hands. It is a titanic friendship that genuinely makes one smile. Godzilla and Jet Jaguar overcome Megalon (and returning foe, Gigan) through teamwork and co-operation, regularly pulling each other out of harm’s way. It’s in those moments where one finds real glee. When Gigan threatens to cut Jet Jaguar’s neck, Godzilla blasts him with his atomic breath, and a part of you wants to punch the air. If Megalon is about anything, it’s about friends – friends who just happen to be giant robots and monsters. For children, friendship between unlikely allies is a wonderful message to hang on to.  

    A titanic friendship, Jet Jaguar and Godzilla.

    Released twenty years after the original, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla tends to escape much of the scorn received by the prior Godzilla films of the ’70s. Jun Fukuda’s lively direction befits the off-the-wall special effects sequences from Teruyoshi Nakano, and Mechagodzilla itself is truly spectacular. An inspired creation, it’s unsurprising that it’s become one of Toho’s most recognisable characters. Discarding the excessive stock footage of Gigan and Megalon, Nakano had more to play with here and it shows. Mechagodzilla may not trample the meticulously-constructed cityscapes of the 1960s, but the pyrotechnics involved in its fierce battle with Godzilla and Okinawan protector King Shisa (generally anglicised to “King Caesar”) are eye-popping. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla retains the light tone of the decade, and it’s one of the film’s greatest strengths.  

    Tony Rayn’s review in the Monthly Film Bulletin noted that the film’s vague handling of the Okinawan people was, “the sole remaining vestige of the ‘social consciousness’ that informed the series two years earlier [in Godzilla vs. Hedorah]”. It’s true that Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla isn’t actively focused on political commentary, but the ideas and images it plays with certainly leave themselves open to such readings. The film revolves around aliens (from the Third Planet of the Black Hole) attempting to invade Earth while an Okinawan prophecy foretells an apocalyptic future.

    Okinawa had stayed under US control even after the end of the US Occupation, and was not returned to Japan until 1972. Protests against various facets of US military presence – including violence perpetrated by US servicemen – had persisted throughout the ’50s and into the early ’70s. The image of an invading, technologically-advanced monster (Mechagodzilla) fought off by Okinawa’s guardian (King Shisa) is therefore quite potent – even if there is no active reflection from the film’s characters. That said, it’s worth considering that some Godzilla films arguably say more in terms of individual character dynamics than they do about broad social and historical themes.  

    Mechanical Monster: Mechagodzilla.

    1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla certainly improves on its predecessor by having a fabulous set of very memorable characters through whom personal agency is explored. Dr. Mafune (Akihiko Hirata) is a disgraced scientist whose lust for revenge has led him to assist the aliens of the Third Planet of the Black Hole. They saved his daughter’s life, and in return he helps repair Mechagodzilla. The revived Katsura (Tomoko Ai), now more cyborg than human, is a link to the mechanical monster. She harbours the Mechagodzilla controls within.  

    Terror of Mechagodzilla is, as of this writing, the only Godzilla film to have been penned by a woman: Yukiko Takayama. Though elements of her original treatment changed as the film developed (Takayama’s original drafts featured two monsters combining into one), the central character of Katsura remained throughout. Certainly, Tomoko Ai’s Katsura is one of the most interesting characters of the entire series. Much like Kumi Mizuno’s Miss Namikawa in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965), Katsura struggles to maintain loyalty to her father and his alien masters when she develops feelings for Interpol Agent Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki). She struggles knowing that information gained from him is being used to kill others.  

    Perhaps one of the film’s most striking moments is one of its quietest. Katsura lies slumped in a chair. Over her hangs the face of Tsuda (Toru Iubuki), the alien second-in-command. She stares blankly as he reminds her of how they saved her life, and of her place in their plans. Importantly, she’s told that no-one could love a machine like her. Her stare says more than words. It’s upsetting. 

    Katsura, a life restored only for destruction.

    Terror of Mechagodzilla may not comment on broad nuclear anxieties as its predecessors did, perhaps to the dismay of critics like Tony Rayns, but what it manages to discuss about individual agency, of being used and discarded as a person, is often very powerful. With the Godzilla series becoming synonymous with nuclear anxieties, our collective perception of these films is often clouded. We automatically search for nuclear allegories, or similar large-scale social issues. Consequently, we are perhaps unaware of what individual characters have to add and say – characters like Katsura.  

    The last of the original run of Godzilla films, Terror of Mechagodzilla endured an awkward release in the Western world – likely contributing to these films’ unfortunate perception. In 1978, Terror of Mechagodzilla was released simultaneously to American cinemas and television. Henry G. Saperstein’s United Productions of America (UPA) handled the TV version. Other than a newly-created prologue charting the history of Godzilla (via stock footage from other Godzilla titles Saperstein held the rights to), the UPA release is more or less a straight dub with minimal cuts. The theatrically-released version, however, is something else entirely.  

    Bob Conn Enterprises released the film to cinemas under the title The Terror of Godzilla. Drastic cuts were made to remove scenes of violence and nudity (one shot of Katsura undergoing surgery shows her bare breasts), resulting in jarring incoherence. These cuts were so haphazard that the music jumps wildly throughout the film. It seems that at some point in the mid-1980s, the Bob Conn Enterprises iteration superseded the UPA cut as the default VHS print, meaning that the heavily cut Bob Conn version was the only form of Terror of Mechagodzilla most fans would have seen in the West for several years.  

    Criticisms of this version are inevitable, and this author cannot truly blame someone for having a negative perception when seeing what amounts to a very clumsily-handled film. Watching the original Japanese version, however, is a different matter. At times, the film suffers from some awkward editing of its own, and the arguably half-baked presentation of Akihiko Hirata’s Dr. Mafune (stereotypical mad scientist hair and all) is a little tired. That said, Terror of Mechagodzilla is often thoughtful in its characters, and rather spectacular with its visuals. Katsura alone makes the film a highlight of the original Godzilla series. Although lacking the budget afforded to its ’60s predecessors, Terror of Mechagodzilla was a high note for the original Godzilla series to end on 

    Godzilla vanquishes Mechagodzilla once again.

    The intention of this article was to address the 1970s Godzilla films, and to offer a defence of their merits. In Part 1, we looked at the historical context of these films’ productions, and of the unfortunate state of the contemporary Japanese film industry that led to the modus operandi of Toho’s ’70s monster output. We’ve also examined how these films were more precisely aimed at children, and we’ve briefly looked at how children’s media is generally derided as a lesser form of art.  

    Whilst Godzilla vs. Hedorah once featured in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, maybe now we can see all that directors like Yoshimitsu Banno were trying to achieve against the incredible odds of the industry. Maybe now we can look to entries like Godzilla vs. Megalon not as the black sheep of the series, but as the wonderfully eccentric film it is, with kind and gentle messages for children. Maybe now we can see that a Godzilla film being aimed at children doesn’t lessen its value, nor does it taint the legacy of the 1954 original. If Honda’s original could aim its message broadly at adults, do children not also have the right to messages through film? Is it so bad that their messages come to them in the same image that once haunted Tokyo in 1954? No, perhaps it isn’t.  

    With Godzilla, King of the Monsters just around the corner, a new plethora of potential fans are waiting to discover Godzilla for the first time. It’s an exciting time to be a Godzilla fan, especially with Toho’s plans to relaunch the series in Japan after 2021 with an eye for a Marvel-esque shared universe (though why they’d model theirs on Marvel’s when the Godzilla series has essentially had its own shared universe since the 1960s is somewhat odd). Only time will tell what these new fans will make of the ’70s Godzilla films. Thankfully, perceptions are slowly changing – especially among younger fans. Maybe the merits of the ’70s Godzilla films will be appreciated on a wider scale.  

    End of an era.

    To conclude, I reached out to Raffael Coronelli, an author and dedicated kaiju fan, for his thoughts on the ’70s Godzilla films. Having written several pieces of kaiju fiction, including Daikaiju Yuki, and most recently, Big Egg, Coronelli wrote: 

    “The 70s Godzilla movies fall under a wave of posturing in analysis that considers lighter things less worthy than more “serious” things. The notion that a movie like Godzilla vs. Megalon is objectively worse than something like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) just because it has a more playful tone and is more flippant with its fantastical and child-oriented elements stems from a desire for fans of things commonly seen as being for kids as being for “big grown ups only.” The much maligned Megalon and its ilk have lots of whimsical imagination and character. It is a wonderful and fun film that deserves to be given credit for delivering great entertainment. I’m not saying that ironically, either – it really is great entertainment.” 

    This author agrees with Coronelli, wholeheartedly. These films may not be perfect, but the criticisms afforded them persistently seem to miss the merits they have to offer. These are genuinely good films, and I say that in earnest. This author does not expect that readers should or must like these films, but that they hopefully see them in a light not often lavished on them. Context, history, and industry considered, the Godzilla films of the 1970s are wild, weird, and wonderful. They contain messages and meanings not immediately seen, and their being fun films should not discount them from praise. The Godzilla series is better for them.  

    Special mention must be given to the following article: Monsters from an Unknown Culture, for providing access to the contemporary Monthly Film Bulletin reviews that helped inform parts of these articles. 


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