With the release of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, it seems appropriate to dig into a classic Godzilla outing. Jun Fukuda’s Son of Godzilla (1967) is a much-maligned entry in the Godzilla series, with Godzilla’s son Minya (or Minilla) taking the brunt of the criticism. The film’s been derided for being silly and light with its content, something tantamount to heresy in the eyes of those who put the 1954 original on a pedestal. When you get past the critics and those whose preference excludes the child-friendly Godzilla films, Son of Godzilla is a charming film.
On Solgell Island, Professor Kusumi’s (Tadao Takashima) scientific team are about to embark on an experiment to control the weather. If successful, humanity can change uninhabitable corners of the world into fertile lands. But Solgell is no ordinary island, and is home to several man-sized praying mantises. When reporter Goro Maki (Akira Kubo) arrives unannounced and looking for a story, the team begrudgingly accept him. Goro claims to have found a young woman, Saeko (Beverly Maeda) living alone on the island, but the team are skeptical. All is well until their experiment goes awry, making the island’s climate unbearable and exacerbating the growth of the mantises. The monstrous insects converge on a rocky hill and uncover a giant egg. An infant Godzilla seems to hatch, and it’s not long before the parent comes ashore…
Jun Fukuda’s direction is very impressive. The story is told with great pace, and many of the film’s first scenes wonderfully establish three things: the tropical locale, the mood of the scientists, and the dangers of the island. Fukuda draws a lot from his cast, as much is conveyed even when off-screen. A particularly effective moment occurs when the on-edge Furukawa (Yoshio Tsuchiya in a brilliantly blunt performance) and easy-going Morio (Kenji Sahara) spot a giant mantis. We don’t see it, but we hear it and we see Furukawa and Morio watch intensely as the unseen menace creeps by. Their reactions are superb, instantly grabbing you with the mystery of the moment. Tsuchiya’s and Sahara’s performances are so good because they’re not surprised to see it, just tense. They’ve seen it before, and that adds such depth to the opening. Within a few minutes, you’ve learned a lot about the island and the effect it’s had on the protagonists – a testament to Fukuda’s lively direction.
The characters make for a great ensemble. Akira Kubo shines as Goro, and provides many witty moments because of his self-assured delivery. His expressions are great, adding a lovely touch of visual comedy. Tonally opposite is Yoshio Tsuchiya as Furukawa, slowly losing his patience (and his sanity) to the heat of the island. That it is he who protests to the continued experiments but who eventually becomes a vocal proponent of the team’s efforts during the climax makes for a wonderful piece of individual character development.
Often missed by Western critics is the idea that the monsters themselves are characters as well. Such is the case for practically all of the Godzilla series, but, for decades, critics have grumbled about the lack of character drama in these films; oblivious to the drama of the monsters unfolding before them. Granted, some people will find it difficult connecting to a monster, but that inadvertently bars you from getting the most out of these films.
The characterisation of Godzilla and his son, Minya, is wonderful. One sequence wherein Godzilla (rather brutally) teaches Minya how to shoot atomic fire is genuinely charming and funny. It endears us to these creatures. When Minya finds himself entrapped in silk from the giant spider, Kumonga (‘Spiga’ in the English dub), you find yourself on the edge of your seat, and it’s precisely because we care about these creatures as characters. It’s a testament to the skill of performers like Haruo Nakajima, Seiji Onaka, and Hiroshi Sekita (who all played Godzilla in the film to varying degrees) that we can see so much in them. The film’s final scene is one of incredible emotion and warmth. Godzilla clutches the weakened Minya. The parent and child embrace as snow engulfs the island around them. Masaru Sato’s score tugs at the heart as Godzilla appears as a protective parent.
The film’s colour palette is gorgeous. From the island’s lush greens to the stark yellows and faded reds of the team’s base, the visuals are vivid and striking. Takeo Kita’s production design really propels the film into the realm of the unforgettable. Kazuo Yamada’s cinematography frames Kita’s work brilliantly. So many of the visuals are composed for maximum spectacle, such as when the mighty Godzilla comes ashore. We see Godzilla wade from the shore to the island’s tree line, as Furukawa and Fujisaki (Akihiko Hirata) flee in the foreground. Such scale is achieved here in the distance at which Yamada places Godzilla and the humans. Equally as effective is the lighting, which convincingly sells Godzilla’s presence over the them.
Just as terrific is Masaru Sato’s score, improving on the strengths of his previous island-themed Godzilla soundtrack for Ebirah Horror of the Deep the year prior. This may be a family-friendly film, but Sato’s score lets us know Godzilla’s tough demeanour immediately. Complementing Yamada’s shot of Godzilla coming ashore is a rumbling track that sells Godzilla as a fearsome beast. In particular, Sato’s music for the appearance of Kumonga is remarkable. Like his track for Godzilla, Sato’s piece for Kumonga is fearful. It truly embellishes the tense images of Kumonga stalking Saeko and Goro.
The special effects are tremendous. From the stunning marionette work to the convincing miniatures, Son of Godzilla boasts some of the best effects work of the 60s Godzilla outings. The giant mantises are truly monstrous. When they emerge from the trees and tower over the humans, it’s a sight to behold. Godzilla’s assault on the scientific base is also a terrific sequence. Integrating miniatures of different scales, Sadamasa Arikawa’s effects work sells the scene; asserting Godzilla’s tremendous power and strength.
Son of Godzilla is generally overlooked in the series. As many fans would prefer that Toho never geared the series towards younger audiences, some seem to steer clear of the film purely because of Minya. Perhaps he’s not to their taste, and that’s fine, but Minya is but one part of a brilliantly conceived picture. Son of Godzilla is a fine entry in the series. Gorgeous visuals astound throughout, and the special effects are superb. The witty dialogue complements an already-effective ensemble cast, and the narrative is captivating from beginning to end. With Godzilla, King of the Monsters ready to hit cinemas, please consider a closer look at Son of Godzilla.