The lazy part of me has been following Svengoolie’s schedule and recently he showcased Godzilla’s Revenge. This film is yet another one of my key childhood Creature Feature experiences, something I remember quite fondly, actually, and so watching it again so many years later, I wanted to enjoy it, but ultimately could not. The fact that I liked it so much as a kid separates my opinions on it from most of today’s harsh critics who just want to hold old stuff up to modern standards and adult sensibilities. The purpose of this blog is to find silver linings in otherwise forgotten or denigrated material. And so rather than merely kick an easy target like this film, it would be better to try to speculate what the filmmakers attempted to do and why the execution failed.
I don’t claim to be an expert of all the genres I cover, so I’m sure there are many out there who know the actual back-story behind this film beyond what I can glean from reading Wikipedia. However, the most important factor for me is why the film was made in the first place.
Gamera had already established a pattern of interacting (nonverbally) with kids by this time, and so one could speculate that this film represents that trend towards greater and greater anthropomorphisation coming back to the Godzilla franchise. The curious thing, though, is the degree to which Ishiro Honda, who after all, directed the first Godzilla film, chose to take the franchise farther and farther away from its original tone. The level of kiddification here goes beyond even what George Lucas did with Episode I. For someone who worked with Akira Kurosawa, Honda’s filmography is extremely uneven, even for someone who sees Kaiju films as a valid genre.
You’re probably thinking my headline is absurd on the basis that there’s no way a film like Godzilla’s Revenge could possibly work. That’s where I strongly disagree.
For those who don’t know the plot, the film roughly follows the Wizard of Oz template of there being an unpleasant childhood reality and a dreamworld where these conflicts can be worked out. This formula has brought us plenty of worthwhile stories. The most recent I can think of is Pan’s Labyrinth (something I should probably cover for a future post).
By this stage in the Godzilla universe, society must have started to think of Monster Island as more of a proto-Jurassic Park. Both of these probably got their inspiration from Skull Island from King Kong anyway, a land that time forgot. Keeping the monsters contained on the island meant they weren’t going to be stomping on any cities anymore. This effectively tames or domesticates them. They then proceed to spend all of their waking hours fighting each other like a non-stop wrestling match, but no battles ever seem to lead to permanent fatalities, even though the stock footage employed here sometimes suggests so, for if they actually did kill each other in each engagement, the island would be depopulated in no time.
I don’t really have a problem with this basic premise. I also don’t really mind Minya, Son of Godzilla. To me, he’s not as annoying as the Scooby-like Godzooky from the Hanna-Barbera TV show in the 70s.
What I find interesting about the premise is the direct interaction Ichiro has with Minya, when both of them are evenly sized. The sheer fact that Minya can speak provides a bridge between the human world and the monster world. Just as Ichiro seemingly fabricates Minya’s ability to change size and speak as a form of wish-fulfillment, I too, as a kid, would have loved to have a dialogue with a monster who could kind of act as an interpreter for Godzilla.
Also, the way Ichiro thinks he’s transporting himself to Monster Island is via a piece of homebrew electronics, and fooling around with junk like that was exactly how I used to make-believe as a kid as well. In addition to that, like Ichiro, I faced bullying, so I’ll always remember identifying very strongly with him.
This film would never have satisfied Godzilla purists, but as an attempt to push the franchise into different territory, it could have been successful. The first reason why it’s a failure is really down to the nuts and bolts of film-craft.
They say the cardinal sin of a film is to bore its audience, and most of this film comes across as padded out filler.
After the initial bully element is introduced, which is slow-moving but at least intimate and personal in a way few Godzilla movies can be, the film reverts to a Monster Island travelogue with Minya as tour-guide. It’s nice to explore, but there’s really no serious stakes as Ichiro and Minya sit there like spectators, rarely in any serious danger, merely watching the various recycled fight scenes play out to their anti-climactic conclusions. (One of those scenes in particular has a serious problem in tone which I will mention later.) By acting as a sort of “clip-show” of fight scenes, the story really doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t matter if Godzilla fights one or a dozen enemies. The plot doesn’t progress and all you can do is admire the choreography of the fights.
The filler becomes harder to handle with the subplot of the bank robbers who spend a lot of their time just sort of creeping around and ultimately chasing Ichiro through an old abandoned building. There’s no problem with setting up the analogy that the bank robbers as equivalent to the bully monsters going after Minya, but the way this was actually shown, shot for shot, was crude and dull. Even though the analogy was easy enough for kids to understand, the film goes overboard with this little “Use the Force, Luke” bit:
At the time, like most young kids, I actually did wonder whether Ichiro really did visit Monster Island or not, but the grown ups just didn’t believe it. But this was mostly a matter of my imagination trying to imbue the film with more reality-bending ambiguity than it deserves. The Oz and Narnia books put forward the idea that those fantasy worlds actually existed, but this film shrugs it all off with some final exposition on the part of Ichiro’s father.
The other big problem is one of tone. The film’s core message of standing up to bullies is a valid one, but there are two WTF moments that are really inexplicable.
The first happens during the “travelogue” segment in which Godzilla takes on a squadron of fighter jets. This is the only time when Godzilla fights human opponents, and Ichiro cheers on Godzilla, seemingly oblivious or unconcerned that human pilots are being killed. No explanation is given for why the jets appear out of nowhere when Godzilla and the other monsters are safely penned within Monster Island. There’s really no reason to stage this fight other than the simple spectacle of having Godzilla smash model jets. So I found this to be a case of careless writing for a kid’s movie intended to have a strong moral center.
The second comes at the end when Ichiro goes beyond standing up to his bully and becomes one himself, only to then be accepted as a fellow droog (ala Clockwork Orange) as they walk off into the sunset together. The way this last sequence is portrayed, music and all, seems to suggest a firm endorsement of Ichiro’s behavior and that he’s now exactly where he should be. While it may be possible to read it as an attempt to subvert the genre, the film was clearly marketed for kids and so I just don’t buy that idea.
A more modern film that covered the topic of bullying with monsters in it would be How to Train Your Dragon 2. In that film, the bad human is a bully, and the bad dragon is a bully, and everyone else are merely guilty of blindly following them–their allegiance subject to change ala political revolution. Hiccup employs negotiation and peacemaking as much as possible, fighting only as a last resort, whereas this film employs a traditional macho ethos of fighting fire with fire.
So whatever redeeming value the film could have had as teaching worthwhile lessons is serously compromised, and taken purely as a film on its own merits, it has big pacing problems.
If you’d like to read a stronger apologia for this film, here’s one I found on the net. As much as I’d like to ennoble this film, I really can’t take it any farther than to cite my past childhood goodwill. The only thing it really has going for it is the initial wish-fulfillment aspect of a boy communicating directly with monsters, and when it comes to that sort of thing, Gamera does it better anyway, even though he doesn’t talk the way Minya does.
Speaking of Gamera…I actually did finally see Gamera The Brave recently. It was only standard definition, but I satisfied my curiosity. I am going to watch it a second time before I offer a review, but it would provide a good transition from this film.