Godzilla’s Revenge Retrospective
By Richard A. Pusateri
Opinions change over time and my opinions about some Godzilla movies have drastically changed. Sometime the change is for the worse as with the 1990s Godzilla movies, some of which I now find almost unwatchable. On the other hand, sometime the years have been kind to movies, especially GODZILLA’S REVENGE from 1971 (ゴジラ・ミニラ・ガバラ オール怪獣大進撃 GODZILLA, MINIRA, GABARA ALL MONSTERS ATTACK – 1969) now officially called ALL MONSTERS ATTACK. I used to think GODZILLA’S REVENGE was just a low budget, shoddy assembly of footage from older movies. While that description regarding the production’s budget or shooting schedule is still accurate, I now feel it was director ISHIRO HONDA’s thoughtfully crafted lament about the way Japanese children were growing up during the reindustrialization of the 1960s, rather than just another Godzilla movie about monster battles or alien invasions. While my appreciation for GODZILLA’S REVENGE might place me in a minority of Godzilla fans, I feel my perspective on this kiddie matinee film (practically straight-to-television in the US) has changed drastically for the better. When I first watched this movie, I did not notice the many fine filmmaking flourishes.
I am a Godzilla fundamentalist. The first Godzilla movie I saw was the original (as GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS) on TV in 1960 when I was twelve years old. The seriousness of the original’s anti-war message and the explicit protest against H-Bomb tests registered with me. I loved KING KONG but I never thought I could be grabbed by a giant gorilla and thrown off the Empire State Building. I knew KING KONG was a fantasy and I realized GODZILLA was about something real. In 1960, I thought it possible that I could be fried by radiation like Godzilla’s victims. When I saw KING KONG vs. GODZILLA in a theater in 1964, I was not amused by the comedy of the Eighth Wonder of the World and the King of the Monsters turned into clowns in a puppet show. I had always thought of the original GODZILLA as a serious scary parable about war and science used for harmful purposes. I failed to see the humor in KING KONG VS GODZILLA and many of the light hearted movies that followed Godzilla’s new role as a good guy. Eventually, after watching GHIDRAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER on TV, I just went along with the fun and began to see the movies as light action-adventure comedies. By the time I first saw GODZILLA’s REVENGE on TV I had already accepted the camp elements of the majority of the ‘60s movies.
I got off on the wrong foot with GODZILLA’S REVENGE; when I saw it listed in the television guide, I thought it was another guilty pleasure, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, the 1955 sequel to the original. At first, I thought GODZILLA’S REVENGE was a silly, slapped together entry that was the low point of the series. Much later I learned GODZILLA’S REVENGE was the first feature entry in the series of children’s matinees called Toho Champion Matsuri (Festivals). Explicitly aimed at school children, Champion Festival movies ran just 70 minutes to fit in a with the animation and sports short subjects package. It was a turning point for the Godzilla series, a turn for the worse in terms of the budget. The King of the Monsters was now a background cast member in a kiddie program. Director Honda just had less to work with, so in went cheap location shoots and copious amounts of special effects footage from earlier movies especially GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER and SON OF GODZILLA.
While I was disappointed that the movie was not GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (aka GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER), I did have a vague fondness for the adventures of Ichiro Miki and Minya. I mistakenly thought Ichiro called Monster Island from the telephone in the toy consultant’s apartment. So, while I was staying at my parents’ house in the early 1970s, I had enough affection for GODZILLA’S REVENGE to put a “Monster Island” label on the dial of a big black, heavy, old school Western Electric rotary telephone in the room I shared with my brother. While my parents did not appreciate it, my brother and I thought the world of that phone that connected us to Monster Island in our minds. Watching GR over and over preparing the script for the audio commentary of the 2008 Classic Media DVD, I noticed the depiction of a grimness of the children’s lifestyle in the industrial city of Kawasaki. The location shots present a relentlessly grim and barren environment where a child’s imagination might well be pushed to create a fantasy, lush tropical rain forest world in which to retreat. The story unfolds simply but coherently, from a child’s perspective.
I came to appreciate how low key TOMONORI YAZAKI played Ichiro under Mr. Honda’s direction. After watching many Toho movies, I recognized many of the stock players were fine, however small their characterizations were in the film. I came to appreciate the effective lighting, cinematography and well-executed special effects work. Toho had become so proficient in that department, that sometimes I did not appreciate how much better the shots were carried out compared to other Japanese movies. After watching many Akira Kurosawa movies over the years, I noticed the similarities I mentioned on the audio commentary. Appearing only in dreams makes the existence of Minya, Godzilla, Gabara and the rest of Monster Island’s residents easy to understand; they were never real, just a figment of a kid’s imagination. That Minya is friendly and speaks the child’s language is easy to accept if you consider he is an extension of a child’s mind. It makes sense that Minya’s struggle against a bully parallels and even foreshadows Ichiro’s own quest. The luxurious tropical rainforest landscape of Ichiro’s imaginary Monster Island (from Toho’s greens department) is in sharp contrast to the scrubby weeds and dilapidated buildings of his real neighborhood. The only green, leafy vegetation in Ichiro’s real world is briefly glimpsed out a neighborhood door.
I know that GODZILLA’S REVENGE was a low budget kiddie program filled with stock footage. But I really like some of that stock footage, especially the jets attacking Godzilla lifted from GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER. There is a lot I like about it, the acting, the music, the dubbing, and the suit-acting in the SPFX scenes that were shot for this feature. I think the sensibility of Mr. Honda’s direction allowed a fever dream of a plot presenting a watchable story in an overall coherent movie. It is obvious to me that over the years I have joined the minority of Godzilla fans who also enjoy this movie. After being raked through the coals of an imaginary volcano on Monster Island it is comforting to find that others are as heated into their passion about this children’s festival film still a champion today in many fans’ hearts.
Over the decades I generally avoided GODZILLA’S REVENGE, but I always believed that there were worse Godzilla movies, for example GODZILLA VS MEGALON. Around 2006, I was given an opportunity to record an audio commentary for the 2008 Classic Media DVD release of GODZILLA’S REVENGE. After promptly accepting, I went to work watching the film over and over and soon realized there was much more going on in this movie than originally noticed.
It is a very simple, coherent story, which cleverly blends together the worlds of dreams and reality. During pre-World War II times grandparents often lived with their adult children, acting as babysitters for their grandchildren. I could feel the barren lifestyle of a latchkey kid in the urban industrial jungle of contemporary Japan, where sometimes both parents worked (without grandparents to babysit) and children barely had a family life after school.
Examining the film for its cinematic techniques while preparing the commentary, I spotted many clever photographic and editing styles I had seen in Akira Kurosawa movies. In one scene, the lighting in Ichiro’s (Tomonori Yazaki) room matches the sunset lighting (cinematographers’ “Golden Hour”) of the previous exterior shots. That was a nice flourish of artistic filmmaking that they afforded on this low-budget film made for the children matinee circuit. The child star Tomonori Yazaki, is not cloyingly precocious or obnoxious as children in the majority of the Gamera movies. At the conclusion where he becomes assertive and even a bit bully-like himself it is easy to cheer Ichiro on as he goes through his journey.
I also noticed the supporting cast was uniformly excellent. Many familiar faces belonged to seasoned veterans of the Toho studio system and years of experience providing bright and lively shtick to Toho Tokusatsu, crime and some Kurosawa movies. Famous actors Kenji Sahara and Hideo Amamoto were joined by reliable character actors such as Sachio Sakai, Ikio Sawamura, Yoshifumi Tajima, Yutaka Sada, Yutaka Nakayama, Machiko Naka and Yutaka Nakayama who all put in excellent cameos. All these actors performed with Mr. Honda’s artistic directorial skills with a different level of respect as they might be working with the master director for just one more time.
The suit acting by the venerable Haruo Nakajima as Godzilla and Hiroshi Sekita as Gabara is quite good and I even dare say towards the top performances of their specialty stunt work unique to the genre. Again, I think the freedom of this production offered Mr. Honda, who also directed the special effects scenes to allow Mr. Nakajima to choreograph exciting fights involving dwarf wrestler and stuntman Little Man Machan as Minya. Now I find the dubbing to be smooth and professional, if a little odd. Some of the goofy aspects of the dubbing (especially Minya’s country bumpkin voice) can be seen as suitable for a children’s fantasy.
The soundtrack music has also grown on me as Kunio Miyauchi provides bright, upbeat surf-rock type themes for the generally exciting score. His experience scoring the Ultraman series is reflected in the action hero themes boldly punching up the music on the soundtrack. To make an audio commentary for a Toho-authorized DVD, the script must be submitted to Toho for approval. I spent weeks watching the movie and constructing a seventy-minute monologue that I felt described the techniques used without just telling viewers what they were seeing. I managed to be over-prepared and simultaneously under-prepared with the script.
When we started to record the first part of the commentary we had not yet received approval from Toho. We needed to get started as there was limited time available to complete the commentary. The first recording session went well, however a couple things popped up immediately. Doing exactly what I set out to not do; I described what the viewers could plainly see. I spent a lot of energy writing and polishing the first and last ten minutes of my script. I soon realized my work on the first ten minutes was not paying off as it sounded stiff and realized I needed to change my approach, which was not difficult, but a bit time-consuming. Also it became obvious that I was not able to time my comments perfectly to what was playing onscreen. It was nearly impossible to precisely mark where something occurred in a few seconds and not be clearly commented on for thirty seconds.
Also I had some textual and editorial suggestions from the producer to respond to and I found myself rewriting on the fly. All that considered, the first session went well as I thought we were just about halfway through the production. Then, just before our second recording session, we received official notes back from Toho. Even though they only asked for a few changes it was time consuming to make these last minute fixes. Toho insisted the movie be referred to as ALL MONSTERS ATTACK not GODZILLA’S REVENGE. We went back and “looped” all mentions of the title to “this movie” as ALL MONSTERS ATTACK taking up excessive time (and I didn’t like that title). Toho wanted the son of Godzilla to be called “Minilla,” but the pronunciation of “Minya” is so close I left that as it was and hoped Toho didn’t dissaprove. We had to remove a mention of one of the members of the creative team, but they did not explain why and now the identity of the person who has disappeared has been lost to history.
A few other bits of information were tweaked in the original script and we were ready to re-record what was necessary for the first part of our project. Then we had technical difficulties with the recording equipment and I sat for more than an hour while our engineer worked on it. That delay may not sound significant, but I definitely felt my energy and enthusiasm slip away as I sat wondering if all the changes we were about to make on the first half would even work. When we did start recording again things did not go as well as the first session. I felt tentative and I thought I sounded rather flat in my delivery. We were still working out kinks in the script as we went along.
At the end, I was quite pleased with the last ten minutes and the ending worked out just as I had hoped. Happy with those last ten minutes of recording, my work was complete. Then all the producer had to do was simply send the 70 minute recording to Classic Media on the East Coast for final disc mastering and manufacture. The digital recording was actually almost a hundred snippets of me talking that had to be assembled and synchronized with the movie which must have been laborious for any editor. The producer had to assemble the best takes of my comments and assemble them in synch with the time marks on the pan ‘n’ scan version of the movie Classic Media provided with a reference timecode display.
For the record, I never heard or “signed off” on the finished version before it went to Classic Media but glad that it was a wrap and in the can. Then came the good news that Classic Media had finished mastering the disc. The bad news was, of course they had used a different print than the one we synched my comments to. (I think Classic Media used the visual elements of the Japanese version, which is five seconds longer than the American version.) The great widescreen print they used was about five seconds longer so my comments came about five seconds before what I was talking about appeared on screen. When the producer said that wouldn’t work, the guy doing the transfer said no one would know the difference. My producer thankfully persisted and eventually the audio was tweaked to almost the correct synchronization.
I can still hear where the audio starts to fall slightly behind the visuals and I am talking about things that have yet to happen. After I bought my copy, I noticed a few things I wish I had caught at the recording sessions. I managed to refer to actor Mr. Amamato by both his true name, Hideo, and his pseudonym Eisei. I think I started off calling him by his name from older works, Eisei and then we changed it to Hideo missing one erroneous reference. Other imperfections (like a few long silent passages) are painfully apparent to me in the final product, but I guess sometimes that happens when a complicated project is completed on such a tight schedule by several people on different sides of the continent.
Contributing the audio commentary gave me the opportunity to carefully examine this children’s Godzilla movie. I can now see the artistic work of Ishiro Honda brilliantly manifested amidst a low budget and tight shooting schedule. I think because it was a 70-minute program planned for a children’s matinee, Mr. Honda possibly escaped some constraints and was able to create a touching portrait of children growing up in the modern post-war, industrial Japan and offer an interesting, humorous and light adventure-comedy to patrons then and now.
Richard A. Pusateri is a contributor to Sci-Fi Japan, G-Fest magazine and we’re glad his two articles have opened up a bit more positive discussion on this Toho Champion Matsuri film from 1969.
Special thanks to Gabe McIntosh, and MAT officer Hiroshi Kanatani for their awesome artwork!