Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #7: EBIRAH, HORROR OF THE DEEP (1966)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ tumblr Rocket Number 09, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

LUCA:
Initially, I was a bit scared that routine would set in. This would be the sixth time Toho returned to the Godzilla-well, and the seventh Godzilla movie in all. As I said in our last post, this would also be the first time the movies would take on the "classic" formula of Godzilla sequel titles -- "Godzilla vs. [insert name]". And damn, he'd be fighting something so generic as a "sea monster". Wasn't G himself a sea monster already, kinda? Well, I'm glad to report my fears were absolutely unfounded. After the somewhat disappointing INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (or EBIRAH, HORROR OF THE DEEP) rekindled my enthusiasm for the series! That alternate title is perhaps symbolic of my pleasant surprise -- the "sea monster" title was simply the title for the straight-to-TV English dub the movie received. The official Toho title was the "Ebirah" one. I guess you could say we've learned not to judge a monster by its American name!
Right from the start, director Jun Fukuda and composer Masaru Sato imbue the movie with a wholly new, decidedly younger atmosphere. Gone is Akira Ifukube's epic, pounding march music, to be replaced by a completely swingin' groovy... surfer tune? I swear, I wouldn't be surprised to see the main title track to this movie end up in a Tarantino flick somewhere down the line. Despite a deceptive opening scene where an old lady consults a wise woman about her missing son Yata who is lost at sea, and her non-missing son Ryota pleads with authorities to help him search for his absent sibling, the movie soon takes a left turn into completely uncharted waters. A... dance contest? And not just some namby-pamby Dancing With The Stars shit, either. This is a full-on "dance till ya drop" THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?-style hootenanny! Ryota, disabused from any notion that official authorities will help him and desperate to find his brother, is doing anything he can to buy his own boat with which to go search for Yata! Two ne'er-do-wells at the contest decide to have some fun at poor Ryota's expense and convince him they actually do own a yacht. The joke's on them, however, since the shotgun-wielding yacht owner is actually sleeping on it! The film's constantly throwing little reversals like that at you, while never sacrificing the forward momentum of the plot (what little there is). I quite liked it!
One of my favorite things about EBIRAH is how explicitly youth-oriented it is. The music is a good indicator of this, of course, but this is our first actual teenage protagonist. Our guys wear sneakers and dance to pop music and are disillusioned with adults/the establishment! The badass of our hero group is a safe-cracker! Granted, he denounces his criminal ways at the end, but this portrayal of lawbreakers is a far cry from the cop-killing orcs that inadvertently lure Godzilla back to Osaka in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. It's a good sign that I have so many good things to say about the movie before I even start mentioning the monsters, and in the best Showa-era Toho tradition, Godzilla has at least one absolutely fantastic gif-worthy moment in EBIRAH as well. After my complaints about the lack of new monsters in ASTRO-MONSTER, it's quite ironic that I actually find the weakest element of EBIRAH the titular villain monster itself: Ebirah is merely a giant lobster. Admittedly, he has an absolutely hilarious Green Lantern-like weakness: banana... juice? Do you like lobster bisque, Travis, cool daddy-o?

TRAVIS:
I feel groovy with this surf & turf special, and G-man's the big kahuna on this island! This might be one of my favorite performances of suit actor Haruo Nakajima as there's a lot of fun, almost humane acting from Godzilla in this film. The way he observes the evil Red Bamboo base and changes his methods of attacking are a level of intelligence we haven't seen before. Of course, it's not all thoughtful destruction, because he's gotta play boulder volleyball with Ebirah too! Man, he sure does love throwing rocks around with other monsters (KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and GHIDORAH also show him engaging in stone tossing)! These distinct shades of personality are probably due to the fact that EBIRAH was originally a vehicle for King Kong, and it's not hard to imagine the ape performing the same actions. The most obvious example is when Godzilla has his own Ann Darrow-esque moment and spots babelicious Infant Islander Dayo. The image of the beauty calms the beast, and the King of the Monsters simply sits down and relaxes for a few moments. Hey, maybe he wouldn't be so smashy all the time if he settled down (SON OF GODZILLA, you're on deck next...) But this nice respite between woman and kaiju is soon interrupted by A GIANT FRIGGIN' CONDOR!
I hadn't seen EBIRAH in quite a while, so the sudden attack of a big bird was a little surprising to me. It's a sequence that comes outta left field since the characters have already noticed Godzilla and Ebirah on the island, and you'd think that someone would've taken note of a large condor swarming the area. Red Bamboo really should've scouted other places for their nuclear plants! And just like how it flew out of nowhere, Godzilla promptly sets it aflame, and it dies a roasty death, out of the movie and the characters' consciousness. No one comments on how odd it was! It feels like 1) a way to include more kaiju content in the third act and 2) an echo of Kong defending Ann from the T-rex in KING KONG with big G trying to protect Dayo.
Another way the film tries to pack in more kaiju is the inclusion of Mothra, but sheesh, she really drags her ass to help until the very end when she picks up everyone from the exploding island. She's... asleep the whole time and needs to be awakened? Sure doesn't sound like the monster that tore up Rolisica to find her twin fairies. Speaking of the fairies, though pop duo the Peanuts famously originated the roles, they're replaced this time by another set of musical twins known as Pair Bambi. They do fine, yet one can't shake the feeling that it's "off" not seeing the Peanuts in their proper characters in this franchise cycle. Did this trip to Infant Island seem different to you, Luca?

LUCA:

Hahahaha "Pair Bambi". Yeah, I immediately noticed the recasting -- I was expecting the fairies to be recast at least a decade into the proceedings, so it was a bit jarring to see new faces so soon (3 years!) after the original actresses' debut, but let's face it: It's not like the Mothra fairies are complex or even remotely recognizably human characters. And I don't even mean that in a bad way! They're appropriately alien for mystical creatures in a children's film, their mannered, even stilted deliveries being part of their charm. You're right in Mothra dragging her feet, but hell, I was enjoying the shenanigans on Banana Island well enough that I didn't mind. If anything, I enjoyed that they called for her help and got off the island thanks to her. It's like a helicarrier showing up in a Thor movie -- it's just part of the universe!
Speaking of that incredibly random Giant Condor fight, that's where the INCREDIBLE GIF MOMENT of the movie happens! After Godzilla has fried the Condor (an amazing phrase in itself) he turns to the camera and taps his snout in a knowing gesture of "Ayyy we understand each other, don't we kids?". Fuck yeah we do, G! I hope he'll be back to teach those evil Red Bamboo thugs a lesson since they pretty explicitly say stuff like "Warn headquarters!" and "Do you think we've heard the last of them???" -- although seven kaiju movies in, I have a sneaking suspicion there's just as good a chance of us never hearing of them again!
Interesting little tidbit, Travis, about it having been designed as a Kong adventure, originally. It definitely explains the island setting (a new thing for this series) and G's overall more heroic attitude. Just goes to show that sometimes, rights issues can lead to artists creating great new stuff. No Flash Gordon rights for George Lucas gave us STAR WARS, no Frankenstein rights for Toho gave us KING KONG VS GODZILLA, and now no King Kong rights (anymore, somehow) gives us EBIRAH. I, for one, feel that I am reaping the benefits of this legal adversity. I'm hoping that for SON OF GODZILLA they couldn't get the rights to LEPRECHAUN or something.

TRAVIS:

Fun Toho fact, Luca! That nose tap moment from Godzilla is also a reference to the then popular Wakadaisho ("Young Guy") films the studio was producing. These were vehicles made for popular rock star Yuzo Kayama as the dashing athlete Yuichi Tanuma. Over the course of seventeen (!) movies, he would show off his amazing prowess in any sport from soccer to ice skating to swimming to ultimately running the New York marathon in the final entry. In EBIRAH, big G homages Yuichi's signature move to rub a single finger up & down his nose after wowing everyone with his impressive abilities. Audiences (teens in particular) went to theaters to see Kayama in droves, with the Wakadaisho films actually rivalling Godzilla in popularity and box office. It's no wonder that Fukuda (who directed many of the Young Guy entries) was tasked to helm this youth oriented kaiju tale. 
Times were changing for Godzilla. Over the past few films, he dipped his toe in the spy, sci-fi, and teen genres to sustain his presence. The biggest threat of all would come from television as big monster shows began to dominate the kaiju market, making it easier for children to stay at home for their creature smash up fix rather than head to theaters. Possbily taking a page from the TV playbook, how did the King of the Monsters pull viewers back in after such a long time? By adding a kid, of course! What baby daddy drama awaits him in SON OF GODZILLA? We'll have the test results soon!

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