Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #10: ALL MONSTERS ATTACK (1969)

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!

TRAVIS:

In Japan it's titled ALL MONSTERS ATTACK, and in America it was changed to GODZILLA'S REVENGE, yet neither name aptly describes one of the oddest entries in the series. This one's for the kids, folks, as we focus on our first child protagonist of the franchise – Ichiro. As I imagine a lot of kaiju fans can relate to, lil' Ichiro has monsters on the brain and can't help but daydream of traveling to Monster Island. Also probably familiar to Godzilla nerds is how the young boy is constantly picked on by other kids. Though it's pandering, I just don't feel the cynical manipulation in the plot mechanics to make the kiddie-fication seem overbearing. I credit this to director Ishiro Honda, who always had a specific interest in human drama and tried to incorporate it as best he could in his monster mashes. In ALL MONSTERS ATTACK, he not only spotlights bullying, but also home environments with job-busy absent parents. The moment when Ichiro's mother cries over her absence in her's son life is a nice touch that only Honda would include in a G picture.

What makes this such a weird film (as well as a turkey in the eyes of many G fans) is the kaiju content, or lack thereof. Ichiro naps around like a narcoleptic and constantly transports himself to Monster Island in his dreams. So not only is all of the monster stuff occurring exclusively in Slumberland, but most of the fight scenes are recycled footage from SON OF GODZILLA and EBIRAH, HORROR OF THE DEEP, re-using the clashes with Kumonga, Kamacarus, and Ebirah. The only new footage shot for ATTACK is a redux of the father/son fire breathing scene from SON and the battles with new creature Gabara. Oh, and Ichiro becomes best friends with Minilla (who can shrink to human size and talk apparently) too. In the original Japanese soundtrack, Minilla is voiced by a female actress for some reason, while in the American dub, he's given a dopey male voice to match his pudgy body. Either way, they're interesting takes on what his inner monologue would sound like.

I know you're a soundtrack fan, Luca, so let me point out a fun musical difference between the Japanese and US cuts. ALL MONSTERS ATTACK features a pop go-go song called "March of the Monsters" that's your typical Asian superhero cheer theme ("Marching of Mr. Monsters with style/Destroy everything/Go! Go! Godzilla fires radioactivity"). When United Productions of America picked it up for distribution, they replaced every instance of it in the film with the jazzy track "Crime Fiction" by Ervin Jereb. I actually like both songs, and each one colors the movie with a different vibe. "March of the Monsters" distinguishes ATTACK as an up-and-at'em adventure for kids, while "Crime Fiction" gives GODZILLA'S REVENGE a retro, Grindhouse-like feel when watching it in present day. No matter what music was playing, Luca, could you handle this much Minilla cuteness?

 

Don’t play this with your speakers turned up too loud.
Awwwwright

LUCA:

God, what the...? Who the hell were the Americans marketing these movies to! I like that groovy tune, but this is such a movie aimed at the smallest of children, I can't really imagine what good it would do to supplant a bunch of happy singing kids with that sexy swing music! In any case, I think this series has its hooks in me quite thoroughly, as there is no other way to explain my relative enjoyment of this movie. It is by all accounts a pandering, cheap, lazily made exploitation quickie meant to separate hard-working (to the point of tears, as this movie proves!) Japanese parents from their yen! But... I couldn't help but still be sort of... entertained? It helps that the little boy playing Ichiro is such a lil' charmer, and his relationship with Jappetto (hort hort) is really sweet. Plus, and I guess this is me showing age: it's a friggin' 69 minute movie. I mean, that's the least I've come to expect from low-brow exploitation entertainment. Do your thing and get out! ALL MONSTERS ATTACK/GODZILLA'S REVENGE is pretty good about that.

Something that struck me was in what a friggin' post-apocalyptic WASTELAND Ichiro lives. My biggest exposure to fictional representations of the Japanese middle-class to that point had been Miyazaki, so it was quite a shock to see cute little kids holding hands in a BLADE RUNNER-esque industrial hellhole instead of the picturesque Tama Hills. As you say, the mom crying at the other end of the phone is such a poignant little thing that doesn't really get acknowledged again later that it's not hard to think of humanist Honda trying to smuggle in some social commentary in what by that point surely had become an assembly line paycheck gig. But even if that (very appreciated) note of humanity wasn't there, I'd still sorta like this movie for just being so damned different! TEN movies in and I still don't know what the hell this series has in store for me, movie to movie. That's amazing!

In fact, I'd argue that it's not so much the (mostly recyled) kaiju content that sticks out here, it's the two crooks. A kid using his kaiju fantasies to overcome his fears and actually grow as a person would be a perfectly fine bit of magical realism. This reminds me, I friggin loved how it's the kid that bends to the parents at the end. "I understand you gotta work so much, mom. It's for our own good!" Five'll get you ten that in an American movie it would have been the "workaholic" parent admitting to the kid they were wrong. Ichiro's parents aren't workaholics, they actually just gotta make ends meet. And therein lies the rub for me; either make it a full-on kiddie pander fantasy in which Ichiro's bravery nets him some reward money and his parents can ease back on the overtime, or make the conflict smaller and more personal. He just kinda gets a pat on the back for catching the crooks, making their addition to the story a pretty artificial and perfunctory hurdle for Ichiro to overcome. I've just talked for three paragraphs without even really touching on the monster stuff. Travis, I'll get to it in my next response, but how did you feel about this movie? I could very easily imagine this being a real stinker as a teenager!

TRAVIS:

I gotta say that this was an entertaining romp for me too. For all the justified reasons to criticize it, it's such a peculiar film that it's certainly interesting to watch. The kid stuff doesn't feel too cutesy, and I think there's adorable charm when Ichiro and Minilla interact. There's also a meta reading you could apply to this movie. It's never quite clear or acknowledged outright that we're in the Godzilla universe, just that Ichiro is a big fan. Because of the ambiguity and that none of the monster scenes occur in "real life", one might assume that we're watching our own reality where kaiju only exist in fiction. This might explain why the fight scenes are from stock footage in that Ichiro is merely remembering movies he's seen. With that frame of viewing, we could be watching not so much a children's film but instead a portrayal of what it's like to be a lonely, nerdy Godzilla fan. Now, I don't know if Honda intended this reading, but it's a different way of examining ATTACK without merely dismissing it as garbage or fluff.

Aside from the humanist touches added by Honda, his filmmaking expands in ways we haven't seen in the series. The industrial, polluted setting you pointed out, Luca, is a look of Japanese life not yet glimpsed at. While most of the movies take place in the present, we don't usually spend time in the urban, daily life of the middle class. Even the "March of the Monsters" song has a few lyrics about the hazardous smog bellowing from the factories. Was this foreshadowing of the events in GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH? There's also some flashy techniques Honda uses, like the psychedelic plane trip to Monster Island and the dizzying, blackout transition when Ichiro first wakes up. My favorite one is when Ichiro runs away from Gabara in slo-mo with flashes of the taunting monster superimposed.

Speaking of Gabara, what a strange creature. His yellow eyes and red hair remind me of fellow bully Scott Farkus from A CHRISTMAS STORY. And what an asshole too. If you felt bad for little Minilla getting attacked by bugs in SON, you might be absolutely distraught when Gabara electrocutes then punches him in the face! Even though he's supposed to be a figment of Ichiro's imagination, his odd design (bright green, pebble-like skin, random horn on his head) would represent a change in how later Godzilla monsters would look. The biggest rival of kaiju movies were kaiju TV shows that constantly introduced new monsters with vibrant colors and all sorts of spikes, weapons, and whatnot sticking out like a Swiss Army knife. It's not hard to see the G films taking this cue and beefing up new enemies such as Gigan and Mechagodzilla to seem more menacing. No more of this slumbering, prehistoric animal stuff for origins now! The end of the Showa era is not too far away, Luca, so what else can you say about this weird little detour?

LUCA:

Strangely enough, I found Gabara punching Minilla in the stomach and electrocuting him pretty funny! Gabara and Minilla just seemed like two kids duking it out, whereas Minilla's peril at the hands of the Kamacuri (?) actually seemed like a baby animal threatened by predators. I mean, they were really going all out on making Gabara the BULLY MONSTER to the point that his roar actually sounded like mocking laughter. Gabara is kaiju Nelson Muntz! Minilla's roar, meanwhile, was... the braying of a mule? His voice had a sort of muffled quality to it that made it sound like it was coming from the inside of the suit instead of being ADR'd. Which it was, since it's a woman's voice and the suit actor is not a woman! I actually also found it interesting that you could never tell whether or not this was in the Godzilla universe. The choice to go for a muffled voice for Minilla, to me, adds credence to the idea of this being set in the "real" world -- as if Ichiro is vaguely aware that kaiju are people in suits, so talking to one would mean its voice would be muffled. This is all fan conjecture, of course, since you'd need confirmation from the writers/director on that, and I'm sure they'd give you a look like all "the fuck you talkin bout get a life"

I'm really enjoying the historical context I'm getting from you with each movie, Travis. I probably wouldn't have noticed how different a monster Gabara is from the mere giant spiders/mantises/lobsters that preceded him if you hadn't pointed it out. Knowing this shift in monster design came from a need to compete in ever-crazier kaiju TV shows is doubly interesting. A decade and a half into its lifespan, the Godzilla series (like James Bond) was now a trend follower rather than a trend setter. Hey, it took 'em longer than Bond, who was doing "blaxploitation Bond" a mere ten years in.

If my high levels of amusement with Nelson Monster Gabara are any indication, the upcoming movies will really kick my enjoyment of this series into overdrive. I'm not exactly tired of the 1950s style giant mutated animals, but I think this is a pretty good point to start bringing in a different type of threat. Bring on the Power Rangers villains!

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