I’ve now watched 30-odd kaiju films for this series. You can keep up with my progress over HERE.
Toho’s key creative and technical team was undergoing heavy changes by the time their next Godzilla film was underway. Toho wanted to fashion a hipper Godzilla film, one more carefully targeted at Japan’s teenage population. They decided to set the film in the South Seas because of their popularity. Many pop songs and other movies were set around Hawaii and the South Seas, and Toho decided that this zeitgeist was ripe for adoption. Thus Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas was conceptualized.
The studio decided to combine two shelved scripts. One was Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs. Ebirah. This King Kong starring source material accounts for some of Godzilla’s more anachronistic characteristics. It was combined with a film intended as an Akira Takanada vehicle called 100 Shot/100 Killed: Big Duel in the South Seas. Both films were set in that trendy locale the studio was hunting for. 100 Shot/100 Killed: Big Duel in the South Seas was a sequel to a Jun Fukuda film known as 100 Shot/100 Killed. Jun Fukuda had worked with Toho since 1946 and was tapped to bring a fresh feel to the Godzilla franchise.
Jun Fukuda really was looking to create a different sort of Godzilla film. He even requested regular composer Akira Ifukube be replaced by Masaru Sato, who had worked on many Akira Kurosawa projects, including Throne of Blood and Yojimbo. He’d also worked on Godzilla Raids Again. He had a very European approach to scores that differed dramatically from Ifukube. The film, also know as Ebirah, The Horror of the Deep and Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, ended up having an electric, jazz inspired soundtrack. Tomoyuki Tanaka, still the chief producer on the franchise, disagreed with this decision. However Jun Fukuda went along with his preferred musician, and friend, despite Tanaka’s trepidation. Tanaka’s role wasn’t really creative at this point. He mainly worried about the budgetary side of things; he no longer pitched any ideas. He did visit the set extremely regularly, if only to quietly watch the proceedings.
Eiji Tsuburaya was relegated to a supervisory position on this film as well, making it the first of Toho’s Godzilla films to completely shake up the core creative team. Or at least close to it, Shinichi Sekizawa was still the chief writer, marking the rather tenuous connection to Toho’s past work. Eiji Tsuburaya’s chief pupil, Sadamasa Arikawa, took over the brunt of the job, heading up the special effects team on Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas. Sadamasa Arikawa and Jun Fukuda actually had a bit of a rivalry.
Jun Fukuda was a strange, potentially unwelcome, addition to the franchise. Put simply he didn’t like these movies. He didn’t enjoy making them, he didn’t like the final product, and he didn’t like that they existed. Looking back he disliked each and every one of his Godzilla films. He’s gone on record saying that there should never have been sequels made to the original Godzilla film. Jun Fukuda’s opinions of the series as dross and beneath him extended even to his first entry. Recalling the film it seems clear he’d basically blocked out the entire process:
I don’t remember.
My memories about GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER are not very clear because I was working on a script for a television drama while we were shooting the film. As soon as we completed it, I went to the NHK studios and confined myself so I could finish the script. (NHK is Japan’s public television network.)
Toho sent me a copy of the VHS tape edition of GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER when it was released. It was like opening up an old wound. I didn’t watch the tape. Instead, I gave it to my daughter as a present.
Compared to Eiji Tsuburaya’s optimism and effulgence, or even Ishirō Honda’s steadfast commitment to quality, Jun Fukuda viewed his work as disposable, brittle, plastic trinkets. Shiny toys to distract an audience for an hour but ultimately destined to rot away forgotten in a landfill. The consummate and devoted craftsmen that popularized the franchise’s crew before strikes a grim contrast.
Not all of these devoted employees were gone however. Yasuyuki Inoue, for instance, was still around. In these later days he was doing more for Toho then ever before. Now that Akira Wantanabe, Toho’s chief designer when it came to kaiju, was gone, Yasuyuki Inoue took over these tasks. Yasuyuki Inoue’s designs for Ebirah are dramatically simple when compared to past kaiju films. There’s almost nothing fictitious or invented about Ebirah. He’s simply a large cancrine sea monster.
This movie is the second and last to feature the DaisensoGoji Godzilla suit, which first appeared to replace the MosuGoji in Invasion of the Astro-Monster. The suit was a little bigger than the MosuGoji. It had a rounder head and less articulate fingers. The more mitten-like fingers would appear in many suits going forward, it was an elegant way to make the now heroic Godzilla much less threatening. The suit was also designed to be fairly airtight, as required by some tense special effects scenes in the movie.
Between Jun Fukuda and Sadamasa Arikawa, Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas did feature a large collection of new ideas and visuals. The movie features a new visual style. The camerawork was different. Arikawa focuses on scale a lot less than Tsuburaya did. There are a few clever compositions that place Godzilla’s tail in the background, but there are also a whole lot of scenes that put the camera at the monster’s eye-level. There are some dynamic handheld shots too. The most drastic addition comes in the form of underwater photography. In the more modern era of Godzilla movies Toho finally retired the big pool. It was simply too dangerous to use when insurance and media entered the scenario. Every iteration of Godzilla, and just about anyone who ever donned the suit, literally risked their life in that pool. The suits are furiously heavy and a dangerous combination of stifling and leaky. Drowning was a real concern, and actually placing Haruo Nakijima underwater in the DaisensoGoji suit was incredibly ambitious, or just plain stupid. The DaisensoGoji had to be equipped with an off-screen Aqua-Lung. Luckily enough the Aqua-Lung system was pretty effective by the sixties, and nothing went wrong, which seems more unlikely than the alternative. The scenes were filmed without a hitch, and help Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas stand out.
The movie is high energy. Brightly lit, and stylistically different than the past Godzilla entries in just about every way. Ultimately however the changing of the guard leaves the film feeling a little hollow. It’s not just because Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya defined Godzilla, but also because the two had an almost unwavering commitment to making the best work they could, despite the populist nature of the property. They elevated the material in a way that the disinterested Jun Fukuda doesn’t. It’s not that Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas is bad, it’s just that it lacks some of the ambition of the series’ past films.
The plot, while designed around King Kong, still manages to do a few interesting things. The most notable of these is the awakening of Godzilla. The film’s protagonists find Godzilla slumbering in a cave. He looks dead, but his heartbeat thunders throughout the cave. They realize they have to wake up Godzilla so he will combat Ebirah. They do this with the aid of a lightning rod. Godzilla then fights the suddenly appearing Giant Condor in the movie. He defeats Ebirah, and then gets driven away by Mothra. The ending was clearly not designed around Godzilla, who was allied with Mothra by this time. Still, waking up a sleeping kaiju would become a legitimate trope of the genre, appearing several times in the Gamera series alone.
Meanwhile Daiei was just getting their newest property off the ground. Gamera had been an incredible success, so much so that the studio upgraded the sequel from a class B movie to a class A movie. Unfortunately this was an even bigger risk, and the studio didn’t trust the relatively inexperienced Noriaki Yuasa to pull it off. They gave Yuasa control of the film’s special effects and gave the role of director to Shigeo Tanaka. Neither flourished in their new roles. Noriaki Yuasa brought a strange vision to his films, a fascinating blend of cartoony kiddy-fare and violence far worse than any in the Godzilla films. Tanaka brings no such personality to Gamera vs. Barugon, his entry to the series. Not only that but Yuasa’s inexperienced understanding of special effects leaves the film looking goofy despite the higher budget.
It’s actually one of the longest Gamera movies, clocking in at one hundred minutes. Only seven minutes shorter than the longest of the series. That wouldn’t be so bad if anything happened in the movie, but that one hundred minutes feels inexorably long. The movie opens with a recap of the last film, up until Gamera is launched into space. His ship gets knocked out of space by a meteorite and Gamera lands back on earth. The film then enters into almost interesting territory, featuring some globetrotting criminals hunting an opal hidden in the South Pacific.
The script doesn’t hold together particularly well. It’s filled with confusing contradictions. One member of the group betrays the others, letting a scorpion kill one of the team and tossing a grenade at our main character. Who survives, obviously. The opal turns out to be an egg. At one point the love interest says she’s seen Barugon’s signature attack before, but it’s not clear if it’s ever hatched before. It’s not clear because in the same sentence she expresses a desire to see the “rainbow” for the first time. It’s almost impossible to tell if this is the result of the poor quality subtitles or the script. There must have been another Barugon at some point though, because otherwise why the religious fear… Maybe it’s best not to examine it too much. In the end a serious coincidence ends up exposing the egg to UV light, making it hatch.
Barugon has the physique of a chameleon. He has a prominent upper jaw with a pointy nose-horn. He has no lower jaw to speak of. On perhaps more of an execution side than a design side, he has massive dead-fish/googly eyes that are absolutely ridiculous. His tongue extends perfectly stiffly from his mouth and sprays his ice attack from a knob at the end. His other attack is a rainbow that comes out of his back. It’s not a particularly striking kaiju. Gamera gets frozen for a large portion of the film’s runtime. The first of the character’s aforementioned hibernating plots. In this case no one tries to wake the daikaiju up, instead he just slowly thaws out, eventually waking up in time to fight and drown Barugon. It’s a bit of a weak spot in the Gamera series, even by Daiei’s lower standards. Without the brilliant team Toho had, Daiei’s movies never look as good. They were aimed at a younger audience, sure, but they also seem to have less money behind them then your average kaiju film.
The movie is an outlier for a few reasons. It’s the only Gamera movie that doesn’t heavily feature children, a key feature of the franchise. The special effects are weak, and the script’s sloppier than most of Nisan Takahashi’s attempts. It wouldn’t slow down the franchise however, which would quickly follow it up with one of Daiei’s best entries. Gamera may have started as a low-budget knock-off of Godzilla, but it was beginning to adopt the role of usurper. Gamera would only gain popularity as The King of Monsters waned.