By Christopher Stewardson
The original run of Toho’s Godzilla series produced fifteen films between 1954 and 1975. The series evolved across those nineteen years, mirroring the changing sociopolitical landscape of post-war Japan, and reacting to changes in the Japanese film industry. And for that reason, the Showa era is arguably the richest period in the franchise’s history. Subsequent runs have produced their own standout entries, like Godzilla vs Biollante (1989) and Godzilla, Mothra, & King Ghidorah: Giant Monster All-Out Attack (2001), but these series have generally been more creatively consistent – if not repetitive in some cases.
Meanwhile the films produced in the mid-1960s offer striking variety. The parameters of what a Godzilla movie could be were pushed and expanded repeatedly. By 1966, Toho had already introduced multiple monsters in films like Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961); it had crossed them over into a loose but shared continuity headed by Godzilla via Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964); and it had pushed the narrative possibilities into outer space with alien threats in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). The wartime memories of the original 1954 Godzilla remained (in many cases simply because Godzilla will always carry those connotations in popular perception), but they appeared less intense, less urgent.
And in 1966 and 1967, Jun Fukuda directed two of the most vibrant, witty, and earnest Godzilla films to date: Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla, respectively. Sandwiched between the outer space thrills of Invasion of Astro-Monster and 1968’s epic Destroy All Monsters (originally intended to be the end of the series), Fukuda’s '60s entries are still beloved by fans, but to a considerably lesser degree.
What I offer here is an argument that Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla aren’t simply great entries, but that they complement one another as a double bill with a shared director. Both are island adventures with bright, lush colour palettes; their scripts are sharp and witty, penned by one of the chief architects of Godzilla’s personality change: Shinichi Sekizawa; their ensemble casts are memorable and charismatic; and with no disrespect to director Ishiro Honda, who had and would direct consecutive Godzilla films either side of Ebirah and Son, these two pictures feel like a welcome breath of fresh air in their lively action – contrasted to Honda’s comparatively more reserved approach.
Ebirah sees a young man named Ryota (Toru Watanabe) searching for his brother who’s lost at sea. He sets out on a stolen yacht with two guys he met at a dance contest, as well as a safe-cracking criminal who originally stole the ship in the first place. Their boat is wrecked by a giant lobster claw, and the guys wind up on Letchi Island, the home of a nuclear-armed rogue organisation (the Red Bamboo) guarded by an enormous crustacean, Ebirah.
Having already stolen most of Invasion of Astro-Monster (with his charming co-star, Nick Adams), Akira Takarada also steals much of Ebirah as the spiky, down-on-his-luck criminal, Yoshimura. Takarada literally shines in a fabulous yellow jacket and striped t-shirt combo. His alleged danger as a bank thief quickly gives way to a heart of gold as he essentially becomes the father of the group, which soon includes Kumi Mizuno as Daiyo – a resident of Mothra’s Infant Island who escaped the clutches of the Red Bamboo.
In that respect, Takarada is akin to Tadao Takashima’s Dr. Kusumi in Son of Godzilla. The 1967 film is about a team of scientists on Solgell Island attempting to control the weather so that they may render uninhabitable lands fertile. Their experiment goes awry and causes enormous animal growth, with a trio of giant praying mantises uncovering an enormous egg – from which hatches a baby Godzilla, Minilla. Takashima’s Dr. Kusumi heads the experimental team. He’s grouchy, stubborn, but similarly breaks into a smile if given enough time.
And the kids (so to speak) that both men look out for are just as likeable. In Ebirah, the two young dance contest participants caught in Ryota’s search are goofy and silly, running from one danger to another. In one scene, the group approaches the Red Bamboo base by inching closer behind a fake bush, straight out of a cartoon and just as funny. In Son, Akiro Kubo plays Goro Maki, a reporter who quite literally drops in on Solgell Island seeking a story. In exchange for sticking around, he cooks and cleans for the team – which leads him to accidentally prepare vegetables in the same basket in which the team washes their underwear. Kubo’s expression as he reluctantly picks apart his now-tainted salad is marvellous.
Son of Godzilla was partly shot on location in Guam, gifting the film with many shots of gorgeous, lush forests. Contrasting these warm greens are the jarring reds and yellows of the team’s base, emphatically signalling their intrusion into this natural space. In Ebirah, the bright colours both inside and outside the Red Bamboo headquarters work to a similar effect. But it’s the monsters in both films that receive the most striking colour schemes, from the reds of Ebirah’s eyes and claws, to the pink hues of Kamakiras (the giant praying mantis), or the yellow and purple bands on the legs of Kumonga (a giant spider).
Kamakiras and Kumonga also demonstrate the marvellous special effects in both films. Sadamasa Arikawa had worked as a special effects cameraman on many prior Toho special effects films, including Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, which had proved a nightmare when dealing with the extensive wireworks that brought King Ghidorah to life. On Ebirah, Arikawa was promoted to assistant special effects director, though he essentially directed the effects on set; the legendary Eiji Tsuburaya was still credited as overall SFX director. Meanwhile, Son of Godzilla saw him officially step up as special effects director. The film would see another wirework operation with all three giant mantises and Kumonga brought to life via marionettes. And how beautiful they are! Not only are they menacing in appearance, but plenty of character comes out in their movements, particularly when Kamikiras shakes its head after Minilla gives it a light blast of his atomic breath.
And speaking of Minilla, it would be wrong not to address him. The Godzilla and Minilla suits in Son of Godzilla complement one another. Godzilla has sleepy eyes befitting a tired old dad; Minilla looks like he’s constantly smiling. And when Minilla plays jump rope with his father’s tail, or when Godzilla teaches his son how to breathe fire, something brilliant happens. We become utterly lost within the beauty and soul of these great monsters. The personality of Godzilla and all his monster co-stars in the 1960s was no accident. It was written into the scripts by Shinichi Sekizawa and brought to life by Tsuburaya, Arikawa, and suit performers like Haruo Nakajima, Seiji Onaka, Hiroshi Sekita, and Masao Fukuzawa.
At the end of Son of Godzilla, when the team’s experiment finally works and Solgell Island is blanketed in snow, Minilla stumbles in the cold. As Masaru Sato’s score tugs at the heartstrings, it seems as though the poor boy may succumb to the elements. But then his dad comes along and picks him up, and the two monsters – father and son – hold each other as the snow starts to bury them. And every time I watch this scene, the tears well up, and it’s because of how soulful Godzilla and Minilla are. This is the magic and brilliance of Toho’s Showa Godzilla films, available to all who allow themselves to acknowledge and engage with these films as the truly wonderful works they are.
Although both Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla were released directly to television in the US (in 1968 and 1969, respectively), they played theatrically on a double bill in the UK in 1969, albeit with the former’s title altered slightly to Ebirah, Terror of the Deep. Posters for this matinee feature proclaimed it as a family programme, and indeed these are pictures everyone can enjoy. I know, because Son of Godzilla was the first Godzilla film I ever saw, and I watched it with my family at age seven. Gathered around the television on that summer evening, I’ll never forget Godzilla and Minilla embracing in the snow. The power of that image to get the tears welling – when I was a child and as an adult – is a testament to the wonder of these films.
Christopher Stewardson writes about mid-20 Century horror and science fiction films and has been published in Little White Lies, Fangoria, Dread Central, Arrow Video, Eureka Entertainment and elsewhere.