It’s interesting to look at how the careers of Hollywood’s James Cagney and Japan’s Godzilla (history of sorts) kind of paralleled one another. Both started out in movies playing irredeemable bad guys, and neither was really considered a candidate for leading man status because of their stature. As the years passed, however, audience demand saw both thespians grow into the role of antihero and eventually become full-fledged good guys, a move that some say also caused each to lose a bit of the edge that made them popular in the first place. Why, each even found time to perform an occasional on-screen dance routine (check out this clip from Godzilla vs. Monster Zero if you don’t believe me). One thing that Cagney never had to do, though, was appear in an unfunny, made-for-kids parody of his earlier work where he has to teach his goofball son and a friend lessons in self-esteem, which is the role the Big G had thrust upon him in 1971′s Godzilla’s Revenge.
Combining elements of the series’ two previous films–1967′s slightly more serious Son of Godzilla and the following year’s all-star creature team-up Destroy All Monsters–with just a touch of The Wizard of Oz, Godzilla’s Revenge (or, as it was known in its home country on its 1969 release there, All Monsters Attack…but trust me, you’ll want the dubbed stateside version for maximum cheesy effect) was said to be the first entry to be deliberately aimed at the juvenile market. No, really. And if that is the case, one has to wonder about the filmmakers’ attitudes toward children, because they seemed to go out of their way to give schoolboy protagonist Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki) the most depressing home life this side of a David Lynch movie.
The 1960s Tokyo equivalent of a latchkey kid, poor Ichrio rarely gets to spend any time with his train engineer dad and restaurant (or is that a hotel? massage parlor?) worker mom. He lives in a grimy, factory-filled neighborhood where trucks constantly barrel down the highway and smokestacks are forever belching out smoke (Where’s Hedorah the Smog Monster when you need him?). He’s constantly teased by a group of bigger schoolmates led by a bully named Gabara. Oh, and he winds up the prisoner of two fugitive bank robbers after finding one of their driver’s licences while playing in the abandoned warehouse where they’re holed up. It’s kind of like a Dickens novel, except it’s more bleak…and not as good.
Ichiro’s only escape from this gloomy existence–apart from the time he spends with grandfatherly toymaker neighbor Shinpei, played by veteran Japanese screen heavy Eisei Amamoto–comes in his daydreams, where he travels (by jumbo jet, no less) to remote Monster Island, first seen in Destroy All Monsters. After watching Godzilla defeat some of the island’s B-list residents, courtesy of stock footage from earlier movies, Ichrio meets and befriends Minya, Mr. G’s less-than-scary, atomic smoke ring-blowing offspring. Not only does Minya possess the ability to shrink down to schoolkid-size, he can talk…and in the U.S. version, his voice is disturbingly close to Barney the dinosaur’s (or, for those readers from an older generation, Mortimer Snerd’s)! What’s more, he’s being harassed by his own Gabara, a new creature that resembles a rejected Godzilla design whose horned head is topped with Conan O’Brien’s hair.
The two misfits instantly bond over their common woes (Ichiro, earlier: “Golly, it sure is murder when you’re so darn small!” Minya: “Godzilla says I should learn to fight my own battles!”) and try to encourage each other. Minya finally manages to defeat his Gabara, thanks to a little help from his pop (who steps on his kid’s tail to get him to correctly exhale the familial atomic flame breath…you’ve got to love 20th-century Japanese parenting techniques). And in doing so, he inspires Ichiro to fight back and escape from the crooks (in a trap-filled, slapstick sequence that may well have inspired Home Alone creator John Hughes), stand up to his own bullies, and happily return to his drab, gray existence.
To many kaiju buffs and Godzilla purists, Godzilla’s Revenge stands as the moment when the Jolly Green Goliath jumped the (mega?) shark and went from a terrifying symbol for the devastation caused by the atomic bombing of Japan to a big-hearted hero and defender of mankind. I’m not sure how accurate this assessment is (especially after seeing the soccer-style boulder shenanigans, lifted from Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, that Mr. G and foe Ebirah take part in here), but it’s true that any attempt at serious sci-fi action went out the window faster than Mothra (Godzilla movie poll) on its way to a sweater factory. Since the Monster Island scenes are supposed to be Ichiro’s daydreams, it’s easy enough to dismiss their juvenile nature. Even young monster fans, though, will be hard-pressed to be entertained by Minya’s goofy antics–to say nothing of his Goofy voice–and may find the scenes with the bank robbers a little unsettling. As for us grown-up monster fans, we’ll just chalk the whole thing up to Ichiro’s smog-induced imagination and recognize that Godzilla’s Revenge (by the way, where was that revenge the title promised American audiences, unless it was taking our hard-earned money?) was indeed the worst thing to happen to the Big G since Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer in 1954…and until writer/director Roland Emmerich in 1998.
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