Thursday, 2 April 2020

Kaiju Notes:
Ebirah, Terror of the Deep
(Jun Fukuda, 1966)





Some kind of mangy prehistoric bird thing!

As I’ve previously observed in these posts, the success of a kaiju movie often depends upon the presence of a good human story to counterbalance the monster action, and ‘Ebirah: Terror of the Deep’ [Japanese title: ‘Gojira, Ebirâ, Mosura: Nankai no Daiketto’ (‘Godzilla, Ebirah, Mothra: Big Duel in the South Seas’)] thankfully proves a corker in this regard.

The seventh film to feature Godzilla, and the first not helmed by the monster’s creator Ishiro Honda, ‘Ebirah..’ wisely scales back on the planet-wise crises envisioned (and rather half-heartedly staged) by the last few entries in the series, instead foregrounding the tale of Ryota (Toru Watanabe), a young lad from a remote coastal village whose older brother has gone missing out at sea.

After travelling to the big city to harangue the authorities and media about this sadly routine disappearance of a sailor during bad weather, Ryota decides his only hope is to follow his brother out to sea in order to find out what happened to him, and as such he finds himself drawn to a rock n’ roll dancing endurance contest(!), the top prize of which is a luxury yacht. Although he is too late to take part himself – the contest is into its third day - Ryota hooks up with two exhausted ne’erdowells (Chotaro Togin & Hideo Sunazuka) who have just bailed out after countless hours of relentless frugging.

Noting their new friend’s overwhelming enthusiasm for all things nautical, these guys offer Ryota a lift as they swing by the local marina – a jaunt which soon leads the feckless trio to begin trespassing on one particularly swish looking yacht. As they explore the cabin however, they’re surprised by a gun-toting man (Godzilla series regular Akira Takarada), whom they assume to be the boat’s owner.

Inexplicably, the man invites the young troublemakers to stay the night and get some sleep (what?!)… but when the gang awake, they discover that the irrepressible Ryota has already rigged the sails, hoisted up the anchor, and that they are all now well on their way to the remote South Seas islands around which Ryota’s brother disappeared!

It is at this point that our protagonists discover that Takarada is not in fact the legitimate skipper of their purloined vessel – in fact, he is in fact a master safecracker, on the run with a suitcase full of stolen dough, and his gun isn’t even loaded! But, such minor details cease to matter much once a catastrophic storm blows up, capsizing the stolen yacht. Clinging to the hull of their stricken vessel, our protagonists see a gargantuan claw rise from beneath the tumultuous waves as a searing electric guitar lick intrudes upon the soundtrack. Ebirah! [“Ebi”, incidentally, is the Japanese word for prawn or shrimp, which I’d imagine must have made this monster’s name pretty amusing for the domestic audience.]

When they awake after the storm, sprawled upon a deserted island shore in the traditional movie manner, our accidental castaways soon discover that the island in question is chiefly occupied by a sinister, fascistic military organisation known as – wait for it - ‘The Red Bamboo’, whom I’m sure were not intended to bear any similarity to the forces of any real world nation with a tendency to claim sovereignty over various rocky outcrops off the coast of Japan [looks nervously over digital shoulder].

Ill-advisedly as it transpires, The Red Bamboo have chosen this island as the perfect site upon which to construct a secret nuclear reactor (its interior is big of steel gangways and groovy, primary coloured pipework), and they have furthermore begun kidnapping the peaceful, colourfully-attired natives of the nearby Infant Island – home of Mothra, you’ll recall. This is in order to put them to work manufacturing industrial quantities of the fruit-based yellow substance which has traditionally served the Islanders as a repellent to Ebirah, thus allowing shipping to move freely in the immediate vicinity of the island without being clobbered by the bad-tempered lobster-god who effectively serves as its guardian.

Before long, Ryota and his friends find themselves joining forces with Daiyo (Kumi Mizuno), a spirited and statuesque female islander who has escaped from the clutches of The Red Bamboo. Daiyo’s distinctive ‘south seas’ outfit seems to suggest a significant degree of cultural crossover between Infant Island and Blood Island, in terms of fashion at least, and her arrival prompts much charmingly bungled chivalry and attempts at non-verbal communication on the part of our ‘heroes’, before, in the course of evading her captors, they find themselves descending into a cave beneath the cliffs, where, to their surprise, they find none other than Godzilla himself taking an extended kip! What all this going on around him, it seems a fair bet that the King of the Monsters’ slumber may wind up being disturbed before too long…

I realise that the preceding paragraphs of straight plot synopsis run far longer than is usual for this blog, but I present them to you simply in order to help demonstrate the fact that ‘Ebirah..’ is a whole lot of fun even before it’s featured monsters begin knocking lumps out of each other.

Rather than filling up the runtime with boardrooms full of harried government functionaries discussing the monsters’ latest movements, and static scenes of soldiers and journalists passively observing kaiju throwdowns through binoculars, Fukuda and scriptwriter Shin'ichi Sekizawa here give us a simple, fast-moving character-driven story with enough interesting stuff going on to work on its own terms, whilst keeping the scale of the action small enough for the film’s budget to really do it justice, and the results really vindicate this shift in emphasis.

Mirroring this lively ‘human story’, the kaiju action in ‘Ebirah..’ also seems invested with a renewed sense of excitement. Just as the film saw Fukuda taking over from Honda for the first time as director, it also finds the legendary Eiji Tsubaraya assigning responsibility for the monster effects to his long-standing deputy Sadamasa Arikawa, with what appear to be very encouraging results.

In particular, the increased use of matte shots, false perspective etc really pays dividends here, with individual shots and interactions between different elements within the frame carefully planned out, in what seems like a deliberate attempt to avoid the flat, “monsters lolling about aimlessly in a field and/or alien planetscape like boxers between rounds” type approach seen in the past two films.

The shots of Ebirah’s colossal claw rising from the roiling, nocturnal waves as our hard-luck heroes struggle to keep their yacht afloat in the foreground in particular are extremely impressive; frightening and atmospheric, they convey a sense of scale and immensitude which has been lacking from these movies for quite a while.

Equally effective meanwhile are the shots which see human characters fleeing the stomping feet of Godzilla, and if, when we reach the big monster fights, they’re no less cartoon-ish than those seen in ‘..Astro-Monster’ and ‘King Ghidorah..’, they nonetheless have a sense of rough n’ ready energy and full contact violence about them which really gives them an edge.

Ebirah, when he finally emerges from the water, makes for an appealingly grisly new foe for Godzilla, and if their initial showdown begins as little more than a glorified game of catch, no over-grown playground thugs in the audience will be able to resist the simple pleasures of seeing The Big G heading a weighty looking boulder toward his opponent, who retaliating by performing the universally acknowledged “come on if you think yr hard enough” gesture with his gargantuan claws.

Balancing out all this testosterone though, it’s great too to see Mothra back in action in her full, winged form too, needless to say. Once again, her characterisation as female means she’s relegated to playing the ‘peace maker’ here, calming Godzilla’s rage after his final battle with Ebirah, putting him back in his place like a big sister, and, delightfully, carrying the Infant Islanders and their friends to safety via an ingenious makeshift basket/gondola thing, just before the island goes ka-boom. [See point #3 of my above-linked Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster post for reiteration of the reasons why I love Mothra.]

Likewise, the portrayal of Godzilla himself in ‘Ebirah..’ is interesting and a lot of fun. Taking a step or two back from the comedic/heroic persona he was moving toward in last few films, he’s a more ambiguous, slightly more menacing presence here. Certainly, he no longer gives much of a damn about humanity, carelessly trashing the Red Bamboo’s nuclear research facility and stomping their soldiers without a second thought.

But, more than anything, he really just spends the entirety of this film acting as if he really wants everyone to just leave him the hell alone, essentially staggering through the picture like the kaiju equivalent of a guy with a severe hangover who finds himself having to deal with a leaking washing machine, rotten milk in the fridge and disgruntled neighbours banging on his door; an impression I find both hilarious and endearing.

I mean, the first thing he sees after he staggers out of his cozy hiding place in the cliff-face after being rudely awakened, Frankenstein style, with a jerry-rigged lightning conductor, is this bloody giant lobster thing that wants to pick a fight with him. Then, as soon as he’s sent that guy packing, he sits down to catch his breath, and before you know it, some fucking mangy-looking prehistoric bird thing suddenly flies out of nowhere and starts pecking him! What the holy hell?! And THEN, when he’s finally pulverised that bugger, here comes The Red Bamboo’s bloody air force, zooming around his head, giving him a hard time. What a shitty day!

It’s telling I think that, in between these assorted bouts, poor old Godzilla simply sits down on the nearest mountainside, looking completely exhausted, and falls asleep. (The fact that his costume, re-used from ‘..Astro-Monster’ the previous year apparently, looks as if it’s seen better days, having suffered water-damage during the initial Ebirah fight, probably only aids this ‘hungover’ vibe.)

Poor Godzilla! All he wants is to sit in a dark, quiet hole somewhere and get a bit of rest. No wonder then that he seems so thoroughly pissed off by the time the film reaches its conclusion, kicking the shit out of the nuclear facility with reckless abandon, and tearing Ebirah’s claws straight off and battering him to death with them in a display of crazed ferocity rarely equalled in a Toho kaiju movie.

Opening with what I imagine to be the kaiju equivalent of a tormented yell of “What?! You want some more, do you?!”, this second and final Godzilla/Ebirah battle is genuinely brutal stuff, leaving us with little expectation that the movie’s title monster is going to be popping up from ‘neath the ocean waves for any jolly monster team-ups anytime soon. Having pushed The Big G way over the line when he was in a rotten mood to start with, he gets properly fucked up for his troubles.

Just as Fukuda has taken on direction, and Arikawa the effects, ‘Ebirah..’ is further freshened up by a mod-ish, light touch score from Akira Kurosawa’s go-to composer Masaru Satô, marking a notable change of pace from the bombastic, baleful (and increasingly inappropriate) Akira Ifukube compositions used in earlier films. Incorporating elements of the Ventures-inspired ‘eleki’ genre which was tearing the charts in mid-60s Japan, Satô’s work here is an uncharacteristically groovy, John Barry-esque delight which perfectly matches the bright, energetic feel of the film, with the searing guitar strings which accompany Ebirah’s emergence from the waves proving particularly memorable.

As you will probably have gathered by now, ‘Ebirah..’ is one of my favourite Godzilla sequels. Definitely in my top five, anyway. Perhaps the fact that the Big Guy doesn’t even wake up until fifty minutes into proceedings helps account for the lack of love it tends to receive from fans, but I’ve always found this to be slightly unfair, given the extent to which he gets stuck in once he is finally on the scene – not to mention the fact that the section of the film preceding his appearance cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as dull.

For some, Jun Fukuda’s entries in the series are marked by a sense of flippancy which seen to stand in contrast to the aura of solemnity associated with Honda, but this too strikes me as a lazy and unfair point of comparison – insofar as this film is concerned, at least.

As great a director as Honda could be when given the opportunity, he was clearly getting pretty tired of Godzilla franchise by the mid ‘60s, as he became increasingly disillusioned with the family-friendly direction Toho insisted on taking the series in. Fukuda’s more light touch, character focused approach, by contrast, feels like an ideal fit for the studio’s vision, allowing Godzilla to fully crash his way into the realm of ‘60s pop art / youth culture immortality, his weightier and more symbolic origins long forgotten.

In later efforts directed by Fukuda, this change in tone would inevitably begin to impact upon the overall quality of the films, but for ‘Ebirah..’ at least, the production team was still firing on all cylinders, leading to what for my money is the best entry in the series since ‘Godzilla vs Mothra’ in ’62.

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