It’s hard to have high expectations approaching a film called Son of Godzilla (1967). Could it herald a new form of kaiju movie? The kaiju family movie perhaps, or Godzilla’s Bride: Mothra, or maybe it’s all a ruse and this is a move into a new, more arthouse kaiju movement, similar to the mooted (in my imagination anyway) Rodan and Mothra Go Boating. Or is the son in fact a sly play on words like “our son of York”? Nope, it’s all exactly what you expect. Assuming your expectation is Godzilla plus a son.
Tangential introduction dispensed with, we shall proceed.
A plane’s radio goes wonky, interference from… Godzilla rearing suddenly from the water? No! It’s coming from the vicinity of Sollgel Island, where a group of scientists are working on terraforming areas of Earth to allow increased food production. Only for reporter, Goro, to parachute in. All good reporters parachute in – true fact. He refuses to leave until he has a story; the shoe on the other foot, the scientists get their sly revenge as Goro is allowed to stay assuming he cooks and cleans. He may regret his decision to stay, as during his first night a mysterious noise reveals a giant mantis (one of the kamacuras); but this is the least of their worries as the first terraforming test experiment goes terribly wrong, interfered with like the plane's radio by mysterious interference. Their woes are compounded as the mantises (manti?) have suddenly enlarged in the extreme heat and radiation, then discover and crack in the egg of the son of Godzilla… meanwhile underneath the earth sleeps the giant spider Kumonga… So of course it is not long until Godzilla comes looking for his child to stir things up.
Considering my expectations, Son of Godzilla was both better and worse than I could have hoped for. The film is a bit of an oddity because it is part knockabout adventure film and part tongue-in-cheek kaiju movie. As the former, a well done knockabout adventure is irresistible, after all the best Indiana Jones films are knockabout adventures and there are elements of such in the male action/adventure films of the late, great Howard Hawks (officially my favourite director of all time – thus my tedious references to him and his work - hey everything is universal). It is how the two elements fit together that may either delight you or make you a bit sceptical.
For the most part they fit together reasonably well – surprisingly well even. You have to watch Son of Godzilla recognising that is a very light-hearted film. It continues the trend of humanising Godzilla and if that is anathema to you then don’t even bother watching this - it will drive you mad. This really is Godzilla as a parent; and though these scenes are not as significant in length as they can seem, they are perhaps the core of the film. It makes you wonder if the screenwriters, Shinichi Sekizawa and Kazue Shiba, had one or both recently had children, because almost all the tongue in cheek nature of the film comes from how Godzilla teaches his son, Minilla (though in my version this name is never used in the subtitles) to become a proper monster, even instructing him in radioactive breath. The film goes so far as to have Godzilla sleeping like an exhausted parent as Minilla jumps over his swishing tail. It all feels very grounded in the exhausted, protective parent and the learning and sometimes tantrum-throwing child.
This often extends into the kaiju battles, where they frequently function as lessons, with Godzilla protecting Minilla while also teaching him how to survive. Some aspects of this are definitely superior to the previous film, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. Ebirah, I felt, was just a bit crap as a monster and why I think many of the kaiju elements work better here. The giant mantises, the kamacuras, are definitely a threat to the humans, but they are never intended to be as much of a threat as Godzilla, yet his infant son gives him an Achilles heel. If this seems a bit of a pointless distinction, it matters to me because how often if you want to create a new threat the most obvious thing is just to multiple it – have a bigger, stronger monster where here the threat is differential and means that when the giant spider, Kumonga, appears, Kumonga has impact. And Kumonga is clearly meant to be a genuine threat. Moreover it means that the final kaiju action stuff is all about parent and child. Thus humanising Godzilla really is the point. That said it does also go into some of the same nonsense as it did in the previous films, with Godzilla and [insert name of monster] kicking rocks about. This again one assumes is tongue in cheek but the parental angle feels like it has more of a point to it, or, rather, more resonance. I don’t have kids but know enough people who do to recognise they might watch Son of Godzilla and smile in recognition and sympathy.
But of course there is a ton of other stuff going on, not to mention the obligatory bathing beauty who is discovered on the island! On one level this is "we need a sexy actress" territory, but she does at least have a vaguely plausible reason for being on the island and if anything is the person on the island who understands it best and is adaptable to it. She is not a victim of it, nor is she running around to be protected by the men. This itself is something I felt quite keenly and prevented her casting feeling like token totty in skimpy clothing – until she mysteriously finds well-fitting trousers... I mean who wouldn’t find clean perfectly fitting white trousers on a tropical island?
All the elements of the story set on the island are arguably the best handled. Like the previous film's director, Jun Fukuda shows that he is a dab hand at all this. He keeps the narrative well-paced and knows how to frame a shot so that even if he is not Kurosawa, he is interesting and definitely never boring – the frame always feel well used. Like the best second feature film directors from the Hollywood golden age, Fukuda has the ability to keep the audience interested and that should not be underestimated. Those parts of the film that I felt the most tiresome were not the live action sequences, but the extended suitmation elements. They are not bad, but occasionally stretched out a bit too far, such as the very end of the film where I felt a few minutes could have easily been clipped to the film’s benefit. That said the film is a mere 85 minutes.
For all the knockabout nature of the film, signalled by the opening score which is classic jaunty knockabout action comedy in tone, there are at least hints of the original Godzilla here, in that the scientists recognise that the experiment could be used as a weapon and this reminds us how many advances can be brutally destructive. Admittedly this hasn’t the resonance of Godzilla, and like the previous film the message here is that this can be considered both a good weapon or not, rather than the fact almost all weapons are inherently dangerous.
Talking of weapons, the effects are definitely on the more bargain basement end of things. The sets and the effects in the first half of the film feel very cheap, with a very Thunderbirds vibe, though some moments - like when the weather goes all up shit creek - may be crude, but it is effective. The latter kaiju fights are better and you feel that the money has been well spent here, even if the kamacuras are a bit slow. Considering these are mantises, they should be sharp, violent and fast, but this is forgivable overall.
But what about the son of Godzilla, Minilla? Here, the jury is out. Mainly because at first I was rather sceptical, but then realised just how this really is more tongue in cheek than prior films, and as it's a story of a parent placing their experience into a film and having a joke that others can appreciate makes it all somehow seem okay. Plus it helps that Fukuda doesn’t bog the narrative down, just as all the limited cast do their thing and again, yes, we see many of the same faces repeated. Does this matter? Nah, as often in a series of films there is a pleasure in recognising faces, even if the performances are never stellar.
Son of Godzilla is not a classic but nor is it the disaster that I was expecting. Prior to this, grabbing images for my last review for some reason it kept showing me this cutesy image of Minilla and my heart sank. I really was expecting this to be terrible but it exceeded Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. It's not a great film, or even a great Godzilla film, but approached with the right attitude, it is fun.