Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
Toho was coming off a super high from back-to-back hits Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and Godzilla vs Monster Zero when the studio optioned its next movie. Rather than continuing things in space, Toho set course for the Pacific Ocean. Originally proposed to be a Rankin/Bass film featuring King Kong, the great ape was replaced with Godzilla. Thus, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep was born.
“After shedding light on the atomic horror the country suffered, the series experienced a severe tonal shift […] “
Also known as Godzilla vs the Sea Monster, the movie has a simple plot that requires little knowledge of the series so far. A man named Ryota (Toru Watanabe) searches for his brother, Yata (Toru Ibuki), who was lost at sea not too long ago. He and some new friends go in search of Yata when their boat encounters a giant lobster. The crew escapes, but they end up on an island home to the terrorist organization Red Bamboo. Using enslaved Infant Islanders (worshipers of Mothra), Red Bamboo produces heavy water for weapons of mass destruction. As luck would have it, though, Godzilla is sleeping undisturbed on Letchi Island, and Ryota‘s group is going to use him to free the slaves and take down Red Bamboo. That is, if Godzilla can first defeat the aforesaid lobster kaijū, Ebirah.
The last four Godzilla films saw Ishirō Honda in the director’s chair. However, he was busy with the sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World. Jun Fukuda, who was no total stranger to Toho as he directed The Secret of the Telegian in 1960, was then handed his first Godzilla movie. Fukuda was incidentally afforded the chance to bring the studio’s biggest star out of his comfort zone. Prior movies had the action primarily take place in Japan, whereas Shinichi Sekizawa’s story was set on the fictional Letchi Island.
Fukuda and special effects director Sadamasa Arikawa made the most of their meager budget. The latter was used to working in television so he understood the limitations even if he didn’t like them. Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada was especially crucial in making the movie so visually appealing. Unlike in the previous features, scenes in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep are not stylistically drab or contained to nighttime. On the contrary, the majority of the movie is bright in color and shot during the day. Human heroes can be identified by their vivid attire, the island is coated in rich, green vegetation, and the ocean looks inviting despite the fact Ebirah lurks below the surface.
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With Godzilla‘s new hero status, he needed more foes to win against. His last opponent was a three-headed, golden dragon from outer space — trying to outmatch that seemed impossible. While the series was nearing fantastical now that aliens were part of the canon, this movie kept its feet on the ground. Godzilla returned to its roots of mutated Earth creatures that are bizarre yet not entirely implausible given the series’ context. The film’s namesake grew to mammoth proportions presumably because of Red Bamboo‘s water pollution. Ebirah is a fully aquatic kaijū, vivified by suit actor Hiroshi Sekita, who never steps on dry land. This gives him some home court advantage when dealing with Godzilla, but everyone knows the overgrown crustacean is only scenes away from becoming surf ‘n’ turf.
And, interrupting a somewhat awkward moment of amour between Godzilla and Infant Island native Daiyo (Kumi Mizuno) — remember, the story was conceived with King Kong in mind — is the very random Giant Condor. This is where the movie shows its budgetary restraints because the bird is nothing more than a refurbished Rodan prop. Godzilla makes quick work of the beaked nuisance before turning his attention to Red Bamboo and Ebirah again.
When a Godzilla movie has a substantial human interest subplot, audiences often count the minutes until the monsters are back on screen. Although Sekizawa’s characters are fairly one-dimensional with only minor traits to distinguish them from one another, they’re agreeably harmless. On the other hand, the Red Bamboo, much like Ebirah, aren’t menacing enough.
The last act edges on being too rushed. Godzilla instinctively decimates the terrorists’ home base, which allows the prisoners to escape unharmed. To add suspense, Red Bamboo then triggers a self-destruct plan that will destroy the island. Luckily, Mothra isn’t going to let that happen as she’s been sent to save everyone. With Ebirah de-clawed and the criminals long gone, all that’s left is the admittedly fraught countdown to destruction. Mothra denies Godzilla‘s need to fight before she spirits everyone away to safety. What follows is a strangely poignant moment between the humans and Godzilla — Ryota, Daiyo, and the gang shout at the big lug, urging him to jump into the sea before the island explodes. It may sound silly now, but to a young fan, it’s an endearing exchange.
Godzilla fans accept the Shōwa era for all that it is. After shedding light on the atomic horror the country suffered, the series experienced a severe tonal shift. That’s not to say there are no enjoyable entries up until 1980; some of the best films in the franchise come from the Shōwa period. Yet, it can’t be denied the movies became campier and more child-friendly as a result of tokusatsu television shows becoming so popular. So it’s no wonder Godzilla was eventually turned into a superhero.
Jun Fukuda does an admirable job behind the camera; he has a great eye for color and scenery. The story is straightforward without being completely juvenile, and the kaijū battles are delightful, if not uncomplicated. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep had the misfortune of trailing behind the Shōwa era’s four biggest hitters. Nevertheless, there is a lot of visual engagement to be had here.
The ’60 and ’70s saw Godzilla unequivocally evolving into something more commercial and accessible. That doesn’t mean the King of Monster’s spirit was at risk of being watered down. Far from it. He was as strong as ever, but now Toho was able to enjoy Godzilla‘s fame while having some fun at the same time.
“The story is straightforward without being completely juvenile, and the kaijū battles are delightful, if not uncomplicated.”
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