Over the years, Godzilla has been largely depicted as a destroyer. A living and breathing embodiment of death and destruction. The 1960s and ‘70s, however, are a notable exception. After having previously decimated Japan on more than one occasion, the iconic kaijū returned in a different capacity. Godzilla had gone from the planet’s leading ruiner to its greatest savior. This radical change now entailed Godzilla protecting humans as opposed to threatening them upon each landfall. The transformation, weird as it is, was gradual enough that fans were able to acclimate. Or, in the case of those who began their Godzilla education with these “heroic” films rather than the very first, certain G-Fans always saw Godzilla as mankind’s supreme guardian. As if turning the walking metaphor for WMD into a hulking humanitarian wasn’t bizarre enough, Godzilla assumed an even stranger role early into his career: he was suddenly a single parent.
Relatively speaking, it didn’t take too long for Toho’s Godzilla series to deviate from its beginnings. That’s not to say those middle and late Shōwa outings aren’t enjoyable; it would be dishonest to pretend they weren’t different. A prime example of how the franchise altered the course is the divisive eighth entry, Son of Godzilla. By this point, Godzilla’s natural ferocity had been diminished to all but a low growl. Creating an offspring for the Big G was the next step in softening the monster’s image, not to mention steering the series in a new direction.
Son of Godzilla is so similar to its predecessor, Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster (a.k.a. Ebirah: Horror of the Deep), that it’s almost a sequel. No surprise since both films were helmed by director Jun Fukuda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa. The two stories take place on a remote tropical island rather than on the Japanese mainland, and in both films, a group of men befriends a female native. Sekizawa’s script has a touch less in the way of high and immediate stakes for its characters; absent is the plot about a terrorist organization enslaving islanders and manufacturing nuclear weapons. Instead, this film centers around scientists building a weather-controlling machine to help prevent an imminent global food shortage. The urgency and success of their experiment is downplayed, but science is often more of an afterthought than a constantly pondered element in Fukuda’s films.
In other kaijū films, the characters aren’t on the island long enough or have the chance to explore their surroundings. With the official introduction of Bibari Maeda’s character Saeko, a young woman who grew up on Solgell Island but was born to Japanese parents, viewers get a better grasp of the environment than usual. Having the characters travel across the landscape and avoid trouble spots dials up the adventure aspect as well. Saeko’s firsthand knowledge of the area also gives Son of Godzilla a decent sense of world-building, even if her input and expertise are, on more than one occasion, delayed for no reason other than to create suspense.
Ishirō Honda made his feelings about science (particularly the nuclear variety) and human arrogance clear from the start. Meanwhile, Son of Godzilla avoids the standard route in these kinds of “bad science” stories. Godzilla, originally a direct consequence for those who meddle with science, doesn’t show up to punish anyone. His arrival on Solgell, which itself is soon another casualty of scientific testing, has everything to do with Minilla calling out to him via telepathic crying. Godzilla wasn’t “summoned” there to put a stop to the weather device. Even when the scientists accidentally turn the island into a sweltering hellhole and enlarge a man-sized and endemic species of mantis, they aren’t forced to reevaluate their ethics. Yes, the Kamacuras and a gigantic spider called Kumonga try to eat them all at various points, however, the monsters’ threats are incidental, not symbolic.
For once, the scientists in a Godzilla film aren’t out to hurt anyone or seek personal gain of some kind. They actually want to help solve a practical problem sure to arise in theirs and everyone else’s near future. Professor Kusumi (Tadao Takashima) and his peers are neither creating a weapon — at least not a conventional one — nor are they tampering with the atom simply because they can. In a way, their intentions are keeping them safe from Godzilla’s wrath. Maybe this is a rosy reading of what was likely just a director and writer not putting too much thought into their story. Even so, dispensing with the typical outcome of whenever science goes awry in kaijū cinema helps keep Son of Godzilla comparatively light. There are implications to consider regarding the ending, but it’s nothing worth losing sleep over.
On a superficial note, Son of Godzilla is beautiful to look at. There are fewer miniatures in sight than in the past, but in their place is a visual openness not found in the entries with predominantly urban battlegrounds. The bright and warm appearance of Sea Monster carries over here, and the night scenes feel richer than before. While the matte painting backgrounds and sound-stages are conspicuous, they tend to blend well into the organic scenery. Instances of human characters appearing in frame with a monster are relatively convincing for a film of this age and caliber.
Ishirō Honda was busy shooting King Kong Escapes back then, so once again, Fukuda filled in as director for Godzilla’s latest vehicle. As with Sea Monster, Fukuda wrestled with a low budget, and his project wasn’t afforded the high-profile talents of Toho. Knowing this, Fukuda still eked out a better film than anticipated. And at least this time around he wasn’t saddled with a confused script. On the contrary, Son of Godzilla’s story by Kazue Shiba and Sekizawa is fairly well written. The characters range from flat but charming to somewhat complex. The human drama is also moderately more interesting than that of Sea Monster. The film is as straightforward as Fukuda and Sekizawa’s prior collaboration, yet the writing is better. Even a tad compelling at times.
Where else Son of Godzilla excels is the stunt work and action set pieces. To be more specific, the two new kaijū, Kamacuras and Kumonga, are each well designed and realized. The effort put into their mobility is nothing short of stunning. Like Ebirah, these two foes are ripped from nature, and their appearances and mannerisms are uncomfortably authentic every now and then. Kumonga especially impresses with its frenzy of spindly legs and insatiable hunger. On the downside, Godzilla’s suit is damn unsightly and Minilla’s overall look is a bit cute but at the same time bothersome. The two Godzillas have been anthropomorphized here for obvious reasons. Sad to say, neither of their stunt actors have the precise skill to make these new humanlike movements and quirks appear all that flattering on screen.
There are those fans who would argue Godzilla’s fatherhood is a low point for the franchise, and Minilla is an annoying addition to Toho’s monster assemblage. In contrast, there is merit in exploring Godzilla as something other than a mere and mindless bringer of doom. Making him a reflection of humanity isn’t so much a wrong turn as it is an exercise requiring more thought. In the background of this story is the ongoing struggle to survive in an increasingly harsh world. Humans are doing all they can to live another day. In the same moment, Godzilla is realizing his own need to survive. And for the King of Monsters, maybe no longer going it alone is the answer.
As easy as it is to beat up on Son of Godzilla, there is a loveliness about it that gets buried underneath all the criticisms (valid as they may be). One might even venture to say the film has a slight Yasujirō Ozu quality to it. Scenes indeed border on saccharine, Minilla’s youthfulness can be irritating, and Toho should have been more attentive to Godzilla’s redesign. Yet everything somehow comes together beautifully in the last act. While the snow gathers on the island and Godzilla embraces his son, fans can’t be blamed if they finally start to feel the magic of this underappreciated film.