Campy Silver Age: Godzilla in the 1970s

Spring 1972 Toho Champion Festival poster flyer. Some of the material shown alongside GODZILLA VS. GIGAN include an episode of RETURN OF ULTRAMAN, an episode of MIRRORMAN and several anime show episodes including MOCK OF THE OAK TREE and HUTCH THE HONEYBEE. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Destroy All Monsters (1968) had been intended to be the last Godzilla movie. Its box office was profitable enough that Toho decided to continue on with the series. This was albeit with reduced budgets and distributed in Toho’s kiddie matinee program called Champion Matsuri, inspired by rival Toei’s Manga Festival. Workaholic parents could drop their children off at the local Toho theater. Their kids could then be enraptured by tokusatsu TV episodes, anime shorts and usually a feature double bill.

The first of these productions was 1969’s All Monsters Attack, directed by Ishiro Honda. Eiji Tsuburaya was sickly and, unbeknownst to him, nearing the end of his life. He was also occupied with work on the Birth of the Japanese Islands exhibit at Expo ’70, which he tragically wouldn’t live to see. As such, he could not run the special effects unit. Ishiro Honda thus helmed the unit with assistance from Teruyoshi Nakano. Much of the screen time on Monster Island is stock footage from Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla. In January 1970, Tsuburaya passed away from a heart attack in his sleep before he could start work on Honda’s Space Amoeba. As one of his technicians, Minoru Nakano, wept over his coffin, his loss was felt strongly throughout the Japanese film industry. Toho would never relive its glory days when Tsuburaya was head of the FX unit.

Teruyoshi Nakano on the set of TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975), affectionately called “Bomber” by his crew. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Eiji Tsuburaya’s death changed many circumstances. Sadamasa Arikawa initially became head of Toho’s special effects department. He resigned and went freelance after Toho refused to put an onscreen tribute to Tsuburaya in Space Amoeba (1970). Ishiro Honda also felt that making special effects films wasn’t the same without Tsuburaya. He went into semi-retirement, only directing sundry television episodes. Additionally, much of Toho’s talent let their contracts expire. This included the usual stock of actors. A huge creative void was left at Toho and a younger generation began to fill it. Arikawa’s replacement as head of Toho’s special effects department was Teruyoshi Nakano. Nicknamed “Shokei”, Nakano (1935-) was a fairly young man whose trademark would be his distinctive gasoline conflagrations. He was born in Japanese occupied Andong, Manchuria before the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. His father worked for the South Manchuria Railway. After World War II, Nakano’s father was taken as a prisoner of war. His mother and he were repatriated to Japan. As an adolescent, he lived in Niihama and Kyoto. His mother had a job at the local theater so he was able to get discounted movie tickets. As a schoolboy, he would go to the theater several times a week. He enrolled at Nihon University’s art department where he studied screenwriting.

Upon graduation, he joined Toho as an assistant director. Early films he worked on were Shue Matsubayashi’s Submarine 1–57: Will Not Surrender and Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Three Treasures (both 1959). Both films had effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. Seeing Tsuburaya’s unit in action, he was inspired by their creativity. After three years as an assistant director on the main units, he was allowed to join Tsuburaya’s team with Gorath. Attack Squadron and Matango were his first films as assistant director to Tsuburaya where he was credited. Finally, in 1969 he was given his first special effects director assignment. The project was, fittingly, titled Crazy Big Explosion. It starred Toho’s comedy troupe the Crazy Cats. He also co-directed the monster scenes in All Monsters Attack with Ishiro Honda. At first, Nakano was not credited as special effects director despite running the units. He loved his explosions to the point that he was known as “Bomber Nakano” on set. Nakano had a specific recipe his team used for their distinctive orange-green conflagrations. They mixed high octane leaded gasoline with copper sulfite.

What Nakano’s effects unit did best. © Toho Company, Ltd.

For 1971’s Godzilla entry, Honda’s replacement as director was a protege: Yoshimitsu Banno. Born in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, Banno (1931–2017) joined Toho in the mid 50s as an assistant director. He served under several esteemed filmmakers, including Akira Kurosawa on Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960). He directed the underwater photography unit in 1967’s Young Guy in the South Pacific, part of the popular series starring Yuzo Kayama. In 1970 he created the Expo ’70 attraction Birth of the Japanese Islands. The popularity of this motion exhibit led to him being put in charge of the next Godzilla entry. In developing Godzilla vs. Hedorah, now executive producer Tomoyuki Tanaka gave Banno relative free reign. Banno chose to focus on ecological horror for Godzilla vs. Hedorah as he felt it was a similar existential threat to nuclear weapons. Banno remembered a visit to a polluted beach near the industrial center of Yokkaichi where the very air smelled like rotten eggs. Banno was also obsessed with Rachel Carson’s 1962 The Silent Spring. Carson’s writings influenced the lyrics of “Return Us the Sun”, the movie’s Bondian theme song by Keiko Mari. Banno was also inspired by a recent news story about high school girls in Tokyo collapsing due to smog from a nearby factory. He would pay direct homage to this news story in Godzilla vs. Hedorah.

Behind the scenes of GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1971). © Toho Company, Ltd.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah’s budget was significantly low. Banno was given only 35 days to shoot both the drama and special effects scenes. Complicating things more, the budget allowed for only one unit. Banno however, was determined to include imagery and aesthetic never seen in the Godzilla series before. The direction is certainly more auteurist than usual. In contrast to prior entries, Godzilla vs. Hedorah features unusual camera-angles, staccato editing and “far-out” cinematic technique. The tone is closer to surrealist works such as Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill, Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses and Shunya Ito’s Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 than King Kong vs. Godzilla. Godzilla vs. Hedorah includes multiple screens, trippy animated sequences, musical numbers, manipulation of color saturation and fish-eye lenses. Only some of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s hyper stylized films like 1977’s House are more off-the-wall. In spite of some blatant low budget flaws like a poverty row Self Defense Force, Godzilla vs. Hedorah has an impressive level of atmosphere.

Hedorah designs by Yasuyuki Inoue. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah features surreal images throughout like a fever dream. A mannequin, looking like a mangled corpse, lays in sludge-filled waters. A male protagonist, likely tripping on LSD, hallucinates his friends in the nightclub with fish heads. A kitten is left behind in Hedorah’s wake, mewing as it sits covered in toxic slime. A quartet of men playing mahjong die screaming as a chunk of Hedorah flies through the window. As a crowd of youths party at Mount Fuji, a gaggle of elderly people watch them with stern expressions from the bushes. Godzilla vs. Hedorah can shift gears at any second, with a weirdness akin to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982). The much maligned musical score for Godzilla vs. Hedorah was composed by Riichiro Manabe. Manabe (1924–2015), was a graduate of the Tokyo Institute of Technology and a student of Akira Ifukube and Sei Ikeno. This was not his first tokusatsu film score, he worked on a few installments of Shin Toho’s Super Giant. He was a favorite composer of filmmaker Nagisa Oshima and scored his Cruel Story of Youth and Night and Fog in Japan (both 1960). In the ’70s, he also scored Michio Yamamoto’s three “Bloodthirsty” films starting with The Vampire Doll (1970). Though hated by fans, Manabe’s offbeat score is oddly effective to Godzilla vs. Hedorah’s unusual aesthetic and vivid atmosphere. He’d be back to score Godzilla vs. Megalon in 1973.

The disgusting shots of a polluted bay that punctuate the film’s credits and finale are not genuine. They were created by the special effects staff in Toho’s Big Pool. This was done by mixing dead fish and garbage into the pool and the stench was unbelievable. Banno was inspired to feature a “Go-go Club” in the film by a similar venue called Mugen in Tokyo’s Akasaka district. The club’s psychedelic display was inspired by a similar projection at a gay bar in Chicago. It was created with colored lights shined through swirled salad oil in water. Banno courted manga artist Yoshiharu Tsuge to create the anime sequences. Tsuge had drawn a pollution-themed manga called Salamander that Banno was fond of. Tsuge, however, turned him down as he was solitary and did not want to animate in a group. Banno also did the underwater photography himself. He was the diving stand-in for actor Akira Yamauchi as the two had similar physiques. In a rarity for the normally set-bound Toho films, only the tokusatsu miniatures, Dr. Yano’s laboratory and the Go-go Club were sets. Almost all the human footage was shot on location. This gives the movie a grittier feel. The tiny “tadpole” Hedorahs were portrayed by live fish.

The modeling team, led by Nobuyuki Yasumaru, stands with the completed Hedorah suit. © Toho Company, Ltd.

For the special effects sequences, Yoshimitsu Banno and Teruyoshi Nakano co-directed them. The FX work is a mixed bag but the two men clearly worked well together and learned a lot from each other. Hedorah is an impressive creation and its forms were designed by art director Yasuyuki Inoue. Inoue’s art can be seen in a sequence where a scientist, describing Hedorah’s metamorphosis, is interviewed by a news anchor. Banno and Inoue based the shape of Hedorah’s eyes off the human vagina. By this time, suit craftsman Teizo Toshimitsu had retired. Replacing him was his apprentice, Nobuyuki Yasumaru. Yasumaru (1935-) built the various Hedorah suits and puppets and did excellent work. They have unsettlingly dead looking eyes and the enormous final form suit looks convingly slimy. Built entirely from foam rubber, it was one of the biggest and heaviest monster suits ever built. This hulking costume was worn by a young stuntman named Kengo Nakayama, better known as Kenpachiro Satsuma. Satsuma, would, of course, go on to portray Godzilla starting in 1984’s The Return of Godzilla. The Godzilla suit from Destroy All Monsters is again recycled; inhabited once again by Haruo Nakajima. In spite of the heavy damage done to the suit on this film, it would return in even roughier shape in 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan.

Japanese theater program art for GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1971). © Toho Company, Ltd.

Hedorah was conceived as so powerful that Banno and screenwriter Takeshi Kimura couldn’t think of a method to defeat it. It was sci-fi author Masami Fukushima who suggested using electrodes. Fukushima pointed to a news story about how rice paddies were being dried out with electricity in Hokkaido. Built and designed by Inoue, the miniature electrodes were based on a toaster in shape. Banno and Nakano shot frantically on the special effects stage, averaging 30 shots a day. Godzilla vs. Hedorah exhausted its budget before shooting could be completed. A furious Tomoyuki Tanaka ordered the shoot halted. It was Ishiro Honda, in his typical diplomatic form, who intervened. He agreed to watch a rough cut of the film and give Banno feedback. Thanks to Honda’s mediation, production resumed. Tanaka soon grew ill and had to be hospitalized. Banno, meanwhile, decided to add a scene that wasn’t in the script. He and Nakano felt the picture’s grim tone had to be offset. In this scene, Godzilla flies by propelling itself into the air with its ray, inspired by a seahorse swimming. This preposterous sequence is a major flaw in the film and stops it cold. Banno and Nakano deliberately shot it so it could easily be cut from the film. They got permission from most of Toho’s brass except for Tanaka. By the time Tanaka was discharged from the hospital, it was too late in production to cut the scene. Tanaka was incensed, frustrated that Banno went around him to get approval. Tanaka said “Banno will never direct a special effects film again”. This statement would be, sadly, prophetic.

1989 Orion GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER VHS sleeve.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah, did, however, do better than expected business when released in July of 1971. After going to Africa to shoot a documentary about famine, Banno would be back for Prophecies of Nostradamus in 1974. Though directed by Toshio Masuda, Banno’s fingerprints can be seen in the film’s heavy environmentalist bent. He also directed a second unit in New Guinea. An English export version of Hedorah was ordered by Toho and dubbed by Barry Haigh’s group Po Hwa in Hong Kong. In April 1972, American International Pictures released Godzilla vs. Hedorah stateside, retitled Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. With lurid poster art, it was double-billed with AIP’s Frogs in some areas. This must have been an eco-horror night at the drive-in to remember for any young Boomer or Gen-Xer. Amusingly, Frogs actually features a bit of “polluted bay” stock footage from Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Later, it was also billed with The Thing With Two Heads in other regions. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster has some subtle differences to the Japanese and export cuts. The first is that Keiko Mari’s “Return Us the Sun” ditty over the opening credits is dubbed into an English song called “Save the Earth”. “Save the Earth” was performed by Adryan Russ and written by Hollywood lyricist Guy Hemric. A new English dub was performed at Titan Productions in New York.

Toho’s next Champion Godzilla entry, Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), was an early example of franchise “course correction”. Jun Fukuda was put back in the director’s chair and the story was changed back to the classic alien invasion narrative. A figure unfairly dubbed “the poor man’s Ishiro Honda”, Fukuda (1923–2000) was a talented program director in his own right. With a more dynamic visual style, he specialized in action-based movies. He was self deprecating about his work and thought his tokusatsu films were terrible. Jun Fukuda was born in 1923 in Jilin Province in Japanese-colonized Manchuria. His father worked for the South Manchuria Railway. His family returned to Japan and he attended Nihon University. Fukuda would often skip the lectures to see movies. After World War II, he saw that Toho was recruiting assistant directors. He applied in 1946 and made the cut. For over 10 years, he labored under directors like Hiroshi Inagaki and Ishiro Honda, including on Inagaki’s Musashi Miyamoto trilogy and Honda’s Rodan.

Jun Fukuda on the set of GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972). © Toho Company, Ltd.

Finally, in 1959, Fukuda was promoted to director with It’s Dangerous Playing with Fire. His second film, Secret of the Telegian (1960), was science fiction based, pairing him with Eiji Tsuburaya. He began to specialize in moody crime thrillers, including The Merciless Trap (1961) and The Weed of Crime (1962). He also directed early entries in Toho’s beloved Young Guy series with Yuzo Kayama. Fukuda began to show serious skill with his dark comedy actioner Iron Finger (1965). Also called 100 Shot, 100 Killed, it starred Akira Takarada as a Bondian international spy. After Honda passed on it, Toho was confident enough in Fukuda’s abilities that he was given their newest monster picture in 1966. Called Operation Robinson Crusoe, it was planned to star King Kong. Rankin-Bass, who had the rights to Kong at the time, wanted Honda to direct and so pulled out of the project. Toho replaced Kong with Godzilla and the project became Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster).

Nobuyuki Yasumaru puts the finishing touches on the Gigan suit. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Godzilla vs. Gigan features a manga artist (Susumu Ishikawa) who finds out his new employers are man-sized space cockroaches from a distant nebula. They have built a base of operations in the guise of a kiddie amusement park. Naturally, they summon space monsters King Ghidorah and Gigan to do their bidding. Of course, Godzilla and Anguirus arrive to defend humanity. Beginning life as a more ambitious treatment entitled Godzilla vs. the Space Monsters, Godzilla vs. Gigan suffers from unoriginal, tired tropes. The plot is preposterous: why would the aliens hire Gengo the manga-ka to begin with? The musical score lacks novelty too, being composed of Ifukube recordings from prior films. The work of Teruyoshi Nakano’s FX unit is uneven; it would take a few more films for the special effects director to find his feet. Then there’s the bevy of stock footage to pad the movie’s runtime. The use of stock footage is typical in Showa-era Japanese studio filmmaking. However, Godzilla vs. Gigan and its successor Godzilla vs. Megalon go overboard with it. The heavy use of stock shots is distracting and can make one wish they were watching the older films instead. The Destroy All Monsters Godzilla suit is used again, even after all the damage it endured at Yoshimitsu Banno’s hands in Godzilla vs. Hedorah. The suit is in ratty shape with tears visible and bits of it flying off in shots. This would be Haruo Nakajima’s final performance as Godzilla and as such is bittersweet. The old King Ghidorah suit is also re-used, though with renovations by Nobuyuki Yasumaru.

Behind the scenes of GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972). © Toho Company, Ltd.

Yet there’s also a lot to like in Godzilla vs. Gigan. The film is affectionately 1970s and a lot of silly fun. The avian cyborg Gigan is an intriguing creation. Illustrator Takayoshi Mizuki designed it, brought in by Nakano for some “new blood”. Mizuki used such motifs as eagles, kimonos and even actor Yujiro Ishihara. Nobuyuki Yasumaru built the suit, installing an electric conveyor belt for its abdominal buzzsaw. The film’s Godzilla Tower miniature is oddly iconic and well built by Yasumaru. While there are far better Godzilla entries than this, Godzilla vs. Gigan is an entertaining blast, especially with a couple Sapporo tallboys. The Hong Kong export English dub is ironically recommended for its nostalgia factor.

A co-production between Tsuburaya Pro and Toho, Godzilla vs. Redmoon, was also planned for release in the early 1970s. It would have featured a pair of monsters Red Moon and Erabus on the rampage in Okinawa. These two monsters were to mate and give birth to a baby monster named Hafun. Hafun is killed when a greedy entrepreneur tries to kidnap him. This sends his parents into a rage with Godzilla all that can stop them. Toho were happy to lend their support to the production and show the film at Champion Matsuri. They were planning to loan the production a Godzilla suit from Son of Godzilla. A script was written by native Okinawan Tetsuo Kinjo and Kazuho Mitsuta. The film was to have been directed by Shohei Tojo with Kazuo Sagawa in charge of the effects. Tojo would later co-direct the Chaiyo/Tsuburaya production Hanuman vs. 7 Ultraman. It’s unknown why this project was cancelled but it wound up giving rise to Tsuburaya’s Daigoro vs. Goliath. It’s possible that Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla’s Okinawan locale was also inspired by this attempted production. That Red Moon and Erabus were going to be played by the Daigoro’s Mother and Goliath suits is a fandom myth. Those suits were designed and built specifically for Daigoro vs. Goliath.

GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), © Toho Company, Ltd.

Shot in only three weeks with the lowest budget yet, the next entry, Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), would be controversial. Fans are torn on whether it’s the worst or second or third worst Godzilla movie. In reality, Godzilla vs. Megalon gets a worse rap than it deserves and is a step-up from Godzilla vs. Gigan in many ways. In the 1980s and ’90s, Godzilla vs. Megalon was considered public domain by distributors. It was given hordes of low quality VHS releases and lampooned on TV’s Mystery Science Theater 3000. These poor 16mm prints did the film few favors, hiding its impressive Cinemascope compositions. High definition transfers reveal a far more technically polished movie.

Behind the scenes of GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973). © Toho Company, Ltd.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is more fun viewed in a mindset far removed from MST3K. It takes a certain refuge in its audacity. By now, the Showa Godzilla series was ridiculous to the point of anarchic. The movie suffers from an even more awkward use of stock footage than Godzilla vs. Gigan. There are entire minutes of Megalon devoted to stock scenes from better pictures. Yet the original material is lively. Director Jun Fukuda keeps the action going at a good clip and has fun helming engaging car chases. Katsuhiko Sasaki and Yutaka Hayashi play a pair of robot-building buddies with an intimacy that’s almost homoerotic. Hiroyuki Kawase from Hedorah returns to play another Gamera movie-like tyke. The underwater Mu Empire-like Seatopia that sends Megalon to Japan as revenge for nuclear tests looks far more 1970s than ancient civilization. Commanded by an aging Robert Dunham in a toga, it features dancing high priestesses in granny panties. Teruyoshi Nakano’s new FX footage is spirited. A scene of a draining lake early on is quite well executed and thrilling. It well integrates Nakano’s miniature work with live action footage shot at Motusu Lake near Mt. Fuji. While filming this scene in frigid winter weather, director Fukuda kept warm by drinking whiskey. A sequence where the novel cockroach monster Megalon smashes up a dam is also well done, with strong miniature work. There are inventive composite shots throughout. The urban destruction scenes are particularly weak, however and rely on sloppy use of stock shots. It seems like Nakano ran out of money and time before he shot them. The score by Riichiro Manabe is downright bizarro world but enhances the picture’s ’70s aesthetic. The film’s “Jet Jaguar! Punch!” ending song, given a problematic faux translation by MST3K, was crooned by Masato Shimon. Shimon (1944-) was best known for singing numerous anime and tokusatsu theme songs.

Nobuyuki Yasumaru sculpts Jet Jaguar’s head. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Shinichi Sekizawa was given main credit as script writer. In reality he only wrote the story with Jun Fukuda actually penning the screenplay. A new Godzilla suit was made for what really counts as a guest appearance. The suits for new monster Megalon and robot Jet Jaguar were all constructed by Nobuyuki Yasumaru and his apprentice Tomoki Kobayashi. Jet Jaguar was originally called Red Alone and inexplicably grows to a giant size for the film’s climax. Designed as a cross between Ultraman and Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z, it was later paid homage to in an episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Jet Jaguar would return in 2021’s Godzilla: Singular Point. Around this time, Toho also produced the TV show Zone Fighter. With an Ultraman-like family of heroes battling an alien overlord, Zone Fighter had frequent guest appearances by Godzilla. Many episodes were directed by Ishiro Honda and Jun Fukuda. Godzilla vs. Megalon is hardly a quality entry, but is a lively and energetic one. The final reel is a shut-off-your-brain monster slugfest for everyone’s inner eight year old. Godzilla’s “drop kick” near the end of the picture was bitingly lampooned on MST3K. It is indeed an even more embarrassing moment than Godzilla flying in Godzilla vs. Hedorah. By this time though, things are so delightfully ludicrous that it works.

With Megalon the lowest grossing entry yet and the Japanese film industry feeling the bite of the ’70s oil shocks, the Godzilla series was on life support. The next entry, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) was released for Godzilla’s 20th anniversary. For this film, Tanaka allocated a higher budget than for Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon. Jun Fukuda would return but a darker tone was adopted. Fukuda and Teruyoshi Nakano wanted to bring Godzilla back to its roots, but Tanaka was adamant Godzilla stay a protector of Earth. The character of Mechagodzilla was invented so Godzilla could fight an evil version of itself. It was primarily inspired by the character of Mechani-Kong in King Kong Escapes (1967). The concept of Godzilla fighting a giant robot had also already been floated in Hideo Unagami’s scrapped Bride of Godzilla treatment. Additionally, the staff were influenced by the recent popularity of Go Nagai’s manga and anime Mazinger Z (1972–74).

Teruyoshi Nakano (right) and future SFX director Koichi Kawakita (left) look on as Mechagodzilla’s suit stands at the ready. © Toho Company, Ltd.

Nakano’s unit was given a lot more money to work with on Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla as Tanaka was quite proud of their work on Submersion of Japan. The mechanical creature was designed by Akihiko Iguchi (1943-). Iguchi was a brilliant visual artist responsible for many Ultraman monsters and would go on to create Titanosaurus in the sequel. For the design of Mechagodzilla, Western knight armor was an aesthetic influence along with kabuki costumes. The suit was built by Nobuyuki Yasumaru, mainly of a polyethylene resin used in bathroom mats. Yasumaru and his assistant Tomoki Kobayashi tried to outdo their work on Jet Jaguar, another giant robot, on Godzilla vs. Megalon. The suit was enhanced with car parts, including motorcycle tail lights for Mechagodzilla’s eyes. The script called for the disguised Mechagodzilla to do battle with U.S. Forces in Okinawa. Nakano opted to remove this sequence. Okinawa had been returned to Japan only two years prior and the presence of American forces there was still a hot button issue. The Godzilla suit from Godzilla vs. Megalon, also built by Yasumaru, was reused with some heavy renovations. The new monster King Caesar was inspired by ceremonial Okinawan statues of shisa, guardian creatures resembling a cross between lions and dogs. They are a cultural descendant of Chinese “guardian lions” per Okinawa’s Chinese heritage.

Godzilla and Mechagodzilla on holiday in Okinawa. © Toho Company, Ltd.

It’s hardly highbrow, but Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is distilled fun in cinematic form. It’s a classic 70s B-picture executed to perfection. Jun Fukuda employs more dynamic set-ups, handheld camerawork and staccato editing than Honda, who had a more conventional visual style. Visually, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is Fukuda at his prime, bringing edgier Toei directors like Sadao Nakajima and Kinji Fukasaku to mind. The human scenes are well directed and exciting. Familiar faces Akihiko Hirata, Hiroshi Koizumi and Kenji Sahara make a welcome return. A standout is Shin Kishida as Agent Nanbara, cigarette in mouth as he oozes old school cool. Kishida (1939–1982), appeared as a regular cast member in Tsuburaya’s Operation: Mystery (1968–69). He was known for his “Japanese Dracula” roles in Lake of Dracula (1971) and The Evil of Dracula (1974), directed by Michio Yamamoto. Kishida, a native of Tokyo and member of the Bungakuza theatre troupe, played a variety of roles in contemporary and period pieces. He was a favorite of directors Kihachi Okamoto and Akio Jissoji. Tragically, esophageal cancer claimed his life at a young age. Goro Mutsumi (1934-), an actor from Kobe who dubbed Russ Tamblyn into Japanese in The War of the Gargantuas, also makes an impression as a hammy “big boss” villain. He’d be back to reprise the role, for all intents and purposes, in the next one. The film’s ape-like aliens are a possible nod to Planet of the Apes but could also be influenced by the villains of Spectreman.

Michiko Ikeda’s editing of the film is stellar. It has a breakneck pace, balances its plot threads and keeps the audience on its toes between monster battles. Teruyoshi Nakano was fresh off Submersion of Japan the previous year. He shows a confidence and competence with his special effects sequences that wasn’t present in Gigan and Megalon. Liberally using his beloved pyrotechnics, he crafts dynamic monster scenes with a minimal use of stock footage. One sequence has Mechagodzilla raining a barrage of missiles and ray beams on Godzilla and King Caesar. This impressive scene feels like Nakano in top form. It’s a masterful, Eisensteinian montage of well choreographed suit work, pyrotechnics, miniatures and animated beams. Eiji Tsuburaya was opposed to depicting bloodshed in his monster battles. Perhaps taking a cue from rival Gamera director Noriaki Yuasa, Nakano was not afraid to hurt his monsters by contrast. The added bloodshed helps amp up the stakes. Composer Masaru Sato returns to the series and puts forth an effective score: perfectly complimenting the film’s breezy tone. Influenced by jazz and traditional Okinawan folk music, it makes use of motifs he had composed for Kihachi Okamoto’s war epic Battle of Okinawa (1971).

Behind the scenes of GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974). © Toho Company, Ltd.

Many deride the 1970s era as a nadir of Japanese studio filmmaking. Compared to the corporate committee-produced blockbusters that now line multiplex marquees on both sides of the Pacific, the ‘70s were a sort of “Silver Age” to the ‘60s’ Golden Age. The budgets and production values were reduced but companies like Toei produced creative exploitation spectacles. Toho would put out a string of unique films such as big budget disaster flicks and offbeat horror yarns like Horror of the Wolf (1973) and House. In this spirit, it’s hard to hate even the Champion Godzilla movies. They are children’s films, but unlike most of Yuasa’s Gamera entries they hold up as entertainingly pulpy romps and have appeal to older viewers. Fukuda would return to the tokusatsu genre for the extrasensory spy thriller ESPY (1974) and the Star Wars-inspired The War in Space (1977).

For the 1975 entry, Tanaka, impressed with his work on Prophecies of Nostradamus, gave Yoshimitsu Banno another opportunity to direct as Fukuda was occupied with ESPY. Banno first considered a concept called Godzilla vs. Hitodah with a pollution mutated starfish. However, he ended up pitching a direct sequel to Godzilla vs. Hedorah. This time another Hedorah was to show up in Africa, attracted by pollution from recent economic development. Banno was quite obsessed with Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s Africa Addio (1966). He had also recently worked on a 1973 documentary entitled Cruel Famine Continent. Like Godzilla vs. Hedorah and Prophecies of Nostradamus, this would have been an interestingly offbeat film. Unfortunately for Banno, Tanaka didn’t go for the idea. It’s possible the costly prospect of location shooting in Africa was the deal breaker. Banno wound up taken off the project. Director Ishiro Honda thus stepped back into the director’s chair for the first time since 1970’s Space Amoeba. A more conventional entry and direct sequel to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla was instead planned. Toho put out a story contest and the winner was Yukiko Takayama, a 29 year old screenwriting student. Takayama’s early draft would feature two giant dinosaur “Titans” who merge together for the climax. With feedback from Honda, the Titans were changed to a single monster: Titanosaurus.

Behind the scenes of TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975). © Toho Company, Ltd.

Honda brings a more somber tone somewhat akin to the first Godzilla, aided by Ifukube’s first original series score since Destroy All Monsters. The film is unusually dark and grim with surprising violence and even nudity. This is all excised from the hacked-to-shreds U.S. kiddie matinee version. Akihiko Hirata returns as bitter mad scientist Dr. Mafune, though his performance is not helped by a bad Colonel Sanders wig. It’s a role quite like his turn as archvillain Mr. K on Toho’s series Rainbowman (1972–73). The lovely Tomoko Ai, fresh from Ultraman Leo, plays cyborg girl Katsura. She’s a tragic character akin to Kumi Mizuno’s Namikawa and her scenes are a high point. Like a sci-fi Romeo and Juliet, she has a doomed romance with protagonist Ichinose, played by Katsuhiko Sasaki (1944-), the son of Seven Samurai’s Minoru Chiaki. There are elements of transhumanist fetishism to Katsura’s depiction. This looks ahead to robotic anime and manga characters like Masamune Shirow’s Motoko Kusanagi or Yukito Kishiro’s Alita. Goro Mutsumi all but reprises his role as the alien commander from the prior film. Veteran actor Toru Ibuki (1940-, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep) plays a sleazy role as his lieutenant. Unusually, the DP of Nakano’s FX unit, Mototaka Tomioka, shot Honda’s drama scenes as well.

Katsura Mafune fan art by Shinji Nishikawa.

Teruyoshi Nakano had now cut his teeth with stellar work on Submersion of Japan and Prophecies of Nostradamus. Here he crafts FX sequences that show a mastery not present in earlier ’70s Godzilla films. Titanosaurus is one of Godzilla’s most inspired foes, designed by Akihiko Iguchi and beautifully built by Keizo Murase. Titanosaurus’ first Tokyo attack is a well executed and atmospheric scene. Surviving models from Submersion of Japan and Prophecies of Nostradamus were used to keep costs lower. Stock footage is employed, but more tastefully than in Godzilla vs. Gigan or Godzilla vs. Megalon. There’s an impressive city smashing sequence where Mechagodzilla II renders miniatures to a pyrotechnic pulp. Sadly Terror of Mechagodzilla wound up the lowest attended Godzilla entry to date. When Godzilla wades off into the sea at the end, it would be going into hibernation for close to ten years. The Showa series would never really be outdone again. These films, Terror of Mechagodzilla included, are cinematic treasures. They hearken back to a time when you could forget the troubles of the world watching giant pantomime beasts fire rays at each other on a glowing screen.

The 1976 U.S. poster art for GODZILLA VS. MEGALON. See what I mean about it not aging well?

American International was in talks to distribute Godzilla vs. Gigan as Godzilla vs. the Space Monster in 1973, but negotiations fell through. The ’70s entries from Gigan on would not see stateside release for several years. Godzilla vs. Megalon came first to the U.S. in 1976 via grindhouse outlet Cinema Shares. For the first time for a theatrical Godzilla film, the export dubbing was left intact and not redone. Minor cuts were made for a “G” rating, including removing shots of a pin-up behind two truckers. The poster, inspired by De Laurentiis’ King Kong, is of Godzilla and Megalon atop the World Trade Center towers. Needless to say, it hasn’t aged well after 9/11 and stopped being used on home video covers after that. In 1977, Godzilla vs. Megalon would be cut down to an hour time-slot and shown on NBC. Snarky segments featuring John Belushi in a Godzilla suit were added. This suit was made for an earlier Saturday Night Live sketch. These bumper segments are now considered lost, they were seldom re-aired and never resurfaced on video.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla next had a colorful distribution history stateside. It was also picked up by Cinema Shares in 1977. It would be first titled Godzilla vs. Bionic Monster (sic), some prints were even shown with that title. Universal, creator of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, came knocking on Cinema Shares’ door with a cease and desist. The film was pulled and the title changed to Godzilla vs. Cosmic Monster. The American cut’s differences are minor and the Hong Kong-recorded export dubbing is used. Godzilla vs. Gigan was released by Cinema Shares next in ’77 as Godzilla on Monster Island. The three Cinema Shares-released Godzilla films were often shown together in kiddie matinees.

1989 Paramount VHS for TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA, autographed by stars Katsuhiko Sasaki and Tomoko Ai.

Terror of Mechagodzilla was simultaneously released in the US to both TV and theaters in 1978. The theatrical cut, The Terror of Godzilla, was heavily censored for a “G” rating. This version cuts all human violence from the plot; resulting in a choppy viewing experience. Thankfully it is no longer in circulation. UPA’s TV version actually ran longer than the Japanese original and featured a lengthy prologue padded with footage from Invasion of Astro-Monster, along with All Monsters Attack and the films featured in it via stock footage. The only major deletion was a shot of Katsura’s bare chest during the operation sequence.

Art for Nobuhiko Obayashi’s proposed A SPACE GODZILLA by Katsuhiro Otomo (yes, the future director of AKIRA).

After only a few years, Tomoyuki Tanaka was eager to bring Godzilla back to the screen, establishing a “Godzilla Revival Committee”. A multitude of comeback projects for the monster were planned but all wound up shelved. These included Rebirth of Godzilla, pitched in 1977. Written by Ryuzo Nakanishi, it was rumored to be a straight-up remake of the 1954 original or to involve Godzilla battling terrorists at a nuclear power plant. The film, to be directed by Jun Fukuda, was dropped in favor of The War in Space. Tanaka had just seen Star Wars and decided to make a space opera using the same creative team. Another was Godzilla vs. Gargantua in 1978, a co-production with Saperstein’s UPA that was to also bring back one of the Gargantuas. An entry to cash in on the popularity of films like The Exorcist and The Omen, Godzilla vs. the Devil, was also rumored. Most likely, it was never seriously considered. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi, fresh off the phantasmagorical horror hit House, also proposed his own Godzilla film. Called A Space Godzilla, it would have been as completely off the wall as the former film. Next came a proposal from Akira Murao and Tanaka himself in 1980: The Resurrection of Godzilla. The story was elaborate, involving Godzilla fighting Bakan, a mythical Chinese monster. The project was dropped by Toho for being too expensive. Tanaka would try once more in 1984. This time, Godzilla was successfully revived for The Return of Godzilla.

J.L. Carrozza (1986-) is the author of the book SF: The Japanese Science Fiction Film Encyclopedia (2021). This article is excerpted and edited from several chapters in that book. Carrozza has written for such publications as Asian Cult Cinema, Monster Attack Team and Otaku USA.

Jules L. Carrozza (1986-) is a film director, video editor, writer, graphic designer and general crazy person.

Jules L. Carrozza (1986-) is a film director, video editor, writer, graphic designer and general crazy person.