Gigantis the Fire Monster / Godzilla Raids Again / The Return of Godzilla / Gojira no Gyakushu (1955/1959) **½
After releasing Godzilla: King of the Monsters/Gojira in 1954, Toho quickly figured out that they were on to something. Just how big of a something they were on to wouldn’t become evident for another couple of years, but producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had enough of an inkling in any event that he wanted to move fast to capitalize on Gojira’s success. Ishiro Honda was busy with Half Human/Jujin Yukiotako, though, so Tanaka assigned the sequel he wanted made to Motoyshi Oda, a director whose principal distinction was his ability to make lots and lots of movies very quickly on comparatively small budgets. The result, Gojira no Gyakushu (“Godzilla’s Counterattack”), certainly bears the marks of its economical budget and cramped shooting schedule (only about five months from preproduction to release), but all things considered, holds up surprisingly well, even after being heavily vandalized by its American distributors.
Shoichi Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi, from Mothra and Atragon) is a pilot in the employ of Osaka’s fishing fleet. His job is to patrol the skies over the nearby fisheries looking for big schools of fish swimming close to the surface, radioing the dispatchers at headquarters whenever he makes a sighting. One day, Tsukioka finds himself searching for something rather different. A coworker and friend of his, another pilot named Koji Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaki), has been forced by engine trouble to ditch his plane in a treacherous patch of sea full of craggy islets and barely-submerged coral reefs. Kobayashi turns out to have landed his floatplane safely, but he is now stranded on one of those nasty little rockpiles, and Tsukioka is more or less his only hope of getting home. And just his luck, Kobayashi has managed to choose as the site for his emergency landing the islet where two gigantic monsters are busily slugging it out. How two different pilots could have failed to notice such a thing from the air I have no idea (my admittedly limited experience suggests that 50-meter reptiles aren’t exactly unobtrusive), but after stumbling upon the battling titans, they waste no time in climbing into Tsukioka’s plane and flying home.
If this were an American movie, nobody would believe Tsukioka and Kobayashi’s story, but in Japan, the Proper Authorities take the possibility of attack by atomic monsters very seriously. No sooner has the word gotten out than the two men are confronted by a gaggle of scientists bearing “photographs of all the known prehistoric monsters.” (Photographs, mind you...) The spiky-backed, turtle-like creature proves to be an Angiras (or Angirus, or Anguiras, or Angillus, etc.— frankly, I’ve always wondered why no one has ever thought to render the monster’s name “Ankylus,” as in “Ankylosaurus,” which is obviously what screenwriters Takeo Murata and Shigeaki Hidaka were aiming for), which one of the assembled paleontologists describes in hilariously alarmist terms, considering that he’s supposed to be quoting from a reference book on dinosaurs. The other monster, of course, is Godzilla (or Giganits in the American version— Warner Brothers were apparently unable to secure the rights to the Godzilla name from Joe Levine, whose Godzilla Releasing Company had imported the first film to the United States). Whether this is supposed to be the same Godzilla that wrecked Tokyo in 1954, mysteriously resurrected after its death at the hands of Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer, or a new Godzilla, spawned by equally mysterious means (the creation of giant, nuclear-powered dinosaurs isn’t exactly a daily occurrence, after all), is never made completely clear, but either way, a quick presentation by Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, returning from Godzilla: King of the Monsters), who was on hand to witness Godzilla’s first visit to Japan, convinces everyone that this is a development of dire significance— all the more so given that the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer is now lost.
With no super-weapon to fall back on, the ministry of defense is forced to content itself with trying to keep the monsters from coming to Japan in the first place. Some of the scientists believe that Godzilla is attracted to light, and thus preparations are made to black out any coastal city that seems likely to be on the creature’s itinerary. And as an added insurance policy, squadrons of fighter-bombers are outfitted with special long-burning flares which they are to drop on Godzilla’s seaward flank should he in fact surface near the shore. These precautions are undertaken not a moment too soon, for it is only a matter of days before Godzilla appears just off Osaka. The blackout is put into effect, the flare-dropping planes are scrambled, and at first, it looks as though this simple but reasonable plan might actually work. But the ministry of defense didn’t figure on a busload of convicts who are being shuttled between prisons on the night that Godzilla appears. The thugs’ ringleader hits upon the idea of exploiting the Godzilla-related confusion to provide cover for an escape attempt, and their plans come even closer to success than the military’s before one of them loses control of the hijacked van in a high-speed chase, and plows it into the side of an oil bunker in the shipping district. The resulting explosion captures the attention, not only of Godzilla, but of Angiras as well, and both monsters wade ashore to wreak havoc. Before long, Godzilla and Angiras have found each other and resumed their brawling, and by the time the former monster slays the latter, there isn’t a hell of a lot left of Osaka.
The military is now faced with the seemingly impossible task of destroying the victorious Godzilla. But first they must find him, and this is where Tsukioka and Kobayashi come back into the narrative. With the Osaka fishing operation destroyed, the chief of the company sends the pilots north to another coastal city where he also does business. Tsukioka is on patrol again when he sights Godzilla, lounging around on another islet far from the Japanese mainland, this one an inhospitable little iceberg of a place not too far from the Aleutians. An airstrike is launched at once, but Tsukioka’s plane is too low on fuel for him to stick around and point out the monster’s location to the jet jockeys. So Kobayashi flies out to relieve him, and is thus in the area when the fighting breaks out. Godzilla isn’t a terribly discriminating creature, though, and doesn’t much care for the distinction between a light commercial floatplane and an F-80 Shooting Star; the monster figures Kobayashi is part of the attack, and in a brief moment when no bombs are bouncing uselessly off his impenetrable hide, shoots the pilot down with a blast of his atomic breath.
But Kobayashi isn’t killed instantly, and as his plane falls from the sky, he makes a desperate attempt to kamikaze Godzilla. And though he misses his target, he gets to be a hero anyway, in that his sacrifice inadvertently suggests a way to defeat the monster. Kobayashi’s plane crashes into the ice-cliff above Godzilla’s head, and brings huge quantities of ice and rubble raining down on him. Because the monster’s lair is at the blind end of a deep, narrow box canyon, it ought to be possible to bury him completely, if only enough ordinance were dropped on the surrounding cliffs. The fighters are scrambled once again, and this time, their mission is a resounding success.
It’s a shame Warner Brothers ended up being the ones to market Gojira no Gyakushu in the United States, because their treatment of the movie wasn’t nearly up to the standard set by the Godzilla Releasing Company’s take on the original Gojira. Watching Gigantis the Fire Monster, you really get the feeling the producers of the American version expected the audiences watching it to be composed entirely of imbeciles with all the imagination of your average turnip. Tsukioka’s voice-over narration is almost never-ending (I’ll bet you my gall bladder there was little or none of this in the Japanese version), and vexingly describes— in absurdly excessive detail— events that we can see perfectly well unfolding on the screen. Even worse, the original score was almost completely eliminated in favor of bland and cheesy cues from the Warner stock-music library, and a completely pointless stock-footage intro was tacked on to further Americanize the film. Even the monsters got a slight working over, in that the tone-deaf sound editors systematically went through and dubbed Angiras’s annoying bleat over Godzilla’s famous reverberating roar. And in a move that insults us as much as it insults Motoyoshi Oda, Kobayashi— who is clearly meant to be the real hero of this movie— is dubbed as a comic relief character, with a Barney Rubble dumb-guy voice! The only possible justification I can think of for this subversion of the original story is that Minoru Chiaki is a big fat guy with squinty eyes, whereas Hiroshi Koizumi comes closer to looking the part of a leading man, as conceived of in Hollywood.
On the other hand, we in the West might justly be grateful that Gigantis the Fire Monster came out as well as it did. The original plan was to put a Jerry Warren-style Kung Fu of Seven Deadly Editing Machines whammy on Gojira no Gyakushu, combining it with bits and pieces of two or three totally unrelated cheapo foreign monster movies and supplemental footage shot in the States to form The Volcano Monsters! At least this way, it’s still possible to look past Warner Brothers’ meddling and get some idea of how good Gojira no Gyakushu might originally have been. As an experiment, try watching Gigantis the Fire Monster with the sound off, and see if you don’t agree. The movie is briskly paced, and the heart of the film, the clash between Godzilla and Angiras, is one of the best monster brawls Toho ever filmed. This, after all, was the first time since The Son of Kong that anyone had built a monster movie around combat between monsters, and it hadn’t yet occurred to anyone at Toho to choreograph such battles in the stylized manner of Sumo wrestling. If the serious tone and grave allegory of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is missing from its sequel, this is mostly compensated for by the awesome spectacle of the two kaiju tearing at each other like enraged animals and flattening Osaka in the process. As twenty-some subsequent Godzilla movies, eleven Gamera flicks, and a handful of minor-league kaiju eiga attest, it was a winning formula, and provided a framework that was far easier to work within than the more intellectually demanding approach taken by its predecessor.