NOTE: As usual, Japanese names are given family-name first.
However, with the exception of the original Gojira, I've referred to most of the Japanese monster movies by their familiar US English titles. This is because I am lazy and don't feel like typing titles twice. So there.
By the mid-1960's, the classic Japanese monster movie had metamorphosed into something huge, hungry and out of control.
The kaijû eiga had evolved over the years into something the creators of the original Gojira had not anticipated. The 1954 movie which started the whole genre had been grimly serious and elegiac in tone. But even as early as the very first sequel a year later, the tone lightened considerably. By the time of 1965's Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster — the fifth Godzilla film — Godzilla and friends had begun their transformations into anthropomorphic superheroes.
Producer Tamaka Tomoyuki had come up with the idea for the original Gojira, but he was also in large part responsible for the genre's gradual change in tone. Ten years on, audiences weren't looking for awe and terror: they wanted vivid color, comedy and mayhem, and Tanaka made sure they got what they wanted. Special effects director Tsuburaya Eiji responded enthusiastically to the changes, for the widening scope they gave to his imagination — though he was chagrined at the studio's ever-tightening budgets. Tsuburaya started his own company in 1963, eventually putting out popular monster-related TV shows like "Ultra Q" and "Ultraman"; Toho's monster films would come to resemble Tsuburaya's television programs much more than the original Gojira.
Director Honda Ishiró was the most deeply affected by the changes. While his fantasy films had become even more successful than the melodramas with which he'd made his name, he longed to return to making movies about real people. He was not permitted to do so: his proposed films were either scrapped entirely or given to someone else to direct later on. The increasingly cartoonish Toho monster films had become as much of a liability to Honda's career as they'd been a boon early on. Still, Honda realized the direction the movies were to take was Toho's decision, not his. He expressed his frustration by leaving Toho's direct employ after Ghidrah, though he continued to work exclusively with Toho as a free agent.
If Honda was uneasy about Godzilla becoming a superhero, rather than a symbol of the devastation wrought by the atomic bomb, action film director Fukuda Jun had no such reservations. Though Honda continued to make monster movies and science fiction fantasies during 1966 and 1967, the duties for the official Godzilla series were transferred to Fukuda. And Tanaka was right about his audience: the Honda-less Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla did very well at the box office.
But Toho had begun to face competition from other studios. In 1967 — the banner year for monster films — Shochiku released X from Outer Space, Nikkatsu put out Gappa, and Daiei continued its Gamera series with Gamera vs. Gaos (this is not to mention South Korea's first entries into the genre: Space Monster Wangmagwi and Yongary, Monster from the Deep, which appeared at the same time). None of these films could have withstood comparison even to an average Toho production from the decade after Gojira... but Toho's own offering for the year was Son of Godzilla, which had obviously been designed to latch onto the success of Daiei's kid-friendly Gamera series.
To re-establish its position of prestige, Toho mounted its most ambitious monster film yet: 1968's Destroy All Monsters!, which featured most of the kaijû the studio had unleashed over the past 14 years. The eleven-beast extravaganza was also intended to be Toho's graceful exit from the Godzilla saga. For this special entry, something like a normal effects budget was granted to the production. Tsuburaya wasn't able to appreciate the gesture: he was busy with other projects, and served only as effects supervisor. The SFX director's duties passed to Tsuburaya's long-time assistant and DP, Arikawa Sadamasa. Honda returned for one last appearance as the director of a Godzilla film — or so he thought — and the distinguished composer Ifukube Akira once again provided the music.
Destroy All Monsters! did reasonably well, not only reminding audiences whose kaijû reigned supreme, but also convincing Toho to keep making Godzilla films for a few more years. Bewilderingly, Toho's next series entry was Godzilla's Revenge — the ultra-low-budget Curse of the Cat People of Japanese monster films — the Dodes'kaden of Japanese monster movies1
1. Dodes'kaden, made a year after Godzilla's Revenge by Honda's friend Kurosawa Akira, was an intensely personal film that combined fantasy with all-too-dreary reality. It did not find an appreciative audience. The movie had represented an entirely new direction for the director, and its failure sent him into a deep depression. Perhaps it makes more sense to say that Dodes'kaden was the Godzilla's Revenge of Kurosawa films.— directed by Honda alone without the participation of Tsuburaya or Ifukube. Godzilla's Revenge took the juvenilization of the Japanese monster movie in a weird, self-referential direction, and is probably the most baffling kaijû eiga ever made. But after Destroy All Monsters! there was nowhere left to go except backwards. The genre was running out of steam... and nobody realized this more clearly than Honda, who was truly tired of it. Honda felt Godzilla's Revenge was a way to return to telling stories about real people, while staying within the constraints of the genre that had imprisoned him. But if Honda was pleased with the results, nobody else was. When Godzilla's Revenge flopped, Honda decided he was ready to retire as a director.
This brings us to 1970. Very early in the year, Tsuburaya passed away. That, combined with Honda's reluctance, probably should have convinced Tanaka that an era had ended. But Tsuburaya's able assistant Arikawa was still available, as was Ifukube; so Tanaka brought Honda back for one more "one last time" — the second of three "one last times", the third being the final installment in the Showa Godzilla series, 1974's Terror of Mechagodzilla — to make a monster movie with what was left of the Old Gang.
Now, by this point it had been clear for a long time that any movie helmed by Honda, even one in which he had neither confidence nor interest, was going to be competent at the very least. Even his misfires are laced with moments of awe and wonder; Fukuda's best Godzilla films rarely rise to the level of even a middling Honda effort. Ifukube, for his part, was a solid professional, a significant composer even outside the world of film music — his involvement, too, meant a guarantee of high-quality results. As for Arikawa, he'd been working with Tsuburaya for years, and had taken over effects supervision for Toho's monster films even when Tsuburaya was still getting credit for them. These guys knew their stuff. You could hand them the thinnest, cheapest excuse for a monster brawl, and they would turn it into something capable, if not necessarily inspired.
Unfortunately, Tanaka seemed to have realized this. So he actually did hand them the thinnest, cheapest excuse for a Toho monster brawl, namely: Gezora — Kanime — Kameba — Kessen! Nankai no Daikaijû, aka Space Amoeba.
The screenplay for Space Amoeba was provided by a newcomer to the mix, Ogawa Ei. Ogawa had never written a kaijû movie before. He is probably best known these days for having written the "Bloodthirsty" trilogy for Yamamoto Michio, the first installment of which — Chi-o sû ningyô, or The Bloodthirsty Doll — came out only a month before Space Amoeba2
2. The "Bloodthristy" movies (which continued with Chi-o sû me, "Bloodthirsty Eyes" [translated as Lake of Dracula], 1971, and Chi-o sû bara, "Bloodthirsty Rose" [or Evil of Dracula] in 1974) were an odd and not entirely successful attempt to bring the Western vampire mythology to modern Japan.. Yet for all his inexperience with giant monsters, Ogawa came up with a scenario which was either woefully ignorant of everything that had come before, or was too well aware of it... because it turned out to be a retread of all the major (and quite a few minor) clichés of the genre.
Consider: the movie starts with a scene of a rocket being launched into space, accompanied by Ifukube's percussive, Bartókian piano music. The scene is very well done, but it feels like a literal repeat of the opening of 1957's Daikaijû Baran. The spacecraft is en route to Jupiter when it is taken over by an amorphous space blob — very much like the opening of Dogora the Space Monster. The intelligent blob pilots the spacecraft back to Earth — because the Helios 7, though unmanned, is built with a cockpit and operable controls — and lands in the Pacific Ocean near an island called Selgio. On Selgio, two Japanese engineers defy the bearded, long-robed local shaman and trespass into the zone belonging to the local god... only to have the supposedly mythical god-beast rise out of the ocean to attack them. When a further group of city-slickers from Tokyo show up to investigate, the monster rises from the water and proceeds to wreck the village. And there we are, back in Daikaijû Baran's territory.
If you're going to remind your audience of other Toho monster movies, Baran and Dogora are the last examples you should pick. Both movies featured very interesting monsters trapped in stories that do them little justice. Unfortunately, that's exactly the model Space Amoeba follows.
Of course, my readers probably know all this stuff better than I do... but then again, what would get the point across better than confronting you with a big chunk of crap you've already seen before? When the creative team who actually invented the kaijû eiga put their names and talents into a movie that emphasized all the things the public was growing tired of, the result spelled doom for the Showa-era monster film.
The hero of Space Amoeba is a photojournalist named Kudo (Kubo Akira). Kudo is returning to Japan by plane from South America; to pass the time on the long flight, he's reading a magazine. He's just finished reading a story about the missing Helios 7 spacecraft when he happens to glance out the airplane window... just in time to see Helios 7 parachuting into the sea. Kudo not only recognizes the craft — he's also able to chart the exact position of the splashdown (on the map provided in the in-flight magazine, no less), even though he's flying over an enormous expanse of featureless ocean. Kudos, Kudo!
For some reason (cough), Kudo's employer finds it hard to believe he's just seen a piece of equipment that was last seen orbiting Jupiter (like his luggage). But their argument is overheard by a girl named Ayako (Takahashi Atsuko), who'd been waiting to see Kudo. When the irritated photographer storms out of the office, Ayako rushes to catch up to him. She's got a job offer for him: the development company for which she works needs someone to take promotional pictures for a big project they're working on. They're building a resort on a small volcanic island called Selgio, "located between Hawaii and the Marianas" (in other words, just about in the middle of the Pacific Ocean).
Kudo is uninterested in the job. He'd much rather go off on his own and look for the downed spacecraft. However, two things happen to change his mind. First, it turns out that an old friend of his, Dr. Miya (Tsuchiya Yoshio), is involved with the project, doing a biological impact study for the resort. Miya has a theory that Selgio is the mythical "island of monsters" that he's been looking for ever since the days he and Kudo worked together. Next, it turns out that Ayako was entirely mistaken about the location of the island. Selgio is thousands of miles southeast of where Ayako said it was... somewhere due west of Easter Island and south of Hawaii. In other words, it's exactly the place marked on Kudo's airline map as the location of the fallen Helios 7.
(They'll get there over the brand new bridge between Kagoshima and Hawaii... a bridge I will be happy to sell you if you find anything credible in the story so far.)
On the trip out — by boat, naturally; I was just kidding about the bridge — Kudo, Ayako and Miya run into a man who's also heading for Selgio. Curious how an unknown island with 80 inhabitants is not only attracting so many visitors, but is also a scheduled stop for cruise ships... Anyway, it's clear that this man Obata, who claims to be an anthropologist, is up to no good. After all, he wears a Van Dyke and a blindingly white suit — never good signs in movies like this. Obata looks and acts so suspiciously that it's obvious he's an industrial spy, out to steal the secrets of the new resort. He's so bad at it, in fact, that Kudo later catches him in the act, even though they've just been distracted by a giant monster attack.
(Obata is played by Sahara Kenji, who usually played more heroic types in Toho monster movies. Originally, Tsuchiya was supposed to play Obata, while Sahara was cast as Dr. Miya. But Tsuchiya balked at the role. The trouble was this: midway through the film, Obata gets taken over by the alien Space Amoeba; and Tsuchiya had played a possessed earthling for Honda at least twice before [first in 1959's Battle in Outer Space, and then very recently in Destroy All Monsters!]. Perhaps aware of how derivative the new screenplay was, and certainly sick of repeating himself, Tsuchiya suggested to Sahara that they switch roles.)
When they all arrive on Selgio, they find their welcoming committee is a tad reduced. One of the two men they're expecting, Sakura, has already been eaten by a monster. He was grabbed up and gobbled by something with tentacles, while he was fishing in the strangely cold waters of the Forbidden Beach. The other man, Yokoyama, witnessed the attack, and is (understandably) a nervous wreck. A young islander named Riko is the party's only real help.
On their first expedition, the Japanese find a cave descending into the island's volcano. Inside the cave is a vast underground pool. Miya is astounded to see two glowing-blue lights — like enormous eyes — making their way to the water's edge. The party is drenched in a sudden swell, as whatever-it-is swims away; when Yokoyama finds Sakura's watch cast up in the surge, he panics, steals the party's Jeep and flees with Riko back to the village. This turns out to have been a very bad idea for Yokoyama, as he ends up running into the waiting arms — lots of 'em — of the monster Gezora.
Monster movie fans seem either to really love Gezora or despise him. For me, it's total, unconditional love. I think Gezora is adorable, and while I can see cuteness as a less-than-desirable characteristic in a kaijû, I think he's the best thing in the movie.
Let me remind you: Tsuburaya had wanted Godzilla
to be a giant octopus. Yeah.
While I'm at it, I guess I should point out that "Gezora" is not pronounced "Ge-ZO-ra", with the stress on the second syllable. Ge-ZO-ra is what you say to a kaijû when it sneezes3
3. Or possibly it's the candleholder used during Megalonukkah, the festival that celebrates one movie's worth of stock footage miraculously stretching to eight.. The Japanese language doesn't treat syllabic stress the way English does, but a close enough approximation is for us English-speakers to put the stress on the first syllable: GE-zo-ra. Gezora is usually referred to as a giant squid, but he's really something much less dignified. His eyes are on the front of his body, which is rather flat; his swim fins extend all the way down his mantle, while the two fin lobes at the top are relatively small. In other words, he's a giant cuttlefish.
Gezora is considerably smaller than the average kaijû — he seems to be between 50 and 60 feet high, or about a third the height of the original Godzilla. Thus his attacks on the village huts have an immediacy about them that's not usually found in the attacks of the bigger monsters. The sets he moves around on are built to a larger scale, and this means the details on the miniatures are more clearly visible. Scenes like this one...
Like Baran, Gezora behaves suspiciously like the god the locals think he is. Baran had risen to destroy "his" village only after the scientists from Tokyo managed to persuade the villagers to put aside their beliefs. Unlike Baran, though, Gezora seems focused on the Japanese intruders to the exclusion of the islanders who worship him: when he attacks both Yokoyama and Riko, he only devours Yokoyama. Though he does return to Riko, and is only shooed off by the odd mid-day appearance of some bats, his attention to the local guy seems like an afterthought. Later, when Gezora comes stomping into the village to level it, he does far more damage to the buildings than he does to the population — which is slightly odd behavior in a monster. I get the feeling that the alien intelligence behind Gezora is looking to absorb creatures that will be useful to it, as it conquers the world... creatures like cuttlefish, or the shifty and unscrupulous Obata, whom it takes over later on. Human beings as a whole don't seem to interest it very much. After it's gnawed on a few "sophisticated" humans and found them unappealing, it seems to figure the islanders aren't worth bothering over (Humans... meh).
Kudo, Miya and Ayako return on foot to the village, only to find their hut in ruins, Yokoyama missing, and Riko gone catatonic in shock. Honda again reminds us of Daikaijû Baran, as the Japanese stumble into the village just as they are in the middle of a ceremony to propitiate Gezora ("Die, friends of the devil!" cries the local Shaman). They must deal with the hostile gaze of the villagers as they try to figure out what's happened to their colleagues. The South Seas islanders here are ever-so-slightly more dignified than their counterparts in other Japanese monster movies, but they're still a little embarrassing to modern eyes.
And just as in Baran, their investigation ends up with the beast rising again from the depths and reducing the native village to splinters.
This time, though, the natives desert their god with alarming haste. Unexpectedly, they provide the Japanese with weapons, including a high-power machine gun. You see, it turns out Selgio Island was used as a base by the Japanese during the Second World War; and as usual in the world of Japanese fantasy — and I do emphasize "fantasy" — the locals remember the troops with fondness. There just happens to be an old munitions stash on one side of the island, full of weapons and ammo which are all still in perfect shape... even though they've been left unattended in the tropical weather for the last 25 years. There are also numerous canisters of gasoline. I never realized until this film that gasoline is like fine wine: it improves with age. Several times during the rest of the film, these cans of quarter-century-old gas will be used to create some really impressive explosions.
The vintage guns don't seem to have much effect on Gezora the next time he globbers ashore. But Ayako mentions that the fire in the village seemed to hurt the creature. Noticing the peculiar chill that goes along with Gezora's appearance, Kudo concludes that a nice big explosion should damage the creature considerably. He's right: the flames from the exploding gas tanks mortally wound the monster, who staggers back to the ocean to die.
But even though Gezora's dead, the alien life-force that had animated him is still alive. After being defeated in its cuttlefish form, the alien apparently decides that a comparatively soft-bodied cephalopod isn't the right creature to help it dominate the Earth. So it chooses two more hosts in turn: first a giant crab, and then (when the humans cook that on their gasoline barbecue) a giant turtle.
Japanese monster names are often based on the kind of animal the kaijû is patterned after. This was true from the earliest examples: Baran takes its name from "Varan", or monitor lizard (family Varanidae); the burrowing robot Mogella from The Mysterians comes from the Japanese word mogura, "mole"; and so on through the giant moth Mothra, the giant langoustine (ebi, "shrimp" or "lobster") Ebirah, the giant spider (kumo) Kumonga, etc. "Crab" in Japanese is kani; for Space Amoeba's second monster, the word has been disguised a little bit by adding a diacritic called a dakuten to the first consonant, changing it from unvoiced ("ka") to voiced ("ga"), and a suffix added — Ganime, "Crabzilla".
As for the turtle creature, there Toho had a bit of a problem. The obvious thing to do would be to take the Japanese word for "turtle" — kame — and then attach a typical monster-name suffix, of which the most common is "-ra" (Gojira, Mosura, Ghidora, Ebirah...). But that would have resulted in... kamera, which means the same thing in Japanese as it does in English, and is every bit as unimpressive. They could always have added a dakuten to the beginning, as they did with Ganime; but that would have resulted in copyright infringement. So instead, they took the inadequate kamera and substitued a different syllable for the suffix: Kameba4
4. And before you ask: I have no idea where the name "Gezora" comes from..
Now Ganime is a wonderful creation. With those boggling eyestalks and constantly-moving mouthparts, Ganime's costume seems to have been built after careful study of actual crabs (apparently the evocatively-named Horrid Elbow Crab). It's one of the few Japanese monster suits that really makes you forget there's a human stuntman inside it.
There's nothing threatening or awe-inspiring about Kameba. He's all too clearly a simple turtle. He may have a deadly sharp tongue, and he may have the ability to stretch his neck out like a... like a... ummm... like an accordion, yeah; that's it — a big uncircumcised accordion — but that's hardly enough for a kaijû, is it? When you think about it, Daiei's Gamera was basically just a Big Giant Turtle, too... but he had flames coming out every orifice, and that made all the difference. Gamera also had a very memorable roar, while poor Kameba can only squeak as though he's badly in need of oil.
5. It's never even made clear what these monsters really are. At the beginning of the film, Dr. Miya states that he believes giant monsters live on the island; and the fact that the islanders recognize the creatures (and even have names for them, even if those names sound suspiciously Japanese) suggests that the grotesquely large cuttlefish, crabs and turtles were already there waiting for the Space Amoeba to take them over. On the other hand, Dr. Miya states later on that he thinks the space creature itself mutated the animals into their monstrous forms — though Obata stays normal-sized after he gets taken over. The screenplay just can't make up its mind.. A movie like Shochiku's X from Outer Space may be far, far worse in every other respect... but oh, that monster! It's the wacky inventiveness of Guilala's design that saves that movie from the oblivion it otherwise deserves. Space Amoeba falls just a tad short by comparison, even though it's clearly the better-made film.
This is not to say that any of the monsters are shoddy. Actually, the overall technical achievement of Space Amoeba is impressive. The construction of the costumes, if not their conception, is good; the compositing, the miniatures and the occasional animation may not be perfect, but in most cases they're as good as anything else in a monster movie of this vintage. It's just that the monsters aren't terribly inspired. And that, unfortunately, leads us to concentrate on the plot... and the plot can't bear the scrutiny.
Many of Honda's monster films had some sort of environmental message to them, and at first Space Amoeba seems like it will be no exception. We're given a setup with dueling developers seeking to exploit an island paradise. But before long, that subplot has been dropped completely. Another of Honda's recurring themes is that of people coming together in the face of adversity to reaffirm their common humanity. Obata's struggle to regain control of his own will seems to fall into this pattern — the "villain" of the earlier subplot shows the others that even the most contemptible of human beings has the capability for heroism. But both the screenplay and the direction give such short shrift to Obata's struggle that even his final sacrifice seems perfunctory.
When monster film-makers anywhere in the world find they've run out of ideas, they tend to resort to that lamest of all plot devices: the erupting, all-consuming volcano. Can't figure out how Gamera's going to get rid of the giant vampire Gaos? Hey, looky there: Mount Fuji's erupting! Time for everybody's favorite giant turtle to drag his opponent into the crater. Can't quite work out how you're going to deal with the tragic story of the Frankenstein Brothers? Resolve everything with a nice volcano — out at sea! They even dropped Godzilla down a volcano in the terribly unsatisfying Return of Godzilla in 1985. Except for Rodan back in 1956, where this device actually made sense, wrapping everything up with a last-minute volcano smacks of desperation. And nowhere does it seem more desperate than in Space Amoeba.
For the Space Amoeba already had a ludicrous weakness, the way so many monsters have that One Fatal Vulnerability that allows the humans to conquer them. OK, actually it had several ludicrous weaknesses: first is its megalomania, thinking it could conquer the entire Earth alone, using a giant cuttlefish as its weapon; then there's its susceptibility to heat... coupled with its stupidity, which leads it to begin its invasion at the Earth's equator, rather than (say) swimming south and taking over some penguins or something. And then there's its vulnerability to high-frequency sound. Yet all of these things together are not enough to bring an end to the story. The sonic attack by the island bats is only enough to weaken the Space Amoeba's hold on its creatures... whereupon Ganime and Kameba, as normal un-possessed monsters, start fighting each other. Then somebody pulls the Volcano Switch, and... KABOOM!. Ganime grabs poor Kameba by his extending Turtle Head (ouch!) and hurls him into the volcano... but Kameba manages to knock Ganime off balance at the last moment, so both of them perish. And apparently the Space Amoeba is consumed by the flames as well. How convenient. The monster battle itself is beautifully staged and shot, but it all seems like an anticlimax.
Space Amoeba seems to get its English name in part from the blob-like nature of the intelligence from beyond Jupiter, and in part from a misunderstanding of the name "Kameba" (which in the Media Blasters DVD's subtitles is spelled "Kamoeba"). The film was first released in the United States as Yog! Monster from Space, though there was no reference made to anything called "Yog" in the course of the movie. The US title might have been a reference to Yog-Sothoth: there is something Lovecraftian about a formless intelligence from the depths of space that causes huge tentacled things rise from the Pacific. Then again, none of the monsters are named in the old US dub, so really, who the hell knows?
The year after Space Amoeba was released, somebody at Toho really did try to break the giant monster film out of its rut. That person was Banno Yoshimitsu, who'd got his start working with Kurosawa and was interested in extedning the vocabulary of popular film. Tanaka was hospitalized during the production of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, and was unable to interfere with the direction the movie took. Banno seized the opportunity to load the film with avant-garde techniques: split-screen sequences, animation, non-narrative techniques representing dreams and hallucinations, scenes in black-and-white... But when Tanaka got out of the hospital and saw what Banno had created, he was so enraged that he suspended Banno's directing privileges. After that, the Godzilla film and the kaijû eiga in general sank back into formula.
For one last One Last Time, Honda was called out of his self-imposed silence: in 1974 he was asked to direct Terror of Mechagodzilla, the 20th anniversay film for the King of Monsters and the real grand finale of the original series. Here again Honda was given a script much closer to a Fukuda production than one of his own, including a Godzilla who behaved more like a Power Ranger than a giant radioactive dinosaur. But Honda managed to subvert the Fukuda-style shenanigans, first by concentrating on the human characters (Godzilla himself doesn't even show up until nearly an hour has gone by), and second by infusing the whole film with a sense of doom and impending tragedy. Everyone, including Godzilla, suffers deeply over the course of the movie.
It was a far more appropriate farewell for Honda than Space Amoeba had been.
After Terror of Mechagodzilla, Honda went on to do some of his best work: though officially retired, he returned to cinema as second unit director for his close friend Kurosawa. Several sections of Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) were in fact directed by Honda: the harrowing "Tunnel" segment was based not on one of Kurosawa's dreams, but Honda's. Kurosawa was a notorious perfectionist, yet he knew Honda's work as both writer and director would mesh seamlessly with his own. Knowing this, it's hard to look back on Space Amoeba without a sense of sadness at its wasted potential. Even if Toho was content to keep Honda making monster movies, couldn't they have come up with a script that was a little more substantial?