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Monday, September 09, 2013

The Little Boy and the Metaphor Monster

Yesterday I watched Ishiro Honda's offbeat 1969 Kaiju film All Monsters Attack, the tenth entry in the original Showa series of Godzilla movies and the one often derided as "either the worst or second-worst" of all Godzilla films, at least according to Richard Pusateri's audio commentary. And yet I was charmed by this simple yet genuine little film, which focusses not on monsters but on the plight of a little boy facing a reality often cruel.

Little Ichiro lives in the seemingly endless rust-hued industrial wasteland of postwar Kawasaki, Japan. He is a latchkey child, both parents often working late to make ends meet. Ichiro wishes his parents were home more often, but his loneliness is somewhat abated by a kindly, eccentric neighbour - an inventor of toys - and his own fertile imagination.

Ichiro's nemesis is Gabara, an older boy who bullies Ichiro on the way home from school. Ichiro is too small and scared to fight back, and either runs away from his tormentor or meekly submits to his wishes. It's humiliating, and like many bullied little boys, Ichiro escapes into fantasy.

Using the sort of psychedelic dream sequence transitions that have been out of style for decades, Honda transports Ichiro to Monster Island, where Ichiro admires the fighting prowess of the mighty Godzilla, King of the Monsters. He also makes friends with Minilla, Son of Godzilla, who can apparently shrink down to little-boy size and speak Japanese. Just as Ichirio is about to wrangle an introduction to Godzilla out of Minilla, he's rudely woken by the neighbour, who tells Ichirio that his mother can't come home tonight because she has to work late. The inventor consoles a stoic but clearly upset Ichirio by inviting him over for sukiyaki beef.

At this point the b-plot intrudes on our tale - the police enter to warn of a pair of dangerous "50 million yen thieves."

The rest of the film's running time dances adroitly from the framing sequence to the Monster Island scenes, with Godzilla teaching little Minilla to fight his own monster battles. In the real world, Ichiro finds himself kidnapped by the bank robbers, and must take inspiration from his own fantasy world to escape.

One can see why most Godzilla fans don't like this film much; the famed monster battles consist almost entirely of stock footage from other, better films, and the child's perspective is a little too juvenile for (supposedly) more sophisticated viewers.

But I think it's pretty amazing that after nine films Honda and the producers decided to break formula so thoroughly. Imagine if, say, one of the middle films in the Star Trek or James Bond or Star Wars series had been set in the real world, with Roger Moore or William Shatner or Harrison Ford playing "imaginary" characters (in the world of their respective universes). A lot of fans might claim that such a structure ruins their enjoyment of fictional worlds they've come to treat as internally consistent and "real" in that particular context.

Actually, nothing in the film explicitly states that Godzilla and the other monsters are imaginary. For all we know, the world of Ichiro's framing story is one in which Godzilla exists; no one is surprised by Ichiro's fantasies. To them, perhaps it's natural that little boys would imagine adventures with such fearsome creatures, as a way of coping with their very real menace. (On the other hand, no one in the film states that Godzilla is real, either.)

In any event, just as Minilla learns to breathe radioactive fire like his father and defeat the monster Gabara (a dinosaur-like creature given the same name as Ichiro's bully), Ichiro uses his wits to escape the robbers and even deliver them into the hands of the police - and in the film's coda, he confronts and defeats the real Gabara.

By no means is All Monsters Attack a great work of cinema. But it is genuine, well-made, honest and sincere. And I'll take that over virtually any of this summer's supposed blockbusters.

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