In 1966, the original director of the Godzilla series, Ishiro Honda, left to do other projects and left the next film — Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, aka Godzilla vs the Sea Monster — in the hands of director Jun Fukuda. At the same time, composer Akira Ifukube was replaced by Masuro Sato, and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya was replaced by Sadamasa Arikawa. Names, of course, that mean little or nothing outside aficionados of the franchise or Japanese cinema, but for Godzilla watchers, it was a whole new crew at the helm.
While they weren’t the originals of the franchise, the replacements were all experienced and competent in their film arts. And the new crew showed what they do. Despite what some fans thought, it was not in a bad way, but Godzilla was clearly headed in a new direction, with new ideas and talent behind him.
Although the Japanese release was in December 1966, it wouldn’t get to North American audiences until 1968, when it went straight to TV, and not get to DVD until 2005. It’s now part of the Criterion Blu-Ray collection.
The budget for this Godzilla film was lower than previous films in the franchise because not only was the theatrical audience for such films dwindling, but there was more competition for that same audience. In part, it was because not only Toho, but other Japanese film companies were producing kaiju films, and also because TV shows like Ultraman were attracting a new audience and draining theatres of audiences.
This was also true in North America, where TV was drawing away film audiences, but also there was increased competition in the theatre.
In A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series, author David Kalat wrote:
…in 1966, Toho released two major monster movies: Godzilla vs the Sea Monster and War of the Gargantuas. These had to share the nation’s screens with Gamera, Gamera vs Baragon, Daimajin, Wrath of Daimajin, Return of Daimajin, Yokai Monsters, Along with Ghosts, Yokai Monsters, 100 Monsters, The Magic Serpent, and Terror Beneath the Sea — all the while, Ultraman battled giant monsters on weekly television. Add to that the eight major giant monster films theatrically released by various studios between 1962 and 1966. This level of aggressive competition only increased. The pie was now being split among many hungry rivals.
While many of the other kaiju he lists are forgotten today, Gamera still has a place in the hearts of fans, albeit not as big as that held by Godzilla (I have several Gamera films in my collection). Still, a Godzilla vs Gamera film would have been pretty popular. We still have hope for one in the future. (However, the next Toho film will follow in Shin Godzilla’s footsteps this fall: Godzilla Minus One.)
Toho was under financial pressure by the mid-60s, so it cut back on the big, sprawling, very detailled miniature-city sets used in previous films by setting this film on a small island populated by small fishing villages. Smaller sets = smaller models and smaller special effects budget. Even the Godzilla suit was re-used to save money, and it showed: the G suit looked sad and worn. Remember, they had no CGI then. But the Ebirah costume was damned fine.
Originally Toho had planned the film as a venue for King Kong, seen last in King Kong vs. Godzilla, but their negotiations with the licence-holder, RKO Pictures, fell apart. Godzilla was slipped in in his place, instead. And in doing so, a little pun was created: Ebirah means “Shrimpzilla” (Ebi=shrimp) so you basically have Godzilla vs Shrimpzilla.
The plot of the film is an adventure/spy film a la early James Bond, with monsters. But it’s James Bond as played by David Niven channelling his inner Woody Allen (in Casino Royale). The result is an entertaining, fast-paced, albeit somewhat wacky, ’60s film that could have stood alone without the battling kaiju. There are dance competitions, a stolen boat, a bank robber, terrorists (the Red Bamboo gang, echoing contemporary fears of Red China), slaves, gun battles, and colourful clothing… all very Sixties-ish. And it included Mothra. And, of course, Godzilla, curiously discovered asleep or in hibernation, buried within the distant island where Ebirah is also found.
Yes, Mothra appears again for the third time in a Godzilla film, but more as a sedentary icon than an Earth-defender kaiju. Not as a kaiju who fights to save humankind. There are times when the kaiju are almost an afterthought, and the film clearly emphasizes the human story over the kaiju most of the time.
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep is a quintessential 1960s film, akin to some of the wacky but fun action films of the time (if you’ve seen Our Man Flint, Modesty Blaze, Barbarella, or the Pink Panther series, you will understand. I could almost see Petter Sellers in it.). And, without giving away the plot entirely, it includes monster battles between G and the Shrimp, a rescue by Mothra, and a sort-of death for Godzilla at the end.
The film is never quite sure what the kaiju are there for, because they’re not really central to the plot. But, of course, kaiju battles are always fun to watch, and this one is no exception, although the rock-tossing bits are a bit silly but redeemed when G rips off E’s pincers. Like most of the Godzilla films from this middle period, the battles are a mix of martial arts and Three Stooges slapstick. And the production quality is, well, to be kind, restrained to the point of cheapness at times.
Still, it’s an entertaining romp, and moves quickly if a bit awkwardly at times. The music is good and uptempo most of the time. Not my favourite Godzilla film, even among the Showa series, but very watchable.