Godzilla Hits the Skids: Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Megalon was a giant cockroach with flattened drill bits for hands. That was the least of his troubles. But can Gareth Edwards top it?

Godzilla vs. Megalon can claim credit for any number of things. It’s the only Godzilla film that doesn’t feature a woman in a major role (or any role). It was seen by more people than any other Godzilla film in the series, and in fact helped establish Godzilla’s reputation in the States. Unfortunately it was also the cheapest, the shabbiest, and the worst film in franchise history, which may help explain why Toho has allowed it to become the only Godzilla film to slip into the public domain. And then there’s the whole John Belushi connection.

Ishirô Honda’s 1954 Gojira was a masterpiece, not only in terms of giant monster pictures but Japanese cinema as a whole. At the same time there’s no denying that while many of the 27 sequels were fantastic, exciting, imaginative films, some, well…sucked. There were clear reasons for this. By the time the franchise hit the late ‘60s, the core team so centrally responsible for turning out great films like Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. The Thing began drifting apart to work on other projects, leaving the new Godzilla films in often inexperienced hands.

Although marketing Godzilla’s image had become Toho’s cash cow, the films themselves were never big money makers and took second priority at the studio. Because of this, the budgets shrank over time, with the cuts hitting the special effects department first and hardest. Those monster suits were expensive, you know, and making a new one for every film as had been the case for the first 15 years of the franchise was no longer economically viable. Unfortunately those suits were surprisingly fragile things, and once you start reusing them, well, they tend to fall apart. Those highly-detailed miniature cities don’t exactly come a dime a dozen either, and so why bother with all those stupid expensive details when you’re just gonna crush it anyway? As another money-saving move, directors learned that it was cheaper to simply recycle footage from earlier films (especially the fight scenes) in hopes no one would notice the difference.

What’s more, Godzilla’s audience had changed over the years, so now theaters screening Godzilla films found themselves packed with 8 year-olds and, for some reason, middle-aged women. The studio felt obligated to target the films more directly at this new demographic, so Godzilla became more child-friendly and his features morphed to match, his eyes growing bigger and his snout flattening and becoming more simian. It also meant the pandering introduction of a new central character, an abrasive, squeaky-voiced 8-year-old in a baseball cap and shorts that are maybe just a little too short. Along with Godzilla’s loser cartoon of a son Minya, the kid in the baseball cap would become one of the most loathed characters in franchise history.

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Well, okay then, putting all these factors in place brings us to 1973 and Godzilla vs. Megalon, directed by the man more closely associated with Godzilla’s nadir than any other, Jun Fukuda. What the film eventually became can’t entirely be blamed on Fukuda, though. It seems the project didn’t have a prayer from the beginning.

In what was part publicity stunt and part admission they were running out of ideas, Toho held a contest in which they asked school children to design a new character who would star in their next movie. The winning entry came from a young boy who drew a picture of a humanoid robot who bore a striking resemblance to the then-popular Ultraman. A script was produced in which the heroic new robot, Jet Jaguar, would be pitted against a new monster, Megalon, a giant roach with drill-bit hands. Before production got underway though, Toho did some marketing tests and quickly realized Jet Jaguar couldn’t carry an entire picture by himself, and much more importantly, wouldn’t sell enough toys afterward to make it worth anyone’s while.

Okay, so the producers scrambled, deciding to make it a Godzilla film instead, in which Jet Jaguar would play an important but decidedly secondary role. To insure it would be more of a fair fight at film’s end, they dusted off the Gigan suit from the previous Godzilla film to team him up with the big roach. That settled, all they had to do was get a completely revamped script, pull the production together, find a cast, then get it shot and edited. By the time everything else was taken care of, Fukuda had three weeks left in the schedule in which to actually shoot the damn thing.

For efficiency’s sake, a few niceties had to be jettisoned along the way, like miniature buildings. Instead of duking it out in an urban center as per usual, the four monsters would tag team it in some arid rocky wasteland instead. Cheaper that way, and faster, especially if they didn’t have to worry about miniatures and camera tricks and the like. After putting in a call to that annoying kid in the baseball cap and the shorts, they were off and running.

The story goes something like this: Those crazy Seatopians, an advanced civilization of toga-clad interpretive dancers who live on the sea floor near Easter Island, are getting mighty fed up with those surface dwellers and their nuclear tests. When their pleas go unheard, diplomacy fails and the tests roll on, the Seatopians send their giant roach guardian, Megalon, to Japan to make a mess of things, hoping that’ll finally get the point across. Meanwhile an inventor, his boyfriend, and what I guess is their adopted son are having a swell picnic on the shores of a small lake when suddenly a massive earthquake strikes and the lake drains (it’s a pretty cool effect). Back at their house, a couple of shady but incompetent Seatopian agents try to steal Jet Jaguar, the inventor’s new sleek robot.

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See, thanks to all that radiation the population of Seatopia is dwindling, so they were hoping to mass produce robots to act as slave labor leaving those remaining Seatopians more time for interpretive dancing. Some kidnapping and slapstick follows. We also learn that Jet Jaguar not only flies, he can change his size at will, too. So when Megalon shows up and starts breaking things and the kid suggests summoning Godzilla to show him what-for, they send the robot (who can also communicate with monsters through an exaggerated sign language) to Monster Island to get him. Some badly faded stock Godzilla footage pads things out for a bit until the inevitable showdown.

Before that, however, Gigan shows up from outer space miraculously enough and he and Megalon shove Jet Jaguar around like a couple of schoolyard bullies. When the tag team match finally does get underway, we learn two things. First, it seems all monsters can communicate via sign language. And second, in a particularly child-pleasing scene we learn Godzilla can slide for great distances while balancing on his tail, feet in the air in front of him, to dropkick his enemies. At film’s end Jet Jaguar (who has an admittedly catchy theme song) walks off into the sunset hinting at a sequel that never arrived.

Yes, well…it’s all pretty sad. It’s poorly lit, badly edited, and the costumes are a little tattered around the edges. The pacing is unpredictable at best and the plot, simple as it might seem, is still a head-scratcher when you get down to specific details. As big a Godzilla fan as I am, even I’m forced to admit that, well, Toho’s not only done better, but has always done better.

As is usually the case it took a few years for the film to reach the States, and when it did, it did so with a big marketing push and a poster that was a send up of the poster for the upcoming overhyped King Kong remake, deceptively featuring Godzilla and Megalon battling atop the World Trade Center. That was only part of what suckered me into the theater the first time. I can’t make any excuses for what suckered me in the next three times, except maybe that it was showing as part of a double bill with Bill Rebane’s Giant Spider Invasion. It didn’t matter that it was a shoddy piece of kaiju eiga, or that it featured no WTC showdown as promised, or that I felt like a big pervert buying my ticket and taking a seat in a theater filled with eight year-olds.

As admittedly bad as it was, I had a real affection for the film, and still do. I never laughed at it (except maybe here, a little). Instead I think I keep returning to it in search of something that would allow me to tell myself it’s not quite as godawful as it really is. I’m still looking. Music’s pretty catchy, so there’s that I guess.

In what was a boon for Toho and bad news for Godzilla, in 1976 while the film was still in theaters the American distributors cut a deal with NBC for a prime-time broadcast hosted by John Belushi. Dressed in a Godzilla costume, Belushi cracked wise throughout the picture a decade and a half before MST3K. Although the film did well in American theaters, it was that broadcast that gave Godzilla his biggest US audience in history, and sent most viewers away convinced from that point onward that all Godzilla films must be just like this one: dumb, cheap, sloppy, kiddie fare with no redeeming qualities. Just a couple of guys in sillyassed rubber suits wrestling clumsily.

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It was at that point that Godzilla films became the cultural joke they are today, and being an adult Godzilla geek became the equivalent of being a leper. It’s a bit like judging all of David Lynch’s films after only seeing Dune, or all of Norman Mailer’s work after only reading Tough Guys Don’t Dance. But I guess this is the way we operate.

I don’t know if it can be traced back to that broadcast or not, but since Godzilla vs. Megalon in 1976, even as Toho released over a dozen new Godzilla films and their quality improved dramatically, only two have been released theatrically in the States, which makes it very difficult to change people’s minds.