Boffo Bicentennial Beast Bash!
How Godzilla, Megalon, Gigan, and Jet Jaguar Became a Boxoffice Bonanza in ’76, Part 4
Coming on the hairy heels of the PG-rated The Giant Spider Invasion—with its rural adulterers, alcoholics, near-incest (a woman hitting on her teen sister’s beau, a brother-in-law hitting on the same scantily-clad teen sister, etc.), the drinking of (blendered) spiders, spiders-drinking-people, and splashy gore—the Bijou audience in Morrisville, VT was raring for—well, something bigger. Brassier. Ballsier.
Godzilla should fill the bill!
A stern narrator’s voice and a map filled the screen after the intermission lights dimmed. Blahblahblah nuclear testing, blahblahblah islands, blahblah Seatopia, then: MONSTERS! The crowd roared as Godzilla’s mug and his distinctive roar filled the theater—then, he was gone. Blahblahblah Monster Island, explosions, more explosions, and the title: GODZILLA VS. MEGALON! The audience howled in approval.
Oh, then—what we got…
What we got—to the slowly evident groans and gradual sinking and sagging of sore bodies into seats (those rock-hard Bijou theater seats were a tight, narrow, uncomfortably knee-cracking way to spend three+ hours)—was an unabashedly stupid children’s movie.
There was no doubt from the first shot of a human being in Godzilla vs. Megalon—of a waving preschool Japanese kid splashing in a lake, riding the most insanely cartoonish water-vehicle ever seen by mankind—that this wasn’t going to be anything like The Giant Spider Invasion. This was cheesy kid’s stuff, dumber than a salt lick.
For a time, you could feel the air leaving the audience. You could hear it, too. Still, nobody walked out. It wasn’t that bad.
See, there’s this out-of-place white guy in a bogus toga and tinsel headpiece (vet token-caucasian-in-Toho-movies actor Robert Dunham, as “Emperor Antonio of Seatopia,” above) who is, I dunno, ruler of some underwater kingdom named Seatopia—well, see, now, because of the nuclear testing, he’s pissed at the surface people, namely us.
This paunchy, balding Submariner-wannabe mystically conjures some giant flame-ball-belching drill-bit-handed outsized cockroach named Megalon from some dirt bunghole in the Earth. This provided a tentative link with The Giant Spider Invasion—you know, spiders, insects, bugs. Tentative, but it was something to hang on to.
There’s these Seatopian “secret agents” who look like shady Japanese-types with bad hair. All that seems to stand between certain doom for the surface world and Seatopia‘s armageddon-outta-here “dertain coom” is the punk semi-toddler with the badly-dubbed squeaky voice (Hiroyuki Kawase, from Akira Kurosawa‘s どですかでん / Dodesukaden / Dodes’ka-den, Jun Fukuda‘s ゴジラ対ヘドラ / Gojira tai Hedora / Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, and, later, the infamous Time of the Apes, the incomprehensible Planet of the Apes-rip-off TV-feature Sandy Frank cut down from the 1974 TV series SFドラマ 猿の軍団 / SF Drama Saru no Gundan).
Listen, it was really all about the kid.
In fact, Toho had aimed Godzilla vs. Megalon directly at the kid’s market, just as they had ゴジラ • ミニラ • ガバラ オール 怪獣大進撃 / Gojira Minira Gabara Ōru Kaijū Daishingeki / Godzilla: All Monsters Attack (1969), which saw a (very limited) 1971 stateside release from Maron Films (more on Maron momentarily) as Godzilla’s Revenge (double-billed with Terence Fisher‘s lackluster British sf fog-bound snoozer Island of the Burning Damned—original title: Night of the Big Heat, 1967).
This was a rough patch for diehard Godzilla devotees—even newsstand monster magazines like Castle of Frankenstein had been disparaging the Toho monster movie swing toward monster-fests and increasingly matinee-oriented fare, ever since Continental had imported 三大怪獣 地球最大の決戦 / San Daikaijū: Chikyū Saidai no Kessen / Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster in 1965.
But this—this was really kid stuff.
I recall hearing about Godzilla’s Revenge from a friend who’d seen it, bitching in disbelief that a Godzilla movie would not only “star” Godzilla‘s walnut-faced brat ミニラ / Minira / Minilla, aka Minya, to American viewers, but that it wasn’t really a monster movie at all—not a “serious” monster movie, like the Godzilla flicks, with monsters smashing cities, alien invaders, and so on. It was really about a tubby little Japanese kid fighting bullies, all while fantasizing about Godzilla as a role model. Huh?? This prompted much stoner conversation at the time, I tell you. Trust me on that.
It was hard at the time to fathom this was possible, much less true; most of us didn’t catch it until Maron sold it to TV, where it became a staple into the 1980s, and then, ooohhhhh, we learned the bitter truth. Why, Godzilla vs. Megalon seemed like Mutiny on the Bounty compared to Godzilla’s Revenge!
So kid-oriented was Godzilla vs. Megalon that its nominal co-star, Jet Jaguar, aka ジェットジャガー / Jetto Jagā (no relation to future rapper/producer/Vertigo comics writer Super Jet Jaguar, aka MF Grimm aka Percy Carey, who had just turned six years old when Godzilla vs. Megalon hit American screens), had reportedly been designed by a six-year-old boy, winner of a Japan-wide contest to design the lead character in a new Toho science-fiction epic. Somewhere between the lad’s robot design winning top prize and director Jun Fukuda actually shooting the movie, Toho brass decided Jet Jaguar, cool as he was, couldn’t carry a whole movie on his own iron shoulders—and so, the Jet Jaguar debut (and only) screen appearance would have to be a Godzilla movie (hope the kid earned a royalty and merchandizing shares, but I doubt it).
This was very, very fortunate for the father sitting directly behind us at the Bijou Theater that summer night. But I digress.
So, then, back to the movie:
The kid riding the clownish aquatic vehicle, named Rokuro aka Roku-chan, was someone I recognized. He was a bigger pain-in-the-ass in this movie (already, after only a few seconds of screen time) then he had been when he played wee little “Ken” in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (which I’d seen four years earlier on the big screen of the Paramount Theater in Barre, VT). Per usual, it sounded like his voice had been dubbed by a woman actor pretending to be a kid. Worse yet, he was saddled with two adults guardians or friends: the goofy-lapels-leisure-suit-wearing Hiroshi (Yutaka Hayashi) and a scientific inventor-type named Goro (Katsuhiko Sasaki), who has built a man-sized pointy-eared robot named Jet Jaguar (Tsugutoshi Komada).
I’d grown up watching Ultraman (left) on Canadian television (on CBC, Channel 6, if memory serves). I loved Ultraman, but I also knew the look and feel of the show was scaled back and down from even the cheapest Toho monster movie—and I was right.
Godzilla vs. Megalon was, in essence, a big-screen Ultraman episode.
Fine with me!
I don’t have to say “I can’t imagine what it looked like to the uninitiated,” because I was sitting right next to a couple of fellow Johnson State College tutors I’d dragged to this double-bill, and man, did I get an earful.
“Jesus, Bissette, this is the cheesiest Godzilla ever!” my pal Mike chuckled between handfuls of popcorn. “You owe me a pitcher of beer after this shit!”
Don’t get me wrong, everyone ended up having fun with Godzilla vs. Megalon, and there was even a cheer when Godzilla finally came trotting out, dukes up, ready to kick some beastie-butt after the dopey bug-boogey Megalon (Hideto Odachi) and blade-bristling Gigan (Kenpachiro Satsuma, aka Kengo Nakayama—hey, some of us keep track of this shit, OK?) had managed to knock the tar out of the garish silver-yellow-and-red grinning-grill-faced Jet Jaguar.
But man, that first half-hour or so was a tough slog. Seatopia blahblahblah, Seatopian spies blahblahblah, preschool espionage blahblahblah.
“Where’s Godzilla?” a kid sitting behind us urgently whispered to his Dad just about every five minutes.
“He’s coming,” Dad whispered back. “Don’t worry.”
The kid was worried.
The main fun to be had until the monsters took over the action seemed to be whatever pleasure could be mustered from jeering at the silly people antics on the screen. Relief arrived in the sequence in which Megalon plunged into the waters behind a huge dam, punching holes in the concrete structure until (much to Mike‘s chagrin) Megalon bopped the bright yellow dumpster Rokuro and Hiroshi were trapped in up into the air and impossibly to a safe landing, spilling unconscious but unharmed Roku-chan and Hiroshi out onto the grass. “Damn, I hoped that snot was finally gonna buy it,” Mike sneered.
“Dad, where is Godzilla?”
“Shhh, he’s coming. Look, there’s Jet Jaguar!”
He pronounced it “Jet Jagger,” I recall. (Hell, I was impressed he remembered the character’s name at all, but then again, this was hard work for a backwoods Dad. He probably thought this was going to be an easier ride than The Giant Spider Invasion, which I don’t recall the kid complaining about at all. In fact, we were a little surprised there even was a five-year old sitting right behind us; he didn’t make a peep until it was Godzilla time!)
That father spent a lot of time comforting his son that “Godzilla is coming.” This was typical of the Toho monster movies, especially by this point. Toho had tossed in a teaser before the title card—the nuclear tests that so pissed off the Seatopians had also upset the denizens of Monster Island, we were hastily told, but those few clips of Godzilla, Anguirus, and Rodan were fleeting, soon overwhelmed by miniature explosions and smoke—but man oh man, that pre-title tease sure had been a loooooooonnnnnnggg time ago for the five-year-old seated behind us. Hell, it was a long time for my own “inner five-year old,” lemmee tell you.
The Dad was going to need a pitcher of beer after this.
Finally, finally—after Megalon smashed the damned dam, after Jet Jaguar‘s regained control of his own will (seized earlier by those ditzy Seatopian agents)—Jet Jaguar went and got Godzilla off Monster Island.
But even then, save for brief crosscut shots of Godzilla seen from above, just the top of his head, swimming swimming swimming (“Dad—Dad, WHERE is Godzilla??”), the wee tyke still had to endure Gigan inexplicably being conjured from who-knows-fucking-where by the Seatopians (I’m still not sure who the hell that Seatopian ruler called up to get Gigan into the fray—I mean, who do you call? Can Obama get him on the phone, too?), and the agony of seeing Jet Jaguar spun silly before the wrestling-like team-up of rubber-men-in-suit villains Megalon and Gigan pounded the mercury-tinged snot out of Jet Jaguar.
Then, and only then, did Godzilla (Shinji Takagi) come strutting out onto the miniature landscape with the opulent azure sky backdrop, ready for action!
What brought Godzilla vs. Megalon to this remote nabe in Morrisville, VT? As I’ve said, this was a surprise boxoffice smash in the summer and early fall of 1976, and it seemed to be playing everywhere—and I do mean everywhere—for a couple of busy months.
- The back story, and company history, of Cinema Shares is well worth taking in, and trust me—it’s a hoot (here’s the best account I’ve found online, covering the entire history leading up to, and following, Cinema Shares‘s theatrical distribution run).
Pre-Cinema Shares, in partnership with whatever was left of producer Henry G. Saperstein‘s UPA Productions (the once-progressive animation studio Saperstein had purchased and bled dry), Maron Films unleashed the double-feature of War of the Gargantuas (フランケンシュタインの怪獣 サンダ対ガイ / Furankenshutain no Kaijū: Sanda tai Gaira, 1966) and Monster Zero (怪獣大戦争 / Kaijū Daisensō, aka Invasion of the Astro-Monsters; 1965) to drive-ins and nabes in 1970.
Now, that was a fucking Japanese movie monster double-feature—but it hardly landed playdates, sweeping through only select regional markets. Mahon Films just didn’t have the clout to open anything wide.
Once Maron was part of Cinema Shares (as of 1975), he had a hand in the stateside release of the Godzilla films released here as Godzilla on Monster Island (地球攻撃命令 ゴジラ対ガイガン / Chikyū Kogeki Meirei Gojira tai Gaigan, aka Godzilla vs. Gigan; 1972), Godzilla vs. the Bionic/Cosmic Monster (ゴジラ対メカゴジラ / Gojira Tai Mekagojira, aka Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla; 1974), and the subject of today’s installment of this interminable essay, GODZILLA vs. MEGALON (ゴジラ対メガロ / Gojira tai Megaro; 1973).
Godzilla vs. Megalon was by far the most successful of all the Cinema Shares releases of a Godzilla feature, and one of their most successful releases, period.
“Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster invited a lawsuit from the producers of the hit TV shows The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, prompting Cinema Shares to quickly change the word “Bionic” to “Cosmic”…,” and I’ve got the pressbooks in the SpiderBaby Archives as evidence.
Incredibly, Godzilla vs. Megalon was the only Godzilla feature to enjoy a prime-time TV premiere on a major U.S network: NBC broadcast it, with much ballyhoo, during the the summer of 1977, hosted by actor John Belushi in a Godzilla suit. It was hacked to pieces to fit a one-hour timeslot and make room for Belushi‘s antics, but the Godzilla action scenes were relatively intact.
This was a major coup and cash windfall for Cinema Shares, and harbinger of where Cinema Shares and Mahon‘s fortunes were going. Poggiali notes,
“After the tax shelter laws were tightened in the latter part of the 1970s, Cinema Shares ceased operating as a theatrical distribution outfit and turned all of its attention toward TV and international sales….After a five-year hiatus, Cinema Shares had a fleeting return to the theatrical market in the mid 1980s with a handful of low-grade Italian programmers, including Lamberto Bava’s MONSTER SHARK, the dreadful Mad Max rip-off RUSH and its equally terrible sequel, RAGE. After one-week runs on 42nd Street, where they were trashed by intrepid Variety critic Lawrence Cohn, these noxious throwaways were sold to video as “direct from theatrical release” and licensed to TV stations as part of Cinema Shares’ syndication packages. THE HEADLESS EYES, BLOOD WATERS OF DR. Z, the Italian horror film PANIC (starring [David] Warbeck and Janet Agren), and Andy Milligan’s THE MAN WITH TWO HEADS were other low-budgeters that turned up on TV in the late 1980s sporting the Cinema Shares logo.”
At some point in the 1980s, some of the Cinema Shares product—including Godzilla vs. Megalon—started popping up on multiple video labels in video rental stores and in retail venues. The perception—if not the legal reality—was that Godzilla vs. Megalon had become a public domain title, ripe for bootlegging in semi-legitimate packaging. It was the most prevalent Godzilla videocassette of them all.
How in hell did this happen? Back to Chris Poggiali‘s account of Maron‘s distribution history, speaking in this context of the Drive-In Movie TV broadcasts on WNEW Channel 5 in New York (which the Cinema Shares Godzilla films were part of), and the martial arts features Mahon had handled via World Northal Films:
“…rumor is that a thieving World Northal intern made off with dozens of the masters and started his own bootleg video company, which would account for all the dubbed prints that proliferated on VHS in the early 1990s (I used to pick them up at a spot on the Deuce near 8th that later relocated around the corner and became the 43rd Chamber).”
That’s possible, plus there must have been a lot of stray 35mm prints of Godzilla vs. Megalon out there, given the saturation booking Cinema Shares scored with the film nationally in 1976. Something had to happen to and with all those prints—and once Cinema Shares was kaput, they would have been considered corporate orphans by opportunistic videocassette labels.
But I’m getting ahead of the movie here.
So, Godzilla came striding over the cheap-but-man-that’s-still-pretty-cool miniature Japanese countryside, ready for action, and…
“Dad! It’s GODZILLA! GODZILLA!“
“Shhhhh—yep, son, that’s him!”
“Now he’s gonna kick some ass, Dad!”
And now, the Bijou audience was up in arms, roused to action.
This was a wrestler-lovin’ crowd (there were regular wrestling events in local American Legions, and in “big town” Burlington‘s Patrick Gym, from time to time), and everyone knew it was time:
Godzilla was going to open a can of whoop-ass on this big bug and his can-opener-armed scaly compadre.
Now, THIS was going to make the whole evening worthwhile!
To Be Continued!