An unlikely series of events land a bank robber, two go-go dancing yacht enthusiasts, and one determined, naive youth on an isolated South Seas island crawling with comic book baddies and giant monsters in this silly seventh entry in the Godzilla series. Though initially pitched as a return adventure for King Kong, still under license to Toho at the time (after 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla – he would re-appear in the more lavish King Kong Escapes the following year), Ebirah – Horror of the Deep instead became a vehicle for the company’s own star monster, and effectively finalized Godzilla’s transition from living nuclear nightmare to dependable tokusatsu hero in the process.
It’s perhaps best not to dwell too much on Ebirah‘s narrative details – regular series scribe Shinichi Sekizawa (Invasion of Astro-Monster) and director Jun Fukuda (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla) certainly did’t, but that’s not really a bad thing. The film’s oddball band of good-humored heroes are propelled into action setups early, often, and with a good deal of tasty pulp contrivance to spare. After a perfect confluence of inclement weather and ill-wanted kaiju intervention leaves them stranded on unfamiliar shores Ebirah‘s considerable heroic cast finds itself in trouble yet again, fleeing the island’s resident bad-guys – the insidious Red Bamboo organization, who are dabbling in human trafficking, slave labor, and gargantuan prawn husbandry on their way to nuclear domination of… well, something. Good-guy thief Akira Takarada gives the Bamboo plenty of his own brand of trouble, stealing into its island base with his mad lock-picking skills and making asses of them with their own munitions stores, but not without some unfortunate consequences. One among the heroes is captured and put to work manufacturing the chemical the Bamboo use to keep their guard-monster Ebirah from biting the hand that feeds, while another is whisked by errant spy balloon to nearby Infant Island (which the Bamboo have been using as their personal slave emporium).
With their numbers dwindling and the Bamboo hot on their heels Takarada and friends make a strangely fortuitous discovery. Deep within their secret cave hideaway sleeps Godzilla, a slumbering giant Ebirah‘s heroes hope to wake for their own benefit. Elsewhere the ever-oppressed yet ever-positive natives of Infant Island pay endless musical homage to their massive insect god Mothra, trusting that she will rise to aid them when they are most in need. With two monsters against them and another’s allegiance hanging by the slenderest of manufactured threads the odds are soon stacking up against the once mighty Red Bamboo, but their fit of in-the-crosshairs desperation may well spell doom for everyone…
As much substance as there had been to the Godzilla series in its fledgling days, where it served as a reflection both of Japan’s wartime experience and of the anxieties born of a newly nuclearized world, by 1966 it had devolved into pop cinema pure and simple. While Ebirah – Horror of the Deep pays some lip service to the no-nukes messaging of the past (a character briefly ponders the future of nuclear proliferation, just before the owari rolls) it is far more concerned with its own goofy fantasy thrills than making any kind of meaningful statement. Despite its obviously diminished production values and similarly diminished narrative ambitions (the island-based action is scaled down significantly from the prior year’s Invasion of Astro-Monster, which sent Godzilla and Rodan into space and had them thwarting an alien invasion back at home) Ebirah succeeds well enough as escapist entertainment, adeptly shuffling us from one colorful action setup to the next before attentions wane or the palpable cheapness of it all has a chance to set in.
And cheap it can certainly appear. Godzilla himself, a retrofitted suit from the previous year’s Invasion of Astro-Monster, has obviously seen better days, and Haruo Nakajima’s nose and brows make occasional guest appearances from the openings in his well-worn neck. The newly-crafted Ebirah fairs well enough for what it is, a big bug in the same vein as the later Kamakiras and Kumonga, but monster-god Mothra is short-changed early and often, appearing as an unconvincing matte painting for much of the picture and falling victim to some truly dreadful process photography later on. The tokusatsu action isn’t particularly inspired either. Godzilla’s conflict with the Red Bamboo amounts to a duel with the organization’s excessively wobbly air force and a protracted assault on their base of operations – a nondescript patch of dirt studded with some of the series’ least convincing miniatures. It’s a pitiable sight at times. Once at the cutting edge of its particular brand of effects magic the Godzilla series was now simply doing the best it could in the midst of falling attendance and diminishing budgets, and with Toho’s pre-eminent effects personality Eiji Tsuburaya increasingly busy with his television productions (Ultra Q premiered that same year) it was left to his long-time assistant Sadamasa Arikawa (The Mighty Peking Man) to somehow make it all work.
In the case of Ebirah – Horror of the Deep tone is the great equalizer, and most of Arikawa’s setups are wisely played for kicks (with a hefty assist from Masaru Sato’s raucous, surf rock inflected score). Case in point are Godzilla’s pair of battles with big-shrimp Ebirah, the first of which is punctuated by an impromptu boulder volleyball match with a bit of fun collateral destruction as its end result. The aforementioned air force battle plays better in context than its meager effects would suggest, scored as it is with rock and roll dance music to which Godzilla busts the occasional move (shades of The Great Monster Yongary). Still, amid all the goofy fun even Ebirah manages some indelible series moments. Godzilla’s first appearance, bursting from the side of a mountain as a storm rages, has legitimate visual impact, and his stylish lightning-fueled awakening would be repeated for 1984’s big franchise reboot Return of Godzilla.
I watched Ebirah – Horror of the Deep a lot as a kid, either on tape (one of the first I ever owned) or in its innumerable television airings as Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, and while its more ragged aspects may have become more obvious it remains a good heap of fun. You get Akira Takarada as a charismatic burglar, Kumi Mizuno as a comely Infant Islander, a trio of Toho heavies as the evil Red Bamboo (Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, and Eisei Amamoto at their sinister cartoon best), as well as explosions, dubious Bond-esque secret labs, a deadline atomic plot device, and a trio of giant monsters in varying degrees of conflict with both the human cast and each other. This is monster cinema reconfigured as pure primary-colored pop escapism, and it’s pretty good stuff.
The screenshots in this article are sourced from the Japanese Blu-ray of Ebirah – Horror of the Deep, which was released by Toho Visual Entertainment in August of this year to commemorate Godzilla’s 60th birthday. While some will consider the transfer inferior to the domestic Blu-ray (in terms of detail it certainly is, though I prefer Toho’s color saturation and framing in this case), the Japanese release makes good by offering a heap of supplements and an alternate cut of the film besides (the shorter Champion Festival version). I’m reticent to recommend, with Toho tinkering with 4k technology and all, but those interested can find the disc through Amazon.co.jp, Cdjapan.co.jp, and the other usual outlets. The American edition is also still available, and at dirt-cheap prices.