Whenever a franchise changes hands, there's always some concern within its fandom. Just look at the continuous fuss over whether RTD's or Moffat's approach to Doctor Who is better. Or whether Star Trek fans prefer Roddenberry, Meyer, or Abrams. The Godzilla fandom is no different. Fans have and do fight over whose interpretation of the King of the Monsters is best. As in many case, the original visionary (Ishiro Honda) is often held as the best. It's fitting then that many fans see the moment the Showa series left Honda's hands as the beginning of its decline.
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (also known as Godzilla vs. the Sea Montser) was not the first Godzilla film to be directed by someone other than Honda—that would be Godzilla Raids Again—but it was the second and the first to feature Honda's eventual replacement, Jun Fukuda. And it was the first Godzilla film to ditch veteran special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, whose fights with Toho over budget constraints would eventually cause him to leave the studio entirely. The soundtrack was also composed by Masaru Sato, rather than the series mainstay Akira Ifukube. Indeed, the entire crew of Ebirah is a completely different set of people than those who worked on the original Godzilla, a first for the series.
Perhaps for that reason, Ebirah's style is fairly different from earlier Godzilla films or indeed most Toho-produced tokusatsu films. Rather than a horror or science fiction thriller, Ebirah is more of a comedy-drama adventure with a distinctly nautical theme. In contrast to most previous films in the series—with the notable exception of King Kong vs. Godzilla—Ebirah has few pretensions to seriousness and is instead much more interested in having a straightforward and guilt-free romp. There's no message about humanity's hubris here, no warning against the dangers of nuclear war, no cities are laid to waste.
A large part of this is probably because the script was actually originally written for King Kong, rather than Godzilla. Unlike Godzilla, who'd only recently turned a new leaf to become humanity's ally against alien invaders, King Kong was always imagined (from Toho's perspective anyway) as a friendly monster. Whereas Godzilla is an allegory for the destructive power of the atom bomb and the devastation it wrought on Japan at the end of World War II, King Kong is a guiltless and uncomplicated monster whose only crime was an unhealthy fascination with human women. These features translate over to Godzilla in this film, who's in general blameless in his interactions with humans and also displays an uncharacteristic affection for the female sex.
Either way though, Ebirah's a pretty unusual Godzilla film. And for some people that probably translates as bad. I'd disagree, though admittedly to my own surprise.
Our story opens—as if often does—with a storm at sea, where a ship is caught by troubled seas before being assaulted by the enormous claw of an unseen monster, which snaps the vessel in two. A few months later, the brother of one of the ship's occupants, a man named Ryota Kane, consults with a Shinto priestess, who asserts that his brother is still alive. Convinced by her, Ryota seeks out two of his friends—Nita and Ichino—and persuades them to enter a dancing contest to win a yacht so they can sail after his brother Yata. They ultimately fail, but decide to steal a boat instead, snagging a boat claimed by a robber named Yoshimura, who is ultimately revealed to have stolen the boat himself first.
Ryota and his companions' journey at sea fares no better than his brother's, however, and they are likewise met by a terrible storm before their boat is snapped in two by the powerful claw of a sea monster. Fortunately, they survive the storm to wash ashore Letchi Island, which they soon discover is occupied by a band of modern-day pirates known as the Red Bamboo, who've been using the island as a base from which to launch raids against the rest of the world. The island is also inhabited by the Red Bamboo's slaves, who have been kidnapped from the neighboring Infant Island, home of Mothra, to assist them in their diabolical plans.
To prevent the slaves' escape, the Red Bamboo has employed the island's natural guardian Ebirah, a giant lobster who they keep at bay with a chemical repellent they force the slaves to manufacture. One slave, a girl named Dayo, does manage to escape, however, by taking an overland route rather than traversing over sea, which causes her to run into Ryota and his friends. Finding themselves now on the run from the Red Bamboo, the ragtag group takes refuge in a nearby cave where they find, much to their surprise, Godzilla slumbering away!
What follows is a wild adventure in which Ryota and his friends try to enlist the aid of both Godzilla and Mothra in order to escape the island while also sabotaging the Red Bamboo's efforts at world conquest. It's generally a pretty silly plot, with a lot of slapstick humor, wacky antics, and cartoonish villainy. To a certain extent, this is par for the course: the script is written by Shinichi Sekizawa, known among kaiju fans as the more light-hearted of Toho's two chief script doctors, the other being the grave and somewhat misanthropic Takeshi Kimura. On the other hand, the absence of Ishiro Honda, who always felt monster films should be primarily serious affairs, probably allowed Sekizawa a bit more creative freedom than he was usually allowed.
These less-than-serious tendencies and the wacky, unconventional plot are probably a large part of why a lot of Godzilla fans aren't particularly fond of Ebirah. Godzilla's uncharacteristic behavior is probably another, along with his sudden and unexplained dependence on electricity as a source of power (when in previous films it was actually one of the few things that could weaken him). If you look at IMDb's rating of the film or most fan reviews, they tend to be fairly harsh. But actually, the film's not all that bad and it actually holds up better than I expected.
The direction and acting is solid, with all of the lead actors pulling off a fairly believable, if intentionally silly, performance. The soundtrack, while very different from the Ifukube scores of prior films, is actually pretty engaging and fun to listen to. Perhaps most surprising of all the special effects of Ebirah are actually superior to the last few films in the Showa series, despite the loss of Eiji Tsuburaya. Sure, Ebirah's pretty much literally just a giant lobster (with little divergence from that very simple concept) but the suit actually holds up pretty well in motion, unlike (for example) the Frankenstein's monsters from Gargantuas. To a certain extent, I have to say that Sadamasa Arikawa's a bit underrated and may actually have a few innovations to offer over the legendary Tsuburaya.
There's no getting away from the fact that Ebirah's a lot more transparently cheesy and silly than earlier Showa films though. In a way, the film's a preview of what's to come from Toho in the near-future: with a few exceptions, the later films in the Showa series (many of which were directed by Ebirah's Fukuda) are known for their light-heartedness and cheesy humor. Where prior Showa films generally—with varying degrees of success—aimed for some degree of gravitas, the Fukuda Showa films almost never do.
And that's okay. While I do agree with a lot of Godzilla fans that the King of the Monsters is at his best when he's a serious threat and a human-made disaster of literally monstrous proportions, there's some value also in those sillier films that are willing to embrace the campiness that often (unintentionally) accompanied the series. One size doesn't have to fit all, nor should it. Sometimes you want a serious parable about humanity's hubris and the horrors of nuclear war. Other times though, you just want to watch monsters beat one another up.