29 November 2008

Mechagodzilla Chronicles: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Directed by Jun Fukuda. Starring Masaaki Daimon, Reiko Tajima, Akihiko Hirata, Shin Kishida, Hiroshi Koizumi, Goro Mutsu

So far in my in looking at tokusatsu films, I’ve dealt exclusively with director Ishiro Honda, the Japanese master of science-fiction and fantasy films. I also haven’t reviewed a single Godzilla film. Today I’m changing both trends at once with a Godzilla film from “the other guy” who directed Godzilla movies during the classic “Showa” era, Jun Fukuda.

This movie also begins an exciting set of reviews for me, as I examine a series-within-a-series: The Complete Chronicles of Mechagodzilla! Five films stretching over three eras featuring the robotic duplicate of the Big-G.

We start with the definitively titled Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.

Godzilla movies weren’t doing swell in the 1970s, but neither was the Japanese film biz. Economic collapse, plus the enormous popularity of television, killed off the country’s once-thriving studio system that had brought us everything from The Seven Samurai to Crazy Cats Go to Hong Kong. The death of special effects genius Eiji Tsubaraya in early 1970 also undercut Japanese science-fiction films. Space Amoeba was the final kaiju movie made under the old studio system.

Godzilla films still turned a profit, but with a younger and younger audience accustomed to watching monster action on the enormously popular superhero television shows that had overwhelmed the airwaves, such as Ultraman. Under-funded, padded with stock footage, and targeted to kids, most of the Godzilla films of this era, well, suck. Sorry to use such high-falutin’ terminology.

The two films before Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla compete for the title of “Worst Movie of the Series”: Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon. (The only other serious contender for this dishonor is 1994’s almost unwatchable Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla.) Toho put a bit more money and effort into their next film, recognizing it was the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of the original Godzilla.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla
seems a minor miracle in the context: almost no re-used footage, an absence of child actors, and some enjoyable monster fights mixed in with an adequate adventure plot. Some of the familiar actors from the ‘60s return, like Hirata and Koizumi, and even war-horse science-fiction actor Kenji Sahara pops up in a small role as a ship captain. The movie isn’t a classic, but hey, I like it.

Still, it is a ‘70s Godzilla film and far from the quality of the ‘60s classics. The epic alien invasions of the past have toned down to a much more budget-conscious version. Also, the immediate sequel, future review topic Terror of Mechagodzilla, casts a long shadow over it.

The best part of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is the new adversary, the outlandish robot imitation of Godzilla built by aliens who need the Earth’s “protector” (Godzilla took on this role solidly in Godzilla vs. Hedorah in 1970) removed so they can succeed in their diabolical scheme—which we never discover. It’s the same alien conquest-through-monsters shtick, only this time the aliens really want to tick-off Godzilla by making his robot adversary look like him. That’s the only reason I can imagine for the weird design conceit of Mechagodzilla. Form doesn’t follow function in the Toho Universe, but it’s excusable when a super-cool super-baddie like Mechagodzilla is the result.

Let’s chat about our humans before we get into the heavy metal. The story begins on Okinawa, where engineer Shimizu (Masaaki Daimon) works on the construction of a new marina. Don’t worry about the marina; we’ll never hear about it again. The uncovering of a cave during the construction reveals a mural with a prophecy from the ancient Okinawan royal family, the Azumi. Perky archaeologist Saeko (Reiko Tajima) interprets the Azumi legend that the protector animal of the royal family, King Seesar (often spelled “King Caesar,” which makes zero sense as the Okinawans would not pick the name of a Imperial Roman family for one of their gods) will arrive to save the world with the aid of another monster against the attack of a third. The Okinawan prophets probably never anticipated this would involve gorilla-faced aliens and a robot built of space titanium made in imitation of a radioactively mutated dinosaur, but the gods work in mysterious ways.

This prophecy worries Shimizu and Seako, but why it should surprise anyone mystifies me. Haven’t plenty of big monsters already come to destroy the world in the Toho Universe? It seems this prophecy has been fulfilled over and over again. Oh well, we have to get the story moving somehow.

The script’s mix of mysticism and science fiction isn’t a clean one, but it’s the ‘70s, where anything goes as long as it doesn’t cost too much. The inclusion of Okinawa also opens up possibilities regarding the tension between the island and the Japanese mainland, but only a few feints about this pop up. Ishiro Honda might have taken this a different direction if he were in the director’s chair.

Shimizu and Saeko go to a folklore expert in Tokyo, Professor Wagura (Koizumi), who is also Shimizu’s uncle. Meanwhile, Shimizu’s brother Masahiko (Kazuya Aoyama) takes a piece of metal he found in a cave to scientist Miyajima (Akihiko Hirata). I think he went to Miyajima because he’s dating Iko (Hiromi Matsushita), the professor’s daughter, but that’s only my guess based on nothing solid in the film. Professor Miyajima identifies the metal as “space titanium.”

Which means we have aliens involved. These invaders are from the third planet of the black hole (the black hole; apparently there’s only one), but have no spaceships since that might drive up the budget. Instead they hang out in bases built in caverns underneath Okinawa. The aliens have an interest in this King Seesar business, as does sinister Interpol agent Nanbara (Shin Kishida), a chain-smoker with the biggest sunglasses the world has ever seen. The aliens not only control Mechagodzilla, they also want to nab the statue of King Seesar that will allow the monster to return to protect the world.

Fistfight and chase action now begins, often shot with hand-held cameras. This is the sort of thing you wouldn’t see often in a film from Ishiro Honda. There is a moderately cool pursuit on a cruise ship, which ends with the revelation that the black hole aliens have ape faces under their human disguises, an obvious nod to the Planet of the Apes-mania going on at the time.

This spy/adventure plot, with pursuits and death traps and fisticuffs, suits director Jun Fukuda. Fukuda directed five Godzilla films total, including the previous two disasters, but with enough budget he could do enjoyable work with the accent on action, like the underrated Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. He has no interest in grand themes like Honda, but he knows how to make a film move forward and has a comfortable groove with the pulpy chase-and-escape formula. The score from Masaru Sato fits the spy material with its jazzy tempos.

However, even if Fukuda keeps the pace moving, none of the characters are terribly interesting, and as usual with a tokusatsu film, there are too many of them. It’s easy to confuse Iko and Saeko, for example. I do each time I see the movie. Professor Miyajima’s purpose is just to provide scientific explanations and set up the deus ex machina with a pipe that causes the aliens’ equipment to malfunction at a key moment; otherwise, he’s sloppily introduced into the story “as is,” and we don’t even find out he’s Iko’s father until later in the movie, almost by accident. Interpol agent Nanbara is the best character because he’s an accidental parody of spy intrigue, and the intentional mystery surrounding him is more involving than the unintentional mystery surrounding everyone else. A second, completely gratuitous Interpol agent leaps in near the end, just in case you didn’t have enough characters scribbled on your movie scorecard.

Miyajima, Iko, and Masahiko end up prisoners in the underground headquarters of the aliens, where the brandy-sipping and stogie-puffing Commander (Goro Mutsu) forces Miyajima to help them repair Mechagodzilla. They left the instruction manual in the black hole, apparently. They reward the professor by trying to scald him and the other two prisoners to death, which seems more akin to an episode of the ‘60s Batman show than Godzilla, but fine. Shimizu and Agent Nanbara close in on the Okinawan base in time for the rescue and the big finale with the three-way monster tussle.

Obviously, all the chat about King Seesar leads up to the monster itself emerging. However, this silly but cuddly kaiju delays his entrance until the last fifteen minutes. King Seesar’s design derives from the lion guardian statues of Okinawan shrines, but in execution it more resembles a puppy dog with adorable ears that perk up at the right moments. If it weren’t for Godzilla’s intervention, Seesar would be Purina Chow for Mechagodzilla.

In the monster action, the first kaiju we see is Anguirus, who has only a brief role, but it’s always great to see the scrappy fellow. At the eighteen-minute mark, Mechagodzilla emerges from a volcano, disguised as Godzilla. It’s obvious this isn’t Godzilla since the famous roar is replaced with a high-pitched screech. Anguirus tangles with the disguised Mechagodzilla, invoking this odd line from Shimizu: “Something’s wrong. Anguirus shouldn’t attack his friend Godzilla.” Funny, the two monsters fought to the death in the first Godzilla sequel, Godzilla Raids Again. Amazing how new friendships are born over the history of the kaiju film. The short but exciting fight—in which Anguirus gets trounced—receives an assist from the groovy fusion-jazz score from Masaru Sato; this is his best Godzilla moment. But the effects team should have watched the obviousness of the wires holding up the Anguirus suit when Mechagodzilla slams the poor quadruped up and down by the tail. This was a favorite kaiju fight tactic during the decade.

The disguised robot meets the actual “Big G” in an oil-refinery. Toho didn’t have two full Godzilla suits for filming, so for this scene the stuntman playing Mechagodzilla wears a promotional suit Toho used for appearances at shopping malls, etc., and which wasn’t meant for film work. It looks clunky and awkward, with over-sized teeth and eyes, but the staging tries to hide it as much as possible. The actual Godzilla costume is a mutt combination of the body of the suit used in Godzilla vs. Megalon with a new head grafted on. The head improves on the stupid Muppet-zilla from the last movie, although it still has the soft features and child-friendly googly eyes. Effects supervisor Teruyoshi Nakano handles the explosions at the refinery with flair; pyrotechnics were one of his specialties.

The Godzilla suit at last burns off the impostor, and we behold Mechagodzilla in its glory through a series of snappy fast-cut close-ups. This is when the aliens make their first official appearance, in an abrupt and clumsy cut to their rock and tin-foil lair leased from a Tom Baker Doctor Who episode. The aliens gloat about the prowess of their awesome space cyborg, but the fight ends in a draw when Mechagodzilla malfunctions and his builders have to take it back to their base to get the transmission repaired. Or find some Earthling who can do it for them.

Kind Seesar finally wakes up after Okinawan girl Babera Lynn (credited as “Barbara” Lynn in the American version) sings an overlong pop-song number to wake up the lazy bipedal lion god. Godzilla joins in when it becomes clear that Mechagodzilla is about to clean Fluffy Bunny’s clock, and an enjoyable if outrageous fight ensues. The editing is fast and furious, another mark of Fukuda’s direction.

Mechagodzilla unleashes a barrage of tech: eye-lasers, chest-beams, finger and toe missiles, and a force shield it creates by spinning its head rapidly. (Nakano does a good job with this effect.) Mechagodzilla in full-weapons mode is an awesome sight, and Godzilla really has his hands full with the grinning cyborg. Seesar manages to do next to nothing during all this; the Okinawans should look into hiring Rodan as their god-protector. Sorry, Mothra is already taken—maybe Infant Island could loan her out? I hear that Manda is free.

Godzilla has picked up a weird new skill. It seems he can absorb lightning bolts and store the energy to turn himself into a massive magnet. This comes in handy in pulling Mechagodzilla out of the sky, but try to avoid laughing as you watch Godzilla hold out his hands like a carnival stage hypnotist and “guide in” Mechagodzilla from the sky. He also picks up two power-line towers in the process. Oh, those wacky Japanese.

One more kaiju appears in the film. King Ghidorah shows up in still frames, which have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Things like this are always happening in tokusatsu.

Special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano does admirable work here with the increased budget. He sure makes stuff blow up purdy. However, the wire-work is sloppy, and Nakano over-uses the crude effect of the aliens’ faces turning into their ape masks. The lower budget is obvious in the reduced amount of miniature work. There is no city-stomping, although the disguised Mechagodzilla does knock down a large building that some rotten civic planner constructed in the middle of nowhere. Most of the monster action takes place in wilderness locations where the effects team doesn’t need to mock-up miniature buildings.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is a fun time, but it feels slight. Unless you’re a Godzilla fan, you’ll have a tough time keeping this one in your long-term memory, and you’ll likely confuse it with the superior sequel, Terror of Mechagodzilla, the topic of the next installment in this review series.

The best compliment I can pay to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is that it makes for one of the better “family night” Godzilla films. Kids will love it, and the adults won’t have to continually cringe or shake their heads in disappointment. The only caution here for children is that some Godzilla blood gets spilled. Eiji Tsubaraya refrained from showing monster gore in his effects work, but Nakano lets Godzilla spout red geyers from his neck when Mechagodzilla lands a few precise laser shots.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla didn’t reach U.S. screens until three years after it was made. Distributor Cinema Shares, which had made a bundle o’ cash from its release of Godzilla vs. Megalon, put the film out as Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster. They originally wanted to title it Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster, but Universal Television wasn’t having anybody step on their trademark “bionic” TV shows. Cinema Shares cut four minutes of the film, but the dubbed version on the current DVD is Toho’s uncut International dub, presented as an audio option. It’s passable for a dubbed version, but the disc contains the Japanese audio with subtitles for when the kids have gone to bed. The subtitles, however, match the English dub instead of literally translating the Japanese, which I think is a touch lazy—but this never was one of the great kaiju scripts to start with.

Next week: Terror of Mechagodzilla, the final movie from director Ishiro Honda, and the last Godzilla film of the classic era.