20 December 2008

Mechagodzilla Chronicles: Godzilla against Mechagodzilla

Godzilla against Mechagodzilla (2002)
Directed by Masaaki Tezuka. Starring Yumiko Shaku, Shin Takuma, Kumi Mizuno, Akira Nakao

We’re now in our third Godzilla series in the space of three reviews. The Heisei series came to a conclusion in 1995 with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, in which Godzilla appears to die in a nuclear meltdown created from his own body. The real reason for his death was that Toho had sold the rights for a U.S. re-make of Godzilla to Sony Pictures, and felt fine turning over their franchise to a big Hollywood studio.

We all know how that turned out.

The backlash against Godzilla ‘98 was so enormous that I’m surprised Japan didn’t bomb Pearl Harbor again just to get even. Of course, they knew American fans were as incensed as anyone that Sony had screwed up the greatest giant monster in history. Everyone had suffered, and Japan felt it was time to start the healing process and get a new, genuine Godzilla movie out as soon as possible.

The result was Godzilla 2000: Millennium, shortened to Godzilla 2000 for its U.S. release. The movie went to theaters in America, the first time that had occurred with the Big-G since The Return of Godzilla arrived stateside in the hacked-up form of Godzilla 1985. Millennium is a good, but not great, Godzilla movie, yet it reassured fans that the U.S. version of Godzilla would quickly be forgotten. Which it has. In fact, I’m not even sure what I was just talking about.

Godzilla 2000: Millennium initiated a new series of Godzilla films, the “Millennium Series,” which emphasizes large-scale effects with extensive CGI, although the monsters remain the traditional stunt people-in-suits that we all know and love. What sets this series apart from the first two is its purposeful disregard for continuity between entries. With one exception, which I’ll get to next week, each Millennium film has no connection to the others, and each creates its own distinct setting.

Godzilla against Mechagodzilla is the fourth Millennium movie. The previous film, Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, was a high-profile experimental work from director Shusuke Kaneko, who had helmed the popular trilogy of new Gamera films that had a major impact on the style of the Millennium films. GMK, as it’s usually shortened, pleased some fans, but annoyed just as many with its radical supernatural re-interpretation of Godzilla and his adversaries. Godzilla against Mechagodzilla strives to return to an earlier and less ambitious style. The director of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, Masaaki Tezuka, returned to helm this more lightweight science-fiction story, and the screenwriter who helped make Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II such a slimmed-down SF delight, Wataru Mimura, also came back to fashion the script.

Picking Mechagodzilla as the adversary was shrewd. Without a name director, the new movie needed a hook, and using one of Godzilla’s most popular foes was just what it needed. The title is essentially identical to the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, since the Japanese word “tai” means either “versus” or “against.” The actual Japanese title is Gojira X Mechagojira; using the letter “X” was instead of “vs.” was a hallmark of the Millennium series.

The film begins with a pre-title action sequence, in the manner of a Bond flick, a device used often in the Millennium series. A typhoon slams the Japanese coast at Tateyama, and in the midst of the rain and wind maelstrom, Godzilla emerges from the ocean and wades ashore. The monster makes his first appearance in a clever shot where he rises up behind a television reporter on a cliff side.

Although we later find out that Godzilla hasn’t appeared in Japan since 1954, the Japanese government already has preparations in place for a giant monster attack. The AMF (Anti-Megalosaurus Force, 4072 members—thank you on-screen titles for the trivia) sends out a battalion to stop the monster. The main weapon is none other than the beloved masers first seen in War of the Gargantuas and perpetually shooting lightning bolts at big monsters ever since. The AMF doesn’t do that well against the Big-G, this time, and suffers some casualties in a maneuvering error that puts one jeep under Godzilla’s foot. The sequence ends with Godzilla roaring into the tempestuous skies as his dorsal fins crackle with power to match the lightning bolts.

Extremely cool stuff. However, the opening also warns of the movie’s largest problem: Godzilla’s performance. The suit used here goes back to the design used in Godzilla 2000: Millennium and Godzilla vs. Megaguirus: spiky and hard dorsal spines, ridged skin, and elongated jaw with jagged teeth. The changes for this movie give Godzilla a more upright stance with a shorter snout, and he looks less reptilian and fierce. But the real problem is that the suit frequently appears to have nobody in it; it stands stock-still while missiles smash into it. I’m not sure what happened here. In Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, Godzilla was animated and active, sometimes strutting like a tough-guy action star. But that film’s same director renders Godzilla almost inert at times in this movie. Maybe the effects crew should shoulder the blame for this, but the work they do elsewhere is superb.

This is the only major complaint I can lob at the movie, but it is a major complaint. Be cautioned, I’m going to bring it up more.

Post-titles, the film moves into the requisite explanation for what continuity the story takes place in. Since the Millennium films occur independent of each other, they have to provide context for Godzilla’s appearances. A scene between Prime Minister Tsugé (old-timer Toho starlet Mizuno) and her Minister of Defense (Akira Nakao, who played a recurring military figure in the Heisei films) uses footage from classic Toho films to set the new history. Godzilla has only appeared once, in the events from the 1954 original film, and he perished from Serizawa’s oxygen destroyer and his skeleton fell to the bottom of Tokyo Bay. Pay attention, kids; this will come up again. The Godzilla that has come ashore is a “new” monster of the same species. The period in between these two Godzillas witnessed attacks from at least two other monsters, Mothra (clip from 1960’s Mothra) and Gaira (clip from 1966’s War of the Gargantuas, and here referred to as a “bigfoot”), which led to the development of the heat ray and the masers. But Godzilla . . . damn, that’s a tall order. Ain’t no monster that bad.

The government has a unique plan to combat the new national threat. Advances in bio-technology and the recovery of the skeleton of the original Godzilla from the ocean floor allows a special scientific task force to construct a “bio-robot” based around the skeleton. A “Mechagodzilla,” if you will. That name, however, is only mentioned a few times in the Japanese dialogue. The government instead personalizes the bio-machine with name “Kiryu,” a guardian dragon from Japanese legend.

This is the third Mechagodzilla origin, but for the first time the robot imitator has a reason to look like Godzilla. The bio-robot concept is far-fetched, but in the science-fiction setting of the movie it has a logical sound to it—much more so than the previous two origins in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II. And I can’t argue with the ultra-cool design of Kiryu, which mixes elements of the Showa and Heisei Mechagodzilla and then gives it the gloss of the coolest action-figure toy you ever got for your seventh birthday.

Kiryu’s control mechanism makes more sense than the pilot team housed in its cranium from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II; the control team remotely operates and oversees Kiryu from a VTOL plane, White Heron. The White Heron pilot, Akané, is also our action hero for the story. She has guilt issues from the pre-title encounter with Godzilla, where her errors cost the life of a comrade in the AMF.

The moment the Japanese government unveils Kiryu to the world, Godzilla appears on scanners heading for the coast. What timing! Godzilla emerges at an aquatic amusement park, and a fleet of White Herons transport Kiryu to his location and drop the robot into action.

The first confrontation between Kiryu and Godzilla shows the wonderful design of the first, and the problematic portrayal of the second: Kiryu flat-out rocks in action; Godzilla never seems to go into action. Kiryu fires off a gorgeous display of missiles, and Godzilla simply stands there, unmoving, while the armament hammers him. Kiryu prepares to fire off an absolute-zero cannon when Godzilla’s roar causes an error in Kiryu’s bio-mechanics. Apparently there is a bit too much of Godzilla’s DNA in the cyborg, and Kiryu malfunctions and starts to attack the White Herons guiding it, and then takes out its anger on the city.

This Mechagodzilla rampage is the film’s highlight. The robotic display of destruction is gorgeous to behold for any lover of giant monster movies, and it’s a reminder of the original alien-built Mechagodzilla from the Shōwa series. There’s one shot of Kiryu walking through a building in a straight line, leaving a hole behind it, that is one of the finest special effects moments in the Millennium series. The sequence concludes with Kiryu coming to halt against a sunset over the city that is breathtaking in its beauty and scope.

Because of the intensity of this scene, the first time I saw Godzilla against Mechagodzilla I thought that the rest of the movie would focus on an out-of-control Kiryu, and perhaps Godzilla would turn into an inadvertent hero who has to bash the frenzied cyborg to save everyone. It doesn’t happen that way, but it was an entertaining idea. Kiryu eventually runs out of power, and the AMF goes back to the drawing board to figure out what happened.

Godzilla next emerges at Shinagawa, and the nighttime defensive to try to stop him from landing has plenty of visual references to classic Eiji Tsubaraya military assault scenes from the ‘60s. However, the scene ends with a duplicate of Godzilla’s harbor attack from 1984’s The Return of Godzilla, as the monster wipes out the shore defenses with a long sweep of his radioactive ray. It’s a strange callback from a non-classic, but director Tezuka is a big Godzilla-nut, and I guess that includes the lesser films as well. Godzilla is at his most animated in this sequence, thankfully.

The Japanese government hesitates for dramatic effect before putting the risky Kiryu back in action. The metal savior gets to swoop into Shinagawa to stage a dramatic body slam to Godzilla right before he incinerates a hospital and a kid in a nurse’s arms. I wish I had been able to see this in a theater, because the audience would have hit the ceiling with cheers over Kiryu’s heroic rescue.

On with the big monster butt-kicking. This is one rockin’ fight, and Kiryu shows spectacular fury with fisticuffs, rocket barrages, electrified spikes, and even shooting the jet-pack off its back to send Godzilla sprawling a few miles away. There are two clumsy effects moments, one where Kiryu does an inexplicable leap over Godzilla’s head, and the second when Kiryu spins Godzilla around by the tail and hurls him away. You would think a government-built robot wouldn’t toss a giant monster randomly off into the most populated city in the world, but never mind. It’s a pleasantly silly moment, and we need to have a least one in the movie.

Unfortunately, the fight gets interrupted for a slow sequence where Kiryu’s control gets damaged and Akané has to board the fallen machine to take manual control of the robot. This goes on too long before the fight resumes for the impressive finale, with a White Heron charging Godzilla head-on and a dramatic use of the absolute-zero cannon over the ocean. Oh, and have I mentioned the Godzilla frequently stands still while getting hammered? Sorry, don’t mean to be repetitive. (Yes I do.)

As he did in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, director Tezuka displays an aptitude here for the human scenes, making them light and humorous without turning into distractions that seem to try too hard. Tezuka seems to be saying, “I know you’re not watching this movie to see the people, but I’ll make their scenes as enjoyable as possible without making them central.” The father-daughter relationship between one of the Kiryu scientists and his motherless daughter Sara is handled well, with just the appropriate touch of comic cuteness to it. Mimura’s script also knows how to play the right notes to balance out the monster action with some genuine but never heavy-handed human empathy.

The score from Michiru Oshima is fantastic. She composed to music to Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, which is just about the best score anybody has written for a Godzilla film outside of Akira Ifukube. She nails it again here. Oshima re-uses the superb thundering theme she wrote for Godzilla in her previous movie, and composes a pristine and celebratory theme for Kiryu that wouldn’t sound out of place in the Olympics. All her music has the orchestral force and depth that bring the most to a monster film. Why Hollywood hasn’t snatched her up to score big-budget American movies must mean that the right people aren’t watching Japanese films these days.

Godzilla against Mechagodzilla is possibly the best movie of the Millennium years. Godzilla: Final Wars and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack are too experimentally strange, Godzilla 2000: Millennium moves too stodgily and without enough of its star, and Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is often too goofy for some viewers, although I love the hell out of it. (You’ll find out more about my opinion of Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. next week.) Godzilla against Mechagodzilla strikes the right balance of the Shōwa-style Godzilla with new technology and the Heisei comic-book approach, has a decent and endearing human core, and only loses out with the strange Godzilla immobility and the stretched-out finale.

Godzilla against Mechagodzilla was a decent success for Toho when it came out, so the next year the studio brought back the same creative team for a re-match, and added Mothra into the mix to increase marquee value. Stay tuned next week for the final (so far) Mechagodzilla movie, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.