13 December 2008

Mechagodzilla Chronicles: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
Directed by Tadao Okawara. Starring Masahiro Takashima, Ryoko Sano, Megumi Odaka, Yusuke Kawzu, Kenji Sahara, Akira Nakao.

Welcome to the second era of Godzilla films, known as the Heisei series. The original movies made between 1954 and 1975 are referred to as the “Shōwa films,” after the reign of Emperor Hirohito. The new era started in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla. (If you’ve seen it in its Americanized version, Godzilla 1985, my condolences.)

My overview of the films featuring Mechagodzilla drops us into the middle of the Heisei years with the movie that most G-fans would vote as the best of the second series. I flip back and forth between Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) as the top picture of the Heisei films. King Ghidorah has an intriguing and interesting time-travel plot, the return of Godzilla’s most famous adversary, and a knockout finale. But Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II has a straightforward script, streamlined action, and in general the best structured screenplay of any of the Heisei films, written by a hardcore G-fan for once, Wataru Mimura. The collection of effects scenes are the best from VFX supervisor Koichi Kawakita, and the science-fiction theme of nature vs. technology is adeptly handled. So . . . yeah, it’s the best film in the series. I guess I’m not flipping around any more.

(Despite the Roman numeral, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II isn’t in any way a sequel to Jun Fukuda’s 1974 movie. This is just the way Toho’s International Sales Department titled the film in English so viewers could distinguish it from the older movie.)

Mechagodzilla gets in the title, but two bonus monsters are packed inside. Rodan makes its first re-appearance since Destroy All Monsters (1968), re-imagined as a smaller and more realistic Pteranodon creature. As most Heisei monsters had the ability to fire missile weapons (a favorite device of special-effects supervisor Kawakita), Rodan eventually turns into “Fire Rodan” and develops heat bursts. The explanation for the transformation is almost non-existent, but what the hey.

The other bonus monster is the core of the story: Baby Godzilla. Those words might make you cringe, fearing cuteness. But Baby Godzilla acquits itself very well here. It’s designed as a human-sized infant Godzillasaurus (un-radiated), and although definitely cute, Baby makes biologic sense. And it drives the plot, giving viewers a sympathetic center in the middle of the war between Godzilla, Mechagodzilla, Rodan, and the flying battle-platform Garuda.

As you might already guess from what I’ve written, a lot goes occurs in this film. Mimura’s script does one of the most admirable jobs ever in a tokusatsu film at balancing it all out. Not all parts of the story eventually connect—Rodan’s involvement is always strange and ill-explained—but it avoids confusion and keeps the viewer’s focus always in right place: the monsters.

The prologue and credits sequence introduce the new incarnation of Mechagodzilla in a festival of awesomeness. The governments of Earth—although mostly Japan—have finally gotten sick of Godzilla smashing their cities during the last three movies, and form G-Force to deal with him. G-Force’s secret weapon: a huge robot in imitation of Godzilla, built from the future technology taken from Mecha-King Ghidorah (see Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah two years earlier). Why build the giant robot to look like Godzilla? I have no idea; somebody probably lost a bet in G-Force’s late-night design sessions over glasses of cheap sake. Of the three Mechagodzillas, this one makes the least sense. I can see why the Black Hole aliens would fashion their monster as a way to tease Godzilla, and as we’ll see in Godzilla against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., the third Mechagodzilla had a sound and clever explanation for its strange form.

Akira Ifukube brings out his Mechagodzilla theme during the terrific construction scene. The weird, alien theme from the older film wouldn’t make much sense for this tool of humanity, so Ifukube uses a grave, powerful march that showcases his ability to find the perfect notes to emphasize a monster’s form. The design of the new Mechagodzilla is my least favorite of the three, however. It’s more rounded, it moves a touch awkwardly, and I never liked the shape of its head. These are really only minor complaints; it’s still cool.

Oh yeah, the humans. Better talk about them a bit. Featured hero Kazuma Aoki (Masahiro Takashima) is a technician on Garuda, an earlier anti-Godzilla weapon pushed aside for the Mechagodzilla project. He isn’t happy about his transfer over to the Mechagodzilla team on G-Force. Aoki is a nut about Pteranodons, which is only an excuse to later get him to investigate the supposed Pteranodon egg an expedition brings back from Adona Island. The egg hatches to reveal instead an infant Godzilla, who latches on to the pretty scientist Ryoko (Azusa Gojo). Aoki would love to latch onto her as well. Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka), a character who appears in every Heisei film except The Return of Godzilla, does some interpreting, and detects that Godzilla is on his way to claim his child. Time to get Mechagodzilla into action!

The humans aren’t the most riveting bunch in a kaiju film, but they keep the story moving without getting distracting or unnecessarily complicating things. The relationship with Baby embeds them much more into the story, and Aoki is a charming sort of dork as the lead. Miki Saegusa gets something more to do than just warn everybody that Godzilla is coming; she plays an important part in communication with Baby, and G-Force needs her psychic abilities as part of their planned assault on Godzilla using Mechagodzilla.

Kenji Sahara is in this film too, playing a government official established in the earlier Heisei movies. He doesn’t have a large part, mostly watching the action taking place on screens at G-Force Headquarters, but he adds so much old-school Toho class that it’s a joy having him around. Unfortunately, he has to play his scenes with Leo Meneghetti as Dr. Asimov (har, har), an American actor whose stilted delivery won’t be apparent to Japanese audiences, but it makes him a hoot to listen to in the U.S.

The plot trajectory follows Godzilla’s destructive search for Baby while G-Force gets Mechagodzilla’s kinks worked out so they can institute their new plan, which involves using the “G-Crusher” to immobilize Godzilla by destroying his second brain in his lower body. (This isn’t that wild of an idea; a some real dinosaurs had multiple brains to manage their enormous size.) Rodan, whom Godzilla trashed on Andona Island, comes back to life to search for its “nest brother” Baby, eventually leading the two radiated dinosaurs and the human-piloted robot to a clash at an ocean-front business park for the jumbo-sized finale.

The battle between Rodan and Godzilla on Andona Island is the most Showa-like fight in the Heisei series. The monsters get in close quarters and tussle like actual animals. Rodan’s beak strikes sparks as it hits, and it looks like it genuinely hurts Godzilla—or at least gets him damned steamed. Ifukube’s music here re-uses the dueling themes of Rodan and Godzilla from Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and it’s a thrilling flashback to the golden age of monster mayhem. I just wish Rodan would flap his damn wings a bit more when flying; Kawakita’s flying monsters always seem to stay aloft through some magical power.

The finale contains a couple of jaw-dropping effects. I’ve seen the movie with a crowd, and they literally all gasped at once when Mechagodzilla blasted Rodan into the side of a forty-story skyscraper and brought it all down. Mechagodzilla eventually merges with Garuda to form “Super Mechagodzilla,” and throws a classic mecha-fit of weapons at its enemy.

But the final is also a battle with some heart: Baby’s fate hangs in the balance, and Miki Saegusa finds herself at a moral crossroads when she has to guide Mechagodzilla’s final attack that may kill Godzilla. The coda is bittersweet and quite moving, concluding with Ifukube’s somber new choral “ESP Theme” as Godzilla and child wander back to the ocean, leaving the humans and the wreckage of their arrogance behind.

I’ve mentioned composer Akira Ifukube a few times in this review, but I’ll throw one more kudo his way. This is one of the greatest scores of his career, and the classic Godzilla sound he brings to the mix shows what an asset he was to decades of giant monster action. As John Barry is to James Bond and John Williams to Star Wars, Ifukube is to Godzilla.

I’ve seen Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II many times in Japanese with English subtitles, so for the purpose of writing this review, I chose to watch it dubbed just to experience it the way most American children would. The dub on the current DVD is available as an audio option, not as a separate film as it often is on the Classic Media DVDs. The dub is one that Toho commissioned and was probably done in Hong Kong. These dubs are usually of poor quality, and this one is no exception. It seems the casting for the voices was done by random lot, and the actors yanked off the street. Compare the dubbing here to the one done by TriStar for Godzilla 2000: Millennium for its U.S. release and you’ll see the difference in quality, principally in the performances. However, there’s always a nostalgic gleam to watching a kaiju film dubbed, since it was the only way I could see these movies when I was a wide-eyed little boy. Yes, the dubbing is bad, but I still enjoyed watching the film this way as long as I knew I could flip over to the Japanese language track the next time I came back to it.

Next week: Mechagodzilla enters the Millennium era, and gets a new name, in Godzilla against Mechagodzilla.