06 December 2008

Mechagodzilla Chronicles: Terror of Mechagodzilla

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Katsuhiko Sasaki, Tomoko Ai, Akihiko Hirata, Tadao Nakamura, Goro Mutsu.

Welcome to the second part of the films of Mechagodzilla, part of our continuing coverage of the complete films of the metal impostor.

You’re probably tired of hearing me refer to some of these tokusatsu films as “the end of an era,” but you’re going have to hear that a lot when it comes to Terror of Mechagodzilla, the second movie featuring the robot mockery of Big-G. Mekagojira no gyakushu (“Mechagodzilla’s Counterattack,” or in more colloquial English, “Revenge of Mechagodzilla”) is filled with famous “lasts”:
  • It’s the last kaiju film from director Ishiro Honda.
  • It’s Ishiro Honda’s last solo directorial project.
  • It would be the last Godzilla film for nine years.
  • Finally, it’s the last Godzilla film of the “Classic” or “Shōwa” era—ending the continuity that started with the 1954 original (although there are plenty of continuity problems within this series).
That makes a sad list of “lasts.” At least Godzilla would come back, and Honda’s career would have more high points even after he stopped solo-directing. If Terror of Mechagodzilla isn’t the towering classic that should close out the Shōwa series, it still stands as the best of the 1970s Godzilla films. Honda’s touch gives it a distinct feel that we would never have in any of the Godzilla films that followed.

The previous Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla was enough of a success for Toho to bring the cyborg monster back the following year for a direct sequel. With Honda at the helm, Terror of Mechagodzilla aims for a more serious and often tragic human plot to go alone with the standard monster-mashing. While Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is a lightweight adventure and espionage story, the sequel aspires toward a darker science-fiction fable with some elements of the very earliest Godzilla movies and themes of vengeance and self-sacrifice tossed in. The nature of kaiju movies of the decade makes it impossible for Honda’s film to go completely dead serious—there’s requisite silliness for the children’s audience, and the budget is a fraction of the earlier alien invasion epics—but it’s a pleasure to see the ambition at the close of the series.

The opening credits replay the principle fight scenes between Godzilla and his robot imitator from the earlier movie. But with this major difference: new music from Akira Ifukube underscores the fight, replacing the jazzy music from Masaru Sato. Ifukube hadn’t scored a Godzilla movie since Destroy All Monsters in 1969, although library tracks of his were slapped onto Godzilla vs. Gigan, often illogically. Ifukube’s heavy, grand themes immediately give the movie weight. Ifukube introduces his weird and brash Mechagodzilla theme, and resurrects the march that played under the main title of the 1954 Godzilla. Although this music originally was a military theme, from here on it would turn into “Godzilla’s Theme” and remains the music most often associated with the monster.

The first new shot of the film is a striking one. A beautiful girl in a flowing green dress (Tomoko Ai) sits on a rocky shore and stares out toward the ocean waters. The image is a strange and wistful one, setting the dour and reflective mood of the the movie.

Beneath the water, a submarine searches for the remains of Mechagodzilla, blown to space titanium smithereens in the credits flashback. Our mysterious girl on the shore uses mental powers to summon an enormous underwater monster, a bit like a mixture of a dinosaur and a seahorse, to crush the submarine. The extremely flimsy submarine model knocked around in the water funnel is the only spoiler shot in an otherwise well-executed sequence.

The aliens from the Third Planet of the Black Hole have returned, and actor Goro Mutsu again leads them, although there’s no indication he’s supposed to be playing the same character. The aliens now have rented office suites so they don’t look so suspicious, and they actually have a motivation this time: the black hole is pulling their planet to its doom, so they need to relocate—fast. Commander Mugal has a complete urban renewal plan all set for Tokyo. They also have a secret weapon in Dr. Shinzo Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), the dramatic core of the movie.

Mafune is a biologist specializing in animal control who discovered Titanosaurus and thought to control it. That pretty much killed his reputation among other scientists (although I have no idea why—giant monsters have attacked Tokyo every year since 1954 in the Toho Universe) and made him embittered and poorly shaven. A series of still frames show his descent to the sloppy wig and mustache that Hirata wears in the part. The aliens saved the life of his daughter Katsura after a lab accident almost killed her. (Amazingly, the aliens were right next door when the accident happened, ready to jump in with bionic surgery tools.) Now the residents of the Third Planet of the Black Hole own the doctor. But he carries plenty of resentment for the human race already, and is quite eager to have Titanosaurus go on a rampage to get back at the world.

Hirata’s role in the film brings him full circle in his Godzilla roles. He played Dr. Serizawa, the tragic and lonely scientist in Godzilla, and now plays another tragic and lonely scientist in Dr. Mafune—his final role in a Godzilla film. Unfortunately, he’s burdened with awkward Albert Einstein old-man make-up, and he plays the part with too much twitchy over-acting. Ishiro Honda was known for being hands-off with his actors, most of whom formed his own stock company, but here he should have intervened more with the way Hirata chose to play the character.

Mafune’s obsession, the giant dinosaur Titanosaurus, is a callback to the older style of Toho monsters based on prehistoric models, rather than the special-effects team’s surreal hallucinations (see Godzilla vs. Megalon). I don’t count myself as a fan of Titanosaurus, however, who looks and moves awkwardly with his long neck and hardly seems much of a danger to Godzilla. The monster isn’t supposed to be a reckless killer, as we’ll find out later—but still, ‘Titano’ never impressed me much.

Marine biologist Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki) and his Interpol pal Murakoshi go to reclusive Mafune’s house and meet his daughter Katsura, our beautiful oceanside girl. She icily informs them that her father is dead and she burned all his papers. Ifukube’s music tells us this just isn’t true. Mafune is actually in the basement, toasting his success with the aliens over the completion of his Titanosaurus control device, and he’s cackling about how much terror and revenge he’ll wreck on the world for rejecting him. The aliens then sweeten the deal, and take Dr. Mafune to their underground lair to show him… Mechagodzilla! This first appearance of the robot in new footage is an astonishing one, with scaffolding surrounding it and Ifukube’s awe-inspiring theme giving it more bulk and weight. The alien headquarters are also more impressive this time around.

Ichinose meets with Katsura to discuss what he’s found out about Titanosaurus and the plans for a new submarine to investigate it—and we can all see where this is going. Doomed love is in the air, and Katsura is torn between her human instincts, her cyborg body, and her dedication to her father’s misanthropy.

Interpol gets a lead on the aliens’ headquarters at Mt. Amagi from a piece of space titanium. Some guy got gunned down trying to escape with it, in one of the most violent sequences ever to appear in a Godzilla film. Mugal later whips his subordinates; which is extremely cruel for a Godzilla film, just like the shooting.

The aliens command Katsura to send Titanosaurus after the new research submarine. But a sudden burst of supersonic waves disrupts Titanosaurus, allowing the sub to escape—and hatching the special device to defeat the monster for this film. (Somebody re-watched Space Amoeba, I think.) The sonic disruptor comes out in the final battle, and it’s easy to miss the scenes building up to its use since Honda handles them in a rote fashion, as if somebody penciled in on the edge of the script “the humans need to have a way to beat Titanosaurus”; the Katsura story receives precedence.

Katsura’s meetings with Ichinose makes her doubt more and more her father’s unleashing of Titanosaurus and Mechagodzilla at the bidding of aliens. Her dad assures her he isn’t doing this for the aliens; he just wants all the people who picked on him to suffer. See daughter, that makes my mass-murder all right!

At this point, you might ask: “What does Godzilla have to do with all this?” Nothing at the moment, but we do have an interesting story going on its own, much more than I can say for the other Godzilla films of the 1970s.

At forty-three minutes in, the kaiju action at last starts. Wake the kids back up, because Titanosaurus is about to hit the town as Dr. Mafune sends his controlled pet on an unscheduled rampage. Titanosaurus doing his “hops” to knock down jets looks fairly absurd, but otherwise the new monster’s smash-up in nighttime Tokyo looks decent.

At the forty-eight minute mark, Godzilla makes an impressive entrance: a silhouette over the skyline, a camera zoom, and Ifukube’s awesome theme bring him into our story already in progress. (At this point, he’s only gotten a single mention in the story. The black hole aliens tracked his progress toward the coast of Japan when Titanosaurus started its rampage.) However, the fight doesn’t last long. Interpol agents shoot Katsura, and when she topples over a cliff she loses control over Titanosaurus, who promptly beats cheeks back to the ocean.

The aliens again repair Katsura, and add the Mechagodzilla control into her. With Interpol closing in, the aliens plan to abandon and then destroy their base and use Katsura as a mobile control center and run the operation from Mafune’s basement. (Yes, the budget-conscious aliens are now running their world-conquering scheme out of their mother’s basement.) But it looks as if Mafune’s conscious is at last catching up to him. These scenes are the best that Hirata does in the film, as he asks Katsura to forgive him.

Ichinose, while poking around the professor’s house, ends up a prisoner of the aliens in the basement lab. This gives Ichinose a chance to talk Mafune out of his plans, and also set up the tragic end of both the doctor and his bionic daughter.

Okay, now the big stuff happens. Katsura activates Mechagodzilla (play that funky music, Akira!). As planned, the base blows up after it leaves, almost taking out the Interpol agents whom we were never that interested in the first place.

Both Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus hit the town. The city-crushing antics have more scope than anything seen during the ‘70s without the use of stock footage. Mechagodzilla is damn awesome as a leveler of cities, although Titanosaurus’s “wave tail” effect isn’t nearly so impressive, and it pulls out some weird kung-fu arm change-ups. Some of special-effects supervisor Nakano’s best work occurs here with Mechagodzilla’s eye-beams razing skyscrapers and his revolving finger missiles ripping up streets.

Godzilla leaps up out of nowhere, apparently answering two kids calling for help before Titanosaurus flattens them. Abrupt as this is, the dramatic face-off camera revolve that follows is great, almost like Sergio Leone stepped into the movie for a moment. Okay, Tin Pants and Whinnying Seahorse, The Big-G is here to kick some booty.

The kaiju action moves from the cityscape to a more open and inexpensive set of hills for the final face-off. The fight dips into some silliness; Titanosaurus punts a clearly empty Godzilla suit over the hills and later lifts the same immobile suit high in the air using only a weak grip on the snout. Titanosaurus can apparently bend the laws of physics. Godzilla gets in on the antics when he grabs Mechagodzilla’s tail and spins him round-and-round with a Busby Berkeley-inspired overhead camera shot. Otherwise the showdown is a straight fight, and the way Godzilla and Titanosaurus claws and bite at each other brings back memories of the classic Toho days when the monsters fought like real beasts without human characteristics. Godzilla’s final one-on-one with Mechagodzilla is the best kaiju moment of the ‘70s G-series, as our hero dashes through a barrage of the cyborg’s weapons—and the special effects team blowing up half the stage—to at last overcome the space titanium demon.

The monster fight is invigorating, but the conclusion of the film is overall somber and bittersweet as Katsura and her father come to their unfortunate ends. And when Godzilla walks off into the sunset in the last shot, it’s impossible not to feel wistful about it. Yes, I’m talking about “wistful” in a Godzilla film. It can happen. I’m a sentimental fool.

Terror of Mechagodzilla is a movie that gets better each time I see it; my opinion of it jumped when I finally got to see the uncut Japanese version instead of the diluted-for-kids one that was the only cut officially available in the U.S. for years. The monster scenes aren’t classic and have their embarrassing moments, but they do have impact and ambition. However, the human story is what stands out for me, the only time in the ‘70s Godzilla series that the filmmakers took care to craft an engaging human drama to tie together the kaiju action. Much credit should go to twenty-year-old Tomoko Ai for her balanced and thoughtful performance as Katsura, pulled between humanity and robotics. Her final scene with Ichinose and her fate are touching and end the story on a bleak note.

But the real hero of Terror of Mechagodzilla is director Honda, who shows that even this late in his career in a series that should have expended the last drop of its creativity, he could bring a dramatic spark and an eye for characterization. It isn’t a work of legend like the 1954 Godzilla, but Terror of Mechagodzilla retains a taste of what made the original film such a masterpiece.

Despite its qualities, this second Mechagodzilla outing flopped at the Japanese box office, drawing the smallest attendance of any Godzilla yet, and ended the classic series of movies. Godzilla would not come back in a new feature until 1984 in The Return of Godzilla (released a year later in the U.S. in a mutilated version titled Godzilla 1985). The nine-year hiatus was filled with various plans to get the Big-G back in action, including a near-miss with a big-budgeted American film directed by Steve Miner titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 3-D! Yes, it almost happened. Starting with The Return of Godzilla, a new series would start that ignored all the previous G-films except for the 1954 original. This new continuity, which lasted until 1995, is called the Heisei Series after the reign of the new emperor. In my next Mechagodzilla review, I’ll get more in-depth with the second Godzilla series.

Godzilla may have come back after Terror of Mechagodzilla, but director Ishiro Honda, the man present at the monster’s birth, would not. This marked his last solo film as director, but it wouldn’t mark the end of his career in great filmmaking. He would join with his close friend Akira Kurosawa in making a comeback in the 1980s. Honda received credit as “co-director” on Kurosawa’s revival film, Kagemusha (1980) and the follow-up classic Ran (1985). Honda did extensive second-unit and battle footage direction, and his contribution to both films was so large that Kurosawa created the special credit for him. Honda continued to work with Kurosawa (directing some of the segments of Dreams) until Honda-san died in 1993 at age eighty-two, a legend of science-fiction and fantasy cinema.

The recent DVD of Terror of Mechagodzilla from Classic Media contains a genuine treasure: the (nearly) uncut English dub of the film that hasn’t been available anywhere since the early ‘80s. The only purchasable English dub until this DVD was a heavily cut version for kiddie matinees that Bob Conn Enterprises distributed in a deal with American producer Henry G. Sapirstein of UPA. I’ve seen this cut version, and it’s nonsensical, with the tragedy of Katsura mostly excised. Sapirstein released the uncut version (he clipped only brief shots of Katsura’s fake breasts during an operating sequence) on television, and even elongated it with a six-minute prologue of footage from other Godzilla films to which UPA owned the rights and linked to the rest of the movie with narration describing Godzilla’s history. This extra footage is dopey and doesn’t add anything aside from padding the running time so the movie would fit better into television time slots. At least we now have a near-complete version of the film with an English dub, so you can enjoy Terror of Mechagodzilla with your children. And you should, if you want them to grow up right.

Next week: Mechagodzilla enters the Heisei era in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II.