03 January 2009

Mechagodzilla Chronicles: Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I present the final film in my overview of the Mechagodzilla Chronicles!

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)
Directed by Masaaki Tezuka
Starring Noboru Kaneko, Miho Yoshioka, Mitsuki Koga, Hiroshi Koizumi, Akira Nakao

The individual Godzilla “Millennium films” have no connection to each other and take place in alternate timelines, each establishing its own continuity with older films from the Classic era of kaiju films. The sole exception to this is Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (or, if you wish to use the hefty Japanese title, Gojira X Mosura X Mekagojira: Tokyo S.O.S.). The success of Godzilla against Mechagodzilla in 2002 catalyzed Toho Studios to assign the same creative team to make a direct sequel starring the robotic counterpart to Godzilla. A wild card slipped into the deck: Mothra, Toho’s most popular monster after Godzilla. Thus we have a three-way conflict between a villain (Godzilla), a Human-built hero (Kiryu, the proper name for the Mechagodzilla robot), and a mystical mediator (Mothra). Mothra’s presence is a strange one in this science-fiction tale; a creature of spiritualism and peace, but capable of great destruction in its quest to pacificy the savagery of other monsters and restore nature’s balance to the world.

Mothra is the most Japanese of all kaiju. Its first appearance in Mothra (1960) marked a turning away from the American style of docu-science fiction and toward the wilder and more colorful style peculiar to Japan. Mothra’s first appearance launched a new era of gorgeous Japanese fantasy, and “her” (the creature is often described in feminine terms) first confrontation with Godzilla in Mothra vs. Godzilla (U.S. title, Godzilla vs. the Thing, and on video as Godzilla vs. Mothra) gave us arguably the greatest Godzilla film ever made. I hold it up as the high-water mark of the original series. Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. sometimes feel like a semi-remake of Mothra vs. Godzilla. The finale of that movie appears here almost intact. You might expect this from a G-fan like director Tezuka.

Since her first two films, Mothra has resurfaced many times in the Toho Universe: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Ebirah, the Horror of the Deep, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs. Mothra (titled Godzilla and Mothra: Battle for Earth in the U.S.), a string of three solo-movies, and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Even though she had appeared as recently as 2001, Mothra’s popularity made her an easy choice to add an extra hook to the new Mechagodzilla story.

Despite all this attention I’ve so far lavished on Mothra, she is definitely third-wheel in this movie, the extra spice, and sometimes a distraction. Both the adult-form Mothra and the larval infants appear, with the latter introduced hastily into the story. The real headliners are Kiryu and Godzilla. Once again the robotic Godzilla clone shows that it’s a movie star in its own right, while Godzilla gets to stride much more than the rigid version from the previous film.

The pre-title sequence provides a short rundown on where each of the monsters stand at the start of the action. Michiru Oshima’s heroic “Kiryu Fanfare” introdcues the cyborg in repair in the Self-Defense Force Base. In the deep sea of the Central Pacific, Godzilla’s eyes open to his menacing theme. And in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, a fast-moving unidentified object blazes through heavy clouds, resisting missile attacks. Image resolution shows the colorful patterns of a gigantic moths’s wings. Mothra has returned! And she’s brought an ethereal chorus with her!

Bring on the credits! Let’s get ready to rumble! I don’t know about you, but I’m pumped. Giant radioactive dinosaur, super-cyborg, mystical insectoid guardian. Place your bets!

But we have a half-hour of time with the human-type folks before the sustained monster melee starts. First, we meet a famous face from the classic Toho studio system era: Hiromi Koizumi, who played in numerous tokusatsu films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including Godzilla Raids Again, Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster, and most crucial for our current story, the original 1960 Mothra. He returns as Mr. Chujo, his character from Mothra, now an old man with a grandson, Shun, and a nephew, Yoshito (Noboru Kaneko), a mechanic in the AMF, the anti-monster force introduced in the last movie. The Shobijin, the Twin Fairies of Infant Island—or at least their descendants—have come to pay Mr. Chujo a visit after many decades. The actresses playing the fairies are obviously not twins, but it’s easy to overlook that with the costuming and make-up. The effects mixing them with larger props to emphasize their tiny size are almost flawless and compare well to Eiji Tsubaraya’s work in Mothra vs. Godzilla.

The Shobijin have dire news from their goddess Mothra. The use of the first Godzilla’s bones to create a weapon like Kiryu upsets the balance of nature. Humans must returns Godzilla’s bones to set things right. Or else Mothra will come trash the place like she did back in ‘60. But Mr. Chung’s nephew Yoshito feels that Kiryu is the best hope humanity has against the new rampaging Godzilla and doesn’t understand his Uncle’s feelings that Kiryu must be scrapped.

At this point, the continuity in which Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. needs clarification. Here is a rundown on the other films that are considered part of the back story:
  • Godzilla (1954), in which first Godzilla died and left behind a skeleton in Tokyo Bay. The secret for the Oxygen Destroyer died with its inventor, Dr. Serizawa.
  • Mothra (1960), where Mothra went on a destructive quest to rescue to the first Shobijin from exploitive capitalism. Mr. Chujo was a linguist in that film, and he kindly recaps all its major events for the benefit of his grandson and the audience.
  • War of the Gargantuas (1966), which doesn’t bring any monsters into this story, but accounts for the development of the maser cannons and the rise of the AMF to deal with big monsters.
  • Space Amoeba (1970). Yeah, no kidding. You’ll see what I mean later. Dr. Miya and Selgio island even get mentioned!
  • Godzilla against Mechagodzilla (2002), the previous film that introduced a new Godzilla and pitted him against a bio-robot made from the first Godzilla’s bones.
Okay, everybody set with our current situation? Please see me after class if you have further questions.

If you’re new to Godzilla films, you shouldn’t have too much trouble following all this. You only need to have seen Godzilla against Mechagodzilla to follow along, but you will miss some cool references and weaving of older films’ ideas into the narrative. A lot of pleasure in this film comes from fannish recognizability. You can tell that director Tezuka is a genuine G-Fan. Like me.

Mr. Chujo goes to the Prime Minister (Akira Nakao, reprising his role from Godzilla against Mechagodzilla) to beg for him to trashcan Kiryu so Mothra won’t demolish the city again—but the PM won’t give up the nation’s best defense. This is quite a good scene, since neither man can articulate which will end up the worse threat. Over at AMF Headquarters, Yoshito gets into a conflict with hot-shot pilot Akiba, who feels that Yoshito wants to sabotage the project because his uncle has asked the PM to shut Kiryu down. Yoshito wants to fix Kiryu, but can’t stop thinking about the Shobijin’s warning—or beautiful pilot Azusa (Miho Yoshioka), who seems like she should develop into a love interest but vanishes into the movie to make almost no impression.

At this point there’s a lot of government shuffling around, and sometimes it makes the movie lose focus. The “Godzilla-or-Mothra” conflict bats back and forth in a dizzying way. Who would we rather have destroy us: Godzilla or Mothra? However, this whole conflict gets dropped once the monster fight starts, and instead the government has to hem and haw about whether they should put Kiryu into action or not.

Kamoebas, the giant turtle from Space Amoeba, now shows up now in a cameo . . . as a dead carcass on the shore. This is a pleasant touch to add another classic monster into the continuity. This also serves as Toho’s backslap against the Gamera movies at Daiei, since Kamoebas is a giant turtle, and it appears that Godzilla easily killed it. See, you don’t step on the Big-G franchise, got that Gamera? (Okay, maybe it’s a bit petty.)

Godzilla makes an appearance via destroying a U.S. submarine filled with bad actors, a nod to King Kong vs. Godzilla. Kiryu needs to get back in action fast, but without a final check-up it would be a suicide mission, and the Absolute-Zero Cannon isn’t functional. Do we . . . don’t we . . . do we . . . don’t we. . . .

Oh never mind. Godzilla surfaces and here we go. The rest of the film is a single monster battle.

Godzilla makes landfall in Tokyo harbor, after surviving an awesome underwater CGI shot of torpedoes slamming into him. The military does the same ineffectual attack, although it does look great when a dozen missiles plummet from the sky to strike the monster and get him him all bothered. Godzilla is, thankfully, much more animated here than in Godzilla against Mechagodzilla.

Shun, like any overactive kid in a monster movie, interferes: he arranges school desks on the blacktop to form the mystical Mothra symbol—and Mothra flies right in. Wait kid, this monster demolished Tokyo on her last visit. Are you sure this is a good idea?

It turns out that it is. The screenplay at this point completely jettisons the possibility that Mothra will turn her vengeance on humanity because of the desecration of the original Godzilla’s bones. She turns into a hero and selflessly battles Godzilla. So never mind about all those threats from the Shobijin or the government worrying about using Kiryu.

Godzilla and adult-form Mothra get into it. Mothra moves terrifically here, but it’s hard to beat what Tsubaraya achieved in the smack-down between the two in the classic Mothra vs. Godzilla. In a sudden jump in the story, the Shobijin on their island start praying to a giant egg, singing the classic “Mothra Song” from Mothra. Mothra expends most of her energy in the battle with Godzilla, and the Big-G seriously injures her. The AMF finally decides to step in with Kiryu. This delay in their decision to launch is a very artificial device, and not with much dramatic in build-up. But Kiryu once again looks ass-kicking in battle. The cyborg now has a hyper-maser in its chest instead of the Absolute-Zero Cannon, based on the unstated kaiju film rule that once you find a way to defeat a monster, you can only use it in one film, and then it expires and you must come up with something new.

An unusual aspect of this film is that there is only a single monster fight, a prolonged battle that lasts the complete second half of the movie with occasional interruptions from the human cast. Because of this, once the people cease their main function of filling the screen, they don't have much to do but dash around and confuse viewers. Once again, Kiryu malfunctions during the big battle with Godzilla, causing a slow-down in the action while it gets repaired. Young hero Yoshito has to drive off in a motorcycle and clamber through storm sewers to reach it while Godzilla deals with the silk-spraying Mothra larvae.

The long kaiju battle is quite a spectacle. The massive amounts of destruction that Kiryu and Godzilla unleash on each other in the midst of what will soon be Tokyo’s newest slum and open-air concert venue is simply wonderful (and yes, we have awesome Michiru Oshima music to go along with this mayhem). The larval Mothras rush in for the big finish, although this scene is only a shadow of its equivalent from Mothra vs. Godzilla. Kiryu pulls out a few wacky stunts that Tezuka loves to put into his Godzilla movies, such as an awesome back-flip. We get to see Tokyo Tower get knocked down again! And the Japanese Diet! Double Word Score!

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. provides a great deal of monster fun with Tezuka’s light touch and enthusiasm. It holds together much better than the messy Godzilla: Final Wars that followed it. But the movie leans toward the common tokusatsu trap of cramming in too much material and then not linking it. The human story seems like it will work, but it ultimately has a feeling of getting stitched together in the first half hour, and then scenes get crammed-in wherever they will fit. Plenty of it doesn’t make sense. The humans don’t even get the big emotional moment this time; that belongs to the odd bonding between “brothers” Godzilla and Kiryu in the finale. And while it’s nice having Hiromi Koizumi back in a Godzilla movie, I wish he had more to do.

Mothra fits strangely into the story, really deserving to have the star status with Godzilla instead of shellacking up the cracks between the Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla conflict. The adult-form Mothra does look beautiful, and recalls the wonderful design she had in Mothra vs. Godzilla. The larvae are uninteresting, but I never felt much passion for the infant design of the creature.

The Region 1 DVD from Sony brings good news and bad news. The dubbing is an enormous improvement over the last few efforts sponsored by Toho; it’s decently synched and acted. However, the English subtitles reflect the English dubbing, not the literal Japanese. This means the subtitles constantly refer to “Mechagodzilla” and “Mecha-G” when the actors are saying “Kiryu.” Even people with no familiarity with the story will see the subterfuge going on here. The use of “dubtitles” is lazy, and the DVD producers should have stuck with the literal translations from Godzilla against Mechagodzilla.

Fourteen monsters appeared in the next Godzilla film, the carnival of kaiju fandom called Godzilla: Final Wars. But Mechagodzilla wasn’t one of them, probably because it requires too much explanation, and mostly because it already had appeared in two films in a row. Who knows when we will next see the saurian cyborg? Who knows when we will next seen Godzilla, for that matter?