Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1975)

15. Terror of MechaGodzilla
Mekagojira no gyakushu / The Terror of Godzilla

“Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” had revitalized some interest in the flagging Godzilla franchise. The film’s relative success must have encouraged Toho as, for the fifteenth film in the series, the studio brought MechaGodzilla back. Original director Ishiro Honda was lured out of semi-retirement for the film. Compared to the stock-footage heavy entries of the early seventies, “Terror of MechaGodzilla” features some fine special effects. The script, written by the only female Godzilla screenwriter Yukiko Takayama, is far darker then the last few films, featuring heavy themes of family, loyalty, and sacrifice. Despite these changes, “Terror of MechaGodzilla” didn’t catch on with the public and would be the last Godzilla movie for quite some time.

A submarine looking for the remains of MechaGodzilla on the ocean floor is surprised to find nothing. Before that discovery can sink in, the sub is destroyed by a powerful dinosaur. Turns out the Black Hole aliens are a step ahead humanity. The invaders have already recovered and rebuilt MechaGodzilla, making him more powerful then ever. In addition to that, the aliens have teamed up with a mad scientist, the discoverer of the massive dinosaur Titanosaurus, and his cyborg daughter Katsura. Dr. Mafune wants personal revenge against the world for rejecting his research and the aliens’ plot presents that opportunity. However, a wrench is thrown into the plan when marine-biologist and Interpol agent Ichinose wins the heart of Katsura, reawakening her latent humanity. Can Godzilla and Interpol’s investigators fight back MechaGodzilla, Titanosaurus, and the invaders, saving the Earth?

You might assume the Interpol investigators to be the story’s protagonist. From a screenwriting perspective, this might be true. However, most of the film is focused on Dr. Mafune and his daughter Katsura. Mafune, for most of the run time, acts like your typical mad scientist. Like so many before him, he promises to show the world what fools they have been for doubting them. Akihiko Hirata, last seen as a more benevolent scientist in “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla,” mostly plays the role as an indistinct super villain. Katsura, on the other hand, provides the film’s human heart. Starting out as a cold android, Katsura slowly develops emotions, betraying her father and the aliens to help Ichinose. After her betrayal is discovered, the villains reprogram Katsura to be a subservient tool in their sinister plan. Hirata’s sole scene of poignant acting comes when, cradling his daughter, he regrets his choices, hearing the mechanical buzzing inside.

The subplot involving Ichinose and Katsura recalls the romantic melodrama of the earliest Godzilla films. The movie does a great job of selling the affection between the couple. Which is surprising when the viewer realizes that they have only known each other a few days. A short scene when the two meets for lunch is charming and cute. Tomoko Ai gives a surprisingly soulful performance, torn between her two alliances. Especially in the film’s final act, when Katsura’s humanity is forced through her robotic exterior. Impressively, Ichinose isn’t concerned about his love being a robot. The love story is destined to end tragically. Katsura sacrifices herself to stop MechaGodzilla and save the Earth. As Godzilla marches off into the sun, victorious, Ichinose weeps over his beloved’s corpse. The movie’s plea for emotion might strain too hard but the movie’s unexpected downbeat conclusion is effecting nevertheless.

In the first “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla,” the invading Simians aren’t even given a motivation, just being another in a long line of malevolent aliens. Here, however, it’s clarified that the Third Planet of the Black Hole is dying and that time is running out. They seek to conquer Earth as a replacement for their own home planet. Despite this honorable motivation, the aliens are mostly typical villains. Decked out in ridiculous helmets, they plot from their underground base. Goro Mutusmi plays the evil leader again, though it’s clearly not the same character. How evil is he? He gleefully whips his minions when they fail him. He cackles at Earth’s military force, leaping from a cliff into his flying saucer. Mutusmi once again has a ball in the part. However, it is disappointing that, when the Simians are unmasked this time, they resemble slightly melted zombies, instead of the outrageous, green-skinned apes from the previous movie.

If anything, the Interpol plot is the movie’s weakest element. The first hour of the picture is mostly characterized by men in suits, sitting around in rooms, sternly discussing the situation. The movie features a seriously unimpressive car chase, two vehicles meekly circling a hill. Other bizarre elements, like the aliens’ captives having their vocal chords cut, are short-shafted to focus on the agents doing their thing. Neither Katsuhiko Sasaki nor Katsumasa Uchida give bad performance. The movie’s humanoid heroes are simply its least interesting characters.

“Terror of MechaGodzilla” is well regarded for its mature themes. Certainly, the movie’s attempts at sophistication are appreciated, especially after so many of the seventies Godzilla pictures slipped into juvenile silliness. However, by focusing so heavily on the human drama, the movie presents a fairly large problem. Godzilla himself doesn’t appear until fifty minutes in to this 83 minute film. MechaGodzilla, ostensibly the star of the show, doesn’t leap into action until an hour. There’s nothing wrong with the human heart of the story and the eventual kaiju destruction is entertaining. Yet fans anticipating extensive monster battles might be frustrated by how long they have to wait.

Despite being MechaGodzilla’s sidekick, Titanosaurus is the kaiju given the most attention here. He’s the first to appear in the film. His rampage across Yokosuka is what belatedly draws Godzilla into the film. During the latter third, MechaGodzilla even seems to step back and let his partner delivers most of the licks. I don’t dislike Titanosaurus. He’s a refreshingly subdued design, a bipedal dinosaur with rust-red skin, a long neck, sails down his back, and a wide, fish-like tail. His stocky body adds a weight to the character, rarely seen in these later films. He doesn’t have any outrageous superpowers and instead relies solely on his teeth, claws, and massive body to do damage. Despite the more serious tone, the movie still has the dinosaur do some ridiculous things. He can leap amazing heights, even body slamming a squadron of jets at one point. His tail can kick up amazing amounts of wind, enough to toss Godzilla back, an unlikely feat that not even Rodan or King Ghidorah could accomplish. The goofiest moment comes when Titanosaurus lifts Godzilla’s whole body into the air with only his slender, beak-like jaws. So I don’t dislike the crazy critter. But it’s slightly disappointing that Titanosaurus winds up stealing the spotlight from the film’s more charismatic monsters.

MechaGodzila gets title billing but spends most of the film sitting in his locker, the alien’s underground base, an impressive miniature set. When he finally rockets off, the base exploding in his wake, the robo-monster has some fun. In his first appearance, MechaGodzilla didn’t get to wreak any devastation on Japan’s cityscapes. “Terror of MechaGodzilla” corrects this. The cosmic monster floats over the city before landing, blasting buildings with his eye rays. The finger missiles get an upgrade this time, the tip outfitted with drills. In one of the movie’s best moments, MechaGodzilla shoots a number of missiles at the city streets. They borrow under the ground before the sidewalk explodes upward in a huge fireball. Buildings are smashed and exploded, not a bit of stock footage in sight. In time, the action shifts to a nondescript countryside, which was, no doubt, a budgetary decision. It sure would have been nice to see the three-way monster rumble among Tokyo’s skyscrapers.

Godzilla’s role is small enough that his entire screen time takes up two scenes. Both times, there’s no build-up to his entrance. There are no scenes of him wading through the water or leaving Monster Island. The first sequence is dramatically lit with a lightening strike, Godzilla’s permanently grimacing face staring through the shadows. The second scenes doesn’t even have that much build-up. Titanosaurus and MechaGodzilla are wrecking Tokyo when some of Godzilla’s trademark blue fire breaks into the scene. The sudden appearances make an impression, for sure. Yet Godzilla popping in, out of nowhere, feels less like a conscious decision and more like shaky editing.

The darker tone is emphasized by the beating Godzilla takes in the final round. Titanosaurus blows him away, tosses him over the city and bits his face. MechaGodzilla, meanwhile, blasts him repeatedly and even buries him alive. As the evil monsters dance on his grave, the hero’s fate seems somewhat final. The human heroes distract MechaGodzilla long enough for Godzilla to dig his way out, blasting the villain with his atomic breath. From there, the fight takes a turn. MechaGodzilla seems to have the advantage as long as Godzilla is at a distance. Running through a hail of fire, the rubber suite visibly catching aflame, the good Goji gets up close and personal with his mechanic double. What follows is an immensely satisfying beat-down. Godzilla won last time by tearing off the robot version’s head. Amusingly, the aliens prepared for this, a new weapon hidden under the removed head. While the fight scene builds fantastically, the resolution is a bit flat, both monsters dispatched a little too easily.

The movie makes an effort but it’s clear the budget was still restrictive. There are no drawn-out battles with the Japanese military. Some standards missiles are fired but nothing extensive. Instead of whipping out some advanced weapon, the key to defeating the aliens is a radio dish on a helicopter. The aliens make their escapes in flying saucers. Taking a second away from his fight, Godzilla blasts them out of the air, almost as an afterthought. Lastly, a few scenes are oddly cropped, the kaiju seeming out of scale with their surrounding cities. Supposedly, “Terror of MechaGodzilla” was shot in a smaller studio then usual, which might explain why a few shots are so odd.

“Terror of MechaGodzilla” was never meant to be the final Godzilla film. Japan’s changing pop culture landscape, one that favored giant monsters on the small screen over the big one, combined with declining ticket sales made Toho call it quits for a while. Plans for new Godzilla films were kicked around before the series was finally relaunched a decade later. Even if it was never planned that way, “Terror of MechaGodzilla” is a fine note to end the Showa era on. It might not be as fun as its predecessor, and should have had more Godzilla in it, but it’s still an ambitious, thoughtful kaiju epic with plenty of smashing and stomping. [Grade: B]

So concludes my write-up of the Showa, or Classic, Godzilla series. Before continuing on to the character's revival in the 1980s, I'm going to take an eight day break to focus on another giant Japanese monster. Come back tomorrow for more crazy, classic, kaiju fun. If you thought some of these movies got crazy, you ain't seen nothing yet. 

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