Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1991)

18. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah 
Gojira tai Kingu Gidora

“Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is an important film for the series. After the underwhelming performance of “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” the decision was made to bring back some of Godzilla’s classic opponents, starting with his original arch-nemesis, King Ghidorah. The move was wildly successful and finally got the Heisei series rolling at a decent pace, sequels coming annually from this point on. For me, personally, the movie is also important. It revived my interest in Godzilla. I had long since loved the character, having seen a few of the Showa films and the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. Excited for the forthcoming Hollywood version, ten year old me seeked out classic Godzilla flicks on VHS, finding this one and its immediate sequel at my local video store. I rented the movies over and over again, falling in love with the sleeker, more modern King of the Monsters. Out of all the films in the series, “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is the one I’ve probably seen the most.

A strange UFO is spotted over Tokyo, attracting the attention of Kenichiro Terasawa. As a writer for a paranormal magazine, Terasawa is reporting on the story of a Japanese squadron in World War II who encountered a live dinosaur. Terasawa believes this is the origin of Godzilla. The two plots collide when the flying saucer lands at Mount Fuji. Instead of aliens, time travelers from the future leave the craft. They bring a grave warning, saying Godzilla is going to destroy Japan. The quartet of time travelers, one of them an android, bring Terasawa, paleontologist Mazaki, and psychic Miki Saegusa onto their ship. The group travel back to Lagos Island during World War II, discovering Godzilla’s origin. After disposing of the dinosaur in the past, the travelers return to modern Japan. Instead of Godzilla, they are faced with a new, even more destructive monster: the three-headed King Ghidorah! A conspiracy revealed, the Japanese government has to revive Godzilla in order to stop this terrifying new threat.

“Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” adds outlandish new sci-fi elements to the previously more-grounded Heisei era. The story teases a Showa-style alien invasion before launching into an even crazier plot. The script revolves around time travel while also introducing villains with nefarious plots, a living dinosaur, teleportation, a super-fast android, laser guns, jet packs, genetically engineered pets, and even cyborg giant monsters. The previous two entries had human plots that revolved around political intrigue, cold war tensions, and corporate espionage. The film keeps the monster action gritty and grounded while injecting some goofy, sci-fi energy. As a result, the nineties series became more free and entertaining.

Another reason to like the film is that it finally gives Godzilla a definitive origin story. Godzilla was originally a dinosaur that somehow survived into the modern day, living on Lagos Island. After saving a group of Japanese soldiers from American troops in WWII, the dinosaur was assumed dead. However, it lived, only to be bombarded with nuclear radiation during Japan’s H-bomb tests in the early 1950s. There’s a mythic quality to the story of Godzilla, a time-displaced dinosaur, saving Japanese soldiers, making him a legend even before emerging as a city-stomping kaiju. It also confirms a number of long-rumored beliefs about the star monster, making it immensely satisfying viewing for long-time fans.

The origin story also changes the nature of Godzilla. Japan is now directly responsible for his existence. The film mostly shies away from the implications of this, Japan’s own war machine creating the monster that will destroy it. Instead, Godzilla is made an undeniable symbol of Japan. The Japanese soldiers of World War II are shown as honorable warriors defending their country. The American fleet that pins them down on the island aren’t much more then heartless butchers, gunning down men with machines gun. The budding Godzilla appears, crushing the Americans under smashed trees. He even survives being shot by an American battle ship, rising again to stomp on the remaining soldiers. The Japanese salute the wounded Godzillasaurus before leaving, marking him as one of their own. Godzilla has long been a pop culture icon of Japan. The film makes the connection more literal, Godzilla being a true patriot of glorious Nippon.

At least, that’s what it appears to be at first. In the present, the surviving Japanese commander, Yasuaki Shindo, is now a wildly successful businessman. He spends most of the film seated in a huge skyscraper, outwardly denying the existence of the dinosaur but inwardly remembering it. He repeatedly refers to Godzilla as Japan’s savior, especially when he reappears to fight off King Ghidorah. However, after vanquishing the three-headed dragon, Godzilla goes on one of his rampage, tearing through Shinjuku. Coming to Shindo’s tower, the old soldier and the kaiju make eye-contact. They seem to remember one another, Godzilla tilting his head, blinking slowly. After a moment of silence, the kaiju crushes the building, blasting it with his nuclear breath. It’s a haunting, quiet moment in a mostly action-packed film. Is it unintentional that a character so strongly identified with Japan’s military history is now destroying its economically advanced modern city? Godzilla is not just an anti-heroic, unpredictable force of nature. Now he’s a symbol of Japan’s sometimes troubling, conflicting history as a country.

Upon release, “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” caused some minor controversy for its supposed anti-American message. The film’s attitude toward the North is undeniable. The visitors from the future are identified as Americans and are unwaveringly villainous. They remove Godzilla, now identified as the country’s defender, from the picture. They create their own monster, the hideous, destructive King Ghidorah. The Americans cackle as the dragon blasts Japan’s cities to bits. The reason for their time travel treachery? In the future, Japan becomes the richest country in the world, buying up whole nations, even the U.S. The Americans look forward to preventing this future from ever coming to pass, crushing Japan’s upward mobility in the present. The movie is, therefore, a rather literal metaphor for Japan and the United States’ early nineties status as economic rivals. In this conflict, America is painted as underhanded and evil. It’s no mistake that the sole Japanese time traveler is primarily the film’s hero, saving the day with super-advanced Japanese technology. Also not a mistake is that Godzilla, now established as symbol of Japan’s power, saves the day, destroying the deceitful Americans.

Whatever the intended subtext might be, “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is mostly too much damn fun for the viewer to even notice. The sci-fi angle is an absolute blast. The time travelers wear pastel colored, shiny suits, raising some questions about the 23rd century’s fashion sense. Their space ships are beautifully realized models, somewhere between your traditional flying saucer and a modern helicopter. Most of the amusement comes from M-11, the future folks’ mega-powered robot. M-11 can run at super-sonic speeds. The film portrays this in a number of amusing ways. First, the actor slowly waves his arms back and forth, gliding through the scene on cables. Sometimes, the camera centers on his face, the background speeding away. Usually, the film is just sped up, M-11 and his robotic adversaries bouncing around at super-speed. It’s all ridiculous and absolutely hilarious. The film’s car chase is especially unconvincing, the android lifting a vehicle off the road. In the last act, M-11 even throws a few cheesy one-liners around, blasting the bad guys with a high-tech laser gun. Actor Robert Scott Field is either really good at playing a robot or incredibly wooden. Compared to the self-serious political plot of “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” this kind of sci-fi silliness is truly appreciated.

Whimsical as the action is, it all moves along at a brisk pace. The plot is off and rolling before you know it. The World War II sequence is sometimes awkwardly displayed. The Godzillasaurus swings through the trees, never convincingly interacting with the human actors. However, the scene is so energetic and so endearing that you don’t mind. The movie’s plot has an efficient A-to-B structure. The flying saucer leads to the time travelers. The time travelers lead to Godzilla’s origin on Lagos Island. That business sets up King Ghidorah which necessitates Godzilla’s return. The two battle, Godzilla crushing the time travelers and defeating King Ghidorah. The rampaging Godzilla is then defeated by the cybernetic Mecha-King Ghidorah appearing from the future. “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is an excellently constructed screenplay and the film is perfectly paced. It’ll leave you wanting more.

Some of the human-focused special effects are incredibly silly looking. Yet, as always, the monster effects are unparalleled. The Godzillasaurus is an interesting design. The long neck makes the head look very stubby while the slouching posture makes his movement cumbersome. Yet the suit successfully looks like both a plausible dinosaur and a Godzilla-in-the-making. The filmmaker’s knew not to mess with King Ghidorah’s iconic appearance too much. The regal dragon is slightly stockier and gains longer, more defined horns. Otherwise, it’s the same villainous King Ghidorah we’ve always known. The monster’s rampage through Japan is fantastically created. He explodes countless buildings with his lightning breath. His speed and strength is enough to shatter glasses and bring down bridges. My favorite moment comes when King Ghidorah lands atop a building, tearing the structure down with his feet. The film pays King Ghidorah proper respect as Godzilla’s greatest enemy.

Godzilla’s look in this film doesn’t deviate too much from his appearance in “Biollante.” His neck is lightly thicker and brow even heavier. Overall, the film maintains the excellent design. The movie also presents the first true kaiju rumble of the Heisei era. Godzilla and King Ghidorah trade blows, firing each other’s projectile weapons. Finally, the two start to wrestle, King Ghidorah ensnaring Godzilla with his multiple necks. The movie isn’t afraid to go a little bigger and broader with the fight scenes. In a move that recalls “Godzilla vs. Gigan,” Godzilla lifts King Ghidorah off the ground by his tail, repeatedly body-slamming him. Ghidorah, meanwhile, slams the heroic kaiju into the Earth with his feet. The enemy monster is truly damaged, its center head blown off, huge holes blasted in its wings. It’s all a lot of fun.

Yet the grand finale is by far its most impressive moment. The script one-ups itself by introducing Mecha-King Ghidorah, classic Ghidorah outfitted with a robot head, cybernetic wings, and a steel body. It’s a brilliant design. The battle between the two features a lot of collateral damage, including Godzilla stumbling into the Japanese tax building. The way Mecha-King Ghidorah defeats the monster king is especially amusing, the movie’s endearingly over-the-top sci-fi ideas at their height. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a cyborg space dragon carry a radioactive dinosaur over the ocean. The only kaiju in the film I don’t like are the Dorats, the sickeningly sweet Ghidorah prototypes. Their big, anime-eyes and cute cat-like faces don’t mesh well with their dragon-style bodies. They’re also kind of annoying. Luckily, they aren’t in much of the film.

The performances are mostly secondary. Megumi Odaka’s Miki Saegusa returns but isn’t given much to do besides stare off-screen at the monsters. Kosuke Toyohara is serviceable as Terasawa, if never as charming as the script wants him to be. Anna Nakagawa is probably the stand-out performances as Emmy, the good, Asian time traveler. Considering some of the bold exposition she’s given, the actress remains likable. The actors playing the Americans all go way-over-the-top. Chuck Wilson as the primary villain, also named Chuck Wilson, really over does it, cackling and plotting with evil glee. His sidekick, Grenchiko, is played by Richard Berger who looks all the world like Oingo Boingo-era Danny Elfman. His performance is ridiculous too. The human actors clearly aren’t the stars of the show.

Kazuki Ohmori’s direction is dramatic and memorable. I love the shot of Godzilla under the ocean, lit form behind, his powerful silhouette standing against the blue water. King Ghidorah is also given a memorable entrance, his massive shadow cast on the land. Akira Ifukube’s belated return to the franchise is greatly appreciated, his drastic score, as always, helping the ridiculous action play out as grand opera. I especially like his Godzillasaurus theme, which plays like a lower-key version of the classic Godzilla march. “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” is one of the strongest of the Heisei era, a massively entertaining monster bash that perfectly balances what we love about both eras of Godzilla. [Grade: A-]

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