Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2001)

26. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
Gojira - Mosura - Kingu Gidora: Daikaijū Sōkōgeki / GMK

The Millennium Godzilla series got off on disappointing notes. Neither “Godzilla 2000” nor “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” were terrible. However, both were unambitious. Even though the rules set out by the new era would allow a filmmaker to do any sort of experimental thing with Godzilla and his band of monsters, both films mostly stuck to familiar outlines. Enter Shusuke Kaneko, the filmmaker who had wildly reinvented Gamera in the nineties with a critical acclaimed trilogy of films. Kaneko would be the first filmmaker to use the blank slate the new era provided to create a Godzilla film that is truly different and exciting.

It has been forty-seven years since Godzilla has last appeared in Japan. The world has been without giant monsters since then. However, a recent missing submarine has the country’s military worried, Admiral Tachibana most of all. Meanwhile, his daughter Yuri, a reporter for a pseudo-science documentary show, is investigating monsters. She learns about the three legendary Guardian Monsters of Japan, ancient giant beasts that are suppose to protect the country in times of needs. An old man Yuri interviews believes Godzilla is possessed by the angry spirits of the victims of World War II and that the Guardian Monsters are our only hope. When an angry and violent Godzilla inevitably surfaces, Baragon, Mothra, and King Ghidorah are awoken to protect the people. Yet Godzilla is more punishingly powerful then ever before, forcing Yuri, her friend Takeda, and her father to become directly involved in the fight against the monster.

In his sixty year history, Godzilla’s nature has remained fairly consistent. Whether he’s a destructive force of nature, a wacky superhero, or a Chaotic Neutral anti-hero, he’s always a giant dinosaur mutated by nuclear radiation. The verbosely titled “Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack,” usually shortened to “G.M.K.” by fans, changes all that. Kaneko instead boldly moves the series into the world of allegorical fantasy. Godzilla is now an angry spirit, the embodiment of the rage and anger felt by those killed in World War II. He appears to take that wrath out on a Japan that has forgotten that generation’s sacrifices. A change that drastic didn’t please all fans but, considering we had twenty-five films of traditional Godzilla, being presented with a radically different interpretation is fresh and exciting.

With his Gamera series, Kaneko invented an elaborate mythology for the much maligned giant turtle, mostly from an off-hand reference to Atlantis in the original movie. With “G.M.K.,” Kaneko works similar magic. Traditional Asian mythology is filled with Guardian Monsters. Tying pre-existing Toho monsters in with such an idea seems logical. The kaiju of Japanese cinema have frequently been treated like Gods, giant beasts above men, fighting for the fate of the world. Kaneko’s script makes this subtext literal. King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Baragon are now supernatural creatures, protecting Japan, and not necessarily mankind, against an aggressive spirit.

Thus “G.M.K.” becomes a Godzilla film about parsing out Japan’s uncertain modern history. The Guardian Monsters represent Japan’s long history as an island nation rich in mythology and tradition. The monsters are directly linked to the country’s mythological background. They are from an older, more mystical place. The monsters don’t seem entirely happy with the way the country has progressed. Baragon and Mothra’s first course of action is to kill a group of teenage gang members. It can’t be a mistake that Mothra attacks some teenagers that are attempting to drown an Akita dog, a traditional symbol of the country. Godzilla, meanwhile, has become a symbol of Japan’s violent recent past as a military aggressor. The script makes certain to say that Godzilla isn’t powered solely by Japan’s fallen soldier. Instead, the spirits of all the people killed in the Pacific control the kaiju. Among them, perhaps, are the Chinese prisoners tortured in Unit 731 or POWs cannibalized on Chichi-Jima? The film never says as much but its more then implied. The film’s kaiju battles become a struggle between the country’s conflicting past. Emboldening a silly monster movie with such a message makes “G.M.K.” a far richer film then its immediate predecessors.

Kaneko’s “Gamera” films notably weaved captivating human stories in with the kaiju chaos. His Godzilla entry is no different. Chiharu Niyama plays Yuri Tachibana, a reporter for a low-rated paranormal news show. (Which is, not so subtly, called “BS Digital.”) She is a true believer at heart, wanting to believe in monsters and legends even before the kaiju appear. She’s also a fearless reporter. Even after sustaining a head injury, she jumps on a bike, a camcorder in hand, and takes chase after Godzilla. Niyama brings a fearlessness to an unusually meaty part. Masahiro Kobayashi plays Teruaki, a writer for a program and Yuri’s friend. In most movies, Teruaki would be a blatant love interest. Instead, the two seem to be friends first. Even after he saves Yuri’s life at the end, it seems to be out of loyalty, not romantic connection.

“All Monsters All-Out Attack” is, in an odd way, a story about a daughter reconnecting with her father. Yuri’s father, Taizo Tachibana, is an admiral in the Japanese navy. At first, he comes off at somewhat stern with his co-workers and slightly distant with his daughter. He is constantly concerned that Godzilla will reappear, something his underlings don’t always take seriously. When the monster does rise again, Tachibana faces him down with cold dread. As the story evolves, we learn that Taizo watched his partners be killed by the monster during its original rampage in 1954. In the final act, the admiral risks his own life, piloting a drill-tipped submarine down Godzilla’s throat. Knocked unconscious at the same time as his daughter, the two briefly meet in a dream. Upon waking, Tachibana finds the strength to blast out of Godzilla’s neck, leading to the monster’s destruction. Afterwards, daughter and father stand back and salute one another. If the film’s themes extend to its characters, then the ending represents Japan’s past reconciling with its future, father and daughter finding a new respect for one another.

By changing Godzilla’s nature so totally, “G.M.K.” accomplishes something rather impressive: It makes Godzilla scary for the first time in forty-six years. Design wise, the kaiju heavily resembles the look he first sported back in ’54. Godzilla is fully upright, his scales charcoal grey, his back spines shortened, his posture almost human. However, one small change makes all the different. This new Godzilla has white, pupilless eyes. There’s no emotion behind those eyes other then pure, reckoning rage. The monster’s first act upon surfacing is to toss a fishing boat to the ground, killing its inhabitants. When crossing into a town, mobs of people flee in terror from the giant monster. The screaming seems to enraged him. In the distance, we see the entire town explode in a massive mushroom cloud. While rather literally connecting Godzilla to his nuclear past, this scene also establishes what a pitiless force he is.

Shusuke Kaneko’s original plan was to bring three of Toho’s more obscure creatures back as the Guardian Monsters. The studio nixed this idea, save for one. Baragon makes his first return to the screen since his 1968 cameo in “Destroy All Monsters.” Baragon now looks more like a Chinese Temple Dog then a borrowing dinosaur, connecting with his role as a Guardian Beast. The rust-colored skin, excellent suit, and life-like performance makes him an immediately striking creation. Though clearly outmatched in his battle with Godzilla, the kaiju continues on, biting onto the greater monster’s arm and refusing to let go. During their battle, the film doesn’t loose focus of the people on the ground. A news crew helicopter is crushed when Godzilla tosses Baragon into the air, prompting Yuri to fall to the ground in shock and grief. A clueless tourist asks to get her picture taken with the monster, unaware of how dangerous they are. When Godzilla blasts Baragon into pieces, it makes it clear how ruthless he is with the other monsters and what an up-hill battle this may be for our heroes.

Considering Mothra has always been a character with a mystical connection, she is a good fit for the film’s story. Her massive, white cocoon appearing out of a lake is certainly a memorable image. Slowly, she emerges from the shell, spreading her wings in a haunting manner. As a character with her own complex mythology, in a film this full of creatures, Mothra gets a bit shorted. Her goddess-like nature isn’t mentioned and she mostly exists as a flying enemy against Godzilla. However, the movie sneaks in a few cute references to the character’s history. An instrumental version of the classic Mothra song plays when she appears. As she flies over the city, we see a pair of twin sisters look overhead, unusually focused on the monster. Instead of shooting lightning bolts from her eyes or poisonous dust from her wings, Mothra fires a barrage of stingers at Godzilla’s face. Mothra is also brought to life fantastically, a beautiful puppet seamlessly cut together with better-then-average CGI. The design reflects her insect-nature more heavily then before, giving the big moth a distinct look.

The final Guardian Monster to face Godzilla is King Ghidorah. Considering Ghidorah has always been a villain before, it’s odd to see the three-headed dragon on the side of humanity. However, the movie mostly makes it work, even shrinking the notoriously huge creature’s size. Ghidorah’s design has always been evocative of a classic oriental dragon. The monster is referred to as an immature Orochi, having only grown three of his eight heads. The kaiju’s mythical connection to Japan is further cemented in his entrance. A businessman accidentally stumbles upon the creature, buried in a sheet of ice, while attempting to hang himself in Japan’s suicide forest. It’s easy to see how Ghidorah’s part was originally written for Anguirus, as the dragon maintains the ankylosaur’s tenacity. Godzilla puts the monster down repeatedly but Ghidorah keeps coming back for more.

Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy brought a deconstructive edge to the kaiju genre. “G.M.K” partially maintains that angle. When Godzilla appears, the camera angles are kept low to the ground, focusing on the helpless humans running from the massive beast. An unbelieving mother is left in a super market, screaming in disbelief at the monster’s existence. Kaneko’s “Gamera” composer, Ko Ohtani, came along for this new film too. His score combines pounding electronic music with more elegent or atmospheric elements. An interesting move is that the film holds back on the traditional Godzilla theme until its final minutes.

“Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack” found the success that widely eluded “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.” It was fresh, different, and exciting, the only film of the Millennium era that would truly use its Elseworld potential to its fullest. The film remains a fan favorite, frequently topping best of lists. The film completely reinvents Godzilla and his universe, putting a unique touch on the kaiju-verse.
[Grade: A-]

No comments: