Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2002)

27. Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla
Gojira X Mekagojira

It’s hard to say if Toho doesn’t learn its lessons or if the company is willing to experiment. The first two films of the new Godzilla era had the King of the Monsters fighting newly created enemies. Both underperformed at the box office. The third film brought back two of the series’ most popular supporting monsters. It was, naturally, a big success. Determined to give the people what they want, for the fourth Millennium film, Godzilla would face his second most reoccurring adversary once more. Because the people demanded it, the ever-popular MechaGodzilla would be reinvented yet again. However, is it possible for a movie to give audience too much of a good thing?

Like all the previous Shinsei films, “Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla” has no continuity with prior Godzilla films, save the original. Godzilla razed Tokyo in 1954 before dying at the hands of Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer. In the years since, Japan has been threatened by other giant monsters, like Mothra and Gaira. The Japanese army formed an anti-kaiju squadron in case another creature appears. On the forty-fifth anniversary of the original attack, another Godzilla appears. The monster completely crushes the monster defense squad, forcing the military to rethink their plan. An expert in experimental robotics is called in, building a hi-tech robot over the skeleton of the original Godzilla. When the real deal appears again, the military counters him with Kiryuu, the latest version of MechaGodzilla.

“Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla” seems designed to appease hardcore fans. The film features elements that are favorites among Japanese Otakus. The lead character, Akane Yashiro, is an attractive young woman soldier. During Godzilla’s 1999 attack, she watches helplessly while her squadron of men are killed by the monster. Traumatized, she closes herself off from human affection, focusing on her training. Cue the slow motion training montage, featuring some bouncing breasts! When she is given the chance to pilot Kiryu, Akane learns to love again, from the scientist, his precocious daughter and, yes, even the robot dinosaur. Akane’s character is rather reminiscent of the tsundere anime archetype. That she is romanced by a chubby, middle-age man stinks of wish fulfillment. Oh, and Japanese nerds also like giant robots.

Aside from the pandering fan service, “Gojira X Mekagojira” also includes plenty of crowd-pleasing elements for mainstream audiences. Akane, despite working so hard to prove herself, isn’t popular among her fellow soldiers. One of the lieutenants, Hayama, has a grudge against Yashiro, blaming her for the deaths of the squadron. His blatant antagonism, and the way the two eventually earn each other’s respect, reminds me of nothing less then “Top Gun.” The script stops just short of a volleyball scene but its easy to imagine Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in Yumiko Shaku and Yusuke Tomoi’s parts.

In addition to the fan-favorite monster, moe protagonist, and fighter jet cock-swinging, the script also includes a cute little girl learning to cope with her mother’s death. Doctor Tokumitsu Yuhara has a young daughter named Sara. Her mother died while pregnant with her potential baby sister a few years ago. Since then, Sara has been withdrawn. She obsesses over a plant left to her by her mom. She’s close to her quirky dad and, through him, grows close to Akane. The girl and the pilot learn from each other, the little girl discovering that life continues and the soldier discovering that her own life has value. The movie doesn’t push this too hard but still comes dangerously close to being sappy.

The movie panders openly to the fans, right down to cutesy cameos from original Godzilla babe Kumi Mizuno, Misato Tanaka as a sexy nurse, and baseball player Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui. As blatant as some of these scenes are, it almost doesn’t matter. When it comes to high octane monster action, “Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla” delivers. Godzilla emerges from the ocean behind an oblivious reporter, more focused on hurricane around him then the giant monster behind him. Godzilla’s attack is surprisingly vicious, visibly crushing a tank under foot. Godzilla can’t even be bothered to shrug off the missiles and laser beams the military pelt him with. The suit here is widely based off the look Godzilla sported in “2000.” The reptilian posture and giant back scutes are kept, though the latter lose their purple hue. The best change is a more size appropriate head and striking yellow eyes.

Which brings us to MechaGodzilla, or Kiryu as he’s called throughout most of the film. The first glimpse we catch of the creature is when scientist have swarmed around the original Godzilla’s massive, underwater skeleton. This is just the first of the film’s many unforgettable images. Once assembled, Kiryuu is an impressive creation. From a design level, I much prefer Kiryu over the nineties MechaGodzilla. He recalls classic Godzilla much more obviously, with fins on his head and arms. The robot is named after the word for dragon which the design reinforces, the saurian head especially. The design is a more organic combination of Godzilla and machine, recalling both while having a unique spirit. Kiryu wears a slick jet pack and blaster on his wrist, even gaining an electrified sword at one point. While the tin man Showa MechaGodzilla will always be my favorite, Kiryu runs a close second.

The first time the two monsters cross one another is slightly disappointing. Godzilla rampages through the city, interrupting a baseball game and tourists at a sea life amusement park. Kiryu confronts him but their conflict is short lived. The original Godzilla gets blasted with some missiles and laser beams, shrugging them off but not advancing. Upon roaring, Kiryu’s inner Goji is awoken, which is visualized by the camera rushing through his eye and into his brain. This leads to a very entertaining monster rampage. MechaGodzilla explodes large portions of the city with his wrist-mounted laser. Most memorably, he walks straight through a building. Doesn’t smash or crush it. Just casually steps through the structure, leaving a monster-sized hole behind.

That chaotically creative streak powers the film’s second half. MechaGodzilla flies into Tokyo, silhouetted against a full moon. He tackles Godzilla at high speed, powered by his rocket jets. The robot grabs the dinosaur by his tail, swinging him around in a full circle. Both combatants are tossed through buildings, wrecking plenty of collateral damage. There’s a good balance between close-quarters grappling and laser bombardment. Mostly, it’s the theatrical tackling, tossing, and flying that impressed me about the final fight. It’s ridiculous and many of the optical effects look incredibly fake. However, the out-there quality of the fight reminds me of the crazy spectacle of the later Showa series.

After that killer third act, “Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla” wraps up in a slightly disappointing manner. Much talk is made of Kiryu’s super weapon, something called the Absolute Zero Cannon. It’s a supercharged laser blast that can freeze any object solid. Like the special moves in any fighting anime, it has to be used sparingly, least Kiryu’s batteries run low. The attack is never as impressive as it needs to be and the film’s constantly reminding us of its power becomes a drag. After Godzilla sucker-punches Kiryu with some atomic breath, Akane has to climb into the robot’s brain and, essentially, shout encouragement to him. It’s a cheesy and melodramatic conclusion. However, Kiryu grabbing Godzilla in mid-flight and slamming both into the ocean is at least a fantastic moment.

Even though all the Millennium series are meant to be stand alone stories, “Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla” ends on, more or less, a cliffhanger. Godzilla is beaten back for the day, wounded but far from dead. Kiryu has won, momentarily, but is in need of serious repairs. Akane has regained her courage and is ready for Japan’s next invasion. After the credits, we see her sharing a moment with Tokumitsu and Sara. The pilot more or less says that Kiryu must be rebuild and Godzilla will return. Following this expectation, the film received a sequel the next year, the only direct follow-up seen in the Shinsei era.

Amidst the monster combat, it’s easy to overlook the film’s performance. Yumiko Shaku is saddled with such a cheesy character that it’s hard to gauge her acting. Akane is a cliched, stocks-parts heroine and the motions she goes through are very routine. However, Shaku is never offensively bad and usually competent in the part. More likable is Shin Takuma as Tokumitsu. His character is slightly absent-minded and generally an awkward nerd. His clumsy attempt to win Akane’s affection come of as charming. Young Kana Onodera is hassled with some very goofy dialogue as Sara. However, there’s a heart and a likable to her performance that saves it. Onodera brings the sincerity that is desperately needed. She’s funny too such as when she impresses her friends by walking into the military base on the way form school.

There are valid reasons to dislike “Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla.” It’s a movie that aims itself directly at the hardcore nerd audience, doing everything to win their affections. I know when I’m being pandered to but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. The movie features the most deliriously bonkers monster action since the mid-nineties. Masaaki Tezuka, improving from “Megaguirus,” directs in a stylish manner. Michiru Ohsima’s score is intense, drawing heavily from Ifukube’s work without directly copying it. The movie has enough wacky energy to more then support its speedy 88 minute run time. Though we watch these movies for a lot of reasons, at the end of the day, it’s the monster fights we stick around for. “Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla” has got some damn fine monster fights. [Grade: B]

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