Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2003)

28. Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.
Gojira X Mosura X Mekagojira: Tōkyō Esu Ō Esu

In my reviews of the Millennium series, I keep referring to how the films are stand-alone stories, unconnected to previous sequels. Except for “Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.,” which totally breaks that rule. Apparently, “Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla” proved popular enough that a direct sequel was demanded. Kiryu and Godzilla’s rivalry would continue. In another example of mass appeal, “Tokyo S.O.S.” would thrown in Toho’s second most popular kaiju, Mothra. Could a direct sequel, even with the extra monster, top the popcorn action fun of “Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla?”

Picking up a year after the previous film, the threat of Godzilla continues to hang over Japan. Repairs have been made on Kiryu but the public remains uncertain about the robotic monster. Mothra’s twin fairies appear for the first time in forty years, warning Japan that they broke a natural law when they dug up the original Godzilla’s skeleton and used it to build MechaGodzilla. Mothra provides an ultimatum: Either return Godzilla’s bone to the ocean or he’ll be forced to destroy Tokyo. As a show of good faith, Mothra promises to protect the country should Godzilla appear. When that inevitably happens, the giant insect is flies into action. Ultimately, it doesn’t prove enough and Kiryu is forced out of retirement for one more job.

“Tokyo S.O.S.” is a flawed film but one issue stands above all the others. Akane Yashiro was a fan pandering character if one ever existed, hitting many tokusatsu otakus right in the heart. The character was far from brilliant. Honestly, she was fairly thin. However, the audience still developed an affinity for her. “Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla” ended with Akane ready to pilot Kiryu again, ready to defend Japan once more. You’d expect the sequel to follow her latest adventure, right? She’s barely in the movie. Yumiko Shaku returns as Akane for a brief cameo near the beginning of the film. She talks about how Kiryu doesn’t want to fight anymore and neither does she. Way to write off your protagonist, Toho. That’s more then the 27th films other main characters get. Inventor Tokumitsu Yuhara and his daughter Sara never appear. “Tokyo S.O.S.” continues the story but without the primary cast.

Instead, the film has a male protagonist, the first in the Millennium series since “Godzilla 2000.” Yoshito Chujo is an engineer and mechanic, a lover of World War II jet planes and the man responsible for maintaining Kiryu. Chujo attempts to incorporate himself into the anti-Godzilla force but meets conflict at every turn. MechaGodzilla’s pilot Akiba is antagonistic towards Chujo, for reasons that are never made entirely clear. Yoshito has a similar character arc to Akane from the last film. The movie is largely about Chujo proving himself to his colleague, ultimately helping Kiryu save the day with his skills. The similar writing gives the audience a real “been-there, done-that” sensation. He is given a love interest in the shape of Miho Yoshioka’s Azusa Kisaragi, a tough girl pilot. We ultimately don’t spend enough time with Azusa to truly get a bead on her personality. Noboru Kaneko is fine as Chujo, even bringing some endearing clumsiness to the character. However, he ultimately isn’t compelling.

The Shinsei era’s one-off approach generally appeals to me, save for one thing. If every story is stand-alone, that means we miss out on Toho’s expansive gallery of kaiju. “Tokyo S.O.S.” at least makes the effort to expand the universe’s scope, even if its just for two films. In addition to referencing the original “Godzilla,” this film is also a sequel to the original “Mothra.” Hiroshi Koizumi, who appeared in several golden age Toho flicks, reprises his role of Dr. Shin-ichi Chujo. The fairies appear to Shin-chi because they know they can trust him. Mothra’s 1961 attack on Tokyo is referenced several times. The butterfly’s cross symbol, frequently overlooked, is an important plot point. Rarely seen Kamoebas, the giant turtle from 1970’s “Space Amoeba,” also puts in an appearance as one of Godzilla’s off-screen victims. As interesting as the clean-slate approach can be, it’s nice to see a Godzilla flick with a sense of history.

Adding the mystical Mothra to the more solidly sci-fi Kiryu-verse presents problems of its own. The entire starting point of the plot is that Mothra wants Godzilla’s bones return to the sea. Why? We’re never provided with an explanation other then mortals shouldn’t try to revive the dead. Why exactly Mothra is so invested in this isn’t expounded on. Furthermore, why the insect goddess is willing to put her life on the line for these people also isn’t questioned. The logic behind Mothra appearing instantly whenever her symbol is drawn also doesn’t seem sound. Mothra works in mysterious ways and it seems like the screenwriters didn’t want to go any further then that.

Compared to the action-packed “Against MechaGodzilla,” “Tokyo S.O.S.” gets off to a slower start. The film focuses on its uninvolving human leads, Godzilla not appearing until a half-hour into the film. MechaGodzilla takes even longer to show up, spending most of the film in his tent, so to speak. The focus on the human cast would be more appreciated if they were better used. Aside from Dr. Chujo saving his grandson during the monster’s battle, the supporting cast doesn’t have much affect on the final battle. At least the film still wraps up at a relatively speedy 98 minutes.

Seemingly to compensate, the final hour of the film is solidly devoted to monster action. Godzilla and Mothra’s battle in Tokyo features some fun moments. Amusingly, much focus is paid to Godzilla’s facial expressions. His look of confusion when Mothra first appears, and his visible, continued frustration with the moth, got a lot of laughs out of me. The battle between the two classic rivals features some other great stunts. I like how Godzilla’s atomic breath explodes from his mouth in a great, fiery plume. Mothra flies circles around the dinosaur, inadvertently leading to the umpteenth destruction of the Tokyo Tower. While attempting to scratch Godzilla’s eyes out with his claws, Mothra gets tossed through a building. The most spectacular moment in the film is the very end. In order to protect her children, Mothra dives in front of Godzilla’s breath weapon. The moth goddess goes up in flames, burning to ashes in minutes. You feel bad for the creature but it’s a lovely way to go.

Compared to the over-the-top theatrics of “Against’s” fight, the battle between Godzilla and Kiryu here is much more muted. The robotic copy bombards the original with missiles and laser beams, hiding behind the building. Unimpressed, Godzilla just shoots his energy beam through the building, still connecting with Kiryu. There are no rocket tackles or flying bodies here. Kiryu tosses Godzilla over his shoulder upon meeting him again, a great stunt, but, otherwise, the action is more grounded. MechaGodzilla has ditched the lame Absolute Zero cannon for a more standard laser blast. The two wrestle, diving through the Diet building. When Godzilla is on the ropes, Kiryu forms one of his hands into a drill, goring a hole in the real deal’s chest.

Taking its cues from “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” the mother moth perishes protecting its egg. As in that 1964 classic, the egg hatches to reveal twins. The larvae gang up on Godzilla. One of the babies latch onto Godzilla’s tail, as is the tradition by this point, causing the King of the Monsters to thrash about in anger. After being beaten back by Kiryu, the two caterpillars shower Godzilla in silk, wrapping him up in a cocoon. I’m surprised the script didn’t fit a pair of greedy businessmen in there somewhere. It’s obvious the writers had a great love for the first Godzilla/Mothra team-up.

The Mothra design here is very different then the wasp-like design seen in “G.M.K.” Instead, this Mothra recalls the Heisei “Rebirth of Mothra” series. The moth goddess is fluffier then ever before. Long white hair dangles off her face and body. As cute as the kaiju potentially is, there’s just enough roughness to the design to make it clear that Mothra is a force to reckon with. By this point, Toho’s special effects department has mastered how to bring the giant butterfly to life. Though CGI is deployed a few times, Mothra is mostly a beautifully realized puppet. The creature moves realistically and naturally. Flashier Heisei special moves, like eye beams, are ditch for the standard poison powder and blinding speed. The caterpillars are more simplified, the facial tusk of “Gojira tai Mosura” now becoming animated feelers. The Godzilla and MechaGodzilla suits are completely unchanged from last time.

The impressive kaiju combat builds to a disappointing conclusion. While the three-way battle between Godzilla and the Mothra larva is raging overhead, the movie’s hero is rushing to the aide of the damaged Kiryu. While toiling through a collapsing underground tunnel, the Shobijin magically appear to help him out, an especially clumsy moment. The sequence focuses on the human hero seems to go on for an extended amount of time, distracting from the more-interesting monster fight. Chujo climb into Kiryu, and the way he revives the machine, is far too drawn out. The monster fight ends on a flat note. Godzilla essentially stands still while the little Mothra’s wrap him up in silk. MechaGodzilla, now following the instincts of his natural mind, grabs Godzilla and dives into the ocean with him. Before that note, we have an extended scene of Chujo tumbling out of the robot’s back, landing on a jet below. That moment is hopelessly cheesy, especially when Kiryu bides the scientist farewell. As far as conclusions go, Godzilla getting dropped into the ocean is one we’ve seen many times before.

“Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.” concludes on a frustratingly cryptic sequel hook. When you have to look up what a scene means, the teaser has failed at its job. The sequence, revealing a lab full of kaiju DNA, is even more annoying since the Kiryu Trilogy didn’t receive a third part. That’s probably just as well. “Tokyo S.O.S.” makes some great choice, as far as its mythology and fight scenes go. However, the dull characters and underwritten screenplay are problematic. The sequel ultimately isn’t as energetic or entertaining as its crowd-pleasing predecessor. The moments that work are frequently distracted by the moments that don’t. [Grade: B-]

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