Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 39: Godzilla: The Showa Age Pt. 1

Kaiju Month isn't quite concluded here at Film Thoughts. I know, I know, I've uploaded like six updates today. Originally, I had planned to put the "G.M.K." review up on Monday, post the reviews for the Kiryu films yesterday, and post the final two Millennium movies today. However, I mysteriously lost internet access over the weekend. So that's why I've piled five reviews on you guys today. I'm fairly proud that I manage to wrap up such a large project within the space of a month and some change. I'm all ready for you now, new Godzilla movie!

Also today, because everything waits with the last minute with me, the latest episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show went up. As promised, it is also about Godzilla. Here, we cover the first eight films of the Showa era. As long-time readers/listeners should know by now, I draw extensively from the reviews I've posted here over the last several weeks. However, I'm actually fairly pleased with the way this one turned out. While I still ramble a plenty, JD is unusually engaged in the topic this week.

Kaiju Month is technically over just yet. Obviously, there are three more Godzilla-themed Bangers n' Mash episodes coming and I intend to review the new Hollywood Godzilla flick as soon as I see it. However, May is going to be a little more low key for me. Come on, guys, I technically posted a review every day this month. I usually only do that in October. Give me a break. Which isn't to say I'm not planning stuff. Actually, I should have a new Director's Report Card ready before June begins. Hopefully! Nobody's reading this so I don't know why I'm going on but you'll probably hear from me again soon.

Series Report Card: Gamera (2006)

12. Gamera the Brave
Chiisaki Yūsha-tachi: Gamera / 
Gamera: Little Braves

The Heisei Gamera trilogy completely redefined what Gamera was for an entire generation of monster fans. The cutting-edge special effects, serious story lines, and dark and gritty content were as far as you could get from the campy silliness of the Showa period. Gamera use to be a joke but now things had, perhaps, gone too far in the other direction. Entire fandoms knew the giant turtle, not as the giddy Friend to All Children, but only as the grim Guardian of the Universe. Yet these things tend to go in cycles. Just as Christopher Nolan’s hyper-realistic “Dark Knight” trilogy made way for the awesome-for-awesome-sake’s “Batman: Brave and the Bold,” the violent and bleak “Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris” led to “Gamera the Brave.” Made just a year late for the big turtle’s fortieth anniversary, the film attempted to combine the kid-friendly spirit of the Showa age with the advanced special effects and serious storytelling of the nineties series.

In the 1970s, the original Gamera self-destructed to destroy a flock of attacking Gyaos, as witnessed by a group of people, including a young boy. Thirty years later, that boy has grown into a man, with a young son of his own. The man’s wife and the boy’s mother recently died, leaving young Toru confused and uncertain. In his loneliness, Toru finds an egg, a seemingly normal turtle hatching form it. Naming it Toto, Toru quickly discovers the turtle is anything but normal. Able to fly and breath fire, Toto is the off-spring of the original Gamera. When the town is threatened by another giant monster, the quickly growing Toto has to inherit his father’s legacy as defender of the human race.

“Gamera the Brave” does a rather astonishing thing. It roots a giant monster action movie in a very human story. Toru, who can’t be any older then nine, is introduced kneeling at his mother’s grave. The boy’s father assures him that his mother is watching them from heaven. Toru isn’t so sure. The boy’s relationship with his father is slightly strained. Toru is a meloncholey kid and his dad, struggling to run a small business, doesn’t truly know how to deal with that. The young boy seems surrounded by death as his closest friend Mai, the slightly older girl next door, is suffering from a potentially fatal heart condition. Like the best of Speilberg, “Gamera the Brave” has an acute understanding of how lonely childhood can be.

When Toru discovers the turtle egg, things change for the boy. He shares a bond with the little reptile. Toru’s mother nicknamed him Toto and he, likewise, names the turtle the same. The pet, whose friendly chirping is more eligible then your typical turtle, brightens the boy’s outlook. He keeps the turtle a secret from his father, especially when he discovers Toto can hover through the air. An attempt to set the animal free just makes their bond stronger, when Toru saves the critter from an oncoming truck. The turtle even opens Toru’s social life, giving him a reason to strike up a friendship with two other boys in town. While a normal dog or cat can’t compare to a flying turtle, “Gamera the Brave” understands how the mutual love and friendship of a pet can open up a child’s world.

As Toto grows from a palm sized turtle to a larger tortoise, “Gamera the Brave” grows with him. The three boys sneaking the growing creature out of the house to a safer location reminds me of “The Goonies,” “Explorers,” and other classic kids-on-an-adventure flicks. Toru has quiet talks with the turtle at the beach-front tree house. As he learns about the history of Gamera, how the original self-destructed, the fear of death looms again. Around the same time, Mai heads into the hospital for surgery. The two events are obviously connected. The young boy has to confront his fear of death head-on. As Toto grows into a mighty Gamera, battling a deadly foe, the story becomes about the will to survive in the face of death’s inevitability.

When images of a cuter Gamera appeared on the internet, fans of the darker ‘90s series were dismayed. Was the Gamera series returning to its sillier roots? Both yes and no. “Gamera the Brave” does indeed feature some goofy, cute turtle antics. When Mai catches a glimpse of Toto as he flies, both girl and turtle shriek in surprise. Left alone at the house while Toru plays with his new friends, the turtle goes exploring. He bounces down the stairs, a hilarious sight gag. Once in the kitchen, the baby Gamera just barely avoids being detected by Toru’s skeptical father. The turtle tests out his fire-breathing powers on a knife, a cutesy reference to “Gamera vs. Guiron.” Moments like this perhaps push things too far. Toto sliding around a buttered pan as Toru races around a skate park is too on the nose. Your enjoyment of these scenes probably depends on your tolerance for cute animal antics. As a long-life fans of turtle, I have to say I loved these moments.

With its focus on childhood and character development, you might forget that “Gamera the Brave” is a kaiju film. The script drops hints throughout the first act concerning its threat. Ships and sailors have been vanishing, pulled down into the waters by a strange force. About midway through the film, Zedus leaps on-screen. Inspired by marine iguanas, Zedus is introduced with no explanation. Where the monster comes from and his motivations are purely up to the audience. The film doesn’t waste time on exposition. In his first attack, Zedus threatens Toru and his friends. Sensing a child in peril, Toto leaps into action. Now the size of an eighteen wheeler, the young Gamera battles the greater kaiju. He is outmatched at first, tossed through the town’s buildings. However, Toto bests the other monster not with greater fire power but by outsmarting it, cleverly utilizing the surrounding buildings and his budding fire breath. As far as first fights go, it’s an exciting, if brief, encounter.

As an infant, Toto resembles a normal turtle. As he grows, he starts to look like a tortoise, with slightly wider, more expressive eyes. In his mature form, Toto gains a pair of big, anime eyes, along with stubby, incomplete tusk. The cuteness of the design is probably pushed too far in this final form. Even Showa Gamera was never cuddly. However, for the purpose of the film, the Toto design is effective. One of the film’s weaknesses is that Zedus, the enemy monster, is a somewhat uninspired design. The reptilian monster eats humans, like Gyaos, and attacks with his extending tongue, like Barugon. A “Godzilla vs. Gamera” movie, a kaiju fan dream film, has been discussed for years. “Gamera the Brave” almost plays like an unofficial version of that battle. Zedus’ reptilian appearance, lizard-like posture, and long tail certainly recalls the King of the Monsters. Zedus’ spear tongue is an interesting weapon but his second distinctive feature, a neck frill, winds up looking somewhat awkward. His brief screen-time allows for little personality. Zedus is easily the least memorable Gamera villain this side of Jiger.

Another flaw of the film is its brief government subplot. Early on, we get some brief mention of Japan having a special government unit devoted to giant monsters. This actually makes a lot of sense. However, with the focus being so squarely on Toru and his relationships, this subplot isn’t allowed much growth. When the callous scientists capture Toto for testing, it comes off like a typical plot turn. Naturally, the giant turtle escapes custody, just in time for the final fight. The military and scientists put in some token appearances afterwards but they’re ultimately an underdeveloped part of the film.

Any of the script’s problems are forgiven during the masterful last third. Zedus reappears, Toto ready to face the big lizard down. The two monsters scrap and wrestle through the city, knocking each other down with their claws and head. An especially inspired moment comes when Zedus hooks Gamera with his tail. The enemy monster swings off a building, flicking his tail through the air, catapulting Toto into a near-by sky scraper. Imagine if pro-wrestlers had tails and you’ve got a good idea of what a neat stunt that is. Even if he’s an overall uninspired design, the lizards giant stabbing tongue is certainly a dynamic weapon. The way he climbs buildings seem very natural and appropriately animalistic. Say what you will about the designs but the suit performers do excellent work.

The film’s best moment actually only involves the monsters in a background capacity. Mai holds the red stone that could give Gamera the charge he needs to win. However, she’s stuck in an emergency shelter, far away from the action. A compassionate child hears her cries and grabs the stone. She runs into the city, handing the stone off to another kid when the trip becomes too difficult. Understanding implicitly, that child continues the race, handing the prize off to another kid and another, until the stone finally reaches Toru. Low on dialogue and scored to Yoko Ueno’s excellent music, the scene plays out like a sweet, natural poem. For years, Gamera has understood children on a natural, innate level. “Gamera the Brave” shows them returning the favor. The act of bravery is enough to turn Toru’s dad around. He helps the boy up the tower, allowing him to reach Toru. Before handing the healing stone over to the turtle, the boy makes a stirring speech, letting Toto know how much he means to him and making him promise that he won’t give up, that he won’t die. The giant turtle nods, understanding. Recharged, he drops from the building, taking flight, and delivering the killing blow needed to defeat Zedus. As far as last acts in monster movies go, “Gamera the Brave” has one of the most poignant and elegantly constructed I’ve ever seen.

The film is helped by its excellent cast. For a young actor, Ryo Tomioka never falters as Toru. He doesn’t go for big, broad emotion, keeping things honest and personal. Tomioka holds the entire film together with his quiet, self-assured performance. For an actor that young, it’s an impressive achievement. Also great is the solo-named Kaho as Mai. The actress has the tricky job of playing both Toru’s older sister figure and his potential love interest. The two have a cute, believable interaction, a proper amount of concern on either side of the relationship. When Mai starts to believe in Toto near the end, Kaho really sells the emotions fantastically. Also notable is Kanji Tsuda as Toru’s father. Tsuda can never come as too harsh, keeping the balance between concern and frustration with his son. He does a great job, especially since the father holds a secret appreciation for giant flying turtles himself. Overall, the soulful script of “Gamera the Brave” wouldn’t matter half as much as it does without the excellent cast bringing it to life.

This was director Ryuta Tazaki’s first film not to have Kamen Rider in the title. He adapts well to the different material. “Gamera the Brave” was not successful at the Japanese box office, squashing much hope for a new series. Even fan reaction has been mixed, many finding the film too cute and whimsical. Yet “Gamera the Brave” is everything I’ve always wanted from a Gamera movie. It’s got plenty of well-orchestrated monster action, with all the outrageous effects and kaiju blood you’ve come to expect from the series. At the same time, the film deals with serious themes while accurately capturing the spirit of childhood. It’s cute, exciting, and poignant in equal measure. The final moment, when Toru bids the now-fully-grown Toto a strong but soulful good-bye, nearly got a tear at of me. Maybe I’m a big softie for giant monster movies but I can proudly say that “Gamera the Brave” is my favorite of the entire series. [Grade: A]

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2004)

29. Godzilla: Final Wars
Gojira: Fainaru Uozu

The Millennium age had failed to reproduce the Heisei era’s success at the box office. So Toho made the decision to bring the Godzilla series to an end, wrapping things up just in time for the famous kaiju’s fiftieth anniversary. The King of the Monsters wouldn’t be lumbering into his umpteenth retirement without one more final hurrah. For this landmark film, Toho brought in a bona fide action auteur, Ryuhei Kitamura, who had earned world-wide acclaim for energetic genre mash-ups like “Versus” and “Azumi.” Kitamura promised to deliver the ultimate Godzilla movie. A record-breaking total of fifteen monsters were packed into the film, many of them fan-favorite characters from the classic period. The movie’s comparatively large budget was in service of an epic sci-fi story that spanned the globe. “Godzilla: Final Wars” ultimately didn’t live up to that promise. However, it did accomplish something. It was the first Godzilla film in quite some time to feel like an event.

The world of “Godzilla: Final Wars” is one that has been consistently ravaged by giant monsters for fifty years. The constant threat has caused humanity to ban together, bringing about global peace in the face of annihilation. A Global Defense Force protects the Earth from the monsters, including the most powerful and feared, Godzilla. Working for the Force is a race of super-human mutants, men and women born with incredible power. As Earth is being troubled by a new kaiju invasion, space aliens appear, seemingly solving the problem. The mutant soldiers of the Defense Force aren’t so sure. Turns out, they were right not to believe the aliens. After winning our trust, the invaders unleash their monster army on the Earth, with the intent to destroy it. Put in a tough spot, the rogue band of human and mutant heroes are forced to awaken the slumbering Godzilla. Now as many times before, Earth’s greatest foe is its only hope.

“Final Wars” is deeply flawed. However, there’s one thing you can’t fault the movie for. “Godzilla: Final Wars” has a scope and energy unlike any other film in the series. Even “Destroy All Monsters,” the feature’s obvious inspiration, wasn’t as big or effects packed as this one. Elaborate action sequences, involving both humans and giant monsters, fill out the run time. Characters leap, run, sail through the air, and kung-fu fight in increasingly complex ways. The story takes place all over the world, skipping from Japan to America, Australia, even Antarctica. The alien invaders of past Toho films have frequently said they imperil the world. However, only “Final Wars” makes that threat feel genuine. The fate of the entire planet is at stake. It’s not a film short on ambitions, is what I’m saying.

Ryuhei Kitamura is a director with a strong, obvious sensibility. His movies are about humans high-kicking through the air in potentially ridiculous ways, leaping and twirling about. His camera swirls about the action, lending frenetic energy to outrageous action. Kitamura doesn’t attempt to adapt his style to the preconceived Godzilla form. Instead, he slams together his high-energy aesthetic with traditional rubber suit monster action. The result is a film that features some of the most outrageous kaiju action since the seventies. The creatures punch, prance, twist, tackle, and body-slam each other, tossed through the air by atomic breath and laser weapons. The director doesn’t limit the over-the-top action to the monsters. “Final Wars” features just as much, if not more, insane fighting among its human cast.

Therein lies the rub. “Final Wars” can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. The film’s second scene is an acrobatic karate fight between two of the Earth Defense Force mutants. The characters kick, chop, and toss each other around in absurd ways. The focus remains on these superhuman heroes even after the monsters start their rampage. While Ebirah tears through Japan’s factory district, a team of mutants shoot the monster with laser guns, swinging around a silo and seemingly flying around the big lobster. The script focuses on a rivalry between empathetic Ozaki and hot-blooded Kazama. After the aliens reveal themselves, the story becomes about the heroes trying to uncover the Xiliens’ nefarious plot. Once the aliens are outed as deadly invaders, the movie kicks into its most ridiculous action scene yet. Kazama, controlled by the extraterrestrials, and Ozaki race on motorcycles, eventually kung-fu fighting on the bikes before using the bikes to kung-fu fight. Kitamura directs these scenes with his trademark exaggerated style, his direction calling attention to the artificiality of the stunts. While not without entertainment value of its own, this isn’t what the audience came for. Moreover, the movie’s constant ridiculously ramping action gets tiresome quickly.

Kitamura’s goal seemed to be to make a Godzilla film that measured up to Hollywood blockbusters. Perhaps he took this goal too literally. “Final Wars” cribs extensively from popular American films. The repeated use of the word “mutant” obviously invokes the “X-Men” franchise, M-Base standing in for X-Genes. A long section in the middle of the film is devoted to the heroes unmasking the aliens. The aliens reveal themselves by never blinking with their cover being blown on national television. The conspiracy-style sleuthing reminds me of “The X-Files” and similar shows. The alien mother ship has its shields blown down when an Earth pilot sacrifices himself, flying straight into the ship’s core, a plot point taken straight from “Independence Day.” The main villain shoots lightning from his fingers while cackling madly, a move that would have made Emperor Palpatine cock an eyebrow. The burnt-out remains of the Statue of Liberty blatantly recalls “Planet of the Apes.” The script is so indebted to other genre films that when the phase “Resistance is futile” is dropped, you can’t help but wonder if its intentionally parodying these classic films.

Yet there’s one film “Final Wars” wants to be far more then any other. As the run time spirals down, it becomes clear that Ryuhei Kitamura really wanted to direct “The Matrix.” All of the movie’s extended action scenes are blatantly emulating the Wachowskis' masterpiece. Literal bullet time is featured, with characters dodging bullets in slow motion. The motorcycle chase scene is obviously inspired by “The Matrix Reloaded.” Near the film’s climax, Ozaki realizes he is a special “one” in a million person, more powerful then the others. He blocks a barrage of laser beams by putting out his hand. Even the way the bad guys dress, in frequently swished trench coats, is indicative of the cyber-punk series. Many films ripped-off and emulated the “Matrix” but you’d never expect to see such blatant thievery in a Godzilla movie.

For a movie with his name above the title, “Godzilla: Final Wars” features surprisingly little Godzilla. The King of the Monsters is imprisoned at the beginning before disappearing for a solid hour. This is all the more frustrating since Kitamura is clearly a huge Godzilla fan. Prime spots are written for Showa age wonders like Gigan, Manda, King Caesar, Anguirus, and even the much maligned Minilla and Ebirah. Moreover, the script resurrects concepts from Toho’s sci-fi golden age. Invaders from Planet X, the super-battle sub Gotengo, and rogue planet Gorath are all plot relevant. The movie is packed full of in-jokes, like cutesy cameos from Kumi Mizuno, Akira Takarada, and Kenji Sahara. Hell, the words “Save the Earth!” are even shouted excitedly. When the movie isn’t fucking around with shit nobody cares about, it’s about Godzilla being an unstoppable badass, the one thing all G-Fans want to see.

For a fact, much of the monster action doesn’t feature Godzilla. The opening battle between Manda and the Gotengo is genuinely exciting, showing off how dynamic the rarely used Chinese dragon truly is. When the monsters raid the world, some exciting set pieces are shown. Ebirah wrecking the chemical plant, when it isn’t focused on the human bouncing around, features some satisfying building crushing. The monsters are unleashed on the world during an international montage. King Caesar stomps Okinawa. Kamacuras rockets through Paris, overturning the Eiffel Tower. His supersonic flight shatters glass, a nice image. The movie might even redeem two of the Godzilla-verse’s most maligned films. The TriStar Godzilla, redubbed Zilla, attacks Sydney, wrecking buildings and eating a pair of punk rockers. This sequence actually makes the overgrown iguana seem intimidating, something the 1998 flop never accomplished. Minilla, meanwhile, is featured in a subplot that intentionally recalls “Godzilla’s Revenge.” The man-sized monster befriends a human boy. Though he doesn’t talk, he does change size and blow atomic smoke rings. Minilla is even involved in yuk-fest antics like trying to drive a car.

Once Godzilla does show up, he owns “Final Wars.” The most satisfying stretch of the film is when Godzilla is marching across the globe, destroying a succession of enemy kaiju. He blows off Gigan’s head in Antarctica, the cyborg monster’s grappling hooks back-firing on him. The meme-worthy battle with Zilla is pure fan service, the true Godzilla vanquishing his American counterpart in seconds. Kumonga attempts to ensnare the Monster King in giant web nets but Godzilla swings the spider over a mountain side. A brief scuffle with Kamacuras ends with the giant mantis impaled on a tower. The movie’s action peaks during a four-way battle between Godzilla and Anguirus, Rodan, and King Caesar. Before Mount Fuji, Godzilla battles his former allies. King Caesar, prancing like a kabuki actor, leaps from mountainsides, Godzilla tossing him aside. Anguirus, curled into a spiked ball, is kicked back and forth like a soccer ball. Rodan flies circles around his opponent, trying to daze him. Godzilla eventually beats all three into submission, piling their unconscious bodies in a heap. He roars triumphantly, silhouetted against the iconic mountain. Fuck. Yes.

Even then, there’s something unsatisfying about “Final Wars’” monster action. CGI is used too liberally. Anguirus’ bouncing around as a spiked ball is unconvincing. Many of the monster scenes are derailed by Kitamura’s peculiar sense of humor. While in New York, the film focuses on a cartoonish black pimp, the cop trying to tow his pimp caddy, and a drunken vagrant, who is also black. Needless to say, this moment doesn’t feature the most sophisticated racial politics. You’re real thankful when Rodan flies along, destroying the city and its offensive inhabitants. The monster rampage montage is interrupted by a hyper-active little kid screaming at his TV set. While in Arizona, Kumonga stomps on a redneck starring dumbfounded at the news. These moments are unnecessary, bizarre, and incredibly distracting.

As Godzilla marches towards Tokyo, “Final Wars” lumbers into its belabored last act. Earlier in the film, Gorath, the careening rogue planet, was dismissed as a hoax. Yet it shows up at the end anyway, Godzilla blasting it out of the sky. Beneath the Xilien mother ship, Godzilla battles the mysterious Monster X, an original kaiju inspired by H.R. Giger’s Alien. The combat is satisfying, featuring plenty of punching, tackling, and monster wrestling. However, the film’s climatic moment is constantly interrupted by other scenes. Mothra has to put in her required appearance, fighting Gigan to the death, her fairies reduced to cameos. The battle between Godzilla and Monster X cuts away to the action on the mother ship. The human heroes battle the invaders, via martial arts and laser guns. These scenes distract from the more-exciting kaiju fight while also draining the latter of most of its energy. The Xiliens are defeated but the movie’s not done yet. Monster X still has to transform into the newest version of King Ghidorah, the massive Keizer Ghidorah. By the time this last fight blows in, the viewer is exhausted. “Final Wars’” run time extends to 125 minutes, longer then any previous Godzilla film. It’s about a half-hour too long, the script’s frantic energy not being able to sustain itself for that long.

“Final Wars” has an extensive creature cast, necessitating numerous new suits. Godzilla is leaner with longer arms and less muscle, befitting the boxer persona he uses here. He regains his cat-like ears and extended fangs, looking more demonic then ever. Obviously a favorite of the director, Gigan gets a badass make-over. The Cyborg Space Chicken’s sillier aspect are ejected for grittier elements. The claws, visor, fins, and buzz saw make his cybernetic origin more obvious. The kaiju is overall far more intimidating then he’s ever been. Rodan is red and armored, Anguirus is squat and pig-like, King Caesar has a new pug nose but maintains his floppy ears. Each kaiju look like themselves while being upgraded by modern effects. Even the doughy Minilla gets a solid upgrade, suddenly looking like a son Godzilla could actually have. Monster X is a slightly uninspired monster but the quadrupedal Keizer Ghidorah is a decent addition to Godzilla’s rogues gallery. “Final Wars” shows Toho’s effects expert at their best, featuring some of the most impressive monster suit and miniature sets ever put to film.

Since they take up so much screen time, you’d think I’d have more to say about the film’s human cast. Masahiro Matsuoka is serviceable as Ozaki. The character is too thin to provide the actor much meat but at least Matsuoko is never annoying. Kazuki Kitamura plays the leader of Planet X, an evil pretty boy with spiky hair. Kitamura goes gleefully over-the-top, finding a decent balance between humorous theatrics and cartoon super-villain menace. The female supporting cast is given little to do besides look nice in mini-skirts, not even flirting with the strangely asexual male heroes. The character that receives the most attention is American Captain Gordon. The bulky Gordon has a Freddie Mercury mustache. He disobeys his superior officers, wields a katana, and seems very willing to engage in physical conflict. The script works so hard to make Gordon a fan-favorite badass that you’re a little put off by him. He’s a cartoon action hero and, when he’s besting alien super-beings with his fists, it gets ridiculous. Don Frye’s performance, however, is just gruff enough to make the character interesting, if not convincing.

Maybe the most distracting thing about “Final Wars” is its awful musical score. Keith Emerson, prog-rock superstar, provided the music. The tinny electronic score swings between several different modes. Its heroic theme sounds like the theme song to an eighties Saturday morning cartoon. And not a good one. The score frequently lapses into techno-disco nonsense, which makes the action scenes difficult to take seriously. Emerson’s score sounds like it was composed on a single synthesizer, lacking any depth or resonance, coming off as extremely cheap. Adding to the indignity, once-sort-of-popular emo band Sum 41 contributes an original song. No matter how entertaining some of the action is, it’s embarrassing to watch Godzilla fight monsters to bad punk music. Ifukube’s original theme was so scandalized by the rest of the music that it only put in a single appearance at the very beginning.

“Godzilla: Final Wars” was supposed to be the ultimate Godzilla movie, an even bigger version of “Destroy All Monsters.” Unfortunately, it falls short of that goal. A derivative screenplay, a divided story line, cheesy acting, terrible music, an overlong run time, and uneven special effects sink the film. Yet those awesome monster fights can’t be ignored. Ryuhei Kitamure definitely put his own stamp on the Godzilla series, even if “Final Wars" bombed financially. Like the Millennium series overall, “Final Wars” never lives up to its potential, only delivering occasional moments of pure awesome. [Grade: C+]

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-]

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]

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-]

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2000)

25. Godzilla vs. Megaguirus
Gojira x Megagirasu: G Shōmetsu Sakusen

In the nineties, it took about two films before the series got back on track at the box office. The Heisei experimented by creating a new enemy for Godzilla before audiences demanded the return of his supporting monsters. Despite this object lesson, Toho decided to experiment again in the Millennium era. “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” paired the King of the Monsters against a newly invented foe, a mutated, mean-spirited, giant dragon fly. History repeated itself. “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” grossed only ten million dollars at the box office, against an eight million dollar budget. Not a bomb but hardly a blockbuster hit, making the film the least successful of the Millennium age. Is the film’s creative quality in line with its financial reception?

The previous film established the rule of the Shinsei Era, that each film is a stand-alone story, unconnected to previous entries. In the alternate universe of “Megaguirus,” Godzilla attacked Japan in 1954, again in 1964, and most recently in 1996. Each time, the monster’s attacks were spurned on by his quest for nuclear energy to consume. Hoping to prevent further Godzilla attacks, the Japanese government outlaws nuclear research, powering the country with clean “plasma” energy. However, the military remains vigilant. A special research sector called the G-Graspers, led by a young officer with a personal grudge against the monster, devises new ways to defend the world from Godzilla. Their latest invention is a cannon that generates miniature black holes, an especially final solution to Japan’s giant monster problem. However, the black hole device rips a hole through time, bringing a deadly species of giant dragon flies into the present. As usual, Godzilla winds up being the world’s only protection from a bigger threat.

“Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” begins with an interesting premise. Freeing the story from previous continuity presents some new opportunities. Godzilla wasn’t killed in 1954 by the Oxygen Destroyer. Instead, as we see in footage from the original film with the new suit edited in, he escaped into the ocean. The film exists in a world were Godzilla’s appearance has completely changed the direction of history. The monster’s attraction to nuclear energy has forced Japan to pursue alternative fuel sources. Thus, the film takes place in a more scientifically advanced world where a crazy black hole generator seems like a plausible invention. However, the script doesn’t explore this alternate history premise any further. Instead, the change in series’ history simply means Godzilla has been around a while. The black hole device is simply a means to create the villain.

Rather, “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” focuses on its heroine’s quest for revenge. Kiriko Tsujimori’s hatred for Godzilla is born out of the 1996 attack on Osaka. As just a grunt soldier, she was part of a squadron fighting Godzilla off with handheld rocket launchers. Why this option was pursued instead of, says, tanks and fighter jets, I don’t know. Anyway, Kiriko’s commanding officer was killed in the event, Godzilla dumping some rumble on him. Ever since, she has sworn revenge on the kaiju. Kiriko’s thirst for vengeance drives the story, motivating each of the character’s actions. The script doesn’t comment on the price of vengeance. Kiriko doesn’t come to accept Godzilla as a neutral force of nature. Instead, her revenge is played as fully justified. The character doesn’t grow or change any over the course of the story. The script is one-hundred percent on her side and seems uninterested in exploring her thoughts any deeper. Misato Tanaka’s performance isn’t bad so much as it is uninspired. She’s serviceable but doesn’t elevate the material.

Instead, Kiriko’s development as a character is tied to the film’s other characters. She recruits rogue scientist Hajime Kudo to work on G-Grasper’s projects. Kudo is introduced impressing school kids by tricking them with his nanobots. The script treats him as an important character. However, his contributions to the story are mostly on a surface level. A locating device he gives to Kirko is hardly advanced science while a computer program he invents later in the film, a ridiculous interface involving an anime nurse, is completely implausible. The two characters are obviously meant to be budding romantic partners. However, there’s very little chemistry between Tanaka and the serviceable Shosuke Tanihara. The ending, a reprise of their earlier rice shop encounter, comes of as hilariously shallow. Kiriko bumps Kudo’s broken arm. She’s sympathetic towards him. That’s it. It’s an abrupt, off-tone ending, one that generates unintentional laughter instead of pathos.

Aside from Tsujimori and Kudo, the story also features a little boy. The kid discovers a strange egg after catching a brief glimpse of the giant dragon fly. He seems fascinated by the egg at first but, quickly realizing its trouble, drops it down a sewer pipe. There, the egg grows, producing other, smaller eggs. This is from where the swarms of insect monsters spawn. The boy is even the one who acknowledges the creature as a spin-off of the meganeura, a genuine species of prehistoric giant dragonfly. The kid is obviously lonely and his presence reminds me of classic Showa flicks. However, the character is underutilized, disappearing for large portions of the film. The attempt friendship between the boy and Tsujimori is a narrative dead end, isolated to two whole scenes, not affecting either character much. The movie might have been stronger had it focused on the little boy instead of the military officer.

Even if its human element is weaker then usual, “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” features plenty of kaiju action. While editing the modern suit into the black and white footage is slightly awkward, the opening scenes work well. The 1996 march on Osaka is mostly shown from ground level, Godzilla towering over the humans. Godzilla is constantly tracked by the government, his every move observed. Kudo leaps from a helicopter, swimming up next to the giant monster. She climbs onto his back spines, embedding the tracking device into his skin personally. This moment is a rare up-close look at Godzilla, giving us a definitive idea of his scale. When the Meganula swarm attacks Godzila, it’s a new sort of monster fight. For the first time, Godzilla is battling hundreds of smaller creatures. Shaking the bugs off, he sets a portion of them ablaze, an immensely satisfying moment.

Which brings me to the movie’s enemy monster. The creatures first appear as the larva-like Meganulon, named after and inspired by a similar monster from the original “Rodan.” The crawling man-sized insects roam the streets, picking off unsuspecting human victims. Scenes of the Meganulon hanging over a pair of clueless construction workers is surprisingly sinister. Later, the huge insect devours a pair of teenage lovers in an alley-way. This moment, with its human-focused chaos and unexpected blood, pushes the film into harder horror. It recalls both “Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion” and any number of American monster movies. Had the film followed that off-beat energy, the rest of the movie would have been more interesting.

Instead, the Meganulon sprout wings, becoming the near identical Meganula. The growing number of insects destroy the city’s plumbing and dam system, flooding parts of Tokyo. The movie surprisingly brushes off this plot development. Even though we see huge buildings drowned in water, no mention is made of the human lives invariably lost during such an event. The water logged city isn't paid much attention, the plot instead rushing towards the next development. A few memorable images come out of this section, such as Godzilla sleeping among the submerged structures or a skyscraper covered with Meganula, waiting to attack. Perhaps the shadow of the 2012 earthquake makes the sight of a flooded Japan far more ominous then it was back in 2000. Either way, it’s another undeveloped element of the script.

Though patterned after dragonflies, the Meganula are also a lot like mosquitoes. Aside from covering Godzilla like pest, the insect can also drain his energy with stingers on their tails. Even if the giant reptile ignites most of the bugs, enough survive to return to their nest. They pump Godzilla’s blood into a giant egg. The cocoon quickly hatches, the titular Megaguirus finally making her entrance. Megaguirus is one of the rare times cool factor trumps logic. The kaiju’s triangular head, hinged jaw, and red eyes make it look more like a regular dragon then a dragon fly. It’s massive, pinching claws brings to mind a winged scorpion while the stinging tail reminds one of a wasp. Logic be damned because Megaguirus looks pretty bitchin’. The purple color scheme is unique while the jagged, spiked armor is intimidating. From a design level, the new monster is a major success.

In execution, however, the creature goes wrong. The special effects in “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” have not aged the best. Throughout the film, but especially when it rises from the flooded city, cables are seen holding the Megaguirus puppet up. Some of the digital matting effects are rickety. The giant bug doesn’t always appear to be in the same scene as its rival monster. It makes sense for the monster’s wings to beat at super-sonic speed. However, the model’s actual wings making way for digitally vibrating versions isn’t convincing looking. During the big fight with Godzilla, the massive dragonfly frequently zips around the big dinosaur. The computer-aided flight only looks awkward and cartoonish now. The movie’s underwhelming box office was actually blamed on the subpar special effects. Which isn’t very fair but, no doubt, the effects are distracting.

However, somethings are easier to forgive then others. In its latter half, “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” finally starts to function smoothly. Godzilla and Megaguirus’ battle has a long prologue, where the dragonfly zips circles around the Monster King. POV shots from the giant insects’ point of view are used throughout, giving us a shaky, almost-bullet time like look at the battle. The flying insect has the upper hand at first, knocking Godzilla about and dropping a building on his head. The flying creature stabs his enemy with his stinger, slowly draining his strength. When this happens, it looks like Megaguirus has speared Godzilla in the groin which is somewhat… Embarrassing. A close-quarter scuffle, where the insect starts clawing and biting, is more successful. One of my favorite bits involves Godzilla ducking just in time, clipping one of Megaguirus’ claws with his back spines. The most notorious moment in the film, and its most giddy, is when Godzilla stabs the other kaiju’s stinger into the ground. Pinned, the rotund dinosaur king actually leaps into the air, performing a delirious body-slam on the giant bug. It’s a hilariously silly moment, one recalling the series’ sixties heyday, and also a lot of fun.

The fun continues as Godzilla and Megaguirus have surprisingly expressive faces. When the bug escapes him, Godzilla glances back and forth, in confusion. Right before Godzilla body slams him, Megaguirus’ eyes grow wide in shock. Apparently, the giant dragon fly was as surprised as this viewer was. The battle concludes when Godzilla chomps off Megaguirus’ stinger, regaining his stolen life force, and delivers a massive fire blast to the enemy monster. This is a slightly lackluster conclusion but the climatic battle remains the best part of “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.” The suit from “Godzilla 2000” was reused here and actually works even better this time around, the reptilian posture and jagged spines coming off as extra-distinctive.

The Dimension Tide black hole cannon, Godzilla’s sudden reappearance, and Kiriko’s revenge are all hastily wrapped up in the film’s final minutes. The script treats Godzilla more as a simple animal then a natural force, one that’s motivated by his hungers and little else. The reveal that the Japanese government hasn’t stopped nuclear experimentation is interesting but not focused on. There could be a theme here about how weapons always only lead to chaos. The Atom Bomb produced Godzilla and now Japan’s latest super weapon, the black hole cannon, has created the Megaguirus. However, the script ultimately can’t support this potential theme, more concerned with its unambitious characters.

Two films in and Godzilla’s Millennium era has yet to hit it out of the park. “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” introduces an interesting new kaiju threat and features some delightfully energetic monster fights. However, its dull characters and uneven special effects wind up hampering the film. It’s not as good as “Godzilla 2000” which wasn’t quite great to begin with. The new series seemed content to try what worked before instead of doing something daring. [Grade: B-]

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1999)

24. Godzilla 2000
Gojira 2000: Mireniamu

“Godzilla vs. Destoroyah” was supposed to be the last Godzilla movie, at least for a while anyway. Toho fully expected TriStar’s 1998 “Godzilla” adaptation to be a roaring international success and to spawn a long running series of its own. That, needless to say, didn’t happen. The American Godzilla film was so badly received that it forced the original, real Godzilla to come out of retirement early. Rushed into production and released a year after TriStar’s fiasco, “Godzilla 2000” would launch a new series of Godzilla films.

“Godzilla 2000” is set in a Japan where Godzilla has been accepted as a regular occurrence. The Godzilla Prediction Network, run by middle-aged scientist Yuji and with his genius daughter Io, attempts to understand the kaiju. The two-person operation works to predict Godzilla’s appearances, study the monster, and divert him away from populated areas. On the other hand, Japan’s Crisis Control Intelligence, run by Yuji’s professional rival Miyasaka, seeks to destroy the creature. Meanwhile, the military discovers an ancient object on the ocean floor. Once brought to the surface, the object reveals itself to be a solar-powered flying saucer. The revived UFO starts to wreck havoc on Tokyo, taking a keen interest in Godzilla. Once again, quite unintentionally, the giant mutated dinosaur has to defend Earth against a nefarious invader.

At the on-set of the Millennium era, as the new series of films would be called, a decision was made. Each of the films would tell a stand alone story, sharing continuity only with the 1954 original. “Godzilla 2000” doesn’t even go that far. It barely references the first entry in the series. Instead, the script treats Godzilla as an every day part of life. He’s as much of a natural disaster as an earthquake or a tsunami, unknowable and unstoppable. Few minutes are wasted on his origin or exposition. Godzilla exists, simple as that.

With the monster treated so matter-of-factually, the story’s conflict revolves around what to do about him. The script goes back to that 1950s chestnut of science vs. the military. Yuji and his Godzilla Prediction Network wants to study the monster, thinking of him as a natural wonder. Miyasaka’s Crisis Control Intelligence considers the monster a threat to be eliminate. However, the debate is treated with more nuance then those fifties B-movies. Neither side is wrong. Godzilla is responsible for the loss of countless lives and the mass destruction of property. He’s also a truly unique creature, deserving of scientific inquiry. Realizing the audience has a built-in affection for the monster, the movie plays the military as antagonists, albeit understandable ones.

Most of the previous Godzilla films revolve around a hot-shot journalist, adventurer, or military man. One of the charming elements of “Godzilla 2000” is that its protagonist is different from the norm. Yuji is middle-age, chubby, and nerdy. Though motivated by pure scientific curiosity, he’s also willing to use the Godzilla Prediction Network to make some easy cash. Mostly because he’s broke. However, he’s a scientist through and through. He drives up right to Godzilla’s face, getting scientific readings. He might be afraid but the research is more important. When he discovers Godzilla’s healing factor, Yuji cheerfully declares that this could lead to a cure for cancer. Takehiro Murata is affable and funny in the part. My favorite bit is, after Godzilla blows the glass on his car away, he activates the windshield wipers.

Yuji’s relationship with his daughter is another strong aspect of the film. Mayu Suzuki plays Io. We are introduced to the girl, who looks to be about ten years old, when she raddles off a list of scientific buzz words. She is clearly some sort of genius and, compared to her whimsical father, sometimes appears to be the more mature of the two. The brief glimpses into their domestic life, where Io cooks and cleans while Yuji works on his research, are charming and interesting. When her father is endangered, Io’s mask of maturity cracks, the young girl crying. Suzuki is excellent in the part, possibly the most likable character in the film.

Completing the film’s central trio is Naomi Nishida as Yuki Ichinose. Yuki fills the part of the adventurous reporter. At first, she is reluctant to investigate the Godzilla Prediction Network. Getting right up in the giant monster’s face doesn’t exactly make her inclined to stay. However, she eventually feels a center comradery with the gang. When an alien spaceship lands on the top of her paper’s building, her co-workers have to hold her back from investigating it. Not long after that, she rushes back into the tower to get the scoop on the alien invaders. Ichinose is having a lot of fun in the part and gamely trades lines with her co-stars.

Of course, her most important co-star is the big man himself. For his return to theaters, Godzilla got a major redesign. The King of the Monsters resembles a dinosaur more then ever. His posture is slopping, head and hands forward, tail back. His scales are jagged and pointed. The more rounded head is topped off with snaggled teeth, always jutting out of his mouth. The most notable design change are his spines. Godzilla’s spines are bigger and sharper then ever before, sticking out like giant cartoon lightening bolts. It’s one of the most distinctive suits ever built for the character. While the movement is a bit stiff, the design is still impressive and memorable.

Disappointingly, Godzilla isn’t in that much of his own movie. There’s the fog-filled opening appearance, the kaiju attacking a light house and tearing through a tunnel. A lengthy march across the coastline includes the monster getting pelted with hi-tech bunker-busting missiles before being blown away by the rival kaiju. Both scenes work fairly well, however… After that, the focus shifts to the alien invader. The space ship looks cool enough, sleek and smooth, and is brought to life through a combination of fine model work and sometimes shaky CGI. Much attention is paid to the space ship touching down in Tokyo and the military’s various attempts to destroy it. Here, we learn more about the so-called Millennians' origin, where they come from and what they plan to do. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this section of the film but it drags a bit.

When Godzilla belatedly walks back into the film, “Godzilla 2000” picks up some steam. Using its CGI tentacles, the UFO drags Godzilla through the city, burying him beneath a building. This only slows him down for a minute, the Monster King bursting through the rubble. He explodes the invader’s ship with a single energy blast, an immensely satisfying moment. The model work during these sequences is excellent, the buildings having a real heft and weight to them.

The aliens realize quickly that Godzilla is the most powerful creature on the planet and sets out copying his genetic make-up. A moment that was heavily advertised in the trailers has the ship producing a giant monster, resembling H.G. Welles’ Martians and rendered in primitive CGI. That creature plays a tiny role in the finished film. Instead, the Millennian quickly degrades into an entirely different monster. Named Orga, the creature is a cross between Godzilla and the alien space ship. It’s an awkward design, with his giant snapping claws and bent posture limiting movement. Because of this, most of the fight between Godzilla and Orga involves the monsters trading energy blasts. A little more wrestling and grappling would have been nice. Rumors persist that Orga was inspired by the TriStar Godzilla, which might explain why the real Godzilla takes him down without too much effort. The absurd conclusion to the all-to-brief battle comes when Orga unhinges its jaw and attempts to swallow Godzilla whole. Turns out, sticking your fire-breathing enemy’s face right in your mouth isn’t a great plan. Godzilla blows Orga apart from the inside out. An ennoble ending to a less-then-impressive threat.

One interesting thing “Godzilla 2000” does is that it finally confirms why Godzilla is so hard to kill. His cells regenerate rapidly, producing a Wolverine-style healing factor. Super-missiles might blow chunks of his skin away but, within a day or two, he’ll be better. A theory like this was discussed by fans for years but its nice to have Toho finally confirm. The so-called G-Cells is actually what motivates the plot. Proving so un-killable, Orga attempts to adsorb the real Godzilla’s several times. Weirdly, it’s the enemy we actually see regenerate, his skin bubbling with weak computer graphics.

As of right now, “Godzilla 2000” is the last Godzilla film to receive a theatrical release in America. The dub recorded in this country is intentionally campy. It features such howlers as “Great Caesar’s ghost!,” “These missiles will go through Godzilla like crap through a goose,” and “There’s a little Godzilla inside of all of us.” The tongue-in-cheek, winking tone isn’t always appreciated and is frequently distracting. However, the American cut is also ten minutes shorter. Most of the edits are minor and successfully up punch the film’s sometimes maudlin pacing. The deliberately cheesy tone originally wrapped up with a big, stupid “The End… Question Mark!” appearing before the credits. This was so ridiculous that it was cut from all home video releases. Even if the tinkering wasn’t completely appreciated, it arguably makes the film smoother.

“Godzilla 2000” ends with the anti-heroic monster once again establishes as a neutral force of nature. The king burns down half of Tokyo in celebration of winning his fight, something that isn’t commented on. The human heroes acknowledge mankind’s role in his creation, accepting the great kaiju as a natural part of the world. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful conclusion to an overall uneven film. Several moments of diverting monster action, a great looking Godzilla, and a likable human cast is enough to make up for an unimposing enemy, uneven pacing, and some dodgy special effects. As the only real Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen theatrically, “Godzilla 2000” does hold a special place in my heart. Flawed though it is, the film still delivers.
[Grade: B-]