Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1974)

14. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla
Gojira tai Mekagojira / 
Godzilla vs. Cosmic Monster

By the mid-seventies, the Godzilla series was in a slump. The franchise had been in decline since the end of the sixties and the last two entries, while not without entertainment value, were some of the weakest yet. The fire-breathing giant dinosaur was falling victim not to more powerful foes but to shrinking budgets, sillier screenplays, and lessening public interest. However, 1974 was the 20th anniversary of the character. For such an honorable event, Toho was willing to shill out a little more money, the creative team put in a little more effort, and they managed to create the best Godzilla movie in quite some time.

Compared to the paper thin scripts of the previous two films, “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” manages to build a surprisingly complex story around the typical “aliens try to conquer Earth with a new monster” plot. The film has a whopping ten main characters, not counting the monsters. The story skillfully melds alien sci-fi with mythological fantasy. Spelunker Masahiko discovers a strange metal while exploring a cave. He talks to Professor Miyajima, who has invented all sorts of wacky things, like a tobacco pipe that can disrupt magnetic waves. The professor immediately recognizes the metal as space titanium. Meanwhile, Masahiko’s brother, Keisuke, investigates a new archeological dig near Okinawa. Along with archaeologist Saeko, they uncover an idol connected to a frightening prophecy. The prophecy speaks of a black mountain floating in the sky, the sun setting in the west, a monster appearing to destroy the world and two other monsters rising to defend it. A priestess’ accompanying vision suggests the end-times prediction is coming true.

Keisuke and Saeko are pursued by two men, both after the idol. The first is revealed to be an inhuman alien, one of a race of ape-like beings determined to conquer Earth. The second is Interpol agent Nanbara, who is seeking to protect the statue. The Simian aliens, led by the villainous Kuronuma, soon reveal their master plan: MechaGodzilla, a giant robotic double of Godzilla. The robot is so powerful that he bests the true King of the Monsters in their first fight. However, a short circuit causes the aliens to kidnap Professor Miyajima, along with Masahiko and Miyajima’s daughter, Masahiko’s love interest. The Okinawan idol winds up being the key to reviving King Caesar, a guardian kaiju which will aid Godzilla against MechaGodzilla. It’s in the Simians’ best interest for this not to happen. Even with King Caesar’s help, will Godzilla be able to defeat his bionic clone and save the Earth?

You might notice that’s a lot to unpack for a silly giant monster movie. However, “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” structures its story very well. Having so many characters might seem to be a flaw but, by separating the cast into archeologists and scientists, the story finds an easy way to fuse together the science-fiction and mystical sides of the script. Nanbara and the Simian agent are both presented in a mysterious light. Up until the agent is shot, revealing his true face, the audience isn’t sure which one is good. That Interpol would send a man to help our heroes is a surprisingly mature move, the first time the world’s governments have shown much interest in this giant monster business. The doomsday prophecy winds up adding a surprising level of dramatic tension. It’s not just Tokyo that’s imperiled by MechaGodzilla, it might very well be the world. And the scariest part is Godzilla might not be enough to protect us.

“Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” is also incredible smart concerning its kaiju. The last two films kept Godzilla preoccupied until the final royal rumble, about twenty minutes before the end. For the 14th entry, the big man himself appears right from the beginning. Faithful monster fans in '74 (or '77 when the movie finally reached American shores) might have been throw for a loop by those opening moments. Godzilla explodes from a mountain side, smashing an innocent building, acting like a villain for the first time in a decade. He attacks Anguirus, recently established as Godzilla’s favored sidekick, tearing the monster’s jaw off the hinges. What the hell is going on here? Why is the heroic King of the Monster acting like a bad guy? When the imposter Godzilla is confronted by the real deal at an exploding oil field, the audience gets their answer. The movie could have held off on the big reveal a little longer. Sure, the unmasking is exciting, and the title mostly spoils it. But “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” is lent some surprising energy by the suggestion that our beloved hero might have gone rotten.

Then again, maybe more MechaGodzilla was for the best. On paper, an evil robotic copy of Godzilla doesn’t sound any less silly then a Cyborg Space Chicken or a bipedal cockroach god with drill hands. In effect, MechaGodzilla proves far more intimidating. It’s a fantastic design. The visible rivets and doors on his body emphasize the beast’s mechanical nature. Missiles, canons, spikes, laser beams, and dynamic fins decorate his whole body, making him a killing machine from every angle. He displays his versatility when his head spins around, blasting the monster behind him. MechaGodzilla has got quite an arsenal too. The missile fingers and toes are a really clever idea and a truly memorable visual. The rainbow colored eye beams are a natural decision but I also love the red death ray that emerges from his chest. Being a remote-controlled machine, MechaGodzilla lacks the goofy comical attitude that prevented Gigan and Megalon from being intimidating. There’s no doubt why MechaGodzilla ranks only second to King Ghidorah as Godzilla’s most reoccurring opponent. He’s a great bad guy.

The film contributes another monster to Toho’s wide kaiju bestiary. Godzilla was inspired by the traditional dragon. King Caesar is also inspired by a magical creature of native mythology. The monster is a giant-sized version of a shisa, the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese Foo Dog. King Caesar is a very different creature to the mechanical MechaGodzilla. He is a mystical yet natural being, a contrast to the hi-tech, alien threat the film’s villain represents. The design smartly recalls both feline and canine features, keeping the lion’s mane and the dog’s floppy ears. King Caesar also throws in a little dinosaur, featuring natural plating that resembles samurai armor. This further connects him with Japan’s epic history. The huge shisa also features a permanent, wide toothy grin. All that teeth is intimidating to his enemies but seems to highlight King Caesar as ultimately a force of good. The monster also gets an odd-ball battle feature. He adsorbs his enemy’s energy weapon through one eye and shoots them out the other.

By this point, alien invaders were par the course for Godzilla movies. However, the simian Black Hole aliens prove far more memorable then a group of giant cockroaches or the disco boots of the Seatopians. They wear silver jumpsuits, the commanding officers decorating their suits with dangling gold mesh. Their leader Kuronuma is a delightfully villainous presence, a streak of green color down his face for no reason. Goro Mutsumi has a lot of fun in the part. Like the Killaks and Nebulans, the Black Hole aliens’ human faces hide a grotesque true form. The ape-like appearance was no doubt inspired by the “Planet of the Apes” series. However, their green skin, warts, and facial spikes give them a unique identity. The aliens’ base, and the contrive death trap they lock the heroes in, also resembles a Bond villain headquarter, another example of Toho curbing from other popular media.

Despite the outrageous villains, the movie doesn’t indulge in campy kaiju action like the last four films did. For the most part anyway. King Caesar and MechaGodzilla’s fight is mostly characterized by brute force. Caesar headbutts the cosmic monster, knocking him to the ground, scratching at his armor with his claws. MechaGodzilla, in response, attempts to shove his rocket fingers down the shisa’s throat. Aside from an empty suit getting kicked a long distance, the fight is surprisingly visceral. When Godzilla enters the fray, this tooth-and-nail tone continues. Godzilla takes a number of hard hits, knocked to the ground by his enemy’s laser beams. Blood oozes and spurts from his neck from the repeated blows. Memorably, MechaGodzilla flies over head, embedding a number of missiles in the real deal’s body. The Gamera-style gore is surprisingly effective, showing the fight’s heightened stakes.

As I said, the kaiju battle is more grounded then you’d expect, lacking exaggerated body slams or ridiculous special moves. At least until the very end anyway. MechaGodzilla has got the heroes on the ropes. Out of nowhere, Godzilla suddenly starts glowing and sparking. Steel telephone towers fly towards his body, the robotic double pulled closer. Like Magneto, Godzilla is suddenly the Master of Magnet. The movie tries to set up this absurd plot turn with an earlier moment where the King of the Monsters adsorbs some lightening bolts. (The screenwriters seem to have forgotten that electricity used to be Godzilla’s weakness.) It still comes out of nowhere. Along with MechaGodzilla’s ridiculous blue force field, it adds a layer of unpredictable fun to the film. The fight ends in a satisfying manner. The evil monster doesn’t just fly off at the end, like Gigan or Megalon. Nah. Godzilla grabs MechaGodzilla and tears his fucking head off. Completely defeated, the cybernetic kaiju explodes in a huge fireball. Now that’s how you end a monster movie.

The action doesn’t end with the monsters. The Interpol agents and secret base adds more excitement to the film. Shin Kishida’s Nanbara is a full-blown action hero. He garrotes a clueless Simian, drop kicks another, and even uses one as a human shield. In order to show how stunning his defeat is, the lead Simian sprays a neck full of green blood. The proceeding moment has Nanbara and Professor Miyajima wiggling out of their restrains. This generates a surprising amount of suspense, the audience unsure if they’ll escape. The two stop the aliens, naturally, but at the costs of their own lives. This downbeat element isn’t focused on and is one of the script’s few missteps. I kept waiting for Nanbara and Miyajima to reappear before the end. Another brilliant thing the movie does is cut between the spy action and the monster battle, keeping the audience’s attention. The human cast, in general, is very good. Masaaki Daimon has crackling chemistry with Reiko Tajima. And if you like Japanese women in short skirts and knee-high leather boots, you’re in luck, as this movie features two.

The score was composed by Masaru Sato, returning to the franchise after a long absence. The music here is a big improvement over Sato’s previous scores. Godzilla is given a theme similar enough to Ifukube’s famous motif to instill a proper amount of power but different enough to have its own style. Most of Sato’s work is for samurai films and his score here has a similar style. Considering the story’s mythic roots, it’s a good fit, with just enough funky jazziness to keep the energy level high. The song that awakens King Caesar is another nice touch, catchy and poetic, providing a good pause before the action breaks loose.

The movie cracks along at a lightening pace, leaving the audience wanting more. The seventies weren’t good to Godzilla in general but “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla” revived interest in the series, at least briefly. It provided a great adversary and is a lot of fun without being too ridiculous. For these reasons and more, the film remains a favorite among many Godzilla fans, including this one. [Grade: B+]

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