Archive for October 3, 2012

Thoughts on Godzilla: The Millennium Era (Part 2)

The first three Godzilla films Toho made in what’s called the Millennium Era, which I covered in the previous post in this series, were all set in different continuities — treating the original 1954 film as canon just as every sequel has, but disregarding every other film since. I gather that the idea was to test out three possible directions for the series before settling on one to carry forward in subsequent films. The “winners” were the makers of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus: director Masaaki Tezuka, writer Wataru Mimura (who also wrote my favorite Heisei-era film, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II), and composer Michiru Ohshima.

But instead of staying with the new continuity of Megaguirus, this time they went back to an old one, more or less. 2002’s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, or GXMG as it’s abbreviated on the Japanese poster (in fact, it’s the third film to bear the identical title Gojira tai Mekagojira in Japanese), is set in a universe that’s essentially a variant of the original Shōwa-era kaiju continuity, incorporating non-Godzilla Shōwa films including Mothra and War of the Gargantuas in its backstory — but which only experienced the one Godzilla attack in 1954. So Japan’s Anti-Megalosaurus Force has gotten pretty good at fending off daikaiju over the decades. But when a second Godzilla does finally emerge in 1999, they’re flatfooted, because Godzillae are in a class by themselves. A young (and very, very pretty) lieutenant, Akane Yashiro, panics during a retreat and gets her commander killed. She’s transferred to the file room as punishment, and spends the next three and a half years being very, very serious and harnessing the power of the training montage to perfect her abilities. Meanwhile, single-dad scientist Yuhara, who’s invented the bionic trilobite for some reason, is recruited to a government project to build an anti-Godzilla weapon literally out of the bones of the original Godzilla, which in this continuity survived the Oxygen Destroyer rather than being disintegrated as in the original film. (The first Godzilla’s death scene is recreated using CGI which somehow looks even more ridiculous than the original effects.) He only agrees when he’s allowed to make every day Bring Your Daughter to Work Day, and little Sara becomes a fixture at the project, somehow not aging over the 3-4 years it takes to complete.

Sara coins the name “Mechagodzilla,” but the cyborg’s official code name is Kiryu, don’t ask me why. Somewhere along the line, the AMF is renamed the JXSDF, the Japan Counter-Xenomorph Self-Defense Force. (The Millennium series films put “X” in their titles in place of tai/vs., and I guess here they wanted to extend the branding and thus concocted that labored designation.) The JXSDF commander decides Akane’s been a good girl and is the best pilot around (which is the first we’ve heard that she even was a pilot), so he picks her to drive Kiryu, earning her the resentment of Hayama, kid brother of the commander she got killed. The goofy Yuhara is smitten with Akane and comes onto her a bit creepily, though it’s supposed to be endearing. Sara doesn’t like her, since she still misses her late mother.

Unlike the Heisei Mechagodzilla, Kiryu is piloted remotely from a plane called a White Heron. The new Godzilla shows up during Kiryu’s big unveiling, so they scramble into action to take on the big guy, pinning their hopes on Kiryu’s Absolute Zero freeze ray. Akane manages to send Godzilla into retreat. But as soon as G gives off his famous roar, it triggers something in Kiryu that causes it to go rogue and act just like the Godzilla whose bones and DNA it contains — or rather, how that Godzilla would behave if he had shoulder-mounted missile batteries. There goes the neighborhood, literally. All the JXSDF can do is wait until his batteries run down. Oh, and Akane saves Hayama’s life and earns the team’s admiration, but Hayama still resents her.

Yuhara realizes that maybe it was a mistake to build his DNA computer (which uses the four DNA bases for quaternary calculation rather than binary and is thus far faster) using DNA extracted from Godzilla I’s skeleton, causing Kiryu’s “brain” to resonate with its Godzillan heritage. The fix is ridiculously simple: he’ll just build a new computer out of some other source of DNA. Meanwhile, he bonds further with Akane, revealing how his wife died while carrying their second child, leaving Sara rather troubled by death. Sara wishes Kiryu could just be friends with Godzilla like Kiryu “wants.” Akane tells her she identifies with Kiryu, feeling worthless and unwanted, her birth a mistake, but Sara tells her no life is worthless.

The prime minister who initiated the Kiryu project is facing a scandal after its runaway attack, but when Godzilla comes back — drawn to the skeleton within Kiryu — there isn’t any other way to fight him, and Yuhara and company have completed their suspense-free repairs, so it’s off to another battle. The climactic fight in this short movie isn’t very impressively shot; it takes place in what looks like a Power Rangers cityscape, with an implausibly wide central street bracketed by cheap-looking miniature buildings. There’s a big fight, Kiryu’s remote controls get knocked out, so Akane risks her life by going down and taking manual control from inside Kiryu. Godzilla knocks her half-unconscious, but she’s rallied by a memory montage (girl likes her montages) and calls on Kiryu to fight alongside her as “buddies” (so say the subtitles, which I don’t think were written by a native English speaker). Hayama makes a kamikaze run to try to give Akane a window to fire the Absolute Zero cannon, but she refuses to let another Hayama die and saves him — then inexplicably flies Godzilla into Tokyo Bay and sets off the AZ gun there, basically wasting most of its energy on freezing the water, even though she had plenty of opportunity to zap him on land. Godzilla is driven away for now but still alive. Basically Akane’s guilty of gross negligence here, far worse than in the 1999 accident, but the movie doesn’t see it that way, since of course the filmmakers need the battle to be a draw so there’ll be a sequel. And Sara accepts Akane now and she and Yuhara go out to dinner, but for some reason we don’t find that out until the post-credits scene. (I wonder if they went out for shawarma.)

Given its pedigree, I was hopeful this would be a good one, but it’s pretty mediocre. The plot’s fairly shallow, the miniature effects aren’t great, and nothing is done with the partial reintegration of Shōwa continuity beyond a stilted exposition scene near the beginning. It does have its merits, though. Yumiko Shaku is the prettiest leading lady I’ve ever seen in a kaiju film, though she’s playing very much against her girlish type and does well as the somber Akane. And the Godzilla suit this time is the best one in the Millennium series so far, looking more like the Heisei version but with a heavier, more reptilian neck like the first Millennium design and a very sinister-looking face. Ohshima’s music is pretty good, reviving the same themes he used in Megaguirus, though it’s quite repetitive and I’m less happy to have it stuck in my head all day than I am with Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla themes. And there’s an interesting bit of realpolitik where we get a hint of the public and press reaction to the Japanese government’s decision to build a weapon of mass destruction to fight Godzilla, although there wasn’t any real follow-through. Still, it’s the weakest film yet from Tezuka and Mimura.

The second Kiryu film was released in 2003 as Godzilla × Mothra × Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS, though it’s known stateside simply as Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. It’s a direct sequel to the 1961 Mothra, and something of a remake of Mothra vs. Godzilla. It begins in 2004 with Mothra and the new generation of Shobijin (the foot-high twin ladies who are Mothra’s heralds/warmup act) dropping in on Shinichi Chujo, one of the main characters from the original Mothra. They tell him, his nephew Yoshito Chujo (who happens to be on Kiryu’s maintenance crew), and his young grandnephew Shun that Mothra’s very cross with humanity for desecrating Godzilla’s bones to make Kiryu, and will declare war on them if they don’t return the bones to the sea. When asked how Japan will protect itself from Godzilla, they say Mothra will defend them.

But Young Chujo the engineer has a geek-crush on Kiryu and doesn’t want to hear it, and when Old Chujo takes it to the Prime Minister, the latter is skeptical, since Mothra wasn’t exactly kind to Tokyo the first time. Still, Kiryu’s badly trashed from the last movie, and the Absolute Zero cannon is beyond repair, so we’re stuck with some mediocre character stuff while they try to fix the thing. Unfortunately, Akane and the other pilots from the previous film only appear briefly before being shipped off to the US for advanced training, and we’re introduced to two new pilots: the obligatory jerky rival who will learn to grudgingly respect Chujo by the end and the obligatory vague romantic interest for Chujo that nothing will really come of. Why even replace the characters if they were just going to copy the same basic dynamic?

There’s a bit more politicking about Mothra’s threat, but nobody’s willing to act on it, and apparently neither is Mothra. It’s not long before Godzilla returns, again drawn to the bones of the original, and little Shun defies the evacuation order and runs to his school, somehow managing to single-handedly move dozens of desks and chairs outside to make a large version of the symbol that summons Mothra (they must have very high physical fitness standards in Japan — kid wasn’t even winded). The PM holds off on using Kiryu to see what Mothy can do, but she’s frankly a little ineffectual and does more damage to Tokyo than to Godzilla, and takes some serious damage herself. Eventually Mothra begins her last-ditch attack of shedding her scales onto Godzilla, and Old Chujo, who’s come into the evacuated city to find Shun, recognizes that Mothra expects to die and thus is using the scale attack she can only use once. The problem is that Old Chujo shouldn’t know this, because that only happened in Mothra vs. Godzilla, a movie that isn’t part of the Kiryu continuity.

Anyway, the PM is moved by Mothra’s defense and attempts to save her — by doing exactly the thing she’s mad at him for and launching Kiryu into battle. Which doesn’t work that well, since Mothra gets blowed up real good and Kiryu ends up damaged and nonfunctional. But the Shobijin have sung the famous Mothra theme song to hatch the latest Mothra egg, and just as in MvG, there are twins inside who come to mommy’s defense. And Young Chujo, who’s in the area to find Old Chujo and Shun, volunteers to repair Kiryu — and naturally gets stuck inside when it goes back into action. The Mothra larvae eventually encase Godzilla in their silk, exactly what happened in MvG — and really, given how effective that attack is every time it’s used, I have to wonder why Mommy Mothra didn’t just lead with that. Finally the Godzilla bones inside Kiryu assert control again (after giving Young Chujo a psychic vision that makes him understand Kiryu’s craving to rest in peace) and fly the cocooned kaiju out to sea for a joint burial. And everything seems hunky-dory, except for a post-credits scene suggesting that somebody with very, very bad judgment is trying to clone Godzilla, a setup for a sequel that never happened.

Tokyo S.O.S. wasn’t much better than its predecessor. It was nice to see Mothra again, and to see another classic character brought back, but too much of the film was a rehash of previous Mothra films and MvG in particular, and even of the immediately previous film. The business about the threat from Mothra went nowhere, aside from serving as an excuse to reintroduce Mothra and the Shobijin and a setup for the film’s theme about how desecrating the dead is bad. And I would’ve rather seen more development of Akane and the cast from the previous film, instead of the cookie-cutter new characters we got here. On the plus side, the action scenes looked better than last time, though still far from the best this series has had to offer. The music is also an improvement; it’s still Ohshima, and revisits the themes from his last two Godzilla scores, but is less repetitive than the previous one. (The two Kiryu films are the only Millennium-era films to have no Akira Ifukube music in them, although this one quotes Yuji Koseki’s original Mothra theme.) Also, the new Shobijin are just about the cutest ones yet.

Many actors in the kaiju franchise have played multiple roles, but this film is noteworthy for featuring both of the only two actors (as far as I know) to have played more than one of the Toho daikaiju franchise’s handful of recurring human characters. The Prime Minister in both Kiryu films is Akira Nakao, who also played the G-Force commander in the last three Heisei movies. And Hiroshi Koizumi, who reprises the role of Shinichi Chujo here, also played Professor Miura in Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster — as well as playing different roles in half a dozen other Toho daikaiju or tokusatsu films.

The Kiryu films performed poorly at the box office, leading Toho to decide to cancel the series; yet since 2004 was Godzilla’s 50th anniversary, they decided to do one last film, Godzilla: Final Wars. It abandoned the Kiryu continuity and portrayed another variant on the Shōwa history, a world where humans have been battling daikaiju, including Godzilla, for decades. But in this reality, Godzilla never turned good, and the alien invasions that characterized the Shōwa series never occurred.

Yet this is not just a celebration of the past, but an attempt to update the franchise for the present. They brought in a hot young director, Ryuhei Kitamura, who turned out a hyper-stylized, hard-rocking, ADD-edited martial-arts film with the occasional kaiju content thrown into the mix. It’s basically Godzilla meets the Power Rangers in the Matrix on Independence Day.

Some unspecified time in the past, the supership Gotengo, a high-tech flying submarine with a drill on the front (from the ’63 film Undersea Warship, called Atragon in the West), buried Godzilla in the Antarctic ice, immobilizing him. We then get a frenetic montage expositing that in the interim, not only have Earth’s nations united to battle the kaiju threat, but a new race of mutants has arisen, superhumans with awesome martial-arts skills. Our hero is the mutant Ozaki, who looks a bit like a Japanese Ted Raimi. He serves under Captain Gordon, a badass rogue captain who looks like a cross between Dick Butkus and Macross‘s Captain Global and delivers his all-English dialogue in a voice that sounds like Scruffy from Futurama. Gordon’s younger self fired the missiles that buried Godzilla in the opening flashbacks. (So judging by his age, that burial had to happen no earlier than maybe 1983-4.) But Gordon gets thrown in the stockade for punching a superior, and Ozaki gets assigned to shepherd Miyuki, a pretty biologist who’s found a mummified alien cyborg whose genes contain an “M-base” also found in the mutants. The Shobijin (same actresses as last time) show up and reveal that the monster is Gigan (a rather silly-looking monster from 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan) and that the M-base is evil, though Ozaki has the power to choose his fate and Mothra will be on his side if he chooses good (and they give him a dagger-shaped amulet).

Then a bunch of daikaiju attack all over the world — including a version of the ’98 Emmerich Godzilla, here called “Zilla.” The UN Secretary-General (played by a kaiju-film stalwart who was the male romantic lead in the original Godzilla) is in his jet when it’s blown up by one of the kaiju. But then all the kaiju are teleported away by alien ships. The aliens reveal themselves as Ekkusu-seijin, literally “X-Aliens,” or Xilians as the subtitles and Captain Gordon render it. They’re a variation on the “Xians” of Planet X from 1965’s Invasion of Astro-Monster. Like the Xians, the Xilians claim to come in peace, and they seem to have rescued the Secretary-General, who shills for them; it’s obvious from the start that he’s an alien duplicate, and it doesn’t take our heroes long to figure that out, and to discover that other key leaders have been taken over as well. (This includes Earth Defense Force Commander Namikawa, played by the same actress who played a Miss Namikawa in Astro-Monster, yet I doubt it’s the same character since the two films aren’t in continuity.) Ozaki releases Captain Gordon to help them, knowing he hasn’t been replaced. They expose the fakes on TV, and the Xilian General, who prefers taking a subtler, less brute-force approach to taking over the world, gets shot down by his hotheaded, punk-kid second-in-command the Controller, who then mind-controls all the mutants except Ozaki, who’s immune for some reason, and has them turn on the good guys. The good guys flee and there’s a motorcycle fight between Ozaki and his mutant partner Kazama, which manages to rip off both The Matrix and Akira at the same time. Ozaki wins, but doesn’t kill Kazama because they’re partners.

Fat lot of good it does, though, since the Controller releases all the daikaiju and devastates all human civilization overnight. The world is ruined, but our heroes manage to escape in Gotengo and Gordon formulates a desperate plan of revenge against the Xilians, namely to free Godzilla from the Antarctic ice and lure him into battling all the other kaiju. So finally, more than an hour into the movie, it remembers it has “Godzilla” in the title! What follows is a rather cursory sequence of Godzilla effortlessly trashing other kaiju — which works with the pretender Zilla, whose complete inadequacy next to the real thing is a blatant dig at the ’98 film, but isn’t so effective when it keeps happening with other classic monsters. Eventually we get the inevitable big battle in the ruins of Tokyo, and while Mothra and Godzilla respectively battle an upgraded Gigan and a creature called “Monster X” (with two shoulder-mounted half-heads bracketing its head), the heroes battle the mothership. Kazama redeems himself by making a kamikaze run into the ship’s Death Star reactor to take down its shields so Gotengo can drill inside, but the Controller captures them before they can do any damage. He gives the obligatory exposition about how humans are their cattle and they need to feed on our mitochondria, etc., but also reveals that mutants are descended from Xilians and he couldn’t control Ozaki because the latter is a latent “Keizer,” a special one-in-a-million mutant, like the Controller himself. He zaps Ozaki to activate his Keizer powers and orders him to kill his friends, but Miyuki stabs him with the Mothra dagger and frees his will, so he’s now Neo and can telekinetically stop laser blasts. The two Keizers have a big fight scene while the others — including the real Secretary-General and EDF Commander, who are conveniently still alive and have conveniently escaped from captivity — try to get to the ship. Oh, and there are occasionally some big monsters fighting or something, but the director doesn’t seem too interested in that. Eventually the good guys get away and the ship blows up, but Monster X turns into Keizer Ghidorah, and Godzilla and Gotengo (with an infusion of Ozaki’s Keizer power) fight together to destroy it. And then Godzilla turns on the humans… but then something really stupid happens that I won’t spoil because I… just… don’t want to talk about it. I’ll just mention that there have been a few scenes involving a little kid and his wise old grandfather discovering Minilla, the stupid-looking baby Godzilla, and driving him toward Tokyo. For most of the movie these scenes are just incongruous, seemingly pointless comic intrusions, and when their purpose finally is revealed, it’s hokey as hell. Well, it might’ve been a decent ending in a way if it hadn’t felt so tacked on.

Frankly, Final Wars is a mess. It’s too conceptually cluttered and sloppily executed. And the problem isn’t just that director Kitamura was more interested in the hyperstylized, anime-esque martial-arts action than in the traditional kaiju stuff — the problem is that even the hyperstylized, anime-esque martial-arts action is often clumsily assembled and lacking in coherence. There are some fun character bits, rare in a kaiju film; Captain Gordon’s unrelenting badassery is actually kind of fun, and mixed martial artist Don Frye’s one-note, expressionless performance in the role actually works at conveying a character who’s so tough and self-possessed that nothing gets to him. And Kazuki Kitamura (no relation, apparently) does a fun, if caricatured, turn as the spoiled, smug, hotheaded Controller, who has some flamboyant tantrums as his daikaiju fall like dominoes before Godzilla. But overall the film just doesn’t hold together very well and doesn’t fit neatly into the Godzilla/kaiju franchise. It’s too derivative and self-consciously stylized, and overall too cluttered and noisy. Although there are some brief quotes of Ifukube’s themes at the beginning, most of the score (done primarily by British musician Keith Emerson) is the kind of loud, hard-driving rock that gives me a headache, and it’s representative of the film as a whole. Even the special effects weren’t that great; the Godzilla suit here, while not as bad as the GMK one, is probably the most rubbery and stiff of the Millennium-era suits. The other daikaiju were okay, but Godzilla should be the most impressive one, and he was just the opposite. Just another way in which Godzilla’s 50th-anniversary film didn’t serve him very well.

That’s it for the Millennium Era, which turned out to be rather a disappointment overall, with only two of its six films, the second and third, being reasonably satisfactory. I’ll be back with some final thoughts and an overview later.

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