Archive for September 19, 2014

Thoughts on Godzilla: Finishing the Showa Era (spoilers)

September 19, 2014 3 comments

Last time, I covered the beginning of the doldrums of the Godzilla franchise, a run of mediocre, half-hearted films whose only high points were the ambitious and epic Destroy All Monsters and the off-puttingly weird and experimental Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Following the negative reactions to the latter film, Godzilla vs. Gigan in 1972 brought back director Jun Fukuda and reverted to a more standard formula, using mostly established monsters aside from the title villain Gigan, a hook-armed, cyclopean cyborg kaiju with a buzzsaw in its thorax. The hero is a manga artist who’s hired by a theme park dominated by Godzilla Tower, an office building in the form of a life-sized Godzilla statue — but the people running the park have some ominous plans involving “absolute peace,” and the hero (along with his kickass martial-artist mother, my favorite character in the film) gets involved with the sister of another employee who’s gone missing (kidnapped by the bad guys for his scientific knowhow) and they investigate what turns out to be another alien invasion plot. There’s a bit of an attempt to echo Hedorah‘s ecological message, because the aliens (who are literally cockroaches disguised as humans) thrive in the hostile environments left over after civilizations have destroyed themselves with pollution. But they’re happy to hasten the process on Earth, with help from Gigan and King Ghidorah, who show up to trash Tokyo and, presumably, the rest of the world. At this point I had to wonder, how come literally all the alien invaders up to this point have had King Ghidorah working for them? Is he some kind of cosmic mercenary for hire?

Like Fukuda’s first Godzilla film, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, this film keeps Godzilla mostly in reserve until the last half-hour, though we do get a few scenes of him on Monster Island, giving instructions to Anguirus, who’s apparently now his sidekick. There is actually a version where they converse in cartoon-style speech balloons, but the version on Hulu excludes those. However, YouTube has the relevant clips. Anguirus makes a half-hearted sortie onto Japan but is turned back by the Self-Defense Forces, and that’s the only kaiju action we get until Gigan and Ghidorah arrive and start smashing up the place. But once Godzilla and Anguirus finally show up, the tag-team battle rages pretty much nonstop for the last 30 minutes of the film, albeit with the occasional cutaways to the heroes as they escape from Godzilla Tower and get the military’s help in defeating the aliens so that the good kaiju can fight the bad kaiju without interference. It’s more effective action than we’ve seen since Destroy All Monsters, though it certainly helps that it’s tracked with stock Akira Ifukube music, which automatically makes the whole thing seem more stately and impressive, even with the Muppetish Godzilla of the later Shōwa films.

Fukuda’s next film, Godzilla vs. Megalon, is oddly difficult to find on DVD. Apparently there have been some release problems and delays making it less available. Netflix has the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version available for rental, but with a “Very long wait.” So this was the hardest film for me to track down and the reason this 2-part post has been delayed. I was almost on the verge of giving in and spending actual money for a copy, my completist urges almost trumping my cheapskate urges. But it finally occurred to me to check my library’s catalog for a VHS edition rather than a DVD, and lo and behold, they had one! A phone request and a car trip later, and I had it, costing me only 20 cents for the parking meter (plus the cost of the gas I used, I guess). Of course, being an old library tape, it was pretty worn and had major tracking problems, which may have undermined my enjoyment of the film.

Except there’s not much to enjoy. The title is somewhat misleading, because this isn’t really a Godzilla movie. It was originally meant as a solo debut for an Ultraman-type robot hero, Jet Jaguar, but it was decided to shoehorn Godzilla and Gigan into the story as an afterthought. Jet Jaguar — who has no feline attributes whatsoever — was invented by a guy called Goro, who’s the protagonist along with his friend Hiroshi and his young nephew Rokuro (who seems to be called “Roxa” in the English dub — probably an approximation of “Roku-san,” which is how a boy named Rokuro might be addressed in Japanese). JJ is hijacked by people from the Atlantis-like subterranean kingdom of Seatopia, which has been partly destroyed by underground nuclear testing by the surface nations. Seatopia is given a nebulous and plot-irrelevant link to the Easter Island statues, yet its inhabitants are played by Caucasian actors, which I suppose was meant to make them look exotic to the Japanese audience. Despite having been at peace for 3 million years (yes, million), they happen to have a daikaiju, Megalon — a beetle kaiju with drill hands — that they unleash to destroy the surface world without any prior attempt at diplomatic overtures, communication, or anything. At first, they use JJ to direct Megalon toward Tokyo, but Goro retakes control of the android with ridiculous ease, and at Rokuro’s suggestion, sends JJ to Monster Island to summon Godzilla’s aid. JJ conveys the message through semaphore, in which all the monsters in this movie are apparently fluent. But Godzilla takes most of the movie to swim from Monster Island to Japan while JJ tackles Megalon solo — somehow spontaneously “reprogramming” himself to become giant-sized.

As if that weren’t random enough, the Seatopians contact the aliens from the previous film and ask them to send Gigan to help Megalon defeat JJ. So… they have the means and the will to communicate with aliens from Nebula M, but can’t be bothered to phone up the White House and the Kremlin and say “Hey, guys, your nuke tests are trashing our kingdom”? Anyway, Gigan arrives for his encore and tag-teams JJ with Megalon, and then, about ten minutes before the end of the film, Godzilla finally shows up — initially battling Gigan so they can recycle stock footage from the last film, but finally trading partners with JJ so the film can just barely earn its title. The hero monsters beat up the villain monsters to the point that it just becomes petty, and finally Megalon flees back underground and that’s the end of it, with no attempt to address the unresolved conflict with Seatopia, beyond a cursory mention by Goro and Hiroshi of telling the scientists to be more careful with their bombs from now on.

All in all, Jet Jaguar vs. Megalon, Featuring Godzilla (there, I fixed the title) is a pretty desultory kaiju film, and shows how far Godzilla had decayed as a concept by this point. Godzilla is at his least scary and most anthropomorphic here, more a friendly, cuddly superhero and wrestling partner to JJ than a vast, terrifying monster. At one point, he even holds up his fingers in a V sign to JJ. Most of the rest of the film isn’t much better. It was shot in great haste and probably for very little money, and it shows. There really aren’t any significant human characters beyond the three main protagonists and the Seatopian villains. (And there isn’t a single female character in the entire movie except for some dancers at the ceremony that awakens Megalon.)  There’s a lot of stock footage, and the scenes of the SDF mobilizing to fight Megalon and of Megalon trashing Tokyo feel lifeless, since we aren’t shown any characters reacting to these events and so they have no emotional context. The whole film feels like it’s just going through the motions. I’m glad I found a library copy, because it wouldn’t have been worth paying for. Hedorah may have been freaky bizarre, but it was a lot more interesting than the routine, slapdash films that preceded and followed it.

Jet Jaguar never appeared again onscreen, but it’s worth noting that a month after this film, Toho debuted the television series Zone Fighter, which featured a team of similarly Ultraman-like superheroes and had guest appearances by Godzilla as a heroic ally and King Ghidorah and Gigan as villains. The series is considered part of the Shōwa-era canon, but I don’t feel any pressing need to track it down and watch it.

Perhaps Toho realized the problems with the franchise at this point, since the final two Shōwa-era movies take things in a more serious direction, starting with Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Jun Fukuda’s swan song as director. Godzilla (now with a meaner, less Muppety design) seems to be on the rampage, but there are some things that aren’t quite right: He hisses rather than roaring, his atomic breath is yellow rather than blue, and he gets into a brutal fight with his sidekick Anguirus, bloodily dislocating the ankylosaur’s jaw and sending him into retreat, his survival unclear. But Anguirus has summoned the real Godzilla, whose atomic breath blows holes in the impostor’s skin and reveals a robotic body made of “space titanium,” as it’s dubbed by the main scientist of the film, yet another scientist character for Akihiko Hirata (seen before in the original film and Son of Godzilla). This is Mechagodzilla, who’s under the control of the latest bunch of alien invaders (ape-men from “the third planet of the black hole”) and who badly injures Godzilla, with rather a lot of blood.

But the aliens, despite using Godzilla as their template, are more concerned about a new kaiju, one based on the shisa, a protective lion-dog spirit of Okinawan mythology. Its name is King(u) Shisa, which is very straightforward, but it usually gets Anglicized as King Caesar, which basically makes no sense, so I won’t call it that. Much of the movie is about the film’s rather nondescript heroes discovering a statue that will awaken King Shisa, studying the prophecy that tells them what to do with it, and eluding the aliens who are determined to keep them from awakening King Shisa, who allegedly has the power to awaken other kaiju, or so the aliens exposit to each other. Once the statue unearths KS, though, a descendant of Okinawan royalty needs to sing him awake with an extended musical number, much like Mothra, but without the dance routine accompanying it. It kind of drags the film to a halt. And once King Shisa wakes up, he doesn’t really live up to the hype. He’s kind of a scruffy-looking lion-dog-man giant who has one neat trick — he can absorb Mechagodzilla’s ray in one eye and return it from the other, a bit like Bishop of the X-Men — but that’s about all he has going for him. Mechagodzilla has him on the ropes when Godzilla finally shows up, and he doesn’t contribute much to the climactic fight beyond head-butting MG a few times once Godzilla has overpowered it by somehow turning himself into a giant magnet because what the hell. The tally of other kaiju that King Shisa awakens in the course of the film is exactly zero. Finally, Godzilla “kills” MG by twisting its head off, even though we were shown just a few minutes earlier that it could rotate its head all the way around quite freely. It’s like the filmmakers kept forgetting what they’d previously established.

So while it’s nice to see the franchise attempting to go in a more mature direction again, the film ends up being rather mediocre, making promises it doesn’t really deliver.

The final Shōwa film, Terror of Mechagodzilla, brought back Ishiro Honda as director for the final time. Akihiko Hirata is also back again, but this time playing a different character, Mafune, disguised by a gray-white wig and mustache but still recognizable in old photos and flashback scenes. After playing an aloof and ethical scientist in the original film and friendly, bland scientists in Son of and GvMG, now he’s playing a full-on evil scientist — your classic mad doctor whose radical theories got him disgraced and now wants to destroy the world to show up Those Fools at the Institute. He’s working with a second contingent of the black hole aliens, except they’re no longer Planet of the Apes rejects disguised as ordinary, business-suited humans, but are wearing silver jumpsuits and truly insane helmets. His rejected theories give him control of a dinosaur kaiju called Titanosaurus — no relation to the actual sauropods of that name, but a long-necked godzilloid with fishlike fins and crest — and the aliens have recruited him to apply his knowledge to the structurally similar Mechagodzilla, now somehow intact again after being blown into space-titanium confetti in the previous film. He owes the aliens for saving his daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai) by turning her into a cyborg after a fatal lab accident. But she’s torn by her feelings for the film’s nondescript hero, a marine biologist working with Interpol to deal with the Titanosaurus problem.

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned Godzilla. He doesn’t show up until the last half-hour or so, having a brief, abortive clash with Titanosaurus and then not appearing again until the climactic battle. (Once again, we see that the 2014 movie’s limited use of Godzilla is not without precedent.) But at least this is the one film out of the last four where Godzilla is the sole heroic kaiju rather than part of a duo. At first he just seems to want to “challenge” Titanosaurus for dominance, but in his second appearance he’s back in the superhero mode established in earlier films, arriving just in time to save a couple of random teenagers from Titanosaurus’s rampage. He’s actually kind of overwhelmed by his two foes, but the human heroes manage to weaken them both in different ways, allowing him to triumph. Though there’s a tragic outcome to the central character story.

While still more serious and older-skewing than some of the earlier films, this one’s a bit more conventional than its predecessor, what with the goofy-looking alien costumes and broad characterizations. It does have a fair amount of city-smashing and monster-brawling action; these last two films had more money to spend than their predecessors, and it shows. This film also had the advantage of bringing back Akira Ifukube to do the score. Still, the bizarre approach of doing a direct sequel to the prior film yet making no effort at any real continuity with it, and even bringing back one of its lead actors in a completely different role, rather undermines it, at least when the two are watched back-to-back. And it doesn’t work as any kind of climax or finale to the  Shōwa  series; it was just one more film, and then the series got cancelled due to poor box office returns. It’s not an awful ending to the era; it’s good that the last two films attempted to pull the series out of the goofy doldrums and put more effort into it. But the second half of the  Shōwa era, even at its best, just doesn’t compare to the first half, or to the Heisei series to follow.

And that just about does it for my Godzilla review series — again. I can now say I’ve seen at least one version of every Godzilla film (though I regret having to settle for the lousy American version of King Kong vs. Godzilla). But, y’know, there are still a number of other kaiju films out there, like King Kong Escapes, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and so forth. So this may not be the end…

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