Daikaiju 2014: Resurgence (3 of 3)

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Godzilla Vs. Biollante (1989)

The first Vs. movie of the Heisei era is kind of odd and patchy – the actual confrontations between the titular monsters are few, far between, and fairly short, with the rest of the action devoted to more military hardware nonsense. Though brief, the fights manage to be enjoyably grotesque (as is the general relationship between the two monsters – Godzilla confronted by his mutant female clone), mainly because of how well-realized Biollante’s two forms are – it is a visually and conceptually unique creation (although its characteristics are weirdly muddled at times – especially by the ending.) It’s kind of a shame that the crew shied away from making more new monsters afterwards.

It is neat how the film, right from the hop, establishes a reality where the aftermath of Godzilla’s appearance has consequences – in this case, the harvesting of his cells and the political and corporate espionage games that make up the human part of the plot (except for the introduction of the psychics, which is important for the entire Heisei series, but man is it also really weird.) The presence of a giant radioactive monster leads to a whole load of other things, not the least of which is another monster engineered from his DNA – it gives the whole streak of movies a through-line, even if its not always capitalized on fully. The monsters’ existence having that kind of weight is definitely an interesting way to get the franchise rolling again.

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Godzilla Vs. Mothra (1992)

This is an ostensible remake of both Mothra and Mothra Vs. Godzilla happening at the same time, and Godzilla often feels like a third wheel, simply sauntering onscreen to sock whatever giant bug is closest at the time. But while his bearing on the plot is more or less minimal, it sort of makes sense to have him there – with Mothra and Battra as the spirits of the natural world (who, naturally, have clashing ideologies regarding the human race), just about the only thing that could bring them together in the end is a monstrous reminder of how humanity alters nature. Godzilla, then, becomes the mechanic in which the two counterparts reconcile – it’s not smooth, but it is enjoyable. The reconciliation is also paralleled in the human scenes as well, with the separated couple coming back together for the benefit of others – just like the giant flying insects!

While the environmental subplot is mostly in the background, the movie does wring out at least one good scene with it, where the amoral CEO says something along the lines of “I don’t care if they destroy the city, I’ll just rebuild it!” This is the whole “technological solution for a technological problem” (that is later repeated in Destoroyah) in a nutshell – having the money and the means allows some to ignore the problems they cause. It’s brief, but its a reminder of what is being confronted every time one of these movies are made.

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Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

It’s a real shame that the most interesting idea in the movie – that the “DNA computer” made from Godzilla 54’s remains gives Mechagodzilla the creature’s memories – is dropped in the second half, because this otherwise solid action-heavy entry could have been even more worthwhile if they explored it more. I mean, after the really cool scene where the robot goes berserk until it runs out of power, they only bring it up again by having Mecha-G’s pilot make vague statements about “feeling” what it wants (and trying to parallel herself with it) – that allows them to give lip service to their concept even though they had no idea how to really follow it up. It’s an interesting take on Godzilla-counterpart theme so common in these later movies, but again, it only gets a small percentage of the movie here.

Godzilla continues his run as purely antagonistic in the Heisei through Millenium continuum in this as well, although in some ways he seems more like a walking natural disaster here – and so the focus on political fallout/governmental/bureaucratic response to a new Godzilla attack becomes a fairly interesting theme running in the background (the practicality of building a giant robot is at least brought up, which is always fun). At the same time, the pilot’s arc – overcoming her trauma, guilt, and fatalism – pushes Godzilla more in the villain direction, as something that must be defeated rather than just overcome. The plurality of perspectives makes the scenes without monster fighting a little more engaging, although its never as interesting as those aforementioned concepts they only toyed with.

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Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003)

Almost more of a supplement to Against Mechagodzilla, Tokyo SOS allows them to go back to the Mechagodzilla-as-Godzilla’s-ghost and do a lot more with it. It takes the previous movie’s implied history of monster fighting and runs with it, creating a background legacy of kaiju attacks on Japan that gives the more threadbare human scenes an interesting twist. Once again, Mothra has to play both sides of the fence here, promising to protect Japan from Godzilla as long as they return Godzilla ’54’s remains to the sea – but why should they trust another monster with its own agenda? The conflict between the natural order and human designs (after all, the Godzillas were the results of humanity’s own actions, and the presence of one Godzilla seems to attract the presence of another, it seems – which is an idea picked up from Biollante) goes in its own very weird direction – it’s not enough that humans create these radioactive monstrosities, they can’t even let the dead rest in peace, which might be an even greater affront.

I thought it was interesting that primary human perspective shifted from the military-trained pilots to the actual mechanics – after all, who else would have the same kind of relationship with Mechagodzilla than the ones who actually build and maintain it? It makes the film’s universe feel a lot bigger – there are many people involved with the building of a robot monster to fight another monster, and we get to see even more of them here. In the finale, where Mechagodzilla takes matters into its own hands and piledrives Godzilla to the bottom of the sea, the connection between the mechanic and his beloved machine gives it an emotional hook (Godzilla-ghost-robot even manages to say goodbye!) It even raises some questions about the the robot’s actions – was it merely trying to defeat its enemy or return to its resting place, or was it atoning for its past destructive behaviour now that it has gotten to know its human victims better?

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Daikaiju 2014: Resurgence (2 0f 3)

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Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)

Many of the later movies in the Godzilla series attempt to grapple with the legacy and meaning of the first film, and Destoroyah is probably the most explicit of these, calling back numerous times to the original – and while it’s not perfect, it manages to connect to it in some pretty interesting ways. Godzilla is now more than ever a walking atomic nightmare, going into meltdown and becoming a living embodiment of mutually-assured destruction; at the same time, the Oxygen Destroyer, the only weapon able to kill Godzilla (the creator taking his own life to keep it from becoming another weapon of war), has spawned a monster of possibly greater destructive power – in both cases, human technology coming back to haunt us years later. This makes it, in concept alone, one of the most fatalistic films in the series – especially in the way it basically says Dr. Serizawa, whose story was one of the dramatic cruxes of the 1954 movie, essentially died in vain, and that no matter how hard humanity tries to undo its mistakes, it’s already too late. To be fair, the movie ends positively anyhow, but it’s certainly a sobering idea.

Lending to the atmosphere of uncertainty, there is actual debate about the ethics of certain scientific discoveries and the creation of weaponry, if one distracted in the midpoint by a artless bit of Aliens-riffing. Reflecting a post-Cold War alleviation, the arguments regarding potential dangers versus benefits of new technology are no longer as heated, posited as logic and possibility versus caution and sentimentality. After so many decades since the atomic bomb without similar incidents, it seemed that there may finally be a civilized age where this technology could be used properly. Then again, the pro- arguments seem rather facile while the world is staring down the end results of previous generation’s technological mishaps – and though technological solutions are initially floated as great advancements for humankind, when they are suddenly needed to solve technological problems, it starts looking more like acts of desperation.

But Destoroyah also puts in some time establishing Godzilla not just as a nuclear monster, but as part of a species, mainly through the use of Godzilla Junior. Although now more or less a miniature version of the Big G, the early scenes where the lesser beast appears has a sense of awe to them that is rarely expressed in this series – and in the scenes where Godzilla mourns the death of Junior, we get a glimpse of a creature that exists apart from itself and the destruction it wreaks. In these scenes, as well as the scenes with the psychic characters and the inventive use of Godzilla’s fantasy physiology as the basis for the plot, we really get to look at these kaiju as creatures worthy of some kind of empathy, a victim of circumstance rather than malevolent entity. So, the sad sight of Godzilla finally dissolving into nothing comes not just from seeing the passing of a pop culture figure, or the destruction of a living weapon, but the final moments of a dying animal, betrayed by its own mutant biology. Having engaged itself so thoroughly with all the different facets of the series, and the monster, it seems like a proper way for this movie to do its send-off.

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Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

THIS, on the other hand, is a far cry from a respectable tribute to the franchise, not even feigning engagement with the intent of the original film. Ostensibly a remake/re-imagining of Destroy All Monsters, it takes the basic outline of that movie, replaces its (now) retro-futurism/scientific utopian aesthetic with a more modern sugar-fueled combination of big-budget Hollywood action spectacle, anime, and video games, and uses the monster action primarily to show how Godzilla is basically the most super badass of all time (Disaster Year 20XX’s description of it, It’s Godzilla as the coolest, most powerful action figure grinding lesser merchandise beneath his heel,” is the most accurate synopsis you’re ever going to get.) Far longer than the rest of these movies and so focused on the anime/video game superheroes karate fighting each other, everything seems entirely wrong here, but the movie is so committed to its action nonsense it’s hard not to forgive some of that and just enjoy the ride.

There are some ideas and artistic direction in the mix here – the characters seeing Godzilla as a sort of unstoppable Elder God (with Colonel Gordon acting as a bizarre, smirking Ahab variant), the idea of a future world where kaiju hunting squads are the norm, the ashen grays of the ruined cities – but they are window dressing at best, lacking even the muddled attempts at thematic resonance typical of the Heisei series, preferring a purified form of the later Showa stompathons. Any attempts at intellectualizing it seem to be preemptively sabotaged by the movie itself: concepts like the classic series’ ideas of a science utopia are roundly mocked, society outside the militarized mutant armies is essentially a cartoon that exists solely for snarky jokes (the militarized mutant armies are a different kind of cartoon), and the dashed-off motivations given to Godzilla are provided in a tiny number of scenes featuring a child actor, his grandpa, and the single-most hated monster in the series’ history. Even the soundtrack leaves behind the respectable orchestrations of Akira Ifukube for electronic noise and Sum41. The filmmakers obviously knew what they wanted this to be, and will broker no depth, analysis, or classical moodiness.

Anyway, it’s more interesting to contemplate is what the film considers giving fans what they want – numerous callbacks to older movies, with almost every Showa kaiju showing up to be roundly thrashed by the star. Most of the monster fights are short, almost jokes, all tension and heft bled out (since Godzilla wins so easily and all the cities come pre-destroyed after some initial scenes of apocalyptic horror), and are constantly under threat of being overwhelmed by the human action – however, they manage to contain just as much energy, and by breaking all the ethereal rules set by previous movies, actually manage to feel kind of fresh. It seems that being freed from the constraints of caring, and given an overinflated budget, we get to see great-looking updates of some favourite monsters fighting in cool and creative ways that seem more in line with what would be done in something like Ultra Galaxy Legend (except with enough money to have actual sets) rather than the more methodical fights of the previous movies. It essentially embodies every dismissal of the series as a whole, yes – but for those of us who still secretly maintain our adolescent fondness for creature violence while still trying to engage with the ethical and cultural undertones of the series, this still has the goods. Godzilla has never been this over-the-top and focused on being “cool”, and for longtime viewers, it gives it a rhythm all its own.

Daikaiju 2014: Resurgence (1 of 3)

Just for completeness’ sake (and maybe to show how my writing technique has grown and/or atrophied over time), I’m going to reprint some reviews I wrote on an earlier website back in the first half of 2014, the 60th anniversary of the Godzilla series. There is a new Godzilla film being released in Japan in July, so maybe this could lead up to me seeing that movie, on the off chance someone sends me by express mail to Japan with enough yen in my pocket to buy a ticket. Unlike Ultraman and Ultra Q, there are no legal ways to stream any of these movies currently (I saw some of them when they briefly appeared on Crackle, and others not mentioned in these reviews are available on Shout Factory‘s site), so if you want to see them for yourself you will probably have to find some DVDs and Blu-Rays.

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Destroy All Monsters (1968)

The film opens with what is essentially a mini-documentary about the lives of the monster community in MonsterLand, all birds-eye shots of elaborate miniature landscapes and an English voice-over that brings to mind those old Disney nature shows. Aside from being an early example of the really nice wide-shots featuring multiple monsters on screen (something I imagine was some of the most complicated scenes the Toho crew had ever staged), this intro sets up the science fiction utopian vision of the movie – this is basically a whiz-bang sci-fi movie that exists in a world where the existence of giant monsters is a given, which is a really interesting way to go about it. It’s a year of advanced rocket science and nature completely under control, only interrupted by the intervention of even more technologically advanced extraterrestrials.

Most of the movie is that whiz-bang science fiction plot (the two-fisted space pilot lead, the alien stuff, and the super-science are seem to be callbacks to the kind of films that were in theatres at the same time as the original Godzilla), with the monsters more or less acting as walking natural disasters that get in the human characters’ way. I imagine this was because of the previously-mentioned difficulty of staging multiple suit actors, because the human scenes don’t look especially cheap – lots of elaborate sets, shootouts, and Thunderbirds-style miniatures. Normal monster movie logic would say that this is a problem, but everything, while human or monster, barrels ahead pretty quickly, so the film never really gets too dull.

Plus, the all-out bombastic thrills of the monster scenes make it all worth while. The final battle with King Ghidorah not only has about five or six different monsters all getting to do their thing (including surprise all-star Gorosaurus), but even has a ringside announcer doing their entrances. Godzilla, of course, gets the last say on things by kicking in the door of the alien base in Mt. Fuji – payback for spending the rest of the movie in thrall to alien women in silver shawls (am I making this up, or do we several of these movies have their alien threats consist entirely of women? It’s at least also the case in Gamera vs. Guiron. I wonder what the conscious reasoning behind this would be?) It’s all in good fun, though we still get a reminder that no matter how much it seems the monsters are helping us, they are only going after who they know to be the major threat at that time – re-establishing that the kaiju are their own beasts with their own agendas. You know, just so we’re not TOO comfortable with them around, a repudiation of the beginning of the movie.

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Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

A bit of a glorious mess – this movie is all over in the place, going for dozens of different ideas and not really landing any of them, but still interesting in the attempt. Responding to growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the west in the late 80s with borderline jingoism, as white people from the future go back in time to sabotage an age where Japan dominates economically, it is both confused and confusing. At the very least, the change in directions feel a little less like whiplash because the movie starts out incredibly heightened, even by Godzilla standards – we open in a rapidfire number of scenes that present to us grown men obsessed with dinosaurs and a long-debunked photo is used as evidence that dinosaurs still live.

A little distracted by the Terminator-homaging androids and cameo appearances by the Tom Baker-era Doctor Who time tunnel, we may not notice that this is a movie that is mainly about Japan’s complicated relationship with Godzilla, the figure, and in turn with its own history. In keeping with the Heisei series’ determination to keep him an anti-hero, the film goes back and forth with Godzilla’s role, first a menace that endangers the entire country, then a hero stopping an even greater threat to Japan, and then a menace again. It’s hard not to see this as a struggle with Japan’s own military history – it waffles on what to think of the country’s past militarism (which has multiple faces in the film as a few war veterans, who having survived thanks to proto-Godzilla’s slaughter of an entire platoon of American soldiers in WWII, are responsible for building up Japan’s post-war economy), though it still posits a demilitarized and disarmed future. This is further shown through the eccentric millionaire vet’s personal views on Godzilla, who he can’t help but see as a sort of guardian spirit – and this subplot is concluded pretty astoundingly during Godzilla’s powered-up rampage near the end of the movie

The same millionaire, in an earlier scene, reveals to the Japanese government that he has built his own nuclear submarine, suggesting that they use it to recreate Godzilla. Although its not a major part of the film, there is some nuclear weapons subtext in there as well – it may seem a kind of cheat in order to bring Godzilla back for his battle, the fact that he ended up being created even after being removed from the atomic testing sites posits a kind of inevitability to his existence. After all, nuclear weapons didn’t stop being a concern after the time of the original film – Pandora’s box is open, and no matter what we think we can do to stop it, it will always remain a threatening undercurrent. There is the intimation that the future will be better – we go from one generation building nuclear weapons, to the next generation rejecting them, to the next generation abolishing them – but it still gives you pause at what we did before we could get there.

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Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

This movie is not so ambiguous about its position on Japanese history and militarism – it’s a battle of karmic forces acting in relation to human action, not so far removed from the ideas Shusuke Kaneko used previously in his Gamera trilogy (which is probably why they hired him for this.) Godzilla no longer stands just in for the atomic weaponry used against Japan, but also the vengeful spirits of the countless victims of Japanese imperialism – an acknowledgement of all sides of a tragedy, and Japan’s own bloody attempts at conquest. The forces opposing Godzilla, now more menacing than ever with his soulless eyes and gleeful destructiveness, are nature spirits who can be summoned by humankind, but don’t necessarily fight for them – they are connected to the land, and to ancient traditions, and in their earlier scenes accidentally end up offing groups of disrespectful young hooligans ala Jason Vorhees, just to get the point across. Like in the Gamera movies, there is a place for humans in this conflict, but as is often pointed out again and again, most are not engaged with their history in the slightest, and create a culture where our past can come back to haunt us.

GMK is certainly attempting to return the series to the tone of the original movie, bringing back the terrifying force of nature version of Godzilla, putting a lot of focus on the ground-level effects of the monsters, and even including some straight riffs on scenes from that movie (including Godzilla’s first appearance behind a hillside and scenes of wounded people in a hospital.) Kaneko goes out of his way to undermine any enjoyment we might have in the levelling of the cities – there are always fleeing people always in view – and even the battles with the “good” monsters makes sure to show the collateral (once again, very similar to Gamera, but going farther.) I can’t really say the imagery is straight-up horror as it was in the original, (they certainly go for a lot of dark humour along the way), but it’s certainly not the violence-against-miniatures-for-violence’s-sake that much of the later films became – there are stakes, and there are consequences.

At the same time, the reinterpretation of Godzilla somewhat opposes the original – which, in some interpretations, was at least partially a celebration of the new Japanese SDF. Not here – aside from the notion of Godzilla as vengeful spirit, we see that not only are the events of the original covered-up (the adversarial position to history again), the military shown as overconfident with their latest weaponry (which is first introduced as tools for search-and-rescue operations rather than military use), and the government is slow to act in the face of a crisis. The latter of those is more or less in line with the 1954 movie, but this one obviously goes much farther in its distrust of authority. The military is more or less redeemed through the Commander, who is one of the few people who refuses to disengage with what came before and is ultimately the one to take down Godzilla when even the trio of guardian spirits fail – but the idea remains that human violence, and not just the threat of advanced weaponry, is the real underlying concern with these movies.