Thursday, March 27, 2014

End of an Era: Terror of Mechagodzilla

1975's Terror of Mechagodzilla is, in many ways, the end of an era. This would be the last time Ishiro Honda would direct a Godzilla film. This is the last film to have a new score from Akira Ifukube, although his themes would be used frequently after this. After this, the franchise would lay dormant for nine years. The script was a contest-winner, rather than anyone from the Toho stable.

The film opens with a sequence reshowing the monster action from Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, which conveniently leaves out Anguirus and King Caesar. But it does give us an exciting open, and an idea of how threatening Mechagodzilla is. Although they were of minimal use, Godzilla had King Caesar and Anguirus as allies in the previous film. This time, Mechagodzilla has an ally, Titanosaurus, so it's going to be a tough fight for Godzilla.

Titanosaurus blots out the sun.

There's a bit of weirdness to the film, though. When the submarine that's looking for bits of Mechagodzilla goes down, its last transmission talks about seeing a dinosaur. Of course, the guys on land can't believe it. This is the same Japan that has been attacked by two Godzillas, Mothra, Anguirus, Rodan, and host of other gigantic creatures, and this is referenced in the film. But one more dinosaur, woooah, that's crazy talk!

Titanosaurus? That's crazy talk!.

Mechagodzilla is an alien weapon, so the Third Planet from the Black Hole aliens from the previous film are behind it. Their plan seems to be to remake Tokyo, which is shown to us with a beautiful pan. In some ways, this feels like a kiss to the city that Godzilla is constantly flattening. Remembering how small it was twenty years ago when Godzilla first crushed it, the explosive growth of Tokyo is amazing. But this is followed by a smog shot. But the Black Hole aliens once again need the ingenuity of an earthling, this time, Dr. Mafune.

Hedorah Lives!

Dr. Mafune has been working on a way to control animals. Fifteen years ago, his experiments were inconclusive, but he discovered a dinosaur, told the world he could control it, and his colleagues beat the crap out of him. Seriously there's a photo of him being assaulted. How this could ever have gone wrong I don't know. Japanese adacemia must be a lot tougher than American academia. But this is another thread in the monster control idea, which was a theme in Son of Godzilla, and Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. The space roaches from Godzilla vs Gigan and the Seatopians from Godzilla vs Megalon both have perfect control over their monsters. But the Black Hole aliens do not, relying on Dr. Mafune's invention.


Katsura Mafune is in many ways a stock character; the scientist's daughter like in Emiki Yamane in Godzilla, and at the same time an evil alien like Miss Namikawa from Invasion of Astro Monster. She is also a cyborg. The Black Hole Aliens gain Dr. Mafune's trust by bringing her back from the dead. Her half-machine state may be a nod to Westworld which was released in 1973, or perhaps the three Six Million Dollar Man TV films, produced the same year. But Katsura has a lot of power and agency in the film, similar to the Kilaaks from Destroy All Monsters or Chakiko from Gamera vs Zigra. And although love conquers all, the love is offered to her, rather than Katsura being the one to offer her love. Although she sacrifices herself, she does so for Ichinose, who says he loves her even though she is a cyborg. She never has to apologize for what she has done. This is a significant step forward for the agency of women characters in the Godzilla films, an trend that will continue when the franchise is revived.

Wringing his hands and everything.

Although we have met Mechagodzilla before, Titanosaurus is new. He's essentially just a dinosaur, albeit one that is being controlled. He has no breath weapon, but he has a tail fin that can create strong winds like those that Rodan propduces when he flies over. The design is pleasing, detailed and natural-looking. Titanosaurus towers over Godzilla, although his head does tend to bobble a bit when he walks. In a parallel with Katsura, he is a gentle creature that is being forced to do the aliens' bidding.

Titanosaurus and the military.

As in all Honda films, the military is there to provide a show, but can't do anything to the monster. Godzilla's entrance is something special. Without fanfare, he appears as a dark silhouette behind a city scape. He is almost unrecognizeable, but the blast of his atomic breath is unmistakable. The camera zooms in, and the light slowly reveals the face of Godzilla, and the slow Ifukube march plays. It's a moment we expect, and one Honda wanted to make memorable.

Oh hello!

And then it's on: Godzilla vs Titanosaurus.

The fighters square off.

Without Katsura's constant direction, however, Titanosaurus is confused, and a weak fighter. So the human plot has to find a way to distupt the communications between Katsura and Titanosaurus.

The first long deployment beauty pass in the franchise.

Mechagodzilla is looking a bit the worse for wear, which is understandable, since it got blown up last movie. Then the Black Hole Aliens install the control to Mechagodzilla into Katsura. Because they're space assholes. Once this is done, Katsura is dressed in the finest sparkly silver, so she is visually aligned with the aliens.

Just one of the crew, just one of the crew.

Katsura's eyes blaze green when she's sending commands to Mechagodzilla. When Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus go to town, it's pretty spectacular. The explosions are huge. One is so large that is breaks the platform on which the miniature set is built. Obviously, SPFX director Teruyoshi Nakano is having a great time blowing stuff up.

Big badda boom!

And there goes the mini set.

In an interesting visual innovation, Mechagodzilla performs a gesture before it can fire off its deadly revolving missiles. This is a simple way to increase the dramatic tension, since it signals the use of the deadly missiles.

The final twenty minues of the film are a very good monster fight. It tells a story, and the reversals come from the plot, which is what sets this film apart from Godzilla vs Megalon, where the reversals were so frequent they were meaningless. At first, Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus have the upper hand (claw?), but a reprieve comes when the military distracts Titanosaurus.

Not looking good for Our Hero.

That doesn't last long. Titanosaurus beats on Godzilla, and Mechagodzilla fires revolving missiles. Godzilla, in a scene that is repeated a few times in future films, exhales smoke, and falls over. The evil pair then bury Godzilla, and Titanosaurus jumps on the burial spot. The humans intervene again, by sending scrambling the signal to Titanosaurus. This causes the gently dinosaur to go spasmotically nuts. With Titanosaurus out of the fight, Godzilla is able to gain his feet.

Titanosaurus has a Grand Mal moment.

In a spectacular sequence, Godzilla runs towards Mechagodzilla, while the robot is unloading everything it has at him. It's astonishing, with so many explosions that Godzilla is often obscured. Godzilla staggers, but never stops coming. Even when the suit catches fire.

Godzilla NOW ON FIRE!

The emotional climax parallels the action climax, as Katsura discovers her humanity around the time Godzilla rips Mechagodzilla's head off. Remembering last time, the Black Hole Aliens have installed a beam emitter in Mechagodzilla's backup head. When Godzilla rips the head off, he is slammed with an extremely powerful beam weapon.

I should have kept the last one!

But Katsura kills herself, and Mechagodzilla loses all motive function. Some UFOs try to escape, but Godzilla's atomic hear tay takes care of that. And Titanosaurus. The closing is Godzilla wading out into the sea, a variation of Ifukube's "Prayer for Peace" playing. And that's the last we see of him for eight long years.

Farewell. We will see you again.

Terror of Mechagodzilla was Godzilla's least attended film, but it stands up well, especally in the era of the simple Jun Fukuda films. The psychological tension of the character of Katsura, and Godzilla having to square off against two difficult opponents, makes this an exciting and interesting film. Ishiro Honda was an excellent director, and while this is not his best, it is far from the worst Godzilla film made.

Next week, the return of the Big Ape!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

James Bond, Cornelius the Ape, and Giant Monsters: Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla.

Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974) was produced as Godzilla's 20th anniversary film. It had a larger budget than Godzilla vs Megalon, and it shows. Jun Fukuda manages good action, both with the monsters and the humans. No stock footage is used. And the results are head and shoulders above the previous films.

This is the final film for scriptwriter Shin'ichi Sekizawa and director Jun Fukuda. Sekizawa had entered the Kaiju fray with his clever script for 1958's Daikaiju Baran, and wrote some of the Showa franchse's best scripts: King Kong vs Godzilla, Ghidorah the Three-Headed Moinster, and Mothra vs Godzilla. He was prolific, writing some fifty-seven screenplays in twenty-one years. Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla would be his last. Jun Fukuda was the also-ran of the Godzilla franchise, creating films that were overshadowed by most of Ishiro Honda's work. I consider his work competent, and if he didn't create some of the greatest Godzilla films, he didn't drop the ball, either.

Mr. Handsome from Godzilla 1954

It is also the last time we will see Anguirus, the first monster to fight Godzilla all the way back in Godzilla Raids Again, brought he returned as an ally in Destroy All Monsters. We will not see him again until Godzilla: Final Wars.

And a sad farewell to Anguirus

Like many of Sekizawa's scripts, this intersperses a mystical or religious element in with the science fiction. Although the (predictable) invaders are from the third planet from the black hole, the plot begins with a priestess and a prophecy. King Caesar, an kaiju-sized Okinawan shisha, a guardian spirit, will return and destroy a terrible foe. King Caesar is furred, something of an oddity among the Toho Kaiju. He's not exactly cute, but he's certainly more friendly-looking than most kaiju. The suit actor who plays him does so with an amazing speed. He is one of the swiftest kaiju erver committed to screen. Although he doesn't have an energy weapon himself, he can reflect the beams of Mechagodzilla, emphasizing his role as a guardian. Unfortunately, he cannot reflect rockets, and Mechagodzilla's metal skin make it impossible for him to damage the robot.

Who's a big, floppy-eared monster?

Sparking off the theme of doubles and mistaken identities from Godzilla vs Gigan, Mechagodzilla's first appearance is in a Godzilla suit. The main clues that Godzilla is not in fact Godzilla is the difference in his foley, Mechagodzilla has a high-pitched scream, rather than Godzilla's deeper roar. His footsteps also have a metallic sound to them. Mechagodzilla, in various incarnations, becomes Godzilla's most dangerous foe, crippling and nearly killing him in its Heisei incarnation, fighting him to a standstill in the Millennium series.

Mechagodzilla, still in hiding.

Although the humans are fooled initially, Anguirus is not. Godzilla's former ally attacks the imposter, and is completely overmatched by Mechagodzilla. Then, in one of the most brutal scenes in the franchise, Mechagodzilla breaks Anguirus's jaw.

That's just picking on Anguirus.

Of course, the original has to show up, and Godzilla's entrance in this film is unique. Mehcagodzilla is blowing up an oil refinery, and Godzilla erupts out of a large building. This is the first time since Mothra vs Godzilla that Godzilla doesn't come from the sea. The two fight. And Godzilla's atomic heat ray burns off great amounts of the Mechagodzilla's outer skin, revealing the gigantic robot for what it really is. Unlike the more natural monsters Godzilla had been fighting, like King Ghidorah or Ebirah, Mechagodzilla is full of ordinance, able to put a lot of firepower downrange. Mechagodzilla clearly wins the first fight against Godzilla.

Shiny, evil Godzilla robot!

After the inital encounter, Godzilla stands in a storm and absorbs some lightning. Apparently, this makes him stronger, or heals him. But this is an aspect we haven't seen since lightning woke him up in Jun Fukuda's Ebirah, Horror of the Deep. In this, after taking more than a dozen lightning strikes, Godzilla becomes so engorged with power his back fins spark with power.

Godzilla POWERS UP!

As becomes common in the Heisei series, there are a number of elements borrowed from popular Western movie franchises. The fights, spy work, and slow death trap all echo the popular James Bond franchise, which was going quite strong.

Bond, James Bond. Sorry. Interpol.

When injured or killed, the invading aliens reveal an ape-like true form, which feels like it was borrowed from the Planet of the Apes franchise.

Mr. Secret Agent Strangles an... ape alien?

The film spends a fair amount of time in the Gyokusendo caves on Okinawa, which were recently discovered at that point. Also, given the loving scenes given to the Coral Queen cruise ship that goes from Japan to Okinawa, I wonder if part of the film wasn't underwritten by the cruise line. Especially when a plot point has the mystical statue carried overboard by an ape alien, but it is revealed to have been a copy, the original kept in the Captain's safe, emphasizing the safety of the line.

Who's a big, floppy-eared monster?

The final fight is pretty satisfying. There's no stock footage, and no goofy drop kicks by Godzilla. Mechagodzilla has some excellent moves--shioting toe missiles at Godzilla while eye-beaming King Caesar in the opposite direction. It can create a force field that is impervious to Godzilla's heat ray and Godzilla himself. And it's got fantastic battery life, able to pour out powerful destruction uninterrupted.

Mechagodzilla pours out the destruction.

In a sign of the changing times, Godzilla bleeds gouts of blood when he's hit. In the middle fo the fight, Godzilla is a bloody mess, more like Gamera than the usual bloodless Godzilla fight.

Mechagodzilla pours out the destruction.

But Godzilla uses that extra power he got from the lightning to push the grenades out, and repower and magentize himself. His electromagnetic power is so great that even Mechagodzilla can't get away from him. This is a new power for Godzilla, and sort of like the Nuclear Pulse he will display through the Heisei series.

Godzilla begomes magnetic.

The fight ends with Godzilla twists Mechagodzilla's head off.

Shoulda put in exra servos.

After that, all there is to do is show the alien base blow up, watch Godzilla retreat into the sea, and King Caesar reburies himself in his sacred mountain.

I like Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla. Despite the imitative nature of the spy plot and the gorilla-like aliens, it's a relief after Gigan and Megalon. It breaks some new ground for Godzilla territory, introduces a new and deadly monster for Godzilla to fight, one that comes pretty close to cleanng Godzilla's clock. But it should be noted that this is the only time Mechagodzilla is an alien. Every subsequent Mechagodzilla was built by humans as a defense against Godzilla.

Next: More Mechagodzilla! And this time, he's got a friend!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Stranger in His Own Franchise: Godzilla vs Megalon

In 1972, Toho held a contest to invent a new hero for them. The winner was, as you might expect from an elementary school entrant, a clone of popular characters of the day, only slightly different. Jet Jaguar was born. This is Godzilla becoming a victim of his creators' success. As I said in my entry about Daigoro vs Goliath, the Ultraman formula had become extraordinarily popular, and Toho's contest might have been a publicity stunt to assure the Tsuburaya Productins that they weren't stealing their idea. 1973's Godzilla vs Megalon was originally intended to be a vehicle exclusively for Jet Jaguar, but Toho got cold feet and decided to make it a Godzilla film in the midst of production. And it shows.

Jet Jaguar, the first robot colored with crayon

Toho had also realized that Godzilla films were more profitable as sellers of merchandise (George Lucas would discover hos astonishingly lucrative merchandising could be four years later) than they were as films. Films were more intended to keep the franchise alive and in the public eye. But Godzilla vs Megalon brought in less than a million viewers, a low point in the Godzilla history. Further, Ultraman and his clones were taking a lot of the audience from the Godzilla franchise, since they appeared every week on television for free. Why go to the movies to see what you could watch on television? Knowing this, the budget of the film was low, using a fair amount of recycled footage from previous film entries, and is pretty light on Godzilla. It's also the first time in a decade that a single kaiju film was released.

The plot? The Seatopians angry underworlders/sea people who are irritated because the upper world because they keep dropping nukes near them. So they steal the most advanced robot on the planet to guide their angry but stupid god, Megalon.

Swingin' seventies Seatopia.

Megalon is just as weird as Gigan. He's a gigantic bug with some sort of energy-emitting antenna on his head, grenades that come out of his mouth, and drills for hands. He can fly. He doesn't actually flap the wings that get deployed, we as the audience just understand that he's got wings, so he flies. His drill-hands also allow him to tunnel rapidly. Basically, he's a gigantic design mess.

The strength of a bug. The grenade-spitting ability of a cyborg!

Jet Jaguar is a robot with a bigass grill grin, who looks like he was colored with crayon. Despite being programed with punch-cards he turns out to be self-programing. He can fly. Halfway through the film he enlarges himself to combat Megelon on equal footing. Ultraman does this using the Beta Capsule. Jet Jaguar does it because it's a trope, and his creators shrug and say his determination must have made him grow that big. This is completely indicative of the lazy writing for this installment of the franchise.

Jet Jaguar and his shit-eating grin.

And boy, is it the seventies. This is the only Godzilla film with a Simon and Garfunkle reference. The Anglo dictator of Seatopia proudly shows off his hairy chest. Seatopia features liturgical dance of women in clear raincoats, go-go boots, billowy see-through hats, and bikinis underneath.

If liturgical dance was this revealing, I might go to church more often.

Probably the height of the production is the destruction of the dam. It tends to be mentioned in most reviews of the film, and it's a good, if all too brief sequence.

Now, what was I drilling here?

Nowhere is the recycled footage more apparent than in the air assault on Megalon. Not only does the sequence use footage from previous films (including Gigan's metallic claw swatting fighters), it does so multiple times, stretching the sequence out by showing us the same explosions two or three times. The same is true of his city-based rampage, which is drawn mostly from Invasion of Astro-Monster.

Our first glimpse of Godzilla, aside from a momentary appearance in the opening sequence, is forty-eight minutes into the eighy-three minute film. That's half the film in which Godzilla, whose name is the first on the title, doesn't appear. After a reversed shot from of him leaping into the ocean, stolen from Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, he then spends twenty-one more minutes minutes swimming and then walking to the fight.

I gotta swim for HOW LONG?

The Seatopians, it turns out, have contacts amont the Hunter Nebula-M people, and ask if they can borrow their giant monster, as if it were a cup of sugar. Jet Jaguar is able to hold his own against Megalon, but when Gigan appears, he's overmatched. Luckily, somewhat like the reinforcements arriving at Gettysburg, Godzilla appears just as Jet Jaguar's getting his ass kicked. And, alone, he trashes both Gigan and Megalon.

I'll take you both on.

But they villainous pair get a second wind, and it's on again. Godzilla hammers Megalon, as Jet Jaguar gets beaten on by Gigan. Godzilla and the robot gang up on the cyborg, and then this famous bit of silliness happens:

The infamous Godzilla tail-supported drop kick.

Twice. It's so silly that it was featured on MST3K's opening for a season and a half. But this isn't the climactic battle's worst attribute. It's that there is no progression to the fight. There are so many reversals that it has no meaning. Someone's winning, then they're losing, and then they're winning, then losing. It's all padding. In fact, the entire film feels like padding. The greatest failing of Godzilla vs Megalon is that the title character isn't actually involved in the plot. And it's easy to see that he got dropped into the film almost as an afterthought.

Thanks for letting me crash your franchise, Godzilla!

This is the first time Godzilla was not played by Nakajima. Shinji Takagi takes the role here, for the only time, although future Godzilla suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma is agin the Gigan suit.

The real tragedy here is that for decades, Godzilla vs Megalon was what the American public throught a Godzilla film was. With poor access to home film until the middle eighties, Godzilla vs Megalon managed to fall into the public domain somehow, and therefore became a cheap TV staple.

Next up, we meet the first version of Godzilla's most dangerous foe.