Friday, April 4, 2014

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ blog Proton Media, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

TRAVIS:

Godzilla as a superhero was prominent in the Showa era, yet a few comic book clichés eluded him for quite a while. Despite all his various foes, he had never punched a robot, neither did he encounter an evil version of himself. For G’s 20th anniversary though, Toho decided to take care of both problems, and as Superman fought Bizarro Superman, it was natural that we’d witness GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA. And wouldn’t you know it, another race of pesky aliens wants to conquer Earth using a big monster. This time around, Black Hole Planet 3 Aliens (basically ape-men in human disguise) have constructed a spiffed-up, metal version of the King of the Monsters to rain down havoc. This seems bad enough, but strange natural occurrences foretold in an ancient Azumi prophecy are suddenly appearing and heralding the apocalypse brought by Robozilla. Luckily for us, the prophecy also states that two defenders will win the day, so it’s up to a lightning-charged Godzilla and Japanese lion-dog spirit King Caesar to punch the evil robot a lot of times.

The last few G films suffered from cost cutting and tight budgets, but Toho pumped in some big bucks for the 20th anniversary. Models of cities (originally scaled back for the sake of production costs) return to be smashed. In fact one of my favorite moments is when Mechagodzilla (concealed under fake Godzilla skin) comes upon a building and gives it whooping PUNCH just because he’s a bastard. The brilliant red blood spurts also come back in giallo-like gushes, with poor Anguirus receiving the worst of it by getting a painful jaw cracking from MG. Most notable in the bigger budget is EXPLOSIONS! Boy, Toho went pyro happy and were happy to set anything aflame. Buildings blow up, secret lairs blow up, mountain tops blow up, monsters blow up… it’s not Save the Earth this time, it’s Scorch the Earth.

Luca does a better job explaining these type of things than me, so lemmie set the beat before I pass him the mic. This is quite a funky G film! Masuru Sato returns to score GvsMG, and it’s one of my favorites. His work on SON OF GODZILLA and EBIRAH was definitely more modern than the traditional Akira Ifukube music, and here he’s at his psychedelic best. The score compliments the groovy, grindhouse-like atmosphere this film has, but as I said, I’ll let Luca go on about these details. Do you think Tarantino has this movie in his library?

LUCA:

Oh my god Travis, I've been saying this ever since Fukuda and Sato jumped into this series with EBIRAH but it would not surprise me AT ALL to see some Sato music pop up in any upcoming Tarantino movies. In fact, I'm shocked we haven't had some already! Ukeleles and funky git-tars and swingin' percussion and big band -- quite a turnaround from how big G was introduced to us in 1954 with Akira Ifukube's relentless, doom-laden march! Sato's music is, of course, a perfect match for the comic book insanity of the High Showa era, all swaggering brass announcing that it's time to rummmmmble (but not to take it too seriously please). I actually wondered with this film, Travis, could the Godzilla movies have reached a place of intentional camp here? They've been aimed at children for quite a while now, obviously, but Sato's funky, light-hearted music coupled with scenes of somewhat shocking violence (the aforementioned Anguirus jaw-snap, Godzilla at the end being absolutely DRENCHED in his own blood) made me think that there was a sort of meanness, almost spite to the proceedings. Was Fukuda tired of this series? He'd been spending quite a bit of his life on it by that point, after all!

The higher budget did not go unnoticed by me! I very much appreciated it. Not only did they have two new monsters, they even made two suits for MechaGodzilla! I had no idea about this "disguise" aspect of MG, which was a pleasant surprise. Much like the title GHIDORAH not telling you that it's actually a team-up between Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan to stop the titular space dragon, GvMG doesn't tell you that MG originally starts off all Terminator-like wearing a Godzilla suit, nor that there's quite an important subplot about the magical dog-lion guardian of Okinawa King Shiiiiisaaaaa... Shiiiiiisaaaaaaa... SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!! As you may have noticed, I am always delighted when a new monster must be summoned in song. Funky Sato even added 70s ballad percussion to this centuries-old Okinawan chant of the Azumi line. Or was it perhaps... always there? In a movie that has extradimensional ape men with tape worms coming out of their faces invading the Earth with a robot Godzilla ON TOP of a race to get a magic statue back on its pedestal so a giant dog-lion can be awakened, everything is possible!

I had heard of MechaGodzilla, and having a bit of kaiju experience now, I was a bit afraid that he would just be a guy in a suit (duh) stomping around, making no effort to appear robotic whatsoever. I'm happy to be proven wrong, as the movie has MG doing shit like turn his head around 180°, fire rockets from his hands, turn those same hands 180° with the wrist as the axis, and the capability to fly bringing to mind a pear-shaped Apollo rocket. Magnetic Godzilla (yeah) trying to pull a fleeing MG back to him at the end for a final beatdown is an amazing and hilarious visual, as the expressionless robot face suddenly seems to say "NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE". Which aspect of the story did you prefer, Travis? The fantasy ancient Okinawa part or the sci-fi black hole ape men part?

TRAVIS:

I enjoyed the mixture of both actually, but allow me to tackle the ancient legend aspect for a bit. We’re fourteen entries deep into the series, yet aside from Mothra who’s worshipped as a god on Infant Island, King Caesar is truly the first kaiju tied to the mythical tales of spirits and guardians. At this point, the monsters are pretty much divided up as either large animals, mutants, or aliens. In GOJIRA, the inhabitants of Odo Island perceive Godzilla as a creature of yore, but it’s a bit surprising that it’s taken filmmakers this long to reach into Asia’s mystical past for inspiration. Fun fact: King Caesar is actually based on the lion-dog guardian “shisa” of real Okinawa culture! You’ll often find statues (big and small) placed around homes to ward off evil spirits. So if you wanna protect your house from robo-kaiju, grab a shisa.

Back to the dueling mystics/sci-fi plot! Both are fun to watch, and in fact, the entire movie feels like a banana split sundae of various things the filmmakers wanted to haphazardly throw together. The statue subplot also brings back the James Bond-type action with INTERPOL agents and ape-aliens trading fisticuffs and bullets with each other. The fights are often shot in long takes, shakey-cam style too! It’s THE BOURNE SUPREMACY of Godzilla movies! You also gotta love the leader of the ape-men always sipping a glass of wine. Oh, and the INTERPOL agent chomping his cigar! Indeed, Luca, with that and the kaiju gore, it might be puzzling to think this was directed towards kids. I think a good comparison for GvMG would be the PLANET OF THE APES series, which had plenty of adult themes and intense violence but was pulpy and creature-stuffed enough to appeal to the children. This mixing of genres seems like an effect of the bigger budget. Toho simply had the confidence to pull a lot of resources, and GvMG feels like a more complete, well-rounded product than MEGALON or GIGAN. Even the stock footage utilized is real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it (a recycled explosion here and there but no repeated action beats from previous SFX set pieces). Pair it all with Sato’s swanky score, and this is one fun G film!

LUCA:

Such educational value this series has! I'm ambiguous about spelling it "Caesar" now since "shisa" is an actual word, apparently, and spelling it "Caesar" even though they're saying the Japanese word "shisa" feels... insensitive? OH THOSE JAPS PROBABLY MEAN CAESAR I GUESS! King Sheeser (that'll do) is a pretty funny and campy monster too, with his flamboyant fur coat and fluffy tail. He doesn't really do all that much, despite having the main human plot almost fully centered around him. Certainly, Jet Jaguar had more of an instant report with Godzilla in their beatdown of Megalon and Gigan. I really feel like Godzilla took the biggest brunt of the MechaGodzilla damage here. Since we only have one Showa-era movie to go, I hope King Sheeser has a chance to redeem himself soon. Then again, he's not a Monster Island native, so he doesn't need to worry about awkward confrontations at the watering hole.

Tune in next week, true believers, as we say farewell to the kooky, kid-friendly Showa era of THU BIG G as original GOJIRA director Ishiro Honda returns for one final bow with... TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA!

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