Saturday, April 12, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #15: TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975)

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!

LUCA:

And so we come to it... the great battle of our age. Our age being Godzilla's Showa Era, and the great battle being that of Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla and Titanosaurus! In a striking move, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA picks up right where GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA left off. This threw me for a loop, since, according to Toho protocol, we should be on a moon base where Anguirus got a job chewing on boulders with his extra strong jaw. But nope! An expedition of marine biologists are scouring Okinawa Bay in their submarine, looking for the space titanium remnants of MG. Disaster strikes as they are attacked by a marine dinosaur called TITANOSAURUS whose existence (and possibility for mind control) was suggested thirty years ago by Dr. Mafune. SCIENCE BROS Ichinose and Murakoshi are dispatched to find this man who has since disappeared. His mysterious daughter must disappoint them, however. Her father is dead, and she inhabits this mysterious mansion by her mysterious self. Suspicious? Indeed! It turns out that her father isn't dead AT ALL and is instead living in a secret lab under the mansion where he has perfected his Titanosaurus mind-controlling machine. Not only that, but he is evilly cackling and drinking wine with the dastardly APE MEN FROM THE THIRD PLANET OF THE BLACK HOLE DIMENSION!!!! That traitor! Their plan is to tire Godzilla out with a mind-controlled Titanosaurus so that a now-rebuilt MechaGodzilla may finish off the job.

It's interesting that it actually took Toho 15 movies and 21 years (!) before they touched upon the mad scientist trope. And who else to play him but Akihiko Hirata, who's been with us since GOJIRA as the (noble) scientist Serizawa whose Oxygen Destroyer killed the original beast? Hilariously, Hirata (a handsome middle-aged man in the previous film, released only a year before this one) is made to wear a big bushy wig, eyebrows and a moustache to play Professor Mafune. And what a treat the professor is! He cackles at least three times within the span of the first five minutes of his appearance. He has to be WRESTLED TO THE FLOOR in the flashback where he is told his Titanosaurus theories are bonkers. The tragic background regarding him and his daughter Katsura is a hilarious reveal of callousness not seen since Thomas Haden Church stumbled into a sand experiment and was brushed of with "eh probably just a bird nuke the sand already". And Mugal, leader of the ape men, is no slouch either! Favoring the B-Action movie shades where his predecessor enjoyed a nice stogey to chew on, he wallows in his superiority towards humanity and his own martial prowess ("Hahaha, do you think your bullets can stop MUGAL????").

All this, and I haven't even talked about the monsters yet! I like Titanosaurus' design, even though he must have been pretty OLD N BUSTED to the youngsters who wanted crazy mofos like Megalon and Gigan. He's just a throwback aquatic dinosaur (with hurricane-causing tail-flippers, granted)! You almost feel kinda bad for the guy, as he's repeatedly described as "gentle" were he not mind-controlled. You can also tell Ishiro Honda is back, cuz he actually manages to imbue Titanosaurus with some gravitas, something Fukuda was never much interested in. MechaGodzilla is superbly acted again, often simply standing perfectly still when not engaged in any attacks. It actually manages to make him look sorta creepy! And oh man, best Godzilla intro EVER? Takes 48 minutes for the big guy to pop up, but the silhouette of his head slowly rising in the distance from behind a skyscraper as Titanosaurus lays waste to Tokyo, followed by the signature blue flame entering the screen from the left, knocking Big T down... amazing. The whip pan back to the silhouette, a flash illuminating ole G, Ifukube's theme BURSTING out of my speakers... god-DAYUM! So uh... Travis, what did you think?

TRAVIS:

There’s a welcome feeling of old masters Honda and Ifukube returning to close out the Showa era. We’ve sung the praises of Jun Fukuda and Masaru Sato, but after all the groovy wackiness of the previous entries, it’s a nice homecoming to see TERROR handled with Honda’s traditionalist techniques. What I noticed most from his return are the widescreen establishing shots of mountains and forests, something him and friend/filmmaker colleague Akira Kurosawa seemed fond of. If one was to be more romantic about it, perhaps this kinship with nature reflected Honda’s gentle spirit. Indeed, it’s been written by Japanese cinema writers that if he didn’t pursue movies, he might’ve enjoyed a quiet life as a fisherman. I could go into more rhetoric and theorize that this was the inspiration for Titanosaurus, but I’ll back off the pedal. Going back to those wide shots, it’s very welcome to hear those scenes accompanied by Ifukube’s distant horns. Even though we’re watching rubber monsters, his music was key in delivering the majesty and power Godzilla and the kaiju possessed. Other composers could make it fun, but Ifukube made them human.

Titanosaurus is quite an active one! Much as GODZILLA VS. MEGALON felt like a disguise for The Jet Jaguar Show, the finned, aquatic dino is the true centerpiece of this film. He receives the most screen time compared to G and MechaG, and most of the plot is devoted to the humans and aliens and cyborg girl scrambling around to deal with him. This honestly is TERROR OF TITANOSAURUS instead of MECHAGODZILLA. Favorite moment: TitanO biting down and flipping G up in the air by the mouth. Tumblr, start shipping Titanozilla immediately! I’ll admit that delaying G so far into the movie probably hindered my enjoyment, but oh man that badass introduction! Almost worth it for that. I’ll also say that while all the kooky scientist and space ape business was fun, the characters felt too blank for me to engage. I don’t think anyone shed tears over Ichinose and Katsura’s doomed romance. Compared to the previous MECHAGODZILLA entry, it feels like a step down despite the assuring hands of Honda.

To put TERROR in historical context, though this would be the final Showa movie, it was never meant to be a finale sendoff as DESTROY ALL MONSTERS was designed to be. At long last, diminishing box office finally sent the King of the Monsters back into the depths to await a viable return for years. Maybe this phase of the series ran its proper course. After all, what could be a bigger foe for Godzilla than another Godzilla? What could be more imposing? An alien Godzilla? (Hmm……..) The Heisei era is just ahead, Luca, but before we depart Monsterland in a helicopter as we wave goodbye to our kaiju friends, do you have any final thoughts on TERROR, the Showa era, or how far you’ve come as a Godzilla watcher?

LUCA:

The one-two punch of GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA feels like a decent send-off for the Showa era. Not just because I enjoyed both of them, but also because it made such a nice diptych of the two disparate styles that had been dominating the Godzilla series for its twenty-one-year existence (give or take a GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN and HEDORAH, two films I quite enjoyed). Let's go out with one funky-ass Fukuda Zilla and one dramatic, epic Honda Zilla. Where Fukuda seemingly tried his hardest not to have gravitas in any of his movies for even a second, Honda does his best to make the monsters feel big and weighty. Just contrast Godzilla's entrance here to, say, the researcher descending into the stalactite-filled cave in MECHAGODZILLA. A real location and everything, but Fukuda refuses to go beyond medium shots to give us a sense of scale and awe, instead opting for a couple POV walking shots of the ceiling in close-up. Honda would have thrown in some matte painting enhanced establishing shots (had the budget allowed, of course, which wasn't always the case).

Hilariously inappropriate shit VOLUME 2: after MEGALON's Playmate continuity gaffe, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA goes all in on being weird about boobies. At one point, the cyborg girl needs repairs and we see the alien doctors fixing the wires in her belly in a pretty standard operating setup. The robot torso is obviously rubber, with the actress' face sticking out from under a sheet. But... why did they have to make rubber boobies? They could have just... covered more of the body under that silver sheet? It seems cheaper too! "Whoops, Honda-san, I cut too big a rectangle in this silver tarp!" "Baka!! Have props whip up some boobs!" This freewheeling spirit, to me, is as much a symptom of the Showa era's "just do whatever" attitude as much as the several different pop songs we've heard in full throughout the movies.

I'll miss superhero Godzilla, as those little humanizing touches were always very charming to me. The random insertion of those two kids in TERROR where G saves them from being stepped on by Titanosaurus was a great reminder of that. "Help us Godzilla!!!" *Godzilla rushes to the rescue in SECONDS!* Shit, even Godzilla's absence for the first 50 or so minutes contributed to it. Someone just reads off a radar that Godzilla is coming. It's like "Shit, monster trouble, lemme just get my ass in gear I guess!" If anything, I feel like an asshole for being frustrated about "continuity gaffes" for so long. I learned to appreciate the Showa era as basically one long wrestling match for kids, with returning faces (Godzilla, Mothra), heels (King Ghidorah, MechaGodzilla) and jobbers (Anguirus). It's just that, well, this Summer Slam was introduced by a stark black and white monster movie laden with social commentary! What are your feelings at the end of the Showa era, Travis? A pleasant stroll down memory lane, or some HARSH TRUTHS unearthed?

TRAVIS:

It’s easy to mention the disparity between the harbinger of radioactive annihilation in GOJIRA to the drop-kicking superhero in GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, yet throughout the Showa era, important issues of the quickly evolving Japan remained present. Environmentalism, corporate greed, nationalism, space exploration, and even bullying were topics that the filmmakers were concerned enough about to include in their simple monster movies. Even the shadow of nuclear warfare never truly dissipated. Groovy teens and G united to stop terrorists from building weapons in EBIRAH, and the kid-friendly MEGALON mentions how H-bomb testing has affected Seatopia. Like many icons, Godzilla carried the weight of tragedy but stomped around care-free in the world of pop.

Before we bow out, let’s give another mention to the directors who gave us a variety of Godzillas to enjoy. Honda will always be rightfully recognized as the definitive filmmaker as he understood how to give kaiju a sense of gravitas and pathos. Without the fun romps of Fukuda though, the franchise might’ve fizzled out early from being too staid, and that silliness remains one of the prominent features of G’s legacy. Motoyoshi Oda’s GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN might seem workman-like coming after GOJIRA, yet it’s still an entertaining entry imbued with the spirit of Japan rebuilding after the war. And what else can be said about Yoshimitsu Banno’s crazy GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH? It’s not an easy task to make the most bizarre G film ever after enduring twin fairies, alien slugs, and Minilla!

Personally, it’s been wonderful to revisit the classics of my youth. The Showa era was the Silver Age for Godzilla, and these films will always be the ultimate way for me to remember and enjoy my monster friends. Now as an adult, it was fascinating to watch the Toho team shape the series alongside the growing Japan. Just like the ever-bustling country, the G flicks ambitiously barreled forward with results ranging from interesting to strange, ceaselessly entertaining no matter what. I don’t think that’s my nostalgia talking either! The concept of “a kaiju fights and destroys things” can be stretched very thin, yet over fifteen entries, it’s never felt dull. It’s probably why some of my warmest movie memories will always remain on Monster Island.

Godzilla finally laid dormant. However, 1984 soon came around, and for his 30th anniversary, Toho revived the monster into a new age of cinema. A year later, both his silver screen resurrection from Japan and a particular, newborn baby from South Korea landed in America. Was it already written in the stars that this boy fresh to the world and the US would have a fate intertwined with the King of the Monsters? We’ll explore this and more with THE RETURN OF GODZILLA!

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