Friday, June 27, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #26: GODZILLA, MOTHRA AND KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK (2001)

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.

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TRAVIS:

GODZILLA, MOTHRA AND KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK is only the third entry in the Millennium series, yet like the previous two movies, it wipes out any existing continuity to reboot from GOJIRA. In this new timeline, the original Godzilla was unquestionably killed by the Oxygen Destroyer back in 1954, but the big guy has mysteriously returned after all these years to once again decimate modern day Japan. Though his true revival is unknown, Ancient Legend Exposition Old Man warns that the countless souls lost during World War II have manifested into the King of the Monsters to punish today's society for forgetting their pain and sacrifices. Luckily for us, benevolent spirits have risen to protect us in the form of Guardian monsters Mothra, Ghidorah (as a hero for the first time!), and Baragon (long dormant since his cameo decades ago in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS).

GMK is such a joy to watch, and much of the credit goes to director Shusuke Kaneko. By the time he came to the G franchise, he already was acclaimed for his kaiju work after directing the critically and financially successful Heisei era Gamera trilogy (GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, ADVENT OF LEGION, and REVENGE OF IRIS). His genre work is typically identified by his kinetic energy and strong ties to mythology, and GMK is a great example. The fight scenes are amped up to have the camera swoop and race around the monsters, and even the human scenes get some nice pans and zooms to liven them up. The CGI still isn't going to fool anyone, but Kaneko (who also personally supervised the SFX) throws in a lot of exciting visuals that keep the pace really animated. There's a fun liveliness to GMK that stands in contrast to some of the more static Heisei and Millennium flicks. It's also cool that the kaiju are closely tied to Japan's past and are essentially the wrathful ghosts of yore. It's very amusing to see rowdy teenagers (one group almost drowns a dog!) get their moral comeuppance via death by Guardian monster, slasher film-style.

The true specter of death in GMK though is Godzilla, who ditches the green G2K look for his most menacing design ever. His old gray, radiation-irritated skin is back, and his neck is slightly elongated, giving him a serpentine, dragon-like appearance. It's his eyes however that are his scariest feature. His irises are removed to give him a terrifying, blank stare, akin to the Deadites from EVIL DEAD. This truly is an apocalyptic abomination! Not only does he look frightening, he also is the deadliest he's ever been in the entire series. In previous G flicks, he's only been in the “bad monster” role because his presence could be a threat to mankind, or he was in conflict with “good monsters” like Mothra and King Kong. In GMK, he's truly the villain. He destroys without remorse, and it's clear that hundreds of innocent civilians are left dead in his wake. One scene even has G peering down on the people fleeing before him (including women and children) and deciding to charge up his nuclear breath. A minute later we see an ominous mushroom cloud eruption of smoke in the distance. Horrifying stuff, Luca! Could you handle such a radical change to the ol' Godzilla we know and love?

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LUCA:

MIX IT UP ALREADY is what I always say when it comes to these movies, Travis, and Kaneko certainly delivered a Godzilla tale unlike anything we’ve seen so far. In this here Millennium series we’ve now had aliens, time travel and mystical bullshit spread out over three movies. I’ve found magic to be an underutilized plot device in the Godzilla series, especially since the science we’re dealing with here is such hokum that we might as well all call it the work of fairies and goblins anyways. The closest they got to pseudo-spiritual mumbo-jumbo was Godzilla’s weird connection to Japanese forces in GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH – now he’s a straight up incarnation of Japan’s war crimes come to haunt them! Holy crap! And, as you say, this is the most malicious G’s ever been since probably 1954. The image of the school kids getting up to see a huge mushroom cloud in the distance is haunting, and especially so since it follows G’s atomic breath charging up. In many previous instalments (and even in Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version), G’s fins glowing blue is a sure sign of badassery about to happen. Here, Kaneko cuts away just as the actual blast is about to burst forth from G’s mouth, to the aforementioned classroom full of kids seeing the mushroom cloud. Horrifying!

And yet, I can’t help but feel Kaneko has a dark sense of humor about it all. The Guardian monsters all taking care of rowdy teens, for one. Did those teens drown the dog, by the way? I wasn’t given a reassuring shot of the dog paddling away cockily, so I wasn’t sure. How am I supposed to take Baragon crushing a bunch of rude bikers (led by a flaming gay stereotype)? Or a tourist lady saying “Oohh what a horrible monster! But it’s also kinda cute!” The party girl brought to hospital after Godzilla first lands at a seaside town during a stormy night, seeing Godzilla rampage through Tokyo freezes in utter terror, only to breathe a sigh of relief when G passes the hospital she’s laid up in without incident. She exhales in relief… only for Kaneko to cut back outside and show G’s tail carelessly lay into the building, destroying it utterly! Man, that’s some some Sam Raimi shit!

Kaneko really is one of the best directors this series has had, upping the pace considerably from its usual… deliberate, let’s say, Godzilla tread. The fights are absolutely ferocious and make you feel sorry for those poor Guardian monsters that have to go up against Deadite Godzilla. Especially Baragon, who’s about 1/3rd of G’s size, gets a rough deal! This is the first movie where the monsters’ eyebrows have articulation (that I’ve noticed, anyway), so seeing poor Baragon’s eyes widen in panic as he tries to climb up that cliff to get away from Godzilla… Maaaaannn! You know, I don’t mind directors doing their own thing with the material, rather than slavishly following some pre-established canon. In fact, I highly support it! I’m one of those that actually really likes that Christopher Nolan “wasted” Two-Face as a third act result of the Joker’s actions in THE DARK KNIGHT. Do what ya want! That said, I don’t know if I like King Ghidorah as the hero. First of all, Godzilla kind of kicks everyone’s ass anyway, and second, I think Ghidorah is kind of a chump. He looks like a big derp I can’t ever take seriously (as opposed to all the other, serious monsters in this franchise). They got perilously close to my finding Ghidorah cool with his ice castle imprisonment in this movie, but once he got out, it didn’t take very long for me to go back to “Oh yeah that’s Ghidorah”. Which is a shame, cuz he’s in a cool movie!

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TRAVIS:

I'll go ahead and alleviate anyone's fear for the dog's safety. There's a quick blink-or-you'll-miss-it shot during the news broadcast about Mothra's attack that shows the cute 'lil hound happily being petted by rescuers on the beach. Countless lives may have been lost in GMK, but we're at least spared the sight of canine-icide. Speaking of adorable animals, I love that of all the obscure kaiju that were picked to be in GMK, Baragon made the cut (his name didn't make the title, but hey, Baragons can't be choosers). Considering that FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and his ten second DESTROY cameo are his only on-screen appearances, Kaneko really shows how deep of a G-fan he is. He originally planned for Anguirus and Varan to be the other two guardians, but Toho insisted that they be swapped out for the more recognizable Mothra and Ghidorah. It's too bad we couldn't see those Showa-tier monsters revamped, yet I'm glad that Baragon was kept as a concession.

Of course you can't have a Godzilla movie without Godzilla, but what he represents in GMK is rather interesting. Here, instead of being the unstoppable result of mankind's tampering, he's the wrathful spirit of history forgotten. We've doomed ourselves by separating the blood of our past from the carefree freedom of the present. There's a grim reminder when we see a photo of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 ship (the tuna boat contaminated by American nuclear testing in 1954 that inspired GOJIRA) hanging from a wall as G first comes ashore. Though the film goes out of its way to show off the teenagers as assholes deserving of their fate, is it a coincidence that the first victims of the kaiju are partiers? Have we as viewers even been too caught up or numbed by all the monster wrestling matches to remember that Godzilla was born from the mournful meditation of a damaged nation?

Still, Kaneko doesn't bog down the proceedings that much and keeps the film so energetic! We've talked before about how kaiju TV shows forced Toho to stuff their movies with more elaborate monsters, but GMK feels like a movie influenced by the style (not substance) of Japanese television. Kaiju rush at each other with such speed that you might expect anime action streaks to break out! The fight scenes never reach Michael Bayish incomprehension, but there's a sense of immediacy to the choreography and editing that recalls the WIZ-BANG tone of kid shows. It truly is a Godzilla for the MTV generation. Just wait till it gets ratcheted up in FINAL WARS!

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LUCA:

You know, I’m actually surprised that anime hasn’t been a bigger influence on the G series so far. Godzilla and Astro Boy are about the same age, so it’s not like anime would be the new kid on the block that Toho gets to be all huffy about. No, we shan’t adopt any of your stylistic tics! We are a proud piece of Japanese cultural heritage that would never adopt elements from other genres or series or even steal sequences wholesale! Nope! Kanuke’s kinetic style coupled with Millennium’s new mission statement that everything stands on its own is a great boon to the film, but knowing he’d originally planned to have the Guardian monsters be Anguirus (!), Baragon and Varan I can’t help but be bummed out at least a little bit. Those guys are (mostly) blank slates you can do anything with! You see, besides my aforementioned ambivalence towards Ghidorah, I was a bit saddened that Mothra is really reduced to an almost anonymous giant moth (!!) here. When she first flies over Tokyo, we get a reaction shot by a couple of twins, which was a nice nod to the fairies. On the other hand, I’ve also written about how Mothra-starring movies tend to follow the same basic plot a lot of the time, so maybe I shouldn’t complain as much as I am. Argh! How is it that I start nitpicking so much with movies that generally do a good job (see also: GOJIRA) but start looking for the positives in low-effort panderfests like ALL MONSTERS ATTACK? Cart me off to Seatopia’s funny farm, Travis – these movies are starting to get to me!

And they’re not letting up! Join us next week for GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA! Thanks guys, that’s certainly not a thing I’ve seen before. Goddammit, Toho! When I say “Mix it up!” I don’t mean new prepositions, you assholes!

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