Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Random Movie Report #46: Terror of Mechagodzilla

Classic Media has released a couple more Godzilla films on DVD, though actually they were available much earlier as part of a box set (they held off separate releases until the market died down a bit, as they had to with the last couple of films.) TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA is a much anticipated release among Godzilla fans, as for years the picture was only available on video in a version cut from a PG to a G, the editing removing quite a bit of material including a key climactic plot twist. That actually makes this the biggest American release since the company put out the original GODZILLA some two years ago (though GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN also is good to see in its original form, and I’ll get to that eventually.)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this one, and I was looking forward to how it held up. TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA was the last of the original series of Godzilla films, and the last film directed by Inoshiro Honda (though rumor has it he handled directing chores on a segment of Akira Kurosawa’s DREAMS.) It’s not quite as good as I remember, brought down a bit by the general malaise of the Japanese film industry of the 1970s and effects films in particular, but it’s quite ambitious and oddly dark for what had become a series of children’s movies. Marking Honda’s return to the series after five years, the film has a classical, back-to-basics feel, and is a respectable finale for the King of Monsters.
A submarine looking for the remains of Mechagodzilla (returning from GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, and we see his defeat there under the opening credits) is attacked by a giant dinosaur. The Oceanographic Institute sends Dr. Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki), along with Interpol agent Jiro Murakoshi (Katsumasa Uchida), to try and dig up some information on why a dinosaur has been hiding in this area, and their investigations lead them to the home of Dr. Shinji Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), a brilliant but slightly crazed scientist who was drummed out of the institute for claiming he had discovered the living dinosaur known as Titanosaurus, and could actually control the beast. Dr. Mafune has faked his death, leaving his attractive daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai) to look after the house and deflect nosy investigators, and it turns out he has in fact gained control of Titanosaurus through some kind of radio transmitter, and is now intent on using it to seek revenge on the people who shunned him.

Where does Mechagodzilla come into this? Glad you asked. See, Mafune is being helped by a group of aliens from a planet orbiting a black hole- they’re understandably eager to move, and Mechagodzilla led their first invasion attempt. They’ve rebuilt the mechanical monster and plan to use it and Titanosaurus to level Tokyo and build their own city on top of it. (One presumes they will extend this plan to other cities once it works there, unless they’ve got a very small population.) As a trump card if Mafune’s desire for vengeance isn’t enough, he owes them for bringing Katsura back from the dead as a cyborg after she died in a lab accident. Unfortunately Katsura is falling in love with Ichinose, and this gums up the works on both sides.

Like a lot of the seventies Godzilla films, the movie keeps Gojira himself offstage for a substantial time while it develops the other monsters. By this point Godzilla had become a good guy- he only rose from the depths to fight evil monsters who wanted to destroy the Earth, and tried not to step on too many buildings while doing so. This was particularly beneficial because not only had original effects maestro Eiji Tsubaraya died some time ago, but the budgets for the films had been dropping steadily. The Japanese film industry was in a bad state, hit hard by competition from TV, and SFX spectaculars had the worst of it. There’s some very impressive work in this movie, but it’s mostly near the end, and building up to it you have a lot of low-key sci-fi espionage that starts to resemble an AVENGERS episode. A good AVENGERS episode, mind you. But it does go on a bit.

The whole film has a funereal atmosphere- it wasn’t intended as the last of the classic GODZILLA films, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. There’s a slightly washed-out, almost autumnal look to everything, composer Akira Ifukube contributes some rather grim fare (even including organ music in flashbacks), and some of the previously excised footage includes slow motion gun deaths and the villain whipping his guards when they let someone get away. It’s said that this adult tone probably contributed to the film’s financial failure; by this point, these were supposed to be films for children, and Honda’s approach was too dark for them but not grown-up enough to lure back the adults. (While we’re on the subject of adult material, one restored scene features the closest the series has ever come to female nudity, as Katsura’s obviously-false breasts are visible on an operating table.)

The tale of Dr. Mafune and his daughter is an appropriately melodramatic one, though I’m not sure it has quite as much impact as it should; somehow, whether it’s due to the writing or the acting, Mafune doesn’t seem so crazed that he would have his monster destroy cities just to prove he was right to all those fools at the institute who called him mad, MAD I say! He’s more a low-key crazy than a Bela-Lugosi-in-BRIDE-OF-THE-MONSTER crazy. There’s a vague formlessness to the human drama for most of the picture.

That said, the end of the film makes up for a lot. The climactic battle is hugely impressive, featuring some of the most elaborate model work Toho had done in a while. Godzilla’s appearance was slightly tweaked to be more menacing, as the suit, introduced in GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, originally gave him a kind of puppy dog look. It’s not entirely gone, but at least now he looks like an angry puppy. Titanosaurus is a unique creation, with a long neck, a sweeping tail, and an ululating roar that gives him quite a bit of personality. Mechagodzilla is less shiny here than in his debut, to reflect his rebuilt status and fit in with Honda’s grimmer aesthetic. There are still a few naff shots (mostly involving the monsters being thrown through the air by punches and the like- you can tell when the suits are empty), but overall it looks nice, and some work seems to have been done outside a studio, using natural light and shooting up from very low angles. The human drama comes to a head just in time too, and the restored ending is kind of powerful.

TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA falls a bit short of what it was trying to do, but it’s a respectable last outing for Honda. He deserves credit for closing the series on a classy note, and making the most of very limited resources. Of course, Godzilla’s career was not yet over, and when Toho started to recover in the 80s it was only a matter of time before he would rise again. And now you know the rest of the story.

Written by Yukiko Takayama
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: B

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