Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Random Movie Report: Godzilla vs. Gigan

DVD cover and Amazon link

Following the heady surrealism of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Toho decided they needed to get back to tradition and make a movie that was just about giant monsters destroying cities and beating each other up. So seasoned kaiju director Jun Fukuda took the helm for Godzilla vs. Gigan, a big sci-fi brawl in which Godzilla and a friend face down space monsters like they did in the Sixties. But the Japanese film industry was a darker and less friendly place for such things, and Godzilla vs. Gigan suffers some of the worst effects of Toho's austerity. Cheapness leads to shortcuts, which blend with a few significant story problems to make a film that really is only for the fans. It has a few neat and quirky ideas, though, and introduces one of the franchise's most memorable villains.

The hero of this installment is Gengo Kotaka (Hiroshi Ishikawa), a manga illustrator specializing in monster designs. Work is sparse, so his comely agent (Yuriko Hishimi) gets him a meeting with the developers of World Children's Land, a monster theme park featuring as its centerpiece a life-size Godzilla tower. The Children's Land group aren't just out for money- they want to build a model community and bring "perfect peace" to the world. But Gengo runs across a girl, Machiko (Tomoko Umeda), looking for her brother Takashi with the help of her hairy hippie friend Shosaku (Minoru Takashima). Takashi (Kunio Murai) is being held prisoner in the Godzilla tower, because as it turns out, the Children's Land builders are actually aliens using the park as a base of operations for a large-scale invasion of Earth, spearheaded by the cyborg space monster Gigan, with the help of King Ghidorah. In the midst of their investigating, Gengo and his pals play one of the aliens' control tapes, which helpfully alerts Godzilla and his buddy Angilas over on Monster Island that something funny's going on. The two monsters make their way to Japan just in time for a giant tag-team battle against the space invaders and their alien masters.

This story doesn't make a lot of sense even by the fairly loose standards of kaiju movies. The aliens seem to specifically want to get Godzilla and Angilas involved specifically to destroy them on the way to conquering the world, and while they mention some of the other denizens of Monster Island they don't seem very concerned about them. Maybe they're really counting on the strategy of getting Godzilla face to face with the Godzilla Tower (which has a breath weapon of its own), which would also explain why they feel the need to mask their invasion of the Earth with the whole theme park utopia thing to begin with (and why they need to legitimize the operation by hiring non-alien personnel). Obviously this is a kids' movie, but this is arguably a sign that the screenwriters for the franchise were starting to slack a little.

The film is aiming to be a mostly mindless action spectacle, with four monsters including two old classics (Angilas did get a nice new costume for Destroy All Monsters so they wanted to make use of it, and everyone loves King Ghidorah.) Unfortunately, this is where the production runs right smack dab up against the fact that Toho did not have a lot of money to spare on monster epics anymore. Thus Jun Fukuda is forced to go overboard in the use of footage from previous Godzilla adventures. They're generally easy to pick out, as the film quality will deteriorate, the sky will change color, and some of the monsters will look a little different- there's even a completely unintentional cameo from Mothra, who can't help but appear in a few frames lifted from Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. Even the music is 100% recycled material, with the filmmakers rummaging through Akira Ifukube's greatest hits.

What new material there is has some merit, though. Gigan's funky design is instantly memorable and he comes off as a convincingly dangerous fighter, with cruel blades for hands and a buzzsaw in his stomach. The revelation of the aliens' true natures is handled ghoulishly enough, and while the non-kaiju intrigues go on for quite a bit in order to pad out the film, they're at least colorful and offbeat- as are a few scenes where the monsters very briefly "speak" to each other. And all recycling aside, the climax of the picture is a truly grueling monster rumble that looks like a genuinely tough fight for our heroes. The grim atmosphere is strangely helped by the dilapidated states of the suits- you can see, at points, rubber scales hanging off Godzilla's hide, the result of too many squibs. Of course, it too drags on a bit, and the pacing is a problem overall.

Godzilla vs. Gigan
is ultimately not a very good movie, succumbing to a sort of institutional bleakness, a mood that at Toho the party was over. For the dedicated kaiju fan it offers a few fun bits, but even they may be fatigued as the fights wear on and the stock footage continues to roll. But I can't really dislike this movie too much either, because it does try its best to deliver what fans of the series want under difficult circumstances, and isn't entirely unsuccessful either. It seems about as good as it could have been, in a series that increasingly had less and less to work with.

Story by Takeshi Kimura
Screenplay by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Jun Fukuda

Grade: C+

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