Saturday, May 31, 2014

Random Movie Report: Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah poster

In some ways Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is a return to tradition for the series. After Godzilla vs. Biollante failed at the box office, Toho decided that their next Godzilla movie needed to pit the monster against a classic enemy with name recognition of his own; hence, four-time Godzilla opponent King Ghidorah returned to continue the pair's epic rivalry. But this is pretty much where tradition ends, as King Ghidorah is one of the most radical and unusual entries in the series, featuring geopolitical subtext, a downright loopy take on time travel, and a surprisingly long dearth of Godzilla himself. It's the Godzilla film that got mentioned on The McLaughlin Group, and watching it is like taking a trip back to a time when Japan seemed poised to conquer the world.

A flying saucer appears over Japan, eventually landing and disgorging three emissaries from the future. They claim to be here to prevent Japan's destruction at the hands of Godzilla, and enlist the aid of Teresawa (Kosuke Toyohara), a writer who has been investigating Godzilla's origins and believe he began life as a Godzillasaur discovered on Lagos Island by Japanese soldiers near the end of World War II. The time travellers travel with Terasawa and others back to the fateful last days of the war, where the Godzillasaurus actually helps save a doomed Japanese platoon before being gravely wounded by American naval fire. The time travelers move the dinosaur from the island to a place farther north in the ocean, ensuring that it won't be mutated by future nuclear testing- however, they leave behind three "dorats", cuddly winged creatures. When the team returns to the future, Godzilla has disappeared, but the dorats have become the three-headed dragon King Ghidorah. The time travelers, as it turns out, have actually been out to conquer Japan in the present to prevent it from becoming an overwhelming empire in the future; Ghidorah is under their control, and will bring the country to its knees.

Time travel works weirdly in this one, which is fair enough given that it doesn't actually exist. When the "Futurians" (that's what they're officially called) prevent Godzilla from coming into existence, everyone back in 1992 still remembers him; it's not so much that he never existed, but is rather replaced. It's an odd approach to time travel, one I haven't seen elsewhere, and to the film's detriment this is never quite explained. However, since time travel doesn't actually exist, there's no reason it can't act this way and the presentation of it is consistent. It's a little bit awkward but I'll allow it.

The really interesting stuff going on in this movie involves its take on nationalism. Made at a time when Japan's economic expansion seemed potentially unlimited, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah came in for criticism for its apparent anti-American stance, hence appearing on John McLaughlin's panel show and not getting an American release until 1998. To be sure, the evil Futurians are Americans (except for the Japanese Emi Kano, who turns out to be not so bad), there's a long sequence of a fairly sympathetic Godzillasaurus battling American troops, and for a while it looks like it's drawing a clear parallel- Godzilla is Japan and Godzilla is the hero this time, so Japan is good.

But then it turns on you. When Godzilla is finally revived it's due to a Japanese corporation happening to have nuclear-armed submarines prowling around in international waters, and because modern nukes are so much more powerful than what was being deployed in 1954, the monster is larger, meaner, and more destructive, a greater threat to Japan's future than King Ghidorah. He becomes a symbol of Japan's excess, no more clearly demonstrated than in a scene where he comes face to face with one of the soldiers who saved him, a man now head of that same company. in many ways the film critiques the idea of a dominant Japan (which would not be a problem for much longer anyway) and of nationalism as a whole.

Just as idiosyncratic is the film's structure. Godzilla shows up briefly under the main title in a kind of flash-forward (or flashback- the time travel business is tricky), and then stays offscreen for over an hour while the plot to eliminate him from history plays out. We do see a sort of appearance in the Godzillasaurus, complete with a theme by Akira Ifukube that's almost but not quite the classic Godzilla march, but true city smashing action has to wait for a while. Once Godzilla shows up, the picture turns into a pure kaiju rampage, intensified by the addition of the cybernetic Mecha-King Ghidorah. The film's effects are as ambitious as everything else in it, and they're not consistently successful as a result- the Terminator-esque android M-11 (Robert Scott Field) is handled especially oddly, with no less than three separate and wildly different-looking camera tricks used to portray his super-speed. But there are some quite impressive effects shots as well, such as a view of Godzilla's spines crashing into a hotel room.

It's a messy film but an engaging one as well, a kaiju film that deals with knotty issues of patriotism and economic exploitation, and doesn't give easy answers. It does this while still working as a Godzilla movie, albeit one that holds off on delivering the goods until the final third. Kazuki Omori clearly had some big ideas for the Godzilla franchise, and while he never directed another kaiju film, he left an indelible mark on the series.

Written and Directed by Kazuki Omori

Grade: B+

No comments: