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It's easy to see why Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II is a fan favorite. Not only is it probably the slickest and most technically accomplished of the Heisei Godzilla films, it's also the only film in the franchise to not only pit Godzilla against humanity, but to make humanity the villain. Sure, in the original Godzilla he's a kind of punishment for our use of nuclear weapons, and Godzilla vs. Hedorah is about manmade industrial pollution, but in stories like that the audience is expected to empathize with the humans struggling to overcome their own folly, because we are dealing with Major Problems that all of us must reckon with. Here, humanity just makes some bad decisions with the monsters as the injured parties, so we can finally stop pretending and cheer for some miniature cities to get squashed. Sometimes we just have it coming.
The film begins with the unveiling of Mechagodzilla, built as part of a UN initiative against Godzilla (called the UNGCC, or G-Force.) It's a terrifying beast indeed, with titanium skin and a plasma grenade weapon capable of absorbing Godzilla's radioactive blast and firing the energy back at him. Kazuma Aoki (Masahiro Takashima) is G-Force's newest recruit, a goofy "dinosaur fan" (fixated on pteranadons) who was previously doing maintenance on Garuda, a now-obsolete flying attack vehicle now languishing in storage. As he is trained to become part of the team piloting Mechagodzilla, a band of paleontologists discovers a giant egg on a remote island near Russia, and also its guardian- the mutant pterosaur Rodan. Godzilla shows up to fight with Rodan, and the humans abscond with the egg. When the egg hatches, however, what emerges is a miniature Godzillasaur, who bonds with the first person it sees, a young paleontologist named Asuza (Ryoko Sano). Godzilla returns to Japan, seemingly drawn to the younger member of his speeches, and the UNGCC decides to use the little monster as bait to lure their target to his final destruction at Mechagodzilla's hands.
Takao Okawara returns as director, on surer footing this time. While Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth looked a little slapdash, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II feels polished and majestic. Colors are muted and earthy, and there's a real sense of power given to the prehistoric titans the film centers on, as well as the modern titan sent against them. Helping things is some superb musical work by composer Akira Ifukube; Mechagodzilla's theme is particularly beautiful and sinister, and Little Godzilla's birth is heralded by a strange, haunting lullaby. The film's slick look echoes Air Force epics like Top Gun, but for once doesn't borrow too directly.
If the movie has a stumbling point, it's in its human characters; Aoki is sometimes grating, especially when rather insistently romancing Asuza, who herself is a little too breathy and childlike to be credible. There are also some very wooden English-speaking actors (added in an attempt to give the film an international feel), and at times the Mechagodzilla crew communicate in English as well, and while the Japanese audience got subtitles for those scenes, we don't, even though we often still need them. (There's a scene in a lecture hall that was unintelligble to me until I saw a dubbed version. I dare you to figure it out on your own.)
The film's redesign of Mechagodzilla is a triumph in and of itself- a much more drastic overhaul than what was done to King Ghidorah or Mothra, which makes the robotic kaiju resemble a suit of plate armor as much as anything. The bulky design means SFX director Koichi Kawakita has to rely more on exchanges of laser beams and fire breath than physical confrontation (Kawakita reportedly disliked the pro-wrestling aspect of old school kaiju fights anyway), so the action sequences are a little stiff, but the battles are still impressive. Rodan is also looking good, though his transformation into a bright red fire-breathing incarnation can't help but look a little gaudy. Still, these are some of the best effects of the Heisei series, without any of the cost-cutting of other installments.
I'm not sure this is the best of the Heisei movies, but it's one of the most confident- an atmospheric and tonally provocative thriller that does a lot to establish Godzilla as a crusading force of nature. He is not benevolent, but he takes care of his own, and that's the kind of brooding antiheroism that nerds tend to eat up. A conflict of real life vs. artificial life, the story shows us Godzilla punishing mankind for our arrogance without making us feel too bad about it. If not truly subversive, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II is at least resolute enough in its convictions to make for a convincingly important and majestic battle of titans. A high point of the era.
Written by Wataru Mimura
Directed by Takao Okawara