September 6, 2021

Noel's Movie Night RECAP! Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974)

Welcome to another installment of my "weekly" movie night recap. Those who have been watching along might notice a few changes. I decided to leave behind the Tokusatsu Tonight (previous Tokusatsu Tuesday) moniker simply because we've already expanded well beyond that concept in threads here and there. Regardless, the viewing list remains locked in place as we continue our exploration of the evolution of kaiju flicks and Japanese effects film, but that's a foundation that we're branching off of in fun ways as we go along. We're about to hit the Kongsploitation boom of the 70s! Then the rise and career of legendary Tokusatsu director Roland Emmerich! Then if we're doing the genre fantasies of Nobuhiko Obayashi, why not go deeper with more of his work I'd love to share, since almost all of it blurs the lines of genre anyways!

So the night hasn't changed much, just the name on the sticker to reflect how far we've evolved from this initially just being an excuse to watch the Showa Godzilla line. As always, feel free to follow our viewing list on Letterboxd if you want to see where we've been and learn about updates as we get to them.

The latest feature!


Not to recap the entire Showa era, but this project has been my first time watching most of them since I was around 9-10, all rented on those terrible pan & scan VHS releases with often awful dubs. For the most part, revisiting them has been an absolute delight, as they swing from surprisingly rich social themes and issues, to mod snappy plucky heroes and evil espionage. While I feel Tsuburaya and Co still hadn't quite perfected creature suits - especially as they became thinner and made of more fragile foams, and wouldn't really take off and soar until the 80s, to the point where they're almost always floppy and stiff, even as the performers put what performance they can behind those weights - their miniature effects rapidly evolved to an unparalleled level of detail and intricacy, as they worked out the physics of just the right camera speed to give the movement scale, and even the right mix of sake and gelatin powder to add to the water so it had the oily layers and frothiness of real-sized waves. I delved into their miniatures quite a bit last week in the writeup for Japan Sinks, but let me just emphasize that I feel the absolute artistry of their craftsmanship deserves more recognition than it gets.

Ishiro Honda brought a strong amount of heart and humanism to his films, often using them to express his philosophies of science, globalism, and the fight against ignorance. Jun Fukuda was snappier and looser, focusing more on humor and action. Both are aboslutely valid takes on the franchise, and I applaud what both of them gave us. Fukuda especially gets flack for his campier entries, but given the lighter budgets he was often saddled with, he made the most of it with slick design work and fashion, and his fast, hand-held camera work that often put you right in the thick of the action.

On top of this being Fukuda's final film in the series, this marks the final film for writers Masami Fukushima and Shinichi Sekizawa before both retired. Fukushima's career was largely in the literature side of scifi as the editor of Japan's prominent SF Magazine, and on top of one of his books being the source for the wildly entertaining Terror Beneath the Sea, he was part of the writing team for what I still consider to be one of Honda's greatest films: Matango. And Shinichi has been one of the main screenwriters of the Toho line since Varan, his more adventurous tales often rotating with the more cynical examinations of Takeshi Kimura. Just look at this list of films we've watched:

Battle in Outer Space
The Secret of the Telegian
King Kong vs Godzilla
The Lost World of Sinbad
Mothra vs Godzilla
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
Invasion of Astro-Monster
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep
Son of Godzilla
Latitude Zero
All Monsters Attack
Agon: The Atomic Dragon
Godzilla vs Gigan
Godzilla vs Megalon
Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla

That's a hell of a run! They might not always be the most consistently strong scripts, but they're all full of excitement, pulp adventure, kooky ideas, snappy characters, and wild villains. This is a perfectly fine note to go out on, even if he was only providing early treatments that were re-worked by Fukuda and toku/anime tv writer Hiroyasu Yamaura. And yes, I know it wasn't technically the last of his writing, as he also penned the infamous unproduced treatment Godzilla Legend: The Asuka Fortress, the influence of which bled into a number of subsequent productions, but Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla was the last to make it to film with a credit intact. I'll probably get into that treatment in more detail when we get to Gunhed.

There's two things that happened as the Godzilla franchise entered the 70s, and I feel both are balls the line ultimately erroneously dropped. The first is Teruyoshi Nakano taking over the effects direction after the passing of Eiji Tsuburaya. Starting with Ebirah, you're already seeing Nakano's influence as the franchise began exploring less humanoid shapes and less rubbery textures of construction, with more crustacean and insectoid creatures that are either fully or partially animated with marionette strings. This is where we got the amazing creations of Kamacurus and Kumonga in Son of Godzilla. This is where we got the trio of mutated animals in Space Amoeba. And it all culminated in Godzilla vs Hedorah. Which is where we get to the second thing, as that film was the work of Yoshimitsu Banno, a deeply passionate and inventive new activist filmmaker, who not only exploded the production with deeply nightmarish surrealism and horror, but drenched it in deeply thematic and challenging social examination on a level the series hadn't hit since the original Gojira.

Unfortunately, his amazing work, while it's gained fresh respect and reappraisal, was rejected by both audiences and the studios. Fukuda returned after a 5 year break to lace Godzilla vs Gigan with angry themes vilifying youth and counter culture, and was then stuck with Godzilla vs Megalon literally being slapped together with an unfinished script, a leftover mascot character from a cancelled ad campaign, and three weeks in which to make it work, because all of Toho's resources were being funneled into Japan Sinks.

So yeah, the franchise wasn't exactly in a great spot when we got to Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, with the box office increasingly dwindling, and Nakano having to abandon much of his groundbreaking creature experimentation as the slashed budgets forced him back to more conventional suit designs. But still, as evidenced by Gigan, Megalon, and the wonderfully bizarre creatures on Zone Fighter, his team continued to pull off some creative work within their limitations.

It goes without saying that the creation of Mechagodzilla is unarguably iconic, with its plate metal design, rolling joints, and those rocket fingers and toes. Originally conceived as a typical robot monster called Garugan, Nakano's team was inspired by the earlier creation of Mechanikong and decided to run with the idea of a doppelganger. They took it a step further, having Mechagodzilla appear in the false skin of the Big G, unleashing a rampage that the people of Japan are shocked by given the increasingly jovial (if still cranky) protector figure Godzilla had become. Even more cruelly, they have his first victim be Anguirus. As rushed and messy as the last two films are, I love this grumpy old man bond that Godzilla and his first rival have formed, tromping around the oceans and shores, heaving big sighs and shaking the rust out of their joints as they have to charge in and save the day, even as they often get their asses handed to them first. These two have become an inseparable duo of buds, finding comfort in their like-minded companionship even as they exchange the occasional barb and hold word balloon conversations.

So when Anguirus shows up and sees this automaton replication of his bro, he instantly knows something is wrong and attacks, only for Mechagodzilla to brutally tear him down and, in one of the most shocking scenes of the film, replicate the classic overextended breaking of the jaw that's become an iconic image dating back to the original King Kong. But it's cruelly flipped here, as instead of being a heroic moment of triumph, it's a painful infliction upon one of our hero monsters by a villain in the form of his beloved friend. My biggest issue with this film is that Anguirus never again returns to stand alongside his bud against the faux fiend who did him wrong. The last we see is him hobbling away with a dangling jaw pouring blood, and the character would never again appear in the Showa era, nor the Heisei Era, and wouldn't re-emerge until Godzilla: Final War. Even when Godzilla is recharging from his own wounds on Monster Island, he never again encounters his friend, living or dead, to tell us the final fate of Anguirus. Like the earlier retreats of Ghidorah, Megalon, and Gigan (the last of whom was briefly planned to reappear here), it's a dangling thread the series never resolved, which is frustrating given how major of a thread it was in the two films leading up to it.

Instead, we get the new character of King Caesar (or Seesa, depending on which translation you're watching), a mystical dragon dog protector deity of Okinawa. Caesar is fine, but he does feel extraneous. Much of the plot is built around the prophecy of his emergence to fight a force of evil, and the MacGuffin chase for control of the figurine which will awaken him, but like may of the kaiju of old, he really only shows up for the last 10 minutes of the movie, and that's it. The shaggy fur is patchy and messy, and the animatronic ears depending on his mood are undersold. But like Varan and Frankenstein, I enjoy that he's a lean and fast kaiju, often able to out-maneuver his bulkier foes. His ability to absorb and reflect back ray beams is fun, but never goes anywhere beyond the initial setup. Unfortunately, while he and Godzilla instantly becoming partners in the fight and parting as bros is fitting with this post Zone Fighter era where Godzilla is a beloved uncle figure of the giant community, it further underscores just how unresolved things are with Anguirus, with Godzilla never having any reaction or reflection upon the loss of his stalwart companion.

With Caesar and Mechagodzilla, the film does bounce around some interesting themes of old world vs new world, where the aliens turn out to be advanced apes, civilized savages if you will, whose peak work of technical creation they disguise as a savage monster. And in their glorious mission to conquer the Earth, what frightens them most is an ancient prophecy involving a relic and a god, and it ultimately comes down to a battle between this god, Caesar, this mechanical wonder, Mechagodzilla, joined by the fusion of old and new, the radiation mutated dinosaur, Godzilla, who himself becomes an electromagnet at one point when he's powered up by a primal thunderstorm. These contrasts between old and new, primal and mechanical, never really make a significant point or go anywhere, but occur often enough to feel intentional and do add an interesting flavor. I still feel Caesar is ultimately extraneous, and wish the mystical MacGuffin plot would have revolved around Mothra, who was originally also intended to appear in this film. Not only would it be great to see her again, as Destroy All Monsters would ultimately be her final Showa appearance, but seeing the old trio of her, Anguirus, and Godzilla facing down Mechagodzilla in the third act would have furthered the old vs new theme to more of a franchise meta level.

While a lot of focus is put on that MacGuffin cat-n-mouse chase for the figurine, the characters aren't really all that gripping. You've got a couple of handsome young men who I never really picked up on the purpose of beyond being there. One is the son of an archaeologist, making for a nice Hiroshi Koizumi cameo. The other is a hot rod action dude who I think is already in a relationship with the daughter of another professor played by Akihiko Hirata, who seems to specialize in electronics and "space titanium". Then the first guy gets a love interest in the form of a university archaeology assistant who first uncovers the statue. It's all very basic pretty people falling instantly in love as they run from alien enemies disguised as silencer-wielding gangsters straight out of Fukuda's work on Zone Fighter. Hirata's professor gets the most action, with Koizumi never sticking around, which is a shame as it would have been fun to see them team up. There's also another young woman in the form of the Caesar temple priestess, who's just there to sing some songs (an attempt to replicate Mothra, but not as catchy or soothing), who could have easily been folded into one of the love interests, especially if they made her the daughter of Hirata's professor, creating a generational flip on the old/new theme with the priestess daughter of a science professor. Alas.

Easily the most interesting character in the story is played by Shin Kishida. Best known for playing Dracula in the Bloodthirst Trilogy, with his striking looks and intense acting, I love how this film sets him up as a red herring, as one of multiple shadowy figures following our heroes around in the pursuit for the statue. I fully expected him to turn out to be the big bad, but love how he's instead revealed to be a heroic agent of Interpol who's actually protecting our leads from the shadows. I also have to believe his name Nanbara was actually meant to be Number, as I'd totally watch a whole series of films following Interpol Agent Number. As it is, the bad guys are pretty typical and forgettable. We've had so many alien races, undersea races, hollow Earth races unleashing their plans of conquest upon the world, and these are pretty typical goons running around in silver jumpsuits, and even the occasional reveal of their simian features just feels like the Planet of the Apes knockoff it is.

Fukuda's strengths were never story or character. He'd often keep the scenes flying by so fast that he'd mostly (not always, but mostly) cover for the fact that nothing much is actually happening, and he'd often cast people with some level of personality and charisma to elevate what simple archetypes they've been hired to portray. I think his undoing is that he has multiple young pretty couples running around, with too little done to distinguish them, so instead of just running with those basic archetypes, it's difficult at times to remember who is who, who's partnered with who, who's the daughter of who, and it becomes this whole web of pieces that's hard to keep track of simply because none of the pieces are interesting enough on their own to make that web worth tracking.

Instead, Fukuda's strengths were energy and excitement. The majority of his career outside of Godzilla were snappy, cheap crime and espionage films, which is where he honed his technique of close and constantly moving hand-held composition, emphasizing the movement and emotion of the scene, which, like the martial arts action films being honed in Hong Kong at the time, can be genuinely effective in spicing up a boring plot because it pulls you into the moment while also distracting you from the broader whole until you step back with a "hang on now" realization. Some great examples of this include one of the handsome dudes, armed with a silencer, taking on one of the alien goons, armed with a switchblade, in a hotel room. Remove the scifi element, and you have this fast and gritty brawl that's close and vicious to the point where the gun can't get a bead on the fast moving foe until the moment it does, tearing away the disguise in a sudden revelation. Or Hirita's professor, his daughter, and her love interest being locked in a chamber that fills with heat and steam, revealed as the characters are tossed from one vent to another as they activate individually instead of simultaneously, allowing the threat to rapidly escalate, and then the heat lamps kick on bathing the whole scene in red. This progression of action is something Fukuda became a master of, especially through how it elevated his episodes of Zone Fighter.

The kaiju battles themselves are laced with exciting action and strong visuals. The moment when Godzilla enters the third act, introduced through a glaring closeup as he emerges behind a mountain, eyes locked on the monster who tried to smear his name. Or him howling in the raging night storm, charging him with its pounding thunder before sparklers explode along his spine. Or him rolling on the ground, blood spraying from where he's been pincushioned with unexploded missiles. Or Godzilla and Caesar taking on Mechagodzilla from opposite sides, who uses his rotating head to keep both enemies in sight, which then starts whirling and whirling until it generates a cylindrical force field that keeps both at bay until he corrals them to a single point and just bombards them with every ray and missile he has.

After the music has struggled with new themes over the last few films (I mostly love the trippy rock score of Godzilla vs Hedorah, but the drunken lurching they use as Godzilla's new theme is awful) I'm glad they brought back Kurosawa regular Masaru Sato from his brief run on the series in the 60s. While his themes are different from the iconic Ifukube creations, his big band, jazzy style oddly works beautifully. The swinging and clashing themes further enhance Fukuda's exciting direction of the espionage plot of young people racing through gritty action, and his use of rapid fire percussion and bongo drums enhances the cardio fury of the monster battles. While his Caesar song doesn't hold a candle to Mothra, even it has this lush backing that gives it more of a sweeping weight than the repetitive lyrics.

Released in Japan in March of 1974, Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla saw a slight rise in box office from the dismal returns of Godzilla vs Megalon, but it was too little too late, and the following year will close out the Showa era of the franchise with Terror of Mechagodzilla. The film fared pretty well in the US, earning $17 million, but that wouldn't come until 1977, nearly two years after production of the franchise came to an end. And even that release ran into issues as the initial English title of Godzilla vs the Bionic Monster was hit by threats of legal action from Universal, who seemed to think that their TV series The Bionic Woman gave them sole ownership of the term. The film was quickly pulled and rebranded as Godzilla vs the Cosmic Monster. 4 minutes were cut out, mostly the gore and arterial bloodsprays, so it would be safer for the kiddie audience the American distributors were aiming for.

Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla is not a bad film. It's got some interesting layers, introduces an iconic villain, and has a lot of fun, exciting action and music. But it's also a definite part of the decline as little work is being put into making the characters interesting, and there's zero attempts at any themes to give the story weight. It's very basic and by the numbers, and while the execution is snappy and entertaining, there's not much beneath that to chew on, meaning there's not much that'll stick with you after the viewing is done. It's breezy and disposable, which is a shame given how many of the Toho line leading up to it weren't.

Next time!

MARCO (1973)

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