Thursday, June 23, 2011

Godzilla x Mechagodzilla (2002) review


Yumiko Syaku (Akane Yashiro), Shin Takuma (Tokumitsu Yuhara), Kana Onodera (Sara Yuhara), Koh Takasugi (Colonel Togashi), Yusuke Tomoi (Hayama), Kumi Mizuno (Prime Minister Tsuge), Akira Nakao (Prime Minister Hiyato Igarashi)

Directed by Masaaki Tezuka

The Short Version: After a less than encouraging reception with his enjoyable maiden monster mash, GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS (2001), Masaaki Tezuka returns to update Mechagodzilla yet again with this ULTRA entertaining live action anime cartoon with amazing creature combat sequences, an appealing science fiction plotline and just barely enough character exposition. Furthermore, the monster action is the focal point--the bread and butter of Japanese giant monster movies, and Tezuka showcases an ambitious style with his monsters and massive mechs.

In 1999, Godzilla attacks Japan for the first time since 1954. While other monsters have led incursions against Japanese cities during that time, this new appearance by the dreaded radioactive lizard causes Japan's military scientists to create a bio robot, a Mechagodzilla using the recently discovered bones of the beast that wrecked havoc back in 1954. Completed in 2003 and christened as 'Kiryu', the man made mechanical monster is put into battle when Godzilla abruptly appears once again.

After displaying a knack for creating monster action vastly superior to anything from the 90s entries, Masaaki Tezuka returns to the series to impress yet again with this lean, mean and almost plot free, but heavily sugar coated spectacular pitting the Big G against an all new incarnation of Mechagodzilla. Having so far appeared in five movies, the look of this robotic adversary has changed from film to film going from minor alterations to a complete overhaul in the '90s and '00s entries. The use of a gigantic robotic counter-weapon first appeared in the lively Honda directed feature KING KONG ESCAPES (1968) which featured Mechani-Kong. The creation of a robotic Godzilla was a no-brainer, but it would be some six years before such an idea would develop.

First appearing in Jun Fukuda's GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA in 1974, that film saw Toho's titanic robot a creation of alien design. Proving a successful formula, the company decided to build a sequel around the bionic beast and in a far more serious, adult manner that abandoned the livelier previous picture and its wild fantasy and spy elements. That film was TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975). Despite the return of Ishiro Honda, Akira Ifukube and a more absorbing than usual screenplay, that movie failed at the Japanese box office.

Flash forward 18 years later and an all new version of Godzilla's mechanical double was unveiled in a remake bearing the same title of GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1993). Only this time, the scriptwriters eschewed the otherworldly machinations of the Showa series going in the opposite direction highlighting this robots man-made origins. This 90s version featured a variety of flashy laser weapons, a sleeker look, but a less than imposing design. Still, the film was a hit. Ten years later, here we are again with a second remake that retains Mecha G's man-made scientific status, yet with a more formidable countenance than the 90s version. For Tezuka's take on the subject, this Mighty Mech bears some resemblance to the evil image of the 70s character.

In a novel approach, this version of Mechagodzilla is constructed from the bones of the original monster that laid waste to Japan in 1954. While this plot device is an ingenious way to rework the material, the bones of Godzilla were shown to have disintegrated during the closing moments of Honda's original masterpiece. Curiously, the use of the monsters bones to fashion a counter weapon seems to have been partially inspired by a plot point from 1993's GVMG wherein that version of the giant robot was designed based on the recovered remains of Mecha-King Ghidorah. This new incarnation carries with it some COOL weaponry, one particular piece literally so.

The Absolute Zero cannon is a freezing weapon that emits a beam registering 27.3 degrees below zero. This is Mecha G's hidden card against Godzilla. This type of offensive weapon was likely inspired by the Super X-3 seen in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER from 1995. That futuristic battle plane was equipped with a number of freezing lasers and missiles with which to prevent an impending meltdown by the Godzilla of the Heisei series. Other MG weapons are the requisite rockets and masers as well as a pair of forearm lasers and a hidden sword that ejects from the robots wrist. As impressive as this mechanical marvel is, none of the screens re-interpretations of Godzilla's robotic double have the sheer number of attacks of the original 70s version.

In addition to all the cool kaiju sci fi accouterments on display, Mechagodzilla is carried and guided remotely from three massive battle planes--the AC-3 Shirasagi. These planes also act as a regenerative system for when Kiryu's energy is depleted. This plot point yields one of the most impressive and intriguing sequences in all of Kaiju-dom. The scene in question is 'Kiryu's Big Joy Ride'. During their first rather brief altercation, Godzilla's roar sets off some sort of inherent memory deep within the inter-spinal cells contained within the bones used to build the bio creation. From there, Kiryu goes 'out of control', on a warpath of his own. The military are helpless to stop the rampaging robot and have to stand by while it tramples the Yokohama and Hekkeijima districts till Kiryu's batteries deplete--58 minutes later.

Tezuka's three Godzilla movies all had good things about them most notably that his entries were able to hearken back to the Showa style while maintaining a modern sensibility. While this second of his three G pictures is a remake, it also contains recycled plot elements from his GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS (2000), one of only two Millennium series entries that featured an all new monster for Godzilla to do battle with. That film featured a female character that harbored a vendetta against the gigantic lizard for the death of her commanding officer. In GXMG, a female central figure again has a score to settle with Godzilla after feeling responsible for the death of one of her team members. Incidentally, the other films lead, Misato Tanaka, was an obsessed, determined and tough lady who took the fight to Godzilla. By contrast, GVMG's Yumiko Syaku is far more solemn and subdued, but a bit more likable.

Also, both those movies did a bit of time hopping during their opening sequences in an effort to connect said films to the original 1954 GODZILLA. GXMG begins in 1999 in Tateyama Prefecture. A huge typhoon is reported near the Ryuku Islands. Godzilla appears just as the Anti Mega Losses Force is called to the area. Established in 1966, its sole reason for being is to protect the nation from attacks by gigantic monsters. Knowing this, the Japanese people's somewhat casual attitude towards rampaging beasts is treated in the same fashion (albeit on a larger scale) as a natural disaster such as a tornado, or hurricane. And that's exactly how Godzilla is treated here--as a natural disaster in the form of a gigantic monster. He was also treated in this fashion in Takao Okawara's average GODZILLA 2000 (1999).

Less a character this time (and in this films sequel), his presence is summed up basically as a force of nature that appears unexpectedly. In the case of this movie, the radioactive lizard's last showing was in 1954. The military refers to this new creature as "another Godzilla" since the original was killed with Dr. Serizawa's Oxygen Destroyer. However, courtesy of stock footage from MOTHRA (1961) and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), we are told that various other monsters have attacked Japan since Godzillas inaugural path of devastation. The appearance of Gaira (from GARGANTUAS) is credited with the creation of the Maser tank as a viable means of defense against the monsters.

Aside from some obvious similarities between Tezuka's MEGAGUIRUS and the new MECHAGODZILLA, where the two films differ is in their plots. Tezuka's maiden monster movie had a fairly deep storyline with a handful of twists and a link to Toho's original RODAN (1956). GXMG (2003) resembles a live action anime and contains a minimalist plot that, while threadbare, is perfect science fiction 'popcorn & coke' material. Also, MEGAGUIRUS unfortunately flopped at the Japanese box office while the leaner MG remake took home a tidy profit. Wataru Mimura's script does have a three way character arc that gets sporadic development during the some 40 minutes worth of human interaction.

This involves Akane, the JXSDF team member mourning the loss of a dead team mate; DNA scientist Tokumitsu Yuhara and his daughter, Sara, who still mourns the loss of her mother. Tokumitsu falls for Akane and his playfully bumbling nature is evident every time he's in Akane's presence. He and his daughter maintain a good relationship with Sara sometimes appearing smarter than her dad. There's some nice touches, minor though they be, during the human drama such as Sara questioning why her mother can't be brought back to life as opposed to a robotic monstrosity. It's not expounded upon, but these subtle nuances are welcome amongst all the fast paced action, explosions and creature combat. There's some additional minor details found lurking within Mimura's script, too.

Even with its preponderance of sci fi shenanigans, the writer finds a brief respite to question economic and environmental issues such as tax payers dollars going to the anti Godzilla weapon. Prime Minister Tsuge tells those questioning where the money will come from to get behind the project! Others see this as a possible re-armament of Japan. The film also flirts with international concerns for the reasoning of creating such a powerful weapon. It isn't much, but it's a nice touch to have something to connect fantasy with reality. Such nuances would be scrapped in the next picture--a direct sequel to this one.

Tezuka was seemingly fond of bringing back actors from previous movies. Not only does Kumi Mizuno (MONSTER ZERO, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD) have a role as the Prime Minister, but famous Japanese baseball player, Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui, has a quick cameo just as Mechagodzilla is carried across a baseball field. Takahiro Murata, who played the head of the GPN (Godzilla Protection Network) from GODZILLA 2000, has a brief cameo at the beginning. Misato Tanaka, who played the vengeance fueled Kiriko from GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS, also has a cameo here as a courageous nurse who gets in Godzilla's way to save a child. For whatever reason, all of the directors G films have an additional scene after the closing credits have finished. The one seen here occurs in Kiryu's hangar and reveals whether or not Tokumitsu gets his date with Akane, some closure with Sara and a salute to the big guys mechanical doppelganger.

Tezuka was also partial to linking his movies not only with Honda's original (likely a prerequisite from the Toho brass), but with past monster movies. His MEGAGUIRUS provided a link to RODAN (1956) with its insect Meganulon creatures and this films connection to both Mothra and Gaira, but his next entry, TOKYO S.O.S. (2003), featured a connection with Honda's YOG, MONSTER FROM SPACE (1970) when the carcass of a dead Kamebas (the spike backed turtle monster from that movie) washes ashore presumably the victim of a fatal bite from Godzilla. Tezuka really had a keen eye for shooting monster melees and the ones seen here do not disappoint at all. Mechagodzilla even resorts to some punishing fist action at one point and the tail slinging shot is reminiscent of the one from KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962). Aside from the monster battles, the humans get in on some of the action as well once Mechagodzilla goes down for the count and has to be operated manually. This same thing happens again in the sequel, but even more dramatically.

After his Toho tenure with Godzilla was over, Tezuka moved on to a remake of Sonny Chiba's hit science fiction movie, TIME SLIP (1979). Sadly, aside from a few eye opening moments and yet another cool science fiction plot, Tezuka's SENGOKU JIEITAI 1549 (2005) failed to capture either an audience or the violent spectacle of the earlier production.

Yuichi Kikuchi's special effects are some of the best of this series as a whole and impress further with the succeeding picture. Interestingly, all the Millennium entries mock Godzilla's first appearance hidden beneath a gigantic wave from the universally derided American GODZILLA from 1998. The one seen here is the most subtle of the 2000 series. Female composer, Michiro Oshima encores from MEGAGUIRUS to deliver another dynamite score, recycling a cue or two from her bombastic soundtrack from Masaaki Tezuka's premier Godzilla film.

Recalling an image of a grand live action anime cartoon, this remake is high on action and modest on characterization. It's there, it just gets lost among the monsters and hi tech gadgetry. At least there's a touch more humanistic substance here than afforded the sequel. For Godzilla fans this movie is must see entertainment for young kids big and small. It's an old fashioned science fiction spectacular told with a modern spirit and one that is told very well and with a lot of imagination. Hopefully, if Toho revives the series as planned, the new films will have the same Honda styled grandeur and child-like wonder inherent in Tezuka's movies.

This review is representative of the Japanese R2 DVD

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