Thursday, June 30, 2011

Godzilla x Mothra x Mechagodzilla:Tokyo S.O.S. (2003) review


Noboru Kaneko (Yoshito Chujo), Miho Yoshioka (Azusa Kisaragi), Mitsuki Koga (Kyosuke Akiba), Masami Nagasawa (Hio/Shobijin #1), Chihiro Otsuka (Mana/Shobijin #2), Kou Takasugi (Colonel Togashi), Hiroshi Koizumi (Shinichi Chujo), Akira Nakao (Prime Minister Hayato Igarashi), Yumiko Syaku (Akane Yashiro)

Directed by Masaaki Tezuka

The Short Version: Masaaki Tezuka's last Godzilla movie is a slam bang action spectacle that bears the stamp of Ishiro Honda far more than any other Japanese monster movie since the mostly lifeless Heisei series entries. Bereft of characterization, GMMG contains far too many characters for so little time devoted to them. Still, Tezuka imbues a fanciful aura hearkening back to the magical works of Toho's monster master, Ishiro Honda. GMMG often feels like 90 minutes cut from the previous movie, but is still a lot of fluffy fun replete with spectacular effects work.

The Shobijin, twin fairies from Ogasawara Island, pay a visit to the home of doctor Shinichi Chujo. Remembering them from their first meeting back in 1961, Chujo is told that the enormous battle robot, Kiryu, must be dismantled and the bones of Godzilla making up its endo-skeleton--acting as a beacon for the giant lizard--should be returned to the sea. Chujo's nephew, Yoshito, is a maintenance member of the JXSDF force working on repairs to the robot after battling Godzilla the year prior. Proclaiming that Kiryu is the only method with which to fight Godzilla, the Shobijin offer Mothra's assistance as the country's protector. However, should the use of Kiryu not cease, Mothra will destroy Japan.

This, the only direct sequel of the Millennium series, was the last entry from action specialist, Masaaki Tezuka. Unraveling more as an "expansion pack" of the previous movie, it's neither better, nor worse than its predecessor. Taking place a year after Kiryu's battle with the Big G, repairs are underway on the damage incurred during the scuffle. Kiryu has a new look and some new weapons. Sadly, the Absolute Zero cannon is replaced by a Tri-Maser attack, but some of Kiryu's other weapons are upgraded. For whatever reason, the battle this time out between Godzilla and his mechanical double isn't nearly as kinetic as in the previous movie. Considering that 75% of the picture is one long battle royal, it's never boring, only that Kiryu isn't as spry this time out. This is possibly due to the fact that the robot isn't 100% operational (Yoshito is adamantly against putting Kiryu onto the battlefield) when its called into action and Akiba (one of the pilots) does state at one point that the robots reaction is slow.

While Mechagodzilla might move a little slow, the pace of the film couldn't be any faster. It begins and ends before you know it. The script by director Tezuka and Masahiro Yokotani is extremely lean on exposition and dialog, but obese on monsters and special effects. This will surely delight fans who savor lots of beasts for the buck, but those hoping for a monster fest with a bit of a human story will be disappointed. However, unlike the 90s Heisei enterprise, the Millennium entries, at least those from Tezuka, healthily implement human peril within the framework of the monster battles and their resulting destruction. The only drawback to this is that the human characters aren't explored enough to care about them. They're merely faces among the kaiju designed to deliver the required machismo and melodramatic monologues. Curiously enough, Tezuka's first kaiju directorial gig, GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS (2000), had some strong characters and ran nearly two hours while his other two films were streamlined affairs (barely breaching 80 minutes not counting end credits and post end credits sequence) heavily accenting action over exposition.

The script is more in tune with Honda's style and the aura of the Showa series is unmistakable. There's a slightly original story lurking beneath the waves of Tezuka's film even if it's also a partial remake of Honda's MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964), which got a mediocre remake in 1992. The script is also a virtual re-imagining of 2001's blockbuster GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL OUT ATTACK from Shusuke Kaneko. This is understandable since both movies had the same writer, Masahiro Yokotani. While that film had an incredibly dark tone and an indelibly evil (if kind of clunky) look for Godzilla, this film features the towering titan as a largely unstoppable force of nature (much like the previous movie) that dominates every obstacle thrown in his path. Both films titles are noticeably similar and one of the monsters is killed off in much the same manner, if heavily dramatic style. Furthermore, TOKYO S.O.S. differs from GMK in that Godzilla was possessed by the angry souls of the victims of WW2 in that picture and here, he's summoned by a primal beckoning from the bones of his 1954 descendant. The tone of both movies are also polar opposites from one another.

Speaking of tone, it's a bit lighter than the previous MECHAGODZILLA movie, a move that Toho was no doubt banking on for ticket sales given the popularity of the Mechagodzilla remake from 2002. Sadly, even paired with one of the wildly popular HAMTARO anime features, TOKYO S.O.S. did only modest business. Despite both Mothra and Mechagodzilla being two of the company's most lucrative creations, it had become apparent that Japanese audiences were becoming tired of seeing the same old thing regardless of how polished the end product. Toho had been notorious for refusing to spotlight new Kaiju creations or lesser known creatures (the poor showing for MEGAGUIRUS reinforced this), so GMMG's failure to ignite at the box office no doubt was a bit of shock. The film didn't bomb, it just do as well as hoped.

There's barely thirty minutes of covering the people populating the movie, but among the far too many underdeveloped individuals, the one who gets the most screen time is Yoshito, the young Mechagodzilla mechanic who, like Akane from the previous picture, takes a personal, sentimental liking to the mechanical marvel. There's a hint of a possible relationship between Yoshito and Azusa Kisaragi, a hotshot woman of action whose ostensibly free of any background grievances. Unlike the lead females of Tezuka's other Kaiju movies, she has no vendetta to settle and even if she did, her character isn't given near enough screen time to be cared about. Still, it's revealed both Chujo and Kisaragi have known each other for four years sharing time together in the Air Force. Between them, a male Kiryu pilot, the impulsive Akiba, apparently has a thing for Azusa as well. Unfortunately, this interesting triangular arc is merely glossed over. The same can be said for a few other ideas inherent within.

The three pilots of Team Kiryu from GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA (2002) return briefly from the previous movie. Akane Yoshiro gets the most of this screen time. Being sent to America to study further in robotics, she bids temporary farewell to the mighty mech, but she and her team mates are replaced by a new group who get even less screen time to build sympathy or some sort of audience connection. As already stated, this new group has potential, but the films framework is more interested in ways to put its people amidst the calamities caused by the creatures as opposed to building their backgrounds which in turn would heighten the danger they're put in. But to do so would take away from the pictures 50+ minutes of kaiju theatrics.

Director Tezuka continues his tradition of maintaining connections with the Showa series by casting Hiroshi Koizumi reprising his role of Shinichi Chujo, a character he played in MOTHRA, the Toho classic from 1961. Just like the Meganulons in MEGAGUIRUS (insect creatures from 1956's RODAN, although a reference isn't alluded to) and the kaiju connection of MOTHRA and WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS seen in GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA (2002), this direct sequel references Ishiro Honda's average island based science fiction film YOG, MONSTER FROM SPACE aka SPACE AMOEBA (1970). That picture featured a giant squid, crab and spike backed turtle under the control of aliens. In TOKYO S.O.S., a dead Kamebas (the giant turtle of that film) washes up on shore with a massive neck wound. This brief scene is a nice addition to the movie, but it's unnecessary and amounts to little more than filler. It alludes to Godzilla's impending appearance, but we already know that, anyway.

A great many Japanese movies about giant monsters cover Earth shattering occurrences exclusive to Nipponese territories. Devastation on an international scale is/was usually reserved for 'End of the World' productions like BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE (1959), THE LAST WAR (1961) and GORATH (1962). Occasionally, an occidental presence would be felt in the original versions (or the export releases tampered with by US producers) of the monster pictures reaching a zenith in the Honda fantasy spectacle LATITUDE ZERO (1969). Interestingly, the later films presented foreigners as either villains (GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH [1991]) or an enhancement for Japanese pride. In GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA (2002), Prime Minister Hayato Igarashi is boisterous in proclaiming the advanced battle weapon constructed by Japanese scientists. Numerous others watching the demonstration around the world are in awe of the robot. Kiryu has "Made In Japan" stamped all over him.

The international ambiance is increased in this entry with a couple scenes with US military forces such as an attack on an American submarine by Godzilla and dialog referring to US personnel probing into possible assaults by monsters. The sub attack is reminiscent of the one seen in 1984's GODZILLA, only that one was a Russian submarine. Also, the film begins on a Hawaiian military base reporting unidentified objects on their radar. Scenes like these go a long way in Japanese monster movies in projecting a scope of such events that aren't confined solely within Japan's borders. Such scenes add little, to nothing to the narrative, but it's refreshing to see that attacks by enormous creatures isn't unknown to the world populace outside of Japan.

The special effects of Eiichi Asada are nothing short of spectacular. The rambunctious SPX showcased by Yuichi Kikuchi in the previous movie are expanded upon here by Asada's ingenuity. The opening sequence wherein Japanese fighter pilots intercept an "unidentified flying object" moving quickly within the clouds of the nighttime sky is an impressive way to begin the movie. The end sequence is also a marvelous combination of kaiju action melded with human interaction backed by a grand cue from the magnificent composing hands of Michiru Oshima. In it, Kiryu goes "out of control" again, but not the "Joy Ride" of the previous movie. A helpless and possibly dying Godzilla laying before its feet, Kiryu ignores orders to finish the great lizard and instead latches onto the now cocooned creature and rockets off for the open sea. However, Yoshito is inside of the robot having become trapped within after attempting to get the mech operational again after Godzilla temporarily put it out of action. As Kiryu approaches its destination, Azusa realizes he's still in their so she and Akiba (with a little assist from Kiryu) try to free him in a scene that ends with a slight bit of Spielbergian creative license.

Mothra's inclusion here is far less imposing than the Honda days. His/Her past film appearances hammered home the creatures significance as a deity. Even though the mighty moth is defeated in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964), the monster proves to be more than a match for Godzilla without the aid of multi colored laser beams and deadly, mystical scales brought to life through the use of CGI. The character didn't appear at all in any of the 70s G productions (save for a few seconds of stock footage in GODZILLA VS. GIGAN from 1972), but surfaced in the Heisei series' most successful entry, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA (1992) and what amounted to a cameo in the horrendous GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994). Although Mothra dies more times than not, the creature is always replaced by one or two larva. In MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964), the gigantic egg is hatched after the mighty Mothra is dispatched. But in GMMG, the egg hatches beforehand and the two caterpillars meet their parent shortly before its demise.

Shinichi Wakasa, the designer of most all of the Millennium series monster suits, returns for this film. The differences to Godzilla are negligible, if any, but Mechagodzilla is noticeably different. Wakasa is an ace at giving his creations a prickly, organic look and his new design for the Big G's robotic double is even more impressive with its charcoal black and silver color and its touched up outer weaponry. Wakasa's propensity for constructing creatures that were "rough around the edges" was also highly noticeable in the exciting GAMERA 2: ADVENT OF LEGION (1996). Mothra was reportedly a revamped version of a prop used for MOTHRA 3 (1998) and its usage here is impressive, accentuated sparingly by computer animation. The two larva are also of a design that would make Tsuburaya proud. The ending of MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964) is done over only this time, the larva spin their cocoon hidden amidst Tokyo as opposed to the craggy island rocks of the earlier movie.

Some of Japan's landmarks are wiped out here such as Tokyo Tower and the Diet Building, both of which have been decimated in numerous other productions, particularly the latter famous construct. Possibly the most indelible destruction of the Diet Building was in Toho's THE LAST WAR from 1961. Tokyo Tower was destroyed in likewise spectacular fashion in Shusuke Kaneko's amazing GAMERA, GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995). The buildup to the demolition of these landmarks loses its luster precisely because they've been seen torn down over and over again in Kaiju movies past. Still, the effects and models are wholly impressive and as much onscreen 'Monsters of Mass Destruction' as is seen here, it's a testament to the filmmakers that so much of it is successfully captured before the camera.

Michiru Oshima returns once more to contribute a dynamic orchestral score and her Godzilla theme, introduced in GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS (2000), will likely become as iconic as Akira Ifukube's genre defining themes. The new portions of the score capture the grandeur of the action and Oshima's own take on Ifukube's magnificent Mothra music is respectable and carves its own identity.

Tezuka's trademark of having a post end credits sequence is brief this time, but hints at something in the mold of THE TERMINATOR (1984) and its sequels. This scene has no dialog save for a voice heard on an intercom. The camera pans over a large DNA capsule of the original 1954 Godzilla. As the camera pans back, we see other similar capsules of other monsters. The electronic doors marked 'Biohazard' close shut as scientists walk past. The screen fades to black as the intercom voice is drowned out. It had long been stated that this was the second chapter in a proposed 'Kiryu trilogy', but this information has since been revealed to be just a rumor.

Noting declining box office returns, Toho decided to retire Godzilla and their stable of monsters with a big bash to close out the long running series. Unfortunately, that film was a tragic mis-step. Eiichi Asada, who was so impressive here, severely regressed with the sub par effects work seen in GODZILLA FINAL WARS (2004). Likely this had more to do with that films "visionary" director, Ryuhei Kitamura, who desired to capture the look of the 70s Godzilla movies. Likely had Toho banked on luring Shusuke Kaneko back (he did state he was interested in doing another one after GMK), the Godzilla series would have ended on a proper revisionist note than what it did. However, had Masaaki Tezuka returned for the last movie, audiences could count on innovative monster battles, anime style action and a modernist approach that would have paid homage to Honda's heritage--something that's in great abundance in his three Godzilla movies--especially his last one. Regardless of its lack of character depth, TOKYO S.O.S. signals a good time for monster movie fans. It does little in breaking new ground, but fans of Ishiro Honda's movies are more likely to appreciate what's presented here.

This review is representative of the Japanese R2 2 disc set DVD

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