I’ve been a fan of Godzilla for as long as I can remember, as I’ve noted in other daikaiju movie reviews. It was only the beginning of this year that I had to resist the urge to snag some vinyl figures from a closing store, and I still half-wish for console systems just to play the Godzilla games for the last couple of systems. Not enough to actually get any or ever try any of these games (I have no friends who like them as much as I do, so I couldn’t possibly nudge in the suggestion of those who have consoles getting one or two of them, because I’d be the only one interested in them), but still, I love daikaiju like crazy, and always have, and probably always will. I’ve still seen only a handful of the “X/Millennium” series, though, and this is only the second I’ve watched. I thought I was watching them in order, but screwed up a bit and instead created a pattern of watching two of director Masaaki Tezuka’s efforts in a row (skipping Shusuke Kaneko’s Godzilla, Mother, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), but it doesn’t matter too much, as the Millennium series was the set of films least interested in continuing stories, rebooting every movie or so as a direct sequel to Honda’s 1954 original.
Akane Yashiro (Yumiko Shaku) is a hotshot pilot for the AMF (Anti-Megalosaurus Force) in Japan, driving a Maser unit (those giant flashlight tanks that have been in Godzilla movies since the 60s, if not the 50s…) into battle against the sudden re-appearance of a second Godzilla in 1999, 45 years after the first one appeared. When Godzilla causes an avalanche, she clips another retreating unit–a much smaller one–and sends them careening into the path of Godzilla’s monstrous feet. Feeling guilty for her actions, Akane takes a demotion to a data unit as the government attempts to devise a weapon capable of taking down Godzilla. Eccentric scientist Tokumitsu Yuhara (Shin Takuma), who works on “bio-robots” is called in to the AMF to begin work on this project. The reclamation of the original Godzilla’s skeleton from the oxygen destroyer has led to plans to create a bio-robotic Godzilla. Yuhara initially declines, telling his young daughter Sara (Kana Onodera) that he must take care of her. When offered the chance to let her in to the compound, Yuhara finally agrees and joins the project, finalizing the creation of the mechanical Godzilla–dubbed Kiryu.* Akane is called in to pilot Kiryu because of her skill, only to find that one of the other pilots is Hayama (Yûsuke Tomoi), brother of one of the men who died in the accident that took Akane away from piloting.
I was extremely happy with this movie. Apparently most kaiju fans were sort of “pleased,” not terribly excited or disappointed or even just “satisfied,” but something just above that. Some people don’t like the prominence of the dramatic plot for the human characters, others just seem to think it doesn’t do anything especially good. Occasionally reading reviews from others after seeing a film refines or nudges my feelings in a particular direction as I see whether others got out of it what I did, or whether anyone has legitimate gripes or alternate interpretations. In this case, I feel exactly the same. This was probably one of my favourite Godzilla movies I’ve seen. I’ve not seen some of the heisei series, mind you (including, shamefully, though understandably if one knows about its availability, Godzilla vs. Biollante), but still. This is, I feel, the best design yet for any Mechagodzilla, with a look that ignores the angular 1970s original, as well as the stubby and rounded (albeit better) 1990s version. There’s a nice long tail and the feel of wirey mobility under the steel plating (okay, probably not steel, but this time the metal isn’t named), all giving it, in line with their reasoning of using organic materials as a base, a greater liveliness to it. The head is less like a makeshift skull or metallic version of Godzilla himself and more like its own character, which is good design for a being that is intended to be an opponent of Godzilla rather than a clone.
The idea of the organic components leads to a subplot that isn’t much of a surprise, but is still a little more subversive than is usually seen in Godzilla films. Some wonder why it was done, when it’s clearly stated that the organic components are to give it a closer approximation of life. I’ve avoided the term “cyborg” because, while it is a combination of organic and robotic components, it is essentially a robot that happens to use some organic components for locomotion and calculation. The organics are added afterward, rather than being an organic being turned cybernetic. It’s a fine line (probably a non-existent one, if I really think about it), but it’s an important one because it helps to differentiate Kiryu as its own character, which is a nice, fresh approach to Mechagodzilla–formerly an alien clone and then later a simplistic, purely mechanical replica. It’s also a nice tie-in for the human plot, which is one of the better ones I’ve seen: it actually relates to the Godzilla portion of the film and they work in unison. Of course, Godzilla is simply a force of nature as always (at least, outside most of the Showa films), so there’s not much motivation or clever plotting there (and shouldn’t really be, as he IS a force of nature, almost by definition), but that lets Godzilla be the framework for this human story, a necessary framework to give the events their possibility and to tie in the idea of Sara’s youthful concerns about death, that relate to her absent mother. On the same note as the changes in Mechagodzilla, this is another good choice. Usually children are mis-used or overused in movies of a fantastical nature, either as strangely inserted and irritating plot devices (I’m sorry, Mothra movies!) or as unnaturally precocious miniature adults who have less-than-adult thoughts forced through mouths that are otherwise all-too-adult in nature. Here, Sara is a smart girl, but not unnervingly so for her age, able to bring the eyes of a child to things without interfering or controlling things, but still having an effect on the adults around her. This is the effect that’s usually reached for, but Wataru Mimura’s script is one of the more successful examples of it.
The fight scenes, which I realize are what most people are interested in, are actually very successful. Of course Japanese films have never had the budgets of big Western movies, and that’s still apparent, but pretty well hidden this time. Kiryu is pretty breath-takingly badass, managing both the inevitable multiple-rocket launching attacks and more direct and close-quarters ones. The vernier thrusters are used to give Kiryu a more lively method of flight, enhanced a touch by CGI and some better suit work than is usually employed, with a whipping tail behind a dive and more rapid movements than usual. The close-up battles between Godzilla and his opponent are also a lot more satisfying than usual, mixing a bit of wrestling (usually all that’s employed) and even a bit of boxing, which feels a bit more natural than the usually restrained motion. Effects all around are solid, and between the excellent Kiryu design and the usage of what may or may not be my favourite Godzilla design, I was pleased with both the kaiju and the human elements. Oh, and that Godzilla design is the one that seems to have a softened throat or belly, a sort of “collar” to his neck, and a face that is a throwback to the heisei (instead of the flattened, snake or cat-like head of Godzilla X Megaguirus and Millennium) and its rather menacing reptilian look, albeit with a more narrow snout.
*As in named, not dubbed over. I watch these things subtitled.