Slowly I’m making my way through the Millennium/X series of Godzilla films, the only series completely available in Region 1 DVD releases. There are notable exceptions from both the Showa and Heisei series over here, unfortunately–well, notably absent, not necessarily notable films–nevermind the releases that fail to have original language tracks or original aspect ratios. Unfortunately even this series suffers from the repellently lazy phenomenon of “dubtitles,” subtitles that are merely transcriptions of the dub and thus carry over all its re-written scripting that is designed in a dub to bring mouth movement at least closer to the audio track. Unfortunately it often deviates a fair bit, to the point that at one point I could swear a character cursed and the screen read, “Excellent!”–when cursing would have been more appropriate for the context. I caught on much earlier, though, when I began to hear words I knew–the light curse of knowing a smattering of Japanese and watching poorly translated subtitles–and saw nothing resembling them, even in spirit, in the subtitles. A quick change of audio tracks confirmed my suspicion, but dubtitles are better than the treatment alluded to above for other films, at least.
Fifty years after Godzilla attacked Tokyo in 1954, rumours and hints of more monsters in the vicinity of Japan begin to come in, worrying Japan’s defensive forces who repelled Godzilla in that first attack. Low rent sci fi production company BS Digital Q is filming one of their typical productions only to be rocked by an earthquake. Their reporter Yuri Tachibana (Chiharu Nîyama) is present for this, and glances over to see a strange old man (Eisei Amamoto) who disappears when she looks back. She’s taken in by him and the earthquake and pursues the idea until she digs up information about the “Guardian Monsters”* Baragon, Ghidorah and Mothra. Brief appearances by all are seen when a motorcycle gang goes joyriding and finds a tunnel collapsing on them, while some thieving youths find themselves unsettled on a lake. Yuri is able to find the old prophet she saw before at a police station, identified as Hirotoshi Isayama. He tells her that she must wake the “thousand year old dragon” to defeat the returning Godzilla, who he tells her was created by nuclear energy but is imbued with the anger of the souls lost in the second World War, angry at Japan itself for forgetting them. When Godzilla resurfaces, he takes to his old stomping grounds, heading immediately for Tokyo, with the curious new monsters attempting to stop him, from the quadrupedal, tunneling Baragon to the floating and graceful Mothra on to Ghidorah himself. Yuri’s father is SDF Adm. Taizô Tachibana (Ryudo Uzaki), who is proud of his organization’s role in repelling Godzilla originally, critical of Yuri’s company and worried about the oncoming attack, while science writer for BS Digital Q Teruaki Terada is clearly very interested in Yuri.
Shusuke Kaneko’s only Godzilla film, he is responsible for the admirable revival of Gamera in the 1990s, directing the entire trilogy of films that came out that time period (which I own but have only seen one of) but only taking this one opportunity to direct Gamera’s far better known daikaiju “relative” (in the loosest sense, since they aren’t even related by rights). It, like most of the Millennium series, is a direct sequel to the original 1954 Gojira and has no interest in any of the films that followed it. Godzilla is returned to his malevolent roots, while King Ghidorah is re-purposed into a mystical protagonist instead of a horrific alien experiment to create the ultimate monster–this is most definitely not the Astro-Monster/Monster Zero. Mothra remains as aloof and benevolent as ever, though Kaneko firmly notes that these monsters are here to protect the land of Japan, not the people or society on top of it. This makes for a pretty tense chunk of destructive action, because not only are the “good” monsters unconcerned about the humans around them, Godzilla is outright evil this time. Normally an unstoppable force of nature driven to destroy, this Godzilla actively pursues the destruction of people in some pretty dark moments, and always acts to retaliate against any one or anything that attacks him or tries to defend itself. As a result, there’s a much greater intelligence to all of the kaiju that is usually not seen. Fights are less “choreograph it with the limitations of suitmation in mind” and more “find a way for these beasts to fight each other with the powers and design each of them has.” This does mean, of course, that Toho had invested in a bit of CGI by this time (though not for the first time–but it’s a pretty CGI-heavy Mothra appearance).
The story is even more closely tied in to the kaiju action than the last film I saw (Godzilla Against Mecha Godzilla, which actually follows this one in terms of release, but bears no relation to it otherwise), this time being more of a window into the human world in a world that is really centered on kaiju. They are mystical as Kaneko made Gamera, elder spirits designed to protect our destroy, infused with the souls of people long dead for either revenge or protective purposes. They are bigger than us in both the literal sense and the sense of “meaning,” their conflicts beyond our means and understanding, to an extent. Yuri and her father are the only really big human characters, and they both act primarily by responding and reacting to the conflicts. This is actually sort of interesting when one considers that this is film chooses to show more thoroughly the effects of Godzilla’s destructive nature on people. It’s clearly stated that numerous people die over the course of the film, rather than seeing a building destroyed without any real explicit declaration of its occupants (or a lack). It does make things a little darker than usual, while paradoxically adding this human element to a world largely unconcerned with humans.
This makes for a pretty darn good Godzilla movie, albeit one that is clearly a deviation from most expectations (to the annoyance or disgust of some). It’s interesting to see a Godzilla so clearly and actively motivated, though the design for this Godzilla is a bit off, being extremely dumpy and given creepy solid-white eyes that only enhance the malicious emphasis of the character this time around. Mizuo Yoshida is not to be criticized for his work, though, nor Fuyuki Shinada for his designs, at least not harshly. It’s actually very well sculpted, and mostly works for this evil Godzilla, but is just a bit too tubby to be appropriately menacing from some angles Kaneko chooses. Still, it’s good that the design differs as it does, because between the character changes, the varied approach and the new designs–all set to an unusually electronic score, albeit an effective one–gives the film the feeling of what Godzilla movies might be in an alternate universe, still entertaining and well-made, but different enough to remain recognizable but also recognizably different.
A very good entry in the series, but a very unusual and somewhat out of character one.
*A lame translation I’m guessing–either overly literal one or someone’s idea of something that sounded “better.”