Wednesday, May 21, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla vs. Megalon

Watch the 1973 Godzilla film and you'll see a lot of stuff you've seen before.

Although the monster Megalon was first created in early drafts of Godzilla vs. Gigan, Godzilla vs. Megalon was not originally developed to be a Godzilla movie. Instead, Megalon was going to be pitted against a giant robot superhero called Jet Jaguar in a one-on-one battle for a movie to be entitled Jet Jaguar vs. Megalon, presumably the first entry in a hopeful franchise.

Jet Jaguar was created, under the name Red Arone, by a Japanese grade schooler who had sent in a sketch of the robot as a submission in a "create a character" contest Toho Studios was holding. With the giant super robot cartoon Mazinger Z (which I watched in my childhood under the title Tranzor Z) being popular in Japan at the time, as was the live action television show Ultraman, which was produced by Godzilla special effects creator Eiji Tsuburaya and featured a giant robot-looking superhero alien doing battle with monsters that were often suits from the Godzilla movies with slight alterations done to them, Toho believed the Jet Jaguar character could be a hit on the big screen... Well, they believed that for a little while, but as the project started coming together, they began to have their doubts.

The script for Jet Jaguar vs. Megalon had been drafted by director Jun Fukuda (who had previously helmed the Godzilla films Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster,  Son of Godzilla, and Godzilla vs. Gigan) and Destroy All Monsters/Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster/vs. Gigan co-writer Takeshi Kimura, but as the filming date neared and fears arose that Jet Jaguar wasn't a star, screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa (King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro-Monster, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Son of Godzilla, Godzilla's Revenge, Godzilla vs. Gigan) was brought in for a last minute rewrite that would spruce the story up with the inclusion of Godzilla and Gigan.

The project then sped forward. Special effects artist Teruyoshi Nakano built a new Godzilla suit, one with a rather cartoony looking face, in just one week, bringing to an end the four movie run the suit created for 1968's Destroy All Monsters had enjoyed. Despite the new suit's hasty production, it was put to use quite a bit over the next few years itself.

The story of Godzilla vs. Megalon is set in the slightly futuristic year of "197X" (much like Invasion of Astro-Monster had been set in 196X), although the English version sets it slightly in the past, stating that it's 1971. The film starts off with the underground test detonation of a nuclear bomb on an island near the Aleutians, an explosion that causes devastating shockwaves as far as Monster Island in the South Pacific.

Godzilla makes his first appearance onscreen in the movie's first minute, although the first shot is actually stock footage from Destroy All Monsters, the damage the bomb causes is the same damage the Kilaaks caused to the island. New footage of Godzilla and Anguirus enduring the devastating shockwave earthquake is interspersed with the re-used footage.

Earthquakes also hit mainland Japan, one quake even opening up a fissure at the bottom of Lake Kiriyama and draining it as a man named Goro Ibuki, his pal Hiroshi Jinkawa and Goro's little brother Rokuro look on in shock and horror. On the drive back to Goro's place, Hiroshi comments that if the military continues messing around with nuclear weapons, Japan will share a similar fate to the lost continents of Mu and Lamoria; destroyed by an earthquake and swallowed up by the sea.

Arriving at Goro's home, the trio are attacked by a group of men who have broken into the place and ransacked the rooms. The home invaders escape, leaving behind only some red sand on the floor of Goro's work shop and a red button that can be broken down into the same stuff. Goro can't figure out what their purpose was, nothing is missing. The likely explanation for a break-in would be that they wanted to tamper with or steal the robot he's been building, but the robot doesn't appear to have been touched.

While Goro finishes work on his robot, which he names Jet Jaguar, Hiroshi has the red sand examined. There are two places this particular sand exists - thirty kilometers beneath the sea, and on Easter Island, home to those famous, three million year old statues.

As it turns out, the home invaders broke into Goro's place so they could plant a bug in his shop, listening to the inventor's conversations through radio transmission. When Jet Jaguar is completed, the strange men hear of it immediately and return to Goro's home, knocking him, Hiroshi, and Rokuro out with gas guns, taking control of his work shop and of Jet Jaguar, then reporting back to their boss...

It's quite a coincidence that Hiroshi brought up the lands of Mu and Lamoria earlier, because the men they've been attacked by have been sent to Japan by the leader of the kingdom of Seatopia, which was swallowed by the sea after being struck by an earthquake three million years ago. Managing to survive underwater, creating their own sun much like the people of Mu did in Atragon, the Seatopians have lived in peace for three million years, but the recent nuclear tests have destroyed a third of their country, so the time has come for them to retaliate and wage war on the surface world. Jet Jaguar will serve to direct the monster Megalon, who the Seatopians worship as a god, to the cities the king of Seatopia wants to see destroyed.
As he existed in the early drafts of Godzilla vs. Gigan, Megalon was a monster from outer space, but he made it to the screen as a monster from the sea.

While Megalon rises to the surface, Hiroshi is held hostage by an agent of Seatopia in Goro's home and Goro and Rokuro are taken toward the dry lake bed of Kiriyama, tied up inside a metal container. It's from the fissure the lake drained into that Megalon emerges, and the Seatopian in Goro's work shop controls the flying Jet Jaguar via remote, having the robot greet Megalon and then lead him on to Tokyo.

Hiroshi manages to escape Goro's home and races to rescue his friends, Seatopians giving chase in a car and on a motorcycle. But Hiroshi's hobby is driving race cars, so he manages to evade the bad guys and reach Goro and Rokuro just in time to save them from the clutches of Megalon.

Megalon makes his way through the Japanese countryside, alternately flying and hopping, heading in the direction of Tokyo... Megalon's hopping looks pretty silly, and he doesn't get much distance. He'd get to his destination quicker if he would just walk. Along the way, he has to endure attacks from the military that is actually more stock footage, lifted from the likes of The War of the Gargantuas. From the star-shaped growth on the top of his head, blasts out a ray powerful enough to blow up tanks.

Before the robot and the monster can reach the city, Goro is able to take back control over Jet Jaguar with the "ultra-sonic computer transmitter" that he wears as a necklace, a backup controller he made in case his main computer failed. Goro needs to have Jet Jaguar in his line of sight for the necklace transmitter to work, but once it does it completely overrides what the Seatopia agent is doing back at the main computer.

At the suggestion of Rokuro, Goro sends Jet Jaguar off to Monster Island to enlist the aid of Godzilla in fighting Megalon. Without Jet Jaguar guiding him, Megalon just wanders around aimlessly, seeming totally disoriented. The military continues their attack on the monster, despite the fact that their weapons don't seem to have any effect on him at all. All they accomplish is the death of soldiers.

The Seatopians have never made contact with the surface world, but they are in contact with the cockroach aliens of Nebula Space Hunter-M, the villains of Godzilla vs. Gigan. When the king of Seatopia hears that Godzilla will soon be entering the battle, he has a message sent to the aliens requesting the aid of Gigan.
48 minutes in, Godzilla returns to the picture when Jet Jaguar reaches Monster Island and, with some robotic noises and hand gestures, somehow communicates to Goji that his help is needed in Japan. Godzilla quickly agrees to follow the robot back to the mainland.

By now, Megalon has managed to stumble into Tokyo and begins laying waste to the city with the help of more stock footage from previous Godzilla movies. There's a reason why the ray he blasts from his head looks exactly like the rays King Ghidorah blasts from his three mouths.

Megalon has another destructive ability in the form of red balls of explosive energy that he spits from his mouth, a power he uses much less often than the head ray.

Eventually, Megalon wanders back out into the countryside, because for the newly shot footage it was cheaper to put the monsters in a desolate setting rather than build a miniature city for them to fight in.

When Jet Jaguar returns to the mainland, neither Goro nor the Seatopians are in control of him. The "survival program" has kicked in, Jet Jaguar is now thinking for himself... And somehow the man-sized robot is able to make himself grow to kaiju size so he can fight Megalon, buying time while Godzilla swims his way toward Japan.

Jet Jaguar proves to be quite capable at hand-to-hand combat in a one-on-one situation, but when Gigan arrives to team up with Megalon, the robot starts to taking a beating. Given that Megalon has arms that spin around like augers, enabling him to burrow around under the ground, it's quite fitting that he's helped out by the hook-handed, buzzsaw-chested Gigan.

The situation is looking dire for Jet Jaguar... and that's when Godzilla finally shows up. With the teams balanced out, and with a jazzy score by Riichiro Manabe playing on the soundtrack, the final battle ensues, the Godzilla vs. Gigan moments filled out with stock footage from Godzilla vs. Gigan.

In the end, good triumphs over evil, with Godzilla delivering a couple ridiculous jump kicks to Megalon as part of his finishing move. Goji and Jet Jaguar beat the monsters from above and below, who retreat when the going gets tough, and the Seatopians are left to sit glumly and think about what they've done.

Godzilla was on a bad streak when Megalon hit theatres. The last few movies hadn't been particularly well regarded, and this haphazardly slapped together, cheap, rushed production didn't break the bad run. In fact, Godzilla vs. Megalon is considered by many to be one of the worst films in the series.

With the monster sequences filled to the brim with stock footage and the humans not being interesting at all, Megalon doesn't have much going for it. Megalon himself is a bit of a doofus, and Toho was right in their feeling that Jet Jaguar would not be a breakout star. He may be a nifty looking robot, but he doesn't bring much to the table as a character. Neither Megalon nor Jet Jaguar have ever appeared in another film, and I don't think the Godzilla series is lacking from their absence.

Even Godzilla is a bit of a letdown in this one. He's portrayed, for the one and only time, by Shinji Takagi, and Takagi is no Haruo Nakajima, the performer who played Goji in every previous film. The walk Takagi gives the character is laughable, and the hyped-up arm movements he tosses in adds to the silliness.

At this point, thirteen installments and nineteen years in, it was really starting to feel like the series was being run into the ground, its glory days behind it and the filmmakers not having access to budgets large enough to try to live up to past classics.

The series was indeed nearing a dormant period, but before Godzilla took a break, he would go a couple rounds with an adversary that became one of the most popular creations in the franchise.

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