Wednesday, June 11, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974)

Godzilla celebrates his 20th anniversary by fighting... himself?

As development began on what would be the Godzilla film to be released in 1974, everyone involved knew that it had to be something special. The series had been floundering in recent years with entries that were low budget, poorly received, and/or very strange. But '74 marked the twentieth anniversary of Godzilla on the big screen, so another cheapie stock footage fest like Godzilla vs. Megalon wasn't going to cut it.

Shinichi Sekizawa, who had been writing stories and scripts for the Godzilla franchise going all the way back to 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla, made his final concept contribution to the series for the '74 film, conceiving a story with Masami Fukushima called Giant Monsters Converge on Okinawa! Showdown in Zanpamisaki, which had Godzilla and Mothra taking on invading aliens called the Garugas, who sent a mechanical monster called Garugan to Earth. The screenplay based on Sekizawa and Fukushima's story was written by Hiroyasu Yamaura and director Jun Fukuda, who was returning to direct his fifth and final Godzilla installment.

As the writing of the script went on, Mothra was written out and replaced by a new monster, while the alien race was changed and so was their mechanical monster. Fukuda wasn't going to pit Godzilla against some random robot, he was going to have Goji fight a mechanical version of himself. This would indeed provide a special bout for the twentieth anniversary.

At the center of everything that happens in the film are two brothers, Masahiko and Keisuke Shimizu. Not only are  Masahiko and Keisuke there outside Azumi Castle when Nami, a priestess and descendant of Okinawa Island's Azumi royal family, is stricken by an intense vision of Okinawa and its people being destroyed in flames by a giant monster (although he's not part of the film, King Ghidorah is glimpsed in Nami's vision), but the brothers are also playing important roles in the excavation of recently discovered cave on the island.

While Masahiko takes a piece of metal found in the cave to a Professor Miyajima for him to study, Keisuke teams up with archaeological investigator Seiko Kanagusuku as she translates the ancient murals on the cave walls and realize that they're telling a prophecy of both destruction and salvation:

"When the black mountain rises over the clouds, a great monster will come forth to destroy the world. But when the red moon sets and the sun rises in the west, two monsters will join forces to save the people."

Immediately after Seiko has the prophecy translated, it begins to come true. A huge, dark cloud appears in the sky, looking like a black mountain. Earthquakes strike Japan, earthquakes with a moving epicenter, causing speculation that the cause is a monster burrowing beneath the surface.

Soon (18 minutes into the movie), Godzilla comes exploding out of Mount Fuji, an entrance unlike any he has made before... And there's something off about him. He's nasty and destructive in a way that he hasn't been since the early days of the series, laying waste to everything in his path. His roar sounds different, the blast he emits from his mouth is a different color.

The monster Anguirus, Godzilla's longtime friend, comes burrowing out of the ground to interrupt Godzilla's rampage and attacks his fellow monster in a way that he hasn't done since his first appearance in Godzilla Raids Again.

Anguirus gets a couple good hits in, and instead of blood coming from the wounds, sparks fly out. Where Godzilla's skin is cut, metal can be seen underneath. But Anguirus doesn't fare well overall. Godzilla gives him a beating, and ends the battle by wounding Anguirus in a horrible, bloody way... It's a heartbreaking moment, because it's hard to imagine how Anguirus could possibly recover from this. It's made even worse that Anguirus's wounded retreat is the last time he's ever seen in this era of the series. He wouldn't appear in another Godzilla movie until thirty years later, by which time the series had already been rebooted a couple times. This is the end of this iteration of Anguirus.

The destruction continues, and while Godzilla is blasting a city to pieces, a second Godzilla arrives and challenges the first to a fight. The second Godzilla is the real Godzilla, entering the film 26 minutes in, and he's here to stop the impostor.

Wearing the Godzilla costume, a modified version of the costume that was built for Godzilla vs. Megalon, was Isao Zushi, who had previously played the character on episodes of the television show Zone Fighter. This was the only time Zushi played Goji in a movie, but he does a commendable job in the role.

During the battle of the Godzillas, the fake Godzilla takes more damage, revealing more patches of metal, and eventually the men controlling the monster from a hi-tech base give up on the facade and have their creation shed the fake skin, revealing itself to be the robot MechaGodzilla.

Professor Miyajima deduces that MechaGodzilla is made of the same sort of metal that was found in the Okinawa cave. A metal that doesn't exist on Earth. Space-titanium.

With its identity revealed, MechaGodzilla lets loose with its own non-Godzilla powers. Missiles fired from its fingers, an energy beam blasted from its eyes. The monster and the mecha are worthy opponents for each other, and their first fight ends with Godzilla tumbling into the sea while MechaGodzilla takes flight with its feet rockets and retreats to its controllers' base.

Godzilla goes back to Monster Island to recuperate during a storm, and this is a scene where Fukuda includes a callback to the first Godzilla movie he directed, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. In that film, Godzilla is awoken by a lightning strike and viewers have speculated that this was left over from when the script was written to be a King Kong vehicle rather than a Goji movie, as it had been established in King Kong vs. Godzilla that Kong gets power from electricity. Here, Godzilla has that King Kong power for sure, as he is completely rejuvenated by enduring multiple lightning strikes. Lightning strikes way more than twice.

Seiko and Keisuke have figured out that the statue they found in the cave near the prophetic murals plays an important role in the completion of the prophecy. The statue is a miniature version of a dog/lion hybrid statue that sits on top of a wall at Azumi Castle.

Statues of these dog/lions are common on Okinawa, where people place them on their property to ward off evil spirits (if the statue's mouth is open) and to keep good spirits in (if the mouth is closed). The one at Azumi Castle is a special one. It's the statue of a monster called King Shîsâ.

King Shîsâ is said to be the guardian of the Azumi family, with a legend telling that when the people of mainland Japan once tried to conquer Okinawa, King Shîsâ rose up and rescued the royal family from the invaders.

To help awaken King Shîsâ so he can join Godzilla in the fight against MechaGodzilla and the villains controlling it, Seiko and Keisuke need to be at Azumi Castle "when the sun rises in the west" to place the miniature statue on a sacred shrine... But as they travel to the castle, they find that there's a man following them who really wants the statue for himself.

This man is part of group controlling MechaGodzilla, and when he gets wounded it's revealed that he's not really a human. Godzilla vs. Gigan featured alien invaders that were actually large cockroaches beneath their human disguises. Here, the aliens, spacemen from the Third Planet of the Black Hole, are ape-like creatures beneath their human disguises, creatures referred to as the Simians.

MechaGodzilla's head controls were damaged in his fight with Godzilla, and for some reason the Simians can't repair their own creation, so they have to kidnap Professor Miyajima - with his daughter Ikuko and Masahiko along with him - and force him to fix the controls for them.

Unfortunately, Miyajima already has the mecha back in working order by the time Keisuke stumbles into a rescue mission raid of the Simian base, which is hidden in the depths of the Okinawa cave, and rescues the aliens' captives with the help of an Interpol agent named Nanbara.

Interpol has been keeping an eye on the Simians to access what sort of threat they present, and they surely didn't suspect the group to be a bunch of space apes planning to attack the world with a giant robot.

The moon looks red when it sets, a mirage makes it appear like the sun is rising in the west in the morning. The miniature statue is placed on the sacred shrine... And then blasts beams of energy from its eyes that blow a hole in the side of a cliff, revealing the monster King Shîsâ in its resting place within. Much like Shibojin fairies communicate with Mothra through song, Nami then awakens the monster by singing to him.

He may be good and heroic, but King Shîsâ is one ugly monster. I almost find him disturbing to look at.

Once awakened, King Shîsâ immediately jumps into battle with MechaGodzilla, displaying the ability to absorb the rays Mecha shoots at him from its eyes and blast them right back at it. That power doesn't extend to the missiles Mecha fires at him... Luckily Godzilla shows up to give King Shîsâ a hand and completely fulfill the ancient prophecy. The monsters take on MechaGodzilla while the humans take on the Simians in an action-packed climax.

After so many lackluster installments in a row, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla is a welcome return to form for the series. This film ranks right up there with some of its better predecessors.

The special effects by FX director Teruyoshi Nakano are great, and there is some nice, freshly created miniature work featured during MechaGodzilla's rampage. It's refreshing to see some city destruction after the monsters have spent so much time in desolate countryside locations in the last few movies before this.

The fights are entertaining, and MechaGodzilla is quite a tough foe with all the powerful weaponry he has to blast his enemies with. He brutalizes Anguirus, would've quickly defeated King Shîsâ if Godzilla hadn't shown up, and even manages to badly wound Goji. The final battle contains some of the rare moments when Godzilla bleeds, there's even some arterial spray going on... Which is awesome.

I also have to say, this movie features some very impressive pyrotechnics. There's fire and explosions all over the place.

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla was the last Godzilla movie for several members behind the scenes - writer Sekizawa, director Fukuda, composer Masaru Satô - but they ended their days on the series in great fashion, by delivering a twentieth anniversary movie that hearkened back to the franchise's glory days and was as spectacular as the occasion demanded.

Their effort was so well received that MechaGodzilla returned to the screen just one year later.

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