Friday, October 06, 2017

A Kaiju Haunting

Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001, directed by Shûsuke Kaneko) has a novel big idea. It postulates that the reason Godzilla favors attacking Japan over all other nations is because he is animated not just by the atom bomb, but also by the souls of all the pan-Asian dead of World War II. Japan, the movie further postulates, needs a reminder of its responsibility for that catastrophe. This is the kaiju equivalent of the J-horror films that are this movie's contemporaries, in which the giant monsters act as conduits for ghosts. Godzilla plays the role that the video tape played in The Ring, and that the internet played in Pulse. This is one of the rare late Godzilla films that casts Godzilla as a villain, rather than as a defender of Japan, a fact reflected in the design of its star: he has milky white eyes without pupil or iris, like he's possessed. This is one of the most lethal Godzillas, one possessed of an implacable malice rather than the indifference of a force of nature.

Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

It's been fifty years since Godzilla first appeared. The Japanese government is antsy after the attack on New York a couple of years previous, wondering when the next blow will fall on them. They're suspicious of the rumblings at sea and in remote mountainous areas. A submersible spots some vast thing moving under water. There's a story here, and paranormal journalist Yuri Tachibana stumbles upon it by accident while filming a dubious ghost story. Tachibana discovers that there are three ancient guardian monsters who awaken to protect Japan. She also encounters an old man who has deep knowledge of Godzilla and the guardian monsters. He tells her that Godzilla is not just a product of the atom bomb, but is animated by the vengeful ghosts of all the lives lost in World War II at Japan's hands, and that Godzilla is a terrible reminder to those who would for get it. Yuri's father is the general in charge of dealing with the threat of Godzilla. He's a survivor of Godzilla's first attack in 1954, and the memory haunts him. Meanwhile, the guardian monsters awaken one by one. The first to emerge is Baragon, a burrowing monster with a horn on his head. Baragon is no match for Godzilla, though, who destroys him with his atomic breath. Next is Mothra, who emerges from a cocoon spun on a lake. Mothra fares better. She lasts long enough to lend aid to King Ghidorah before she too is incinerated by Godzilla. But Mothra's particles settle on the wounded Ghidorah and invigorate him. This lends him the power to wound Godzilla, but he cannot kill him. Yuri pursues all of this with a camera that broadcasts the action to the world, much to the chagrin of her father. He's too busy to do anything about it, though. Yuri remains in the danger zone. Good thing, too, because she's carrying a stone artifact from Ghidorah's cave, and when it looks like Ghidorah is down for the count under the water of the bay, she is knocked off a collapsing bridge and drops the idol into the water. It lands on Ghidorah, giving him a second wind. But even now, he's no match for Godzilla. Yuri's father takes things into his own hands, and pilots his submersible toward Godzilla with the aim of firing a drilling missile into one of his wounds. Things don't go exactly to plan...

Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

Director Shûsuke Kaneko lands in the director's chair for this film on the strength of his work on the 1990s Gamera trilogy, a series of films that competed with the Hesei Godzilla films of the same era and largely showed more creativity and cinematic moxie. They were good movies as movies, and not just good kaiju movies. It was probably inevitable that Toho would hire Kaneko, because beating Godzilla at his own game makes a mark. Kaneko certainly changed things up. Most striking is how sinister Godzilla becomes. It's been a long, long time since Godzilla was as unrepentantly evil as he is in this film. There's a sequence mid-film that illustrates this, in which a woman in a hospital bed--in traction no less, so she's not able to run and escape--watches with mounting dread as Godzilla approaches her hospital. There's a palpable relief when Godzilla passes by without wrecking the hospital, but in a cruel whip of the tail--literally--Godzilla kills the woman and whoever else might be on her floor. This section of the film is replete with small vignettes depicting the horror and hopelessness of everyday people who are in the path of Godzilla, and Kaneko manages to convey a real sense of visceral terror in these scenes. Moreover, Godzilla's atomic breath is displayed as more lethal than in the past, with greater range and more destructive force. The way Godzilla disintegrates Baragon at the end of their fight is an even starker lesson in the power of this Godzilla. In one key image, a teacher in a room full of school children looks out her window to see a mushroom cloud rising from the site of Godzilla's rampage. It's an image that's a bit on the nose, but it works in spite of that because atomic destruction has always been the key to Godzilla's cultural impact. The monsters in this film are keyed to the elements, by the way: Mothra is keyed to water (he emerges from a lake), Baragon is keyed to earth, Ghidorah is keyed to air, and Godzilla is fire. Of course he's fire. And he makes things burn.

Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

This film isn't as good as Kaneko's Gamera films. There's a reliance on computer effects to augment the men in rubber monster costumes that seems at odds with the personality of Godzilla and his enemies. Many shots ring false. It's also a cognitive leap for a long-time fan like me to recast Ghidorah, traditionally a villain in the employ of aliens and whatnot, as a hero. It works well enough in isolation, but Godzilla has a lot of history. The movie makes the strange choice, repeated in the most recent American version of Godzilla, of ignoring every other Godzilla film but the first one, placing those events far enough in the past to be covered up or forgotten. There's a sly dig at the 1998 American film, but it's a fleeting pleasure. Perhaps the most irritating element of the film is the way it plots the monster fights. Godzilla has always had an element of pro wrestling when fighting other monsters, but on top of that, this film overlays a videogame aesthetic. Every time Ghidorah seems down for the count, he gets a power-up--literally. This makes for bad drama even if we're extending the concept of "drama" to giant monsters beating on each other.

Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

Still and all, I shouldn't complain. This is one of the better entries in the Millenium Godzilla series and I do like the malevolent Godzilla more than I like the big cuddly Godzilla of the late Showa films. I think the supernatural explanation for Godzilla's hatred of Japan is a nice touch, too, given the character's single-mindedness on this point. It's a fun movie in any event.

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 2

First Time Viewings: 0

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