Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla

Continuing my watch of the Heisei series (1984 – 1995) of Godzilla movies.

It takes some adjustment to go from the whimsical children’s adventures that were the Godzilla films of the the late 70’s to the grim disaster movie that was Return of Godzilla in 1984. A viewer needs another adjustment as the presentation of Godzilla swings back the other way in the later Heisei films of the 90’s. From an incomprehensible force whose very existence could distort the course of history for centuries in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991), by Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (1994) we are being expected to sympathize with him, as Miki Saegusa implores that Godzilla “has the same feelings we do.”

Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla was directed by Kensho Yamashita and was his first time directing a Godzilla movie, though he’d worked as an assistant on earlier ones. The screenplay by Hiroshi Kashiwabara, also new to Godzilla, but with a long list of other projects before this. I really should also be mentioning the special effects director, Koichi Kawakita, as those in that role traditionally are responsible for the creating and directing the effects sequences in these movies. It was that way with Eiji Tsuburaya in the 1954 Godzilla and with Shinji Higuchi in 2016’s Shin Godzilla. Kawakita was the special effects director for all the Heisei Godzilla films. What this films does not have is a new score by Akira Ifukube and he is missed.

Over the last few films of this series, dealing with Godzilla has become more and more of an international effort, with the formation of the U.N. Godzilla Countermeasures Center and the G-Force. At the same time, Godzilla himself has been, well, not doing much. He has not been an active menace, just going about his business unless attacked or lured to a populated area. G-Force though feels that there is enough danger to warrant building yet another giant robot battle system (because the last one worked so well..?) called MOGUERA —named and designed in homage to the alien robot in 1957’s The Mysterians. MOGUERA is the most anime thing yet in these movies, not just being a giant robot, but one that is made combining two other, transforming vehicles. One of which is named, sensibly, “Land Moguera,” the other, inexplicably and incongruously, the “Star Falcon.” There is no mention of Godzilla’s weakness of having a secondary brain in the base of his spine, as in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, any more than there has ever been of his being attracted by bird songs as in Return of Godzilla

That’s not the only plan on the table though. Miki Saegusa returns in this film as part of “Project T,” a scheme to use psychic powers to control Godzilla, though she remains hesitant to participate until a vision from the Cosmos, Mothra’s fairy companions, warn her that a great danger is heading to the Earth from space.

That danger appears to be what destroyed a NASA space mission. MOGUERA, despite being designed to fight Godzilla, is conscripted to fly into space and meet this approaching enemy. This does not seem a smart thing to do. Sending a new weapon system to encounter a mysterious enemy of completely unknown strength and capabilities? They get off lucky, in my opinion, that this danger, a new monster that is a weird half-crystal, half-mutated Godzilla/Biollante evil twin, only damaged and sent MOGUERA limping back to Earth. For all anybody knew, SpaceGodzilla could have had the power to vaporize MOGUERA with a single attack. This “let’s go fight without any tactical information or plan” is very children playing monsters, rather than a logical response to a threat, even in a monster movie. I found Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla notable in that, while the plot was relatively uncomplicated and a bit shallow, it at least made sense. Events and character actions flowed in a reasonable way, and actions led to logical consequences. Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla drifts away from that.

In much of the movie a lot of things happen that we are left to piece together to make sense over the what and why. Back on Earth, two G-Force members travel to a remote island and encounter a gruff veteran, Major Yuki camping there. Yuki is eventually revealed to be a rogue G-Force agent and maybe the others, Koji and Kiyo, were following up on Yuki’s reports of having located Godzilla? It’s hard to tell. In any case, this island is chosen to be the test ground for Project T, since Godzilla comes there, apparently to visit “Little Godzilla,” the rapidly growing (and we are left assuming, mutating) Baby from the last movie. Saegusa and two other scientists, Dr. Okubo and Dr. Gondo arrive to setup Project T. There’s a problem though from Major Yuki having no interest in being part of this. He has his own agenda, and is obsessed with killing Godzilla to avenge his brother (characters having a Moby Dick revenge fixation on Godzilla is the most exhausted trope in the genre and I wish people would just stop it). Yuki believes that Godzilla has a weak point under his arm (a new weakness mentioned for the first time) and that he can aim there to shoot a special blood coagulant poison into Godzilla to kill him. While G-Force is attempting to shoot a psychic amplifier into Godzilla that will allow Saegusa to take mental control of him, Yuki is allowed to plant landmines and tear gas bombs and to run around trying his plan at the same time. They even literally cross paths occasionally, staring at each other as if confused over whether they are both meant to be in the same scenes or even in the same movie. Yuki’s plan fails (the weak point and the coagulant are immediately dropped from the story) but Saegusa is able to gain some control over Godzilla — until the overstressed equipment burns out. Things can only get worse and they do, as SpaceGodzilla arrives, landing at a crystallized zone it had created on the island. Godzilla and his space-twin fight, but Godzilla is distracted by protecting Little Godzilla. Overwhelmed, he can’t hold off the invader, which captures Little Godzilla and imprisons him in a crystal pit. Why? Maybe in some version of the script SpaceGodzilla was meant to go around capturing power sources and using them as energy batteries? That might have been cool. Here it only accomplishes getting Little Godzilla out of the way of the rest of the film, which is a relief I have to say.

The films then stumbles into a remarkably low energy, directionless phase. Yuki has failed. Project T has failed, even Godzilla has failed. No one knows what to do, and no character has a real clear goal. Everybody just starts to pack up and go home. Saegusa is sick of the whole thing and just wants to stay on the island. Koji also stays, in order to setup a mostly unmotivated and unengaging romance subplot.

And there is SpaceGodzilla to deal with. A meeting is filled with totally wacky technobabble about SpaceGodzilla’s origins, speculating about Godzilla cells getting into space, falling into a black hole, merging with malevolent space bacteria, and then coming out a “white hole” as a giant monster. The only thing they can think to do is repair MOGUERA, and give its command to the now returned Major Yuki.

Cut to subplot of Saegusa being kidnapped off the island. Turns out Dr. Okubo wants the opportunity to try his Godzilla mind control again and has enlisted Yakuza help. Koji, Kiyo, and Yuki go and rescue her from the gangsters, engaging in the most unconvincing gunfight I’ve seen for a while. Saegusa helps out by suddenly having telekinesis as well as telepathy. And the upgrading mind control machine still doesn’t work. You could remove this whole sequence from the film and it wouldn’t be missed.

Space Godzilla arrives in the city of Fukuoka, with the usual resulting destruction. There are lots and lots and lots of scenes of people evacuating the city. The suspense of theses shots being undercut by the usual scattering of people in the crowd grinning and laughing at being in a monster movie, and by the cars and buses that are going about their normal business in the background. Godzilla also shows up, heading for a rematch. The military, for some reason, believe that this time, this time, conventional forces will be able to hold off Godzilla. They don’t.

The only character in this movie that has its act together and has any idea what it’s doing is SpaceGodzilla. It sends crystal meteors to secure a zone of operation, establishes power points and renewing energy sources, and commands the environment to hold territory and maintain the high ground against opponents. G-Force, for their part, does things such as giving command of MOGUERA to Major Yuki with orders to attack SpaceGodzilla. Orders he immediately disobeys to fly off and attack his personal nemesis, ordinary Godzilla. Koji and KIyo have to knock him out and tie him up to get back in control.

There then follows the movie’s main accomplishment: the most prolonged, effects filled battle sequence yet in a Godzilla film. Godzilla, SpaceGodzilla, and MOGUERA clash in a nighttime, nightmarish landscape made of a surreal mingling of skyscrapers and SpaceGodzilla’s crystalline constructs. The conflict is almost entirely a “beam battle” with energy rays, twisting lighting strokes, missiles, and endless pyrotechnic explosions and showers of colored sparks. One might have wanted a little more physically confrontation and less of bulky monster suits standing around almost motionless, but it is still an amazing spectacle of tokusatsu (special effects) movie making.

To wrap up the plot, Yuki is eventually convinced that SpaceGodzilla is the real threat and that they need, as much as possible, to work together with Godzilla to defeat it. Which they do. Saegusa and Koji even manage to stop Yuki from sacrificing his own life. Everybody looks like they’ll live happily every after — with even Little Godzilla shown to be doing just find and learning to create an atomic ray blast. It’s still hard to accept that the characters think the maturing of a second Godzilla is in any way a good thing.

For two movies now, Godzilla has been portrayed as a protective, sympathetic character: a father. And it hasn’t been very interesting. You might notice an increase of snarky comments in these essays and accuse me of having too high expectations for such a silly genre. Godzilla movies though have shown that they can be more, do more, and be more effective narratives. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah was an out of control mess, but had things to say and questions it wanted you to think about. The Heisei series has only one more film in it, Godzilla vs Destoroyah. I might be disenchanted with the whole kaiju genre, if I didn’t know what it tried to do in the next sequence of Godzilla films, the so-called “Millennium Series” starting with Godzilla 2000. Or for that matter, what was going on at this same time over at Toei Studios, where their reboot of Gamera was taking the giant monster film to new places and new levels of art and creativity — and of the horror and awe that 50 meter fire-breathing monsters ought to inspire.

Ultraman, Episodes 28, 29, 30, & 31

Some quick thoughts as I watch through this classic Japanese Special Effects TV series.

Human Specimens 5 & 6

After the Baltan and Pigmon, arguably the most recognizable alien/kaiju in the Ultraman franchise are the Dada. I was very curious for them to show up here, in their first appearance. They were not what I expected, but this show constantly messes with your expectations.

Before we get to that: imagine you are on your way to a work conference, or to pick up an important report. But you get delayed by a nightmarish bus crash. You wake up on a barren hillside, the burning wreckage of the vehicle below you. Your next action? Well, if you really take your job responsibilities seriously, you stand up, dust yourself off, climb the rest of the way back up the mountain, and go get that darned report!

You see, the SSSP have been looking into a series of mysterious bus accidents. How do you investigate such occurrences? You get on a bus and see what happens of course. No sense wasting time by, like, warning people and shutting down the bus service before anybody gets hurt. Captain Muramatsu and Ide are on this assignment. Right on schedule, the bus crashes. And by crash I mean, tumbles of a cliff and bursts into flames. Ide breaks his leg but he and the other passengers are rescued, except for Cap, and the aforementioned employee of the year, Akigawa, both of whom were thrown from the accident and left there.

Akigawa is there to pick up a late report from the Cosmic Ray Institute at the top of the hill. But the institute has been taken over by extraterrestrials who are shrinking humans as specimens. The Dada are, appropriate to their name, strange looking. The humans are at first confused, thinking that there is a whole group of invaders. Actually there is just one, whose face occasionally shifts between three different forms. Why not? It’s only from our human perspective that having one face is the norm.

This poor guy, rather than being a trickster such as Baltan, or a manipulator such as Zarab, is really just a harassed salaryman, being ordered about by his demanding boss. He’s not even that good at his job. Before even Ultraman shows up, he’s being kicked and chased around by Cap. Dada has the usual space alien powers to take over humans, grow to giant size, fly, and teleport around, but he’s pathetic in combat with Ultraman. I know Dada shows up a lot in later Ultraman series and I wonder how much of this interpretation carries through.

Challenge of the Underground

The direct influence of the British puppet/special effects show Thunderbirds on Ultraman is something I’d like to look at more closely sometime. This is another episode where that influence is at work. They don’t mess around with the premise this time: within the first minute of the episode a giant monster is bursting out of the ground and the SSSP’s phone is ringing. Fortunately Ide has just finished a subterranean vehicle, the Mole! No, wait that’s Thunderbirds. This is the Vellucidar. It gets loaded onto Thunderbird 2, I mean onto the Jet VTOL, and the team heads out.

A straightforward monster fight ensues, complicated by this and that, such as a crazed miner who thinks the monster Goldon is after the gold that is rightfully his, Fuji getting injured, and Cap and Ide struggling with the malfunctioning Vellucidar. The team manages to defeat the monster, and that would have been end of a day’s work, if it wasn’t for a second Goldon.

That means Ultraman gets to take a turn. While watching this show I have also been going through the 1990’s series of Godzilla films, where the primary conflicts between kaiju consists of them standing at a distant from each other and shooting energy beams and missiles. It is quite a contrast to the physical wrestling, pounding, choking, and frequent dismemberment of an Ultraman fight.

Phantom of the Snow Mountains

Another snowy mountain setting and another giant snow creature, though a very different story than “The Mysterious Comet Tsuifon.” There’s a lot of Japanese myth and folklore behind this one, with tales of Snow Women, mysterious orphans, and ghostly winter spirits, but there’s enough universality in such tales that I don’t think I’m missing too much.

It’s a spooky episode that makes the most of the remote location. A reoccurring motif are chases through deep snow, with a nightmare quality to the slow motion pursuit. There is also the repeated danger of a trap or pit suddenly opening in the snow beneath you, sending you to a frozen death.

Given the hard sci-fi flavor of most episodes of this series, it’s unusual to see the classic monster movie subtext of fear and superstition being the true danger at work here. Woo is not seen to do anything violent when not protecting the Snow Girl. Yet this a world where destructive monsters are out there and, since way back in the first episode, the SSSP’s policy has been to kill on sight. So there’s some real conflict over what is the correct action here. As is becoming common, it’s Ide who has the most doubts, particularly since he starts to identify with the Snow Girl, as they both lost their mothers as children.

But let us not overlook the gleefully silly scenes of the SSSP zipping across the slopes in the helmets and uniforms — but I guess they are designed to provide protection in battle and from all sorts of hostile environments, so maybe they do make great snow gear.

Given the small details I go on about in these posts, it sometimes feels like this show is deliberately messing with me. When Hayata, recovering from an injury, transforms into Ultraman to fight Woo, we cut from inside the ski lodge to Ultraman standing outside it — contrasting from other episodes where Ultraman has erupted out of the building Hayata was in. You think, okay, I guess he wanted to avoid destroying the building this time (they were there to help out the ski resort after all) — but then Ultraman immediately dodges Woo’s charge so that the creature crashes into the lodge, flattening it.

The tussle between Ultraman and Woo is interrupted by the sad death of the Snow Girl, who has been chased to exhaustion by the angry villagers and left to perish in the cold. Woo slowly fades into nothingness. The SSSP and ourselves are left to ponder just what the truth was. Was Woo, as Ide thought, the spirit of the Snow Girl’s mother? Was it a projection of her mind? Was she herself just a spirit? I wonder about the white rabbit that played with her. Where it and Woo both manifestation of the Snow Mountain Phantom? A sad and downbeat episode, and one where the good guys did not win, even if the monster menace was removed.

Who Goes There

Some episodes of Ultraman are traditional kaiju stories condensed down to 25 minutes. Some are well constructed mysteries, or satires, or experimental art projects. And sometimes it seems like the writers listened in on a group of eight year-olds playing make-believe and took down an exact transcript of the kids’ game and used it for a script.

The episode title might be a clue to getting a handle on just what is going here, since it seems a direct call out to John W. Campbell’s short story by that name — adapted multiple times into movies as The Thing. The alien of the short story was a shape changer that duplicated and replaced humans, but the 1951 movie made it a plant-based vampire. Keronia is a mixture of both — though its origins are in the jungle and there’s no extraterrestrial involvement this time.

That’s a solid starting point for a story. And we get some odd but believable details from the world of this show. Such as Bolivia having an SSSP branch, and that the strange visitor, Goto, was recruited as a child (like Hoshino was). After that, things just get nuts. I usually try to use a summary of an episode as a framework for my notes and commentary, but there is so much crazy in this story that I wouldn’t know where to start. Maybe with the advice that the SSSP check on the usually usage of the English term “Rest Room”? After that I’m flummoxed.

I think the biggest problem is the sudden change in trajectory the plot takes in the last act. We go into it being told that this is a vampire story — it “Features Vampire Plant Keronia” in the credits. A lot of vampire stuff, a lot of Dracula stuff, goes on, with Goto infiltrating human society, planting seeds of infestation, stalking people at night, etc. And then there’s an abrupt pivot. It’s like, say Van Helsing, Mina, and company are about to close in on Dracula’s lair when he swoops out and says: “Ah-hah! You didn’t count my… fleet of flying saucers!” And he then grows in a 50m giant.

All the puzzling activity in this story may have been part of the subtle master plan of the super intelligent Keronia, yet in the end though it appears they forgot to put any weapons or defenses on their invasion fleet, as a single VTOL was knocking a lot of them out of the sky.

Earlier episodes would set up circumstances where Hayata would be separated from his teammates, giving him the chance to transform. Now he replies on the technique of just running very fast and hiding. And note, this time he bursts out the building Hayata was in, the opposite of what happened last time in “Phantom.” I think Ultraman just decides to appear in whatever way he thinks will look cool. Giant Goto holds his own for a bit, until Ultraman pulls out yet another superpower, the Ultra-Attack Ray, which is just showing off at this point.