Godzilla vs Megaguirus: Different Day, Same Godzilla

Continuing my thoughts on the Millennium Series of Godzilla films. I’m not going to be summarizing the plot here. If you haven’t seen the film, check out a site such as Wikizilla for a story recap. You can assume Spoilers.

While I wrote a whole post about it, most of my thoughts on the previous Godzilla film in the Millennium Series, Godzilla 2000, can be summed up by saying I felt the filmmakers had taken on the job of relaunching the Godzilla franchise and then didn’t really know what to do with it. The subsequent film, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, is not well regarded by fans, nor was it financially successful. Yet it deserves credit for attempting to address most of Godzilla 2000’s major faults, and for presenting a story that has more focus, direction, and a narrative conclusion.

The Millennium series takes a very different approach to the narrative continuity of Godzilla. Most of the films are standalone tales, each its own distinct sequel or follow up to the original Godzilla. Godzilla vs. Megaguirus takes that idea even farther, proposing an entire alternative history triggered by the events of 1954. That makes a lot of logical sense when you stop to think about it. Would events of history just continue unaffected by the appearance of Godzilla and his leveling of Tokyo? This world also appears to never had an Oxygen Destroyer, and that Godzilla, after his first appearance, just became a periodic menace that has appeared again and again over the decades. The capital of the country has been moved to Osaka, and Japan has had to develop alternative energy sources since nuclear power and even what is referred to as “plasma energy” inevitably attracts Godzilla’s attention.

This alternative timeline is shown through a series of historical vignettes, including one depicting the military trying to take down Godzilla during a 1996 rampage. It is a rare instance of a small squad engaging in direct human-to-kaiju fighting. That’s common in Ultraman TV episodes, but in Godzilla movies, attacks are usually attempted by waves of jets and tanks. The human-scaled point of view is emphasized here — and made possible by this movie’s Godzilla being a relatively smaller incarnation, 55 meters tall (as he was the first film). Other films have made him taller and taller, scaling him up to better match modern skyscrapers. There’s even a later scene where a character is actually clinging to the spines on Godzilla’s back.

The battle does not go well, and results in the death of the squad commander. Surviving member Kiriko Tsujimori recovers his dog tags and swears vengeance, setting into motion elements of the main story which is set five years later, when an anti-Godzilla branch of the Japanese Self-Defense Force is testing a new weapon that will hopefully eliminate Godzilla once and for all.

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus was directed by Masaaki Tezuka, his first time leading a Godzilla project (he’d been 2nd assistant director in a couple earlier ones). The script is again by Hiroshi Kashiwabara and Wataru Mimura who had written Godzilla 2000. The disjointed story of Godzilla 2000 appears to have come from how the collaborative screenplay was written. The two writers each worked on separate sections of the script — which then had parts reworked by the director. No single, unifying vision tied everything together. Some signs of this flawed approach show up in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus as well, particularly with characters and situations in the first half of the film that have little to do with what happens in the second.

There are three main characters who provide the human point of view of events — each of whom has some effect on what happens during the story, which alone is a big improvement on Godzilla 2000. Kiriko Tsujimori, whom we met in that earlier historical flashback, is now a Major leading a team called the G-Graspers, but we also start off spending a lot of time with a young boy, Jun, who witnesses the government weapon test and its unexpected side-effect: the release of a giant prehistoric insect from a time/space warp, which visits our era just long enough to lay an egg cluster. Jun is an example of what I mentioned earlier. He seems a fragment of one draft of the script who is largely left behind when another version of the story takes over (not unlike Bryan Cranston in the first Legendary Pictures Godzilla). Jun does provides the plot mechanics of carrying the egg cluster into Tokyo — which could be a commentary on the danger from people who acquire invasive species and then abandon them in ponds or sewers when they grow tired of keeping them as pets or decorations. That theme never gets developed further, just as so many ideas came and went in Godzilla 2000. A much simpler way of getting the eggs into town would have worked just as well. The boy also provides some exposition on the origins and lifecycle of the insect, but all that information is later repeated by the G-Graspers’ resident gray haired scientist. His third narrative function is that his relationship with Tsujimori gives her an opportunity to express a more traditional feminine and maternal side to her personality — which itself seems awkwardly tacked on and unnecessary.

Major Tsujimori does fall into the trope of a character who lost someone important to Godzilla’s rampages and seeks revenge. Yet Tsujimori is no Ahab (or Major Yuki from Godzilla vs Space Godzilla). She is not obsessed or irrational. She’s just very motivated. In the climatic scene she appears to be sacrificing herself in a kamikaze flight to target the Dimension Tide weapon on Godzilla, but actually she ejects and survives. Tying her former C.O.’s dog tags to the flight stick, and leaving them behind, is a strong element of narrative closure for her, as she takes her best shot a Godzilla and moves on. While is not exactly a deep character, Tsujimori does have some complexity and an arc that goes somewhere.

A third character is the engineer and inventor Hajime Kudo. He’s mostly there as a piece of plot mechanics, to demonstrate sincere competency vs bureaucracy, to provide tension by solving technical problems at the last moment, and to have a crush on Major Tsujimori. He embodies several archetypal features of eccentric characters in Godzilla movies — and seems an inspiration for Yun Arikawa in the Godzilla: Singular Point animated series, particularly with his AI assistant, who flies about his computer screen while hacking system and whatnot (and thus providing more interesting visuals than just watching somebody type).

The movie is called Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, so I should get to the two of them. There’s a trend in the antagonist kaiju of the era for them to go through a series of metamorphosises before developing an ultimate form for the final confrontation with the “hero” monster. This usually involves an early “swarm” stage: Destroyah, Legion (from the Gamera franchise), and now Megaguirus. I’d posit this is part of the influence of manga and anime on kaiju movies, where one opponent can serve double or triple duty acting as a whole series of opponents for the hero to fight (see Freeza from Dragonball Z as a model for this). This suits a giant bug well enough here, and also provides a better motivation than many kaiju get: Megaguirus is just following its natural lifecycle. The Godzilla of this world himself is mostly looking for energy sources and then causes trouble when people or other monsters are in his way.

The different forms of Megaguirus are presented through a mixture of computer and practical effects. Some shots involve composing the monsters into live action footage, though the final confrontation is mostly traditional tokusatsu with miniature landscapes and buildings, along with pyrotechnics smoke, fire, and explosions. Some very recognizable real locations, such as the Fuji Television Building, are carefully depicted. The flying Megaguirus is another wire-hung puppet, along the lines of Mothra and Basra, yet the combat with Godzilla gets quite brutal with lots of biting and stabbing. The physicality of the combat has advanced a lot from the beam-battles of earlier films, though not yet rivaling the cinematic sophistication (or body horror) of Shinji Higuchi’s Gamera trilogy.

In the end, the story of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is straightforward and direct. Which is something it gets criticized for, for just being the same old thing we’ve seen before. Military organization tries to hunt down and destroy Godzilla, with distractions provided by the appearance of a secondary monster threat. While I believe story and character are important in kaiju eiga, if a given film provides a presentation of a variation on classic themes that is interesting and engaging, I’m fine with that. Particularly if it improves and advances on what came before, as Godzilla vs. Megaguirus does over the failings of Godzilla 2000. That’s a minority opinion among Godzilla fans, I know. For me, the film, whose full Japanese title is Godzilla X Megaguirus: G Extermination Strategy, delivers exactly what it says on the box.

All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go, Godzilla 2000: Millennium.

Beginning my thoughts on the Millennium Series of Godzilla films. I’m not going to be summarizing the plots here. If you haven’t seen these films, check out a site such as Wikizilla for a story recap. You can assume Spoilers.

1995’s Godzilla vs Destroyah was the end of an era in the Godzilla film franchise. Room was being made for what was hoped to a series of American produced Godzilla features, beginning with Tristar’s 1998 Godzilla, directed by Roland Emmerich. That didn’t exactly work out as hoped, so Toho Pictures got back in the game by beginning a new series of films for the arriving 21st Century.

Godzilla 2000: Millennium, released in 1999, was directed by Takao Okawara, written by Hiroshi Kashiwabara and Wataru Mimura. All had worked on previous Godzilla films. Special Effects director Kenji Suzuki had been 1st assistant special effects director since 1991’s Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, but this was his first time leading the effects for a Godzilla film.

Godzilla 2000 begins the Millennium Series of Godzilla films. Unlike the Heisei series, or even the earlier Showa films, this new era would not attempt to create continuity from one film to the next. Each — with one eventual exception — was a stand alone story, looking back only to the 1954 Godzilla as a predecessor. This approach allowed the possibility of experimentation, with each creative team bringing their own take on the premise. It also has the potential for each one-off film to seem inconsequential. After all, whatever happens, the next film just reboots everything again. Godzilla 2000 suffers from just that sense of a story that is set in motion only to mostly spin its wheels and go nowhere. It ends up as a demonstration of the many potential problems in creating a successful Godzilla narrative, and just gives up without finding any answers to them.

I actually saw the edited and dubbed English language version of Godzilla 2000 in a movie theater — it was the last Japanese Godzilla film to get theatrical distribution until 2016’s Shin Godzilla. In a DVD commentary track, the American localizers basically admit to not understanding the original script and just making up there own version— as well as laboring to “improve” the script by adding more jokes and silly lines, trying to make it into a campy, tongue-in-cheek story. That is not a satisfactory solution to the film’s problems. Despite some early clowning and slapstick (on the level of someone getting hit in the head repeatedly for no good reason) this is not a comedy. Any humorous tone falls away as the story progresses, as do many ideas and themes that get introduced only to be set aside and left to fade away.

In my posts about the 90’s Gamera series, I bring up the problem of relative scale in kaiju eiga narratives. How do you fit a monster-sized story and a human-sized story together on the same screen? Godzilla 2000 starts with a promising idea: Yuji Shinoda and Shiro Miyasaka were once two young, enthusiastic scientists working together studying Godzilla. Their friendship was broken when Miyasaka joined a government agency dedicated to destroying the monster, while Shinoda believed Godzilla should be learned from. Shinoda eventually quit and founded the Godzilla Predication Network, a civilian organization that tracks Godzilla’s movements and appearances. Shinoda and his GPN function much like storm-watchers and tornado-chasers that issue warnings while collecting scientific data. To them Godzilla is a dangerous force of nature, with the potential for great destruction, but also to be a source of knowledge. Miyasaka ends up part of Crisis Control Intelligence, an agency with authority to direct the military in hunting down and destroying Godzilla. This ruptured friendship of two people with two conflicting points of view on a dangerous topic has a lot of potential. It makes the Godzilla situation relevant to their relationship and the resolution of their personal conflict relevant to dealing with Godzilla. Or rather, a script built around that situation could have worked well. Only this movie does not do much with it. The two do reconnect in a lab while studying Godzilla’s cells and Miyasaka eventually comes around to Shinoda’s point of view. None of that ends up mattering to the story.

That’s the scaling problem. Nothing the humans do in this film ends up affecting anything that happens. Shinoda’s personal antagonist, and the man Miyasaka works for, is Mitsuo Katagiri, the head of CCI, who has the authority to order everyone around, even the military, despite continually making very bad strategic decisions. He repeatedly assumes Earth technology can handle the extraterrestrial menace that eventually arises, despite having no idea of how advanced or powerful this alien is. A central action sequence in the story revolves around CCI making a desperate and dangerous attempt to use high explosives to blow up the Millennian UFO — and which has no effect whatsoever. You’d think they’d try the super-powerful armor piercing missiles that had been employed against Godzilla earlier in the film, but those are yet another forgotten story element. Katagiri is the sort of plot device character who, whenever he makes a decision or evaluation about something, you can comfortably assume that he will be wrong.

Katagiri does get a moment of doomed glory at the end of the film where he literally stands up to Godzilla and becomes one of the few characters in the franchise to look Godzilla directly in the eyes. It’s a striking moment, but would be more powerful if it wasn’t a pale repetition of the confrontation between Godzilla and Shindo in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah.

Humans are amazingly ineffective throughout the film. By the concluding sequences they are left just standing around making not very well supported assumptions about what’s taking place. That is not an uncommon situation to find at the end of Godzilla film, when the final kaiju throwdown gets all the cinematic attention. Yet, usually the humans have by then done something — even if it’s to make the situation worse and heighten the tension.

As you can tell, I am one of those people who think the human parts of a Godzilla movie are important. Still, we should look at the star of the film himself. Unfortunately he does not fair much better, narratively. Godzilla 2000 presents a world that has Godzilla in it, as a known menace, with no other backstory or context. Godzilla shows up from time to time, causes trouble, and that’s it. There is some speculation by the humans that he is going after energy sources, such as power stations, but without any explanation or motivation (In 1984’s Return of Godzilla, he rips up nuclear power plants to feed off them, but there’s nothing like that here). He ultimately attacks the Millennian out of revenge for his defeat after their first encounter and that’s as much of a motivation as ever gets presented. The film even ends without any clear resolution or conclusion. Godzilla defeats Orga, then starts incinerating Tokyo. It seems like once the monster vs. monster plot was wrapped up nobody knew what to do next, other than have the humans make a few cryptic remarks and it’s the End.

I have made a couple references to Godzilla’s main foe in the film: the Millennian, extraterrestrials who crashed on Earth millions of years ago, only to lay dormant on the dark floor of the ocean. The humans announce that the Millennian are somehow solar powered and need sunlight to stay active — until the film’s climatic sequence which takes place at night and so nobody mentions the solar power thing again. Much of what you can find about the Millennian online includes information from manga, games, and other supplemental material. The film itself is pretty is pretty vague about what they/it are. While the main goal of this extraterrestrial menace is finding biological material they can absorb to give themselves a new organic form, they are also mentioned as transforming Earth’s atmosphere to suit themselves and hacking our computer network as part of an effort the create a 1000 year kingdom to dominate the planet. Those are more ideas that come and go so quickly you can miss them (the English dub even left them out of their version). Godzilla’s super-regenerative cells turn out to be the thing they are looking for — though after absorbing some they are unable to control them and end up mutating in a giant, vampiric kaiju. Actually all that is based on interpretations made by the humans with scant evidence, and given their record for correctly evaluating things, I’m not sure how much I trust their theories.

In the overall saga of the Godzilla movie franchise, Godzilla 2000 does have some significance for its experiments with new ways of doing special effects and, beginning here, computer effects as well. Not only is the Millennian UFO, and its first octopus-like form, presented through CGI, there is even a shot of computer rendered Godzilla, swimming under the ocean. The film utilizes greenscreens to composite the suit actor on filmed plates of real locations. These don’t work perfectly, by modern standards, but I remember seeing these sequences at the movie theater and being struck by how different and “realistic” they looked. Other shots, involving just superimposing flaming explosions on top of filmed footage are less impressive. It is not until the final fight sequence that we get traditional suit performers wrestling in the middle of a model city — and even then some shots are enhanced with composited CG elements. This film is in era of Shinji Higuchi’s pushing the envelope with the effects work on the new Gamera series. Godzilla 2000 does not look nearly as good as what was going on in the Heisei Gamera trilogy, but it is interesting to see new experiments and techniques.

We also get a different looking Godzilla in this film. He is greener, spikier, more reptilian, with a glowing orange spines, and a breath weapon distinctly signifying a heat attack rather than problematic atomic radiation. It all suits a more aggressive and bitey Godzilla, who engages his foe in a much closer, direct combat that his Heisei predecessor did.

I have to be more negative than I prefer to be when examining this movie. It could have done a lot more with what it brought to the table, but the result is ultimately forgettable. It did set the new series in motion towards much better and developed takes on a Godzilla for a new century.