As usual during the school year I haven’t had much time for blogging here, but I do have an article up on Horror Homeroom about the different ways the 1954 The Creature from the Black Lagoon and the 2017 The Shape of Water present their aquatic stars.
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.