Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah/Gojira tai Kingugidora (1991/1998) **½
With this third installment in the Heisei series, Toho made the wise decision to resurrect one of the classic monsters to serve as Godzilla’s opponent. Like its immediate predecessor, this film has an elaborate, multi-layered story, but unfortunately, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah/Gojira tai Kingugidora isn’t nearly as smart a movie as it thinks it is. It is nothing if not ambitious, with a script that bounces back and forth in time between 1992, 1944, and 2204, and which attempts to say all sorts of profound things about Japanese nationalism, Western exploitiveness, the dangers and temptations of radical politics, and (of course) nuclear power, while devising new origin-stories for Godzilla and King Ghidorah, to boot. But unfortunately, the time travel angle pilfers shamelessly from the Terminator movies while lacking even their limited and opportunistically employed grasp of the theoretical paradoxes associated with the concept, and the Socially Significant Messages are laid on so thickly while being so obviously at cross-purposes to each other that it is very difficult to understand anything that the movie is trying to say.
I should probably also mention that it’s going to be something of a long haul before any monsters show up. A formidably large part of the film focuses on the appearance of a surprisingly classy-looking UFO in the skies over Japan. After buzzing several major cities, it finally sets down not far from the site of Godzilla’s last appearance in Godzilla vs. Biolante. In a scene strikingly reminiscent of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the Japanese military surrounds the landing site, and waits with guns drawn for something to happen. Eventually, a trio of apparent humans appear in a flash of green light in front of the ship. Two of the crewmembers-- their leader, Wilson (Chuck Wilson), and another who I swear introduces himself as Glenn Chico (Richard Berger)-- are Western men, the third is a woman named Emi Kano (Anna Nakagawa-- “I’m Japanese!” she helpfully tells us). Wilson explains to the head of the security service (kaiju eiga old-timer Kenji Sahara, whose career goes all the way back to Rodan and Godzilla: King of the Monsters), who followed the army to the area, that they are actually not space travelers, but time travelers-- representatives of the Earth Union, which governs the entire world in the year 2204. They have come with an important warning for the Japanese people. Sometime very soon, they say, Godzilla will appear in Japan and destroy so many nuclear power plants that the entire island chain will be rendered permanently uninhabitable by the resulting pollution within a few generations.
Meanwhile, a science fiction author by the name of Terasawa (Kosuke Toyohara), who would very much like to make the move to writing non-fiction about the arts and literature, receives a call from some magazine or other, asking him to write a story for them about the recent rash of UFO sightings. He’s not interested, but he would like to write a story about another bizarre event from the week’s news; apparently, a World War II veteran was recently thrown out of a museum called Dinosaur World for causing a scene-- something about there being dinosaurs still living on Earth, which will soon come out of hiding to save Japan from the West. Terasawa wants to interview this man-- wouldn’t you?
The old man (who, perplexingly, is played by Koichi Ueda, an actor nearly young enough to be his grandson) is eager to cooperate-- he’s been itching to tell this story for 48 years! According to him, his unit on tiny Lagos Island was the only element of the Japanese garrison of the Marshall Islands to survive the American amphibious assault on February 6, 1944. The rest of the garrison was, to a man, slain by the American marines, but his unit was saved when a huge carnivorous dinosaur attacked the Americans and drove them back into the sea. Intrigued by the story, Terasawa seeks out a businessman named Shindo (Yoshio Tsuchiya, from Attack of the Mushroom People and Yog: Monster from Space), who owns Dinosaur World (probably not a coincidence), and who was the commander of the man’s unit on Lagos. Shindo at first dodges Terasawa’s questions, but begins to cooperate when Terasawa tells him that it is his hypothesis that the dinosaur that saved Shindo’s men was actually Godzilla. You see, Lagos is not far away from the site of the American H-bomb test that was believed to have created Godzilla back in 1954. If Shindo’s dinosaur was still alive in 1954, it seems quite likely that it served as the raw material for the monster-making mutation. (It’s certainly a hell of a lot more plausible than the mutant-iguana origin that a couple of Western hacks, who shall remain nameless for their protection, came up with for their Godzilla travesty in 1998!)
And as it happens, those folks from 2204 say that Terasawa is right. In fact, they have all read the book on the subject that he’s going to write in a few years, so it was actually Terasawa who gave them the idea in the first place, and it is for this reason that they insist that he be brought to the security service headquarters to help them carry out their plan. On the face of it, it seems like a pretty good plan, too. Wilson means to send Emi, Terasawa, a scientist named Mazaki (Katsuhiko Sasaki, from Evil of Dracula and Terror of Mechagodzilla), and Miki Saegusa (Megumi Ogata, reprising her Godzilla vs. Biolante role-- don’t ask me why she needs to be here) back in time to 1944. They will go to Lagos, abduct the dinosaur, and send it far away from the island so that it will never be turned into Godzilla. And just so that there are no problems, all the hard work will be carried out by M-11 (Robert Scott Field), a super-powered android the time travelers brought along with them (and who will have you thinking even more about The Terminator, and for that matter, “The Six Million Dollar Man” before it’s all over). In what is absolutely the only thing that this movie says about time travel that makes any kind of sense (but not too much), Wilson explains that Shindo must not go on the trip, because, where they are going, there will already be one Shindo, and to bring a second along is just asking for a time paradox. (Specifically, Wilson claims that the simultaneous presence of two Shindos will cause one of them to cease to exist. Mazaki rightly points out that the present-day Shindo will cease to exist anyway if they kidnap the dinosaur before it drives off the Americans.) After a little more dicking around, the team is assembled, and the trip to Lagos begins.
And at long last, we get a monster. Wilson’s time shuttle (hey, what would you call it?) lands on Lagos right in the middle of the American bombardment. We now get to witness for ourselves what the old man told us about earlier, and it’s actually pretty impressive. (Well, the monster is anyway. The fact that the American landing force consists of about 15 guys, and that the heavy cruiser that’s doing the shelling is portrayed as being under Army command [there are no colonels in the Navy, you know] make for some serious eye-rolling.) The “Godzillasaurus” is quite cool, and really does resemble the 90’s-vintage Godzilla suit, shrunken down and reinterpreted with an eye toward greater realism, though it uses the upright stance ascribed to Theropods in former times, rather than the horizontal-backed stance that paleontologists now believe the fossil record indicates. Particularly striking is the sequence in which the American warship shells the dinosaur from offshore. Fortunately for Shindo and his unit, the time travelers are unable to locate the dinosaur until after it has fought off the U.S. Marines. They then wait until the Tokyo Express (the Japanese destroyer squadron that was used to evacuate encircled Imperial forces by night during the war) arrives to haul Shindo and his men away before teleporting the wounded Godzillasaurus to the Bering Sea, far from any American H-bomb tests, and return to 1992.
But there’s just one problem. For reasons that initially defy explanation, Emi brought along her pet dorats, a trio of weird-looking bat-dragon-furby things about the size of a cat, when she went to 1944. She then let them loose shortly before coming back to 1992, and it seems that, by a process even harder to swallow than that which usually creates atomic/toxic monsters, the 1954 H-bomb test transformed them into King Ghidorah, a monster even bigger, and arguably even nastier, than Godzilla. When the team arrives in the present, they find Japan being ravaged by this new monster, which appeared, or so say the characters, just as Godzilla vanished. (I ask you: If Godzilla now no longer exists because he was prevented from being created in the first place, why in the hell do the characters have any memory of him?!?! Why isn’t the anti-Godzilla department of the security service, “Counter-G,” not now “Counter-KG,” the anti-King Ghidorah department? And if King Ghidorah was created in 1954 by American H-bomb tests, why hasn’t anybody ever had to deal with him before in the 48 years that he has existed? You see what I mean about the movie having no grasp of the problems of time travel? Even “The Outer Limits” did better than this!) It now comes out that this was Wilson’s plan all along. He and his people are not the representatives of the future world government that they billed themselves as, nor does the story they told about the destruction of Japan contain the slightest bit of truth. Instead, they are members of a radical Western political front whose aim is to prevent Japan from becoming the world-dominating superpower that it is in 2204. They deliberately arranged the creation of King Ghidorah from the dorats because the later creatures could be controlled by microwaves. Thus, Wilson now has a monster under his complete control that is capable of destroying Japan-- a much more reliable strategy than waiting around for Godzilla to do the job. The Japanese are now in the highly ironic position of having to search for a way to revive their eternal nemesis, Godzilla, in order to save themselves from the rampaging King Ghidorah.
It should come as no surprise that they succeed in doing just that, but the method by which it happens is one of the better touches in the movie. It is revealed that one of Japan’s foremost defense companies had secretly constructed a powerful nuclear submarine (which, by the way, is represented by the same model that was used for the Russian sub in Godzilla 1985/Gojira 1984), capable of fulfilling both tactical and strategic missions. (This plot device is an intriguing echo of the secret buildup of the Japanese navy in the 1930’s, paralleling in particular the construction of the Yamato-class super-dreadnoughts.) The security service decides to send this sub to the Bering Sea to irradiate the Godzillasaurus with its nuclear missiles. The catch is that the dinosaur was already irradiated when a Soviet submarine was lost at sea in its vicinity, and the Japanese super-sub arrives to find Godzilla alive and well. Godzilla then destroys the sub, unleashing such a tremendous nuclear explosion that he is mutated again, into a monster fully double his original size, whose power is so great as to be nearly unimaginable.
So of course, the new and improved Godzilla kicks King Ghidorah’s ass, although it’s a close call until Emi, Terasawa, and a reprogrammed M-11 destroy the computer that Wilson was using to control the latter monster. I won’t say too much about what happens next, because it’s too cool for me to give away, but the operative question is: okay, we’ve gotten rid of King Ghidorah... now what in the hell are we going to do with Godzilla? The answer involves what is possibly the most impressive kaiju of the heisei series: Mecha-King Ghidorah! Now is that cool, or what?
I’d like to say that Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah succeeds on the strength of its monster battles, but the fact of the matter is that they aren’t quite good enough to elevate it above upper-echelon mediocrity. The problem is that they come so late in the movie that their overall effect on its watchability is greatly restricted, and that the stiffness of the new-generation monster suits forces an over-reliance on stand-off fighting using the monsters’ breath-weapons. There is nothing here that approaches the intensity of the monster duels in Gigantis the Fire Monster or War of the Gargantuas, and the film suffers because of it. This is especially so considering the abject muddle-headedness of the story, which is every bit as multi-layered as the story itself. The stridently nationalistic tone of the 1944 scenes, reinforced by the fact that the man behind the plot to destroy Japan is clearly an American, is glaringly at odds with the sympathetic portrayal given to Emi, who, while she may be horrified at Wilson’s methods, clearly shares his sense that Japan’s domination of the future world is the grossest injustice. Similarly, what are we to make of Shindo? It’s obvious that he is supposed to be a symbolic character-- symbolic, most likely, of Japan itself-- but it is difficult to fathom just what the movie is trying to say through him. The central facet of his character is his relationship with Godzilla, to whom he repeatedly refers as “our savior,” but if, as usual, Godzilla is taken to stand for the atom bomb, this makes no sense at all. Is it possible that the message here is that, had the U.S. not nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki and been forced instead to invade the Japanese Home Islands, that the resulting devastation would have been such that Japan would never have recovered, and that Japan thus paradoxically owes its present prosperity to the horror of nuclear war? That would be a fascinating position to try to argue, but if that’s what’s going on here, how do you square that with the mostly unspoken but plainly visible subtext of anti-Americanism that underlies this and so many other Godzilla movies? Or is this ambiguity itself supposed to be the point? The fact that Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is clearly meant to be taken as a serious, meaningful movie makes it all the more frustrating that whatever axe it’s grinding is being ground in a windowless, soundproof room.