Terror of Mechagodzilla / Terror of Godzilla / Revenge of Mechagodzilla / Monsters from an Unknown Planet / Mekagojira no Gyakushu (1975/1978) ***½
It’s good to see something you love go out on a high note. Most of the Godzilla movies made during the 1970’s were pretty tawdry affairs, with miserly budgets, increasingly silly storylines best suited to the undemanding tastes of a juvenile audience, and a generalized lack of the care and imagination that had made the series so popular in the 50’s and 60’s. So it is tremendously satisfying to see that Terror of Mechagodzilla / Mekagojira no Gyakushu, the last of the 15 Showa Godzilla movies (the ones made during the reign of the emperor Hirohito, as opposed to the Heisei films, made during the current emperor’s reign), recaptures so much of the series’s lost glory. Gone is Jun Fukuda, with his loopy, spy-movie plotting and whimsical directorial style. Gone is Masaru Sato, with his painfully hip jazz- and pop-inspired scoring. Gone is the recycled footage from earlier movies that substituted for the spectacular action sequences the budgets of Godzilla on Monster Island and Godzilla vs. Megalon couldn’t possibly afford. And gone— hallelujah!— are the goddamned Kennies, except for a perfunctory ten-second shot just before one of the monster battle scenes. In place of these miserable, unwanted things, Terror of Mechagodzilla gives us the long-awaited return of Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube, along with the darkest, most serious screenplay since at least Godzilla vs. the Thing/Godzilla vs. Mothra/Mosura tai Gojira.
After a quick recap of the two key battle scenes from Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster/Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla/Gojira tai Mekagojira (a use of recycled footage which I will allow on the grounds that VCRs hadn’t been invented yet), the movie gets right down to business, with a high-tech submarine scouring the floor of the ocean off Okinawa for the wreckage of Mechagodzilla. The sub is in the right place, but the crew can’t find any trace of the alien machine. Something sure as hell finds them, though— a huge aquatic monster that looks kind of like a cross between Godzilla and a seahorse. The creature swims in frantic circles around the sub, creating a powerful whirlpool, which sucks the vessel to destruction in the monster’s waiting arms.
A bit later, back in Tokyo, some Interpol types under the command of Chief Tagawa (Tadao Nakamura, of The Mysterians and The Secret of the Telegian) are gathered around the usual map-and-table ensemble, discussing both the destruction of the sub and the disappearance of Mechagodzilla’s remains. Tagawa’s men have recovered the submarine’s equivalent of an airliner’s in-flight recorder, and are thus apprised of the sub crew’s belief that they were being attacked by “some kind of huge dinosaur.” With that in mind, they have called in biologist Dr. Akira Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki, from Lake of Dracula and Prophecies of Nostradamus) for a consultation. Ichinose points out that the region of sea in which the sub was lost corresponds quite neatly with what Professor Shinji Mafune said was the habitat of a sea monster he called “Titanosaurus.” Mafune was forced to resign in disgrace over his claims that there was a dinosaur living in the sea off Okinawa, and his even wilder-sounding claims to be able to control the creature by means of an electromagnetic device he had developed for use on less exotic marine life only compounded the professor’s problems. But if the submarine was destroyed by a dinosaur, there’s a good chance that dinosaur is Mafune’s Titanosaurus. And if it is Titanosaurus, and Mafune really can control the huge beastie, then it makes good sense for the scientific community to take back all the mean things that were said about Mafune, and try to enlist his help in addressing the possible threat posed by the monster. Having received the go-ahead from Interpol, Ichinose heads off to see Mafune at the earliest opportunity.
It’s a bit late for that, though. Mafune’s daughter, Katsuma (Tomoko Ai), informs Ichinose that her father is dead when the biologist shows up on the doorstep looking for information about Titanosaurus. Indeed, not only is Mafune dead, but Katsuma burned all of his notes years ago, in accordance with the old scientist’s final wish. Ichinose leaves empty-handed, and Katsuma goes down to the basement, where we see— that’s right— Shinji Mafune (Akihiko Hirata, from Godzilla: King of the Monsters and Gorath)! But just because the professor is alive after all doesn’t mean he’s going to be doing any favors for Dr. Ichinose or Interpol. When Katsuma walks in, her father is meeting with a man (Goro Mutsumi) who will seem strangely familiar to anyone who’s seen Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster. He may no longer have that funky blue-black streak around his left eye, but this man is none other than the leader of the aliens from the Third Planet of the Black Hole, creators of Mechagodzilla and would-be conquerors of Earth. If that guy’s still around, it would certainly explain what happened to Mechagodzilla’s remains. The aliens want Mafune on their side because they’ve come to the conclusion that a living kaiju might be better than a mechanical one after all, and they hope to exploit Mafune’s ability to control Titanosaurus in their renewed efforts to seize power over the Earth. (And while we’re on the subject of what the aliens want, you’ll note that this movie’s creators have gone back and provided the invaders with a good reason to desire the conquest of Earth in the first place— that black hole their planet orbits is slowly sucking their homeworld in toward its event horizon, so the aliens are going to need a new place to set themselves up right quick.) Meanwhile, the invaders have rebuilt Mechagodzilla with new and more powerful weaponry, and have begun making cryptic remarks about providing the giant robot with a “living brain.” As for Mafune, the aliens apparently saved his daughter’s life under circumstances that are as yet shrouded in mystery, while the snubbing he has received from his former colleagues has turned him into quite the little misanthrope. I tell you, it never pays to mock a scientist in these movies.
Anyway, Ichinose continues his investigations, and while he does so, he keeps running into Katsuma. If you’re beginning to think the girl has a crush on him, you’re probably on to something. The aliens aren’t very happy about this, of course, but they’d probably be even more upset if they realized that the human prisoner who briefly escapes from his confinement in the basement of their secret headquarters is able to pass a vital message on to Interpol before he is caught and killed. The escapee randomly encounters a maintenance man who is working on a drainage pipe near the aliens’ underground base, and he gives the startled worker a chip of space titanium— the metal from which Mechagodzilla is constructed— with instructions to bring it to the authorities. This has the effect of alerting Tagawa and Ichinose to the continued presence of the invaders on Earth, stepping up their efforts to track them down.
It is against this backdrop that Titanosaurus makes his city-smashing debut. Mafune unleashes the monster on Japan with Katsuma somehow controlling it from the front lines, and it proves just as invulnerable to modern military weapons as all the other kaiju that have been known to sign up for the annual Destruction Tours of the island chain. But there are two things Titanosaurus is not invulnerable to. One of these is ultrasonic waves— high-frequency sonar, for instance— which seem to play havoc with its senses. The other, of course, is Godzilla, who follows Titanosaurus ashore and picks a fight. Titanosaurus is strong, though, and only an injury to Katsuma which the editing of the version I saw most recently makes very difficult to understand (more on this later) causes the monster to lose interest and return to the sea.
This brings us to the subject of the aliens and their relationship with Mafune’s daughter. That near-fatal incident from which the invaders saved her turns out to have been more than just near-fatal. While assisting her father with some experiment or other, the girl was electrocuted and killed. Fortunately for him, Mafune had already befriended the aliens by this point, and their scientists were able to revive Katsuma by turning her into a cyborg. They patch her up again when some of their agents bring her back home, and this time, they install a remote control system for Mechagodzilla in her brain. Ohhhh... so that’s what they meant when they said they were going to give the robot a live brain! Mafune starts to get second thoughts about throwing his lot in with the invaders’ at this point, but there really isn’t a hell of a lot he can do now. Mechagodzilla is ready to go, and Titanosaurus has recovered from its clash with Godzilla, so the alien leader figures the time has come to launch the final conquest of Earth. But as the monsters get moving— and even Godzilla shows himself to be no match for their combined power— Ichinose finally puts all the pieces together, and crashes the party at Chez Mafune. Being confronted with the man she has recently come to love gives Katsuma’s human side the strength it needs to overcome the programming of her cyborg side, and she shoots herself with one of the aliens’ rayguns, leaving Titanosaurus and Mechagodzilla to face Godzilla with no central control. Without Katsuma, the one attacking monster has no particular desire to level Tokyo, and the other is just a machine again. Godzilla takes down his robot double while Interpol’s agents use the ultrasonic ray they’ve been developing on Ichinose’s advice to drive Titanosaurus back into the sea.
The best indication of how much more serious Terror of Mechagodzilla is than its immediate predecessors is probably the increasingly ugly fate that has befallen it in American release. Alone among the fifteen entries in the Showa series, this movie generally plays in a drastically edited-for-content form. By the late 70’s, American distributors had followed Toho’s lead in retargeting the series at a juvenile audience, and distributor Bob Conn must have just about had a heart attack when he saw Terror of Mechagodzilla, and realized what he had signed onto when he bought the U.S. rights to the movie. Whereas the last round of Godzilla flicks had been flashy, upbeat, non-threatening affairs, this is a film in which one of the major characters commits suicide in order to save the others! No way in hell was that going to fly on the kiddie matinee circuit. Several different attempts were therefore made to sanitize the movie’s brooding and distinctly Japanese storyline, and unfortunately, it is the most severely mangled version that is currently the most accessible. In the cut of Terror of Mechagodzilla you’re most likely to see today, it is literally impossible to tell what happens, not just in the climactic scene of Katsuma’s suicide, but in all the scenes involving violence against characters who aren’t lumbering around in 80-pound rubber kaiju suits. Indeed, the footage surrounding Katsuma’s death is edited about so spasmodically in an effort to obscure what’s really going on that nearly the whole final reel of the movie makes next to no sense. This is a goddamned shame, because it absolutely ruins one of the best Japanese monster movies of all time, and obscures the fact that Ishiro Honda ended his career with a movie not so far short of the standard he set for himself at its beginning.
This is, admittedly, much higher praise than Terror of Mechagodzilla customarily gets. Most reviewers point out how shopworn and cliched the space-alien premise had become by 1975; how much less ambitious special effects director Teroyushi Nakano’s work is than that of his mentor, Eiji Tsubaraya; how the comparatively low budget shows through in the Godzilla and Mechagodzilla costumes, both of which are re-dressed versions of the hard-worn suits from the preceding movie. And all those complaints are certainly valid. But on the other hand, alien invaders had never been given such serious treatment by the Japanese cinema industry, even in the glory days of the 1960’s. Terror of Mechagodzilla is handicapped slightly by the efforts of Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa to make this a more or less smooth continuation of Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster’s storyline, but even here, they enjoy more success than failure. Sekizawa’s backpedaling to give the aliens an actual motivation is the one kind of backstory revision I’ll accept— the retroactive patching of the previous movie’s plot holes. And note also how this movie downplays the Planet of the Apes rip-off angle that was displayed by its predecessor. As for Nakano, it’s true that he’s a far cry from Tsubaraya (who was sadly five years in his grave when work on this movie began), but then again, Tsubaraya never (that I can remember) had to contend with the kind of budgetary restrictions that hampered his successor at every turn. And whatever its weaknesses in the effects department, this is certainly the most visually impressive of all Nakano’s Godzilla movies. I even kind of like the shabbiness of the Mechagodzilla costume this time around; it gives the suit an extra edge of realism by creating the impression that Mechagodzilla is being used and getting dirty. After all, one could scarcely expect in the real world to send a machine out to fight something like Godzilla and not have it come home at least a little scuffed up! And finally, after hearing the scores for Godzilla movies get sillier and sillier with each passing year since Masaru Sato took over in 1966 (Destroy All Monsters excepted, of course), it was a tremendous pleasure to have Akira Ifukube setting the tone again. If you don’t see how this could make that big a difference, then just compare the recap footage at the beginning of Terror of Mechagodzilla with the identical scenes from the preceding film, and see how much more impressive they look set to Ifukube’s music. After this, there would be no more Godzilla for most of a decade; if the King of the Monsters had to go out, it’s good to know that at least he went out in style.