Following his astounding success in reviving the moribund Gamera franchise for Daiei Pictures, Shusuke Kaneko realized a lifelong dream when Toho Pictures signed him on to direct the newest (of 2001) Godzilla title. Although Kaneko wasn’t the only man behind the success of the Heisei Gamera trilogy, writer Kazunori Ito, and Special Effects designer Shinji Higuchi weren’t brought along to the Toho production.
And it shows.
Now, don’t get me wrong, GMK, as it’s known to us folks in the Kaiju biz, is the best title in the entire Godzilla universe with the exception of the original 1954 Gojira, but with only Kaneko on board we are treated to a only a glimpse of what this film could have been had the original Gamera team been allowed to work their magic on Kaijudom’s best known monster.
Still, virtually all of the hallmarks of the Heisei Gamera flicks appear in one form or another in GMK. We get a very mature and somber story, deep ties to Japanese mysticism and the Shinto religion, a high body count (otherwise unknown in the Godzilla universe), long slow battles, and massive scenes of destruction. This is all handled beautifully.
The story begins in a classroom where General Tachibana discusses Japans last encounter with Godzilla and mentions some recent sighting in other countries attributed to the legendary monster. He explains that in 1954 the Japanese Defense Force (JDF) defeated Godzilla, but took all of Tokyo with it. He is interrupted by news of a US nuclear sub sinking off the coast of Guam.
The Japanese government has offered to help with the rescue effort, and in one of the coolest scenes in ANY Godzilla flick, the research sub Satora pans over the wreck revealing massive claw marks in the hull of the US sub. A disturbance destroys one of the rescue subs, but the other surfaces with taped images of “something” moving behind the submarine hulk.
Enter Yuri Tachibana, a reporter for Digital Q, “The bottom of the barrel of TV news” as it’s described by one of the employees working on a story about Godzilla for her tabloid news program.
Kaneko allows us to see almost all of this film through Yuri’s eyes, and it’s a nice touch and seemed to pay homage to the inserted Steve Martin character played by Raymond Burr in the Americanized version of the original Godzilla. Also, strangely she’s really well fleshed out as a character. Yuri doesn’t like the quality of her work, but she loves the friends she works with, she drinks too much sometimes, she has regrets about the loss of her mother, she doesn’t believe in fairytales but isn’t averse to them, she’s pretty but knows her job prevents her from finding a boyfriend, and in the end she is extremely loyal and courageous. I realize that this doesn’t sound like all that much, but consider that this a Godzilla move, and the focus of the film isn’t the human characters. The fact that it even gives us human characters to care about is a major coup for Kaiju filmmaking. But then, we’re talking about Shusuke Kaneko so we shouldn’t be surprised.
Once Godzilla reveals himself Yuri struggles to convince her dad that three special monsters will rise to defend Japan. Not the Japanese nation, not the Japanese people, but the island itself. These monsters are known as the Holy Beats of Yamato. They are: Baragon (From Frankenstein Conquests the World), Mothra, and King Ghidorah (both well known and starring in dozens of Toho films).
Godzilla, we learn, is not only radioactive, but also is a manifestation of the souls of those killed during WW2 in the Pacific theater.
Now, many reviewers dismiss this as “The ghosts of Japanese solders” but that’s an oversimplification. Godzilla, it seems, has a disproportionate number of souls from victims of Japanese aggression in WW2. The reason he’s come back to Japan after 43 years of peace and prosperity is that the Japanese have forgotten both their own sacrifices and the victims of their expansion.
This was a very cool touch especially to someone obsessed with the Sino-Japanese war, like me.
Godzilla arrives and begins a slow march towards Tokyo and we are treated to a wide spectrum of special effects. The vast majority of them are very good; perhaps the best ever in one of these films, but some well… let’s just say they are on par with what most expect when they see the name Godzilla.
The JDF takes the task of trying to repel Godzilla but with monsters seeming to appear every five minutes they are constantly kept off guard. The film culminates with a massive battle in downtown Tokyo as Mothra and Ghidorah struggle to keep Godzilla at bay.
Another hallmark of Shusuke Kaneko’s storytelling style is that he really makes the humans ancillary characters so that in the midst of this battle the monsters pay literally no attention to the people scrambling for safety beneath them. Kaneko lets us see them die too whether by atomic breath, falling concrete, massive footsteps, and in the coolest scene yet, the smashed pieces if jet fighters slamming down into a residential neighborhood.
There are some things about the film that don’t work though. Godzilla occasionally slips out of scale, and in one pivotal scene, appears to have a Tardis-like stomach. The score by longtime Kaneko collaborator Ko Otani isn’t up to the task at all. Any giant monster flick needs powerful and recognizable music to complement the movement of massive monsters. Otani’s score is anemic and flat for almost all of the film. The only use of the original Akira Ifukube score comes at the very end, and serves as a reminder to just how well he understood the genre. Otani’s score resembles all three scores of the Gamera trilogy, lots of sweeping strings, but no real power.
Still, the film is great fun to watch and the special effects sequences are mostly exemplary with only limited use of CGI (and yes, it shows) and a much stronger reliance on traditional “suitmation” techniques of bringing the monsters to life.
The real standout, for me, was Mothra banking hard over Tokyo as Godzilla blasts the surrounding buildings just mere meters behind the massive moth.
The monster design in this film differs significantly from those preceding it. Abandoning the streamlined and 1965 suit inspired costume of Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla v Megaguiras for a design closer to the Heisei costumes of the 1990s. Godzilla has a longer neck and heavy legs and swollen belly. The greatest change is the eyes. Godzilla appears in GMK pupil-less which ratchets up his malevolent appearance by several orders of magnitude. A few detail changes await the others monsters too. Ghidorah gets the best treatment in Toho history in this film. Gone are the bobbing heads that spit lightening replaced with three much shorter necks and heavier heads that behave like a head really would.
I am not sure why Shusuke Kaneko wasn’t offered or didn’t continue his storyline in subsequent films. Perhaps Toho thought his Godzilla was too dark, too different from the established character, too mature, or too serious, but at any rate he hasn’t done another one. Rather Toho has allowed the franchise to continue the storyline started in Godzilla 2000.
Even if GMK is a one-off, it’s the best Godzilla movie in almost 50 years and will make an impressive addition to any appreciative fans collection.
Columbia Tri-Star, perhaps taken over by pod people, released GMK in 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with BOTH the original Japanese and new English language tracks, English and French subs. This sounds sort of skimpy in the world of DVD extras, but keep in mind most Godzilla DVDs are full screen and lack even chapter stops. So this release is definitely a step in the right direction.