Directed by Takao Okawara
Produced by Shōgo Tomiyama
Screenplay by Wataru Mimura
Godzilla movies are about a big monster causing massive destruction, and yet the first 19 films largely feel almost intimate to me. Perhaps it’s a result of Godzilla being a dude in a rubber suit, or perhaps it’s because Godzilla films are mostly shot on sound stages, or perhaps it’s a result of the split narrative structure of the franchise, giving us a human half and a monster half, or maybe it’s all of these things rolled together, but the Godzilla films have typically felt small to me in the way that classic Doctor Who stories feel small and personal to me, even if the Doctor and his companions are in another time or place.
To be clear, this isn’t a criticism. I love the Godzilla franchise and the newer films that manage to feel enormous are not automatically better than these older films. Maybe we’ve just hung out with the King of Monsters so much over the years that he’s lost a bit of majesty. Or maybe the filmmakers have spent so much time investing in the human characters that the films naturally feel smaller on the inside. Or maybe it’s even a case of the changing nature of Godzilla himself: is he a good guy, a bad guy, or a force of nature? Like a wrestler who’s run the circuit a few times, Godzilla has been face and heel, often in the same movie.
GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II is the 20th film in the Godzilla franchise and the 5th in the Heisei Period, and it does not suffer from a lack of majesty. This is one of the few Godzilla films through the first twenty that feels like an event, with a presentation style that seeks to reinforce just how menacing Godzilla can be. This movie feels like a Toho version of a Hollywood blockbuster, which is fitting given that this was supposed to be the last film of the Heisei Period before handing the franchise off to TriStar for their Roland Emmerich-helmed film.
MECHAGODZILLA II deals with some of these issues that I’ve raised right off the top. For us, Godzilla has maybe lost a bit of his menace because he’s always coming back to the movie theater every year or so. MECHAGODZILLA II operates from this position, with the global government taking a proactive position. They’re not going to wait around and hope Godzilla doesn’t return — they accept they live in a world where he will return and prepare for it. While not tied too tightly to previous films (the psychic Miki Saegusa and the psychic schoolchildren return, and the Mechagodzilla robot is created, in part, from the robotic head of King Ghidorah), and while continuity has always been rather fluid in the franchise’s history, no one here is surprised when Godzilla returns.
They’ve been expecting it.
They’ve been planning for it.
That small difference and the lengths the world has gone to ready itself for Godzilla automatically raises the stakes. Where previous films have pitted foreigners as bad operatives, MECHAGODZILLA II sees the United Nations taking an interest. It’s the UN that creates an organization to deal with Godzilla, and the simple fact of seeing Japanese and American scientists and soldiers working together adds to Godzilla’s majesty. It’s like everyone has finally realized this is a threat they need to work together to stop, and so they do, building a giant Godzilla mecha to serve as their ultimate defense.
The best way to beat an actual Godzilla is with a robot Godzilla, apparently.
Seeing little humans working on a giant robot adds to the scale of the film, and when Godzilla inevitably arrives and Mechagodzilla is activated, all those little people running around, flipping buttons on control panels and strapping themselves into seats on the bridge of the mecha, director Takao Okawara has done his job in spades. A real sense of drama has been created, and for the first time in a while, I wasn’t just looking forward to a Godzilla fight scene, I was hyped for it.
Even better, the subsequent battle doesn’t disappoint, and not just because it was filmed well.
No, Okawara, the actors inside the suits, and the effects team led by Koichi Kawakita, do a masterful job in giving the kaiju emotions and intelligence. For one of the few times, Godzilla and Rodan don’t just feel like animalistic monsters stomping around, fighting only with rage and fury. There’s intelligence here. Godzilla, Rodan, and Baby all feel like well-rounded characters and not just forces of nature given monstrous form. The effects work with the eyes of the kaiju is perhaps the finest in the series up to now and make clear there’s a brain behind those eyes.
This is mostly evident in Rodan, who adapts to attack Godzilla and Mechagodzilla differently. The moment where Rodan goes after Mechagodzilla’s eyes to shut down the robot’s eye beams is the kind of small moment that makes me a fan of a movie. It’s smart and subtle and adds far more than its weight in gold to a movie.
As does Baby Godzilla, which is something I never thought I’d write.
I don’t automatically hate characters which seem to be included for kids. The original Minilla brought a different vibe and audience to the Godzilla franchise. I’m fine with Scrappy Doo. I love K-9. The Ewoks might be cute and cuddly and look like they were designed to sell stuffed animals and Happy Meals, but they’re bad ass jungle fighters.
Still, the inclusion of a character like Baby typically signals a shift in expectations, but one of the real strengths of MECHAGODZILLA II is that Baby becomes central to both human and kaiju stories. At the start of the film, a giant dinosaur egg is found and brought back to the lab, and what eventually comes out of it is a cute mini-Godzilla-like creature.
It’s important that it’s Godzilla-like and not just a miniature Godzilla. The scientists make a few dramatic leaps of scientific logic which strain credulity but necessarily advance the plot. Baby isn’t something we have to worry about because he’s a vegetarian. He also shares a link with Rodan because they were grown in the same nest. That link he shares with Rodan and Godzilla puts Baby at the center of the stories, and the film smartly slow plays this — you can see early on that this is how the film is eventually going to crash both halves of its story together, but Okawara and screenwriter Wataru Mimura give it room to breathe, developing the two halves of the narrative separately, so when they do come together, it raises the drama of both together instead of forcing one out at the expense of the other.
The human cast isn’t as involved this time around, and that’s a nice change of pace. After all the heavy human drama of the Heisei Period, it’s nice to see a lead characters who’s a bit of a goofball. Kazuma Aoki (Masahiro Takashima) is a scientist and pilot and the source of the film’s humor. He bluffs his way into the lab of Azusa Gojo (Ryoko Sano), where the pteradon egg is being kept, just because he’s a fan of pteradons. He has the same kind of relationship with his military boss that one expects a TV detective to have with his sergeant, but it’s played mostly for laughs, even if it has real consequences when he’s assigned to parking lot duty.
Aoki redeems himself, earning Azusa’s trust and the respect of the Mechagodzilla engineers when he convinces them his Garuda project (a fighter ship designed from King Ghidorah’s leftover parts that was the first attempt to build a Godzilla fighter) can help. He shows that it can be attached to Mechagodzilla’s back and so we go from Mechagodzilla to Super-Mechagodzilla for the final fight sequence.
While this is happening, the military wants to use Baby as bait to lure Godzilla into the attack zone, which Asuza strongly objects to, and the interactions between Asuza and Baby, while looking like something that would be better off in a kids movie, actually works really well here as it balances off the hardness of the military and scientists. Using a baby monster to humanize a film is a nice touch.
The big final battle between Godzilla, Rodan, and Super-Mechagodzilla is all kinds of fantastic. Because the film has so effectively built up Godzilla and Rodan as characters, and let us know what the mecha means to the people who’ve built it and pilot it, the final battle isn’t just about smashing a city while knocking each other around. The fight feels visceral like few, if any, Godzilla fights have felt before now. These aren’t just monster who fight because that’s what monsters do. The fight feels personal. They don’t like each other.
There’s a term in wrestling called a “double turn,” and its a rare feat in which two wrestlers change face/heel roles at the same time. The most famous example of this occurred in WrestleMania XIII, where Stone Cold Steve Austin entered a heel and exited a face, and Bret Hart came in a face and left a heel. We get something of a double turn here at the end of MECHAGODZILLA II. The question of Godzilla’s face/heel status changes during this final battle. He is, without doubt, a villain for much of the film. He’s the Biggest Bad, the King of Monsters, a threat so significant that the world has united to stop him, and yet when he’s getting his ass kicked by Mechagodzilla, when he’s paralyzed and being stomped on, its hard not to feel some sympathy for him, and by the end of the film, when he’s rescued Baby and leads the youngster out into the safety of the ocean, he’s gone full face.
At the same time, Mechagodzilla goes from humanity’s best hope to stopping Godzilla to hindrance in getting Baby out of the hands of the human military and into a life with Godzilla away from their evils clutches. Mechagodzilla doesn’t become an outright bad guy, so it’s not a true double turn, but by the time the crew climbs out of their destroyed mecha, they’ve gained a measure of respect for Godzilla.
I wouldn’t put GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II on the same level as GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE or RETURN OF GODZILLA but it’s a highly enjoyable movies and speaks to the high quality of the Heisei period. The battles are fantastic. The character work (both physical and narrative) for Godzilla, Rodan, and Baby is top notch. MECHAGODZILLA II is a great popcorn flick, and one of the most rewatchable Godzilla movies.