Even before I’d seen a single Godzilla movie, I knew Mechagodzilla was my favorite damn thing in the entire franchise. Because really, how could it not be? Regardless of its incarnation, Mechagodzilla is still a giant robot shaped like a monster. There are few things in entertainment that are quite that perfect, and it seems that pop culture agrees. Mechagodzilla has become something of a series icon, up there with King Ghidorah and Mothra as one of the most recognizable non-Godzilla kaiju in the franchise. Yet all legends have to start somewhere, and for Mechagodzilla, it was in the fourteenth film of the franchise, Jun Fukuda’s aptly titled Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974).
Taking place presumably sometime after the previous year’s Godzilla vs. Megalon (although continuity was never the Showa series’ high point), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla takes place in a Japan already rocked by monster attacks, with a populace living in fear of armageddon. An Azumi princess named Nami (Bellbella Lin) has seen the coming storm, and the recent discovery of “super titanium” in a cave along with a weird mural depicting the coming of a mythical kaiju known as King Caesar only seems to further the idea that some horrible prophecy is coming to fruition.
And it is. Just not in the way one would expect. Instead of the awakening of the heroic Caesar, the newcomer is none other than Mechagodzilla, wearing a flimsy Godzilla disguise over its metallic skin. As it rampages through the region, an honestly ridiculously large cast of characters (Including a cool-as-ice Interpol agent who is never seen without shades) run parallel stories all leading to the discovery of one horrifying truth: Mechagodzilla is being controlled by Black Hole Planet 3 Aliens, extraterrestrials that look suspiciously like the simians from Planet of the Apes.
This alien threat is what makes up the bulk of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, with our protagonists steadily uncovering more of their conspiracy and fighting to make sure Godzilla, and later King Caesar, can defeat Mechagodzilla and save the world. A lot of these sections play out almost like a riff on James Bond, with high-tech secret lairs and pulpy, fast-paced close quarters brawls and gunfights peppered in here and there. None of these action bits are going to blow any minds, but in my eyes, there’s nothing wrong with a very competently directed shootout between Interpol agents and talking ape aliens.
You may have noticed that I wrote about the characters’ hijinx before actually addressing them, and there’s a good reason for that. They don’t really have any character to speak of. Sure, there are broad archetypes in here—a handful of scientists, a love interest, and a few Interpol agents—but none of them ever do anything to stand out, instead relying on special effects to carry them. Well, with one exception: Nanbara (Shin Kishida), a mysterious, cool-as-ice Interpol agent who seems to show up out of the blue, his motivations always shrouded in secrecy. I can’t say he ever really develops, but it’s clear that Kishida is having a blast with the part, and that’s more than enough to make him the film’s standout human.
Now, all this talk of humans isn’t to say kaiju don’t play a huge part in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla—quite the contrary. The Black Hole Aliens get quite a bit of use out of their deadly invention, and the results are glorious. Mechagodzilla acts less like the traditional rampaging force a kaiju usually embodies and more like a fifty-story Terminator, targeting and executing buildings with ruthless efficiency. It’s a very special kind of goofy sight, with its own special appeal—you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a disguised Mechagodzilla punch a hospital on the roof so hard the whole structure explodes.
Of course, the real highlights arrive when it comes time for Mechagodzilla to throw down with the heroic kaiju. The battles, while sparse, are consistently as enjoyable as one would want from a pulpy monster duel. Lasers fly, creatures are thrown, and in a series first, even a bit of blood is shed. Godzilla, Angurius, and King Caesar make for great combatants, but once again, the star of these battles is Mechagodzilla. Moving unlike any other kaiju in the series, Mechagodzilla’s attacks take full advantage of the fact that he’s not bound by the laws of biology (even more so than most kaiju). This means his battles are chock-full of robotic shenanigans, from fingers that launch missiles to a head that can rotate a full 360 degrees to blast eye lasers from any angle.
These oddities are only heightened by the film’s visuals, which frame everything as if it were the stuff of legends. And it works wonders. Even with cheap special effects and one of the poorer Godzilla suits I’ve seen, seeing a low-angle shot of the King of Monsters whipped by rain and lit by lightning manages to inspire awe. This gravitas also lends itself well to the battles, which take a page from Nikkatsu’s jazzy mukokuseki akushon films and include glorious spaghetti western stylings. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Sergio Leone-esque close-up of Mechagodzilla’s eyes. It’s absurd. It’s perfect.
Really, that’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. It’s goofy, it’s cheesy, and it’s more than a little cheap. But to be perfectly honest, if you went in to a late series Godzilla movie wanting or expecting something else, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s a beautiful blast of fun, and in times as grim as these, it’s always important to sit back, relax, and watch giant monsters and robots slug the crap out of each other.
Of course, no good monster ever stays dead. After Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, series creator Ishiro Honda took the reins for Mechagodzilla’s return. While I mentioned it was rare for a Godzilla film to have any real continuity in the early days, Terror of Mechagodzilla bucks that trend by being a direct sequel to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Picking off literally right where the last one left off, Terror of Mechagodzilla presents a Japan still reeling from the first Mechagodzilla attack, and still filled with armies of undercover Black Hole Aliens.
Unfortunately, while Interpol was searching for the undersea wreck of Mechagodzilla, a dinosaur-like kaiju known as Titanosaurus attacked the submarine and wiped out the crew. Now, marine biologist Akira Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki) and his college friend/Interpol agent Jiro Murakoshi (Katsumasa Uchida) must hunt down a mysterious scientist to discover the truth behind the new kaiju, and maybe find a lead towards Mechagodzilla’s location along the way.
When they do find the doctor’s abode, he’s nowhere to be found. Instead, they’re met with his sole child, Katsura Mafune (Tomoko Ai). Katsura informs the two that her father died long ago, and all of his research was burned. Or so she says. Because soon after they leave, we learn that not only is Doctor Mafune (series mainstay Akihiko Hirata) alive, he’s working with the remnants of the Black Hole Aliens to revive Mechagodzilla and use Titanosaurus to help destroy the world.
Inevitably, Katsura falls in love with Akira, and finds herself torn between supporting her loving yet murderous father or turning her back on him for the good of humankind—a species that she soon finds she doesn’t even belong to. She’s a “cyborg,” which is less like a traditional cyborg and more like an android with some flesh and blood thrown in to keep everything running. While her conflict isn’t necessarily the most original thing ever written, it’s perfectly serviceable for the story, and delivers a certain amount of pathos not present in Mechagodzilla’s first outing.
Still, even if Terror of Mechagodzilla is a more character-driven outing, it’s still an incredibly goofy creature feature at heart. While the Black Hole Aliens don’t reveal their ape forms this time around, the film makes up for it by reallocating its makeup resources to Katsura’s cybernetics, including an incredible sequence with her revealed cybernetics that recalls—and arguably even surpasses—the mechanical wonders of 1973’s Westworld.
A lot less wonderful is Titanosaurus, who has the unique honor of being the creature that gets roughly more screen time than any other monster combined. And it’s just not good. There is very little that makes this incredibly long-necked, aquatic titan distinct from other bipedal kaiju besides the fact that it looks very, very silly.
Unlike Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Godzilla himself is almost a nonentity in Terror of Mechagodzilla. While he does show up in the very last act for the film’s big kaiju battle against Titanosaurus and a newly repaired Mechagodzilla, he’s less of an actual player in the plot and more of an excuse for a really cool fight scene. In fact, most of the actual anti-kaiju work is being done by the humans and cyborgs while Godzilla battles it out with the beasts. While the fight that ensues doesn’t have the same level of fun stylization that propelled Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla to glorious levels, it at least has the good will to feature an incredible rendition of the iconic Godzilla theme, and a bit where Godzilla runs in slow motion through explosions and incoming lasers. That’s the peak of cinema right there.
Honestly, I’m nowhere near as keen on Terror of Mechagodzilla as I am on Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. It’s not that Terror of Mechagodzilla is a bad film by any measure—Ishiro Honda certainly knows his craft—but it lacks the gonzo energy of the prior film, and the pathos provided by Katsura isn’t enough to propel the first hour. Titanosaurus, bless his extremely silly heart, just can’t keep things running on his own.
It seemed audiences agreed. Terror of Mechagodzilla was a huge disappointment at the box office, and Toho made the decision to put Godzilla on the shelf for a while. Mechagodzilla would return to film later with 1993’s Godzilla vs Mechagozilla II, the one-two punch of Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003), and the beast will soon be making its anime debut with Godzilla: Kessen Kidō Zōshoku Toshi in 2018. While those films would all use Mechagodzilla in different ways, none would ever revisit the simplistic charms of the original two and their wonderful Black Hole Aliens. Godzilla had moved on, and for better and for worse, it left this odd, lovable version of Mechagodzilla in the past.
Yet the films haven’t gone anywhere. Recently, Janus films did a restoration of a ton of classic kaiju films, including these two wonders, which are currently streaming on Filmstruck and will eventually be getting a release in the Criterion collection. Even if they aren’t the greatest films ever made, a very silly world of giant monsters, Black Hole Aliens, and the coolest robot in the history of live-action Japanese sci-fi is at your fingertips. You owe it to yourself to check them out.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: Enzo G. Castellari’s BRONX Movies