The Empty Balcony: Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla & Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.

This past week the programmers at Telefutura graced its viewers with a very special set of movies. Sunday night saw a rare return in modern television to the late night creature feature, with Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (from 2002, not to be confused with 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla). And last night came the followup, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. from 2003. Of course, Telefutura is a Spanish-language station, and I don’t speak Spanish. In addition, I didn’t mark down any listing times for these movies with an intent to tune in. I stumbled on them while flipping channels, both well into their respective story arcs. But what the hell, it’s Godzilla. Even truncated and in a foreign language, no Godzilla flick is difficult to follow.

I’m not going to delve too far into details, here. Quite frankly, I don’t care who was in these movies, who directed them or who wrote them. The real stars are puppeteers, model makers, and guys in rubber suits. They’re so into the way a Japanese monster movie is supposed to look that it’s impossible to tell where budget, tradition, ability, and lack thereof, trade the most influence after they all collide in the spectacle of miniaturized devastation.

When I first turned to Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, Mechagodzilla was busy tearing up a swath through Tokyo. But he wasn’t the bad guy in this one. Turns out there was a malfunction in the wiring, or something like that. There were a bunch of interior shots focused on grave faces in a control room somewhere. A bunker. I don’t know. The damn thing was in Spanish, after all. What I do know is that an hour later, after some lengthy and misplaced commercial breaks, Godzilla gets his ass handed to him by Mechagodzilla, as piloted by a young Japanese woman in a skin tight uniform covered by lots of plastic doodads. That’s really it. Any more depth to this dog and I would have been disappointed.

After it was all over, I went to bed and pushed the movie out of my mind. There’s too much in this world that needs the space to have a Godzilla movie rattling around in there. Amazing how those experiences flood back into our conscious selves given the right stimuli. Last night saw more couch sitting and channel flipping, and then there it was, once again on Telefutura long after the sun set. The yellow eyes, hinged faced with a rigid expression of rage, and most recognizable movie roar behind the MGM lion. At first I thought it was another playing of the Mechagodzilla movie, but it became clear it was a sequel.

For one thing, I knew I lucked into this viewing at about the same point in the broadcast as I did the first movie, but Mechagodzilla wasn’t in the fight just yet. There was Godzilla, bad guy once again, taking on Mothra. Where there’s Mothra, there’s a couple Japanese chicks dressed like twins imposed on shots to make them look six inches tall and moth eggs and planes flying around and fire breath and Styrofoam flying all over the place and what the hell…It’s Godzilla. Monsters fight, some lose, some win, then there’s a moment for reflection on the destruction they’ve left in their wake, a poignant scene where survivors can reflect upon their fortunes, their powerlessness against such evil, and their place in this strange, cruel world, reduced to five seconds of gazing at the rising sun. Once upon a time, I guess that meant something. But today, not only shouldn’t there be any depth to these films, I’m not even sure it’s possible.

What else are they going to do? Make us feel guilty for dropping the bomb? That would be rude. I’ve seen and read many things from Japanese culture that directly confront the legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and not one of them pointed an accusing and unforgiving finger towards the United States. These are some serious works, dealing in graphical nature with the effects of flash burns and radiation poisoning, and it’s essentially guilt-free. Godzilla has been regarded as the largest commentary on the post nuclear age and the special significance that Japan holds, but if even serious works stay away from an accusatory atmosphere, how could the most visible stray into these areas with giant moths, hydras, turtles, and even an appearance by King Kong at one point? Of course, it can’t. It’s Godzilla.

Maybe for the first movie, way back in 1954, when the wounds were still fresh, the fears all-too-real, the symbolism of a gigantic, nuclear-charged, fire-breathing monster was unavoidable. After that, it was clearly about Toho making cash. There’s nothing wrong with that. The formula was established by the first movie, but no one is going to go see these movies over and over again if that celluloid connection to real tragedy doesn’t take a back seat at some point. It’s not like these things are blockbusters in Japan, either. They are low-budget b-movies in every sense of the word. Just a cursory glance at budget and box office numbers will tell a person all they need to know about how seriously these things are taken in their native country.

It just can’t be got around — Godzilla is a guy in a rubber suit stomping on models. It’s looked so fake for so long that any greater effort feels like a betrayal. That being said, in this day and age it is possible to make a better movie, but why try? Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. are unmistakably Godzilla movies. I can’t comment on setup time, as I saw none of it, but once things got going in both of them, there were plenty of smashed buildings, horrified looks from the citizenry, and some vicious chest wounds on the monster suits. It is what it is.