One of a series of Blu-ray double-feature releases from Sony, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) are the last Japanese-made Godzilla movies to date, possibly ever. The genre was really running out of steam by this point, and the extremely poor domestic box-office of the latter, $12 million versus its $19.5 million budget, helped bring the series to a crashing halt.
It was revived after a long absence with 1984's The Return of Godzilla, first released in the U.S. as Godzilla: 1985. That film, in its original form, was a sincere quasi-remake/sequel that in retrospect was fairly good, considering that Toho Studios was, in effect, trying to reinvent the wheel just as Star Trek: The Motion Picture had with that franchise attempted just a few years before. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) followed, another sincere if less successful attempt at something different. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1993) followed in quick succession. Those movies balanced nostalgia for the original series (1954-75) with contemporary Japanese concerns, particularly King Ghidorah, which reflected a certain arrogance, Japan then in the midst of its short-lived economic bubble. Godzilla vs. Mothra in particular was a huge mainstream hit within Japan. But its release was soon followed by Jurassic Park (1994), a movie that changed everything.
From Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994), with few exceptions, the series steadily went downhill. The western world market had no serious interest in these films and, now dependent upon the Japanese market almost entirely, the already conservative Toho became increasing cautious. The Godzilla films from the 1990s onward more and more played like they had been carefully conceived by Toho's Board of Directors rather than innovative screenwriters with something new to say. Mainstream Japanese audiences preferred Hollywood movies and Studio Ghibli films; only hard-core otaku fans attended the latest Godzilla release. When I saw Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and Godzilla: Final Wars here in Kyoto, it was in an otherwise all-but-empty theater. Indeed, the Toho-owned theater in which I saw the latter was torn down a few months later and redeveloped as a shopping mall.
What American Godzilla fans don't seem to understand is that Godzilla today is kaiju non grata here in Japan. Doubtlessly the new American movie will be heavily promoted, but Japanese children and adults have virtually no interest in these Japanese-made Godzilla movies anymore. The toys, everywhere in 1992, are no longer found in department store toy sections, and nobody buys or rents the old movies. When Toho first began releasing the series to Blu-ray here they gave up mid-stride; they just weren't selling.
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and Godzilla: Final Wars are endemic of Toho's desperate attempts to keep the series going at any cost. Final Wars was reviled by hard-core fans who found much to like in Tokyo S.O.S. but I had exactly the opposite reaction. I found Tokyo S.O.S. excruciatingly dull, particularly in its second-half. Final Wars deserves points for throwing caution to the wind and adopting a completely new (if also incessantly referential) approach, and for a sense of humor and playfulness completely lacking in the former.
Sony's double-feature set, with two movies on two discs, is problematic. The video transfers are notably lackluster, looking like third-generation dupes. Undoubtedly Sony is making due with what film elements/video masters Toho is willing to provide, but in fairness the simultaneously soft and grainy look of these pictures accurately captures their soft and grainy appearance on Japanese movie screens.
The 27th Godzilla movie, Tokyo S.O.S. opens with Mechagodzilla, the robot Godzilla used to combat his reptilian inspiration in Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002), is undergoing repairs following the big battle climaxing that film.
Meanwhile, Mothra's priestesses, the diminutive fairies (Masami Nagasawa and Chihiro Otsuka, who don't remotely suggest the identical twins they're supposed to be) appear at the home of 70-something Dr. Shinichi Chujo, the scientist character from the original Mothra (1961), warning him and his family against using the robot Godzilla against the real McCoy as it is partly composed of DNA extracted from the original Godzilla's bones. They argue that to continue using Godzilla DNA is to deny Godzilla's soul peace in the afterlife. They insist upon letting Mothra lead the attack against a revitalized Godzilla. If not, they warn, the protective Mothra will turn against mankind and attack it instead.
This doesn't sit well with the Japanese government, nor Mechagodzilla pilot Kyosuke Akiba (Mistuki Koga) and his crew, nor ground crew scientist Yoshito Kaneko (Noboru Kaneko), coincidentally Dr. Chujo's nephew.
The movie becomes increasingly confused as Godzilla approaches, with virtually the entire last-half of the 91-minute film composed of a single extended battle, with Mothra and Mechagodzilla each taking turns to try and stop the Big Beast.
Over at my website World Cinema Paradise, genre scholar Steve Ryfle wrote a fascinating editorial criticizing Gareth Edwards's new Godzilla movie for subverting the original 1954 Gojira's themes about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and militarism. What Steve doesn't say in that piece is that some of this subversion was already manifesting itself in Toho's Japanese Godzilla movies, particularly this one. In the classic Godzilla movies of the 1950s and ‘60s, the heroes were almost always either scientists or reporters. But in Tokyo S.O.S. Dr. Chujo is regarded by the Japanese government and military as a foolish old man probably seeing things and therefore someone to be ignored. Instead, the movie's heroes are gung-ho military types: self-sacrificing Yoshito, brave Self Defense Forces pilot Akiba and, in a trite romantic triangle, female Lt. Azusa Kisaragi (Miho Yoshioka).
The result is that Tokyo S.O.S. reflects the increasingly conservative shift in attitudes toward a greater support of Japan's military, not only by the ruling conservative party (for most of its postwar history), but also by Japan's increasingly xenophobic youth. Similarly, the movie plays on Japan's endless fascination with technological innovation, the allure of high-tech military hardware like the impossibly huge and impractical Mechagodzilla to ward off Japan's foes. In Tokyo S.O.S., Mechagodzilla probably gets more screentime than Godzilla and Mothra combined. In the end, the movie plays more like a nearly bloodless John Wayne World War II movie from the 1940s (or Cold War thriller from the ‘50s) than a classical Godzilla film.
Another problem is that the three young leads are utterly colorless. They're stock military film types with no shading, no charisma. The idea of the priestesses pleading to the Japanese, via their old friend Dr. Chujo, to allow Godzilla's soul to rest in peace is interesting, but the entire message is so thoroughly muddled, with Mechagodzilla coming to Mothra's aide at one point, it's not clear what the screenwriters' intentions are.
In stark contrast, Godzilla: Final Wars is quite unlike any of the previous "Millennium Series" (1999-2004) films or any other Godzilla film for that matter. In a last act of desperation, Toho more than doubled their usual budget for such pictures, allied themselves with Australian, Chinese, and US-based film companies where second-unit footage was also shot, and hired flavor-of-the-month Japanese filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura, whose Hong Kong-influenced Versus (2000) was an unexpected success. Though still overseen by veteran producer Shogo Tomiyama and co-written by Millennium series scribe Wataru Mimura, Kitamura seems to have been given a level of independence akin to director Kazuki Omori's work on several of the (more successful, if also more derivative) Godzilla entries from the early 1990s. Good or bad (or, as I would put it, "Good and bad"), it's the most auteuristic Godzilla movie since Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, 1971).
The dizzying, frenetic film, busy as it is, is actually more coherent and consistent than Tokyo S.O.S.. At the South Pole, the Gotengo, a flying supersub adapted from 1963's Atragon, captained by Col. Douglas Gordon (Don Frye, the character's name an homage to Them! director Gordon Douglas, perhaps?) buries Godzilla in an avalanche of ice.
Later, in scenes heavily influenced by Destroy All Monsters (1968), giant monsters attack the major cities of the world (and, a bit incongruously, the Japanese island of Okinawa): Angilas sacks Shanghai, Rodan routs New York, Kamacuras calamitizes Paris, "Zilla" (from the 1998 Hollywood film) zaps Sydney, and Ebirah eviscerates industrial Tokyo. Just as quickly the monsters vanish as an enormous UFO appears over Japan. United Nations Secretary-General Naotaro Daigo (Akira Takarada) emerges from the craft with the good news that the humanoid Xiliens (led in turn by Masatoh Eve and Kazuki Kitamura) have come in peace.
However, Shinichi Ozaki (Masahiro Matsuoka), a soldier in the Earth Defense Force's exclusive M-Unit team of super-strong biological mutants, Captain Gordon, molecular biologist Miyuki Otonashi (Rei Kikukawa, whose lipstick and hair never get mussed), and her sister, TV journalist Anna (Maki Mizuno), all distrust the Xiliens, and with good reason: secretly the aliens regard mankind as cattle to be harvested and eaten. (Reader Sergei Hasenecz notes, "One of the worst and most illogical of sci-fi cliches. Hungry Aliens would eat the cattle. Cattle mature more quickly, pack on a lot more meat, and are far easier to raise and feed than humans. Any race smart enough to travel thousands of lightyears through interstellar space to fill their pantry will definitely choose beef for dinner.")
The movie has a lot of problems. At 125 minutes, it's by far the longest Godzilla movie, and its (anti-) climax goes on too long. The subplot about the human mutants, an obvious steal from the X-Men franchise, is unnecessary, making way for clichéd Hong Kong style martial arts the film doesn't need. Brief footage set in New York, Vancouver, and other western world locales is often hilariously bad and even at nearly $20 million cost the film shoots for Independence Day-scale destruction the budget just won't allow.
But Final Wars' sense of humor, much of it lost on American audiences, plays well, including a wonderfully wicked satire of inane Japanese "variety" shows and even Japan's hapless Olympic Men's Soccer team. There are endless references to Toho's past, including Ishiro Honda's Gorath (1962) and, in the Japanese language version at least, Takarada's Andrew Hoshino/007 knockoff from two '60s films. The X-Men steal is as blatant as it is depressing, but there are also sly references, easy to miss, to other Hollywood movies. One shot of Ozaki even recreates a reaction shot of Gene Hackman from The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
Fans were apparently put off by the characterizations and often almost cameo-like appearances of so many classic Toho monsters, but I found this generally novel and exciting, from Angilas's armadillo-like cannonball attacks on Shanghai to Kamacuras's (the praying mantis-type monster from Son of Godzilla) supersonic flights over Paris and elsewhere.
The cast and their characters are also far more engaging. For the first time in a long while, I found myself actually interested and rooting for the story's four major characters: Ozaki, Miyuki, Anna, and Col. Gordon. Former wrestler-boxer Don Frye, inexplicably dressed like an 1930s Soviet military officer, is very amusing as the stone-faced, tough-as-nails Gotengo captain, the biggest role for a westerner in a Godzilla film in decades. Takarada and cult fave Kumi Mizuno (as the Earth Defense Force Commander) have fun in what effectively are dual roles (see the movie), while Kazuki Kitamura makes for a particularly nasty, amused villain.
Video & Audio
Visually, both films look drab and dull, grainy yet soft at the same time. This is particularly odd in Final Wars' case as that was shot in high-def but apparently deliberately downgraded picture-wise to no good effect. This is somewhat compensated by their 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mixes, which are both spectacularly good. (I watched both in their original Japanese with English subtitles; English-dubbed tracks are also available, as are French subtitles.) Both discs are region A encoded.
Each feature comes with standard-def making-of featurettes and high-def trailers, more the latter than the former. This VAM (value-added material) is okay, but nothing special.
One out of two ain't bad, I guess, though many will prefer the one I disliked to the one I found fun. Neither can touch the classic Godzilla movies of the 1950s and ‘60s, however, and find Toho's series at the end of the line. The transfers are not eye-pleasing but accurately recreate the original theatrical experience so, overall, mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.