Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
Toho created what is essentially the first cinematic universe. And after spending over two decades building a complex world where monsters coexist with humans, the studio wiped the slate clean and started all over again. Like 1984’s Godzilla Returns, the new set of films beginning with Godzilla 2000 do not largely acknowledge anything besides the original 1954 movie, Mothra (1961), and War of the Gargantuas. Of course, this didn’t stop the “Millennium” era entries from featuring other preexisting kaijū.
“Kaneko penned what is really a fairy tale where magic prevails in a time ruled by science.”
Not long after completing his celebrated trilogy of Gamera films at Daiei (now Kadokawa), director Shūsuke Kaneko began work on a Godzilla script. His initial ideas included a rematch with the giant mantis Kamacuras and a future-set story ultimately deemed too dark by the big brass. He finally brainstormed a workable plot involving three monsters protecting Japan from Godzilla — however, Toho wanted some changes. The first draft featured kaijū of yesteryear Anguirus and Varan fighting alongside Baragon; producers deemed the first two characters to be unpopular and asked for them to be replaced. Kaneko was reluctant in light of the studio’s choices, but he went ahead and made the switch. Thus, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (hereinafter GMK) was born.
The movie’s exposition begins with the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) expressing its concerns if Godzilla was to ever return; soon after, the creature conveniently appears at sea. Meanwhile, a tabloid television reporter named Yuri Tachibana (Chiharu Niiyama) learns of the fabled Guardian Monsters who are destined to protect the country. Inland phenomena — a mysterious entity lurks at the bottom of Lake Ikeda, a behemoth burrows through the Kanagawa Prefecture, a “young” dragon slumbers below ground — support the theory that a looming threat is on the horizon. Eventually, Godzilla rises from the sea and stomps across Japan. This spurs each Guardian Monster to try and stop him, but individually, they are no match.
The campy tone of the older films is all but gone, and Godzilla‘s new status as an unfeeling antihero was here to stay. With an emphasis on Japan’s military, there was also more interest in human drama. In GMK, Admiral Taizō Tachibana (Ryūdō Uzaki) of the JSDF is not only busy with stopping Godzilla‘s latest rampage, he worries about his daughter whose ambitions oftentimes cause her to be reckless. Taizō is an intimidating leader, but at home, he’s a surprisingly sympathetic father. Daughter Yuri, on the other hand, is at odds with herself because of her stagnant career as a journalist on a loathed TV show. She sees the Guardian Monsters as her big break even if that break costs her her life. Regardless of warnings, the two Tachibana members accept their appointed roles — officially or would-be — and run straight towards destiny. The human-sized subplots in these films aren’t always memorable, yet Kaneko has a way with wholeheartedly endearing us to his characters.
The inclusion of Mothra and King Ghidorah doesn’t sit well with every fan. Although the Queen of Monsters — now dubbed the Goddess of the Sea — has always been on the side of man, her standard origin of being a deity in her own right has been scrubbed clean; her human worshipers are absent, as well. As for Ghidorah, turning an intergalactic menace into the heroic God of the Sky isn’t so easy to swallow. The golden, three-headed dragon was nothing like its former self; this new Ghidorah is a benevolent creature who, with more time, would spawn five more heads like the Yamata no Orochi from ancient Japanese mythology. Then there’s God of the Earth Baragon, the scrappy dog-faced burrower who first appeared in Frankenstein Conquers the World. Kaneko purposely made all three Guardian Monsters weaker than Godzilla, and of the three, Baragon is the most vulnerable. His fatal run-in with Godzilla left this underdog’s fans in mourning.
The Godzilla series has never been rooted firmly in realism. From space invaders to fantastical foes, otherworldly elements are just accepted as fact within this convoluted existence. The previous movie Godzilla x Megaguirus toyed with time travel once again; GMK instead explores national folklore to a great degree. Kaneko penned what is really a fairy tale where magic prevails in a time ruled by science. It’s rare that we see a movie in this franchise be so standalone and storybook. The script is forthcoming with explanations, but these heavy, undiluted ties to actual Japanese myth make the film both enchanting and alienating. An open mind will undoubtedly make one’s GMK experience more fulfilling.
A recurring theme in the Millennium era was Japan constantly being haunted by its past. Godzilla has always embodied very real pain, and his further appearances only dredge up terrible memories. Adding to the fantasy aspects of GMK, Kaneko did something equally dicey and heavy: he inspirited Godzilla with the souls of those who died in the Pacific War. These restless ghosts were lashing out and the beast was their instrument. At one point in the film, young characters are glib about the events of 1954; they are subsequently killed by Godzilla. History’s refusal to be forgotten and people’s sheer ignorance summoned the King of Monsters.
“Adding to the fantasy aspects of GMK, Kaneko did something equally dicey and heavy: he inspirited Godzilla with the souls of those who died in the Pacific War. “
The most singular and grave Godzilla movies were born out of the aughts. This urgent tone was palpable in every entry to some degree, but this particular decade was especially transparent. The anthology-like approach in these select films allowed for creativity and risks. Kaneko carried over the fable-like beats of his Gamera trilogy while also delivering a unique reinterpretation of the classic “good versus evil” story. There’s an admirable, if not charmingly imperfect, mix of hands-on effects and gawky CGI that’s saved by daring action sequences and plot developments. While Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack is not the summit of kaijū cinema, it’s an extraordinary endeavor in terms of imagination and execution.