Thursday, October 27, 2011

Godzilla vs. Megalon (Toho, 1973)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went through our back files of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and got out their version of Godzilla vs. Megalon — I’d pretty much avoided watching their parodies of Japanese monster movies because the films are oppressive enough au naturel, but they turned out to be genuinely inspired by this one. The plot is a bit less pretextual than usual but is still hardly the most important aspect of this film: it begins with a huge nuclear test that triggers earthquakes all over Japan (with the memory of the Fukushima disaster still fresh I recalled the tsunami and sang, to the tune of “High Hopes,” “Whoops! There goes another nuclear plant!”) and gives us a lot of spectacular footage even though some of it looks like the bomb was wrapped in fireworks to give it a really cool-looking third-stage effect. Then we get a quick glimpse of Monster Island, which seems to be the bullpen where the Toho monsters rest up between movies, and after that we finally meet our first human characters: eccentric inventor Goro Ibuki (Katsuhiko Sasaki), his brother (who lives with him, for some reason) Rokuro (Hiroyuke Kawase) and an obnoxious little kid (I think he’s supposed to be the inventor’s son, though I wasn’t sure which of these nice-looking but boring young actors was supposed to have sired him), whom we see in the water, paddling a weird craft that looks like a giant duck with two miniature dolphins tied to each side to serve as propellers.

The earthquake caused by the nuclear test (ya remember the nuclear test?) causes a whirlpool that sucks the aquatic toy down to the bottom before that entire part of the Sea of Japan dries up and becomes land, though (unfortunately, if your tolerance for movie-kid glucose is as low as mine) the child escapes. The inventor is building a robot called “Jet Jaguar” (I’m not making this up, you know!) that about two-thirds of the way through the movie develops the ability to change size from that of a normal human being to that of Godzilla — a capability that seems to surprise everyone in the movie, including the character who supposedly invented it. The robot turns out to be needed when the Emperor Antonio (Robert Dunham), ruler of the underwater kingdom of “Seatopia,” which supposedly was once on the surface but sank like Atlantis or Lemuria (both of which inspired much better movies than this!), decides to seek revenge on the earthlings whose nuclear tests have already (unknowingly) destroyed one-third of Seatopia by letting loose their guardian monster, Megalon — and the robot (not any of the people!) gets the bright idea of going to Monster Island and summoning Godzilla, who as in a lot of his later films actually appears here on the side of good, to join him in battling Megalon.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is tacky as only a Japanese monster movie can be — there are a lot of ways a movie can be bad, but the people at Toho Studios seem to have worked out an utterly unique one filmmakers in other countries have never been able to duplicate (and remember this was when Akira Kurosawa was under contract to Toho, so the studio was making some of the worst movies of all time and using the profits from them to subsidize some of the best movies of all time) — and it’s got some cool vehicles, including the dune buggy the inventor and his oddball family ride in (swapped midway through the film for a Volkswagen 1600 fastback — one oddity Charles noted is that nobody in this Japanese movie seems to be driving a Japanese car, though I joked that was because they were exporting all of them), as well as a pretty irrelevant subplot involving a pair of thugs who want to steal the robot and to that end kidnap the inventor and the boy and lock them in a freight container for a couple of reels or so until they escape (the MST3K crew joked that one of the thugs looked like Oscar Wilde — it must have been the hair) — the movie is also about half over before we see the monsters fighting, which is what we came for, and the action is pretty ineptly staged, but there’s a kind of comfortable old-school feeling to these movies, with their refreshingly non-gory battles (they were appealing to an audience of children, after all) and their overall air of cheery ineptitude, as if the people making these movies knew exactly where they fit into the overall scheme of things in the movie industry and were, in a way, savoring just how bad these movies could be without crossing the line over into utter unwatchability.

The MST3K crew were especially inspired by this one, particularly in the dance sequence in the Seatopian court (where they decided, based on the peaked hats the female dancers were wearing, that this was a ballet version of the Ku Klux Klan) and in the final segment, in which they took the action song at the end of the film, “Gojira to Jetto Jagâ de Panchi Panchi Panchi”  (“With Godzilla and Jet Jaguar, Punch Punch Punch”) — which for some reason the U.S. distributor, a company called Cinema Shares (shares what? Your pain? Your disappointment that this isn’t a better movie?) left in Japanese even though the rest of the film is (typically badly) dubbed in English — and added subtitles that purported to translate it and actually mocked it.