Last weekend marked the 40th anniversary of Terror of Mechagodzilla, the final installment of the original Godzilla series (known as the Showa era among fans). The film saw the return of director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube, and actor Akihiko Hirata. Each had worked on many of the other films, but crucially they worked together on the original 1954 masterpiece. The film was envisioned as an attempt to bring the genre back to a more serious place while retaining the heroic characterization of Godzilla battling off alien invaders, though on this account it must be judged as a failure. Nonetheless, there is much to note on the significance of this film in the history of sf cinema.
Terror of Mechagodzilla sports the first and only Godzilla script penned at the hands of a female writer, Yukiko Takayama. Takayama won a screenwriting contest Toho put on for the film, and though her script was subject to serious rewrites, the essence of her original work remained intact for the production. Perhaps as a consequence the film features one of the most complex and layered female characters of the entire genre: Katsura Sasaki as portrayed by Tomoko Ai, the deceased daughter of the mad scientist Dr. Mafune (Akihiko Hirata) who is brought back to life by the cybernetic technology of the alien invaders. Her relationships with her father, Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki), and especially the new kaiju Titanosaurus drive the plot rather than the monster action itself.
What accounts for the failure to achieve the vision of the film is the series of contradictions and structural problems plaguing Japanese film industry of the era. In the mid-1960s television emerged in a big way in Japan, eventually becoming the largest market for television in the world. Movie-goers declined en masse leading to the precipitous collapse of the Japanese film industry. Toho’s survival was due in large part to its investment in television broadcasting and its flexibility on film production.
Kaiju movies in particular were dealt a massive blow. What once were the crown jewel of special effects, epic fantasy, and remarkable film talent now suffered from a squeeze in funds and production time. Competition from Tsubaraya Productions (which many Toho executives invested in) and their wildly popular shows Ultra Q and then Ultraman (and its never-ending spinoffs which continue to this day) eventually led Toho to invest in its own superhero (super hero-like films, think Mighty Morphing Power Rangers) v. kaiju show, Zone Fighter. Godzilla, Ghidorah, and Gigan made their own cameos on Zone Fighter, which aired 26 episodes in 1973.
As the industry collapsed, the genre began to aim its productions almost exclusively at a young audience. The incredibly campy Gamera series of Daiei operated on a fraction of the budget allotted for Godzilla films, and ultimately went in a direction that exclusively catered to children. Thus, the 1970s Godzilla films came to be almost exclusively structured around narratives that portrayed a super hero Godzilla battling alien invaders as well as personifications of social problems, and in the case of the final two films, a cybernetic doppelganger.
Immediately preceding Terror was the 1974 Godzilla v.s. Mechagodzilla, produced with a larger budget for the 20th anniversary of the original Godzilla film. The 1967 King Kong Escapes had pitted the Toho-ized Kong against a mechanical version of himself, and so when screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa lamented, “There aren’t any monsters left” for Godzilla to battle, Mechagodzilla was born. This was the era that saw the real birth of the Japanese mech genre, represented most importantly by the show Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. More than a few elements were borrowed from that show in both the 1974 and 1975 Mechagodzilla films, including the basic plotline of evil doers kidnapping scientists, enslaved monsters, and underground lairs for gargantuan robots.
In many ways Mechagodzilla represents a fitting final foe for destroyer-cum-savior Godzilla. In the 1954 original and in several subsequent films Godzilla is unabashedly a force of nature disfigured and empowered by nuclear blasts into an apocalyptic super beast. However, in the 1964 Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, the kaiju Mothra convinces Godzilla and Rodan that they must unite against the common foe of Ghidorah, who will destroy not only humanity but the very world upon which the monsters depend. What follows is a series of films in which Godzilla’s anti-hero status begins to turn more and more benign until, finally, he becomes an unabashed savior who directly intervenes to protect humanity from alien invaders and rival monsters. Thus, a mechanical mirror of himself as destroyer represents a return of the repressed for him, a final demon to be vanquished for Godzilla to decide who he really is.
Such character development—however unintentional—is the accomplished fact of the original series. In this sense, Godzilla’s bloody finale against Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus, followed by his somber exit into the sea can be seen as an emotionally powerful moment rather than just another “return to the sea” moment for the iconic monster. Ifukube’s score during the scene rouses the emotions of those who have followed the trajectory of the other films, and gives one a real sense of loss amidst closure. Godzilla’s exit means the end of an era, the end of a series of films that literally changed world culture and forever imbued sf with a new genre from Japan, a country that would eventually become central to its development.
Nonetheless, the battle of Godzilla and Mechagodzilla is secondary to the role of Titanosaurus in the plot. Competition from Tohl Narita’s design work in the Ultra series led to a bizarrification of Toho’s monster design. The original run of monsters, Godzilla included, usually resembled living creatures in one form or another, whether insectoid, saurian, reptilian, or mammalian. The 1970s saw the emergence of a slime mold monstrosity (Hedorah “the Smog Monster”), a kind of cyborg-chicken-dinosaur-thing (Gigan), a cyborg beetle built by an ancient undersea civilization called Seatopia, a scaled up Shisha statue design (the Okinawan variation on the Chinese guardian lion), and the aforementioned Mechagodzilla. Thus, the use of a very straightforward saurian design represented a significant departure by way of a return to the genre’s roots.
The creature’s first scene in the film while battling a submarine represents one of the crowing achievements of Toho’s special effects’ head Teruyoshi Nakanko. The scene includes inventive camera angles, a beautiful and almost surreal set, and an incredible first reveal for the monster and its bizarre vocalizations. Furthermore, the scene recalled the most successful special effects epic of the era, 1974’s The Submersion of Japan. Described by film historian David Kalat as, “the Gojira of its day,” it tackled real political and social issues in “the guise of a somber horror movie” (141). In many ways that film is responsible for the shift in tone for Terror of Mechagodzilla. The nod to context, though missed on contemporary audiences, immediately signaled a departure from the previous 1970s films.
In spite of some continuity issues, Terror is structured as a kind of sequel to Godzilla v.s. Mechagodzilla. The same alien antagonists seek world domination through Mechagodzilla and crucially by employing Katsura’s ability to control Titanosaurus. Inspired by the space ape craze inaugurated by the immensely popular The Planet of the Apes, the aliens are known as the simians from the third planet of the black hole. Disguised as humans wearing nicely-tailored suits or 1970s futurist silver jumpsuits, the simians plot incredibly unlikely and inept schemes to take over the world. Godzilla historian Steve Ryfle notes that, in one scene, they lay out their plans for world domination while consulting “a cheap, drug story variety map” of Tokyo “complete with folds and creases” (Ryfle 200).
Interpol also reprises its role as the central body of humans combatting the erstwhile conquerors. Throughout the period, Japanese sf fixated on imaginary internationalist agencies, reflective of a kind of liberal utopian sensibility best exhibited by Ishiro Honda’s own vision of 1999 laid out in Destroy All Monsters as a world run by the United Nations with regular space flights to the Moon. Once again, with the assistance of Godzilla, Interpol gets the upper hand of the simians.
Hirata’s role as Dr. Mafune represented a departure from his traditional role as a government official exhibiting stoic competence. In many ways, it represented a kind of en-maddening of his original role as Dr. Serizawa in the original Godzilla film. In both roles he plays a tortured scientist, but in the 1954 film he sacrifices himself for the greater good, while in Terror he essentially sells his soul to the alien invaders to bring Katsura back to life and to exact revenge on humanity. From here he descends into madness, his unkempt hair an outward sign of his inner derangement. The story of his misanthropy is bizarre and unconvincing: apparently in a world populated by giant monsters, Mafune’s belief in the existence of a giant dinosaur—Titanosaurus—was so ridiculous that it earned him a mob-like beating from his colleagues in the scientific community, and while working on his flashy but seemingly useless technology his daughter was electrocuted to death. Revived by the simians’ cybernetic technology, Katsura becames a cyborg woman.
The character of Katsura recalls that of the alien Miss Namikawa from the 1965 Invasion of the Astro-Monster in that her alieness allowed for the portrayal of a more assertive and even sexual character than most Japanese women in film. Though Katsura is in many ways controlled on all sides—by her father, by the simians, by her attraction to Ichinose, and even by her connection with Titanosaurus—she is more assertive and active than most female characters in the original Godzilla series. This allowance for very “un-Japanese” characteristics among non-human female characters reached its full maturity in Katsura, who is ultimately the most powerful individual in the film.
Katsura fulfills Donna Harraway’s prescriptive analysis of the cyborg as “… resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence.” Unencumbered with the restrictions of a traditional patriarchal identity, Katsura merely plays at the role of her former self while interacting with the outside world. Beneath this veneer, she is a complex agent set on carrying out conflicting passions, including the new passion of her desire for Ichinose. She inhabits two worlds, and in so doing belongs to neither. Harraway notes elsewhere in her famous essay on cyborgs and feminism that monsters represent the limits of human imagination. In this sense, Katsura’s role as a bridge between the human characters, the aliens, and the kaiju places her as the ultimate mediator for the identities developed throughout the Showa era.
In the end, Katsura puts an end to her own life in order to save humanity from the evil she controls. Kalat notes that this makes for a powerful book end for the series, mirroring the self-sacrifice of Dr. Serizawa in the original film. Her ambiguous and multifaceted identity carries with it an allure that drives the male protagonist Ichinose to say, “Even if you’re a cyborg, Katsura, I still love you.” In so doing, he proves wrong the assertion of the aliens that no human could ever love an interstitial being such as herself. This act of the male lead overlooking allegiances for the sake of loving an individual turns the patriarchal paradigm of Astro-Monster on its head, achieving a subtle political gesture in the midst of a genre now purged of its critical charge (Kalat 142).
As a final note, this film made an enormous impact on me as a young child. Something about Katsura was alluring to me as a young child enamored of this series. The tension of her character was something that I immediately felt in spite of the barriers of communication established by dubbing and recutting a film in order to present it out of context to young children. The visual aspect of film really came alive to me in those moments as a child. Honda himself remarked that “cinema has a particular visual aspect” and notes that his kaiju films permitted him “to use all these elements at the same kind…[t]hey are…the most visual of any kind of film” (Kalat 145). Beyond the spectacle of giant metaphors battling across cities, the imagery of the alien, the cyborg, and the oppressed converging in the persona of Katsura revealed to me that something deeper was going on than mere mindless entertainment.
As a child I always dreamed of taking works of sf and fantasy seriously. As an adult I’ve learned to alternate between the deadly serious and the campy, but I still favor the serious tone and in many ways credit Terror of Mechagodzilla for that sensibility. The real sense of loss, heroism, and insurmountable contradiction that dominates the narrative—both on its human and kaiju levels—continues to set the standard for me even as I recognize the incredible flaws of this production. Ultimately the plot is incoherent and clumsy, the editing is beyond questionable, and even the effects work has serious flaws. But the character of Katsura and her mediation between the various worlds—kaiju, alien, human—redeems the film in my eyes.
It was my pleasure to meet Tomoko Ai at last year’s G-Fest (basically GodzillaCon) in Chicago. Seeing the actors in these old films realize that their work is appreciated so much abroad (much more so than in Japan, where Godzilla represents a very tiny fandom) is a real treat, and it reminds me that behind the spectacle of cinema there is the labor of artistic production. Films are collective projects designed to reify and project, and so uncovering the work and human talent that went behind their production gives us a special standpoint through which to view the world. Looking back on a film like Terror of Mechagodzilla allows us to appreciate far more than a mere spectacle, it allows us to see it as a congealed moment of labor and vision, a kind of time capsule which reveals much in its attempts to conceal. 40 years on, it stands the test of time as a flawed but fitting end to a series of films that has impacted popular culture in innumerable ways.
Quotations from A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series by David Kalat, and Japan's Favorite Mon-Star by Steve Ryfle.