Godzilla Vs. Megalon/Review

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database

< Godzilla Vs. Megalon
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Infamous among critics and fans alike, Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla Vs. Megalon is often reviled as one of - if not the - worst movies in the original Showa series. Teaming the King of the Monsters with the Ultraman-like robot Jet Jaguar against the combined threat of new monster Megalon and returning baddie Gigan, the movie was rushed into production and shot in three weeks. Already burdened with a smaller budget than previous Godzilla entries due to decreased audience turnout for movies in favor of TV shows like Kamen Rider and Ultraman (hence the introduction of Jet Jaguar), the crew had limited time and resources to make a screen-worthy film, a key factor in special effects chief Teruyoshi Nakano’s own less-than-proud assessment of it. Indeed, while the final product does technically hit all the beats of a Godzilla movie, these limitations are apparent in everything from the narrative to formal elements like editing.

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The human stories in Godzilla films have long been dismissed (often unfairly, but that’s a topic for another day) as set-up for the monster fights and destruction, but that misconception feels strangely accurate here. Given virtually no time to write a proper script, screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa concocts a barebones story about an underwater kingdom, Seatopia, that sends Megalon to attack humanity and the efforts of inventor Goro and his friends to help Godzilla and Jet Jaguar (his size-changing creation) stop them. The thinness of the plot is all the more striking given Fukuda’s earlier helming of Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, which had one of the most engaging and consistently compelling human stories of the Showa era. Out of what can only be described as an apparent sense of obligation to the series’ allegorical origins, the film does attempt some Ishiro Honda-esque political commentary by making human nuclear testing the Seatopians’ motivation for destroying the surface world, but it’s more perfunctory than anything.

This hastiness (or is it laziness?) also shows in the hurried, uninspired editing. Right off the bat, the movie’s credits barely end before it suddenly jumps to the opening lake scene, abruptly cutting off the theme music instead of letting it finish or fade out properly. The opening sequence at the lake ends just as jarringly, with Goro and friends staring in shock at the now-drowned lake as a slow, downbeat cue plays. What follows is a quick transition to the protagonists driving home on the highway to the accompaniment of an upbeat, flute-driven tune. So crude are the cut and the shift in tone that one wonders if the filmmakers forgot that a sudden, almost-fatal disaster immediately preceded this scene. A much more satisfying transition is used when Megalon awakens however. Tracking him as he flies to the surface, the camera tilts upward before eventually fading to black. Then, it tilts down to reveal Goro and Rokuro sitting in a crate, trapped by the Seatopians’ surface agents. It’s a rare skillful instance of editing in the film that’s on par with some of the best in Honda’s Godzilla offerings, and definitely one that it could have used more of.

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Even putting aside the fantastical premise, there is a litany of plot contrivances that strain credulity. Hiroshi, for instance is tied to a wooden chair by the chief Seatopian agent only to suddenly break said chair and escape confinement once his captor slaps him (if the chair was that flimsy the whole time, why didn’t he just break free right away instead of politely waiting until the plot decided it was necessary?), and Goro and Rokuro - after their crate is swatted away by Megalon and sent flying - miraculously survive its being flung hundreds of feet away instead of dying instantly upon impact. Granted, it’s a Japanese giant monster movie (from the 70s, no less), but even stories where atomic-breathing dinosaurs walk the Earth and subterranean civilizations worship giant cockroaches should have, if not realism, at least some internal logic and plausible interactions between the puny mortals who are supposed to tether these movies to some modicum of reality.

On the acting front, the cast here is largely unremarkable, with the main trio of Katsuhiko Sasaki, Yutaka Hayashi, and child actor Hiroyuki Kawase being bland but serviceable as Goro, Hiroshi, and Rokuro respectively. It’s among the villains (as if often the case) that anything approaching an interesting performance can be found. Robert Dunham (the token white guy in a number of Toho productions like 1964’s Dogora) briefly appears here as Seatopia’s Emperor Antonio, humorously hamming it up in a toga and thigh-high boots as he prays for Megalon to arise and destroy the surface world. A more straightforwardly menacing performance is Kotaro Tomita as the leader of the Seatopian surface team, whose long hair, dark eyes, and black Nehru jacket make him look like a Japanese Alan Rickman. Amusing as this resemblance may be, Tomita brings a serious comportment and demonstrated capacity for violence to the character that makes him a credible threat.

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One of the film’s bright spots, however, is the music, something it shares in common with any number of Godzilla films. Sure, a majority of fans probably detest Riichiro Manabe’s score as much as they detest this movie, and while it certainly doesn’t reach the artistic and emotional heights that many of series favorite Akira Ifukube’s compositions did, it’s a mistake to assume that Manabe was trying to do that here. Instead, it seems he simply intended to match the zany tone of the movie with equally zany music: Godzilla’s theme is a lively, upbeat rearrangement of Manabe’s earlier, more forlorn-sounding theme from Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, while many of the other tracks evoke the work of fellow Godzilla composer Masaru Sato with their jazz-style drumming, energetic guitar riffs, and very 60s/70s organ sections. And even diehard haters of the film will often admit they have a soft spot for Jet Jaguar’s theme, whether it be the catchy sung version that closes out the movie or the heroic-sounding, string-driven instrumental arrangements heard throughout.

Much of the movie’s notoriety stems from its overuse of stock footage, necessitated by the small budget and quick production schedule. As such, most of its military mobilization scenes as well as Megalon’s rampage are cribbed from previous entries in the series. Indeed, one particular scene where the JSDF fires on “Megalon” as he hides behind some trees actually shows them firing on Gaira from War of The Gargantuas, with the Green Gargantua’s identity helpfully obscured by the trees and the audience (well, those who haven’t seen that movie anyway) none the wiser. Budgetary limitations are evident even in original special effects footage shot for the film. The climatic battle, for one, is conveniently set in the countryside, far away from any expensive models that would be destroyed if it took place in Tokyo or some other city (aside from footage of one comically out of place structure reused from Godzilla Vs. Gigan).

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The dependence on old effects footage does little for the film’s production value, but it fares much better when handling its monstrous stars. Megalon is a unique foe as he’s not only one of the few insect kaiju to fight Godzilla but the only one to be bipedal as well, making for more convincing melee combat between the two than previous bugs like Mothra or the praying mantis Kamacuras. Despite the limited resources available to them, the production team was able to put together a decent suit for him, mixing different shades of brown with amber yellow and sleek silver and including detailed textures like the smooth shell concealing his wings or the rough ridges on his drill-like claws. Sealing the deal is that the film has no illusions about what Megalon is: he’s not an overgrown animal acting on his natural instincts, he’s not a metaphor for this or that social ill. He’s a bad guy out to do bad shit, and that’s all this absurd, campy movie needs.

Well, that and a good fight, and if the fight here is anything, it’s fun to watch. With Godzilla and Jet Jaguar facing off against Megalon and Gigan, there’s plenty of personality and levity sandwiched between the violence. Megalon lets out a mocking chortle during his initial clash with Jet Jaguar, while him and Gigan jump up and down in glee as he surrounds Godzilla and his robotic friend with a flame of wall created by his napalm bullets. The heroes get in on the tomfoolery too though, most memorably when Jet Jaguar holds Megalon down as Godzilla hurries a short distance away before dropkicking the bad bug, a moment that managed to capture the silliness of the Showa series in one preposterously playful image. It’s not a titanic struggle worthy of Honda’s finest films, but it’s suitable enough for a kid-friendly kaiju movie shot on a shoestring budget.

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Godzilla vs. Megalon may almost certainly be the laziest Godzilla film of the Showa era, but if you can turn off your brain and take it for what it is - a 70s monster movie made on the cheap and on the double - than you’ll find yourself in for an hour or so of the escapist entertainment that makes the King of the Monsters so beloved around the world.

Review by Reggie Peralta

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