After delivering the highly successful Heisei Gamera Trilogy (Gamera: Guardian of The Universe (1995), Gamera 2: Advent of Legion (1996), and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999)), it came as no surprise that Shusuke Kaneko would be offered a chance to direct a Godzilla film.
Yet even though Kaneko’s Godzilla film is the 26th film in the franchise, he opted to build his sequel upon the events of the original 1954 Godzilla film, thereby erasing all events of the numerous installments in the series.
One day, Admiral Taizo Tachibana (Ryūdō Uzaki), who was in the middle of a briefing about Godzilla’s first attack, the rise of Kaiju sightings, and the need for the Japan Self Defense Forces to remain vigilant, is informed that an American nuclear submarine went missing off Guam. Upon locating the wreckage, the Deep-Sea Submarine Satsuma captures footage of large fins moving.
Yuri (Chiharu Niiyama), Tachibana’s daughter, is filming a cheap docudrama with her production crew at Mount Myōkō in Niigata prefecture when a mysterious earthquake occurs, and a monstrous cry is heard. The same night, another earthquake occurs and a truckdriver happens to large teeth glistening in the tunnel ahead. Not that much later, Yuri learns from Mitsuaki Takeda (Masahiro Kobayashi) about three Guardian Monsters, Baragon (Rie Ota), Mothra, and Ghidorah (Akira Ohashi).
GMK is not only a narrative that delivers the thrills that any kaiju narrative should have, but also a narrative that, like Kaneko’s Gamera Trilogy, contains a message. In GMK, this message has two sides – a pacifist and an environmental side. And while some might say that the action-rich finale overshadows Kaneko’s pacifist and imperialistic message, he does succeed to make his point. In fact, Kaneko smartly opted to underline his message early in his narrative so that it does not interfere with the staging of the thrilling and wonderful battles of the second half.
So how does Kaneko stage his message in GMK? The pacifist message starts with the simple question: Why does Godzilla (Mizuho Yoshida) target Japan again? One can only answer this question by unearthing what this kaiju symbolizes. Godzilla, who has transformed due to the impact of atomic weapons and embodies the restless souls of all who perished during the pacific conflict, is not only staged as a symbol for a national war-trauma that also the powerful echo of the destruction any kind of imperialistic tendencies invites. So, if Godzilla has set his sights on Japan again, it is because the truth of trauma and imperialism has not properly been inscribed at a symbolic level of Japanese society. Yet, it is not simply because Japan, as society, does not want to fully integrate this truth into his Other that Godzilla returns, but because there is a (right-wing) desire to erase the imperialistic trauma from the collective consciousness. Godzilla’s return, thus, functions as a violent demand to integrate the truth of trauma and imperialism into the fabric of Japanese society. Such integration will, in a certain sense, lead to a blossoming of a pacifist attitude.
If Godzilla represents the return of trauma, what do the guardians symbolize? To answer this question – and unearth the environmental question, we need to define what kind of souls are supposedly put into the guardian kaiju by Isayama (Hideyo Amamoto) to wake them up. These spirits are not, as one readily assumes, human, but a form of energy that resides in nature, the place where the kami dwell. Put like this, one cannot understand these guardians as being protectors of humanity or aids in the right-wing attempt to silence the Japanese imperialistic traumatic truth. These guardians’ sole aim is to simply protect the land (e.g. the rivers, mountains, forests, … etc.) devoid of imperialistic corruption, to protect that what in Shintoist tradition was and is still revered: the holiness of nature. It is, thus, by pitting the guardians of nature against the Godzilla’s corruption by nuclear energy that Kaneko succeeds in evoking an environmental message as well (Narra-note 1).
The opening of GMK is sprinkled with some lighthearted elements (e.g. the major’s desire to attract fame for his village, the strange relation of Yuri’s boss with his long hair) and moments of slight over-acting (e.g the truck driver recounting what he saw). Even though these lighthearted moments put a little smile on the spectator’s face, these sudden tonal shifts could have easily problematized the pacificist and environmental messages Kaneko wanted to convey. Luckily, as the narrative progresses, these tonal shifts disappear in favour for the engendering of mystery, a gradual strengthening of tension, and a deepening of the Kajiu mythology (Cine-note 1).
The composition of GMK stands out due to its pleasant flow. The engaging flow of Kaneko’s composition is not simply function of the compositional rhythm – i.e. the use of the cut, but of the fruitful harmony between Kaneko’s dynamic composition and Kow Otani’s musical accompaniment. Moreover, this harmony highlights the mysterious dimension of Kaneko’s narrative and raises the tension in anticipation of the appearance of kaiju. It is, as a matter of fact, by smartly combining dynamic shots (e.g. tracking shots, zoom-in shots, zoom-out shots, … etc.) with threatening music that Kaneko successfully plays with our anticipation to see kaiju clashing with humanity and each other and trashing all that’s in their way. This cinematographical harmony is also important in giving the ultimate eventual appearance of the kaiju their awe-inspiring dimension and sensibly evoke the threat they pose to humanity.
While some of the visual effects are of course dated (e.g. the launching of rockets), the beauty of the special effects (e.g. the kaiju suits, the miniature sets, the explosions, …etc.) still shine. The magical beauty of these effects does not only lie in the fact that these effects (still) have a pleasing credibility, but also because they subtly reveal the artistry that went into making them. Moreover, it is not simply the suits that impress but the breathtaking allure of the very life that the suit-actors infuse into these suits as well as the impressive elegance they give to their destructive fights.
Of course, the true visual pleasure of GMK does not simply lie in the composition, the quality of the visual effects, and the artistry of special effects, but in how fluid these effects are integrated into the visual fabric of the narrative – here lies the skill ofspecial and visual effects director Makoto Kamiya. More than anything, it is the seamlessness of their integration that crafts a satisfying continuity between man and kaiju and allows the spectator to fully submerge himself into the world of Godzilla and his fellow Kaiju.
Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack delivers everything one expects from a kaiju film – thrilling face-offs, plenty of destruction, big explosions, a great backstory, … etc. The effects are so well integrated into the visual fabric that it allows the spectator to fully submerge himself within this awe-inspiring kaiju fantasy as well as to appreciate the very artistry that went into bringing this fantasy to live. Yet, in our view, GMK’s main success lies in its ability to truly speak to the imagination of the spectator – something the recent Hollywood efforts have struggled to accomplish.
Narra-note 1: This environmental message is also underlined by Godzilla defeating the guardians. In a certain sense, Kaneko underlines that how destructive nuclear power is to the environment and how helpless humanity is when faced with it invisible destruction.
Narra-note 2: GMK seemingly ends in an ironic way with Godzilla’s defeat, allowing Japanese society to keep on functioning without inscribing the imperial traumatic truth into its fabric. Luckily, the final shot beautifully implies that, as long as this truth is not integrated into the Other, the wrath of Godzilla is not finished.
Cine-note 1: If we say that the tonal shifts disappear, we donot mean that the lighthearted touches are gone. In truth, the lighthearted touches become better integrated into the tone of the narrative.