I met the film's director, Shuusuke Kaneko, at Asian Fantasy Film Expo 2002 in New Jersey, so you know part of why this film means so much to me. Kaneko, a lifelong Godzilla fan, is a true genius when it comes to giant monster films, as shown in his wonderful Heisei Gamera film trilogy (GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, GAMERA 2: THE ADVENT OF LEGION and GAMERA 3: THE AWAKENING OF IRYS, the latter, which I saw at AFFE 2002, is without a doubt the best Japanese monster film ever)! He also knows what truly made Godzilla so famous, even if some fans (both Japanese and American) take it for granted, that Godzilla is best known as an invincible, unstoppable villain (just like in the first four films), which caused a huge controversy amongst many fans when this film was made (they're still too used to the "sympathetic" Godzilla established in 1984, which was a lame cop-out on his supposedly "evil" character). Although I still love and grew up with the "good guy" Godzilla from the later classic films, I have come to appreciate the original evil Godzilla, as long as it was done right! And Kaneko really pulled it off, creating the best, coolest evil Godzilla since the films up to 1964 (even KISS' Gene Simmons, a Godzilla fan, should be really proud of this one)! He truly put Godzilla back to being the FOLLY OF MAN! Not the other way around (which the 1984 version officially mandated for all Godzilla films up until this one)!
Kaneko showed executive producer Shougo Tomiyama a story he did some time before scripting began, and it was called VARAN, BARAGON, ANGILAS: GIANT MONSTERS' ALL OUT ATTACK - GODZILLA 2002. The script was accepted, but not without some changes. The Toho suits told Tomiyama to tell Kaneko to lose the classic Toho monsters Angilas and Varan, as they were not bankable characters, so the suits wanted him to add the more popular King Ghidorah and Mothra along with Baragon. For 15 minutes, Kaneko sat in the studio in stunned silence, saying to himself, "How am I going to do this!?" Sure enough, he cleverly worked the two monsters into the picture, but he knew that it was going to cause a clamor amongst the fans. Nevertheless, not only did this have the biggest budget of the films, but also a more excruciating shooting schedule, (Toho's mandatory shooting schedule for a Godzilla film is one year; In fact 4-5 months, tops), which Kaneko and his talented crew made the best of. They worked around the clock to get this film done!
And the end result is a Godzilla movie like you've never seen before! As I mentioned before, GAMERA 3 is still the best Japanese monster movie ever, but when it comes to Godzilla films, GMK is as tough as they come! This film is definitely Kaneko's labor of love.
The story has very edgy parallels to the original 1954 GODZILLA, such as his destroying a ship, his attacking a hospital (in a scene comparable to the fate of Ren Yamamoto's "Masaji" character from the 1954 film), his appearance over a mountain (a tribute to his entrance in the first film), his destroying Yokohama, and the twist & turn climax, which was the most inspired since the first film. But in light of all this, Kaneko excellently emulated the original Godzilla, moreso than anyone in the past 17 years! And it also made more sense to add mysterious fantasy elements into the story, because Kaneko thought that there was no way you could "realistically" explain a radioactive dinosaur monster ("It would've made more sense if the monster were 15 or 20 feet tall," he said in an interview). The resulting statements in GMK are spiritual as well as socio-political. Although King Ghidorah and Mothra are clearly not fit for the story, Baragon was excellently portrayed, and manages to evoke sympathy from the audience! Despite Baragon's fighting spirit, Godzilla was pretty brutal on him! In fact, he was brutal to even Mothra and King Ghidorah, who have their own shining moments in the film also! The rest of the story is very intriguing and the pacing is fast. But much like the last two films, some things are not spelled out to the viewer in an obvious way, so to actually grasp the film, one has to see it more than once.
There's also a hilarious jab at GINO (Godzilla In Name Only; What we fans call the American Godzilla fiasco from 1998) at the beginning, when Admiral Tachibana (Ryuudou Uzaki) lectures his soldiers at a meeting. And there's tons of dark humor abound, especially a "real world" reaction to Godzilla, which really works! They sort of remind me of situations in Matt Groening's THE SIMPSONS and FUTURAMA! One of the coolest and funniest is when a man tells people to evacuate from a shopping plaza because Godzilla was approaching. One middle-aged woman was annoyed, barking "Why . . . What's the big deal with Godzilla anyway!?" It took one earth-shaking footstep to convince her! In another scene, Baragon runs amok on a mountain resort, and among the tourists seeing Baragon from afar, a woman thinks the monster looks "frightening but cute," and her husband takes a picture of her next to the scenery just before she reacts to something behind him . . . It must be seen to be believed!
The music by Kou Ootani (composer of the Heisei Gamera trilogy) is totally unlike any previous Godzilla score. It's more new-age/electronic than your traditional orchestral stuff (definitely a first). In fact, it's a MIXTURE between electronic and orchestral music! Some were reminded of either John Carpenter's stuff, or Michael Boddicker's score for THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI. But definitely a great score! Then, you have Toho providing the usual stock Akira Ifukube music track to let us know that this is a Godzilla film, but this film probably has the best use of it! The stock tracks were used in the right place.
The special effects are probably the best in a Godzilla film since Teruyoshi Nakano's breathtaking work in the 1984 GODZILLA. Special effects director Makoto Kamiya, who was Shinji Higuchi's assistant in GAMERA 3, makes his SPFX directorial debut here, and his work is mind-blowing! Director Kaneko is another one to thank, as he was there to consult with Kamiya on how the FX would look, so that they mix perfectly with the human scenes! Truly a first, as traditionally, all previous Godzilla films had the principal & SPFX directors work separately, which made the human and SPFX scenes too distant. The suitmation work here is great, and the CGI work is excellent (look for the scenes where Mothra hatches from her cocoon, where King Ghidorah rises over the city and spreads his wings, and where Godzilla swims underwater!).
Godzilla has never looked so alive, and tall! In fact, he's the biggest monster in the whole movie (60 meters)! Played by Mizuho Yoshida (who also played the title creature in Keita Amemiya's ZEIRAM films), this is the biggest Godzilla suit, measuring at around 7 feet! And amazingly, Yoshida put Godzilla in amazing poses people thought impossible to do in a Godzilla suit! He looks much more flexible than in the later films of the 2nd movie series (particularly from GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA '93 to GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH, where Godzilla not only looked way too fat, but also way too stiff)! The suit's head can also turn over the shoulder! Godzilla also has the most facial expressions in this film, and you don't know whether they're animatronic or computer-enhanced! Here, Godzilla has a muscular dinosaur-like physique, has white eyes that give him an evil look, and not only is his skin clearly charcoal-gray, but he also has his original white fins (though slightly smaller)! Godzilla's Radioactive Heat Beam is back to blue, and when he uses it, watch out!!!
Baragon is another highlight! Though he only appeared in two movies; FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and briefly in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, the subterranean monster Baragon is amongst the popular Toho Monsters, and his return in GMK is worth the long wait! The suit was brilliantly crafted, and every bit as alive-looking and flexible as Godzilla! Every time it stopped to do a thunderous roar, it just looked cute (Then again, all of the monsters had a certain cuteness in GMK, even Godzilla, in a kind of Jim Henson-esque sort of way)! This is the first time a Toho Monster is played by a woman. Rie Oota, making her debut in this film, has done suit work before in shows and stuff. She played Baragon remarkably! Also, since four-legged monsters usually had to crawl on their knees, that was a no-no for GMK. Yes, Baragon had to walk on ALL FOURS! And he did.
And yes, King Ghidorah and Mothra were not originally intended to be in the story (blame Toho, not Kaneko!), but this film has the best incarnations of the two monsters ever put on film! Ghidorah actually LOOKS more like a dragon (get a load of those legs!) and can actually fold his wings back! Incidentally, Fuyuki Shinada, who designed all of the monsters, was disappointed that Varan wasn't going to be in the story (Varan was one of his favorite monsters), but cleverly compromised by giving Varan's facial features to King Ghidorah's three heads! Best of all, unlike the previous new films since 1991, Ghidorah got his electric organ-like cries back! And Mothra looks her best here, too! She appears briefly in her larva phase, but prominently appears in her moth form. Very beautiful and wasp-like, and much better than the toy-like kid-friendly versions from the previous Heisei-era films. Thanks to both a great prop and CGI, Mothra looks very flexible. She also has a neat new power of shooting stingers from her abdomen!
Last, but not least, the human characters are among the best in any Godzilla film to date. The film's hero, Admiral Tachibana (played by popular musician/actor Ryuudou Uzaki), is memorable. He looks reminiscent of Kenji Sahara, with the same intensity (even though Uzaki is actually very hip in real life). The beautiful Chiharu Niiyama plays Tachibana's daughter Yuri, a young TV reporter and the film's main character. Sure, she starts out as just another reporter out to make a buck, but she changes in the course of the film, searching for knowledge, and making awareness to the public. The father and daughter relationship is very touching, especially before Tachibana goes into battle against Godzilla. Shirou Sano (Miyasaka in GODZILLA 2000) makes his second appearance in a Godzilla film, playing Yuri's comical long-haired boss Haruki Kadokura, inspired by Ichirou Arishima's role as TV editor Tako in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. In fact, Sano took his copy of that film to the studio and showed it to the cast & crew for inspiration! Masahiro Kobayashi plays Teruaki Takeda, one of Yuri's co-workers and a possible love interest. He sort of reminds me of Jeff Goldblum, and has an appealing everyman quality. The versatile Hideyo "Eisei" Amamoto (who sadly passed away earlier this year) plays his final role as the mysterious old man Isayama, and even in his old age, had the same charisma he did as Doctor Who in KING KONG ESCAPES and Dr. Shinigami in the original MASKED RIDER series! Very worthy for a final performance. Some of the members of Tachibana's military forces are familiar faces from Heisei Ultraman and Masked Rider shows such as Hiroyuki Watanabe (Commander Akio Ishimuro in ULTRAMAN GAIA), Toshikazu Fukawa (Super GUTS Member Koda in ULTRAMAN DYNA), and Shingo Katsurayama (Detective Ichijou in MASKED RIDER KUUGA). And the cameos! Boy, where do I start! Kouichi Ueda, who's appeared in every single Godzilla film since GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE, cameos as the headman of the village in Niigata. Tomoe Shinohara plays a doomed teenage girl with just the right feeling! Masaya Takahashi (who appeared in GOKE: BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL) plays an old bicycle shop owner, from whom Yuri buys a bicycle. Yukijirou Hotaru (from the ZEIRAM and Heisei Gamera trilogy) plays a pathetic businessman who tries to commit suicide, but instead inadvertently discovers King Ghidorah! Kazuko Katou (who played Jun's mother in GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS) is the schoolteacher who witnesses the awesome power of Godzilla's Radioactive Heat Beam in another must-see part! Aki and Ai Maeda (who played Ayana in GAMERA 3) play two teenage twin girls who witness Mothra flying over Yokohama (Fun Fact: Ai couldn't stand her cameo, because she thought she looked fat in that scene!). Also, look for Masaaki Tezuka (director of GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS and GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA) and Kouichi Kawakita (who directed FX for all of the Godzilla films from GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE to GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH and the first two films in the Mothra trilogy) as JSDF officers, and Takehiro Murata (Andou in GODZILLA VS. MOTRHA and Shinoda in GODZILLA 2000) as a fighter pilot who gets blasted by the Big G! And aside from countless others I just couldn't be able to list, I'll close the cast with cameos from the monster suit actors in the flesh! Mizuho Yoshida (Godzilla) is the pink-shirted man standing by Aki and Ai Maeda to the right just after Mothra flies over the city. And Rie Oota (Baragon) and Akira Oohashi (King Ghidorah) are two of the three people in the Yaizu Harbor office who witness Godzilla rising from the ocean (and run out of the office after Godzilla's roar shatters the glass windows).
The film did VERY good at the box office (it was at #2, right behind HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE), extra thanks to Toho's double-featuring it with the first Hamtaro movie (Toho distributes the Hamtaro movies)! Toho hadn't been focusing on their kid audience that well (a lot of kids in Japan didn't even know who Godzilla was!), so GMK was a great start!
*sigh* I've exhausted myself from writing this review. I'm so exhausted that I skipped the plot, and leave it to you to watch the film to get it. But all I have to say is to do yourself a favor and recommend this movie to your family and friends. And I prefer the Japanese version in subtitles (avoid the awful International dub seen on Sci-Fi Channel). Side by side with the original 1954 film (preferably the more moving Japanese version), GMK is a masterpiece, the ultimate Godzilla statement. Shuusuke Kaneko is truly the next Ishirou Honda!
PS: As I type this, the latest film, GODZILLA, MOTHRA, MECHAGODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S., directed by Tezuka, just got released in Japan this weekend. I hear it was really good! And best of all, news is in of Toho's next Godzilla film, to celebrate the Big Guy's 50th Anniversary (tentatively titled THE GODZILLA)! Here's to you, Big G!