Before Shin Godzilla - Retrospect of the Last Era, Part 5: Godzilla: Tokyo SOS

(Note: Article originally published on October 9th, 2016 in Godzilla-Movies.)

This is Part 5 of a retrospect of the Millennium Godzilla series. To read previous chapters, click below:

Before Shin Godzilla - Retrospect of the Last Era, Part 1: Godzilla 2000

Before Shin Godzilla - Retrospect of the Last Era, Part 2: Godzilla x Megaguirus

Before Shin Godzilla - Retrospect of the Last Era, Part 3: Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah

Before Shin Godzilla - Retrospect of the Last Era, Part 4: Godzilla x MechaGodzilla

"When the dead is at rest, let his remembrance rest; and be comforted for him, when his Spirit is departed." - Ecclesiasticus 38:23, KJV

In hindsight it seems hard to justify a direct sequel to 2002's Godzilla x MechaGodzilla. The film's 1.7 million tickets sold made it the second least attended film of the first four Millennium movies and it was not particularly well received by critics. (1)(2)(3) A couple of variables come into play. First, producer Shogo Tomiyama liked both the director, Masaaki Tezuka, and the film. “I think he did a really good job on the previous film,” said Tomiyama. “I thought GXMG was interesting. Lead actress Yumiko Shaku gave a good performance, and baseball player Hideki 'Godzilla' Matsui was one of the guest stars so I was sort of satisfied with the completed film.” (4)

Secondly, Godzilla's 50th Anniversary was looming and Tomiyama was already spinning his wheels. “I intend to make the anniversary film into a sort of conclusion to all the Godzilla movies ever made.” (4) If a project celebrating Godzilla's birth was to happen in 2004, Toho needed a 2003 product to keep momentum going. Essentially, if not cynically, Godzilla x Mothra x MechaGodzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. could be viewed as a filler project.

Rumors of a sequel to Godzilla x MechaGodzilla hit the web in late March, though the project had long been gestating with Tezuka onboard to direct. (5) “Producer Shogo Tomiyama's way was to lay out three or four story treatments and have the director pick one,” he explained the story process. “Again, for Godzilla: Tokyo SOS they had four stories, but they were all really boring. They all felt like Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla.” (6) A condemning comment if there ever was one.

Unsatisfied with his choices, Tezuka penned his own story treatment and handed it to Tomiyama for approval. “Because the story depended on [actor] Hiroshi Koizumi appearing I asked Tomiyama to get his confirmation first,” Tezuka was hoping to include Koizumi's character from Mothra (1961). Should the veteran actor join, Tezuka would begin writing the script himself. (6) “I had a chance to see Tezuka's plot idea for the film and it was really interesting,” Tomiyama stated, after assuring Koizumi's involvement. “His concept eventually became an impulse to move the project ahead.” (4)

At Tomiyama's request, Masahiro Yokotani (Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack [2001]) co-wrote the screenplay with Tezuka. (7)(8) “We didn't have as much time for preparation as usual so I wanted a writer who had physical strength and endurance,” Tomiyama commented on Yokotani's youth. (4)

Godzilla x Mothra x MechaGodzilla: Tokyo SOS was announced in mid-April with a June date for principle photography. (10) False reports persisted that Tokyo SOS was the second of a trilogy which would conclude with Godzilla's 50th anniversary celebration. (11) Although the MechaGodzilla sequel was on the schedule, all eyes were on the 50 year benchmark. Tezuka's focus, however, was on his own production.

Once again the responsibility of special effects would pass on to someone new. Yuichi Kikuchi (Godzilla x MechaGodzilla) had moved on to work for Sunrise's SD Gundam (2003). Following that, he would be busy prepping his magnum-opus as special effects director on Ultraman: The Next (2004). (12) Luckily, Tezuka was interested in working with someone new. (4) Eiichi Asada was a back-to-basics, no-nonsense craftsman who had worked as a chief assistant special effects director to Teruyoshi Nakano on The Return of Godzilla (1984) and Sayonara Jupiter (1983). (4)(13) What he lacked in experimentation, he made up for with meticulous polish. Toshio Miike's (GMK, Gamera 3: The Revenge of Irys [1999]) miniature work returned with an added sense of scale, courtesy of Asada's photography.

Because the last film ended with a wide gash in Godzilla's chest, Shinichi Wakasa's Godzilla suit would include a spider-like scar along the sternum. Falling back on techniques used by Koichi Kawakita for the 1990s Godzilla films, an animatronic head was built for close-ups of the Monster King blinking and snarling. (14) MechaGodzilla was also modified to look weathered and less heroic for an added sense of realism. (15) Meanwhile a brand new Mothra prop was designed based on the proportions of the 1961 original. (4) Elements of the two most popular Mothra designs (GMK and Godzilla vs. Mothra [1992]) were added to Wakasa's model. (16) Never one to particularly nail flying monsters in the past, Wakasa's Mothra has been praised as the most charming interpretation since the 1960s.

The suits, props, miniatures and overall production values truly shine in Tokyo SOS. Although not representative of the story's quality, audiences know to grade Tezuka's movies on a curve. In the realm of middling Godzilla productions, Tezuka's are perhaps the best of the bunch. However, his regurgitating of Mothra vs. Godzilla's (1964) narrative and replacing elements, such as the egg, with MechaGodzilla isn't to be overlooked. In a similar way that Takao Okawara (Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II [1993], Godzilla vs. Destoroyah [1995], Godzilla 2000 [1999]) cribbed specific scenes from superior, Hollywood products, Tezuka plays the out-of-ideas card by rehashing a forty year old story.

Where the movie goes from there doesn't make up for the creative drought, but it represents Tezuka's most mature effort. In a scene where government officials question leading man Yoshito Chujo (Noburo Kaneko), Tezuka overexposes the lighting to enhance discomfort and isolate the character from borderline faceless suits. What could have easily come off as another bland, staged-for-television office meeting, seen countless times in the Heisei series, is a tense interrogation. Just maybe Tezuka is becoming a filmmaker.

Although the prior film was poorly serviced by screenwriter Wataru Mimura's (Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II, Godzilla x MechaGodzilla) penchant for lip-service themes, Tezuka does a better job of conveying layered moments of thought. In a rather controversial ending, the 1954 Godzilla's consciousness manifests inside Kiryu and drags the current iteration into the Japan Trench. “The dead should be respected and left in their natural state. Life should not be unnaturally prolonged,” Tezuka spoke of the screenplay's far from subtle message. Recognizing this, Kiryu sunk itself (being built over the original Godzilla's bones) and the current Godzilla out of humanity's reach. (17) In 1954, Godzilla was portrayed as both victim and tormentor. When Kiryu became self-aware in Godzila x MechaGodzilla it unleashed the tormentor—Tokyo was leveled. In Tokyo SOS, Kiryu’s cognizance is somber. Godzilla the victim is tired. It no longer wishes to be a symbol of post-war trauma and the McGuffin for monster battles. It wants to rest.

In a strange way nothing could be more poignant for a Tezuka-led film. His movies have been void of substance and until 2003 he had yet to address why. Perhaps yanking the post-war Godzilla into action time after time (like Kiryu) stagnates a long standing message. Even Shusuke Kaneko had to adjust Godzilla's meaning in GMK—deviating from franchise norms to make the monster more relevant. Unlike his contemporary, Tezuka doesn't bother with hot button assessments. His movies left the 1954 monster in peace to focus on what made him a fan: Monster brawls and visuals.

Another December release date came and went with Godzilla x Mothra x MechaGodzilla: Tokyo SOS billed alongside a third Hamtaru flick. (7) Once again Toho overestimated the power of Hamtaru—Tezuka's latest became the biggest flop of the Millennium series yet. Typically a showing of 1.2 million would have put the series away for good, but Godzilla's 50th birthday was on the horizon and Tokyo SOS had fulfilled its duty. (18) Tezuka, seemingly always in high spirits, was never deterred.

He had written a treatment for the next Godzilla movie, but was unable to pitch it himself. A fellow Toho employee made the proposal for him, but failed to win over the studio. (6) Tezuka would move on to direct Kadokawa's massive reboot of Samurai Commando in 2005 and the Go! Godman! special in 2008. (19)(20) Years later he remains fond of his experience with the Godzilla series. “Every day was amazing,” he recalled, “I was just thinking about my beloved Godzilla and my characters all the time. My three Godzilla films are like my children.” (6) In 2015 he confessed a desire to helm Godzilla again, should Shin Godzilla (2016) be a success. (9)

The “Kiryu Saga” was complete. Toho hammered out another movie with their in-studio team, but it was time to think outside the box again. The reach would be far as the most conservative studio in Japan opened the door to one of the most unruly indie directors in modern Japanese cinema. Ryuhei Kitamura had landed at Toho. (4)

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Sources:
1) World of KJ, Japanese Box Office, from member Corpse, sourced from Kogyutsushin
2) Monster Zero, TALKBACK #25: GMK, from member kpa (Keith Aiken of SciFi Japan)
3) Monster Zero News- Review: Godzilla against MechaGodzilla More Potential than Realized
4) Exisle.net - Shogo Tomiyama Interview, via Henshin.com
5) Monster Zero News - News Bytes (March 21, 2003)
6) SciFi Japan TV Ep. 27 – Tokyo SOS Director EXTRA
7) A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series, 2nd Edition - David Kalat
8) Henshin!Online - Interview: Masaaki Tezuka and Wataru Mimura
9) Terror from Beyond the Daves - Masaaki Tezuka & the Proper Etiquette for Accepting a Godzilla Movie!
10) Monster Zero News – Godzilla x Mothra x MechaGodzilla: Tokyo SOS
11) Monster Zero News – Update: Godzilla x Mothra x MechaGodzilla
12) SciFi Japan – Ultraman: The Next
13) Japan's Favorite Mon-Star, The Unauthorized Biography of "The Big G" - Steve Ryfle
14) Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (Sony DVD) - Behind the Scenes Feature
15) Wikipedia – MechaGodzilla, sourced from Uchusen #108
16) Monster Zero, TALKBACK #25: GMK, from member kpa (Keith Aiken of SciFi Japan)
17) Toho Kingdom, Kiryu and Godzilla: dead or alive?, from member kpa (Keith Aiken of SciFi Japan)
18) World of KJ, Japanese Box Office, from member Corpse, sourced from Kogyutsushin
19) IMDb – Masaaki Tezuka
20) SciFi Japan - Toho’s New GO! GODMAN: On the Set Report– Gaira Returns!