Strange incidents are occurring across Japan. Tabloid TV journalist Yuri Tachibana (Chiharu Niyama) investigates sightings of strange monsters, a ghostly old man in military garb, and the mysterious deaths of several ‘immoral’ youths. An American submarine is destroyed by an unseen force - a creature that Yuri’s father, Admiral Tachibana (Ryudu Uzaki) believes is the king of monsters, Godzilla. Fifty years ago, Tachibana lived through Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo, an attack that claimed the lives of his parents. Mysteriously revived, this new, horrifically evil Godzilla ravages Japan with unparalleled ferocity. Yuri tracks down the spectral Isayama (Eisei Amamoto), who reveals Godzilla is possessed by the vengeful spirits of those killed during the Second World War - earthly weapons cannot kill him. Isayama helps Yuri uncover an ancient prophecy about the Three Sacred Guardian Beasts of Yamato destined to protect Japan. One by one they awaken, Mothra (water), King Ghidorah (sky) and Baragon (earth), to battle the radioactive might of Godzilla. Admiral Tachibana bravely boards a hi-tech mini-submarine to square off against his old foe, while Yuri is caught in the crossfire.
Back in the Nineties, while Toho’s Godzilla series rumbled on in pedestrian fashion, cult filmmaker Shusuke Kaneko was winning rave reviews for his Gamera Trilogy (1995-1999) at rival studio Daiei. This success won Kaneko his dream project - the chance to re-imagine Godzilla for Toho. Unlike the Heisei era Godzilla movies, the Millennium series dispensed with continuity in favour of starting afresh each time, giving directors (including Masaaki Tezuka and Ryuhei Kitamura) greater creative freedom. Kaneko responded with a monster filled fantasy adventure on a truly epic scale, inventive and exciting and featuring the most irredeemably evil Godzilla seen in quite some time. Although this writer generally prefers the heroic Godzilla, one cannot deny he’s impressively monstrous here, gnarled and hunchbacked with milky white eyes lending him an air of almost Lovecraftian horror.
As screenwriter and director of both the human cast and special effects sequences (rare in Godzilla movies) Kaneko had total control and helms extraordinary scenes: in a low-angle shot Godzilla erupts out of the sea sending a sailboat and its screaming passenger plummeting towards us; a drunk stumbles into a mystical cave where beneath his feet King Ghidorah awakens from his frozen tomb; Godzilla and Baragon’s frenzied tussle beside hordes of shrieking tourists near Mount Fuji; a flaming Mothra’s kamikaze death charge. Kaneko also includes some humorous asides: instead of horny teenagers, it’s the middle-aged mayor and his greying paramour canoodling while the monsters creep behind; cult actor Shiro Sano plays Yuri’s editor as an ageing hipster desperately trying to get down with the kids whilst fondling his ill-fitting wig; some obnoxious bikers arouse Mothra’s ire. Kaneko even includes an amusing scene where two soldiers debate a certain mutant iguana who attacked New York in 1998. “Americans believe that was Godzilla, but that’s not what they say in Japan!” Ha! Take that Messrs. Emmerich and Devlin!
Only one sequence backfires. It involves a young woman who thinks Godzilla is cute and misunderstood. First she’s crushed then cowers in hospital as Godzilla strides past. She sighs in relief after he disappears, then dies as his tail smashes the building. Many sci-fi geeks who normally shun Godzilla movies think this is the height of hilarity. I think it strays too close to the Takashi Miike school of misogynistic cruelty that afflicts too much Japanese cinema nowadays. To each his own. Nonetheless, it’s a minor flaw at best.
In the West, fans were vocal in their disdain for Kaneko tampering with Godzilla’s origin. Purists believed the sudden inclusion of mystical elements jarred with what was essentially a science fiction premise. Leaving aside the obvious point that a skyscraper-sized, radioactive dinosaur is pretty fantastical anyway, Kaneko’s supernatural twist delivers something hard to resist: a Godzilla movie that is actually about something. Here Godzilla is possessed by the millions of souls who perished lost during World War Two (and, its hinted, by those he himself killed in 1954), a bitter, resentful, older generation hell-bent on venting their anger on the carefree youth of Japan. The film is full of these young/old oppositions, particularly the central relationship between Admiral Tachibana and daughter Yuri. An early scene, where a friend brings Yuri home drunk much to Tachibana’s embarrassment, neatly illustrates the tension between generations. Kaneko does not take a reactionary conservative stance against modern youth, there are positive and negative characters on both sides of the generation gap. The callous biker gang represent youth at its worst, but fun-loving Yuri (brilliantly played by sexy J-pop star Chiharu Niyama) is brave, thoughtful and kind. Admiral Tachibana embodies old-fashioned Japanese values, stoic, heroic and self-effacing, but the Mayor is cowardly, self-serving and only too eager to blame “those pesky kids” for all the world’s troubles. Yuri’s editor is kind of a buffoon, but a key scene has him ditch the wig and stand up for his principles. Kaneko doesn’t condone Godzilla’s destruction as a wake-up call for the selfish youth of Japan. He calls for young and old to appreciate each other’s point of view and reach a reconciliation. Only then can Japan lay to rest the ghosts of the past.
The numerous monster battles attain a near-spiritual quality with bright coloured fairy lights glistening in the sky as Baragon, Mothra and King Ghidorah lay down their lives for Japan. Kaneko’s original plan was to use Toho’s more obscure monsters, Manda and Varan, but the studio preferred the more commercially viable Mothra and Ghidorah. Monster movie regular Eisei Amamoto makes a welcome appearance and eyes peeled for a split-second cameo from Mothra’s friends the Cosmos Fairies, a.k.a. actresses Keiko Imamura and Sayaka Osawa. One can’t resist mentioning the outrageous ending, which takes Godzilla’s indestructibility to new heights. SPOILER WARNING. After Big G is blown to bits, the camera dives to the bottom of the ocean revealing a huge, beating heart… slowly growing a new body. Akira Ifukube’s classic Godzilla theme plays (“Daaaah! Duh-duh daah daah daaah!”) and its sublime. You can’t keep a good radioactive dinosaur down.