GMK: Giant Monsters
All-Out Attack
Japan | 2001
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko
Starring
Chiharu Nyama
Ryudo Uzaki
Masahiro Kobayashi
Color
| 105 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD
| R1 - NTSC
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
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Essays on the "Big G"

   
 
8
    5   10 = Highest Rating  
Guest Review by Troy Guinn
I'll state from the outset that I'm a lifelong fan of Toho's Godzilla and other Japanese giant monster films. While I have watched all 28 Godzilla films several times, and enjoy them each to some degree, I don't think my rose-colored glasses have become so radioactive that I can't admit that the kaiju eiga (giant monster film) vary greatly in quality. While conceding that even some of my favorite Godzilla films have flaws that are hard to overlook, as a fan I get incensed over the 'formula' review that mainstream critics frequently slap onto each new Godzilla film. This is often some form of a snide dismissal of the films as being campy, childish nonsense with men in rubber suits stomping around amidst toy stories, with no recognition of two major truths: one, that any film series this enduringly popular (50 years and counting) deserves serious study and is obviously more than disposable celluloid tripe, and second, that Toho has allowed far more extreme deviations from a formula than any other series of notable longevity, such as the James Bond or Friday The 13th films. Which brings me to the subject of this review, a singularly daring 2001 entry, with a cumbersome title Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack that we can mercifully abbreviate as GMK.
    The Godzilla film was enjoying a successful run of well-made, serious entries in the '90s, when rival studio Daiei dusted off their giant flying turtle, Gamera, for a trilogy of new films that would send shockwaves through kaiju eiga fandom. Gamera, generally thought of as the 'poor man's Godzilla', now spiraled his way through a trio of serious, often grim films with innovative special effects and never-before-seen ways of demonstrating the catastrophic effects of giant monsters throwing down in a city of puny humans. At the helm of all three of these films was a relative newcomer to the director's chair, Shusuke Kaneko. Kaneko's upstart work was making even the new Godzilla movies look somewhat outdated, and once again Toho deserves credit for luring Kaneko away from Daiei and giving him the chance at his lifelong dream of making a Godzilla film. The results would come to dramatically divide Godzilla fandom.
    The story of GMK is refreshingly simple as compared to some of the recent Godzilla entries, with its human drama centering nearly exclusively on two central characters: Yuri (Chiharu Nyama), a television journalist who yearns to break a big story, but who toils instead filming bogus paranormal "exposés" for a trashy television show; and Yuri's father, Admiral Tachibana (Ryudo Uzaki), a career Navy man who first witnessed Godzilla's fury as a child and who now worries that the lives lost to defeat Godzilla then might have been in vain if Godzilla returns. Yuri, while covering the legend of a "lake monster" near Mt. Myoko for television, is made aware of an ancient prophecy concerning "The Guardian Monsters". This prophecy states that the three Guardians will awaken to defend the Japanese homeland from Godzilla. After a tunnel collapses upon a youth motorcycle gang, releasing a horned-toad-like monster (Baragon), and a giant caterpillar (Mothra) emerges from Lake Ikeda to kill (and also cover in webbing) a group of partying teens, Yuri becomes convinced that the prophecy is coming true, and that Godzilla's arrival must be imminent. A mysterious old man, who is obviously linked spiritually to the Guardian monsters, tells Yuri that Godzilla is actually animated by the souls of the Americans, Chinese, and Asians who died in the War in the Pacific, and that he comes to punish the Japanese people who have forgotten all the pain they caused with that conflict. The old man further reveals that the Guardian Monsters are gathering to defend the homeland, and not the nation of Japan... an important distinction. Thus, Godzilla and the Guardian monsters meet and do battle, with nary a care for all the death and destruction their battle is causing. Admiral Tachibana and his Godzilla Defense Forces throw themselves in harm's way to try and destroy Godzilla, while his daughter Yuri shows the same courage in sneaking into the war zone in order to bring the story to the world. As the final battle begins, a third Guardian Monster joins the battle King Ghidorah.
    Yes, you read that right: King Ghidorah as protector of the Earth.
    Now, for those unfamiliar with the canon of Godzilla and his ilk, this is tantamount to giving The Joker the keys to Gotham City and telling him to get rid of that Batman pest. Yet, as unsettling to Godzilla fans as that concept is, its minor compared to Kaneko's major 'heresy' as he turns Godzilla's origin upside down. The huge, irradiated saurian was always presented as a symbol of the horrors of the atomic bomb, from his first unforgettable appearance in Ishiro Honda's classic Gojira (1954). For GMK, Kaneko re-creates Godzilla as what is essentially a ghost, a relentless spirit of vengeance powered by the souls of WW II dead. Predictably, many Godzilla fans were outraged at this new take on the big G's origin... but there is a major difference between Kaneko's brash revisionism and the crass American Godzilla film by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. Unlike Emmerich's atrocity, which used the Godzilla name but understood absolutely nothing about why the character's popularity has endured for 50+ years, Kaneko grasps completely Godzilla's ability to have symbolic resonance, and the power to instill fear and awe that such a nightmarish creature has. While he comes ultimately to bury and not to praise, Kaneko populates GMK with numerous homages to the classic Godzilla films (such as when Mothra comes streaking over the city, and the camera comes to rest on two Japanese girls who turn to watch her go past). Ishiro Honda, the director of the first run of Godzilla films, can be thought of as the John Ford of the kaiju eiga. Shusuke Kaneko can justly then be considered the genre's Sam Peckinpah. Except for Gojira, no other Godzilla film before GMK has concerned itself with the human toll inflicted by Godzilla's battles and rampages. Honda typically contrived a sense of majesty and wonder for his monstrous subjects, depicting their wars against colorful backdrops and over somber orchestral scores to achieve a kind of mythical, elegiac poetry. Kaneko shuns poetry in favor of evoking the terror of the man in the street, dodging the flying rubble and destruction, using low-level camera angles (as he did in the Gamera films) to create a peeking-around-the-corner intimacy with the monster action. To put it mildly, Kaneko labors to drive home the point that it would really, really suck to have multiple tons of raging monster-flesh deposited in the heart of your hometown. Kaneko has a wonderfully inventive mind when it comes to finding fresh takes on standard kaiju actions. In one scene, Godzilla's mouth begins to glow as he prepares to breath his trademark atomic fire-breath upon a crowd of fleeing human 'ants'. Instead of showing us the results directly, Kaneko cuts away to a distant schoolhouse, as a teacher and her students react to a bright flash from far away. They look out the window to see a mushroom cloud rising from the distant city. It's a bone-chilling moment, and presumably even more so for viewers in Japan.
    GMK is instilled with ambiguity whose cause is more just... the monsters who defend the homeland but are oblivious to the human lives they destroy, or the victims of WW II who possess Godzilla? and a theme of sacrifice runs throughout. Admiral Tachibana and Yuri are willing to sacrifice themselves for their duties (his as a military man, hers as a journalist) just as the Guardian Monsters give up their life energies to resurrect one another against the relentless Godzilla, who is himself a literal spirit of sacrificed souls. GMK's portrayal of teens is particularly cynical and grim, as if Kaneko is asking: Would the youth of today be willing to sacrifice anything at all to save the future?
    Technically, GMK is nearly always outstanding. Except for a few instances of poor CGI, the effects and model work are terrific. The monster costumes are a mixed bag, with Godzilla's being the best, complete with solid white pupils to give him a cruel, demon-possessed appearance. Baragon makes for a scrappy little hero, but the streamlined Mothra doesn't have the elegant beauty typical of other incarnations. The King Ghidorah costume, perhaps intentionally softened to reflect his new 'defender' status, cant begin to compare to the vicious dragon that debuted in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964). The acting is some of the best of the Godzilla series, with strong lead work in the father-daughter dynamic of Uzaki and Nyama, and wonderful character bits from supporting players. Truthfully, GMK is one of only three Godzilla films I would recommend to anyone besides giant monster-movie fans or sci-fi buffs, the other two being the original Gojira and Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964).

Now comes the tough part: reviewing the DVD presentation. See, if you're a Godzilla fanatic like me, you'll understand why I'm tempted to give this DVD full marks for just existing at all. After years of pan-and-scan, ineptly dubbed video releases, 2004 (Godzilla's 50th anniversary) was an amazing year, with a whole slew of Godzilla films released to DVD in gorgeous, widescreen prints, featuring both the English dubs and the original Japanese language tracks and well-done subtitles. So I want to just gaze upon their reality and give thanks to the DVD gods. However... if you're not a Godzilla fan, you're liable to look at these discs and wonder what all the fuss is about. Sure, the prints are gorgeous, but in the case of GMK, you would expect nothing less from a film that is only a few years old. A comparison with a Japanese DVD of GMK reveals that Columbia TriStar's DVD of this wonderfully colorful 2.35:1 film has information cropped from all four sides, although we miss nothing crucial and the framing is still tastefully done. The English dub track is well-handled, at least in comparison with some of the shoddy dubbing on the 1970s-era Godzilla films. How about the extras, you ask? What extras? The Japanese DVD contains a lengthy making-of documentary (featuring the unforgettably charming female suit-actor who portrays Baragon and even 'roars' during her spirited performance), but we get zilch from Columbia's domestic DVD other than trailers for five non-Godzilla films. To date, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) is the only domestic DVD with any kind of notable extra, a short making-of footage collection.
So I love GMK, but cannot in good conscience give the DVD package especially high marks. Someday, perhaps, we'll see Godzilla films released domestically with commentaries, essays, and all kinds of extra goodies. But I'm not gonna be holding my atomic fire-breath. 3/04/06
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