If Ingmar Bergman made a Japanese monster movie, it might look a little like Terror of Mechagodzilla. No, seriously. Toho’s fifteenth Godzilla movie ropes the heroic dinosaur into a sci-fi serial with crack-shot spies, a mad scientist, evil aliens in silver jumpsuits, kids in peril, and both a prehistoric menace and the titular robo-saurus stomping Tokyo. Yet tonally, it’s unlike any Godzilla film before or since, with all this comic book mayhem merely an aside to the melancholy, introspective tale of a cyborg schoolgirl struggling to recapture her humanity.
Fun highlights from the last battle, Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster (1974), play over the opening credits, accompanied by Akira Ifukube’s menacing score. Godzilla rips Mechagodzilla’s head off and throws the robot into the sea. One year on, a submarine trawls the ocean floor searching for wreckage. They’re attacked by Titanosaurus, a scarlet sea monster that crushes the sub with its bare hands. Watching from the shore, beautiful teenager, Katsura’s (Tomoko Ai) eyes glow mysteriously. INTERPOL agent Murakoshi (Katsumata Uchida) enlists his old college buddy, biologist Akira Ichinosi (Katsuhiko Sasaki) to uncover this mystery monster and Mechagodzilla’s missing remains. Ichinosi suggests they consult Professor Shizo Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), a specialist in underwater research who claimed to have discovered a dinosaur years ago. But when they visit Mafune’s home his daughter Katsura tells them he died years ago. Flashbacks reveal Mafune was discredited and driven mad by the death of his wife.
Things suddenly turn dreamy and strange, as Ichinosi and Katsura go romancing by day in scenes straight out of a shojo manga love story, while by night she dons figure-hugging, glittery outfits and telepathically commands Titanosaurus to crush Tokyo. Citizens flee in terror. Frightened little kids cry out for Godzilla. The king of monsters leaps to their rescue, throwing punches like Muhammad Ali until Titanosaurus turns tail. In a hi-tech underground base, a very alive Professor Mafune works with space-apes from the “Third Planet of the Black Hole”, plotting to destroy the city and build a utopian community under the sea. No prizes for guessing Mafune is being used by Project Leader Mugan (Goro Mutsu) who unveils the aliens’ secret weapon: a towering, revitalized Mechagodzilla. Torn between loyalty to Mafune and despair that her peaceful pet dinosaur is being used as a weapon, Katsura warns her beloved Ichinose to stay away. Dreams puncture her double life. Memories of a horrific accident that nearly claimed Katsura’s life until aliens turned her into a cyborg. In a frenzied monster melee, Katsura’s subconscious mind drives Mechagodzilla to victory over Big G, even as Mugan taunts her for being a tin toy: “Who could love a cyborg?” With Godzilla down and Ichinose captured, INTERPOL struggle to assemble the biologist’s invention: a “giant, supersonic wave oscillator”. Will Katsura prove she isn’t a robot, but a real girl and make the supreme sacrifice, revitalize Godzilla and save the world?
Okay, so this movie gave us the immortal line: “Please kill me - Mechagodzilla’s brain is hidden inside my stomach!” Maybe you can’t take it too seriously. But Terror of Mechagodzilla wavers between slapdash sci-fi and a haunting, doom-laden romance that gets under your skin. This was the last movie helmed by series creator Ishirô Honda, before he rejoined Akira Kurosawa as his assistant director. Honda lends the film a dreamlike, melancholy air with striking autumnal colours and strange compositions resembling panels from girl’s romance manga. The disorientating, stream of consciousness plotting may vex some monster fans, but is often quite beguiling and unique. It mirrors the fractured mental state of anti-heroine Katsura, part of a long line of strong heroines featured in the Godzilla series, going all the way back to Momoko Kochi in the original Godzilla (1954). Tomoko Ai has a dreamy, doll-like presence and does surprisingly affecting things as the lovelorn cyborg. When injured Katsura covers her exposed circuits so Ichinosi can’t see. She also provides the only nude scene featured in a Godzilla movie, lying topless on the operating table. Male leads Katsuhiko Sasaki and Katsumata Uchida are bland, uncharismatic types - a far cry from the big name stars who headlined Godzilla movies in the 1960s. Akihiko Hirata appeared in more series entries than any other actor, but is uncharacteristically hammy in his final role. Though set to appear in Godzilla 1985 (1984) he died just before filming began.
Godzilla himself stands tall in the monster scenes. While some fans bemoan his “lovable puppy dog phase”, here his heroic stature borders on the mystical. His first appearance onscreen is memorably awe-inspiring: Titanosaurus stands poised to squish two children when a jet-blast of radioactive breath knocks him flat. Honda’s camera pans right and there is Godzilla looming over the city skyline in silhouette. A mini-masterpiece of mood. Honda utilizes extreme low angle shots giving his battling beasties an impressive illusion of height. When Katsura and Mafune ride a glass elevator, the camera glides upwards slowly revealing an awe-inspiring Mechagodzilla. Teruyoshi Nakano (taking over from the late Eiji Tsuburaya) delivers an exciting effects set-piece as Mechagodzilla launches his rockets down a crowded street, with cars exploding one by one until flying automobiles reach the camera. Titanosaurus is a well designed creation (His roar uses the sound of an elephant’s trumpet played backwards) whose sad fate mirrors that of our tragic, anti-heroine. The closing scene has an hypnotically funereal tone, as Ichinose embraces Katsura (“Even though you’re a cyborg, I still love you”) while Godzilla watches with paternal benevolence before wading out to sea.