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Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2002

Who needs pixels when rubber will do the job?

Godzilla, Mothra, King Gidora

Rating: * * * 1/2*
Director: Shusuke Kaneko
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Live long enough and you figure out a few things. That was my thought as I sat through the double feature "Tottoko Hamutaro -- Hamuhamuland Daiboken (Skippy Hamutaro -- Big Adventure in Hamuhamuland)" and "Godzilla, Mothra, King Gidora -- Daikaiju Sokogeki (Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack)." My plan had been to slip into the Godzilla film and slip out of the Hamutaro cartoon, an entertainment for under-7s based on a popular TV show. The guy I called at the theater assured me that "Godzilla" started at 4:30 p.m.; actually, he said, "The show starts at 4:30" -- a crucial difference.

News photo
Monster titans rumble in "Godzilla, Mothra, King Gidora"

So I ended up seeing the adventures of Hamutaro and his pals in Hamuhamuland, while the kiddies squirmed and their mothers silently endured. I also wondered what marketing genius had paired this cutesy bauble, whose villain is a silly kitty in a cape, with the latest installment in the Godzilla saga, which prerelease publicity had assured me would be the scariest yet. Wouldn't the Big G's titanic battles with Baragon, Mothra and King Ghidorah -- the last, a flying three-headed monster 50 meters long from fangs to tail -- give the tykes a nasty turn? Wasn't this like screening a Rugrats movie with "Alien 3" -- a mismatch verging on child abuse?

Well, no. The tykes liked the Big G and his friends just fine. In fact, the boy sitting next to me (who looked like Harry Potter's younger Japanese cousin) giggled through the monster fight scenes. The folks at Toho who made and marketed this film knew exactly what they were doing, it turned out. Instead of trying to go mano a mano with hyperrealistic creature features from Hollywood -- the mistake of the ill-fated American Godzilla movie -- Toho has stayed with the formula that made Godzilla an international icon. That includes not only the famous metallic roar, but the monster's portrayal by a man in a rubber suit.

In 1954, when Ishiro Honda directed the series' first installment, the suit was the only feasible option. Now, however, with computers being used to animate everything from "Shrek" to film students' shorts, it would seem to make sense to digitize Godzilla as well. But the man-in-a-rubber-suit aesthetic -- the presentation of the monsters as costumed big kids -- distances the onscreen action so much from reality that even kindergartners can enjoy it. So Toho once again corrals its target "family" audience on the cheap, while conceding to Hollywood the CGI extravaganza market in which it could not expect to compete anyway.

Directed by effects meister Shusuke Kaneko, who has, in films such as "Crossfire" and "Gamera III," brought a dynamism to a genre in desperate need of it, "Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah" is less a reimagining than a return to basics -- more precisely, to what the 46-year-old Kaneko found thrilling about Godzilla when he first saw him stomping across screens big and small. Instead of misguided attempts by other recent movies in the series to soften or update the Big G's image -- giving us a cute Godzilla Junior or a hypertrophied "new" Godzilla seemingly trained on nuclear steroids -- the film alludes to ancient myth, modern warfare, natural catastrophes and show-business legend. This Godzilla is not only a mean (if bottom-heavy) fighting machine, able to vaporize rivals with one mighty atomic blast, but an ur-symbol of our collective fears, be they earthquakes or Armageddon.

A human-centered story must unfold, however, before Godzilla and his opponents climb into the ring. Kaneko, who wrote the script, follows the series' tradition of cutting between shots of fleeing crowds and scenes of tight-lipped officials bandying pseudo-scientific theories and bellowing orders in military jargon. But unlike previous installments that took the monster-bashing business with a risible seriousness, Kaneko's injects welcome touches of black humor -- not quite parodying the proceedings, but making them more bearable for the adults.

As the film begins, Godzilla is stirring from his half-century-long sleep in the waters off Guam, where he retired after his last rampage in 1954. But when the commander of a Japanese submersible spots suspicious monster activity in the area, near a sunken U.S. nuclear submarine, officials back home are reluctant to act -- save for Adm. Tachibana (Ryudo Uzaki), who witnessed Godzilla's power as a 5-year-old and knows how destructive it can be.

Meanwhile, Tachibana's daughter Yuri (Chiharu Niiyama) is working as an announcer for a struggling BS station. While making a documentary near Mount Myokozan in Niigata Prefecture, Yuri and her crew experience a disturbing earthquake. That night, a gang of marauding bikers are buried in a tunnel collapse -- and a truck driver they have been harassing sees a huge, fiery-eyed beast stir in the rubble. Soon after, at Lake Ikeda in Kagoshima Prefecture, a group of young revelers are attacked by a horrific Thing arising from the waters. What in the name of all unholy is going on here?

A writer friend of Yuri's, the gangly, Jeff Goldblum-ish Takeda (Masahiro Kobayashi), reads a book on monsters of ancient Japanese legend -- and wonders if they aren't so legendary after all. Then Yuri, Takeda and Murao (Takashi Nishina), an eager-beaver assistant director who is Takeda's rival for Yuri's affections, meet the eccentric old author of the book, who says that Godzilla is a living, raging embodiment of the souls who lost their lives in the Pacific War. Wouldn't you know? -- he happens to be right.

Inevitably, the monsters emerge, while the authorities dither (the most realistic part of the film). Godzilla stomps a few islands on his way north, while Baradon, a four-legged creature with a pug nose and ears that look like radar dishes, tromps south from Mount Myoko. Finally, they converge in the mountains of Hakone, where an air-headed woman, catching sight of the rampaging Baradon in the distance, poses her uneasy hubby for the ultimate tourist snap. "Isn't it cute?" she coos. Then she hears a roar and sees Godzilla glaring down at her from the peak behind. The kick that follows atomizes mountain, tourists and all. How can you not love this guy?

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