Forty years ago marked the end of the Showa Godzilla series. Although some fans remember it fondly with Terror of MechaGodzilla, many overlook the movie as a casualty of the times. While goofy, but fun efforts like Godzilla vs. Megalon exceed in popularity, the talent and poignancy behind Terror of MechaGodzilla sometimes feels forgotten. Forty years later we remember the history of the Showa series' finale and what it took to bring the dark tragedy to life.
The creation of MechaGodzilla has been credited to special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano. When producer Tomoyuki Tanaka wanted to do something special for Godzilla's 20th anniversary, he turned to veteran screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa who quipped that there were no more monsters for Godzilla to fight; they had dried up the well. Nakano stepped in with the concept of a robot Godzilla. Giant robots had become a staple in Japanese science fiction and it seemed all too obvious to pit Godzilla against a mechanical doppelganger.
Godzillla vs. MechaGodzilla was released March 21st, 1974 to modest business. While it didn't bring in the numbers of the 1960s it did better than recent efforts. Tanaka was quick to cash in on MechaGodzilla's success with a direct sequel. Looking for fresh talent, Toho held a story contest for MechaGodzilla's Part II. After receiving submissions, assistant producer Kenji Tokoro contacted Yukiko Takayama about her story. Tanaka was interested in meeting her.
A graduate of The Scenario Center (a screenwriting school), Terror of MechaGodzilla was Takayama's first professionally accepted script--Thus she became the Godzilla series' second and final female screenwriter. (Kazue Shiba co-wrote 1967's Son of Godzilla with Shinichi Sekizawa.) As such it's fitting she was so protective of her female lead Katsura Mafune. Internally refit as a cyborg, Katsura wrestled between what she had become and her human emotions. Was she a cold-hearted robot? Or could she be allowed to care and love? “As long as this idea was not removed from the script, I didn't care all that much about what was done with it,” said Takayama.
Katsura's character traits were retained in the final draft, but other aspects were changed for budgetary reasons. Initially there were two new enemies known as the Titans. These creatures would combine into the massive Titanosaurus upon meeting Godzilla. Additionally, the final battle included more city carnage than the final film produced. All of Tokyo was to be completely wiped out–-A feat even Godzilla: Final Wars had a hard time accomplishing twenty-nine years later.
For the director's chair both Jun Fukuda (Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla) and Yoshimitsu Banno (Godzilla vs. Hedorah ) were considered, but Tanaka decided to bring back the man who started it all--Ishiro Honda. (It's also unlikely the idea of Banno directing got very far. Tanaka reviled Godzilla vs. Hedorah and purged Banno of directorial duties at Toho for it.) Honda's last film, 1970's Space Amoeba, a.k.a. Yog, Monster from Space, was the last Toho film produced under the old studio system--It was a box office failure. The production was also marred by the passing of Eiji Tsuburaya whom was originally scheduled to direct the film's special effects. Afterward, Honda moved on to television, directing episodes of Tsuburaya Production's The Return of Ultraman (1971), Mirrorman (1971) and Toho's Zone Fighter (1973). After accepting his return to Godzilla, Honda wrote the final draft of Takayama's script, tightening the story, particularly the opening. Takayama's opening included the submarine crew at dry dock, but Honda decided to fast-track the crew already at sea.
Terror of MechaGodzilla's cast included the return of Katsuhiko Sasaki who played Goro Ibuki in Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). Sasaki had ties to the series before Megalon, being the son of Minoru Chiaki; an Akira Kurasawa regular who played the tragic Kobayashi in 1955's Godzilla Raids Again. Fearful his son wouldn't find financial stability in acting, Chiaki told Sasaki to graduate college and take acting classes before pursuing a career. The plan worked in Sasaki's favor.
Takayama's story gave him more to play with this time around. Akira Ichinose, a vastly different character compared to the flat Ibuki, was an optimistic biologist excited to prove the existence of a lost dinosaur and Katsura's jilted lover.
Akihiko Hirata (Dr. Serizawa, Godzilla ) returns to the series as Katsura's father, Dr. Mafune. The role offered Hirata little more than stereotypical mad scientist shenanigans complete with a lab coat, poorly construed white wig and fake mustache. The uneven Dr. Mafune is Hirata's last foray in the Godzilla series. He was initially going to appear as Professor Hayashida in The Return of Godzilla (1984), but passed away before production. It's interesting to note that Hirata also played the heroic Prof. Miyajima in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, who also repaired MechaGodzilla, albeit, against his will. As the villainous Mafune he helps rebuild the death machine of his own accord.
The exceptional Goro Mutsumi returns as the alien commander, this time called Mugal. Mutsumi's return has lead fans to believe all Black Hole Alien commanders use the same humanoid disguise not unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator series. Mutsumi has had a successful career guest staring on various television series and doing diverse voice work. His first job on a kaiju film was for War of the Gargantuas. Although he doesn't physically appear on-screen, Mutsumi dubbed over Russ Tamblyn's Paul Stewart character for the Japanese release. In Terror of MechaGodzilla Mutsumi's Mugal is more confident and sadistic than his predecessor. This is evident in scenes where he casually whips his own men before ordering their execution.
The cast is rounded out by Tomoko Ai; arguably the film's most memorable performer. Terror of MechaGodzilla was Ai's feature film debut. She had a small, reoccurring part on Ultraman Leo and was the last person to audition for the role of Katsura Mafune. Ai recalls that she went straight from Tsuburaya Productions to Toho for the audition and didn't bother to change out of her MAC (Monster Attacking Crew) uniform worn on Leo. She jokes that she got the part because she was still in costume and looked ready to go.
Ai described Honda as a thoughtful and kind director. Because she was new to feature films, Honda made the decision to shoot much of her material indoors where he had greater control of the environment. He also worked closely with her to make a clear distinction between her android half and her human half. One of Ai's biggest struggles was not to smile. As a self-proclaimed “bubbly” person, it was difficult for her to not grin or blink during her android heavy scenes. Hirata sympathized with her over dinner. Due to the way his fake mustache and wig stuck to him he lamented, “I don't get to smile either.” An example of Honda helping Ai stifle her emotions is when Katsura first meets Ichinose-- She's very stiff and cold. Conversely, Ichinose was very interested in the girl upon seeing a beautiful face. Sasaki joked that his reaction in the scene, "had nothing to do with acting. I really felt that way about her."
In amusingly conflicting stories, Ai said Sasaki rarely (if ever) said a word to her during the shoot. "He wouldn't listen to a word I had to say," Ai recalled, clearly poking fun at her co-star. Sasaki claimed he didn't speak to her because he had recently been wed and thought he'd be in trouble if he did. On a serious note, both Sasaki and Ai agreed that Honda was a thoughtful man and exceptional at directing dramatic tension between them.
It's fairly normal for Godzilla films to feature two cinematographers, one for the dramatic scenes and another for special effects. Director of photography Mototaka Tomioka wasn't a fan of this--He always felt there would be a stronger sense of continuity if a single cinematographer shot both. Tomioka got his wish with Terror of MechaGodzilla and was in charge of live action and effects shots. His look for the film was very drab with muted colors and metallic aesthetics–Fitting for the film's tone.
Tomioka's history with Tsuburaya predates Godzilla when he was invited to work at Tsuburaya's Research Center. He went on to become an assistant cameraman on the original Godzilla and worked very closely with Sadamasa Arikawa. (Special effects director for Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster , Son of Godzilla  and Destroy All Monsters .) For Terror of MechaGodzilla he was given one month to complete both dramatic and effects footage. Fortunately there was a great sense of trust between him and Ishiro Honda. After a day of shooting the two would spend a couple of hours planning the next day's shots so no time was wasted.
Likely helping them organize the schedule was assistant director Kensho Yamashita, who would direct Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla nineteen years later. A first time chief AD, Yamashita decided against giving a veteran like Honda advice and was content studying the master at work. "I knew that Mr. Honda was a craftsman,” said Yamashita, “so I just tried to learn his craft.” His impression of Honda was in line with Sasaki and Ai's opinion, calling him “warmhearted” and “open minded.”
The special effects were directed by Teruyoshi Nakano (Godzilla vs. Hedorah , Godzilla vs. Gigan , Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla) in Toho's Studio Stage 9. Stage 9 was much smaller than what past Godzilla movies were shot on, making it difficult for Tomioka to capture subjects at a low angle. Thus, several low angle shots of the monsters were done outside in natural light--A rarity in the genre, but it often results in some of the series' best photography. Terror of MechaGodzilla was also the last Godzilla film shot in Toho Scope (2.66:1 aspect ratio) until 1999's Godzilla 2000. (Godzilla films from 1984-1995 were shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.)
Despite the small stage, minuscule budget and lack of time & resources, Nakano's special effects are arguably his best of the 1970s. Not only does he manage to keep stock footage to a minimum, (the most notable stock shots are flashbacks from the prequel, military mobilization and flipped shots of MechaGodzilla's armament barrage) Terror of MechaGodzilla features the largest amount of originally shot city devastation since Destroy All Monsters. MechaGodzilla's attack on Tokyo is Nakano's tour de force of urban extermination. Even with The Return of Godzilla's much larger budget, Nakano didn't wipe out a city as efficiently as he did with MechaGodzilla. Many of the miniatures used during MechaGodzilla and Titanosaurus's raid were left over from Toho's disaster flicks, The Submersion of Japan (1973) and Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974).
Nobuyuki Yasumaru, whom had been the lead monster molding director since 1971, supervised the monster costumes. The new MechaGodzilla suit was slimmer, with minor design changes to its limbs and chest plate. The color was a darker, gunmetal gray and the insignia “MG2” was stamped on its arm. The slim design of the new MechaGodzilla made it look less rounded and taller than its predecessor. This was likely done so it didn't look stumpy next to the slim and certainly tall Titanosaurus.
Titanosaurus was a return to the more conventional and functional designs of the 1950s, like Rodan and Varan. It had no projectile weapon and looked fantastically aquatic for a theropod dinosaur. It's exactly what the story called for. Titanosaurus was brought to life through conventional suitmation, a head prop for close-ups and a rather unconvincing puppet used for underwater shots.
The Godzilla suit was the same created for Godzilla vs. Megalon, albeit, with major face adjustments. The head had been previously altered for Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, but it was enhanced further to create the most fierce version of the suit. Godzilla's brow was lowered and his muzzle reduced in size, giving him a fantastic scowl akin to a rugged action hero.
Nakano was especially considerate of how Godzilla was introduced in the film. The King of the Monsters doesn't appear for nearly an hour, but when he does Nakano treats him as a god-like avenger rising to protect the land. Fans often marvel at the scene where Godzilla's silhouette appears behind distant buildings and an atomic ray blows Titanosaurus off his feet. The camera quickly pushes in on the silhouette and a background explosion ignites before some unexplained illumination reveals Godzilla's glower. “I always try to think extra hard how we should make Godzilla appear,” said Nakano, “how it could be more visually impressive.” Indeed Godzilla's introduction is quite the crowd pleaser. Many fans cite this moment as one of Godzilla's greatest entrances.
Unfortunately, Godzilla's exit isn't nearly as impressive. The movie ends with him swimming away for the last time in the Showa series, but the final shot of him is represented by a hokey promotional suit never meant for film. In fact it's the same costume used for “Fake” Godzilla in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla. Even MechaGodzilla's armor is visible under the damaged skin.
Godzilla is played by Toru Kawai who reprises the role from Zone Fighter and is also known for playing Ultraman Taro. The joke here is that Titanosaurus is played by Tatsumi Nikamoto who would later portray various dinosaurs in Tsuburaya's Dinosaur War Izenborg (1977). (Known in the states as a compilation film titled, Attack of the Supermonsters .) More notably, Nikamoto played Ultraman Leo. So the battle between Godzilla and Titanosaurus is also one between fellow Ultra Warriors.
Ise Mori reprises his role as MechaGodzilla from the previous film. Although the robotic moves haven't changed very much from the bionic monster's debut, there is an amusing narrative moment that ties it to Katsura. Prior to MechaGodzilla's activation Katsura collapses to the floor--Not once, but twice. In both instances, Katsura tumbles to the ground via lengthy, over-dramatic performances. Once her cyborg body is updated with MechaGodzilla's controller she becomes directly linked with the death machine. Naturally, MechaGodzilla gets blasted by Godzilla's atomic ray and tips over in the same slow, over-dramatic stance Katsura made before she crashed to the ground. Whether this was a conscious decision or not, it's an interesting (and funny) way to tie the two players together.
The film caps off its major crew with the triumphant return of Akira Ifukube. The maestro writes an entirely new MechaGodzilla theme that fits the death machine more appropriately than Masuru Sato's jazzy, big-band tune from the previous film. Titanosaurus and Katsura share portions of the same motif hinting at the tragedy behind their stories. Meanwhile, the Godzilla March from 1954 is brought back for the first time in twenty-one years. Ifukube may have felt that using his theme from King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) through Destroy All Monsters (and, inadvertently, Godzilla vs. Gigan) didn't fit an actively heroic Godzilla. Although the Godzilla March was initially intended to underscore the military in 1954, it became synonymous with the monster and thus easily applicable.
Terror of MechaGodzilla opened on March 15th 1975 to abysmal results. Selling an estimated 970,000 tickets, it remains the least attended Godzilla film of all time. Although it was competently made for its budget and resources there are a number of factors that played into its failure. Toho was pumping out Godzilla movies to play in their Champion Festivals for children. However, Honda's film was much darker, leaning toward adult themes which likely didn't click with young audiences. Another factor may have been a perception of retreading on old material. (Aliens, MechaGodzilla, etc.) Audiences may have felt it wouldn't offer anything new. Ultimately, most agree it comes down to the decline of Japanese cinema and kaiju films not pulling audiences like they used to. Godzilla would go on a ten year hiatus during which plenty of ideas were proposed to bring him back, but Tomoyuki Tanaka likely wanted to hold off until a proper budget could be afforded for the Monster King's return.
In the States, Terror of MechaGodzilla faced a rather confusing release. Henry G. Saperstein (whose UPA Productions [United Pictures of America] had distributed Toho special effects films and even co-financed Monster Zero , Frankenstein Conquers the World  and War of the Gargantuas ), bought the rights to Terror of MechaGodzilla. Although Saperstein likely acquired it in 1976 it would be a whole year before American audiences saw the film.
Saperstein, having noticed the decline of Japanese monster films, decided to focus on a television release. He sold the theatrical rights to a small film distribution company called Bob Conn Enterprises. Once again the movie was targeting children and Bob Conn made a series of edits that removed anything remotely offensive. The result was a poorly conceived version of the film that left out important story points and made its climax borderline incomprehensible. The Americanization omits Katsura's suicide and makes it look as if MechaGodzilla shuts down randomly. Released in theaters under the misleading title Terror of Godzilla, (likely so audiences knew it starred Godzilla) the film played at matinees in various cities from March 1978 through 1980. Whenever the film hit a city it would only stay for a couple of days before appearing somewhere else.
Meanwhile, UPA released the film on television under the title Terror of MechaGodzilla. Ironically, all of the cuts Bob Conn made were left intact for television with the exception of Katsura's frontal nudity. (Which were nothing more than foam breasts.) Furthermore, the television version lengthened the run time by adding an introduction with scenes from Monster Zero and Godzilla's Revenge (1969). The intro recaps Godzilla's heroic ascension and misleads audiences into believing the Aliens of Planet X (from Monster Zero) were responsible for MechaGodzilla. Saperstein likely did this to fit the movie into a two hour time slot, but it also gave audiences a hefty dose of Godzilla before waiting an hour to see him again.
Mysteriously, UPA's version of the movie was pulled from television in the mid-1980s and replaced with Bob Conn's butchering. Even more curious is that Bob Conn's Terror of Godzilla opening card was replaced with a new Terror of MechaGodzilla graphic. This was the version available to fans when it finally hit home video. Thus, a confusingly altered cut of the film dominated the American market for nearly twenty-five years until Classic Media re-released the film on DVD in 2007. Not only did Classic Media finally make the uncut, Japanese version available, but they also found UPA's opening and released it to fans for the first time since the early 80s.
Although Terror of MechaGodzilla had a bumpy history, there's a real sense of bringing the franchise full circle. (At the time anyway.) Honda and Ifukube both returned to round out the original series, giving it a dark, but bittersweet sendoff. It was the end of an era, the last film by Ishiro Honda and a valiant attempt to create something respectable out of so little. In some ways it's one of the most important Godzilla films, undercut by a dismal performance and a decade of cinematic decline. Yet many fans and critics cite it as a series favorite and the best of a bad situation.
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