“When a black mountain appears above the clouds, a monster will arrive and try to destroy the world. The ancient prophecy is coming true.”
Typically my essays for Diabolique are academic in tone, include plenty of historical research and cultural criticism, and are generally about films that are complicated or somber in nature. This essay, on the other hand, is literally just about my undying love for Gojira tai Mekagojira (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, 1974), which—and I don’t care how many of you disagree—is my favorite film in the entire franchise and one that brings me endless, admittedly ridiculous amounts of joy. It’s the 14th film in Toho’s beloved series, released on the 20th anniversary of the original Godzilla (1954), and falls just at the end of the original Shōwa series (a period lasting from 1954–1975). Before Mechagodzilla, everyone’s favorite kaiju battled plenty of other monsters: everyone from Gigantis, a fire monster, to King Kong, the three-headed Ghidorah, monsters from sea, space, etc. And yet—as much as I love Ghidorah—there’s something perfect about Godzilla being forced to take on a mechanized double.
And Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla certainly has it all. Though there are a few subplots, the general idea is that ape-like aliens (though they spend much of the film disguised as humans) have built a giant robot—Mechagodzilla—to destroy the earth. An Okinawan priestess has a horrifying vision that prophesies his coming, though at first the robot masquerades as the real Godzilla, wearing what is essentially a believable costume, until the titular hero emerges. Meanwhile, the aliens, who are holed up in a sacred cave, kidnap a professor and coerce him into repairing the damaged Mechagodzilla, who was injured by Godzilla during their initial fight at a refinery. An archaeologist and his friends—aided by a shady Interpol agent—figure out the aliens’ ultimate goal and their destructive plot, and use an ancient statue to revive King Caesar, a divine monster who will come to Godzilla’s aid in his final epic battle against Mechagodzilla.
The ‘70s were a relatively rough decade for Godzilla. After Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), Godzilla vs. Gigan (1973), and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), the series had taken a bit of a nose dive in terms of style and thrills. But director Jun Fukuda (The Secret of the Telegian, Son of Godzilla, and assistant director on Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy) was given a slightly bigger budget than some of the previous entries and a capable effects wizard in the form of Teruyoshi Nakano, who worked on the majority of the Godzilla films from the ‘70s. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla has basically everything you would want in a kaiju film: Godzilla himself, plenty of monsters, a homicidal robot, a prophecy and some mythological/folk magic themes thanks to the presence of King Caesar, aliens, spies (sort of), face melting, a damsel in distress, a surprising amount of blood—most of which belongs to Godzilla—including a great shot where it boils and gurgles in the sea, human fisticuffs, and, most importantly, giant monsters duking it out and raining mass destruction down upon the mortal world.
I really don’t think I need to say much more than that to convince you that this is one of the most entertaining monster movies ever made, but it also goes a bit beneath the surface and finds a clever, fun way to combine seemingly opposing themes: past and future Japan. These forces effectively clash in the forms of Mechagodzilla and King Caesar. On the one hand, Mechagodzilla represents the future, particularly the dangers lurking in space (he was created by aliens) and the evils of unchecked technology, the latter of which is a theme in nearly all of the Godzilla series in one form or another. The best dialogue of the film is also typically about him. It is the Professor who realizes—absurdly quickly—who and what he is, stating: “Now I get it. The one that came out of Mt. Fuji is a cyborg. It is made out of the space metal… You could call it a Mechagodzilla.” And later: “I’m sure the Mechagodzilla is being remotely controlled… by spacemen.”
Mechagodzilla is ridiculously charming, at least if you’re keen on mass destruction, and he has somehow gone on to become as popular as other foes like King Ghidorah or Mothra. Though he’s without personal agency and is being controlled by the aliens, there is just something fabulous about him, between his metallic robot flesh and the array of rainbows and laser beams that seem to shoot from him willy nilly. He’s also near indestructible and—spoiler alert—Godzilla can only destroy him by absorbing his energy, incapacitating him in a field of lightning, as you do, and then ripping off his mechanized head. The fact that he is so easily injured in the first fight is a silly plot device that allows the aliens to kidnap the Professor, but it also allows for my favorite line of dialogue in the film: “Unless we repair it quickly, our schedule of conquest will be delayed.” And we can’t have that.
The ultimate English language title, Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster, is glorious, but only vaguely refers to Mechagodzilla, as he was created by aliens, but is not an alien himself… though he is made of that mysterious “space metal.” The original English language title, Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster, is less fun but probably more accurate, though it was snatched away from the franchise when a lawsuit was threatened over the alleged connection to the title of TV show The Six Million Dollar Man and its spinoff The Bionic Woman. Mechagodzilla, of course, was not permanently defeated and returned in short order for 1975’s The Terror of Mechagodzilla (along with some later sequels that shall not be named).
Though Godzilla is obviously his true adversary, Mechagodzilla is also countered by King Caesar, whose appearance has thoroughly confused generations of Western viewers. He’s technically supposed to be a Shisa (his literal Japanese name is King Shisa, misunderstood/phonetically mistranslated to Caesar, though in good spirit Toho has made that his official English name), a mythological protective beastie that resembles a cross between a lion and a dog; you’ve probably seen these in costumes worn during the Chinese New Year, or in statues that are sometimes referred to by English speakers as “Foo dogs.” That at least is the name I knew them by, because (for some inexplicable reason) we had these in my house growing up.
King Caesar is not nearly as fearsome of an opponent as Godzilla, but he holds his own—unlike Godzilla ally Anguirus, who gets his ass handed to him by Mechagodzilla in disguise in the beginning of the film—and his awakening is connecting to a subplot with a mysterious statue, an archaeological dig, the priestess’s prophesy, and an eclipse. To be fair, King Caesar is woken up about 20 minutes before the end of the film, but he’s ushered in with a musical number—yes, you read that right—and is in every way glorious, though sort of like a kaiju combined with a giant muppet. I love him and I can’t understand why he didn’t get a breakaway series of his own, or at least another sequel sometime before 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars.
Admittedly the film is a bit heavy on human-centered action, but the final showdown in the last 30 minutes makes it all worthwhile. Mechagodzilla tries to shove his fist down King Caesar’s throat, which is a sight to behold, and there are enough explosions and laser beams to make up for the fact that I have no idea why the aliens are revealed to be ape-men (and, as an avowed Planet of the Apes hater, I wish this wasn’t the case). The great, jazzy score for Masaru Satô adds to the fun, though the real draw here is obviously Godzilla. He looks fucking pissed as hell most of his sadly limited time on screen and doesn’t give a shit about Mechagodzilla’s rainbow lasers, or that fact that Godzilla himself gets a neck wound that results in sizable arterial spray. If anyone ever makes a phrase dictionary, the moment where he heals his numerous wounds with a bolt of energy and tears Mechagodzilla’s head from his body should be next to “giving zero fucks.” King Caesar looks understandably terrified and slinks away back to his eternal, stony slumber, where he will remain at least until someone has the grace to resurrect him or I finally break down and write some fan fiction.