Finally, a Godzilla anime! Okay, sure, we had two American animated television series, and we also had those very strange educational Susume! Gojirando! OVAs back in the 1990s and dozens if not hundreds of cameo appearances in a wide variety of animated shows over the years both in the West and in the East, but this is the first time we have received a proper Godzilla animated film, and what is especially exciting to me about this take is that the creators, instead of just making the millionth “monster strolls through a city” flick, have made something new and different, with an elaborate science-fiction premise and a Biollante-esque reincarnation of Toho’s favorite mutated dinosaur–here nicknamed “Anigoji.” (Kind of reminds me of when Darth Vader appeared as a little kid nicknamed Annie. Why do movies have to re-imagine scary villains and then call them Annie?)
The experience of watching GMP on the first day this year was much different from when I went to see Godzilla Resurgence (2016) on opening day last year. For one thing, I was lucky enough to have the day off when I saw 2016’s Godzilla film, so it was easy to catch the first showing, and further Resurgence was showing at a local theater, so I could just walked there when the lines for the bus proved harrowing. But for Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017), the two closest theaters were not showing the film, and so I decided to go out of my way and bop all the way over to Shinjuku (about an hour or so by train) and check out the latest monster madness in the Godzilla building itself.
I had a bit of a stressful day, so I was extra excited to see the massive inflatable Godzilla head with glowing blue eyes perched over one of the exits to Shinjuku station. I found myself caught in the swarm of feet and purpose that pounds through Shinjuku every evening, and thus fumbled about, trying to take a picture while bodies pushed forward all around me. The Godzilla head stared out, those piercing eyes lazily at half-mast, a speaker alternately belting out a throaty roar, then singing Xai’s “White Out” as if Godzilla had become a dinosaurian diva (which might make sense, given his apparent taste for dating pop stars).
As usual for me, before finding Godzilla Kabukicho street, I just had to wander lost down a street or two. Before too long I found the correct avenue and gazed upon the Godzilla statue and the huge posters for Godzilla’s latest adventure. I was hoping that there would be some kind of special event for opening day, as apparently I missed out on some festivities last year at the Godzilla Resurgence (2016) premiere. However, this year there was no suit on display, but there was a lot of merch for eager shoppers.
As I was navigating the crowd, suddenly I saw the much-celebrated monster artist Matt Frank emerge from the seething masses, and I couldn’t help but belt out, “Matt Frank!” He cheerfully returned my greeting, and we exchanged pleasantries and I said I had met him at G-Fest. Frank then said he had met some G-Festers at the opening show of Godzilla Resurgence (2016) last year, which is pretty dang cool. We took a picture together (which turned out pretty epically), and then he went off to purchase an Anigoji theater exclusive cup. Given that just a few short weeks before I had met Robert Scott Field at the Godzilla Fest 2017 outside the same building, I was feeling some major G-Fest nostalgia about then.
But, uhh, I went to see Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters by myself… so I got my popcorn and tea, received a theater-exclusive promotional gift as I entered the theater (I chucked it in my bag and promptly forgot to look at it again until the next day), and plopped down in front of one of Toho Cinema’s TCX extra-large screens with some extra-large expectations to have a good time. As I was sitting there, a single young lady came and sat next to me, apparently unaccompanied, which I felt was encouraging. I had a similar experience at the live-orchestral performance of the original Godzilla on Halloween this year (my impressions of that event are forthcoming)—another young lady attended that film mere seats away. I guess I am just glad to see that women are getting into Godzilla, too, and it is not just one big wave of testosterone alone that keeps the G-festivities afloat.
Six paragraphs in, and still no actual impressions of the movie itself—let’s get to it. I want to keep this article mostly devoid of spoilers, but of course if you want a “pure” experience, you should stop reading right now anyway. I am going to break up my impressions into several categories—story, characters, animation, and Godzilla.
I think the biggest draw (and perhaps largest hurdle for traditionalist fans) for Godzilla’s animated movie debut is the dramatically different, almost space operatic storyline. Perhaps taking some cues from the mediocre Eric Powell IDW Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters run, the backstory features a multi-stage monster assault across the planet, devastating the human race and driving them to desperation. But while Powell took that concept and used it for ham-fisted political commentary, anime legend Gen Urobuchi uses a monster apocalypse as a springboard for a Planet of the Apes-ish dark sci-fi romp wherein the human race loses control to a superior set of successors—but instead of a nation of dang dirty apes, the Monster Planet has been overrun by kaiju, and ruled specifically by Godzilla. The way that Urobuchi sets up this story is really engaging, tense with peril, as the human race has tried to resettle on a distant planet, but finds they need to return back to the Earth—and attempt a coup against the king of the monsters. This story allows for plenty of surprises—a transformed earth, a wide variety of futuristic weaponry and vehicles, and high drama. The actual execution of that story, though, is not always the most compelling, with the old inevitable long strategy meetings still taking up excessive screen time as per usual. Traditionalists rejoice?
Still, the story is thick with mystery and interest, and ripe for further development. To a huge degree, given that this film was specifically designed to set up the trilogy, the story is deliberately unfinished. Fans will likely feel rather unsatisfied by the conclusion—if the movie simply ended as it does with no sequel, I would feel somewhat cheated.
It is a little difficult to comment too much on the characters given that my Japanese is still not up to the level that I can understand everything. Haruo Sakaki is easily the most fleshed-out, though his motivations are pretty standard kaiju movie fair—family killed by monster, wants revenge. I liked Yuko Tani, but she didn’t have any time to really develop in any meaningful way. This might be a minor spoiler for some, but amongst the cast there are several extraterrestrials, and they made a bit of an impression on me simply for being different and showing sparks of personality. However, most of the dialogue mostly focuses on strategizing or commenting on the dire situations the characters find themselves in, or war cries, or the like. There is not much time for heart-to-hearts or multi-faceted motivations—although I suspect some of the characters are harboring some secrets that will come out in the sequel.
When I first heard that Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters would be a CGI anime, I was disappointed. While I love CGI, most anime which are realized solely through CGI look mediocre at best to me, with often rough-looking, blocky art which lacks character. Frankly, my criticisms remain when discussing GMP. Frequently I just felt that the characters looked strange, or that the animation seemed to shudder a little, or conversely that characters moved too smoothly like robots. The human cast sometimes look like a set of dolls being manipulated into position. I also felt that the art seemed a little washed out and indistinct. Of course, this kind of CGI art lends itself to the actual mechs, spaceships, and military vehicles, which often look pretty cool—although their designs are, again, in general kind of nondescript. We don’t have anything as iconic as the Millennium Falcon for example, and the mech suits—such a huge part of Japanese animation they almost seem inevitable in a sci-fi setting—appear largely devoid of character as well. While the design of the space suits looks stylish and cool, and the spaceship computer readouts (all in English!) look informationally dense and intelligently laid out at the same time, my overall impression of the animation was one of grumbly disappointment. Still, given that this is computer animation, the nature of the beast allows the camera to move independently for dramatic positions and speedy, twisting, rushing pans, spins, and more, which provides for some dynamic and exciting action sequences of riotous action and explosive combat.
It’s hard to discuss Godzilla much here without giving away massive spoilers, but I will try to keep everything fairly general. Given that the viewing I attended was a TCX show, the screen and the resulting action were appropriately huge. Godzilla, too, is depicted with an eye to conveying his size, at least in some shots, and the thundering speakers added much to his throaty roars and whomping footsteps. Some shots truly depict Godzilla’s gratuitous size, which can be awe-inspiring here. However, just as I wrote recently in my design response, I am not a huge fan of Anigoji’s look, and as I had suspected, Godzilla has little personality here. Anigoji moves with excruciating slowness, and only reacts by roaring and blasting ships with his new energy ray. Godzilla really doesn’t have any cities to smash either, and watching him foot it through the trees or in a canyon is, to be frank, kind of boring. Given that the human cast are often jetting about in flying bikes and interstellar spaceships, we often get some shots of Godzilla from above as well, and some of those angles are very unflattering. Still, Godzilla has some big surprises for fans, which make this incarnation unique to the franchise and add to the mystery and interest of the character. My guess is that Anigoji will inspire quite a bit of controversy this year amongst the G-fan faithful, though perhaps not as much as the previous year’s incarnation.
Oh, I almost forgot–Servum! The Servum monsters are the new beasties in Monster Planet–but to discuss them much, again, would be to go into deep spoiler territory. Still, for what it’s worth, they come in various sizes (so far as I could tell) and prove deadly as they wing through the sky and snap their wicked jaws savagely. They function as a more small-scale threat that menaces the remains of the human race, and feature prominently in some frantic action sequences. Since I almost forgot to mention them, you can guess my reaction–that is to say, I didn’t find them particularly memorable.
Overall, I quite enjoyed Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, and it was great fun to attend the grand opening in Shinjuku. The tiny orange promotional Godzilla figure that came with my ticket was a colorful bonus—and great for me, as orange is one of my favorite colors. My takeaway is that Godzilla: Monster Planet is a memorable and daring new step in the Godzilla film series, and I really am thrilled that Toho is taking the character in some wild and crazy new directions. Still, with somewhat questionable animation and characters that have yet to come into their own, as well as a story which is deliberately incomplete and unsatisfying alone, I can’t help but be a little bit underwhelmed. Nevertheless, I am stoked to check out the sequel in just a few months, and excited to be a Godzilla fan in what seems to be a real age of cinematic monsters that we are enjoying today!