In terms of its reputation here in the United States, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) is widely considered one of the weaker entries in the Godzilla franchise; and while I cannot bring myself to outright loathe the film, I don’t necessarily disagree with most of the points brought up by its detractors. On the surface, the movie seems to have all the right components for a colorful, lightweight piece of entertainment (futuristic world-building; imaginative new weapons and gadgets with which to combat Godzilla; a finale that doesn’t consist solely of the protagonists watching the monsters fight) but is ultimately undone by weak characters and largely inept direction courtesy of Masaaki Tezuka. Especially in its first hour, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus comes across as turgid and aimless, flat and unfocused, dragging its feet from one mediocre scene to the next as the audience exhaustedly waits for the monsters to show up. (What this film really needed, more than anything else, was a more experienced director: someone who could charge the narrative with real energy, bring out the best of his actors, stylize the visuals, and zero in on the script’s finer qualities for maximum entertainment value.)
However—and this is why my stance on the film is not overly hostile—whenever the focus shifts to the monsters, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus comes to genuine life, thanks in great part to the efforts of special effects director Kenji Suzuki. A clever technician whose tenure on the Godzilla series ended much too soon, Suzuki took over as Toho’s go-to effects man after the retirement of his mentor, Koichi Kawakita, and from the start exhibited an uneven but undeniably ambitious style. His two preceding genre efforts, Rebirth of Mothra III (1998) and Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999), did away with his forerunner’s preference for dousing the screen with animated beams in favor of balancing projectile-based attacks with physical combat, all complemented by exciting camerawork and daring—if not always successful—moving composite shots. And while his work in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is certainly in need of further polish, it still conveys the same visual wit and resourcefulness which has made him one of the more interesting Toho effects directors since Eiji Tsuburaya’s time.
The first major set piece vividly exhibits Suzuki’s strengths. Godzilla makes an entrance plowing through a large building, continuing his march forward as Suzuki’s camera cuts to a close-up of his face drenched in shadow, the sky behind him a deep, haunting red. The scene continues to build as a platoon of soldiers position to ambush the creature and we see their point of view down an alleyway: a thunderous footstep sends trashcans jumbling into the air; a car comes sailing down the street on fire and explodes; and then, after much beforehand tension, Godzilla’s foot wanders into frame and hits the pavement with a concrete-shattering thud.
Despite the nonsensical premise of foot soldiers taking on Godzilla with bazookas, the scene prevails through imaginative visual storytelling, colorful monster action, and marvelous choice of camera angles (extreme low shots, vistas of Godzilla silhouetted against the earlier mentioned glowing sky, etc.). Tezuka’s direction here is more interesting than elsewhere in the film, and the editing of the human footage with the special effects no doubt benefits from Suzuki’s widely praised willingness to cooperate with his directors. “While I love effects and always want to see as many of them as I can, I think the most important thing is drama,” Suzuki explained to Norman England in a 2000 issue of Fangoria. “I constantly search for the smoothest integration between my work and that of the live-action crew.”*
In Godzilla 2000: Millennium, the monster was portrayed as ponderous and majestic, a slow-moving object of wonder. When confronted by man’s arsenal, he casually walked through every shot, merely advancing even as the bombardment started to annoy him, waiting until he started suffering actual damage before preparing to use his atomic breath. By contrast, the Godzilla in the second Millennium film is quick to act and react, temperamental and easily angered, much like a wild animal. This Godzilla responds immediately and violently to even the slightest bit of offense, and he’s rather cunning. When the foot soldiers retreat into the alleys, he tears apart the buildings around them, crushing his enemies within their own hiding spots. When the Meganula swarm him, he crashes his body against a nearby cliff to flatten those clinging to his side (using his surroundings to his advantage) and employs his tail as a lure before swatting others away. When the Dimension Tide’s launched at him for the second and final time, he remembers his first encounter with the weapon and, rather than stand and wait for the impact to come, sends his atomic breath to explode it in midair.
Suit actor Tsutomu Kitagawa, under Suzuki’s direction, enhances this personae by injecting various nuances into Godzilla’s movements: crouching as he bellows at Megaguirus; swinging his body this way and that in search of his opponent. Shinichi Wakasa, the suit maker, recalled, “Having made Godzilla once, rather than having to worry over a new look, I could concentrate on making the suit more flexible, lighter and easier for the actor inside to give a better and more polished performance.” His efforts paid off, as the touched up costume in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is capable of more expressive movement than its predecessor; and Kitagawa makes the most of it, delivering a far better performance than the stiff, robotic one he would give for Yuichi Kikuchi in Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla two years later.
“There is nothing harder than dealing with airborne kaiju,” Suzuki said in regards to Godzilla’s aerial opponent. “Regular scenes of Megaguirus flying don’t pose too much of a problem, but putting it in a fight is demanding.” Alas, Megaguirus doesn’t fare nearly as well as Godzilla: the main prop for the monster is too stiff and repeats many of the same blunders Kawakita’s flying monsters were prone to—with more than a few shots of Megaguirus levitating in place, her wings flapping at a rate of (perhaps) once every three seconds.
On the other hand, Suzuki must be commended for creating a menacing creature in spite of these limitations. Compared to, say, Battra from Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), who had six hulking appendages that never budged an inch on-screen, Megaguirus uses her massive claws in close-quarters combat against Godzilla, grappling and battering him (some shots utilize suitmation to achieve more violent motion). Most notably, though, she can swing her long, stinger-equipped abdomen under her body and impale Godzilla through the stomach, cutting off his atomic breath and absorbing the energy for use against him later. In what’s also a nice change of pace from the last few flying monsters in the series, Megaguirus is capable of sudden, darting motions, evading attacks, whisking out of sight and reappearing when—and where—least expected. “One thing I’m after is that quick, jarring motion dragonflies have,” Suzuki explained. “My idea is to make Megaguirus like a ninja.”
The premise of the final battle in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is rather clever: Godzilla’s up against an enemy he can physically destroy with a single hit of his atomic breath, but due to Megaguirus’s great speed and agility (and her ability to deactivate his signature weapon), he cannot resort to spitting fire every three seconds—nor does he have a “surprise move” (say, a nuclear pulse, as in the Heisei series) to use at the last minute. This is where Suzuki’s real forte as an effects director comes into play: as was also evident in Godzilla 2000: Millennium, he knows how to dramatize a monster battle, how to give it its own narrative.
Maintaining this movie’s depiction of a quick-thinking monster, Godzilla depends on strategy. He tricks the giant insect into flying closer and then uses his dorsal spines to slice off one of her pincers. He plunges her stinger into the ground to hold her in place. He allows Megaguirus to creep up behind him so he can coil his tail around her abdomen and slam her into terra firma. As the battle ensues, Godzilla occasionally attempts to charge his atomic breath but refuses to give in when Megaguirus again cuts it short, falling back on strength and intelligence in an effort to prevail. The result is a very engaging monster battle with more than enough switches to make up for the technical gaffes. And the unique setting of the artificial island Odaiba, combined with marvelous use of foreground objects (construction cranes, piles of rubble, skeletons of half-finished buildings), gives the sequence a tantalizing visual flair.
In the last few minutes of the battle, Megaguirus pulls her surprise move: concentrating all of the energy she’s absorbed from Godzilla and propelling it at him in the form of a huge, crimson sphere. After Godzilla has collapsed, she dives in, striking him again and again, preventing the King of the Monsters from regaining his footing. This continues for a while until Megaguirus, having sufficiently exhausted her opponent, maintains distance. She permits Godzilla enough time to rise and then flies in for the kill, stinger lowered, aiming for the head. In what is easily the film’s very best moment, Suzuki positions his camera behind Godzilla and we see the stinger strike the latter’s head with a sickening wet crack. The image holds, the long pause amplifying the shock, before the camera swings around to reveal Godzilla has, in fact, caught Megaguirus’s stinger between his jaws. He bites, slowly at first, before tearing off the entire appendage. Another long moment of silence ensues before a stunned Megaguirus retreats skyward and Godzilla is at last able to deliver the coup de grâce.
The first blast of atomic fire sets Megaguirus’s fragile body aflame; Godzilla charges his atomic breath again as she falls. The second ray strikes her mid-descent, and—all presented in a breathtaking extreme wide shot—her obliterated carcass slowly finishes its journey to the ground. The camera toggles in on Godzilla as he lets out a much-justified victory roar, the audience relishing along with him in his moment of triumph. An immensely satisfying finale to one of the more interesting monster battles in the Millennium Godzilla series.
I could go on about other scenes: the moment where Misato Tanaka rides on Godzilla’s back exemplifies Suzuki’s daring use of moving composites (not to mention the scene it’s in is genuinely fun to watch with great high and low angle shots that never betray the illusion of scale); the robotic Godzilla used for water scenes is an absolute success, far better than Teruyoshi Nakano’s wobbly Cybot from The Return of Godzilla (1984); the Meganula swarm scenes feature some of the less distracting CGI in the Millennium series. But to summarize: whenever I watch Godzilla vs. Megaguirus these days (which isn’t very often), my interest is almost solely in revisiting the effects scenes and admiring what Kenji Suzuki brought to them. He may not have been the series’ most consistent special effects director, but he was certainly one of the more interesting, capable of providing enjoyable monster action and bursts of succulent energy—even into an otherwise inconsequential movie such as this. That he was never again given charge of a Godzilla movie is, indeed, quite sad.
* Suzuki’s mentor, Koichi Kawakita, had a reputation among studio personnel for being uncooperative and standoffish with his live-action directors. Takao Okawara, who’d worked with Kawakita on Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (1993), Yamato Takeru (1994), and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), described their relationship as tenuous. “We spent very little time in discussion even though we were working on the same films. We’d get together, go over storyboards and then go our separate ways. He was very much a ‘Don’t say a thing about my work’ kind of guy.”
By contrast, Okawara had nothing but great things to say about Suzuki’s work ethic on Godzilla 2000: Millennium. “Suzuki impressed me greatly, because he understands the balance between the effects and human scenes. Suzuki also takes an active part in the story creation, which allowed me to introduce my own ideas into the [effects] process. Out of all my Godzilla films, this one had the best teamwork among the live-action and effects crews.”