Review: Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018)

Last year, Netflix released the first film in a planned trilogy of CG-anime Godzilla movies, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. It managed to take a promising concept, where Godzilla City on the Edge of Battle Posterhumanity had ceded the earth to kaiju and has returned from the stars to attempt to reclaim it, and loaded it down with stilted animation, loads of exposition, and a near impenetrable script full of sci-fi and pseudo-religious jargon. As the sequel, Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (2018), approached I did hold out some hope that the second entry in the series could shed some of the baggage that the first had. The world was established, the animation would hopefully improve, and a lot of the kinks would be ironed out. City on the Edge of Battle picks up almost exactly where Planet of the Monsters left off: humanity’s landing party is in dire straits, its hero missing, and their last best hope might be found in the ruined remains of a failed attempt to build Mechagodzilla before they fled earth in the first place.

Planet of the Monsters name-dropped Mechagodzilla as an attempt by the Bilusaludo, one of the two alien races introduced in the first film, to build an anti-Godzilla weapon – but the research facility was attacked and destroyed before they could complete it, and humanity and its alien allies were forced to flee the earth. Fast forward 20,000 years to their return and the failed assault of the first film, and the survivors quickly discover the remains of Mechagodzilla. I was absolutely convinced that this film would be about rebuilding Mechagodzilla and would feature some kaiju on mechakaiju action, but I was wrong. Mechagodzilla was supposed to be built of ‘nanometal’, a near-magical super material that never really gets any sliver of explanation, but is the excuse for just about everything that happens in the rest of City on the Edge of Battle.

Godzilla City on the Edge of Battle Godzilla
There’s no question that the design of this series’ Godzilla, an incredibly tall, incredibly muscular mountain of a kaiju, is impressive. Unfortunately, stills do him far more justice than his stilted animation does.

Apparently, part of Mechagodzilla’s AI core survived the original Godzilla attack and continued to operate its nanometal body – spreading the nanometal out, over the last 20,000 years, consuming the research facility and the surrounding environment, replicating, and constructing the enormous, titular city – Mechagodzilla City. Once discovered, the rest of the film is basically about the humans and their allies converting Mechagodzilla City into an elaborate trap for Godzilla, with the Bilusaludo taking over operation of the nanometal and converting the city into a fortress with trenches, armour plating, and railguns. Their plan is the same as the one that (sort of) worked in the first film, involving breaching the near-invulnerable energy field this iteration of Godzilla has, destroying its dorsal fin, and then impaling it with an EMP harpoon.

Almost everything in City on the Edge of Battle gives off a strong Neon Genesis Evangelion vibe. It was something the first film already had, but here, it’s turned up to 11. Mechagodzilla City is strongly reminiscent of the geofront that housed NERV HQ in Evangelion. In that anime, the angels – kaiju in all shapes and sizes from humanoid to bizarre fractals – would always be heading straight to NERV for various, complex reasons. Time and time again the control centre would be under attack while various characters shouted at complicated maps and graphs. There’s a similar feeling here as Godzilla is drawn into the trap that has been set within the city and brings its devastating heat ray breath to bear. Some of the attacks even look very similar, especially when the heat ray is deflected by various technological MacGuffins. There’s also the fact that this time, the Bilusaludo have used their near-magical nanometal to reinforce three of the armoured suits from the first film, creating new, winged “Vulture” suits that are referred to as Unit 01, Unit 02, and Unit 03 – just like the biomechanical Eva units from Evangelion. The arbitrary nature of the nanometal is also revealed here: apparently, they can only build three Vultures because they only have three suits left to use as a platform, which is bizarre when the nanometal can apparently construct all manner of other technology, including railguns and other weapons, without any kind of restriction. It’s all especially weird considering Hideaki Anno, director of Evangelion, actually directed the last Japanese live action Godzilla movie, Shin Godzilla, which I had the opportunity to watch between these anime instalments. While I’m not a wholly uncritical fan of Evangelion, I think it would have been interesting to see what he did with the building blocks here.

Godzilla City on the Edge of Battle Vulture
I’m forced to admit that I actually quite like the “Vulture” flying mech suits that the Bilusaludo construct by combining the film’s MacGuffin, nanometal, with the armoured suits from Planet of the Monsters

Many of my problems with City on the Edge of Battle are simply the exact same problems I had with Planet of the Monsters. There’s the hit-and-miss animation, and they even bring back the long-necked, flying creatures that look absolutely rubbish. Humanoid characters are especially bad, with a strange, unnatural gait and mostly unmoving expressions. Even Godzilla himself, while incredibly buff, barely moves – it might be a deliberate choice, to make him seem more like a force of nature, a living mountain, but it doesn’t come out well. Characterisation is just as limp as before. There’s a completely soulless romance between Haruo, the series protagonist, and Yuko. When somebody does have a personality, it’s extremely one-note, like the cowardly soldier. The alien Exif and Bilusaludo characters become even harder to indulge, with the Bilusaludo in particular becoming fanatical technological zealots obsessed with Mechagodzilla City and its nanometal (I would not advise partaking in a drinking game around the word nanometal; you would die).

Then there’s the script. It’s hard to judge the script of a foreign language film when you’re watching it in translation. Is bad dialogue a bad adaptation, or is it faithful to the bad original? I have to believe that the script is pretty bad in Japanese: there’s just too much reliance on techno-jargon from the Bilusaludo and religious nonsense from the Exif, plus, the new, tribal Houtua who are introduced in this film and speak in cryptic poeticisms about “the passing crows” and the “twilight tranquility”. In other words, I’m sure it’s deliberate. What’s less clear is that some of the dialogue borders on nonsense, like when an Exif mutters about the ‘gate of god’ and a human soldier asks, “Another preaching just for ease of mind?” Later, the same Exif has the beautifully mechanical line, “Right now what’s important is to gather all intelligence to defeat the evil being.” The whole thing feels very much like someone has translated into a second language because very little of it flows naturally. The subtitle script is credited to Megumi M. Tsuji. Given their Japanese name, it would be easy to jump to conclusions and assume it was translated in Japan for international consumption (which doesn’t lend itself well to positive results), but I haven’t been able to dig up any other credits that might shed light on the situation. For all I know, Tsuji is Japanese-American, or other native English speaker, and the script problems stem from elsewhere.

Godzilla City on the Edge of Battle Twins
The Houtua twins, Miana and Maina. I’m sure that Godzilla faithful will be able to guess what their appearance foreshadows.

Given that the movie never grabbed me and I think overall the negatives somewhat bury the extremely limited positives, it’s tempting to just dismiss the symbolism and allegory that is as prominent here as in many Godzilla movies, but I will do my best. The characters make a lot of the fact that Godzilla was the result of humans ruining the planet through pollution and nuclear testing, a pro-environmental message that’s not too difficult to interpret and is fairly standard Godzilla fare. Slightly more interesting is the way the film treats the Bilusaludo and their obsession with nanometal, technology, and something approaching the Singularity. The Exif warn that the Bilusaludo actually admire Godzilla, and that their devotion to nanometal could result in them becoming just as big of a problem – or as one of the Bilusaludo puts it, if “Godzilla” is the name given to the dominant lifeform on the planet, shouldn’t they aspire to be Godzilla? One way of interpreting this would be to consider that Godzilla was an allegory for the nuclear detonations of WW2. If that’s the case, the Bilusaludo harnessing that same kind of strength through technology could be seen as a warning against nuclear power. I try not to see everything in contemporary Japanese cinema through the lens of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, but it does cast a long shadow.

Meanwhile, the Exif and their odd religion is interesting, and harder to pick apart. Japanese fiction has a long history of exploiting religious imagery without really focusing too much on the ‘meaning’ behind it – just look at Evangelion. The Exif’s religion reads, to me, as sort of Christian, and sort of not; basically, it doesn’t process as very ‘Japanese’. I wonder how it reads to a Japanese audience. Given the somewhat villainous turn of the Bilusaludo in this film, it makes me wonder if the Exif will be next, and the third film (Godzilla: Planet Eater – though that may not be the official English title) will lean into their more cult-like aspects. Japan also has a rough history with cults, especially Aum Shinrikyo, whose leaders were recently executed for the 1995 Sarin gas attack in Tokyo.

Two films in, I’m sure I’ll continue to throw good money after bad and finish watching the trilogy. Much as Planet of the Monsters name-dropped Mechagodzilla, which had a pivotal role in this film even if it didn’t actually appear, City on the Edge of Battle teases at least two other major kaiju from the Godzilla canon. I won’t spoil what they are, though Godzilla faithful will most likely recognise one as soon as the Houtua are introduced, and the other is mentioned as the reason the Exif fled their homeworld – but not actually named until an after credits sting. The final film, which may or not end up being a multi-kaiju showdown, is due to release in Japanese cinemas in November 2018. If the release pattern so far holds, we’ll see the English translation launch worldwide on Netflix in January 2019, and that means we should be seeing it just a few months before Legendary’s next take on the franchise, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, in May 2019.

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle / GODZILLA -決戦機動増殖都市-

Directors: Kōbun Shizuno & Hiroyuki Seshita

Japanese Release Date: 18th May 2018

Version Watched: 100 min (Netflix)

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