If there is one unanswerable criticism of Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., it's that the film is entirely shallow. Not, aprรจs it's immediate predecessor Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, that it ends up a trivial pile of nonsense and fluff whose attempt at any kind of humane drama goes massively awry; that it never makes even the pretense of trying to show any humane drama in the first place. Perhaps intellectual consistency demands that this bother me, but it doesn't; particularly when the humans in the Godzilla franchise hadn't been terribly interesting for many years, and ignoring them altogether seems to have been, maybe, the more honorable course of action.

The film this leaves behind can be summed up best thus: there are scenes that establish which kaiju will be involved in the fighting and why, and then they fight. For a really long time, too: the film is, ultimately, not much more than a delivery system for battle scenes between different iterations of three giant creatures. This is justified almost solely in that the battle scenes thus provided for our viewing pleasure are, by and large really terrific. Among the best kaiju-on-kaiju scenes in the whole franchise, that level of terrific.

Essentially, Tokyo S.O.S. is a big old chunk of fan-service. We can, maybe, think of the Godzilla films, all 28 of them made over a 50 year period in Japan, as ultimately belonging to one of two camps: there are the movies which use giant monsters as metaphors for humanity's failings, and which address themselves with gravity and sincerity to the idea of what impact the events depicted onscreen would have on the people living in the cities being devastated. Then there are the movies for pre-teen boys who just want to see things blow up and get smashed by cool-ass monsters. The world, I think, can make room for both of these traditions; and Tokyo S.O.S. is a fine and greatly enjoyable exemplar of the pre-teen boy kind. It's a dumb, empty popcorn movie; but it is a dumb, empty popcorn movie that delivers on all of its promises, while boasting the best computer-generated effects of any Godzilla movie made up to that point, outside of a couple scenes where the compositing really just looks like hell.

The film is an explicit sequel to Against Mechagodzilla, the only pair of films from the Millennium Series of 1999-2004 that have anything to do with each other; even more excitingly, it's also an explicit sequel to 1961's Mothra, retrieving not only that film's co-protagonist Chujo Shinichi, but also 77-year-old Koizumi Hiroshi, mainstay of classic-era daikaiju eiga, to play him once more (it also brings back, in a very brief cameo, the giant turtle Kamoebas from Space Amoeba, but there aren't otherwise references to the plot of that film). And the Shobijin, the Twin Fairies! Having sat out Mothra's last appearance, the little magical women (Nagasawa Masami and Ohtsuka Chihiro) are back, and in a particularly '60s-esque incarnation, too - really, the whole of Tokyo S.O.S. as it pertains to Mothra speaks considerably to Tezuka Masaaki's noted affection for the first era of the franchise. It is the director's riff on '60s Godzilla movies just as much as Godzilla vs. Megaguirus was his riff on the '70s.

Anyway, the very scanty plot revolves around Chujo Yushito (Kaneko Noburo), Shinichi's nephew and a mechanic on Kiryu, the giant Godzilla-shaped robot built around the bones of the Godzilla killed in 1954. The Shobijin visit the Chujos specifically to beg Yushito to use his influence to return the bones to the sea, knowing as they do that it is because of the unquiet spirit of the old monster that this newer Godzilla has been kicking up trouble. If the Japanese government will return Godzilla '54 to its resting place, the Shobijin vouch that the nation will always be protected from any potential monster attacks by Mothra, their patron spirit. If the government won't, well, giant moths can attack whatever side they damn well please, really...

And that really is the bulk of the plot, unless you are captivated by scenes of politicians and scientists trying to rebuilt Kiryu. More than any Godzilla film in literally decades, Tokyo S.O.S. really doesn't want its human action to be anything but a pretext, giving the giant monsters at least some plausibility. Kaneko does a fine job with what he's got, and his increasing desperation as the film goes on and he alone has the ability to fix Kiryu gives the movie a little bit of juice. But this is not a film with a particular investment in the characters' psychology. There's more emotional resonance kicked off when Mothra's inevitable twin larvae realise that their mother has been mortally wounded in her battle with Godzilla than there is in any moment involving human people.

Still, that's only a liability as far as it's not made up for elsewhere; and Tokyo S.O.S. makes up for it by a lot. This was the first Godzilla film for special effects director Asada Eiichi, and quite an auspicious debut it was: in addition to having pretty terrific CGI when it's called for (some of it used to give Godzilla a more fluid, expressive face than ever before), the staging of the more traditional suit-based action scenes are absolutely terrific, occurring across a wide range of lighting conditions with a good variety of choreography and some truly inventive moments, especially during the Mothra-Godzilla leg of the remarkably long, largely uninterrupted stretch of fighting. There are references to past glories - Godzilla thrashes its tail about, trying to shake loose a larval Mothra, in a moment I was delighted to see copied from the 1964 Mothra vs. Godzilla - unexpected violence, moments where Oshima Michiru's bombastic score (which, on balance, I found less engaging and effective than her previous efforts, with increasingly impersonal cues) hits some especially dramatic note that gives everything onscreen that extra little bit of grandeur and impact (especially the scenes revolving around Yoshito).

The Godzilla and Kiryu suits are the same ones from Against Mechagodzilla, or at least nearly identical in design; it speaks perhaps to Asada's talents that I found both of them quite a bit more enjoyable here; the Godzilla suit in particular is unusually fluid and flexible without looking too much like a costume for someone shaped like a person, and Kitagawa Tsutomu's performance hits some very excellent points. The moment near the end, where a pinioned Godzilla feebly strains against the silk cast by the larvae, is one of the most satisfying moments of performance, to me, that the monster had achieved in quite some time.

All in all, it's still pretty mindless spectacle, but done at the level of accomplishment and confidence that makes it a lot harder for me to look down on it. Tokyo S.O.S. is junk food, even more than the awfully flighty Megaguirus was, but it's goddamn tasty anyway, and better made than that film in almost every respect. Considering the inreasing rarity of just-plain-fun Godzilla movies that actually worked on that level, it came at exactly the right moment to give the franchise a boost of energy as it headed into its grand finale.