In reviewing Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, I summed up my not-really-a-conclusion thus: "If the next two films are great, this will hopefully seem like an elegant piece of scene-setting. If they're lousy, this will seem like a huge missed opportunity that wasted too much time getting to the good stuff". As it turns out, I had that all wrong. Now that I've finally found an excuse to catch up with Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle - second in a three-part animated trilogy of Godzilla films designed to keep the big lizard fresh in everybody's mind in between the exemplary 2016 Shin Godzilla and the decidedly less than exemplary 2019 Godzilla: King of the Monsters - I am not terribly surprised to learn that it is, in fact, lousy. But its lousiness makes me admire Planet of the Monsters a little bit more, honestly. When all is said and done, I still greatly admire the first 50 minutes of that film: I think the filmmakers (directors Seshita Hiroyuki and Shizuno Kobun, writer Urobuchi Gen) do excellent work presenting a concept and pulling us into their very good pulp sci-fi world, in which 20,000 years in the future, famed giant monster Godzilla has taken over the whole of Earth's ruined ecosystem, leading to a face-off with the humans who, because of relativity, are from the 21st Century. And now that I know how extraordinarily badly those same filmmakers could handle that concept and that world-building, I'm all the more impressed that they managed not to completely fuck it up the first time.

City on the Edge of Battle picks up right the minute Planet of the Monsters ended, with a team of human soldiers knocked apart by the arrival of the real Godzilla, just minutes after they barely managed to survive fighting with, and destroying, a much, much smaller offspring of the enormous creature. Ill-tempered hotshot Haruo (Miyano Mamoru) wakes up in the presence of Miana (Ozawa Ari), a member of the Houtua, an apparently human-descended species that remains alive all of these millennia later. Soon, a decent clutch of his squad has shown up, captured by Miana's much surlier twin sister Maina (Ueda Reina). One of the aliens in that group, Galu-Gu (Suwabe Gen'ichi) discovers that the Houtua's weapons are augmented with shards of metal from Mechagodzilla, a huge robot that his people, the Bilusaludo, constructed in a failed attempt to drive Godzilla from Earth back in the 21st Century. So the group heads to the city that has grown out of Mechagodzilla's remains, with the nano-technology making up the robot endlessly constructing and constructing over the course of the intervening centuries. The hope is that, by the time Godzilla shows itself again, the soldiers can activate the city to become a superweapon.

That's not bad, really. The idea of Mechagodzilla turning into a dead city in the midst of a post-apocalyptic primordial jungle isn't, obviously, as good as the idea of Mechagodzilla actually appearing, and it's hard not to hold it against City on the Edge of Battle that it overlooks this seemingly obvious truth. But it's still good. There's a rich, dark moodiness to the sleek lines of the city and the dense jungle surrounding it, and the film's best visuals are all dedicated to fleshing that moodiness out. It's not, overall, as visually adventures as Planet of the Monsters, limiting itself to a much smaller range of locations, but the setting remains a good one, and well-suited to the particulars of animation.

What is bad, then, is every other goddamn thing. It is a longstanding trait of the Godzilla series that the films tend to focus on the humans at the expense of the monsters, but I'm not sure if I can name one out of the other 32 Godzilla films that preceded City on the Edge of Battle in which that time with the humans is so unproductive. Nor, for that matter, am I sure that there's another one with so little monster footage when all is said and done. At 101 minutes, the film is 12 minutes longer than Planet of the Monsters, and feels much longer still. There is very little that as-such "happens" here. People traipse this way through the jungle; they traipse that way through the jungle. Yuko (Hanazawa Kana), who I'd be hard-pressed to describe as possessing any other personality than "the woman", gets jealous over the attention the Houtua twins pay to Haruo. We learn way the hell too much about th religion of the Exif, the other alien species, in the form of many cryptic musings by the oracular Metphies (Sakurai Takahiro), who is clearly looking to set up the third movie rather than do anything productive in this movie.

It feels like the middle third of a story, no doubt; but the middle-third of, like, a 100-minute story, not a middle-third that is 100 minutes in and of itself. Virtually nothing moves the plot forward, and most of what does move it ends up not mattering: it is no shock at all that the film is obligated to end more or less where it started, with Godzilla still out there as an unstoppable force and the human/Bilusaludo/Exif forces completely helpless do anything whatsoever about it. Instead, it's mostly just people talking, ladling out exposition about things that don't really matter (the Houtua may be bugs that evolved to be like humans, or they may be human-bug hybrids, and I'm not sure if that makes a scintilla of a damn of difference to anything).

Eventually, this does the thing that all boring Godzilla movies do, and ends up with a Godzilla battle that sort of redeems everything. It is, unquestionably, the best part of the movie. Having mecha anime tropes fly themselves into daikaiju eiga tropes is an inherently fun, trashy idea, and City on the Edge of Battle makes the most of those tropes. Two things hold it back. One of these is that this series' Godzilla just doesn't look very good: its craggy, mountainous design is great, the best of any incarnation of the creature in the 2010s, but the translation of that design into a CG model faltered along the way. While the bulk of the movie use cel-shaded 3-D models, Godzilla still looks like a '90s CG effect, weirdly plasticky and horribly incongruous with the rest of the imagery. That was already a problem with Planet of the Monsters, but the lighting effects in this film call far more attention to it. The other problem is that the entire battle scene is built around the emotional arcs of Haruo, a character who has almost no likable traits, and Yuko, a character who hasn't really been established or defined at all. So it ends up being far less fun than it ought to be, simply because it has to keep stopping in the middle to revisit character beats that are of virtually no inherent interest. "Virtually no inherent interest" is a pretty useful phrase to keep handy throughout: City on the Edge of Battle is a quintessential middle film in a trilogy, existing mostly just to space the other two films apart, and it does absolutely nothing of interest with the setting the first film built, while failing to do anything to compensate for how crummy the first film was at establishing characters or plot arcs.