More Memorable Title: The Godzilla of the Cold War
We’re back with this, the one where Godzilla’s back! And back with a reboot and a whole new continuity at that! All that stuff we’ve been talking about in the series thus far? All that story, history, origins, everything there? We’re done with all that. With the exception of the first film, the OG 1954 Godzilla, everything else is all out the window. We’re starting fresh, here. With this film, we officially enter Godzilla’s Heisei era.
So, the last film of Godzilla’s Showa era hit in 1975. Toho didn’t intend to end the series there, and in fact tried to get some more productions going a couple of times, but for whatever reason, none of them got off the ground. In 1979, longtime series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka took charge of bringing Godzilla back to screens for the series’ 25th anniversary, and, inspired by the then-recent Three Mile Island incident and the then-modern adult oriented sci-fi/horror films of the time, wanted to return the series to its adult-oriented, anti-nuclear roots. He still wasn’t able to get anything going for a while, until finally, in the mid-1980s, pieces started to come into place. He combined elements from a bunch of cancelled Godzilla projects, made it modern to the cold war politics of the time, and started gathering a team around it. Longtime director Ishiro Honda wasn’t up for participating, tied up with his work with Akira Kurosawa and also feeling the series shouldn’t be continued after the death of Godzilla’s special effects producer Eiji Tsuburaya, so Koji Hashimoto, who served as assistant director on a number of Showa Era projects, got called up to take the seat. Teruyoshi Nakano, who had led the special effects under Tsuburaya’s guidance when the latter’s health prevented him from working fully, took the lead once more on that front. Series newcomer Reijiro Koroku handled music composition, making a score that’s quite different from Akira Ikufube’s previous work but honestly very solid for the film. And finally, finally, they managed to get things going and get a film out, kicking off Godzilla’s revival.
The Return of Godzilla is, as I said, considered the first film of Godzilla’s Heisei era. But it was actually made in Japan’s Showa era, as the shift to the real Heisei wouldn’t happen for a few more years. So, that explains perfectly why a lot of the things that would become emblematic of the Godzilla’s Heisei era; the recurring characters, the laser spamming, the 1-vs-1 monster fights, the prominence of psychic abilities, you don’t really get that showing up in this film just yet. What you do get, that will carry over to later films until they start going the ‘noble demon’ route with Godzilla, is that you have a Big G here that is bigger and meaner than we’ve seen before. Gone Is the ‘friend to all children’ Godzilla of films past. This Godzilla is legitimately monstrous. Much like the 1954 original, Godzilla here is coming to town to ruin lives and chew bubble gum. And they don’t make bubble gum big enough for him.
The Return of Godzilla is a film that reviewed rather poorly, but is very well regarded by fans. Looking at things from my perspective, who has the better take on it? Well, let’s dig in to find out.
The film opens with a fishing vessel navigating near an uninhabited island in a fierce thunderstorm. The crew are trying frantically to force their way to shore to weather it. One of the crewmembers, Sourface, so named because he shows little emotion other than mild irritation with everything occuring in the film, looks out at the island only to see something very large and monstrous silhouetted in the lightning.
The scene cuts there, and opens up the next morning. The radio is calling out that in the storm last night, a number of ships, including the one we just saw, went missing. We’re on a boat, a smaller one this time, a personal vessel. It’s captain, someone whose name I actually remember this time. Because he has the same name as that four-armed miniboss from Mortal Kombat. And that guy from Yakuza that’s crazy awesome, emphasis on the crazy. For that matter, he was there back in one of the worst films of the Showa era. That’s right. I promised he’d come back. This guy transcends continuity. We’re looking here at Goro Maki. Yes, named just like the guy from Mortal Kombat and the guy from Yakuza, once again. So, obviously, Son of Godzilla didn’t happen here, and he’s played by a new actor this time, but the basics of this guy are the same. He’s a reporter that searches down leads so hard he jumps into crazy dangerous situations. He dresses exclusively in hideously ugly clothes. And he is absolutely 100% couthless. I don’t say that lightly. You don’t insult a man’s couth. You just don’t. But it is impossible to describe him here without mentioning that.
So anyways, Goro is sailing the high seas
ripping opponents apart with his four arms apparently looking for those missing ships to get a scoop when he comes across one, coincidentally the one we just saw a few minutes ago. He lashes the ships together, hops on board, and starts investigating. It appears that nobody’s around. There is some strange goo on the floor, though. He gets into some cabin or bridge or ship term or something, and find someone sitting on a chair there. He turns them around, and it looks like this guy got attacked by the girl from The Ring. He’s all dessicated and mummified. Then, Goro searches the ship some more, and finds some more dehydrated dead bodies. He goes through their lockers, because, why not I guess? Inside one of them, he finds Sourface, still alive, shell-shocked, clutching a hatchet. Now, a normal person, would, you know try to help them, but we’re dealing with Goro Maki here. Goro instead snaps a picture, and then goes through the guys pockets, finding a picture of Sourface with some girl and a student ID. Then he gets attacked by… eeeeeeegh…. Shockirus.
Shockirus is a giant sea louse. That’s about it. But they gave it a name and made it part of the Godzilla monster canon, so they legitimatized it. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I haaaate giant bugs. Nearly every time. So Shockirus can go eat a dick. And he tries to, leaping onto Goro Maki and maneuvering to start sucking him dry. Goro grabs a weapon, but Shockirus has a hard shell, and Goro’s unable to pierce it. Goro starts preparing for the lame death you know is coming for him eventually, but then Sourface manages to hack into it and kill it from behind.
So then Goro Maki gets Sourface on his boat and takes him home. There, Sourface gets taken into a government hospital where almost nobody can see him. I think Goro followed him there, but I don’t quite remember. Maybe he slowly snuck up out of a manhole or something.
One of the few people who does get to see Sourface is his college professor, Doctor Bland. That’s just a name. The guy’s not actually all that bland, but he is played by the same actor that played Detective Bland in Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster. So it’s just a family name, not one that I’m actually picking to describe him. Anyways, Doctor Bland listens to Sourface talk about the giant monster he saw, puts two and two together, and shows him a bunch of pictures of Godzilla, confirming that that is indeed what Sourface saw. Doctor Bland theorizes that Shockirus was a sea louse that fed off him, and got mutated by his radiation. And now, we will never mention Shockirus again.
Meanwhile, Goro puts together a big article on his daring rescue of Sourface and the monsters associated there, only to find it squashed by the government and a gag order placed on him. They don’t want word of Godzilla’s existence getting out and causing a panic. The Japanese Government does suggest he go and talk with Doctor Bland for some reason. He does so, learning that Doctor Bland’s parents were killed in the OG Godzilla’s attack, and meets the girl that was in Sourface’s picture, his sister, Moonface. Moonface is kept in the dark by her brother’s continued survival for the same tenuous security purposes as everyone else.
Then, a Russian nuclear submarine is patrolling the waters near Japan for big COLD WAR REASONS and encounter a large… something… there. They can’t figure out what it is, so they decide to just blow it up. But their torpedoes have no effect on it. And then it destroys them instead. Russia blames the Americans, and starts making threatening moves towards them. Japan has satellite imagery confirming Godzilla was in those waters, and ends up revealing Godzilla’s existence to forstall a third World War. Which ends up setting of a media frenzy and a panic, just as the Japanese government predicted. Goro’s a little ticked off at losing his hard-earned scoop, so he goes and chats with Moonface a bit. Is all like “Man, your brother seems so awesome, working on a fishing boat half the year to put the both of you through college after your parents died and being your only surviving family and all. It’s just too bad the government isn’t telling you that he’s actually alive and is hanging out in that hospital that, oh, by coincidence, is right over there! They certainly don’t want you to go force your way in and see them or anything.” And then when she does force her way in to see them, he follows with a camera crew, having manipulated her so he can get a story about their touching reunion. Total dick move, really.
The Japanese military get together to talk about their defense strategy. There, it’s revealed they’ve developed a new self defense weapon, the Super X, that’s being loaded with cadmium shells that would theoretically absorb radiation out of Godzilla. The Japanese Self Defense Force puts all their forces on alert and sends everything available out to sea, to establish a perimeter and keep an eye out for Godzilla. But then one day, it’s really foggy, so Godzilla just sneaks past everyone. Did you know they made Godzilla much bigger for the Heisei era? 80 meters on this one. I’m going to just say, if an 80 meter monster ever sneaks up on you or sneaks past you, it’s time to retire from whatever it is you do. You’re just not making things work out in that case. Godzilla heads strait to a nuclear power plant, and we get our first real look at him. And man, is he something different. Showa Godzilla ended up being kind of cute, having big eyes and a grinning mouth and was a bit babyishly chubby. This Godzilla is not cute. Not by any means. He’s bigger, darker, he’s got the angry eyebrows and an gator-like jaw. He’s not here to save the children. This is a mean Godzilla. And this mean Godzilla brushes off the few defenses the nuclear plant has, and crushes his way through plenty of building on his way to a cooling tower. Doctor Bland and Sourface show up, and start using some sci-fi science instruments to gather data. Godzilla reaches the cooling tower, plunges in and pulls out a reactor, then starts feeding off of it. And then a bunch of cartoon birds fly by, and Godzilla turns to follow them, abandoning the reactor and heading back to the sea. Doctor Bland is stumped as to why Godzilla would leave so suddenly at that, but then theorizes that Godzilla must have a magnetic homing instinct just like birds do. This explains nothing as to why Godzilla would just leave like that, but just roll with it, ok? Doctor Bland starts working with the JSDF to use that to set a Godzilla trap, ringing the opening to an active volcano with explosives and building a homing lure there.
Ambassadors from both Russia and America arrive in Japan to talk to the Prime Minister. And man, the American ambassador is laboring over his English. It’s all grammatically correct and in a distinct American accent, but the diction is as if a robot was reading it. Don’t know if the actor didn’t natively speak or was overdubbed by someone who doesn’t or what. The American guy starts first, and he’s like, “We’ve got this Godzilla situation here, we need to make a plan for it, and I’ve got just the perfect one. What we need to do is keep an eye on things, watch for Godzilla, and if he sets foot on Japanese soil, what we do is just nuke the hell out of Japan.” And then the Russians are all like, “Those capitalist pigs are worthless and have pork stuffed with coins for brains. We’ve got the real plan. And that plan is; if Godzilla sets foot on Japanese soil, just nuke the hell out of Japan.” And the Prime Minister is like, “How about we don’t do that?” And America and Russia are like, “Well, I suppose we could not do that, but then what would we do with all these nukes? They’re here for a good nukin’.” And the Prime Minister is like, “Dudes and Dudeskis, seriously. Would you let your own countries be nuked if Godzilla showed up there?” And so doing, he successfully convinced them not to nuke Japan. It turns out, Russia snuck a nuclear launch controller in a disguised cargo ship to the coast of Japan. A Russian colonel heads there to turn it off, after getting word that they’re not going to nuke Japan after all. Remember this. This will be important later.
So Godzilla just shows up off the coast of Japan, because of course he does. That’s kind of his thing. JSDF starts attacking him with everything they have, while the guv tries to evacuate everyone in his path. The JSDF do about as well as you can expect, dealing no damage of note to him while getting largely routed themselves. Godzilla even sneaks up on a helicopter there, whose pilots promptly retire from everything forever. Luckily, the fighter jet pilots have finally mastered the art of Not-Flying-Right-Next-To-Godzilla-So-He-Can-Swat-You-Out-Of-The-Sky, so they fare a lot better than the Showa pilots do. Godzilla only burns down like two or three jets, and the rest just run off, presumably. And I’ll say this, after having watched the Showa era films for so long, it is really impressive how we’ll they’re able to represent the battle here. Like they have an actual budget or something. It’s the usual pyrotechnics we saw going off in the older films, but with much better sound and set design giving them a lot more impact, this battle feels so much less campy than the older Godzilla films.
In the mindst of that fight, Godzilla jostles the disguised Russian nuke ship. Everyone abandons ship, except for the colonel from earlier. He heads below decks, to the nuclear control room. Apparently, Russian nuclear weapons control is really delicate, so if it gets bumped the slightest bit, it just fires a nuke from a satellite. Because that’s what happens here. Colonel fights his way through to it as the ship starts to disintegrate around him, but unfortunately gets struck by ship debris and dies, watching the nuclear countdown restart.
Godzilla gets to Shinjuku, and starts tearing stuff up. Massive destruction all over. Again, more budget here plus bigger Godzilla leads you to really feel the devastation he’s bringing to the city. It feels a lot like the original Godzilla 1954, where the film makes the devastation very human-level, it highlights the people fleeing in terror and the impact of Godzilla ripping through everything a lot more than the Showa era films ended up doing. More than any film since, come to think of it. Anyways, JSDF is still bringing the fight, but they’re not able to do much more than distract him. Godzilla does trot by the skyscraper that Doctor Bland makes his lab in, where all of the protagonists except Sourface have gathered instead of evacuating, and they take the opportunity to test the device that’s supposed to direct Godzilla’s homing instinct. And it works! And luckily, their lives are saved from stupidly drawing Godzilla’s attention as a JSDF helicopter rolls by. And then gets exploded, which rocks the building, and shuts all its fire shutters. They figure now’s as good a time as any to get out of there, and they have a JSDF helicopter coming to take them to the trap site, but, the fire shutters block off their access to the heliportright then, the soviet satellite launches the nuke.
Russia is kind enough to notify the Japanese government about it. Japan asks them to just trigger it while it’s still harmlessly in space. Russia responds “What, you think we actually built some sort of sensible failsafe into these things? No, that sounds like something that a country that’s actually going to win the Cold War would do.” So Japan asks America to save them. And America’s like “Sit back. We got this.”
So Godzilla’s right outside the skyscraper they’re trapped in. And the Super X finally shows up, this great big floating tank. What kind of situation would an at-the-time pacifist nation need this for? Godzilla blasts it with his atomic breath a few times, but it’s got a plating for that, and heats up a bit, but manages to hold on. While Godzilla’s charging again, the Super X fires a cadmium shell into his mouth, seemingly wounding him greatly. Its radiation-absorbing properties seem to be working, as he starts getting sluggish. They fire another, and Godzilla collapses into a nearby building, his breathing and heartbeat slowing. It seems the Super X was successful. Godzilla is dying. The danger is over.
Sourface showed up with a JSDF helicopter. Since the team can’t get to the heliport, they shoot out a nearby window, and send Sourface down with a belay to bring the others back up. They bring Doctor Bland up first, but then some ill-timed turbulence hits and they can only bring up one more. Moonface insist that be Sourface, that she and Goro
will defeat the Great Kung Lao to become Grandmaster of the Mortal Kombat tournament will escape Godzilla on foot, so up Sourface goes, and away goes the JSDF chopper. For the rest of the movie, they’re there providing the pedestrian view of things, escaping mostly safely with some mild sexual tension, but that’s not interesting enough for me to really comment on here, so just assume that’s all happening. And make your own jokes about how much of a schmutz Goro is as appropriate.
An American interception missile collides with the Russian nuke in the skies over Tokyo. It’s high enough that it detonates without causing immediate damage, but it does unleash first a big EMP wave that knocks out everything in Tokyo, including the Super X, for a brief time, and also causes a nuclear storm that revives and recharges Godzilla. I’m not sure, but I think we might be able to call this a bad thing for the people of Tokyo. The Super X regains control, but Godzilla is there and Godzilla is pissed. The Super X runs out of cadmium shells, then weaves in and out of the buildings of Tokyo, firing its more conventional weaponry as Godzilla stalks it. Eventually, the Super X runs out of cover, and Godzilla blasts it with his breath over and over again until, even with its plating, the Super X is overwhelmed and can no longer move. Then Godzilla shoves a skyscraper on top of it, destroying it and killing everyone inside.
Doctor Bland reaches the volcano and activates the homing device, luring Godzilla there and ending his rampage in Tokyo. Godzilla reaches the mouth of the volcano, and the JSDF set off their explosives, shifting the earth beneath his feet and dropping him into the lava. Where he is definitely killed. Totally, 100%. Completely immersed, and doesn’t emerge, so why in the world would you think otherwise? And that’s why the Return of Godzilla is the only movie of the Heisei era. Totally.
So, let’s unpack that film. The special effects are definitely miles better than anything in the Showa era. This movie definitely shows the higher technology and budget this movie had. Godzilla is a lot more detailed and menacing looking, and the sets are so much better. The city destruction and battle with the Super X is really impressive as well. The atmosphere of this film is the biggest thing it has going for it, and the visuals and effects support that really well. But there’s a few problems with it. They used a big Godzilla robot for a lot of shots that doesn’t quite look like the Godzilla suit, so there’s a few spots he’s noticably off model. And in both, Godzilla’s face doesn’t have as much articulation as he used to, which makes him seem a little less real and a little more doll-like. Around the eyes, especially. His brow is in the same angry posture all the time, and sometimes his eyes aren’t looking at the same thing, which makes him look goofy. And there’s a few shots where the lighting is such that you can clearly see the air/viewing holes in the Godzilla suits neck. This movie isn’t as campy as Godzilla can often be, so those moments really stand out and can harm the illusion a bit. But yeah, like I said, overall, the visuals and special effects in this film are solid.
So is the plot and character work, in comparison with the Showa films that came before. More adult-oriented, so you have some more complexities and subtleties in them. I mean, this is still Godzilla, you’re not going to get this great epic or anything, but honestly, as far as giving some human drama to a Godzilla story and really making his impact feel more personal, this works really great. It helps that all the human’s stories are really centered on the whole Godzilla problem, so for all the ups and downs and Goro Makis, this ends up feeling really focused, and having everything delivered for the plot. The end of it does come off as being as clipped as it seems above, like they didn’t develop the actual means of resolving the story as much as they need to, but the rest of it does establish, lead up to, and maintain the feelings and emotions necessary to really feel this.
And yeah, the tone of the film is just excellent. It’s really a worthy successor to Godzilla 1954. Doesn’t quite hit the message as hard, but as far as making you feel the thrill and horrors and destruction of having a big Godzilla rampage through your city, this film just nails it. This new Godzilla feels powerful in a way that the Showa era Godzillas generally weren’t. It may not be as thoughtful as the original, but it makes you feel the danger very well, and relates more the perspective of the average Joe in Tokyo in a way that’s really important for what this film is trying to pull off.
So yeah, all those factors, I’m going to say the critics didn’t really know what they’re talking about here. The Return of Godzilla is one of my favorite films in the franchise. That tone and atmosphere just hits so well. Once Godzilla shows up in Tokyo, this is an absolutely gripping film, and one I’d enthusiastically recommend.