Koji Hashimoto's The Return of Godzilla, released in 1984, is one of the finest giant monster pictures ever made, and it is rather disheartening that most of the praise—or, in some cases, grudging respect—it has received stems simply from the fact that it signaled a turning point in its franchise. Granted, its place in tokusatsu history cannot be ignored; this was the film that brought Godzilla back to his beginning depiction as a metaphor for the horrors of nuclear war—a creature which brings terror and devastation wherever it goes. And that image hasn't been completely removed from the character in any of the films since; even the more amiable depictions—such as the one in Gareth Edwards' Godzilla 2014 reboot—haven't managed to get through a story without killing a few people or pummeling a city into the ground. Causing death and destruction has once again become a trademark for the character, and credit for reviving this belongs to Hashimoto's film.
The Return of Godzilla has historical importance; no one has ever disputed that. But is this the only laurel it deserves? Is the film merely a footnote in the long-running series? Is it, in other words, a mediocre production which just so happened to influence those that followed it? For me, the answer is a firm and passionate no. Instead of dull and impersonal, I would describe it as an absorbing story with interesting human characters, compelling political content, and an unrelenting sense of dread hanging over every scene. I can see why the filmmakers were drawn to telling this story; by 1984, there hadn't been such a truly dark Godzilla film in a long while; not even the excellent Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975) conveyed such a high level of trepidation. And yet, gloomy as the film is, a good deal of what it has to say is actually quite humanistic and refreshing. It's a terror story tinged with hopes that man, even in war, can find ways to coexist for the good of the world in which he lives.
As many have noted, the film is a direct sequel to Ishiro Honda's original Godzilla (1954) picture and pretends all the intervening sequels never took place. Thirty years after Godzilla turned Tokyo into a smoldering graveyard, a volcanic eruption on the Izu-Oshima Islands brings the monster back to the surface world. The only witnesses to its resurrection are a group of fishermen; they, in turn, are subsequently attacked by a massive sea louse, itself mutated by the radiation of Godzilla's body. The ship and its only survivor, Hiroshi Okumura (Shin Takuma), are discovered by a vacationing reporter named Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka), who quickly rushes to alert the world that a giant animal has appeared. However, due to a government-enforced news blackout, Maki resorts to interviewing everyone remotely connected to the incident. His subjects include Okumura's sister Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi) and Professor Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki), whose parents died in the monster's 1954 rampage.
Word of Godzilla's return finally reaches the public when a Soviet nuclear submarine is destroyed off the coast of Japan. (With international tensions churning, the Soviet Union immediately pinned blame on the United States; releasing the truth was the only way to prevent a nuclear war.) Professor Hayashida deduces that since Godzilla was created by radiation, he must be drawn to sources of nuclear power—explaining his attack on the Russian submarine and, later, a Japanese power plant. While the Japanese government discusses means of defense, Hayashida inadvertently stumbles upon a weakness in Godzilla's organism, one which might save Japan as well as return the creature to his underground slumber.
The Return of Godzilla, like Honda's original, is a film very much aware of the political atmosphere of its time. The 1954 film saw release when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still haunting the minds of many Japanese people; the 1984 sequel was made during the heightened tensions of the Cold War, when global nuclear war was a daunting possibility. And surely, as Akira Kurosawa pointed out in I Live in Fear (1955), neutral countries such as Japan had reason to fear being caught in the crossfire. Japan may not have been an active participant, but it resided, geographically, smack-dab between the United States and the Soviet Union. If nuclear war broke out, the fallout could eventually spread to nations not involved. Unlike a great many Cold War pictures (such as the American-produced The Day After or Testament, both released around the same time), The Return of Godzilla addresses world-relevant fears and consequences from the position of, essentially, a fearful observer. And so, it avoids the cheap shots. This is not a finger-pointing propaganda film with the enemy characterized as bloodthirsty and stupid, nor is the message a typical 'We're all doomed!' squeal. Instead, Hashimoto takes the more honorable approach of dealing with the possibility of a nuclear disaster while simultaneously showing political restraint and optimism. Consider this. At the beginning of the film, the Russians and the Americans are quietly waiting for an opportunity to attack one another; in the second act, the same parties are negotiating ways to deal with their mutual threat; later, they abandon their initial strategy (that nuclear weapons are the solution to every crisis—something Ishiro Honda criticized in his own films) to save millions. The optimistic message completes itself in the third act: a nuclear missile has been accidentally fired toward Tokyo, and all three countries (the warring parties as well as neutral Japan) end up collaborating and communicating with one another in order to avert the oncoming catastrophe.
And all of this takes place because of Godzilla's return. The peril he creates is sobering up the world. By 1984, Godzilla's metaphor had evolved, as I suppose it ought to have, and the filmmakers knew just how to articulate it. The threat expanded to other parts of the globe—Godzilla's existence now threatens countries apart from Japan—and yet it is this same terror that, ironically enough, coerces the warring nations of the world to set aside their differences, at least for a short time, and work together. (It's nice that the movie is able to make this point without a cornball scene of the warring parties shaking hands and apologizing to one another.) So Godzilla is not merely a symbol for disaster in this film; he is now a sign of hope that, perhaps, mankind can improve and make changes for the better. The monster isn't reverted into a hero, but a fine layer of tragedy now adorns his characterization.
Add to this superb story and symbolism a set of interesting characters, all of whom are splendidly acted. Ken Tanaka is excellent as the ambitious reporter Maki, and the role is far from two-dimensional. At the beginning, Maki's self-concerned, taking advantage of the recently reunited Okumura siblings for the sake of selling a story. Soon after, though, the reporter—very much like others in the story—discovers his humanity and goes out of his way in the interest of people around him. I must report this is only film of Tanaka's that I've seen, but I am eagerly looking forward to examining the rest of his career. As Professor Hayashida, Yosuke Natsuki gives a graceful performance; the writing is good, but the character is ultimately sold by what he brings to it: his concentration, his expressions. He portrays a man rendered weary by the world around him and who wants to do it some good while he can. Yasuko Sawaguchi's character is not as rich as some of the other female leads in the franchise, but she gives the character of Naoko enough charm for us to like her, and Naoko does have a pleasingly subtle dynamic with Maki.
If there is a character who I felt could've used a smidgen's worth more of development, it would have to be Hiroshi Okumura. Likable and interesting as he is, a little more could have been done with him, particularly in regards to the parallel between him and Professor Hayashida. Maybe this is nothing more than accidental irony, but these two characters have always struck me as one and the same: an identical personae reappearing from generation to generation. Both lost friends or family to Godzilla's wrath and sought revenge. Both also come to understand, respect, and even empathize with the very same monster. And one witnesses the changing feelings of the other. There's a great scene where Hayashida and Okumura are attending a press conference announcing Godzilla's return. Director Hashimoto cuts from a wide shot (showing both men) as Okumura declares his hunger for revenge. When the young man finishes his declaration, Hashimoto cuts to a close-up of Hayashida; the professor slowly turns his gaze away from his pupil, the weary look in his eyes growing even more glum, as if he's seeing a younger version of himself in Okumura and recalling past feelings. That, or he could be simply lamenting the fact that all the world wants is to watch Godzilla die. Regardless, intended or not, the parallel between these two characters exists, and I would've liked more scenes with the two of them together to give it a little more resonance. But this is hardly a major flaw: an interesting character who could've been even more interesting. As currently written, Okumura still has more depth and personality to him than the average supporting character in a tokusatsu film, and Takuma is appropriately likable in the role.
While we're on the characters, we might as well address another one of the film's accolades: the frequently seen government officials and the men who portray them. If you know your classic Japanese cinema, virtually every face in this supporting cast is a familiar one. The prime minister is played by Keiju Kobayashi, that wonderful actor from films such as Shiro Moritani's Submersion of Japan (1973), Mikio Naruse's Repast, and Yasujiro Ozu's The End of Summer (1961). Kobayashi's performance is a true highlight, and the character is one of the more memorable government officials in the franchise. You also have towering acting talents such as Eitaro Ozawa, Taketoshi Naito, Yoshifumi Tajima, and Mizuho Suzuki as the advisors. Most of these men seldom—or never—appeared in a tokusatsu film before 1984; to see them together in one is truly thrilling. They do not fail to impress. Consider this second-act scene. The Japanese government has been requested to allow the use of nuclear weapons in an effort to destroy Godzilla. After hearing the foreigners' arguments, the prime minister and his subordinates convene in a private room to discuss the matter. Some of the officials argue in favor of the notion while others question the true consequences of detonating a nuclear bomb close to Japan. As they debate, Hashimoto's camera cut back and forth between them, forming superb compositions, sweeping or panning now and then without overdoing it. Crisp and absorbing. This scene, four minutes in length, features some of the best dialogue, filmmaking, and acting in any Godzilla film. The movie is worth seeing for this scene alone, as these seasoned masters practice their craft.
After turning down the foreigners' requests (because there was no guarantee that nuclear weapons would destroy Godzilla or even produce a limited blast radius), the prime minister heads off to explain his position to the other world leaders. We never see or hear the conversation; Hashimoto simply allows us to observe the results. The scene plays out as such: Kobayashi walks into his office, accompanied by Naito and Suzuki; they ask him what happened; the prime minster reaches for a cigarette; Naito lights it; Kobayashi draws in a long, stress-quenching breath of smoke; then, with Reijiro Koroku's beautiful score in the background, Kobayashi recites his argument—that, should Godzilla attack their countries, the other world leaders wouldn't gamble the lives of their own people by dropping a nuclear bomb in or close to Washington D.C. or Moscow—draws in another breath, leans back with a relieved gaze, and calmly states that he persuaded them both. Once again, the dialogue is excellent, and Kobayashi's performance makes it even better; concentration shines in every single gesture.
As I said before, Godzilla himself has a splendid characterization, but how about his physical representation in the film? Let's move onto the special effects. To date, this is the last Godzilla realized by Teruyoshi Nakano; so how do the results of this final outing stand up? Impressive, with a few notable hiccups. Godzilla is brought to life using multiple techniques: the traditional animatronic suit, a twenty-foot-tall machine dubbed the Cybot Godzilla, and various props representing individual body parts. Of all these, the suit stands out as the most effective, with a menacing expression in its eyes, small protruding fangs, a frequently lashing tail, and beautiful musculature bulging beneath its flesh. Nakano makes especially great use of the suit in wide shots, a few of which happen to catch a cat-like glow in the monster's eyes, enhancing the menace. And the suit is featured in what is easily one of Godzilla's best entrances: a shot which undoubtedly inspired Gareth Edwards. The camera starts off at ground-level, focused upon a talon-equipped foot, and then slowly travels upward, catching small bits of movement in various parts of the body, before finally arriving on the creature's head as the monster finishes belting out a thunderous, blood-chilling roar. A subsequent shot, of Godzilla walking directly over the camera, is also beautifully composed and rather haunting. I certainly will never forget it. As is sort of expected of a tokusatsu film, the suit does end up in an iffy composition now and then, but for the most part, it is very well-used and photographed.
The Cybot, however, is hit-and-miss. That's not to say there aren't plenty of good things about it. Nakano makes wonderful use of the animatronics in its upper lip to give it a nasty snarl, the teeth look sharp enough to plunge through steel, and the texture of the inside of the mouth is superb. However, sometimes the neck and arms move about in a jerky, unconvincing manner. (A particular shot in Godzilla's first confrontation with the Super-X springs to mind.) Thankfully, Nakano mostly focuses his camera up close on the Cybot's head, and it is here that it looks best.
Actually, the most egregious visual blunder concerns one shot of a life-sized foot used during the final battle. We watch the foot as it slowly come down from the heavens and nearly crushes a group of fleeing civilians. If you have a sharp eye, it only takes a split-second to notice 1) there is a thick cable hooked to one of the toes, and 2) there is no more Godzilla above the ankle. Why Nakano didn't toss this onto the cutting room floor is beyond me.
Moving back to the positive side of things, the miniatures constructed for this film are eye-popping in their beauty. When watching Godzilla's climactic rampage through Tokyo, I oftentimes like to examine individual shots in freeze-frame so I can marvel at the level of detail put into the sets. The billboards; the high rises with windows lit seemingly at random (like real buildings); the trees in the city park; the cars on the street (some moving, some not); not to mention the constant presence of helicopters in the sky. The presented detail and activity in this miniature Tokyo is truly remarkable, but what's equally amazing is the sense of scale it conveys. I'm not talking strictly about the sheer height of the skyscrapers (although that is impressive too), but rather the illusion that this is not a set; this feels like an actual metropolis, one that keeps going back and back for miles and miles.
Godzilla does not fight another monster in this particular film; instead, we witness a grand final battle sequence with the Super-X. It's nice to see something different now and then. And the Super-X is, hands down, the best mechanical prop in the film (the design, the way it moves, the sense of weight it conveys as it touches down or takes off from the ground). And the final battle certainly does cement that classic Godzilla image, with the machine relentlessly launching its entire arsenal and the monster wading unfazed through every shot. The coup de grace, which does not involve a fireball for a change, is another memorable moment.
And of course, since pyro-specialist Nakano's in charge of the effects, the explosions are sheer eye candy.
Special mention must be made of the musical score by the relatively unknown Reijiro Koroku. Koroku, who never worked on a Godzilla film before and regretfully hasn't worked on one since, comes at it with a completely fresh perspective and style; he doesn't even reuse any of Ifukube's themes; every theme is brand-new; again, every now and then, it's nice to receive something different and unexpected. Better still, Koroku's contributions are astonishing. Quite literally from the first notes of his main title sequence, his instruments perfectly complement the serious, foreboding tone of the film. Godzilla's attack on the nuclear reactor becomes even more memorable thanks to the score and its repeated piano motifs; the cue utilized for the sinking of the Russian submarine is another highlight. The score is predominately creepy; that is not to say, however, Koroku refrains from being emotional, majestic, or even tranquil when he needs to be. Maki's encounters with Naoko; the military march sequences; the prime minister recounting his conversation with the world leaders; that hauntingly sad orchestral piece at the end when Godzilla, screeching in terror, plunges into the crater of Mt. Mihara—all wonderful. In fact, my only complaint about the score concerns what we hear for the ending credits. Koroku originally wrote an elegant melancholy piece to cap off the emotional denouement; that was discarded in favor of a pop song by the Star Sisters—a move undoubtedly made to help with promotions. The song isn't bad per se, but it definitely does not fit the wondrous beauty and power of what came before it.
The Return of Godzilla has another interesting—or notorious, depending on which way you look at it—place in the history of the franchise: it is the only film, apart from the original, which acquired scenes featuring Raymond Burr for its western distribution. An interesting idea—connecting the Americanized version of the original to the Americanized version of its sequel—unfortunately not handled in a useful manner. 1956's Godzilla King of the Monsters! was an ambitious editing project, splicing Burr in with the original movie's footage, having him appear to be in conversation with members of the Japanese cast, getting him involved in the narrative, making him a victim of Godzilla's attack in Tokyo. Sure, the additions were clumsy at times, but the nerve of the American filmmakers to take such a daring and risky approach was admirable in and of itself. That's still part of the movie's charm. However, in the "sequel," Godzilla 1985: The Legend Is Reborn, distributed by New World Pictures, Burr's talents are wasted. He simply observes the action—in an American military base, not in Tokyo itself—and enunciates dialogue which does nothing to advance the narrative. Key example: at one point, he tells the American general (Warren J. Kimmerling) that Godzilla is "looking for something, searching" and that they must identify it "before it's too late." A potentially idea which is never followed up on. Still, unnecessary as his character is, it is nice to see Burr return to the franchise; I get the feeling the actor devised, on his own time, with no outside assistance, a whole set of events that had befallen his character between 1956 and 1985 and the impact such events would have on a person and kept those ideas in his head all throughout filming; he most definitely put more effort into the creative process than his writers and director. It's a fair assumption, seeing as how Burr himself convinced New World producer Anthony Randel to play the story straight instead of as a parody as originally intended.
In Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Burr's magnificent voice was put to great use with regular bits of narration. Here, he enunciates over the images only once, giving a beautiful speech about mankind's insignificance in the face of nature. And this speech, almost by itself, gives the ending of Godzilla 1985 an even greater emotional punch than the ending of the original Japanese version. It's too bad such good writing and that unique voice wasn't better utilized in the previous 87 minutes.
Speaking of improvements, there a few more worth mentioning. The sound effects have been enhanced. Godzilla's battle with the shoreline defense forces is doubled in visceral power thanks to the improved Foley for the explosions. The monster's roar has also been slightly tweaked to give it even more menace (case in point: his victory screech after defeating the Super-X.) The American sound editors also made the right decision in preserving the famous high-pitched squeal of fear Godzilla makes when he pummels into the volcano at the end of the film. (This sound effect originates from a mono audio track created by Toho; for reasons unknown to me, it was not incorporated in the stereo release the Japanese version went to theaters with.) Moving over to music, Godzilla 1985 includes some new cues (originally from Christopher Young's score for the American film Def-Con 4), which actually blend nicely with the original score. These new cues are small in number, and Koroku's score is edited respectfully. The editors also eliminated the Stars Sisters song and replaced it with a combination of cues from both composers' scores. It's a much more suitable way, audio-wise, to wrap things up. (Thank heaven they didn't substitute it for the American's version's own promotional song, "I Was Afraid to Love You," sponsored by Dr. Pepper, whose products pop up sporadically throughout the U.S. Version.)
The U.S. version also cuts a few awkward effects shots, but that's it as far as improvements go. The other changes made are perplexing and some of them simply atrocious. Despite the attempt at a straightforward tone, the cumbersome dubbing and dialogue ("Sayonara, sucker!" "Godzilla will go anywhere we decide to lead him, huuuh?") adds unwelcome, not-amusing camp to the film. Wrecked more than anything else, however, was part of what made The Return of Godzilla a truly special accomplishment: the refreshingly mature political content. The re-edited international conference scene in Godzilla 1985 is a prime example of artistic butchery. To their credit, the American editors did cut about 5-10 seconds of a really bad performance (the actor playing the American ambassador); they also, however, cut out the entirety of the scene of the Japanese officials' private debate as well as the prime minister's speech; several minutes of some of the franchise's best material, taken away. Not a worthy trade-off. How about the political depiction of the foreigners in the American version? Instead of an optimism-spreading take on the Cold War, the U.S. version produces shameless anti-Russia propaganda: the Russians are reckless and devoid of feelings; they have no humanity or concept of humanity to speak of—that's the message of Godzilla 1985. Let's compare another altered scene: the aftermath of Godzilla damaging a Soviet freighter, and the collision automatically setting off the countdown for an orbiting nuclear warhead. In the original version, a surviving Russian colonel bravely attempts to stop the countdown, knowing the blast would kill millions; unfortunately, he is killed in an explosion before he can make it to the control board. Compare that to the re-edited sequence in the American version, which features the same man crawling toward a supposedly inactive control board (which is still bleeping, for whatever reason), surviving long enough to reach the panel, and deliberately pressing the launch button (a shot nowhere to be found in the Japanese version). The prelude to this entire sequence was also changed. Originally, the subtitles translating the Russian dialogue informed us the Soviets were abandoning their nuclear strategy against Godzilla following the international conference; for Godzilla 1985, the subtitles were rewritten to alert the audience that trigger-happy Moscow wanted to keep their "nuclear option open." And when the nuclear missile is fired at Tokyo, it is, of course, the noble westerners who discover that the Soviets betrayed everyone. There's no established triangle of cooperation between all three nations. Godzilla 1985 is not the politically mature, humanistic film its Japanese counterpart is; it's a piece of cheap, finger-pointing propaganda—the sort of film the Japanese version deserves praise for not being.
Despite being a modestly entertaining monster-on-the-loose fable, Godzilla 1985: The Legend Is Reborn pales in comparison to its predecessor, and it doesn't strike with nearly as much resonance. And the changes made to its message and political content are downright unforgivable.
That being said, it is so pleasing that Koji Hashimoto's original version has recently found much wider interest in the western world than its American counterpart. And I hope the growing interest in the film leads to more discussion and analysis. As far as this reviewer is concerned, The Return of Godzilla is not a middling, soulless production; I regard it as one of the finer, more intelligent, and viscerally effective entries in the entire series. And it ends on such a consummate note that that, sometimes, I find myself wishing it had no sequels; that the timeline for this era ended with Godzilla falling into Mt. Mihara and being imprisoned there forever. Of course, I have nothing but affection for the remainder of the Heisei series, but none of them, in my eyes, have matched the power of Hashimoto's film. The Return of Godzilla is an extraordinary piece of Japanese cinema. And as far as I am concerned, there hasn't been a better Godzilla movie since.