The December 1989 release of Godzilla vs. Biollante marked a number of historical milestones in Toho’s iconic monster movie franchise. Although the picture had been in development since 1985, its going before the cameras after the January ’89 passing of Japan’s Showa emperor Hirohito—and the simultaneous ascension of his son Akihito—meant a Heisei cycle of Godzilla films had begun.1 It was also a landmark in that producer Tomoyuki Tanaka for the first time entrusted his monster to a director from outside company walls. Following the respectable yet somewhat disappointing box office for 1984’s The Return of Godzilla (¥1.7 billion versus the ¥2 billion hoped for by Toho), audience research concluded that ninety percent of the film’s viewers consisted of young people—namely college students and elementary-age kids—reared on Hollywood entertainment. Noting this, Tanaka deemed his best option for the next movie was to hire a promising director closer to that generation.2

Born in 1952, Kazuki Omori was not only a Toho outsider but the first Godzilla director to come from the postwar generation, having no personal connection to the traumatic events that inspired Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original. He was also an artist with limited affinity for the monster. As a child, Omori was taken to see Honda’s ’54 film, was terrified by it, and devoured subsequent science fiction pictures into the mid-’60s. But with early adolescence came a perception of kaiju eiga as campy nostalgia. “I used to watch old monster movies until a time, but it turned into something akin to professional wrestling […] [a]nd I felt foolish [watching them].” In junior high, his interests shifted to European and Hollywood cinema, and by the time the offer from Toho arrived in 1986—when Omori was in his thirties—his attachment to the King of the Monsters remained minimal. “I’m not such an enthusiastic fan,” he admitted to the press. “Although movies are, more or less, in some ways unreal or complete fabrication, Godzilla seems like the biggest fabrication of them all.”3

And yet he accepted the opportunity to return the monster to the big screen—in part because Tanaka hoped to make an entertainment picture in the Hollywood vein of which Omori was a fan.4 “[B]ecause of films like Aliens [1986], movies that can even bare the satisfaction of adults [, …] I’ve been thinking that I can make a Godzilla from this type of approach.”5 Following numerous delays—during which Toho tasked Omori with singing idol movies (cheaper to produce and more financially lucrative than kaiju eiga)—the project received an abrupt greenlight in May 1989 and was hurried into production.6 Mere months later and with little advertising, Godzilla vs. Biollante appeared in Japanese cinemas, where it garnered a meager attendance of two million and earned ¥1.04, even less than its 1984 predecessor.

Despite dissatisfying numbers (per Fortune magazine, Toho took a loss of three million dollars on the film),7 Godzilla vs. Biollante prevailed as one of the series’s more unique entries. While hardly perfect, the picture steamrolls past its faults through likable characters, brisk direction, a wry sense of humor, and Koichi Kawakita’s astonishing visual effects. (The moment where Toru Minegishi comments “Amen!” before Godzilla emerges from Mount Mihara in a fiery pyrotechnics display encapsulates much of what makes the film work.) Also of virtue is a slew of fresh ideas and their interweaving into a fast-moving plot. Working from two winning entries in a 1985 story contest hosted by Toho, Omori centered much of his drama and action around bioengineering and the international race to weaponize it. Gone are the utopias of Honda’s world wherein nations peacefully unite and develop technology for mutual survival; the dramatis personae of Godzilla vs. Biollante debate the merits of opening Pandora’s Box amid skirmishes with foreign corporations willing to acquire Godzilla’s DNA at any cost.

Omori also livens his film with occasional visual tricks (vertigo zooms, computer simulations) and jabbing references to popular music: news of Godzilla’s return interrupts rockstar Demon Kogure’s TV show; the monster’s advance on Osaka (Omori’s hometown) halts a Yuki Saito concert. The latter sequence was likely intended as a hommage to Omori’s past work, as he’d made three films with Saito during his tenure directing idol films. Toho consultant Hiroshi Takeuchi recalled a scene from 1987’s Totto-Channel wherein the protagonist passes a truck transporting the Godzilla suit, an Akira Ifukube march appropriately playing on the soundtrack. Omori’s professional association with Saito was such that Takeuchi later confessed: “[T]o our regret, we didn’t see Yuki’s name in the credits [for Godzilla vs. Biollante].”8

In 1991, Omori wrote and directed Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, a messier picture on the script level but packed with many of the same virtues (fun characters, humor, energetic direction) and, thematically speaking, even more fascinating than its predecessor. In the story, western visitors from the 23rd century plot to destroy Japan in order to prevent its future supremacy; in their time the Land of the Rising Sun’s economic hubris swells to the point of consuming nations, starting in South America and Africa, cumulatively buying up sufficient territory to become the world’s strongest country. Although the film’s time travel element began as commercial calculation—due to Back to the Future Part II topping Godzilla vs. Biollante at the box office9—Omori manipulated this element to dramatize recent sociopolitical phenomena.

In the late 1980s, low interest rates, impact loans, changes in government policy, and increased trade surplus10 gave birth to Japan’s infamous Bubble Economy, from which individuals and businesses became substantially wealthier and the yen almost doubled in value. Among the aftereffects of this fiscal growth was widespread acquisition of foreign properties; in 1988 alone, it was estimated that Japanese corporations had invested $16.5 billion in the United States alone,11 buying up hotels, motion picture studios, even company control of the Rockefeller Center. The same was true elsewhere: e.g., the acquisition of Vietnamese floating hotels and Japanese issuing 10% of bank loans in London.12 Amid resultant international tensions fueled in part by lingering postwar sentiments, USA Today ran a headline begging the question, “Will Japan end up buying it all?”13

A few Japanese directors addressed the Bubble Economy head on. Juzo Itami’s acclaimed A Taxing Woman duology, for one, savaged the domestic effects of vain wealth and received limited theatrical distribution in the United States. But Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, despite not becoming readily available overseas for some years, is superficially more noteworthy for imagining a future in which Japan’s economic ecstasy leads to world dominion. “Japan has been bashed by the rest of the world because it achieved such economic miracles,” Omori told Entertainment Tonight in 1992. “So I took this background into consideration in portraying Godzilla.”14

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is also something of an oddity considering that, at the time of its making, Japan’s era of excessive wealth was quickly on its way out. The Nikkei stock market index had plummeted by 48% in October 1990—bringing with it a reputed capital loss of ¥307 trillion15—and by the time Omori’s film was in theaters, more than thirty Japanese banks were in danger of failing.16 In a sense, an early-’90s Japanese movie picturing a world wherein the Bubble Economy goes on forever (while real investors scrambled to sell overseas acquisitions) feels like a wishful fantasy. This was certainly the take of various western outlets reporting on the film. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article accusing Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah of “playing to Japan’s continuing obsession with World War II and its irritation with growing pressure from abroad to open its markets.”17

As alluded to in this quote, another major point of contention was the wartime sequence wherein a dinosaur destined to become Godzilla saves Japanese imperial troops by crushing their American adversaries. Gerald Glaubitz, a veteran and spokesman for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, commented to Entertainment Tonight: “I think it’s very poor taste. People have been trying to better the relations between the two countries, and I think this just divides them more. […] The young people […] are very impressionable. They look and see this and think, ‘Oh, great, somebody did something to those bad Americans.’”18 In a segment televised on PBS in 1992, Tokyo Journal contributing editor James Bailey remarked, “For an American, what is particularly troubling about this film is the quite apparent anti-American sentiment.”19

Almost thirty years later, director Omori told the author of this essay that his actual message was the opposite of what foreigners perceived: that the film presents future Japan as the real villain, with the time-traveling westerners being heroes for attempting to stop the island nation’s forthcoming reign.20 Within the film’s shambolic script, one can see traces of what he’s talking about. One third-act sequence features the heroine being questioned by her superior as to whether Japan—eventually destroyed by Godzilla due to its vain prosperity—deserves a second chance. Also noteworthy is the climax, set at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, a then-recently opened skyscraper described by the Washington Post as “a proud symbol of Japan’s emergence as a global economic superpower”21 and scorned by the Japanese public as “the Tax Tower.” The earlier mentioned Wall Street Journal story recorded comments from a moviegoer who stated, “I can’t stand it that [Godzilla is] smaller than the Tokyo metropolitan government. I want him to destroy it all.”22 Fittingly, the building is torn apart in the film’s climactic final battle.

Omori also swipes at unchecked capitalism through the character of Yasuaki Shindo (Yoshio Tsuchiya), an Imperial Army veteran who helped rebuild Japan after the war and whose corporation—it is revealed—plays a key role in developing the country’s future economic hubris. Shindo’s rash wealth also nearly destroys Japan, as his company commits a quasi-violation of the Three Non-Nuclear Principles by purchasing a nuclear submarine and storing it outside Japanese waters. Believing Godzilla deliberately saved him during the war, he dispatches his submarine to the monster’s resting place in the Bering Sea, where—unbeknownst to him—a radioactive incident in the ‘70s has already revived the creature. Godzilla attacks the submarine, grows stronger from its atomic energy, and comes ashore to demolish the prosperous nation Shindo helped construct. In the end, the businessman stands at the window of his corporation’s tower, accepting his fate as the beast he thought to be his savior wrecks Tokyo.

Of course, there’s room to question Omori’s intentions (or his explanation that the WWII sequences merely represented him fulfilling a long-held ambition to make a movie like 1962’s The Longest Day),23 as the film’s villains are coldly one-dimensional and all of the characters reservedly discuss Japan’s projected reign. While one of the time-travelers being a Russian limits the notion of the film being specifically xenophobic towards the United States, there’s not enough talk about future Japanese supremacy and why it’s a bad thing. (Among other things, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah would’ve benefited from a few straight-forward speeches à la what Honda often insisted on in his movies.) Nevertheless, the fact that Omori incorporated and dramatized a timely socioeconomic phenomenon in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah—and embodied it through memorable characters like Mr. Shindo—greatly distinguishes his movie and renders it one of the more fascinating Bubble-era Japanese films to study.

Although Kazuki Omori is best known internationally for his tenure on the Godzilla series, those films truthfully constitute an outlier in his greater body of work. While he cited larger budgets and sci-fi scenarios for allowing him to imitate Hollywood in his kaiju movies (including the two he merely wrote: 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra and 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah),24 his other films are so aesthetically different one rarely suspects the two groups came from the same director. Through his career arc, viewers can observe one of the more diverse artists to contribute to Godzilla since the Showa series.

Disciples of Hippocrates (1980)

Despite making 8mm and 16mm films in high school and personal interest in becoming a moviemaker, Omori chose continued education in a field unrelated to his passion. “At that time, there was no set way to become a director in Japan, or special courses for it at universities. My father was a doctor, so I decided to study medicine first, [reasoning] I could perhaps become a doctor later.”25 However, even the pressures of medical school couldn’t stave off creative urges, as it was during these student years that he shot Orange Road Express (1978), after his script won first place at the 1977 Kido Awards. (Due to this side-hustle, he ended up spending an additional two years in med school.)26 The year Omori graduated—1980—also saw the release of Disciples of Hippocrates, a rather cynical movie about medical students. “You could say I only studied medicine to make this film,” he boasted. Although he went on to pass the national medical exam and became a licensed doctor in 1983, the critical success of Hippocrates pushed him down the artistic path he’d always wanted. “It opened up other avenues for my career. I don’t see my medical studies as a detour, but as a path to becoming a director.”27

The road to Godzilla was bumpy. In 1981, Omori contacted author Haruki Murakami (rather: tracked him down at a café he was known to frequent) to request permission to adapt the 1979 novel Hear the Wind Sing. Omori and Murakami had attended the same junior high school—the former joining as the latter graduated—which he used as leverage to win the author’s favor. He ended up directing the film version in the style of Jean-Luc Godard, reasoning that the novel’s fragmented storyline and a Godardian aesthetic would mesh well. Alas, the film was a box office flop, recouping a mere fraction of its ¥25 million budget, and Omori received no feature directing jobs for the next three years. “My colleagues used to make fun of me for a long time, saying because my film was such a failure, Murakami became reluctant to allow the film adaptation of his novels.” Sure enough, when Omori contacted the author a few years later—this time for the rights to A Wild Sheep Chase—the answer was no.28

Omori remained active, however, serving as one of the founding members of a production outlet called the Director’s Company, which before closing its doors in 1992 produced a number of pink films as well as Toshiharu Ikeda’s excellent Evil Dead Trap (1988). He also directed television commercials, eventually returned to features with 1984’s Paupers’ Walk, and was employed at Watanabe Productions when the offer from Toho arrived.29 Omori’s reputation continued to grow in the years leading up to Godzilla vs. Biollante, with him receiving the Art Council’s New Director Award for Totto-Channel and “Sayonara” die Fräulein (1987)30 as well as the Minister of Education Award for Fine Arts.31 In 1989, Kadokawa recruited him to direct Afternoon When Flowers Fell, a commemoration project honoring the centennial of Kobe.32

Night Train to the Stars: The Kenji Miyazawa Story (1996)

At his request, Omori merely assumed screenwriting responsibilities for Godzilla after 1991, as he wanted to concentrate his attention on other movies.33 His directorial efforts of the next few years included: the middle installment of the 1991 anthology film The Reason I Got Sick; 1992’s Succession Ceremony, a riff on the yakuza underworld; the 1995 romantic comedy Broken Heart, following the misadventures of various characters in an amusement park. Of particular note was Night Train to the Stars: The Kenji Miyazawa Story (1996), which won Maki Mizuno the Newcomer of the Year award at the Japanese Academy Prizes and garnered nominations in thirteen other categories (including Best Director and Best Film). In telling the story of the famous Japanese author, select scenes mixed live-action with animation as the protagonist imagines himself interacting with his animal-characters. An animated film, The Boy Who Saw the Wind, based on a novel by C.W. Nichol, came in 2000; and three years later Omori directed one of his more visual, action-oriented pictures: T.R.Y., a Sino-Korean-Japanese co-production about gun smugglers in the early twentieth-century. As mentioned before, with few exceptions, the films discussed above are quite unlike Omori’s kaiju efforts: often leisurely and methodical in their direction, seldom suggesting they came from the maker of Godzilla vs. Biollante and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.

Omori was also active representing the Japanese film industry, his participation at the Tokyo International Film Festival including serving on the Young Cinema Competition Jury in 1994 and on the International Competition Jury in 2015.34 However, he wasn’t done with special effects cinema. Shochiku attached him to their ultimately unproduced 1999 adaptation of Sakyo Komatsu’s novel Japan Sinks. He co-wrote Rescue Wings (2008), directed by fellow Godzilla veteran Masaaki Tezuka. And 2005’s Super Fleet Sazer-X the Movie reunited him with Koichi Kawakita, with whom he’d frequently work over the next nine years. (The film also featured the warship Gotengo from Ishiro Honda’s 1963 Atragon, which Omori counted as a childhood favorite.)35

Super Fleet Sazer X The Movie (2005)

In 2006, Omori became head of Osaka University of Arts’s Visual Concept Planning Department; there he created courses in handcrafted special effects and for some of these invited Kawakita to share teaching responsibilities. Their efforts at the school later resulted in the four-episode television miniseries Gunbot—Kawakita’s final project before his December 2014 passing. Speaking with the author of this essay, Omori fondly remembered his collaborator, stating that he couldn’t imagine making another Godzilla movie without Kawakita, and further commented on the enthusiasm students expressed with their course despite handcrafted effects having been largely replaced by digital technology.36

I thought a great deal about Kazuki Omori after his passing on November 12, 2022 (age 70). In addition to his contributions to a franchise myself and many others love, I remembered the passion with which he discussed his career when Steve Ryfle and I interviewed him in 2021—as well as his amused reaction upon being informed of the Wall Street Journal’s front page article on Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. I also thought about his career relative to other Godzilla directors of the 1980s-’90s. Whereas Koji Hashimoto, Takao Okawara, and Kensho Yamashita only directed one or two movies beforehand and never took charge of a film once their time with the monster was done, Omori established himself prior to Tanaka’s offer and kept making movies afterward. Of all the principle filmmakers from that cycle, he was the only one to forge and maintain a successful directing career.

I likewise thought: when I was first getting into Godzilla in the early 2000s, all of the Heisei Godzilla directors were still with us; now, only Okawara is left. For a fan of my generation, that’s a strange feeling.

 

  1. Although retroactively lumped into the Heisei series by kaiju fans due to starting a continuity followed by direct sequels, 1984’s The Return of Godzilla, made during Hirohito’s lifetime, remains a Showa film by technicality.
  2. Kaiju Masterclass — Godzilla vs. Biollante: The Lost Commentary
  3. “Markalite Interview: Director/Screenwriter Kazuki Omori” in Ragone, August and Bob Johnson (eds). Markalite, Vol. 1 (Summer 1990), p. 44
  4. Kaiju Masterclass — Interview: Kazuki Omori
  5. “Markalite Interview: Director/Screenwriter Kazuki Omori” in Markalite, Vol. 1
  6. Hudgens, Jack. “When Roses Attack: 25 Years of Godzilla vs. Biollante with Ed Godziszewski.” Deferential Wrath of a Rusting Markalite Cannon, 6 January 2021 (originally published at Scified.com on 22 January 2015)
  7. Ryfle, Steve. Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G.” Toronto: ECW Press, 1998, p. 265
  8. Takeuchi Hiroshi. “Director Kazuki Omori and Godzilla.” Translated and reprinted in Ragone, August and Bob Johnson (eds). Markalite, Vol. 1 (Summer 1990) p. 21
  9. Binder, Marc. “How to Make Godzilla Jump: An Interview with Kazuki Ômori, Director of Classic 1990s Godzilla.” Medium.com.
  10. Iyoda Mitsuhiko. Postwar Japanese Economy: Lessons of Economic Growth and the Bubble Economy. London: Springer, 2010, pp. 73-8
  11. Wood, Christopher. The Bubble Economy: Japan’s Extraordinary Speculative Boom of the ’80s and the Dramatic Bust of the ’90s. Jakarta: Solstice Publishing, 2006,  p. 59
  12. Ibid, pp. 35; 58
  13. Kalat, David. A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series (Second Edition). Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010, p. 181
  14. Godzilla vs. KING GHIDORAH Entertainment Tonight Controversy 1992
  15. Iyoda, p. 81
  16. Wood, pp. 44-7; 59
  17. Hardy, Quentin. “Godzilla Is Back In His 18th Film, To Take on City Hall — Just a Dino in a China Shop, The Klutzy Old Lizard Doubles as a Social Critic.” Wall Street Journal, 25 October 1991
  18. Godzilla vs. KING GHIDORAH Entertainment Tonight Controversy 1992
  19. Godzilla vs. KING GHIDORAH PBS 1991 Controversy Anti-American?
  20. Kaiju Masterclass — Interview: Kazuki Omori
  21. Reid, T.R. “It Came to Hollywood.” Washington Post, 19 December 1992
  22. Hardy, “Godzilla Is Back In His 18th Film, To Take on City Hall — Just a Dino in a China Shop, The Klutzy Old Lizard Doubles as a Social Critic,” Wall Street Journal
  23. Kaiju Masterclass — Interview: Kazuki Omori
  24. Ibid.
  25. Binder.
  26. Kaiju Masterclass — Interview: Kazuki Omori
  27. Binder
  28. Matsubara Hiroshi. “INTERVIEW/ Kazuki Omori: Taking Haruki Murakami to the big screen.” Asahi Shinbun, 1 December 2013
  29. Godziszewski, Ed. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Godzilla. Published by Ed Godziszewski, 1996, p. 94
  30. “Markalite Closeup: Godzilla Lives! The Atomic Monster Strikes Back for his 17th film” in Ragone, August and Bob Johnson (eds). Markalite, Vol. 1 (Summer 1990), p. 19
  31. When Human Performance Disappears from Movies.Kyoto University Inamori Foundation Joint Kyoto Prize Symposium. Accessed 19 March 2022
  32. Jacoby, Alexander. A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors: From the Silent Era to the Present Day. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2008, p. 237
  33. Kaiju Masterclass — Interview: Kazuki Omori
  34. OBITUARY of Omori Kazuki.Tokyo International Film Festival 2022. Accessed 18 November 2022
  35. “Markalite Interview: Director/Screenwriter Kazuki Omori” in Markalite, Vol. 1
  36. Kaiju Masterclass — Interview: Kazuki Omori