From a personal standpoint, The Return of Godzilla is a very special Toho movie. It was my second Godzilla movie, and I first viewed it over a decade ago. The chilling images of an antagonistic Godzilla that burned themselves deep into my memory so long ago are still very entertaining thirteen years later. The Return of Godzilla is an excellent classic that holds up even today. After the abysmal failure of Godzilla’s final hero flick, Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), Godzilla was finally returned to his antagonistic persona in this movie, something that truly hadn’t been explored since Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964). Every Godzilla movie between Godzilla Raids Again (1955) and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) was wiped from Godzilla’s history when this movie came to theatres, for the renaissance period for Godzilla, and Toho as a whole, was just beginning. The Heisei Timeline was in its infancy, and the first powerful kaiju movie that it brought to cinemas was packed with enhanced special effects, solid acting, an intriguing plot, and a brilliant new musical score. The Return of Godzilla is the first real landmark Godzilla film since the original, and it revived the awe-inspiring spirit of the monster’s darker days.
In the mid 1980’s, a fishing vessel went missing 100 miles South of Tokyo. Everyone aboard was drained of his vital fluids, due to a savage attack by an immense sea louse. However, the abominable arthropod was merely the symptom of a far greater horror… for this mutant’s existence foretold of the reemergence of a far more sinister beast. Godzilla, that nuclear monolith whose relative was annihilated 30 years earlier, had finally returned. The only survivor of the yacht, Hiroshi Okumura, was kept in hiding, for this discovery had to be leveled for the moment in order to avoid mass chaos.
Hiroshi’s rescuer, reporter Goro Maki, was forced to give his story a low profile temporarily, while the government analyzed the situation. Goro continued to follow this amazing course of events, which led him to Dr. Hayashida, a geneticist whose studies presently surrounded Godzilla’s physiology. After a short chat, it was revealed that Nakao Okumura, Hiroshi’s sister, was an assistant to the professor, and that she had no idea of her brother’s safety. Disobeying a government mandate, Goro revealed to Nakao that her brother was safe.
Meanwhile, a Soviet nuclear submarine was annihilated off the coast of Japan. It was believed that the Americans were to blame for this catastrophe, and the Soviet Union began to mobilize its allies as America did the same. The Prime Minister of Japan, faced with a potential nuclear conflict, intervened, and finally revealed that Godzilla was to blame for the attack on the submarine. Though the Americans and Soviets wished to quickly dispense with the terror before he could potentially ravage their own countries, Japan refused to allow nuclear weapons to be used within their sovereign borders. Meanwhile, the self-defense force began to mobilize for what would be their greatest battle since the onslaught of the first Godzilla, as a mysterious Soviet ship drifted quietly in Tokyo harbor…
On the Japanese coast, near a wetland area, a nuclear facility was enshrouded by the mists of an early dawn. A fissure cracked through the pavement as the undead eyes of the ultimate repercussion of nuclear disaster peered into the souls of those who witnessed his terror. Godzilla breached the perimeter of the facility and tore it apart, grasping the nuclear core and absorbing the electromagnetic waves and subatomic particles as they entered into his heart and replenished his energy. As Goro, Hiroshi, and Dr. Hayashida looked on in awe, something peculiar occurred. Godzilla took his leave prematurely, following a flock of chirping birds toward the coast. This amazing stimulus response would prove to be a remarkable step toward Godzilla’s defeat…
As Japan mobilized its anti-nuclear hovercraft, the Super-X, Hiroshi Okumura and Geologist Minami studied Mt. Mihara on Oshima Island. Their discoveries, along with the avian frequency phenomenon, led to a plan of action. If an amplified avian frequency device were created in order to lure Godzilla to Mt. Mihara, strategically placed explosives could cause the mountain to erupt and bury the monster in the gaping pit of lava flows. As these plans began to come together, Godzilla was sighted in the Tokyo Bay area. The city evacuated, and the Japanese self-defense force began to send their weaponry to the docks. Godzilla emerged once more, and several jet fighters began to engage the monster. Their efforts were futile, and the silhouette of horror moved toward the docks and easily withstood the power of dozens of military vehicles. They were all wiped out in a single swipe of his nuclear ray, as the nearby Soviet ship was rocked. In the ensuing chaos aboard the Russian vessel, a nuclear warhead was set to launch from an orbiting satellite.
Godzilla marched into the city, crushing those unfortunate people in his path. He trudged through the main streets, and annihilated everything that he touched. Lifting a train to his eye, the passengers aboard were horrified at this terrible image they were forced to witness before they plummeted to the Earth below. As the reign of destruction continued, the avian frequency device was activated in order to lure Godzilla to Dr. Hayashida’s laboratory. What Dr. Hayashida didn’t expect was that Godzilla would mindlessly begin a collision course with the building! Luckily, laser tanks managed to distract the massive monster, and minimal damage was done to the laboratory. As the lasers continued to fire, a UFO approached from the distance. The blinding, surreal glow of the Super-X began to approach the mountain of flesh. Cadmium missiles were fired and Godzilla was rendered unconscious, as the special element continued to absorb the rogue neutrons in his internal reactor. The world breathed a sigh of relief, for Godzilla was apparently defeated…
Alas, the countdown aboard the Soviet ship had reached zero, and a nuclear missile was launched from an orbiting satellite. In order to save Tokyo, the United States launched their own nuclear warhead in order to intercept the incoming weapon, and the mission was met with brilliant success. The Stratospheric blast interrupted electromagnetic communications across two hemispheres, resulting in severe, atmospheric static discharges. The radioactive beams of static energy pulsated into Godzilla’s flesh, reviving the monster, and returning him to his rampage. The raging reptile began his final assault on the Super-X. The Super-X’s full arsenal of ultra-modern weaponry failed as it was pounded into submission by the greater firepower. As if sadistically aware of the full scope of the situation, Godzilla tipped a building, allowing it to fall and collide with the craft, trapping and killing all aboard.
Meanwhile, Goro Maki and Nakao Okumura had been left alone as Dr. Hayashida and Hiroshi Okumura were airlifted to Mt. Mihara. Goro and Nakao descended through the building’s staircases, prepared to await rescue from another helicopter. Fortunately, a homeless man assisted them as they approached the streets, but he too fell victim to Godzilla’s raw power like so many others. It appeared as though Goro and Nakao too would face Godzilla’s devastating wrath, but he suddenly turned his attention toward the sea. Entering the harbor, Godzilla began to swim mindlessly toward Oshima Island, where he ascended the cliffs of the towering volcano. Lured by the avian frequencies broadcast from the other side of the mountain’s maw, Godzilla hesitated before he tumbled onto a rocky precipice below. The explosives were detonated and Godzilla disappeared into the endless plumes of smoke and fire. Into the volcano he fell, calling out with a piercing bellow of horror as he endured the terrible temperatures and grueling conditions of this new and terrible environment. Godzilla was defeated; however, little did anyone realize that deep within the volcano, Godzilla’s slumber would last for only half a decade. For the monster would eventually reemerge and wreck havoc on the planet once more…
Many styles of the original Godzilla movie are revived here, and the style of acting presented in Godzilla (1954) also resurfaces. There is a much more melodramatic tone in this movie as compared to the previous Godzilla movies, even the strangely un-contemporary Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). Yosuke Natsuki is really the best performer in the movie. His subtle style and dramatic tone really lend to a character that reminds one greatly of Takashi Shimura‘s role in the original film. Keiju Kobayashi, as the Prime Minister, is also an excellent addition to the cast. His expressions at each new twist in the plot, and each resolution, cast light into his emotions and thoughts as each new event occurs. Raymond Burr, though only in the American version, outshines his fellow American add-in actors. His appearance, though unnecessary, is still intriguing. His inclusion in the plot as Steve Martin draws connections to the first movie for American audiences, and his mysterious style lends to the eerie nature of the film. His final soliloquy is an absolutely brilliant addition, and makes some of the groan-moments that his fellow add-in actors bring to the screen worth it just to get to this part of the plot. The remaining performances are more than adequate for the film. Tetsuya Takeda’s role as the homeless man is a somewhat amusing comic relief. The performance is a bit over-the-top, but for a movie of this intensity, it does help to alleviate some of the drama. Finally, Hiroshi Koizumi, a veteran of the Showa timeline, makes a cameo appearance in this movie. Though his appearance is rather short, he does a great job with what he is given, and proves that he is still a formidable performer in the Godzilla universe, as seen by his eventual return to a larger role in 2003.
The special effects in this movie are brilliant. Many will contend that they are, indeed, a mixed bag… but when compared with every Showa entry, the techniques utilized in this movie blow away almost every previous attempt. The Godzilla suit utilized is the best since the original movie. The color is dark, the muscles are bulging, the reptilian features are extant, the flesh within the mouth is organic, and the maw is lined with terrifying fangs. The eyes, though somewhat fake, are still quite amazing on the suit. They have a cold, zombie-esque look to them. Where the suit excels, the animatronics do meet with some problems. The animatronics busts have a choppy motion, and along with the puppet props, show Godzilla’s appearance in a way that seems to be obviously different from the look of the suit. This can be somewhat jarring, but at this time, one must remember that the special effects were just starting to warm up again. The attempts in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), five years later, would prove to be a great advancement. The Return of Godzilla was a stepping-stone in this regard. Another prop that makes an appearance is the Shockirus prop. The Shockirus is an interesting addition to the movie, as the inclusion of this monster presents a level of horror early on. The actual execution of the prop is done with some sophistication; however, it is not very fluid and seems to lack animation. The somewhat similar Meganulon prop, utilized 16 years later, would be used with a much more terrifying level of expertise. Suits and props aside, the rotoscoping in this movie is phenomenal. First, the rotoscoping low point of the film should be addressed. The birds, which Godzilla followed from the nuclear facility, appear very unrealistic. They are barely better than the rotoscoping effect used for the seagull 21 years earlier in Matango (1963). That aside, the beams are very realistic, and they go for a simple effect as opposed to some of the more cartoonish patterns used in the Showa timeline. The laser beams, in particular, are excellent. Godzilla’s breath shows similarities to the early rotoscoping effects for distant shots in Godzilla (1954) and the bluish beam effects for some of the latter Showa entries. The lightning is probably one of the only flaws, but lightning is often a rotoscoping flaw in many films. A simple, pulsating streak would be greatly preferred to the flowing style that just appears unrealistic. The blood-red aurora sky from which the beams emanated is a visually stunning, yet simple effect as well. The post-blast, crimson sky is quite a surreal illusion, and it amplified the scene it accompanied perfectly. Unfortunately, there are some continuity problems thereon after, where the sky sometimes appears like the aurora and sometimes appears pitch black, but this is only a minor flaw. Though the rendering effects are portrayed brilliantly, the pyrotechnics are also done with great sophistication. The explosions and the pluming smoke really give the illusion of scale and power.
The miniatures, which are often the victims of said explosions, were at this point the greatest ever to grace a Godzilla movie. The Return of Godzilla may still hold the record for some of the most detailed and magnificent miniatures in kaiju history. The Super-X miniature, for example, is a complete success! It’s detail and ability to portray mass is stunning! Its inclusion in the plot not only gives the animators an excellent opportunity to use their rotoscoping genius, but its versatility manages to give the solo movie a much needed fight scene. As far as the miniature buildings are concerned, their architecture is fantastic. The nuclear facility looks amazing, as does the building that falls onto the Super-X. The reflective building, in particular, presents a brilliant illusion of size during Godzilla’s initial walk through the city streets, but there are so many more miniature buildings that really created this illusion of enormity. In fact at some points, it is somewhat difficult to discern the matting from the miniatures. Concerning the matting, this is an effect that looks excellent at first glimpse, but after closer study, appears flawed. During one shot where Godzilla passes the helicopter that had transported Ken Tanaka‘s character, the building and surrounding city make Godzilla look much larger than he should, and even makes it appear as though the suit is wading knee deep in the city streets upon closer examination. The shots where humans and Godzilla are blended together in the same scene are often the real downfalls of this movie in the special effects department. From Koji Ishizaka‘s character’s first meeting with the monster, to Godzilla wading through the evacuating populace, to Tetsuya Takeda’s character running in slow motion from the monster, the matting in this fashion was simply the downfall in special effects. Finally, the volcano scene is positively phenomenal. So many things come together: the suit, the animatronics, the miniatures, the matting, and the pyrotechnics, all to create a vivid, realistic, and visual masterpiece. There is one small lapse during this scene, however, and that is the toy Godzilla that appears to be used in the mouth of the volcano. The scene is very quick, and one can easily miss it, but the lack of movement and position of appendages simply screams: “toy!” However, in the end, one can easily declare that the triumphs easily outweigh the downfalls in the special effects department.
Though the music is somewhat of a reflection of the contemporary period to which the film is attached, the soundtrack still holds firm today. The music is simply beautiful. When a scene calls for serenity, the music is pleasant. When a scene calls for suspense, the music intense. When a scene calls for destruction, the music is powerful. It has an orchestral sound, but it still has some very Eighties qualities, such as the tempo, rhythm, and the particular instruments utilized. There are many landmark scores in the film. The opening theme, for example, solidifies the notion that this is not just another Godzilla film, but an intense, and perhaps even terrifying revival of a long-forgotten allegory. The theme that plays while Yosuke Natsuki’s character evacuates his laboratory is certainly an earworm piece, and the suspense it brings to the events it accompanies compliments the movie nicely. The closing theme, in its extreme drama and sullen nature, brings an excellent atmosphere to the climax. Though the music is still a tad different from traditional kaiju scores, Reijiro Koroku manages to make this Godzilla movie, like those to which Akira Ifukube gave his special touch, a movie not only of sight but also of sound. Mr. Koroku’s soundtrack is a complete success.
The final aspect worth mentioning is the Americanization of the film. The dubbing is actually a moderate success. Though it is nowhere near as sophisticated as that used in the original movie, it still excels above and beyond numerous attempts in the latter Showa timeline. The Americanization of this film goes far beyond just dubbing, however. Raymond Burr, along with several American actors, is cut into the film in several: “Meanwhile, back in the United States…” scenes. Many purists will, of course, complain about this. It actually adds a new dimension of interest to the story, in a way, due to the fact that it links together with the American version of the original Godzilla film. There are noticeable groan moments, however. Lines like: “Thirty years ago, they never found… any corpse…” do distract from the plot, as the audience clearly saw Godzilla disintegrate in the first movie, connoting that this new monster is a different Godzilla. However, since he did disintegrate, one thing is certain, they surely didn’t find any corpse, but it appears as though the addition of this phrase was meant to imply something different than that. It seems as though it was meant to imply that this was still the first Godzilla, brought back to life through regeneration, perhaps? Of course, the worst groan-moment is product placement. Perhaps the Pentagon’s soda of choice truly is Dr. Pepper… There are actually a few stock footage shots added to the “back in America…” scenes that really accentuate this version of the movie. These scenes show footage from Godzilla (1954), and each shot manages to draw a firm connection to the first movie. The scenes chosen are also some of the more realistic selections from the original movies, and the brownish tinting on one scene adds a real sense of age. Unfortunately, there is a problem with one shot: how exactly did someone get footage of Godzilla firing his nuclear breath head on? Finally, one of the most subtle and petty of the Americanized aspects of the plot has to do with the scene where the Soviet commander appears to launch the nuclear missile. In the Japanese version of the movie, the Soviet commander attempts to stop the missile to no avail, whereas in the American version, he attempts to launch the missile with success. This is really a very petty edit in the film, and money could have been saved had they just left this part of the original version unaltered. Alas, it was the Cold War, and it was during an especially tumultuous time when the administration continued to mobilize its military technologies. At least it does serve as an unintended symbol of contemporary politics.
The Return of Godzilla was perhaps one of the most brilliant movies in Godzilla’s history. The timeline was revamped, the special effects were increased, and Godzilla became a symbol of the horrors of nuclear weaponry once more. No longer would Godzilla films be characterized almost entirely as cheesy; now there was some hope for the series. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) would continue this trend, and it would return on and off over the next two decades. After a long rest, Godzilla had finally returned in full force, and ever since, there has never been a gap between movies as long as that which fans suffered between 1975 and 1984. In the end, this is one of the crowning achievements of the Godzilla series, for its existence, like its title suggests, heralds “the return of Godzilla”. The original nature of Godzilla: a natural disaster brought on by humankind’s own recklessness, was finally revived. Godzilla was reborn.