The Return of Godzilla (1984)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (4/5)
June 27, 2009 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

The Return of Godzilla was Toho's first Godzilla film in almost a decade. Like Warner Brothers' recent Batman Begins, it's a complete reboot that takes the series in a serious direction not seen in decades. All the previous 14 sequels with their three headed space dragons, freakish looking Godzilla offspring, giant shrimps, smog monsters and robot Godzillas are simply forgotten and taken out of the timeline. The Return of Godzilla is simply a direct sequel to the original Godzilla (1954) set 30 years later. Godzilla's allegorical roots are at long last returned to here, albeit with a slight updating. By the early 1980s, the Cold War had now escalated to its height and tension between the US and Soviet Union was mounting at an all time high. Japan, naturally, felt powerless in the midst of this and this sentiment figures heavily into The Return of Godzilla. While director Koji Hashimoto's handling of the film is somewhat dull at times, it is nonetheless a rather superb return to a more serious portrayal of Godzilla. The tragic element of the story is nicely played up and the whole film has brooding, dread-filled tone to it that the franchise now so desperately needed. Its feel is very akin to such Sakyo Komatsu adaptations as Submersion of Japan (1973): the scale is large and many are caught in the chaotic fracas.

For the story, a fishing boat, the Yahata-maru, is attacked one night by a mysterious force of awesome power. Sometime later, reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) finds the wrecked vessel floating out at sea and boards it. After tussling with a gigantic, grotesque mutant sea louse that seems to have murdered everyone on board, he meets up with a sole survivor: a young fisherman named Hiroshi Okamura (Shin Takuma). In the hospital, Okamura identifies the creature he saw as Godzilla and the Japanese government decides to institute a complete media blackout on the subject to avoid mass panic. When Godzilla attacks a Russian nuclear sub and the Americans and Soviets begin to teeter on the brink of nuclear war, the Japanese government decides to choose the lesser of two evils and make Godzilla's return public. Godzilla finally comes ashore in Japan and attacks a nuclear power plant but researcher Professor Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki) notices that Godzilla leaves the plant when a flock of migrating birds fly by. Hayashida realizes that Godzilla is drawn to sonar.

Hayashida thus begins work on a plan to lead Godzilla to a volcano using a sonar transmitter and then trap him in the mountain with explosives. Godzilla, meanwhile, finally makes for Tokyo. Upon his arrival in Tokyo bay, a Soviet ship anchored is destroyed, which accidently causes a Russian nuclear missile to launch. As Godzilla cuts a swath of destruction through metropolitan Tokyo, the Japanese government dispatches the Super X, a high tech flying battleship, to combat Godzilla. The Super X is able to bring Godzilla down with cadmium shells. The Japanese cabinet finds out about the approach of the Russian missile and convinces the US government to send a counter missile. Unfortunately, the radioactivity from the stratospheric nuclear collision causes Godzilla to revive. Godzilla makes quick work of the now out of ammo Super X. Dr. Hayashida, however, is able to lure Godzilla away from Tokyo with his sonar device and onto Oshima Island where Mt. Mihara resides but will the plan succeed?

After Toho temporarily put the Godzilla series into hibernation in 1975 with Terror of Mechagodzilla, many a return project for Godzilla was considered with possible foes being everyone from the Gargantuas to infamous “lost Godzilla foe” Bagan to the Devil himself to get in on the worldwide act of cashing in on The Exorcist. It would take 9 years for Toho to decide on a proper project. The Return of Godzilla is a highly effective and much needed reboot whose virtues are many. There are no goofy aliens in jumpsuits, colorful monster foes or creature acrobatics: everything is brought back down to relative believability, though the film also lacks the mysticism that Shusuke Kaneko infused into his 1990s Gamera films or Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). It's simply a film about Godzilla appearing in the real, Cold War-divided world of 1984, director Koji Hashimoto takes everything very seriously, quite unlike in his only other film, the exquisitely ridiculous space movie cliché cornucopia Sayonara Jupiter (also 1984). He wonderfully succeeds in bringing the film a fairly bleak and foreboding tone not unlike that of Kinji Fukasaku's Virus (1980). The film's Cold War-era subtext is excellently handled, with a particularly notable sequence showing American and Russian emissaries both desperately trying to manipulate the Prime Minister of Japan (played by veteran actor Keiju Kobayashi) into allowing them to use nuclear weapons on Godzilla on Japanese soil. What's interesting is that both sides are shown to be so much alike that they agree more with each other than with the Prime Minister. The Return of Godzilla's theme is thus not unlike that of The Last War (1961), made by Toho over a generation earlier. Both films depict how the Japanese felt during the Cold War: helpless and at the mercy of these two warring foreign powers.

The special effects are once more directed by Teruyoshi Nakano and are utterly superb. Godzilla's nighttime attack on Tokyo is one of the most beautiful looking and satisfying sequences in a kaiju film and is particularly an eyeful when viewed in a theater. It is only marred by some excessive zoom lens usage and some stock footage despite the film's massive budget and high shooting ratio, this time from the frequently pilfered The Last War Armageddon finale and explosive freeway pileup from Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974). The Godzilla design used in this film is one of the best ever: Godzilla looks rather reminiscent here of his iconic appearance in Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) but far more menacing with a radiation blackened skin texture. He truly looks like a radiation mutated dinosaur. The film utilizes both the traditional man-in-suit and a larger, animatronic “Cybot-Godzilla” for close ups. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who played Hedorah and Gigan in the 1970s, inhabits the suit this time and went through similar hardships as Haruo Nakajima back in 1954 since the suit used was built for another actor far larger than he. The miniatures are built at a smaller scale to compensate for Godzilla's increased size (80 meters as opposed to the previous 50 meters) but the detail is still good and thanks to atmospheric lighting they look very convincing.

Reijiro Koroku's score is superb. Of course his work is not as iconic as Akira Ifukube's, but his score, if a bit 1980s, is nicely menacing, often lush and serenely beautiful and overall quite effective. It's a shame Kuroku was not brought back for later entries in the Heisei series, which chose to largely revive the magnificent but tired Ifukube themes of old.

One of the finest aspects of the movie is simply how the character of Godzilla is handled. The Return of Godzilla could be the finest, most majestic portrayal of the beast on film. Godzilla is shown to be as a much a victim as the humans he kills and his only real crime is being too large for our human world. There's a wonderful sequence in Hayashida's laboratory where the character so eloquently voices his understanding of the Godzilla mythos and says that “Godzilla is a warning and I'm just trying to send him back home”. Here Godzilla is mythological and the scientific result of man's arrogant aggression, he is, in this film, truly and utterly Godzilla to the core. In the film's detriment, some of Hashimoto's human footage is rather monotonous and the film is largely more Nakano's film than Hashimoto's. Actress Yasuko Sawaguchi is very dull in her performance and some of the actor footage could have seriously used tighter editing. Shuichi Nagahara's script is workable if formulaic, with many of the characters rather static in their arcs. Keiju Kobayashi's Prime Minister and series veteran Yosuke Natsuki's Professor Hayashida (a role intended for the late Akihiro Hirata), however, are very interesting, beautifully written characters, with the former courageously doing what is right by his nation despite massive international opposition and the latter having a strange respect and admiration for Godzilla despite the creature's destructive nature and his parents' death at the hands of the first Godzilla. There's an amusing character in the Tokyo scenes who provides some nice comic relief to balance the film's grim quality out, a homeless man played by singer/screenwriter/actor Tetsuya Tekeda who gets the chance to live large in the largely evacuated Tokyo while Godzilla attacks, which is just what I think would happen if a monster attacked a big city.

When The Return of Godzilla came to American shores a year later, it got a wide release but was retitled Godzilla 1985 and altered heavily by New World Pictures. In a homage to Godzilla, King of the Monsters 30 years before it, new scenes were added featuring a now graying and overweight Raymond Burr, a bunch of wise-cracking military men, product placement for Dr. Pepper and the production values of a soap opera. In some ways, Godzilla 1985 is actually better: it's tighter and some of the editing is superior, the opening credits are fantastic, the sound work is remixed and more effective (an anguished scream for example is added as Godzilla plunges into Mt. Mihara) and it removes most if not all of the monotony of Hashimoto's original cut. However, though it takes one step forward in some aspects, the added scenes, directed by R.J. Kizer (whose dubious resume also includes the very strange Hell Comes to Frogtown), brings it two or three steps back. These new scenes are positively odious. Burr looks like he's just there to wait for his paycheck to clear the bank and the military men, particularly an obnoxious soldier played by Travis Swords, crack jokes at the proceedings like in a bad Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode with all the subtlety of an aluminum baseball bat to the cranium. At one point, Swords, watching Godzilla's rampage, which is causing untold amounts of off-screen pain and suffering, goes: “That's quite an urban renewal program they've got going over there”. As you can imagine, these sequences absolutely kill an otherwise not bad Americanization. The Godzilla 1985 cut also needlessly demonizes the Russians in a propagandistic manner akin to America's view of the Japanese during World War II. Apparently, American audiences in the 1980s couldn't even tolerate a single Russian character that wasn't pure, unadulterated evil. Therefore, the operator on the Russian freighter, who in the Japanese version heroically gives his life trying to stop the missile from firing, actually launches it in the US version!

All in all, despite the film's occasional monotony, The Return of Godzilla is a highly effective film that brings the Godzilla pop-culture mythology into a (then modern day) Cold War setting. It would start another whole series of Godzilla films, often affectionately called the Heisei series by fans after the “Heisei” period, which began when Emperor Akihito succeeded the Japanese throne in 1989, a year which also saw the release of a direct sequel to The Return of Godzilla: Godzilla vs. Biollante. Sadly, the Heisei series would largely be marked by contrived plots and a lack of originality and imagination at complete and utter odds with the Eiji Tsuburaya days. Following would be the equally effective and wonderfully outlandish Godzilla vs. Biollante before the films got a lot worse after that.