Godzilla's Return To Form
The Return of Godzilla is directed by Koji Hashimoto and is the first film of the Heisei Godzilla series, serving as a sequel to the original 1954 Gojira and also serving as a reboot of the entire Godzilla franchise. The film stars Ken Tanaka, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Yosuke Natsuki, and Keiju Kobayashi.
After a near decade long hiatus following the end of the Showa series, Toho brought their infamous kaiju back to the big screen, kicking of a string of seven new Godzilla films that would take the franchise up through the mid 1990's. Godzilla was brought back with a clean slate, Toho wiping away every one of Godzilla's bizarre character traits, specifically Godzilla being a superhero and an environmentalist like he in the late 60's and early 70's. The big G would start anew as the villainous, rampaging monster of destruction that the world fell in love with back in 1954, a role he would reprise several more times later in the series. If and when Toho ever needed Godzilla to not play a pure villain, he would resemble a monster antihero, but we'll get to that when the time comes.
As stated at the top, The Return of Godzilla is a sequel to the original 1954 Gojira. It ignores all other installments of the Showa series, and let me warn you now, that's something we need to get used to, because a Godzilla film ignoring all previous installments except for the original is something that is going to happen a lot more down the road. But anyway, I'm thinking too far ahead. The other thing I should clear up is the meaning behind the names Showa and Heisei. The original Godzilla series is referred to as the Showa series because Showa was the name of the Emperor of Japan while the original series was being made. When Emperor Showa died in 1989, his son Akihito took over (and he still reigns as Emperor of Japan today), thus beginning the Heisei series. Now hold on a minute. If Emperor Showa died in 1989, shouldn't that mean that The Return of Godzilla should be considered a part of the Showa series? Well, yes, but for some reason, it's not. I don't know of any specific cultural concerns that were behind deciding which series The Return of Godzilla would be placed under, but the only valid explanation I can offer is that because The Return of Godzilla is a reboot to the franchise, it would make more sense to categorize it under a new series name.
Okay, now let's get to discussing the movie itself. The story is set thirty years after the original film. A Japanese fishing boat is caught in a strong current and drifts towards a volcano on Daikoku Island. A giant monster emerges from the volcano and seemingly destroys the boat. A few days later, reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) sails out to sea and finds the boat intact. He explores the boat, finding all of the crew dead except for one man named Hiroshi Okumura (Shin Takuma). Goro is then suddenly attacked by a giant sea louse, but is saved by Okumura. Back in Tokyo, Okumura looks at pictures from the 1954 Godzilla attack, and realizes that the monster he saw emerge out of the volcano was Godzilla. The press stops Goro from publishing a story about the boat incident and the resurrection of Godzilla, fearing a nationwide panic.
Shortly afterwards, a Soviet nuclear sub is destroyed. The Soviets claim the Americans are responsible for the attack, creating tension that threatens to escalate into nuclear war. Japan steps in and reveal that Godzilla was responsible for the destruction of the sub, while also revealing a new weapon called the Super X, believing it can protect Japan from a Godzilla attack. Godzilla does attack, starting off by destroying a nuclear power plant, an incident that puts the rest of Japan on high alert. You can take a good guess at where the plot goes from there.
So not only do we have a Godzilla attack to worry about, but we also have some Cold War politics going on as well. I'm not sure if this should be considered a strength or a flaw of the film; I'm leaning towards the latter because Cold War feuds were not something that any previous Godzilla film addressed in any meaningful capacity, plus the Cold War was to end about seven years after The Return of Godzilla was initially released. But with Godzilla initially being conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons, Toho must have believed that it would make sense to create a Godzilla film with a Cold War backdrop, given that nuclear weapons were a matter of the utmost concern during the Cold War. Still, I don't think Japanese audiences went to The Return of Godzilla with the intention of seeing America and the Soviet Union feud over a destroyed nuclear sub.
- The Return of Godzilla aims to revitalize the general terror and sense of dread that were on full display in the original Japanese Godzilla, resulting in a Godzilla film that is much darker in tone and also resulting in the most ambitious Godzilla films since Destroy All Monsters. Godzilla is stripped completely of the goofy histrionics and kid-friendly superhero identity that saddled him in the mid-to-late entries of the Showa series, with his atomic breath and rampage of destruction given a major upgrade. The Godzilla suit itself is a bit of a mixed bag; at times Godzilla looks terrifying, but other times he looks lazy and like he's about to fall asleep (maybe he wanted to stay in cinematic hibernation for a little while longer?). The animatronic head used for close-up shots of Godzilla does a weird thing that bothered me a little: when Godzilla roars, the upper lip goes up very high. But anyway, issues with the suit don't take away from the film's ambition and its hopes of recapturing what made the 1954 Godzilla such a treasure of a giant monster movie. The series got so far away from treating Godzilla's attack like a real disaster, that it's a wonderful sight to see Toho cut the bull crap and get back to what worked originally.
- It takes a little while for Godzilla to show up and seize control of the plot, but even when you include all of the Godzilla action on top of the not overly interesting human plot, the movie as a whole is incredibly tedious, tedious for a 103 minute monster movie, anyway. To start with, the movie takes a long time to get started, Godzilla's attack on the nuclear power planet being the first time we see him, which doesn't happen until around the 35 minute mark. The humans do discuss Godzilla quite a bit beforehand, the only thing to build suspense for the big G's first appearance. But as for the movie being tedious, I blame this on how the movie insists on going back to its human characters, even when Godzilla shows up in Tokyo Bay and starts trampling buildings. The humans slow everything down, acting as a buzzsaw towards any and all momentum that the movie may have been building during its more lengthy Godzilla scenes, especially when the Cold War stuff is going on. The slowness is not done to such a horrendous degree that I would consider the film boring. Oh, but the movie still does flirt with being boring here and there, and that's not okay for the first installment of a reboot.
But no matter the flaws on hand in this movie, I've heard the 1985 Americanized version of The Return of Godzilla (which is called Godzilla 1985) is much much much worse, being heavily re-edited and bringing back Raymond Burr to reprise his role of Steve Martin (not to be confused with the actor Steve Martin who was quite popular at the time this movie came out) from Godzilla: King of the Monsters! As it turns out, this was one of two Godzilla movies that I had not ever seen before, and because I reviewed the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla and not the Raymond Burr American version, it felt right to do the same thing for this Godzilla movie.
Looking at all of the past Godzilla films and those later to come, The Return of Godzilla is a middle of the road film for the franchise. It has the best of intentions at heart: revert back to the grim tone of the original and morph Godzilla back into the terrifying monster of destruction that he was to begin with. But those ambitions are marred by a lingering sense of tediousness, the film feeling about 15-20 minutes longer than it actually is, something we can blame on all of the human characters. The Cold War business is polarizing: some will think of it as a nice addition to a Godzilla film, while others will find it unwelcome. Regardless, this is a major upgrade from what the Godzilla series had devolved to late in the Showa series (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla being the lone exception). Better Godzilla films were on the way, but for this film, given what it wants to be, it leaves a lot more to be desired.
Recommend? Only to the most die-hard of Godzilla fans.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: