Toho’s famous atomic beast, and easily the most recognisable kaiju in the entire world, Gojira first emerged from the waters of outside of Japan to wreck the city of Tokyo on November 3rd, 1954. To celebrate “Godzilla Day” this month, I’m dedicating very Saturday in November to looking back at the undisputed King of the Monsters’ many reboots.
Released: 15 December 1984
Director: Koji Hashimoto
Budget: $6.25 million
Stars: Ken Tanaka, Shin Takuma, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Yosuke Natsuki, Keiju Kobayashi, and Kenpachiro Satsuma
Decades after Tokyo was devastated by a gigantic, radioactive dinosaur, reporter Goro Maki (Tanaka) finds evidence of another incarnation of Godzilla (Satsuma) after a fishing boat is attacked by a monster that emerges from a volcano. Although Prime Minister Seiki Mitamura (Kobayashi) tries to keep the beast’s return under wraps, the government is forced to turn to their advanced cadmium-firing Super X weapon in a desperate attempt to halt Godzilla when it rampages through Tokyo once more.
When Gojira (more popularly known worldwide as Godzilla) made his big-screen debut in Godzilla (Honda, 1954), he represented very real lingering fears regarding the threat and consequences of nuclear war. Since then, the character has appeared in numerous films and been depicted as both a saviour and destroyer of Japan, a protector and an unrelenting force of nature that has become an iconic figure in pop culture over his many decades of cinema. In 1975, Honda helmed the fifteenth film in the original line of Godzilla movies, Terror of Mechagodzilla, which proved to be such a box office failure that Toho put the franchise on a premature hiatus. Over the next ten years or so, Toho attempted many times to reinvigorate the franchise, but all attempts were shelved until series creator Tomoyuki Tanaka took charge or revitalising the series and adding a contemporary shine to it following incidents such as the accident at Three Mile Island. Initially, American director Steve Miner seemed set to direct his own Godzilla movie, though the project was hampered by his insistence on utilising costly stop-motion animation and 3D effects, and when this production fell apart, Tanaka hired director Koji Hashimoto to helm a direct sequel to the original 1954 film that disregarded the character’s more heroic, anthropomorphic characterizations. Teruyoshi Nakano returned to direct the film’s special effects scenes, which saw the creation of the biggest and most detailed and expressive suits and miniatures seen in the franchise so far; the special effects were further bolstered by a sixteen-foot-tall animatronic Godzilla dubbed “Cybot” that was used for the creature’s close-ups and cost ¥52,146 to construct. The Return of Godzilla was a modest success, bringing in ¥1.7 billion at the Japanese box office, and has been noted to be one of the Big-G’s finest cinematic outings. The film also kicked off the second stretch of Godzilla films, the Heisei Era, the era that introduced me to the franchise, and received a slightly edited and altered American dub titled Godzilla 1985 (Kizer and Hashimoto, 1985). Godzilla 1985 saw the return of Raymond Burr, who made some bizarre demands upon signing on, and saw the inclusion of more comedic elements to the script. Godzilla 1985’s $4.12 million box office made it a modest success; this it received lackluster reviews, it was notable for being the last of the Toho films to receive a major North American release for some fifteen years.
Just as in my review of the original Godzilla, I feel it’s worth highlighting that I’m reviewing the uncut and uncensored version of The Return of Godzilla, as opposed to Godzilla 1985 with Raymond Burr. However, unlike with that original version, my copy of The Return of Godzilla is dubbed into English, so any purists out there will just have to excuse me for taking advantage of this option. Like a lot of the later films in Godzilla’s Millennium Era, The Return of Godzilla also positions itself as much as a direct sequel to the original as it does as a more contemporary retelling of that film’s events, meaning that Japan has suffered through an attack from a Godzilla before, in 1954, and a number of the film’s characters either directly reference, or were directly affected by, those events (crucially, the monster is also positioned as being the same kaiju seen in that film, rather than a different one). Consequently, I would classify The Return of Godzilla as more of a “requel” than either a straight-up sequel or remake, which is honestly one of my preferred tropes in cinema since it allows filmmakers to pay reverence to a classic and yet still build upon and represent the themes of a previous movie in a new way.
The Return of Godzilla opens very much in the same way as the original, with a Japanese fishing vessel, the Yahata-Maru encountering a gigantic, radioactive, prehistoric beast while adrift at sea. In this instance, we see that Godzilla is awoken following the suddenly eruption of a volcano on Daikoku Island and, rather than incinerating the ship with its atomic blast, Godzilla left the vessel largely intact but devoid of all life, save for the badly wounded Hiroshi Okumura (Takuma). Okumuru (and the ship’s strangely decomposed crew) are discovered by reporter Goro Maki, who is attacked by a giant sea louse but saved by the shell-shocked Okumura; terrified out of his mind by the events, Okumura is only able to deliver a brief and vague description of Godzilla and its attack but it’s more than enough for Maki to bring the story to his editor. While recuperating in hospital, Okumura is visited by Professor Makoto Hayashida (Natsuki) and basically confirms that the creature was Godzilla are being presented with pictorial evidence of the original monster’s attack on Tokyo. Hayashida believes Okumura’s story and speculates that the sea louse grew so large because it fed off Godzilla’s radioactivity, like a parasite, and that the creature was disturbed by the aforementioned volcanic eruption. Cabinet Prime Minister Seiki Mitamura (Kobayashi) is naturally concerned by the news and orders that Godzilla’s return be kept quiet until they can investigate further; this, as well as Maki’s claims to have witnessed the aftermath of a giant monster’s attack and the Japanese government’s efforts keep the creature’s presence under wraps (something that you’d think would be impossible given the nature of its original rampage but don’t worry too much about that), mean that Maki’s story is blocked from being run by his editor, Godo (Kei Satō), to avoid raising a panic.
Maki is sent to talk to Hayashida, who reveals that his parents were lost during Godzilla’s 1954 attack and that, rather than trying to kill the creature, he has spent his time trying to properly research the creature for a potential weakness. During the interview, Maki crosses paths with Okumura’s sister, Naoko (Sawaguchi), and earns her favour by revealing that her brother is alive since he doesn’t agree that the media blackout has kept her in the dark. Naturally, she rushes to the hospital for a tearful reunion, barging past the laughably incompetent government detail stationed to keep him from having visitors, and reuniting Maki with Okumura in the process. After Godzilla destroys a Soviet submarine out in the Pacific, tensions between the Soviets and the United States escalate to the brink of all-out nuclear war and Mitamura is forced to reveal that Godzilla was behind the attacks in order to prevent a third World War, officially revealing Godzilla’s presence to the world during a press conference. Okumura publicly declares his desire to see Godzilla dead, and both he and Naoko are aggravated at Maki turning their reunion into a media circus, and see him as symptomatic of the press’s sensationalist reaction to Godzilla’s return. While the media has a field day reporting on the kaiju’s return and speculating on whether or not it will attack Japan, a hastily-constructed Godzilla countermeasure committee discuss their options to defend themselves should Godzilla attack and resolve to employ their top secret super weapon, the “Super X”, to combat and destroy the creature.
Designed in secret to defend the capital, the Super X is comprised of a highly durable, heat-resistant titanium alloy and fires cadmium rounds specially-created to pierce Godzilla’s skin, this flying fortress is prepared for battle alongside the entirety of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF). However, Godzilla makes landfall at the Shizuoka Prefecture nuclear power plant without any resistance whatsoever since his approach was masked by fog, of all things! Luckily, its feeding time is interrupted by a flock of birds, which draw it back out to sea, which Hayashida attributes to a migratory radar not unlike the homing abilities of birds. This odd and convenient inclusion means that Godzilla is now highly susceptible to magnetic forces, but raises the question of why it even came ashore to feed if it was due to migrate; the film seems to suggest that the birds somehow activated this sense within it, which is a bit of a stretch for me but then again this is a film about a gigantic, radioactive dinosaur so… Anyway, this development leads to them contacting renowned geologist Professor Minami (Hiroshi Koizumi) and, together, they develop a plan to use this knowledge to lure Godzilla to Mount Mihara on Ōshima Island and trigger a controlled volcanic eruption that will imprison the creature. While Hayashida is determined to safely subdue Godzilla without killing it, the remainder of the world’s superpowers are determined to use their nuclear arsenal to destroy the creature, something Mitamura vehemently denies; while Hayashida views the monster with a certain awe and respect, Mitamura has no desire to have nuclear weapons of any atomic yield dropped on Japan even if Godzilla attacks because of how destructive they are and a severe lack of evidence that they’ll even harm the kaiju.
I mentioned in my review of the original film that pretty much every single Godzilla movie follows either a reporter or a member of the military, and the same is true of The Return of Godzilla. In fact, we follow three different staples of humanity that would become the “Holy Trinity” of the Heisei Era, especially: the press, the army/JASDF, and the increasingly ineffectual and perplexed Japanese government. I can see why so many Godzilla movies follow this format; it’s important to see the government being overwhelmed and inadequate against Godzilla, whom they view with a mixture of awe and dread, to emphasise not only how their procrastination and fear costs valuable time and lives in preparing for Godzilla’s attack but also that the creature has no respect for their authority or societal law. Framing the narrative largely through Maki/the press is generally always a quick and easy way for the characters to learn about Godzilla, and thus position themselves as the audience surrogate; it’s somewhat redundant over fifteen movies into the series, but this was the first Godzilla film in about ten years so it’s not too surprising that they’d want to properly introduce the monster to new audiences. Finally, following the JASDF allows for some of the more explosive and exciting action sequences of the film and the now-traditional trouncing of all of then-modern society’s most powerful weapons by this unstoppable force of nature. As ever, the human characters prove to be the weakest element of the film (well, them and the large amounts of time where Godzilla is entirely absent form the film): there’s a bit of a romantic sub-plot between Maki and Naoko, but this appears to be based on little more than him being attracted to her and her…I dunno, letting her emotions get the better of her, I guess? They really don’t have all that much chemistry and she doesn’t really do much except worry about her brother and patch up Maki when he gets hurt. Hayashida is certainly nowhere near as interesting as Doctor Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), and while Okumura gets to have a measure of revenge against Godzilla by triggering the explosions that trap it in Mount Mihara, he really doesn’t have all that much else to do (it might’ve been better to have him piloting the Super X to allow him to go toe-to-toe, figuratively speaking, with Godzilla).
As in the original movie, a great deal of The Return of Godzilla’s early going is spent building tension regarding the titular kaiju; Godzilla is only briefly glimpsed during the first thirty-odd minutes of the film, seen as a gigantic shape lumbering from the ground or passing through the murky depths of the ocean, and its attack on the Soviet submarine is framed pretty much entirely from within the vessel to heighten the sense of terror surrounding the creature’s destructive intentions. When the creature does finally appear, it’s revealed from a very unique perspective of a showed and terrified security guard who is suddenly confronted with Godzilla’s massive feet; from there, this composite shot pans upwards to the creature’s face and Godzilla’s new, bulkier design is revealed for all to see. Perhaps taking its cue from the Showa Era films that proceeded it, The Return of Godzilla also features the brief appearance of a secondary giant monster of sorts, in the form of a large and unpleasant sea louse. While Godzilla itself remains an impressive and fun combination of suit work and animatronics, the sea louse leaves a lot to be desired; similar to Mothra’s maggot form, you can practically see the wires that propel it through the air as it lunges for Maki, and watching him struggle with the bit lump of rubber and plastic aboard the ship is particularly ridiculous in all the wrong ways. Rather than having Godzilla battle another kaiju, The Return of Godzilla sees the return of its conflict against the futuristic might of he JASDF, which is of little consequence against such an unconquerable force of nature as Godzilla. That is, of course, until the Super X enters the fray and basically turns the film into Godzilla vs. Thunderbirds (1965 to 1966); a highly advanced flying fortress, the Super X hovers around the city and distracts Godzilla with flare bombs so the pilots can fire cadmium shells into Godzilla’s mouth. This is surprisingly effective as Godzilla’s atomic breath is entirely useless against the craft and the monster is apparently now also easily distracted by pretty lights and the cadmium rounds successfully render the beats inert after a few shots, though the visual of a bulky, cumbersome little space craft battling the Big-G isn’t necessarily the most visually striking opponent for the titular monster.
Naturally, though, Godzilla looks worlds better than he did in the original movie; the suitmation evolved quite extensively throughout the Showa Era and Godzilla slowly become a lot cuter as he was anthropomorphised and transformed into a heroic, almost comical, protector figure to appeal to kids. The suits did seem to drop in quality, however, appearing for more floppy and goofy compared to the intimidating original and, while a lot of close-ups of Godzilla’s feet don’t do much to sell the illusion of a giant monster rampaging across the land, the far more expressive and detailed face helps to make give Godzilla a decent amount of personality (although its unblinking eyes do look quite goofy). A far larger and bulkier creature than we saw before, Godzilla is a lumbering, aggressive force of nature; it trounces the power plant, toppling buildings and crushing carefully-constructed miniatures and causing countless deaths in its desire to feed off the nuclear reactor stored there, leaving a disaster area in its wake. After much political procrastination on how to best defend and prepare for Godzilla’s inevitable attack, the G-Man finally comes ashore to attack Tokyo and the JASDF; shots of Godzilla wading through Tokyo Bay as explosions fire off all around its head and of it rampaging through the city smashing apart models and toy tanks really help to make up for the hour-long build up to the creature’s first big action scene, and the scenes of destruction are far more detailed and impressive than those seen in the original. Godzilla smashes through the streets, swatting skyscrapers out of the way, crushing a train (much like in the original), and lays waste to the JASDF using its atomic breath (now represented as a bright blue/white beam of radioactive energy rather than a stream of smoke). Mass evacuations are ordered to try and minimise casualties, though this does little to limit Godzilla’s destructive and devastating rampage. Many of these scenes of devastation are brought to life not just through practical, in-camera effects of a man in a suit tearing through a highly detailed recreation of Tokyo or splashing about in large water tank, but also through some ambitious (if, obviously, somewhat dated) composite shots that take full advantage of Godzilla’s impressive animatronic head. After decimating the JASDF and shrugging off even their high-powered laser cannons, Godzilla is finally subdued by the Super X, whose cadmium shells are fired into its mouth and successfully slow its heart rate, apparently similar to quelling an out of control nuclear reactor and, while Tokyo is left in ruins, the creature is rendered unconscious.
However, angered at Godzilla destroying one of their submarines, and what they perceive as Mitamura’s weakness, the Soviets launch a nuclear missile into the heart of Tokyo in an effort to destroy the creature. Although the U.S. intercept it with a missile of their own, they unintentionally cause Godzilla to be revived from the resulting nuclear storm and, to make matters worse, the electromagnetic pulse of the explosion temporarily disables the Super X. This not only revives Godzilla but, in a trope that would be revisited time and time again after this film, also greatly empowers it; as the Super X is all out of cadmium shells, even its advanced missiles and laser weapons have no effect against the vengeful Godzilla, who causes even more destruction as it lumbers after the flying fortress, threatening Maki and Naoko (who are still trapped in the city and helped to safety by a very strange drunkard (Tetsuya Takeda)) in the process and leaving the city in shambles. Although the Super X is faster and more nimble, Godzilla is only further enraged by its attacks and final destroys the craft, and its plots, for good by dropping a skyscraper on it! Victorious, Godzilla threatens to continue its rampage through the city as an unstoppable force of nature until Hayashida finally gets his homing signal up and working; unable to resist the call of the homing signal, Godzilla heads out to see and over to Mount Mihara, where it stupidly topples into the volcano like a good little puppy and is subsequently trapped when Okumura triggers the detonators and a controlled eruption, which encases Godzilla is molten rock. Once again, we’re left with a rather anti-climatic ending for the world’s most famous kaiju, however it’s interesting to note that, where Godzilla was originally defeated by a scientific device that was even more deadly than the creature itself, this time it is conquered by turning its very nature against it. As a force of reckoning, a warning regarding the dangers of nuclear power, Godzilla is an overwhelming force but, here, its also just as explicitly a slave to its instincts and the call of nature as any other creature. This ultimately proves to be its downfall and allows Godzilla to be subdued not by the highly advanced Super X, but by manipulating its instincts against it, indicating that only nature can defeat nature.
The Return of Godzilla is certainly visually impressive; the effects have come a long way from the original movie, and Godzilla and the miniatures it crashes through and stamps under its feet had arguably never looked better before this film. Brilliantly brought to life through a heavily detailed suit and animatronic head, Godzilla has a real weight and viciousness to it; it swipes skyscrapers like they were nothing, tramples through streets and buildings like they were nothing, and shrugs off everything from explosive missile rounds and high-powered laser cannons. It’s a shame, then, that the creature is absent for so much of the movie; this was, and would continue to be, a recurring issue in many Godzilla films and I get that it’s a new introduction to the character and a great way to build a sense of tension, awe, and dread up to its first big reveal, but the film really drags while you’re waiting for the Big-G to finally show up and cause some mayhem. The Super X would be just one of many futuristic craft constructed to fend of Godzilla, with later models and vessels being far more versatile and interesting; here, it’s just a clunky bit of kit that meanders around the city firing off its weapons before being crushed by Godzilla. The idea of turning Godzilla’s nature against it to manipulate it to its anti-climactic end is an interesting one, but results in a bit of an uneven representation for the titular kaiju: Godzilla is both paradoxically an invincible and inexhaustible force of nature but also a living creature that can be easily distracted and lured away by manipulating its instincts. Thematically, I quite enjoy this, and a running them throughout the subsequent Heisi Era would revolve around pitting Godzilla against creatures born from its cells or even more impressive feats of technology (and sometimes both!), but it feels bit clunky here and actually weakens Godzilla in many ways. Overall, it’s a much bigger and more impressive version of the original film, with some great practical effects and scenes of monstrous destruction, but drags a little too much and seems to be lacking both the fun of the later Showa Era films and the dark, gritty message of the 1954 original.
Did you enjoy The Return of Godzilla? How did you feel it holds up today, especially compared to the original and other films of the Heisei Era? Did you like Godzilla’s depiction and the animatronic head used to bring it to life? Were you also disappointed by Godzilla’s lack of screen time and the Super X? Did you enjoy the bigger, more detailed miniatures and scenes of destruction? What did you think to the film’s message and the way in which Godzilla was overcome? What is your favourite Godzilla movie and why? How did you celebrate Godzilla Day this year? Whatever your thoughts on The Return of Godzilla, feel free to sign up to leave a comment below or leave a reply on my social media, and check back in next Saturday for more Godzilla content!