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Thoughts on Godzilla: The Heisei Era

I’m continuing my Godzilla film survey (which began here) with the movies of the Heisei Era, the first continuity reboot which began in 1984 and returned Godzilla to his original villain status instead of the kid-friendly Earth defender he’d become in the ’70s.  Unfortunately the first two films, The Return of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Biollante, are not available on DVD, so I could only read summaries of them online.  I gather they aren’t considered especially good anyway.

Although the Heisei series reboots the continuity, it nonetheless counts the original 1954 film as part of its canon; it just ignores everything since.  The ’84 sequel either resurrects the original Godzilla without explanation or introduces a second member of the same species; online sources are inconsistent on this.  There’s an attempt to reinject some allegory about nuclear energy and weapons, since Godzilla in this version is not merely resistant to radiation but directly sustained by it (and made larger, growing from his original 50 meters to 80), and the focus returns to Godzilla vs. humanity rather than another kaiju.  Still, it’s apparently more a conventional kaiju film with the focus more on how to defeat the beast than on allegory.

Due to economic hardships for Toho Studios, the Biollante sequel didn’t come along for another five years.  When it did, it returned to the format of films like Mothra vs. Godzilla in featuring a good kaiju (created via genetic engineering, when some scientist decided for some reason to put the genes of his dead daughter into a rose’s DNA and combine it with some of Godzilla’s cells) battling the villainous Godzilla.  The film is notable for introducing the longest-running recurring human character in the franchise — Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka), a psychic who could sense and sometimes communicate with Godzilla, and convey other psychic exposition as needed.  She’s in every Heisei Era film except the first, though her role is larger in some than others.

(UPDATE: I’ve subsequently been able to see The Return and Biollante and have reviewed them in the threads At last, the 1984 show: Thoughts on THE RETURN OF GODZILLA and Thoughts on GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989).)

The first Heisei film I was actually able to see (though only in the mediocre English dub) was 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.  This film involves time travellers from 2204 coming back with a plan to erase Godzilla from history — or so they claim.  Here we discover that Heisei is not merely a different timeline branching off of the 1954 original, but a retcon of its core assumptions about Godzilla’s nature and origins.  In the original two films, Dr. Yamane explained (assuming the subtitles in the original were correct) that Godzilla’s species had survived since prehistoric times, dwelling in the depths of the ocean like the coelacanth, but had been displaced from its natural feeding grounds by nuclear testing — and, implicitly, mutated with the ability to breathe atomic fire and to withstand virtually any injury.  The fact that the monster in the 1955 sequel was explicitly a “second Godzilla” suggests that what we saw was the natural form and size of their species.  But GvKG asserts that Godzilla was originally a much smaller carnosaur called a Godzillasaurus, maybe twice the size of a T. rex, and that it was mutated to giant size by its exposure to the atom bomb — meaning that Godzilla is a unique entity and must have somehow regenerated after “dying” in 1954.  Before then, in the waning days of WWII, it attacked the American soldiers invading its home on Lagos Island and incidentally saved a platoon of Japanese troops stationed there, who revered it as their savior.  The time travellers teleport the wounded Godzillasaurus to a distant part of the Pacific so that it will never become Godzilla — but they leave three small, genetically engineered winged lizards on Lagos so that they will instead be mutated by the bomb, and when they return to the present, the lizards have grown and merged into King Ghidorah.  The whole thing was a trick to destroy Japan and avert its destiny to become the dominant economic power on Earth (ohhh-kay, jingoist much?).  But first they needed to get Godzilla out of the way.  However, they failed to account for the proliferation of nuclear weapons; at some point a nuclear sub happened to crash where they left the Godzillasaurus, so it was mutated anyway, and the more potent radiation made it an even bigger Godzilla, now fully 100 meters.  This Godzilla is pure malevolence, and once he destroys KG he threatens to destroy Japan; but one of the time travellers who’s Japanese herself rebels against her group and helps by going back to the future, turning the 200-year-old corpse of King Ghidorah into Mecha-King Ghidorah, and bringing it back in time to defeat Godzilla.

Okay, this is weird.  I understand that the idea of the previous two films was to wipe away the later Shōwa era’s portrayal of Godzilla as a defender of humanity and restore his villainous nature.  So why is it that the first half of this film seems to be built around the notion of Godzilla as the traditional protector of Japan?  The Godzillasaurus saves Japanese soldiers from Americans, and the time travellers need to get rid of Godzilla so that Japan will be unprotected against King Ghidorah.  The “new” Godzilla is malevolent, but that’s implied to be a change from the original.

Also the treatment of mutation is silly; instead of a freak event, the film assumes that daikaijuism is a consistent and predictable response to irradiation — that even if the Godzillasaurus is exposed at a different time and in a different way, exactly the same genes will be mutated and it will transform into the same creature.  And any other creatures exposed to radiation will also grow into daikaiju.  If that’s the case, why hasn’t every human exposed to radiation grown into a 50-meter monster?  Well, granted, Godzilla Raids Again established that the second Godzilla was mutated with the same resilience and atomic breath as the first.  But mutation is normally something that happens between generations.  What if a mother Godzilla was the one exposed to the bombs’ radiation, and gave birth to mutated monozygotic twins?  The Godzillas we saw in the first two films could’ve been only a few years old — though it’s hard to imagine how much they would’ve devastated the ecosystem just eating enough to grow that big that fast.  But maybe that’s really what drove them out of their undersea feeding grounds?

The film has other problems.  The temporal mechanics are dreadful; after Godzilla is supposedly erased from history, the time travellers learn upon their return that Godzilla vanished — yet everyone still remembers he existed and was on the rampage until just hours before.  The WWII veterans who tell the story of the Godzillasaurus look hardly any older in the film’s 1992 setting than they did in the 1944 scenes.  The film’s prediction of Japan’s manifest destiny, in combination with its glorification of the nation’s Imperial forces in WWII, leaves a sour taste politically, and is strange since I gather that most Japanese themselves don’t think fondly of the military factions that drove Japan’s conquests in the 1930s-40s.  The music is by Akira Ifukube, the composer behind many of the  Shōwa-Era films including the original, but it doesn’t make use of his best themes.  And perhaps most disappointing, they didn’t get Godzilla’s roar right.  It starts out as the authentic roar, but then crossfades into a more conventional animal growl.  It’s just not Godzilla’s roar without that upward flourish at the end.

Fortunately, the next two films are better.  Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992) is something of a loose remake of both Mothra and Mothra vs. Godzilla, combining elements of both.  Again we have a greedy businessman capturing Mothra’s foot-high girl-singer heralds, here called the Cosmos rather than the Shobijin, and drawing Mothra’s wrath as she comes to rescue them; but there’s a new twist, as Mothra gains a black-sheep sibling of sorts, a “dark Mothra” named Battra — a similar but much more sinister-looking and aggressive kaiju.  The Cosmos explain that Battra is a spirit of the Earth sent to avenge the destruction of its ecology.  The environmental themes are delivered with a sledgehammer.  It’s also the most spiritual-themed of the Heisei films, and focuses more on Mothra than Godzilla (who, along with Battra, is sucked into a volcanic fissure and absent for much of the film, until they both emerge from Mt. Fuji for the climax).  Godzilla is back to being pure villain this time, though the fearsome-looking Battra is more ambiguous, initially battling Mothra but then coming to terms and joining forces against Godzilla.

All in all it’s a pretty entertaining film.  Ifukube’s music is a high point, as he reuses his classic Mothra themes and brings back more of his Godzilla themes (though he’s still relying mainly on the main-title march from the original film, rather than the more ponderous theme that served as Godzilla’s leitmotif in the original film and many of its sequels).  The Cosmos perform both of their Mothra-summoning songs from the first two Mothra films, and the melody of the second, the beautiful “Mahara Mosura” from Mothra vs. Godzilla, is again used as Mothra’s orchestral leitmotif as it was in that film.  (I don’t think I like the Cosmos quite as much as the Shobijin, though.  The new actresses are a bit prettier in repose, but they’re mostly lifeless, just staring blankly rather than showing emotion or engagement, and that makes them less appealing.)  And Godzilla’s roar is back to its original sound, here and for the rest of the era.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) is next, and its concept is pretty cool.  The focus is on G-Force, an international Godzilla-fighting organization (actually the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Division).  They’ve salvaged the remains of Mecha-King Ghidorah and reverse-engineered its future technology to build the battle robot Mechagodzilla, which is laden with all sorts of weapons and countermeasures.  It’s neat to see a story that revolves around Godzilla from the start rather than focusing on random new characters doing random stuff before they get caught up in the latest random kaiju attack.  There’s some of that too, though, as a team of archaeologists discover a live Rodan and an unhatched egg that eventually hatches into a baby Godzillasaurus, nicknamed Baby by the human woman it imprints on as its mother, Azusa (Ryoko Sano).  (Her name is pronounced “Azsa,” not “A-zoo-sa” like the California city.)  The introduction of a cute baby Godzilla into the series carries serious shark-jumping potential, considering how badly that turned out last time, but it’s handled judiciously here, with some serious themes of respect for life and animal rights coming into play.  Godzilla comes off more ambiguously here, but not in the same odd and awkward way as two films earlier; rather, when Mechagodzilla gets the upper hand, you can’t help feeling sympathy for Godzilla’s suffering, and the film reminds us that, however dangerous he is, he’s simply an animal going about his life and has the same right to existence as any creature.  Granted, there’s something to be said for self-defense, especially when the “self” is an entire city, but Godzilla is so resilient that the extensive bombardment needed to put him down feels more like torture.  I’m reminded of Dr. Yamane’s position in the 1954 original that Godzilla didn’t deserve to be killed since he was just a displaced animal following his instincts.  Ultimately, though, as per the film’s message, life triumphs over technology, and it’s an ambiguous ending since the technology was the good guys’ and the life that triumphs is a deadly threat.  But Miki psychically convinces Godzilla to adopt Baby before he leaves.  Perhaps fatherhood will tame his wild proclivities.

This time, the DVD Netflix provided actually had the Japanese-language soundtrack, and interestingly, the personnel of the international G-Force usually speak in English, although often horribly accented English by the Japanese actors and terribly acted English by the Caucasian actors.  So it’s a very bilingual film.  And interestingly, even in the Japanese-made version of the film, the people speaking English pronounce the kaiju’s name as “God-zil-la” rather than “Go-ji-ra,” and ditto for the Mecha- version.  So even the Japanese accept that as the proper English pronunciation of the creature’s name, which makes me feel better about using the American spelling.  And even Miki seems to pronounce the “ji” syllable more like “dzi” at one point when speaking Japanese.  (And these films were produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, the producer of the whole kaiju series going back to the original.  So their officialness is not in doubt.)

All in all, it’s a cool film, with a lot of elements that come together pretty well, and a good return for Rodan, even if he plays kind of a strange role at the climax.  And Ifukube’s score is the richest assemblage yet of his classic themes; in addition to the main-title march, he finally brings back the Godzilla-rampage leitmotif I mentioned earlier in full swing, as well as Rodan’s theme and the very nice slow march from the Mothra vs. Godzilla theme.  And his Mechagodzilla theme here is wonderful, one of his best ever.  (I read it was based on his King Kong vs. Godzilla theme, but the English dub I saw of that film replaced the music.)

Unfortunately, the following film, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, is awful in comparison, made by a mostly new and inexperienced production team (except for the FX crew) and feeling like a throwback to the cheesy Shōwa films of the late ’60s and ’70s. It opens with G-Force again, but apparently everyone was fired after the MechaGodzilla debacle except for the indispensible Miki and the G-Force leader Commander Aso (Akira Nakao), who’s in all three G-Force films and is the only human character other than Miki to appear in more than two Godzilla movies. Still, they haven’t learned their lessons, since they’ve built a new fighting robot, Mogera, an update of an alien robot monster from the Shōwa-era Toho film The Mysterians. Which is just one of several Godzilla-management schemes jockeying for the film’s scattered attention, including a project to control Godzilla by amplifying Miki’s telepathy and the vendetta of the renegade Major Yuki, seeking to kill Godzilla with a blood-coagulant bullet to avenge his partner’s offscreen death. For some reason, the telepathy team makes no effort to stop Yuki from interfering with their experiment. Maybe the point is that they don’t much care if G lives or dies; the moral ambiguity of the previous film is replaced by Miki whining to everyone that Godziwwa has feewings too and they’re all mean for trying to kill him.

All this goes down on the island where Baby Godzilla (now called Little Godzilla) lives, since Big G periodically visits there.  Unfortunately, Little G has been drastically redesigned to look more babyish and cartoony, like Minya from the Shōwa-era films but even cutesier, and he serves no purpose beyond comic relief. Earth soon comes under attack by SpaceGodzilla, which looks like the love child of Godzilla and the Fortress of Solitude from the Superman movies, and apparently was spawned from some of Godzilla’s cells which were taken into space by Mothra or Biollante, merged with alien crystal life, and were nuked by supernovae.  After a horribly cheesy space battle with Mogera that looks like it was shot in the ’70s, SpaceG lands on the island, gives Godzilla a good thrashing, and imprisons Little G in a crystal cage  — an event which is ignored by every character immediately after it happens. I suppose I should be glad the dumb thing’s out of the movie, but still.

Anyway, there’s a lame borderline romance between Miki and one of the soldiers, Koji, and there’s a pointless digression where the Yakuza kidnaps Miki and copies her brainwaves to take telepathic control of Godzilla for no clearly defined reason. (Well, I guess I can imagine. “That’s a nice major metropolitan area you’ve got there. Be a shame if anything… happened to it.”) Eventually SpaceG builds a nest around a landmark skyscraper (since kaiju can’t resist those) and Yuki, now Mogera’s pilot despite the whole loose-cannon thing, must learn to set aside his hatred of Godzilla and fight alongside him to defeat SpaceG. Miki senses that Little G is free again, and everybody’s all affectionate and chummy toward Godzilla now even though he just devastated at least three major cities in Kyushu just because they were in his path while he was coming after SpaceG.

Like I said, it’s a rehash of the Shōwa films that turned Godzilla from villain to antihero, and I feel it weakens Godzilla’s impact just as much as those did.  The film also suffers from inconsistent effects (especially the dreadful space stuff) and the lack of an Akira Ifukube score.  The music is okay, but kind of generically ’80s, even though it’s a 1994 film. All in all, a forgettable and regrettable installment.

Fortunately, it’s barely referenced in the final Heisei film from later that same year, so it can be safely skipped. The concluding film’s title is rendered Godzilla vs. Destoroyah on the DVD, but the monster’s name is clearly meant to be simply Destroyer (which is how it’s pronounced in the English dub), so that’s what I’ll call it. Little Godzilla’s island undergoes spontaneous nuclear detonation at the start of the film, the only reference to the previous movie. Miki fears that the “Little One” is dead. But there’s a bigger problem, which rears its head when Godzilla goes out for Chinese!  Yep, he attacks Hong Kong under the main titles, finally spreading the love to someplace other than Japan. And he’s glowing red-hot, which is apparently called “Burning Godzilla” mode.  Unfortunately the Hong Kong attack is a brief interlude and doesn’t lead to the awesomeness that would’ve been Jackie Chan vs. Godzilla. The world is poorer for it.

But what we get instead is still quite cool, because this is not only the Heisei finale but a 40th-anniversary tribute, and it draws on a lot from the original film, including the reintroduction of the Yamane family to the franchise.  Dr. Yamane’s grandson Kenichi — actually the son of a character from the original film who was orphaned by Godzilla and taken in by the Yamanes — is a college student who’s conveniently the world’s greatest Godzilla expert (even more so than all the employees of G-Force, somehow).  He figures out that the  island explosion has changed Godzilla, sending his nuclear-reactor heart into critical, and when he goes up, the energy release will be an extinction-level event.

Meanwhile, Kenichi’s sister Yukari, a reporter, interviews a Dr. Ijuin, who’s invented a “micro-oxygen” with the potential to help the world. This concerns the now-elderly Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kōchi reprising her 1954 role — awesome!), who fears its similarities to Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer (the weapon that killed the original Godzilla in ’54) and its potential to be the ultimate weapon. Ijuin dismisses the concerns at first, but Tokyo is soon attacked by a horde of relic Precambrian creatures reanimated and mutated by the effects of the Oxygen Destroyer 40 years before. They grow into 10-foot-high crablike monsters with really scary heads, and we get a very different kind of monster-movie sequence (inspired by Aliens) as they massacre the Self-Defense Forces. Finally, after being harried by the military with freezing beams that Ijuin believes will neutralize their micro-oxygen and kill them, they merge into a single giant creature, the Oxygen Destroyer’s power manifest in daikaiju form, and Ijuin dubs it Destroyer  (Desutoroia).

Meanwhile, the SDF has tried to slow Godzilla’s meltdown using similar freeze weapons (launched from a super-jet whose pilot is the lead actor from Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, though he’s playing a different character), but it’s only been a stopgap and he’s heading for a super-China Syndrome meltdown that will destroy the world. (Though shouldn’t the Japanese call it the South America Syndrome?) Kenichi says the only way to stop Godzilla now is with the same force that stopped his predecessor: Destroyer. As it happens, Godzilla Junior (as he’s now called) has turned up alive and in a much less stupid-looking form, like a leaner, smaller, longer-snouted Godzilla, and the big G is tracking him. (We can assume that the same natural uranium deposits that caused the island to explode were also responsible for mutating the young Godzillasaurus into daikaiju form, per the concepts established in GvKG.) So we get a bit of a replay of the moral dilemma from two movies ago, since again Junior must be used as bait, and Miki must reluctantly accept the necessity of it. So G-Force orders the evacuation of Tokyo and sends Miki to lure Junior there, bringing Godzilla back to where it all started. I don’t want to spoil the rather epic, no-holds-barred battle that results, but it goes through a few different stages including one where Destroyer breaks up into mini-Destroyers that swarm Godzilla, a novel and effective twist. The battle is quite cataclysmic, though it builds to a conclusion that’s a bit abrupt and ambiguous, a weakness after the strength of what preceded it. But if the online summaries interpret it correctly, it was nonetheless a pretty satisfactory and fitting end to the career of the Heisei Godzilla (as well as that of Miki Saegusa, whose telepathy was apparently fading as she matured). All in all, it’s a good finish to the series, which is a relief after the disaster of SpaceGodzilla.  It’s also an effective anniversary film, nicely tying back to the original’s characters and themes. The first half explores some of the same ethical dilemmas about the Oxygen Destroyer that the original did, and while it doesn’t carry the same weight in a later era (and is squandered once the OD just turns into yet another big monster), it makes the film feel deeper than most of its predecessors. They even coaxed Ifukube out of retirement to score one last G-film, and while this isn’t as good as his penultimate score, it’s refreshing to hear his distinctive style again, and appropriate for this film that brings everything full circle.

So that’s the Heisei continuity, or at least the 5/7 of it I was able to see. I’d say that the 4th, 5th, and 7th films are among the best Godzilla films I’ve seen, while the 3rd is mediocre and the 6th is one of the worst. Maybe someday I’ll get to see the first two and be able to make a more complete assessment. But overall, the Heisei Era was stronger and more consistent in quality than the Shōwa Era, though the 1954 original remains in a class by itself. I liked the ongoing continuity with Miki and G-Force, though I wish there’d been a larger continuing cast (Azusa should’ve stuck around as Junior’s advocate/friend, and it would’ve been nice to have the Yamane heirs as recurring protagonists). Although it has its missteps (the worst of which, SpaceGodzilla, can fortunately be ignored completely), it’s a reasonably solid continuation of the Godzilla mythos, and the most consistent multifilm continuity in the franchise. It remains to be seen whether the standalone alternate realities of the Millennium series will be as satisfying.

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