Archive for April 13, 2014

At last, the 1984 show: Thoughts on THE RETURN OF GODZILLA

As I mentioned before in my overview of the Heisei Era of the Godzilla film franchise, I was unable to see the first film in the rebooted series, 1984’s The Return of Godzilla (known simply as Gojira in Japan, despite being a sequel to the film of that same name rather than a remake), due to its unavailability on home video in the US. But I’ve just discovered that the entire Japanese version of the film is available on the video site Metacafe: Gojira (1984). So now I’ve finally gotten to complete my survey of the Heisei series — which is timely, since it’s just weeks before the release of the new American Godzilla (the fourth film in all to bear that title in one spelling or another), and it should be interesting to compare the two reboots.

TRoG has a fairly straightforward story, but with some intriguing complications. It begins like its 1954 namesake, with a Japanese fishing boat coming under attack. Our reporter hero Maki (Ken Tanaka) finds the sole survivor, Okamura (Shin Takuma), who identifies the monster that attacked the ship as Godzilla. In this continuity, this is the first sighting of the big guy in 30 years. There’s no attempt to reconcile Godzilla’s survival with his death at the end of G’54; the characters are too busy coping with the ramifications of his return to theorize about how it happened. And they have no Dr. Yamane to theorize about a second Godzilla (as in Godzilla Raids Again), so it’s never really addressed whether it’s the original or another one. Which fits into my hypothesis for reconciling Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (in which he was treated as the original) with G vs. Desotoroyah (in which the same Godzilla was explicitly the second and the original was unambiguously killed), namely that the characters in the Heisei continuity simply didn’t figure out it was a second one until years after his return.

Anyway, that’s all post-game analysis. What matters in the story itself is that the Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Mitamura (Keiju Kobayashi), initially chooses to quash the news of Godzilla’s return, in order to avoid a panic. Maki investigates anyway and speaks to Godzilla expert Professor Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki), whose assistant Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi) is Okamura’s sister and has not yet been informed of his survival. Maki tells her the truth, ostensibly as a kindness, but is actually using her so he can snap a newsworthy photo of their reunion, which offends Naoko.

Mitamura’s decision to keep the secret almost goes catastrophically wrong when Godzilla destroys a Soviet nuclear sub (according to Hayashida-Sensei, Godzilla feeds on nuclear energy) and the USSR blames the Americans, bringing the world to the brink of war until Mitamura reveals the truth. Both the superpowers come to Japan and insist upon the right to attack Godzilla with nuclear weapons even if he lands on Japanese shores. Mitamura sticks to his guns and insists that if nuclear weapons are used once, they might be used again for other reasons. He is adamant that nuclear weapons will never be used on Japanese soil, and asks the superpowers’ ambassadors: “What right do you have to say we must follow you?” He convinces both governments to back down, while Hayashida-Sensei, Okumara, and Naoko devise a plan to lure Godzilla to a volcano and bury him in an eruption. (Turns out he has a magnetic homing sense like a bird, which can theoretically be tapped into. This was around the time that theories on the relationship between birds and dinosaurs were coming into the public consciousness.)

But of course the superpowers have nuclear missile satellites ready to go just in case, and when Godzilla does attack Tokyo, he damages the Soviets’ control ship, starting the countdown to missile launch. The Soviet captain heroically tries to stop the launch, but dies before he can reach the cutoff switch. (Notably, in the American version Godzilla 1985, this is changed so that the captain intentionally launches the missile, which is said to be 50 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, rather than 50 percent as powerful as in the original version.) The Americans intercept the Soviet missile with one of their own, but the radiation from the aerial explosion revives Godzilla after he’s been tranquilized by a Japanese weapon. Hayashida and Okamura must try to escape Godzilla’s attack and reach the volcano with their equipment, and are forced to leave Maki and Naoko behind to fend for themselves and play out their role as romantic leads.

This is the most serious, solemn Godzilla film I’ve seen since the original, and I’ve now seen pretty much all of them, except maybe for a few of the sillier ones from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s intriguing to see a serious-minded Godzilla film made during the height of the tensions of the Cold War; the scenario of Godzilla being a wild card bringing the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust is intriguing. It echoes Godzilla’s use as an allegory for nuclear devastation in the original, but in a way that’s more topical for 1984, since the represented threat is not just the United States, but both superpowers and their hyperaggressive mentality. The film is an interesting glimpse of how the superpowers must have seemed to the rest of the world, to nations like Japan that were caught in the middle and constantly being pushed around and endangered by the superpowers’ brinksmanship. There’s an element of wish fulfillment in the scenes where the Prime Minister of Japan puts the superpowers in their place and condemns their arrogant assumption that they’re entitled to tell everyone else what to do. But it’s very effective. Who has greater moral authority than the Japanese to say “never again” to the idea of using nuclear weapons?

So I found the film quite effective as an allegory and a political statement, and the characters were fairly effective too, although the leads weren’t as richly drawn as in the original. Kobayashi is the standout as the troubled, principled Prime Minister. But the action and effects sequences weren’t nearly as impressive. The Godzilla costume (and puppet for close-ups) wasn’t very well-made, which undermined an otherwise quite effective initial reveal, starting with a panicked watchman at a nuclear plant and panning slowly up Godzilla’s body to his head. And the action sequences were kind of sluggish, unfocused, and sloppily edited. The final act features a gorgeously realized, enormous miniature cityscape of the Shinjuku district at night (not nearly as built up in 1984 as it is now, I think, but still impressive), but Godzilla’s rampage through same is somewhat desultory, like his heart isn’t in it. It’s not entirely clear why he’s even come to Tokyo beyond it just being the obligatory thing for him to do. (The US version apparently claims he was drawn by Hayashida’s experiments, but I don’t think that explanation works in this version.)

The music is okay, but lacking in Akira Ifukube’s themes (although they are used in the film’s trailer). The film’s treatment of Godzilla’s roar is pretty good, though, incorporating the familiar version with the rising flourish at the end, but enriching it with more of a deep, growly quality in the middle. (Oh, and I almost forgot — the end title song is ridiculously out of sync with the tone of the rest of the film. Its lyrics, in English, are singing to someone who’s going on a journey in search of something and wishing him well — and the refrain makes it clear that the addressee is Godzilla. “Goodbye now, Godzilla, goodbye now, Godzilla, until then! Take care now, Godzilla, take care now, Godzilla, my old friend!” Say what now?! Who thought this song was a good idea at the end of one of the darkest Godzilla films ever?)

All in all, this was a much better film than I expected based on the reviews I’ve read. It may be the best use of Godzilla as an allegorical figure other than the original film, and it’s a fairly good companion piece to the original in its tone and gravity, though it’s not on quite the same level. I’d definitely put it on my list of the most essential and important Godzilla films (and I’ll be editing that list accordingly).

The American version of this film, in addition to the changes mentioned above, brought back Raymond Burr to shoot new framing material as his character from Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Steve Martin (though they just called him “Mr. Martin” to avoid reminding people of the comedian of that name). This material was a lot less extensive than in the original, though, and mostly involved Martin advising the Pentagon on the situation. Godzilla 1985 actually referenced the events of the original more extensively than the Japanese version did, and apparently had Martin pointing out that the Japanese hadn’t found a body after their attack on Godzilla in ’54, strengthening the implication that it was the returned original. (Although the Oxygen Destroyer totally disintegrated Godzilla, so there wouldn’t have been a body anyway.) A lot more was changed as well, and reportedly the tone of 1985 is somewhat lighter than that of TRoG, to fit American audiences’ expectations (though nowhere near the campy comedy dub that was originally planned until Burr put his foot down). Wikipedia has more.

(EDIT 5/26/2019: I’ve now seen the American version, and the Martin scenes are pretty lame — a cheap Pentagon war room set, an overacted crusty general and snide hayseed major, and Raymond Burr standing around making ponderous and ineffectual declarations about how our weapons are useless and we must treat Godzilla like a hurricane or earthquake — “understand it, deal with it, maybe even attempt to communicate with it,” like you do with hurricanes, I guess. None of which goes anywhere. The bit about Maki using Naoko to get a newsworthy picture is cut, so their relationship is much simpler, leaving both of them with little personality.)

The new American Godzilla, due out in May, sounds like it’s aspiring to be far more serious and potent, in the spirit of the original. In other words, it has very similar aspirations to this film. But it’s being made in a different era with different fears and concerns, not to mention in a different country with a different perspective. The comparison should be intriguing.

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