Saturday, May 3, 2014

THE RETURN OF GODZILLA (1984): 30 Days of Godzilla

DAY 17


aka. Godzilla
aka. Godzilla 1985

The legend is reborn. 

After a nine-year hibernation, Godzilla returns to the big screen in both Japan and America for a much-hyped reboot of the Godzilla franchise. Presented as a direct sequel to the original Gojira (disregarding every other Godzilla film after 1954), The Return of Godzilla aimed to take the King of the Monsters back to his dark anti-nuclear origins. The Return of Godzilla may not have been the international box office smash Toho was hoping for, but it did well enough to launch a brilliant series of Japanese films in the 90s that have yet to be rivaled. More importantly, it made Godzilla scary again.

30 years after the first Godzilla attacked Japan and was defeated by the Oxygen Destroyer (as depicted in the original 1954 Gojira), a second monster emerges from the Pacific to threaten Tokyo. The appearance of a second Godzilla and its attack on a Soviet nuclear sub is kept secret from the public to avoid a mass panic while, behind closed doors, the creature's existence pushes Cold War diplomatic tensions to the breaking point. When the new Godzilla finally arrives in Tokyo Bay, all hell breaks loose. During Godzilla's attack, a Soviet Nuclear Satellite is activated and sends a suborbital nuke at Japan. The Japanese government must race against time to avert nuclear disaster while the pilots of a secret VTOL ship called the Super X attempt to keep Godzilla at bay with experimental cadmium shells. In the face of nuclear annihilation from both Godzilla and the wayward Russian missile, it's up to reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka), scientist Professor Hayashida (Keiju Kobayashi), and the professor's student (Yasuko Sawaguchi) to deliver an experimental sonic machine they hope will lure Godzilla away from Tokyo and into a trap.

Hide your cocaine! Godzilla comes stomping into the 1980s.
Directed by Koji Hashimoto, The Return of Godzilla was released in Japan on December 15, 1984 with a budget of approximately $6,250,000. While I'd hesitate to call The Return of Godzilla a misfire since the dormant franchise definitely needed to shake off its legacy of B-movie camp, The Return of Godzilla may have swung too far in the other direction. It's a very dour film in which the excitement is often bogged down in political moralizing. The original Gojira let its anti-nuclear themes rest as subtext whereas The Return of Godzilla shoves its staunch anti-nuclear defense in your face. The characters engage in a lot of hand-wringing, meetings, political conferences, and scientific debates about the ethical deployment of nuclear weapons. At least we'd expect the advancements in special effects to add more excitement to the movie, right? While the miniature city sets are impressive, Godzilla himself seems very stiff and, I hate to say it, boring to watch. Suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma portrays Godzilla, but he was hired at the last minute to replace another actor who bailed on the project. As a result, the suit was not built to fit Satsuma. It was too heavy and actually very dangerous, and you can see Satsuma struggling to wrangle a performance out of it on screen. It doesn't help that Godzilla looks even more stiff and toy-like than he did in 1954. Even worse, Toho spent a lot of money building a 20-foot animatronic Godzilla, which PR for the movie heavily touted as a breakthrough in monster special effects. In reality, the so-called "Cybot Godzilla" never worked properly, moved unconvincingly, and didn't even match the suit worn by Satsuma. Shots of the Cybot Godzilla can only be seen in closeups and briefly in wide shots throughout the Japanese cut.

Domo arigato, Godzilla Roboto.
On the plus side, Return of Godzilla's very dark atmosphere and modern effects do create several exciting and noteworthy scenes. First, the discovery of a lost shipping vessel infested by irradiated giant sea lice that drain the fluids from a crew of fishermen is a really scary and tense scene that establishes the film's horror credentials from the get-go. Return of Godzilla is also one of the few Godzilla movies to actually show people dying in battle against the King of the Monsters. We see soldiers on fire and being struck down by Godzilla's blue atomic breath. It's quite striking. Finally, with a bigger budget for sets and optical composting, Return of Godzilla is able to depict the characters' experiences from within buildings wrecked by Godzilla's rampage. When the camera is able to look out a window or through hole in the wall to glimpse Godzilla marching by on his path to destruction, the film creates a greater sense of realism than its predecessors.

Oh, cardboard cityscape. How I've missed you.
In an attempt to make Godzilla scary again, the suit designers opted to reference many of the features that were part of the original 1954 Gojira suit but had become disregarded over time. Therefore, the new Godzilla has long fangs, pointed ears, feet with four toes apiece, and staggered rows of dorsal plates. For a new twist, the head was also outfitted with mouth animatronics allowing the upper lip to curl into a nasty snarl. Despite its muscular, stocky legs, the upper body was curiously less defined, giving Godzilla a pear-shaped silhouette owing to the lack of shoulder and arm musculature.

I'm a pepper, he's a pepper, she's a pepper
Although Return of Godzilla did reasonably well in its native Japan, it was savaged by North American critics when New World Pictures released it the following year under the title Godzilla 1985. Like the original Gojira in 1954, which was recut, combined with new American footage, and re-titled Godzilla: King of the MonstersGodzilla 1985 was also radical re-cut and spliced with new American scenes. In particular, R.J. Kizer was hired to direct new scenes that brought back Raymond Burr as Steve Martin from Godzilla: King of the Monsters. As in Godzilla, Burr's character is extraneous to the plot and has nothing to offer but hamfisted ruminations on the nature of humanity's insignificance. Despite the addition of these terrible new scenes, the American Godzilla 1985 still runs a whole 16 minutes shorter than the Japanese version! Essential story elements are completely excised or re-edited and key thematic points are completely altered. Godzilla 1985 is also infamous for its blatantly shameless Dr. Pepper product placement shots.

We're a pepper. Wouldn't you like to be a pepper too?
It's unfortunate that American audiences were subjected to Godzilla 1985. Despite Toho's attempt to revitalize the international appeal of Godzilla by eschewing the campy silliness of the previous decade and the hilariously horrible dubbing and editing their films received when released to North America, Godzilla 1985 only reminded everyone of the silly and cheap monster movies of the past. Perhaps if North Americans had been allowed to see the original cut, things would have been different. Regardless, Godzilla 1985 bombed in North America, ending any plans Toho had of screening its Godzilla films in America until the release of Godzilla 2000.


Following the box office flop of Godzilla 1985, Godzilla was once again dead as far as North Americans were concerned. However, unbeknown to most North American monster fans, Japan continued to produce a series of increasingly impressive Godzilla movies throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. The new series, known as the Heisei series, would follow Return of Godzilla with strict continuity and would feature a number of Godzilla's classic foes as well as new kaiju. For tomorrow's installment of 30 Days of Godzilla, we look at the first chapter in this exciting new saga. Join us for 1989's GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE

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