Series Spotlight: Heisei-era Godzilla

After the generally terrible audience reception to 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla(it was the first Godzilla film to sell less than a million tickets in total!) Toho’s biggest star spent nearly a decade out to pasture. It’s true there were failed attempts at a revival for the big green guy during that time– ranging from a color remake of the original 1954 film to a crossover with Adam West’s Batman to the story of how Godzilla battled the actual, literal Devil, but ultimately none materialized. It took until 1984 and a 10,000-strong letter-writing campaign from a group of Japanese fans known as The Godzilla Resurrection Committee for course to be charted for Godzilla’s return to the silver screen– it would be a return to the character’s darker, horror-influenced roots rather than the campier, broader style of most of the later sequels.

The Return of Godzilla represented a clean break from the continuity of its predecessors, serving as a direct sequel only to the original film. A new, more bestial Godzilla suit was designed and used in conjunction with an animatronic puppet Godzilla nicknamed the Cybot. The production itself was somewhat troubled– director Ishiro Honda and composer Akira Ifukube declined to return, embittered over the previous decline of the series into self-parody and wishing to honor the memory of original Godzilla effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya. Additionally, the actor playing as Godzilla ultimately dropped out of the project and had to be replaced by veteran suit-wearer Kenpachiro Satsuma at the last minute, wearing a 240-pound urethane suit not made for his proportions. Satsuma could only shoot for ten minutes at a time and lost over 12 pounds during the course of filming. Return was released to Japanese theaters in December of 1984, just barely sneaking in under the wire to be part of Godzilla’s 30th anniversary year to modest success.

While an English dub was commissioned in Hong Kong by Toho, it remained obscure, as the studio decided the best way to get the numbers they were hoping for with it would be a full-scale American release. They partnered with Roger Corman’s New World Pictures to release it as Godzilla 1985, a truncated cut that featured Raymond Burr reprising his role from the American version of the original film. New World’s original plan was to transform the film into a What’s Up, Tiger Lily?-esque comedy picture, but Burr was not amenable to the idea, having felt that the nuclear metaphor present in both the original film and The Return of Godzilla was too important to make light of. The necessary additional footage for 1985 was shot in just three days, only one of which Burr was on set for. 1985 was not a big hit, receiving near-universal panning by critics and only grossing $4.1 million– less even than the Japanese domestic take. It would be the last Godzilla movie released to North American theaters until Columbia’s ill-fated 1998 monsterpiece, and to this day has never been released on DVD or Blu-Ray– only the aforementioned Hong Kong dub is available.

(For those of you wondering, by the way, the Showa and Heisei series are so named because they were released during the reigns of the Japanese Emperors Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, and Akihito, who upon his death or abdication will become known to posterity as the Heisei Emperor– the reasons for those epithets are very complex stuff I won’t get into. In fact The Return of Godzillawas actually released while the Showa Emperor was still on the throne, but the rest of the series wasn’t. Akihito has actually reigned over several Godzilla reboots, but while they are part of the Heisei era of history, they’re generally considered to be their own things.)

Toho initially announced a Godzilla sequel in 1985, but the failure of Return and of King Kong Lives discouraged them. However the success of Little Shop of Horrors was enough to convince them to give it the old college try again, resulting in one of my all-time favorite Godzilla movies: Godzilla vs. Biollante. The plot for vs. Biollante was decided via a contest, with the parameters set including that Godzilla must fight another monster in it. The winning entry was pitched by Shinichiro Kobayashi, a young dentist, inspired by his fear of losing his daughter. The film focuses significantly around a theme of biotechnology, and indeed the second titular monster is the result of a biologist splicing the DNA of a rose with that of his daughter, killed in a terrorist attack, and later with DNA from Godzilla. Vs. Biollante also introduces the character of Miki Saegusa, a psychic who develops an empathic connection with Godzilla and who would continue to appear in the rest of the Heisei Godzilla films. vs. Biollante was also released internationally on VHS.

While vs. Biollante was not a finanicial success, it did well with critics, and at any rate did well enough to convince them to keep going. However it was decided that Return and vs. Biollante had gone in too dark a direction, so for the third Heisei Godzilla film, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah a more balanced tone was adopted, with Godzilla once again being given a more decisive face turn and fan-favorite bad-guy Kaiju King Ghidorah being brought back with a revamped origin story (after negotiations to secure the rights to King Kong for a rematch failed.) The plot involves a group of time travelers from the future conspiring to alter history to prevent Japan from rising to economic dominance (as was customary for near-future science fiction in the early 90s) and to eliminate the threat of Godzilla into the bargain. The time travel elements were chosen as a reaction to the success of the Back to the Future sequels (Part II having roundly outgrossed vs. Biollante in its Japanese release) and Terminator 2vs. King Ghidorah also marked the return of Akira Ifukube to the Godzilla franchise, a move partly motivated by his dissatisfaction with how his themes had been modified for use in vs. Biollante. Unfortunately due to a perceived anti-American sentiment in the film itself (including scenes of Japanese-American fighting during World War II as well as the time travelers being implicitly American) vs. King Ghidorah did not see release in North America for several years, nor did any of its sequels. Nonetheless, vs. King Ghidorah was the first real financial success of the Heisei series, and led to the next few films reviving other classic Kaiju.

Plans for a Mothra revival had been ongoing for a few years at this point– for a while it was intended that her opponent would be Bagan, a metamorphosing kaiju that had initially been shopped as a potential villain for The Return of Godzilla before it was decided to make that a one-monster show. However it was felt that Mothra was a harder sell to international audiences than Godzilla would be. Likewise after vs. King Ghidorah plans for another film focusing on Ghidorah circulated, but after a fan poll showed that Mothra was the most popular kaiju among women, it was decided she would be Godzilla’s next opponent. Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth adopted a more fantasy-influenced tone, and introduced Mothra’s less benevolent fellow protector of the Earth, Battra. Despite no American release, it was the most successful film of the entire Heisei series (and is still the most successful Godzilla film of all not accounting for inflation), and the second highest grossing film in Japan for 1993 behind only Jurassic Park. Its success led to the weirdly awesome Rebirth of Mothra trilogy, which is outside the scope of this review but is plenty of fun. Ishiro Honda had come around on the Heisei series at this point and visited the set shortly before his passing.

1993 also saw the release of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, which despite the name is not a sequel to Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. This film saw a larger part for the character of Miki Saegusa, as she became a member of a UN anti-Godzilla task force. In addition to reintroducing Mechagodzilla and introducing its now-familiar backstory as an anti-Godzilla defensive weapon gone rogue, Mechagodzilla II also reintroduced Godzilla’s long-time tag team partner Rodan, the pterosaur Kaiju, as well as a baby Godzilla that served as a less-corny update of the Showa era Minilla. Due to the death of Ishiro Honda, as well as the expectation that Sony would soon be putting an American-produced Godzilla movie out, Mechagodzilla II was intended to be the last Godzilla film for the time being, but this was not to be.

In 1994, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla was released. The film’s writer and director were more comfortable working with teen idols than giant monsters, and while SpaceGodzilla himself is cool, the overall movie is a bit of a confused mess that leans a bit too far into lightness, a fact that caused Akira Ifukube to leave the series in frustration. Both SpaceGodzilla’s tusked design and his theme song, composed by Koichi Sugiyama, feature references to Biollante, as the creature’s origins involve Godzilla cells carried by her and Mothra being mutated by exposure to Hawking Radiation from a black hole. While Miki continues to have a large role, she is also bizarrely divorced from the plot. Altogether if there’s one to skip in the Heisei series it’s probably this one. As a fun fact, Mechagodzilla was originally planned to return in vs. SpaceGodzilla, however between Godzilla himself, the baby Godzilla, and SpaceGodzilla, it was felt that there were enough Godzillas in the film already and its part was replaced by Moguera, previously featured in Toho’s semi-obscure alien-invasion movie the Mysterians

Declining attendance numbers for vs. Mechagodzilla II and vs. SpaceGodzilla led Toho to decide that the next Godzilla film really would be the last one. Early on the plan was for him to fight the ghost of the original 1954 monster. While this didn’t materialize, the villain of the film, a new kaiju known as Destoroyah, does originate with the Oxygen Destroyer compound that killed the 1954 Godzilla, bringing everything full-circle in its own way. vs. Destoroyah was in many ways a return to the darker elements of The Return of Godzilla and vs. Biollante, and even climaxes with the slow death of the King of the Monsters and the fading of Miki Saegusa’s powers. All is not doom and gloom however, as there is a hopeful ending to the story. Nevertheless, the decision to kill off Godzilla was controversial, and Toho had to assure many upset fans that he would return one day– perhaps around 2005.

In fact, he returned in 2000, but the Millennium series is another story– or rather several other stories, because each was self-contained. I bring it up only because it is commonly held among Godzilla fans that the Millennium series’s completely gonzo final installment, Godzilla: Final Wars, features a grown-up version of Godzilla Jr. from the last three Heisei films.

Meanwhile, in an effort to recoup at least some of the losses from their terrible flop of a Godzilla movie, Sony secured the rights to the remaining Heisei movies (everything from vs. King Ghidorah onwards and released them on home video in America at last between 1998 and 1999. Which is how I mostly discovered them, as my local Hastings always had them available for rental.