The Godzilla 28 Movie challenge: Number 16 - [The Return of] Godzilla (1984)

In the late ‘seventies there were rumblings at Toho and rumours of a potential remake of the 1954 movie or a new film to mark the 25th Anniversary of Godzilla. Neither happened, but due to fan interest, an “unofficial” Godzilla film was made in the early ‘eighties. Legendary Beast Wolfman Against Godzilla is a fan made film with actual Toho staff members among its contributors – it’s as Toho a film can get, without being officially endorsed by Toho. The title remains unreleased but there’s hope that it will be made available this year. Perhaps under pressure by fans (and former Toho film makers) the 30th Anniversary saw the release of (official) Toho original film Godzilla 1984 (a.k.a: The Return Of Godzilla).

Remember that cool moment King Ghidorah destroyed that bridge? Or when Mechagodzilla had his head ripped from his body by Godzilla? Or what about the sillier moments like when Godzilla flies and looks like a giant prawn? Or those scenes in Son of Godzilla with the smoke rings? Well, forget all about them. They never happened…

Godzilla 1984 is a direct sequel to Gojira 1954, undoing all that happened in-between. It’s a bold move but one which brings the film series back to its darker roots and removes the need to address any campy daftness and increasingly dodgy monster designs. In 1954 the world (particularly Japan) was very much aware of destructive atomic force, in the 1980s the nuclear threat permeated culture with Cold War themes commonly found in the cinema, usually with the Russians at the centre of any Nuclear shenanigans. Gojira 1984 capitalises on that Cold War paranoia and the politics of the time feature in the movie, it also offers an alternative angle – most of the films here in the west are from an American perspective and polarise Americans as the heroes against the terrorist Russians, so it’s interesting to see the Cold War from a Japanese viewpoint. For the Japanese, America is not regarded for atomic heroics.

The film, opens with a storm which sees many ships destroyed. We see the crew of the Yahata-Maru battling the waves, a crew member happens to witness explosions on an island and we hear a familiar roar. The following day a journalist is exploring the area and boards the stricken vessel. Goro Maki initially, finds no crew, well except from Norman Bates’ mam in the control room. This scene is one of the darkest in a Godzilla film, there are dried corpses, drained of liquid and they clearly died trying to defend themselves.

Goro is lucky enough to find a survivor, lucky because that survivor rescues him from a giant mutated sea louse – the sea louse meets a sorry demise, but of course that’s not the last monster of the film.

Our intrepid journalist discovers he has a the scoop of a lifetime when a Professor shows photos of Godzilla (from the original 1954 attack) to the survivor Hiroshi, and he recognises the beast as the one he saw the night of storm. The Professor (Professor Hayashida) has a long interest in Godzilla, his parents were killed during the first Godzilla attack and studying the king of the monsters has been a personal obsession.

The film is quick to introduce the threat of Godzilla, but instead of alerting the public, the decision is made to censor Goro’s story about Godzilla’s attack and keep it secret to prevent mass panic. And that decision is made by the Japanese Prime Minister - this is a politically loaded film and there are scenes of political debate, such debate tends to revisit the subject of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons which the Japanese are keen to avoid at all costs. The zeitgeist of the Cold War is ever present, there’s a palpable fear of nuclear attack and the paranoia over nuclear warheads is greater than the fear of Godzilla. Suspicion between nations nearly reaches boiling point when the Russians suspect the Americans of attacking their submarine, it’s like the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the world teetering on the edge of nuclear war until Japan finally yields and explains that the Soviet sub was actually a victim of Godzilla.

Godzilla 1984 gets back to basics, there’s no giant foe – just Godzilla. Godzilla is made to be a larger beast than the one which was (presumably) killed in 1954 (and we did see it dissolve down to the skeleton). I personally like to think of this as the same beast, that Godzilla has incredible regenerative abilities and even through it was almost completely destroyed, enough remained for him to slowly regenerate until three decades later he stirs, hungry for atomic fuel. The nuclear theme continues when we see Godzilla for the first time – emerging from the depths and heading towards a nuclear power plant.

Here he destroys the plant to get to the nuclear reactor, removing the reactor to ‘feed’ from the radiation. We’ve never seen Godzilla do this before, but it fits in nicely. In 1954, Godzilla was believed to be result of nuclear testing and atomic weaponry, radiation gave him life – and here he comes to shore to re-energise, glowing blue to indicate the atomic flow of energy into his body.

After feasting on tasty atomic radiation there’s further debate about using nuclear weapons to annihilate Godzilla. The mere thought is too unpalatable to the Japanese Prime Minister, but after news that Godzilla is on his way to Tokyo, a plan forms. It’s time to launch “Super X”.

Super X enables the film to introduce fancy tech and provide a powerful large foe for Godzilla without the need of another monster. Super X is a fortified flying vehicle, capable of taking considerable hits and deploying a fancy arsenal of weapons. I imagine that the idea for Super X was at least partly driven by the desire to make the film still appeal to younger audiences by having a cool and potentially merchandisable gimmick. It also demonstrates how the original appearance of Godzilla in the ‘50s wasn’t ignored, a defence team was established with research and development put into a deterrent/weapon should such an event happen again.

After wading through Tokyo Bay, destroying the military and nearly causing World War 3 (a Russian sub fires a nuclear missile at Tokyo), we finally get to see Godzilla in a better light. So lets look take a closer look at the Big G.

The suit was made using high-tech moulding processes, I’ve read a lot about this but the main advantage of this is that Toho could create several suits which looked the same. This meant that older suits weren’t required to be used during water scenes which should create consistency (I say *should* because there is a major inconsistency which I’ll get to soon). The suit recaptures features of the original with those the large fangs and ears! Now some of the fangs are visible even when Godzilla’s mouth is closed.

The neck is very short through which makes the head seem larger than usual and gives a more ‘humanoid ‘ shape to the body with the bulge in the neck where the suit actor’s head was being a little obvious at times. The suit almost looks slim with huge dorsal spikes giving a more rounded profile shape and giving that unique Godzilla

I mentioned inconsistency, and that is introduced by the use of a high tech robotic model. Toho built an animatronic beast nearly 5 metres tall which had more detail to the face and illuminated eyes. This is certainly the most detailed Godzilla seen in a film up until this point and was used mainly for close-ups of Godzilla’s head. The teeth are much straighter than the ones in the suit, the eyes are brighter and more forward facing.

Because there is no human head inside the neck, it appears slimmer, less stocky, and as a result the head appears more rounded when viewed from the front.

The lip curled to form a snarl and the jaw moved in a more realistic way with the lower jaw moving backwards as it opens fully (rather than a simple open and close ‘snap’). Perhaps it’s because the head is more detailed and Toho were keen to showcase that, or perhaps it’s because filming a giant model is easier than filming a suit on set – the picture quality of the model is much better with visibly better definition.

There’s no doubt that the animatronic head is impressive, but the differences between the suit and the model are noticeable – and the snarling lip often looks too ‘operated’ and you’re more than aware that’s it’s an animatronic head. Here are side-by-side comparisons of the suit (on the left) and the animatronic model (right).

I do love it though and the first time I saw it I was blown away by it. The effort and money invested in this showed that Toho were taking this film seriously. Couple that with the dismissing of the films between the original and this and you realise that the studio were making ambitious moves to bring Godzilla back properly and re-establish him as a force of nature rather than a friendly, cute reptile who did silly dances and communicated with size-changing robots.

In addition to the head, a huge foot was built too, again this was for close ups and so that the foot could be used to stamp through models to provide more thrilling action sequences. In some shots, you can see that the foot is completely flat and squared off on the bottom – but it still looks pretty amazing and adds to the sense of scale.

There are some really great shots in this film. It looks very cinematic and although Ishiro Honda turned down the director’s chair, I feel that Koji Hashimoto did an excellent job of turning around the perception of Godzilla and help it return to the politically loaded and darker roots of the original. It must have provided optimism at the time, although not a perfect film, this is still a step up in quality from most of the 70s films and it’s all done with fresh blood. Usually the absence of Akira Ifukube’s music is at the detriment of the film, but the score for Godzilla1984 is well balanced and doesn’t seem lacking. The special effects work, particularly around the miniatures is incredibly well done even if some models are more detailed than others (some buildings are more obviously models than others). Acknowledging the fact that the Tokyo skyline is significantly more vertical than it was in 1954, Godzilla too has been upscaled to ensure he still looks imposing.

There’s also a fantastic shot where we see Godzilla’s reflection in skyscraper windows, one of my favourite shots of any of the films.

The scenes of destruction are more realistic than in a lot of the previous films. The foot I mentioned before helps because we can see it crashing through walls and ceilings. In addition we see Godzilla raking the sides of buildings, and the inside of structures which are being impacted.

I like to see nods to previous films and we get a virtual scene reconstruction from a classic 1954 Godzilla moment when Godzilla lifts a train from its tracks. Aaah, sweet nostalgia!

We may be back to the terror of a single monster on this film but Super X gives us something close to a monster battle.

Even if things seem to end a little prematurely after Godzilla takes a snooze.

Anyway, after a lightning strike the Big G is back on his feet and he and Super X trade blows in the form of atomic breath and energy beams. The actual battle isn’t that epic, infact – after the build-up and hearing about Super X you expect something more dazzling. However, the battle is part of an overall pan to lure Godzilla away after discoveries made in the film about his sonar abilities and affinity with avian organisms, so it’s not a traditional finale. The most impressive moment is when a hole is blasted through a building and the two eye each other up through it, it’s another example of creative cinematography which gives the film that genuinely cinematic feel.

It’s not just monsters though, there’s a human element to the film. Other than a budding romance between the journalist Goro Maki and Naoko Okumara, (who happens to be the sister of the sole survivor at the beginning of the film) there’s little to engage with. The professor whose parents were killed by Godzilla back in ’54 offers hope of a decent story but it just doesn’t happen, we hear no more of it. It's a fact which feels established for the purpose of adding an element of poignancy or gravitas, but it's just ignored. That leaves the prime minister as the only other major character.

The acting is okay here, it’s not a masterclass in drama and young actress Yasuko Sawaguchi seems a little amateurish at times. Presumably she gained confidence on screen as she went on to appear in several moreGodzilla/Toho films. There are no appearances here from celebrated Godzilla actors, not even a flashback to the eye-patch wearing Doctor Serizawa! Though that’s probably a good thing seeing as the film is perhaps hinting that his oxygen destroyer 30 years ago wasn’t as effective as first thought! Speaking of actors, it has to be noted that this film sees legendary Toho suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma donning the Godzilla suit. Unfortunately the suit had been made for someone else and it didn’t quite fit him, which caused considerable discomfort during the shoot.

The film does try to inject a sense of human peril, even if it’s not as dark as in 1954. In the first film there were terrifying scenes where people run scared and haunting moments involving dead parents or children facing certain death. The nearest we get here are some scenes of panic and a 4-way split screen showing mass evacuation.

This film definitely tries to capture the essence of the original and attempts to undo the family friendly feel and drop in quality which Godzilla became associated with during the ‘70s. It doesn’t fully succeed and I think that some of the reason has to do with the sense of threat – it just doesn’t feel as dangerous. The nuclear warhead heading to Tokyo gives much needed drama but Godzilla doesn’t look as imposing. His height was increased to help counter the effect of taller buildings in the 1980s, but when you see Godzilla in Japan – instead of a beast on the skyline he still appears dwarfed. Look at the screenshots below and you’ll see how Godzilla appears quite small now even though he is 60% taller than in Gojra.

In Gojira he was a force to be reckoned with, a threat to hunmanity as we know it – but here he’s just a mass clean-up operation waiting to happen. The ending of the film leans too heavily on a hunch made earlier in the film (Godzilla using magnetism for guidance), but at least it is an explainable scientific reason unlike what we’ve had in previous films!

The American version:

I don’t usually comment on the dubbed American versions but for Godzilla 1984 (or rather Godzilla 1985 for the American edit) I have to make an exception. Because this was a direct sequel to the 1954 film which was heavily edited for American audiences and had entire new sections involving a new character (American reporter Steve Martin played by Raymond “Ironside” Burr), Burr reprised his role of the reporter ensuring that the doctored US version remains a sequel to the doctored ’54 title. Due to typical Hollywood stereotyping the scene where the Russian Colonel dies trying to stop the nuclear missile being launched was altered so that the missile was launched deliberately. Oh – and the edit was sponsored by Doctor Pepper so there’s some obvious product placement too!


Cult Kingdom rating:  3.5 / 5 

This was one of my favourite Godzilla movies, the first time I saw this the special effects astounded me – seeing Godzilla’s lip raise into a snarl for the first time sent shivers down my spine! It looked awesome! However, looking at this with a more critical eye reveals it for what it is, a mechanical device which looks different to the suit. The difference is almost as great as the scenes in other Godzilla films where stock footage is used and Godzilla looks completely different! This isn’t a bad film, it’s better than a lot of Godzilla films, it just doesn’t achieve its full potential. As I said before, Godzilla doesn’t seem as monstrous as he did back in the ‘50s, he should have been more destructive. Perhaps if he’d used his atomic breath more then we’d be more convinced of his power, but he just seemed a bit small in comparison to his surroundings.

As in the 1954 Gojira, the real terror comes from humankind's own predilection for destroying itself. The monster in the city might be scary, but being able to launch a nuclear weapon at the press of a button is far more horrifying. Japanese fear over nuclear explosions in their territoty is re-explored, it’s a wound which has never healed and harks back to the original Gojira movie which was essentially analogous to attitidues and fear of atomic force post-war. The American edit may make the Russians the baddies and themselves the rational onlookers, but the original edit has Japan risking diplomatic isolation as it resists the nuclear option, taking a principled stance and occupying the moral high ground. One of the most significant films in the Godzilla series, it demonstrates Toho's commitment to investing in the Big G.

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