By the mid-1970s, the Godzilla franchise was total butt. There had been 15 films in Toho Studios’ franchise about a giant lizard monster who alternately destroys Tokyo and attempts to save it from other monsters trying to destroy it. The 1975 entry, Terror of Mechagodzilla, was the least successful of any of them, and the…verisimilitude of the whole saga had become tired and ridiculous, even if you’re suspending the disbelief of the idea of guys in monster suits fighting on top of a model buildings. After a near-decade break with different groups trying to make a new Godzilla movie, Toho turned out a new beginning, and a new era: The Return of Godzilla.
Effectively forgetting all the silliness including other monsters from the previous 14 films, The Return of Godzilla is a direct sequel to the 1954 original. This cuts out a lot of the fluff that became standard for these films–especially the later ones–and did one major thing: it made Godzilla the bad guy again. For the first few films in which the giant atomic lizard appears, he’s the definite threat, crushing building and destroying much of the Japanese countryside. By the time of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster in 1964, Godzilla had become so popular that Toho decided to give him more of a protectorate role, eventually making him the all-around guardian of Japan and Earth in general. One of the smartest things Toho did for The Return of Godzilla was to forget all that and make him a baddie again.
Following roughly the same pattern as the original, The Return of Godzilla begins with a ship in the Pacific Ocean that gets hit by something (guys, it’s Godzilla, you know what you’re watching here). Later, a young reporter named Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) happens upon the shipwreck in his boat. After climbing aboard, he finds nothing but dead bodies, with the exception of one young seaman named Okumura (Shin Takuma) who wakes from being unconscious just in time to save Maki from a giant sea louse, later realized to have been mutated by the nuclear energy emanating from Godzilla. Back on land, Okumura realizes the thing he saw in the ocean is another Godzilla, the same as wreaked havoc 30 years prior. Maki writes a story about it, but the government quashes it.
Maki then visits a scientists whose parents were killed in the ’54 Godzilla attack. He’s spent his whole life researching the monster, and he calls it a giant walking nuclear weapon. Maki also meets Okumura’s sister who is very relieved to know her brother’s still alive. Elsewhere, the Japanese government is beginning to worry about a repeat of the 1954 attack, and this isn’t helped by a Soviet submarine being attacked. They initially blame the United States, but soon it’s made clear to all parties that it’s Godzilla. Both the Soviets and the Americans demand Japan allow them to use their nuclear weapons against the beast, but the Japanese Prime Minister refuses. The Soviets totally plan to do it anyway, though. The scientists believe, following Godzilla attacking a nuclear power plant and becoming distracted by a flock of birds, that he instinctively will follow a strong sonic signal. They plan to lure him to the volcano on Mt. Mihara on Oshima using a similar signal…but first they have to survive his next attack on downtown Tokyo.
Despite this movie being made for a relatively low budget, and still employing the rubber suits and scale replica effects as the earlier movies, The Return of Godzilla is a welcome return to the more serious, real-world disaster movie type of storytelling of the original film. It’s played about as straight as you can, to the point that the one comedic-relief character–a drunk who decides to use the Godzilla attack as a good time to steal from fancy restaurants–feels incredibly out of place. And I feel like it needs to be taken seriously for the endeavor to work at all.
The first Godzilla was a reaction to WWII and the threat/reality of nuclear annihilation. Japan was and is the only nation on Earth that has been victim of a nuclear bomb attack. Much of the imagery in that movie, of the carnage wrought by the monster and those affected bandaged and bleeding in hospitals, was directly mirroring what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the War. Obviously, that kind of allegory wasn’t very pertinent in 1984, so what The Return of Godzilla did so brilliantly was to make it a Cold War story. Nuclear threat is imminent, and both the Soviets and the Americans basically attempt to berate Japan in to allowing them to fire nukes on their sovereign soil. These two superpowers were threatening the world because of their East vs West standoff, and the movie exploits that very effectively, while the Japanese government looks for another solution.
Social and political allegory are all well and good, but people watch Godzilla movies for the carnage, and The Return of Godzilla has some of the best. By this point, the ability to make enormous scale models of cities had gotten so good that you almost can’t tell in the wide shots what’s real and what isn’t…until you see Godzilla himself. However, for much of the medium to close-up shots of the lizard, they actually built a fairly complex animatronic figure. The director of The Return of Godzilla was Koji Hashimoto who assistant directed quite a few of the earlier films. Only he, series creator Tomoyuki Tanaka, and special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano from the older films were present here, and it helps to make you feel like this movie is at once connected and distinctly new.
The Return of Godzilla proved exceedingly popular in Japan where it made well over its budget and jump-started the series again, which would run for another decade. Also, true to form, an Americanized version of the movie was produced. It was entitled Godzilla 1985, and Raymond Burr was again brought in to play the main character amid the existing Japanese footage. It didn’t do very well on this side of the pond, and until this month’s Blu-ray release, the original Japanese version had never been released on DVD in North America. It’s a shame, too, because The Return of Godzilla, while not being as culturally resonant or boundary-pushing as the original, is a tremendously fun and impressive flick in the series, and one whose central attack sequence might just be one of the best ever.
Images: Toho Studios