Directed by Koji Hashimoto
Starring Ken Tanaka, Keiju Kobayashi, Yasuko Sawaguchi
“Godzilla, huh? I was hoping to finish my term without incident.”
It was, for me as well, a long-awaited return, as this 1984 film truthfully entitled “Godzilla” didn’t see a home video release in the United States until May 2016. By that time, we’d abandoned the term “home video!” I mean, I waited longer than contemporary audiences had between this film and the previous installment, 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla, and as such, had viewed 2016’s Shin Godzilla before this one. I knew that The Return of Godzilla was an attempt to take Godzilla “back to its roots” – that old chestnut – and featured American and Soviet politicians arguing with the Japanese in conference rooms. Sure sounds like the 1980s version of Shin Godzilla, but with a little more cheese and vintage effects. What I got was far closer to the 1954 original, a lumbering near-docudrama – with a little more cheese and vintage effects.
One of the startling innovations of 2016’s masterpiece is that it isn’t a sequel to the original. The Return of Godzilla, like the later Godzilla 2000 and even possibly the American Godzilla (2014), canonizes the events of the original film while never-minding all the doomed alien love triangles and time paradoxes and one very angry piece of toxic sludge in between. So if Shin Godzilla was liberated, Return is limited, but what’s then even more startling is how much it doesn’t function as a sequel. The idea with Godzilla is that Dr. Serizawa fights this new weapon of mass destruction by inventing another one, the Oxygen Destroyer, and hopes to end the cycle by taking his formu-oli to a watery grave.
The best intentions, right? The Oxygen Destroyer should have kicked off an arms race and influenced the Cold War. But when we meet up with this 1984 Japan, there are actually people who have never heard of Godzilla. That is impossible. As Japan was recovering from the initial attack, they would’ve produced as much Godzilla merchandise as they did in real life. Emiko and Ogata didn’t sign NDAs like the paleontologists from the Site B Incident (I know we’ll meet up with Emiko later). But I’m not here to poke holes, only lament (maybe I should poke holes instead). It just seems like a missed opportunity to round off an ominously open-ended film. The plan to defeat Godzilla this time is luring him into a volcano, which dispenses with its own moral ambiguity almost immediately. See, triggering a volcano will threaten the locals, but given the abrupt ending where everything works out, I guess that’s fine.
The political drama also feels half-hearted. The Soviet and American representatives demand that Godzilla be killed with a nuke. “This refusal is Japanese egotism, plain and simple!” they say. The Japanese prime minister adjourns, and one of his cabinet members says “When you think about it, the use of nukes is American and Soviet egotism.” So the PM returns to say that, and the room is properly cowed. This is hardly stimulating discussion, but perhaps it could be, if there were any sort of character or a love of language or the mechanics of debate.
Or establishing shots; The Return of Godzilla also has no love of space or architecture, lensing its human subjects arbitrarily and inconsistently. Shot #1 will be a close-up of Mr. Soviet Guy, addressing the PM, and the reaction shot will be the equivalent close-up of the PM, but in the next scene. It’s a perfunctory style, but it matches the film’s oddly relaxed tone. Between our two main settings, the laboratory and the command center, people sip tea or stand around and occasionally exchange dialogue. And sometimes that dialogue would’ve made more sense between characters in the other setting.
The lab is where we find our heroes, led by a journalist named Maki. So already, we know that it’s gonna be one of those Godzilla movies, where the protagonist isn’t directly involved in Godzilla business. He starts out journalist enough, stumbling upon an effectively spooky boat massacre and then manipulating young Naoko into reuniting with her brother, the boat’s sole survivor. This sees no reprisal from Naoko or the brother Hiroshi, and in fact, Maki forgoes his job to hang out at the lab, supervised by an older man, Professor Hayashida. This completes our character dynamic from Godzilla: two men, a woman between them, and the old guy. They formulate and experiment the lure part of this G Annihilation Strategy, and then struggle to escape the building during the final attack. Their antagonist is stairs.
Here, Godzilla mostly fights maser tanks (my favorite) and the Super X, which shoots a flare to open his mouth and drill him with cadmium missiles. Like Kraid. Unfortunately, Godzilla looks pretty dopey in this one, with the half-lidded eyes, and he often stands still in the middle of the city, looking dopey. Otherwise, the production design is excellent and the pyrotechnics are spectacular. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, but I think that’s a problem in a soft reboot. It seems like the production determined that a more serious take on Godzilla would be a matter of excision, that we wouldn’t have silly aliens or Atlantis, but we’ve maintained the same approach, sillily approaching now fewer things.
Godzilla is just as we left him, not so much a force of nature but a very powerful monster. Not a reinvention from the bottom-up but a reapplication, and it does a disservice to the self-conscious take on the material. Of course Godzilla’s interference in the human world would have geopolitical consequences – attacking a Soviet sub in Japanese waters, the Soviet embassy reasonably concludes American provocation – but there is no resolution. No, The Return of Godzilla doesn’t solve the Cold War, but isn’t that what movies are for? To imagine, to animate and inspire big ideas? What we’re left with is a beautiful film score, one that soars well over the muted, static, hesitant film itself. Godzilla’s returned, but he doesn’t continue, making for only the most appropriate introduction to a halting, confused run of sequels into the ‘90s.