I was introduced to Godzilla by my cousin Ed, who passed down to me his Shogun Warriors Godzilla toy as well as his love of WLVI 56’s Creature Double Feature. I took to the big green lizard like a fish to water–something about the fire-breathing, skyscraper-sized beast spoke to my young soul. I won’t bother to analyze that right now. In any event, I grew up on Godzilla movies. (In fact, Godzilla would eventually help me get into college–but I’ll tell that story some other time.)
In August 1985, at the age of six, I finally got to see a Godzilla movie in the theater. Godzilla 1985 (or The Return of Godzilla, as it was known in Japan) was an important event in my childhood.
I don’t remember too much about that childhood viewing. I remember being a little scared by the giant sea-louse and the dessicated bodies of its victims, and crying at the end as my beloved monster was dropped unceremoniously into a volcano (my cousin Elye would assure me that not even a volcano could kill Godzilla–a statement that was proven true four years later in Godzilla vs. Biollante). I remember finding the dark Godzilla of Return a little scary, since I had mostly watched the campy ’60s and ’70s films in which he was a good guy.
But while he was scary, he was also the most supremely badass Godzilla I had ever encountered. This Godzilla was 240 feet high–a good sixty feet taller than the superhero Godzilla of the earlier era. The suit design dropped the friendly, Muppet-like looks of his seventies incarnation and made him almost demonic in appearance.
Godzilla’s breath (actually referred to as a “death-ray” by the Japanese) wasn’t the thin, translucent blue thread of yesterday–this was a full-on blast of bright blue radioactive hell, capable of vaporizing tanks and turning hapless soldiers into piles of goo. (I’ve only seen one movie where Godzilla’s breath was cooler–2001’s Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Highly recommended–probably the best Godzilla movie after the first and this one.)
But to my mind, what really distinguishes The Return of Godzilla from all Godzilla films before and since are its production values. More than any other G-flick I can think of, The Return of Godzilla looks like a high-quality theatrical movie. It was shot with quality film stock that stands up well next to any other film of the period and still looks good today. In fact, the lame Hollywood-added scenes in the U.S. version look worse than the Japanese footage.
The Return of Godzilla was released a good ten years after the last Godzilla film, and represented a return to the dark, “evil” Godzilla of the 1955 original. In fact it was a direct sequel to the first film, ignoring the continuity of every other film in the series. Toho Studios wanted to rejuvenate the franchise, and they did so by doing away with the campy, superheroic antics of the 1970s.
Finally, there was a welcome return of the human element in this film. We get to know and care about the human characters, and the consequences of Godzilla’s rampages–including the heavy loss of life–aren’t shied away from. Godzilla kills hundreds of people in this movie. We witness the last, desperate moments of two crews–that of a Russian submarine and a Japanese mech called the Super-X–as they are destroyed by Godzilla.
Another aspect of this film that I enjoy is the politics. In one scene, the ambassadors for the U.S. and Russia press the Japanese prime minister to allow them to use nuclear weapons to destroy Godzilla. At a cabinet meeting (cut from the American version, natch), the PM and his advisors discuss the pros and cons of this, with some of them believing that the two countries merely want to use Godzilla as an excuse to test some newly-developed nukes. The PM declines, referring to Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles and asking the ambassadors whether they would use nuclear weapons if the creature had appeared in their own cities. Godzilla is treated less as a “monster” and more as a dangerous and unpredictable force of nature, a kind of walking natural disaster that must be faced and dealt with but also, to a degree, accepted–just as one has no choice but to deal with a hurricane or an earthquake.
American critics savaged the Americanized Godzilla 1985 when it was released, and with good reason. By the mid-’80s, Godzilla had acquired a reputation in the U.S. as the campy star of such goofy films as Godzilla vs. Megalon and, to a lesser degree, Godzilla vs. King Kong (a great Japanese satire that was, again, ruined by American editing). As I mentioned, Toho Studios was trying to return Godzilla to his roots as a villain in this film.
Unfortunately, the American distributor, New World Cinema, either didn’t realize this or didn’t care. They released the film with bad dubbing and, worse, some terrible additional scenes of a bunch of concerned American military officers watching the carnage on a big screen while drinking Dr. Pepper (a painfully obvious product placement). Raymond Burr is airlifted in to reprise his role in the Americanized original as reporter Steve Martin (though due to the rise of the comedian during the interim, he’s referred to only as “Mr. Martin”). Bad jokes are told all around, such as one guy’s comment, on watching Godzilla destroy a building, “That’s quite an urban renewal program they got going on over there.”
But what irks me most–and I didn’t find out about this until only a couple years ago–are the changes made to a pivotal plot point. It’s established that the Russians have an orbiting nuclear missile prepared in case Godzilla attacks their homeland. Its control is (somewhat inexplicably) given to the captain of a Russian vessel docked in Toyko Bay. Godzilla attacks the ship and a live wire smashes into the missile control panel.
Here’s where the Japanese and American versions differ the most. In the Japanese version, the live wire accidentally sets off the missile launch timer (yeah yeah, pretty ridiculous), and the dying captain tries to stop the missile launch, but fails. In the American version, the subtitles for the captain’s Russian dialogue tell us (presumably incorrectly) that he’s trying to launch the missile, not stop it. Since the captain actually dies before he can reach the control panel, the American version adds a final shot of a wounded hand reaching up to press the fire button.
As a kid, none of this really bothered me. But now, such a blatant act of propaganda seems utterly disingenuous and reprehensible, since the Japanese version takes pains to present both the U.S. and Russia as being a bit too gung-ho on the whole nuclear weapons thing, while the American version depicts the U.S. as the crusading heroes against the evil Russians who want to nuke us all. (Though to their credit, the American producers left in the scene where both the U.S. as well as the Russian ambassadors badger the Japanese PM to use nukes.)
But okay–let’s put all of that Americanization stuff aside and just consider The Return of Godzilla as it was meant to be, in its original Japanese version. As I mentioned above, the production values on this film are way above the standard of pretty much any other Godzilla film (except perhaps the aforementioned All-Out Attack). Godzilla is tall, yes, but the producers recognized that Tokyo had changed a lot since 1955, and instead of marching over small buildings, Godzilla strides through massive skyscrapers twice as tall as he is–his reflection gleaming across hundreds of glass windows. While to many people, the word “Godzilla” conjures up images of cheap HO scale models, the models in Return are convincing, aided by the fact that Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo occurs at night.
The cinematography is great for a Godzilla movie. The shot in the screencap above is one of my favorites from the film. Godzilla has just pushed over a building onto the Super-X, a kind of super-hovership that nearly kills the beast before he’s revived by an atmospheric nuclear storm. As the camera slowly pans in, the monster stands over the fallen building, lit by the flames of the city, and slowly roars. It’s a creepy moment, and one of my favorites in any Godzilla film.
I should mention the soundtrack too. Most people, including me, consider Akira Ifukube the quintessential Godzilla composer. His many themes often alternated between an upbeat, martial tone and a dark, slow, almost jazzy swagger. But the score for Return, composed by Reijiro Koroku, is wonderful. There’s an epic, four-note theme for the monster himself; a catchy march for the Super-X; and a lovely, haunting piano variation on the Godzilla theme for quieter moments.
The film also features a love story, ethical discussions of whether Godzilla is truly evil, and a horrific opening sequence featuring a giant bug (the only special effect that looks cheap).
The Return of Godzilla is under-appreciated by critics and fans alike. It’s the best-looking film of the series, and possibly the best film, period. Its production values, relative adherence to realism (outside of Godzilla himself, of course, and the Super-X), and sober atmosphere are unique among all other Godzilla films. There are no other monsters with which to have a campy battle, no aliens manipulating everyone behind the scenes. It’s just Godzilla vs. humanity, his victims–who are also his creator. It’s that realistic take, combined with the high production values, that make The Return of Godzilla (in its Japanese version) one of the best and most accessible Godzilla films for non-fans.