The Return of Godzilla (1984)

Godzilla started out life as an allegory for the atomic bomb.  Inspired by King Kong as well as the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which featured stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen's first credited work on a feature film, Ishirô Honda put together the story of a dinosaur resurrected by nuclear testing that attacks Tokyo.  Not having the equivalent of Harryhausen available to them Toho hired special effects artists Eiji Tsuburaya, and he came up with the idea of having a man in a monster suit stomping through a miniature version of the Japanese metropolis.

The movie was a huge hit in Japan in 1954 and, in re-edited form with footage featuring Raymond Burr as journalist Steve Martin, also did well in the United States two years later as Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  It helped that it was right in the middle of a number of American sci-fi films featuring giant animals and bugs after being enlarged by radioactivity.  

Unlike many of the American films, which followed a rote pattern and had little effort expended beyond coming up with a new creature, Godzilla was a serious film that didn't turn away from the suffering of the average citizens.  The memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still fresh, and many models that Tsuburaya did of a devastated Tokyo were based in reality.  The problem with the Godzilla franchise lay with Toho itself, as Honda and subsequent directors were instructed to make the movies more kid friendly.  By Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Mothra was lecturing Godzilla and Rodan on getting along with each other to defend the earth, and by Invasion of the Astro-Monster the giant reptile was a full-on hero.  

Ghidorah marked the 10-year anniversary of the first film, and when the big lizard reached its 20th year on-screen Toho tried to correct things a bit with Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.  They even brought back Honda one last time to direct a sequel to that film, Terror of Mechagodzilla, in 1975.  Even with Toho finally giving the current special effects crew headed by Teruyoshi Nakano some of the budget he had been asking for, and which he had been denied for years, the excitement had faded after the anniversary.  In the United States the Godzilla series was treated as a joke, with many of the films being re-edited and badly dubbed, and the actual seriousness - and high quality - of the first decade being forgotten.  Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who had pushed the change in the series, began to regret what he and the studio had done, and decided he wanted to produce a new direct sequel to the original Godzilla.  After years of trying to get things going again Toho finally provided the means, and the budget, to bring the big guy back for his 30th anniversary in 1984.

After the eruption of a volcano on a small Pacific island a number of ships go missing.  Journalist Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) goes looking for them and finds one of the missing ships, with scientist Hiroshi Okumura (Shin Takuma) being the only survivor.  Despite the boat being infected with giant sea lice that killed the rest of the crew the authorities refuse to believe that Okumura saw Godzilla, but certain members of the government do.  They decide to hush it up to avoid a panic, keeping Okumura's survival a secret, even from his sister Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi). 

Maki meets Naoko after consulting Professor Makoto Hayashida (Yôsuke Natsuki) regarding Godzilla, informing her that her brother is alive.  Soon the government is forced to admit fully what they know in order to avoid a nuclear confrontation between the USSR and the U.S.A. after a Soviet submarine is destroyed.  With the threat of the superpowers using low-yield nuclear weapons on Godzilla while in proximity to Japan Prime Minister Seiki Mitamura (Keiju Kobayashi) tries to find a different solution.  After finding out that Godzilla has a homing instinct similar to birds Hayashida begins to come up with a plan, but the big lizard has already decided on a return visit to Tokyo to get the radiation he craves to keep him alive. 

Ishirô Honda was offered the opportunity to direct once again but turned it down so that Koji Hashimoto, who had assisted Honda on previous Godzilla films, would have a chance given that this was a serious sequel to the original.  The script, by Akira Murao and Hideichi Nagahara, brought the series into the modern age of the Cold War, with the consequences of Godzilla's attacks on the safety of the rest of the world being front and center.  With Toho providing a decent budget it was also a chance to show how far effects had come since his last appearance on the big screen in 1975.  It was the last of these movies that Teruyoshi Nakano would be involved with and it finally gave him the ability to do what he wanted. 

The Return of Godzilla was a decent hit for Toho in Japan, so much so they began shopping it to major distributors in the United States.  Because of the reputation of the rest of the series the only one they could find was New World, which once again did a hack dubbing job, cut out a good portion of the movie and brought back Raymond Burr to play Steve Martin in a few hastily shot sequences.  Burr, to his credit, used the clout he had developed over the years to keep the retitled Godzilla 1985 from being a total travesty, but it still suffered a critical beatdown.  Despite including an animatronic Godzilla that allowed more control over the face of the monster it was still a man in a suit, this time Kenpachirô Satsuma, and the movie itself looked quaint to audiences who had by then become used to special effects seen in the movies of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and many others. 

In its original form The Return of Godzilla works the way it was intended.  There is no real explanation given on why the Oxygen Destroyer didn't kill him, or even if it is the same Godzilla, but it seems the Japanese have been keeping watch for just such an event to happen again.  The tone in some ways feels like a documentary and as if the movie is outlining events that have already happened, the feeling being that much of this is a re-enactment of how the second attack by Godzilla was handled.  The Super X-1, a flying machine designed with fighting Godzilla in mind, is impressive during its time on screen.  Where many of the sequels to the original were nominally set in the 1980s, like the original this is set in the time period where the action happens, but in an alternative reality where Godzilla is real and is acknowledged as being so. 

Other than the sea lice there are no other monsters present, giving all the time to the star of the movie.  One major complaint I had about the later Showa entries is that often Godzilla wasn't even the center of his own films, showing up at the end to fight but otherwise being absent a good portion of the film.  One of the aspects that makes this one of the best in the series is that he is front and center for most of the last third of the film.  He is knocked out at one point, but during that time we are treated to rising tensions as a Russian nuke heads toward Tokyo.  Otherwise, this is one of the few kaiju movies that delivers an actual monster, and the miniature sets look better than ever.   

There are some dodgy special effects - one involves seeing our heroes in a window, which is a fuzzy video projection that is poorly integrated - but most of it works once they get past the sea lice which, though frightening looking, are launched on a wire at the actors.  Their are some of the usual problems, with the human story surrounding our four heroes being rather bland and a bit too much proselytizing about Cold War politics which extends the runtime, but it's not as bad as some of the previous or current entries.  The standout is Keiju Kobayashi, playing a prime minister forced to deal both with a giant monster and being a small country caught between the bitterness of two foreign foes that are just as willing to stomp all over Japan as Godzilla is.  The one sour performance is Yasuko Sawaguchi, who was hired for the film as she was a rising star at the time.  The role offers nothing except weak ankles and an undercooked romantic subplot, and it seems like she's barely putting any effort into doing anything to improve it. 

The unfortunate thing is that, as of the time I'm writing this, it is almost impossible to see the movie in any form unless a physical copy - which costs hundreds of dollars - is available.  Rights issues have kept the Japanese version, and even the 1998 English dub of the original movie, from even showing on Pluto's Godzilla channel.  Anchor Bay had planned a DVD release of Godzilla 1985 after acquiring New World's library, but Toho sued to make sure it never saw release, thus making old VHS copies worth significant amounts of money as well.  That means one of the few Godzilla films that delivers what it promises, and remains entertaining nearly 40 years later, is one of the least seen.  

The Return of Godzilla (1984)
Time: 103 minutes
Starring: Ken Tanaka, Shin Takuma, Yôsuke Natsuki, Keiju Kobayashi, Kenpachirô Satsuma
Director: Koji Hashimoto



  1. I'm pretty sure I saw the American-ized version back in the 80s. It was better than those really cheesy late 60s and 70s ones that aired on local TV, usually on weekends.


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