Worth The Wait: The Return Of Godzilla
Some works of art leave no lasting impression, are casually deflected by the psychic magnetosphere and forgotten the moment they leave orbit. Far more rare are those which pass into the atmosphere, tunnel through the mantle, and collide with the molten core of our being where they are absorbed, becoming a permanent aspect of who we are, indistinguishable from what was always there.
Note: Final paragraph contains spoilers.
The Americanized Godzilla 1985 was a VHS rental staple for me, one I likely rented more often than any other film. It was wonderful to see Raymond Burr, his face now adorned in a magnificent graying beard, reprise his role from 1954's Godzilla: King Of The Monsters. Burr's character is named Steve Martin, which became a bit of an issue in the decades following that original film, so in 1985 he is typically referred to as Mr. Martin, or by his first name alone, in order to avoid confusion with the well known star. Burr's presence was a comforting bookend to a series that, for all I knew as a kid, ended with this entry. It added special sentimental value to see the man who had witnessed Godzilla's first rampage return to see his ''last''. It was also a much newer film than any other in the franchise, which was evident to me even at the time. This combination of closure and timing, along with a noticeably amplified budget, made it a unique Godzilla viewing experience that kept me going back to it in the video store.
It's fortunate that I watched the movie as often as I did, as there would be an unusually long wait to revisit it after the days of VHS faded away. When Kraken Releasing produced an official, domestic DVD and Blu-ray of The Return Of Godzilla just last year in 2016, it marked the end of a baffling thirty year wait for availability. The Return Of Godzilla is the long sought after, original Japanese counterpoint to Godzilla 1985, running twenty minutes longer and absent the American footage that had been inserted to include scenes of Burr's Steve Martin. This very same kind of editorial alteration inserted his character into Gojira, signifying its localization into Godzilla: King Of The Monsters. The parallels between the original 1954 classic and this one do not end there.
The film is an intentional return to the more serious approach of the 1954 original, which alone is acknowledged to exist in this universe, while all other intervening entries are ignored. There is only one monster at the center of the film, and this Godzilla likewise reassumes the role of monumental bringer of doom. In his initial 1954 appearance, the monster embodied the then fresh horror of the detonation of atomic weapons upon Japanese soil. Here, in the heart of the Cold War decade of the 1980's, he is the unwelcome reminder that those same kinds of weapons are now multiplied in both number and destructive magnitude, and our capacity to use them is at best veiled, not abated. Unseen in thirty years, he reappears to tear away any false sense of security or complacency that humans may have acquired merely from the passage of time. He is the blooming of the seed of worry. Armageddon was only sleeping, and it has awakened.
The political seats of power in a typical monster movie are staffed either with those too petty and weakened by political concerns to risk making a worthwhile decision, or those so bull headed and overconfident that they act too aggressively and exacerbate the problem. Conversely, Prime Minister Mitamura (Keiju Kobayashi) is a model of reason and integrity. He stands his ground against pressure from the U.S. and Russia to employ nuclear weapons as the means of destroying the monster. Respectfully, he restrains the reckless fervor of these combative superpowers. a voice of sanity guarding his country, and by extension the world, from suicidal panic and folly.
The most striking qualities of The Return Of Godzilla are its look and tone. While Gamera Vs. Barugon (1966) is at least photographed with a sense of moodiness, the Godzilla series of the same period was more typically bright and colorful. The Return Of Godzilla upends this tradition, as director Koji Hashimoto and cinematographer Kazutami Hara weave the threatening, suspenseful edge of a well crafted sci fi horror film into the scale and pageantry of a true event movie. The imagery has an often tense, foreboding atmosphere. Careful, restrained lighting lets the shadows breathe, dim skies and interminable night swallow hope. The filmmakers achieve a visual weight and texture rarely seen in kaiju films. The triumph of modern Japanese civilization is captured to full and purposeful effect. Godzilla has awakened to a man made skyline that now towers over him. When he battles the futuristic Super X, a flying vehicle capable of withstanding his violence, the glittering metropolis becomes an eerily vacant, crumbling nightmarescape, diffused with smoke.
The look of Godzilla himself, or ''the suit'', which is in this case worn by the great, tough as nails Kenpachiro Satsuma, features a much angrier countenance. Scowling eyelids almost bury a merciless stare. The teeth are longer and sharper, up to including a pair of fangs. This Godzilla has no reservation about the taking of human life, casually picking up and tossing aside an elevated train full of screaming victims in a moment recalling a similar act in Gojira. Special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano conveys the blunt, cruel consequence of the rampage. This kaiju is not the heroic defender of the previous decade, but an unforgiving destroyer of the world of men. Magnifying his exploits is a stunning score by Reijiro Koroku. While the legendary Godzilla composer Akira Ifikube produced scores featuring dark, booming marches and sorrowful beauty, Koroku creates stirring, emotive, at times even romantic themes that perfectly lament the creature's turmoil, while achieving an eerie strength and power all their own. It is a case of a score that precisely fits its film, distinct from its predecessors in the best way, and every bit their artistic equal.
A passionate enthusiast for both the Kaiju genre and 1980's cinema, I was unprepared for the powerful effect that seeing both of these combined would have on me. The 80's was a decade when practical special effects, for which I have an obsessively loyal infatuation, proliferated due to a horror and sci fi driven boom in the motion picture industry. It was also a time when the masterful creators of these effects were deservedly recognized names. Chris Walas, The Skotak brothers, Rick Baker, Tom Savini, and Rob Bottin were all true artists with unique voices, and along with their peers carried a pedigree and potential draw for genre fans otherwise reserved only for actors and directors. Furthermore, the mode of the time toward natural, atmospheric cinematography is aligned with my visual tastes, as well as being objectively engaging in its own right. Seeing both of these artistic approaches, visual and technical, united within a major Kaiju film is a singular experience.
An aura of nostalgia, born of the time, yet intermingles with the new thrill of material that was previously unseen. Strangely, the long wait for the film's release turned out to be a gift. While I'd always felt a connection to films of the 1980's and the Kaiju genre, I only much later came to fully understand those feelings. It's as though The Return Of Godzilla was waiting for me to grow into a viewer who could fully appreciate it as much as I was waiting to see it. An incomparable union of two great passions, it's something of a dream movie, a piece of myself that I didn't know was missing until it was put back into place.
The Oxygen destroyer used to defeat Godzilla in the 1954 film was itself a weapon of science capable of threatening life on Earth. In The Return Of Godzilla, it is the power of nature, as represented by a volcano, that is employed to end his rampage. While he is lured to the mouth of doom by means concocted by clever, heroic scientist Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki), the dynamic is fundamentally changed. Though set in an overtly modern cityscape, the solution in this case is evokes myth, as opposed to science fiction. The serpent and the pit of fire. There is a sense that nature can never truly be subverted by cutting edge technology, or conquered by civilization - it still holds sway, and it alone chooses when to stay its hand. Pitched forward by explosive mines, Godzilla plummets into the open maw of the volcano, a chasm that dwarfs even him, and into its glowing red heat, where he is absorbed forever into who I am.