Directed by Koji Hashimoto
Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Screenplay by Shuichi Nagahara
Story by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Reviewer’s Note: RETURN OF GODZILLA was released in the United States a year later as GODZILLA 1985 in an edited version that, much like the original film, contained new scenes starring Raymond Burr. This review is of the original RETURN and not the Americanized version.
After 1975’s The Terror of Godzilla, Toho put the world’s most famous kaiju on ice for nearly a decade, but by the mid-80s, it was time to bring Godzilla back, and the result is a fantastic movie that celebrates and re-establishes the Godzilla legend for a new audience.
The decade-long absence is important to understand when watching RETURN OF GODZILLA because the film does take its sweet time getting around to bringing Godzilla back. Making audiences wait for the monster is an old school technique that seems a bit quaint in today’s media-heavy world. Even in the pre-internet spoiler halcyon days of 1984, making people wait to see one of the most famous pop culture characters in cinematic history might beg the question, “Why bother?” It’s not like we don’t know what Godzilla looks like. Heck, even if you didn’t know, he’s right there on the poster. So … why make us wait?
The best “make you wait for the monster” movie of all-time is probably Ridley Scott’s Alien, which uses all that pre-monster time to do what you’re supposed to do: make us care about the people we’re going to watch fight the monster while simultaneously creating a dark mood that puts everyone on edge.
While not quite in Alien’s class, RETURN does an admirable job of showing why you keep your monster powder dry, as the pre-Godzilla sections of the film are dedicated to making us understand what it means to live in a world where Godzilla first arrived 30 years earlier. In fact, RETURN takes the approach that there was the original GODZILLA film and then … nothing. The sequels don’t seem to exist in this world, and so Godzilla has become something of a legend to the people of Japan. He’s that Boogeyman you hear stories about but has largely passed into myth for most of the populace. For those who were there, however, Godzilla has left a huge scar that his return opens wide.
That includes a Professor Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki), a scientist who lost his parents to Godzilla all those years ago when he first appeared. Hayashida has an interesting take on Godzilla, speculating that the big guy is a living nuclear weapon, and right then you see the film’s political angle at play: nuclear weapons.
RETURN OF GODZILLA positions itself right in the middle of the mid-1980s Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union were busy unzipping their pants and swinging nuclear arsenals at one another. It’s this angle that resonates most strongly with me. The US and Soviets send Government Men to Japan to implore the Japanese Prime Minister (Keiju Kobayashi) to let them nuke Godzilla out of existence. Both countries make impassioned plea after plea, and the film plays both sides as itching to let their expensive weapons out of the barn and put them to use. In a wonderfully edited sequence, just before the Prime Minister of Japan gives his verdict, the film cuts back in time so we can see the PM’s deliberations with his own cabinet about the expected casualties, showing that while he will sit and listen to both sides, he’s come to his conclusion before they even stepped out of their limousines, and it’s a decision made by a Japanese Prime Minister based on what’s best for the Japanese people. The film comes back to the present, and the PM tell the Soviets and Americans, “No nukes.”
Everything about this angle resonates, and we see both a Prime Minister and a country caught between the horrors of their own past rising out of the waters to attack them while simultaneously being squeezed by the political concerns of the world’s two contemporary superpowers.
One of the reasons I’ve come to love the Godzilla franchise so much is how mutable it has proven to be over the decades: Godzilla films can be serious or goofy, political or kid-friendly, horror or sci-fi, intimate or epic. RETURN is both political and intimate, and this combination of big and small picture storytelling works beautifully to set the scene for Godzilla’s rampage.
Beyond Hayashida and the politicians, the cast is simple: a reporter (Ken Tanaka), a survivor of Godzilla’s initial attack upon his return (Shin Takuma), and the sister to the latter who becomes the love interest to the former (Yasuko Sawaguchi). These are the three characters (along with Hayashida) who are charged with the human angle and they do a serviceable job, though I’m never fully drawn in by their story as I am with the politics.
Godzilla is the film’s most interesting character. For starters, this might very well be the best-looking of all Godzilla’s, as he perfectly straddles the line between old school, rubber-suited charm and full-on, modern cinematic menace.
There’s intelligence in his eyes and in his actions. He makes it personal when he fights the Super X, a spaceship-looking craft that is sent to attack him. The humans first get the better of Godzilla, knocking him unconscious, but when Godzilla rises (thanks to a storm caused by the detonation of Soviet and US nuclear weapons), he goes after Super X. The result is a High Noon showdown in downtown Tokyo. It’s a phenomenal performance by Kenpachiro Satsuma.
It’s also one of the best shot of all Godzilla films. Katsumi Hara’s cinematography is on point, at parts epic and other times intimate. It’s not just, “set up the camera and film Godzilla smashing things,” but a clearly intentional attempt to find the best angles for each scene. The use of angles (low-angle, wide-angle, close-up, especially) heightens the film’s emotional impact
RETURN OF GODZILLA is a very good movie, full of love and legends, politics and power, holding on and letting go.
The Heisei era of Godzilla films gets off to a smashing start.