Also known as Godzilla 1984 (or Godzilla 1985 if you were in North America) The Return of Godzilla was Toho’s reboot of the Godzilla series in the hopes of boosting dwindling ticket sales that the franchise had been getting of late. Despite the film having been produced during the Shōwa period (1954-1975) The Return of Godzilla is considered to be the first entry in the Heisei series, and it completely ignores the previous entries considering itself a direct sequel to the original 1954 classic. This entry goes with a darker tone, no longer is Godzilla a friend to children in short pants, nor will he be seen fighting other monsters. Once again Godzilla is a rampaging force of nature that could spell the end of mankind.
The film itself doesn’t feel much like your standard Godzilla movie; as with most entries in the franchise Godzilla’s screen time is limited due to budgetary constraints, but instead of the rest of the movie being filled with goofy alien subplots or idiotic adventures with small Japanese children, this movie has more of a horror film vibe with a dash of government thriller. The movie opens with a Japanese fishing vessel being tossed by rough seas after a volcanic eruption, one that of course awakens and unleashes Godzilla onto the world, and the sole survivor onboard is Hiroshi Okumura (Shin Takuma). This poor chap is discovered by news reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka), who was sailing in the area when he came across the seemingly abandoned vessel, and while investigating the “ghost ship” he is attacked by a giant sea louse. He is saved by Hiroshi and the two becomes friends, but it’s Hiroshi’s sister Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi) that Hiroshi would prefer to get friendly with.
It’s nothing unusual to have a love story in a Godzilla film, the 1954 original had the classic love triangle, but the opening of The Return of Godzilla is shot more like a horror film than it is your standard kaiju film. Hiroshi creeps through the darkened corridors of the ghost ship as if Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers could pop out wielding an axe or machete at any time. The first crew member that Hiroshi encounters looks like more like a victim of a space vampire than it does Godzilla.
Godzilla himself appears out of a fog bank like a giant spectre, and the score is very understated and creepy, completely unlike the Godzilla march composed by the great Akira Ifukube, who refused to return to the franchise upon hearing that the monster was to be increased from 50 metres to 80 metres (260ft) stating, “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters.” Though his iconic score is greatly missed I’d say Reijiro Koroku did a fine job going in very different and slightly creepy direction.
The first half of the film works almost as a political thriller with the government trying to cover up the return of Godzilla to prevent wide spread panic. Hiroshi’s news article is suppressed and Goro Maki’s survival is kept under wraps, Hiroshi goes against the government by letting Naoko know that her brother is alive, but when a Russian nuclear submarine is destroyed by Godzilla the Japanese government has to cop to the truth to prevent Russia from going to war with the United States, who they blamed for the incident. Things get tense when both Russia and the United States want Japan’s consent to launch nuclear missiles against Godzilla, and after much debate the Japanese Prime Minister (Keiju Kobayashi) refuses and decides to go with more conventional weapons. Historically speaking the Japanese being less than keen about having an atomic explosion on their soil is not all that surprising. Lucky for them they happen to have an armored flying fortress called the Super X which can shoot cadmium rounds that would hopefully neutralizes Godzilla’s atomic power as his heart is similar to a nuclear reactor, the cadmium shells would then slow down his heart, and knock him unconscious.
I always feel sorry for the Japanese military in these movies as their sole job seems to be to have their ass kicked by Godzilla, and then a heroic scientist will come up with a plan to save the day. I’d like for once to see a Japanese General refuse to send his troops against Godzilla, stating, “Fuck you guys, get Dr. Serizawa on phone and let him come up with something!” It’s just never ever remotely a fair fight.
In The Return of Godzilla the role of Dr. Serizawa is filled by Naoko’s mentor Dr. Hayashida (Yôsuke Natsuki) who has a plan to use a magnetic signal to trigger Godzilla’s migratory response, which would be used to lure him to a volcanic island where they could then trigger an eruption and bury the monster once and for all. Seems like a brilliant plan but of course a few incidents occur that delay this effort. When Godzilla waded ashore he had, in passing, destroyed a Russia cargo ship that just so happened to be a secret missile control center. and the destruction of this ship caused an orbital missile platform to accidentally launch a strike at the heart of Tokyo. The Americans are able to launch their own missile to intercept, but unfortunately the atmospheric explosion causes an electrical storm that revives Godzilla while temporarily disabling the Super X.
The Return of Godzilla is a decent entry in the series, and though not the financially windfall the studio had hoped for it at least put the Godzilla franchise back on track and out of the silliness of some of the previous installments. It does return to the formula of science not military might being the way to defeat the monster, but director Koji Hashimoto added some horror elements to give the franchise some freshness, and it even had some stuff right out of 70s disaster movies. At one point Hiroshi and Naoko have to escape from a building severely damaged by Godzilla and it’s almost a complete lift from an Irwin Allen movie.
To make up for the lacklustre box office receipts the film was released in North America where once again Raymond Burr, who was added in the American release of the original back in 1954, is back to look on in horror at the destruction of this atomic monster. In a bit of Cold War propaganda the American edit makes the Russian missile launch look deliberate and leaves out the Russian officer dying in the attempt to stop it. I advise you avoid this cut of the film and track down the Japanese one.
Note: At no point in the film do they explain how Godzilla is alive to return in the first place. The 1954 film ended with Godzilla being reduced to a skeleton by the Oxygen Destroyer. Did he just get better?