Author’s note: I will review both versions of the movie but I will only summarize the Japanese version. However, I will state the differences between the two versions in the review section of this article. Also, there are mild spoilers.
Starring: Ken Tanaka, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Shin Takuma, Yosuke Natsuki, Keiju Kobayashi, Raymond Burr, and Kenpachiro Satsuma as Godzilla.
Directed by Koji Hashimoto and R.J. Kizer (US footage).
Written by Hideichi Nagahara, Tomoyuki Tanaka, Anthony Randel, Lisa Tomei, and Straw Weisman.
Score by Reijiro Koroku
SPFX by Teruyoshi Nakano
“I do not write music for 80 meter monsters.”
-alleged quote from Akira Ifukube on the offer to score for The Return of Godzilla
After the success of the second American reboot of the Big G and news of Toho making their very own Godzilla movie due for release next year, it seems that the Big G is getting the respect he deserves. Ah, where are my manners? I’m Dr. Newton Geiszler and I hope to make a fine addition on the Supernaughts.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get on with the subject and go back thirty years ago. It’s the eighties and nine years have passed since the last Godzilla movie. In the minds of general public, Godzilla was considered a joke. To use comic book terminology, the franchise had started out in the Golden age before sliding into the Silver Age, the movies considered sub-par by the majority of moviegoers.
Stuff like the endless stock footage to pad out the run time, terrible dubbing, unconvincing rubber suits smashing obvious miniature metropolitan cities, the tail slide kick, and childish plots came to mind whenever Godzilla was mentioned.
It had become apparent that, despite two solid films pitting him against his iconic robotic doppelgänger, the franchise had become stale by the mid seventies. Ideas were bounced back and forth on what the next movie would be, none of them coming to fruition. Plus, they ran out of funding for any more movies so they dropped the hammer on the big guy. It wouldn’t be until 1983 when Toho hosted a film festival of the older entries and other Toho SF films that enthusiasm for Godzilla had increased with a generation of younger fans. It was then Toho decided to just reboot the franchise and start from scratch, using the original film as a springboard.
PRODUCTION: Tomoyuki Tanaka had tried bringing back director Ishiro Honda and composer Akira Ifukube for this installment but both men felt that the franchise had jumped the shark. The quote from Ifukube on Godzilla’s size basically summed up their sentiments. They also attributed the death of special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya as part of the reason why they didn’t come back. Honda would go on to help his friend Kurosawa on Ran instead. While Ifukube relented and came back for Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Godzilla and Mothra: Battle for Earth, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla 2, and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, Honda didn’t come back. Allegedly, Honda had changed his mind and was slated to direct Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla 2 but he died before anything could come of it. Originally, Akihiko Hirata, the man who played Prof. Serizawa, was supposed to play Prof. Hayashida but he tragically died of throat cancer in 1983 and the role went to Yosuke Natsuki.
Teruyoshi Nakano would be in charge of the special effects and Reijiro Koroku, in his first and only Godzilla film, would compose the score. Actress Yasuko Sawaguchi was hired due to her popularity at the time and would come back in a different role in the next Godzilla movie, before moving on to voice Chihiro’s mom in Spirited Away. The film’s budget was a whopping $6.25 million, giving Teruyoshi a lot more wiggle room than the previous films. The techniques the SPFX crew used to bring the Big G to life were two suits, one for land and one for water, a dummy, a concept maquette, and a highly touted 20 foot tall animatronic dubbed Cybot Godzilla.
Meanwhile, Toho had started negotiations for North American distribution, their price being several million dollars. They had gone to most of the big studios like MGM/United Artists and they were turned down since, apparently, everyone thought that spending cash for a Godzilla movie was a waste. Eventually, Toho lowered their price down $500,000 and New World Pictures swooped in and took the deal. New World themselves spent $200,000 to shoot the new American footage, $2,500,000 for the prints and marketing.
And since they had a sponsorship deal with Dr. Pepper, New World
shoved it in our faces put in certain shots of Dr. Pepper whenever possible. Needless to say, it’s egregious. Producer Anthony Randel also planned to do a gag dub à la What’s Up, Tiger Lily, proving that hackfraud celebrated auteur Woody Allen nearly ruined the film and almost made it worse by corrupting it with his godawful shtick influenced the production. However, Raymond Burr caught wind of this and during a meeting at a restaurant, he flat out told the producer that if they went ahead with the gag dub, he would quit.
Burr told Randel that he needed to have respect for Godzilla as a nuclear metaphor. And by some damn miracle the producer came to his senses and agreed with Burr. R.J. Kizer, New Jersey native, NYU film school graduate, and director of the American footage, met up with Randel at a Hamburger Hamlet as the producer offered the fledgling film editor “a chance for immortality.” After production for Godzilla 1985 wrapped up, Kizer would go on to helm two more movies, one of them being the low budget cult classic Hell Comes To Frogtown, before working on ADR for such films as The Lion King, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Inception, and Interstellar. As for Anthony Randel, he went on to direct some movie called Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 or something.
PLOT SUMMARY: Taking place 30 years after Godzilla attacked Tokyo in 1954, the plot kicks off with a volcanic eruption on Daikoku Island. Three months later, a fishing boat, the Fifth Yahata Maru, caught in a massive storm off the coast of the same island. One of the main characters on the ship, Hiroshi Okumura, played by Shin Takuma, a nervous fisherman who has the worst luck in the world as he witnesses a a certain behemoth rising from the sea. After the storm has passed, we’re introduced to the movie’s protagonist Goro Maki, played by Ken Tanaka, a reporter relaxing on his yacht while listening to his radio about a report of a missing ship when he coincidentally happens upon the ship from the news report. Curious, Goro boards it and finds it in disarray as he looks for survivors. And, in one of the movie’s shocking moments, Goro searches the radio room only to find a horrifically emaciated corpse and many more decayed cadavers in the crew cabins.
He stumbles upon Okumura hiding in a locker, barely alive and holding a knife in death grip, but before Goro can help him, a nasty sea louse the size of a dog attacks and nearly kills him. Luckily enough, Okumura saves Goro as he kills the sea louse.
Afterwards, as Goro gives him medical aid, Okumura talks about about witnessing a gigantic monster rising out of the ocean before a search and rescue helicopter finds them. Back on the mainland, Okumura stays at a hospital as he is visited by Makoto Hayashida, played by Yosuke Natsuki, who shows him pictures of Godzilla’s 1954 attack. After ascertaining his reaction and examining the dead sea louse, Hayashida concludes that another Godzilla has shown up. The Japanese Govt., wanting to prevent mass hysteria, puts out a news blackout on the Yahata Maru incident and keeps Okumura’s existence a secret.
Goro goes to his editor after hearing that his story can’t be printed and his editor directs him to Hayashida, who he interviews, before noticing a young female assistant who bears a resemblance to a girl from a photo he took from Okumura. Hayashida tells Goro his assistant is Naoko Okumura, played Yasuko Sawaguchi, sister to the hapless fisherman, and warns him to not tell Naoko of her brother’s status. Goro simply ignores this and later on reveals to Naoko that her brother is alive, takes her to the hospital where Okumura is being held, and a tearful reunion between siblings is interrupted by Goro snapping pictures of them. Naoko is shocked at the blatant manipulation by the reporter.
Meanwhile, during a routine patrol in the Pacific Ocean, a Russian Delta II class nuclear submarine is annihilated by Godzilla. The fallout of the attack, coupled with the lack of knowledge about Godzilla, causes the Soviets to become wary of the United States and the United States simply prepares for retaliation. Cold War tensions begin to escalate and the World War III begins to loom on the horizon. The Japanese Prime Minister, played by Keiju Kobayashi, decides to reveal the existence of Godzilla to both superpowers and while this ends the stand off, the Soviets and the US now want to nuke The Big G if he shows up on Japanese shores. The JSDF begin their search for Godzilla in Japanese waters and the news blackout is lifted, with Goro’s story the first to be printed. Soon after, Godzilla makes his incursion and destroys a nuclear power plant as Goro, Hayashida, and Okumura bear witness to the Big G feeding off the reactor before he abruptly leaves the demolished plant, to the puzzlement of the trio.
The news media has a field day about the nuclear power plant’s destruction and the US and Soviets press on authorization for use of nuclear weapons on Godzilla. Hayashida, Goro, and Okumura go over the photographs of the attack as Okumura notes that Godzilla seemed to be following a flock of birds away from the site. Hayashida makes a hypothesis that, since dinosaurs and birds are related, Godzilla has a homing instinct that was triggered by the frequency of the bird cries.
He then formulates a plan to the Japanese Govt. where they reproduce the same frequency of the bird cry to lure Godzilla away from Japan. The decision is made to lure Godzilla to Mt. Mihara, a volcano, on Oshima Island. Okumura is sent over there with Professor Minami (cameo role by series regular Hiroshi Koizumi) as the plan for a controlled detonation is put into effect. As the contingency plan goes into preparations, the primary plan is to launch the top secret flying fortress Super-X, armed with cadmium shells, against Godzilla. Envoys from the US and the Soviets are sent to a conference with the Prime Minister to pressure him into giving into their demands to nuke Godzilla on Japanese territory. The Prime Minister fires back by telling them would they give the same authorization to use nuclear weapons if Godzilla showed up Washington, D.C. or Moscow.
After the conference, a visibly stressed Prime Minister talks it over with his cabinet over on whether he made the right decision. And a Russian freighter named the Barasheibo, docked in the Tokyo Bay, carries a nuclear launch device to its nuclear satellite. During all of this, Godzilla is spotted, making his way to Tokyo. The JSDF prepare defense lines and the JASDF send out their Mitsubishi F-1 CCV fighter jets only for Godzilla to make short work of them. He then proceeds through Tokyo bay, causing waves that sends the Barasheibo crashing against the docks which kills most of the crew and malfunctions the launch timer, accidentally causing it to start its ominous countdown as Type 74 tanks, Ballistic Missile Launchers, and M110A2 Self-Propelled Howitzers try their best to stop Godzilla to no avail. Godzilla heads into the city as the showdown between the Big G and the Super-X, and possibly a nuclear holocaust, await in the apocalyptic third act.
REVIEW: All right, not bad for a comeback, eh? So, is this movie a worthy addition to the franchise or is it a dud that deserves no attention?
I’ll talk about the negative stuff first so we can get to the positive stuff. For starters, the pacing for this movie is sluggish. This movie is trying go back to the franchise’s roots and that means a slow burn for the most part, which isn’t a bad thing, but some unnecessary scenes could have been cut out. The editing for the film is jarring at times, which hurts the flow of the movie at times, especially in the third act. Some scenes run on for too long. And then there’s the narrative flaw the movie makes by trying too hard to get the audience to sympathize with Godzilla, even though he’s causing massive property damage and loss of human life.
Unlike the original, which acknowledges that the first Godzilla is a monster, albeit a tragic one. At no point do we see him do anything that warrants our sympathy for him. Destroying a nuclear power plant, leveling the city just by walking through it, blowing up a news chopper which falls onto traffic jam and ignites a chain reaction of explosions, and chucking a train full of innocents to their doom. Yep, this movie wants to have its cake and eat it too.
And the acting sort of varies in this movie, as Ken Tanaka and Yasuko Sawaguchi don’t make for compelling leads. Even their characters don’t have much going for them, their chaste romance not having much chemistry, and Tanaka’s character Goro is nearly unlikable. Despite Toho’s insistence that this was meant as a serious movie, there are moments in the Japanese version that just leave me scratching my head, such as the ending and the credits that follow afterwards. The climax where Godzilla falls down into the crater of Mt. Mihara had the scream edited out which kills what is otherwise a really tragic scene and then the Japanese pop song that plays during the credits RIGHT after this already negated moment just makes it even more blah.
The American version fares no better since it’s basically a Cold War propaganda film that portrays the Russians as trigger happy villains, and cutting out the Japanese commentary on the Cold War, such as editing a pivotal scene in the movie where, during Godzilla’s incursion of Tokyo bay, the Soviet colonel on-board the freighter attempts to stop the malfunctioned nuclear launch and fails. It is edited to make it seem like he deliberately launched the nuke, by inserting footage of a hand pressing a button.
Certain scenes, like the explanation for the irradiated sea louse, are cut out, with only a throwaway line to explain it. The conference with the Japanese, Americans, and Russians is also cut short as well and it is a damn shame, as Kobayashi’s performance in those scenes are a highlight. The American footage inserted in the film is, for the lack of a better word, crap. Raymond Burr is in the footage, like how Godzilla, King of the Monsters was done, except this time he really is more of a spectator and adds nothing to the film.
The American footage doesn’t add much to the movie. The other American actors, Warren J. Kemmerling (who also had a bit role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is over the top, Travis Swords (Lonesome Dove) is miscast, and James Hess is serviceable. Travis Swords in particular is so grating especially with the terrible jokes, leftover from the original draft, that he throws out. One scene in particular has Burr momentarily breaking character, where Swords jokes lamely about Japan having an urban renewal program, looking visibly displeased.
Now it seems I was too harsh on this movie but nothing could be further from the truth. Both versions have their flaws and they also have their strengths. And, luckily enough, the positives outweigh the negatives. While the leads are bland, the supporting cast is most certainly not, as Shin Takuma does a really good job as the shell shocked Okumura who wants to revenge against Godzilla. And Yosuke Natsuki is really solid as the stoic, world weary scientist Hayashida who empathizes with Godzilla.
Keiju Kobayashi plays the Prime Minister as just an ordinary man who struggles to hold himself in the face of the worst crisis he has faced in his term. As I’ve mentioned before, the conference scene showcases Kobayashi’s best acting in the movie. Raymond Burr, in his last Godzilla film, could have easily phoned in his thankless role, but nope, he gives it his all and it pays off. His soliloquy at the end should be nonsensical but he delivers it with aplomb.
Lastly, but definitely not least, Kenpachiro Satsuma deserves praise as well. Yes, I consider the stuntman in the suit part of the cast as well. If he’s playing the titular character, whilst wearing a poorly ventilated, 200 pound, ill-fitting suit that was too small for him because the guy who was supposed to wear it dropped out at the last minute, then Hell Yes Satsuma is part of the cast.
The one thing that is present in the original version that isn’t on the American version is the Japanese perspective on the Cold War. The movie is a nuanced observation of the tensions between the US and Russia and how Japan felt like a pawn in this power struggle.
It vividly captures a time when folks back then thought that nuclear Armageddon was right around the corner. And it also perfectly captures how overwhelming the modernized world is, Godzilla looking like a fish out of water amongst the buildings towering over him. How our technology can suddenly backfire on us with horrific results, as evident with the nuclear satellite. The whole movie, when it’s not tonally off, has this really oppressive, Gothic atmosphere. The color palette is subdued, Reijiro Koroku’s score is awesomely foreboding, and Godzilla is frightening again. If not scary, then at least more fierce than his run in the 70’s. Certain parts of this movie feel like they’re from a horror movie, specifically the part where Goro stumbles upon the dead bodies on the fishing boat.
I remembered that it really unnerved me as a kid when he turned that chair around and shined his light on the decaying radioman. It was probably the most visceral moment I’ve seen in any Godzilla movie and it really came out of left field for me.
Regardless of which version you’re watching, the budget REALLY shows, from set design, to the suits, to the gigantic 20 foot cybot that was used in promotion for the movie. Kind of like how the 1976 remake of Kong was purported to use a full sized armature of Kong for the whole movie and not the three seconds of actual footage, the Cybot Godzilla was to feature heavily in the movie except that it was only capable of waving its arms and swivelling its head. The difference being that the Cybot is more prevalent in the movie, used sparingly for close-up shots in the movie. While the jerky and stiff movement might be off-putting at first, the design clashing with how the suit looks, it’s a cool look.
The film’s highlight would have to be Godzilla facing off against the “Super X”, a flying saucer-like sleek military aircraft, in the demolished Shinjuku district. And it ends with what has to be the most crowd pleasing moment as Godzilla topples a skyscraper right on top of the Super X. Having worked on most of the Godzilla films from the 70’s, this would be veteran special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano’s last Godzilla film before he retired, passing the torch to the next generation of special effects artists.
While the American version may lack the deep message, R.J. Kizer more than makes up for with better editing, such as the attack on the Russian sub, which was static in the Japanese version, is more frenetic. The scene with the sea louse is made more frantic and the missile nearly striking Tokyo is edited in a way that adds suspense. Pacing runs along more smoothly and the flab is cut out. Even some of the reused scores from other movies, such as Def-Con 4, fits in well with Koroku’s score.
Scenes where a crowd surrounds Godzilla after his temporary defeat by the Super X are removed or moved near the beginning of his attack, giving Tokyo the feeling of a ghost town that only adds more to the apocalyptic tone. While Godzilla is made to be more villainous, the American version still remains true to the Big G’s essence. It helps that they don’t make the same stupid mistake the Toho executives did and keep the heartbreaking scream Godzilla lets out as he falls in the crater.
And for the credits, well, they just play a medley of the movie’s soundtrack which makes it consistent in the tone of the movie. Kizer even includes a scene where the American military brass goes over footage from the original as they treat it like a newsreel (Ishiro Honda’s documentary style makes it work really well). Frankly, the purists should stop giving Raymond Burr shit since the man went out of his way to keep the film from becoming much more worse than it is.
VERDICT: They’re both flawed yet solid Godzilla films that bring back the Big G in style. Neither of them is perfect but they are exceptionally well made for the time and are a unique look back at a different time period.
Unfortunately, due to some really lame copyrights issues, there has never been an official DVD release of both versions of this movie in the US. Yet. Of course, whose to say you can’t find both versions on the internet? I leave you with Burr’s parting words.
Next article will focus on the film that provides us with this line: “Shit damn we are the lethal weapon!”