Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Return of Godzilla (1984) / Godzilla 1985 (1985)

In my review of the original Godzilla, I mentioned the story of how I was first introduced to Godzilla, including the first Godzilla movie I ever watched: Godzilla 1985. I won't go through all of it again because of that. The important part is that I was hooked, and like most Godzilla fans who were old enough to do so, I have always had a special place in my heart for the first one I ever saw.

That does not mean, however, that this was instantly and forever a favorite of mine. This movie is very deliberately dark, thematically, and when I was but eight years of age I did not really go in for that sort of thing. Also, Godzilla was a villain in this film and I wanted a monster I was supposed to root for.

However, our tastes always change as we mature and I eventually began to appreciate Godzilla as a hero, anti-hero, or a villain. I was glad to add a cheap EP cassette of this film to my collection in the mid-90s.

So it's a shame, then, that once DVD replaced VHS, this movie disappeared indefinitely in the US.

Prior to the advent of DVD, this movie seemed ubiquitous. You could find dozens of cheap VHS tapes of it, often bundled with other Godzilla movies. It wasn't even remotely rare, while something like Destroy All Monsters didn't get a legitimate VHS release until 1998! So what happened?

Well, rights happened. Specifically, music rights. When New World Pictures, a studio founded by the great Roger Corman, decided to import the film they decided to drastically re-edit it--and I'll touch more on that in a bit. Part of this included adding additional themes by composer Christopher Young, from his score to New World's Def-Con 4. At the time, Young was essentially a nobody so it wasn't much different from slapping a library score on it.

Flash forward to the first decade of the 21st Century, however, and New World Pictures has been defunct for years. Its library of films has been scattered to the winds, essentially, and no two films have the same license holder. Suddenly, those cues from Def-Con 4 mean Godzilla 1985 can't be released on DVD without cutting through a lot of red tape.

Bizarrely, these rights issues somehow even blocked the original Japanese film from an American release, and it didn't contain any of those borrowed cues!

Cut to this month, when Kraken Releasing was finally able to release the film on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time in North America. No one was shocked when the release was announced that it would only be the Japanese version, but those of us who had never seen it were excited to finally get the chance without having to bootleg it.

However, was the original film a "lost gem" for American fans or did New World have the right idea in chopping it up?

We open with a fiery volcanic eruption on Daikoku Island. Three months later, the fishing boat Yahata-Maru finds itself caught in a terrible storm and adrift near a strange island. The youngest member of the crew, Hiroshi Okumura (Shin Takuma), is fighting to keep his last meal down in the boat's wheelhouse when he notices something off about the island. As Hiroshi watches, the island is rocked by explosions and then it seems to rise up out of the sea, as a tremendous (and familiar) roar rings out.

The next morning, reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) is out sailing when he hears a convenient news report about the missing Yahata-Maru just as the derelict ship drifts in front of him. Going aboard, Maki finds the ship seemingly deserted until he goes down below decks and is greeted by a horrible smell-before discovering the entire crew has been reduced to desiccated corpses, practically skeletons with a thin layer of skin over their bones. However, after triping and falling in a puddle of a strange white goo, he notices a locker nearby is hanging open--and Maki finds Hiroshi hidden inside, alive but unconscious and gripping a knife in his hands.

After finding Hiroshi's student ID and a picture of him with a pretty young woman in the lad's wallet, Maki goes to take a picture--only to be interrupted by the appearance of a giant sea louse, which announces its emergence from its hiding spot by borrowing Ebirah's screech. The nerd in me is forced to point out that this creature's official name is Shockirus, but if you ever lord it over someone that they don't know that, I hope you receive all of the wedgies. All of them.

Well, the sea louse--which has already walked off having what apears to be a harpoon lodged in its side--is a nimble little bastard and quite a leaper. Despite his best efforts, Maki quickly finds himself with its fangs at his throat and in danger of becoming just another bloodless corpse in this ghost ship. Luckily for him, Hiroshi has regained consciousness and kills the beast with a blow from a meat cleaver.

Little known fact, this was what happened after Jimmy Fallon ruffled Donald Trump's hair in the first take.
Well, Hiroshi has an even bigger story for Maki than just giant killer invertebrates. See, that louse came off of a monster. A monster so huge that he could barely see it through the boat's windows--a monster that breathed blue fire from its mouth.

Well, once a rescue helicopter takes them both ashore, Maki finds his editor is very skeptical of the story he tells. However, what Maki doesn't know is that Hiroshi is being held at a police hospital, where he is visited by his professor, Professor Makoto Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki). Hayashida has Hiroshi look at some photos. Photos of a large, reptilian creature devastating Tokyo. Hiroshi's look of recognition confirms Hayashida's worst fears.

Hayashida informs his government contacts that they're dealing with a creature that hasn't been seen for 30 years: Godzilla.

Hayashida believes that this new Godzilla must have been disturbed by the recent volcanic eruption. The sea louse that killed the crew, aside from Hiroshi, by draining them of all blood and bodily fluids must have achieved its great size through mutation caused by feeding on the radioactive tissue of Godzilla. Well, Prime Minister Seiki Mitamura (Keiju Kobayashi) decides that, until Godzilla's aggressive intentions toward Japan can be confirmed, his return will be kept secret.

Maki confronts his editor about having his story pulled as a result, and is told about the fact that the government is keeping the story secret to avoid a panic. However, hsi editor sends him to meet with Hayashida, since he feels Maki deserves to have the best scoop on Godzilla once they're cleared to publish the story. Maki discovers quickly that Hayashida has dedicated his life to studying Godzilla after his parents were killed in the first Godzilla's attack on Tokyo in 1954. Hayashida has a lot of interesting ideas about what makes Godzilla tick, as well.

Maki becomes even more interested when he meets Hayashida's assistant, Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi), because he recognizes her from the picture in Hiroshi's wallet. Hayashida informs Maki that she's Hiroshi's sister and at present the official story is that her brother and the rest of the crew are missing. Well, Maki takes a shine to Naoko and almost immediately blabs the truth to her and even engineers to have a tearful sibling reunion at the police hospital--after all, it makes for a perfect photo op.

Well, the secrecy campaign is about to come to an end right quick. A Soviet nuclear sub on patrol encounters a strange object that is neither whale nor submarine, and their attempt to kill it with two torpedoes just makes it destroy them all the faster. Naturally, this puts both the Russians and the Americans on high alert--so when photos taken from an anti-submarine patrol plane show Godzilla at the scene of the sinking, the Prime Minister calls a press conference to announce to the world that Godzilla was responsible and to have Hiroshi give his testimony as well. Hiroshi swears vengeance on Godzilla, which is a somewhat lofty goal.

The JSDF outlines a plan for defeating Godzilla, which includes the "Super-X"--a top-secret experimental airship built to defend Japan, which will be equipped with cadmium shells in the hopes it will control Godzilla's nuclear power the way cadmium is used to control nuclear reactors. It's clearly inspired by Hayashida's hypothesis that Godzilla feeds on radiation, which is why he attacked the Soviet sub. Even though the sub was destroyed further from Japan than the attack on the Yahata-Maru, Hayashida is confident that Godzilla will come to Japan because he will seek out sources of radioactive fuel.

Well, Hayashida is quickly proven right. A thick fog allows Godzilla to sneak past the armada out searching for him and he makes landfall at the Ihama nuclear plant. And I will never forget the reveal of this, as an unfortunate guard finds himself at Godzilla's feet and lifts his gaze up, up, up...

This Godzilla is even bigger than the first, towering at 80 meters instead of 50, and he quickly smashes his way through the nuclear plant as the hapless workers try to shut down the reactor and get out of his way. Most don't succeed. Hayashida arrives with Maki and Hiroshi by helicopter, where they film Godzilla breaking into the reactor and watch his plates flicker with blue energy as he absorbs all the radiation from the reactor core.

Yet, when a flock of birds flies overhead, Godzilla suddenly drops the reactor and turns to follow them into the sea. While examining the electronic photos of Godzilla's head, Hayashida explains that he has long theorized that dinosaurs had a homing instinct similar to migratory birds and that the area of Godzilla's brain he's examining is magnetically attuned to the Earth's polar fields. That's when Hiroshi realizes that Godzilla left because of the birds flying overhead, which he seemed to follow. Hayashida deduces that the bird's chirping somehow triggered Godzilla's homing instinct and perhaps they can use that. He sends Hiroshi to go see an old geologist friend of his, Professor Minami (Hiroshi Koizumi!) at the Mt. Mihara volcano.

We'll soon see that this is because Hayashida and Minami have a plan. Once Hayashida finds the right frequency to lure Godzilla, they will set off a controlled eruption at Mt. Mihara and Godzilla will be pulled into the volcano. Most of the politicians are skeptical of this plan, but the Prime Minister decides to split the difference and let the military handle Godzilla while also going ahead with the Mt. Mihara plan. Maki tells Hayashida that burying Godzilla in lava is ingenious, but Hayashida intones that they can't truly "bury" Godzilla--he feels the creature is an omen of the downfall of humanity, and all he can do is find a way to send him home.

Hayashida may be on to something, because the Prime Minsister is yelled at by the Russians and Americans, who try to browbeat Japan into allowing their nuclear weapons to be used on Godzilla. Half of the Prime Minister's own cabinet agrees with the superpowers, but the Prime Minister ultimately follows his conscience and refuses. Unfortunately, the Russians have already placed a control device for their nuclear satellite on board a freighter anchored in Tokyo Bay, and even though the control device is shut down after Japan refuses nuclear weapons, it doesn't handle being jostled well when Godzilla surfaces in Tokyo Bay and engages the JSDF.

Despite the best efforts of the Soviet captain, the control device short circuits and he is killed before he can shut it off. The countdown to the missile launch begins as Godzilla wipes out the JSDF front lines with his radioactive flame breath and makes his way into Tokyo. Godzilla shoots down a helicopter, which crashes onto a crowded expressway and sets off a chain reaction of explosions--which is a pretty impressive effect until you find out it's stock footage from Prophecies of Nostradamus, made a decade earlier. A passenger train also makes the mistake of stopping when the engineer sees Godzilla approaching, so he lifts up a car to peer in through the windows and then drops it as he continues on his way.

Typical tourist, thinks everything is a souvenir.
Hayashida and Naoko are hard at work fine tuning their frequency when Maki arrives at their lab to assist. After Godzilla frightens a comic relief bum (Tetsuya Takeda), he passes by the lab and Hayashida is able to successfully test his frequency emitter. Unfortunately, as everyone is packing up, a laser tank decides to choose that moment to shoot Godzilla and when the beast whirls, his tail smashes the base of their building. A security door traps the three from reaching the roof access for the helicopter that's coming to get them.

Well, the Super-X arrives and uses flares to get Godzilla to open his mouth to roar (how did they know he would do that?) and then they fire their cadmium rounds into his mouth. As a crowd of onlookers who weren't able to evacuate looks on, Godzilla blasts the Super-X with his flame breath--which its armor plating absorbs--before succumbing to the cadmium's effects and collapsing into a building, unconscious. Too bad that the Russian nuclear missile has just launched itself at Godzilla's position. Hiroshi arrives with a helicopter to collect Hayashida, Naoko, and Maki but bad turbulence means only Hayashida and Hiroshi are able to evacuate to Mt. Mihara.

Luckily for our heroes and all the doomed souls trapped in Tokyo, the Americans fire their own nuclear missile and successfully shoot down the Soviet missile. However, the EMP from the blast grounds Super-X just as the fallout somehow causes a radioactive lightning storm that returns Godzilla to his full strength--and he has a bone to pick with Super-X and the other half of Tokyo that he hasn't yet destroyed...

"I'm 80 meters tall, how are you missing me?!"
Popular opinion tends to come down rather hard on this film. While I'll say what I think of the film shortly, it isn't terribly hard to see why it gets a bum rap, when you consider some of the truly odd choices it makes.

This is, after all, the most "realistic" Godzilla film in decades, which takes great pains to ground itself in the reality of the time when it was made...and then throws in laser tanks and whatever the hell Super-X is supposed to be. It's also a rather slow and considered film, that takes itself very seriously...yet ends with the truly baffling English-language pop song, "Goodbye Now, Godzilla."

It's not hard to see why the American distributors felt it needed some shoring up. Taking a cue from the fact that the film was a reboot that ignored all but the first film, New World Pictures brought in Raymond Burr to reprise his role as reporter Steve Martin from Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Of course, by this time Steve Martin the comedian had become famous, so the character is never called by his full name all at once)

"If I had just one wish that I could wish, this holiday season..."
Except this time around instead of talking to the back of people's heads, Raymond Burr is forced to merely watch the action occur from a room covered in big TV screens supposedly in the Pentagon. And boy, howdy, did Dr. Pepper win a major defense contract in this film's universe!

"If you haven't had your Dr. Pepper yet, Major, I've got to question your patriotism."
Supposedly New World had wanted to turn the film into more of a farce, but Raymond Burr--who had genuine respect for the character of Godzilla--refused to be involved if they did. So instead they saddled us with a redheaded comic relief Major (played by Travis Swords) who inspires the deepest hatred in all who encounter him.

New World also did some massive editing to the film, as I previously alluded to. Aside from adding Christopher Young's score where appropriate, the American edit cuts several sequences, reorders several shots, and infamously alters the scene of the Russian captain's death so as to make it appear that the man launches the missile with his dying breath. (This includes a pretty hilarious shot of a hand pressing a button) Apparently the head of the studio at the time was pretty right-leaning and couldn't bear to have the Cold War super powers portrayed in a neutral light--though in America in 1985 it's entirely possible a left-leaning studio head honcho might have made the same decision.

It's easy to default to the assumption that any changes made to the creators' original vision were wrong and Godzilla 1985 deserves to be relegated to obscurity, but I strongly disagree. For one thing, the English dub for the film is really good, whereas the International dub for the original film is quite possibly the worst of any Godzilla film before or since. As for the edits, while I think there are definitely moments I wish had not been cut, which I'll get to shortly, there's no question that the American cut has a much brisker pace outside of the Pentagon scenes. Additionally, the American cut actually improves upon the original film in a couple of key scenes.

The first is when Godzilla attacks the train. While I would not have cut the shot of Godzilla reflected in a building as he carries the train forward, cutting the scene so that it looks like Godzilla grabs the train while it's in motion makes it look less silly than the original film having the train stop in front of him so he can leisurely (yet awkwardly) bend down to pick it up.

Second, when Hayashida tests his frequency emitter on Godzilla, the original film has Godzilla just turn and stare at them--where he remains, calmly standing stock still until the laser tanks antagonize him. This, frankly, is rather silly because how does that mark a successful test if the goal was to lure Godzilla somewhere instead of just have him turn around? In the American cut, the scene is wisely re-edited to make it look like Godzilla starts to charge at the building before the laser tanks distract him. It not only makes the scene more exciting, but it just makes way more sense.

The final change for the better happens at the film's end. Well, spoilers for a film that's now 32 years old: Hayashida's plan works and Godzilla is lured into the volcano and plunges in when strategic charges set off an eruption. In the Japanese cut, Godzilla lets out a serious of screeching roars that fade away as he plunges into the lava--and then the film ends with that damned pop song. However, the American cut ends with Godzilla letting out a haunting, echoing scream of fear and pain. Then Raymond Burr earns his paycheck with a stirring speech about Godzilla's significance, before the film's more somber title theme plays over the end credits.

"Ah, a nice relaxing sauna after a long day of city-stomping!"
While I disagree on some of the special effects that the American distributors apparently wrote off as too cheesy to be included--such as most of Maki's fight with Shockirus--they did make one rather wise omission. Among the many efforts to bring Godzilla to life in more expensive, cutting edge ways than in previous films--including a 16-foot tall "cybot" Godzilla used for close-ups--the special effects artists crafted a full-scale foot operated by a crane to interact with fleeing actors. Similar to the full-scale robot that Dino de Laurentiis famously made for his 1976 King Kong, this thing is only used in a couple of fleeting shots because it is awkward, ungainly, and doesn't match the feet of either the suit or the cybot. While I appreciate the effort, the Americans were right to cut its few appearances out entirely.

Now, while I do think the American cut made some improvements, this isn't to say that I think it's the better film overall.

For one thing, the only comic relief in the original film is that damned bum and he's not so bad: especially since he has the decency to die. Since Toho was trying to bring Godzilla back to his roots as a walking allegory for nuclear weapons, it's only fitting that the film is almost as starkly serious as his 1954 debut even with all the silly aspects like a flying saucer that approaches Godzilla butt first for some reason in order to show off its swift "hover and rotate" feature. The American cut naturally minimizes a lot of it, but in this film Godzilla brings with him a lot of criticism about how ludicrous the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War had become at this point in time.

Another aspect of the darkness that I think the American cut unwisely excises is the human cost. The US cut takes all the scenes of frightened civilians fleeing from Godzilla and places virtually all of them prior to Godzilla destroying the train so it looks like a few stragglers got trapped in the city but the rest of the city has been completed evacuated. This includes removing the panicked civilians being herded into underground shelters in a desperate attempt to save them from the Russian nuke.

Sure, one could argue it somehow makes the citizens of Tokyo look dumb or the government incompetent for having anyone still left in the city when they knew Godzilla was coming--but it really just acknowledges how impossible evacuating such a huge city would be.

Despite my ragging on the Super-X, I also think its inclusion was wise. Sure, the film could have kept its military response more realistic, but it's hard to give character to a bunch of expendable military grunts, tanks, planes, and helicopters--but an experimental flying tank is basically a character all its own. It allows Godzilla to have an actual adversary, even if it is one that is hopelessly outmatched by him.

Though the decision to give the Super-X a theme that is essentially a slight rearrangement of the Dragnet theme is...peculiar.

"Just the facts, ma'am."
I also think the characters in the film are a lot more intriguing than they often get credit for. Naoko and Hiroshi are rather disposable, it must be said. Hiroshi was renamed "Ken" in the US cut, which is fitting because his continued relevance to the story begins to feel rather like a little boy in shorts being allowed full access to the war room because he saw the monster first. Naoko's status as simply someone to worry about the men, cry dramatically, and be shielded form death at all turns by the hero is pretty disappointing on the other hand, given that Godzilla films actually have a pretty solid history of presenting fully realized female characters.

Maki is only slightly more engaging, it must be said, but Professor Hayashida is the film's true heart. His character rings pretty damn true, as well--someone who lost everything to a force of nature that he knows he can't possibly defeat, so he's decided to learn all he can about it and try and understand it instead.

While others will surely disagree--such as those who already written off the recent Shin Godzilla, which I have not yet seen at the time of this writing, as "too talky"--there's also something really fascinating about the focus on the Japanese government in this film. It helps to sell Godzilla as a real threat and also adds a lot of drama because, holy crap, how much does it suck to be the government caught between the USSR, the US, and Godzilla?

So, yes, I think that the Japanese cut of this film--minus a few pacing issues here and there--is somewhat better overall than the US cut, but both films have a lot more going for them than I think either gets credit for.

Of course, it wouldn't do for me to leave out the most important part of any Godzilla film: Godzilla himself. This is a very divisive film on that score as well, and there are several reasons for that. For one thing, despite bringing back the four toes, prominent fangs, and tiny ears that had been removed from the creature's design between 1962 and 1975 and attempting to make Godzilla more bestial and menacing--the design still owes rather a lot to the rather cuddly suit from 1973-1975. At least, it does in the suit, which is also one of the bulkiest Godzilla suits ever used and it shows in some of the awkward movements suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma is forced to make. However, damn it all, I love this suit and while the following suit from 1989's Godzilla vs. Biollante is unquestionably superior, this is one of my favorites.

I'm also going to go ahead and admit I'm a fan of the cybot. The fact that the puppet is 16 feet tall is, naturally, a rather pointless detail because it adds nothing to the execution in the actual film--it just makes it an impressive puppet. Sadly, its size is almost the only thing about it that is impressive, despite it ostensibly being granted a lot more expression that the suit.

Taken as a whole, it's easy to see why the cybot is so often the source of fan derision. The damn thing looks virtually nothing like the suit it is supposed to match, its neck is weirdly scrawny when viewed from the front, its arms have the motion of a Rock-Em Sock-Em Robot having a seizure, and its eyes appear to be lit internally...but oh man, I love the way that puppet curls back its lips from its mouthful of razor-sharp teeth. That detail stuck with me as an 8-year-old, I can tell you, and I would draw Godzilla with a massive snarl for years afterward. I'm also fond of its inexplicably lumpy, elephant seal-like nose.

I'm not really sure Sam the Eagle needed a gritty update...
Overall, I have to say that aside from some gaffes like the crane-operated foot and some awkward super-impositions, the effects in this film really are top-notch. While many subsequent Godzilla films could be argued to have had much better effects, this film clearly set the standard for many years after and I really have to admire the innovation that went into bring Godzilla to life--even if those innovations were not all up to the task.

It's a bit of a stretch to call The Return of Godzilla a "lost classic" for fans who had never stooped to bootlegs of it. However, I could not be happier to finally have my grubby hands on it. In fact, the more I watch it the higher it begins to creep into my top ten Godzilla films, should ever make such a list. Obviously, its reputation shows that it won't please everyone, but you can count me among its fans--and not just for nostalgic reasons.

Seriously, did I mention that the cybot was sixteen damn feet tall?!