Friday, April 18, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #16: THE RETURN OF GODZILLA (1984)/GODZILLA 1985 (1985)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ blog Proton Media, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

TRAVIS:

A pattern to sense with Toho is how they use milestone years as opportunities to put some extra muscle behind their films. With the King of the Monsters dormant for almost a decade and his 30th anniversary coming along in 1984, they knew it was time for THE RETURN OF GODZILLA! Longtime producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was at the helm again, this time with Koji Hashimoto (a veteran assistant director from the Showa era) taking on the directing duties. But how do you bring G into a modern, more cynical box office age? By doing a clean reboot of course! Ignoring most of the silly Showa stuff, RETURN restarts the timeline as a direct sequel to the original GOJIRA. Many of the story beats feel similar to the 1954 film too: a ship disaster signals the emergence of Godzilla, nuclear panic sweeps Japan and the world, G makes his stompy way into Tokyo and is finally defeated by EXPERIMENTAL SCIENCE!

Also continuing from GOJIRA is its dark, somber tone. No more fun victory dances or drop kicks! The threat of Godzilla is treated as an actual threat of world-ending possibilities. We see soldiers and citizens run for their lives or die in the destructive path of the monster. America and the Soviet Union squabble over using nuclear weapons to destroy him, while Japan solemnly refuses such warfare after enduring the scars of the past. Even though we haven’t seen Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA, I imagine we’ll be seeing a similar movie to what RETURN was trying to accomplish.

One of the main goals of RETURN is to make Godzilla more animalistic and less anthropomorphic. He’s not here to save the world (yet…) but is a force of nature made wrathful and lethal by the arrogance of man. His design is also refreshed to look more menacing. Of particular note are his set of sharp, almost vampiric teeth and his upper lip that can animate into a snarl. He’s wall-eyed too, so as not to give a sense of trying to read his thoughts or actions. Gotta admit though, while I appreciate that effort, it kinda gives him DERP face in many shots. His height gets changed up as well, bumping him from 50 meters to 80 meters. He grew larger for the times, yet Tokyo had grown faster in the intervening years as even the mighty King of the Monsters was now actually dwarfed by the imposing skyscrapers that the fast growing Japanese had constructed. We’re certainly in a new age of kaiju, Luca. How does it feel?

LUCA:

Isn't it strange how, from a certain period onward, movies feel more "real" to you as a viewer? The aesthetic of movies from the mid-80s on is that of the ones made during my lifetime, so there's a more immediate, visceral connection to the material. So too with THE RETURN OF GODZILLA -- I was instantly captivated by the more “modern” sounding score by Reijiro Koroku and Kazutami Hara’s cinematography. This is also the first movie in quite a while where you really get a sense of Godzilla as a huge monster. His first (partial) appearance in the aforementioned ship disaster is from the POV of a poor sailor who later describes G as “an island that rose up from the sea”. Furthermore, I also liked that G’s presence is shown to have political ramifications. Both Russia and the US are very eager to nuke Godzilla off the face of the Earth and, in the early goings before Japan has made it public that Godzilla has returned, even threaten to escalate the Cold War into a hot one after Zilla destroys a Russian nuclear sub. Poor, long-suffering Japan – the initial secrecy was to avoid mass panic and a stock market crash, but the prime minister decides to make Godzilla’s reappearance public to stop a nuclear war from happening. Noble Japan, ever taking one for the team!

Were there actually two suits made for this movie, Travis? I think G looks decidedly different in some shots (for instance when the Super X is bombarding him on the plaza near the end), though always wall-eyed and derpy. I enjoyed the movie’s change of tone, but I have to say the quality of the actual monsters did not catch up with it. In the days after STAR WARS, THE THING, or even Dino de Laurentiis’ KING KONG, you’d think Toho’s creature people would deliver something on par with those movies. It completely took me out of the movie (after a mere five minutes or so) to see our hero grapple with a monstrous mutated sea louse that had very little articulation going on and indeed seemed to just be thrown onto the actor for him to struggle with. Conversely, G himself looks completely out of place in this more naturalistic looking movie with his shiny, expressionless plastic eyes. If inscrutable is what they were going for, “fake” is unfortunately what came out. Contrasted with the dreamy playtime vibe of the Showa era, the Heisei era is off to a shaky start with a more sophisticated narrative but without the technological advancements to reflect this. It’s a shame too, because Koji does really well in selling Godzilla’s scale and his impact on the environment.

Oh, and, like Godzilla, the continuity whore in me isn’t dead yet! So this is a direct sequel to GOJIRA, huh? How the hell did he grow the meat back on his bones after Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer turned him into a huge skeleton at the bottom of Tokyo Bay? There’s no mention of this being another Zilla than the one from 1954. There is, in fact, some pondering on the notion that G might be indestructible (which a scientist refutes by saying he’s “just an animal”). You’d think that a weapon that put him down for thirty years might be attempted to be studied for flaws or something. I’m aware that Serizawa destroyed all his notes at the end of the original movie and it seemingly didn’t work anyway, but not even a mention? “Godzilla attacked Japan thirty years ago and we made him go away somehow but now he’s back and he’s after all of our precious nuclear reactors but we’re pretty sure he can be destroyed.” Okay mang! Zilla feeding off of nuclear reactors was also a cool new wrinkle I enjoyed, actually. All the more frustrating that so much thought went into this new iteration of Godzilla, only to have his resurgence be so casually glossed over. How did the Heisei era start off for you, Travis? Was there less nostalgic attachment to this one?

TRAVIS:

The primary Godzilla-watching years of my youth were spent with the Showa stuff, and it was only later as a teenager that I discovered the Heisei movies. RETURN was the only entry of that era to be released in theaters (retitled and repackaged as GODZILLA 1985) while the rest were sent directly to video with very limited TV airings, so finding out about these new ‘Zilla flicks for me was almost like uncovering another book in the Bible! While the Heisei films may not hold as much nostalgia, it’s still an entertaining portion of the series and was part of how I started to research Godzilla (and Japanese cinema) beyond what I was given. Perhaps that fondness makes me not nitpicky with the continuity inconsistencies between GOJIRA and RETURN. By now I was used to such disparities. It’s also that fondness that allows me to not mind the low tech Man in Suit among the high tech backdrops and miniatures. Does it especially seem unrealistic in such modern times? Probably, but to me, I can always enjoy the reality of the situation despite the realism of the visuals. I think this mindset is important when enjoying and dissecting Godzilla. No doubt it’s fake, yet it’s not hard for me to find the fantasy to be naturalistic.

BUT HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS MOVIE, TRAVIS??? It’s a nice, little restart! Without another monster foe, we’re back to the “people vs. Godzilla” motif you mentioned in our GOJIRA review, Luca. I’ll admit that the characters aren’t terribly interesting, but I did enjoy the vagrant ransacking the restaurant of fine food and then shooing away G like he was a hungry dog! The perspective of Godzilla as a worldwide threat is handled very well. The tension of the Japanese prime minister and his cabinet deliberating each decision feels like one of those war movies where most of the action takes place in control rooms. I also thought it was pretty funny how the filmmakers try to “mature up” the franchise with the horror movie opening of dead bodies and scary music. They aren’t fucking around with no JET JAGAHHHHH nonsense.

Speaking of fucking around, as an echo of GOJIRA morphing into GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS thirty years ago, New World Pictures acquired RETURN and released their own version of the beast a year later as GODZILLA 1985. As an homage to KING, Raymond Burr returns in new, US-only scenes as retired news reporter Steve Martin (referred to only as “Mr. Martin” to avoid confusion with the popular comedian/WILD AND CRAZAH GUY). And much like in KING, Burr is a spectator, never truly involved in the actions or decisions that impact the plot. He remains at the Pentagon to deliver eloquent monologues and musings on Godzilla and keep American viewers interested so they don’t have to only watch those odd Asians. Apparently, New World wanted to cut up and redub RETURN as a silly riff-raff spoof à la WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILLY, but Burr insisted that they need to preserve the seriousness of the film’s nuclear message. Props to him for still having affinity for a funny little monster flick he did decades ago! However, there’s a specific scene edit that the studio implemented that is rather politically controversial considering how heavy the Cold War hung during this time. How did you feel about the treatment of the Soviets in G’85, Luca?

LUCA:

It's funny how just by adding scenes with the Americans and giving the Americans jokes (even bad ones), the less-represented Russians feel more like villains. Hell, some dialogue tweaks in the US version made it look like those sneaky Russkies were just CHOMPIN AT THU BIT to get their nuclear rocks off with a hidden tanker in Tokyo Bay. BLACK EAGLE flashbacks in this one! I much preferred the RETURN version wherein the Americans looked just as threatening and bull-headed as the Russians, an interesting POV for a film from that period to a guy like me who was brought up on your ROCKY IVs. Let me talk about those American scenes for a second here! Boy howdy, they really didn’t try, huh? Whereas in GOJIRA they attempted to have Burr’s character interact with original characters like Emiko and Serizawa by making use of awkward cutting and blocking, G85 just has Steve summoned to the Pentagon where they sort of talk over the scenes of RETURN as they observe them on a viewscreen.

Besides the vilification of the Russians, the added American scenes in G85 could conceivably work as an alternate POV of the events of RETURN, just like KING OF THE MONSTERS and GOJIRA, but the added distance and Steve’s even greater uselessness to the proceedings make it feel like a far bigger hatchet job than KING. The generally lower quality of voice acting in the overdubbing of the Japanese actors certainly doesn’t help. Learning that they originally wanted to make it a silly comedy doesn’t surprise me one bit. Kudos to Raymond Burr for having the artistic integrity to preserve the original film’s environmental and pacifist themes. Couldn’t have been easy in a movie that features more Dr. Pepper product placement than THOR! I had a hearty laugh at the colonel popping a refreshing Dr. Pepper after G’s initial apparent defeat, only to be chastised by a stern-looking Burr. What a microcosm of that production! It’s even funnier that the colonel thought he’d really earned that cool yet energizing refreshment because he was such a diligent screen-watcher.

The Heisei era is off to a middling start, in my opinion. I liked the integration of the Cold War environment, the attempts to really put people in harm’s way (like our heroes stuck in a building with Godzilla rampaging around them) in the kaiju destruction scenes and the overall successful feeling of weight and size the Godzilla scenes have. Not too fond of the sub par puppetry in a film otherwise reaching for a greater degree of realism, some of the blander human protagonists so far, and the script ALREADY futzing with continuity even though they’ve freed themselves up to only follow the original. Perhaps adding another monster to the mix will spice things up? Join us again next week for GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE!

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