Return of Godzilla, The (R3)
In 1973, the original Godzilla series, known commonly as the “Showa” series, reached its lowest ebb with Godzilla vs. Megalon, the “public domain” favorite that was released by every two-bit video label during the VHS era. The following year Toho redeemed itself somewhat with the better Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, and the next year produced Terror of Mechagodzilla, a tolerable but unexceptional outing. Whether it was because of diminishing box office returns or creative exhaustion – or both – Toho pulled the plug on the series after 1975. For nine years Godzilla slept, waiting for the day when he would be given the chance to wreck Tokyo again...
Newspaper reporter Maki (Ken Tanaka) is in his sailboat taking a pleasure cruise off Japan’s southern coast when he spots a fishing trawler floating, apparently abandoned. He boards the vessel and investigates, discovering that the entire crew seems to have been violently killed. Suddenly he is attacked by a grotesque insect-like monster that pins him to the floor and almost kills him when the vessel’s only survivor, a young man named Okumura (Shin Takuma), slays the beast. The two men are rescued by helicopter, but Okumura has a fantastic story to tell – before the vessel was attacked by the strange creatures he saw a gigantic monster, bigger than anything he’d ever seen before. When researcher Dr. Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki) shows him pictures from Godzilla’s 1954 rampage through Tokyo, Okumura instantly identifies it as the giant monster he saw.
Knowing that news of Godzilla’s survival could result in mass panic for the people of Japan, Prime Minister Mitamura (Keiju Kobayashi) decides to keep the matter a secret. Unfortunately, a Soviet nuclear submarine is soon attacked and destroyed near Japanese territorial waters. Believing that the sub was destroyed by the Americans, the Soviet Union threatens America and NATO with war, and forces Mitamura to go public with the information about Godzilla’s survival, and that naval surveillance photos reveal that it was the monster that destroyed the submarine.
The Soviets and Americans both insist that the Japanese allow them to use nuclear weapons to destroy Godzilla, but Mitamura refuses, preferring to rely on conventional military force and a scientific solution proposed by Hayashida if Godzilla comes ashore in Japan. Not long afterwards, a naval helicopter discovers that the monster is heading for Tokyo Bay. Can Godzilla be stopped this time? Will Japan’s weapons, including its ultra high-tech Super-X aircraft, be enough to destroy the creature, or will history repeat itself and Tokyo be destroyed once again?
Most fans who frequented video stores in the 80’s and 90’s are familiar with the American version of The Return of Godzilla, distributed by New World Pictures under the title Godzilla 1985. With the American release, history repeated itself as the Japanese edit was cut and newly filmed scenes featuring Raymond Burr were spliced in. Although Burr’s presence in the new film, reprising his role as reporter Steve Martin, gave a nice sense of continuity between the production and the 1956 release of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, they also severely disrupted the flow of the movie. When producer Joseph Brenner decided to re-edit the 1954 Gojira, he did it the right way, by having his director and editor integrate Burr into the film’s action and plot through careful shooting and cutting. The American version thus was able to retain much of the original film’s impact. But when New World integrated Burr into the new film, they did it the lazy way, the same way Universal did it for the Americanized King Kong vs. Godzilla and World Entertainment Corporation did it with Gammera the Invincible – they simply filmed new scenes of American actors commenting on the action and spliced them in. In the Godzilla 1985 version the new scenes of Steve Martin discussing the crisis with American military officers stick out like a sore thumb, and slow the film to a crawl.
How good it is then to have this DVD of the original cut. Released in Japan in 1984, The Return of Godzilla sought to be for postwar Japan what the original Gojira was to the generation that had survived World War II. Gone were the corny alien attack subplots that had dominated the series since the late 60's. Gone were the sea monsters, the smog monsters and the space monsters. Gone too was the history of almost the entire series, which was lost in the effort to re-invent the character. In the universe of the film, Godzilla never fought King Kong on Mount Fuji, never slayed Ebirah or destroyed the Red Bamboo movement, never fought and destroyed Mechagodzilla even once. Everything that happened in every Godzilla film between 1955 and 1975 is simply forgotten, and Godzilla's 1954 rampage is the only previous appearance the monster ever made.
The new film is somber, serious and somewhat dark in tone, though ultimately it’s not nearly as dark as the original Gojira. In another attempt to depart from the conventions of the series, The Return of Godzilla tackles head-on the anxieties and insecurities of Japan in the 1980's, a time when the Cold War still raged and Japan, an economic powerhouse with some unique national security problems, still felt acutely vulnerable. This is yet another departure from the Showa series. Godzilla, a product of atomic weapons, was always a Cold War symbol, and in some of the more political films Cold War issues would occasionally pop up, but never before had a Godzilla film tackled any of those issues so directly. When special envoys from the United States and the Soviet Union meet Prime Minister Mitamura, both countries end up being depicted as bullies. Even the United States, Japan's closest ally, comes across as pushy. Both superpowers seem less concerned with protecting Japan than with destroying the monster before it can attack their own countries. But the monster not only threatens Japan in the physical sense, as the nuclear boogeyman that still hung over the country, but also is a threat to Japan’s economy and political stability. When the editor of Maki’s newspaper heeds a government order not to print revelations of Godzilla’s existence, the editor justifies the decision to him by saying that if the monster’s continuing survival was known it would cause the stock market to crash and the government to fall.
It is interesting to note that despite the presence of significant numbers of American military forces in Japan (even today, some sixty-three years after the end of World War II, there are still some 33,000 U.S. military personnel and over sixty military installations of varying sizes), the U.S. military is not called upon to help Japan in The Return of Godzilla, nor are they in fact called upon to help Japan against any of the monsters in the Showa series (the U.S. Navy does show up to bombard the Big-G in Godzilla vs. the Thing, but the scene was added at the request of the U.S. distributor and is only present in the export version). They aren’t in the original Gojira either, even though it took place at a time when the Japanese military had only recently been re-established after the war and the American military presence in the country was much larger. In a real life situation such as this, American troops would surely have shown up to help. The U.S. military does shoot down a Soviet missile that is accidentally launched at Tokyo, but this is the full extent of their involvement. I’m no sociologist, but I suspect that a big reason for this was insecurity over Japan’s status as a pacifist nation constitutionally barred from anything but defensive war. Nobody wants to think of their country as dependent on a foreign power. They want to be able to think of their nation as independent, as being able to match and solve problems with their own abilities. Prime Minister Mitamura’s refusal to let the superpowers use nuclear weapons isn’t just necessary to the plot, but also an affirmation that Japan was strong enough that even this crisis could be solved without outside help, and without abandoning one’s principals, in this case Japan’s firm anti-nuclear stance.
While the film differs from many of the older kaiju films, in many respects it is still the same. Having Maki as a newspaper reporter is a throwback to Toho’s monster films during the Showa era, when journalists were frequently the heroes of such productions. And, like almost all of the earlier films, here Godzilla is not stopped by military force, but rather, by science. An often overlooked aspect of the Toho films, and of their imitators, is that despite the presence of the Japanese military in most of them, it is always the scientists who come up with the solution. Here the tanks, the missiles and the fighter planes of Japan’s Self Defense Forces can’t defeat the monster. Even the vaunted Super-X is able to do no more than stun him. Although the military is usually depicted as being part of the solution (in this case, where Godzilla is trapped in an erupting volcano at the end, the military provides the logistics, sets up the site and furnishes the explosives used to start the eruption), it is never the solution. In many ways this seems to be a reflection of that country’s rejection of military force as a means of solving problems, and its embrace of science and technology.
The Return of Godzilla is a much more mature and sophisticated entry in the series than anything that Toho did in the 60’s and 70’s. The juvenile antics are gone, and the adults are now running the show again. It may not live up to the standards of the original Gojira, but it’s a damn fine piece of monster filmmaking and its original version should be tracked down by every kaiju fan.
For a DVD released in 2006, the transfer is much more 1999. The interlaced, non-anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer benefits from almost perfect print quality, with practically no scratches, specks or other damage to mar the image. On the other hand, colors have a somewhat faded look, with murky black levels and often poor shadow detail. Compression problems also pop up, particularly in scenes of fog, darkness or fire.
Two audio options are presented, a Cantonese soundtrack in Dolby 2.0 Mono and the film’s original Japanese language track, also in 2.0 Mono (the tracks are mislabeled – selecting the Cantonese one gets you the Japanese soundtrack, and vice versa). The Japanese soundtrack is above average, evenly balanced and with little background noise or distortion. The film does contain some English language dialogue, and it’s easily understandable on this release.
The subtitles are another issue. The first subtitle track is labeled as being traditional Chinese. The second one is traditional Chinese, with English subtitles below them, and the third is simplified Chinese. The Chinese/English subtitle track is a bit of a nuisance. The English subs are hard to read unless you have a big enough TV, and having them immediately underneath the Chinese subs is visually distracting. During the English and Russian dialogue that punctuates various parts of the movie, there are burned-in Japanese subtitles that appear under them, making them even harder to read.
The only extra is a fun Japanese theatrical trailer for Godzilla vs. Biollante, also available on DVD from our friends at Universe.
The original Japanese cut of The Return of Godzilla is a must-see for all fans of the Big-G. However, this DVD is not quite a must-own. The image quality is perfectly fine for those with older TVs, but the interlacing and lack of 16x9 enhancement make it harder for those of us with the newer technology, plus the subtitles are a pain. But considering how cheaply this disc can be procured, serious Godzilla fans will still want to check it out.
Great review, I hope you can get around to the other hensei releases that U&L put out. Some of those are great (Biollante and Vs Mothra come to mind).
it's too bad that this version was never released in the US.
- Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (Universe Laser & Video) (Region 3)
- Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (Universe Laser & Video) (Region 3)
As for Return of G / G'85, I know I'm in the vast minority of kaiju fans, but I actually prefer the U.S. version. The original is more serious, but also very talky and boring.
where is the region 1 dvd release already???
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