Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Heath Holland On...The Godzilla Challenge Part II: The Heisei Era

by Heath Holland
Heath Holland continues watching all of the Godzilla films in order. How did the ‘80s and ‘90s treat the King of Monsters?

After watching the first fifteen Godzilla movies (also known as the Showa era), I was excited about the future of the series and the limitless possibilities that new technology and special effects would usher in. The Showa era had been marked by exciting and diverse stories that -- more often than not -- were based in a sense of adventure and whimsy. Bright colors, funky music, and lots of jokes and humor had been a staple of the majority of the original run.

The Heisei era really made me miss the Showa era.

First off, the Heisei era is named after the current Emperor of Japan and started around 1989. In Godzilla terms, the Heisei era began with 1984’s Return of Godzilla and ended in 1995 with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. Heisei is pronounced “hey say,” as in “Hey, say we make more of those Godzilla movies that people used to love, but make them unbearably grim.”

Every single movie in the Heisei cycle features a psychic lady. It’s weird. I suppose they’re here because they can communicate with Godzilla and other creatures and allow us access to the monster’s motivations, but it’s still really strange that psychics play such a vital role in every single movie. A more unfortunate development during all of these Heisei movies is that they all run 30 minutes longer than they need to. Every single movie is pushing two hours, which is a long time for these things. The story can be done, the conflict resolved, and yet there’s still enough time to go out for ice cream and come back without missing the credits.

Finally, the idea of Godzilla being a hero on the side of the Japanese people seems almost entirely gone. Here Godzilla is once again a force of nature and cannot be reasoned with. He is once again a harbinger of death and destruction, and I think that’s a shame. I also think it’s a shame that the Heisei era completely ignores all movies other than the original 1954 Ishiro Honda film. “Hey, say we pretend all those movies we grew up with never happened and made Godzilla boring and no fun!” Job done.

Things get off to a grim start with The Return of Godzilla (1984). Americans know this movie as Godzilla 1985 and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, never did get the original version of the movie as released in Japan. The cut issued in the States featured newly filmed scenes and Raymond Burr reprising his role from the Americanized 1956 film. There is very little to redeem this movie; the scenes of American military personnel wearing dark sunglasses and acting like pompous jackasses or of a bearded Raymond Burr looking intense and upset (or constipated) do not inspire.
What has been improved is the Godzilla costume. It’s still a man in a rubber suit, but what a rubber suit! He’s bigger, angrier and now has an animatronic head so he can achieve a broader range of movement and expression. Theoretically this new facial mobility could be used to convey kindness or understanding, but is really just used to make him look really pissed off at the climax of each movie.

The Japan in this film (and in all the Heisei films) is very different from the one seen a decade earlier. It’s very corporate and business-oriented. This is Japan in the shadow of the Cold War. Russia and nuclear warfare figure into the plot heavily. The main problem with this is that we spend a lot of the movie in wood-paneled board rooms and precious little time with actual characters that we can interact with and see as real people. There are virtually no women in the film whatsoever. I can recall one actress who has so little to do that she might as well be an extra.

The whole thing amounts to a joyless affair that wants to (yet doesn’t) have the artistic weight of the original 1954 film and instead comes off as a preachy mess. There’s even a speech that Raymond Burr gives at the close of the movie that uses a lot of words but doesn’t make much actual sense. It’s like being in church.

The next movie, Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), isn’t much better. The stink of the previous movie was so bad that they waited five years for this one, yet it picks up immediately where the last one left off, with the same somber tone. The good news is that we do get to see Godzilla fight a giant monster; the bad news is that the monster is a giant rose. Seriously. Some scientist has decided to cross Godzilla’s DNA with that of a flower, and Biollante is born. 

Godzilla spends roughly half of this movie standing in the water looking angry and waving his arms around while being filmed in Dutch angles. Seriously, there’s more Dutch angles in this movie than an episode of the 1966 Batman TV show. It’s during one of Godzilla’s many pool scenes that the movie reveals how mean-spirited it actually is. When missiles and lasers don’t have much effect on him, the army decides to shoot the missiles down his mouth. Given the new Godzilla suit and how expressive it is, this is actually kind of upsetting. Something these Heisei movies seem to deliberately set out to do is increase the emotion from their stories and upset their audience. They usually do this by practically torturing Big-G, but they aren’t above other cheap methods of sympathy. “Hey, say we exploit people’s love of Godzilla for cheap and instant sympathy!”

So I flag Godzilla vs. Biollante for unnecessary roughness and using cruelty as a shortcut to accomplish what should have been achieved with actual storytelling, but at least there’s a fight at the climax which features a precursor to the atomic kiss as seen in the 2014 film. It’s not exactly the same but it’s not far off. This ends up being an OKAY movie, but we’re so far from where this franchise used to be that it’s hard not to get discouraged.

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorrah (1991) goes a long way to put this ship back on course. It brings back a classic monster for Godzilla to fight AND doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as the first two. This movie is actually close to greatness, even if only by comparison to what it immediately follows. To sweeten the pot, Akira Ifukube returns with the classic music and themes of the ‘60s, including Godzilla’s march.

From almost the very beginning you can tell you’re in for a fun ride. We’ve got robots that look like people, time travel, spaceships, and even little monsters that look really cute and cause mischief. This is a movie that exists in the shadow of Steven Spielberg and even shamelessly drops the Spielberg name during the story.

That story starts off well but quickly becomes too muddled to actually follow. I’ll do my best to explain the premise, but it lost me at some point. Men from the future appear in the sky above Japan and select three people to go back in time to stop Godzilla from being created during World War II. You see, there are dinosaurs on the island of Lagos and when the American soldiers used atomic weaponry there they created by accident. The people from the future say that Godzilla will completely annihilate Japan in the near future and must be prevented from being created. So they have to go back in time and fix what went wrong, Back to the Future style. But all is not as it seems and the people from the future MAY be lying about the future and about their motivations. Oh, and one of these future people is a robot that looks a little like Dave Coulier and who cannot be destroyed. This leads to a scene straight out of the first Terminator movie where half his face and arm are ripped off as he chases his prey. These future people control Ghidorrah, the awesome golden dragon with three heads.

There’s a lot more to the plot than I’ve gone into but it got away from me. What matters is that we have time travel, spaceships, robots, and classic monster smackdowns. This movie borrows HEAVILY from lots of other movies, especially Amblin films, but I’m okay with it. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. You know the vibe of those classic live-action Disney movies, like The Black Hole and even Flight of the Navigator? They captured that here. In the end, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorrah captures a mood that briefly feels like a return to the wonder of the Showa era. Someone actually looks into the camera and says “Take that, dinosaur!”

That sense of wonder and fun continues into the next movie, 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. Speaking of stealing from the best, the first 10 minutes of this film are EXACTLY the same as the first ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. They even use the Lucasfilm wipe transitions that go from left to right between scenes. The first half of this movie is a jungle adventure film with an archeological thief as our protagonist. Paging Doctor Jones.

Anyway, Mothra returns (or appears for the first time?) and so does Ifukube’s haunting music from his original score of Mothra vs. Godzilla from 1964. This time we learn that Mothra has a darker brother, Battra, who embodies different aspects of the Mothra persona. We also learn that Mothra and Battra have been guardians of Earth for eons and that the two tiny ladies that always appear in the Mothra movies are called “Cosmos” and came from outer space, long ago. There’s a lot of Mothra’s origin to be learned in this movie, like how she has bone claws underneath the adamantium.

Thankfully, the character of Mothra is treated with respect and reverence in every single appearance of the franchise and I can’t help but feel like the people of Japan have a real love of the character. Mothra always feels, for lack of a better word…holy. The themes of man vs. nature are even louder and more prominent here than in the other movies but it works because this is done with affection. Mothra gets WAY more adoration in these movies than any other character, including Godzilla.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) is a weird name for a movie if you refuse to acknowledge the existence of a first Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, yet here it is. This, as far as the Heisei era is concerned, is the first appearance of Mechagodzilla. This is also the movie where all the G-abbreviation starts. We have a Counter-G Unit that also goes by G-Force and exclusively wears G-strings and calls their headquarters the G-Spot. I only made some of that up. This movie also marks the re-introduction of the Minilla character, the tiny baby Godzilla. In this incarnation he is no longer named Minilla, but is instead called Baby. Look, I’m going to level with you, I think it’s cute. REAL cute. If I could buy Baby Godzilla Underoos then I’d be wearing those right now instead of Spider-Man.

So Mechagodzilla is cool. Baby Godzilla is cool. Godzilla fighting Mechagodzilla is SUPER cool. The problem is that there’s not enough going on in terms of plot to justify a running time of nearly two hours. Just like in all the other movies, the fights just go on and on. I found myself checking out for long periods of time only to come back and realize I hadn’t missed anything at all. Mechagodzilla knocks down Godzilla and shoots steel cables into him. Then Mechagodzilla electrocutes Godzilla. He keeps electrocuting Godzilla. Five minutes later he’s still electrocuting Godzilla. Godzilla gets up and roars, then gets knocked down again only to be electrocuted. It just becomes ENDLESS, though it’s possible that because I’ve watched so many Godzilla movies in the last month or so that my tolerance for seeing the same thing over and over has dropped significantly. Your mileage may vary. By the way: Rodan’s in this one.

Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla (1994) opens up with a jungle scene, Jurassic Park style, and I don’t think this is by coincidence. Within 15 minutes Spacegodzilla has landed on the island that Godzilla and Baby Godzilla (now Little Godzilla, since he’s a little bigger) live on and started a fight. We learn later in the movie that Spacegodzilla is a product of DNA from Godzilla that has been sucked through a black hole and then shot out of a white hole. SCIENCE! He’s just as powerful as Godzilla but has…like…space abilities and stuff. He can fly and he has diamond spikes on his back.

Enter MOGERA, which is an updated version of Mechagodzilla that looks like a big robotic penguin. This is all absolutely ridiculous and could have been a lot of fun if it had been played that way, but the movie plays it straight. Did I mention the Heisei era took itself way too seriously? “Hey, say, do you know where I can get bullets for a .45?” It’s not all bad, though, and we get some pretty cool fight scenes and some decent sci-fi action. At the end of the movie a romantic song as Godzilla walks back into the water in slow motion at sunset…and I SWEAR he waves goodbye. Or he might just be doing the signing for “mahalo,” I can’t tell.

Thankfully they put the whole thing out of its misery with 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the most cohesive and balanced film of the bunch. This entry behaves as the closing chapter to what began with the 1954 film Gojira and even goes as far as to feature clips of that movie and bring back Momoko Kochi, who starred in the earlier film. The oxygen destroyer invention that was used to defeat Godzilla in that original movie also returns as the source of power for the new enemy, Destroyer.

This was supposed to be the end. Godzilla is dying; the radiation inside his body is growing and he physically cannot contain it. He has red patches of glowing energy all over him where the radiation is in danger of bursting out and his body temperature is rising rapidly. He’s going to cause a nuclear meltdown and take millions of people with him when he dies.

SPOILERS for Godzilla vs. Destoroyah…they really kill Godzilla. I’ve read that Toho did this so that the 1998 American film directed by Roland Emmerich could take the spotlight and potentially carry things forward; the credits run over a montage of footage from the first film from 1954 and the other films from the Heisei era, completely ignoring the awesomeness that came in between. If you care anything about Godzilla then the entire last 15 minutes are really rough to sit through. The people on the screen are crying, Godzilla is crying, you might be too. Godzilla’s dead, man! Or he was, for about five years. I guess none of it really matters, though, considering that the Godzilla of these movies is not the Godzilla of the 15 Showa films.

All of which is too bad, really. These films are a very mixed bag, but I enjoyed the level of storytelling being done here with a very low budget and without the benefit of a lot of digital tools. Toho claims that no Godzilla movie made has cost more than 10 million dollars and they always made it go a long way. But the Heisei era is GRIM, and it’s not something I’m going to revisit as much as the loose and optimistic Showa era. I understand that this period of Japanese history was particularly difficult for its people; there were 11 Prime Ministers during the first 12 years. The Showa emperor had passed away and a new political regime had risen. Nothing was the same and the future was very uncertain. Given that background, these seven movies are appropriately dark and emotionally heavy.

And luckily this was not the end of Godzilla. After the failed American film, Toho decided that if you wanted something done right then you had to do it yourself. 1999 saw the birth of the Millenium era and a wiping of the slate. And that’s what we’ll be talking about in the Godzilla Challenge Part 3 in just a few weeks.


  1. Hey, Heath. Glad to see you're continuing this feature.

    I am a tremendous Godzilla fan, and grew up watching this particular series repeatedly. Back before we had easy access to just about every type of media we could hope to ingest no matter what part of the world it came from, a friend of my father’s would send us bootlegged VHS copies of Heisei era Godzilla movies. He must have had some black market connections or something. Who knows. They wouldn't be dubbed, but I had access to issues of G-Fan Magazine, which usually included summaries of the movies. So, I knew the broad strokes of each movie's plot, even if the dialog seemed like a bunch of gibberish.

    Sorry to hear you didn't enjoy them very much. The Heisei series certainly has high and low points, but overall, I think the series is pretty terrific overall and showed a lot of imagination (even if it was, as you pointed out, occasionally a popular American filmmaker’s imagination). The monster designs were generally pretty great, Biollante being my favorite. (I always thought the Showa era Ghidorah, with his little puffs of hair, was a cooler design than the more reptilian 90s version).

    Quick note: The psychics featured prominently in these movies are actually a recurring character -- Miki Saegusa, as played by actress Megumi Odaka. She has some kind of connection to Godzilla, and is the only major recurring character throughout the Heisei series.

    I’m going to go ahead an warn you: The Millennium series is a really mixed bag. You should love “Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack” though. It’s a lot of fun.

    1. It's not just the recurring character of Miki, there are psychic kids, too. Then if you throw in the Cosmos/Mothra twins, they seem to be psychic too. Lots and lots of psychics!

      And it's not that I didn't enjoy any of these movies because I definitely did and I'm glad I've seen them, but watching them directly after the Showa era shows how dark things got. I've seen the brighter Godzilla and I've seen the dark Godzilla; I think the movies that work best are the ones that embrace the FUN aspects of a giant nuclear lizard. That goes for the new movie as well.

  2. Love the Godzilla challenge! I finally completed my lifelong quest to see every Godzilla movie last year with the Blu-ray release of Godzilla vs. Biollante (oh the disappointment). Heath, I’m with you on your assessment of this series. With the exception of the crazy/hilarious Godzilla vs. Ghidorah, everything not involving giant monsters battling ranges from forgettable to horrible (Hey, the 2014 Godzilla actually fits right in!).

    Really enjoying your write-ups, Heath. Don’t fear, the greatest Godzilla movie ever made is in the Millennium series: GMK: Giant Monsters All Out Attack!

    1. Sweet! Can't wait to get to Giant Monsters All Out Attack! And I'm jealous that you got Godzilla vs. Biollante before it went out of print. That blu-ray is now going for upwards of 40 dollars. Cherish your copy. CHERISH IT!

  3. Godzilla vs Akira, it basically comes down to the two schools of psychic kids drawing pictures of them throwing stuffed toys at each other, then ends with Akira screaming "God-ziiiill-aaaaaaAHHHHHHHHHH!"

  4. Does that screencap of Godzilla burning from within make it look more awesome than it does in the movie? Cuz that actually looks kinda awesome.

    With so many goddamn movies to watch (is it a bad/sad thing that the sheer volume of good shit to watch almost causes me anxiety?) I don't know when I'll ever get to these, but your write-ups are fantastic and I really want to someday! Maybe with my kid - did you watch this era (ER-*slap*) with your stepdaughter as well because I got the impression these aren't fun for children like the Showa stuff.

    1. No, I don't think they're for children, and I did NOT watch these with my step-daughter. Nor do I think I'd really be okay with her seeing these (she wouldn't be interested anyway because they aren't fun).

      And one thing that these movies do really well is look awesome. The special effects, the designs, the monsters, the fights, all that stuff LOOKS great. Godzilla does indeed look awesome as he's burning from within. From the minute we see Godzilla in the first Heisei movie, visually things are way above where things left on in the Showa era. They traded the fun and unpredictability for much better visuals.