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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.