Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Random Movie Report #21: The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985)

Sorry for the pause- another writing project threw itself in the way and I had to slog through it.

I've mentioned the Universe company before- one of the things they're known for, at least among American kaiju eiga fans, is releasing Japanese monster movies on DVD with English subtitles (as well as Cantonese subs and optional dubbing for those who actually live in the Hong Kong region) well in advance of any proper release in the States. Sure, you need a multi-region player, but those are pretty cheap nowadays, and you end up saving quite a bit because Hong Kong remains an area in which the American dollar is relatively strong. On top of which, it's all above-board and legal, a far cry from the days where we had to scrounge for halfway-decent bootlegs. The only drawback is that they're not quite up to Japanese or American standards of sound or picture quality- still better than VHS, but not by as much. Also, you have to sit through an unusually long copyright warning and, for some discs, ten-year-old Dolby Digital trailers.

Anyway, two of Universe's more recent releases are THE RETURN OF GODZILLA and GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE. Both have yet to see an American DVD release, due to some nebulous rights situation in the case of the former and the rights holders just not caring in the case of the latter. I decided to watch them, and thus review them, in chronological order.

THE RETURN OF GODZILLA was Toho's bid to revive the Godzilla series in time for the original film's thirtieth anniversary. It had been nine years since the last Godzilla movie, and the series had become known as low-budget children's fare, with the fire-breathing monster a defender of humanity battling far viler monsters. Wanting to go back to the character's roots, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka conceived a direct sequel to the first movie, ignoring the fifteen or so sequels and recasting Godzilla as a deadly personification of the threat of nuclear annihilation. The result is a grim and compelling thriller, one of the better entries in the series; it's not quite as realistic or sad as the original, but it has some of the same apocalyptic power. The US release (known as GODZILLA 1985) was a particularly bad botch on the part of New World Pictures, clumsily splicing in new scenes and disrupting the tone completely, but the original is well worth tracking down.

A fishing boat is lost in a storm at sea following a major earthquake, and young reporter Goro (Ken Tanaka) comes across it on a pleasure cruise. He discovers almost all the crew dead, killed by strange giant insects, while the lone survivor Hiroshi (Shin Takuma) speaks of encountering a giant monster who, to authorities, sounds a lot like Godzilla (the bugs were parasites, apparently). They place the sailor (and his sister, played by Yasuko Sawaguchi) under quarantine and attempt to keep the story quiet, fearing that the return of the monster who first terrorized their country in 1954 will cause an unwelcome but not really undue panic. But when Godzilla (for it is he) sinks a Russian sub, and the Soviets interpret the loss as an American attack, the Japanese are forced to reveal that Godzilla is alive, and, from the looks of it, heading for Japan. The Russians and Americans both lobby for Japan to allow the use of nuclear weapons against the international menace, but the prime minister (Keiju Kobayashi) holds firm to Japan's no-nukes policy and instead hopes to defeat Godzilla with the flying weapons platform Super-X, and a plan by the brooding Dr. Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki) to lure the creature to the mouth of the volcano at Mt. Mihara.

The film is less plot-driven than even the average monster movie, lacking most of the elaborate twisting these movies do to get one or more giant creatures in a major metropolitan area. Instead, there's a certain feeling of inevitability as Godzilla slouches towards Tokyo, once again coming to punish mankind for its nuclear folly. Hayashida, whose parents were killed by Godzilla in 1954 and who sees the creature as a kind of warning, an omen sent in times of conflict. The threat of the Cold War looms almost as large as Godzilla himself in an attempt by the series to regain its metaphorical bearings.

It's really the atmosphere that makes this one sing. With muted colors and a moody score, the film maintains a sense of dread and foreboding throughout. The special effects are by Teruyoshi Nakano, who saw the series through its ultra-low-budget days in the Seventies; here, with some actual money (though Japanese production values would forever lag behind America's) he manages some good spectacle. To watch these kinds of movies, of course, you have to get used to model buildings and men in monster suits pretty quickly, but by those standards this is good stuff. Godzilla has a more stylized look, with heavy eyelids and huge fangs, and in close-ups is played by a nicely expressive animatronic robot (though the look of the suit and the 'bot don't really match.) Godzilla's first full appearance is particularly good- an extreme close-up as seen by an unfortunate security guard, starting at the feet and slowly panning up to the creature's eyes.

It's this atmosphere, unfortunately, that was pretty much destroyed by the New World release. Sequences of American military men and reporter "Mr. Martin" (a return appearance by Raymond Burr- his character isn't referred to as Steve for obvious reasons) are shot in a pedestrian way (though the Dr. Pepper product placement is very prominent indeed), and shots of civilians being stepped on and killed en-masse during Godzilla's climactic rampage were edited out haphazardly. (Also trimmed is a short but powerful scene where the Prime Minister dwells on the ramifications of his decision to face down the two world superpowers.) More importantly, a major subplot was altered. In the Japanese edit, after the Prime Minister reaffirms his country's ban on the use of nuclear weapons, the Russians move to disable an orbital nuclear missile platform controlled from a ship docked in a harbor in Tokyo. When Godzilla attacks, however, the ship is capsized and the launching device goes off automatically, despite the dying efforts of the Russian captain to stop it. However, New World was having fun exploiting the "Evil Empire" aspect of the Cold War, and altered subtitles and added a shot to make it seem as though the Russians "kept the nuclear option open" and launched the missile intentionally. (The actual Russian dialogue is left undubbed, so Russian speakers can probably still pick up the discrepancy.) The end result was a fairly confused picture with no particular mood, and it didn't do much good- American audiences and critics still equated Godzilla with camp, and were turned off by what seriousness remained.

So it's good to finally have the original cut (I'd previously seen a British VHS release which used the Japanese cut, but suffered from an atrocious dub). THE RETURN OF GODZILLA doesn't attain the same depth as the original, but it's a great example of how an old character or concept can be made fresh and new while returning to its roots at the same time. It's fiery, apocalyptic, and perversely fun. Whenever Toho Studios see fit to return Godzilla to the screen, I hope they take lessons from this.

Story by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Screenplay by Hidekazu Nagahara
Directed by Koji Hashimoto

Grade: A-

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