[Already read this part? Find the other parts of the series at: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4]
The Heisei Series
The box office failure of 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla forced Godzilla into a hibernation that lasted nearly a decade. The big guy didn’t command the box office numbers he used to, and despite several attempts by producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to keep the franchise going, Toho put him on ice until audiences were ready for him again. In 1984, that time finally arrived, and Godzilla was put into the hands of a new generation of filmmakers. Giving the series a new start meant wiping the slate clean. All continuity ties to older Godzilla films (save for the first one) were cut, and the Godzilla character was returned to his roots as a menacing destroyer and unstoppable force of nature.
This era of Godzilla films, spanning from 1984 to 1995 is referred to as the Heisei Series, named again, after Japan’s reigning emperor. This series brought a slew of new monsters and creative talent to the Godzilla franchise, and attempted something Toho had never striven for in the past—a strong sense of continuity. While the Showa Godzilla films ostensibly took place in the same universe, continuity was only loosely regarded. For example, King Ghidorah gets very obviously killed at the end of Destroy all Monsters and returns alive and well with no apparent explanation three films later. The Heisei films on the other hand, featured several plots that were directly informed by the events of the previous film, and recurring characters that developed and progressed. Kazuki Omori and Takao Okawara became this era’s defining directors, with Omori handling screenwriting duties along with new scribes Wataru Mimura and Hiroshi Kawashibara, who themselves would become Toho’s go-to scribes in the coming years. The majority of the special effects work was handled by Koichi Kawakita (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a convention!!). Master Akira Ifukube would return three films in to compose the music for the series, and while he reused a lot of his old themes, the obviously larger resources he had at his disposal for this series lent them a fresh new power.
After 9 years in hibernation, Toho reawakened Godzilla for his 30 year anniversary. His birthday present, you might say, was a fresh start. No more kiddie hero persona, no more goofy enemies to fight, just a big, destructive monster giving mankind a run for its money and shoving its hubris in its face. The Return of Godzilla serves as a direct sequel to the original movie, opening with a second Godzilla attacking a fishing boat and Japan, and world powers, slipping into panic as news of the monster’s return creeps into public knowledge. This reboot brings a darker tone and a return to Godzilla’s roots. He’s an unstoppable destructive monster again, and he takes no prisoners. Like the first movie, the destruction scenes are something felt instead of glossed over. Unlike a lot of earlier films, the movie positions the human characters in the heart of Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo, giving us some of the most dramatic moments of peril and some of the best destruction effects in the entire series. ‘
Special effects director Teruyoshi Nakano makes his final mark on this series with the best miniature effects work it’s ever seen. Buildings are constructed with lavish detail, and the sense of scale that goes into special effects shots is wonderful to watch. The human characters are painted in pretty broad strokes, and most of the drama the movie attempts to set up in the opening 30 minutes pretty much goes out the window once Godzilla shows up, but there’s a real intelligence to the construction of this film. There’s a political element that totally works—world powers (the US and Soviet Union) get freaked out after Godzilla destroys a Russian sub, almost start a nuclear war until Japan lifts a press blackout they’ve placed, then try to butt in once it becomes clear that Godzilla is probably going to attack Japan again. It’s a great illustration of Japan’s sentiment toward being at the mercy of two foreign superpowers. Sadly, this would end up the last politically charged Godzilla film for awhile.
This one is definitely of the more oddball Godzilla films, but over the years it’s actually grown into my personal favorite. Again, the human characters are broad and flat, and the acting is pretty awful, especially from foreign cast members, but this movie probably does the best job of keeping things interesting and fun from the get-go. Given how many elements are crammed into the story—a giant plant monster being genetically engineered into existence out of Godzilla cells and the soul of a dead girl, telepathy, a war between rival organizations over control of Godzilla cells, Godzilla returning, the military trying to track and fight him with new toys, and scientists and military men creating a new bacteria to fight Godzilla from within—it seems almost impossible for all of that to work cohesively together, but it totally does. Without a doubt, this movie has the best sense of pacing in the entire Godzilla series. The film sets up the context and stakes of everything quickly and economically, and once Godzilla arrives the movie pretty much becomes a nonstop roller coaster.
The effects work from Koichi Kawakita, making his debut to the series, is also great. The city miniatures are a huge step down from the last movie, but the technical sophistication that goes into bringing the gargantuan Biollante to life is marvelous. The score, which utilizes a mix of tracks from Akira Ifukube and Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama, is also a favorite of mine (this track will hopefully give you a good sense of why). It’s definitely not the most nuanced or well-written Godzilla film, but there’s a real sense of fun, momentum, and scale that makes this movie a riveting experience.
Japanese audiences in 1989 did not share my love for Godzilla vs. Biollante, and the movie ended up a box office disappointment. For their next film, Toho decided to change their approach to new Godzilla films: bring back classic (and marketable) Godzilla foes, give them a new spin, and get them fighting with the King of the Monsters again. The first monster to get this treatment was classic nemesis King Ghidorah, who is re-imagined here as the creation of time travelers looking to alter history and destroy Japan before it becomes a world superpower.
While Godzilla vs. Biollante brought a plethora of new ideas and concepts to the series, this movie takes a far more “back to basics” approach with the Godzilla formula. We’re back to invading humanoids controlling a giant monster, and more high sci-fi concepts (UFOs and mechs are back). Compared to the last couple movies, the tone here is far campier. One could say this squanders the possibilities of a rebooted series, but it mostly works at least here, even this movie would give rise to a couple trends that would hurt the quality of later films, particularly the tendency to rip-off Hollywood blockbusters. As you could probably tell from the sentence I wrote about the film’s plot, the influence of The Terminator is palpable, and later films in the Heisei Series would follow suit appropriating familiar iconography and scenes from famous science fiction and adventure movies from the United States. Case in point, a character in the next movie will make his debut dressed in full Indiana Jones gear as he tries to steal an artifact from some ancient runes.
There is a lot going for this movie though. Kawakita’s effects work is again solid, giving us a wonderful updated King Ghidorah, and Akira Ifukube makes a triumphant return to scoring the series. The story is silly but fun, and the climax is a spectacle that really subverts your expectations.
True to Toho’s predictions and hopes, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was a box office success. From there, Toho’s direction for the next couple movies was set: give classic monsters a makeover and a new spin for story purposes and draw in audiences familiar with the characters. This time around, it’s Mothra who gets a modern touch-up. To this movie’s credit though, while it keeps the basic elements of her background and the singing priestesses, it at least attempts to add a couple new twists, including the addition of a nemesis creature, Battra. Not so much to this movie’s credit though, most of Mothra’s storyline ends up a loose rehash of her 1961 debut feature, Mothra, only with Godzilla and Battra added to the mix to give the movie some action scenes. That’s about the extent of thought put into Godzilla’s presence in this film; he’s not so much a character so much as he is a plot device to stick into events when the characters need to be in peril and the climax needs to get into gear.
On the bright side, the human element feels a bit fresher than usual for this series, with most of the drama centered around a divorced family brought back together by circumstance and thrown into the thick of things. The leads have pretty solid chemistry too, though sadly most of the dramatics fall to the wayside once the plot kicks into high gear and the movie winds toward its final battle.
The monster stuff is also uneven. The Godzilla effects are consistent, but the flying Mothra prop looks awful, which a horribly inorganic shag carpeting texture to her body and ridiculously unconvincing wing flaps. It’s sad to say that Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects work about 30 years earlier did a far more convincing job bringing a flying giant moth to life. Kawakita attempts to establish a new direction for monster combat here, away from the old pro-wrestling formula. Unfortunately, his approach doesn’t quite work, as it centers mostly around the monsters firing energy beams at each other and comes across more boring, realism be damned. This “beam wars” style of combat would unfortunately become the standard for the next couple movies.
While Godzilla vs. Mothra is far from unwatchable, it’s a step back from what came before. The direction, this time from newcomer Takao Okawara, is pretty bland, and Kawakita’s effects work from here on out would start a notable decline in quality. Despite all this, the movie was a massive financial success, largely because Mothra was a popular monster with an audience not typically associated with this series: women. Much of Toho’s creative decision making from here on out would revolve more around the demands of the market than the demands of story.
A year later, it was Mechagodzilla’s turn for his 90’s update. Here, he’s reimagined as a creation of the United Nations and a product of reverse engineered technology from Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah’s future. Classic monster Rodan makes an appearance too! This particular update though, is thankfully a more even effort than the last one, thanks mostly to some improved monster action. An early battle between Godzilla and Rodan—featuring the two monsters strategically fighting a thrilling tooth and claw battle—is easily one of the highlights of this era. Later battles are definitely more beam happy, but it works logistically (after all, Mechagodzilla is a machine and even its last incarnation was extremely reliant on long-ranged weaponry) and dramatically.
Though the human element is again clunky, filled with irritating characters and corny comic relief, it does an effective job setting up the emotional stakes for the monster battles later. The plot revolves around a group of scientists who discover a Baby Godzilla egg on a remote island; and the tussle between humanity, Godzilla, and Rodan for claim over the newly hatched infant Godzilla gives the conflict a great dramatic immediacy. The rest of the human side of the story though, is pretty flat. The main character is an irritating goofball whose storyline never pays off, and new screenwriter Wataru Mimura makes the odd choice of condemning Mechagodzilla and the rationale for building it, but positions its construction and deployment as one of the main dramatic pulls of the movie. It’s weird spending so much time with a group of people who are essentially the antagonists, and even weirder asking us to get invested in them.
Clunky dramatics aside, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II is a marked improvement over the last entry in the series and a fun watch. Another great Akira Ifukube score does this movie no harm either.
This one is bad. Really bad. Kawakita’s effects work is embarrassing, and the monster action is a beam filled snore-fest. The movie is also 2 hours long, 30 minutes more than the typical Godzilla fare, and slugs along so slowly, it feels an hour longer. While a market-driven creative mindset was palpable behind the last two films, this movie’s script feels like a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together to blindly grab for as many demographics as possible. Guys in the audience get monster action, another giant robot (this time a rebooted MOGUERA, a minor mech last seen in Toho’s 1957 film, The Mysterians), and a yakuza subplot that comes out of nowhere and goes the same place. Women get a random cash-in appearance from Mothra and her priestesses, and a bad love story. Kids get a cute Little Godzilla and bad comic relief. None of this stuff blends together well, and dramatically the movie feels like a freakish beast grown in a lab with at least three extra appendages weighing it down.
The sole bright spot here is SpaceGodzilla as a character. He’s vicious, given a cool array of powers, and proves a fierce, ruthless, worthy opponent for Godzilla to fight. I really wish he had been given a different script to star in, and that he’s put to far better use in the future.
It’s there right in big bold kanji and katakana on the Japanese posters, and from the first scene where Godzilla shows up in Hong Kong to lay waste to the city, glowing red, you know something isn’t right. It turns out his nuclear reactor heart is growing unstable and the beast is approaching meltdown!
If you thought things couldn’t get any worse after the last movie…you’d be right, because they didn’t. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is an exponential improvement over the last film and a great cap to the Heisei series. Continuity plays a big role in this one. The film is littered with allusions to the 1954 original, and the monstrous antagonist, Destoroyah, is a Precambrian crustacean mutated by the Oxygen Destroyer device that killed the original Godzilla in the first film. Characters from previous Heisei films pop in for roles big and small, and the conclusion of the arc of the baby Godzilla, now called Godzilla Junior, spread over the last three films, has a great payoff. The human storyline is really nothing more than a glue to stick all the monster set pieces together, but it’s innocuous and effectively utilitarian. The impending meltdown of Godzilla, and the growing threat of Destoroyah, lend a great sense of momentum to the story, and the kaiju combat where all the tension is let loose is thankfully much more fun to watch than last time. The biggest credit for making all this work though, undoubtedly goes to Akira Ifukube. He pulls out all the stops for his last score, and while he again reuses a number of familiar themes, they work great here, and the gravitas of the film give him free reign to go all out with the great bombast.
The Heisei series definitely began in a better place than it ended, but it definitely went some cool places along the way. What began as the promise of a fresh start for the King of the Monsters took a more formulaic route when Toho discovered its other old creations still had plenty of market power and tailored their stories to reel in target demographics. That’s not to say that the market wasn’t always a driving force in this series; most of the 70’s films are blatant, kiddie-centric cash grabs. Even then though, we got an ankylosaurus getting buzz sawed in the face by a giant cyborg chicken, and Godzilla taking to the skies to grab a flying pile of living sludge. The worst of the Heisei series feels far more soulless and corporate. Even so, I would watch any of those again over an even more soulless, sound and fury filled blockbuster.
At the end of the day, the Heisei era films can be remembered fondly for bringing the great Akira Ifukube back to score some of his best soundtracks, and for new advances in monster special effects. The monster suits overall look more convincing than they ever had, and in some cases ever would, and the addition of facial animatronics to the special effects arsenal added a great new layer of character to Toho’s beasts. To his credit, special effects director Koichi Kawakita at least took the incentive to shake up monster combat and add a new feeling of realism to hulking monsters battling it out, though I also wish I could say his approach worked and wouldn’t be abandoned in future films.
Introducing continuity to this series was also a fresh idea that mostly worked. Most of the movies followed a different set of characters, with recurring elements and players like the anti-Godzilla squadron G-Force and the psychic Miki Saegusa appearing in supporting roles, allowing for new stories while still keeping the feeling of a growing world. It’s a welcome approach that would also be ignored in films to follow. While I have more mixed feelings about this series than the last, it still gave me my favorite Godzilla movie, some great music, and some golden monster moments.
After 1995, Toho intended to again put Godzilla back into hibernation for a good little while, hoping to ride the waves of a little project that was brewing in the United States. That particular project though, would take an interesting direction that would bring the Big G back to Japan in a short 5 years.
Check out the other parts of this series: