When the Godzilla franchise went on hiatus after the box office failure of Terror of MechaGodzilla in 1975, there was no set idea for how long it would be dormant, but it was also one’s intention to shut the series down for good. There was always the possibility of future installments being developed, it just had to be the right concept at the right time, and series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was always looking for that perfect idea.
In 1978, Ryuzo Nakanishi, screenwriter of The War in Space, Toho’s answer to Star Wars, pitched the idea of making a direct remake of the original 1954 Godzilla under the title King of Monsters: Rebirth of Godzilla. Nakanishi wrote a screenplay with Akira Murao, veteran Godzilla director Jun Fukuda was attached, but the remake never went into production. Development of a story that would tie back into the franchise’s did continue on through the years, though. By 1980, Tanaka had developed, with Akira Murao, the Rebirth of Godzilla idea into Resurrection of Godzilla, which would be a sequel to the 1954 Gojira rather than a remake and would feature Godzilla taking on a monster called Bagan, a “guardian spirit” that would battle Godzilla in the form of an ape, a dragon, and a fish-like creature before taking all three forms at once. An ape-dragon-fish, each form stacked on top of each other like a living totem pole. Bagan was eventually dropped, but Toho held on to the idea of the creature in hopes of getting it into some movie. Mothra vs. Bagan was planned for 1990, Godzilla vs. Bagan was considered for 1995, but while the monster never did make it to movie screens, it was in the 1993 Nintendo game Super Godzilla.
With Bagan out of the picture, screenwriter Shuichi “Hidekazu” Nagahara took elements from the Resurrection of Godzilla idea and developed it into the screenplay for The Return of Godzilla, the film that would finally bring Godzilla back to theatres just in time for the 30th anniversary of the original film.
The chance to direct The Return of Godzilla was offered to the director of Gojira ’54, Ishirô Honda, but Honda turned the project down. The job instead went to Koji Hashimoto, whose only other directing credit was a co-directing gig on the sci-fi film Bye Bye Jupiter, but who had worked as an assistant director on multiple films, including King Kong vs. Godzilla, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro-Monster, and Godzilla’s Revenge.
The Return of Godzilla sticks with the approach of making the story a direct sequel to Gojira ’54, ignoring everything that came after and branching off into a new continuity in which only the events of the original film happened previously.
This thirtieth anniversary film begins three months after a volcanic eruption on Diakoku IsIand, the southernmost of Japan’s Izu IsIands. Sailing through a rough storm, the ship Yahata-maru gets caught in a bizarre current that threatens to ground them on Diakoku. As the ship nears the island, the ground starts to split around, there are explosions, and a familiar cry fills the air. The roar of Godzilla.
Yahata-maru is reported missing, and it’s Goro Maki, a reporter for the newspaper Tokyo Daily, who discovers the ship, adrift at sea, while he’s out doing some recreational boating. Maki boards the ship, discovering the desiccated corpses of nine of its crew. Whatever killed these men completely drained their bodies of blood. Searching through the ship, Maki also finds a survivor – a wounded, shocked young man named Hiroshi Okumura.
It’s lucky for Maki that Okumura is there, otherwise he too would fall victim to the creature that wiped out the ship’s crew – a sea louse that has mutated to monstrous proportions. Among fans this sea louse is referred to as the Shockirus, but it doesn’t stick around for long – Okumura saves Maki from it by hacking it with a cleaver.
The Shockirus isn’t the only monster Okumura saw. He saw a much larger creature, one which blasted flame from its mouth. The radioactive monster that the sea louse fed on, causing its mutation. Once he’s taken to a hospital, Okumura’s descriptions of what he witnessed prompts government officials to show him pictures of Godzilla taken during his rampage through Tokyo in 1954. Okumura confirms their worst fears: Godzilla has returned, awoken by the eruption of the volcano on Diakoku IsIand.
Since there is no evidence that Godzilla will make his way back to mainland Japan, the Prime Minister decides to avoid sending the population into panic by keeping the whole thing a secret. Including the discovery of Yahata-maru and its surviving crew member. Okumura’s sister Naoko isn’t even informed that her brother has been found alive.
Naoko is a student of and assistant to bio-physics professor Makoto Hayashida, whose parents were killed during the ’54 attack by Godzilla. After that, Hayashida was dedicated to researching the monster, at first driven by revenge, but eventually coming to sympathize with him. He is just an animal, changed into a monster – in fact, he calls Godzilla a “living nuclear weapon”, which is what Ishirô Honda saw him as during the making of the original film – by the carelessness of humans. Humans as the true enemy to ourselves.
Figuring out that the monster Okumura saw was Godzilla, Maki visits Hayashida to find out more about him, which brings him into contact with Naoko. Maki tells her that her brother is still alive and tells her where to find him – but he doesn’t just do this out of the kindness of his heart. He follows her to the hospital so he can get pictures of the two when they’re reunited and run a story about it in Tokyo Daily.
The return of Godzilla is still kept a secret, though. The government keeps that secret until they can’t any longer, forced to reveal the information after Godzilla destroys a Russian nuclear submarine, which Russia initially blames the United States for, since this was made during the days of the Cold War. To keep Russia and the U.S. from bombing each other to the stone age, the Prime Minister holds a press conference in which he announces that Godzilla is back. And bigger than ever.
The Godzilla of the original run of films stood 50 meters tall, or 164 feet. The new and improved for the ’80s Godzilla is 80 meters tall, over 262 feet. His change in height is likely due to the fact that buildings in Tokyo had gotten a lot bigger than when Godzilla first showed up on screens. He needed to still look impressive when walking around in the city.
Godzilla attacked the submarine to feed on the radiation from its nuclear reactor. The fear is that the monster will continue seeking out sources of radiation to feed on, so the U.S. and Russia team with Japan to find a way to destroy him. Russia is especially concerned, because Godzilla’s next likely target after locations in Japan would be their missile base at Vladivostok.
The U.S. and Russia put forth the option of blasting Godzilla with a nuclear bomb while he’s on the Japanese mainland. The destruction would likely be around half that of Hiroshima, and Godzilla would be out of the picture. The Prime Minister refuses to go along with that idea. Dropping a nuke on a creature that feeds on nuclear energy doesn’t seem wise in the first place, regardless of where he’s standing when it hits.
What Japan does have to use against Godzilla is a small aircraft called Super-X, developed for the security of the capital. Super-X has titanium armor, platinum circuitry, was designed to withstand extremely high temperatures, and is armed to fire on attackers. Since it’s going to be deployed on Godzilla, artillery shells containing a cadmium solution, something used to seal nuclear reactors, are designed for the occasion.
But Godzilla makes landfall and the Super-X isn’t there to fight him off because no one saw him coming in the foggy night. With a pan up his body, the newly re-designed Godzilla is fully revealed on screen 33 minutes into the movie. Teruyoshi Nakano, who had handled the special effects for the Godzilla movies of the ’70s, returned to bring Godzilla back to the screen, giving Goji a menacing appearance that was a throwback to his days as a villain in the first few movies. Within the suit was Kenpachiro Satsuma, who had previously played Hedorah in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Gigan in Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon. Satsuma would play Godzilla for this entire era of the franchise, from ’84 to 1995.
Godzilla arrives on the mainland to feed on more radioactivity, Ihama Nuclear Power Plant and absorbing all the radioactivity it has to offer. Oddly, when a flock of migrating birds flies overheard, Godzilla ditches the nuclear plant and follows the birds.
Godzilla following the birds confirms Hayashida’s theory that dinosaurs had a homing instinct, a magnetism within them the led them around much like migrating birds. Godzilla’s magnetism reacted to that of the birds that flew overhead. If a compound ultrasound could be developed that would manipulate Godzilla’s homing instinct in a similar manner, it could be used to lure the monster anywhere they wanted.
While officials still intend to use military force to fight off Godzilla, a fall-back plan is put together wherein Godzilla would be led to the volcanic Mount Mihara by Hayashida’s ultrasound machine. Once at the volcano, he would be caught in an eruption triggered by another device, this one created by a geologist named Minami.
At the 56 minute point, Godzilla arrives at Tokyo, and the entire rest of the movie’s 103 minute running time is dedicated to the efforts to put an end to his new rampage. By the time the end credits roll, every option suggested as a possible way to stop Godzilla is put into play in some way.
Even though lazer weapons that still don’t really exist are put to use, the military weapons of 1984 prove to be just as useless against Godzilla as those of 1954 did. Explosive destruction ensues, numerous casualties are sustained.
While taking on defense forces along the coastline, Godzilla also causes damage to a ship that, unbeknownst to the Japanese government, is home to a Russian missile control unit. The computer system on the ship goes haywire and a Russian nuke is accidentally launched on Tokyo…
Godzilla cuts a path of destruction through Tokyo, causing the deaths of untold numbers of citizens who are attempting to evacuate the city. Meanwhile, government officials and military forces scramble to save the city from the inbound nuclear bomb. A U.S. nuke is launched to intercept the Russian missile in the sky.
Super-X flies into action to take on Godzilla. Distracting him with flares, a technique first used in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, Super-X fires shells into the monster’s mouth that bust open and pour cadmium down his throat. Godzilla’s heart rate slows and he collapses, appearing to be on the verge of death.
Then the American and Russian nuclear weapons collide in the stratosphere, stirring up a storm that revives Godzilla with multiple lightning strikes, similar to how he was rejuvenated by lightning during the events of 1974’s Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla.
With Super-X having used up all their cadmium shells, leaving it with only useless regular weaponry, Godzilla figures out a way to put the aircraft out of commission for good. The contingency plan must be put into effect: the world’s hopes all fall on the scientific know-how of Hayashida and Minami.
Toho Studios was always good at throwing cinematic anniversary parties. King Kong vs. Godzilla for the company’s own anniversary, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla for the franchise’s twentieth anniversary. The Return of Godzilla continues these exemplary milestone achievements, as it’s a fantastic companion piece to the original Gojira.
The film has a very dark tone, much like the ’54 film, and the horrific actions of Godzilla are given more weight by Reijiro Koroku’s score, which at times has such a menacing edge that it would have fit right into a straight horror movie like Hellraiser. There is no cuddly, protective side to this iteration of Godzilla, just like there wasn’t when he first appeared on screens.
At the side time, Godzilla doesn’t come off as a completely evil villain, because some of the characters realize that he is just an animal whose problem is that he doesn’t fit into the modern world.
This movie also retains the message of the original, having a staunch anti-nuke message at its core. Japan stands up to the nuclear desires of the United States and Russia, the accidental launch in the third act presents a grave threat, and the “Godzilla as a nuclear weapon” metaphor is taken so far that he’s even treated as a living reactor. The filmmakers make it very clear what their opinion of this issue is.
The monster action sequences are quite satisfying, the special effects by Teruyoshi Nakano and his crew are incredible. The model city representation of Tokyo looks amazing, leaps and bounds beyond anything Nakano created for the series in the ’70s. The Return of Godzilla was the last time Nakano provided effects for the series, and he certainly went out on a high note.
Godzilla was back in a big way and a sequel was sure to come, but it would be a while…