Heisei Era Godzilla Movies

The Return of Godzilla

“Godzilla is the son of the atomic bomb. He is a nightmare created out of the darkness of the human soul. He is the sacred beast of the apocalypse.”

Tomoyuki Tanaka

(CW: Atomic bombings, various imperialist attrocities.)

I kind of made it through most of the day we ended up watching this without noticing it was 9/11. It’s just not really something I notice anymore. And while my heart genuinely goes out to anyone who was directly affected, my heart also goes out to all the much, much greater number of people who have been affected by the U.S.’s wars of imperialist aggression for which 9/11 has served as a flimsy excuse despite not standing up to the slightest scrutiny. It goes out to the people that this government is still allowing to be killed or maimed through criminal negligence by the ongoing pandemic that is ravaging the working class. And I sit here incredibly angry that a historical footnote is treated like some kind of special tragedy when what followed has been so much worse, when what came before was so much worse.

You know what should be treated like 9/11? The days that the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Germany remembers Auschwitz, remembers Kristallnacht. Americans should not remember the day this empire was given a black eye and some of us were caught in the crossfire. We should remember the acts of genocide that were committed against indigenous people. We should remember the enslavement of Africans. We should remember the lynchings. We should remember the concentration camps FDR threw Japanese Americans into, the concentration camps every recent president has thrown latinx migrants into. We should remember the rates of mass incarceration that are absolutely unparalleled in the world today.

And we should remember the atomic bombings. We should remember that we are living in what is still the only country that has ever engaged in acts of nuclear war.

We should remember, and we should rise up and declare with one voice, NEVER AGAIN.

Believe it or not, this is not some polemic occasioned merely by the day on which I happened to watch this film. Return of Godzilla is the first of the Heisei era of Godzilla films, and it resets the continuity such that only the 1954 original precedes it. For the purposes of this film, Godzilla has been dead for 30 years, and life has sort of gotten back to normal. That period of absence adds something so raw and real to his re-emergence. It makes him so like the atomic bomb he is so often associated with. There must be a strange sort of tension when that kind of threat is hanging over you. When it’s actually happened once, and all you can do is just pray it never happens again.

Having Godzilla once again positioned as an avatar of destruction, while not my preference, obviously opens things up quite a bit in terms of what you can say thematically. And I just love that the power fantasy this movie puts forward is the Japanese Prime Minister standing up and saying “absolutely not” to using nuclear weapons on Japanese soil, even to defeat Godzilla. There are some qualifiers which I’ll get into momentarily, but I don’t want to breeze past the fact that I just love this as an aspiration.

The most clear-cut issue here is that this narrative doesn’t even come close to fitting the facts. In actuality, Japan’s government was a more than willing partner in the U.S.’s belligerent foreign policy against the Soviet Union. Still, for a narrative like this to be put forward in what was sure to be a massively popular movie in Japan isn’t nothing! And I don’t want to lose sight of that.

A more insidious issue we get into here is the movie’s false equivalence between the U.S.S.R. who had a no-first strike policy and the U.S. who has very publicly refused to have one to this day, and who has engaged in dangerous nuclear sabre rattling basically constantly since–and I must belabor this–literally dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. (Quick aside: Russia dropped their no-first strike policy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Yay capitalism and freedom, huh?)

Where this gets thorny is that I don’t really think I’m in a position to lecture people who lived through actual nuclear attacks and their descendants on the difference between the U.S.’s nuclear bullying and the U.S.S.R.’s responses to the same, but they are very different. And the actions of the fictional Soviet diplomat depicted here just do not ring true to me at all.

But, yeah. The resemblances between this and the first film are actually kind of uncanny. The majority of the runtime is just very straightforwardly about people being terrified of a giant kaiju destroying their city. He basically picks up right where he left off, but with much improved special effects which is no small thing in this kind of movie. The 1954 film still blows this out of the water for so many reasons, but I don’t want to understate how cool it is seeing a much more modern-looking kaiju movie. This looks like it easily could’ve been made sometime in the last few years. And that rules!

Big picture wise, I much prefer a heroic Godzilla. I just like the kinds of stories you can tell with him, and just… ok, I’ll be superficial here. He’s really hot, you guys. I’m such a simp for him. I don’t want him to have to get his ass kicked all the time!!! But, yeah. This recaptures a lot of what made the original movie so good, and it’s a really good jumping off point to continue the series.

(A-Rank)

Godzilla vs. Biollante

Yeah, I’m really not as high on this one as a lot of others seem to be? I do love that Biollante has tentacles and a final form that features a mouth that’s completely filled with teeth? I’m always kinda weak to plant-based creatures and plant people etc, so I’m not sure why I wasn’t too into her the first time, but yeah, she is definitely on the list of kaiju who can step on me/eat me/whatever.

I just kind of don’t care about any of the human characters even a little bit? Miki is a non-character. I don’t remember much about her in the other movies which doesn’t bode well, but I sincerely hope she gets better to somehow justify her being basically the only recurring human character this franchise has ever had.

Of the kaiju-centric stuff, the parts that were actually Godzilla vs. Biollante were fine, though certainly not among the series’ best fights. And there was definitely way too much kaiju gore for my taste, but ymmv there. The brief parts that were just Godzilla stomping around were also fine. The Godzilla vs. Super-X2 parts were… just… whatever.

This wasn’t boring or unwatchable or anything? There isn’t really a <i>bad</i> Heisei era Godzilla film (other than SpaceGodzilla), but I was just kinda hoping I would come around on it a bit this time but I ended up just still really not grooving on it. Ah well! Plenty of other giant lizards in the sea.

(C-Rank)

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah

Y’know what? This one is surprisingly good!

Okay, kind of a weird thing for me to say about a Godzilla movie considering how much I love the series as a whole. Basically, this one didn’t leave much of an impression last time–which, admittedly, I was running through a crazy marathon of watching basically all of the Godzilla movies for the first time in the space of I think less than a week? I had just started getting into kaiju movies and I immediately fell in love, so there was a breathless “now, now, NOW” excitement about getting through the whole series that I don’t really regret. Unfortunately as a result there were definitely a few that ended up kind of blurring together in a “yeah, that was good, what’s the next one?” kind of space. Watching them on their own and only thinking about them as individual movies is just almost always gonna do them some pretty big favors.

I’ve also just never been the biggest fan of King Ghidorah? I recognize his importance in the series and I think he’s often a good antagonist, he just isn’t really as much of an intrinsic draw for me in the way a lot of other kaiju are?

… a particular guy being a “draw” is a thing that gets talked about a lot in wrestling. As longtime readers may have noticed, it’s hard for me to not occasionally frame these movies in wrestling terms.

And on top of that, this movie has Godzilla as a baddie and Mecha-King Ghidorah swooping in to save the day!! I hate that!! Like, despite my mostly-indifference towards him I think Ghidorah works fine as a Godzilla antagonist, but having him as the good guy and Godzilla as the bad guy is just never really gonna work for me.

So yeah, that plus the ridiculous time-travel plot were basically the main things I remembered about the movie. And the ridiculous time-travel plot was a point in its favor for me, but not really enough on its own for me to look back on it as one of the better ones. So, yeah! I didn’t really know what to expect upon revisiting it.

Plus one of my concerns before doing these rewatches was that I might be overrating the Heisei era movies slightly just because of the drastic increase in production values, but honestly? That drastic increase matters. There are some shots of Godzilla’s maw in this that are gonna make anyone with even the slightest inclination towards vore blush, and the increased facial articulation lets him emote so much more without like literally having to do a jig or whatever. It just really opens up how much he can be characterized. And even though that characterization is still gonna be broad, obvious wrestling-adjacent stuff, those little details still really help. Like, when Godzilla’s pissed, he looks pissed. The music and dialogue don’t have to do as much heavy lifting.

The music!! This installment represents legendary composer Ifukube Akira’s return to the series for the first time since Terror of Mechagodzilla. As well as the first time he’s worked on an entry not helmed by Honda Ishirō! Something that really jumped out at Sonic was that he added some much more sinister undertones to his cheerful military march that’s always playing whenever the toy tanks come out. It’s a really nice touch. And I really appreciate how much of his original work he brings in and reworks. There’s some really interesting uses of his original Godzilla theme throughout the film. Ifukube will go on to score the remainder of the films of the Heisei era, save for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, so it’ll be cool to keep an eye on how the music in the rest of them stacks up!

Maybe Ifukube’s music plays a large part in why this one feels like such a return to the glory days of the Honda Ishirō-helmed monster mashes, but I like to think that Honda himself was damn proud of the titular slobberknocker between Godzilla, King of the Monsters and false King Ghidorah. (I said what I said. Wanna make something of it, Ghidorah stans?) It’s unfair to compare this fight to Honda’s given the inherent advantages the technology available to this movie had (… and to be honest I was never really in love with any of their Shōwa era confrontations), but this has got to be one of the best fights between these two ever. Ghidorah gets in some great offense, at one point literally stomping on Godzilla and later wrapping his necks around Godzilla and choking him out.

… yesOKAYfine, I have some less than pure reasons for enjoying all that, but please trust me when I say that it was a legitimately good fight? And after Godzilla manages to fight out of the chokehold he decides that he’s just capital-D Done with Ghidorah’s bullshit and beats him the fuck down before savaging him with his atomic breath, leaving him less one head and plus one massive hole in his wing.

I don’t necessarily mind the development that Godzilla then goes and stomps the fuck out of Sapporo en route to Tokyo. Especially given that it’s one of the better city destruction sequences in a series chock full of good (and occasionally but rarely bad) city destruction sequences.

The sequence of Shindō waiting for Godzilla in his office at the top of a skyscraper in the city he helped rebuild is… something else. There’s a moment of recognition between the two, I think one of the first times in the series that Godzilla acknowledges an individual human? And Shindō just nods meaningfully to Godzilla before Godzilla destroys him (and the building he’s in) with an atomic breath ray.

… okay this isn’t usually how the wrestling stuff is incorporated (it’s usually just kaiju-to-kaiju interactions that fall into these patterns) but that is so wrestling? I’ve seen that shit in so many retirement matches. And not even just retirement matches. I feel like something similar happened in the Triple H/Undertaker Hell in a Cell match at Wrestlemania 28, and more recently in AEW when Hangman Page was about to beat Kenny Omega for the AEW World Championship in front of the Young Bucks he hesitated before delivering the final Buckshot Lariat before receiving a nod of acknowledgement from Matt Jackson who was in a position to interfere in the match but chose not to.

I’M SORRY THESE MOVIES ARE MORE THAN WRESTLING BUT THEY ARE ALSO JUST NOT NOT WRESTLING. I AM NOT FORCING THIS OR MAKING THIS UP, THEY’RE JUST… THEY’RE JUST SO WRESTLING, AND I LOVE IT!

And then Emmy swoops in from the future and saves the day by piloting Mecha-King Ghidorah like a godsdamned Zord and I hate it conceptually but damned if it isn’t kinda great in execution?

I’ve barely talked about any of the human characters in this but honestly sending them off on a time-traveling adventure is a great move because the human stuff is usually at its best when it’s more about the kaiju-related Stuff they’re given To Do rather than trying to make them intrinsically interesting. The humans in a kaiju movie are basically never gonna be intrinsically interesting. I’m sorry. They have to compete with KAIJU.

Perfect example, actually. Miki returns for her second of six movies and she… well, she… uh… she sure is there!

But, yeah. Like I said, the human characters are deployed exactly the way I’d ideally like them to be. There’s certainly other directions you can go occasionally that work, but I think this is a pretty good default position. The only approach I like even better is when the human characters are marginalized even more and doing basically nothing but reacting to what the kaiju are doing and the kaiju are onscreen for a majority of the movie.

Anyway, yeah! Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. Right now it’s just inside of my top ten. It’s unlikely to stay there given some of the movies that are coming up later in this gradual marathon, but it’s still a lot more memorable than I remember it being. Yes, I phrased it that way on purpose.

What’s that? You want me to talk about this movie’s kinda awkward politics? Yeah, that makes sense given my usual approach. So, yeah. As an American, I think the thing I can say about that is

(A-Rank)

Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992)

Godzilla SWAM THROUGH MAGMA AND CLIMBED UP THE INSIDE OF A VOLCANO in this one, just in case you were harboring the illusion that there ever has been or ever will be a bigger badass than him.

This definitely treads over a lot of the same ground as the Shōwa era Mothra appearances, but that honestly kinda rules? It’s great seeing a lot of the sillier and more fantastical elements come back into the series but with the Heisei era’s elevated production values. The plot is kinda the central thrusts of Mothra and Mothra vs. Godzilla smushed together, with a lot of the extraneous human stuff removed, and… yeah! That’ll work!

I still don’t like Godzilla as a baddie, especially since I believe this is the only time in the Heisei era he shares the screen with his Queen. (She’s tangentially involved in Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla, but if memory serves she doesn’t actually get to fight alongside him?)

At least this is one fight I don’t mind the King of the Monsters losing. If anything Mothra is a bit underpowered in this one as it takes both her and a redeemed Battra to defeat Godzilla. I generally prefer when she’s at least a match for Godzilla, if not smacking him around like he’s her bratty sub (because he is).

On balance I definitely do slightly prefer Mothra and Mothra vs. Godzilla, but this is still pretty up there! By which I mean it’s currently sitting inside my top 5, but we’ll see if that lasts! Lots of great ones are still coming up in this gradual marathon.

(A-Rank)

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)

Okay wow I’ve been sleeping on this one.

This has some of the best fights in the series, and I’m not just saying that because I’m hella gay for the first fight where Godzilla literally chokes and stomps on Rodan??? But like… it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Hmm? Sorry, got distracted.

Speaking of me being gay for kaiju, this version of Mechagodzilla is a drastic improvement over the Shōwa era one. He might be the best version of Mechagodzilla? I’ll have to see when I rewatch Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. But regardless, he’s much curvier and sexier than his predecessor. I’m a fan.

Cementing it as one of my favorite Heisei era Godzilla films, this is when Godzilla’s face turn happens in this continuity, and what I love about it is… Godzilla doesn’t really change? It’s really just the human characters’ perceptions of him that change? And that’s so rewarding to see.

Oh, and, as much as I’ve been complaining about her being basically a noncharacter in the previous films despite being the only real recurring human character in the series, Miki kicks ass in this one!! And she has a partner in crime in the form of Azusa, baby Godzilla’s human caretaker. Both of them object strongly to G-Force’s plan to paralyze Godzilla, and to use baby Godzilla as bait to do so. They essentially end up getting bullied into going along with it, but they both keep doing their best to throw themselves between these kaiju and their superiors.

Speaking of baby Godzilla, wow? This is blatantly the best version of him? Like, he’s genuinely an asset to the movie? 0% cringe, 10/10, would baby Godzilla again.

Yeah… I think this is my favorite Heisei era Godzilla movie!

(S-Rank)

Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla

I was really, really hoping revisiting this would improve my opinion of it, but sadly no. This is just too slow and uneventful, and has by far the worst version of Godzilla Jr. in the Heisei era. At least he spends most of the movie in gay baby jail.

This is just so disappointing after the way Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II knocked everything out of the park.

(C-Rank)

Godzilla vs. Destoroyah

I managed not to cry as much this time. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

There are a lot of big picture things I like better about the Shōwa era, principally the painting of Godzilla with a more unambiguously heroic brush after his face turn. Godzilla does have something of a face turn in the Heisei era continuity in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, but even in this film which definitively closes the book on the Heisei era there are quite a lot of characters haven’t gotten the memo that he’s the good guy.

All of which is to say… despite some of my preferences lining up rather decisively in favor of the Shōwa era, on average it really does seem like I prefer the actual films of the Heisei era by a pretty wide margin. Aside from SpaceGodzilla which is a awful (but not as bad as the worst Shōwa era films), the Heisei era movies are just so damn consistently awesome that it’s really hard not to look at them as a whole and think, “okay, damn, this is better.”

When I said this movie definitively closes the book on the Heisei era of Godzilla films, I mean it slams that book closed. Godzilla is glowing with angry-red nuclear radiation from his first appearance. There’s genuine concern that he’s going to explode with a force greater than all the nuclear weapons on earth, which eventually gets downgraded to where he’s “merely” going to suffer a meltdown so severe that it could trigger the terrifying hypothetical that’s popularly known as “China syndrome,” whose effects might be functionally identical.

Godzilla is clearly fighting through pain through the whole movie, and the incomparable Ifukube Akira expresses this with a much darker, weightier score that works to express his grim determination throughout the film.

Godzilla’s own end is not the only ending here. Miki and another psychic talk about the fact that their powers are fading, and the movie doesn’t provide a clear explanation for why that is, but it fits with everything else going on in the movie. We’re also told that Godzilla’s own doom was brought about by some kind of disaster that destroyed Infant Island, the home of the Goddess to his God(zilla), Mothra.

If the studio was unwilling to go to the expense of including Mothra in this concluding chapter–and I have to imagine that’s the only explanation for her absence–having Godzilla’s fate linked to hers is at least something of a consolation. I do think that Mothra deserves more than to have her island (and possibly herself) wiped off the face of the map offscreen before the movie started, but if you take this as read, Godzilla’s final hours take on a quality even more evocative of a funeral dirge. Every punch he throws, every supercharged atomic breath that bursts uncontrollably from him, has the strength of his grief and rage behind it.

And who should be Godzilla’s opponent for this final, fateful chapter in this version of his story? Destoroyah, the son of the oxygen destroyer. The dreadful weapon that killed the first Godzilla in the original 1954 film. Yeah, okay, the oxygen destroyer has always been a pretty silly concept, but marrying the weapon that ended the first movie on a somber note to Godzilla’s final opponent is just such an inspired choice, and this movie really does make the most of it. Footage from and dialogue references to the first movie are plentiful, and the whole thing acts to give some much-needed gravitas to Godzilla’s last battle.

And what are they fighting over? The fate of the world? Well, yeah, kinda. But instead of leaving it so abstract, the fate of Godzilla’s world is given concrete shape in the form of his son, Godzilla Jr. And this is, by the way, the absolute best version of Godzilla’s offspring in any movie ever. No question.

We see what kind of monster–in every sense of the word–Destoroyah is through his wanton cruelty towards Godzilla Jr. He doesn’t just kill him, he plays with his food. He enjoys it. Godzilla’s answering grief and righteous anger pushes his internal atomic meltdown over the edge. He blasts Destoroyah with his most powerful heat ray yet, and though the clearly-beaten Destoroyah tries to slink away, the fucking humans finally do something right by finishing him off.

And then everyone can only watch helplessly as Godzilla distintegrates before their very eyes, and I have to say, I am still stunned by how good this looks and how emotionally evocative it is when combined with the soundtrack. It’s one of the most powerful moments of the entire series, and it’s just absolutely gutting to the audience and characters alike.

No one can save Godzilla, but the humans do desperately unload all the cryo-weapons they have onto him to try to contain the meltdown as much as they can. They successfully avert the “China syndrome” event, but the radiation that’s released is enough to render Tokyo uninhabitable.

But we’re not done. Because while Mothra might not be in this movie, she clearly taught her boy her most important trick. The cycle of resurrection. The radiation suddenly plummets. Everyone is shocked by this impossible miracle, and as the smoke clears we see the resurrected Godzilla Jr roaring triumphantly.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

(A-Rank)

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