Concluding my watch of the Heisei series (1984 – 1995) of Godzilla movies.
The Godzilla movies of the 90’s were produced under the shadow of various attempts to get an American Godzilla into production. By 1995 that was finally achieved. Hopes were high and Toho decided to end their current Godzilla series with 1995’s Godzilla vs Destroyah. This film would wrap up the Heisei series by killing off Godzilla and clearing the way for a planned trilogy of US produced movies. Unfortunately the result was the Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla. Godzilla would stay “dead” for years after that.
Godzilla vs Destroyah was directed by a returning Takao Okawara and written by Kazuki Omori, and of course with special effects by Koichi Kawakita. So there’s strong creative continuity with most of the other Heisei films. Akira Ifukube is back for the musical score as well.
The Heisei Godzilla movies were presented as a loosely connected series. The earlier Showa films had only a vague sense of continuity: when Rodan first shows up, everybody recognizes him as Rodan, but nobody comments on how he was supposed to have died at the end of his own movie. Each Heisei film though is supposed to be a sequel to the one before. Return of Godzilla, where the series started, was itself cast as a sequel to the 1954 original. Throughout the series there are references to and uses of elements from earlier films. The wreckage of MechaKing Ghidorah is utilized in building MechaGodzilla for instance. The anti-Godzilla G-Force gets established in Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla and remains an important organization in all the subsequent films. On the other hand, nobody ever mentions the Anti-Nuclear Bacteria used in Godzilla vs Biollante, despite its effectiveness. The continuity of the Heisei series is mainly supported by reoccuring characters, particularly Miki Saegusa, and the “son of Godzilla” as he grows from Baby to Little Godzilla to Junior.
Godzilla vs Destroyah is the climax of the whole series, but its focus is as a sequel to the 1954 Godzilla. This is one of the rare films throughout the franchise that acknowledges that the kaiju we see in every film since 1954 is not that Godzilla. That creature was utterly eliminated (down to dissolving bones) by Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer. Later, by some circumstances, a new Godzilla was born and he’s the one we’ve been dealing with. Serizawa’s legacy is the center element of the plot in this film — also the first time that has been directly addressed.
As this film opens Godzilla is back to being a rampaging, destructive force. Some accident at his and Junior’s island home has supercharged Godzilla’s energy and he is now a walking nuclear reactor about to go critical. Over the past couple movies, Godzilla hasn’t really been much of problem, unless people start messing with him. Now he’s a bomb that might go off and destroy the world.
But there’s also a second problem. Excavations in Tokyo Bay have uncovered an Precambrian life form (in the 1990’s the fossil discoveries of the Burgess Shales, popularized by Steven J Gould’s book “Wonderful Life” was a big source of weird creatures and life forms in sci-fi) mutated by Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer. These are studied by scientist Dr. Kensaku Ijuin, whose own research into ‘micro-oxygen” has paralleled Dr. Serizawa’s original work. While the movie indulges in a little science talk, over the course of the story “Oxygen Destroyer” and “micro-oxygen” rapidly become technobabble and mean what ever the plot needs them to, so we don’t need to worry about them beyond the suggestive connection to what Dr. Serizawa did four decades ago. Those connections are driven home by a cameo from Emiko Yamane, Serizawa’s fiancé from the 1954 film (played by the original actor Momoko Kochi). Her adopted niece and nephew, a reporter and a young science prodigy respectively, get caught up in the goings on.
The life forms escape and start growing into monsters. This leads to another unusual situation in a Godzilla movie: humans fighting kaiju directly, face-to-face, on the same scale, rather that the usual tiny tanks and planes going up against a titan. It is mostly an excuse to do one of the Heisei’s series favorite things: a prolonged homage to a Hollywood film, the time James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens. They are not subtle about it either, as when one of the creatures opens its mouth to reveal a secondary jaw that extends out to snap at a potential victim.
After some fun with that, the creatures, mutating ever larger, fight some tanks and energy weapons before merging into a single, even bigger monster. This is the most “anime” thing that has happened yet in these movies. Destroyah is in many ways an update of Hedorah, aka the Smog Monster, from 1971’s Godzilla vs Hedorah. It could also break up into multiple elements, merge together, and metamorphosis between different specialized forms. But Hedorah was a big mass of polluted slime, and its transformations were akin to those of actual slime mold colonies. Destroyah is a crustation so it’s ability to dissolve into pixie dust and rematerialize is more like something Dracula would do than a giant crab or an Anomalocaris canadensi.
And there is that whole other plot going on: Godzilla. The Japanese Self Defense Force, apparently after seeing the UN G-Force waste who know how many billions of dollars on two different not very effective giant robots, remember the Super-X Project — you know the thing that actually defeated Godzilla back in 1984? The newest version, the Super-X III, is bigger and more equipped with anti-Godzilla weapons — though the Cadmium bombs originally meant as nuclear dampeners, have now become just freeze bombs. These, along with “cryolasers,” do the job! The nuclear reaction that threatened to blow up the world is stopped. And while that buys some time, it turns out that Godzilla’s self-destruction just turns inward and a new threat is that he will melt down in a “China Syndrome” event and rupture the Earth’s core. Oh dear.
This film returns Godzilla to being a menace, but for me it doesn’t have much of a dramatic impact. It’s not through any intent or agency on Godzilla’s part. It’s just something happening to him. Also the shift in the nature of the threat from one thing to another just seems awkward writing. He’s going to destroy the world by blowing up — no, actually now he’s going to destroy it by melting down! It makes me think of a poorly run role-playing game, as if in a session of Dungeons & Dragons, the players unexpected defeat a major enemy and the Game Master has to desperately come up with a new menace for them to fight.
A third plot line is the missing Junior. When a concerned Miki Saegusa does locate him, this creature has grown/mutated into nearly the size of the 1954 version. Junior and Miki are the closest thing the film has to any real character drama. Junior has ended up in a classic dilemma of adolescence. He’s rapidly maturing into a changing body with strengths and abilities he doesn’t quite understand, with everybody coming at him with demands expectations about who is supposed to be. And mostly he wants to prove himself to his father.
Officials convince the hesitant Saegusa to lure Junior into battle with Destroyah. Miki has never really wanted to be Godzilla’s enemy and has tried to be Junior’s one friend. She seems to feel that things are coming to end, just as she feels her psychic powers fading. An interesting addition to the cast is another psychic member of a G-Force, Meru Ozawa. She’d prefer not to have mental powers and just live an ordinary life. It would have been nice for the movie to have done more with her, but at least she becomes a friend and confidant to Miki. If we can discount Godzilla (or Junior) as “a man” I think Miki and Meru pass the Bechdel Test.
Junior does end up taking on Destroyah, and manages a creditable job until he is overwhelmed and seemingly killed when the larger monster mutates into his final form. Then the adult Godzilla finally arrives and the main spectacle and effects filled battle ensues. It’s another impressive display of Koichi Kawakita’s special effects. Destroyah in a complex monster, with all its many forms, and numerous appendages and attacks.
Apparently grieving over his fallen son, Godzilla goes all out to defeat his foe before he melts down himself. The Super X III gets the final attack in, finishing off a weakened Destroyah before it escapes. It’s the end of Godzilla though. Even under a bombardment from freezing weapons, his flesh and scales melt away. From the inferno another form rises: a revitalized Junior has absorbed the radioactive fire storm and been reborn fully as a new Godzilla.
And there it ends. The Heisei series is complete, even as a new generation is born. Despite such an open resolution, this is perhaps the most definite ending any sequence of Godzilla films has had. The Millennium series which would start up in 2000 was more an anthology than a continuous story with a beginning and an end. Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004 would be a thematic ending to what had gone before, though it was more of a Shōwa era wrap up. The Heisei Godzilla is very much a thing of middles, a transition, an ungainly collection of experiments to bring a Godzilla into the modern world in terms of setting, themes, and what movies were becoming. It was a good thing for Godzilla to go through, but it is also good that it came to a resolution and that a new era of experiments, led by many different creators would eventually begin.