Godzilla vs Destroyah

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 manga adaptation

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.

Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla

Continuing my watch of the Heisei series (1984 – 1995) of Godzilla movies.

It takes some adjustment to go from the whimsical children’s adventures that were the Godzilla films of the the late 70’s to the grim disaster movie that was Return of Godzilla in 1984. A viewer needs another adjustment as the presentation of Godzilla swings back the other way in the later Heisei films of the 90’s. From an incomprehensible force whose very existence could distort the course of history for centuries in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991), by Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (1994) we are being expected to sympathize with him, as Miki Saegusa implores that Godzilla “has the same feelings we do.”

Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla was directed by Kensho Yamashita and was his first time directing a Godzilla movie, though he’d worked as an assistant on earlier ones. The screenplay by Hiroshi Kashiwabara, also new to Godzilla, but with a long list of other projects before this. I really should also be mentioning the special effects director, Koichi Kawakita, as those in that role traditionally are responsible for the creating and directing the effects sequences in these movies. It was that way with Eiji Tsuburaya in the 1954 Godzilla and with Shinji Higuchi in 2016’s Shin Godzilla. Kawakita was the special effects director for all the Heisei Godzilla films. What this films does not have is a new score by Akira Ifukube and he is missed.

Over the last few films of this series, dealing with Godzilla has become more and more of an international effort, with the formation of the U.N. Godzilla Countermeasures Center and the G-Force. At the same time, Godzilla himself has been, well, not doing much. He has not been an active menace, just going about his business unless attacked or lured to a populated area. G-Force though feels that there is enough danger to warrant building yet another giant robot battle system (because the last one worked so well..?) called MOGUERA —named and designed in homage to the alien robot in 1957’s The Mysterians. MOGUERA is the most anime thing yet in these movies, not just being a giant robot, but one that is made combining two other, transforming vehicles. One of which is named, sensibly, “Land Moguera,” the other, inexplicably and incongruously, the “Star Falcon.” There is no mention of Godzilla’s weakness of having a secondary brain in the base of his spine, as in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, any more than there has ever been of his being attracted by bird songs as in Return of Godzilla

That’s not the only plan on the table though. Miki Saegusa returns in this film as part of “Project T,” a scheme to use psychic powers to control Godzilla, though she remains hesitant to participate until a vision from the Cosmos, Mothra’s fairy companions, warn her that a great danger is heading to the Earth from space.

That danger appears to be what destroyed a NASA space mission. MOGUERA, despite being designed to fight Godzilla, is conscripted to fly into space and meet this approaching enemy. This does not seem a smart thing to do. Sending a new weapon system to encounter a mysterious enemy of completely unknown strength and capabilities? They get off lucky, in my opinion, that this danger, a new monster that is a weird half-crystal, half-mutated Godzilla/Biollante evil twin, only damaged and sent MOGUERA limping back to Earth. For all anybody knew, SpaceGodzilla could have had the power to vaporize MOGUERA with a single attack. This “let’s go fight without any tactical information or plan” is very children playing monsters, rather than a logical response to a threat, even in a monster movie. I found Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla notable in that, while the plot was relatively uncomplicated and a bit shallow, it at least made sense. Events and character actions flowed in a reasonable way, and actions led to logical consequences. Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla drifts away from that.

In much of the movie a lot of things happen that we are left to piece together to make sense over the what and why. Back on Earth, two G-Force members travel to a remote island and encounter a gruff veteran, Major Yuki camping there. Yuki is eventually revealed to be a rogue G-Force agent and maybe the others, Koji and Kiyo, were following up on Yuki’s reports of having located Godzilla? It’s hard to tell. In any case, this island is chosen to be the test ground for Project T, since Godzilla comes there, apparently to visit “Little Godzilla,” the rapidly growing (and we are left assuming, mutating) Baby from the last movie. Saegusa and two other scientists, Dr. Okubo and Dr. Gondo arrive to setup Project T. There’s a problem though from Major Yuki having no interest in being part of this. He has his own agenda, and is obsessed with killing Godzilla to avenge his brother (characters having a Moby Dick revenge fixation on Godzilla is the most exhausted trope in the genre and I wish people would just stop it). Yuki believes that Godzilla has a weak point under his arm (a new weakness mentioned for the first time) and that he can aim there to shoot a special blood coagulant poison into Godzilla to kill him. While G-Force is attempting to shoot a psychic amplifier into Godzilla that will allow Saegusa to take mental control of him, Yuki is allowed to plant landmines and tear gas bombs and to run around trying his plan at the same time. They even literally cross paths occasionally, staring at each other as if confused over whether they are both meant to be in the same scenes or even in the same movie. Yuki’s plan fails (the weak point and the coagulant are immediately dropped from the story) but Saegusa is able to gain some control over Godzilla — until the overstressed equipment burns out. Things can only get worse and they do, as SpaceGodzilla arrives, landing at a crystallized zone it had created on the island. Godzilla and his space-twin fight, but Godzilla is distracted by protecting Little Godzilla. Overwhelmed, he can’t hold off the invader, which captures Little Godzilla and imprisons him in a crystal pit. Why? Maybe in some version of the script SpaceGodzilla was meant to go around capturing power sources and using them as energy batteries? That might have been cool. Here it only accomplishes getting Little Godzilla out of the way of the rest of the film, which is a relief I have to say.

The films then stumbles into a remarkably low energy, directionless phase. Yuki has failed. Project T has failed, even Godzilla has failed. No one knows what to do, and no character has a real clear goal. Everybody just starts to pack up and go home. Saegusa is sick of the whole thing and just wants to stay on the island. Koji also stays, in order to setup a mostly unmotivated and unengaging romance subplot.

And there is SpaceGodzilla to deal with. A meeting is filled with totally wacky technobabble about SpaceGodzilla’s origins, speculating about Godzilla cells getting into space, falling into a black hole, merging with malevolent space bacteria, and then coming out a “white hole” as a giant monster. The only thing they can think to do is repair MOGUERA, and give its command to the now returned Major Yuki.

Cut to subplot of Saegusa being kidnapped off the island. Turns out Dr. Okubo wants the opportunity to try his Godzilla mind control again and has enlisted Yakuza help. Koji, Kiyo, and Yuki go and rescue her from the gangsters, engaging in the most unconvincing gunfight I’ve seen for a while. Saegusa helps out by suddenly having telekinesis as well as telepathy. And the upgrading mind control machine still doesn’t work. You could remove this whole sequence from the film and it wouldn’t be missed.

Space Godzilla arrives in the city of Fukuoka, with the usual resulting destruction. There are lots and lots and lots of scenes of people evacuating the city. The suspense of theses shots being undercut by the usual scattering of people in the crowd grinning and laughing at being in a monster movie, and by the cars and buses that are going about their normal business in the background. Godzilla also shows up, heading for a rematch. The military, for some reason, believe that this time, this time, conventional forces will be able to hold off Godzilla. They don’t.

The only character in this movie that has its act together and has any idea what it’s doing is SpaceGodzilla. It sends crystal meteors to secure a zone of operation, establishes power points and renewing energy sources, and commands the environment to hold territory and maintain the high ground against opponents. G-Force, for their part, does things such as giving command of MOGUERA to Major Yuki with orders to attack SpaceGodzilla. Orders he immediately disobeys to fly off and attack his personal nemesis, ordinary Godzilla. Koji and KIyo have to knock him out and tie him up to get back in control.

There then follows the movie’s main accomplishment: the most prolonged, effects filled battle sequence yet in a Godzilla film. Godzilla, SpaceGodzilla, and MOGUERA clash in a nighttime, nightmarish landscape made of a surreal mingling of skyscrapers and SpaceGodzilla’s crystalline constructs. The conflict is almost entirely a “beam battle” with energy rays, twisting lighting strokes, missiles, and endless pyrotechnic explosions and showers of colored sparks. One might have wanted a little more physically confrontation and less of bulky monster suits standing around almost motionless, but it is still an amazing spectacle of tokusatsu (special effects) movie making.

To wrap up the plot, Yuki is eventually convinced that SpaceGodzilla is the real threat and that they need, as much as possible, to work together with Godzilla to defeat it. Which they do. Saegusa and Koji even manage to stop Yuki from sacrificing his own life. Everybody looks like they’ll live happily every after — with even Little Godzilla shown to be doing just find and learning to create an atomic ray blast. It’s still hard to accept that the characters think the maturing of a second Godzilla is in any way a good thing.

For two movies now, Godzilla has been portrayed as a protective, sympathetic character: a father. And it hasn’t been very interesting. You might notice an increase of snarky comments in these essays and accuse me of having too high expectations for such a silly genre. Godzilla movies though have shown that they can be more, do more, and be more effective narratives. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah was an out of control mess, but had things to say and questions it wanted you to think about. The Heisei series has only one more film in it, Godzilla vs Destoroyah. I might be disenchanted with the whole kaiju genre, if I didn’t know what it tried to do in the next sequence of Godzilla films, the so-called “Millennium Series” starting with Godzilla 2000. Or for that matter, what was going on at this same time over at Toei Studios, where their reboot of Gamera was taking the giant monster film to new places and new levels of art and creativity — and of the horror and awe that 50 meter fire-breathing monsters ought to inspire.