Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Part One: Introduction

Beginning my weeklong series examining this 1991 Godzilla monster/time travel/cyborg/political philosophy epic.

One of my projects for this blog is to watch through and comment on the series of Godzilla films that were released between 1984 and 1995, known as the Heisei Series. You can see my post on the first of these films, Return of Godzilla (Koji Hashimoto, 1984). Unfortunately the second film, Godzilla vs Biollante (Kazuki Ōmori, 1989) isn’t readily available, and it’s been years since I’ve seen it. So I have to skip to Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (Kazuki Omori, 1991), the third film.

Movie  Poster

A difficulty in thinking about Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is understanding just what this movie is trying to be. It is not the carefully crafted work of a filmmaker with a personal vision, the way that Ishirō Honda’s 1954 Godzilla was — or Hideaki Anno’s 2016 Shin Godzilla. It is not the light children’s entertainment of the 1970’s movies. It is not the over the top craziness of Ryuhei Kitamura’s 2004 Godzilla: Final Wars.

By 1991 movies in the United States were in the era of the Hollywood science fiction blockbuster. Terminator, Predator, Alien, etc. had not only been big hits but spawned successful franchises. Everybody watched them, not just science fiction and monster fans. The Godzilla films of the 1980’s and 90’s tried to join in. With relatively bigger budgets, more serious tone, and less stylized visuals, they sought after the growing audience of viewers wanting spectacular fantasy and high intensity action. Godzilla vs King Ghidorah was made in 1991, seven years after a new series started up with 1984’s Return of Godzilla. That desire to emulate Hollywood filmmaking is evident. In Return, for instance, when there was a change of location, there would usually be an establishing shot, a subtitle of the location’s name, and possibly even a complete sequence of a character driving up, getting out of their car, and walking up to the entrance. Ghidorah just cuts rapidly between locations and times, assuming a modern viewer can keep up. The subject matter and visuals of popular American sci-fi films exert their influence here as well, particularly the Terminator franchise.

Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is trying to take two classic Toho monsters and work them into a 90’s sci-fi action film. We should look at the results with that goal in mind. But director and screenwriter Kazuki Omori does not abandon the history and fundamentals of what makes a Godzilla film. When Hollywood itself tried to take on the task, it stumbled badly with the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla, seeming to think that Godzilla as a trademark, as a licensing property alone, was the source of his power. Godzilla needs to be more than that. For all the awkward Hollywood homages and attempts at imitating hit American films, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah remembers that Godzilla is always about something.

He appeared in 1954 as a metaphor for the dangers of the atomic bomb. By his second film he was more a natural disaster who could be mapped and forecasted, like a hurricane. In the 60’s and 70’s he became a superhero — and embodied a child’s fantasy for power and agency in a world where he literally didn’t fit. Later series found even more ideas and symbols to embody in his ever larger form. Godzilla is a radioactive Moby Dick, onto which people can endlessly project their own fears, obsessions, hopes, and nightmares. In Godzilla vs King Ghidorah several different characters have their own interpretations of what Godzilla is. They have conflicting philosophies about the world, particularly Japan’s place in the world, and look to Godzilla as to embody their beliefs.

In working on this essay I kept wondering why I had so much to say. While I find it entertaining, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is not actually a very good movie. It’s not especially well written, has some cringingly bad scenes, and several major plot holes. But it always has something going on. Every scene has some idea or thought or resonance with Godzilla as a film franchise. It keeps trying to do things, visually and thematically. It fails as often it succeeds, but the attempts are worth watching and thinking about. Let’s look at how this movie unfolds and see what it has to say.

The Return of Godzilla

I first saw the movie that was then known as Godzilla 1985 during its original American theatrical run. The producers of this English language version did something that was both clever and ridiculous: just as Raymond Burr has been edited into the American release of the original 1954 Godzilla, he was now brought in to reprise his role as newspaper reporter Steve Martin and edited into this new film. In neither case does the character have much of anything to do with the actual story.

Move Poster

Released in Japan in 1984 as The Return of Godzilla (sometimes also with the title Godzilla 1984), Return was the first new Godzilla movie since 1975. It is significant for just being a new Godzilla movie, what we’d call today a “reboot” of the franchise, and the beginning of a new series of films that ran until 1995. It is presented as a sequel to the 1954 Godzilla, ignoring all the other movies since then. Which was a wise choice, since Godzilla movies had degenerated into low-budget children’s films of decreasing popularity.

And Return is not a film for children. The opening sequence is more like a British Hammer horror film with a gore spattered ghost ship, desiccated corpses, and blood sucking giant insects. The design of Godzilla is also fiercer and more threatening. His long sharp teeth are prominent and animatronics were used to give him a mouth that could sneer and snarl. While we don’t see him actually eat anybody, this is a Godzilla that looks you in the eye before smashing the building you are in or hurling your train car to the ground. The film is a rare one in the giant monster genre where Tokyo is not fully evacuated before Godzilla begins smashing it up. People get hurt and bleed in this movie. Not only is there mass destruction, we see corpses and witness individual deaths.

The human perspective on Godzilla is emphasized. His shadow looms over crowds and there are many shots looking up as he towers above puny humans. People are often shown with just Godzilla’s feet and huge claws (life-sized mechanical foot was built for some of these shots – it works about as well as you’d expect).

At the end of the first Godzilla film, the monster is definitively killed, reduced to dissolving bones. When Godzilla Raid Again was made in 1955, a character proclaims that this must be “another Godzilla” and the matter was never mentioned again. Here a scientist muses that Godzilla must be “immortal” and once more no one mentions it further. Godzilla’s 1954 rampage is part of history and is vaguely referred to. Many of the elder authorities and politicians featured must have actually lived through that attack, though their reaction aren’t as intense as one might expect.

I was surprised by the resemblance between this movie and the 2016 Shin Godzilla and would say this film was Hideaki Anno’s model for his own reboot. There is the prominence of onscreen announcements of locations and characters’ official titles. There are plenty of political meetings and planning sessions. Sequences of military operations and equipment are on display in detail. These frequently are elements in Godzilla movies but they get a lot of screen time here. What Shin Godzilla added was making meetings and internal politics the center of the film and ramping it all up to satirical proportions. Issues of Japan standing up against the rest of the world, particularly regarding the use of nuclear weapons come up in both films. The economic disruptions that a giant radiaoactive dinosaur could cause are at least mentioned.

Godzilla himself here also resembles the star of Shin Godzilla. He is not played by the long time actor Haruo Nakajima and has none of the usual sumo or professional wrestling stances from earlier films. He moves stiffly with arms uprasied, serpentine tail lashing behind him, again much like in Shin. This Godzilla is also taller than before, which is important for the environment he moves through. In 1954 Godzilla was gigantic against the Tokyo skyline. Now, even at 80 meters, many buildings in the heart of the city are taller than him, and Godzilla moves as if through cliffs and canyons. That he is able to blast through or knock over these structures only emphasizes his strength. By Shin Godzilla buildings were even taller, and so was Godzilla, over 118 meters, more than twice his height in 1954.

While overall this movie tries to make Godzilla the scary threat he was back in 1954, there are some shifts in tone and story that conflict with that goal. In his first few appearances in the film, Godzilla is portrayed as an animal seeking food — radiation in his case. He attacks an atomic submarine and comes to shore to absorb the energy of a nuclear power plant. He is most destructive though when he attacks Tokyo, no atomic power source in sight. He is actively seeking to destroy the works of mankind and, as I mentioned, stares down at us judgmentally as he does so. And then he is lured away from this seeming revenge by the artificial migration signal the humans have created, becoming an animal acting on instinct again. Other shifts include a comic relief bum stealing food, put into the middle of otherwise nightmare of devastation and death. Most of the film, again like Shin Godzilla, is realistic except for the existence of the monster — until a futuristic flying battle ship is introduced. The X-One deserves some recognition by actually defeating Godzilla. Its skilled crew and atomic dampening cadmium missiles would have won the day, if radiation hadn’t revived Godzilla after he’d be knocked out. In Shin Godzilla was also defeated using a similar approach. The strangest shift in tone occurs at the very end, after Godzilla has been sent plunging into a volcano. After a film full of Godzilla being a horrific walking disaster of death and chaos, characters look at his (presumed) death throes with sadness, and over the closing credits a mournful voice sings “Take care Godzilla, my old friend.”

A few thematic elements appear in the film, reminiscent of the ideas in the 1954 movie. Questions about the choice between personal desires and the greater good, about mankind throwing the natural order out of balance and birthing monsters that punish us. These don’t really go anywhere, unlike the first film where they were at its center. The main purpose of this film is to update the classic monster and have him join the wave of relatively high budget science fiction and adventure films that were filling theatres. In that it was a modest success, not a blockbuster, but beginning a new series of Godzilla films that would continue with Godzilla Vs Biollante in 1989. I saw that one in the movie theatre as well, and had it on laserdisc for awhile. Unfortunately it is out of print on DVD currently, so I will have to skip it in my plans to rewatch this era of Godzilla’s adventures.