During a turbulent storm a fishing boat crew witness a vast, terrifying shape rising out of the ocean. Reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) discovers the vessel the next day, but finds the crew are a bloody mess of shrivelled corpses, attacked by mutated flesh-eating bugs. All except for the traumatised Ken Okumura (Shin Takuma) who claims to have witnessed the return of Godzilla, the giant radioactive monster that wreaked havoc across Japan thirty years ago. Okumura is placed under quarantine but Maki cynically arranges a reunion with his sister, Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi), so he can leak the Godzilla story to the general public. As Godzilla ravages Tokyo, Professor Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki) hatches a brilliant (well, not really) idea to lure the beast to its doom, little realising the world’s super-powers have a more drastic solution in mind…
For their first new Godzilla movie in nine years, Toho decided to ignore the last fourteen films and start from scratch. Godzilla 1985, or The Return of Godzilla as it is known in Japan, restores everyone’s favourite radioactive reptile back to his old, evil, city-wrecking ways with a story that is deadly serious, even dour for the most part. Not that you could tell from the campy ad campaign New World supremo Roger Corman devised for the American release. New World also trimmed the film down from one-hundred and three to ninety-one minutes, inserted new scenes with an American cast, and preceded the feature with Marv Newland’s infamous thirty second cartoon Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969), which some maintain is an ingenious allegorical satire and others consider a one-joke novelty now barely worth a YouTube rating.
Corman’s one stroke of genius was having Raymond Burr recreate his role as American reporter Steve Martin, renamed simply Martin for obvious reasons. For those readers only familiar with the now-widely available Japanese cut of the original Godzilla (1954), Burr’s character was edited into the international version by producer Joseph E. Levine, who worried drive-in audiences would not respond to a film with an all-Japanese cast. Burr did an array of interviews to promote Godzilla 1985 and seemed genuinely pleased to have been part of Godzilla’s legacy. Nevertheless, it has to be said, his scenes add nothing to the film beyond occasional grimaces at monitor screens and prominent product placement for Dr. Pepper. In fact the New World cut does everything except have Big G kick back with a skyscraper sized can of the soft drink or say something like: “Mm, nothing else quenches my thirst after a hard day stomping Tokyo to dust.” Another problem is the inclusion of sarcastic Major McDonough (Travis Swords) who makes crass jokes while watching dozens of Japanese citizens die. If he can’t take Godzilla seriously, why should we?
Even without these ill-judged additions, the original cut was far from the triumphant return Godzilla fans had hoped for. Embarrassed by the campy tone of the Seventies Godzilla films, series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. The Return of Godzilla aims for sober suspense rather than comic book thrills, but aside from the ominous build-up and a small handful of nicely staged sequences, it is a sluggish and joyless monster movie with an illogical plot that limps along to an anticlimactic finale. Forty minutes in, Professor Hayashida figures out how to lure Godzilla to his doom but it takes another meandering hour before they put his idea into practice. Two thirds of the film involve serious men in serious suits sitting in serious rooms engaging in serious debate. The Cold War satire was truncated in the American version, but remains one of the original film’s more successful, if heavy-handed aspects. Once again, Godzilla becomes the living embodiment of nuclear holocaust. Not only does he consume nuclear energy but his assault triggers a Soviet nuclear missile that that soon heads towards Tokyo. Still, as later films proved, Godzilla functions best when he has a personality and a goal beyond simple, mindless destruction.
The human drama is the worst kind of daytime soap opera nonsense, poorly written and performed with even less conviction by lacklustre leading man Ken Tanaka and blank-eyed zombie Yasuko Sawaguchi. Reijiro Koroku and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra supply a suitably menacing score, although one misses Akira Ifukube’s epic themes. Ifukube returned in the superior second sequel Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). Just to shoot themselves in the other foot, Toho also included an incongruous J-pop ballad called “Goodbye, My Love” sung in English by (yes, her again) Yasuko Sawaguchi, whose lyrics include (and I kid you not): “Goodbye Godzilla! Sayonara! Till we meet again!”
Special effects were supervised Teruyoshi Nakano, a veteran of the series since the late Sixties. In spite of the large budget allotted to Nakano, his miniatures look exactly like what they are, although there is one neat scene where Godzilla grabs the famous Bullet Train. Look out for the Catholic priest who inexplicably grins while his fellow passengers are about to die. Godzilla’s initial appearance as a shadowy shape emerging out of the ocean is quite effective, but undone once we glimpse the new suit in all its goofy glory with those comical ping-pong eyes. This film also introduced Super-X, or Capital City Defence Fighter Super-X to give its full title. Either way it is a rather humdrum mecha design, unlikely to excite anyone and its battle with Big G is a non-event. There are Godzilla movies more slapdash than this one, but none are as boring.