Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Return of Godzilla

Japan has completely changed in the nine years that Godzilla has spent dormant. The sprawling concrete space of late 1960s Tokyo is gone, replaced by a vertical growth of glass and steel. A new civic prison has sprung up to trap and frustrate the migrating behemoth. The Return of Godzilla is a reset button for the series, explicitly taking the titular monster back to his radioactive roots. Broadly, this is a remake of the 1954 film with Godzilla cast as a drifting natural disaster.

Not only is Return a continuity restart designed to unravel all those pesky defender of humanity strands, but the actual characteristics of Godzilla are defaulted too. Where later entries made the King of Monsters elemental, aligning him with a Shinto understanding of the world, Return reintroduces the idea that Godzilla draws his strength directly from fissile material. The monster cascades over the landscape, stalking power plants like a babysitter slasher - Godzilla has awoken from his slumber with an appetite. After a Russian nuclear sub is sunk, the world's superpowers are quickly at the Japanese PM's throat, demanding they be allowed to bomb the creature out of existence. Naturally, the domestic solution is much more elegant, built on scientific ingenuity and maybe even empathy with the rampaging daikaiju.

Koji Hashimoto's sole Godzilla entry is pitched somewhere between Jaws and Threads, a square-framed apocalypse in motion happy to discuss both the micro and macro fallout. As well as the usual budding romance, a significant amount of time is spent with politicians attempting to puzzle out the situation. Initially Godzilla's re-emergence earns a D-Notice, with bureaucrats afraid the news might spook the stock market. Time is also taken to talk about Japan's place in the nuclear hierarchy. With Russia and America desperate to fire satellite missiles at their major cities, not to mention a history of actually being atomically bombed, the Japanese cabinet concludes that their country is seen as a testing ground for experimental weaponry. It's an off-hand remark, but speaks to a wider, global perspective on the culture of fear that ensnared two former allies following the Second World War.

Unfortunately, Return marks the final series credit for Teruyoshi Nakano. Graduating to a full special effects director credit with Godzilla vs Hedorah, Nakano injected the ailing franchise with a sense of genuine horror. After Sadamasa Arikawa squandered Eiji Tsuburaya's genre defining creations, Nakano came to the rescue with scenes and monsters that stressed cataclysm. Monster action was trapped in a sparse, gloomy world clogged with thick, oozing smoke. Fights were likewise tinged with pain and desperation. Return is no exception. As Godzilla stomps through a scratch built Tokyo, the wreckage piles up until the landscape resembles New York's ground zero. If buildings are not burnt down to their steel bones, they sag wearily, burping soot into the atmosphere. People, particularly military personnel, suffer and die as Godzilla stumbles around searching for his next feast.

Despite Nakano firing on all cylinders, Return fluffs it in a few other areas. Yasuko Sawaguchi isn't given a great deal to do other than look cute as the film's passive heroine Naoko. This reductionism particularly strange in a series that has always insisted on making female characters key components in the various collectives. The appearance of a trillion yen flying saucer is also a peculiar development. The craft's impossible, fantastical design is a strange match to a film largely positioned as a 1980s update of a documentary style nuclear parable. Still, the Super X aircraft has some nice detailing to it - in order to cope with a monster that operates as a living, breathing atomic reactor, the Super X is armed with cadmium bullets designed to galvanise neutron decay within Godzilla.

Return of Godzilla's problems mostly arise from an internal tension regarding its relationship to the wider series. Should be a sequel or a reboot? The more outlandish elements, typical to the kaiju films of the late 60s and early 70s, sit awkwardly alongside the incredible ordinariness of the National Diet pontificating their place in the world. There is a uniqueness here though, even when viewed in light of the other Godzilla films. When the monster is eventually beaten, his passing is marked not with celebration but silent, teary respect. Despite the horrors he has visited on them, the Japanese cabinet cannot find it in themselves to hate Godzilla. This gigantic, nearly invincible animal is a thing to be mourned. It's a slight tweak of expectation typical of the film. A scene threatening to descend into hoary old cliché is given new life by a different national perspective.

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