REVIEW: Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

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Directed by Kazuki Omori
Written by Kazuki Omori
Starring Kosuke Toyohara, Anne Nakagawa, Megumi Odaka, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya

I always wonder what the Heisei series of Godzilla films would have been like had Godzilla vs. Biollante not been a box office disappointment. The seeds were all there for an interesting science fiction franchise: a return to big-budget productions, new monster characters, a strong emphasis on high sci-fi concepts with consistent narratives. Such a shame that Toho decided to play it safe and redo the Showa series for the 90s. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy these films, but I ponder what could have been.

When a mysterious UFO is seen flying over Tokyo, tensions mount as the craft lands–and the occupants reveal themselves to be time travelers from the 23rd Century. Their mission: to warn mankind that Godzilla will soon awaken and wreak havoc upon the Earth unless he is destroyed. Meanwhile, a double-threat emerges in the form of King Ghidorah, a massive, flying three-headed dragon. The suspense builds to terrifying levels as the time travelers’ sinister true objective in the present is gradually revealed, and Godzilla must wage a solo battle against those who would destroy our future.

For Godzilla’s third outing in the Heisei continuity, Toho brought back his old nemesis, King Ghidorah, but more importantly, decided to create a trilogy cycle by delving into the origin of the second Godzilla. While I could argue all day about the dramatic deficiency of this move, namely, the destruction of the mystery surrounding this Godzilla’s existence, the end result is a bit more complicated than that.

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Beginning with a UFO streaking across the skies of Tokyo, GvKG quickly sets up the Godzilla origin arc with the main players of Terasawa (Kasuke Toyohara), a non-fiction writer investigating the kaiju’s past, dinosaur expert Professor Mazaki (Katsuhiko Sasaki), and the psychic from GvB, Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka). Their investigation reveals the existence of a massive dinosaur, a survivor of the KT Extinction, on Lagos Island in 1944, saving a garrison of Japanese soldiers from an American landing party. This revelation collides with the UFO story when the craft’s occupants reveal themselves as humans from the 23rd Century, come to save Japan from the devastation Godzilla will soon bring.

While the story itself seems sound, what really fails in GvKG for me is, well, everything else. Omori’s screenwriting takes a turn for the worse in this film, with his first deficiency being in his time-travel logic. Early on, one of the ‘Futurians’ insists that an individual from one time cannot coexist with his past-self at the same time, but this assertion is clearly proven wrong at several points later on, and the consistency of time theory is way off (at one point, their actions cause already established events to happen, and at others they change events). While this isn’t too grievous of a gaffe, as time travel is a messy storytelling subject, Omori’s seeming glorification of Japanese nationalism and the Imperial Army certainly is.

Image result for godzilla vs king ghidorah stillsYes, I’m going to toss my hat into this little controversy. I do indeed recognize the argument of the old guard and Ishiro Honda that perhaps depicting the killing of American soldiers by the Godzillasaurus went a little too far, considering the context in which these men fighting for an imperialist power would go on to become the founders of the modern Japan, in the case of Shindo (Yoshio Tsuchiya). However, this is rooted in historical fact, and the theme of the country’s roots in the war have been done with relative respect even in American films such as The Wolverine and Letters from Iwo Jima. Additionally, Shindo’s arc isn’t even indicative of the typical conservative Japanese attitudes, as he ends up at the mercy of his ‘savior’ at the end, perishing in the nuclear fire of a destructive god that does not, in fact, take sides, effectively nullifying any nationalistic fervor Omori may have fostered. In short, Shindo may have thought the divine wind was at his back, but he found in his tragic fall that it never cared about him at all.

As for the visual side of things, it doesn’t fare much better. Much of the futuristic elements are hokey at best and laughable at worst, with the biggest offender being the M-11 android. With his soft, almost unintelligable voice and dopey still-face, he already obliterates the Terminator-like image I’m sure Omori wanted to convey, and that’s long before we get “the run.”

I’m sure the suitmation technique did not change at all since GvB, but the emphasis on daytime battles in this film limits the believability of the kaiju action, and doesn’t do the action scenes any favors while the special effects artists grapple with new problems introduced by the heavy new Ghidorah suits. What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, Ghidorah can’t even walk anymore. This unfortunate side effect of the new suit leads to the proliferation of the Heisei series’ beam battles, which are spectacular to a child on his first viewing but to my eyes, very boring. And while the great Akira Ifukube returns to score the film, his themes are simple rehashes of old pieces, most notably the use of the King Kong vs. Godzilla theme as Ghidorah’s. Great piece, just not every original to reuse it.

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I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh on GvKG, as it did introduce Mecha-King Ghidorah and played with the idea of Godzilla being a more elemental being, a god of destruction to his Japanese homeland. I just wish there were a better way to do it than what Omori and Tanaka came up with. For the rest of the Heisei series, the emphasis would be on monster mashes with returning Showa characters and threats, and while even those tired concepts would prove to be interesting later on in the Millennium series, they just don’t have the same power here. Sorry fellow G-fans, but Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah started the 90s downfall that led straight to Emmerich’s odd one out, and that can’t be changed with a time-travelling mothership.

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REVIEW: Godzilla vs. Biollante

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Directed by Kazuki Ōmori
Written by Kazuki Omori, Story by Shinichirô Kobayashi
Starring Kunihiko Mitamura, Yoshiko Tanaka, Masanobu Takashima, Kôji Takahashi, Tôru Minegishi, Megumi Odaka, Toshiyuki Nagashima, Ryûnosuke Kaneda, Manjot Beoi

When I first started watching Godzilla movies, I was about 9 years old. While I had seen bits and pieces of a few of the films here and there on television, I never really sat down for a true viewing until I read a Nickelodeon magazine article on the Big G in preparation for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film (I know, the horror). From there, I began to search high and low for every Godzilla movie on VHS I could get my hands on. I cannot tell you how many trips to K-Mart were had to find those things. In the summer of that year, I found my second Godzilla tape, and that turned out to be this little gem.

Following the events of Godzilla’s 1984 raid on Tokyo, scientists collect genetic material from the monster’s fallen scales. The samples are quickly stolen by Agent SSS-9 (Manjot Beoi), an assassin for the Middle Eastern country of Saradia. Dr. Shiragami (Kôji Takahashi) plans to use the cells to produce highly adaptable wheat crops for Saradia, but before he can, the samples are destroyed by American sabotage, killing his daughter in the process. Spending years studying the remaining cells, Shiragami combines Godzilla’s genetic code with those of a rose and his own deceased daughter, resulting in Biollante, an eerie plant of titanic proportions. To make matters worse, a psychic woman (Megumi Odaka) detects Godzilla stirring from his volcanic prison. The military sends the flying Super-X2 to stop the beast from thrashing Japan, but eventually Godzilla engages the rapidly mutating Biollante in a fight to the death.

While The Return of Godzilla was a critical success, it’s box office take was rather marginal compared to the more fruitful early Showa-period entries, and a sequel was put on the backburner. When director Kazuki Ōmori was handed the project in 1986, he opted for a unique approach to generating the story: he convinced Toho Pictures to hold a contest for fans to submit their own story and original monster for Godzilla to battle. From five finalists, one of whom would go on to become the story for the post-apocalyptic feature Gunhed, Ōmori chose the entry by dentist Shinichiro Kobayashi, concerning a scientist’s quest to resurrect his deceased daughter by combining her genetic structure with first a plant, and then cells from Godzilla himself, resulting in the abominable hybrid creature Biollante.

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Developing the story further, Ōmori was able to craft an interesting and thought-provoking sci-fi film, with themes concerning the practice of genetic engineering and man’s often-times reckless misuse of it. The film begins immediately after TROG, with both the Japanese forces and mercenaries from American and Middle Eastern factions scavenging the remains of Tokyo for Godzilla cells. The desert country of Saradia, in particular, greatly desires the cells, for their chief engineer, Dr. Shiragami, believes he can crossbreed them with wheat plants to produce highly adaptive and regenerative crops that could turn Saradia into an oasis, no matter the effect on global power. From the start, GVB is a film brimming with geopolitical intrigue surrounding science of a questionable morality–much like the original Godzilla and its immediate predecessor.

Image result for dr shiragamiShiragami inhabits a unique position among Godzilla movie scientists. He’s not the typical nature-fearing voice of reason, however, nor is he a mad scientist, despite his status a Biollante’s creator. While his Frankenstein-like actions are in keeping with the better parts of a horror setting, his motivation, to save the soul of his daughter, dramatically paint all of his debates with Kirishima (Kunihiko Mitamura) in a much more nuanced light. Takahashi keeps his performance reserved and subdued, appearing to hide a silent pain that feels incredibly genuine. Of all the Heisei films, I think Takahashi got the best performance of them all.

The aforementioned Kirishima, the younger, and yet more conservative, geneticist, is fiery and moral, always on the defensive against his more risk-taking mentor. Through his misgivings we are presented with the ethical dilemma of genetic manipulation: early on, the Japanese government decides to counter Godzilla with a new artificially-created strain of bacteria that can consume nuclear material. While everyone else leaps at the chance to use this “Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria,” Kirishima is hesitant, because if Godzilla never shows, or is indeed finally defeated by the strain, Japan will have taken an uncomfortable seat next to the United States as the first to deploy a weapon which will shake the balance of power worldwide, and possibly trigger a new arms race. Sound familiar? Rounding out the main cast are Toru Minegishi as the funny Colonel Gondo, Yoshiko Tanaka as Kirishima’s love interest Asuka, and the adorable Megumi Odaka, playing the first appearance of the recurring psychic Miki Saegusa role.

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Unlike those previous entries, GVB places more of the onscreen emphasis on action. The first act contains more than one gunfight, usually involving Saradia’s sinister secret agent SSS-9 (Manjot Beoi), in an apparent attempt by Ōmori to inject spy thriller elements into the Godzilla formula. Seems he always wanted to direct a Bond film, but this was the closest he ever got. From Godzilla’s arrival, the film moves more into a hybrid of the government procedural format of TROG and more traditional kaiju destruction, with two big battles with the Biollante creature. In all honesty, the action itself isn’t bad, but isn’t anything particularly inspiring as far as blocking and innovation.

Instead, what really works for GVB is the cinematography of Yūdai Katō. Aiming for a more manageable middle ground between a smooth sheen and TROG‘s high-grain look, GVB keeps the darker, more night-based scenes but adds an organic wetness to the proceedings, further enhancing the new suit worn by Kenpachiro Satsuma, who achieves an even better performance here than previously. The suit is now one of Godzilla’s most iconic designs: bulky but muscular, with pronounced dorsal spines and a dragon-like, almost feline head with lifelike, canine eyes. Seriously, in some shots it appears alive.

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While Biollante’s first form doesn’t appear as lifelike, it and the second, more mutated form remain two of the most unique kaiju designs yet, topped only by the ’90s Gamera films. Slimy and wrapped in monstrous vines, Biollante is enough to make even the most seasoned tokusatsu veteran cringe in disgust.

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As I mentioned at the beginning, this was my second Godzilla film that I bought, after Monster Zero. While I loved the cheesy ’60s alien invasion story of the former, this film stirred in me some interesting thought, even with the at-times hilarious international English dub. (Godziller cells!) It’s a smart study in a burgeoning field of science where ethics may be the only thing preventing a catastrophe of proportions we still don’t fully understand, and for a film like that to keep my attention before age 10 is a feat indeed. While it sadly didn’t have the impact it should have had upon the new Heisei series due to its diminished returns, GVB‘s fortune has been on the rise, with a recent Japanese fan poll selecting it as the best Godzilla film to date. While I believe that honor still befalls the original, I gladly recommend Godzilla vs. Biollante in the top 5 whenever passing my kaiju knowledge along.