Godzilla: King of the Monsters is out now. Get your tickets here!
By the mid-’90s, Godzilla had been stalking screens for over forty years. Japan’s most famous cinematic export had both terrorized Tokyo and protected it from such ongoing threats as King Ghidorah, Biollante, Gigan, and Meghagodzilla. But with recent entries in the series failing to light the box office on radioactive fire as they had in years past, and an Americanized reboot on the way in very short order, there was only one thing left for the big guy to do: Die.
But as 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah would prove, when it came time to make his curtain call, the last thing the big guy intended to do was go out quietly. By way of context, the Godzilla franchise had been rebooted by home studio Toho in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1984, a.k.a. Godzilla 1985 in the US). Arriving after a nine-year layover, this Return ignored all preceding films save for the 1954 original, with subsequent entries picking up from there, and so on.
This period, known collectively as the Heisei era, was marked by a heightened degree of maturity and interconnectivity, reflective of the period in which the films were produced. While the films maintained the low-fi, man-in-a-suit aesthetic that served them for decades, effects advances nonetheless made Godzilla (played since the early ‘80s by Kenpachiro Satsuma) look more realistic and expressive than ever, and the layering of continuity from sequel to sequel (such as the recurring presence of telepath Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) allowed for audiences to develop a greater degree of emotional investment as certain storylines played out over several successive chapters.
When Sony Pictures signed a deal with Toho to bring Godzilla stateside via their Tristar Pictures shingle, it not only necessitated the end of the unfolding Heisei era so as to avoid undue competition, it also offered Toho a smooth off-ramp for a series that had begun to show diminishing returns financially. (Neither 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II nor 1994’s Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla performed at the roof-shattering level of their predecessor, 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra.)
And so we arrived at Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, directed by series vet Takao Okawara and engineered not merely as a worthy finale for this iteration of the brand, but also one that paid due homage to the totality of the franchise going all the way back to the very first entry. In fact the initial idea was for the big G to square off against the ghost of the original Godzilla from that first movie (who was left a pile of disembodied bones at the bottom of the ocean). Those plans were scuppered, but the movie that was being made still draws on that legacy tonally and via plentiful use of black-and-white archival footage from the first Godzilla.
Helping to cement those legacy ties even further is the presence of Kenichi Yamane (Yasufumi Hayashi), a college student who also happens to be the grandson of the Dr. Yamane seen in the first two Godzilla films in 1954 and 1955. In addition, the deadly “Oxygen Destroyer” weapon which did in the original Godzilla is revealed to have accidentally revived and mutated prehistoric microbes into Kaiju form, and these beasties, (dubbed Destoroyah) are now out and about and makings things difficult for the Japanese night life.
Meanwhile, Godzilla himself is dealing with a bad case of indigestion, with his body beset by a very unhealthy red glow. Turns out, due to his absorbing the ambient energy of a volcanic eruption on his home of Birth Island, Godzilla’s nuclear-powered heart is undergoing the equivalent of a meltdown, the catastrophic effects of which could have world-destroying results.
So that’s a lot of bad news to deal with all at once, especially when the Destoroyah coalesce into one big creature in desperate need of a Godzilla-sized beatdown. One of the big reasons Godzilla vs. Destoroyah works as well as it does is how, like the other Heisei chapters, it strives so mightily to play it totally straight. There’s no winking at the camera here and whether we’re watching humans or Kaiju, there’s a pervasive effort to lend the proceedings a sense of verisimilitude.
Yes, Godzilla does defeat Destoroyah (natch), and yes, the G-Force does manage to prevent his nuclear heartburn from potentially taking out the whole planet (also natch), but that victory is nonetheless tinged with the tragedy of the long-in-coming meltdown finally doing its work. For audiences that grew up watching Godzilla, that watched him morph over the decades from a stark metaphor for atomic horror to a friend and protector of Japan, one can only imagine what it must have been like to experience him dissolving from the inside out in about as graphic and unnerving a spectacle as one could expect from this property.
And sure, the above event does leave Tokyo a nuclear-irradiated no-go zone, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah does attempt to leave on a somewhat optimistic note by promising that Godzilla’s legacy is in good hands (no spoilers, but they did have a “Godzilla Junior” running around for the last few flicks). Nonetheless, the trauma of seeing Daddy G implode is compounded with the closing credits playing out over still images from the entirety of the Godzilla series. It tells you how effective the Toho team had become at their jobs that they could make you misty-eyed over a giant lizard played by a regular-sized guy wearing a perhaps too-apparent rubber suit.
Destoroyah was never intended to be the end-end for Godzilla; it was meant to be the end for a while. And had the Sony Pictures version performed to the sky-high expectations the studio and the media had (irrationally) set, it very likely would have been, with a decade-or-more interregnum between eras just like they’d done previously.
But the American adaptation’s infamous creative and critical flameout led Toho to fire up the burners sooner than expected. Thus came 1999’s Godzilla 2000 and the birth of the “Millennium” era. And even as that batch (which itself came to a close in 2004) had its own creative highs-and-lows, it’s unquestionable that no Godzilla epic before or since has matched the emotional punch of Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the movie that proved that even extinction wasn’t enough to stop the King of the Monsters.