Godzilla was once a monster well suited for Cold War symbolism, but times changed. And as written in the book Japan’s Favorite Mon-star, author and film historian Steve Ryfle suggested “the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fading of the global nuclear threat” may have played a part in Toho’s drastic decision to kill off its most celebrated character.” Death wasn’t unheard of for Godzilla; after all, the atomic monster perished in its first two appearances. The only difference in 1995 was Godzilla was no longer a mere metaphor for ruin and despair. So much had changed since Tomoyuki Tanaka’s creation embodied the nuclear horrors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Godzilla had somehow become a hero, albeit a complicated one in the ‘90s and onward.
While the last leg of the Shōwa age depicted Godzilla as Japan’s foremost protector, the next installment of movies treated the monster’s existence with far more contention. Godzilla didn’t voluntarily swoop in to save Japan from its latest threat; this meaner incarnation was a territorial beast whose acts of heroism were incidental. Saving humans entailed a lot more visible damage and casualties, not to mention the creation of government forces to clean up the mess once Godzilla was dealt with. Regardless, audiences still find themselves on Godzilla’s side. That loyalty was then magnified as the beloved monster was placed at death’s door.
Toho’s promotion for Godzilla vs. Destoroyah was nothing short of dramatic back in 1995. On top of ads announcing the monster’s imminent demise — the movie’s tagline is “Godzilla dies” — Toho erected a bronze memorial statue shortly before the movie’s premiere on December 9. The devastating news was made well in advance, yet according to the press, many Japanese citizens were distraught in the days leading up to and after the movie’s release. Fans protested on Godzilla’s behalf, demanding an immediate resurrection. But as everyone knows by now, this highly publicized wake was a smokescreen. Godzilla was indeed laid to rest in its ’95 outing, however the world’s most famous kaijū refused to stay dead.
If Godzilla was going to die — or more accurately, enter dormancy so TriStar could fire up its own reimagining — it was only fitting that the Oxygen Destroyer be brought back to do it. Dr. Serizawa’s weapon of mass destruction isn’t in fact directly responsible this time around, but in what feels like a full-circle moment, the notorious device gives life to Godzilla’s hellish undoer. Destoroyah is an exceptionally demonic addition to this period’s rogues’ gallery. Biollante, Battra, Mecha-Ghidorah and SpaceGodzilla were all fantastical in both design and story. Destoroyah, on the other hand, is this series’ own personification of death. And like Godzilla, these constantly evolving, life-stealing creatures were made possible because of mankind.
Just when fans thought the ‘90s movies had moved away from the grim and sometimes eerie nature of the two ‘80s entries, and had fully immersed themselves in magic, time travel and robots, Destoroyah sought a more serious tone for obvious reasons. A popular narrative shortcut is to connect the past and present, namely referencing Godzilla’s first appearance in ‘54. Others might try to piggyback on, or even worse, try to match the sadness and severity of the classic movie, but director Takao Okawara and writer Kazuki Ōmori wisely showed restraint and looked elsewhere for emotional stakes. The giant monster responsible for so much of the country’s pain was now in need of compassion. Godzilla had become poisoned by the very thing that created it.
The Heisei Godzilla movies are divisive among fans, even after putting some distance between then and now. A ‘92 interview with Ishirō Honda had the filmmaker calling the new movies unimaginative. In the same breath, Honda praised the special effects and was lenient toward the production department. A longtime employee of Toho, Kōichi Kawakita was eventually promoted to director of special effects for the Heisei run, including two Mothra movies and the fantasy spectacle Yamato Takeru. Like in the last entry, SpaceGodzilla, Kawakita’s work in Destoroyah is a grab bag of slights and successes. In this case, though, there are more of the latter to remember this momentous movie by.
While the military’s confrontation with the juvenile Destoroyahs is blemished by inconsistent effects, this tense set piece is a good reminder of how terrifying kaijū encounters can be when shown on a smaller scale. Other positives: Burning Godzilla is a touchstone in “Goji” designs, the Hong Kong sequence boasts immaculate city miniatures, and Godzilla’s inevitable meltdown sears itself into brains all thanks to a potent blend of suitmation and visual effects. Watching Godzilla’s body dissolve in real time is haunting, to say the least.
With the stage set, the executor chosen, and the risks of failure acknowledged, the movie mostly delivers as promised. The hyped brawl between the titular titans ends a great deal sooner than expected, and Destoroyah winds up dead before it can pull the plug on Godzilla. The monsters’ conflict is hurried along so that Godzilla’s passing can have priority. Before self-destruction begins, there is the soul-crushing reunion as well as the goodbye between parent and child. The Heisei output largely shied away from anthropomorphizing these creatures like in past movies, but even in their more pure and animalistic states, the emotion is undeniable. Godzilla’s mournful roar courses through everyone. The monster’s final moments on Earth are so poignant that they make everything else seem unimportant. Life comes to a standstill as the wonder that is Godzilla fades away, leaving a world it didn’t belong in anymore. Okawara outdid himself with this masterly directed scene, and the one immediately after it is all the solace a heartbroken “G” fan could ask for.
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is one hell of a way to send a beloved icon into the sweet hereafter. Toho’s elegy for Godzilla may come across as deceitful; only a few years later was Godzilla shown crushing New York City, and then starring in a brand-new strand of Japanese movies. Yet after spending a good portion of its life as a walking symbol for Japan’s fears and frustrations, Godzilla’s death was necessary if there was to be a future for the distinguished monster.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.