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Godzilla vs. Destoroyah - Review

(a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Destroyer and Godzilla vs. Destroyah)

A Review by Mike Bogue

3 Stars - Good

Japanese release: Dec. 9, 1995

American release: Winter 1999 (released direct to video by Columbia Tristar)

Direction: Takao Okawara

Screenplay: Kazuki Omori

Music: Akira Ifubuke

Special Effects: Koichi Kawakita

Producer: Shogo Tomiyama

Executive Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka

Godzilla vs. Destoroyah Still. Godzilla dies!

Oh, really?

Yeah, really.  At the end of Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the 1980’s-1990’s Big G suffers a literal meltdown.  After all, none of the Millennial Big G films take place in the same world as the Heisei series, so as far as the Heisei universe is concerned, Godzilla truly did pass away.

For Big G fans, this was Big News back in the mid-nineties.  And in Japan, Toho played up Godzilla’s passing with mega-publicity.  The result?  Godzilla vs. Destoroyah became the second most commercially successful Godzilla film of the entire Heisei series.  In fact, with attendance boasting four million, the film attracted more theatergoers than six out of Godzilla’s eight 1960’s Japanese releases -- and the sixties are considered The Big G’s heyday in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Did the movie live up to all the hype?  Well, I suppose that depends on one’s sensibilities.  In 1995, many kaiju eiga fans were smitten with Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe, a Daiei effort that not only proved to be a spectacular comeback for the super-turtle, but also raised the giant monster movie bar dramatically, visually, and aesthetically.  Some comparisons between the new Gamera and the then current Godzilla series found the latter wanting, especially in the special effects department.

And then came Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, a film that threatened to end the Godzilla series for all time – or at least until it was determined if Tristar’s American Godzilla would have legs in Japan.  (As it turns out, it didn’t.)

Both fan and critical reaction was mixed regarding this last installment of the Heisei series.  To an extent, it’s easy to see why.  But now almost ten years later when all the shouting is over, one can look at Godzilla vs. Destoroyah more for what it is than for what fans hoped it would be.

Effects-wise, the film represents both the best of times and the worst of times for special effects director Koichi Kawakita.  Unfortunately, the movie smarts from several visual weaknesses.  Many critics and fans have noted that during a battle between the military and several medium-size Destoroyahs, non-articulated Bandai Destoroyah toys are employed.  This is only one instance of what appears to be either (1) sloppy editing, (2) rushed editing, or (3) indifference to the special effects.

Godzilla vs. Destoroyah Still.

Another instance includes a puppet of Godzilla Junior “meeting” Daddy G at Haneda Airport.  This scene could have been a highlight if the SPFX technicians hadn’t had G Jr. walk, because when he does, he looks as though he’s gliding on ice rather than striding on concrete.  Couldn’t Kawakita and company have used the traditional split screen technique that would have placed the suitmation Godzilla Junior on one side (reduced in size, of course), and the bigger parent Godzilla on the other side?

Disappointing editing also mars the scene in which a Japanese police unit stalks several horse-sized Destoroyahs in a large public building.  In the first place, the idea is an obvious swipe from James Cameron’s first-rate Aliens.  While handled okay under director Takao Okawara’s guidance, what effectiveness the sequence does have is damaged by several shots of mechanical Destoroyahs that appear not to be scuttling but rather rolling forward.  More judicious editing would have lent greater plausibility to the monsters’ movements.

Probably the worst (and most unnecessary) sequence features one of the escaped horse-sized Destoroyahs menacing a female journalist trapped in a car.  This segment adds nothing to the film, provides neither scares nor suspense, and makes the Destoroyah’s animatronic artifice all too apparent.  The worst part occurs when the Destoroyah’s “false teeth” pop out of its mouth in a regrettably cheap imitation of ALIEN’s famous extendable choppers.  The film could lose this entire sequence without losing anything.

Super X-3 is another problem.  It almost always looks like what it is – a fancy model.  Also, the military vehicles in the closing sequence during which Godzilla expires are often irritatingly toy-like – a gaff Kawakita had generally avoided during the Heisei series. 

But fortunately, the positive aspects of the visuals outweigh the negatives.  Kawakita’s opticals dazzle, his matte scenes awe, and his intricate urban miniatures delight – even if they don’t always convince.  Especially noteworthy is Godzilla’s destructive stroll through besieged Hong Kong.  In addition, Kawakita effectively employs CGI when we watch Godzilla literally ice over after repeated blasts from Super X-3’s freeze lasers.  Also nice is the imaginary scene in which Godzilla reaches critical mass in Tokyo, his subsequent meltdown smothering the city in a cloak of atomic fire.

Godzilla vs. Destoroyah Still.

In addition, the monster designs rock.  The sleek, dinosaur-like Godzilla Junior rates a 9+ on the 1-10 scale, a complete and welcome departure from Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla’s Minyaesque Little Godzilla.  Destoroyah’s various manifestations succeed in capturing their icky, crustacean-arachnid origins.  And Godzilla -- gigantic, red-chested, and smoldering -- remains as regal and imposing as ever.

Destoroyah undergoes a series of manifestations, faring best in its horse-sized incarnation.  In this form, we see several Destoroyahs scuttling about in night-time Tokyo, and later arising from the bay to attack the military.  The sinister bat form is likewise effective as it glides menacingly over the city.  And the huge “final stage” Destoroyah that confronts Godzilla is suitably imposing (albeit admittedly too bulky).

In addition to the monsters, the creature battles likewise impress.  Godzilla Junior’s struggle against a large crab-form Destoroyah ranks alongside the best of Toho’s many creature wars, as does Godzilla’s epic battle with final stage Destoroyah.  The best and most unexpected scene involves Destoroyah converting itself into several smaller arachnid-crab forms that attack Godzilla from all sides via terrific mechanical and CGI effects.

Godzilla’s death is also an awesome sight to behold.  Kawakita effectively blends CGI, suitmation, and optical work to produce a convincing depiction of Godzilla melting into eternity.  The image of the monster’s molten skin literally sliding from his bones is particularly striking.

Story-wise, the film does seem a bit lumpy, changing the point of view character several times and bringing up several ideas that are never fully or satisfactorily developed.  Of course, that last sentence could describe almost any of Kazuki Omori’s screenplays for the Heisei series.

But aesthetically, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah succeeds a great deal more than its uneven visuals and storyline.  The film has no time for humor, remaining dark and serious throughout.  The presence of Momoko Kochi reprising her role as Emiko, the well-placed flashbacks from the 1954 Godzilla, and of course Arika Ifubuke’s magnificent score (his last for the Godzilla series) combine to create an atmosphere of welcome familiarity.

Godzilla vs. Destoroyah Still.

Indeed, by treating Godzilla with the same awe, majesty, and terror as its black and white fifties progenitor, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah brings the Heisei series to proper closure.  Just as in the ’54 classic, Godzilla again dissolves before our eyes, Akira Ifubuke’s requiem underscoring the poignancy of the legendary kaiju’s passing.

In fact, I’ll tell you a secret:  When I first saw this movie, G’s demise moved me.  But the enormity of Godzilla’s death didn’t really hit me until the end credits rolled.  For beneath them paraded a montage of G movie appearances from the ’54 original all the way to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, all set to the background of Ifubuke’s stirring orchestrations.  Then, and only then, did I feel that foolish lump in my throat, especially upon hearing the strains from King Kong vs. Godzilla worked in among Godzilla’s other familiar themes, as if to encompass G’s sixties adventures along with those of the eighties and nineties.  Finally, to the crescendo of cascading chimes, the last shot freeze-framed Godzilla in all his cinematic glory.

And then the tears came.  Briefly, to be sure.  But they did come. 

End of confession.

Sadly, this final montage of Godzilla scenes doesn’t exist in the American video and DVD editions of the movie, in which the end credits are rudely chopped off just as the film ends.  Would it have hurt Columbia Tristar to have let the film go on for a couple more minutes?  No.  But apparently it would have cost them a few bucks, and cliché of clichés though it may be, the bottom line tends to trump aesthetics – no doubt especially when those aesthetics involve something as “laughable” as a Godzilla movie.

But I have to digress to be fair – Columbia Tristar’s DVD treatment of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, GMK, and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla is both respectful and first-rate.  This gives us “weird” Godzilla fans hope that perhaps Godzilla vs. Destoroyah might one day be reissued with the end credit montage intact.


Godzilla vs. Destoroyah Still.

In the meantime, kaiju eiga cynics may now consider Godzilla’s demise in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah to have been a Toho publicity stunt intended to rake in the yen.  However, less skeptical fans may view Godzilla’s death, fleeting as it was, as a significant movie event.  For us G fans, Godzilla represents more than just another rampaging movie monster, and his onscreen death more than just a cinematic footnote.  It truly represented the end of an era, a moment suspended in time.

Yes, Godzilla is only a fantasy creation of twentieth century popular culture.  But few G fans can deny that the King of the Kaiju holds a special place in their lives.  After all, Godzilla’s enigmatic appeal transcends his twenty-eight films.

As for me, I can never quite say just what it is I find so endearing about Godzilla.  But I think that it may be that he evokes that momentary, gossamer sense of wonder that hints of greater realities, and greater marvels, to come.

Sayonara, Godzilla – until next time, of course . . .

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