The Heisei Series:
The Return of Godzilla (Gojira), 1984 – Godzilla vs Destoroyah (Gojira tai Desutoroia), 1995
In time for the 25th anniversary of the original film, a new Godzilla production was mounted and a brand new film was released in 1984, a slick modern production that was intended to get the franchise back to its roots. The direction the Showa series took, with Godzilla becoming a heroic figure, was viewed as a mistake at this point by everyone involved, including Tomoyuki Tanaka. Therefore, Tanaka decreed that the new film would ignore the events of every film in the series except for the 1954 original. Within the continuity of the new film, Godzilla attacked Japan once before, in 1954, before being killed by an experimental weapon. Godzilla never fought any aliens, he did not dance and this…..this was never spoken of.
And so the Heisei series of Godzilla films began with The Return of Godzilla, alternately called Godzilla 1985, or simply Godzilla. The new film delivered on its promise of a back-to-basics Godzilla movie: Godzilla fought no other monsters, squaring off solely against the Japanese Self Defense Force, now armed with truck-mounted energy weapons and a flying submarine called the “Super-X”. The suits and model work received a modern makeover, with a more detailed costume complete with more facial movement for the big guy, and some very detailed model cityscapes. The new film was dark, serious and even somber at times. The film was enough of a success to warrant a sequel, and a new series of films began.
So everything should have been great, right? Well, sadly no. As much Tanaka and company endeavored to avoid the missteps of the Showa series, they wound up making a host of new ones. Firstly there was that new, serious tone. In their enthusiasm for escaping the camp and silliness of the Showa era, the new films wound up as a rather self-serious bunch, a bit too straight-faced for their own good. Even though the films no longer featured goofy looking aliens or over-the-top slapstick comedic relief, a sense of fun and enjoyment that permeated the Showa series was nowhere to be found in the modern films, which usually came off as too severe. Which isn’t to say they didn’t have some great moments, but there are times during most Heisei Godzilla movies where you find yourself desperate for someone to just crack a joke.
And while those new special-effects sure were impressive, the Heisei filmmakers quickly grew far too reliant on computer wizardry to bring the epic battles between Godzilla and his foes to the screen. Battles that once included actual physical combat were now largely reduced to the two monsters firing various beams and energy attacks back and forth at one another, and while there’s certainly a place for that, well….let’s put it this way: Godzilla doesn’t stuff any trees down anyone’s mouth, and that’s kinda boring.
The Heisei series does boast at least one unique and interesting feature: the franchise’s sole recurring major character, a military psychic named Miki Saegusa. Saegusa appears in six of the seven Heisei films, portrayed by actress Megumi Odaka in each one. The size of her role in each film varies, usually working for the Government-run anti-Godzilla taskforce du jour. Saegusa has a kind of psychic affinity with Godzilla, and usually advises her teammates to find non-lethal ways to contain him. She doesn’t have the most involved character arc one could hope for, but her fixed presence across most of the series gives it a narrative throughline that the other two series lack.
Despite this one point in the Heisei series’ favor, these seven films comprise the awkward middle child of the Godzilla franchise. The effort is there, but something’s missing, a spirit, an energy. They’re two serious by a half and too focused on fancy special-effects over good ol’ fashioned monster brawling. Of course, they aren’t entirely without some merit. Some of them, like Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla 2, are even enjoyable to watch.
But the third and final series in the Godzilla franchise really is the place to go for a solid representations of what a slick, modern Godzilla movie should be.
The Millennium Series:
Godzilla 2000 (Gojira Nisen: Mireniamu), 1999 – Godzilla: Final Wars (Gojira: Fainaru Wōzu), 2004
So in 1998, this happened. It was awful. Fans in both America and Japan hated it. Veteran Godzilla suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma walked out of the Japanese premiere in anger, saying to cameras “It’s not Godzilla. It doesn’t have his spirit”. Toho knew that this could not be allowed to define their franchise in the new millennium. Though the series had been dormant for a few years, a new production was mounted.
The ending of Godzilla vs Destoroyah has a certain finality to it, but still leaves the door open for a potential direct follow-up. Still, it was decided to end the continuity chain that began with The Return of Godzilla and start somewhat fresh. Godzilla 2000, then, ignores the continuity of the previous Heisei era films and starts anew……and then after that the series started anew again. And then again. And then again.
With one exception, each film in the Millennium series acts as a stand-alone sequel to the original 1954 film, although in some cases the details get a bit fudged. Godzilla 2000, for example, mentions Godzilla’s 1954 attack but not his death in the original film’s climax, prompting confusion over whether the Godzilla of that film really is the original, having never been killed, or just another of his species. The only exception to this rule is Godzilla: Tokyo SOS, which is a direct sequel to Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla.
And how are the films themselves? Mixed, but when they’re good, they are GOOD. Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, Tokyo SOS and (deep breath) Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (GMK for short) are all shining examples of what a sleek, modern Godzilla film should look like. GMK in particular is considered by some as one of the franchise’s all-time highs.
This leaves Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla vs Megaguirus, two acceptable but somewhat unremarkable entries. Like most of the Heisei films, they’re serviceable, but definitely not the highlights of the Millenium series.
And then there’s Godzilla: Final Wars, presently the final film in the franchise, and intended to be it’s true swan song. Final Wars is………dumb. Loudly, proudly, incredibly dumb. Dumb, and somewhat lacking in scenes actually featuring Godzilla. However, if you’re of the right mindset, it can be a fun kind of dumb, and admirable in how committed it is to being a big, loud fireworks display intended to close out the series. At the very least, it’s enjoyable for the scene where the proper Japanese Godzilla utterly annihilates a facsimile of his 1998 American counterpart. Sum41 soundtrack not withstanding. Final Wars embraces with open arms everything that the Heisei series attempted to sweep under the rug, and while that intention is noble, it’s still a spectacular dumb movie.
The Millennium series films, even the lesser ones, correct the main problems of the Heisei series, adding a less serious tone and more kinetic monster fights, less reliant on special-effects. The suits and effects are all top-not for the Japanese film industry at the time, and while they can be quite serious at times (The Godzilla of GMK is an undead beast possessed by the angry spirits of Japan’s WW2 dead) they balance that seriousness with enough humor that things feel less oppressively serious.
The Godzilla franchise has a little something for everyone. It rightly should, with 28 films. Hopefully this guide has given you a good idea of where to start. But if not, tune in for a future installment where we pick out the essential films in each series.