Sunday, August 3, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla vs. Biollante

Don't bring Godzilla flowers.

Although the release of The Return of Godzilla in 1984 had marked the beginning of a new era for the Godzilla franchise, bringing the character back to the screen after a nine year hiatus, another five years passed before a sequel to that film was made.

The delay was partially due to the fact that Toho Studios and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka turned to the fans for story ideas. It wasn't unsual for Toho to hold a contest for fan submissions. Godzilla vs. Megalon's Jet Jaguar was dreamed up by a grade schooler who sent in a drawing of the robot for a "create a character" contest. The idea for Terror of MechaGodzilla was a contest submission sent in by screenwriting school student Yukiko Takayama. Tanaka wanted the next Godzilla to be a completely fresh concept, to have a story that would pit Goji against a monster that had never been seen before, so another contest was held.
The process of accepting story submissions, going through all of them, and whittling them down to the finalists took years. At the end of this process, there were two strong contenders.

One screenplay that had been sent in, James Bannon's Godzilla 2, had as its villain an artificially intelligent supercomputer. Technically, Bannon was a winner in the contest, because his screenplay did provide the basis for a feature film. It just wasn't a Godzilla sequel. Bannon's idea was reworked into an original film entitled Gunhed, which was also released in 1989.

Finishing in first place was a dentist named Shinichiro Kobayashi, whose screenplay submission was chosen to become the seventeenth movie in the Godzilla franchise.

Kobayashi's script was rewritten by veteran filmmaker Kazuki Ohmori, who was also hired to direct the film. During his rewrites, Ohmori removed a creature called Deutalios, the result of splicing rat and fish DNA, from the story and put all of the adversarial focus on Biollante, a monster which would be taking multiple forms over the course of the movie.

Godzilla vs. Biollante finally made it into theatres in December of 1989, and it was events that occurred in January of that year that gave this era of the series and the one that had preceded it the names by which fans refer to them. On January 8th, 1989, Japan's Emperor Hirohito passed away and was given the honorary posthumous name of Emperor Shōwa. Shōwa's son Akihito became the new Emperor, and as he is destined to be posthumously named Emperor Heisei, the time of his reign is referred to as the Heisei era. Since Gojira '54 through Terror of MechaGodzilla came out during Shōwa's reign, they are referred to as the Shōwa era of the series. The Return of Godzilla also came out during the Shōwa era, but since every installment that followed it came out during the Heisei, it is retroactively considered part of the Heisei of the series as well.

The first follow-up film of the Heisei era begins within hours of The Return of Godzilla's ending. Soldiers are scouring the ruins of Tokyo, gathering up pieces of the destroying defense craft Super-X and collecting radioactive items.

One soldier finds a chunk of Godzilla's flesh and places it in a glass bottle, happy to have discovered some of the monster's cells... But this guy and his squad aren't supposed to be in this restricted area. They're Americans, members of an unscrupulous organization called Bio-Major, working for the American Genetic Corporation, a conglomerate of four enterprises that seek to monpolize the global genetics market. Immediately following the Americans' discovery, they're confronted by Japanese soldiers. The Americans open fire on the Japanese and go on the run.

During the ensuing foot chase, the Americans manage to wipe out every single Japanese soldier who was aware of their presence. It appears that they've gotten away with their own little piece of Godzilla... But before they can get to safety, a mercenary called SSS9 steps out of hiding, mows them down, and takes the bottle of Godzilla flesh.

SSS9 takes the Godzilla cells to the Republic of Saradia, where the Saradia Institute of Biotechnology stands on the edge of a vast desert. It's there that Doctor Genshiro Shiragami and his daughter Erika are working on a project that will hopefully transform the desert into a vast greenery. Erika has found a way to splice wheat with desert cactus, creating a plant that will grow in the desert. The idea that adding Godzilla cells into the mix will make this hybrid an indestructible super-plant, and soon Saradia will be threatening to overtake the United States as the number one exporter of grain.

This exposition has barely been delivered before the research lab is bombed. Erika is killed in the blast.
The story then jumps ahead five years, at which point Shiragami is living back in Japan and, oddly, seeking the help of seventeen-year-old psychic Miki Saegusa in interpreting what his roses are saying. Plants have their own field of mental energy, and Miki can communicate with them... Unfortunately, Shiragami's roses aren't talking.

As we'll come to find out, the reason why Shiragami is trying to communicate with his roses is because he spliced Erika's cells with the rose cells. He's keeping his daughter's spirit alive in the flowers.

Miki works at the Japan Psyonics Center with a class of psychic children, all of whom have recently been sensing that something major is about to occur. When a series of earthquakes begins to strike the area of Mt. Mihara, the volcano Godzilla was lured into at the end of Return, the children all share the same dream. When asked to draw what they dreamed of, they all draw a picture of Godzilla.

In the years since the events of Return, a four stage alarm system has been put in place to alert the residents of Japan if there is any sign that Godzilla will be coming back again. Alarm one announces when there is some kind of chemical, geological, or meteorological sign of Godzilla activity. After the earthquakes at Mt. Mihara, Miki is flown over the volcano and senses that Godzilla is awake within it. That sets off the first alert.

Shiragami and Miki are both friends with Asuka Okouchi, whose father is head of the Okouchi Foundation, where the Godzilla cells gathered in the wake of Godzilla's attack on Tokyo in 1984 are now stored. Asuka's scientist boyfriend Kazuhito Kirishima works at the laboratories that are supported her father, even though Kirishima fears that the gene-splicing Okouchi funds could eventually lead to something horrible.

As the worry that Godzilla may soon rise from Mt. Mihara continues to build, Kirishima is part of a drive to develop an Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria, a bacteria that would devour nuclear material, and thus could be used on the radioactive Godzilla. Godzilla cells are required to make the bacteria, as is the help of Shiragami.

After the presence of Godzilla cells led to the terrorist bombing that killed his daughter, Shiragami has vowed never to work with them again. He changes his tune when he realizes the roses with Erika's essence in them will soon wither and die. He needs to reinforce them with Godzilla cells, to make the Erika roses the indestructible plant that the Saradian wheat was planned to be. Keeping his personal agenda secret, Shiragami joins the science team.

The second alert in the alarm system is for when there is any physical sign of Godzilla. As tremors and volcanic activity continue at Mt. Mihara, the presence of Godzilla within the volcano is confirmed.

While work on the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria, Japan's defense forces get the Super-X2, a new and improved version of the craft that battled Godzilla in Return, ready for a rematch. X2 is twice as durable, is a submersible in addition to being capable of flight, and is equipped with a synthetic diamond Fire Mirror, designed to reflect Godzilla's atomic breath blasts back at him at one thousand times their strength.

Even though five years have passed, Bio-Major is still lurking around and wanting to get their hands on Godzilla cells. The Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria data is very enticing as well... So one night, two Bio-Major agents break into Shiragami's lab and ransack the place. But they're not the only ones there. Before the terrorists can steal the data, SSS9 arrives and engages them in a gun battle. A shootout that is interrupted when its participants are attacked by monstrous rose tentacles. The first indication that Shiragami splicing Godzilla cells with the Erika roses is having an unexpected effect.

Miki drawing a huge rose monster is another indication. Before long, that monster is towering from the middle of a lake near Shiragami's lab. Shiragami names this Erika/rose/Godzilla hybrid Biollante... and Miki can hear Erika's spirit calling out to her from it...

Bio-Major's quest for the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria continues, and to get their hands on it they hold all of Japan ransom - threatening to detonate an explosion at Mt. Mihara that will release Godzilla if the bacteria isn't handed over to them by a certain time. The Japanese government agrees to give the bacteria to Bio-Major. SSS9 makes sure that doesn't happen, showing up to kill the Bio-Major agent who arrives for the trade and stealing the bacteria for himself. Clearly he doesn't care that by disrupting this meeting, he has left the bomb at Mt. Mihara to go off at the time set by Bio-Major.

The bomb explodes. Mt. Mihara is blown open. 39 minutes into the film, Godzilla rises from the volcano. The third alert in the alarm system is set off.

For GvsBiollante, Godzilla was again played by Kenpachiro Satsuma, who had taken over the role as of The Return of Godzilla, after having played Hedorah in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Gigan in Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon. Kôichi Kawakita, who had been the assistant special effects director on 1974's Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, was promoted to full-fledged director of special effects on this film, and oversaw the construction of the re-designed suit Satsuma wore for this film and the next, which gives Godzilla a very different appearance than he had in Return.

After exiting the volcano, Godzilla leaves Oshima Island and wades across the ocean to mainland Japan. Super-X2 is deployed and wages a valiant battle against him, but is unable to stop him from making landfall... Which sets off the fourth and final alert.

By the time Godzilla has reached the mainland, his cells seem to have completely overpowered Erika's within Biollante, making the monster solely a Godzilla/rose hybrid, one with fanged mouths on the ends of its tentacles. And it's calling out to Godzilla, drawing him to Lake Hashi, where it has put down its roots.
Godzilla and Biollante are essentially the same creature, but when Goji arrives at Lake Hashi, he's not given a warm welcome. Biollante immediately attacks him, so he fights back. Biollante wraps its tentacles around Godzilla, bites him with its mouths, sprays acid in his face, but it only take some good blasts of atomic breath for Goji to put the rose-spliced version of himself out of commission. As Biollante dies, spores rise up into the sky.

Exhausted by his battles with the Super-X2 and Biollante, Godzilla goes searching for a nuclear plant to re-energize himself with. When defense forces' prediction of which plant he'll go for proves wrong, their fleet is set up in the wrong area, and Miki is sent out to confront Godzilla with telepathy in an attempt to slow him down and give the military time to get into the right positions. Godzilla and Miki share a moment, her abilities definitely have an effect on his mind, and she puts so much effort into her mental communication with him that she collapses.

Godzilla proceeds to wreak havoc in Osaka, making quick work of the damaged Super-X2 while he's at it. When the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria is intercepted before it can be shipped off to Saradia, it's put to use in an attempt to stop Godzilla's rampage. The bacteria is fired in shells from bazookas, the shells sticking to Godzilla's flesh and then drilling themselves deeper into his body. The bacteria is released into his system... but appears to have no effect.

Godzilla continues on his way with the bacteria inside him, and professionals speculate that his body temperature needs to be raised to make the bacteria go to work eating away at him. So the defense forces bring out the M6000 Thunder Control System, which uses ion-emitting panels to conduct a great deal of heat, temperatures high enough to melt tanks. The system bombards Godzilla with heat as if he were inside a giant microwave... and if that doesn't work, he might somehow be immune to the bacteria.

While on-lookers are waiting to see if the bacteria is going to do its job on Godzilla, Biollante spores begin to fall from the sky. An evolved, even more Godzilla-like version of the rose monster rises from the ground, challenging Godzilla to round two. And this time their fight is to the death for certain.

Before the end credits roll, Biollante gives a sign that Erika's spirit did still reside within this creature Shiragami created, SSS9 commits one more act of Saradia-sponsored villainy (and gets his comeuppance for it), and we're left with the promise, comforting even though Godzilla has reverted to being an antagonistic character so far in the Heisei era, that we haven't seen the last of old Goji. The bacteria's not going to eat him up after all.

Godzilla vs. Biollante is one exceptionally strange entry in the franchise, an oddball mixture of sci-fi and supernatural elements within a film that just has an overall weird tone to it. It's a movie that appears to be rather divisive. It's not very well regarded by a lot of fans, and yet there are other fans who feel like it's one of the best films in the series.

I'm not particularly fond of it myself. The story is overly convoluted, and the general atmosphere of the film is off-putting to me.

It's hard for me to fathom how the concept of creating a monster by splicing Godzilla cells with roses could ever occur to someone. That's definitely an original idea, and the design for Biollante is quite impressive. It can hold its own with Godzilla, but at the same time Biollante isn't given quite enough to do for my taste.

That's my feeling about every bit of action in the movie as a whole - Biollante is impressive, but used in sequences that are underwhelming. The special effects in this film are incredible, but the action sequences, which play out under a very busy score composed by Kôichi Sugiyama (who also, thankfully, includes some classic Akira Ifukube music here and there), just feel like they're going through the motions. I don't find anything exciting or thrilling about them.

Audiences at the time of Biollante's release were not receptive to it, and it didn't fare well at the box office. Attendance was way down from The Return of Godzilla.

Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka decided that the approach of pitting Godzilla against a new monster was to blame for the film's lower performance. Viewers didn't turn out for it because they had no connection to Biollante, they didn't care about this rose monster. Tanaka would bring Godzilla back to the screen again, and next time he would face off with a monster that fans were familiar with.

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