Sunday, November 24, 2013

Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)

I never expected see the day when I’d cover a Godzilla film of all things on this blog. But as it turns out, outside of the usual statements on post-Hiroshima Japan, Godzilla vs. Biollante has plenty to say about the Middle East and its role in a burgeoning world of corporate warfare by way of biotech.

The Plot… and Arabs

Godzilla vs. Biollante employs the fictional Arab Republic of Saradia as a focus for its views on the Middle East.

Fortuitously, identifying Arab countries in film seldom takes much effort. Just look for traditional Muslim garb…
… and oil.

Contemporaneous images of Arab countries as inimical to the West—exacerbated by such real-life crises as the 1980s oil glut and the tension between Iraq and its neighbors Kuwait and Iran—communicate to us the film’s perception of Arabs: anti-Western zealots desperate to use Japan’s biological advances to attenuate America’s incipient dominance over the moribund Communist bloc. Every Arab in this film who speaks serves as a villain, either menacing or maladroit.

The one bit of comic relief in the film: an Arab gets hit in the head to a zany metallic boing.

Godzilla vs. Biollante’s “human plot” centers on Dr. Kazuhito Kirishima, a geneticist with the Tsukuba Bioengineering Laboratory, who tries to defeat Godzilla using Godzilla’s cells and anti-nuclear bacteria reverse-engineered therefrom to legitimately challenge the monster. His girlfriend, Asuka Ōkouchi, gets him work with her father, Seikun, who runs the Ōkouchi Foundation, a financial backer of the Tsukuba lab and keeper of Godzilla’s cellular material. Before the events of the film, Seikun occupied himself with a decidedly different project: saving the semen of Nobel Prize winners for future generations. (I promise you I did not make a word of this up.)

Seikun Ōkouchi fans himself as he dreams of Nobel semen.

Dr. Kirishima ends up working with Dr. Genichiro Shiragami, an embittered plant biologist who uses Godzilla cells for his own ends, ultimately creating Biollante. Although the two doctors don’t particularly like each other, they eventually have to work together to stop the gigantic mess that their research causes.

Kirishima, Shiragami, and their colleagues find their efforts hindered by Bio-Major, an unscrupulous American genetics conglomerate aiming to monopolize genetic information worldwide. Their machinations include espionage, theft, and even deliberately activating Godzilla.

To tie this back into the Arab discussion, the Arabs serve as meddlesome quaternary antagonists, embodied by Abdul Saulman (played by Iden Yamanral), a bearded, reticent hitman who roams around in a nondescript Mitsubishi Starion, killing practically everyone he even sees to get his hands on anti-nuclear bacteria for his own employer, the Saradia Oil Corporation.

I admit, I take some solace that he does all this whilst looking incredibly stylish.

Consequently, the film characterizes every speaking Arab as a co-conspirator in a plot to destroy America using Japan as collateral damage.

Worse, the Saradians apparently can’t even spell their own country’s name.

If all of this intrigue seems boring, convoluted, or confusing, try not to let it get to you. Remember that none of this serves any real purpose outside of setting up excuses for two men in rubber suits to spend the third act beating the snot out of each other amidst a miniature Japan.

At least the film entertains with its dialogue. Koji Takahashi and the “Saradian” actors quite obviously learned their English lines phonetically. One character refers to Japan as “the Japan” and pronounces nuclear to rhyme with éclair. I recommend this film to anyone who finds badly-spoken English as awkwardly hilarious as I do.

The Saradian assassin steals a case and goes for the ol’ post-massacre one-liner.
What he means: “OK, see you guys!”
What he says: “Case, you guys!”
At least he can correctly identify a case, I guess.
“But those cells… would have been mere flesh if it wer-unt for your genuous [genius] in clarifying the entire picture.”
“No!! You… provided to me… way the best… robort [laboratory].”
“In this country, we own everything because of the oil ins [lands]. But we cannot depend on forever. We must find a way to transform this wast [vast] desert into a… [dramatic pause] granary!”
“My dooter [daughter] Erika… has succeeded… in closet-bleeding [cross-breeding]… a new type of weed… from weed and… cactus cells. Dis [this] weed… can grow… in the dessert [desert]… if… we add… self-reproductive… Jenna-tick [genetic] information… from… the… Godzillacell [Godzilla cells]… an indestructive [indestructible] super-plant will be completed.”
“Good! Then the America will certainly be mortified! Their position as the largess surreal [largest cereal] exporter in the world will chick [shake]! [Evil laugh. No, really. He cackles like a supervillain here.]”
This took an unbelievable number of passes to transcribe, incidentally.

The Monsters

Of course, as any Godzilla fan knows, the “human plots” invariably take a backseat to the inevitable monster battles. This film gives the monster antagonist role to Biollante, a verdurous “clone” of Godzilla composed of rapidly-pullulating, nuclear-material-eating plant cells… with some human cells worked in there too.

In addition to the risible dialogue, the plot has no scientific accuracy to speak of. Here we have Dr. Shiragami explaining Biollante and Godzilla in scientifically impossible terms…

More than just the same family. Identical, made from the same cells. One animal, one plant.

Godzilla and Biollante: identical twins.

Biollante communicates to the humans—and, by extension, the viewer—in the person of Miki Saegusa, a teenage telepath-cum-psychokinetic who can read the minds of plants. She works for an organization called—seriously— the “Mental Science Exploitation Center.”

We first meet young Miki in the act of furiously interrogating a rosebush.

Somehow, the ESP elements in combination with the biotech corporate warfare make the film even more lovably discursive than your average Godzilla film.

A research center full of telepathic children also makes for some novel foreshadowing.

Roses recur as a theme throughout the film. They seem to embody regret and ruminations on the past, hence their appearance on Biollante itself.

Biollante makes an interesting first impression as a gigantic rosebush.

The Japan Self Defense Forces do more than throw human cannon fodder at the monsters. They make use of Super-X 2, an amphibious, heavily-armored military vessel that uses a synthetic diamond called the Fire Mirror to redirect Godzilla’s flame breathii and anti-nuclear bacteria missiles to terminally weaken the monster.

In a move that may have inspired the X-Men’s Bishop, the Super-X 2 nails Godzilla with his own breath, amplified.

The anti-nuclear bacteria forms a subplot in its own right, sparking a brief but interesting discussion on the post-nuclear society such bacteria would herald. Despite that this discussion should have massive implications for a series that started by exploring Japan’s perception of nuclear warfare in the wake of Hiroshima, this discussion unfortunately gets lost amidst the many other subplots in this film.

Within the Godzilla Series

The monster battles reflect the crossroads in which the filmmakers find themselves at this point in the Godzilla series’ history. Its predecessor, Godzilla (1985) (also known as The Return of Godzilla or Godzilla ‘85, depending on which sliver of the grey market you consult), marked the beginning of Godzilla’s Heisei period.i The Heisei period stands out for its wholesale rejection of the Shōwa period’s cheesy aesthetic and sympathetic portrayal of the “good” monsters. The Return of Godzilla made Godzilla’s status as an enemy and major threat toward Japan abundantly clear. Its driving score and pointedly dark palette work to paint Godzilla as a serious menace that will stop at nothing to level Japan for only his own temporary satiation.

Godzilla vs. Biollante ultimately stops short of its predecessor’s uniformly antagonistic characterization of Godzilla. As the first Heisei Godzilla film to feature multiple monsters, hints of the more sympathetic Shōwa treatment shine through as the film progresses. (That Godzilla’s old playmates had yet to return for the Heisei period did mitigate this somewhat, though.) By the end, this film implores us to see Godzilla less as a wild, obstreperous instrument of blind destruction than an embodiment of regret over mankind’s past follies (a portrayal somewhat in keeping with Godzilla (1954), the very first Godzilla film).

This film’s Godzilla had spent the last five years entombed alive inside an active volcano. In all fairness, that would piss anyone off.

In any case, despite its under-performance upon its initial release, I found this one of the better Godzilla films. The film has some strange flaws: it has this incongruous Superman-esque score and the plot continually occludes the lines dividing protagonists, antagonists, important characters, bit parts, et cetera. Aesthetically, it occupies a strange and intriguing middle ground between the Heisei period’s faux-seriousness and the silliness of the other films up to that point.

The miniature work looks better with each successive Godzilla film. By this 17th film, they just look gorgeous.
The JSDF’s 3D modeling doesn't hold up as well as one would think, though.

I wish the film had more of a unique identity and aesthetic—however weird—like Godzilla vs. Hedorah or more of an integration between the monster and human plots like The Terror of Mechagodzilla, but I still find it an interesting and very watchable cross-section of Japan’s views of both the Godzilla series and its own role in an international landscape on the brink of a massive sea change.

i Technically, the Heisei period began with Godzilla vs. Biollante, since Emperor Hirohito died in 1989, but fans consider The Return of Godzilla the de facto start of the Godzilla series’ Heisei period, as it marks the return of Godzilla from a nine-year absence and has considerably more in common with its successors than its predecessors.
ii I'd have called it “Laser Halitosis” myself, but to their detriment, they didn’t ask me.

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