Read: Part One.

The Showa Era (1954–1975) introduced the world to Godzilla, setting the stage for a saga that spanned two decades and evolved the character from a perfect representation of nuclear destruction into a staunch defender of Earth. Later films from that period emphasized spectacle over substance and favored younger audiences through a lightening of tone, yet the worldbuilding of the Showa Era was immense and very much set the standard for what Godzilla films entail.

As we transition to discussing the Heisei Era (1984–1995), we encounter a Godzilla reinvented, where the more fantastical elements introduced in the Showa Era give way to a darker reflection on humanity’s perennial flirtation with disaster. The Return of Godzilla (1984) effectively rebooted the series and portrayed the titular monster as a harbinger of doom and mankind’s ironic judgment, an unstoppable force awakened by human arrogance.

Much like the cinematic James Bond, Godzilla has enjoyed the luxury of being malleable enough to reinvent with each passing generation or for different cultural contexts.

Here, very much like the 1954 original, the films portray a world grappling with the ramifications of forbidden knowledge and scientific hubris, with subjects ranging from genetic manipulation to the perils of time travel. Deepening the lore of Godzilla series and raising urgent questions about the moral responsibilities inherent in periods of rapid technological advancement, the Heisei Era films reflect a society increasingly aware of the complex relationship between human innovation and its unintended side effects.

The Heisei Era marked a significant shift in tone and complexity for the Godzilla series, incorporating storylines that prioritized contemporary fears. Kazuki Ōmori, director and screenwriter for several of the Heisei Era films, including Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), played a pivotal role in steering the series towards themes that reflected real-world concerns regarding scientific and technological advancements.

Godzilla vs. Biollante is a prime example of this era’s thematic ambitions. The film introduces Biollante, a genetically engineered kaiju born from a combination of Godzilla’s cells and a plant. Dr. Genichiro Shiragami (Kōji Takahashi) is the figure responsible for the monster’s creation, initially seeking to use Godzilla’s regenerative capabilities for agricultural benefits. However, when his daughter Erika (Yasuko Sawaguchi) is killed in a terrorist attack, his grief-driven decision to merge the cells with those of Erika leads to tragic consequences.

When discussing Godzilla vs. Biollante, writer and kaiju film historian Ed Godziszewski remarked that Ōmori’s goal “was to point out the dangers of biotechnology.” In the wake of Ōmori’s death in 2022, Godzilla parent company Toho issued a retrospective article detailing his contribution to the series, written by Patrick Galvan. The article echoes Godziszewski’s analysis, stating that Ōmori “centered much of his drama and action around bioengineering and the international race to weaponize it.” Furthermore, Galvan highlights the stark difference between the Showa Era sequels and the Heisei Era reboot series in the following helpful way:

Gone are the utopias of Honda’s world wherein nations peacefully unite and develop technology for mutual survival; the dramatis personae of Godzilla vs. Biollante debate the merits of opening Pandora’s Box amid skirmishes with foreign corporations willing to acquire Godzilla’s DNA at any cost.

The unforeseen consequences of humanity’s relentless pursuit of scientific advancement became a trademark of the Heisei Era films. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah presents a complex narrative involving the repercussions of time travel, critiquing the idea of using scientific advancements to manipulate the past for economic gain. The film ultimately suggests that such actions have unforeseen and often disastrous consequences and, according to Ōmori, contains a message that also warns against nuclear pollution.

[T]he Heisei Era movies…rais[ed] questions about the ethical responsibilities that accompany scientific progress and amplif[ied] Godzilla’s image as an archetype of the apocalypse.

Godzilla himself oscillates between a nuclear monster and a force of nature responding to human folly, a duality that serves to constantly remind viewers of the consequences of human arrogance and the ethical and ecological debates it incurs. In many ways, the Heisei Era rediscovered Godzilla’s origins and proved it possible to update the character for the times. This is arguably the “secret sauce” that has kept the character alive and moving through the zeitgeist since the end of the Showa Era. Much like the cinematic James Bond, Godzilla has enjoyed the luxury of being malleable enough to reinvent with each passing generation or for different cultural contexts, reflecting any number of anxieties that may or may not be localized to any one time or place.

With their darker tones and more complex narratives, the films of the Heisei Era offered the series a much needed shot in the arm. Godzilla’s transformation from a force of pure destruction into an entity with a complex role within the ecosystem made the series relevant again as the world trucked towards the increasingly interconnected twenty-first century. 

In a recent retrospective on the Godzilla series, Billy Bernfeld characterized the Heisei Era as “emphasizing the high-concept campiness of [Godzilla’s] filmography.” But within that, the film provided a critical commentary that was also universally acceptable, solidifying the character’s status as a global icon and not just a Japanese film industry curiosity. In ways not necessarily seen since the original 1954 Godzilla film, the Heisei Era movies examined consequences both intended and unintended, raising questions about the ethical responsibilities that accompany scientific progress and amplifying Godzilla’s image as an archetype of the apocalypse.

Godzilla’s cinematic journeys during this period were punctuated by Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), which brought the Heisei Era to a surprisingly poignant climax. The film revisits Godzilla’s horrific origins, but also introduces the kaiju Destoroyah, a creature born from the Oxygen Destroyer, the very weapon that was used to kill the original Godzilla in 1954. When the weapon went off in Tokyo Bay, it revived an ancient crustacean species that mutated into the monstrous kaiju. Godzilla’s final battle of the Heisei Era brought the narrative full circle, examining the consequences of decisions made in the past and their potentially irreversible effects on the present. And the film’s dramatic depiction of Godzilla’s ultimate meltdown harkens back to the fallout of nuclear catastrophe, further underscoring the anti-nuclear message of the original film.

Could a creature so deeply tied to the Japanese public conscience resonate with global audiences if its foundational elements were stripped away?

The end of the Heisei Era faced no small amount of controversy, though. The decision to kill Godzilla and put a final period at the end of the sentence (for the time being, anyway), was part of the movie’s promotional material. It’s almost unthinkable, in today’s world of “spoiler alerts,” that a film would announce the death of its main character before the box office even opened. Yet, according to Patrick Glavan’s analysis, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah promoted itself with the slogan “Godzilla Dies” in an attempt to build anticipation and make up for dwindling box office returns.

Despite the hefty subject matter, there was one key development that was working against the picture’s release, and that was TriStar’s upcoming American adaptation. Released in 1998, Godzilla mostly severed the iconic monster’s connection to Japan and ventured into new territory (both literally and figuratively). Starring Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno, the first American version reimagined Godzilla as a mutated lizard-like creature spawned from nuclear testing in French Polynesia, distancing itself from the rich history of Godzilla’s Japanese origins and instead catering to Western audiences. The shift was met with mixed reactions, as it significantly altered many of the thematic elements that the Heisei Era had so carefully cultivated. Critics and general audiences alike lamented both the creature’s design and the loss of the narrative layers which had characterized Godzilla’s other cinematic outings.

While the American adaptation was a commercial success, it lacked the engagement with issues of science and ethics that had become a hallmark of the series, especially during the Heisei Era. It prioritized action and special effects over the more complex storytelling that had revived the character in the 1980s. This divergence highlighted cultural differences in storytelling preferences, and raised logical questions about the true universality of Godzilla’s appeal. Could a creature so deeply tied to the Japanese public conscience resonate with global audiences if its foundational elements were stripped away?

Going forward, Toho had its work cut out: reclaiming the narrative depth that had been somewhat glossed over by the American version. The result of this effort was the Millennium series, which could be viewed as both a “sub-series” within the Heisei Era and an “era” in its own right. The Millennium Era will be the subject of the next article.