Last time, we looked at the various kaiju Toho studios made from the 50’s – 70’s, what Godzilla fans call the Showa era of kaiju flicks. Now we’re going to look at the kaiju of the 80’s and 90’s, which fans called the Heisei era (despite the first movie included here technically being released during what was still the Showa era of Japan’s history, and despite the fact that all the Godzilla movies released after the “Heisei era” of Godzilla films so far have ALSO been released in the Heisei era of Japan’s history – look, I know it’s confusing, just roll with it).
There was a nine-year break between last Showa film and the start of the Heisei era (of Godzilla movies, not Japanese history), and during that time Toho decided some course correction was in order. The kid-friendly heroic Godzilla of the later Showa films was now deemed a “mistake,” and the rebooted franchise decided to go back to Godzilla’s villainous roots. There was also a firm rule about avoiding anthropomorphization – no longer would Godzilla dance, shake hands with friends, or do other friendly, human-like gestures. This was going to be a new, ferocious Godzilla, and animalistic Godzilla, a badass Godzilla.
That was the intent, anyway. What was the result? Well, read on after the cut.
The first Heisei Godzilla suit isn’t a huge departure from what came before – big lizardy head, big eyes, it’s a pretty classic Godzilla. He oozes a lot of menace, though the dull look in his eyes keeps him from looking too intelligent – this is a bestial creature, one that probably isn’t as aware as the Godzilla of the 1954 film who was looking down at his human tormenters.
The Return of Godzilla (aka Godzilla, aka Godzilla 1985) also featured a heavily advertised animatronic Godzilla with a slightly different design. This “cybot” Godzilla is generally only used for closeups where it tilts its head back, curls up its lips, and roars. Press for the movie implied it was used more than it was, as the idea that Godzilla was no longer a guy in a suit but rather an advanced robot was considered a big draw, but the Cybot wasn’t actually very convincing in movement, and as such a traditional guy in a suit ended up being a lot more effective than the super expensive robot.
Coincidentally, the 70’s remake of King Kong ALSO featured a heavily advertised giant robot, and ALSO ended up using a guy in a suit for most of its shots because the robot was kind of a piece of shit. Sometimes you can’t beat an actor in a monster costume.
Every other Heisei Godzilla movie used a variation of the suit made for the second Heisei movie, Godzilla vs. Biollante, and as a result this design influenced how all the other monsters of this era would look. With a proportionally tiny head, short arms with limited movement, and HUGE thighs, this Godzilla’s range of movement was very limited, which was by design – the restriction of movement forces the actor inside to move in a bestial, non-human way, and makes a lot of the anthropomorphic touches of the various Showa Godzillas impossible to pull off.
This was also by far the most popular Godzilla suit in Japan for, like, most of my life, only being usurped by the design from Shin Godzilla in Toho’s marketing many years after its debut. But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?
While I won’t go through every little variation of the 90’s Godzilla suit (because I honestly can’t remember all the minor changes without looking it up), there was ONE big modification made to it for the final Heisei Godzilla movie, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. A big plot point in that flick was that Godzilla was dying, which is catastrophic for everyone because his heart is a nuclear reactor that’s now approaching meltdown – an extremely powerful meltdown that would destroy the entire biosphere should it reach its conclusion. Dubbed “Burning Godzilla,” this dying king of the monsters is covered in patches of glowing red and orange skin, a sign of his imminent explosive demise.
The Heisei era also gives us a look at Godzilla’s pre-mutated form, which in this continuity looks like a T.rex with some of Godzilla’s anatomical quirks (dorsal spikes, four fingered hands, somewhat mammalian nose, etc.). Notably, the “Godzillasaurus” has red pebbly skin, rather than the rough and jagged charcoal gray skin of its mutated future self – reinforcing the idea that Godzilla wears the scars of his trauma out in the open for all to see.
Godzilla’s first monster opponent this time is also my favorite creation of the Heisei era: Biollante, a bizarre hybrid of a rose bush, Godzilla himself, and a human (the daughter of the scientist who made her, no less). Initially appearing as an ominous yet beautiful towering rose, Biollante eventually mutates into a more explicitly monstrous form…
Look at this snaggle-toothed beauty! That crocodile-mouth filled with thorn-like teeth (or tooth-like thorns?), those vines tipped with flytrap/snake mouths, the tusks, the leaves that vaguely resemble Godzilla spines, that throbbing, glowing sack of… intestines? Brains? in her belly – Biollante is bizarre and gorgeous and imposing as hell. She’s not just my favorite design of this era, but one of my favorite Godzilla monsters period, and it’s a crying shame she only has one movie to her name (so far).
Biollante’s debut movie didn’t do as well as Toho wanted it to, so the next Heisei film decided to bring back his most famous enemy: King Ghidorah! While the origin and personality of the golden king of terror was significantly different this time around, the design is a killer revamp, increasing the number of Ghidorah’s horns (to the point where they vaguely recall a king’s crown), dropping his crescent moon-shaped cranial spike, removing the hair from his necks and tails, and putting some whomping huge spikes on his tail tips. The suit and puppets have a great serpentine grace to them, with the flying shots really playing up the snakelike nature of the big dragon. A great redesign for a great foe!
Ghidorah would get ANOTHER redesign in the Rebirth of Mothra series (as well as a sort of sibling, but we’ll get to him in a bit), which isn’t explicitly in the same canon as the Heisei Godzilla movies, but also doesn’t necessarily contradict that canon. This is technically a different Ghidorah than the 91 movie’s, though supposedly the 91 film has a throwaway bit of dialogue that implies there was another Ghidorah whose DNA was used to make the 91 Ghidorah, so… look the Heisei era is confusing, just enjoy the pretty monsters.
Sometimes called “Grand King Ghidorah” by fans to distinguish him from his predecessor, this Ghidorah looks even more mythic and malevolent, bringing back the crescent-moon cranial spike and making his horns branch like the antlers of an Asian dragon. Again, these are subtle touches, but ones that feel appropriate for the more mythic nature of this take on the King of Terror.
“Grand” King Ghidorah is also shown in his juvenile form, which fans have dubbed Cretaceous Ghidorah. Why does Ghidorah’s younger self look like a more dinosaur-y version of Ghidorah? Well, because it’s cool, that’s why. What’s good for Godzilla is good for Ghidorah, they always say.
Case in point, the 1991 Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah gives us a cyborg version of King Ghidorah called, appropriately, Mecha-King Ghidorah. Godzilla wouldn’t get a cyborg counterpart for several years yet, but still, a robotic (or partially robotic) doppelganger was Godzilla’s schtick first. You’re a copycat, Ghidorah!
Mecha-King Ghidorah also brings back the honored tradition of ending a Godzilla movie by having some monster pick Godzilla up and dump him into the sea, and that’s to be commended.
Ghidorah brough in big bucks, so Toho tried to repeat the success by pitting Godzilla against another famous adversary of his, Mothra – who also happened to be super popular with the female demographic that Toho was trying to court at the time. In many way’s Mothra’s design is very similar to her Showa counterpart, with the biggest divergence being in color scheme – Heisei Mothra replaces the earth tones of the original puppets with brighter yellows and reds, pure whites in place of tans, and pure blacks in place of dark browns. The resulting puppet has a more unearthly beauty to it, perhaps more befitting of an explicitly mythical being.
Her larval form, however, remained mostly unaltered, replicating the Showa puppets pretty closely.
Either the same or a very similar Mothra appears in the first Rebirth of Mothra movie, sporting the same basic design but with a more pastel color scheme. She then produces an heir, but we’ll get to them in a bit.
Godzilla vs. Mothra also introduces Mothra’s dark twin, Battra (short for “Battle Mothra), who trades fluff and curves for sharp spikes and horns. Though both are technically guardians of the planet, you can tell at a glance the difference in their approaches – Mothra is a kind protector, and Battra is a pissed off warrior in jagged armor. While initially enemies, Mothra does what she always does and appeals to her fellow guardian’s better nature, convincing Battra to work with her for the greater good.
Though I normally dislike the “evil version of a hero” trope in fiction, Battra is a great take on the tired concept, in part due to its rad as hell design. It helps that, in a series that plays with this idea of nature spirits getting corrupted, seeing a corrupted Mothra kind of answers a big question fans might have: what would happen if Mothra had been turned vengeful instead of Godzilla? It’s also interesting to me that Battra gets the redemption arc that Heisei Godzilla is denied, but going into that further would veer away from focusing on monster designs.
Soooo, moving on then – Godzilla vs. Mothra was also a success, and Toho followed it up with Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, as MechaGodzilla was (and still is) nearly as popular as Ghidorah and Mothra. Following Godzilla’s pinheaded, bottom-heavy design, MechaGodzilla now relies entirely on laser beams and missiles to fight – no breaking jaws for this robot! He also gets a spiffy backpack upgrade in the movie’s third act, which would influence later MechaGodzilla designs.
I wonder how those human pectoral muscles made it through the “NO ANTHROPOMORPHIZATION” rule…
Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla also brought back the fifth most popular Godzilla monster, Rodan, for good measure. With a longer beak, a third cranial spike, and two different paintjobs to represent two different forms (a Showa-esque reddish brown to start with, followed by a bold fiery red and yellow look called Fire Rodan), Rodan’s puppet has a rad design.
…but it’s kind of sad to see how diminutive he is compared to Godzilla this time around. They’re no longer on equal footing like they were in the Showa era, and Rodan has never regained that clout he used to have since. I mean he gets taken down by MechaGodzilla’s backpack in this movie, the poor bastard.
Not content with just MechaGodzilla and Rodan, this movie ALSO brings back Godzilla’s adoptive child, albeit with a VERY different design. Baby Godzilla has a head that’s VERY close to a Showa era Godzilla design – very lizardy with big expressive eyes. I love him. He’s one of the cutest monster designs the series has ever produced. His body is built similar to the Godzillasaurus suit above, which is fitting given that he’s supposed to be a baby Godzillasaurus – PRE-mutation, smoth pebbly scales and all. Of all the takes on a young Godzilla fiction has produced, this is my favorite.
In the subsequent two Godzilla movies, Baby Godzilla underwent two growth spurts. The first resulted in Little Godzilla, who is more Minya-ish in terms of build but thankfully retains the sweet facial features of Baby Godzilla. Little Godzilla’s scales look like a mix of the pebbly scales of its prior form and the jagged scales of Godzilla himself, which (whether intended or not) makes it seem like he’s mutating as he grows up. His third and final (sort of) stage, dubbed Godzilla Jr., nearly completes the transformation, looking like a more slender version of the 90’s Godzilla suit that has the smaller dorsal plates of the Godzillasaurus suit. They grow up so fast, don’t they?
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla was the next Heisei Godzilla movie, as Toho apparently didn’t think any of their old monsters had the brand recognition to match MechaGodzilla, Ghidorah, and Mothra. Y’know how I said I’m usually not a fan of the “evil doppelganger of the hero” trope? Well… um…
SpaceGodzilla certainly is blue! And he looks a lot meaner than Godzilla! And he’s got some burgundy mixed in there, I’m very fond of burgundy. It’s a good color. And the crystals are… neat! They’re neat. He’s very blue isn’t he? A very nice shade of blue.
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla still found room to bring back a classic monster, albeit with the most radical redesign yet. Remember Moguera, that goofy yellow and green mole robot from The Mysterians? Well, here’s its reincarnation, a boxy silver and blue machine that has very little in common with its Showa predecessor beyond a drill nose, dorsal plates, and diamond shaped eyes. It’s a radical departure from the original, but a pretty unique robot design on its own.
The final Godzilla movie in the Heisei era (but not the last movie we’ll be covering in this installment) decided to go out with a bang by killing Godzilla off, and to that end introduced a new monster to help do the deed. As Godzilla was born from the atomic bomb, so to would his assassin be born from the weapon used to kill Godzilla in the original 1954 film, and so the Oxygen Destroyer gives birth to Destoroyah (which is to say, Destroyer), a red crustacean monster who breathes out a gas that reduces living creatures to skeletons.
It has been noted that Destoroyah has a lot of odd similarities to Hedorah – it begins as a small aquatic creature, then proceeds to metamorphose into several different forms, from a small crawling stage to a flying stage and finally a truly towering form meant to fight Godzilla himself.
Visually, however, Destoroyah is a far cry from Hedorah, trading the slimy muck monster look for a sort of demonic crab-dragon vibe (with a bit of Ridley Scott’s Alien for good measure). In every form this monster oozes menace, and fans have embraced Destoroyah as one of the franchise’s greatest villain monsters, often treating her as comparable to Ghidorah in terms of both power and malice.
Speaking of Ghidorah, a relative of his was the antagonist of the first movie in the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy, a sort of spinoff from the Heisei Godzilla films focusing on Toho’s second most popular hero monster. Dubbed Death Ghidorah, this fire spouting dragon has a more gnarly texture and wicked looking color scheme than his Kingly counterpart, and his heads likewise look more like a European dragon than normal. This Ghidorah doesn’t have time to look ironically pretty, and his obviously evil nature is made all the more clear when he kills off Mothra herself early into the movie. But the word “rebirth” wasn’t put in the title for nothing…
There’s always an egg waiting in the wings, after all, and Mothra is quickly succeeded by her offspring, Mothra Leo. Leo takes the “moth/bee hybrid” look of normal Mothra in a slightly different direction, with a different color scheme, the feather antenna of a moth, and the trio of secondary eyes that bees sport between their two primary eyes. In Mothra Leo’s case, those secondary eyes also SHOOT LASERS, which is rad as hell.
In Rebirth of Mothra II, Mothra Leo is pitted against a former guardian of the earth that’s turned heel, the pollution spreading sea dragon named Dagarla. Dagarla’s got a really rad design that’s hampered somewhat by being an overly stiff suit – one of the downsides of trying to keep your monster suits from looking like they have a human in them is that they can struggle to perform as a result. Still, those manta-ray wings and beak-like shoulder weapons give Dagarla a distinct look, and this ancient sea monster was an excellent foe for Mothra Leo.
In fact, he was so good that Mothra Leo had to undergo another transformation – or, rather, transformations.
First Leo became the even more splendiferous Rainbow Mothra, boasting a pair of multi-colored wings that make most other Mothras look drab by comparison. Dagarla tried to take to the water to escape Rainbow Mothra’s might, forcing it to transform again into…
…Aqua Mothra, a sleek, wasp-like form that Mothra used to kill Dagarla once and for all. This form would later be used to travel through time at lightspeed in a desperate gambit to destroy “Grand” King Ghidorah back in the past, Samurai Jack-style.
After dumping Ghidorah’s teenage self into a volcano, Mothra Leo took a 65 million year long nap, during with a bunch of prehistoric Mothras appeared to wrap them up in a protective coccoon. Yep, we get to see Mothra’s prehistoric ancestors in the Heisei era too, and they look pretty gnarly all things considered. That is definitely the dinosaur version of Mothra.
After 65 million years of waiting, Mothra Leo re-emerges in the present to kick “Grand” King Ghidorah’s ass once and for all. Now sporting a suit of metalic armor, Leo cuts the king of Terror down to size until he explodes in a shower of sparks, at which point Mothra Leo sheds their armor and reveals their final form: Eternal Mothra, the most powerful member of the Mothra lineage yet.
With the end of this trilogy, Toho’s kaiju movies would take another hiatus, albeit a far shorter one. So tune in next time when we discuss the Millenium Era of the Godzilla gang!