1989’s Godzilla vs Biollante is a visually striking but morally ambiguous film, sustaining a developed commentary on the misuse of science – a subject that was significant to the original Godzilla’s director, Ishiro Honda. In such a way, Godzilla vs Biollante expands upon integral themes of the Godzilla legacy, raising questions of its own about science and the balance of power.
Immediately following the events of The Return of Godzilla (1984), Godzilla cells are retrieved from the rubble of Tokyo. The cells are immediately fought over by rival companies, with a mysterious agent from Saradia (a fictional, middle-eastern nation) seizing them in the end. In Saradia, Dr. Shiragami (Kôji Takahashi) is attempting to use the regenerative abilities of Godzilla’s cells to create super plants to sustain Saradia in the event that their oil reserves (the nation’s key export) run out. When a bomb (planted by rival, American company, BioMajor) destroys one of Shiragami’s laboratories, it also kills his daughter, Erika (Yasuko Sawaguchi). Five years later, Shiragami is still grief-stricken. Also unchanged is the preoccupation of Saradia and BioMajor with obtaining Godzilla cells; which are now kept locked away by the Okhouchi Foundation. The Okhouchi Foundation is preparing a genetic experiment of their own: to collect and preserve the semen of highly regarded scientists to set up the next generation of geniuses. Young scientist, Dr. Kirishima (Kunihiko Mitamura), is extremely opposed to their intentions, but has to work with the Foundation when Godzilla becomes active again. Under the supervision of the tired Colonel Gondo (Tôru Minegishi) and youthful Major Kuroki (Masanobu Takashima), Kirishima is tasked with producing anti-nuclear bacteria. By using Godzilla’s radiation-eating genes, it is hoped that a strain of bacteria can be made to use against the monster. However, with access to Godzilla’s cells, Dr. Shiragami’s wish to preserve his daughter’s life goes too far as he merges a Godzilla cell with both human and rose cells; the monstrous consequence of which is Biollante…
Some of the very best Godzilla films are able to expand upon Godzilla’s base meaning (a warning against nuclear weaponry) to encompass similar themes. Yoshimitsu Banno’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) touches on Godzilla’s nuclear roots but is more immediately concerned with pollution and environmental damage. Gareth Edward’s Godzilla (2014) understands the meaning of the series’ base fears of nuclear devastation, but it expands the scope of those fears to include recent tragedies (the film’s visuals evoke both the 9/11 attacks as well as the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami). Similarly, Kazuki Ômori’s Godzilla vs Biollante intertwines the series’ focus on nuclear power with a discussion of bioengineering.
It’s possible that the film is attempting to make a point against eugenics. The Okhouchi Foundation’s project has received much opposition from Dr. Kirishima, who points out how dangerous such experimentation is. Whilst this element of the narrative is less pervasive than the main Shiragami/Biollante thread, it’s arguable that they’re more connected than one might initially think. The Godzilla cells that every major genetics company in the world (and half of the film’s characters) want to obtain mirror the “perfect” samples that the Okhouchi Foundation are collecting. Both the G cells and the Okhouchi samples are believed to herald advantageous results: anti-nuclear bacteria and the next generation of “geniuses”. However, we see the horrific consequences of engineering the G cells in the form of the titular Biollante. With that in mind, the presumed results of tampering with the Okhouchi samples could be equally as horrific. Of course, the film doesn’t dwell on those possible outcomes, but given the film’s overall focus on the misuse of science and genetic engineering, the similar narrative threads are worth examining in tandem.
Dr. Shiragami is comparable to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in that he’s dedicated to his interpretation of science to the point of arrogance. Kirishima objects to creating the anti-nuclear bacteria on the grounds that it would render nuclear weapons useless overnight. If lethal radiation left behind by nuclear detonations can be dealt with by using such bacteria, then one of the key barriers to their use has been lifted, possibly prompting the use of nuclear weapons more freely. Shiragami berates him, telling him that he does not understand the meaning of science.
On one hand, the character is brilliantly written in the film’s first half. Shiragami’s loss and grief surrounding the death of his daughter establishes the reason for his creation of Biollante. In his desperation to keep even a small portion of his daughter alive, he creates a super beast spawned from Godzilla itself. The issue is that Shiragami does not regret his actions, which is where the Frankenstein comparison can be made. Much like Victor Frankenstein, Shiragami spends most of his time moping, condescendingly asserting his view of science, and hypocritically exclaiming that the press don’t understand real science. Of course, this characterisation would not be a problem (indeed, Shelley’s depiction of Frankenstein as a ignorantly immoral person is constructed superbly) if it were not for the fact that occasionally Shiragami comes close to regret; for example, in one moment, Shiragami openly declares that he may have made a mistake. With such moments, one is unsure of his character – is he a villain or just misunderstood? Shiragami’s development leaves an unsatisfying and ambiguous air.
Biollante is a tragic beast, and with her the Frankenstein parallels become more apparent. In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein is so appalled by his own creation that he rejects it, forming the crux of the narrative. With Biollante, whilst Shiragami is not horrified by his creation, he is passive, disengaged, and negligent toward her existence. For a creature that (to Shiragami) symbolises an extension of his deceased daughter’s life, his lack of emotion when Biollante is harmed by Godzilla is deeply troubling. Of course, this leads back to a discussion of Shiragami’s characterisation. With the film’s focus on the misuse of science, Shiragami’s arrogance and disengagement from Biollante make for a character that sharply exemplifies the narrative’s meaning. However, the ambiguity of the character’s feelings muddies the waters and makes character dissections such as this difficult to conclude decisively.
Irrespective of the ambiguous characterisation, Kôji Takahashi turns in a restrained, quiet performance as Shiragami. One believes in the depth of his grief, and indeed that such powerful emotions have warped his assured beliefs. Kunihiko Mitamura provides a decent counter to Shiragami in Dr. Kirishima, providing an opposing force that makes the uncertain ethics of Shiragami less worrying because at least someone is there to call them out as wrong. Although perhaps performing with too much restraint, Mitamura serves up some brilliant moments of genuine frustration, best evidenced in a wonderful scene in which Kirishima openly attacks Shiragami’s “work” upon seeing the monstrous Biollante. Kirishima’s line “are you proud of this?” is delivered with an unflinching contempt, and his piercing stare at Shiragami conveys his horror perfectly.
The real standout performance of Godzilla vs Biollante however, comes from Tôru Minegishi as Colonel Goro Gondo. Gondo provides terrific comic relief, often presenting the weary voice of reason. Although the film does maintain a definite competence in drawing its science-fiction elements together convincingly, Gondo’s character does so much for the reality of the narrative. In performance and script, Minegishi’s portrayal helps to fully realise one’s suspension of disbelief through Gondo’s own scepticism of the film’s plausibility. Little performance nuances, from his expressive face, to his perpetually loosened tie make Gondo one of the most memorable characters in the film. Minegishi is a joy to watch.
Godzilla vs Biollante also offers extraordinary special effects. The 1989 Godzilla suit is imposing and impressive, improving on the strengths of the 1984 Godzilla suit and establishing the design template for the rest of the Heisei era (1989 – 1995). Special effects director Koichi Kawakita delivers some beautiful and electrifying visuals in Godzilla’s rampage through Osaka. The massive plumes of smoke and dust that erupt from the city’s skyscrapers as Godzilla shatters through them add to the sense of scale. In particular, a shot of Colonel Gondo in the foreground as Godzilla approaches in the background is superb in its execution – the two elements raising tension mercilessly. Biollante herself is a sight to behold and is a masterpiece of wirework and practical effects engineering. Whilst Kawakita’s effects sequences throughout the rest of the Heisei era would become known for their over-reliance on optical beam effects, the optical work presented here is effective and arresting, adding to the immense sense of power that Biollante exudes.
However, a key detractor for Godzilla vs Biollante is its pace. Whilst the film builds momentum terrifically in its first half, the film does unfortunately slow down noticeably upon Godzilla’s appearance. Whilst Godzilla battling the Japanese Self Defence Force’s latest weapon, the Super X2, is technically and visually impressive, such sequences tend to last longer than they need to. Indeed, upon Godzilla’s arrival, it feels as though all other narrative threads are temporarily suspended as we witness defence line after defence line go up against Godzilla, drawing focus away from the more pressing story threads that we’re eager to return to.
Despite the film’s uneven characters and occasional pacing issues, Godzilla vs Biollante remains an entertaining and thought-provoking film. Although not all of the questions the film raises are answered with satisfaction, the ambition and scope of the film is unmistakable. The spectacular special effects help to realise the film’s scope brilliantly, lending power and weight to the titular monsters and providing a brilliant visual payoff to the key narrative threads. The character performances are generally excellent, with only a few small criticisms to be had with how restrained Mitamura and Takahashi are at times. Although a little rough in its overall execution, the story of Godzilla vs Biollante is one of the most fascinating of the franchise. This is a film that deserves close analysis and consideration.