Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla Returns

Godzilla Returns by Marc Cerasini. Originally published by Random House Books for Young Readers, October 1996. Approx. 233 pages.

As I am not going to see the new Godzilla movie in the theater tonight (despite being a G-Fan since toddlerhood, I turn into a quivering, gibbering mess in large crowds), what I had hoped to do was to order a copy of the movie novelization through Amazon, have it magically be delivered a week or so before the movie came out (even though it isn't slated to be released until the 20th), and have a spiffy review ready to go for today.

That obviously did not happen. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present you with Plan B...

The early to mid 90's were actually a great time to be a Godzilla enthusiast. There was word of an American Godzilla movie in the works (ah, and we all saw how well that turned out), Trendmasters had a sweet line of Godzilla toys, and over in Japan, the Heisei series was in full steam, meaning $20 could secure you a sweet fansubbed 2nd or 3rd generation bootleg VHS at your local game store (or you could risk a $5 Chinatown bootleg which might have video quality on par with the first few seconds of the video in The Ring).

"Hey, I think I see Battra in there."

Another by-product of the 90's Godzilla Renaissance was a handful of kids & YA novels. And this brings us to Godzilla Returns.

Godzilla Returns is a short novel for the 12-14 year old set penned by author Marc Cerasini, an author who is fairly prolific in various tie-in universes. At first glance, one might not think that this will end with a story that gives fair treatment to the Great Lizard, but there is one more factor here. Cerasini is a big-time Godzilla fan, and a co-author of the very excellent Godzilla Compendium. And his affection for the subject matter is evident here, making the dividend a pretty darn good kaiju romp that even an old coot like me enjoyed.

As far as the story line is concerned, the structure of Godzilla Returns is more or less similar to Godzilla 1985 (The Return of Godzilla). In the mid-90's, nuclear testing by the French has awoken the Big G. And, of course, he cuts a path towards the Land of the Rising Sun, leaving maritime disasters in his wake. 

Like Godzilla 1985 (and other Millenium G films), Godzilla Returns eliminates a monster chunk of previous canon and acts as a direct sequel to the original film. Cerasini also deftly works the American release of the original Godzilla film into the book by referring to it as a "docudrama" which combined Raymond Burr's portrayal of real life journalist Stephen Martin (who, in this universe, published an acclaimed journalistic account of the event) with historical footage of the Godzilla attack. This move he handles very well, making it a significant contribution to the emotional vibe of the story. One last note regarding the incorporation of the original Godzilla story; there is no mention of the Oxygen Destroyer here; which I guess is why the big guy is around to make a return.

We all know that you can't have a Godzilla story without talky parts. I have got to say, Cerasini introduces an engaging group to carry the story along. The "people side" of the story centers around INN (Independent News Network), which has a field office in Tokyo. Being as the story is aimed at the younger crowd, we are presented with two young interns, Brian Shimura (an American of Japanese descent) and Nick Gordon, the resident comic relief. More of the focus revolves around Shimura, a quiet, sincere young man who is easy to identify with, allowing us to jump into his skin and see the action through his eyes. Both of these characters are enjoyable, and while Nick's comedy falls flat at times it never becomes a true annoyance. The secondary characters are strongly sketched out and play their parts well. The main thing here is that Cerasini wrote these characters honestly, he did not pander to or patronize his younger audience, or try to ape what he thought their speech might resemble.

So now that we know that the human characters were handled well, how did Cerasini do with Godzilla himself? Superbly. His physical descriptions of Godzilla were spot-on; and his theories on the Big G's physiology and motivations were sound. His portrayals of the fearsome creature in destructive mode are solid, and he succeeds in doing something that almost 30 motion pictures have failed to do; make Godzilla's battles with conventional military weapons engaging and exciting. 

Speaking of action, don't let the fact that this is a youth novel make you think that the action suffers for it. Remember, the best Godzilla movies are not children's movies; but they are all accessible to children. Same goes here. The violence might be on the PG level, and is relatively bloodless, but it is there. There is death, and devastation, and all the things that make giant monsters so enthralling.

More kudos goes to Cerasini for his knowledge of Japanese geography and culture. He does not simply name-drop locations; you can tell that a lot of time and research went into this world building. He also chooses Godzilla's targets well; there is a fantastic battle that occurs at the Seto Ohashi Bridge.

As for incorporating parts of existing canon, apart from what was mentioned, there are several other instances (of which I am sure even I did not pick up on all of). Just to name a few: the Godzillasaurus seen by the Japanese troops in WWII in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is mentioned here (although I think the geography is off), as well as the "bird call" concept from Godzilla 1985. There are tributes as well, including a pretty Japanese Defense Force soldier named Emiko, and I am positive many more.

Are there any complaints about Godzilla Returns? I don't have many. Some fans may have wanted some kaiju on kaiju action, and this is definitely a solo outing. Rest assured, Cerasini's later Godzilla titles feature some familiar faces from Monster Island. Other issues just seem nitpicky; for example, towards the beginning, I thought it odd that there was a gaggle of Japanese schoolgirls at Narita Airport checking out guys. I've only been to Narita once, and I don't remember many sailor skirts. But maybe it is a hangout for those Japanese icons. Later on, as Tokyo goes on lockdown with Big G coming, Cerasini stresses how difficult it is to make an egress from the metropolis by mentioning how inflated airplane ticket prices are on the black market. Not for nothing, but if a 350 foot tall lizard with long distance radioactive breath is prowling the area, I'm pretty sure all the commercial flights are grounded. And lastly, there is a floating rumor that a yakuza contingent stole a helicopter to engage in some looting. Come on, we all know what the yakuza does with helicopters during national disasters....

"Stop projecting your stilted Western values on us, kuso-gaijin. Baaaaaaa-ka."

Like I said, any problems are minor. The fact is that the pacing is solid; with a cinematic structure. The earlier chapters alternate between character introductions and Godzilla's attacks on sea-borne vessels. Once he makes his big appearance, everything moves at breakneck speed. And believe it or not, at the end of the story, you might just find yourself wanting to hear more on what's going on with the human characters. You can't say that about every Godzilla outing, can you?

Alright, maybe just two minor complaints: there's no mass evacuation scene, and there's no kid pointing to the sky and shouting "GODZILLA!!!". The book still rocks, though.

Here's what it is:
An example of how tie-in fiction should be done, this solid little novel takes us on a rollicking ride as a certified G-Fan writes about the King of Monsters with obvious aplomb. SKREEEEEONK!

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Decent cover here, and very catchy for the target audience. We get a nice closeup of the big guy, and also a pic of him wading through a Tokyo baptized by fire. The helicopter is a tacked-on afterthought, and I am not too keen on the coloring of the name GODZILLA.

Cover Final Score:


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