I hope you don't mind if I immediately bog things down in a semantics discussion, because I'm going to do it regardless:

The film with which Toho's classic monster Godzilla made his first appearance of the 1980s, nine years after Terror of Mechagodzilla made so little impression and sent the franchise into mothballs in 1975, has one of at least three different titles, depending on what country you're in and what cut you're watching. In Japan, it was simply titled Godzilla/Gojira, exactly the same as the 1954 original that started the whole ball rolling. This was apparently deemed too complicated for English speakers (and, 30 more years down the road, we can be grateful: it would mean that as of 2014 there'd be four movies titled Godzilla in English, instead of three), and when New World Pictures released a massively re-cut version with copious new footage the year after the film's premiere, it was under the name Godzilla 1985. Meanwhile, if you're watching the original cut of the film with English subtitles, Toho's preference for what you just watched is The Return of Godzilla. Substitute the appropriate translation of that phrase if you're watching it with some other language's subtitles.

So, The Return of Godzilla it is. The first film of the second era of Godzilla pictures, and we're still not done with semantics, because the precise terminology given to that era is itself somewhat variable, and with seven films taking place in that era, it's best to get it out of the way now. Customarily, English Godzilla fandom names the first series, from 1954 to 1975, the Showa era, and the second, from 1984 to 1995, the Heisei. These are the names of the time periods in Japan corresponding to the reigns of the last two emperors, with the Heisei period beginning on 8 January, 1989. Which means that The Return of Godzilla is, itself, part of the Showa period, and labelling it and its seven direct sequels the Heisei era is therefor roughly as appropriate as calling them the "1990s films". Using those terms - which are not applied to the Godzilla franchise in Japan itself - smacks of a kind of blithe cultural indifference that I'd rather not contribute to. The other primary nickname given to the '84-'95 run of films is the "VS series": both because six of them include "Godzilla vs." as their first words, and because in the original Japanese titles, the Latin letters VS are used instead of the kanji character ε―Ύ. Mind you, it's no more accurate, but it lacks the subtle tang of lazy Orientalism. "Original series" and "VS series" it shall be, then, up until we arrive at the happily uniform and officially-sanctioned "Millennium series" in 1999.

So! With that out of the way, maybe we can attend to the actual matter of discussing a damn Godzilla picture, anyway, something that really shouldn't be attended by any kind of difficult cultural hand-wringing. But if any film were going to deserve it, it would be The Return of Godzilla, which uniquely in the franchise boasts a strong core of geopolitical awareness. In the grand tradition of reboots involving making things darker and edgier (a trend, mind you, that this film anticipates by something like 20 years), the film is the first and only Cold War Godzilla film, with a first act that hinges on the threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Such a consideration of real-world ramifications is brand new for the franchise, and perhaps represents a desire on the part of Toho, or at least executive producer and franchise guardian Tanaka Tomoyuki, to return to the gravity and impact of the 1954 Godzilla. Certainly, this is a grim film, though not necessarily any better for its grimness than the less-trivial among the original movies; what it lacks in dippy tacked-on spy thriller subplots or idiotic kind-friendly cartoon shenanigans, it does not replace with the severity and focus of Godzilla, or even Terror of Mechagodzilla.

Taking place 30 years after the original, the film establishes a new continuity in which absolutely nothing has happened like we saw in all those various movies through the years. "It's not every day that monsters appear" observes Godzilla expert Dr. Hayashida (Natsuki Yosuke), throwing away 21 years of history in which that statement was just about literally untrue. For reasons that nobody can exactly determine, a new Godzilla, or perhaps the same one, after three decades of hibernation to shake of being skeletonised in '54, has shown up, destroying a Japanese fishing boat. Only one person has survived that attack, and the subsequent attack of a giant nuclear louse that escaped from Godzilla's body onto the boat: Okamura Hiroshi (Takuma Shin), found in a quivering heap by journalist Maki Goro (Tanaka Ken). It's Hiroshi's testimony that convinces Hayashida and the Prime Minister (Kobayashi Keiju) that Godzilla has finally returned, but to avoid a panic, they keep this fact silent, until Godzilla destroys a Soviet submarine. Then, to avoid a much greater panic, they release their findings to the world, staving off a nuclear confrontation between the USSR and U.S., but also creating a problem in that the superpowers want to nuke the monster out of existence. Japan, with its certain unpleasant history with nuclear weaponry, is unwilling to permit their use, and Hayashida has extreme doubts that Godzilla wouldn't simply absorb the energy of a nuclear warhead anyway, given his new propensity for feeding on nuclear power plants and all.

Presumably, the matter of Goro, Hiroshi, and Hiroshi's sister Naoko (Sawaguchi Yasuko), Hayashida's assistant, is meant to give us a spine for the film, but they're just not very interesting people. And thus, a film that clearly wants to reach levels like the first Godzilla, in which our fear of the monster's inescapable destructive power is funneled through the perceptions of a few characters we like (this is the first Godzilla film in a long time that legitimately feels like horror), trips over its own feet. None of the humans in The Return of Godzilla are meaningful protagonists; they are only distractions and annoyances who get in the way of the film's real purpose, which is to be an American-style '80s action movie.

The degree to which the film sits comfortably in that generic wheelhouse is surprising, to me anyway. It hadn't taken very long for the original Godzilla films to settle into a characteristically Japanese style not just in terms of design, but in camera angles, music, and even the emphases in the narrative (and we can still see this even in Return: surely, a contemporaneous Hollywood production would have wrung much more tension from the "will the countries go to war?" subplot before Godzilla's resurrection was announced. Japanese cinema, in dealing with Cold War geopolitics, was always of a more optimistic cant in assuming that American/Soviet relationships could be dealt with calmly and logically than American films of the same vintage). The Return of Godzilla has its vividly Japanese touches (the deployment of a pudgy little superjet, the Super X, as the main anti-Godzilla weapon, leaps to mind), but the focus on military strategizing, the generically urgent Koroku Rejiro score, and the staging of Godzilla's ultimate march through Tokyo are all distinctly multi-national. Not that this makes them bad: the destruction scenes in particular are absolutely tremendous, with attractive, detail models like Toho hadn't plumped for since the mid-'60s. But for the most part, green director Hashimoto Koji (a franchise veteran assistant director making his second and final movie as the man in the big chair) keeps channeling the movie into tones and momentum that feel virtually indistinguishable from dozens of other mid-'80s films, absent the big radioactive dinosaur.

And how about Godzilla, anyway? The suit generally looks best in wide shots, especially somewhat from the side. Once again, Godzilla's face is too comical and Muppet-like, meaner and toothier than the suit introduced in Godzilla vs. Megalon, but not, beyond that, significantly more realistic or threatening. So the less we see of it, the better. For the most part, I like the rest of his design; muscular without being stocky (the sin that would plague the rest of the VS series suits), and the twitching, extra-long tail is a terrific element of the whole. The desperately wobbly dorsal fins are just pathetic, true, and you can tell while watching how hot new suit actor Satsuma Kenpachiro (graduating up from Hedorah and Gigan, in his last film under the name Nakayama Kengo) would get under all that rubber, for he's just not as active as the '60s and '70s version of the monster. But these are not film-killing problems. Indeed, the sequence of Godzilla stomping through Tokyo is far and away the film's saving grace, the one place where it is dramatic, intense, and feels like it has stakes beyond just existing.

At any rate, the Japanese version is a sterling masterpiece compared to Godzilla 1985, which streamlines things brutally and adds a ridiculously static subplot about the American military observing the Japanese attempts to stop Godzilla, with Raymond Burr coming back to play Steve Martin, the white audience-identification figure from Godzilla, King of the Monsters. In that film, great effort was made to incorporate the newly-shot American footage into the Japanese material with care and thoughtfulness; the 1985 recut just sticks Burr and company in between scenes and doesn't care in the slightest that the new material has literally no relationship to the film's plot, while its insertion requires the removal of a huge some of material (25 minutes, easily) that leaves the story a ragged mess of wholes, leaps of faith, and ridiculous assumptions (like the way that G85 fails to explain the electromagnetic discovery that ends up setting up the anti-Godzilla weapon that saves the day). That, the dumbfounding Dr. Pepper product placement, and the stock music library replacing even the functional score from the Japanese score, are enough to make Godzilla 1985 a truly wretched, jokey mess of a film that doesn't work on any level but as bad-movie camp, and even then it's not very fun. It tanked, and was the last Japanese Godzilla film to see theatrical release in the states until 2000. The Return of Godzilla is not, by and large, a very satisfying return, but it's more coherent and legible than that.

Still, in any iteration, the film is a lot of "eh" to get to the really good stuff. It did well enough to secure the franchise a new run of movies, but based on the results here, I'm not really surprised that it took five years for the studio to figure out how to make a decent follow-up.