Godzilla vs Biollante, the second film of the Heisei era of Godzilla films, opens with the reveal of a threat level system. Level 1 is issued when any non-physical evidence of Godzilla’s activity (such as telepathic communication) has been confirmed. Level 2 is when such physical evidence, be it the voice or movement, has been confirmed. Level 3 is for when Godzilla appears. And Level 4 is for when Godzilla lands in Japan. What this ordinary institution of a level system really means is that the existence of Godzilla has been normalized.
This is in stark contrast to the very nature of horror. Horror, by its design, is defined by the contrast of the normal. It is an aberration from how the world ought to work, be it a night designed to allow crime to occur legally or the literal dead rising from the grave to eat us all. This is simply not how the world is supposed to work.
And yet, in Godzilla vs Biollante, the world has normalized the existence of Godzilla and created systems by which it can understand and live with the giant monster. Perhaps this should be expected, all things considered. Humans, after all, frequently make things manageable in the wake of the impossible. Look, for example, at the threat level developed in the wake of 9/11. While ultimately used as a tool to keep the people in a state of fear, the device nevertheless allowed that state of anxiety to be normal as opposed to overwhelming. A thing that could fade into the background, to be forgotten without anyone noticing.
This begs the question: in the wake of the threat of mass destruction at the hands of Godzilla being made normal, what does horror look like? In the context of Godzilla vs Biollante, the world is a stranger one, even beyond the presence of giant monsters who destroy lives and property in the name of survival and hunger; for starters, there’s a psychic school where children receive visions of the giant beast. Indeed, the arguably central character of the Heisei era, Miki Saegusa, is herself a psychic who utilizes her powers to empathize with the giant monsters, and her position both within the world and the narrative is treated with a high degree of seriousness and honesty.
There are other places where the world of Godzilla vs Biollante feels safe. The characters discuss the fusion of multiple creatures in the Godzilla Memorial Lounge, they wear what was fashionable at the time, and people still live their lives. For all that Godzilla is a figure associated with the societal trauma of mass catastrophes, the world hasn’t changed as much as one would expect. There aren’t any militarized police walking the streets, no tanks ready to fire at a moment’s notice. The people aren’t being trained to serve in their militaries in the event of another Godzilla coming. They just live their lives.
This idea is also suggested in Godzilla Raids Again, the original sequel to Gojira, wherein the second act pauses shortly before the start of the third to show the characters attend a wedding. Indeed, one could view these two second films of their respective eras as semi-twin movies; both take a different approach to the giant monster than what would traditionally be done with the extremely messy Godzilla Raids Again exploring multiple genres to figure out what a Godzilla franchise looks like, while Godzilla vs Biollante opts for a more elegiac approach to giant monsters destroying the world.
And yet, that approach only highlights the horror. In the opening moments of the film, we see the film’s main character, Dr. Genshiro Shiragami, working with the fictional Middle Eastern country Saradia to develop plants to enrich the barren deserts and help the country out of its dependency on oil, freeing it from outside influences who wish to consume the nation for their own gain. However, Dr. Shiragami’s daughter, Erika, is killed in a terrorist act.
It’s easy to read this as a film about American Imperialism and the ways it fights against any attempt at making a better world than it wants. The film opens with an American outfit fighting off several members of the Japanese military to get DNA samples of Godzilla, has members of the Saradia government yearning to be free from the yoke of American control, and the aforementioned terrorist attack was conducted by Americans. However, this ultimately acts as a subplot to the main action of the film, a means by which more action sequences can be included in a movie that’s more interested in stillness. Indeed, focusing on the Americans would be ignoring the core of the film, the beating heart from which everything comes out of: the death of Erika Shiragami. She is, after all, the spirit which dwells in the center of Biollante.
It’s perhaps worth contrasting the two monsters this film is named after. Out of the two of them, it’s surprising to consider that Godzilla may be the least horrific. While his initial appearance in Gojira and his rebooted form in The Return of Godzilla frame the giant monster as something horrifying and capable of mass destruction, Godzilla vs Biollante presents the kaiju as something else. While by no means an ally to the humans, Godzilla’s scenes fighting off humanity’s efforts in self-preservation have a more traditionally action-adventure air to them. From the musical choices full of heroic trumpets and string instruments to the framing of Godzilla in bright daytime settings. Godzilla isn’t so much a figure to be feared, but to be thrilled by.
Conversely, Biollante is framed in either dark or fog infused areas; a static figure in a moving picture, something that doesn’t belong in this world. When she does move to attack, the film cuts rapidly like the killer in a horror movie as opposed to the action we’ve seen with Godzilla fighting the military; there’s an almost otherworldly sensation when looking at her. Teruyoshi Nakano’s design eschews the traditional animalistic nature of previous Kaiju in favor of something more plant-based and chaotic: writhing mesh of weeds and tentacles with a rose for a head. Most of all, it sounds wrong; if one were to imagine a plant speaking, and especially a rose, one would think it would sound light and warm, but instead, Biollante sounds mournful yet still soothing. She sings like a dying whale moored on a beach. Even in anger, even at her most violent, Biollante sounds like she’s full of regret.
At that moment, the core of the film shows itself: this is a movie about a man who cannot let go. He is dealing with the grief of his daughter’s death; not through talking or any of the other healthy means one can grieve, but rather by throwing himself into his work, never communicating with the outside world, let alone his other daughter. He refuses to let go, and so births a monster.
And yet, there’s an elegance to Biollante. An aura of tranquility and love that permeates every scene the creature appears in. Be it the amount of glitter that seems to cover the screen as she fights Godzilla or the film’s final image, the horror of Biollante lies not in destruction or cruelty, but in something far more dreadful.
There’s a modern trend in film criticism of people analyzing films through the lens of what is called “elevated horror”. Frequently, the films ascribed with the label of elevated horror are ones that utilize the horror genre to explore narratives of trauma and grief with the aesthetic of prestige arthouse films (Hereditary being the most obvious example).
However, horror has frequently made films that explore both facets of the human experience. It is, after all, one of the core tenets of some of the greatest horror films ever made. Be it Rob Zombie’s exploration of what it means to be a “final girl” in Halloween II, Tobe Hooper’s story of a family losing their daughter in Poltergeist, or the subtextual implications of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
But it is perhaps Godzilla vs Biollante that provides the most cutting and savage rebuke to the elevated horror lens. In the elevated horror films, there is a sense of pessimism and outright grotesqueness to the proceedings. To use Hereditary as an example once again, the film takes a turn midway through it’s runtime after the daughter (whose learning disabilities are framed as grotesque) is killed in a freak accident and we cut to her decapitated head being chewed on by maggots. Not that such a move is out of place in horror, but the utilization of them is often framed as a means to shock the audience rather than to horrify them. The difference between the two is subtle, but predominantly, the former is momentary while the latter lingers. The frights of so-called elevated horror feel like an obligation to the genre rather than a means in and of itself. It’s not as interested in scaring the audience as it is in being pretty.
Conversely, Godzilla vs Biollante, while not always scary, doesn’t feel the need to oblige to be shocking. It allows itself to be silly, weird, and horrifying. When Biollante reveals its second form, it’s shot in close ups and dark angles, never showing the full form of its monstrosity by enough to reveal its horrifying implications. Equally, it can look and feel and sound like a Godzilla film. Be it a movie where the giant monsters fight or one monster decimates a populated area.
But most of all, Godzilla vs Biollante allows itself a degree of grace. For that is the horror of a world with Godzilla as a common figure. Not merely the threat of violence to be done again, that can just fade into the background, but rather that it can be healed from. That one can be at peace with what has happened and to take that step outside of anxiety, outside of endless warfare, of grief, of pain, of suffering and move on with your life is terrifying. But when you do make that first step, when you walk out into a place of healing, the world changes. It’s not the end of grief or the end of trauma, but it is a step forward into the light. Into a world that doesn’t need Godzilla.