[Note: For clarity’s sake, I mostly use the English transliterated form Godzilla throughout this article, but I also refer to original Gojira when the context requires it.]
Gojira [ゴジラ], also known as the Big G, the God of Destruction, and the King of the Monsters, is a radioactive creature of biblical proportions who stomped his way into the Japanese cinema and became a worldwide pop-cultural icon. Many viewers love him, but also many regard him as campy. However, undeniable is the fact that, over the course of 65 years, there have been made 32 feature films (including 3 Hollywood productions), an animated trilogy, two cartoon shows, and countless novels, comic books as well as video games. Godzilla is nowadays both a kaiju superstar in his own right and a profitable commodity for his owner, the Toho Studios. My attempt is to bring Godzilla closer to the MDL community by outlining the history behind the cinematic monster and his impressively rich legacy.
My first introduction to Godzilla was back in 1998. Don’t worry, it was not like the Emmerich version became the first Godzilla flick I have ever seen. There was a lot of marketing buzz about this Hollywood blockbuster, but I was completely uninterested in it. All of a sudden, a Polish movie magazine fell into my 6-year-old hands which contained even more hype urging readers to see the American remake. However, there was also an article which provided an overview of the original 22 movies from the Showa and the Heisei series in form of chronologically organized titles with brief descriptions, posters, and monsters. That text became my guide list to Godzilla movies in the pre-internet era. After reading it, I was determined to see every single film listed there and I eventually fulfilled my resolution. The very first Godzilla movie I had the pleasure to see was Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah and to date, it remains my all-time favourite.
So, without further delay, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of Japan’s favourite monster.
Contrary to many misconceptions, Godzilla had a very meaningful beginning. It started off as an allegory of nuclear holocaust and World War II trauma. Japan was brought onto its knees after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Then, the American occupation ensued which lasted up until 1952. Throughout this period, Japanese filmmakers were forbidden from acknowledging in any way the war and its atrocities. Nevertheless, the public controversy was ignited in 1954 when, as a result of a hydrogen bomb test performed at Bikini Atoll, 23 Japanese fishermen of Daigo Fukuryu Maru tuna fishing boat were exposed to radioactive ash. The event reminded Japan that the atomic weapon was still a tangible threat, but it also inspired producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to make a movie about a monster emerging from the sea depths as a side effect of nuclear testing.
However, the nuclear test was not the only influence. With the 1952 re-release of King Kong (1933) and the 1953 premiere of The Beast from 20,000 Fanthoms, Tanaka saw the potential for a monster film made in Japan. Having obtained a green light from Toho, he brought on board director Ishiro Honda, former Akira Kurosawa’s apprentice, and Eiji Tsuburaya, the mastermind of Japanese special effects. The three created the story and its destructive creature: Gojira, a combination of words gorira [ゴリラ, gorilla] and kujira [クジラ, whale] serving to indicate the monster’s power and might. His appearance was devised by art director Akira Watanabe who blended attributes of various dinosaurs and combined them with scaly, charcoal skin, anthropomorphic torso, dorsal fins on the back, and a long tail. Godzilla’s famous roar, in turn, was invented by legendary Akira Ifukube (the official composer of 11 Godzilla movies) who rubbed the strings of the double bass with a coarse leather glove and played the recording back at a reduced speed. Talk about ingenuity in the 1950s!
The First Movie
The original Gojira movie hit the screens on November 3, 1954. It was the most expensive Japanese production at that time (even surpassing the oversized budget of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai from the same year) and it became an instant box office success. It has to be noted, however, that the first film did not establish the conventional formula of spectacular monster fights, army counterattacks, and invasions from outer space. The original movie provides a very bleak and harrowing cinematic experience. Images of utter destruction: Tokyo in flames, people suffering from radiation, and dead bodies made the Japanese recall their wartime trauma. Perhaps the most gutting scene in the whole picture is that of a crying mother who, while clutching her children in the midst of explosions, says that they will soon join their father.
What is more interesting, Godzilla is presented neither as an enemy nor as a symbol of hate. As the story progresses, human characters perceive it as a force of destiny, a metaphorical incarnation of Japanese arrogance who takes revenge on civilization. In accordance with Ishiro Honda’s vision, Godzilla was to behave like a living nuclear bomb, radiating as well as torching everything and everyone on his way. As Tomoyuki Tanaka stated: “Mankind had created the Bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind” (source).
Surprisingly, the American audiences were not able to see the full, uncut version of the movie until 2004. Gojira was re-released in 1956 under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (yes, the same name as the upcoming 2019 production). Most of the footage was reshot in order to incorporate journalist Steve Martin (played by Raymond Burr) as the lead character. While visibly weaker in comparison to the original, I find this version very watchable as well and it is worth checking out as a trivia.
Of course, the impact of Gojira would not be possible if it had not been for the special effects department. Originally, Godzilla was supposed to be shot using stop motion approach as in the case of King Kong, but time constraints (only two months to make the picture) forced Eiji Tsuburaya to come up with suitmation technique. It involves a man in a monster suit placed within a carefully crafted miniature set and shot at an appropriate frame rate (sometimes quicker or slower depending on the shot). Many modern “critics” look upon this approach as outdated and embarrassing, but they need to realize how ingenious and efficient it was. Without it, we would not get 28 Godzilla movies.
Nevertheless, if you think that suitmation was a piece of cake, then you could not be more wrong. Haruo Nakajima, Kenpachiro Satsuma, and Tsutomu Kitagawa are the most prominent actors who “played” Godzilla throughout the Showa, Heisei, and Millennium series respectively and they all suffered through a fair share of discomfort and pain. The suits were extremely heavy (up to 100 kg/220 lb) and hot. The actors experienced such things as oxygen deprivation, near-drowning, concussions, lacerations, and electric shocks. In addition, each suit had to be made from scratch for a new movie. As with regard to the sets, the miniatures had to be destroyed on cue, which not always happened and resulted in the crew relentlessly “rebuilding” the miniatures after hours.
Special effects changed and improved as time went by, but Tsuburaya’s technique remained largely unchanged. In fact, it was utilized on television in many Tokusatsu shows (Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Super Sentai). In the 1990s, the Heisei movies combined miniatures with cell compositing effects and digital graphics, whereas the Millennium era, in the 2000s, began blending CGI into the fights. Forgive me this subsection, but I felt I had to mention and give justice to people who made Godzilla seem real on film. Just check out their devotion even in recent years.
Evidently, Godzilla would be nothing without thespians whom it can trample on. A variety of actors and actresses graced the screen alongside Godzilla including such veterans as Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Kumi Mizuno, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Koichi Ueda, Masato Ibu, and Akira Nakao. All of them appeared in more than one movie, having played various roles, but an absolute record-breaker is Megumi Odaka who played the character of Miki Saegusa in 6 Godzilla movies. (Please, Toho/Warner Bros. give her a guest role in new films already!)
The success of the first movie immediately led to the production of a sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, in which it was pitted against the first antagonist, Anguirus. Though commercially successful, Toho did not pitch another follow-up idea for seven years. The year 1962 saw the release of King Kong vs. Godzilla which became an even greater success and set the tone for the rest of the Showa Series. With the advent of colour film, the style was no longer depressing, references to the war were scrapped, and the socio-political commentary got replaced by a light-hearted plot and monster battles. In the fourth movie, Godzilla had to fight against another Toho star, Mothra and by the fifth picture, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, the Big G was presented as a friendly anti-hero who had to defeat a new badass in town.
Godzilla’s transformation into a positive superhero was laid out in three subsequent productions: Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, and Son of Godzilla. In spite of turning Godzilla into a children’s hero, the films did manage to provide some social commentary. For example, Godzilla vs. Hedorah raises the issue of Earth’s pollution, whereas Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla expresses clearly anti-American undertones. Yet, Godzilla also did such crazy stuff as wrestling jumps, talking or even flying… In the mid-1970s, the economic situation started to change in Japan. Godzilla was present on the silver screen for 20 years already and the demand for new adventures simply began trickling away. After 14 sequels, the series ended with Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975.
Toho was very keen on bringing back the King of the Monsters and they eventually achieved that in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla (original title: Gojira (1984)). The movie rebooted the franchise by ignoring all of the Showa films apart from the original Gojira. The monster grew to 80 meters and became more menacing in its appearance. Although The Return turned into a welcomed success, Toho had no idea how to carry the story further. Thus, they held a public contest and selected a script which became the basis of Godzilla vs. Biollante. This installment turned into a fans’ favourite over the years, but it was not as successful as anticipated.
Toho’s 60th anniversary in 1992 provided the opportunity for another entry in the series. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah brought back the Big G’s archenemy after two decades of absence. In addition, the movie gave us Godzilla’s background story as well as Mecha-King Ghidorah(!) Consequently, King of the Monsters was pitted against good old foes in Godzilla vs. Mothra and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II. Toho intended to end the franchise at this point but delays with the announced American version allowed them to produce two more pictures: Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla (40th-anniversary film) and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.
Personally, this is my favourite Godzilla series and I find it to be secretly a genius. It has awesome monsters, great special effects, and brilliant music scores. The movies are closely knit together, showing a clear progression of Godzilla from a misunderstood monster to a ruthless destroyer to a loving father. Additionally, the ending of this series made me cry as much as I cried while watching The Lion King all over again (but ten times more heartbreaking!: *spoiler clip*).
After the premiere of the abysmal Hollywood reimagining of Godzilla in 1998 (“That’s a lot of fish”), the fans raged across the globe and Toho management gave the green light to a new film that was supposed to save the King’s reputation. The result of this was Godzilla 2000 which, similarly to The Return of Godzilla, ignored everything but the original Gojira. The producers must have taken a liking to this approach because almost every entry of the Millennium Series is a reboot happening in an alternate timeline and ignoring everything that occurred earlier. The notable exception is Godzilla X Mechagodzilla and Godzilla X Mothra X Mechagodzilla: Tokyo S.O.S which constitute a two-part story that references the Showa era. These two are definite highlights and my favourite entries of this series. Though, many fans point to Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack as the best picture of this era. The 50th-anniversary film, Godzilla: Final Wars, came out in 2004 to a mixed reception (I only liked parts of it).
Legendary Series (a.k.a. MonsterVerse)
Ten long years have gone by since Godzilla’s retirement, but it gloriously returned yet again in another Hollywood’s reinterpretation. Godzilla (2014) directed by Gareth Edwards pays a lot more focus and respect to the source material than the 1998 flick. The King is Japanese, its 1954 origins are referenced, and there are monster fights. I enjoyed every minute of this film when I saw it on the big screen, so it is really hard for me to comprehend all the bad rap this movie gets for not having enough of Godzilla in it. This was a very good introduction into a larger story that Legendary Entertainment is currently developing.
Speaking of which, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is due to hit the screens at the end of May. The final trailer looks crazy awesome! Hollywood is finally going down the right path laid out by Toho decades ago. Godzilla vs. Kong (2020), you’d better be good!
Following the enormous success of Godzilla (2014), it became evident that Toho also wanted a piece of the action. Being bound by the deal with Legendary, Toho cannot release a Godzilla flick in the same year as Legendary’s prospective productions. Hence, they gave director Hideaki Anno a very narrow time window (summer 2016) to make a new movie. The result of this expensive and hasty production is Shin Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla Resurgence), a new take on Godzilla’s monstrosity that ignores even the 1954 picture.
The movie became a huge hit at the Japanese box office and received wide critical acclaim. Godzilla’s unique appearance and powers might have been the main visual advantages, but the movie is unconventional in other ways as well. Steve Ryfle describes it in the following manner: “It’s not truly a monster or disaster movie at all, but a faux-documentary look at politicians and bureaucrats responding to a doomsday scenario, with all of the deadlocked meeting, endless discussion, conference calls and staring at computer screens […] What the film eschews in personal emotion, however, it replaces with a sense of national pride, embodied not by the bumbling, indecisive, pass-the-buck, old-school politicians […] but by younger, patriotic and clear-headed generation that leads the country out of the mess” (source). In other words, Shin Gojira turns into an ideological manifesto in the wake of post-Fukushima Japan. While I appreciated the risks the film took and a new direction of the story, it did not make a lasting impression on me. Call me an old-fashioned viewer, but I go with J-Taro Sugisaku’s claim that the primary reason behind Shin Gojira’s popularity was the presence of Satomi Ishihara as the female lead…
In between 2017 and 2018, Toho released together with Polygon Pictures a trilogy of anime Godzilla films: Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle, Godzilla: The Planet Eater. Although the fandom generally disliked the trilogy for not including monster fights, I think that the anime provides a very interesting what-if scenario for Godzilla, grounding it deeper within the sci-fi convention. In addition, this series gave us, arguably, the most hellish reimagining of King Ghidorah since his first appearance in 1964.
Knock-offs and Imitations
As with every other major phenomenon, Godzilla became the source of many copycats. The most prominent of these is Gamera, Godzilla’s rival from Daiei company, that appeared in 12 movies to date. Other Godzilla-influenced monsters include Repticulus, Gorgo, Yonggary, and Pulgasari. The last one is known more than anything else for the unusual story behind its making. The glorious leader of the North Korean nation, Kim Jong-Il was so desperate to produce a hit that he kidnapped a South Korean actress and director, as well as tricked the Heisei Godzilla crew, in order to create Pulgasari. This story is so crazy that it deserves its own article.
In Other Media
Apart from the cinema, Godzilla also appeared on television. It was given its own animated toy show called Godzilla Island (1997-1998) as well as a series of animated shorts called Godzilland co-produced by educational company Gakken (children were supposed to learn writing and maths with the King). In the late 1970s, Hanna-Barbera Productions made their own Godzilla cartoon, whereas Sony Pictures produced Godzilla: The Series, a cartoon sequel to the 1998 movie. The King received a string of video games as well (the most prominent one being Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee on Gamecube). Also, Godzilla did manage to battle the Avengers (yes!) in a series of Marvel comics between 1977 and 1979. Unfortunately, the only thing we are missing today is a full-blown J-drama set in the aftermath of Kaiju apocalypse… (You can do this FujiTV!)
Personal Movie Recommendations
Gojira (1954): The movie that started it all. If you are not interested in the monster theme, it is still worth to check this film out for human drama.
Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964): The first appearance of King Ghidorah and the combined fight between Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan. Best to check out before the upcoming 2019 movie.
Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965): An exemplary instance of the Showa era's greatness. Godzilla duels King Ghidorah once again, but this time there is a lot of science-fiction stuff going on.
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989): The King's triumphant step into the 1990s where he fights a biologically engineered creature.
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991): One of the best sequels out there. Evil time travelers, altering the past, an android, and two incarnations of King Ghidorah.
Godzilla vs. Spacegodzilla (1994): Considered by many as the weakest Godzilla film of all time, but it really grew on me over the years, so I give this story my recommendation. Spacegodzilla is awesome!
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995): The only movie in the whole franchise which provides some sense of closure. The main antagonist is truly terrifying.
Godzilla X Mechagodzilla (2002): I recommend this mainly because of Kiryu who is the best incarnation of Mechagodzilla. Very good special effects and the fights.
Godzilla X Mothra X Mechagodzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003): A follow-up to the previous film. This time Mothra joins the party as well. I wish the filmmakers could carry on this story arc. There is a post-credits scene which went to a complete waste because it was not referenced anywhere later on.
Well, I guess this is the end of my lengthy retrospective look at the King of the Monsters and his extensive legacy. As of May 2018, Toho announced that there will not be a follow-up to Shin Gojira. However, there are plans for a shared cinematic universe between Godzilla and other Toho monsters after 2021. Saddening is that fact that none of the original crew members will be working on new movies anymore, because they either passed away or retired. Nevertheless, this is the way our world works. Times change, people move on, but Godzilla always stays the same, regardless of whether or not it is a hero, destroyer, or a force of nature. It will be with us for the next 65 years to come.
Make sure to check out Easter eggs in the hyperlinks as well as my sources below. Although I tried to contain as much as info as possible, this task proved to be a fool’s errand: EW.com, Reuters.com, JapanTimes.co.jp, BBC.co.uk,Salon.com,InTheseTimes.com,Motherboard.vice.com, Mangauk.com, SFcrowsnest.info, FactFiend.com, Metro.co.uk, GeeksandSundry.com, Britannica.com, IGN.com, Inverse.com, MentalFloss.com, TokyoCreative.com, HistoryVortex.org, ScifiJapan.com, ScreenRant.com, TohoKingdom.com, Kenpachiro Satsuma Interview, Megumi Odaka Interview, and Bringing Godzilla Down to Size (a documentary).
If you still can’t get enough of reading about Godzilla, then I also recommend two books: Japan’s Favourite Mon-Star: An Unauthorized Biography of the Big G by Steve Ryfle and Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination by Anne Allison.
I hope that you enjoyed the article as much as I did writing it.
Have you seen any Godzilla movies?
Would you like to check out some of the mentioned ones?
Please write in the comments.