In the supersized history of giant movie monsters, one name stands above all others – Godzilla! The huge radioactive reptile has been destroying cities and pummeling enemy beasts to the delight of audiences for 61 years now. With the first Japanese Godzilla film since 2004 slated for release next year, and plans for sequels to the successful 2014 Legendary Pictures Godzilla reboot, now is a good time to review a brief history of the very first daikaiju (Japanese giant monster).
This is a beginner’s guide aimed at lay-people in search of a quick refresher, as well as fans who want to debate the meaning and essential knowledge of a subject.
What is Godzilla?
Godzilla (ゴジラ -Gojira in Japanese) is a giant dinosaurian creature that has been preserved into the modern era through unknown means, only to be awakened and mutated by atomic weapons testing by the US military in the 1950s. The immense beast is not pleased at being roused from the depths of the ocean and attacks humanity. The behemoth sinks ships, flattens cities and effortlessly shrugs off the counterattacks of mankind’s armed forces. In addition to its huge size and seeming invulnerability, the monster also exhales a radioactive heat ray from its mouth like an atomic-age dragon.
Originally towering over Tokyo at 50 meters (164 feet) tall, Godzilla’s size has increased to as much as 100 meters (328 feet) in later movies. Godzilla’s basic appearance is that of a bipedal dinosaur with a tyrannosaurus-like head, large muscular arms, and several rows of spiky fins running down the length of his back to the tip of his tail. Despite minor changes in design, this generally consistent image over the decades has contributed to Godzilla becoming one of the most recognizable movie monsters in the world.
The Origins of Godzilla
Since the Godzilla film franchise has its origins in post-war Japan, it is not merely another monster-on-the-loose story. Godzilla represents the technological hubris of man arousing the vengeful anger of nature, and he was an obvious metaphor for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.
In March of 1954, the US military conducted a hydrogen bomb test code named Castle Bravo. It was detonated in the Pacific at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The far-reaching fallout from the nuclear explosion landed on an unsuspecting Japanese fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon no. 5, resulting in the crew being sickened by acute radiation syndrome. One crew member died a few months later. This event was fresh in the mind of Toho Company movie producer Tomoyuki Tanaka when he was tasked with developing a film storyline to fill an unexpected slot in Toho’s fall 1954 movie schedule. Inspired in part by past monster movies such as King Kong (1933) and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Tanaka added the element of atomic horror that was still very much in the Japanese social consciousness, but had not yet been directly dramatized in post-war occupied Japan. Along with special effects designer Eiji Tsuburaya and director Ishiro Honda, Tanaka developed the concept of the monster “Gojira”, whose name was a combination of the English word “gorilla” and the Japanese word for a whale, kujira. An actor in a bulky rubber suit was used to portray Godzilla, as opposed to stop-motion animation. This was a necessity born of a tight special effects shooting schedule, but this method of “suitmation” has become a much-loved constant in the Japanese movie series.
Released in Japan on November 3, 1954, the film was a great success. It was later brought to the US and re-edited into the 1956 English dubbed version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Popular TV actor Raymond Burr was edited into the film in the role of an American reporter who provided exposition in English as well as a relatable character for mainstream 1950s US moviegoers. Although the grim metaphor of Godzilla as atomic holocaust was watered down some for western audiences, the general plot of the movie remained intact. Godzilla soon joined the growing pantheon of science fiction movie monsters in the United States, and it soon became clear that he was going to return in future films.
At the end of the original 1954 film [warning: 61 year-old spoiler], Godzilla is finally killed by a secret weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer that disintegrates the colossal creature as well as the scientist who created the weapon. However, there’s no keeping a good monster down, and Godzilla soon returned in a sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955), resurrected without much explanation beyond the assumption that this was “another Godzilla”. This film introduced the first in a long series of enemy monsters for Godzilla to fight in the form of the spike-backed dinosaur Anguirus. What followed was a series of sequels that reflected various themes, tones, and the decades in which they were made.
The Different Eras of Godzilla Films
The Godzilla franchise features the most consecutive films of any ongoing movie series. There have been 30 Godzilla movies released to date, with 28 of them being Japanese in origin and two being American-made re-imaginings of the character. Over the years, Godzilla fans have categorized these eras of films in the following ways:
Toho Showa Era (15 films): 1954-1975
Most of these are the fun, outlandish, classic Godzilla films that many people grew up watching in drive-ins and movie matinees of the 1960s-1970s and the Saturday afternoon TV “creature features” of later years. There is a sort of loose continuity between some of these titles, but they are easily enjoyed individually. Although Godzilla remains a villain through the first few movies, starting in the mid-1960s he is gradually transformed into a reluctant hero by challenging enemies that present a greater threat to humanity. In addition to the original 1954 Gojira, highlights of this period include:
King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) – the first color Godzilla movie features an unimpressive King Kong suit, but makes up for it with spectacular miniatures, pyrotechnics and satirical humor.
Mothra vs Godzilla (1964) – Godzilla’s first tussle with the uniquely Japanese giant moth monster, Mothra. Generally considered among the best work of FX artist Eiji Tsuburaya, the US dubbed version actually contains a few scenes not seen in the Japanese version.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) –The evil triple-headed space dragon King Ghidorah is introduced in the first film where Godzilla fights on the side of humanity, along with fellow monsters Mothra and Rodan.
Destroy All Monsters (1968) –A perennial fan favorite, featuring a mass gathering of Monster Island’s giant creatures attacking the world’s cities before teaming up with Godzilla against conquering aliens.
Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975) –The second film featuring the silvery extraterrestrial robot version of Godzilla, and the last movie of the ‘70s before the franchise was temporarily retired.
Toho Heisei Era (7 films): 1984-1995
Toho decided to revive Godzilla for his 30th anniversary and attempted to restore his status as a fearsome, destructive nuclear menace. This series ignores all the past movies except for the 1954 original and uses it as a basis for a more serious continuing storyline of Godzilla films. Noteworthy in this series are:
Return of Godzilla (1984) –Godzilla is the lone starring monster in this film which inserts him into Cold War tensions between the US and the USSR. Raymond Burr reprised his original 1956 role in the somewhat inferior US version, Godzilla 1985.
Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991) –One of Godzilla’s most popular enemies returns with a revamped origin featuring time travel (and all the plot holes that go with it) and an impressive cybernetic makeover.
Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla (1993) –The Japanese military uses reverse-engineered future technology to create a sleek version of MechaGodzilla to combat Godzilla and an updated Rodan.
Godzilla vs Destroyah (1995) –The final film in this series introduces a huge transforming enemy monster born of the Oxygen Destroyer meant to kill Godzilla back in 1954. Some flawed special effects, but a worthy ending to this era of Godzilla movies.
U.S. TriStar Godzilla (1998)
Part of the reason Toho ended its 1990s Godzilla series was to make room for an American reboot version that had been in and out of development for several years. In 1998, after an entire year of high-profile advertising, the Hollywood reinterpretation of Godzilla produced by TriStar Pictures and directed by Roland Emmerich hit theaters. Among most Godzilla fans the film is considered a failure, due mostly to its CGI version of Godzilla deviating greatly from traditional depictions of the character’s appearance and behavior. Although the film was modestly successful in its international box office totals, the lackluster reviews and negative fan reaction contributed to it not being followed by any sequels.
Toho Millennium Era (6 films): 1999-2004
After the generally lukewarm reaction to the TriStar Godzilla, Toho saw the need to bring back their flagship character in his original rubber-suited form. The next group of Godzilla movies featured a series of stand-alone storylines that each created a new universe for the famous saurian. Highlights from this era include:
Godzilla 2000 (1999) –The initial installment of this series introduces Godzilla to the 21st century to face an ancient alien craft that seeks to tap into earth’s information networks in a classic Y2K paranoia style.
Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) –Director Shusuke Kaneko, known for the excellent 1990s Gamera film series, directed this outing that returned Godzilla to the role of an evil force of elemental destruction.
Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003) –The second (and better) half of a two-movie story arc featuring yet another impressive version of MechaGodzilla tangling with Godzilla and Mothra.
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) –This 50th anniversary Godzilla movie is quite divisive amongst fans, as it tries to cultivate some of the jokey, manic energy of the 1970s movies. Many classic Toho monsters appear, to varying degrees of success, fighting Godzilla as a backdrop to a seemingly Matrix-inspired martial-arts battle between mutant humans and scenery-chewing aliens.
The year 2004 saw the last Japanese Godzilla movie made until the recent announcement of the upcoming 2016 Toho film Shin Godzilla (New Godzilla), now in production.
Legendary Pictures Godzilla (2014)
The second Hollywood attempt to create an updated Godzilla met with better results than the 1998 misfire. Directed by Gareth Edwards, the Legendary Pictures production presented a Godzilla more faithful in spirit with the Japanese original. Traditional Godzilla traits such as the iconic roar and the blue radioactive breath ray were present, much to the satisfaction of fans. Larger than any previous version of the monster, this CGI Godzilla is more focused on battling two large insectoid enemy creatures than clashing directly with the US Army.
Considered a success, the Legendary Godzilla franchise will continue, but must wait until 2018 after Gareth Edwards completes a Star Wars film currently in production. The new Toho Godzilla film releasing in 2016 will serve to tide over fans until then.
Which Version of Godzilla?
A newcomer to the world of kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movies) has several different incarnations of Godzilla to choose from as a starting point. The original 1954 Japanese version (which is available in an English subtitled video release from Criterion) should be seen by everyone. There are Godzilla movies that are serious science fiction stories and Godzilla movies that are intentionally (and unintentionally) hilarious, based on one’s tastes. Even the movies that feature elements that were geared towards children have a funky, chaotic energy that keeps fans watching into adulthood. Indeed, some of the films that are considered the most ridiculous and bizarre (1969’s All Monsters Attack and 1971’s Godzilla vs The Smog Monster come to mind) still have a devoted cult following.
Another decision facing many western fans of Godzilla is the choice of watching the movies in a subtitled format with the original Japanese audio or the English dubbed versions many Americans grew up watching on TV. While sometimes comical due to the questionable lip syncing, the older dubbed Godzilla films of the ‘60s and ‘70s have a strong nostalgic appeal. The films of the ‘90s and onward are often a bit harder to watch dubbed, as the audio production values and voice acting are of “straight-to-video” quality. Fortunately, much of the Godzilla movie series has been released in DVD formats that include options for watching either the original Japanese or English dubbed versions.
The Legacy of Godzilla
The enduring influence of Godzilla can easily be seen in his home country of Japan as well as around the world. The atomic behemoth was named as an official tourism ambassador for the city of Tokyo this past spring. Godzilla toys, comic books and video games have become as ubiquitous in US stores as they are in Japan. Advertising campaigns have used Godzilla to sell soda, athletic shoes, candy bars and even automobiles. Godzilla has been directly referenced in the films of Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams and many others. The suffix “-zilla” (eg: “bridezilla”, “hogzilla”, Mozilla, and the “Godzilla” el nino) has entered common English vernacular to denote anything that is larger than life or out of control, bringing the monster into our homes and everyday lives.
Despite Godzilla’s dark origins as a symbol of the threat of nuclear war, he has spawned a franchise that has come to represent a fun, albeit destructive spectacle that appeals to all ages and nationalities. As the Godzilla series celebrates its anniversary on November 3, it still seems like there’s no stopping the King of the Monsters!
[Header artwork by the late Noriyoshi Ohri.]