Potted History of Godzilla
by Robert Hood
"Gojira" in his native Japan, Godzilla first
hit the big screen in 1954. This first Godzilla film
was directed by Ishiro Honda (friend of film legend
Akira Kurosawa, for whom he often worked as second-unit
director) and produced by Toho Studios at what was,
then, extraordinary cost. Though clearly inspired by
the success of the US "Beast from 20,000 Fathoms",
Godzilla was from the start a very Japanese creation,
here representing the nuclear paranoia that had become
part of Japan's national psyche post-Hiroshima. Scenes
of Tokyo devastated by the nuclear monster's fiery breath,
its population crushed and burnt by radiation, leave
little doubt as to the metaphorical undercurrent that
drives the film. Seen in its original form, it remains
a powerful and atmospheric experience to this day.
enormous success in its own country, "Gojira"
was soon acquired by US distributors, who completely
re-edited it, excising most of its human story and replacing
it with scenes featuring a US reporter, played by Raymond
Burr. Re-named "Godzilla, King of the Monsters",
the film gained worldwide popularity… and spawned both
an industry and a genre. To date, there have been 28
Godzilla movies (2004), in which the iconographic monster
takes on a variety of roles -- from nuclear terror to
national hero, fighting human aggression and alien menace
with equal aplomb. These films are known as "daikaiju
eiga", literally "giant monster movies". There is a
whole genre of them in Japan (with forays elsewhere),
featuring endearing monstrosities such as Gamera, Rodan,
King Ghidorah and Anguilas - and filled with cityscape
stomping, alien weirdness and impossible science. Yet
Godzilla remains the King of them all.
a rushed sequel, "Godzilla Raids Again" (or
"Gigantis, the Fire Monster" as the badly
hacked US version would have it), Toho Studios (and
director Honda) pitted Godzilla against King Kong,
though the original version of this film is a humorous
and biting satire of corporate commerce in Japan
rather than the political document it is sometimes
claimed to be. American International acquired the
US rights to "King Kong vs Godzilla" and
re-edited the film - this time without a shred of
respect, turning what remains a prestigious A-grade
film in Japan into a cheap, campy C-grade travesty.
the huge box-office success of "King Kong vs Godzilla"
(in Japan), Toho and director Honda took Godzilla along
increasingly fantastic by-roads - and shed all those
rationalised Western motifs they had appropriated from
"The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and "King
Kong". "Mothra vs Godzilla" ("Godzilla
vs the Thing") has a very Japanese sensibility and
is arguably the real beginning of the daikaiju eiga
genre. In "Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster"
Godzilla becomes more sympathetic, defending the Earth
from invading aliens. This theme is continued in "Godzilla
vs Monster Zero" and recurs from time to time up
to the eventual end of the first Godzilla era in 1975
("The Terror of Mechagodzilla"). In the meantime
Godzilla would fight international terrorists ("Godzilla
vs the Sea Monster"), ecological experiments ("Son
of Godzilla"), yet more aliens ("Godzilla vs
Gigan" and "Godzilla vs Megalon"), and even
schoolyard bullies ("Godzilla's Revenge"). A
highlight is 1969's celebratory extravaganza "Destroy
All Monsters", which includes 11 of Toho's giant
monsters in an alien-invasion free-for-all.
attempts to revitalise the franchise (for example, replacing
nuclear fear with fear of pollution in "Godzilla
vs the Smog Monster", and bringing back Honda to
direct with "Terror of Mechagodzilla"), the series
ran into financial problems and was cancelled. However,
you can't keep a good monster down, and Godzilla was
eventually resurrected as "Gojira 1984" ("The
Return of Godzilla"), again re-edited in the US
to include original "Godzilla, King of the Monsters"
star Raymond Burr ("Godzilla 1985"). This film went
back to the beginning, ignoring the existence of all
but the 1954 original.
the real resurrection only occurred in the 1990s. In
"Godzilla vs Biollante", "Godzilla vs King
Ghidorah", "Godzilla vs Mothra", "Godzilla
vs Mechagodzilla 2" and "Godzilla vs Space Godzilla",
the nuclear monster found new life. These films were
even more expensive, with spectacular effects, beautifully
designed rubber-suits and vast, outlandish stories.
Of course as good as they are, these modern films are
not universally successful, and for many the early films
remain the benchmark. By now, of course, Godzilla had
become a huge cultural icon, not only in Japan, but
in the rest of the world, too. In 1995, however, Toho
killed off their hero-monster in "Godzilla vs Destoroyah".
This film's scenario features a monster created from
the dangerous weapon ("The Oxygen Destroyer") used to
defeat the original Godzilla back in 1954.
'retirement' made way for what many had waited for -
an expensive Hollywood blockbuster featuring their favourite
Mon-star. The result, "Godzilla" (1999), directed
by Roland Emmerich, was an utter disappointment, not
because it wasn't spectacular, but because it wasn't
Godzilla. The US Godzilla turned out to be an ordinary,
albeit large, CGI lizard, without mythic resonance,
without personality, without the real Godzilla's devastating
indifference to humanity's weaponry. This pretender
was a hunted animal, not a morally ambiguous force of
nature. Gone was everything that made the world love
Godzilla, and the cries went up like a soaring pteradactyl.
by this reaction, Toho Studios returned to the series
(and to its rubber-suit aesthetic), producing two excellent
films, "Godzilla 2000 Millennium" and "Godzilla
vs Megaguiras". Again Godzilla was redesigned and
again the story began anew by ignoring both previous
in 2001 came "Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant
Monsters' All-Out Attack" under the creative helm
of Shusuke Kaneko, who had previously directed what
many consider to be the greatest of daikaiju eiga --
the Gamera trilogy of 1995-1999. "GMK" (as it
is known) took Godzilla in yet another direction, turning
the dubious science of the genre into fantastical metaphysics.
Godzilla was depicted as an incarnation of the war-dead
and the other monsters guardian spirits seeking to protect
the land from his wrath. Though not universally popular
because of the radical re-working of the monsters' roles
and perceived shortcomings in its ideology, "GMK"
was an effective, often-powerful film, with some of
the best-imagined and executed SFX scenes in any of
the G-films, and garnered some extravagent reviews.
the following two films -- Godzilla Against
Mechagodzilla (2002) and Godzilla,
Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003),
the monster-hero's foe is a bio-engineered Mechagodzilla,
forged from Godzilla's own DNA, as obtained from
the skeleton that was all that remained of the
original Godzilla in 1954. The design harks back
to the G-design of the Millennium Godzilla, while
Mechagodzilla looks slicker and more awesome than
ever. The two films work well back-to-back, the
continuity is so tightly orchestrated.
at the start of 2004, Toho announced that the
50th Anniversary Godzilla film would go into production
in April. It would be a celebratory extravaganza, a virtual remake of the previous "celebratory" film, "Destroy All Monsters" (1969). "Godzilla: Final Wars" premiered in Japan in December 2004. Though the hoped-for worldwide theatrical run never eventuated, the film received festival viewings in the US, Australia and elsewhere, and in December 2005, a US DVD release.
a bigger budget, slightly longer production period,
10 other monsters in attendance, location shoots
in New York, Paris, Shanghai and Sydney, and a
high-profile action director in the person of
Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus), the
film proved to be a fitting, if controversial, tribute to Godzilla's
50 years on the screen.
it may also be the Big G's last appearance for
some time. Toho has also announced that, due to
declining box-office takings, Godzilla will go
into hibernation for 5 to 10 years. Well, that
sort of thing has been said before, and it came
to nothing. Only time will tell. Already there has been talk of a 3D IMax Godzilla film, this one featuring Hedorah, the Smog Monster, to be directed by the 1971 film's original director, Yoshimitsu Banno. Godzilla's legions
of fans will continue to hope that the end - the
real end - is nowhere in sight. Nuclear terror,
spiritual allegory, force of nature, childhood
role model, national hero - in whatever form he
may take, Godzilla lives on!