Part 2: The Golden Age (1963–1968)
Part 3: Down and Out in Osaka (1969–1983)
Part 4: The Heisei Era (1984–1997)
With the release of the teaser trailer for the upcoming Godzilla from Warner Bros. and Legendary pictures, a decade of cinematic silence has come to an end. Godzilla last appeared in 2004 in the Japanese movie Godzilla: Final Wars, which Toho Studios intended as the monster’s final bow before going on sabbatical. It’s the longest break in the iconic monster’s career, and regardless of what happens next, the forthcoming Godzilla ’14 is a reason for G-fans to celebrate. Maybe stomp a few cities. The trailer makes San Francisco look particularly stomp-able.
At this point, we only know as much about Godzilla ’14 as we’ve seen in the teaser. But it was an exciting glimpse that at least assured fans the new movie would not repeat the horrible mistakes of the first American attempt at a stateside Godzilla, the 1998 Roland Emmerich disaster.
This is the first of five (projected) installments covering the history of Godzilla on film, written and condensed for a broad audience. I hope these articles will help readers who have only a passing relationship with Godzilla—the general knowledge from pop culture osmosis—see the unusual variety of one of the longest and most durable film franchises in history. Many of my readers are probably familiar with much of the information I’ll provide in these articles, but since I’ll also sling around my own opinions about the movies mixed in with the history, Godzilla fans may find parts of this worthwhile… if perhaps only to ignite arguments.
Terminology and Other Business to Dispense With
Godzilla’s film history divides into three distinct phases: The Showa series, also known as the “classic series” (1954-1975), named after the period of the reign of Emperor Hirohito; the Heisei series (1984-1995), named after the reign of Emperor Akihito; and the Millennium series (1999-2004), named after the inaugural film, Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999). The first three installments of this history will cover the Showa movies, and the last two will cover Heisei and Millennium, as well as the hiatuses between.
For clarity and consistency, I’ll refer to the movies by the official English titles Toho Studio gave them for the purpose of foreign sales, and use the alternate U.S. titles for specifically Americanized releases. For example, I will refer to the first movie of the Heisei series as The Return of Godzilla (1984) and its Americanized version as Godzilla 1985. I will point out the more familiar U.S. titles when they are drastically different from the official Toho title, such as Godzilla versus the Sea Monster, the U.S. television and video title of Ebirah, The Horror of the Deep.
Black and White Beginnings: Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again
I’ve already written extensively on Godzilla’s origin tale in my review of the Blu-ray of the original. Here is the “on-the-go” version:
In 1954, Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer at Japan’s powerful Toho Studios, needed a movie to go into production after co-financing on a war film collapsed. Seizing on the recent popularity in Japanese cinemas of the original King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and referencing a recent flare-up over fear of atomic power because of an incident where a Japanese fishing boat was caught in the fallout from the Bikini Atoll test, Tanaka devised the concept of a radioactive giant beast coming ashore and devastating Tokyo. Special effects wizard Eiji Tsubaraya devised the design of the monster (originally intended as a sort of “aquatic gorilla,” hence the monster’s Japanese name, Gojira, a portmanteau of the words for “gorilla” and “whale”) and the extensive miniature special effects. Rising dramatic director Ishiro Honda handled the human action. Musical maestro Akira Ifukube crafted the thundering, doom-filled score, and also created the monster’s distinctive roar: the sound of a resin-coated glove rubbing the strings of a contra basso.
Godzilla (Gojira) hit theaters in Japan in November 1954, the same year as The Seven Samurai, and turned into a smash success. The film cost thirty times more than the average Japanese production, but Toho’s risk paid off. The film broke the record for opening-day ticket sales in Tokyo, and approximately 9.6 million people saw the film during its initial run.
No one in Japan had seen a film like it before; although special-effects films were common, they were almost always war spectacles. Since Japan had no military, effects artists like Eiji Tsubaraya had to create military tech using miniatures. The work in Godzilla, however, created a stunning monster and scenes of devastation that gnawed deep at people for whom World War II was still a fresh memory. The devastating nuclear message struck a chord with a country that was only beginning to grapple publicly with their tragic part in the start of the nuclear arms race. Godzilla opened up eyes, and for some it was an powerful awakening.
Star Akira Takarada, who was at the beginning of his long successful career with Godzilla, later recalled: “When Godzilla destroyed the big clock [in the movie], it was a metaphor for an alarm telling us we are running out of time. Forty years have passed, but deep down the message is the same. Mankind woke Godzilla, and today we have similar issues: air pollution, the ozone layer. That is also Godzilla. They’re the same in that they were all brought on by mankind.”
Yet… there was an ineffable compassion for the frightful atomic monster that hinted at what would come. Takarada took notice of this: “When I first saw Godzilla at the studio screening, I couldn’t help crying when I watched Godzilla become a skeleton. I thought, ‘Why did mankind have to punish Godzilla like that?’… Mankind seemed like a bigger villain than Godzilla, and I felt sorry for him. I think sympathy for him still exists today. If Godzilla were truly evil, people wouldn’t have loved him so much.”
Godzilla Raids Again (1955) is one of the more forgotten Godzilla films in the West. Director Ishiro Honda, a key part of the success of the first movie, was already assigned to another project, so a less visionary director, Motoyoshi Oda, handled the film with aggressive blandness.
Godzilla Raids Again pits Godzilla against another monster for the first time, the spiky Ankylosaurus-like beast Anguirus. The film contains a few fine pieces of special effects staging, but significantly less thought, passion, and time went into its production. The human factor Honda brought to Godzilla is absent from the non-effects scenes of Godzilla Raids Again, making it a chore to get through when the focus is away from the often impressive battle sequences between an animalistic Godzilla (who moves with stunning swiftness at times) and feisty Anguirus. Godzilla Raids Again made money, but didn’t impress audiences. That appeared to be the end of Godzilla on movie screens.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and the Japanese Science-Fiction Boom (1956–1961)
Indeed, Godzilla would not return in a new film for six years. But those middle years were busy for Godzilla in other parts of the world, and busy for the Japanese film industry setting up a new universe of magnificent monsters and strange aliens as the tokusatsu (special effects) genre exploded.
In the United States, a burgeoning interest in importing Japanese films because of the success of the movies of Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki brought Godzilla (yes, the monster’s English name comes from Toho Studios, not the U.S. distributors) to the attention of Hollywood. A group of investors purchased the U.S. rights to Godzilla for a modest $25,000. Giant radioactive monster films were making cash for B-movie studio units and small production companies, and the investors recognized in Godzilla something they could re-craft to appeal to American teenagers who enjoyed movies like Them! and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Although Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is a lesser version of the Japanese Godzilla, the power of the original shows through, and the new scenes were written, directed, and acted with a sobriety and honesty that befits the tale. Although the U.S. scenes were shot on a tight schedule of only three days (Burr liked to claim he shot all his scenes in a straight twenty-four hours), they feel as if everybody involved cared about what they were doing.
More important than the quality of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is how it played internationally. This was the version of the film that traveled the globe and made Godzilla a success outside its home country. By Americanizing the film, the U.S. producers created a more easily palatable product for foreign markets of the 1950s. Even Japan released Godzilla, King of the Monsters! to theaters, rather clumsily cropping it to make it seem like a CinemaScope film.
While the U.S. version raked in revenue across the world, Toho Studios turned not toward more Godzilla, but more monsters in general, igniting the kaiju (“monster”) genre. They also turned to color, which was beginning to grow as the new spectacle for tokusatsu cinema. Director Ishiro Honda returned to giant monsters with Rodan in 1956, an excellent film about two Pteranadon-like flying creatures emerging from a volcano. Toho then leaped into pure science-fiction spectacles from the Honda-Tsubaraya-Tanaka-Ifukube team (hereafter HTTI) with The Mysterians (1957) and Battle in Outer Space (1959), both massive alien invasion/space opera epics with copious special effects that still dazzle. Although influenced by the U.S. model of alien invasion movies, the Japanese versions were more colorful, expensive, and strange. The HTTI team stumbled a bit with the Varan (1958), the last of their films in black and white. But when they reached Mothra (1960), a crazy movie with a giant moth and miniature fairies and musical numbers and famous comedians, it was clear that Japan had developed their own peculiar, fantasy-slanted take on what started with as an imitation of the U.S. documentary-style of science-fiction.
Worst of all—both for the movie and its box-office prospects—Paul Schreibman decided to take the name of its star off the film! The movie was released in 1958 as Gigantis, The Fire Monster, with all mentions of “Godzilla” excised from the dubbing, as well as any reference to the earlier film. Schreibman apparently believed he could pass this off as “new” monster, instead of capitalizing on the name value of the previous movie. Guess what happened? That’s right, nobody bothered to show up to see Gigantis, The Fire Monster. After a few showings on TV in the ‘60s, the movie vanished from the U.S. for decades, becoming a semi-lost Godzilla movie for Western audiences. It’s now on DVD in North America, both in its Godzilla Raids Again version and the gut-bustingly bad U.S. hack job.
Godzilla Becomes a Celebrity: King Kong vs. Godzilla
By 1962, Toho Studios was ready to bring Godzilla back to screens. The Toho Special Effects department had now mastered their distinct style, and with a string of SF and monster-related hits from the HTTI team and the popularity of Godzilla growing worldwide, the Toho front office was eager for a splashy color and widescreen return of the Big-G. They delivered a monster smack-down with a title never rivaled in crossover history: King Kong vs. Godzilla.
King Kong vs. Godzilla was an enormous hit in its home country in 1962, and remains one of the highest grossing Japanese films of all time. The movie does no favors for King Kong, who looks rather shabby and goofy, but does amazing things for Godzilla. Visual effect supervisor Eiji Tsubaraya wanted to shift Godzilla from a bleak interpretation and make the monster more light and fun. Although not the direction that director Honda wanted to go—he preferred serious drama about humanity uniting to face a common threat—it was a way to transform Godzilla into a franchise figure. Godzilla in King Kong vs. Godzilla is still a nasty bit of business when facing down the military, but the monster now sported “attitude,” striking poses and genuinely seeming to enjoy wreaking havoc. In the confrontations with Kong, Godzilla pulls out Sumo wrestler moves and does taunting and teasing gestures. The personification of Godzilla had begun.
King Kong vs. Godzilla is a deliberate comedy—at least in the Japanese version that has never seen an official release in the U.S. It’s the only Godzilla film made intentionally for laughs. Instead of a grim tale of atomic power, King Kong vs. Godzilla plays as light satire about Japanese media culture in the early ‘60s, particularly television. North American viewers only familiar with the U.S. re-cut have no idea how hilarious the film is, or that the monster fights are intentionally meant for laughter and rah-rah cheering. There’s no way that King Kong swinging Godzilla around by the tail or trying to stuff a tree down his enemy’s mouth was meant as anything other than appealing silliness.
Although King Kong vs. Godzilla in its U.S. incarnation did excellent business when released to theaters in the summer of 1963 and on its subsequent TV broadcasts, it has turned into too much of a punch line in North America and is often used to dismiss the whole Godzilla series as camp junk. (Apparently, these people have never seen Godzilla vs. Megalon. Now that is how you do camp.) The Japanese original needs to receive a stateside release one day.
For both Japan and the rest of the world, Godzilla had entered a new era: a 1950s atomic bringer of doom from a serious black and white movie was now a colorful and red-hot property ready for superstardom.
NEXT: The Golden Age (1963–1968)