The following is a “for dummies” primer to the Godzilla films, written in DECEMBER OF 2014 as a sidebar to my Halloween-For-Christmas movie marathon blogs. It is designed to “educate” the unfamiliar with the intent and timeline of these remarkable, seminal genre films. For more specific review and retrospect information on each movie in the series, which I partially screened in October of this year, please refer to those blogs.
The GODZILLA or GOJIRA series is a long running series of Japanese “giant monster” (or Kaiju) films, initiated by Toho Studios in the 1950s as an answer to King Kong, and designed to introduce an entire slate of iconic monster characters into an ongoing motion picture mythos. In addition to Godzilla, these films also featured monsters such as Rodan and Mothra, most of whom had their own solo pictures, as well as appearing as allies or foils to Godzilla in his films. The Toho Studios Kaiju films are somewhat similar to the James Bond cycle, in that they are separated into distinct, individual “eras,” determined by the creative personnel in charge and the sign of the times. There is the SHOWA SERIES, THE HEISEI SERIES and THE MILLENNIUM SERIES. (The first two eras take their names from the Japanese emperors during the years they were made.) Including the two American films, there are a total of 3o Godzilla entries, making it the longest running series in motion picture history, beating Bond (currently) by a margin of seven films. (Five, if you don’t count the non-Eon Bonds.)
The first 20-year era of Godzilla pictures, known as the SHOWA SERIES, began in 1955 with Toho Studios’ release of the serious-as-hell original, in which Godzilla is created from a nuclear explosion and stands 40-stories high as marauding destroyer of civilization and a (none-too-subtle) metaphor for the dangers of nukes. This was also an answer to the huge popularity of “atom age” monster movies being made in America in the 1950s. A lot of casual fans don’t realize that GODZILLA 1955 is actually a stand alone movie because the tone is radically different from later films and they kill the monster, really and definitively, at the end of it. Many casual fans are also unaware that this is not a particularly good movie, either. It is glum, dark and clumsy in tone and execution, often capsized by its own dead-serious intent. When the film was Americanized and released in U.S. theaters as GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS, the serious tone was preserved, though the main characters were not so much. What stands out in both versions is the monster itself and the startling, apocalyptic scenes depicting it, which were shocking by the standards of the day. Many key images of Godzilla remain iconic and effective even today. Also, the ultimate climax of the storyline about a haunted mad scientist and his “oxygen destroyer” device, which is used to burn Godzilla to his bones, is haunting. The scientist kills himself along with Godzilla to bury the earth-shattering discovery forever, passing on a grim message to the audience about the evils of tampering with nature and the universe. It is these heady themes that elevate the film somewhat from its later Showa Series brethren, which are far more family-franchise oriented in concept, character and execution.
ON GODZILLA’S BREATH: In the original film, and in the first sequel, Godzilla breathes a sort of radioactive smoke, which is toxic and causes buildings, tanks, planes and people to burst into flames. This smoke effect was achieved in-camera, without the use of opticals. Beginning with the third film, which was KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, the monster breathes a laser-like glowing “fire,” which was achieved with animation effects, added in post production. When breathing his signature fire, Godzilla’s back fins and tail glow with the same light. It was this standard that was kept in all the remaining Godzilla films, with the exception of only one—the first American remake of 1998, in which the creature does not breathe anything but toxic air, which happens to ignite in one scene when set off by an exploding car.
With a new Godzilla showing up in 1956 for GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, the Showa series then continued on through 1975, ending with the release of TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA. This was the longest single cycle of Godzilla entries, all of which are basically sequels to one another, if a bit loose in continuity between films now and then. From the third film on (KING KONG VS. GODZILLA) they are also, hands down, the most juvenile of the entire 30-film series, most of them made apparently for pre-teenagers, and sometimes even starring children. Godzilla did a victory dance after beating up Monster Zero. He even shook hands with his robot sidekick Jet Jaguar after double-teaming Megalon. It should be noted that after GODZILLA VS. MEGALON in 1973, the juvenile antics were mostly dropped for the final two films, allowing that era to expire with at least a fair share of dignity. (Though I still love the victory dance!) In the ongoing Showa series, Godzilla is cast mostly as a heroic defender of mankind. When done with battling monsters, he always returns to the sea, leaving our cities in peace. (A wild irony, considering the pitch black tone of the original film.) In many of these sequels he is actually summoned by the humans, as a last-ditch defense against aliens or whatever, and is sometimes even under definitive control of human defense forces, by way of advanced technology, as in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. There are no ongoing serialized characters in these films besides the monsters. Each new movie features a completely different human cast, though TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA is a direct sequel to GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA, featuring a continuation of that film’s basic plot.
Nine years after the final Showa film, the series re-booted in 1984 with THE RETURN OF GODZILLA. (Ten years later if you count the film’s American release as gospel, where it is known as GODZILLA 1985.) It was a direct sequel to the original 1955 film, and was far more serious in tone than most of the original Showa sequels had been. This kicked off an all-new continuity that re-imagined everything in the Toho Studios monster canon, including all the other heroes and villains from the Showa series, such as King Ghidora and Mothra. This cycle of films continued through 1997, and was known as the HEISEI SERIES. While not exactly aimed at pre-teenagers, these films were every bit as crazy as the Showa series in their own gloriously over-the-top way, inspired by pop culture trends at the time, from John Woo action to James Cameron sci-fi, to anime mecha-madness and even Indiana Jones! In the Heisei era, Godzilla is re-conceptualized as a villainous “anti-hero,” with each film’s key battle organized around the imminent threat of the monster, whereas in the Showa series, he was usually cast as a clear ally to mankind. At the end of each film, Godzilla is barely defeated and/or driven away, and eventually a “G-Force” is established in Japan, as a constant militarized deterrent against the monster. As with the Showa series, there are no ongoing human characters, with a fresh cast of actors appearing in each new film. While rich in striking visuals and much more inventive and creative than any previous Godzilla offerings, the plotlines of the Heisei series were sometimes wildly contradictory and convoluted. For example, in GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORA, a creative but illogical time travel plot re-invented Godzilla in the present day, giving him an essentially all-new origin that technically bypassed the entire 1955 film altogether, invalidating it’s storyline. Other drawbacks of the Heisei series were the soundtracks. Of all seven films made in this era, only three had original scores, which were each superb additions to the canon. The other films were filled with recycled “needle-drop” cues culled from previous Showa Series films, all composed by legendary Godzilla maestro Akira Ifukube. In the final film of the Heisei era, GODZILLA VS. DESTROYAH, the monster is killed off for good, ending the series definitively.
An attempt was then made by Americans in 1998 to completely re-invent Godzilla, in both look and concept. This became a much-hyped Hollywood “event film,” called simply GODZILLA, starring Mathew Brodrick and directed by Roland Emmerich. The film proved a disaster with fans and critics, though the film did well in release. Plans for two sequels were scrapped and, instead, an animated TV series was produced. This may be one of the only instances in film history where a financially successful re-launch of a popular series was abandoned, simply because of negative fan reaction. In the film, Godzilla is a large creature who wrecks New York City, but is shorn of his many trademarks, including the signature radioactive death breath. The design was also radically different than in previous films and computer graphics were used to depict him almost exclusively. While there are some impressive action sequences, as in a helicopter attack/chase through the canyons of downtown NYC, the film falls short short of it’s higher ideals, due to a weak script and thin characters.
The screen rights reverted to Toho and they began the MILLENNIUM SERIES in 2000, which ran for only 5 years, and consisted of “stand alone” Godzilla adventures, all of them unrelated as sequels, with the exception of two. This allowed the creators to run wild with new ideas, and re-design the look of Godzilla from film to film. In the last entry, GODZILLA FINAL WARS, the 1998 Americanized re-design of Godzilla was re-trademarked as a new character called simply Zilla (“They took the GOD out of GODZILLA,” said the director) and adopted by Toho as an official member of the canon monster family. These films were wildly varied in tone and intent, some more traditional Godzilla Vs. Whatever stories, others (such as FINAL WARS) brazenly eccentric in ideal and execution. The director of WARS was Ruyhei Kitumura, a new wave auteur of kung-fu/horror/action cinema, and his obsessions show through in stark relief. After that one in 2004, Toho announced they would pay tribute to the Showa era by not making another Godzilla film for 10 years—and they even proved themselves by destroying the water stage on their studio backlot that was used to film all of Godzilla’s most memorable battle scenes.
Keeping their promise, there was no Godzilla for 10 years. Until this year. Which marked the arrival of the most lavish and expensive film production yet created in any of the eras, made and marketed with a budget well north of 250 million. This was the newest American attempt at the character, now known among fans as GODZILLA 2014, produced by Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers. This time, a director and writers were employed who knew better than to re-invent the wheel. While it has its own share of problems (thin characters, too much talking, not enough Godzilla in his own film), it was generally well-received as a faithful and reverent update of a classic character. In the film, Godzilla resumes his role as a heroic defender of mankind, no longer the marauding city-masher of the original 1955 movie or the anti-hero of the Heisei and Millennium eras. It is, to date, the most successful film in the entire history of the character. This ensures many more entries in the American series offshoot. Whether Toho adopts this cycle of films as an official “era” in the Godzilla canon remains to be seen, but the film was a smash-hit in Japan.
One of the most endearing aspects of this series is that not one film produced in any of the three Japanese eras relied on computer generated images or any other “state-of-the-art” optical effects technique to depict the key monster, relying exclusively on in-camera models and costume performers. Even when other visual effects in the Millennium era were updated for greater realism, Godzilla was always played in the wide shots by a guy wearing a big lizard suit. For close-ups, animatronic puppets were used. This technique was deployed right up until the very last film in the Millennium era.
From a hard critical perspective, the GODZILLA films are hit-and-miss, with some being marginally watchable, others being quite good. It is generally understood by fans that even the most effective films in this series are “best in class” and are not to be compared with other, more “serious” work in the horror and science fiction genres. Many of these movies are fun and nostalgic for a certain set, and can be appraised for their relative artistic and technical merits, alongside a true sense of excitement for being “in the know.” Millions of devoted fans follow these films. Articles, blogs, books and film commentaries by serious Toho historians provide keen critical and historical insight. Taken as a whole, the series is undeniably a staggering, ongoing cross-generational achievement in film and multi-media. The character of Godzilla has been immortalized in literally millions of licensed (and unlicensed) products over the past 60 years, from toys to T-shirts to breakfast cereals, and has made appearances in TV commercials, cartoon shows, books, novels, magazines, posters, fine art, and comics, making him a full blown cultural phenomenon, unlike any other single character in the history of film. While heroes such as Superman and even James Bond were created in other media and adapted later to film and TV, Godzilla is a purely cinematic achievement, started in motion pictures and continuing through virtually every other form of media and entertainment that ever existed. The sheer volume of merchandise available in connection with the Toho Studios Kaiju films is almost beyond comprehension, contributing greatly to the mythos. Even if you’ve never seen a single Godzilla film, the iconic image of the 40-story, city-crushing monster is instantly recognizable as a branded trademark by virtually anyone, anywhere in the world. Pre-dating the Star Wars and Star Trek empires by many years, there is no other ongoing film series that has been as intimately loved and intrinsically marketed as GODZILLA for such a long period of time.