A Complete Film History of Godzilla
There are a few media franchises that have stood the test of time, outlasting numerous other movies and TV shows that fizzle out after a few installments. There’s James Bond, Star Wars, Star Trek, and a couple more that seem as though they will last forever.
However, none of them really exhibit the downright power generated by one name alone – a towering behemoth who began as a horror movie icon, transitioned to a colossal wrestler, spent some time as a sort of superhero, and then went back to his dark roots as a metaphor for destruction.
For Godzilla, that cycle has managed to repeat itself, evolving over decades of lore.
The Origin of Godzilla
Meaning “Gorilla Whale” in Japanese, Gojira began life as an idea within the mind of Tomoyuki Tanaka, a film producer for Toho Company Ltd. Tanaka was flying over the ocean one day in 1954, and he wondered what would happen if a giant beast rose from the depths ala Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.
The studio accepted the proposal, and the work began. However, this monster movie would end up being more serious than the B-movies that preceded it.
The filmmakers considered the horrors that had recently befallen their nation. In Nagasaki and Hiroshima, buildings and bodies alike had been vaporized by atomic bombs that essentially ended WWII in 1945. The power of these bombs filled every country in the world with fear, but none more so than Japan, who felt incredible pain at the scale of lives lost.
Adding to that fear, a Japanese fishing trawler known as the Lucky Dragon Number 5 had been exposed to a nuclear test in 1954 that sickened the crew, with one person eventually dying. The nation of Japan was worried that their food supply, namely the tuna from Lucky Dragon and other ships like it, was contaminated by the radioactive fallout.
Nuclear weapons were seen as the ultimate expression of power and devastation, and the weight of their influence brought Japan to a state of great mourning and unrest. The country knew that if these weapons were used again, it could spark the end of the world. For Tanaka’s giant monster film, the movie makers decided to make the creature a metaphor for death, destruction, war, and nuclear energy.
Though other films had featured similar themes of ancient beings brought back to life by nuclear energy, this new film would actually make the monster a stand-in for the bomb. “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb,” said Tanaka. “Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”
Over a grueling period of months, the writers and producers went into overdrive fleshing out their nuclear metaphor. First, it was going to be a giant octopus. Then, the idea came for a strange creature with a head shaped like a mushroom cloud. Finally, after a host of different designs, the creators settled on the dinosaur-dragon look.
The beast itself was a mash-up of real life dinosaurs: Iguanodon (thumbs, hands), T. Rex (mouth), and Stegosaurus (back plates). Added details included small ears, bumpy skin, beefy legs, and the power to breathe out nuclear energy. Mixed together, these details made a monster that was nothing less than iconic.
Godzilla was a walking atomic bomb with a design so impressive that the franchise is still going strong 65 years and 35 movies later. Though these films would vary in tone and quality, the original Gojira of 1954 was a straight up horror film. It depicted realistic rubble and devastation, humans suffering from radiation poisoning, and the raw emotion of families losing loved ones.
The film was directed by Ishiro Honda, a filmmaker with a repertoire of dramas and reels of war footage. He set the tone for Gojira, but there were two other people equally responsible for the movie’s effectiveness – Eiji Tsuburaya and Akira Ifukube.
Tsuburaya designed the special effects, pioneering a technique called suitmation in which an actor in a bulky costume walked among carefully crafted miniatures. Though special effects have come a long way since then, film buffs are still impressed with Tsuburaya’s innovations, especially his ability to make a 7 foot suit appear 150 feet tall.
Akira Ifukube composed the music, a haunting collection of low piano notes and somber orchestral pieces. Much of the music was rightly disturbing considering the content it accompanied, but there were other pieces that sealed their places in history thanks to their energy and sonic triumph. Even casual fans can hear these notes and remember where they were when they first saw a rubber dinosaur cause mayhem on a massive scale.
Gojira essentially serves as a warning of what can happen if nuclear weapons are used on a population. A dinosaur may not wake up from hibernation, but death and destruction would indeed run rampant as innocent people scrambled away from a power greater than themselves.
The Rise of a Franchise
After Gojira, a franchise was created. The first sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, set the stage for future installments by pitting Godzilla against another monster, Anguirus. Since then, the movies have more often than not featured huge creature brawls. Though the films began veering more towards lively entertainment for society’s youth, the latent metaphor was still there, buried deeply under all the latex and manifesting itself through toppled buildings.
The first series of films, the Showa series, lasted until 1975 with Terror of Mechagodzilla as the final picture. These films introduced Godzilla’s iconic friends and enemies – Kumonga, Ebirah, Gigan, Megalon, and many others. Some others, such as Mothra and Rodan, had their own films before moving to the Godzilla series. Others, like Ghidorah and Mechagodzilla, were formidable enemies created specifically to fight the Big G on screen.
The films started to get campy with the introduction of talking monsters in Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster. Mothra actually had a conversation with Godzilla and Rodan, translated for the audience by the Shobijin Twin Fairies. The monsters argued for a while before deciding to team up and drive Ghidorah back into space.
After this delightful bit of storytelling, the movies grew more lighthearted with every installment. Godzilla was now the protector of mankind, not its executioner. He even did silly things on occasion, such as slow drop kicking his enemies or flying like a rocket powered by his atomic breath. The films were cheesy, funny, and sometimes psychotic (or psychedelic, in the case of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, which had a monster representing pollution against a backdrop of loud music and party goers wearing hippy clothes).
But the beast went back to his roots in the Heisei series of films from 1984 to 1995. Godzilla and his foes (aside from Mothra, Biollante, and Mechagodzilla) were once again enemies of the human race, and their designs were more robust than they had been in the past.
Most of these movies followed the same pattern, but there were a few that stood out as risky and unique. Godzilla vs. Biollante focused on spy thriller action, modernized music, and particularly top notch special effects. If watched today, the puppetry and animatronics involved with Godzilla’s face and Biollante’s tendrils holds up nicely against the likes of Alien and Jurassic Park.
Another unique installment was Godzilla vs Destoroyah, which saw Godzilla fighting against an unstoppable foe before melting under his own nuclear power. Other than the first movie, this was the first time the monster actually died on screen, and it was an event that garnered worldwide media attention.
After Toho retired from Godzilla films, America tried its hand at them. The words “epic fail” come to mind, though there are many people who don’t even give it that much credit. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla of 1998 featured a slimmed down creature with scaled down powers. He was more like a T. Rex, and he couldn’t even breathe an atomic ray.
Other story points were infamously noted for their lack of originality, such as hundreds of Godzilla eggs that looked like they came from a giant xenomorph, and babies that looked and behaved like Jurassic Park‘s velociraptors. To top it all off, Godzilla was killed by the military – easily. As Toho producer Shogo Tomiyama said, “They took the God out of Godzilla.”
Of course, Japan’s filmmakers retaliated as the franchise’s rightful owners by reviving the beast. The Shinsei or “Millennium” Era was born, still featuring classic suitmation and miniatures with an added twist of CGI and other effects.
In one of the films, GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, Godzilla’s character was darker than ever before – an irradiated dinosaur possessed by the spirits of war victims.
The last film of this era was 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, a kung-fu/Matrix inspired romp playing out like every Godzilla movie ever made condensed into one.
Godzilla gets a Legendary Update
After that, the G movies took a break – until Legendary Pictures acquired the rights from Toho. Thus was born Gareth Edward’s Godzilla of 2014, an American made kaiju film that soared past the 1998 American title in the eyes of fans and critics. High tech special effects, including motion-capture, brought the beast to life with a decidedly darker tone much more in line with how Godzilla was first envisioned.
This film also set the stage for the MonsterVerse – a new American franchise featuring Godzilla, King Kong, and some of Godzilla’s most classic and nefarious enemies.
Japan saw the success of America’s Godzilla, and they sought to top it with a new series of media. First came Shin-Godzilla in 2016, which portrayed Godzilla as an ever-evolving life form with more power than ever before. This Goji bled radioactive blood, sported dead-looking fish eyes, and shot radioactive beams from his mouth and his tail/spines.
The special effects in this film actually rivaled those of the recent American remake, and the tone was even darker. Even so, some fans were quick to point out that Legendary’s version was actually closer to the original Godzilla than Shin-Godzilla’s lumbering, zombie-like force of total annihilation.
Toho’s goal now seemed to be to make Godzilla more and more powerful with every subsequent film. However, they did this in an unexpected way.
2017’s Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, presented Godzilla in an anime form. This move could be considered a genius idea, as combining two of Japan’s most beloved genres, Kaiju-eiga and anime, was sure to be very profitable. It wasn’t even that much of a stretch – live action films such as 2002’s Godzilla X Mechagodzilla had already exhibited anime themes (mechas and their relationship with humans) while maintaining the traditional Godzilla format.
The new anime Godzilla consisted of three films, and the monster was taller and more destructive than even Shin-Godzilla.
While Japan is still developing even more Godzilla movies for future release, the U.S. is going strong with their own version. Legendary’s second Godzilla flick, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is set to release on May 31, and it promises quite the spectacle. Godzilla will fight against his three most popular enemies, Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah.
From the multiple trailers released so far, it’s clear that the film will be a gritty reimagining of classic monster fights. The new monster designs honor the old material, and the scale of destruction looks absolutely MASSIVE. Most people are optimistic about the film, but there are a few absolutely ecstatic fans who think it may possibly be one of the greatest movies ever made.
Regardless of how well the movie does, it should be obvious to anyone that, like the character himself, the Godzilla franchise simply cannot be killed – or if it is killed, it will most certainly be resurrected.
The films have huge entertainment value, and the creativity involved makes each installment a work of art. Most importantly, the franchise reminds us of how small we really are – and it also shows us that we hold the keys to our own destruction. What we do with those keys is our choice and our choice alone.
What is your favorite part of Godzilla’s film history? Are you excited for King of the Monsters? Sound off in the comments, and don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!