With Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot roaring its way to cinema screens, ORWAV takes you on a rampage through 60 years of history and 29 films featuring the King of the Monsters.
Godzilla. He may be known as the King of the Monsters but his name conjures up images of the divine. It’s a fitting name, as few creations have wreaked more vengeance, despoiled more cities and brought down as many foes as this towering, unstoppable force. But travel back sixty years, through remakes, reboots and sequels, the camp, the cool and the downright crazy, and you arrive at the film that started it all; 1954’s Gojira.
Directed by Ishirō Honda for the legendary Toho Studios, Gojira was a political statement masquerading as a monster movie. The black and white photography shrouded the creature is darkness, evoking horror movies with its bleak tone and haunting imagery of ruined cities. At the time, less than ten years had passed since the end of WWII, when many of Japans cities less in ashen ruins after American fire-bombing and, later, the nuclear bomb. In Honda’s film, Godzilla is created by the nuclear fallout from these weapons and carries the ability to breathe atomic fire, reducing tanks, trucks and artillery to fire and liquid metal. Despite the best efforts of the Japanese military, it is ultimately a scientist who defeats Godzilla by using a prototype weapon that removes oxygen from water. Unlike many of its sequels, Godzilla/Gojira was a downbeat, dark and evocative statement on the horrors of nuclear war and its propagation of ever-more destructive weapons.
Honda’s direction and the sombre tone belied the reality that the towering monster was in fact a man in a rubber suit. As with most superheroes, Godzilla’s appearance has been reimagined over time, and despite Hollywood’s reliance on CGI effects the Japanese films have retained their tradition of monster suits well into the 21st century, with brief CGI shots sometimes sitting uncomfortably alongside the practical effects. The unsung heroes of the franchise are the men inside the suits, especially those who have played Godzilla. The heavy rubber suit makes modern prosthetics look like a child’s dress up kit, severely restricting movement and cramping the performer but also giving Godzilla his trademark slow, lumbering, unstoppable walk. As well as limited vision, the heat inside the suit could become unbearable: as it filled-up with sweat and the nauseating smell of rubber, under the studio lights and pyrotechnics (the suit sometimes caught on fire) it was not uncommon for the actor to pass out.
Perhaps these truths add to appreciating the etymology of Godzilla’s name. The name was reportedly chosen by the producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who knew a particularly large, tough employee at the studio who bore the nickname ‘gojira’; an amalgamation of the Japanese words for ‘whale’ and ‘gorilla’. These associations encapsulated Godzilla’s amphibian qualities as well as his strength. The name stuck, and a legend was born.
That legend then grew over time. Like the James Bond franchise, the tone and style of the Godzilla franchise is ever-changing. The original was an immense success in both Japan and America (where it was recut to feature an American star to avoid excessive dubbing/subtitling), but the first sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (1955) lost much of the portentousness of its predecessor. After a seven-year hiatus in which the kaiju (large monster) genre came into vogue, Godzilla returned in the ultimate East vs. West showdown: King Kong versus Godzilla (1962). From here, the franchise grew in popularity but also moved towards an increasingly young, child-orientated audience, and in so doing Godzilla became the hero; the protector of Japan, rather than its destroyer.
Among films such as Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), Son of Godzilla (1967) and Destroy All Monsters (1968), Godzilla built up a vast array of allies and adversaries through various Godzilla versus… instalments, including; Megalon, King Ghidorah, Mothra, Gigan and more. While many are enjoyable, the franchise became increasingly absurd, laughable and even lazy as stock footage of the monsters would be reused.
In 1975 the franchise entered a hiatus, ending what became known as the Shōwa series (1954–1975). However, to mark the 30th anniversary of the franchise, Toho wiped the slate clean with The Return of Godzilla (1984), a direct sequel to the 1954 original. This began the Heisei series (1984–1995), which for many fans is the high-point of Godzilla’s history. Remaking previous films with a maturer tone and higher-quality aesthetic, the series included arguably the greatest of the Godzilla sequels, Godzilla versus King Ghidorah (1991). In keeping with the tone, the series built to Godzilla’s dramatic death in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995). The character was soon resurrected, though, in the Millennium series (1999–2004); Toho’s answer to the much maligned American Godzilla (1998).
Why do people hate Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla – what for some is a guilty pleasure – so much? Regardless of the films various flaws, it inspired rage among many hard-core fans for its lack of reverence for the original franchise. Despite his various redesigns, Godzilla has retained an identifiable appearance throughout, which the US version drastically altered. Although he has also died in previous films, Godzilla is also conventionally depicted as indestructible, but in Emmerich’s film he is killed by guns and rockets. Similarly, he never breathes his trademark atomic fire. Toho later reference the events of Godzilla in the Millennium series, renaming the CGI monster ‘Zilla’. Zilla makes a brief cameo in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), where he is quickly dispatched by the real Godzilla.
Unlike Emmerich, Edwards returns us to the portentous sincerity of the 1954 original, while acknowledging the Godzilla versus… kaiju battles of the sequels and reboots. His Godzilla resembles the Japanese design, breathes atomic fire, and infuses scenes with horror and spectacle in equal measure: in short, it has been made with love and reverence for the franchise. In his 60th year, Godzilla still reigns supreme.
Top 5 Godzilla Films:
Godzilla / Gojira (1954): The original stands the test of time, just as dark and haunting today as it was in the 1950s. And sadly, its message is just as relevant.
Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975): Godzilla’s second encounter with his cyborg reflection also sees him outnumbered when Mechagodzilla teams up with Titanosaurus.
Godzilla versus King Ghidorah (1991): Arguably the best in the franchise after the original, Toho returns to Godzilla’s origins during WWII, reinvents the monster as a terrifying villain, and pits him against his deadliest adversary: King Ghidorah. Complete with time travel and cyborgs, this throws everything at the screen and a surprising amount sticks. Brilliant (and a great starting point for newcomers)!
Godzilla versus Destoroyah (1995): Godzilla’s indestructible nature sometimes gets repetitive, so seeing the Heisei series bow out with Big G’s death is a fitting end and a nice addition to the franchise.
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004): It may not be the greatest Godzilla film, but the sheer insanity of the plot, human action and immense number of kaiju fights is undeniably enjoyable.
Is Godzilla deserving of being ‘King of the Monsters’? Who is your favourite kaiju and which Godzilla film is your favourite? Let us know below…