A crash course in Godzilla’s 55-year filmography

Shimane-ken JET Jonathan Edwards tells us everything a self-respecting ALT should know about the Japanese monster Godzilla, who could be returning to the silver screen in 2012. This story is an updated version of the story that appeared in the November 2009 issue of Shimane-ken’s Black Taxi.

By Jonathan Edwards

Every country has their pop culture icons. While most fade into obscurity outside their homeland, there are those hailing from media strongholds that represent their nation to the rest of the world, for better or worse. Australia had Crocodile Dundee and the late Steve Irwin, Britain has Dr. Who and James Bond, and the United States has a massive legion of comic book super heroes. Japan is no stranger to this either, as in the past 25 years the world has seen a flood of animated and video game characters saturating the pop culture of our own respective countries. Yet before the coming of Pikachu and Sailor Moon, Japan had one star already well established. Shoving aside talented actors like Toshiro Mifune, and directors like Akira Kurosawa, this one character came to represent Japan’s film industry as the masters of budget effects and campy glory. The mighty Godzilla.

Fifty-five years ago, Godzilla first graced theaters in a Toho Co. Ltd. picture known as Gojira (the name your students will recognize), an atomic harbinger of doom far removed from the beloved anti-hero status he currently holds. Notable director Ishiro Honda used his experiences from World War II to present a city reduced to flaming rubble, and the resulting death toll with a reverence absent from science fiction pieces of the time. For those that have not seen the film, I suggest you do regardless of feelings for the rest of the genre. The movie ends with a line roughly translated to “I cannot believe this Godzilla to be the last,” which at the time was supposed to reflect upon the current threat of the atomic age.

Instead, the closing line became the loophole through which 27 other films have been made, the first of which was released less than a year later. Thanks to a slew of other giant monster films the United States soon developed an interest, leading to the first great crossover since Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman as King Kong “guest starred” in Godzilla’s third film. With Godzilla suddenly representing Japanese pride against the grand daddy of American special effects, the villain began a slow but steady transformation over the next few films into a hero. The threat he represented was downplayed, he befriended Toho’s roster of original monsters, earned a son (he’s a mutant, don’t ask), and even a recurring three-headed arch-nemesis from space. By the mid-1970s Godzilla looked like a lovable Muppet and behaved more like Ultraman than Cthulu. He appeared without cause and little to no explanation just to beat the snot out of whatever space alien robot slimeball thing was terrorizing Japan that year and left promptly afterwards.

This changed in 1984 with a reboot erasing all the ridiculous jumbled continuity of the previous 29 years. Fulfilling the final prophecy at the end of Gojira, a second Godzilla emerges from a volcano and goes on a rampage that brings Cold War tensions to Japan’s front door step. It’s interesting to note that in this film, the Japanese Self Defense Force actually kills Godzilla, an epic first. That is, until the USA and USSR launch nukes at Japan in fear of the monster and accidentally revive him. Again a villain, Godzilla faced off against opponents in six more films, most of them reimagined from the previous series. Surprisingly, Godzilla’s status during this time never reverted back to all out hero, as Japan seemed to deem him the lesser of two evils (the other being the monster with second billing) at best by the final films. Before he could regress any further, Toho made the stunning decision to kill off Godzilla “permanently” in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destroyah via a convenient case of nuclear heartburn. In truth, this was to pave way for the new American series, and we all remember how well that went.

Fans refuse to speak of it to this day.

Embarrassed after the 1998 American travesty, Toho immediately revived Japan’s beloved icon in the third, and so far final, series of films a year later. With so much history behind the monster at this point, each film picked which previous movies were canon to best shape Godzilla and his opponent of the day. With continuity thrown blatantly out the window, the series became an excuse to reuse old popular opponents with overly showy Hollywood-esque special effects, which staled very quickly, save for one film. 2001’s Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah: All Monsters Attack gave Godzilla one of his most bizarre interpretations ever as the collective hatred of the World War II dead. This subtle commentary on Japan’s policy of revisionist history, while successful, was quickly paved over for more poor over-the-top films until Godzilla’s 50th birthday. Toho tried to revitalize the series before retiring the monster for the third time, an effort that sounded promising in concept.

For his 50th birthday, Godzilla would travel the world in this final film in an attempt to return to Japan, while evil aliens throw an army of monsters (over half of Toho’s roster) against him. Toho even acknowledged the American film version as Zilla and gave him a spot in the movie just so Godzilla could take revenge personally. The effort fell flat when they hired popular action director Ryuhei Kitamura to helm the project. People may recognize the name Kitamura from films like Versus (Japan’s amazing and hilarious answer to Evil Dead) and Azumi, where he showcases a brilliant talent for fight choreography… between human beings. Thus Godzilla’s epic semi-centennial bash between him and a legion of Toho’s monster lineup was marred by a film that focused more on mutant humans fighting each other than the creatures with top billing. The film flopped, and Toho announced Godzilla’s retirement would be longer than the three to four years originally speculated.

That was 2004. In the following five years, little was heard from the franchise save for rumors here and there. Supposedly, a Japanese director from the first series of films was trying to put together an IMAX film independently, an ordeal that was lost in Development Hell. Fanbase excitement built when Toho has gave fans a brief glimpse of Godzilla’s possible future. While making a sequel to the successful film Always: Sunset on Third Street in 2007, Toho secretly created a completely CGI Godzilla rampage for a character’s brief daydream sequence. The short but surprisingly well done scene caused speculation to explode, especially considering Godzilla’s 55th birthday was approaching. However, November 3, 2009, came and went with no word from Toho, and the rumor mill slowed, disappointed.

Yet this past March an announcement finally came, culminating the rumors that had only just been dashed. Toho had been in talks with Legendary Pictures, the group behind the new Batman films, 300, Watchmen and other popular geek titles, in doing an American reboot to the American remake for 2012. While seeing Toho again relinquish control is unfortunate, Legendary Pictures has a good track record in staying faithful to source material. Fans are hopeful the carelessness that plagued Roland Emmerich’s film in 1998 will not be repeated. Japan has given Hollywood a second chance to create the big budget film fans want to see; they would be wise not to take the opportunity for granted.

In the meantime, with a film lineup larger than James Bond’s (officially 28 to Bond’s 22), there is plenty to look back on. And being in Japan, finding Godzilla films in a rental store is far easier than the ordeals I and other fans had to go through growing up in the rest of the world. If you ever need something to do, I again highly suggest picking up at very least the first film.

A Guide to Godzilla Movies

1954 — Godzilla (Japan) / Godzilla, King of the Monsters (U.S.A., 1956)
1955 — Godzilla Raids Again
1962 — King Kong vs. Godzilla
1964 — Mothra vs. Godzilla
1964 — Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
1965 — Invasion of Astro-Monster
1966 — Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster
1967 — Son of Godzilla
1968 — Destroy All Monsters
1969 — All Monsters Attack
1971 — Godzilla vs. Hedorah
1972 — Godzilla vs. Gigan
1973 — Godzilla vs. Megalon
1974 — Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla
1975 — Terror of Mechagodzilla
1984 — The Return of Godzilla
1989 — Godzilla vs. Biollante
1991 — Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah
1992 — Godzilla vs. Mothra
1993 — Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II
1994 — Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla
1995 — Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
1999 — Godzilla 2000
2000 — Godzilla vs. Megaguirus
2001 — Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
2002 — Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla
2003 — Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.
2004 — Godzilla: Final Wars

5 comments

  • Pingback: JapanSoc

  • Pingback: Japundit

  • I can still here the theme music from Godzilla vs the smog monster (hedorah) in my head “Save the earth, save the earth” LOL Nice post, from an avid Godzilla fan.
    PS: do you know about the two endings of King Kong vs Godzilla? tTe US and the Japan version are different. same visual different audio. The US version suggested King Kong won, the Japanese hinted more at a draw.
    Loco

  • Greg

    Great article, but you forgot the best thing about Godzilla: Final Wars…DON muthafuckin FRYE! He was tragically awesome.

  • I had no idea that the origins of “the strongest of all the monsters” were so philosophical. Thanks for the post!