When two Japanese freighters and a fishing boat are destroyed off the coast of Odo Island — and the fish begin mysteriously disappearing from the waters — Odo’s elders blame it on Gojira, an ancient creature from the sea. To the younger islanders, Gojira is only a legend, but the elders know better.
Then, one stormy night, the earth rumbles. Amid the screams and cries of the villagers, the sound of thunderous stomping reverberates through the island. And a 60-plus-year era of Big Screen rampages by Gojira — better known to American audiences as Godzilla — begins.
A prehistoric, amphibious reptile from the Jurassic period, Godzilla stood 50 meters (about 164 feet) tall on powerful hind legs; his appearance was heralded by a screeching metallic roar, like a derailing freight train. His eyes peer malevolently from a scaly, furrowed brow. In later films, the bony dorsal plates that run along his spine and tail glow ominously as he unleashes a concentrated blast of atomic breath from his jaws, blasting everything it touches.
With a size that is matched only by his appetite for destruction, Godzilla wasn’t always a monster to be feared. At first, he was. But then he wasn’t. Then he was again.
As the Godzilla franchise grew to encompass 32 Japanese films and four U.S. productions, so did his stature in the minds of cinema-goers, and so did his height, reaching well over 100 meters (328 feet). While Kong, the giant ape, may be the king of Skull Island, only one colossal beast is known today as the King of the Monsters.
The original film was released in 1954 by Toho Co. Ltd. and directed by Ishirō Honda. Although inspired, in part, by the success of the 1953 U.S. monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gojira’s origins lie less in science fiction than in fact, particularly in devastating events from Japan’s recent past.
In 1954, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was slated to deliver a big-budget, Japanese-Indonesian co-production called In the Shadow of Glory. When the project was canceled just before shooting was to begin, he still had to make good on a blockbuster project to placate the studio head. “In Tanaka’s oft-repeated anecdote, the producer was flying home from Indonesia ‘sweating’ the situation, when he looked down at the sea below and wondered ... what if a nuclear test in the Pacific awakened a giant monster from the depths?” write Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski in Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa (Wesleyan University Press, 2017).
With a budget three times the size of a typical Japanese feature, Honda, Tanaka, and Toho’s special effects director, Eiji Tsubaraya, took a B-movie premise and turned it into a sobering reflection on the horrors of the Atomic Age. Godzilla embodied the dark side of the nascent era: Gojira was released in Japan almost a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were laid waste by America’s atom bombs, and less than a year after the crew of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, a Japanese fishing boat, was contaminated by fallout from the Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test at Bikini Atoll.
When it opened on Oct. 27, it broke opening day records for a Toho film and sold out at the studio’s Nichigeki Theater. Honda’s son Ryuji, who was 10 at the time, bought a ticket and went inside, Ryfle and Godziszewski write.
“It was standing room only and the boy could barely see over the patrons’ heads. ‘It was like a rush-hour train. ... So quiet, everybody watching,’ Ryuji recalled. ‘Everybody said they were scared, and couldn’t sleep for a couple of days.’ ”
“With the first movie, they were going, ‘Why don’t we try to make it set in the real world and have everyone react how they would react in the real world as opposed to how they would react in a monster movie?’ ” says August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters (Chronicle Books, 2014) and special features producer at Shout! Factory TV. “So the character, Godzilla, had to act like an actual animal. There were no anthropomorphized antics.”
Gojira still has the power to awe. It’s a remarkable feat when you consider that the monster is a guy in a rubber suit (Haruo Nakajima, who played the role in 12 consecutive films) demolishing scale-model cities and towns. The models built by Toho for Gojira and subsequent Godzilla movies were, at their best, technical marvels, highly detailed reproductions of actual districts, replete with billboards, telephone wires running between poles, and replicas of iconic landmarks such as the National Diet Building and Osaka Castle, which was featured in the 1955 production Godzilla Raids Again.
For Godzilla’s first attack on Tokyo, more than 500 scale models were used, which took the production team over a month to build. The set was destroyed in a matter of minutes, with a suited Nakajima stomping and pounding his way through the soundstage. For the actor, moving in a rubber suit that weighed more than 200 pounds was a monumental effort. Add in the pyrotechnics, and the work was not just difficult but dangerous.
Granted, the effects in most Toho Godzilla movies sometimes stretch credulity. “I know it takes a lot of skill to be a digital artist, but I actually give the Japanese people more credit,” says J.D. Lees, founder of G-Fan Magazine and co-author of The Official Godzilla Compendium: A 40 Year Retrospective (Random House Books, 1998). “To do that all with wires and rubber, and everything is really an amazing accomplishment. It was mostly analog effects, which is part of the charm for me and, I think, most of the fans.”
A monster mellows
The consensus among many fans is that Godzilla did an about-face in the fifth film, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), and was now a heroic figure. The truth, however, is a little more complex. The first noticeable change in his character came with King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), the third film of the Shōwa-era Godzilla movies. “The movie was done purposely as a general entertainment picture,” Ragone says. “It was seriocomic and a couple of comic actors were cast as leads. They didn’t want to scare anybody with this movie. Even though Godzilla is played straightforward, you kind of see a foreshadowing of what would come later, especially when they start throwing in some wrestling and judo moves between the monsters.”
In the Ghidorah movie, Godzilla teams up with Mothra, the giant moth-like protectress of Infant Island, and Rodan, a colossal Pteranodon, to fight Ghidorah, the golden dragon from space. But Godzilla is still a menace, capsizing a ship early in the film and, presumably, killing everyone on board.
Ghidorah, hatched from a meteorite, is a planet-destroyer that resembles the many-headed Lernaean Hydra from Greek myth. Each of Ghidorah’s three dragon heads can deliver destructive blasts that, we learn, destroyed a Venusian civilization centuries in the past. Earth will suffer the same fate unless Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla combine their strengths. Meanwhile, Godzilla and Rodan are too busy picking fights with each other to bother with Ghidorah. Mothra tries to convince them to stop squabbling and help her defeat the alien threat.
The monsters don’t actually communicate in a spoken language but rather with telepathy. Mothra’s representatives, the beloved fairies known as Shobijin (played by twin sisters Emi and Yumi Itō) translate their conversations, which provides some comedic moments for the audience. (“Oh, Godzilla, what terrible language!”) When Godzilla finally joins the fight against Ghidorah, it isn’t so much a battle to save humankind as it is a battle over mastery of the Earth.
But what do we make of his infamous victory jig in the next film, Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)? After defeating Ghidorah once again, he prances from one leg to the other, raising one arm up to his head and placing the other across his chest. “Films don’t exist in a vacuum,” Ragone says. “There was a manga comic and animated series at the time called Osomatsu-kun. There’s one specific character in the story, when he gets excited he jumps up and says, ‘shie,’ and he does that same pose. That’s something that would be instantly recognized in Japan. It was such a social phenomenon that when the Beatles came and played in Japan, they had them doing that pose.”
The idea of investing Godzilla with comical human traits was embraced by special effects director Tsuburaya but not by Honda. “My father found it humiliating,” Ryuji Honda told Ryfle and Godziszewski. “I am sure he was telling himself, We did not create Godzilla for that.”
In 1966, after the premiere of monster-based TV show Ultra Q, which was produced by Tsuburaya, the epic monster mash-up Destroy All Monsters (1968) was aimed at children — despite the fact that Godzilla isn’t exactly people-friendly. “That kicked off what happened in Japan over the next year,” Ragone says. “It became known in the media as the monster boom. That’s when a lot of other companies started producing their own monster movies and a lot more stuff was happening on TV. Various people are trying to get a piece of that monster pie. Toho starts thinking that maybe they should appeal to a younger crowd.”
To lure audiences back to the cinema, Toho also announced that Destroy All Monsters would be the last Godzilla film, and they pulled out all the stops. It featured 11 monsters. The last we see of Godzilla, he’s returned to Monster Island to live in peace with the other kaiju, a term that means “strange beasts” in Japanese but is often translated as “giant monsters.” It seemed to be a fitting end to the series.
It wasn’t the last we’d see of him, though, and, to this day, there hasn’t been a Godzilla swan song.
The real change came in 1969 when Toho put out All Monsters Attack, which was intended as a fantasy-themed kids’ picture from the very beginning. It premiered as the kick-off to the Toho Champion Festival, a campaign that was primarily aimed at children. “I guess Destroy All Monsters resonated enough with kids that they reconsidered and said let’s just do this completely diametric shift,” Ragone says. “Americans mostly hate All Monsters Attack. They think it’s the worst Godzilla movie ever made. But what they don’t really understand is that it’s not really a Godzilla movie.”
The impact of television on Japanese cinema in the 1960s can’t be understated. Ryfle and Godziszewski write that national attendance dropped from about one billion to 250 million between 1960 and 1970. Toho was working with smaller budgets and the number of their contracted actors fell from the hundreds to fewer than 12. Honda was no longer being offered projects that met his artistic and budgetary standards and left the company.
Each subsequent film of the Shōwa era (loosely corresponding to the emperor’s reign) was also released as part of the Champion Festival, which meant they would continue to appeal mainly to children. In the wake of the success of Ultraman, Tsuburaya’s follow-up to Ultra Q, and other monster-fighting alien-hero TV shows, Toho launched its own series called Meteor Human Zone (also called Zone Fighter). Godzilla made several guest appearances where he was typically called upon to help the hero, Zone Fighter, fend off other monsters. Ryfle and Godziszewski state that “Godzilla’s transformation into a true superhero was now complete, and it happened immediately after Honda’s exit from Toho.”
When Honda returned to direct Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) after a four-film hiatus, most of his collaborators on previous Godzilla movies were no longer employed by Toho. Tsuburaya had been dead for several years and Nakajima retired in 1972. Without the winning combination that had put Godzilla on the map — Honda, Tanaka, Tsuburaya, and Nakajima — the series deflated and wouldn’t be revived for another nine years.
Rebirth and revenge
The Heisei-era Godzilla series launched in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla, which brought him back to his malevolent roots. It was written as a direct sequel to the 1954 original. “I think they wanted to push the reset button,” Lees says. “If they wanted to find a new audience, they had to take it seriously. It would be hard to rehabilitate Godzilla from what he had become in the ’70s.”
The Return of Godzilla pays homage to the nuclear-themed premise of the original film. This time, the Japanese government is caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the Soviets and the United States, each hoping to test their nuclear arsenals against the King of the Monsters.
shift back to a menacing Godzilla, although welcome, didn’t mean the movies that followed were all that great. In the Heisei era, which is also referred to as the VS Series — Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) — “they tried to have one new monster, one old monster, one actor from the Shōwa series, and some new popular actors, and two battles for Godzilla.” Lees says. “I think it was sort of designed by committee in some ways.”
No more Mr. Nice Guy
Godzilla’s savage character remained unchanged all the way from The Return of Godzilla until Godzilla Final Wars (2004). The Earth, faced once more with an alien threat, turns to the King of the Monsters for salvation. Only this time, he’s not acting with benevolence, but more as a weapon wielded by humans because, unlike the other monsters, he can’t be controlled by the aliens.
But in the final film of the Millennium era, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), or GMK for short, we see some roles reversed. Godzilla is the menace, once again, and Mothra, cinema’s most venerated giant arthropod, teams up with Ghidorah to stop him.
Ghidorah, the golden three-headed alien monster with the power to destroy worlds, saving the Earth?
“I spoke to the executive producer of the series at that time, and his philosophy was that, by now, the monsters were more like actors who could take on different roles rather than set characters who had to conform to what was done with them before,” Lees says. “The audiences had become so familiar with them. So in GMK, he felt comfortable having Godzilla play the villain, and Ghidorah could be the hero.”
Another 12 years passed before Toho would attempt another live-action Godzilla movie: 2016’s Shin Godzilla, which won Picture of the Year at the 40th Japan Academy Film Prize in 2017, among other accolades. It’s the first time that Toho featured a monster created almost entirely through CGI, instead of their traditional “suitmation.” But, once again, the monster is pure menace. Rather than being conceived as a direct sequel to 1954’s Godzilla, like the first films in the Heisei and Millennium series, Shin Godzilla is a complete reboot. But in a nod to the original film, the monster is theorized to be a mutation caused by radioactive contamination. Coming five years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, Shin Godzilla played, once more, to very real fears.
Godzilla often walked (or rather stomped) hand-in-hand with the ominous threat posed by nuclear proliferation and the deadly consequences of science gone awry. On-screen, he draws his power from radiation. Off-screen, his creators draw their inspiration from the tragic circumstances of Hiroshima, of Fukushima Daiichi. The monster exists.
Toho established Godzilla as a mirror to our own dark ambitions. He’ll reign a while longer, at least until we recognize the monster in ourselves. “We humans gave birth to this monster,” says the character Yuki Ichinose (Naomi Nishida) at the end of Godzilla 2000 (1999), to which Professor Yuzi Shinoda (Takehiro Murata) replies, “Godzilla is inside all of us.” ◀
Looking for a good Godzilla movie? With 35 productions available and another one on the way, there's plenty to choose from. But don't skip Gojira (1954) or Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964).
Soon after the Gojira was released in Japan in 1954, it enjoyed tremendous popularity in the U.S. as Godzilla: King of the Monsters! Reedited and partly reshot, and featuring Canadian actor Raymond Burr, it gained Toho a foothold in America for the Japanese studio's wildly imaginative sci-fi productions.