The King of the Monsters
In early August of 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the people of Japan in the span of just three days, effectively ending World War II in the Pacific shortly after it had ended in Europe months before. It is believed that the allied forces may have saved countless lives on both sides by dropping the bombs instead of engaging in a ground invasion that was to be known as “Operation Downfall” that some have estimated could have ended up making D-Day look like a walk in the park. But the bombs left two Japanese cities devastated economically and structurally, innocent civilians in the hundreds of thousands were killed in the process, and radiation poisoning caused the aftermath to last much longer than just those two brief moments of destruction. A country built on honor and self-sacrifice found itself having to admit defeat or face more devastation; they chose the former.
For a time, the United States occupied Japan after the war, and any mention of the bombs dropped were censored by the victorious occupiers. Japanese filmmakers wanted to make documentaries and dramas about what Japan had lived through, but the U.S made it difficult with their censorship. For nearly a decade, the atomic bombs that had shaken the Japanese to their core were a hushed subject among them. Finally, the United States began to pull out in the early fifties, and in 1952 Children of Hiroshima, a Japanese docudrama on the aftermath of the atomic bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima, broke the silence.
Nearly nine years after the bombs, on March 1954, Japanese fishermen took out the boat known as “Lucky Dragon No. 5” out to sea and got a little too close to some nuclear weapons testing in the Bikini Atoll area of the Marshall Islands. The weapon that was tested that day happened to be one of the most infamous in United States weaponry, the Castle Bravo bomb, which was at the time the largest nuclear weapon the United States had ever activated. The fishermen returned from sea covered in what they referred to as “Death Ash” and sick with radiation. One fisherman would die months later from the sickness. The incident caused a hot political debate over the relationship between Japan and the United States, who had not warned the Japanese about their testing that day.
It just so happened that shortly after the international incident in Bikini Atoll, Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had been sent out by the film studio to negotiate with the Indonesian government regarding a film they wanted to develop regarding the ugly history of Japanese occupation there. His trip was a massive failure, and he flew back to Japan empty-handed and without a film to green light. As he pondered what to do next during his flight, he happened to pass by the very waters that the Lucky Dragon No. 5 had been exposed to radiation in. It brought back the news of the incident into his mind, and he suddenly came up with the idea of going for a creature feature instead, inspired by American b-movie classic The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, in which a giant monster would rise from the depths awaken by nuclear testing.
Toho wanted to fast-pace the production so that they could have the film out before the end of the year, a much more common practice back then compared to recent release schedules. They hired Ishiro Honda to direct the film, a veteran of the war and the young protégé of the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. They put together scrapped scripts of other would-be creature films. They then wrote up a draft in which the concept of the nuclear tests awakening the creature would be highlighted and expanded upon. Early designs called for a monster that would have the head of a mushroom cloud, and the beast would have personality traits more like King Kong; for example, he would seem to get attracted to capturing young women.
In time, a version was finally settled upon that would see a radioactive fire-breathing dinosaur-like monster with features of a T-Rex and a Stegosaur to be the villain, awakened by nuclear weapons and attacking the Japanese people as if he were a walking atomic bomb. After initially attempting a contest to name the creature, it was eventually named Gojira (Godzilla to us and most of the rest of the world), a word that combined the terms gorilla and whale — early concepts wanted to incorporate both types of creatures into the design. After realizing that stop motion animation would be too costly and time-consuming, the defining effect – that Godzilla was portrayed by a man in a large monster suit – was used instead. The creature’s roar, one of cinema’s most well-known sound effects, was created by legendary Japanese composer Akira Ifukube when he found a way to use the sound of a leather glove moving against the strings of a double bass.
The film itself is a masterpiece. It features a dramatic weight that the franchise would not come to be widely known for, with scenes of destruction that don’t spare anyone – even a mother trying to comfort her children – as the creature prepares to take them from this Earth. Godzilla truly is seen as a walking weapon of mass destruction and, given that the film would be shown to Japanese audiences a little under a decade after experiencing two atomic bombs, it’s easy to see why they saw this film as more of a drama than a creature feature. In the States at this time, giant monsters had taken over the horror genre to prey on the fears Americans had regarding nuclear weapons, but Godzilla reminded its country of origin’s audiences of the actual reality, not theoretical fears, of such weapons being used.
The film’s writing includes a love triangle in which one of the two male participants, Doctor Serizawa, had created his own weapon of mass destruction, the Oxygen Destroyer. The weapon of course must be used to finally stop Godzilla, but the Doctor fears it will just join the ranks alongside other weapons of mass destruction when it is revealed to the world. This leads to a tragic ending in which the Doctor sacrifices his life to both stop Godzilla and allow the Oxygen Destroyer’s secrets to die with him, destroying two weapons at the same time.
The film premiered in Japan on November 1954. It was a massive box office success. It would in time start to make its way around the world, and eventually American audiences were treated to a less dramatic and more classic B-monster-movie Americanized version featuring Raymond Burr as the protagonist. That version stripped away plenty of the seriousness and drama that the original Godzilla featured, as well as its strong imagery of anti-nuclear-proliferation. But it too was a box office success in the States. A film that had been envisioned and created as a simple creature feature by a movie producer on a flight back from professional defeat had become a worldwide sensation; in Godzilla, it introduced a character that would go on to last for sixty-five years and counting; still with us to this day.
The Godzilla franchise has been coming out with films through twelve presidencies, almost all of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, almost thirty Japanese Prime Ministers, and three Japanese eras and Emperors. This month, Godzilla: King Of The Monsters will be the thirty-fifth film in which he is featured — and that’s if you don’t count two Americanized versions of two of his films (1956’s Godzilla and 1984’s Return of Godzilla). That’s more films than the classic Universal monsters, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, and yes, a ton more than even his closest box office monster rival, King Kong. He has been featured in Japanese productions, Hollywood blockbusters, cinematic universes on each side of the world, anime, TV shows, comic books, and commercials. He has grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and has even won Japan’s top prize in film. In some way Godzilla, a Japanese creation, has become part of the fabric of Americana as well, even having his own Hollywood star. In Japan, he has actual statues in tribute to him across the country. He has worn many masks with many roles, and I’m not just talking his many different designs throughout the years.
As mentioned, Godzilla debuted as a walking nuclear weapon in 1954. In 1962, he went toe to toe with King Kong himself in a film that remained his greatest box office success until a 1992 flick, and would begin a path for him to battle various other creatures in future films. In 1964, he met two of his greatest on-screen rivals, Mothra, a giant moth that would also become a popular ally of his in future films, and Ghidorah, an evil golden three-headed monster from outer space that would be Lex Luthor to Godzilla’s Superman. Soon enough, space alien storylines were introduced and sci-fi became a big part of the franchise, with fantastical elements of action and adventure for human characters involved. In ten years, Godzilla had been slowly transformed from a symbol of Japan’s brush with nuclear destruction into a giant monster-dueling creature that made easy box office money in Japan and was a popular drive-in screening choice for American teenagers looking to make out.
At this time, Godzilla started to make a face turn. Instead of being a harbinger of doom for humanity, a terror who could only be stopped by Oxygen Destroyers or other giant creatures, he transitioned into becoming a children’s hero. He became a father in 1967’s Son Of Godzilla and taught kids how to deal with bullies in 1969’s often-maligned Godzilla’s Revenge. This was at a time when Japanese movie audiences were beginning to be represented mostly by children and Godzilla fit the times to be more of a superhero of sorts. It is these films that went on to be syndicated worldwide on television, and it’s these films that many of us happen to discover the creature in growing up. This gave the franchise a reach into various cultural backgrounds, from American kids in the seventies living in the cold war to someone like me, a young kid growing up in Puerto Rico in the early nineties.
Godzilla then became a protector of mother nature in the incredibly trippy 1971’s Godzilla VS The Smog Monster, a strange movie that may be best viewed with certain substances in the system and almost serves as a PSA about pollution. Godzilla then participated in back-to-back battles with one of his most well-known foes, MechaGodzilla, including what was thought to be his final film at the time in 1975’s Terror Of MechaGodzilla, a film that is near and dear to my heart personally: it’s the first film of the king of the monsters that I watched, leading to me becoming such a huge fan of the franchise afterwards.
By the mid-seventies, Godzilla had been on film for two decades, but his popularity was waning. He went from a dramatic analogy of Japan’s tragic past to a drive-in theatre B monster to a children’s superhero to a bit of a laughingstock. So, for nearly a decade Godzilla vanished from the movie screens. It was time for him to take up a new role and wear another new mask…
In 1984, just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of his debut film, Godzilla was rebooted; all previous films save the first one to be forgotten about going forward. Instead, he returned in, well, pun intended, Return Of Godzilla, a direct sequel that modernized him back to his roots as a villainous menacing creature that was no friend to humanity. This time instead of being an analogy to the use of nuclear weapons, he was used as an analogy of the cold war itself. A side plot involving political standoffs and spy networks was implemented and Godzilla would not just be a man in a suit; animatronics were used for some of his scenes as well.
This was the start of a new era in Godzilla films. A more serious, less kid-friendly version, though in time this Godzilla too became a sort of hero to humanity. His classic rivals were all brought back for modern takes, and Godzilla was put to rest once again in 1995 when he was portrayed as an overheating nuclear weapon, melting down to his death as he dealt with the Oxygen-Destroyer-created Destroyah in Godzilla VS Destroyah. This series lasted just over a decade, but it brought the king of the monsters out of the laughingstock campy image and back as a more ominous force of nature.
Meanwhile, the United States tried their own version of Godzilla with a 1998 remake of their own that featured a…let’s just say less-than-classic CGI redesign of the big G. The film was a box office success but a bomb with critics, and Godzilla fans to this day abhor this film. In this film, Godzilla was nothing but a mindless creature. He wasn’t an analogy to nuclear destruction, a force of mother nature, or even a guardian of Earth as he had been in Japan’s films. It’s referred to as G.I.N.O by some fans, Godzilla In Name Only.
This led to Godzilla’s return in Japanese cinema in a rebooted series, one in which each film would feature as its own direct sequel to the original 1954 film. This series is almost a retrospective of the many masks he had worn and roles he had played throughout the years. He’s a destructive force that must be stopped in 2002’s Godzilla X MechaGodzilla, he’s an anti-hero you just want to watch fight other giant monsters in 2000’s Godzilla X Megaguirus, and he’s the classic protector of Earth in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, a film that is akin to injecting classic 1960s Godzilla into your veins and overdosing on it.
But one major film stands out in this series, a film that allows Godzilla to wear a new mask with a brand-new role. One of only two films that has been mentioned as being as good as the original – a film I own a theatrical poster of, in fact. 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra, And King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack or as Godzilla fans know it as, GMK. Lengthy title aside, this film features Godzilla as a spirit brought forth from the souls of those Japanese killed in World War II. Godzilla isn’t a walking weapon so much as a punisher of Japan’s historic sins. The film also features other creatures who serve as guardians to try and stop Godzilla. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a reason this has become such a fan favorite. Godzilla here is used a whole other type of symbolic creature that we haven’t seen him used as before, and the human characters and creature battles only enhance the film.
In 2004, Godzilla went back into retirement. He wasn’t seen for a decade, not until Hollywood tried to get him right once again in 2014’s Godzilla reboot. In this film, he has a much more classic design and he once again gets to play the hero. The success of this film has led to a new cinematic universe being created. This universe will culminate in a rematch between Godzilla and King Kong next year in American cinemas. It also led Japan to start doing Godzilla films again after more than a decade. This included an anime trilogy in which Godzilla is the largest he’s ever been, and the monster story serves as a backdrop to a psychological drama among humanity in a dystopian apocalyptic setting.
In 2016, Japan released Shin Godzilla, the only other film other than GMK that fans would consider perhaps equal to the original. In this film, Godzilla is an evolutionary beast that finally evolves into a terrifying final destructive stage and attacks a post-Fukushima Japan. This is perhaps the most political of Godzilla’s films. He’s used to make a point against petty political bickering and Japan’s never-ending debate over self-identity, showing politicians too busy bumbling through attempts to keep things under control or clumsily trying to convince the United States it can avoid using nuclear weapons, as Godzilla kills thousands and destroys cities. The film went on to cause a conversation in Japan over its modern-day politics and would win Japan’s Academy Award for Best Picture.
Godzilla has come a long way. From a warning about nuclear weapons, to a child’s superhero, to an environmentalist, to an anti-hero, to a ghost that punishes Japan for its sins, to a political statement, to a creature feature, to a serious academy award winner, and all sort of things in between. Sixty-five years is a long time and at the rate things are going, cinema will still be making Godzilla films when his hundredth anniversary arrives. He’s always got a new role to play, a new mask to wear as a symbol for whatever defines humanity at that current space in time.
But Godzilla doesn’t just play a big part in all these things I mentioned; he also plays a big part in the lives of his large fanbase, which I myself have belonged to since I was a toddler watching him fend off MechaGodzilla. You can bet that I and others, with a brand-new film playing this month, will be there on day one with popcorn and soda in hand to watch the giant creature do battle again. This time he’ll be joined by other creatures I grew up watching as well – Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah – that most casual moviegoers in this country haven’t been introduced to yet, and I honestly can’t wait for those folks to meet them, much like how those who grew up on comics have gotten to see their favorites become mainstream.
Godzilla has been such a big part of my life growing up. I, for one, bow down to the king of the monsters.