This year another remake of Godzilla was released, and of course I had to get a copy. I have many of the other Godzilla films made over the past 60 years, sadly not all of them. There were so many monster movies made in Japan through the 1950s and 60s that it’s hard to keep track of them all, let alone collect them. B-films, all of them, and still entertaining if you can find them.
(If I recall it properly, I first watched the original Godzilla in the late 1950s at a drive-in theatre, sitting with my parents in the front seat of the car, with the speaker hanging inside on the driver’s side window; but I also saw it on TV in the late 50s-early 60s and several times on TV and DVD since)
Even the eight-disc Godzilla Collection only has eight of the films: Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, Mothra vs. Godzilla (aka Godzilla vs. the Thing), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro-Monster (aka Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero), All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge) and Terror of Mechagodzilla.
Why I say it’s hard to know if you own or have seen them all is twofold. First, there were so many it’s hard to keep track of them all (and I don’t even know if they have all been released in North America on DVD). Second, several titles were renamed (and sometimes more than once) for their NAm release, so you can’t be sure what you’ve got until you watch them. Some are sold as single titles, others only in multi-film collections.
After the first film in 1954, there followed a slew of monster movies in which Godzilla took on a whole collection of monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah. Here are some of the film titles: Godzilla Vs Biollante, Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah, Godzilla 2000, Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Godzilla Vs. Megalon, Godzilla Vs Destoroyah, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, King Kong Vs. Godzilla, Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, Godzilla Vs. Gigan, Godzilla on Monster Island, The Return of Godzilla, Godzilla Vs. the Sea Monster, All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge), Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, Godzilla 2000 (aka Godzilla Millennium), Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep (aka Godzilla vs The Seat Monster) and Godzilla vs the Smog Monster.
Plus there were spinoff series for the Gamera, Mothra and Rodan monsters in which Godzilla usually did not appear. I don’t know about you, but I want them all.
Godzilla moved between villain and hero at various times, too, defending the world and attacking it in different films, fighting other monsters and allying with them. The Godzilla franchise is huge (31 films according to this list) and that doesn’t even include the animated series. The list at the bottom of the Godzilla Wiki site includes video game appearances, books and comics.
This year’s version is the second major Hollywood remake and retelling of the original black & white film that was first released in Japan as Gojira in 1954 (released much later, with English subtitles and now available digitally restored and remastered in the Criterion Collection). The first Japanese monster movie shot in colour was actually Rodan, in 1956. All subsequent Japanese monster films would be filmed in colour after that, but the quintessential Gojira was B&W.
Gojira first arrived on the heels of two successful American monster films – the 1952 re-release of King Kong (itself a 1933 film) and the 1953 classic, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Clearly the latter was an inspiration for the plot of Godzilla (“…a hibernating dinosaur, the fictional Rhedosaurus, is released from its frozen state by an atomic bomb test in the Arctic Circle.”). Both showed the public’s fascination with monster films (as would the more modern franchise that started with Alien) and with the effects of nuclear radiation (another American film, Them, also released in 1954, featured giant ants made huge by radiation).
The original Gojira was edited and re-released in 1956 as Godzilla, with scenes featuring actor Canadian Raymond Burr spliced in, and a dubbed voice-overs so it could be shown in North American theatres. About 40 minutes of the original film were removed for the ’56 version, and the nuclear theme minimized (it would resurface in Return of Godzilla, aka Godzilla 1985).
A colourized version of the 56 version came out in 1977. The heavily edited version released in 1984 as Godzilla 1985 used both old and new footage shot for the release. It really set itself up as a sequel to the original, bypassing the series of Godzilla-vs-monster flicks that had preceded it, and eschewing any co-starring monsters.
The big Hollywood remake was in 1998 when the full muscle of Hollywood and all its CGI glory was pumped up to do an American version (starring Matthew Broderick). It revised the monster with great effects, suspense, humour and lots of action.
Fans of the original sarcastically labelled it GINO – Godzilla in Name Only – because is veered from the original plot and theme (not least in moving the main action from Tokyo to New York). Its plot and setting owed more to the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms than Godzilla. But despite the purists’ dismay, it remains a fun film well worth watching.
Perhaps the biggest thing about the 1998 version was the re-envisioning of Godzilla. Looking more like a mutated iguana than a man in a clumsy T-Rex rubber suit, the American Godzilla was a sleek, fast and powerful predator. A metaphor, no doubt, for American military might. Except that the Army was pretty much incapable of stopping the beast throughout most of the film (the Air Force finally does the dirty deed at the end). Maybe it was a metaphor for capitalism.
That angry iguana look was stolen for the 2004 film, Godzilla: Final Wars (the 28th film, not released in NAm theatres but available here on DVD), but not for Godzilla (who looks like the old G we know and love), but for Zilla, one of the monsters he has to battle (note the crafty pseudonym). The film is chock full of other monsters, including Rhodan, Gigan and Mothra and a lot more; sort of the WWF of monster movies.
A Japanese remake, Godzilla 2000, was released in 1999. It’s main claim to fame is that it ignored the subsequent Japanese monster films and went back to the original 1954 film for its inspiration. The edited North American version fared somewhat better in popularity and reviews than the Japanese one. It was also the last theatrical release of any Godzilla film in North America until this year.
The 2014 American version tips its hat to the original, too, but again moves the action to the USA (San Francisco is the main target this time, although Hawaii and Nevada get some monster lovin’ too). And of course it puts the muscle of CGI effects to work to make it the most spectacular version yet (however, keep in mind that CGI and special effects didn’t make the story behind Peter Jackson’s King Kong one whit better than the original, just added more glitz and tedious chase scenes). But at least the filmmakers returned the old look to the monster. Well, a bigger monster, of course. That’s been the trend ever since the first G made the stage.
Godzilla began life as a 50-meter high monster (although, as Yummymath points out, it really appears to be larger: 65-70 meters if one considers the buildings it destroys). By 2014, it shows up as 120-150 meters, yet in at least one photo, Godzilla towers about a 260-meter building. The evolving trend towards bigger Gs was explained on Fact Fiend:
Godzilla’s own popularity became his undoing, because with every sequel that was released, the buildings in Tokyo got bigger and taller until eventually it got to the point that a 164 foot tall Godzilla just looked silly stood next to them. To compensate for this, Godzilla’s height was increased to around 260 feet in the 1975 movie, Terror of MechaGodzilla which allowed the Big G to throw his weight around in a bigger city. In 1991 for the movie Godzilla vs. King Ghidora, Godzilla’s height was increased yet again, this time making him over 330 feet tall.
However, even this increase didn’t make Godzilla tall enough to peer over building like the Tokyo Government Building, which stands at over 700 foot tall so the creators just had Godzilla level it, a feat we don’t think the first Godzilla could have managed, even with his mighty atomic breath and love of smashing.
And now, with the release of the 2014 Legendary movie, Godzilla’s height has been increased again so that he doesn’t look tiny in comparison to all of the huge buildings we’ve grown so fond of building.
Godzilla was really sexless, but has generally been referred to as a male (he was the King of the Monsters in the 1956 film). He looked like a spiny Homer Simpson, pot-belly and all. In Son of Godzilla, he was made a foster-dad to Minilla, a sort of chubby, comical but peaceful kid (the size of a tall building; in later films he was called Little Godzilla) who is friendly to humans. The first American Godzilla, however, was definitely a female who laid eggs (asexual reproduction, however). She was a mean mother at that, very protective of her young. The latest American film makes G androgynous again.
Godzilla is your basic Frankenstein theme that I talked about in my earlier post about The Theology of The Fly. The message is that messing with Mother Nature (aka God) brings trouble (in this story it’s the evil of messing with nuclear stuff: radiation = bad). But there’s more to it than that. The film was released less than a decade after WWII and Japanese were culturally scarred by nuclear weapons after the attacks on their cities, and were understandably nervous about the proliferation of them during the Cold War. This fear played a big role in their psychological and political view of the world. Godzilla – both victim and effector – was a metaphor for nuclear devastation.*
As the Godzilla Wiki site notes, the role and metaphoric character of G has changed through the film series:
Godzilla is one of the defining aspects and most recognizable features of Japanese pop culture for many people worldwide, embodying the kaiju subset of the tokusatsu genre. Though his popularity has waned slightly over the years, he is still one of the most renowned monster characters in the world. To this day, Godzilla remains an important facet of Japanese films…
Godzilla has been called a filmographic metaphor for the United States, starting out as a terrifying enemy and later a strong ally and defender in times of need. The earliest Godzilla films, especially the original Gojira, attempted to portray Godzilla as a frightening, nuclear monster. Godzilla represented the fears of many Japanese of a repeat of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the series progressed, so did Godzilla himself, changing into a less destructive and more heroic character as the films became increasingly geared towards children. Today, the character has fallen somewhere in the middle, sometimes portrayed as a protector of the Earth (notably Tokyo) from external threats and other times as a bringer of destruction…
The first Gojira is semi-sapient; a wily, angry beast. As the series progressed, he became more intelligent, even to the point of conversing (albeit only with Ghidorah in the 1991 film). He developed a personality, too, and sometimes mugged for the cameras (in the mid-later films, G often doesn’t take his role seriously and seems to enjoy campy gestures and actions). The two American films return G to the ‘clever creature’ mode, with more malevolence in it than in the Japanese series.
While the subsequent monster films after the original often tend towards the silly, they’re still oodles of fun to watch (I actually prefer the dubbed to the subtitled versions because I get a laugh watching the actors’ lips move as different sounds come out). The films involved a lot of Japanese mythology, which of course is lost on Western audiences. And as the films continued, they wove a new internal Godzilla mythology – G as a sacred beast – which simply doesn’t come through in the American films which tend to portray Godzilla as a one-off monster.
Scary? Nah. Most are actually funny. It’s hard not to snicker at seeing a guy wading about clumsily in a big rubber suit knocking over cardboard buildings or fighting not to get tangled in the wires guiding a papier-mâché moth that looks like some giant, winged piñata.** The American films are scarier because of the more realistic CGI, but not terrifying in the vein of a slasher film (which genre I heartily dislike) or the Alien series. More suspenseful than scary.
And the plots? Oy. Here’s a summary:
- Everything’s fine. Suddenly…
- Someone notices something’s wrong. No one listens until it’s Too Late.
- Oops. Monster(s) arrives.
- Havoc occurs.
- Humanity is in chaos. Monster(s) destroys stuff.
- Hero(es) tries to organize a defence (or find a solution or both).
- The military fails to save humanity. More things get blown up in the process.
- Love interest/triangle.
- A scientist (pick one or more) develops a new weapon; attracts another monster; unlocks the secret to sending the monster(s) back to the deep.
- Monster(s) retreats or is vanquished.
- Whew. The end. For now (hints are given of a sequel…)
Okay, not all of the plots are so simple. The plot for the 1991 Godzilla vs Ghidorah includes spaceships, WWII, time travel, dinosaurs, androids, genetic engineering, corrupt superpowers, politics, high-tech weapons, cryogenics, hostile aliens, and alternate futures. Check the Godzilla Wiki for plot summaries of all the films.
I for one am happy to see Godzilla return, even if it’s not the G of the classic films. I look forward to the sequel, too. As for the older movies: I love these monster movies for their sheer exuberance, for their entertaining nuttiness and their zany special effects. I’ve enjoyed the later films for how they have re-envisioned the creatures and stories, and for the generally more polished acting and production. But there’s nothing quite as much fun in them as there is in a mano-a-mano battle between Godzilla and Rhodan or Mothra. Or maybe both. Will the sequel have more classic monsters like these? One can only hope…
* King Kong is not cut whole from the Frankenstein cloth, in that it isn’t about humans trying to alter or fool with Nature, thus bonking heads with God. But rather it’s rather about the man-vs-nature theme; humans trying to master nature> It leaves us with the moral that while nature can be defeated by technology, it cannot be tamed by it. It can, however, be seduced by beauty (aka art, culture, etc.). Like Godzilla, Kong is seen as semi-sapient, a cunning animal: having a brain the size of a bus apparently doesn’t make a monster a lot smarter, or at least as smart as a person.
The Godzilla suit had actually been a last resort. Tsuburaya had been deeply impressed with the stop-motion animation method used in King Kong. However, that method was far too costly and time-consuming (even though stop-motion would be used briefly, in one scene where Godzilla destroys the Nichigeki Theatre with his tail). It was decided that the easiest way to go was a stuntman in a monster suit, and a scale-model of Tokyo. This also proved difficult. Stunt actor Haruo Nakajima volunteered to play (the full suit) Godzilla. Nakajima would play Godzilla in later sequels until his retirement from the character in 1972. The first attempt at a Godzilla suit was far too stiff and heavy, nearly impossible to use. They finally hit on a design that worked; but even that was grueling. The stuntman would suffer numerous bouts of heat exhaustion and dehydration. The suit had to have a valve to drain the sweat from it. Also, in order to avoid suffocation, the suit could have only been worn for three minutes. It has also been said that, at one point, Nakajima passed out in the suit due to heat exhaustion.