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Looking back on 60 years of Godzilla before he tears down the city again in 2014

Godzilla History
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The character of Godzilla has been with us, stomping through the edges of pop culture for six decades. It has endured countless reboots, re-imaginings, and even an American remake that is generally reviled and ignored. For 60 years Godzilla has been with us, and on May 16, 2014 the original “kaiju” returns to the big screen. In honor of that, we look back at more than half a century of the character’s history.

Gone was the overt metaphor of atomic danger and the horror of war, and in its place was a superhero of sorts.

You’ve got to hand it Godzilla, not just any creature deserves to be called “King of the Monsters,” but with almost six decades of movies, television shows, comics, and video games, Toho Studios’ city-stomping beast from the depths has more than earned that title. 

And like a giant, scaly, radiation-spawned Energizer Bunny, Godzilla just keeps going and going… 

Later this year, director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) brings the giant lizard back for a big-budget, effects-driven Godzilla that not only boasts the return of the iconic creature to the big screen after a ten-year absence, but also features an all-star cast that includes Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, several up-and-coming-stars, and a host of Oscar-nominated actors (plus at least one Oscar winner in Juliette Binoche). The upcoming film arrives just shy of 60 years after Toho’s original masterpiece, Gojira, used the trappings of a monster movie to offer up a grim, unforgiving exploration of the perils of the atomic age. 

Given the imminent, big-screen revival of Godzilla and the character’s long and storied history, it seems like a good time to look back at his evolution from thinly veiled sociopolitical surrogate to campy, heroic monster-fighter, and explore what form the King of the Monsters might take in his new film. 

Born of the Bomb 

An accidental bath in radiation has always been a key component of Godzilla’s origin story, but a similar tale lurks at the heart of the character’s creation. 

Already fearful of what the Atomic Age could hold for humanity, Japanese citizens were just a few years removed from the horrific effects of the nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki when plans for “Gojira” first went into motion. When Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka observed the popularity among Japanese audiences of giant-monster movies like King Kong and Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, he saw the opportunity to combine that wildly popular genre with the public’s growing fear regarding atomic power and nuclear warfare.

Godzilla History Gojira 1954 Japanese poster
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In 1954, an accident involving a test-detonation of a hydrogen bomb by the U.S. resulted in the fatal irradiation of several Japanese fishing boats crews. It was that incident that gave Tanaka the idea to create a massive creature borne of atomic radiation that comes ashore to devastate Tokyo.

Tanaka teamed with up-and-coming documentary director Ishiro Honda, special-effects expert Eiji Tsubaraya, and composer Akira Ifukube on the project. Tsubaraya envisioned the monster as a sort of “aquatic gorilla,” and it was this concept that spawned the creature’s name, “Gojira,” an amalgam of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale.” 

The hastily produced follow-up to Gojira was the harbinger of things to come.

When Gojira premiered in November 1954, the film broke the opening-day record for ticket sales in Japan, as audiences flocked to see the bleak, devastating chronicle of science gone horribly, terribly wrong. For many of those in attendance, the fictionalized destruction hit too close to home. Godzilla’s atomic breath billowed down city streets and disintegrated families fleeing his wrath. In the aftermath of his attack, doctors were shown treating children whose exposure to the monstrous creature had left them poisoned by radiation. Similar images from 1945 were embedded in the minds of the Japanese.

Throughout the film, Japanese scientists and military leaders on screen pondered their role in creating the monster that trudged through their cities and demolished the military they had once considered their safeguard against outside aggression. The message was obvious, but the film was also meant as entertainment first and foremost. 

“If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do,” Honda said of  Godzilla after the release of the film. “So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.” 

Although 1954’s Gojira was a far cry from the campy, monster-fighting romps that would eventually dominate the franchise, that initial film was also quite a bit different from the Americanized version that introduced Godzilla to U.S. audiences. 

In Godzilla We Trust 

With American interest in Japanese films growing in the ’50s thanks to the work of Akira Kurosawa and films like Seven Samurai (which opened in Japan a few months before Gojira), a group of Hollywood investors secured the rights to the Japanese film and had it recut with new footage featuring Raymond Burr (pre-Perry Mason), as an American reporter reporting on Godzilla’s rampage.

Godzilla King of the Monsters
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The recut film softened some of the dialogue that had been critical of the U.S. government’s role in creating Godzilla. Most of the city-destroying sequences remained intact though, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters (as it was renamed) was released in American theaters April 27, 1956. The film was a success both in the U.S. and abroad. Surprisingly, the recut version even did well in Japan, despite an altered, upbeat ending that reminded its audience that life goes on after war, rather than serving up a dire warning against unchecked atomic experimentation.

Monster Mash 

Naturally, the success of Gojira inspired Toho to get the wheels rolling on a sequel, and less than six months after the first film’s debut, Godzilla Raids Again arrived in theaters.

Godzilla had successfully made the jump from villain in a horror film to franchise hero.

The hastily produced follow-up to Gojira was the harbinger of things to come, as the film dispensed with much of the atomic-danger subplot and pitted Godzilla against another radiation-spawned monster, the armored Anguirus. A disappointing reception for the film, both in Japan and abroad (it was renamed Gigantis, the Fire Monster in the U.S.), led to a short hiatus for Godzilla. 

While Godzilla waited in limbo, Toho spent the next six years producing a series of giant-monster movies featuring a long list of creatures portrayed by actors in rubber suits. The studio found success in churning out films that introduced one monster after another, including Rodan and Mothra all of which did battle with each other amid a world of miniature cities. The films soon dropped much of the sociopolitical pretense of Gojira in favor of more kid-friendly productions. Effects-driven filmmaking, known as “tokusatsu” in Japan, had become a hot trend in Japan, and in 1962 the studio that gave the world Godzilla acquired the rights to make one of the most surprising crossovers in cinema history: King Kong vs. Godzilla. 

The Art of the Crossover 

While King Kong vs. Godzilla took some liberties with the famous ape (who now swung skyscrapers around like baseball bats instead of climbing them), the film also introduced some major changes to Godzilla, too. Rather than acting like a primal force of nature (or science, in this case), the Godzilla of the 1962 film taunted his opponent and revealed a knack for what can only be described as a rudimentary form of judo. 

King Kong vs. Godzilla proved to be a major success both in Japan and abroad – so much so that it remains one of the most successful Godzilla films to this day – but it also left an indelible mark on the character’s legacy. Gone was the overt metaphor of atomic danger and the horror of war, and in its place was a superhero of sorts, called upon in each new film to defend Japan (and later, Earth itself) from aliens and other rampaging monsters with little backstory (if any).

King Kong vs Godzilla
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For Toho Studios, the success of King Kong vs. Godzilla made one thing abundantly clear: Godzilla had successfully made the jump from villain in a horror film to franchise hero. 

The next decade of films pitted an increasingly kid-friendly version of the monster against a long list of foes, and saw him teaming up with a variety of bizarre partners, including the size-changing android Jet Jaguar, many of his former enemies, and even his own son, Minilla. His abilities also shifted with each film to fit the story, with some installments giving him the ability to fly or communicate telepathically. 

It was a weird time for Godzilla, but it was also a good time to be King of the Monsters. 

Now Entering Rebootsville 

In the mid-’70s, Godzilla’s popularity waned – possibly due to movie-overload from the twice-yearly release of new films – and Toho put the iconic monster on ice once again. 

It was ten years before Godzilla returned in 1985’s appropriately titled The Return of Godzilla (known as Godzilla 1985 in the U.S.). This new film brought the character back to his roots, both thematically and in the continuity of the franchise, and the story was framed as a direct sequel to Gojira. Political and social issues such as cloning and pollution once again found their way into the film’s backstory, which revisited the notion of Godzilla as a destructive force of nature that humanity brought on itself.

1998’s Godzilla has loomed large over any subsequent attempts to bring the King of the Monsters to Hollywood.

However, the return to a grim-and-gritty Godzilla didn’t last very long, and over the six films that followed The Return of Godzilla, he defended Earth from a variety of alien invaders, only to finally succumb to the radiation that originally mutated him in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah

This pattern of launching a rebooted Godzilla series that picked up after Gojira, repeated itself in 1999 with Godzilla 2000: Millenium positioning itself as a sequel to very first film. This time around though, all of the philosophical trappings of previous films were abandoned for a six-film series that found Godzilla battling all sorts of old and new monsters. The series managed to strike a fan-friendly balance between modern effects and the rubber-suit appeal of the older films. 

The series culminated in 2004 with Godzilla: Final Wars, a celebration of the character’s 50th anniversary that pit Godzilla against just about every monster he fought over the course of the 27 preceding movies – including a brief battle with “Zilla,” the monster from Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 Godzilla. (In a nod to popular opinion, a rubber-suited Godzilla dismisses the CG-fueled creature with ease in Final Wars.)

Final Wars provides an impressive sendoff for Godzilla, who lets out a final roar before trudging off into the ocean in the film’s final moments. It’s a good thing, too, as Godzilla has yet to return to the big screen in the ten years since Final Wars. 

Made In America

To this day, many fans refuse to acknowledge any connection between the creature in the aforementioned, American-made Godzilla, and Toho’s King of all Monsters. Emmerich’s film, which spent several decades in development limbo as various filmmakers and writers signed on then left a short time later, didn’t fare well with critics or audiences when it finally arrived on the screen. It did manage to earn a decent return on its blockbuster budget though.

Godzilla History 1998
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Whether it was the film’s departure from the source material, Emmerich’s vision for the project, or any number of other reasons that have been offered up for the film’s poor performance, there’s no denying that the spectre of 1998’s Godzilla has loomed large over any subsequent attempts to bring the King of the Monsters to Hollywood.

And that is where this year’s film comes in…

Back in Action 

Truthfully, very little is known at this point about Edwards’ upcoming adventure that brings Godzilla back to the big screen after ten years – and that’s the way the filmmaker prefers it.

What we do know, however, is that the film will offer up a new origin story for Godzilla, who will once again play the role of a force of nature far beyond humanity’s control. Legendary Pictures’ official synopsis for the film indicates that Godzilla won’t be the only monster in the film, either. According to the studio, Godzilla will be pitted against “malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.”

“We’ve taken it very seriously and the theme is man versus nature and Godzilla is certainly the nature side of it,” said Edwards in a July 2013 interview. “You can’t win that fight. Nature’s always going to win and that’s what the subtext of our movie is about. He’s the punishment we deserve.”

Godzilla History Encounter model
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While we have yet to see a full, official image of Godzilla as he appears in the film, various marketing materials – including statues and toys unveiled at last year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego – seem to indicate that new iteration of the creature will harken back to his old look.

“The way I tried to view it was to imagine Godzilla was a real creature and someone from Toho saw him in the 1950s and ran back to the studio to make a movie about the creature and was trying their best to remember it and draw it,” Edwards told io9 at Comic-Con. “And in our film you get to see him for real.”

And while that may indeed be the case, audiences will still have to wait until May to see for themselves whether the King of the Monsters reigns supreme in his return to the big screen. With 60 years of adventures fighting all manner of man, monster, and alien, Godzilla’s legacy has created some big shoes to fill for any new film – let alone one made in the U.S.

Fortunately, the King of the Monsters has big feet.

Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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