Godzilla—the lizard king of the post-nuclear age—turns sixty this year. To celebrate, Hollywood is launching a second attempt to revive the Japanese kaiju (giant monster) franchise as an American spectacle.
Godzilla 2014 marks the thirtieth original Godzilla film but only the second American production (not counting the reworked American editions of the original Godzilla and Godzilla 1985: the Legend Is Reborn). Director by Gareth Edwards (whose only previous feature, Monsters, was an inventive take on the kaiju genre on a budget) exports the Big G from Japan to San Francisco by way of Honolulu and pays tribute to the franchise with a CGI creation that nonetheless recreates the ferocious majesty of the Japanese original and even embraces the monster smackdown formula of the classic series. It’s an American reworking of the Japanese conventions. But is it really Godzilla? Because stateside comic books and the odd animated series aside, Godzilla is a Japanese phenomenon. We Americans are simply bystanders to the artful artifice of its crazy glory.
The U.S. had its own nuclear-spawn giant creatures in the atomic scare of the 1950s—Them!, Tarantula, and of course the proto-zilla of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms—but Godzilla was very specifically born in the wake of Hiroshima and America’s nuclear tests in the Pacific, events that resonated deeply with a culture still dealing with the devastation of the war. That original devil-monster incarnation transformed over time from enemy of humanity to Earth’s protector and back again, and his story was rebooted twice in revivals that kept Godzilla and friends returning for monster mashes through Japan’s major cities until his Final Wars in 2004. Through them all, Godzilla was brought to life by a stuntman in a suit stomping through miniature cities and landscapes while an overcranked camera filmed it at high speed to give a dreamy, slightly-slow motion look and a sense of mass and size to the monster battles. The process is affectionately known as suitmation.
Very few of those films have made it American screens since the import heyday of the 1960s and stateside fans have kept up through home video releases. To the rest of the American filmgoing public, Godzilla is a sixty-year-old classic starring a guy in a goofy lizard costume crushing toy cities, and it launched a string of campy sequels starring a giant moth, a three-headed dragon, space aliens and a giant robozilla, all of them ending up in crazy wrestling matches that make the WWE look like sophisticated drama.
That’s one way of looking at the phenomenon. Here’s another.
Godzilla entered the international scene as an avenging devil rising from the radioactive ashes of the atomic age. The scaly gray one became a magnificent, dignified creature who descends upon Tokyo like a biblical curse with attitude. Blending science and myth, he’s part prehistoric dinosaur, part nuclear mutation, part Golem, with a dash of fire breathing dragon and a hint of King Kong. In Japan he’s Gojira, a combination of the words for gorilla (“gorira”) and whale (“kujira”). The American name is simply a phonetic approximation created (and trademarked) by Toho Studios.
There’s nothing cute or camp about the original Godzilla (1954), produced by Toho and directed by Ishiro Honda (a former assistant to Akira Kurosawa) as a dark nuclear parable in a solemn key. Honda renders Tokyo like a neo-realist film (enhanced by black-and-white photography) and Godzilla’s devastating rampage and radioactive breath leaves behind thousands of casualties and a city aflame, recalling nothing less than the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The destruction is horrific and nightmarish. It’s also magnificent, a beautiful, painstakingly constructed city smashed to pieces in a dream-like slowed speed by a rampaging, 150-foot lizard screaming a horrific cry of anger and anguish.
American audiences did not see that provocative Japanese version, with its anti-Atomic Bomb message and references to the legacy of Hiroshima. Those scenes were cut by Joseph Levine, who imported and dubbed the film, edited out half an hour of footage, and had new scenes shot with Raymond Burr as American reporter narrating for our benefit. That was pretty much the only version we had ready access to up until a decade or so ago, when the original, uncut Japanese classic was first restored and released stateside in theaters and on disc. It’s making the rounds once again with the American remake on way.
While Godzilla began as a devastating force majeure, his transformation began early on. Godzilla Raids Again (1955) was the first of a seemingly unending succession of turf wars (this one with Anguirus) and after a seven year break he returned to wrestle with King Kong (a deformed, lumbering suitmation monster) in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962).
And then there was Mothra. If Godzilla is the king of monsters, then Mothra is the regal queen. Against the clumsy, plodding dark gray of Godzilla’s annihilating rampages (Godzilla slowly went dark green later in the decade), the delicate, ethereal marionette Mothra gently glides on rainbow wings with a mission of peace and protection. Accompanied by the pixie princess twins who communicate with their deity through song, Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964) is a kaiju fairy tale of exquisite color and fantastic imagery and considered by most fans to be the apex of the series. It’s Mothra that encourages Godzilla’s rehabilitation from villain to hero when she convinces the scaly gray one to change sides and defend Earth in Gidorah, the Three Headed Monster (1964), the first of the multi-monster mashes.
As the kaiju count went up with each movie and the earnest one-on-one contests turned into tag team wrestling bouts, the series downshifted for a more juvenile audience and it reached its nadir in Son of Godzilla (1967). But there are delights to be had in Destroy All Monsters (1968), which introduces Monsterland/Monster Island, a proto-“Jurassic Park” that Godzilla and friends call home between films (and serves as a convenient plot device for the succeeding films: “Godzilla has once again escaped Monster Island!”), and Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), a Mod-zilla mixing of (often bad) pop music, hip nightclub scenes and psychedelic imagery (including animated interludes and a bad acid trip) with an environmental message and a giant monsters spawned by pollution and toxic waste. It remains the strangest, trippiest chapter in the Godzilla saga.
For his 20th anniversary, Toho unveiled Mechagodzilla, a robot monster replica created by the military to battle the scaly one, introduced in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) and The Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). (They are among the inspirations for Guillermo del Toro‘s Pacific Rim.) It was Godzilla’s last appearance for a decade and the end of the first cycle, known as the Showa series.
In 1984, Toho revived the Big G for his 30th Anniversary celebration with The Return of Godzilla (called Godzilla 1985 in the U.S.). As much a direct sequel to the original film as a revisionist remake, it sweeps away the past thirty years of campy sequels and returns the Big G to the awe and solemn grandeur of the mighty first feature. Picking up Toho’s cue, American distributor New World recruited Raymond Burr to reprise his role for new scenes in the American version.
The film flopped in the U.S. but played to stomping room only crowds in Japan and led to the Big G’s second wave (the Heisei series) and whole new generation of fans. Godzilla blossomed with more color and plumage, grew to twice his original size (that’s giant monster inflation for you), and revisited former friends (Godzilla vs. Mothra: Battle For Earth, 1992) and foes (Godzilla vs. King Ghidora, 1991, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, 1993) before Toho celebrated the Big G’s 40th by killing him off in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1994), a knock-down, drag out match where Godzilla passes the torch to Godzilla Junior with a blast of radioactive energy. American kaiju buffs, meanwhile, resorted to imports and bootlegs to keep up with the new series, at least until the 1998 Godzilla, Roland Emmerich’s misguided attempt to bring the Big G stateside, inspired Sony Pictures to release the Heisei series on videotape in the U.S.
When Emmerich’s Godzilla flopped, Toho came back with the Millennium series, kicked off with Godzilla 2000 (1999), which once again swept away a generation of sequels and pretended that most (if not all) of the films since the original Godzilla never actually existed. Digital effects were added to the Godzilla formula to sweeten and tweak the spectacle but it still came down to a guy in a rubber suit, an overcranked camera, and a stomping ground of a lovingly crafted miniature modern city which is systematically reduced to rubble. The six films of this series once again revisit the familiar favorites (Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, 2001, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, 2002) before going out for good (at least for now) on his 50th Anniversary with Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).
Godzilla: Final Wars is at once tribute, celebration, summing up and send off, and quite possibly the first Godzilla film directed by an honest to goodness fan of the old-school Godzilla movie: genre stylist Ryuhei Kitamura (of the cult hit Versus). It’s the first Godzilla film in decades to embrace that early “history,” bringing back all the old monsters for one last fight, and for good measure it tosses in an alien invasion force and a team of Power Ranger-like mutants to enlist Godzilla in their battle to take back the Earth. It’s lusciously, knowingly, lovingly cheesy, an affectionate farewell with a hilarious parting shot at the American remake. Every creature brought in to battle Godzilla is a classic suitmation monster with one exception, a suspiciously familiar CGI lizard who is easily tromped by the real lizard king in record time.
Godzilla: Final Wars is, to date, the last official appearance of Godzilla, certainly the last one from Toho, the studio that hatched and nurtured the most resilient giant monster of the movies. Apparently Toho is letting the U.S. take the honors for the 60th Anniversary. Whether Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla becomes the kick-off of a new series or another misjudged stumble into kaiju wars that American movies just don’t quite get, it is testament to the resilience of the greatest giant monster of them all. Godzilla is always a revival away from rising from the seas once more to lay waste to the cities of Earth and the monsters that threaten them with a roaring scream and blast of radioactive breath.