A Comprehensive History of Toho’s Original Kaiju (and Atomic Allegory) Godzilla
As the fire-breathing star Godzilla comes back to the big screen in its fifth cinematic rebirth, a look at the cultural history of Japan’s most recognizable monster.
The nuclear metamorphosized giant monster genre was in its infancy when Godzilla was first born. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the first movie to associate nuclear weapons with giant, destructive creatures, premiered a little over a year before in 1953. But unlike the monstrous ants in the similarly themed Them!, Godzilla and The Beast were monsters awakened, not created, by atomic testing.
The distinction is small but indicative of broader international trends among genre films as the advent of satellite imagery, and the Second World War’s geographical exploration of necessity, shrank formerly undocumented parts of the globe.
Ishirō Honda’s original 1954 Godzilla (ゴジラ) ends with Dr. Kyohei Yamane, played by Takashi Shimura, warning the audience that further nuclear testing could awaken, not create, another Godzilla like kaiju, or monster. In the original Godzilla, the atom bomb didn’t create the monster, the monster was already there. Newer incarnations often attribute the creature’s genesis to radiation related mutation.
Toho Studio’s most famous kaiju came to America in 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the first in a series of re-edited, re-dubbed, and endlessly re-released films that informed most Western awareness of the giant. The films were moderate successes, especially for an American market that has always been ambivalent toward foreign cinema. On the strength of their Godzilla success, Embassy Pictures, the company responsible for the release, later went on to produce such classic films as The Graduate, Escape From New York, and This is Spinal Tap as well as TV series like Married With Children… and Who’s The Boss? The inclusion of recognizable movie monster King Kong in 1963’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, released by Universal International, helped pique North American interest.
The early period of U.S. Godzilla releases saw foreign partners, specifically current license holder Warner Brothers, misunderstanding or minimizing the monster’s appeal. The next American release of a Godzilla film came in 1957 with Gigantis, The Fire Monster. To create the appearance of a new monster, Godzilla’s name was changed to Gigantis and the trademark roar swapped out. A young George Takei provided one of the dubbed voices.
It was the burgeoning TV markets that most influenced the American public’s perception of Godzilla not as destructive force, but as heroic monster with an appeal to children. Google’s nGram viewer shows recorded instances of the word “Godzilla” appearing in English language books starting only in 1970, one year after the 1969 Americanized version of Son of Godzilla was released directly to TV. The ability to remove large sections of the movies without sacrificing any of the over-simplified story made Godzilla a perfect fit for the few existing channels looking to maximize ad space in sparsely populated programming blocks. In 1977, NBC gave Godzilla vs. Megalon an hour long network television premiere with over twenty minutes trimmed from the film.
The first American attempt to appropriate Godzilla was the 1978 co-venture between NBC and Toho studios, Godzilla the animated series. Only 26 episodes were produced between 1978 and 1979, but the show continued to air in syndication under a variety of different titles until 1981. While the later Godzilla films, in both the U.S. and Japan, trended toward camp, the cartoon was a major departure from form. Voiced by Ted Cassidy (The Addams Family’s original Lurch), and partnered with a team of helpful scientists and a flying nephew named Godzooky, Godzilla and company travelled around the world fighting monsters and solving mysteries.
There have been multiple attempts to anthropomorphically empathize Godzilla by way of a child character like Godzooky. Son of Godzilla (怪獣島の決戦 ゴジラの息子), introduced the character of Minilla (ミニラ) in the eponymous role. The Shōwa series contained three other original films with the Minilla as Godzilla’s often comical child. Minilla blew smoke rings instead of radioactive fire, and sometimes communicated with humans like in the 1969 All Monsters Attack (ゴジラ・ミニラ・ガバラ オール怪獣大進撃) where the child -zilla teaches a Japanese latchkey kid how to handle bullies and semi-slapstick kidnappings.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the original film, Godzilla returned in the 1984 Heisei period reboot Return of Godzilla (ゴジラ). The new film ignored all previous sequels and put the giant reptile at the center of a cold war nuclear standoff. When the Soviet Union loses a submarine to a Godzilla attack, the Russians launch a nuclear missile at Tokyo which is intercepted at the last minute by American anti-ballistic missile technology. It ends with Godzilla lured away from Tokyo with a bird call and trapped in a volcano. An English language version was released in North America as Godzilla 1985 and featured Raymond Burr reprising his much maligned role as reporter Steve Martin.
A major difference in the Heisei series concerned Godzilla’s origin. While the original series’ Godzillas were all awakened prehistoric creatures, the Heisei series Godzilla was explicitly created by exposure to radiation during post World War II nuclear testing. An entire film is dedicated to the origin story when aliens from the future attempt to prevent the creation of Godzilla while also capitalizing on their foreknowledge to create long time series nemesis, the three headed King Ghidorah (キングギドラ). Heisei era films also saw an expanded role for series co-star Mothra (モスラ), a giant moth that has battled and assisted Godzilla in more films than any other Toho character. Heisei era Mothra starred in her own trilogy in which she twice defeated King Ghidorah, as well as new kaiju Dagahra (ダガーラ).
The Heisei series Godzilla continued for over a decade, ending in 1995 with the release of Godzilla vs. Destroyah (ゴジラvsデストロイア) in which Godzilla dies but transfers his energy to Minilla. It is the only mention of a possible Godzilla offspring in the middle period films.
Unlike the first Godzilla-less period, the end of the Heisei series only kept the character off of Japanese screens for only four years. A third Japanese reboot of the series would take place in December of 1999, but before that could happen, an American “reimagining” became the largest Godzilla release in the character’s history.
The failure of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla is hard to measure. The film took in over $50 million at the box office opening weekend and went on to earn double its $130 million dollar budget with above average performances from stars like Matthew Broderick, Hank Azaria, and Jean Reno. However, critics and fans hated the approach and fifteen years later the film is little more than a punchline. Screenwriter Devlin apologized for the movie, blaming himself for the failure. And yet despite its many flaws, the effects and tropes created by Devlin and Emmerich that once earned scorn (broad spectrum appeal, dependence on foreign box office revenues, gratuitous CGI destruction of US cities), are now staples in American action films, particularly Marvel’s superhero films. The American version even features a post-credit sequence in which an undiscovered Godzilla egg hatches in the NYC subways. A setup for a sequel that never happened.
A large part of 1998 Godzilla’s biggest failure was its elision of anything meaningfully Japanese. Godzilla is a quintessential Japanese monster, an unanswerable enigma perpetually threatening the island nation even when the giant is the country’s only defense against other kaiju. The 1998 Godzilla mimics the 1954 film’s opening with the creature’s initial human contact resulting in the death of everyone on board a Japanese fishing ship, but then the action shifts to the former French Polynesia.
Another Devlin and Emmerich failure was the monster’s “reimagined” French origins. Mid-90s Gallic nuclear testing is blamed for mutating a native iguana species of Tahiti.
While American and Japanese fans hated the Emmerich version, its appeal among foreign audiences is part of what makes the film’s success hard to dismiss. The movie earned $240 million dollars in combined overseas ticket sales and was seen in diverse markets. In an interview with NPR about his book Securing the City, The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey reported that the film “was huge with Third World audiences… They loved the spectacles of destruction, and some of Al Qaeda’s acolytes clearly found them inspirational.” While being tortured by CIA waterboarding, alleged 9/11 planner Abu Zubaydah claimed one of the organizations plans was “hitting ‘the bridge in the Godzilla movie.’” Zubaydah’s torturers were unfamiliar with the reference and rented the movie to find out what he meant.
As part of a planned film series, the 1998 theatrical release was followed by an animated version that continued where the American film left off. Godzilla: The Series ran from fall of 1999 to April 2000 on the Fox network. 90210 star Ian Ziering provided the voice for the character portrayed in the film by Matthew Broderick. Co-stars included SpongeBob SquarePants’ Tom Kenny and Gargoyles’ Brigitte Bako. Like the film, an impressive array of guest stars including Pamela Adlon (Louie), Mae Whitman (Arrested Development), Kevin Michael Richardson (The Cleveland Show), and Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes) lifted the series above standard Saturday morning fair. However, negative associations with the failed movie, coupled with the series competing with the twin ‘90s juggernauts Pokemon and Digimon, the animated Godzilla did not last long.
The Japanese public was less than forgiving. When Godzilla was revived a year later for the third time, in a group of films collectively known as the Millennium Series, the American character design was included for mockery twice. First in the 1999 film Godzilla 2000 (ゴジラ2000) when Orga, the giant monster battling Godzilla bites into the creatures arm, and starts to turn into an American Godzilla resembling clone. In 2003, when the American rights to the character expired, Toho Studios renamed the character Zilla, and featured the American monster in the final Millennium series film, 2005’s Godzilla: Final Wars (ゴジラ ファイナルウォーズ). Among all the monsters Godzilla fights in the movie, the battle with Zilla is the shortest.
Millenium Series Godzilla erased the Heisei origin story of a Godzilla created by exposure to American atomic testing. Instead, the new Japanese Godzilla was a version of the original kaiju, whose attacks Japan has learned to predict and deal with like seasonal typhoons. The Millennium series movies skipped back and forth across time with most in the series existing separately from each other, but all linked to the original 1954 Godzilla. Although Millennium Series films show Godzilla being killed on several occasions, Final Wars ends with Godzilla and Minilla going off into the sunset alive, well, and—it has been suggested—forgiving humans for their mistreatment of the environment.
The newest Godzilla directed by Gareth Edwards will be the first American production featuring Godzilla battling other kaiju, one of the Japanese series’ defining characteristics. Missing are frequent Japanese co-stars Mothra and King Ghidorah with the eponymous reptile instead fighting MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) similarly awoken by human environmental damage. In an interview with The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern, Godzilla’s newest director cites “Man vs. Nature” as the “predominant theme of the film.”
Japanese fans, still raw from the 1998 remake, have been wary of a new Godzilla but questions of quality miss the point of both the original film and the intentions behind any remakes. Concerns about maintaining the original’s spirit have haunted even the Japanese remakes of the series. Visual effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya (円谷 英二), who created the original Godzilla, directed war propaganda films for Japan using many of the techniques that would prove useful in the coming half-century's monster movies.
The use of models and mutable film speeds produced cinematic recreations so high quality that none other than U.S. General Douglas MacArthur confiscated footage created by Tsuburaya, to mimic the attack on Pearl Harbor, and passed it off as authentic to It’s A Wonderful Life director Frank Capra for use in American propaganda. When the war ended, Tsuburaya had trouble finding work in the Japanese film industry because of his work on those films. With foreign military forces still present in Japan, and widespread U.S. nuclear testing occurring in the South Pacific, Tsuburaya, director Ishirō Honda, and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka had to tread a fine line between commentary and allegory.
While the cinematic fear of nuclear mutation has often taken the form of enlarged monsters, in 1954, the same year as the original Godzilla’s release, the U.S. tested its largest nuclear weapon, codenamed Castle Bravo. The blast released 15 megatons of destructive power. As documented in the 2011 film Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1, the inhabitants of the Utirik, Rongelap, and Ailinginae Atolls suffered extensive burns to exposed skin, accelerated rates of lethal cancers, and birth defects that affect survivors down to the third generation that remains in diaspora to this day. Unlike Godzilla, Nuclear Savage has yet to reach large or small screens in the U.S. with exhibitions on PBS being scheduled and cancelled on multiple occasions.
For more than half a century, while Godzilla has risen from the depths time and time again, several of the islands and atolls at the center of imperialist nuclear testing have remained irradiated and uninhabitable with both the U.S. and Japan passing the buck on caring for the long term consequences of that exposure. Perhaps the most famous quote attributed to Tanaka, and echoed by the Blue Oyster Cult song, “From the beginning [Godzilla] has symbolized nature's revenge on mankind.”
In the new Godzilla, the opening credits recreate footage and documents from those South Pacific nuclear tests, with the suggestion that they were purposefully conducted to stop a Godzilla attack. No mention is made of the Marshall Islanders, but a key plot point focuses on the ethics of employing defensive nuclear weapons in populated areas.
Allegorical characters, by virtue of their deliberately masked purposes, make perfect screens on which audiences, critics, and filmmakers may project their fears without limiting their symbolic nature in a specific place or time.
That Godzilla has persisted for 60 years is a testament to the power of that allegory in processing the cognitive dissonance required by industrialized societies dealing with the tragic intersection of unprecedented scientific advancement and lingering ethnic supremacism.
If nothing else, the new Godzilla represents an American film acknowledging the deliberateness of human radiation exposure as a result of nuclear testing, a position even the US government has been reluctant to admit.
Then again, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Although there is hope that the newest Godzilla would be different, a Google map promoting the new film, available at TrackGodzilla.com, suggests otherwise. Zooming in on the map allows users to follow the creature’s path of destruction. Among the areas with the most fictional devastation are the Honolulu metropolitan area—including Pearl Harbor—and several of San Francisco's Asian majority neighborhoods, including Chinatown.