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A Potted History of Godzilla
by Robert Hood

Named "Gojira" in his native Japan, Godzilla first hit the big screen in 1954. This first Godzilla film was directed by Ishiro Honda (friend of film legend Akira Kurosawa, for whom he often worked as second-unit director) and produced by Toho Studios at what was, then, extraordinary cost. Though clearly inspired by the success of the US "Beast from 20,000 Fathoms", Godzilla was from the start a very Japanese creation, here representing the nuclear paranoia that had become part of Japan's national psyche post-Hiroshima. Scenes of Tokyo devastated by the nuclear monster's fiery breath, its population crushed and burnt by radiation, leave little doubt as to the metaphorical undercurrent that drives the film. Seen in its original form, it remains a powerful and atmospheric experience to this day.

An enormous success in its own country, "Gojira" was soon acquired by US distributors, who completely re-edited it, excising most of its human story and replacing it with scenes featuring a US reporter, played by Raymond Burr. Re-named "Godzilla, King of the Monsters", the film gained worldwide popularity… and spawned both an industry and a genre. To date, there have been 28 Godzilla movies (2004), in which the iconographic monster takes on a variety of roles -- from nuclear terror to national hero, fighting human aggression and alien menace with equal aplomb. These films are known as "daikaiju eiga", literally "giant monster movies". There is a whole genre of them in Japan (with forays elsewhere), featuring endearing monstrosities such as Gamera, Rodan, King Ghidorah and Anguilas - and filled with cityscape stomping, alien weirdness and impossible science. Yet Godzilla remains the King of them all.

Following a rushed sequel, "Godzilla Raids Again" (or "Gigantis, the Fire Monster" as the badly hacked US version would have it), Toho Studios (and director Honda) pitted Godzilla against King Kong, though the original version of this film is a humorous and biting satire of corporate commerce in Japan rather than the political document it is sometimes claimed to be. American International acquired the US rights to "King Kong vs Godzilla" and re-edited the film - this time without a shred of respect, turning what remains a prestigious A-grade film in Japan into a cheap, campy C-grade travesty.
Godzilla 1954

Following the huge box-office success of "King Kong vs Godzilla" (in Japan), Toho and director Honda took Godzilla along increasingly fantastic by-roads - and shed all those rationalised Western motifs they had appropriated from "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" and "King Kong". "Mothra vs Godzilla" ("Godzilla vs the Thing") has a very Japanese sensibility and is arguably the real beginning of the daikaiju eiga genre. In "Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster" Godzilla becomes more sympathetic, defending the Earth from invading aliens. This theme is continued in "Godzilla vs Monster Zero" and recurs from time to time up to the eventual end of the first Godzilla era in 1975 ("The Terror of Mechagodzilla"). In the meantime Godzilla would fight international terrorists ("Godzilla vs the Sea Monster"), ecological experiments ("Son of Godzilla"), yet more aliens ("Godzilla vs Gigan" and "Godzilla vs Megalon"), and even schoolyard bullies ("Godzilla's Revenge"). A highlight is 1969's celebratory extravaganza "Destroy All Monsters", which includes 11 of Toho's giant monsters in an alien-invasion free-for-all.

Despite attempts to revitalise the franchise (for example, replacing nuclear fear with fear of pollution in "Godzilla vs the Smog Monster", and bringing back Honda to direct with "Terror of Mechagodzilla"), the series ran into financial problems and was cancelled. However, you can't keep a good monster down, and Godzilla was eventually resurrected as "Gojira 1984" ("The Return of Godzilla"), again re-edited in the US to include original "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" star Raymond Burr ("Godzilla 1985"). This film went back to the beginning, ignoring the existence of all but the 1954 original.

But the real resurrection only occurred in the 1990s. In "Godzilla vs Biollante", "Godzilla vs King Ghidorah", "Godzilla vs Mothra", "Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla 2" and "Godzilla vs Space Godzilla", the nuclear monster found new life. These films were even more expensive, with spectacular effects, beautifully designed rubber-suits and vast, outlandish stories. Of course as good as they are, these modern films are not universally successful, and for many the early films remain the benchmark. By now, of course, Godzilla had become a huge cultural icon, not only in Japan, but in the rest of the world, too. In 1995, however, Toho killed off their hero-monster in "Godzilla vs Destoroyah". This film's scenario features a monster created from the dangerous weapon ("The Oxygen Destroyer") used to defeat the original Godzilla back in 1954.

This 'retirement' made way for what many had waited for - an expensive Hollywood blockbuster featuring their favourite Mon-star. The result, "Godzilla" (1999), directed by Roland Emmerich, was an utter disappointment, not because it wasn't spectacular, but because it wasn't Godzilla. The US Godzilla turned out to be an ordinary, albeit large, CGI lizard, without mythic resonance, without personality, without the real Godzilla's devastating indifference to humanity's weaponry. This pretender was a hunted animal, not a morally ambiguous force of nature. Gone was everything that made the world love Godzilla, and the cries went up like a soaring pteradactyl.

Encouraged by this reaction, Toho Studios returned to the series (and to its rubber-suit aesthetic), producing two excellent films, "Godzilla 2000 Millennium" and "Godzilla vs Megaguiras". Again Godzilla was redesigned and again the story began anew by ignoring both previous sequences.

Then in 2001 came "Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters' All-Out Attack" under the creative helm of Shusuke Kaneko, who had previously directed what many consider to be the greatest of daikaiju eiga -- the Gamera trilogy of 1995-1999. "GMK" (as it is known) took Godzilla in yet another direction, turning the dubious science of the genre into fantastical metaphysics. Godzilla was depicted as an incarnation of the war-dead and the other monsters guardian spirits seeking to protect the land from his wrath. Though not universally popular because of the radical re-working of the monsters' roles and perceived shortcomings in its ideology, "GMK" was an effective, often-powerful film, with some of the best-imagined and executed SFX scenes in any of the G-films, and garnered some extravagent reviews.

Godzilla 2002

In the following two films -- Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) and Godzilla, Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003), the monster-hero's foe is a bio-engineered Mechagodzilla, forged from Godzilla's own DNA, as obtained from the skeleton that was all that remained of the original Godzilla in 1954. The design harks back to the G-design of the Millennium Godzilla, while Mechagodzilla looks slicker and more awesome than ever. The two films work well back-to-back, the continuity is so tightly orchestrated.

Meanwhile, at the start of 2004, Toho announced that the 50th Anniversary Godzilla film would go into production in April. It would be a celebratory extravaganza, a virtual remake of the previous "celebratory" film, "Destroy All Monsters" (1969). "Godzilla: Final Wars" premiered in Japan in December 2004. Though the hoped-for worldwide theatrical run never eventuated, the film received festival viewings in the US, Australia and elsewhere, and in December 2005, a US DVD release.

With a bigger budget, slightly longer production period, 10 other monsters in attendance, location shoots in New York, Paris, Shanghai and Sydney, and a high-profile action director in the person of Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus), the film proved to be a fitting, if controversial, tribute to Godzilla's 50 years on the screen.

Unfortunately, it may also be the Big G's last appearance for some time. Toho has also announced that, due to declining box-office takings, Godzilla will go into hibernation for 5 to 10 years. Well, that sort of thing has been said before, and it came to nothing. Only time will tell. Already there has been talk of a 3D IMax Godzilla film, this one featuring Hedorah, the Smog Monster, to be directed by the 1971 film's original director, Yoshimitsu Banno. Godzilla's legions of fans will continue to hope that the end - the real end - is nowhere in sight. Nuclear terror, spiritual allegory, force of nature, childhood role model, national hero - in whatever form he may take, Godzilla lives on!



© 2004, 2005 Robert Hood


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