A Brief Guide to the Lizard King of Tokyo
by Sean Axmaker
He's the King Kong of the post-nuclear age, the James Bond of giant monsters (he takes his cities shaken, not stirred), Toho's most successful series star and the most prolific monster to step inside (or on top of) a studio. Over the course of 25 films in over 40 years, Godzilla has been everything from rampaging menace to Tokyo's savior to doting dad and has inspired a zoo of imitators (Gamera the fire breathing turtle being the greatest of them) and a misguided American remake that feels less daikaiju (giant monster) than Jurassic Park in Manhattan, but only Japan knows the real creature. He's Godzilla, he's back, and he's still pissed!
Born in the wake of Hiroshima and America's nuclear tests in the Pacific, Godzilla entered the international scene as an avenging devil rising from the radioactive ashes of the atomic age. In the US we had Them!, Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis, and of course, the proto-zilla of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, but these nuclear spawn all lacked one key element: personality. The scaly gray one became the "it" monster, 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.
There's nothing cute or camp about Godzilla (1954). Director Ishiro Honda (a former assistant to Akira Kurosawa) directs this dark nuclear parable in a solemn key, aided by Akira Ifubuke's distinctive, brooding score. Rendering Tokyo like a neo-realist film, 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.
Joseph Levine, who also imported the Steve Reeves Hercules films from Italy and dubbed them for American release to great success, cut the film by some 30 minutes and added new footage with Raymond Burr as American reporter/narrator Steve Martin. Melding him with the characters and scenes of the Japanese production doesn't come off exactly seamlessly, but Burr's grave intonations capture the same sober tone of the Japanese original and, let's face it, the real reason to see the film is Godzilla's devastation of Tokyo. It's magnificent, a beautiful, painstakingly constructed city smashed to pieces in a dream-like, slow speed by a rampaging, 150-foot lizard screaming a horrific cry of anger and anguish.
Sure, it's a guy in a rubber suit, but "suitmation" (Toho's gimmicky name for the process) became the basis of all kaiju eiga to follow and a convention of the genre. To American eyes, suitmation simply looks cheap and campy, but at its best, the dreamy moments of the Big G tearing through Tokyo (overcranked to give it a power and sense of scale) have an otherworldly beauty and even the less convincing super monster battles of future films maintain a certain charm.
While Godzilla began as a devastating force majeure, his transformation began early on. Dead at the end of Godzilla, his twin returns for Godzilla Raids Again (1955), the first of a seemingly unending succession of turf wars. With a slimmer, leaner suit, he's still the big guy on the block, and after his battle with Anguirus, takes a seven-year vacation before returning to wrestle with King Kong (a deformed, lumbering suitmation monster) in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and Mothra in Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964).
If Godzilla is the king of monsters, then Mothra is the regal Queen. Against the clumsy, plodding dark gray of Godzilla's annihilating rampages, the delicate, ethereal marionette Mothra gently glides on rainbow wings on a mission of peace and protection. Accompanied by the pixie princess twins who communicate with their deity through song, Godzilla vs. Mothra is a daikaiju fairy tale of exquisite color and fantastic imagery and considered by most fans to be the apex of the series.
With his fifth outing, Gidorah, the Three Headed Monster (1964), former enemy Mothra convinces the scaly gray one to change sides and defend Earth from the marauding three-headed dragon from space. Gidorah's bat-winged body and energy blasting serpentine heads, bobbing and twisting like a frenzied Medusa, is a different sort of marionette than Mothra: restless, malevolent, a snaky civilization smasher. Against this new personification of pure evil, Godzilla begins his transformation into a kinder, gentler monster, a hero for Earth who now teams up with other monsters, laughs, even dances for joy in a childlike, earth-pounding jig.
With Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965, starring American B actor Nick Adams), the series receives a threat from its first of many alien civilizations, the scheming, black leather and purple attired inhabitants of the devastated Planet X who turn Godzilla, Rodin, and Gidorah (the "Monster Zero" of the title) against Earth. Godzilla goes space age!
Godzilla's decline in the 60s came when the earnest one-on-one contests turned into tag team wrestling bouts aimed at a more juvenile audience. The cycle reaches its nadir with the juvenile Son of Godzilla (1967), the adolescent fantasy Godzilla's Revenge (1969), and the tired Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). These low budget editions shamelessly recycle old effects clumsily melded with shoddy new footage. Welcome to Godzilla's camp period of uninspired monsters and a goofy looking suit with large doll-like eyes and an oversized head. The American versions are even more poorly dubbed than their predecessors, only amplifying the goofy narratives: these films are simply silly, if perversely entertaining.
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