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.
Not all the films of this period are write-offs. If mad monster parties are your thing, then you gotta love Destroy All Monsters (1968), the highest daikaiju quotient of the series with twelve monsters! Destroy All Monsters establishes 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!"). The trippiest picture of the cycle, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), is 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 the pollution spawned monster, Hedorah, who tokes on a belching smokestack like a giant putrid bong.
With the one-two punch of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) and The Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), the Big G celebrated his 20th anniversary with a new mechanized menace (a robot monster replica of the scaly one), alien invaders who look like refugees from a low budget Planet of the Apes knock-off, mad scientists, spies, secret agents, and a terrific tough new suit with a fierce head design and peacock-like silver dorsal plates. Terror reunites the scaly one with original director Ishiro Honda (who directed all his best outings) and composer Akira Ifubuke (who revives his brooding score), but while the first Mechagodzilla film was a hit, the sequel flopped and Godzilla took a temporary retirement, wading back into the sea for a 10 year hibernation.
In 1984, Japan's Toho Studios revived the Big G for his 30th Anniversary celebration with Godzilla 1985 (original title: The Return of Godzilla). As much a direct sequel to the original film as a revisionist remake, Godzilla 1985 sweeps away the past 30 years of campy sequels and returns the Big G to the awe and solemn grandeur of the mighty first feature. The fierce fighting machine we all know and love came back lean, mean and menacing. Taking the cue, American distributor New World recruited Raymond Burr to reprise his role from the American version of the original and once again added new footage to their cut and paste presentation, this time not as smoothly or seriously. In American theaters, the film was preceded by Marv Newland's animated spoof Bambi Meets Godzilla.
The film flopped in the US but played to stomping room only crowds in Japan and led to the Big G's second wave (the "Heisei" Series) and a whole new generation of fans. None of the films ever surfaced theatrically in the US and only one - Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) - made it to video before 1998 (when the big budget American remake made all things Godzilla suddenly hip, or at least commercial), but fervent American kaiju eiga fans have followed the Big G's new big budget, candy-colored, growth-inducing adventures through import laserdiscs and bootleg tapes before they finally appeared stateside on tape and DVD: Godzilla vs. King Ghidora (1991), Godzilla vs. Mothra: Battle For Earth (1992), Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993) and Godzilla Vs. Space Godzilla (1994). In 1995, having grown to twice his original size (over 300 feet tall!), time traveled, been born once again, and battled with his greatest foes, Toho celebrated the Big G's 40th by killing him off in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, a knock down, drag out match where Godzilla passes the torch to Godzilla Junior with a blast of radioactive energy.
Junior will have to wait to take up the mantle of king of the monsters, though, for Toho, in the wake of the Roland Emmerich's CGI makeover of the Big G in the 1998 American remake, decided to back the lizard king and return him to his roots. Godzilla 2000 (1999) finds the Big G alive, well, and once again a man in a scaly rubber suit. The effects are digitally tweaked but the old joys are back: The crunch of lovingly detailed buildings rendered to splinters in a single step, the rubble and dust left in the wake of a prehistoric body slam, the noble profile of the scaly gray one in action... It's a juvenile thrill that CGI can't touch.
Godzilla 2000 is the first in Toho's "Alternate Reality" series, one-offs that reinvent Godzilla for stories that stand outside of the series. Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: All Monsters Attack (2001) are still waiting to stomp stateside, but in Japan, the king of the monsters is still on top. Monster movies never die, they just get bigger.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Godzilla's Japanese name, "Gojira," is the combination of the words for gorilla ("gorira") and whale ("kujira"), purportedly the nickname of a portly Toho publicist. His American name is simply a phonetic approximation. His second film, Godzilla Raids Again, was originally released in the US as Gigantis the Fire Monster and the Big G renamed Gigantis in the dubbing. Why? Apparently distributor Warner Bros. assumed Embassy owned the name "Godzilla," when in fact the Americanized moniker is a Toho creation and copyright. The title has been changed back but the dubbing remains the same.
IT'S NOT EASY BEING... GRAY?
Because the first two films were in black and white, American poster makers went with their own instincts and painted the Big G a deep forest green. Enter King Kong Vs. Godzilla, his first color feature, and lo and behold, the radiation spawn is charcoal gray. Too late to stop the merchandising mishaps: to this day almost every model, toy and comic book still paints him the color of money.
What exactly is Godzilla? Scientists' best guesses (from the films, natch) make him a cross between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a dorsal-finned Stegosaurus. How did he get here? Dormant all those years under the ocean, he was revived and mutated by repeated nuclear tests in the Pacific. Godzilla's son Minya comes from a preserved egg unearthed by a radioactive storm in Son of Godzilla and quickly adopted by a suddenly paternal Godzilla who begins to teach the little one monster survival skills, but he (thankfully) disappears after three features and a cameo in Godzilla vs. Gigan.
THE LION'S ROAR
According to Godzilla historians J.D. Lees and Marc Cerasini, the Big G's trademark roar was achieved by composer Akira Ifukube rubbing a contrabass with a resin-coated leather glove, and then reverberating the noise. His distinctive earth-pounding footsteps are the result of thick, knotted rope whacking a kettle drum.
PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE ZIPPER
Harou Nakajima was one of the two men who brought Godzilla to life and continued playing the scaly one in twelve more films (in addition other Toho creations).
THE VOICE IS FAMILIAR BUT I CAN'T PLACE THE FACE...
Among the dubbing actors for the early American versions of the Godzilla films are George ("Star Trek") Takei and two legendary animation voice performers Paul ("The Flintstones") Frees and Daws ("Yogi Bear") Butler. So whose voice is the only one undubbed in American versions? You guessed it, Godzilla (that is, until Godzilla vs. Gigan - see below).
Yes, Godzilla does communicate in monster grunts and roars as early as Gidorah, the Three Headed Monster, but he actually has a conversation with his monster buddy Angilus in Godzilla vs. Gigan, speaking not only English but contemporary slang (in Japan, the conversation was accomplished with cartoon-like word balloons). That failed experiment was never repeated.
For one film only, the Big G tucks his tail between his legs and uses the force of his radioactive breath as a jet propulsion to chase Hedorah in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.
AND THE WINNER IS...
As in the case of the original Godzilla, the American release of King Kong Vs. Godzilla was extensively recut and combined with new footage, but rumors have persisted that Toho shot two endings: one where Godzilla wins for the Japanese market, and Kong emerging victorious for the American version. Contrary to such rumors, both versions are essentially the same - a draw!
In Mothra's debut film she resides on Beiru Island; in Godzilla vs. Mothra, it's called Mothra Island, and in Gidorah, the Three Headed Monster, it's suddenly become Infant Island. Godzilla vs. Mothra was inexplicably released in the US as Godzilla vs. the Thing and though the title has been changed back, she's still continually referred to as "The Thing" in the dubbing. Between Destroy All Monsters (set in 1999) and Godzilla's Revenge (back to a contemporary setting), Monsterland turns into Monster Island.
Sean Axmaker has written countless reviews for, among other publications, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Weekly as well as the DVD column at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).