You’re all familiar with Godzilla, the gargantuan fire-breathing monster who’s often associated with rubber suits and stomping through model cities. But there’s a lot more to Japan’s most famous monster than that, which is why he’s the King at the end of the day.
The idea for Godzilla came from the mind of Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer for Japanese studio Toho who, inspired by Hollywood monster movies like King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, as well Japan’s socio-political climate at the time, wanted to introduce a new cinematic icon that the Land of the Rising Sun could call its own. So, Toho hired Ishirō Honda, a filmmaker who cut his teeth working as a second unit director for Akira Kurosawa, to take the reins for the film that became the trendsetting monster opus we all know and love.
Gojira was released in Japan in November, 1954 and was an instant hit that resonated with national audiences at the time for horrific and heartbreaking reasons the upcoming video essays will explore. The film also spawned a decades-spanning franchise which has remained at the forefront of the pantheon of kaiju and giant monster films it paved the way for ever since. Here, we’ll look at how these movies about colossal creatures causing havoc have stayed relevant after all this time. With Michael Dougherty’s King of the Monsters on the way and looking like something special indeed, now is the perfect time to do so.
The Soul of Japan
The cultural significance of the original Godzilla movie cannot be understated. Entire books have been written about the film’s myriad of themes and how it reflected the fears and anxieties of a post-war nation that had experienced nuclear devastation first-hand. It’s also a movie about reflection, as the monster’s onslaught also serves as metaphor for Japan atoning for its own war crimes, as well as the traditional past reinstating itself on a nation that had become westernised following American Occupation. However, atomic terror is the most prominent theme in Honda’s 1954 masterpiece, and this video by kaptainkristian explores how the franchise’s horrific inaugural entry manifested the fears of a zeitgeist still re-adjusting to life after nuclear fallout in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Lucky Dragon Five incidents.
The Evolution of a Monster
To fully appreciate the Godzilla franchise, one must accept that the events which took place in previous instalments are rarely ever relevant to an ongoing narrative. As noted by Jason Barr in “The Kaiju Film: A Critical Study of Cinema’s Biggest Monsters” (which is a must read book for all monster enthusiasts), the Godzilla movies are similar to Doctor Who, in the sense that they are constantly regenerating to appeal to contemporary audiences and modern times. Whether the monster is a devastating force of terror hell-bent on destroying Japan or a kid-friendly superhero out to protect the country from monster invaders, G has been retooled time and time again for a variation of purposes. This video by FSD Productions explores the various versions of the King throughout the years.
Godzilla will always be synonymous with Japan and her cultural heritage, but that doesn’t mean that the kaiju king isn’t relevant abroad as well. Roland Emmerich’s 1998 misfire marked the first attempt to repurpose the monster for the international mainstream, and while it’s a fun creature feature in its own right (fight me), it’s a Godzilla film in name-only in the eyes of most G-fans. The 2014 reboot from Gareth Edwards, on the other hand, finally gave the King an admirable Hollywood makeover that honored the monster’s legacy; from both a thematic perspective and through its portrayal of the beast. This piece by cinemusing does a great job of highlighting how the 2014 film gave the colossal creature a new lease of life at Legendary Pictures and successfully reinvigorated themes pertaining to nature and humankind that have always been associated with the movies. Only time will tell if Legendary’s Monsterverse will live up its potential, but if their future Godzilla movies are as good as the first then maybe they’ll give Toho’s best a run for their money.