Godzilla Is Still The King

“Godzilla” first premiered in 1954, which means he turns 65 this year.  He’s eligible for Social Security and Medicare now, but something tells me he won’t need it.

“Godzilla” was created as an artistic response by Japan as a way to deal with the tragic sense of loss, destruction and death brought about by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  And although Godzilla has transformed over the years to a lovable anti-hero, if you look back at the original “Godzilla” from 1954 (and not the Americanized one released a year later with Raymond Burr inserted into the movie to make it look like he is there so there will be a draw for American audiences), there is nothing lovable about him.  He is angry at being woken, violent for no discernible reason, and he’s on the warpath. He is a force of nature bringing about death and destruction just as the atomic bomb had done nine years earlier.

“Godzilla” was a hit in Japan, and an even bigger hit with international audiences.  In 1955, he appeared again in “Godzilla Raids Again,” but it was in 1962, with “King Kong vs Godzilla,” that Big G’s path to lovable anti-hero was forever sealed.  1964 brought us two of Godzilla’s perennial foes in “Mothra vs Godzilla” and “Ghidora, The Three-Headed Monster.”  (Mothra is a giant moth, and Ghidorah is, well, a three-headed winged monster.) Over the next 10 years, what is referred to in Godzilla history as The Shōwa Period (named for the Shōwa period in Japan as all of these films were produced before the death of the “The Showa Emperor” – Hirihito – in 1989) Godzilla would appear in another 10 movies, the most notable of which might be “Son of Godzilla” (however cringe-worthy it is) in 1967, and “Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla” and “Terror of Mechagodzillain” 1974 and ’75, respectively.

These “Godzilla” movies are easy to make fun of.  They are campy and cheesy, but that is what makes them – and him – so goshdarn charming — and lovable!  I am not sure who he is teaming up with here, but I do think that is Megalon he is fighting.  Also, pay attention to all the different sounds of the monsters roars’.  You cannot say Toho did not pay attention to detail here.

During this decade, Godzilla attained a worldwide fandom and created a cult-like fan base, and I have to admit that with some influence from my cousin Jesse, who was a year older than me, I became a part of that fandom.  And it didn’t hurt that almost all of these movies were on constant rotation on The Superstation WTBS.  Nor did it hurt that in 1978-79 he had his own animated TV series.

If I saw a Godzilla toy, I wanted to have it.  If I couldn’t think of something to draw, then I would draw Godzilla.  Though the early drawings were missing a lot of detail, he was fun to draw because he was easy – well, except for the fins on his back.  I could find no pattern to those fins, and I was never happy with how they turned out.

But enough about me.  During the 21 years between 1954 and 1975, worldwide audiences proved they couldn’t get enough of the big green guy with the radioactive breath.  He became the most recognizable aspect of not just of Japanese popular culture, but the entirety of Japanese culture.  He has the most distinct roar in maybe all the Universe.  It was was created by the composer of the 1954 Godzilla soundtrack, Akira Ifukube, who dragged a resin-coated leather glove along the loosened strings of a double bass.

And in 2015, Godzilla was named by the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo the official culture ambassador of Japan!

But back to the 70s.

When the Showa Period ending, and there was no new Godzilla movies coming out, American rock band Blue Oyster Cult, famous for their song The Reaper in 1976, released “Godzilla” in 1977.  Never heard that song?  Well, check it out.

Though it’s definitely a fun song, and the opening lyrics pay tribute to his anti-heroic but lovable nature (“With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound/He pulls the spitting high-tension wires down…”) the closing lyrics keep true to the original spirit of the song: “History shows again and again/How nature points out of the folly of man…”

Alas, it wasn’t until 1984 that Godzilla would return to the screen again in what is referred to as The Heisei Period, which lasted until 1995.  Toho rebooted the franchise during this period, the first feature of which was called, aptly enough, “The Return of Godzilla.”  Notable matchups would’ve included another bout with “King Ghidorha” in 1991, “Mothra” in ’92, “Mechagodzilla” in ’93, and though I never saw it even though it sounded fun, “SpaceGodzilla” in ’94.

Unlike the Showa Period, the Heisei Period movies are set in a single timeline, with each film providing continuity to the other films, and brings Godzilla back as a destructive force of nature that is feared by humans. The biological nature and science behind Godzilla was discussed a lot more in this era, showing the increased focus on the moral aspects of genetics. “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” gave the first concrete birth story for Godzilla, featuring a “Godzillasaurus” dinosaur-like creature that was mutated by nuclear radiation into Godzilla.

These movies are mostly unfamiliar to me as by 1985 (when “The Return of Godzilla” was released in America as “Godzilla 1985”) my parents were entering into the early stages of their divorce, after which came junior high school, and then high school, during which I was working.  After graduating in 1993, I went right to collage, and so I missed most of this period.

Interesting to note about the periods, and even between movies, is how Godzilla’s appearance changes.  While it is always easy to tell that Godzilla is a man in a suit, his appearance gets less scruffy looking.  He starts to get a little bit leaner.  And even as he becomes more lovable during the Showa period, he he starts to look more menacing.  When the Heisei period opens, they look to immediately move Godzilla away from his lovable nature, wanting to restore the powerful, destructive, nature-unleashed image to our favorite kaiju.

What?  You’ve never heard the term kaiju?  No, it is not a cool word created by Guillermo del Toro for his movie “Pacific Rim.”  And no he did not steal it.  Kaiju, though it was originally created to describe a Japanese film genre feasting giant monsters attacking major cities and engaging the military and other monsters in battle, seen came to be the name of the monsters in the movie.

And though Godzilla is not technically the first kaiju (I’m skipping over lots of etymology about that word), 1954’s Godzilla is considered to be the first kaiju movie.  Which, in a way, makes Godzilla the first kaiju.

By the late 90s, the creators of “Independence Day,” Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, decided they wanted to bring their own particular brand of destruction to the Godzilla, and in associate with Toho Studios, the studios that have owned the rights to Godzilla since his inception, they brought us the simply titled “Godzilla” in 1998.  The redesign they gave us certainly looked like nothing that had come before. 

Whereas Godzilla had looked like a monster in the earlier designs, in this iteration he looked more like a giant mutant iguana.  Which is fine, but when the movie is called “Godzilla,” the monster is expected to look a certain way.  Apparently, when the design for the creature was unveiled to the execs, the designers has to tell them to just give it some time.  At last, the Toho execs signed off.  While the teasers hinted at a movie that was going to be just as fun as all the old Showa Period movies I grew up watching on WTBS, the final product was none of that.

Yes, size might matter, but so does plot.

The first thirty minutes gave us what we wanted in a Godzilla movie, but the rest was just sound and fury – and a creature that seemed to change size depending upon how big it needed to be for a certain shot.  And it didn’t help that the entire movie, with the possible exception of Jean Reno, who appeared to be the only one having fun, was entirely miscast.  I like Matthew Broderick and all, but who thought he was right for this movie?

At least Godzilla got a fun rendition of “Brain Stew” from Green Day on the movie’s soundtrack.

So bad was the reception to this movie that the planned sequels were cancelled, and even Toho ultimately decided that not only was this not a Godzilla movie, but the creature in it wasn’t Godzilla.  In the Godzilla-verse, the creature’s name has been shortened to Zilla.  And of course no mention is made of the animated series that it spawned.

The best thing to happen in 1998 to Godzilla was the picture book for kids called “Godzilla Likes to Roar” by Kerry Milliron and Illustrated by Bob Eggleton.

The next period, The Millennium Period, brought another reboot to the franchise.  It began in 1999 when even Godzilla got in on the Y2K craze of ending every title with 2000.  The name of the movie – “Godzilla: 2000.”  He fought Mothra and King Ghidorah again, and the period ended in 2004 with “Godzilla: Final Wars.”  Like the pervious period, most of these movies (there are two exception in this period) are set in a single timeline, and are considered a direct sequel of the 1954 original.

The next period, the current period, was Rewai.  It began in 2016 with “Shin Godzilla” and includes the animated Godzilla trilogy now available on Netflix – “Planet of the Monsters,” “City on the Edge of Battle,” and “The Planet Eater.”

“Shin Godzilla,” more than any Godzilla movie before it, really seeks to return Godzilla to his roots as that of a terrible, destructive force from which there is no escape, and nothing that can be done to prevent it.  (What does “Shin Godzilla” mean?  It can be taken a couple of different ways – New Godzilla, True Godzilla, or God Godzilla.) While the atom bomb inspired the first Godzilla, this “Shin Godzilla,” the 29th in the franchise, is inspired by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster as well as the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

There is definitely nothing lovable about this Godzilla.  It seems to exist to solely to cause death and destruction.  As such, in a major redesign (this Godzilla retains the spirit of Godzilla and manages to retain the shape of what we expect, while changing it up in a way we could have never expected) this Godzilla’s lower jaw opens up so that the whole mouth opens like a flower.  Why?  Because that way he can breathe more fire and cause more destruction.

I have not seen this movie, but judging from the scant clips available on YouTube, the focus of this Godzilla is on the death and the destruction, and the idea that humans are mere insects on this world that belonged to other creatures far before and longer than it ever belonged to us.

This year – May 31 – sees Godzilla return again in the sequel to Legendary’s 2014 “Godzilla.”  The 2014 movie was… interesting, but I can’t say it was engaging.  The effects were amazing, and Godzilla looked the most realistic he has ever looked, but…

The movie promised us Bryan Cranston, who dies in the first act.  And for a movie called “Godzilla,” we don’t even see the titular creature until almost an hour into the movie.  And although it is a grand entrance – an entrance that was shown to us in the teasers – it feels like it’s almost not enough.   Especially when Godzilla engages in battle with the MUTOs for the first time (the MUTOs were his nemesis in this movie, and they get way more screen time than he does), and we CUT AWAY FROM THE BATTLE.

Sigh…

But what do you expect from a director who made a movie called “MONSTERS” and almost never showed you the monster.  I am not lampooning Gareth Edwards.  “MONSTERS” was made on a much smaller budget, but when you have the budge that “Godzilla 2014” did, and when the movie is called “Godzilla,” fans like me want to see a lot more kaiju.

This years “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is directed by Michael Dougherty (who wrote “X2” and “Superman Returns” and wrote and directed “Trick ‘r Treat” and “Krampus,” the last of which was also interesting but oddly dispassionate) reunites Godzilla with Mothra and King Ghidorah, and also Rodan, a giant winged creature reminiscent of a Pteranodan, who has not been mentioned here but has been another of Godzilla’s perennial go-to badguys.  (According to Wikipedia, Rodan is not part of the Godzilla franchise, though he was eventually brought into the franchise.  I am not sure why.   But there you go.) The trailers for “Godzilla: KOTM” look awesome, especially the one set to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

I can only hope it is more emotionally engaging than 2014’s “Godzilla.”

What does the future hold for our favorite radioactive-fire breathing giant green Kaiju?  In 2020, he is slated to fight Kong again, the Kong that appeared in “Kong: King of Skull Island” (a delightfully insane and fun movie), and after that…. The future appears murky.  Legendary doesn’t have the rights beyond that movie, and it is wonder if Toho might have something up their sleeve.

One thing is for sure, though:

If we forget our place in the grand scale of things, Godzilla will be there to remind us.

“History shows again and again. How nature points out of the folly of man…”

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