The lead monster character in a series of successful Japanese science fiction films, Godzilla has rampaged across movie screens worldwide for over 40 years. His popularity and recognition rivals that of Superman and Mickey Mouse. In Japan, where he is known as Gojira, he has dominated popular fantasy for every generation to come of age since the 1950s. The films have inspired toys, games, clothes, model kits, comic books, novels, fan magazines, candy, television commercials, and countless imitations. Godzilla movies are often lumped in with B-grade and camp cinema in America, where audiences almost exclusively see edited, badly dubbed versions of the Japanese originals. Fans who investigate the series carefully discover that many entries, particularly the early ones, are thoughtful, well-crafted efforts by respected members of the Japanese film community. Though an American remake in 1998 did not fare as well as expected, the character maintains a loyal following in the United States and abroad. The "King of the Monsters," as he has been called often, is likely to reign for years to come.
Godzilla's screen debut was in Toho Co. Ltd.'s Gojira (1954). The name, meaning "whale-ape," was allegedly inspired by a burly studio employee. Gojira was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever produced in Japan, costing around $900,000. The film was a huge success—grosses topped $7 million—and the film spawned a new style of Japanese cinema: the kaiju eiga, or giant monster genre.
Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was first inspired to make a monster movie by the successful reissue of RKO's King Kong (1933) in 1952. By the next year, a new breed of American science fiction creature, the giant monster, was drawing audiences to U.S. theaters and the newly popular drive-ins. Films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Them! (1954) played off Cold War anxieties; the monsters' creation and/or release on the world was the result of nuclear energy. The terror of nuclear war took physical form as the atomic mutant. As the only nation ever attacked by atomic weapons Japan had its own reasons to fear such mutations, and memories of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were still fresh in the early 1950s. Gojira turned these fears and memories into cinematic terror.
As an enduring character Godzilla is largely the product of four men. Producer Tanaka oversaw the original Gojira and remained with the series through the 1990s. Director Ishiro Honda was a friend and colleague of Akira Kurosawa, arguably Japan's greatest cinematic genius. A visit to Hiroshima in 1946 inspired in Honda a desire to tell the story of atomic devastation on film. He regarded monsters as tragic figures, the result of mankind's abuse of technology. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya was an admirer of Willis O'Brien's stop-motion effects in King Kong. His work in the Godzilla films pioneered what would come to be called "suitmation" (suit + animation); his monsters were played by actors in molded latex suits. The process eventually became synonymous with Japanese monster movies, though not everyone could do it as well as Tsuburaya. Composer Akira Ifukube was a respected classical musician and scholar. His score, parts of which reappear subsequently in the series, became nearly as recognizable as Godzilla himself. The booming contrabass perfectly symbolizes the monster's rumbling gait.
Gojira came to America two year later as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). B-movie producers Richard Kay and Harold Ross purchased the American distribution rights from Toho and, along with Joseph E. Levine, adapted the film for U.S. audiences. The dialogue was dubbed in English (as would be all successive U.S. theatrical and TV releases of Godzilla movies.) The producers reconstructed the original sets to shoot new footage with Raymond Burr as American newspaper reporter Steve Martin. All mentions of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were edited out. Godzilla, King of the Monsters opened in New York City in April, 1956. Levine promoted the film heavily, and it proved a huge hit in the United States, becoming the first Japanese picture to play outside art cinemas, in mainstream first-run theaters.
In film, success breeds sequels. Toho released its second Gojira film, Gojira No Gyakushu (1955) ("Gojira's Counterattack") only months after the first, and a year before the creature's American debut. With this feature, Toho began its longstanding practice of selling the rights to each of its monster movies individually. Warner Brothers acquired Gojira No Gyakushu for the American market. They did not, however, acquire the name Godzilla, even though Toho owned it and could have sold it to them. Consequently, the film was released as Gigantis the Fire Monster (1959).
The sequel received a somewhat shabbier treatment than its predecessor. Warner originally intended to construct an entirely new film using only the special effects sequences from Gojira No Gyakushu, but it was never made. Instead the Japanese original was dubbed in English. Voice performers include George Takei, who gained fame as Star Trek's Mr. Sulu, and Kung Fu's Keye Luke, best known then as Charlie Chan's number one son. (In 1978 he would again lend his voice to a Japanese-to-American adaption when Sandy Frank brought the animated Science Ninja Team Gatchaman to America as Battle of the Planets.) Narration was provided by Daws Butler, who gave voice to a number of Hanna-Barbera's animated characters. Stock footage of rockets and creature effects was added. The original score by Masaru Sato was replaced with music from Universal's film music library, including the theme from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Upon release Gigantis the Fire Monster was placed on a double feature with the American Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), a film so bad its director was never allowed to make another.
Godzilla disappeared from theaters until 1962 while Toho and Ishiro Honda branched out to other creature features like Radon (1956) (called Rodan in America) and Daikaiju Baran (1958) (U.S. title Varan the Unbelievable). The monster's return came about due to the efforts of Willis O'Brien. His concept for a King Kong sequel, wherein the giant ape fought a rebuilt Frankenstein monster, was purchased by Toho. They took out Frankenstein and added Gojira. Tanaka, Honda, Tsuburaya, and Ifukube all returned to the positions they held on Gojira. The film they made, Gojira tai Kingukongu (1962), departed from the atomic age terror themes of the first two films, taking a more comedic, family-friendly tone with elements of slapstick and satire. It became the most widely seen Gojira film in Japan.
The U.S. release, Universal's King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), loses much in the translation. Sequences are cut, and scenes of English-speaking television reporters are added in a attempt to clarify the truncated action. Ifukube's score is gone, replaced by music from the distributor's previous films. Without the subtleties of the original, the film is little more than an extended build-up to a fight between two men in monster costumes. For the first time, American audiences received a taste of what the genre would devolve into in a few short years.
For years after the film's release a rumor circulated among fans that there were two different endings to King Kong vs. Godzilla. Allegedly, Godzilla is triumphant in the Japanese version, but the outcome was changed to please U.S. audiences by having "their" monster win. The story, though, is apocryphal. Kong is, and always was, the winner.
Gojira/Godzilla returned in 1964 in Mosura tai Gojira, known in the U.S. as Godzilla vs. The Thing. This time Godzilla's enemy is a Toho-created monster, the title creature of Mosura (1961), called Mothra in America (she is a benevolent giant moth). In this film the creative team of Tanaka, Honda, Tsuburaya, and Ifukube delivered a somewhat different, but extremely enjoyable, spin on the kaiju eiga motif. For the last time until 1984 Godzilla is portrayed as a threat to the world. Mothra is called upon to fight the lizard, though she has just laid an egg and is about to die. A battle royal ensues. In what is likely the most touching sequence in the entire series, Mothra sacrifices herself fighting Godzilla. Soon after she dies, her egg hatches—and two larval Mothras emerge. They spin a cocoon around Godzilla, who falls into the ocean in defeat. The film reprises the more purely fantasy atmosphere of Mothra, bringing back the two pretty, six-inch-tall female fairies who act as heralds to the creature. The women are as memorable a part of the film as the monsters: they speak in unison, and sing a song to Mothra whenever they wish to call her. The emotional core of Godzilla vs. The Thing has long made it a favorite of fans, many of whom regard it as the high point in the series.
Godzilla, Mothra and the twin fairies, and Rodan returned only nine months later in Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964). While not on the level of its immediate predecessor, it is an exciting film with much action and excellent suitmation effects. It is most notable as the beginning of Godzilla's "good monster" phase. Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra team up to rid the earth of the menace of Ghidrah, a golden, fire-breathing dragon from outer space. In Japan, the monster was understood to be a metaphorical representation of China, symbolizing Japanese fears of Maoist expansionism. This was largely lost on American matinee audiences. Mothra, always a good monster, jumps into the fray immediately, but Godzilla and Rodan would at first rather fight each other. They eventually experience a change of heart (after a "discussion" in monster growls and roars) and the three earth creatures drive Ghidrah back into space.
For the rest of the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Godzilla films closely followed a formula established by the next entry, Kaiju Daisenso (1965). The title translates as "The Giant Monster War" though the U.S. title is Monster Zero, or Godzilla vs. Monster Zero for home video versions. In this film, an alien race tries to take over earth using a monster. Godzilla stops them. It was the first Godzilla film to use an American actor, Nick Adams, in the original cast. Director Ishiro Honda left the series for a time after this film, citing his reluctance to humanize Godzilla. His vision and style would be sorely missed.
Godzilla releases had become an annual event for Toho, but with increased quantity came decreased quality. Ebirah, Horror from the Deep (1966)—better known as Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster —saw Jun Fukuda step in as director. Akira Ifukube was replaced. Godzilla is missing from the first half of the picture, which is padded out by a story of a group of young men who discover an island where the natives are being enslaved by a vaguely defined paramilitary organization based on another island. Godzilla fights their monster and puts things right. Son of Godzilla (1967) is an outright children's film. Godzilla and his little mutant lizard son, Minira (Minya in the U.S.), battle a giant spider. The baby Godzilla is laughable; he resembles Barney the Dinosaur far more than he does Godzilla. His freakish appearance and strange, crying noises make him Toho's most annoying creation.
Kaiju Soshingeki (1968), released in the U.S. as Destroy All Monsters, was the last vestige of the exciting and creative original Godzilla series. In an attempt to regain its older fans, Toho pulled out all the stops. Honda returned, and so did most of Toho's stable of monsters. As the film begins all of the monsters are exiled to a peaceful life on a remote island. But aliens again attack earth, taking control of the monsters and unleashing them on major cities. After much destruction, the earth people regain control of the creatures and turn them on the aliens—only to have Ghidrah appear out of space, leading to a final decisive showdown. Naturally, the good monsters win. The film offers more action than the previous two combined. For a brief moment, the excitement which spawned the films' earlier success was back.
From Godzilla's Revenge (1969) and through the 1970s the Godzilla films went steadily downhill. Eiji Tsuburaya died and Ishiro Honda left Toho. Fukuda returned as director. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971) tries, unsuccessfully, to integrate anti-pollution messages with its juvenile monster story. While the monster Hedora (meaning "pollution") is an interesting amalgamation of aquatic creature and industrial waste, he is not nearly enough to redeem the picture. Godzilla on Monster Island (1972), known on home video and cable as Godzilla vs. Gigan, sees the lizard destroying an amusement park (complete with Godzilla attraction) which serves as a base for aliens and their monster. In a creative move perhaps more misguided than the creation of Minira, Godzilla speaks. In Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), he is teamed with Jet Jaguar, a robotic rip-off of the popular television character Ultraman (who was, ironically, the creation of Eiji Tsuburaya). The series was now firmly lodged in juvenile territory. Megalon, along with Sea Monster, would eventually become fodder for cable's Mystery Science Theater 3000, wherein a man and his robot puppets mercilessly mock the worst movies ever made. Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster (1974) featured a robotic "Mechagodzilla." Honda and Ifukube returned for Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), but it was too late. There would be no more Godzilla movies for nine years.
Godzilla was temporarily gone, but definitely not forgotten. By this time his name and image had entered the popular consciousness. In the United States the movies played as reruns on local television. With Star Wars (1977) creating a boom in science fiction, the door was open for new Godzilla product. In the fall of 1978, NBC offered The Godzilla Power Hour as part of its Saturday morning children's lineup. The series was an animated adventure from Hanna-Barbera. Ted Cassidy (Lurch of The Addams Family) provided Godzilla's roars. Godzilla's adventures were packaged with other animated shows in various combinations and aired until May, 1981.
Godzilla's true return came with the remake/sequel Gojira (1984), released in the United States a year later as Godzilla 1985. Based on an original story by Tomoyuki Tanaka, the film takes Godzilla back to his origins as a city-stomping bad monster. Raymond Burr returns (in the American version) as the reporter Martin (but not Steve this time), the only living American who had seen Godzilla during his initial attack. The story ignores the sequels. Heavy promotion on both sides of the Pacific helped the film achieve some financial success, despite a nearly universal critical drubbing. Godzilla's new profile even earned him appearances in TV advertisements for Nike shoes and Dr. Pepper soft drink.
The King of the Monsters was back. Toho's new sequels, starting with Gojira tai Biorante (1989), never reached American theaters, though it did receive an official U.S. home video release as Godzilla vs. Biollante. As they became available on VHS and laserdisc in Japan (and sometimes before), the new Godzilla films began to be traded among tape-collecting fans in America. These unauthorized copies, known as "bootlegs," kept Godzilla alive in front of the eyes of a small but very dedicated and resourceful group of monster-movie lovers. Toho continued through the early 1990s, as Godzilla once again met Ghidrah, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla, as well as Space Godzilla. The new series climaxed with Gojira tai Desutoroia (1995). Godzilla is apparently wiped out by a weapon called the "oxygen destroyer," the same device which had dispatched him in the 1954/1955 film. His end came mainly to make way for yet another incarnation: a big-budget, Hollywood treatment of the story.
An American Godzilla film seemed only logical given the success of Steven Spielberg's dinosaur epic Jurassic Park (1993). Digital technology made realistic dinosaurs possible on the screen. A script was written which had the lizard being discovered in the Pacific and shipped to New York City for study, where he breaks loose and wreaks havoc. Jan DeBont, fresh from his success on the film Speed (1994), was set to direct. DeBont believed only a huge epic could sell Godzilla to a 1990s audience. "You can do a Godzilla movie two ways," he declared, "like the Japanese do it with men in costumes and miniatures … the other way is to do it right." Though he stressed the need for a compelling story, he still seemed to view the digital special effects as the key. Fortunately for him, it was two other filmmakers who would learn firsthand how wrong he was.
DeBont left the project over TriStar's refusal to let the budget exceed $100 million. The studio was subsequently acquired by Sony, who could afford to put that and more into a film. The project fell into the hands of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, creators of the hugely successful alien invasion movie Independence Day (1995). Hopes were high among fans and studio executives when the pair announced that their next project would be a Godzilla adaptation. It soon became the most anticipated film of 1998. Posters, merchandise, and theatrical trailers (which did not show the monster) whetted the public's appetite. Other studios shuffled their summer release schedules; none wanted to open their event movie (expected blockbuster) against the King of the Monsters. Box office gross in the United States alone was expected to reach $250 to $300 million.
Trouble appeared even before the film's release. Devlin and Emmerich scrambled to make the announced release date of May 18, 1998. Time to finish the digital effects grew short. Many full-body shots of the monster were replaced with quicker, cheaper ones of the feet or tail. Fans and the press wondered why no still photos of the monster were being released. The budget reached $125 million, with tens of millions more spent on promotion.
Godzilla (1998) opened big, but disparaging reviews and bad word-of-mouth soon took their toll. Many fans were left unimpressed by the redesigned Godzilla, who looked and moved like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The scaled-down effects were further diminished by much of the action taking place at night, in the rain. The slim plot lifted elements from previous science fiction hits, including Alien (1979) and Jurassic Park. Large quantities of tie-in merchandise went unsold. Hardcore fans took to referring to the new monster by the acronym GINO: Godzilla in Name Only. The dank, charmless film earned $138 million dollars in America, and another $221 million overseas. Godzilla became the latest example of a relatively new species in Hollywood: the $100 million-plus grossing flop. While not a financial disaster of Waterworld (1995) proportion, it was nonetheless a major disappointment in relation to cost and expectation. Most in Hollywood agreed that, at least in the immediate future, a sequel was unlikely.
All was by no means lost for Toho's best known creation. The 1998 movie was released on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD, earning more than respectable figures on sales and rentals. Fan publications such as G-Fan and countless internet sites feed the public's appetite for news and discussion on the character. In 1999 Toho announced tentative plans for a new Japanese film which would take Godzilla into the new millennium. More importantly, the character is alive in the imagination of moviegoers worldwide. Godzilla is like Dracula or the Frankenstein monster: he will never die, no matter how many times movie heroes might kill him. He is inescapable, a part of our culture and language. His shadow looms large not only over Tokyo Bay, but anywhere lovers of fantastic films sit facing a lighted screen or cathode ray tube, awaiting the next jolts of excitement and adventure. The King of the Monsters has well and truly earned his throne.
—David L. Hixson
Aberly, Rachel. The Making of Godzilla. New York, HarperPrism, 1998.
Bock, Audie. Japanese Film Directors. Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco, Kodansha International, 1978.
Bueher, Beverly Bare. Japanese Films: A Filmography and Commentary, 1921-1989. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1990.
Galbraith, Stuart, IV. Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films: A Critical Analysis of 103 Features Released in the United States, 1950-1992. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1994.
Glut, Donald. Classic Movie Monsters. Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow, 1978.
Harmon, Jim. The Godzilla Book. San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1986.
Lees, J. D., and Marc Cerasini; compiled and edited by Alice Alfonsi. The Official Godzilla Compendium. New York, Random House, 1998.
Lent, John A. The Asian Film Industry. London, Christopher Helm, 1990.
Lovece, Frank. Godzilla: The Complete Guide to Moviedom's Mightiest Monster. New York, Morrow, 1998.
Kalat, David. A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1997.
Mellen, Joan. Voices from the Japanese Cinema. New York, Liveright, 1975.
Tucker, Guy Mariner. Age of the Gods: A History of the Japanese Fantasy Film. Brooklyn, New York, Daikaiju Publishing, 1996.
Waldecki, Michael E. Godzilla Goes to Hollywood. M. E. Waldecki, 1985.
Brought to life by atomic radiation, the giant fire-breathing lizard known as Godzilla has been terrifying movie audiences since the 1950s. The Japanese character's fame spread around the world as Godzilla films were dubbed into many languages. Perhaps only King Kong (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2) exceeds Godzilla in popularity among gigantic movie monsters.
Godzilla is called Gojira in his native Japan, where he first appeared in a 1954 feature. Created by filmmakers at Toho Studios, including director Ishiro Honda (1911–1993), Godzilla was meant to symbolize Japanese fears of nuclear devastation following their experience in World War II (1939–45). The original film, in which the crazed atomic lizard demolishes the city of Tokyo, struck a chord with Japanese audiences and earned more than $7 million at the box office. In 1956, the film was released in the United States in a dubbed version (that is, a version with a different sound track, usually in a different language) entitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters. American actor Raymond Burr (1917–1993) from TV's Perry Mason (1957–66; see entry under 1930s—Print Culture in volume 2) and Ironside (1967–75) appeared in new footage explaining Godzilla's rampage to English-speaking audiences.
Godzilla proved such a hit worldwide that many sequels were made. In them, Godzilla invariably fights other monsters, including Rodan, a flying lizard, and his own robot double Mechagodzilla. Over time, Godzilla lost his appetite for destruction and became a "good guy," saving Japan from attack by other creatures. Twice, Hollywood (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2) has tried to adapt Godzilla to suit American tastes, with Godzilla 1985 and again in 1998 with a big-budget Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick (1962–). Both films proved critical and commercial disappointments.
Away from the movie screen, Godzilla has become a beloved part of popular culture. In 1978, he served as the host of his own animated Super Power Hour on Saturday morning television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3). Godzilla toys, games, and models have been big sellers for more than thirty years. Godzilla has even been the subject of popular songs. The 1977 Blue Oyster Cult hit "Godzilla" sang the praises of the cinematic lizard. In 1998, Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page recorded "Come with Me," a Godzilla-themed rewrite of the Led Zeppelin (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4) song "Kashmir" for the Godzilla film soundtrack. The most recent big-screen feature of the king of the monsters may have proved a dud, but few doubt he will one day reclaim his throne. Audiences, it seems, have a simple message when it comes to Godzilla: long live the king.
—Robert E. Schnakenberg
For More Information
Harmon, Jim. The Godzilla Book. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1986.
Lees, J. D., et al. The Official Godzilla Compendium. New York: Random House, 1998.
Lovece, Frank. Godzilla: The Complete Guide to Moviedom's MightiestMonster. New York: Morrow, 1998.
Ryfle, Steve. Japan's Favorite Mon-Star. Toronto: ECW Press, 1999.
Godzilla ★★½ 1998 (PG-13)
Overthetop remake of the 1954 cult classic has nuclear testing in France creating a giant mutant lizard to destroy all boats, piers, people, and buildings that happen to get in its way. Gone are the days of a man in a rubber suit menacing Tokyo, replaced by state-of-the-art special effects. Third rate storyline has wimpy biologist Niko Tatopoulos (Broderick) hired to track down and connect with the beast, only to realize that Godzilla has chosen the Big Apple as the birthing place for its huge brood. When various supporting characters (including Reno as a French secret agent out to destroy Godzilla) cross paths with the creature, what results looks amazingly similar to one hugely successful dinosaur movie and its sequel. Ending leaves door wide open for an inevitable sequel of its own. 138m/C VHS, DVD, UMD . Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria, Kevin Dunn, Michael Lerner, Harry Shearer, Arabella Field, Vicki Lewis, Doug Savant, Malcolm Danare; D: Roland Emmerich; W: Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin; C: Ueli Steiger; M: David Arnold. Golden Raspberries ‘98: Worst Remake/Sequel, Worst Support. Actress (Pitillo).