Today: June 21, 2024

Godzilla: Monster Icon

This year not only marks the 60th anniversary of a movie legend, but an all new, highly anticipated blockbuster (or should that be block-stomper?) film. Ed Boff takes a brief look at the big screen career of the trend-setter in Kaiju (City-Destroying Monster) movies … the one … the only … Godzilla.

The Original
1954; the atomic age of monster movies is in full swing. Inspired by titles like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and a recent re-release of King Kong, Japanese studio Toho decided to create their own giant monster, Gojira. This film had a grim tone and edge to its nuclear inspired storyline that could only have come from Japan. The monster’s rampage and its aftermath have obvious parallels with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, less than a decade previous. The climax wasn’t a huge battle, but a moral debate; a metaphor for the Cold War nuclear escalation then happening. To this day, the film has a truly unique power, with its grainy, black & white photography setting a stark mood (and admittedly hiding more than a few special effects shortcomings). Its success was down to Ishirô Honda‘s direction, Akira Ifukube‘s music and Eiji Tsuburaya‘s model work (all of them would contribute to later kaiju movies and shows). There would never be another film in the series quite like it.

The Showa Era (1954-1975)
Gojira was a massive success in Japan, and the re-edit/dub Godzilla, King Of The Monsters made waves in box offices around the world. Originally the film only got one sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, while Toho and the creative team worked on some colour Kaiju titles like Mothra and Rodan (both would later co-star with Godzilla). But in 1962, he returned in full colour for the legendary monster battle, King Kong vs. Godzilla. After this, there was a new film on a near annual basis, in which the King fought a huge number of foes, including Ghidorah, Gigan and Ebirah. Over the course of these, he became far less of a terrifying embodiment of nuclear destruction, and more like a superhero defending Japan. Films like Son Of Godzilla further humanised him, and made the franchise more kid-friendly. This era sadly also give us some of the worst films with more budget-conscious entries into the franchise like Godzilla vs. Megalon, where he co-stars with Jet Jaguar, a robot designed by a six-year-old (no joke). This run of fifteen films ended in 1975 with Terror Of Mechagodzilla – one of the best of the whole series.

The Heisei Era (1984-1995)
In time for his 30th anniversary, Toho released The Return Of Godzilla/Godzilla 1985. This was sort of a reboot for the series, as it was a direct sequel to the 1954 original, ignoring all the other movies. This meant, amongst other things, that Godzilla was back as a source of chaos and devastation, which is how he remained for all the following films. The effects were also a big change, as a bigger budget, animatronics and other new technical tricks were available. This reboot spawned sequels which, after 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (another series highlight with a unique time-travel plotline) went annual again. After seven films, the run climaxed with Godzilla vs. Desotroyah, where the King of Monsters actually died when his nuclear-powered heart went into meltdown. A bold move – which made the news around the world, even in countries where the films weren’t available. This was done partially in note of the character’s 40th anniversary, but also to clear the decks for the Americans to take over the character.

Going Hollywood
Tri-Star pictures got the rights to Godzilla, and were planning to do their version in 1994. A script was written, director Jan De Bont was on board, and Stan Winston was set to do the special effects, but this promising entry into the Godzilla franchise was shelved because of budgetry concerns before any footage had even been filmed. This left Roland Emmerichin charge of the 1998 Godzilla and fans … were not pleased. The film isn’t that bad a monster movie (any film with Jean Reno in can’t be all bad). The problem is, that it’s not Godzilla. The monster looks nothing like him and doesn’t have any of his trademark aspects, like the atomic breath. The tone and style were wrong too, with the film more interested in borrowing from Jurassic Park than being faithful nto the Godzilla lagacy. The best way to sum this up is with the fan nick-name for it, GINO: Godzilla In Name Only. It did lead to a quite good Saturday morning cartoon series, though, which was a lot truer to the character and style of the originals.

The Millennium Series (1999-2004)
Only a year after the US film, Toho released Godzilla 2000 as if to say “let me show you how it’s done”. The film kicked off yet another yearly run of films. It’s worth mentioning that the main reason the films were able to keep to this schedule is because of the continued use of “guy in a rubber suit-mation” for the monster effects. This may seem technically crude, but if shot well the results can be impressive, and it has the advantage of being able to be done fast. This run also took the interesting approach of having all the films in their own continuities. Only one film (Tokyo SOS) was a direct sequel to the previous (Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla). This mant that the films had a lot of variety. In Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, there’s even a pretty unique supernatural angle. This series ended after six films with the 50th anniversary grand finale Godzilla: Final Wars, a huge title featuring a vast number of kaiju from the series. In a neat touch, one of Godzilla’s foes is GINO himself … who does not fare at all well against his namesake.

So Gareth Edwards‘ take on the character has quite a lot of film lore to draw on – in addition to all those Godzilla branded comics, games and such. The most successful of these are the ones that keep one essential premise in mind. When he was conceived, he was essentially a walking atomic blast, but over the years he’s morphed into a big lizard-shaped, overwhelming and unstoppable force of nature. That’s makes him uniquely Japanese – representing a country which is well-used to being on the receiving end of natural disasters and nuclear attacks. All of these informed the character of Godzilla, and the signs are that Edwards’ new film not only understands this but also enthusiastically embraces it.


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