A History and Critique of the Greatest Monster Movie Series in Cinema
**Massive spoilers for every Godzilla movie, with the exception of the 2014 reboot, and Mothra follow**
August 6th and 9th, 1945 forever changed the course of history. When the first nuclear bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, World War II ended, but a new fear was born that dominated the thoughts of all men, women, and children for decades to come. The Cold War, atomic bomb testing, a cartoon turtle telling children to “duck and cover”, and this new technology that had the actual potential to literally end the world changed the perception of what was scary. Art reflects life, so cinema began to capitalize on these fears. Gone were the days of creepy castles, cobwebs, bats, vampires, werewolves, and the other iconic images that ruled genre cinema in film’s earliest decades. Science fiction was larger than ever and giant ants, giant octopi, terror from beyond the stars, and seafaring reptiles dominated the silver screen and created a sense of awe that few other types of film were able to achieve at the time. Though the creatures that dominated the silver screen of the 1950s had their moment and faded into film history to make way for zombies, murderous hillbillies, and masked killers, one beast would transcend the times, would continually be reinvented, and remained the most famous monster to ever be put to celluloid. 60 years later, Godzilla still remains the king of the monster.
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” was a famous line of Hindu scripture that was quoted by J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the leading scientists involved in the making of the atomic bomb. Tortured by the thought of how his creation would be used, Oppenheimer spent much of the rest of his life warning about the potential dangers of nuclear weaponry. With over 200,000 people killed during the nuclear bombings, the real horror of the radiation became apparent. Cancer, disease, and mutation were all too common side effects of radiation poisoning.
On March 1st, 1954, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru or the S.S. Lucky Dragon 5, a tuna fishing boat with a crew of 23 men was on what was to be its final voyage. While fishing in a safe area near Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the sky lit up with a bright light, and a short time later a booming sound hit the boat. Nearby a U.S. nuclear bomb test was twice as powerful as anticipated and the crew was exposed to fallout of the bomb. Feeling ill and suffering from a wide range of symptoms, the crew docked a week after initial exposure. A medical examination confirmed their condition. Seven months later Aikichi Kuboyama, the boat’s radioman, was the first human being to die from nuclear bomb testing. The other crew members survived the ordeal, but the incident caused widespread fear across Japan of the continued effects of the bomb and tests in the Pacific.
In American films like 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms by Eugène Lourié, with special effects by the legendary master Ray Harryhausen, these types of stories were finding great success. In need of a film, Toho Studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka read about the Lucky Dragon and was inspired. Tanaka hired several writers to work on a script; eventually the duty came down to Ishirō Honda and Takeo Murata to write the film. Honda would become the film’s director and vital to the franchise and Toho’s entire slate of sci-fi films in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. The film was only referred to as G (as in Giant) at this point, but it was intended to be called The Big Monster From Underneath the Sea. The title was far too long and it was eventually changed to Gojira. It has been a much debated topic, but the word is said to come from the combination of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale, “gorira” and “kujira”. There is a myth of a large Toho employee with the name being the inspiration, but the existence of the man has never been proven.
On a tight budget and a very short amount of time to get the film finished, stop motion effects like those in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was out of the question. That meant that prolific pioneer of Japanese special effects Eiji Tsuburaya, was tasked with somehow creating this new creature. Going through several totally different iterations, the final design was inspired by a combination of multiple dinosaur species. A stunt person in a suit would play the creature, which was remarkably heavy at 250 pounds, and an all-around struggle to work in due to the weight and intense heat inside the suit (Kaiju suit actors were prone to passing out on the job).
Newcomers Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, and Akihiko Hirata were cast as Hideto Ogata, Emiko Yamane, and Daisuke Serizawa respectively. To bring a little bit of clout to the picture, veteran actor, and eventually star of a whopping 21 films of Akira Kurosawa, Takashi Shimura was also cast as the wise Dr. Kyohei Yamane. Akira Takarada was the breakout star of the film and would go on to star in many of Toho’s big sci-fi films, including different roles in multiple Godzilla films, Half Human, and King Kong Escapes. Haruo Nakajima, who would play the monster in every Godzilla film through 1972, was the man in the suit. Filming went underway and the little B-monster movie would soon be unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
The film opens with a quiet scene on a Japanese fishing boat. The sea is calm. The crew is kicking back after a hard days work. Suddenly a flash of blinding light illuminates the water around the boat and a booming sound echoes through the air. There’s an explosion and the ship begins to sink. Hauntingly similar to the Lucky Dragon, this scene sets the tone for the rest of the films, a dark commentary on weapons of mass destruction and war. Godzilla rages through Japan and leaves nothing but devastation in his wake. The film is filled with disturbing imagery of a cityscape on fire, children mourning over the bodies of their deceased parents, and an atomic bomb personified as a 50-meter prehistoric beast. Hirata’s Dr. Serizawa is an Oppenheimer-esque character, a scientist who has created the Oxygen Destroyer, a new weapon that has the power to obliterate the world if used improperly. Serizawa is certain that the weapon will only bring harm, so in a heroic act of self-sacrifice, he kills himself along with Godzilla after unleashing the Oxygen Destroyer. The weapon dies with its creator and with that the film ends on a somber note.
Though it may seem like a cheesy ’50s B-movie to some, Gojira is an incredibly rich and heavy film. It’s dark and ripe with metaphor that comments greatly on a nation’s fears. Released on November 3rd, 1954, not even a decade after Hiroshima, the film had a profound effect on Japanese audiences. On top of the nuclear issues addressed in the film, Godzilla can be seen as a symbol for nature itself. Humanity has warped and twisted the planet for its own needs, and Godzilla and future monsters are forces much larger, older, and more powerful than any human can possible fathom. Godzilla is the unknown and it is the folly of man that creates or wakes these monsters.
Another standout aspect of the film is the score by Akira Ifukube. It is funny to see how many of the defining pieces of Godzilla mythology were there from the very beginning, and that includes the film’s music. The main pieces used in the film would be used time and time again in the series, and the few films that would pass on these musical pieces would feel like a little something was missing. The big blaring trombone that heralded the arrival of Godzilla could send chills down your spine. The big symphonic orchestra that would play during military or monster fights always added to the excitement or terror.
The film is not only one of the great sci-fi or monster movies ever made, it is simply one of the greatest films ever made. King Kong may have been the first film to make the idea of a giant monster popular, but it was Gojira that defined the genre and remains the shining example of what all other kaiju film should aspire to be. Ironically, Japan’s first bout with kaiju cinema was the silent short film Wasei Kingu Kongu in 1933 and King Kong Appears in Edo in 1938, but both are now considered to be lost films, never screening outside of Japan before their disappearance. Not only did Gorjia introduce the world to Godzilla, but it was the first in a slew of kaiju (giant monster) films in Japan, mostly from Toho.
Godzilla didn’t become a legend by being a heavy and depressing Japanese anti-war film though. In order to become the most famous monster in history, it had to make the leap across the pond to the USA. A common practice of the time when dealing with cheaper genre films from other countries was to heavily modify the film and Americanize it. Gojira became Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and large portions of the film were cut out and replaced with newly filmed sequences with Perry Manson and Rear Window star Raymond Burr. Terry O. Morse directed these new scenes, and the themes that made the original cut so important were almost non-existent. The American version was released in 1956 and though not nearly as good as the uncut original, Godzilla: King of the Monsters was the only way to see the film in America legally until the original was released in theaters in 2004. Though some might take issue with changes found in the translation, there is the benefit of the films being more accessible to younger audiences who may not have the patient to sit through a subtitled film.
Death at the end of the original film could not keep the king of the monsters down, as he would return to the big screen in less than a year in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again from director Motoyoshi Oda. The film starred Hiroshi Koizumi, Setsuko Wakayama, Minoru Chiaki, and the only returning cast member of Gojira, Takashi Shimura, along with of course Nakajima as Godzilla. Raids Again is one of the less talked about films in the franchise, but is notable for one major thing: Godzilla fought another kaiju for the first time.
The film’s plot revolves around the discovery of another Godzilla and a new giant monster, Anguirus, a four-legged Ankylosaurus-like kaiju. Besides the fight sequences, the film is pretty unremarkable when compared to the first. It doesn’t have the lasting impact, and the message of the original is much less apparent. Steve Ryfie, author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star and a fan of the second, in his audio commentary on the film’s 2006 DVD release compares Raids Again to Nagasaki and the first film to Hiroshima. Both devastating effects, but one is more prominent in our minds for being the first and larger of the two.
Like Gorjia, Raids Again was dramatically changed for its American release. Originally the changes were going to be even radically larger and everything except for the monster effects sequences were to be reshot and replaced with white American actors. That version of the film would have been called The Volcano Monster and done by AB-PT Pictures, but the company went under and so did the film with it. Warner Brothers ended up with the film after negotiations with Toho, and the film was released as Gigantis the Fire Monster in 1959. The film was not a success in the States and all future films would use the proper name, Godzilla, in the titles.
Godzilla would rest under his icy coffin that trapped him in the second film for several years while Toho and Honda would shift focus onto other kaiju films. 1956 saw the release of Rodan, the story of two giant flying reptiles. The film utilized much of the same crew including Honda, Ifukube, and Tsuburaya. Gojia stars Akihiko Hirata and Kenji Sahara. The same crew would continue to collaborate on many films including The Mysterians in 1957, Varan the Unbelievable in 1958, and most importantly Mothra in 1961. Mothra revolves around greedy businessmen attempting to exploit a primitive island native tribe and abduct two mystical miniature twin girls known as the Shobijin. The twins only want to preserve their island’s natural habitat and ultimately the remaining habitats that have yet to be touched by radiation or pollution. The greedy entrepreneur steals the women and awakens the native’s god, Mothra, a giant caterpillar that eventually morphs into a giant moth that travels to Japan to rescue the girls. Frankie Sakai and Kyoko Kagawa star as journalists who help the twins and Mothra. While almost all previous kaiju have been forces of destruction up until this point, Mothra was the first to be the “good guy”. With strong environmentalist themes and expert craftsmanship by Honda’s team, Mothra was a success and the titular character has become Toho’s second most famous kaiju, only eclipsed by Godzilla. After Mothra and outside of future Godzilla films, the team would work on Dogora (1964), Atragon (1963), and Space Amoeba (1970) among others. Honda was a long-time friend of director Akira Kurosawa and worked on several of Kurosawa’s films including Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), and Dreams (1990). Kurosawa actually was very keen on making his own Godzilla film, but rumor has it that Toho found his vision of the film too costly to produce.
The year was 1960 and Willis O’Brien, the stop motion effects artist that revolutionized the technology in the original King Kong, wanted to bring the giant ape back to life. O’Brien conceived of an idea that he would call King Kong vs. Frankenstein in which Kong would fight a Frankenstein-like creature made from the bodies of African animals. Producer John Beck was interested in the idea, but the stop-motion was too costly and time-consuming for his tastes, so O’Brien took the idea to Toho. To celebrate their 30th anniversary, Toho wanted to bring Godzilla back after a seven-year hiatus, so they ran with the King Kong idea and swapped out Frankenstein with the Big G. Honda, Ifukube, and Tsuburaya all returned for the most famous monster mash-up since Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. For the first time, the world would see both monsters in bright Technicolor and in widescreen. Oddly enough after the film was completed, Toho attempted to have Godzilla battle Frankenstein, but that project never came to fruition, much like the classic monster’s bout with King Kong.
The film had a very similar plot to Mothra, which was written by the same screenwriter, Shinichi Sekizawa, and followed greedy businessmen as they discover an island inhabited by natives worshiping a giant unseen monster. They bring Kong back to Japan after drugging him with berry juice and he promptly escapes. He encounters Godzilla and flees after a short fight. King Kong is drugged again and he is made more powerful when the army purposefully electrocutes him as they aim him toward Godzilla for an epic battle on Mt. Fuji.
Like the first two films, many scenes of drama were cut. In their place were new scenes with actor Michael Keith playing newscaster Eric Carter, a UN reporter reporting from a satellite and a string of guests who stop by and deliver poor ’50s movie science in awkward attempts to explain the plot or the kaiju’s motives. While the first film’s Americanized version pales in comparison to the original, Raymond Burr was at least a good actor who delivered a fine performance. In King Kong Vs. Godzilla the added scenes feel forced and somehow feel more dated than the special effects. The English dubbing in all Godzilla films fiddle with the original spoken lines, sometimes only in very minor details or sometimes, as is the case with King Kong Vs. Godzilla, the dialogue is changed dramatically to a point where it changes the plot. Much of Ifukube’s score is removed and stock music from many sci-fi and horror films is used in its place, most notably the theme from Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Though the third Godzilla film is one of the most popular, it is not without its faults. A major issue is the look of Kong. The kaiju suit is easily one of the ugliest gorilla suits in the history of film. Godzilla’s new look is great and he moves like a real animal during the fights, but Kong is stiff and unconvincing. It doesn’t help that the Kong head used in the close-ups is clearly different than the actual suit and it is also pretty horrendous to look at. The plot features many unlikeable characters and strange leaps in logic that is almost too much even for a franchise and genre where logic is typically thrown out the door before the opening title pops up onscreen. Despite its flaws, the film would become one of Toho’s most profitable films in history when it was released in 1962. King Kong would go on to star in one more film from Toho in 1968 and the concept of a giant Frankenstein was eventually used in Honda’s 1965’s highly underrated Frankenstein Conquers the World.
Due to the massive success of King Kong Vs. Godzilla, Toho had Honda, Ifukube, Sekizawa, and Tsuburaya begin work on Godzilla’s fourth outing, Mothra Vs. Godzilla in 1964. Again recycling the plot of Mothra and King Kong Vs. Godzilla, the fourth film somehow not only managed to be stronger than those two films but the best Godzilla sequel of the entire Showa series (the franchise is divided into three series with Showa being the first). Darker than the previous film, heavy on themes of man versus nature like the original, but still fun, Mothra Vs. Godzilla is rightfully one of the most iconic in the franchise’s history.
The plot has the Shobijin, played by pop star sister duo Emi and Yumi Itō, again kidnapped by an industrialist played by Yoshifumi Tajima, who also has possession of Mothra’s egg. Tajima is deliciously greedy and evil in the role, but not in a comically over-the-top manner. Godzilla emerges in spectacular fashion, this time not from the dark depths of the sea, but from underground due to a recent hurricane. Godzilla’s first appearance in a film should always be one of the big highlights in the film, and Mothra Vs. Godzilla has one of his best. Godzilla continually pummels the Japanese military and eventually encounters Mothra. She is a tough opponent, having speed and flight to her advantage, but even she is no match for Godzilla and is killed in battle. There is an interesting juxtaposition between Godzilla’s ugly, menacing appearance, and Mothra’s beautiful elegance.
Not only was Mothra Vs. Godzilla one of the best films in the series, but it was the first to come to American with almost no changes to the film at all. Only a few scenes of the American military were added to some screenings in America, but these scenes were actually created by Toho when they realized the growing popularity of their films outside of Japan. The most notable aspect of the American release was actually the marketing of the film. Mothra was not a name that many American’s were familiar with and many genre films were sold on mystery back then, so the title was changed to Godzilla Vs. the Thing. No posters feature any hint of Mothra or her offspring, and one of the main posters actually had Godzilla (although the illustration didn’t look much like Godzilla) about to be enveloped by the tentacles of a mysterious creature that was hidden by the film’s title.
Next came the most ambitious Godzilla film yet and a film that was almost equally as good and important as Mothra Vs. Godzilla. Released mere months after the fourth film’s release, the world received Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. The film was important on a number of levels. First and foremost it introduced Godzilla’s most frequent, sometimes most powerful, and most famous foe, King Ghidorah. The three-headed golden dragon from space was the first beast to dwarf Godzilla and is rarely beaten without the aid of multiple monsters. Godzilla found help in the film from the enemies-turned-friends Rodan and the surviving Mothra (one of the caterpillars died between the films).
Perhaps even more notable than bringing King Ghidorah and Rodan into the Godzilla franchise alongside Mothra (beating Marvel Studios to the shared cinematic universe by almost 50 years), is the film’s shift in tone and the idea of Godzilla as a hero. Prior to Ghidorah, Godzilla was always the bad guy and was the singular threat to the continuation of the human race. Now the film had the extraterrestrial Ghidorah destroying cities with deadly intent. Godzilla and the other two monsters were positioned as heroes specifically for the growing younger audiences. Gojira is the dark and ponderous sci-fi film in the Criterion Collection for the film aficionados, but the series would go on to serve a different purpose for the remainder of the Showa era. Though still rich with themes of man versus nature, nuclear terror, and more, Godzilla films would be made to fuel the imaginations of young minds that didn’t care if the special effects looked cheap or the dialogue was a little tongue-in-cheek. To the kids who loved dinosaurs and monsters, Godzilla films spoke directly to them as they grew into the Godzilla and sci-fi fans of today.
A year later in 1965, Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah would return in Invasion of Astro-Monster. This time a race of aliens called the Xians from the newly discovered Planet X say they come in peace and only want one thing from Earth that would be beneficial to both of them: taking Godzilla and Rodan in exchange for a miracle drug. They claim they need the two monsters to fend off King Ghidorah and his continual attacks on their homeworld. The Xians expectedly turn out to be villains and now have control over all three monsters, which they send out to destroy the world. The film is also famous for Godzilla having “a happy moment“.
Released in America as Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero and as a double bill with the fantastic sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World, The War of the Gargantuas, the film is not as good as the two that came before, but it is a fun romp. The aliens are very much of their time and are wonderfully low-budget sci-fi caricatures.
It’s a shame that after such a hot streak the next two films would be some of the series worst films. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla were released almost exactly a year apart in 1966 and 1967. Both films were directed by Jun Fukuda and music was done by Masaru Sato. Tsuburaya was partially involved in the film’s special effects, but much of the work was given to his assistant since Tsuburaya had to divide his time between the Ultraman television show and multiple film projects. Ebirah is set entirely on an island where our leading character washes ashore. They encounter a group of terrorists who have learned of a way to control Ebirah, the giant lobster that guards the island. Godzilla is awakened from his slumber in a nearby cave and battles Ebirah and a giant unnamed condor in one sequence. Mothra, now a full-grown moth again, shows up very briefly to help the human characters as the island is destroyed and Ebirah is defeated.
Son of Godzilla is exactly what the title implies. Godzilla’s son, Minilla, is Toho’s worst creation and crosses a line into being too kiddy. They battle a giant mantis called Kamacuras and a giant spider called Kumonga. Both films have uninspired and uninteresting villains and Minilla is simply obnoxious and cheapens Godzilla when they interact with one another. Ebirah was initially written to be a King Kong film, which explains why Godzilla is hiding in a cave and is woken with electricity like in the Toho version of Kong.
To honor the occasion of what would be the studio’s 20th monster movie and ninth Godzilla film, Toho wanted to do something special, so with Honda returning as director and co-writer with Takeshi Kimura, Ifukube doing the score, and Tsuburaya leading the effects team, Destroy All Monsters was going to be the biggest film in kaiju history. Set in the future of 1999 where all the monsters have been corralled on an island known as Monsterland (or sometimes Monster Island). Aliens once again control the minds of Earth’s monsters and send them out to destroy all major cities, including Godzilla’s first time in America where he attacks New York. Anguirus, Rodan, Mothra, Gorosaurus (from King Kong Escapes), Kumonga, Manda (from 1963’s Atragon), Baragon (the antagonist of Frankenstein Conquers the World), Varan, Minilla, and of course the final monster that they would all need to team up against, King Ghidorah.
Destroy All Monsters is a classic. The climatic battle is really something special as Honda and Tsuburaya pull every trick in the kaiju filmmaking book.
The franchise can hold its head up high and rightfully lay claim that it includes some of the greatest creature features of all time and one film that is one of the greatest of all time, but in order to have so much greatness there needs to be a balance, and after one of the best films of the Showa era, the following film was by the worst Godzilla film in existence. That film would be All Monster’s Attack, also known in the States as Godzilla’s Revenge, a title that makes no sense since Godzilla does not even attempt to take revenge on anything. The most grossly kid-friendly of the 60-year franchise follows a young Godzilla fan named Ichiro, who is alone for most of the day while his mother works and is frequently bullied. To escape his less than ideal life, Ichiro imagines himself on Monster Island where he is best friends with a talking and size-changing Minilla. The son of Godzilla teaches him life lessons about standing up for yourself, and the two watch Godzilla fight in egregiously long scenes literally cut and pasted from Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, and Son of Godzilla. The film literally takes huge chunks of stock footage from the previous two worst Godzilla films and uses them to fluff the film’s 70-minute runtime (which feels much longer). The only original fight sequence is between Minilla and a new lame monster called Gabara, which is meant to mirror Ichiro’s real-life conflicts with bullies and a pair of criminals. All Monsters Attack is a low point for the series, and thankfully it is on an almost constant upward trajectory afterwards. The film would be Eiji Tsuburaya’s final Godzilla film before his death in 1970.
After 1969’s misfire, 1971 saw the release of one of the strangest Godzilla films ever. Yoshimitsu Banno’s Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, also know as Godzilla Vs. the Smog Monster, can only be described as… psychedelic? Hedorah is a creature born from pollution and feeds on manmade toxins. It goes through various stages during its life cycle and leaves destruction and melted human skeletons in its wake. Several scenes come off as bizarre, namely a trippy nightclub sequence where one of the leads hallucinates and sees everyone wearing fish masks, some odd animated sequences, and a very out-there moment where Godzilla fires his atomic breath at the ground in order to propel himself upwards and flies (go ahead a click the link to see for yourself, because you haven’t lived until you have). It’s all very goofy, but it’s well-intentioned fun. Despite its silly nature, the film is extremely ecologically conscious and was made as a warning about Japan’s excessive pollution.
Godzilla’s 12th and 13th outings, both directed by Fukuda, Godzilla Vs. Gigan and Godzilla Vs. Megalon, are the last two Toho Godzilla films that could be considered bad films, although not as bad as Fukuda’s first two films in the series or the clip show that was All Monsters Attack. Both feature similar plots of aliens setting loose two monsters and Godzilla teaming up with another kaiju to defeat them. Gigan features Godzilla teaming up with Anguirus to battle a new monster called Gigan and King Ghidorah. Gigan is a cool enemy, but the film is incredibly bland and unmemorable. Godzilla and Anguirus do have a weird moment when they speak to each other, which is… odd.
Megalon is the same thing where Godzilla and Gigan return, except this time a cockroach-like kaiju named Megalon replaces King Ghidorah and Godzilla’s new sidekick is a manmade Ultraman knockoff called Jet Jaguar. While Gigan was simply not a good movie, Megalon was just awful. It lazily uses stock footage from the previous film, it’s campy in all the wrong ways, and Jet Jaguar would be the worst kaiju in the pantheon of Toho creations had Minilla never been conceived (but he does have his own song, which was parodied on MST3K). It also features a Godzilla fight move that is almost as infamous as his flight in Hedorah.
So far everything Godzilla related Fukuda touched seemed to be a disaster, but somehow in his last go-around with the franchise, he was able to find redemption. 1974 marked the 20th anniversary, and Toho again wanted to celebrate a milestone with something special. To do so they created one of the most famous adversaries, the second best next to Ghidorah, in Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla. Godzilla is on a rampage through Japan and actively destroying cities in a way he hasn’t since the good old days. He’s a threat again and no one can explain why. It expertly recaptured the terror the king of the monsters once instilled. With a clever plot twist, Toho was able to have their cake and eat too and have scenes of Godzilla raging through cities again but keep him a hero. It turns out that the attacking Godzilla is a doppelganger and when the real Godzilla shows up and burns away the pretender’s skin, it is revealed that underneath is actually a weaponized Godzilla robot.
Honda and Ifukube would both return for the 15th and for the time being, final Godzilla film, Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975. Released in America in 1977 when Star Wars changed everything and expectations for sci-fi had changed dramatically in a very short time, Toho decided to call it quits on the series and to move on. In the film, the aliens are back and revive Mechagodzilla and take advantage of a distraught, mad scientist, Dr. Shinji Mafune played by Akihiko Hirata (of the original film playing a character who could’ve been Serizawa had he gone down another path), who has found a way to control an aquatic dinosaur named Titanosaurus. Godzilla is on his own with no allies and two foes in his supposed final duel. In one of the great moments in the Showa series, Honda proves that he is the master at having Godzilla make an entrance. Titanosaurus is tearing through a dark city and the only sound to be heard are his roars and a crumbling city. Suddenly a blast of the famous blue flame burns through the night sky and knocks the evil kaiju on his back. The camera cuts to the city skyline and flashes from explosions create a silhouette of everyone’s favorite monster and the iconic music begins to play. It is a thing of beauty. Godzilla fights and beats his enemies and in one final shot is seen swimming out to sea. It is beautifully poetic and a fitting send off for the time being.
The Cold War had its peaks and valleys. Tensions were high throughout the fifties and the first half of the sixties, but fear of nuclear annihilation was still ever-present and other issues around the world were even more prevalent. The ’80s saw a spike in those old fears again before it came to an end later in the decade. Nuclear energy was highly debated and the Three Mile Island accident created fear about nuclear power at home as well as outside forces. What Godzilla was originally about was relevant again. The character had been constantly parodied, referenced, and homaged in countless films, shows, commercials, and other outlets and even had a short lived Hanna-Barbera cartoon in 1978. The character’s films may have not have been the most popular movies on the planet, but he had not been forgotten. In response, Tomoyuki Tanaka and Toho greenlit a film to reinvigorate the brand.
Beginning work in 1980, the screenplay went through many different iterations with multiple writers. The closest the film got was a screenplay that had Godzilla battling a new creature. There were many Godzilla screenplays that never made it in front of the camera, but this film titled The Reawakening of Godzilla was the most famous. Bagan would’ve have been the combination of three ancient god beasts, one a fish-like creature, one an ape, and the final a dragon. They would have come together to form one massive creature that would battle Godzilla to the death. The film by all accounts would have been an epic rebirth for the character, but it was decided that the script was too big and Godzilla needed to get back to basics.
From the ashes of The Reawakening of Godzilla came The Return of Godzilla in 1984, just in time for Godzilla’s 30th. Set decades after the events of the original film and completely ignoring all the films in between, The Return of Godzilla was a reboot of the franchise and the first of the Heisei series. The Heisei era of Godzilla films lasted from 1984 through 1996 and could arguably be considered the best of the three. There is not a weak link in the bunch, Godzilla’s appearance and demeanor are consistent to the very end, the human characters are far more memorable and several of them actually appear in multiple films, and again they all are some of the highest quality kaiju films ever produced.
The Return of Godzilla brings the series back to its dark roots as a new Godzilla attacks Tokyo in search of nuclear energy to feed off of. Dark and menacing, Godzilla was back to being the unstoppable force of nature he was meant to be. The actual plot doesn’t do anything radically different than what one would expect, but it is a nice reintroduction to Godzilla.
For the first time in 20 years was a Godzilla movie heavily re-edited in the United States. To connect to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Raymond Burr returned as his character Steve Martin in the American version of The Return of Godzilla, which was retitled Godzilla 1985. In the added scene Burr was referred to as Mr. Martin because by the time the actor Steve Martin had become a household name. Martin served as mostly exposition, but Burr brought some gravitas to the less than compelling added scenes. The Return of Godzilla was a modest success at the Japanese box office but failed to gain any traction in America, resulting in it being the final Godzilla to get a wide theatrical release in the US for 15 years.
After testing the waters with The Return, the Heisei series was full steam ahead with Godzilla vs. Biollante in 1989. The new Godzilla suit in the film would remain the iconic look of the kaiju through the nineties with little to no tweaks. For many fans of a certain age, this would be the way they always remember Godzilla. In a publicity stunt to gain more interest in the upcoming film, Tanaka and Toho held an open contest for fans to create a new villain and story for the new film. After thousands of entries, Shinichirō Kobayashi, a dentist, and an amateur screenwriter won. Kobayashi’s script was changed when Toho brought in professional screenwriters and originally included a large rat kaiju, but some minor plot elements remained.
A sample of Godzilla DNA ends up in the hands of Dr. Genichiro Shiragami (Koji Takahashi), who is working for an overseas corporation to genetically enhance the grain. A terrorist bomb goes off and kills Shiragami’s daughter. Years pass and Shiragami has grafted some of his daughter’s cells to a rose, in hopes that she’ll live on in some minor capacity. Elsewhere a psychic woman, Miki Saegusa (played by Megumi Odaka), senses that Godzilla is alive and growing stronger inside the volcano that trapped him in the previous film. When the government begins work on a biological weapon to destroy Godzilla, Shiragami joins them and steals the G-Cells and infuses them into the rose. The members of the terrorist group sneak into his lab one night and are killed by large tentacle-like vines. Unable to get the cells, the terrorists detonate bombs within the volcano and set Godzilla free. A large rose kaiju with mouth tentacles, Biollante, grows from the lake near Shiragami’s home, and Godzilla is drawn to it. He seemingly kills Biollante, inadvertently sending plant spores into the air, and he continues his path of destruction. Biollante eventually returns, larger, more dangerous, and with a new look that is almost a mixture of a Venus flytrap and a crocodile.
Godzilla vs. Biollante was the closet that Godzilla ever got to pure horror, and it was the most original film in the series in years. Biollante was released on VHS in 1992 and laserdisc the following year, but it received no other form of release afterwards, making it one of the most sought after Godzilla films outside of Japan. Merchandise relating to the film, including models and toys of Biollante, are also some of the most valuable Godzilla related items and are always the first to sell out at conventions. The film was finally released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2012. The film was also notable for introducing the character, Miki, who would subsequently appear in every Heisei series film going forward. Fun fact: Godzilla vs. Biollante is the Godzilla movie that the Martians are watching when flipping through channels in Tim Burton’s 1996 Mars Attacks!
Biollante performed worse than The Return of Godzilla at the Japanese box office, so in a move to bring fans back, Toho decided to begin reintroducing classic monsters, and the first to bat was 1991’s Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah. Directed by Biollante director Kazuki Ōmori, King Ghidorah also saw the return of Ifukube handling the film’s musical score. Originally Toho wanted to have Godzilla face King Kong again in Godzilla vs. King Kong, but obtaining the rights for Kong turned into a far more expensive deal than expected, so they tried to work around the issue by using Kong’s robot double from King Kong Escapes, Mechani-Kong. Even though Mechani-Kong was born in a Toho film, it still used Kong’s look and the rights were still required.
The plot of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is one of the wackiest plots in the whole franchise. A UFO appears in the night sky of Tokyo and out of the ship comes two men, a woman, and an android. They’re not aliens, but actually humans from the future of 2204 to warn the present-day Japan that the country will be wiped from the face of the Earth at the hands of Godzilla. The female Futurian, Emmy Kano (Anna Nakagawa), takes Saegusa, Kenichiro Terasawa (Kosuke Toyohara), Miki, and Professor Mazaki (Katsuhiko Sasaki) back in time to Lagos to witness Godzillasaurus save a Japanese WWII battalion, led by Yasuaki Shindo (Yoshio Tsuchiya), from oncoming American forces. They remove the Godzillasaurus from the island before nuclear testing mutates him into Godzilla. Before they return to the present, Emmy leaves behind three Dorats, artificial pets from the future. In the present day, Godzilla is gone, but in his place is King Ghidorah, who the Futurians use to take over Japan. The modern humans realize their error and Godzilla is mistakenly brought back to life by a nuclear submarine to become more powerful than ever. He returns and once again battles his most famous foe.
If you think about it, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah has the worst time travel logic and breaks every rule in the book, but it somehow works despite its ludicrousness. The most classic of kaiju battles are updated with Heisei era effects work and Mecha-King Ghidorah is a fun twist on an old favorite. Well-liked by audiences, the film is also one of the most controversial of all Godzilla films. Overseas critics accused the film of being anti-American with its American villains and seas of the Godzillasaurus murdering US troops in the WWII sequence. Despite the controversy, the film was a big success in Japan, prompting a Godzilla film every year afterwards until 1995.
Takao Okawara would direct his first film in the series with 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra, which was titled Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth in its DVD and television releases in the US. The plot of the film bears similarities to previous Mothra outings. The Shobijin are kidnapped again, the caterpillar Mothra goes to rescue them, and eventually morphs into the giant moth we all know and love. To shake things up this time, the twins are more mystical and are now arbiters for Mothra, who is the good side of nature and the defender of Earth. The dark half and Mothra’s antitheses, Battra, is also tasked with defending the world but does do in a much more violent way. It begins as a three-way battle between Godzilla, Mothra, and Battra, but Mothra is able to convince Battra that they need to work together to defeat Godzilla.
Godzilla vs. Mothra was Toho’s highest grossing Godzilla ever unadjusted for inflation and was the highest-grossing domestic release in Japan that year (the highest-grossing Japanese film in the franchise when adjusted for inflation is still King Kong vs. Godzilla). The film was so popular that Mothra was able to spin off into her own series of Heisei era films with Mothra in 1996, Mothra 2: The Undersea Battle in 1997, and Mothra 3: King Ghidorah Attacks in 1998. That trilogy of films is better known outside of Japan as Rebirth of Mothra, Rebirth of Mothra II, and Rebirth of Mothra III.
Next for Godzilla came a film that could be considered the greatest film in the whole franchise next to the original 1954 film. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II from director Okawara in 1993 is a masterpiece of kaiju cinema. Ishirō Honda was originally tapped to direct Godzilla’s 20th film, but the legendary filmmaker passed away in early 1993.
Beginning with the recovery of the robotic parts of Mecha-King Ghidorah, a military organization called G-Force builds a flying gunship called Garuda and the ultimate anti-Godzilla weapon in the form of Mechagodzilla. Meanwhile, a team of scientists discovers a large prehistoric egg. Before they can take it away they encounter Rodan, who feels a connection to the egg, which supposedly belongs to the irradiated Pteranodon. The egg also calls to Godzilla and they fight until Rodan appears to be killed. The scientists bring the egg back to Japan and it suddenly hatches. Instead of a baby Pteranodon, it turns out to be a Godzillasaurus. Studying the baby reveals previously unknown information about Godzilla’s anatomy, which they plan on using against him with Mechagodzilla.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II is a top-notch Godzilla movie. Not only does it feature some of the best kaiju battles in the series up to this point and is one of the most tightly scripted of them all, but Ifukube’s score, with its mix of both old and new music, is some of the best work the composer has ever done. The score is just as big as the monsters and Mechagodzilla’s theme is unlike anything else heard in the series. Even the classic Rodan theme returns in all its melancholic glory. Themes of nature versus machine and man against animals are brought back to the forefront as these tiny little humans pilot a robot that stands almost 400 feet tall. It is by far one of the greats.
It seems to be a common occurrence in the franchise that a great film is sandwiched between two lesser ones or a lesser one between two greats because that is what happened in 1994’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla by director Kensho Yamashita. SpaceGodzilla is not a bad movie and a gem for younger audiences, but it’s just not up to the high standards of the Heisei series.
The film centers around the arrival of SpaceGodzilla, an alien creature that was born from Godzilla cells that were attached to the Biollante spores or attached to Mothra when she left Earth and the cells mixed inside a radioactive black hole. On Earth, the humans try their hand at making another giant robot called MOGUERA, the most forgettable creation of the Heisei series. SpaceGodzilla traps the now larger juvenile baby Godzilla (dubbed Little Godzilla) and begins terraforming major Japanese cities with the giant crystals that give him his power. The humans have MOGUERA side with Godzilla in the climatic battle set in a ruined Fukuoka.
Okawara’s spectacular direction isn’t there and nor is the Ifukube score. Everything about the film feels like everyone involved just showed up. SpaceGodzilla is a visually striking villain and to a child, he’s one of the coolest things ever, but there isn’t much to him other than that. The film was the 40th-anniversary film, but SpaceGodzilla doesn’t have the lasting appeal that Mechgodzilla had from the 20th.
It had been 41 years and Toho was about to make their 22nd Godzilla film. Toho was ready to let Godzilla go. For Godzilla’s final bow, series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka assembled the best possible team for the film. Takao Okawara returned to direct, Kazuki Omori, the writer of Biollante, King Ghidorah, and Mothra penned the screenplay, Kôichi Kawakita returned as director of special effects (as he had done with the previous five films), and even Momoko Kōchi reprised her role as Emiko from the original film. Toho was going to kill off Godzilla and it would be one of the finest Godzilla films on par with Gojira and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II. The original idea for this final film would have had Godzilla fighting the ghost of the original Godzilla. The idea was shot down by Okawara when he pointed out that that would be the third film in a row where Godzilla fought another version of himself. Another version of the script had Godzilla fight another version of Bagan, who at this point appeared in the SNES Godzila video game. The concept did not make it very far and it would be the second time that a kaiju called Bagan didn’t make it to the big screen. After coming up with a new plot that harkened back to the original film, Godzilla would eventually meet his end in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.
Godzilla is dying and his overworked heart is like a nuclear reactor on the verge of a meltdown. He destroys Hong Kong in the film’s opening scene, revealing his fiery appearance. Once he melts down, the blast will be a thousand times stronger than all nuclear weapons on Earth combined. Elsewhere a team of scientists is working to recreate the original film’s Oxygen Destroyer. Unbeknownst to them, their experiments mutate prehistoric microorganisms into hellish truck-sized creatures. They wreak havoc until they encounter the now almost fully grown Godzilla Jr. Junior is able to subdue the creatures, which have formed into one single being called Destoroyah. Godzilla arrives and has a brief reunion with his son before the fully evolved Destoroyah reemerges and kills Junior. The angered Godzilla, on the verge of death, faces the devil-like kaiju in what would be his final battle before the film’s heartbreaking finale.
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is Godzilla at its best. Everything that worked about the original 1954 film and everything that worked in the Heisei is combined into a wonderful amalgamation of why the Godzilla series is the greatest monster movie series that has ever existed. Emotional in ways that haven’t been seen since Gojira and as spectacular as the best moments of Mothra vs. Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is everything a Godzilla movie should strive to be. All the classic Ifukube themes swell at all the right moments, especially as Godzilla charges his foe one final time. If there were only one Godzilla film to see besides Gojira, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is the one.
The Heisei series of Godzilla films ended, but that didn’t signal the end of kaiju films in Japan. The same year that Godzilla ended for the second time, the second longest-running kaiju franchise returned to the big screen. Noriaki Yuasa’s Gamera (or Gammera the Invincible in the US) was released in 1965 by Daiei Film Co. and what was essentially meant to be cheaper, more kid-friendly Godzilla-knockoff became its own beast. The series about the giant radioactive turtle that flies like a UFO and Guardian of the Universe and Friend of All Children had seven sequels in the Showa era; Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), Gamera vs. Viras (1968), Gamera vs. Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Zigra (1971), and Gamera: Super Monster (1980). For those that may think the Showa era Godzilla films have a certain kind of cheese factor, the Gamera films don’t just have a cheese factor but may as well come in come in with a Kraft label.
Due to the success of Toho’s rebirth of Godzilla, Daiei rebooted Gamera with 1995’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe by director Shusuke Kaneko. The film was critically and commercially successful enough to garner two sequels with Gamera 2: Attack of Legion in 1996 and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris in 1999. Though the Showa era had some gems, with Gamera vs. Barugon being the standout, the Heisei trilogy Gamera is top-notch. Gamera 3 in particular is up there with some of the best Godzilla films and ranks among some of the best kaiju films ever.
Anyone who has read this entire piece thus far probably knows what is coming next and is dreading it, but it must be discussed. As early as the 1980s, American film studios were looking to get in the Godzilla game. The first go-around saw Steve Miner, director of Friday the 13th Part 2, Friday the 13th Part III, House, Lake Placid, and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, attempt to produce a 3D American reboot of the franchise with a script by Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad writer and director, Fred Dekker. The film’s proposed $30 million dollar budget was deemed too risky by studios and the project died in 1983.
In 1992 however, TriStar acquired the rights, and Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio worked on the screenplay and finished in 1994. Jan de Bont, director of Speed and Twister, was tapped to direct. In this new film, Godzilla would not be a creature born from man’s misuse of nuclear weapons, but an ancient genetically engineered monster created Atlantians to defend mankind from an evil alien creature known as the Gryphon. Oscar-winning effects artist of Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Jurassic Park, Stand Winston began work on designing the film’s kaiju and even got as far and finishing highly detailed maquettes. The look of Godzilla in the film was remarkably faithful to the classic design of the character, essentially looking like a slightly slimmed-down version of the Heisei series Godzilla suit. Sony did not approve the film’s budget and the project died like the previous attempt. Since that time the script has made its way online, giving fans a glimpse of what could have been. Oddly enough, 1995’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe brought Gamera back as a creation of Atlantians to defend the world from the terrors of the dreaded Gyaos.
Independence Day director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin were, unfortunately, the ones that finally got the project going again. Screenwriter Patrick Tatopoulos was told by Emmerich to make Godzilla fast and not the lumbering kaiju the world knows and loves so well. Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria, and Kevin Dunn were all cast in leading roles in the film and production began in 1997.
The film’s plot is pretty straight forward as evidence of a giant creature begins appearing around the world. Soon on a rainy New York City day, Godzilla rises from the ocean’s depths and storms through the city, causing minor damage and disappearing quickly. The military searches for the iguana-like dinosaur that looks, unlike the monster that had torn through cities for the twenty-two films prior. They lure him out from underground with piles of fish and have a few excursions with him before they think they’ve finally killed him with submarines in the Hudson River. Broderick’s Dr. Tatopoulos soon discovers hundreds of Godzilla eggs in Madison Square Garden. As the eggs hatch and the raptor-like baby Godzilla get ready to escape out into the city, Tatopoulos and friends manage to alert the military of the danger and the babies are killed. Godzilla returns and is angered by the lose of his/her’s children. The monster is eventually trapped in the wires of the Brooklyn Bridge and is killed by fighter jets. After the death of Godzilla, one lone egg remains in Madison Square Garden. It shakes and cracks and suddenly a baby Godzilla breaks through.
Emmerich’s 1998 film is an artistic flop; there’s no other way around it, with weird and dumb humor peppered throughout, a nonthreatening and weak Godzilla, a poor screenplay, and a movie that doesn’t earn the title of Godzilla. Producer of future Godzilla films and Godzilla: Final Wars director Shōgo Tomiyama would later have the creature in the 1998 film’s name officially changed from Godzilla to Zilla. Their reasoning for this name change was that TriStar “took God out of Godzilla”. The film is less of a Godzilla and more of a cash-in on the success of Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Zilla looks more like an ugly version of those film’s T-Rexes and the baby Zilla sequence is basically a drawn-out rip-off of Jurassic Park’s raptors in the kitchen sequence. The film was a modest financial success, but the panning it got from critics and audiences dashed any hopes of a sequel and TriStar sat on the rights until they expired in 2003. The characters and surviving baby would live on in the animated Godzilla: The Series, which ran for two seasons from 1998 through 2000. Though short-lived, The Series was at least more entertaining than the film it was based on. There was even a brief storyline where the film’s Zilla was resurrected as a sort of cyborg MechaZilla. On a positive note, the film had an awesome marketing campaign with enticing teaser trailers and a very ’90s Taco Bell tie-in.
Due to the 1998 failure, Toho felt the need to save the name and make a film that could be seen as an apology for letting the Americans do what they did. Tomiyama would take over the reins of the reborn franchise after Tanaka’s passing in 1997. The new era of films would be called the Millennium series. In order to ensure the film would be done right, Toho hired veteran Godzilla director Okawara to direct Godzilla 2000.
A total reboot that ignores any previous film, Godzilla 2000 has all the makings of a classic Godzilla film. In the world of the film, Godzilla has existed for years and been the unstoppable fore of nature that he was always meant to be. A large rock is discovered floating in the middle of the ocean and eventually shoots up into the sky and is discovered to be a UFO. The UFO seeks out Godzilla and they battle. The humans learn that the unseen aliens plan on colonizing Earth and regenerating their bodies using Godzilla’s self-healing G-cells. When Godzilla and the UFO battle for a second time, the UFO is able to absorb enough Godzilla DNA to regenerate its massive body. The atmosphere of the Earth quickly deforms the alien and mutates its body into a massive lumbering kaiju named Orga.
The film was a success in Japan but did little business in the US. The American release was eight minutes shorter to quicken the pace and the entire score and many of the sound effects were reworked. The English dub was also intentionally a little silly and corny, as homage to some Showa era releases. Though some of the English dubbed lines are cringe-worthy at times, the American score is actually the more exciting of the two and occasionally blends in some Ifukube music. The American sound effects of Orga are tonally much lower and more menacing, as opposed to the original cut’s more high pitched roars. The future Millennium series films would be released direct to DVD, with some screening once at Rosemont, Illinois’ annual G-Fest convention and very select other locations.
Godzilla was back and Toho would produce the new series at a rapid pace with the next film coming in 2000’s Godzilla vs. Megaguirus from director Masaaki Tezuka. Not connected to Godzilla 2000, the film acknowledges the events of the original Gojira (except Godzilla survived) and says that Godzilla has attacked several times since and forced Japan to seek alternate sources of energy. Technology is more advanced in this timeline and humanity has created an experimental weapon that fires miniature black holes. A prehistoric dragonfly comes through one of the black holes and lays an egg before returning. The egg hatches and soon a giant swarm of Meganulon, large dragonfly larva first seen in Rodan, swarm a flooded Tokyo. When Godzilla returns, the Meganulon try to feed off the energy in his body, but he hits his body so hot that even the Meganulon cannot survive. The few that get away inject the Godzilla energy they got into the egg of their queen, Megaguirus.
Despite having some of the weakest special effects of the Millenium series, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is entertaining (the final fight contains several clever moments) and the filmmakers seemed like they were trying to have fun with it. There are some creepy horror movie-esque sequences with the Meganulon early on and featuring some of, if not the, only bloodshed directly related to a kaiju attack in the franchise. The climatic battle is filled with moments made clearly to invoke cheers from the die-hard fans. The film is the first in the franchise has one of its human characters stand on kaiju and the first Toho production to have a full CGI model of Godzilla, which was used for a shot of him swimming underwater. The CG did not look incredible with the typical sized lower budget for the Godzilla film and further CG appearances would be minimal, with the most notable being a brief cameo in a dream sequence in 2007’s Always: Sunset on Third Street 2.
The following film would once again reboot the continuity, only keeping the events of Gojira in play. The film would also have the longest title of all Godzilla films and more importantly, is one of the best of the Millennium series. The film from Gamera trilogy director Shūsuke Kaneko was Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. The film marks the first appearance of Mothra and King Ghidorah in the Millennium series and makes the two out of four monsters to appear in all three series besides Godzilla (the other two are Mechagodzilla and Rodan). Kaneko had been wanting to direct a Godzilla film for some time. It was odd that Toho was so unsure of him since he had previously directed three of the best kaiju movie of time with his Gamera films. His original script had a similar concept to GMK, but was actually going to be Godzilla X Varan, Baragon and Anguirus: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Megaguirus performed poorly at the box office so Toho requested that Mothra and King Ghidorah be added since they had more name value. Kaneko was reluctant but was able to come to a compromise when they allowed him to keep Baragon in the film.
50 years had passed since Godzilla first attacked and now a nuclear submarine has disappeared. People soon begin to fear that Godzilla will return, though many now believe Godzilla to be myth or a creation of mass hysteria. A landslide and mysterious creature cause a panic in rural Japan, a giant cocoon appears in the middle of lake, and an old man spouts stories of a prophecy of three guardian monsters that will save Japan from a terrible threat. Godzilla finally appears and attacks a major city. His eyes are soulless and dead white as he actively aims his atomic breath at fleeing citizens. A young reporter learns from the old man that all of the dead souls of WWII live in Godzilla and seek revenge for Japan’s lack of remembrance. Godzilla encounters Baragon and he quickly kills the much weaker kaiju. Godzilla reaches Tokyo where he finds Mothra and the newly born King Ghidorah and a reversal of one of kaiju cinema’s most famous battles ensues.
One of the most interesting and unique films in the 60-year-old series, GMK is one of the best. Godzilla has always been a force of nature, but this is the only film that depicts him as outright evil and actively seeking to harm humanity. Previously and after this film, he is an animal who is warning mankind about how they will bring about their own destruction, but he knows what he is doing in this film. King Ghidorah is also a hero for the one and only time, a controversial decision for some fans of the franchise. Mothra’s twins are also absent and both she and Ghidorah are made weaker than any of their other appearances. More fantastical in nature than any other existing Godzilla film, GMK retains elements of man’s mistakes and more so than ever is an anti-war film. The film is darker than most in the third series of the films, but does have a humorous moment in a military meeting earlier on when Tachibana mentions that there was a giant monster attack in 1998 and two soldiers whisper to each other:
Soldier 1: “The New York attack was Godzilla, right?”
Soldier 2: “That’s what the American experts say, but our guys have doubts”
For the 26th outing, the Millenium series would reboot continuity again, keeping the events of the original (which is always a constant), but also keeping Mothra, War of the Gargantuas, and Space Amoeba, of all films, in continuity as well. Masaaki Tezuka would direct the new film, which saw the return of one of the most iconic Godzilla foes in 2002’s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla.
All newly created weaponry is deemed useless in the fight against Godzilla, but the Japanese defense forces have one more trick up their sleeve when they use the skeleton of the original Godzilla to build a new cyborg Mechagodzilla, which they call Kiryu. Godzilla descends down on Japan and Kiryu is sent out to fight him. Upon hearing Godzilla’s roar, something snaps in the cyborg’s circuit, and its yellow eye begins to glow red. Kiryu storms through the city on a path of destruction now that the Godzilla DNA in his system has turned on his natural instincts. Godzilla leaves in a state of indifference as the military is left with nothing to do but wait it out until Kiryu runs out of batteries. The military works out the kinks and once again sends the mechanical kaiju to battle once more leading to the two first substantial fights.
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla is a very strong entry in the franchise, ranking up there with the very best of them. The idea of a Mechagodzilla built from the remains of the original Godzilla is a fascinating idea. It brings to mind themes of humanity toying with nature and attempting to play God, the mistake that brought Godzilla to life in the first place. This idea, though big and impossible in its sci-fi ways, still rings true to real life as humanity continues to harm the environment and not learn from its mistakes. On top of being one of the smarter Godzilla films, the film is very fast-paced, exciting, and fun, which is a pleasant counterbalance to GMK’s dark tone.
The whole franchise contains heavy science fiction themes that are meant to comment on the human race as a whole. The small character stories have to be left by the wayside much of the time, which is acceptable given how much the series has to say in its more serious entries and how it aims to purely entertain in the more lighthearted outings. Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla is one of the rarities in that the human element is very personal and strong. Yumiko Shaku plays a pilot, Akane Yashiro, with a redemptive arc after blaming herself (as well as being the scapegoat for the military) for the loss of her fellow comrades is made the lead pilot of Mechagodzilla. Shin Takuma as Tokumitsu Yuhara, is the leading robotics expert on the project who has been raising his daughter alone since the passing of his wife. The relationship between him, his daughter, and Akane is some of the franchise’s best character work. The film also features prolific actor Akira Nakao, who appeared in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla, and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah as Commander Takaki Aso, in a different role as Prime Minister Hayato Igarashi. He’s a man with the burden of taking responsibility for all of Japan and only blames himself when Mechagodzilla runs wild after its first outing. Later in the film, he has a great moment when he gives the command to give Mechagodzilla one last shot, much to the gleeful surprise of those around him.
Tezuka would return to direct the next film, which served as a direct sequel to Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, with 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. Against Mechagodzilla and Tokyo S.O.S. These are the only films in the Millennium era that are not stand-alone films. Even though the same director and Mechagodzilla returned, only a few members of the cast of the previous film returns. Shaku as Akane Nakao as the Prime Minster is the most significant returning characters, but they are both in much smaller supporting roles. What it lacks in connecting characters it makes up for with strong thematic similarities. The film does feature one very strong connection to Toho’s past as Hiroshi Koizumi, who played Dr. Shin’ichi Chujo in Mothra, returns to play the role. Koizumi appeared in many classic Toho sci-fi films such as Godzilla Raids Again, Matango, Atragon, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Dogora, and several other Godzilla films (though never as the same character, until the reprisal of his Mothra character in Tokyo S.O.S.).
The film opens with a memorable sequence of fighter jets encountering Mothra amidst the cloudy night sky as they hear a strange song in their heads. The Shobijin appear in the home of Chujo and warn him and his nephew, Yoshito (Noboru Kaneko), a lead mechanic on the Mechagodzilla project, that Mothra will have to take drastic action if the remains of the original Godzilla are not returned to the ocean. Godzilla attacks and Mothra comes to Japan’s aid and they fight into the night. Mothra is losing the fight and humanity rallies to her aid with the newly repaired Mechagodzilla. They put up a good fight, but Godzilla still has the upper hand. Elsewhere, Mothra’s egg hatches to twin larvae (a possible nod to Mothra vs. Godzilla). They arrive and join the fight against Godzilla as Yoshito works to repair the downed Mechagodzilla. When the cyborg is repaired the prolonged fight continues till the end of one of the franchise’s most action-packed entries.
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. is a fantastic double feature and works splendidly as a three-hour epic Godzilla tale. Tokyo S.O.S. is a dramatic and action-packed film with the epic brawl taking up a pretty sizable chunk of the film’s runtime. It is also an excellent showcase of why Mothra is one of Toho’s greatest kaiju: she’s just as heroic and noble as ever. The score by Michiru Ôshima that accompanies Mothra would do Ifukube proud. The film has humanity deal with the repercussions of fiddling with the dead and toying with the natural order of things. Both of Mechagodzilla’s Millennium era films can’t be missed.
After 28 films, including the ’98 American film, and interest in the series faltering, Toho decided it was to put Godzilla to rest once again, but it was 2004 and the 50th anniversary of the original so it was time to send him out on the biggest bang in the history of the franchise. For Godzilla’s latest supposed final film, the duty of directing would fall upon Ryuhei Kitamura, director of 2000′s Versus and 2008′s Midnight Meat Train. The film would be a mix of everything that Godzilla ever was. The film would not only include more kaiju than even Destroy All Monsters, but it would feature Toho sci-fi veterans such as Akira Takarada in a vital role, Kenji Sahara (Mothra, King Kong vs. Godzilla), Kumi Mizuno (Invasion of Astro-Monster, Frankenstein Conquers the World), Koichi Ueda (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla), Akira Nakao, Shiro Sano (Godzilla 2000, GMK), and more. The film’s main cast includes Masahiro Matsuoka as Shinichi Ozaki, Rei Kikukawa as Miyuki Otonashi, and American wrestler and mixed martial artist Don Frye as Colonel Douglas Gordon.
Set in a world where Godzilla has been trapped for decades and the world is protected by an advanced military force, peace is interrupted by a surprise onslaught of kaiju all around the world. Out of nowhere, kaiju begin appearing and laying waste to major cities around the world. Rodan attacks New York, Anguirus in Shanghai, King Caesar in Okinawa, Kamacuras in Paris, Kumonga in Arizona, Ebirah in Tokyo, and even Zilla in Sydney. Hope seems lost until a race of aliens arrives and abducts the attacking monsters. They claim to come in peace, but soon a conspiracy is revealed and the aliens release the kaiju and set them out to decimate the world. A small group of humans realize that their only hope is Godzilla, who the aliens are unaware of and do not have control over. Godzilla is freed from his icy prison and makes his way through his old foes in a series of battles reminiscent that harkens back to the classics of the series. Gotengo from Atragon, Manda, Minilla, a new and deadlier version of Gigan, Mothra who comes to Godzilla’s aid, and a new power kaiju villain known as Monster, who transforms into Keizer Ghidorah in the film’s climax.
Godzilla: Final Wars is a mixed bag of a finale. The monster action is fantastic, the effects are some best of all in the series, and seeing all of the kaiju, many of them who had not been in a film for over 30 years before, is really a joy. Don Frye plays a hilariously corny and memorable character with some deliciously tongue-in-cheek lines that you can’t help but smile at. The film is deliberately cheesy and meant to be an ode to Godzilla’s entire history, which includes larger than life family-friendly fare of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a love letter to Toho’s entire science fiction library, and a truly fun film with many throwbacks to a bygone era. It is also the longest Godzilla film, complete with long bouts of cheap Matrix-style human on human/alien action. Godzilla movies aren’t typically known for their subtle human drama, but Final Wars features some moments that aren’t necessarily cringe-worthy but come pretty close. Despite some grievances, the film is unabashedly fun and filled with dozens of cheer-worthy moments. Every time Godzilla is storming through the screen in Final Wars there is something that some fans might go as far as to call magic. The film was released in 2004 and began the longest period of time without a Godzilla film, beating out the nine-year gap between Terror of Mechagodzilla and The Return of Godzilla.
Toho has laid the franchise to rest for a planned ten yea hiatus, though it wasn’t long before someone tried to bring Godzilla back. Godzilla vs. Hedorah director Yoshimitsu Banno attempted to make another Godzilla as early as 2004. His initial plan was to make a 3D short film that would be a retelling of the Hedorah story. The goal was to get the film an IMAX release, so the title would have been Godzilla 3D to the Max. The project got some traction but faltered when the production company that would’ve handled the 3D cameras and visual effects faced financial difficulties. Godzilla did make a cameo appearance in another Toho production during a dream scene in 2007’s Always: Sunset on Third Street 2.
Godzilla was dormant, but the kaiju subgenre lived on. Peter Jackson would follow up The Lord of the Rings with an epic retelling of King Kong in 2005, which was a box office hit and was met with critical acclaim. 2006 saw the brief revival of Gamera with Ryuta Tasaki’s Gamera the Brave, a more kid-friendly film, harkening back to the Showa era films as opposed to the far darker ’90s trilogy. South Korea released the rightfully forgotten D-War (Dragon Wars in the States) in 2007. America would see it’s biggest non-King Kong or Godzilla kaiju in decades come in the form of the J.J. Abrams-produced and Matt Reeves’ directed Cloverfield. The low budget blockbuster garnered great interest with a brilliant and mysterious marketing campaign and a teaser trailer that gave no information on what was causing such destruction in New York. Online commentators speculated that it could possibly be anything from a Godzilla reboot, an adaptation of Voltron, a Lost spinoff, or even something based on the literature of H.P. Lovecraft. Those rumors all turned out to be false when the film ended up being a found-footage film about a small group of friends trying to survive a kaiju attack. The film was met with praise from critics and grossed over $170 million dollars against a $25 million budget.
Perhaps the most notable example of a recent kaiju film would be Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 film Pacific Rim. The film is set in the near future where the world has been frequently attacked by kaiju and the last line of defense is manmade giant robots piloted by pairs of humans. The film was critically well-liked and attained an instantly rabid fan base but failed to make an impact at the US box office. Luckily for fans, the film was tremendously successful overseas, particular in China, so much so that a sequel is officially on the way.
In 2009 rumors became fact when it was announced that Legendary had gained the film rights to Godzilla. The reboot of Godzilla was planned to be released in 2012, but the planned release date came and went as the script was still in development and the hunt for a director continued.
After a decade of absence, Godzilla was finally ready to make his return to the big screen. A long development phase that included a rotating roster of screenwriters, including David Callaham and David S. Goyer. The script was polished by Iron Man 3’s Drew Pearce and The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist’s (a highly underrated monster movie)director Frank Darabont. After a long development and many hands, the final screenplay ended up in the hands of Max Borenstein. The tall order of being the new Ishirō Honda came to British director Gareth Edwards. Edwards’ previous directorial work was the incredibly low budget kaiju film Monsters. The indie film was shot on location in Mexico and required the crew, which was normally no larger than eight people at a time, to create the illusion of a giant monster movie with human drama at the center of it all. Edwards has been a lifelong fan of Godzilla and wanted to take the film back to its roots and treat Godzilla like a force of nature. His approach to the massive destruction seen in the film was to echo the look and feel of recent real-life natural disasters. The massive team required for the film’s extensive visual effects came from Weta Digital, who had won Oscars for their landmark work on The Lord of the Rings, King Kong (2005), and Avatar, with multi-Academy Award winner Jim Rygiel supervising. The film would be shot by acclaimed Atonement, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Anna Karenina, and The Avengers cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, whose work on the film would be one of its many highlights. Beyond on highly acclaimed crew behind the film, the cast would consist of mostly Oscar and Emmy Award winners and nominees like Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Bryan Cranston. Watanabe in the film is named Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, an homage to the famed director and the classic character of the original film.
Godzilla was modeled after the original look of the character, but Edwards wanted the title creature to feel more realistic. Real-world inspiration for the new look came from bears and pit bulls. Godzilla’s movements during the film’s fight sequences were also modeled after bears with the addition of Komodo dragon movements. The brilliant sound design of the film included a recreated version of Godzilla’s iconic roar, which kept the essence of the famous sound effect but updated it to suit the film’s needs. The new look of Godzilla is a fresh take on the decades-old character, but it was still very faithful to the classic look and is instantly recognizable as Godzilla, unlike America’s previous attempt in 1998.
The film, which retooled Godzilla’s origins to make him relevant in the 21st century but kept the nuclear allegory, saw him reawaken to battle two new kaijus known as the MUTO amongst the ruins of a hellish San Francisco. Besides being a massive commercial success, grossing over half a billion dollars worldwide, 2014’s Godzilla ended up being worth the long wait and is the best Godzilla film since ‘95’s Destoroyah and is without a doubt one of the best kaiju movies since Toho began pumping them out 60 years ago. The film is as dark as the original Gojira, but invokes the classic summer blockbuster vibe of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Jurassic Park. The film puts the awe back into Godzilla and chills run up your spine when Godzilla finally makes his proper return an hour into the film. Like Spielberg’s two big monster movies, the film smartly uses Godzilla sparingly, never giving the audience too much, and when he is onscreen, it is the most spectacular sequences of monster movie action ever filmed. You know Godzilla and the MUTO are out there, and they create as much dread when they are off-screen as they do when they are on. The film’s plot follows the formula of a classic Godzilla film perfectly and Godzilla has returned to being the force of dread, terror, and nature personified, and the Godzilla fans have always deserved.
Legendary Pictures has ushered in a new age of kaiju cinema with Pacific Rim and Godzilla as they have a King Kong prequel/reboot Skull Island releasing in 2016 followed by del Toro’s Pacific Rim 2 in 2017, and Edwards returning for Godzilla 2 in 2018 and a reported third film after that. 2018’s sequel will see a return of Godzilla’s most iconic friends and foes, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah, the classic mash-up last seen in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster.
Godzilla was a creation of the atomic age. A walking manifestation of mankind’s ability to destroy itself. Godzilla has existed for 60 years and will continue to live on for 60 more years and beyond. With constant reinvention, beginning as a dark allegory for real-life events to becoming a hero in family-friendly to then flip-flopping between them both, Godzilla will also manage to be just as relevant as he was about nine years after the bomb dropped when Gojira hit theaters on November 3rd, 1954. What began with a team of artists that included Ishirō Honda, Tomoyuki Tanaka, Eiji Tsuburaya, and Akira Ifukube making a cheap monster movie turned into one of the most legendary film series in the history of cinema. It is hard to argue that Godzilla is not only one of the movies’ most iconic characters, but one of the most iconic characters in the entirety of fiction and pop culture. Homaged, parodied, and referenced a countless number of times and appearing in books, comics, TV shows, video games, toys, and more, the radioactive titan of terror has found life outside of his 30 films and counting. Whether he is fueling topics of discussion for scholars, entertaining the sci-fi/monster movie fans, or igniting the imaginations of kids around the world, Godzilla has proven time and time again why he has earned the title of King of the Monsters.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand Sound On Sight in 2015.
Sources:Lees, J. D., Marc Cerasini, and Alice Alfonsi. The Official Godzilla Compendium. New York: Random House, 1998. Print.Ryfle, Steve. Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G” Toronto, Ont., Canada: ECW, 1998. PrintTsutsui, William M. Godzilla On My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.
- Written by Max Molinaro