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Culture Trip takes a look at Japan’s obsession with a marauding giant creature that has turned into a global phenomenon.
The first Godzilla film was released in Japan in 1954. Sixty-five years later, a big-budget Hollywood take on the character is being released, proving that the King of the Monsters still rules supreme. The longevity of Godzilla (known as Gojira in Japan) has seen the release of 32 films by Toho Studios in Tokyo and three additional Hollywood movies, elevating the monster to iconic pop culture status with toys, cartoons and even a hotel to his name.
Godzilla owes its genesis to a conflation of disparate events. Immediately after World War II, discussion about the atomic attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima was limited by censorship laws enforced by the Allies. Restrictions eased, and by the early 1950s, Toho Studios, Japan’s largest film production and distribution company, began planning a movie about the aftermath of the attacks.
Around the same time, a Japanese shipping crew onboard the Lucky Dragon 5 sailed too close to American nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The sailors suffered horrific injuries and the incident caused outrage in Japan, spurring an anti-nuclear movement in the country.
Plans were also already underway to produce a kaiju eiga (monster film) at Toho. Kaiju have a longstanding significance in Japanese culture that predates the film industry. Centuries-old stories featuring ‘strange beasts’ have been written, illustrated and passed down by word of mouth, but the depictions of kaiju as we know them today come from the movie industry.
Another major influence on the original Godzilla film was the Hollywood movie King Kong (1933), which was re-released in Japan in 1952. The first incarnation of Godzilla was to be based around a combination of a gorilla and a whale (kujira), which is where the term Gojira, or ゴジラ, is derived from.
The first Godzilla film contains elements of all of the aforementioned. A giant kaiju is awakened by nuclear tests and suffers radioactive mutation, which results in the subsequent attacks on Japan.
The character can be seen as a response to the destruction caused by man on himself. The havoc caused by Godzilla’s rampages references the devastation left behind by war resonated with Japanese audiences.
The first Godzilla film was a major hit domestically, drawing attention from Hollywood. An edited version, containing only 40 minutes of original footage, was released in America. This version was retitled Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, but lacking the nuance of the Japanese version, the film failed at the box office.
The Toho series of movies continued to be a big hit in Japan, however, becoming an intrinsic part of the country’s film scene. Even today, there are a number of props and other paraphernalia from the original film on the studio lot in the Chiyoda district of Tokyo.
The enduring popularity of Godzilla has seen 32 movies produced in Japan. Some have featured other monsters that have become stars in their own right, with spin-offs, video games and animated shows adding to the oeuvre.
The Toho series of Godzilla films are split into distinct periods, each showing an evolution of the character as much as they highlight the changing tastes of cinemagoers.
Shōwa series: 1954-1975
The original films rapidly developed from the serious tone of the first film to a more comical, child-friendly series. The Shōwa period in Japan usually covers the period from 1925 to 1989, the reign of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito). The first run of the franchise has retrospectively been given the Shōwa moniker.
Heisei period: 1984-1995
The Godzilla series drastically changed over the course of the Shōwa era, so much so that fans of the first few films found little to enjoy in the frothier movies that followed. Following an extended break, Toho decided to reboot the films with one notable exception. The entire run of the Heisei period is set in one timeline, all of which follow on directly from the 1954 original movie.
Millennium series: 1999-2004
Another reboot followed in 1999 that would once again ignore all the previous films, bar the original. Within this third era, known as the Millennium series, some titles served as standalone spin-offs and the timeline grew increasingly fractured with time travel being introduced as well.
Reiwa period: 2016-present
Following another break, Godzilla has returned in a revamped format. The new incarnation also signals a shift in how Godzilla films will be made by Toho. Shin Godzilla (2016) is the last live-action Japanese Godzilla to be made, with three additional animations being released on streaming platform Netflix.
But that’s not the end of the Godzilla story…
The butchered version of 1954’s Godzilla that was hastily edited for American audiences tainted the perception of the character outside Japan. Subsequent movies from Japan would eventually make their way onto TV, building up a cult following. Independence Day (1996) writing and directing duo Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich were then tasked with making a Hollywood version of Godzilla in 1998. The film saw a dramatic re-design of the kaiju, this time implying a mutated iguana was the origins of the monster. Although a box-office hit, the film received mediocre reviews and the franchise went dormant again.
A more successful reboot followed in 2014. Gareth Edwards, who would go on to direct Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), first had to tap into the spirit of Toho for his Godzilla movie. The character was significantly redesigned from the previous Hollywood version and given an appearance more akin to the Japanese look of Godzilla. Other mothers from the pantheon of Godzilla greats were reintroduced, giving hopes that a fully fledged MonsterVerse was in the works.
These plans were confirmed with the release of a King Kong reboot in 2017. The end credits showed that this film was part of a shared universe, and the next instalment was already on the way.
Michael Dougherty is immensely proud of his new Godzilla film. Having been a fan of the Japanese films even before he embarked on a career in filmmaking, Dougherty has created a film that deliberately references the rich heritage of Godzilla, while continuing to grow the new MonsterVerse.
Fans of the original will be able to spot a wide array of monsters they will already be familiar with, as well as human characters they can also identify with.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters sees kaiju rampaging all over the planet, something that would not be possible within the confines of the old technology. In 2020 fans will also get to experience the spectacle of King Kong tacking Godzilla in a new Hollywood film, carrying on the MonsterVerse and reinforcing the legend of Godzilla.