By Jerry Hrechka / September 16th, 2015
With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound he pulls the spinning high tension wires dooooown. Yes, you’ve heard of him, you’ve probably seen the 2014 summer film that has his name, and if you have any joy in your heart, you love him. He’s Godzilla and he’s arguably Japan’s most lasting and successful piece of fiction.
‘But wait Jerry! I thought this was a column about toku! Where are the superheroes?’ I hear you cry. Well, toku is technically not just superhero fiction. It refers to anything that uses special effects. So, Godzilla is toku, that Death Note movie is toku, and that Attack on Titan movie that will be coming out is also toku.
Also, I just wanted to talk about Godzilla, so hush.
Gojira was made by Toho and directed by Ishiro Honda in an attempt to create a film similar to the American classic King Kong. Stop-motion had been considered like in that movie, but ultimately had been decided to be too costly. As a result they went with a suit actor. Honda made the film with the recent horror of the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with Godzilla’s attacks mirroring those bombs. Honda commented on these parallels.
“If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla”
I’ve occasionally heard that the difference in radiation stories in America and Japan is that in Japan they create monsters while in America they create superheroes. I’ve always found that reductive and silly because the only outright superheroes created by radiation are Spider-man, Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four… sort of. The Hulk is unambiguously a monster and more in line with the sci-fi horror of the era. Japanese fiction considering radiation is actually pretty rare. While 1954’s Gojira is explicitly about America dropping the atom bomb on two civilian population centers in Japan, it quickly stopped being that with the sequels. Not only that, but almost all of the other monsters of the era like Gamera and Mothra are aliens or beings of magic. It does touch on the truth that America and Japan have very different reactions in fiction to the atomic bomb.
Now, American fiction was not automatically positive about radiation. There’s no shortage of cheap B-movies that deal with monsters created from radiation as well as novels such as the classic sci-fi novel Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, and satires like Tom Lehrer’s song Who’s Next or the unforgettable Doctor Strangelove, all dealing with the fears the American people felt about the possibility of a nuclear bomb being dropped on them.
But Japan? Japan didn’t have the fears of having a nuclear bomb dropping on them. No, they had to deal with the realities of it already happening. And it’s that cultural reality that brings a stark and bleak viciousness that makes Gojira the most effective story about radiation made. It’s raw and doesn’t pull punches. Europe also produced a good deal of bleak post-war films that Americans could never have made due to how disconnected most of America was from the war. One of the best examples is the Italian film The Bicycle Thief. However, while many cover the malaise created by the devastation, none carried the terror or the violence.
Of course, the Godzilla franchise couldn’t have stayed around with numerous movies, cartoons, and video games being merely about the anxiety and terror of post World War II Japan. Godzilla may have started out that way, but he quickly stopped being that. There’s obviously the American version which was inappropriately titled Godzilla: King of The Monsters, which shoehorned in an American character — and there’s a part of me that wants to see if you can source Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers‘ success to this initial splicing of Japanese and American fiction. But of course, things get different with the first sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, which had Godzilla fight against the first of his many foes: Anguirus. It wasn’t long until Godzilla got a rogues gallery to rival Batman. Not only did he fight established monsters like Mothra, Rodan, and, of course, King Kong (originally intended to be Frankenstein; yes, really), but created new monsters like Mechagodzilla, Biolante, and Jet Jaguar.
Godzilla softened up as movies went on, up until the eighties where he was revamped to be a symbol of rage against mankind’s disrespect for the earth again. The movies made more of a focus on the kaiju action and destroyed cityscapes this time around though. Godzilla destroying a cityscape while innocents cower in fear makes it a little hard to have fun in a theater after all.
Godzilla has one of those odd relationships with American pop culture. Pretty much every American knows about Godzilla but outside of the two American adaptations (which we will not be discussing here), the extent of knowledge people have with Godzilla is probably that commercial where Godzilla played basketball with Charles Barkley. Still, everyone knows him and probably even the classic scream he has. Two of his movies have been the subject of Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes (both available on YouTube) and the ward of Shinjuku declared Godzilla a cultural ambassador this very year. I’m not quite certain what qualifies the King of Monsters to be a cultural ambassador, but I only took one political science class in college so maybe you don’t cover the importance of nuclear breath until the 300-level courses.
There are arguments among fans whether or not Showa era (50s-70s) or Heisei-era (80s-now) are better. I think both have their charm but it’s hard to deny that the later films look better and generally integrate humans into the story better. New watchers will probably find the Heisei films to cater more to what they expect out of a Godzilla movie, unless you want Godzilla as Japan’s superhero that hangs out with other giant monsters on a remote island in the Pacific ocean. Then again, why wouldn’t you?
If you’re asking for a good place to start with Godzilla films, that’s a harder question. Gojira is a must-watch regardless, but wouldn’t really provide a good idea of what the franchise at large is. The movies tend to move on a loose continuity that picks and chooses which movies did and didn’t happen. It only gets worse in the Heisei movies, where some movies interact but others don’t and some only act as though the first Gojira movie happened. James Rolfe — better known as the Angry Video Game Nerd — did a video recap of Godzilla movies back in 2008 during his yearly Monster Madness bit. I’d urge those curious about Godzilla movies to look those recaps up.
I have a few favorites of my own, which I’ll quickly cover here.
- Gojira: There’s no way it wasn’t here. It’s not a cheerful popcorn movie like the other films in this list, but it’s a brilliant view into post-war Japanese trauma.
- Godzilla Vs. King Kong: Initially supposed to be a ticket of Godzilla fighting Frankenstein, but recast to have Japan’s heavy hitter fight America’s. There are rumors that there are different cuts to have different characters win, which are untrue.
- Godzilla Vs. Megalon: Far from one of the best, but it was one of the first I saw and so it still has a special place in my heart, especially for the introduction of Jet Jaguar, who was the winning submission of a contest to create new creatures for the Godzilla franchise. Still, I’d only recommend watching it with MST3K commentary.
- Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack: With a name that brazen, how could it not be great? It has some of the most brutal fights in the franchise and gets big and explosive in utterly fun ways.
- Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.: My favorite version of Mechagodzilla appears here, where he’s a government defense mech. It also has the best use of a human being a part of the plot with a lost mechanic stuck in the machine while it fights Godzilla.
- Godzilla: Final Wars: Not really a good movie but there’s a charm to combining the conventions of Godzilla with those of sci-fi action like Star Wars and The Matrix. Don Frye portraying American Colonel Douglas Gordon is also just a joy every human should experience.
Final Wars was the most recent Godzilla movie to be made, with Toho deciding to rest the character for a bit. But with the success of the new American Godzilla in 2014, Toho has decided to make another in-house reboot slated for 2016. It’s interesting to see where Godzilla will go in an era that has a generation and a half separating it from its central premise of nuclear anxiety but we can all agree that giant monsters wrecking everything is something the world dearly needs more of, especially from the King of the Monsters
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