Godzilla is an institution. Created in 1954 (as Gojira) by Toho, the gigantic, back-plated, fire-spewing dinosaur has starred in 35 films (depending on what you count as a Godzilla film), comics, and two cartoon shows, and is one of the most recognizable characters in the world. He’s changed his appearance over the years, rarely looking the same for two movies in a row, as well as altering his personality and origin. The tone of his films has gone from serious, tragic, and mature, to campy, simplistic, and juvenile. Consistency is not a virtue in the world of Godzilla.
Long-time Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka came up with the idea for Godzilla after learning of the tragic story a fishing boat that was covered in radioactive ash from an American A-Bomb. He melded the horror of that event with the U.S. giant lizard film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and created an icon for all the pain still felt in Japan over the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as well as the fear of future nuclear destruction. Without the money to make a stop-motion creature, Godzilla was brought to life by a man in a suit. Over the years, this “suitmation” has proven to be effective on occasion, and embarrassing at least as often. The first film kept the great monster primarily in shadow, so the less-than-stellar effects were not a detriment. Gojira was a dark disturbing film and a huge hit.
The first sequel, less then a year later, was primarily serious in tone, but began closing the gap to adventure drama. It took no time for the series to turn into a bright, shiny, monster-action franchise, filled with space aliens and both friendly and evil giants. Meaning only occasionally slipped in. It also devolved to the point where Godzilla chatted to fairies, and a baby-Godzilla taught kid’s lessons on how to deal with school bullies. With profits drying up, Godzilla was retired in 1975. (The period from ’54 to ’75 has been retroactively named the Showa Era.)
In 1984, he was resurrected for a new series of films that ignored every movie except the ’54 original. Godzilla was once again a badass force of nature. Many of these Heisei era flicks (’84-’95) started with ideas, plots, and creatures from the previous films and twisted them around, thankfully avoiding the most juvenile traps. In ’95, Godzilla was once again put on the shelf.
Godzilla next appeared in a big budget Hollywood film, appropriately named Godzilla. Or maybe it wasn’t so appropriate. The movie was a fun, adventure yarn following a giant lizard playing hide-and-go-seek with military helicopters in New York. It looked fantastic, but had very little to do with Godzilla. The film eventually was a moderate success, but hardcore Godzilla fans were upset, and with the internet handy, made there feelings known. Perhaps because of the outcry (and perhaps not), Toho decided to go back into the Godzilla business in 1999. These films (known by some as The Millennium films and by other as The Alternate Reality films) not only ignore the two previous “eras,” except for the original movie, but also generally ignore each other. After the production of 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, Toho announced it was shutting down the franchise again for approximately ten years.
Godzilla movies have been treated oddly for their American releases. That they were dubbed is no surprise, although with such a beloved series, I’d have thought someone would have put a minor effort into hiring mildly competent voice actors and finding someone who could write to do the dialog. But that has never happened. Recent releases have been left mainly intact, except for the horrendous dubbing, but the earlier films were often re-edited, rescored, and in some cases, changed into different films. The original Gojira had a third of its plot chopped, to be replaced by scenes of American Raymond Burr as a journalist, visiting Japan and narrating the story. Since his segments were shot several years after the rest of the film, and on a different continent, he never interacts with any of the original actors and doesn’t effect the action. Godzilla Raids Again also had portions removed and new scenes added, as well as a narration. It also had Godzilla removed; the monster was known in the U.S. as Gigantis, who apparently was born in a volcano. The other pictures had less extreme tinkering, although Burr returned in the American release of Godzilla 1985.
My ratings cover things pretty well, but for fun I’ve also ranked all of the Godzilla films.
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