Why Godzilla Remains Pop Culture's Immortal Monster (Opinion)
With a new Godzilla movie on the horizon and the TCM festival screening the 1954 Japanese original, we look back at why the big green beast continues to enthrall audiences.
In the closing moments of 1954's Godzilla, archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) predicts the future, metaphorically illustrating the immortality of Japan's monstrous icon: "If we continue conducting nuclear tests, it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again!"
Test they did. "They" are the rights holders at Toho Company, filmmakers with fresh visions of beast-on-beast destruction, the global audiences who shelled out for each new installment and the governments of the world who continued their atomic experimenting, fueling the bombastic, awe-inspiring, often goofy Godzilla franchise with a perpetual undercurrent of moral danger. Even seven sequels down the road, when the King of Monsters finds himself duking it out with a three-headed dragon and an extraterrestrial cyborg replica, a Godzilla movie still boils down to the frightening ripple effect of wartime technology. We're drawn to Godzilla not simply because he kicks butt, but because we made him. He's our hero and our problem.
Godzilla's franchise flexibility was apparent within six months of his first onscreen appearance. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa confidante Ishiro Honda, Godzilla (retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and intercut with new footage of Raymond Burr for its American debut in 1956) became a stark portrait of post-World War II Japanese fears, the titular beast a slow-burn stand-in for the devastating effects of the atomic bomb. By April 1955's Godzilla Raids Again, the monster bumped chests with an oversized turtle while fending off a plot to bury him in snow.
Though Honda resisted the idea of turning his reptilian natural disaster into a spectator sport, he and franchise-stable Jun Fukuda returned year after year to helm Godzilla pictures, pumping out 15 installments by 1975. An impressive amount of scripting went into what were essentially vehicles for stuntman Haruo Nakajima, Godzilla's "man in suit," to go toe to toe with an assortment of imaginative beasts. Surrounding the kaiju Wrestlemania were sluggish stories of Earthlings grappling with the oddities of extraterrestrial invasions or undiscovered wonders of their own world. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) had the Shobijin, pint-sized fairy twins who guard the moth god's egg; Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) featured the progressive team-up of American and Japanese cosmonauts battling aliens from Planet X; In Son of Godzilla (1967), scientists construct a weather-controlling system that evolves praying mantises into six-foot-tall buggers (all set up for Godzilla adopting a baby).
The iconic design of Godzilla pervaded through all of Japanese pop culture. Nothing that popular can remain a grave metaphor -- Godzilla cracking the claws of Ebirah the lobster beast was a family-friendly event. Consistent repackaging kept the King of Monsters on American radars. When Toho ushered the character into hibernation, concluding a 20-year marathon with 1975's Terror of Mechagodzilla, fervor over the character endured through comic books (Marvel ran 24 issues of a Godzilla book from 1977 to 1979, pitting him against dragons, a yeti, and The Avengers), trading cards, board games, toys, and cartoons. (Hanna-Barbera and Toho's co-production ran in the U.S. and Japan from 1978 to 1981.) Silliness kept Godzilla from drifting into the "destruction porn" today's blockbusters embrace so readily. Young ones could mature to understand the themes of the 1956 film, but as a 10-year-old, nothing beat watching a big green lizard kick the crap out of buildings/fighter jets/mech-suits/margin doodle monsters come to life.
Maybe it was Cold War sentiment, maybe it was a longing for the prestige of the 1954 film, but when Toho revived Godzilla's legacy in time for his 30th anniversary, the approach would today be dubbed "Nolan-esque." With 1975's The Return of Godzilla, Toho segued from their "Showa" to "Heisei" series (eras taking their names from sitting emperors of the time) and scrapped established continuity, in hopes of reigniting the series' mix of action and social commentary. The movie is, for better or worse, more of the same -- which didn't play well with American audiences. Godzilla quickly returned to his role as an antihero defender of humanity in sequels like Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995).
For its third "millennium" era, Toho rebooted the series once again, bumping up budgets and costumed carnage to compete with Hollywood bombast. Savvy marketing pushed the classically styled Godzilla: 2000 into American theaters -- selling the franchise's return from Mystery Science Theater 3000 punch line to dazzling spectacle. But by then, Godzilla had lost his luster in the states. TriStar Pictures' decade-long development of an American adaptation floundered with Roland Emmerich's oversized iguana epic in 1998. Power Rangers held the attention of youngsters in the '90s and 2000s. If Godzilla nerds wanted to see monsters duke it out, they'd pick up tickets to the touring "Kaiju Big Battel." And studio blockbusters were reaching new heights; it didn't matter that they shared no resemblance. A man-in-suit Godzilla movie wouldn't compete with Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. When 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars bombed in Japan, Toho returned Godzilla to the sea.
2014's Godzilla is a labor of love for Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull (this is the madman who greenlit Guillermo del Toro's kaiju throwdown Pacific Rim, after all). His passion lured Toho back to the Godzilla arena -- maybe there was a niche to fill now that superhero movies filled the multiplexes. With a budget millions more than any Japanese Godzilla film, a visionary director who speaks to dramatics that would make Ishiro Honda proud and an excitement from global audiences to see Godzilla boiled down to his ferocious core once more, Tull's revival should make waves this summer season. And if it doesn't work, it's hard to imagine Godzilla disappearing into the abyss forever. Because the world keeps "testing" -- scientifically, politically, culturally -- and something's bound to awaken the beast.