It’s almost time. The King of the Monsters is about to return in director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. And while the reboot is set to bring a more realistic tone to the towering monster and update him for modern day terrors, Godzilla will always have his roots in Japan, the 1950s, and the nuclear bomb.
In fact, Godzilla may be one of cinema’s most relevant characters of all time, despite most commonly being known for bashing, crashing, and beating King Ghidora about the head and shoulders.
I’d previously written on monsters as a whole and their roots in humanity’s fears. However, each type of monster has so much more depth concerning the how’s and why’s of their creation that they should each be delved into much more. With Godzilla more relevant than ever, now is the perfect time to look at why this atomic breath-spewing, train-chewing, Kaiju-bashing beast from the east who is both a terror and a hero to audiences everywhere.
Birth from the Bomb
Godzilla was created by Japan’s Toho Studios and first appeared on screen in 1954’s Gojira, a story that tells of the giant mythical sea creature who rises from the ocean to destroy Tokyo. The mindless, unstoppable beast was created to evoke the terrors of the nuclear bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II in 1954. Not only do the monster’s attacks on Japan cause destruction that resembles the aftermath of the nuclear bombs, such as radiation burn-covered victims, but producer Tomoyuki Tanaka stated that the creature was designed to be the very epitome of the bomb itself.
Godzilla is a force of nature awakened by mankind’s foolish creation of the atomic bomb, but he himself preys on the audience’s real fears of nuclear war and destruction. Like any great monster, real fears are heightened and personified to not only thrill the audience, but help them cope with real world dangers.
The film certainly struck a chord with its target audience, Gojira was a hit in Japan, although its strong connections to the nuclear bombs was controversial and met with some scorn. Gojira was eventually released in 1956 in North America as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which kept much of the original footage, but spliced in actor Raymond Burr, creating a white protagonist that the studios thought U.S. audiences would need. Despite Godzilla being reduced to a skeleton at the end of the movie through the noble sacrifice of a Japanese scientist, Godzilla would soon return in Godzilla Raids Again and numerous others films.
However, Godzilla would soon change from mindless walking nuclear bomb set on destroying Japan to an anti-hero. A humungous force of nature that would defend the Earth and come to represent new eras of fear and courage.
Becoming Japan’s Hero
As Toho Studios continued the Godzilla series, they would pit the monster against numerous foes, resulting in monster mashes of varying qualities. With so many new threats to the world, Godzilla would become defender rather than destroyer. Anguirus, Mothra, King Ghidora, Gigan, Megalon, Mechagodzilla, and more would all rise up over the decades to challenge the King of the Monsters, but it was always Godzilla who came out on top.
He slowly softened, became family friendly, and was known to be a goofball at times. In fact, the big guy even gained several sons across various incarnations. Eventually, Godzilla came to represent the spirit of Japan, rather than its destruction.
Like Japan, Godzilla fought against overwhelming odds to beat his foes, and even though many films end in his hibernation, death, and other forms of defeat after victory, he always returns bigger and badder than ever. Who better to represent the country going through its own rebirth?
However, Godzilla’s been rebooted more times than Batman. And he did it first, too. The Return of Godzilla in 1984 acted as a direct sequel to the original Gojira, ignoring the events of the 14 films that had followed it in order to return the monster to his dark and dangerous roots. But even after all that bashing and crashing that beat up poor modern Japan, Godzilla quickly returned to defender form. This time, the dangers frequently came from space. These space-based worries of the age spawned new types of kaiju, each who were diametrically opposed to Earth’s number one monster.
Godzilla and his many battles in this second series of films was much more linked to the ongoing Cold War, biological worries, and science gone out of control. These various worries often led to the creation of disastrous monsters, such as Biollante, a plant turned into enormous monster eventually stopped by Godzilla.
There have been even more rebirths of the monster, with the millennium series giving him a new look and more epic scope, plus adding in military and political worries. Of course, you can’t discuss the King of the Monsters without mention director Roland Emmerich’s hot mess U.S. interpretation Godzilla in 1999. Besides being poorly written, lacking any good characters, and making the iconic beast look the a generic dinosaur, the film and the character itself lacked any ties to real fears and modern worries. He was just a big beast.
The Age of Kaiju
While Godzilla will always be the most popular monster of them all, he set into motion an age of giant beasts that lasted decades and created characters that have inspired their own major followings. The creatures, known as Kaiju, are towering specimens that can level city blocks in moments. Yet they each have their own meanings, powers, and distinctive looks.
Is Godzilla not your style? Maybe one of these monsters will satisfy.
Mothra – This moth monster is the best known kaiju outside of Godzilla, starring in its own trilogy of films. Possessing all the powers of a moth (flight, silk spraying, metamorphosis) as well as many magical abilities, Mothra is a benevolent protector of Earth summoned by magical twin fairies.
Rodan – Debuting in its own film, Rodan eventually came to blows with Godzilla in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. But the giant mutated pterosaur quickly became allies with the King of the Monsters against more serious threats to Earth. The flying, sonic boom-generating Rodan may be one of the weaker kaiju now, but it’s a classic.
Anguirus – Godzilla’s first ever kaiju opponent debuted in Godilla Raids Again. However, Anguirus became his most trusted ally as a fellow defender of Earth. Resembling a humungous ankylysaurus, Anguirus is known to bash, slash, and bite his foes.
King Ghidorah – No arms, two wings, two tails, and three heads – King Ghidorah is sent from space and always bad. Portrayed as immensely powerful with heat and energy breath, it often takes the combined might of Earth’s monster defenders to stop this enormous beast.
Mechagodzilla – A mechanical copy of the King of Monsters, Mechagodzilla has many different origins. But each one is deadly and armed to the metal teeth with lasers, guns, flamethrowers, and rockets. Hopefully, this guy gets the modern spotlight someday soon.
Gigan – A space-based monster who is all bad. The giant cyborg Gigan is equipped with hooks for hands, a spinning blade in its abdomen, and eye lasers. It’s easily one of Godzilla’s toughest opponents and always comes close to killing the heroic kaiju.
If you like yours monsters to mash, check out the ultimate battles between these wildly varied foes in films like Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla: Final Wars!
Modern Times, Modern Terrors
After an American interpretation, 1990’s cartoons, and a modern Japanese series that tried to be as insane of possible, the Godzilla films followed the example of the character and went into hibernation.
But Godzilla has been through so many interpretations and contextualized so many fears, he’s far from irrelevant. He just needed time to gather his strength. And now he returns in Godzilla, a film that looks to make the monster once again relevant to the fears in the time it debuts. And like the original Gojira, this film looks to be a darker, more human-focused affair.
What will today’s Godzilla represent? Nuclear weapons are still a focus of concern, but are they far from being the most timely topic. Instead, it seems as though nature and humanity’s effect on it, brought into focus by global warming, hurricanes, tsunamis, and much more, can be embodied in the King of the Monsters. But has Godzilla returned to protect us or destroy us? Does humanity deserve a mythic, all-powerful force of nature on its side? Given the right film, these are the types of questions that can be raised and left up to the viewer to decide.
And all because of a gargantuan, skyscraper-stomping, atomic breath-spewing, scaly badass. Welcome back, Godzilla.