Forget James Bond; The Pink Panther and The Fast and the Furious, with 28 official entries so far, the biggest film franchise in movie history is Godzilla. To celebrate this week's release of a new American attempt at portraying the legendary monster, I am going to cite some key moments in Godzilla's cinematic history.
1954: The World's Tallest Metaphor
The trailer for Godzilla (1954)
Famously inspired by the enduring Japanese popularity of King Kong (1933), as well as the 1953 creature feature The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Toho Studios' Godzilla ('Gojira' in Japanese, a combination of the words for whale and gorilla) was the most expensive film ever made in Japan. By linking Godzilla's modern presence to atomic testing, the filmmakers tapped directly into anxiety over the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima ten years earlier.
There's a surprising amount of human drama in the Japanese version of this film, and the nuclear parallels are strengthened by a thread in which the scientist who creates a bomb strong enough to destroy Godzilla refuses to allow his device to be used on the basis that humans aren't equipped to wield such power.
Just in case we don't quite get it, the final line of the film states "If we keep on conducting nuclear tests, it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again."
The King Kong influence repeatedly makes itself known (Godzilla is named by the worshipping natives of Ohto Island) and the well-intentioned scientific scenes are occasionally chuckle-inducing ("Two million years ago, dinosaurs ruled the earth").
1956: Just Add Perry Mason
For an American release in which the film was renamed Godzilla: King of the Monsters, new footage featuring actor Raymond Burr (Rear Window; Perry Mason) was filmed and edited around selected dubbed scenes from the Japanese version. Introduced under a pile of rubble in smouldering Tokyo, Burr's American journalist Steve Martin (hehe) narrates the events of the film in flashback, which results in a lot of Burr awkwardly showing up in the background, watching and nodding sternly and taking a peculiar interest in the personal affairs of characters he barely interacts with.
A much shorter movie that removes most of the Japanese version's ethical hand-wringing, Godzilla: King of the Monsters remains the defining Godzilla film for a Western audience.
Short-sighted American distributors were yet to appreciate the benefits of an ongoing Godzilla franchise, and when they acquired Toho's 1955 sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, they presented the re-edited and dubbed film to confused audiences as Gigantis, The Fire Monster.
The trailer for King Kong vs. Godzilla
1962: Gorilla On Godzilla Action
Godzilla Raids Again (the Japanese title translates literally as Counterattack Of Godzilla) wasn't an enormous success for Toho, so they waited another seven years before mounting a new Godzilla film in which he battled a Toho-licensed version of his own inspiration. King Kong vs. Godzilla was a huge success and remains one of the most successful Godzilla films at the Japanese box office.
Toho followed-up the popular King Kong vs Godzilla with a steady string of sequels that added an increasingly wild selection of supporting monsters ('kaiju') who would go on to play large roles in the franchise, including Rodan (a pterodactyl-like creature); King Ghidorah (a three-headed flying dragon) and Mothra (er, a big moth).
Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe successfully interweaved their blockbusters, Toho was bringing together their biggest creatures - Mothra is best known these days for his association with Godzilla, but he had starred in his own film prior to 1964's Mothra Vs. Godzilla.
1967: Not So Bad After All
Beginning with 1964's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla started to prove himself more of a help than a hindrance to humanity. By the time 1967's younger-leaning Son of Godzilla came along, he was positively cuddly. Godzilla's status would fluctuate between hero and villain forever more.
The trailer for Destroy All Monsters (1968)
1968: Battle Royale
Bringing together all the major kaiju so far introduced and adding a few new ones, Destroy All Monsters was The Avengers of its day.
1974: Enter Mechagodzilla
The initial burst of Godzilla films continued through into the next decade, and in 1974's Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, Japan's affection for giant robots lead to the introduction of one of Godzilla's most visually distinctive adversaries. An robotic doppelganger of Godzilla, Mechagodzilla was arguably the big guy's most formidable foe, and returned in the next year's Terror of Mechagodzilla, the fifteenth Godzilla film. Then the franchise lay dormant until...
1984: Starting Over
Long before the term 'reboot' became common parlance in the movie landscape, Toho decided to kick off a new Godzilla continuity with 1984's The Return of Godzilla, which functioned as a direct sequel to the original 1954 film and ignored everything in between.
The reboot got American distributors interested again, and Raymond Burr was called back to shoot more scenes as his character from the Godzilla: King of the Monsters, now understandably referred to as 'Mr Martin'. Released into American theatres (and on home video most everywhere else) as Godzilla: 1985, the film was not a big success outside Japan.
A 1989 follow-up, Godzilla vs Biollante, introduced a new kaiju, but when that was deemed unsuccessful, the second Godzilla series started bringing back popular adversaries like King Ghidorah; Mothra and Mechagodzilla. This continued up until 1995's Godzilla vs. Destroyer, at which time Toho announced the character would take a break to make way for a then-planned trilogy of American Godzilla films.
A scene from Godzilla (1998)
1998: Sony's Folly
Along with the success of Jurassic Park, the increasingly-apparent power of brand awareness in the '90s lead to a new American Godzilla becoming a hot prospect. The rights were licensed from Toho by Sony, the Japanese owners of Columbia Tristar. Speed director Jan De Bont was attached at one point to the film, which was eventually handed to director Roland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin on the strength of their 1996 smash Independence Day. Their take on the character proved drastically unpopular with both the Godzilla faithful and general audiences. It maintains a reputation as one of the worst blockbusters of all time.
1999: Begin Again, Again
With the American trilogy plans scuppered by the undeniable crapulence of Emmerich's film, Toho re-entered the arena with another franchise reboot that ignored everything but the 1954 original. Godzilla 2000 utilised an evolved version of Toho's traditional man-in-suit special effects method, which had a newfound charm in the face of Emmerich's soulless CGI monster. Subsequent entries in this newly rebooted franchise got even more adventurous, leading up to...
The trailer for Goldzilla: Final Wars (2004)
2004: His most recent swansong
For Godzilla's 50th Anniversary, Toho produced a fan-servicing, all-inclusive blockbuster that made Destroy All Monsters look like Waiting for Godot. Practically everybody shows up in Godzilla: Final Wars, most amusingly the creature from Emmerich's film, now incorporated into the Toho continuity as a creature called 'Zilla.' Upon appearing, he is promptly smashed into the Sydney Opera House by the real King of the Monsters.
As the most recent 'official' Godzilla film, Final Wars is an entertaining entry point into the Toho world. Very much a product of its time however, the monster mayhem is complemented/overshadowed by a whole bunch of Matrix-y action involving the human characters. If you do end up watching it, keep an eye out for kick-ass Kiwi kickboxer Ray Sefo in a small role.
Upon Final Wars' release, Toho announced they would be taking a ten year break from making Godzilla films, which has timed out nicely with the new American film, produced by Legendary/Warner Bros. (Sony let their license lapse in 2003) and directed by Englishman Gareth Edwards (Monsters).
I love how Toho dissed Sony's take on Godzilla then went on to factor the creature into their own movie. I can't wait to see how they react, narratively or otherwise, to the new film.
Fan of old-school Godzilla? Which ones are you favourites? Can I get a shoutout for Monster Island? Comment below!