The Three Ages of Godzilla

With Gareth Edwards’ reboot around the corner, a look at the three distinct series that made up Godzilla’s 60-year career.

When director Ishiro Honda made Gojira (1954), his darkly poetic and somber parable about Japanese history and the nightmarish dangers posed by nuclear weapons, it’s probable he had no clue whatsoever the film would spawn even one sequel, let alone 27 of the damn things. It wasn’t exactly one of those big, flashy, instant franchise summer blockbusters after all. Besides, he killed off Godzilla pretty thoroughly there at the end.

It’s also likely he never could have guessed his vengeful demonic metaphor would evolve into a goofy cartoon for a while, become a defender of Japan, would have a couple kids, and would become a symbol of everything from environmental responsibility to the Cold War to the economy. And I bet he also couldn’t imagine his deeply tragic film turning into an action series or a string of hi-tech military thrillers. But all those things happened over the next sixty years, and no one has a clue where it will be headed next.

At this point in history, the Godzilla franchise actually consists of three distinct series which happened to occur in succession. Each has its own tone, its own style and focus, and apart from the presence of Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and the Mothra Twins, none has any connection with the other. They’re known, logically enough, as Series I (1954-1975), Series II (1984-1995), and Series III or The Millennium Series (1999-2004). Okay, with me so far?

Series I, also logically enough, begins in 1954 with Honda’s brooding and brilliant original. Although inspired by King Kong and the previous year’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, it took a much darker turn than either, filling the screen with death and mourning and mass destruction on a scale never seen in a monster movie before, and ended with a sacrificial suicide. It was the last time we’d be seeing anything like that in a Godzilla film.

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The picture was such a hit producer Tomoyuki Tanaka rushed a sequel into production. The following year’s Godzilla Raids Again didn’t have Honda at the helm, and you can tell. After some fancy footwork to explain the presence of Godzilla after he’d been left a pile of bones in the original, he and the giant ankylosaurus Anguirus end up in Japan where they duke it out a couple times and crush a few buildings. Then Godzilla is buried in a man-made avalanche. There’s little connection with the original save for a few film clips and an appearance by Dr. Yamane to offer some questionable speculative biology.

While not a bad film, it’s not exactly an allegory, and lacks the poetry of the original. It’s just another giant monster picture. Much more than the original though, it was this sequel that established the general formula that most Godzilla films to come would follow. That is, the climax involves Godzilla wrestling (or more accurately wrasslin’) one or more other giant monsters, preferably in a major urban center to maximize the on-screen carnage. Prior to the fight a few human dramas would play out as characters wondered when, where, and if Godzilla would attack. Afterward Godzilla would either go away on his own accord or be dispatched in some decidedly temporary fashion.

It would be another seven years before Godzilla and Honda both returned to the franchise, and it was with 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla that Honda really put his mark on the series (again) and gave us the look and style and tone we think of today when we remember the classic Godzilla films. With his visual flair, he turned films like Mothra vs. Godzilla (1962) and Destroy All Monsters (1968) into bright, colorful, and surprisingly complex surreal fairy tales.

He also began to establish the mythology surrounding the giant monsters. It was a world in which kaiju were commonplace and recognized, but also a world of very short attention spans. No one in these films ever recalls Godzilla had stomped through Tokyo a year earlier, or that Rodan had passed through six months before that. Everyone’s so damned surprised when Mothra or King Ghidorah show up for the fifth time. After every attack it seemed, the flattened city was rebuilt good as new and everyone forgot about it. As the other monsters developed their own franchises, the universe and mythology Honda created would follow them. Apart from the monsters and the Mothra Twins, there is no continuity between the films in Series I, no through stories. The same actors may appear in several films, but always in different roles unconnected with any other film. Each picture is an independent entity.

Along with Honda, much of the credit for the lasting wonderment of these films must be given to composer Akira Ifukube. From his unmistakable three-note Godzilla leitmotif to the Mothra Twins’ song to the unique grandeur of the varied scores for each of the films, Ifukube’s soundtracks booted the films up several notches beyond the standard giant monster pictures, transforming them into magical and memorable experiences.

Franchise-wise, two important things happened under Honda’s watch. First, when it came to the human characters, he always focused on the little guy, the Everyman, the Outsider. The military might come tromping out in every picture to try and stop Godzilla, but they would always (ALWAYS!) fail miserably, and would for the most part remain a bunch of faceless drones. They never learned a thing from the experience and apparently had the attention span of most everyone else in Japan (“Aim the cannons at him!”). The heroes of his films were almost inevitably scientists, young reporters, or struggling inventors: intelligent, likeable people who stumble upon the one major clue that might save the day. He had little time for authority figures of any kind, and most of the businessmen and real estate developers in his films turn out to be aliens or stupidly crooked.

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The other addition that marked his time at the series began with 1964’s Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster. As Japan moved further away from the horrors of Hiroshima, audiences didn’t need any more reminders like, say, a giant scaly nuclear weapon showing up every year or so to ruin everything again. As a result, Godzilla started to evolve. At film’s end, confronted with a monster even nastier than himself, the demon Godzilla agrees reluctantly to defend the planet instead of destroying it. Slowly over the next several films he would become a heroic figure, a Good Guy, a demigod people called upon for help, even as he continued to knock buildings over and set things on fire in the process.

Around the time Honda left the franchise in the late ‘60s, this idea got a little out of hand. Finding their primary audience was the pre-teen crowd, Toho began aiming the films directly at them. This is always a mistake, and usually a dead giveaway a franchise is in deep trouble. A kid in shorts and a baseball cap was introduced as a recurring character type, and Godzilla had a son, Minya, who occasionally spoke English and was by all accounts not too bright. Godzilla himself changed physically, his eyes growing larger, his arms and legs and face becoming more human. In later films he even started dancing, using sign language, and doing funny tricks, anything to distract and amuse the youngsters.

Under other directors like Jun Fukuda the films remained colorful fairy tales, the focus stayed on scientists and inventors, and Ifukube’s scores continued to elevate the goings-on, but the stories grew simpler, the films started looking pretty shabby and threadbare, and Godzilla’s sparkle dimmed a bit as budgets and audiences alike shrank. It lasted until 1975, when after 21 years and 15 films Toho decided to give Godzilla a bit of a rest until they could figure out where to go next.

A decade later they returned with Godzilla 1985, a film which established the look and style of what became Series II. A number of changes had been made in order to recapture the magic of the classic originals, but for a new age. The special effects, which had been dealt a mighty body blow in the final years of Series I, were once again top notch, with sharp and believable monster suits, miniature cities, and heavy-duty pyrotechnics galore. Even if Ifukube didn’t do all the music, his themes were revived and placed front and center.

More so than in Series I, the saturated colors and overall style were more consistent from film to film, and there are even hints of the occasional through story (or at least returning characters). Instead of surreal fairy tales, the films became action-adventure fantasies aimed squarely at a teenage audience, complete with scattered pop cultural references (Indiana JonesJurassic Park, etc.) in both the dialogue and the storylines. By the ‘80s, Japan was no longer recovering from a devastating war, and had in fact become a major economic world power. Under Honda the films had delved into several social and political issues beyond nuclear testing (pollution, land development, extraterrestrials), and Series II continued with that. The Cold War raged around Japan, there was a national debate over the development and use of nuclear power, the environment was still a concern, people were getting antsy over the nightmarish possibilities of genetic engineering, and all this was reflected in many of the stories.

Godzilla himself is no longer the goofball with anger issues he was toward the end of Series I, but once again an unstoppable destructive force who can be pretty darn mean when he wants to, and looks it. Gone are the big googly eyes and the long skinny arms and legs as he again resembles his original 1954 self. Still, he’s become a more complex figure. While he’s a volcano of sheer apocalyptic glee in Godzilla 1985, we’re told repeatedly it wasn’t his fault; he’s only what we made him. In later films in the series, however, he still has that heroic air about him as he defends the earth against assorted monstrous no-goodniks.

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So he’s a complicated one, that Godzilla, and he’s made even more complex as the series progresses as assorted experts step forward to explain some crazy new theory about what he really is, where he came from, and why he does what he does. That hadn’t happened since 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s he was merely accepted for what he was, no one did much speculating about his motivations. Godzilla was simply a menacing and deadly potentiality is all, like tornadoes in the Midwest or massive earthquakes in California. There was no need to psychoanalyze him. That changed in the ‘80s when everyone was psychoanalyzing any damn thing they could get their hands on.

On the human end of things, there was another major change in Series II. The human characters in Series I tended to be outsiders—scientists working alone, inventors who couldn’t make a sale, reporters whose stories never ran—people scuffling around the edges of society. The focus in Series II is still on scientists, inventors and other eccentrics, but they tend more often to be people working for the government or large corporations.

Early in the series we’re introduced to The Counter-G Bureau, a vast and far-reaching government agency established to study, confront, and hopefully defeat Godzilla, and its military wing, G-Force (which is about as effective as the old Self-Defense Force was in the early films). The CGB is essentially Homeland Security focused on Godzilla instead of terrorists, if anyone can really tell the difference. Although still concentrated on the everyman, the focus was starting to shift to more powerful collective organizations.

In one form or another, though the name might change slightly, some incarnation of the Counter-G Bureau would play a major role in most of the films to come. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), in which he battles a giant genetically-engineered evil rose bush, also introduces Miki, a psychic working for the CGB. She can hear the thoughts of plants, has a psychic connection to Godzilla, and became the first returning (human) character in franchise history, appearing in several films. Godzilla’s latest son (he has one per series) likewise crops up in four of the films. He doesn’t do a whole lot, but at least he’s not quite as annoying as that little fucker Minya.

Also in Series II, films begin to make references to earlier entries. Idle speculation over the origins of the alien monster in Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994) brings up both Godzilla vs. Biollante and Godzilla vs. Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992). Likewise, pieces of high-tech military machinery wrecked in one film are referenced or rebuilt in another. But the stories themselves remained independent and unconnected. It was an odd move, as if the series was finally becoming conscious of itself, but only tentatively. I’m thinking it may have remained so tentative and hesitant because self-consciousness was in direct contradiction to the mythology, in which every Godzilla appearance is a new and unprecedented catastrophe.

At the end of 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destroyah, Godzilla dies after battling a monster evolved from the Oxygen Destroyer that killed him really, really dead in the ‘54 original. Before dying, however, he breathes angry life into his sedate adolescent son, who then walks off into the sunset, presumably to start making plans for his own first attack on Hokaido.

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After ten years and another seven films, Toho once more sent Godzilla on a vacation in 1995, ostensibly to allow for a three-picture deal with Sony, who planned to produce a quick run of American Godzilla films, the first to be written and directed by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, which mercifully didn’t last long, and just four years after dying in the surf and sending his son off to take his place, Godzilla’s vacation was cut short. It turned out some serious damage control was necessary after the Sony mess, so he was called back to kick off the Millennium Series with ‘99’s Godzilla 2000.

Like Godzilla 1985Godzilla 2000 was a stand-alone picture designed to re-establish the series for the new millennium and hopefully recapture the spirit of the old days while making everyone forget about Matthew Broderick. G-Force and the Counter-G Bureau are gone, replaced here by the Godzilla Prediction Network, a tiny operation run by an idealistic computer genius and his precocious if abrasive daughter. He’s convinced a better understanding of Godzilla could be used for the overall benefit of mankind. His arch-enemy is the brash young CEO of a multinational corporation obsessed with killing Godzilla. So once again we return to the standard franchise trope of heroic intelligent outsiders and evil businessmen.

Godzilla himself has undergone another major makeover, with larger, sharper back spines, heavier legs, and a smaller, meaner head. The special effects have advanced as well. And while in 1985 Godzilla found himself in the midst of a US and Soviet nuclear standoff, here he stays hep to the age when he’s confronted with an alien entity sucking up all the computer data in Tokyo.

The next two films were also stand-alones in the old style, but with more of an emphasis on military hardware and the return of a government agency now called the Anti-G Unit. The films also contain a number of sly in-jokes taking some well-deserved swipes at the ‘98 American version, just in case Godzilla 2000 didn’t get the whole job done. It wasn’t until 2002’s reboot of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla that the third series firmly latched onto a style and tone that set it apart from the others.

If the films of Series I were Surreal fairy tales and Series II were action-adventure fantasies, The Millennium Series was marked by hi-tech military action thrillers inspired by everything from the Matrix films, Tom Clancy novels, and Transformers cartoons to anime and video games. The occasional young eccentric scientist may sneak into the mix on occasion, but the focus here is on tough-talking soldiers and their equally tough-talking superior officers as they try to develop a giant bipedal weapons delivery system that might defeat Godzilla. For only the second time in franchise history, two of the three final films have an ongoing storyline, while the last film, Godzilla Final Wars (2004), though still fitting the above description, is essentially a remake of 1968’s Destroy All Monsters.

Honda, who was no fan of the military following the war, would likely have been mortified to see what his film had spawned. By this point Ifukube was long gone, and only the tiniest snatches of his music remain. What we get instead are mostly generic electronic and techno scores so common to the era, with occasional pop songs tossed in for the kids.

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Visually, the films adopted all the annoying bad habits that were so popular at the time: that irritating digital grain, the shaky cam, the seizure-inducing quick cuts, the washed-out colors, and an absolutely adamant refusal on the part of the cinematographer to use lights. There are plenty of explosions and deafening Dolby sound effects though, and often those seem to fill in for some less than compelling stories. In an odd backwards twist, even though most of the special effects remain practical, overall the films look as if they’ve been CGI’d to death.

And Godzilla? Well, Godzilla is once again a hulking demon, a radioactive hurricane with a tail, and despite all the human hubris at play, our military force is still no match for him. That’s a good thing. At the same time, though, in these later films Godzilla is almost an afterthought, a placeholder, just a shadow to give all the military hardware on display something to fire at. Apart from the brief prologue, Godzilla isn’t even mentioned in Final Wars until the last 25 minutes of the film. It’s the interaction between the human characters, who are ultimately as faceless as soldiers have always been in Toho films, that remains the concern of the filmmakers. The films that give the Millennium Series its unique identity are war movies, in which the enemy doesn’t show up until the very end for one big bang, and by then we’re praying Godzilla incinerates all those annoying sonsabitches and their big, dumb, dickswinging machines. On the bright side, he usually does.

Okay, so the Godzilla films began with a focus on intelligent outsiders and oddballs in a string of stand-alone films, moved on to Series II’s bureaucratic government agencies and military units with some self-referencing and returning characters, then to the technology and military hardware itself in the Millennium Series with a slight leaning toward ongoing soap opera storylines. If the trend continues in this direction when the franchise returns to Toho, my guess is in Series IV we should be expecting, well, Pacific Rim as a limited-run mini on HBO.

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