50 Years of Godzilla Part 1: The Showa Saga – By Jordan Garren

GODZILLA (1954-1975)

Height: 50 Meters (164 feet)

Mass: 20,000 Metric Tons (22,000 tons)

Weapons/Ablilities: Atomic Ray from mouth and super regenerative power.

First Appearance: Gojira (1954)

(Showa) Godzilla’s Complete Filmography: “Gojira” (a.k.a “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”), “Godzilla Raids Again,” “King Kong vs. Godzilla,”
“Godzilla vs. Mothra,” “Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster,” “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero,” “Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster,” “Son of Godzilla,” “Destroy All Monsters,” “Godzilla’s Revenge,” “Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster,” “Godzilla vs. Gigan,” “Godzilla vs. Megalon,” “Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla,” and “Terror of Mechagodzilla.”

Origin: Hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific awakened Godzilla from his prehistoric slumber and mutated the dinosaur into a radioactive harbinger of doom. Godzilla has made Tokyo his official “stomping ground” ever since!

Simply amazing isn’t it? Fifty years and nearly thirty movies after his first appearance, Godzilla is still alive and well. He is the most recognizable pop-culture icon in the world and has recently been getting a lot of well-earned press. I myself have been a huge Godzilla fan since I was a youngster, probably since the age of four. I don’t quite know how or when my love of Godzilla exactly began, but it’s grown considerably in the last decade or so. To honor my favorite and most beloved film character on his 50th birthday, I decided I should attempt to write a definitive essay about the King of the Monsters. The only problem with this is that there is a lot to cover. To somewhat remedy this, I decided to break this feature into several parts, or rather into several eras. This first article of “50 Years of G” will only cover the “Showa Series” of Godzilla films, beginning with the 1954 original and ending with “Terror of Mechagodzilla.” But first, let’s take a look at Godzilla’s true life origins and “prehistory.”

In 1933, Willis O’Brien wowed audiences with his stop-motion effects in the immortal classic, “King Kong.” This groundbreaking film quickly became the forerunner of other giant monster films that soon flooded theaters across the world. In 1952, “King Kong” was re-released in Japan and earned a great deal of profit. This convinced Warner Bros. Studios to release their next big creature feature, “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” the following year. Based on Ray Bradbury’s shorts story, The Foghorn, “Beast” follows the destructive exploits of the Rhedosaurus (which was brought to life by stop-motion effects master, Ray Harryhausen.). The film did quite well in Japanese theaters, and inspired a producer named Tomoyuki Tanaka. After failing to put together a Japanese-Indonesian production called Eiko no Kanatani (a.k.a. Behind the Glory), Tanaka needed something big to replace the doomed project.

Tanaka decided that he wanted to do a giant monster movie and got further inspiration from the infamous Daigo Fukuryu Maru incident. Dubbed by the press as “the Second Atomic Bombing of Japan,” this event involved the hapless crew of a fishing ship that was contaminated by radioactivity near Bikini Atoll. (And as we all know, that was a favorite testing site for atomic weapons.) What made the situation even worse was the fact that some contaminated fish from the vessel actually reached the market! Tanaka had Shigeru Kayama write the screenplay, rounded up Akira Ifikube to do the music, and hired future special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya for, what he then dubbed as the “G-Project.” Everything was going well for this new film except for the fact that the movie still didn’t have a title. Tanaka heard of a large press agent that worked for Toho whose nickname was “Gojira” (Made from the combined words kujira and gorira.). Before the film went into production, the script was rewritten several times and director Ishiro Honda was hired to shoot the film. Thus began the dynasty of Godzilla!

“Gojira” opened in November 3, 1954 in Japanese theaters and was an instant box office hit! Nearly two years later, Joseph E. Levine purchases the U.S. rights to the film and decided to shoot new footage, directed by Terry Morse. Raymond Burr was cast as the lead for the new footage as newspaper reporter Steve Martin, and edited into the film. The end result was a very different version of the Japanese film that was still quite good and highly profitable. Retitled as “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” the film opening in American theaters on April 27, 1956 and made an unbelievable two million dollars during it’s theatrical run. Naturally the success of the film led to talk of a sequel. On April 24, 1955, nearly a full year before Godzilla’s American debut, Toho released “Godzilla Raids Again.” This film featured Godzilla’s first kaiju nemesis, the mighty and very aggressive Anguirus. Instead of trashing Tokyo, the two mighty monsters battle their way through Osaka until Godzilla kills Anguirus. With one less monster to worry about, the Japanese military focuses on Godzilla himself.

In the end, a Japanese fisherman sacrifices his life and gives the Japanese air force an idea. Instead of trying to waste manpower and weaponry on trying to Godzilla, the jets instead create an avalanche of ice that entombs Godzilla…. until his next film. “Godzilla Raids Again” eventually saw a U.S. theatrical release in 1959 (on a double bill with the laughably terrible “Teenagers From Outer Space”) but was retitled as “Gigantis, the Fire Monster.” Only sci-fi buffs and fans of the original Godzilla knew that this was actually the sequel to “Gojira.” The year 1962 marked Toho’s 30th Anniversary in the film making business. To celebrate this milestone, they paired their treasured mon-star with America’s most famous monster, namely King Kong. The idea came from a script called King Kong vs. Frankenstein, in which Kong would battle a new giant monster made of sewn together animal parts. Producer John Beck used this core idea and approached Toho executives with the idea. What was born was not only the first Godzilla film to be shot in color, but arguably the most profitable Japanese film of all time. “King Kong vs. Godzilla” opened in August of 1962 and pitted the radioactive reptile against an actor in a terribly made gorilla suit.

A lot of fans I’ve spoken with don’t really care for this entry in the Showa series (named Showa for the reigning Japanese Emperor at the time) because Godzilla’s look was tweaked to make him look more reptilian and because the King of the Monsters’ weakness is electricity. Wait what?! Didn’t we see Godzilla slowly blunder through and destroy high tension wires in the first film?! And why the hell does King Kong get stronger from electricity?! Argh! It’s enough to drive hardcore fans insane! Despite those major changes, the film plays out quite well and the kaiju battles are extremely fun. While many rumors still persist that there are two separate endings to this movie, it’s not true at all. Depending on what monster you were cheering for, the ending is pretty much left open to your own interpretation. The next Godzilla film arrived in Japanese theaters in 1964. This time, Godzilla was pitted against Mothra (a kaiju that had her own film back in 1961) in probably the best Godzilla film of the Showa series.

Godzilla arrives at his old stomping grounds and is soon en route to a giant egg discovered in the Sea of Japan. The egg belongs to Mothra, the deity of the natives of Infant Island. Two tiny women, the Shobijin arrive in Japan and try to talk officials into returning the egg, but it’s no use. The alleged “owners” of the egg refuse to give up their prize and actually try to kidnap the tiny natives. Eventually Godzilla makes his way across Japan to the giant egg’s enormous incubator. Mothra flies into action and pulls Godzilla away from the egg and fights until she dies. Soon after, the giant egg hatches and two ugly larvae crawl out and chase after Godzilla. After a Western style kaiju-shootout, the two giant silkworms trap Godzilla in a cocoon of silk and send him tumbling into the ocean. This film in the series had a very interesting story and even serves as a cautionary tale about the evils of greed and money. It’s also interesting to note that the Japanese film maker’s (The holy alliance of Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsuburaya, Akira Ifikube, and Haruo Nakajima who has portrayed Godzilla in a huge number of films.) shot an additional scene of the United States Navy firing upon Godzilla for the film’s American release. This was pretty much the first and last time that was ever done for a kaiju film!

The Godzilla franchise continued to evolve and a series of alien invasion plots began to permeate the series. “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” arrived on the scene in 1964 and featured a whopping four monsters! In this flick, a meteor crashes to Earth and hails the arrival of Godzilla’s most notable foe and true arch-nemesis, Ghidorah (a.k.a. King Ghidorah). This three-headed dragon is a rather impressive creation and is more than a match for Godzilla. That’s why Mothra (in larval form) and Rodan team up with the mighty King of the Monsters in order to defeat this threat from outer space. To keep the audience’s interest, there’s a rather interesting subplot involving espionage, attempted assassinations, and precognition! In the end, the combined might of Earth’s kaiju protectors is more than enough to send Ghidorah running with both tails between his legs. But this monstrous threat would soon return in 1965 in “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero” (a.k.a. Invasion of the Astro-Monster). Aliens from Planet X contact Earth and beg for the usage of Godzilla and Rodan to rid their planet of King Ghidorah.

Glad to be rid of the two destructive creatures, us Earthlings stupidly agree to give up our two mightiest monsters. Godzilla and Rodan are then transported to the tiny planet where they soon engage the three-headed terror and a quick battle ensues. Ghidorah is sent packing once again and the two victorious kaiju have a short celebration (Godzilla actually dances!) before they are left behind. In return for borrowing Godzilla and Rodan, the Planet Xians have sent back a tape recording for a drug that will cure all of our planet’s illnesses. Unfortunately, the recording is an ultimatum announcing that the Xians have control of Ghidorah, Godzilla, and Rodan now! DOH! The three monsters are used by the alien invaders to trash Japan while scientists work on the A-Cycle Light Ray Gun, which will allow the military to break the Xians’ control of the monsters. In the end, the plan works perfectly and Godzilla and Rodan once again dish out some punishment to King Ghidorah and kick him off of our planet. Meanwhile the Planet Xians meet defeat at the hands of the Japanese Self Defense forces and our planet is once again safe from otherworldly invaders!

In December of 1966, Godzilla would star in a rather different film alongside a new kaiju creation: Ebirah. Now, there is a huge controversy surrounding this enemy monster. Ebi is the Japanese word for shrimp, yet the characters refer to Ebirah as a lobster in the film. I argued for days with the editor of this magazine (long-time friend and fellow b-movie reviewer Duane L. Martin) about the true nature of this monster. I asked around several Godzilla fan mailing groups and someone mentioned that Ebirah is a giant, mutant prawn and that just clicked with me. A prawn is pretty much a species of shrimp, but they have pincers! So if you were to ask me if Ebirah was a lobster or a crab, I would say, “No sir, it’s definitely a prawn!” Anyway, this film was originally set to star King Kong (who’s other major role in a Toho film was “King Kong Escapes” in which the mighty ape battles Mechani-Kong!), which explains Godzilla’s infatuation with a pretty native girl and his resurrection via lightning. The plot in this ‘zilla adventure has a lot of back story and subplots for it’s main characters and includes an evil organization called “The Red Bamboo.”

Once Godzilla is up and about, he lays the smackdown on the “Red Bamboo” military and puts a major hurting on Ebirah (after boiling the large crustacean, Godzilla rips off it’s dominant pincers). The Big-G also protects a native girl named Daiyo from harm in several scenes and engages in battle with a giant condor named Ookondaru in one such scene. Naturally, the giant buzzard is toasted alive and sent crashing into the sea. At the end of the movie the island is set to self destruct(!!). Mothra arrives on the scene to take all of the humans to safety while Godzilla leaps into the sea to save his own hide. Godzilla would end up on a completely different island in 1967 where he would become a father! “Son of Godzilla” features Minya, Godzilla’s “son” that somewhat resembles the Pillsbury Doughboy. Over the course of the film, Godzilla teaches Minya how to breathe fire and the basics of entering a battle. The Big-G also protects his newly discovered child from a variety of giant insects including Kamakuras (giant mantises) and the Spiega (known as Kumonga in other films). These giant bugs are quite impressive and prove to be a challenge for the father/son team.

The human characters in this film are mainly a group of scientists that are performing weather experiments on the island. They are also joined by a nosy reporter and a native girl that’s been hiding on the island for years. By the end of the film as the climatic monster battle is taking place, our human protagonists cause it to snow on the tropical island and escape via a submarine. Many Godzilla fans have bad mouthed this film for years because of the changes made to the Godzilla costume (blunter snout, more “human-like” face) and mostly because of Minya. Personally I don’t really mind the changes too much and think that this is a great starter film for young children (despite the intense violence Godzilla uses when killing several of the Kamakari… or is it Kamakaruses?). To make up for any problems fans had with “Son of Godzilla,” Toho decided to really up the ante with 1968’s “Destroy All Monsters.” This highly ambitious film featured eleven different monsters (though several only had short cameos) and brought back the old alien invasion plot to the Showa series.

In 1999, all of the Earth’s monsters (i.e. All of Japan’s monsters.) are corralled on a place called Monsterland (the new Disney theme park!), for scientific research and study. Using the latest technology, the scientists have made special barriers that keep the kaiju within the confines of the island and away from major cities. Unfortunately, pesky aliens called Kilaaks decide that they should rule the Earth. They soon take control of all the monsters and begin attacking the world’s major cities. Once again it’s up to Earth’s scientists and Japan’s heroic military and astronauts to save the day. The main thing worth mentioning about this film is the huge battle that takes place at the end. While the film boasts the presence of Godzilla, Anguirus, Gorosaurus, Mothra, Rodan, Manda, Baragon, Varan, King Ghidorah, Minya, and Kumonga, only six or seven of these creatures actually participate in the final battle. Once humanity gains control of Godzilla and friends, the Kilaaks send King Ghidorah to Earth to wipe out the monster army. Despite having more heads than the rest, Ghidorah is completely unprepared and fully outclassed.

The combined might of Earth’s monsters is more than enough to actually kill the three-headed beastie. But wait! The Kilaaks have unleashed their newest monster, the Fire Dragon! Basically it’s just a flaming, flying saucer and it’s frozen solid by a special weapon fired from the SY-3 Spacecraft that’s used by Japan’s elite astronauts throughout the film. This however was the high water mark for the Showa series as the remainder of the films were made on smaller and smaller budgets, forcing film maker’s like Jun Fukuda to rely on stock footage from previous Godzilla films. In 1969, the most maligned Godzilla film of them all,
“Godzilla’s Revenge” (a.k.a. “All Monsters Attack”) was released! This is truly the best film to use when trying to bring a youngster into the Godzilla fandom community, but otherwise it’s a sheer test of willpower to sit through the entire seventy-minute running time.

In this film, Godzilla and all the other giant monsters are figments of a young boy’s imagination (talk about a total buzzkill). In his daydreams, Ichiro plays with Minya and has adventures on Monster Island. Most of the “adventures” in question are scenes taken from a lot of the earlier Godzilla films (mostly from “Son of Godzilla”) and none of it really matches up well because Godzilla’s look has changed a lot over the course of his career. One thing that really has interested me about this film is it’s only new kaiju creation, namely Gabara. This cat-faced ogre spends the entire film beating up on Minya, who eventually tries standing up for himself, only to receive a harsher beating. Thankfully Godzilla arrives on the scene and gives Gabara a sound thrashing. This of course shows young Ichiro that he must face his fears and stand up for himself. He then foils the plans of two bankrobbers and beats up the fat kid that’s been bullying him. On a sadder note, shortly after this film was completed, effects master Eiji Tsuburaya passed away at the age of sixty-eight and is still sorely missed.

The Godzilla series took an even weirder turn in 1971 with the ecology minded “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” (more commonly known to Americans as “Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster”). Due to the horrible pollution in and around Japan, a creature made of sludge appears and begins wreaking havoc. Thoughout the film, it’s hinted that Hedorah is not of this world and may grow uncontrollably due to humanity’s pollution of Mother Earth. The creature itself isn’t too impressive but it’s fun to note that it evolves from a giant tadpole, into a giant amphibious creature (that utilizes factory smokestacks as bongs), and finally evolves into a huge bipedal beast. “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” is also extremely notable for it’s “Save the Earth” theme song, bizarre animated sequences, and for the notorious scene in which Godzilla flies by using his atomic breath to propel himself through the air! I kid you not! This movie is simply insane and has garnered cult status amongst Godzilla fans. I’ve even heard rumors that the film’s director, Yoshimitsu Banno may be working on a 3-D IMAX Godzilla film that may also star Hedorah. Unfortunately I can’t confirm the validity of that rumor, but if it’s true, remember… you may have heard it here first.

By 1972, Godzilla films were really starting to drop in quality and a lot of stock footage was put into use. “Godzilla vs. Gigan” was the first of three ‘zilla films directed by Jun Fukuda. Once again aliens are invading the Earth but this time they’re large cockroaches from a dying planet and are hiding out in a kaiju theme park! To take over Japan, they plan on wiping the slate clean by using King Ghidorah and a new kaiju named Gigan. To even things up, Godzilla marches into battle with these two powerful monsters with Anguirus at his side, and the first ever kaiju tag-team commences. Naturally Earth’s defenders win out, but they got some much needed aid from humanity. By this point in the series, Godzilla had fully become a hero and would arrive right on cue once things looked grim for Japan. His physical look was also drastically changed; the costume had a more rounded snout, big brown eyes, and a slimmer look. This particular costume would see a lot of use during the next three films.

“Godzilla vs. Megalon” premiered in 1973 and pitted Godzilla against Gigan once again and a new kaiju named Megalon. Megalon as it turns out is the god worshiped by the people of Seatopia, an underwater nation that is seeking revenge for mankind’s
reckless testing of atomic weapons at sea. The film also adds another addition to the kaiju universe: Jet Jaguar! This robotic hero is created by a scientist named Goro. Unfortunately, two agents from Seatopia plan on using his creation for evil and steal it for their own purposes. Eventually though, Jet Jaguar reprograms himself(?!) and takes on both Megalon and Gigan until Godzilla arrives. The two heroic kaiju chase Gigan off the planet early on, but continue to mercilessly pummel Megalon. The most memorable scene from this film has Godzilla sliding across a vast plain on his tail and ramming into Megalon! I think that’s why this film earned the dubious honor of being on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (one of the last great shows to ever be put on television)! The next two years saw
the decline and eventual hiatus of the Showa series with “Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla” and it’s direct sequel, “Terror of Mechagodzilla” (a.k.a. The Revenge of Mechagodzilla). In the first film, Godzilla goes on a rampage and begins trashing the Japanese countryside, but for some reason his roar just isn’t the same….. hmm….. I wonder.

After a brief (and bloody) scuffle with Anguirus, we quickly learn that this Godzilla is an imposter! The real King of the Monsters soon arrives in style and challenges his doppelganger to battle. Soon the Godzilla clone is revealed to be a massive cyborg designed by aliens to conquer Japan and kill Godzilla! As the film progresses, certain characters are racing against time to awaken King Caesar while thwarting alien agents and assassins. The film boils down to a two-on-one battle in which Godzilla and King Caesar physically punish the once powerful Mechagodzilla. Godzilla even turns himself into a giant magnet in order to get close to Mechagodzilla and rip it’s head off! Both Godzilla and his mechanical double would return in “Terror of Mechagodzilla” which added yet another new kaiju to the mix. A disgruntled Earth scientist named Dr. Mifune has teamed with the aliens from the previous film and is controlling a giant dinosaur named Titanosaurus! The combined might of the amphibious dinosaur and the newly rebuilt and improved Mechagodzilla proves to be quite a challenge for the Big-G, but in the end, Godzilla triumphs and overcomes both monsters, with a little help from the Japanese military.

“Terror of Mechagodzilla” was the final film in the Showa Godzilla series and marked the end of an era, and it would be nearly ten years before Toho would put another Godzilla film into production (but that is another story). During this fifteen film stint, the series saw many innovations in storylines and special effects techniques. Most of the film’s were shot with a highspeed camera in order to make the movements of all the film’s giant beast look slow and lumbering. The one exception to the rule however was “Godzilla Raids Again” in which director Motoyoshi Oda includes footage of the monsters battling that looks way too fast and unbelievable. It’s like watching two insane puppets grapple for twenty-second intervals! Thankfully future directors and cameramen have learned from this little mistake. Another interesting thing to note was the evolution of the Godzilla costumes. Not only did Godzilla’s overall look change repeatedly (roughly ten different suits were designed and used between 1954 and 1975), but they were better manufactured to be worn for longer periods of time. (And I’m sure Godzilla portrayer Haruo Nakajima truly appreciated these technical changes).

Even after his retirement in the 70’s, Godzilla’s visage graced magazines (such as Fangoria), comic books, model kits, and of course toys! But the biggest thing to happen to the Big-G in the late 70’s/early 80’s was the dawning of VHS tapes! By purchasing a newfangled VCR and a videotape, people would be able to enjoy their favorite Godzilla adventures over and over again! Isn’t technology grand?! Well that about covers the entire Showa series in a nutshell! Be sure to tune in next month to get full coverage of the entire Heisei series of Godzilla films, starting with “Godzilla 1985” and ending with “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah.” Also be sure to read my in depth article concerning the Americanization of kaiju films after reading this, to get even more background information on the Showa series! And finally, don’t forget that Godzilla turns fifty years old on November 4th! Be sure to wish him a happy birthday and heck, why not have a piece of birthday cake in his honor! Hail to the King of the Monsters!

Pictures courtesy of Gojistomp.Org and Toho Kingdom.