Japan's Biggest Mon-Star
His movie career has spanned 50 years. He's won an MTV Movie Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His voice is recognizable all over the world. His image has been used to sell action figures, games, posters, and other merchandise. Those who have never seen a single movie he's appeared in are likely to know him by sight. He's the biggest movie star, ever.
Of course, he is 400 meters tall. Or maybe 100 meters. Or maybe only 50, depending on which movie he's in (“Godzilla”).
Godzilla first appeared in the Toho Studios production Gojira in 1954. The Japanese version of the movie was a serious film, with a documentary feel to it, and Gojira is presented as a metaphor for nuclear war. When it was acquired for US release, the monster was renamed Godzilla, and additional footage starring Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin was integrated into the movie, changing the tone, and making a number of alterations to the plot. At the end of the film, Godzilla perishes (“Godzilla”).
After the success of the first movie, Toho produced Godzilla Raids Again, which was retitled Gigantis, the Fire Monster by U.S. distributor Warner Bros., who did not have the rights to the name Godzilla. In this film, Gigantis (treated as a new monster) battles a second monster. The success of these movies led Toho to create other monster movies, notably Rodan and Mothra. Both monsters would be folded into the Godzilla continuity, appearing in later films.
The third entry in the Godzilla series was King Kong Vs. Godzilla, followed by Godzilla Vs. The Thing (“The Thing” was Mothra, who would become a recurring character in future Godzilla sequels). By this point, Toho gave up on the idea of Godzilla dying at the film's end.
After this, the Godzilla series presented Godzilla as more of a hero, defending the Earth from giant monsters like King Ghidorah (aka “Ghidrah”), Gigan, and even MechaGodzilla (a robot Godzilla). (Thorne 35) These films emphasized more science-fiction elements. It's suggested that this tone was adapted to reflect the world's interest in space flight (“Godzilla”).
The series became less marketed to all ages, and more to children as it continued, culminating with Godzilla's Revenge, in which Godzilla appears in the daydreams of a child who is bullied (Thorne 43, “Godzilla”). Several of the these movies feature a child as one of the human protagonists, perhaps to give kids someone to identify with. The later 1960s and early 1970s films are often viewed as being “mindless entertainment,” given some of the fantastic elements introduced. But these entries can still appeal to those who can enjoy them on a pure escapist level, much like watching professional wrestling. The viewer knows Godzilla will triumph; the excitement comes from the dynamics of the battles leading up to that victory!
One of the more prominent films of the 1970s Godzilla series was Godzilla Vs. the Smog Monster, which reflected a then-current concern about pollution. The final movie in the original series was 1974's Terror of MechaGodzilla (“Godzilla”).
But Godzilla was far from dead. 1977 saw Marvel Comics' Godzilla, King of the Monsters comic book, which lasted 24 issues. In 1978, Hanna-Barbera produced a Godzilla animated series that aired on Saturday mornings on NBC until 1981.
The movie series was revived with The Return of Godzilla (released in the USA as Godzilla 1984). This revival ignored the continuity of all the previous sequels. As with Godzilla, Raymond Burr was used in new footage, playing reporter Steve Martin (referred to simply as “Mr. Martin,” due to the well-known comedian Steve Martin). Dr. Pepper product placement was all over this movie, and Godzilla appeared in at least one commercial released around this time. There were seven movies in this second series of Godzilla, and as with some of the previous entries, many of these films utilized themes that were prominent in people's minds at the time. Godzilla Vs. Biollante involved genetic engineering, while Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah made a statement about communism.
The third series of Godzilla movies started with Godzilla 2000. In this series, Godzilla remained a monster, although sometimes serving as an anti-hero, particularly in the final film of that saga, Godzilla: Final Wars.
Prior to this third series, however, TriStar Pictures produced their own Americanized Godzilla in 1998. While a financial success (and spawning its own animated series), the changes made in Godzilla's appearance seemed to serve as a catalyst for Toho Studios to restart the saga. In Final Wars, Godzilla even had a short battle with the American Godzilla, winning easily.
Since the first Godzilla, other studios had their own entries in the giant monster movie game. Perhaps the best known is Daiei Studios' Gamera (aka Gammera), a giant prehistoric turtle who could exhale fire. Other imitators of Godzilla included the British Gorgo and Konga, as well as creatures like Yog, the Monster From Space, X The Unknown, and several others. Some of these were made in Japan, and others were made in Korea. Many other movies used the man-in-a-costume route for their giant monster effects through the 1960s and even the 1970s. More recently, the film Cloverfield can easily be seen as a tribute to Godzilla, even if it didn't use the man in a monster suit effects.
Godzilla's popularity has remained high enough over the years that he's made cameo appearances in some American productions. In the climactic chase sequence in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Pee-Wee Herman pursues his foe through a movie set where a battle between Godzilla and King Ghidorah is taking place. His association with Japan led to a cameo at the end of an episode of The Simpsons, where the Simpsons visited Japan, and their departure from the country was delayed by a monster battle.
Godzilla himself appears to be a cross between a tyrannosaurus rex (the overall body design) and a stegosaurus (the dorsal plates), combined with many elements of mythological dragons (particularly his atomic breath, similar to the fire-breathing of dragons). His face has sometimes appeared more lizard-like, and other times more ape-like or even human-like, depending on the role he took in each film. The distinctive Godzilla roar is so well-known that just hearing it makes one think of Godzilla.
The dinosaur aspects of Godzilla's appearance certainly help explain some of his popularity with children, who seem to have an affinity towards dinosaurs. The dragon elements of Godzilla might appeal to adults, as nearly every mythology has some form of dragon or giant serpent present (i.e., the Greek Hydra, or the Norse Midgard Serpent, as well as traditional Asian dragons). It could be argued that the combination of these elements strikes a chord in all people, many of whom grew up reading about or hearing of these ancient myths.
Throughout the over 50 years of Godzilla movies, merchandising as been a big part of Godzilla's role as a pop icon. In the 1960s, Godzilla collectibles were marketed heavily in Japan (always the leader in Godzilla merchandise), while in the USA, he was represented by a board game and a model kit. The 1970s saw Godzilla toys made by Mattel, including the three-foot-tall action figure produced as part of the Shogun Warriors toy line, as well as other products. This era also saw Godzilla Halloween costumes from Ben Cooper, and even a View-Master set. The 1980s saw an influx of imports from Japan, most notably highly-detailed plastic figures of Godzilla and the other Japanese monsters. In the 1990s, Trendmasters got the Godzilla license, and produced a wide range of action figures of Godzilla and his fellow monsters. Thanks to sources like eBay and specialty shops importing products from overseas, many of the Japanese Godzilla products have made their way to the USA in the past 20 years or so.
Random House produced four novels between 1996 and 1998 and a series of children's books. Godzilla has been featured in books about monster movies since the 1970s. He was spotlighted frequently in the biweekly 1970s newspaper The Monster Times, in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine since the 1960s, and other monster movie magazines. In 1977, Crestwood House produced a volume about Godzilla for their Movie Monsters series of books, telling the story of the first few Godzilla movies, as well as providing some information about how they were made (Thorne). The Movie Monsters series was written for children, but adults collect these to this day. Dark Horse Comics produced a number of Godzilla comics in the early part of this decade.
Today, Godzilla can be found easily. Many of the movies are available for viewing online for free from sites such as Hulu, while trailers for all the movies can be found on YouTube. Googling “Godzilla” will generate nine million results, and an eBay search will lead to 5,000 or more collectibles for sale. But Godzilla fandom is not just online. The magazine G-Fan recently published its 88th issue, and the annual Godzilla convention G-Fest has been running for 16 years.
Whether looked upon as a metaphor for the threat of nuclear warfare, a monster bent on destruction, a heroic force defending the world against unimaginable enemies, or simply as “mindless entertainment,” Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, has achieved pop icon status through 50+ years of movies, cartoons, books, toys, and more, becoming immediately recognizable worldwide and inspiring a host of imitators.
“Godzilla.” Wikipedia. 1 October 2009. Wikimedia Foundation. 1 October 2009
Chris N., “The Godzilla Saga”. 18 September 2009.
Thorne, Ian. Godzilla. 1977. Crestwood House, Inc. 1982