GODZILLA: A QUICK HISTORY
By Bob Eggleton
Originally Published ‘Zatso? Magazine #1, July 2002
Godzilla was introduced to the world in l954. He evolved from a dinosaur–a carnivore called Godzillasaurus which was exposed to the effects of the H-Bomb tests, near it’s isolated home of Lagos Island and mutated into a 200 ft high, radioactive-gas breathing creature.
Godzilla was born.
The natives of tiny Odo Island, off of eastern Japan had a legend of a “terrible monster” known as “Gojira” who existed off their shores. And, in l954, when ships were mysteriously disappearing in “A sea of fire” the residents of Odo Island were sure it was…Gojira.
A note on the name “Gojira”
It combines two Japanese words for whale (kurira) and gorilla (gorira) and was a nicknamed given to a Toho set worker who had immense proportions. Tomoyuki Tanaka thought the name catchy and mysterious and the rest was history. Haruo Nakajima, a stunt man was chosen to wear the cumbersome 200-pound rubber suit that immortalized Gojira forever.
GOJIRA was eventually sold to Joseph E Levine’s Embassy Pictures who would go on to hire director Terry Morse and actor Raymond Burr to shoot new footage and tie the original GOJIRA into his new film GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. This film, released in l956, would go on to be a major hit that year when “Giant Monster” fever was on at the movies. The world now called him GODZILLA. The original Japanese version however, is truly an incredible film.
In the film, Godzilla was vanquished by a device called an Oxygen Destroyer, created by Dr Serizawa, who himself would commit suicide rather than chance that his deadly invention would ever be used again. On another island, about a year later, a couple of aircraft pilots discover another Godzilla and, a spiky creature that would come to be known later as Anguirus. The two were locked in battle when they fall into the sea, eventually continuing their battle when they come ashore in Osaka, Japan.
This is the set up for the sequel GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (l955) At first, the idea was suggested to actually film new monster footage just for US release by creating and shipping over two new suits for the monsters Godzilla and Anguirus. That film never got made, however, the existing film was re-cut, dubbed, and given a new title, GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER and released in l959. It was so named “Gigantis” because Joseph E Levine owned the name “Godzilla” and this film was to be released via another company. While it was not the best Godzilla sequel made, the US version was even worse, and became for a time, what was called the “lost” Godzilla film. It finally appeared again on late night cable in the mid 90’s.
In l962, a US submarine investigated strange warming of Arctic waters. Upon inspection, it was discovered Godzilla was breaking free of the ice, which he had been frozen in. This was the set up for KING KONG VS GODZILLA, a film with an odd origin.
Stop motion master Willis O’Brien, seeking a way to revive a King Kong film proposed an idea, in his ailing days called KING KONG VS FRANKENSTEIN. The idea was that Kong was brought to San Francisco and eventually meets up with a giant monster made from animal parts, revived by the grandson of Dr Victor Frankenstein. Universal-who owned RKO and thus Kong at the time-expressed interest in this idea. However, O’Brien was cast out of the picture mostly because stop motion animation was considered too expensive. Toho Pictures, who was very interested in the Kong property, could produce cost effective man-in-a-suit monsters, got together with Universal and KING KONG VS GODZILLA was born. O’Brien was so outraged he went to sue Universal however, he passed away shortly after and his widow had no funds to pursue the matter.
KING KONG VS GODZILLA reflected a new direction for the series-a monster story but underlying subplots that attacked consumerism and greed. It was also the highest grossing Godzilla film in Japan of all time, at one point. However, the US version is almost a different film completely! It was re-cut, and “reframed” to make it appear that we were seeing a U.N. news program. Also, the great Akira Ifukube score was excised in favor of stock music from various 1950’s monster and sci-fi films. And there never was in an ending with Godzilla “winning”. Godzilla simply never came up for air and Kong did.
By this time, Toho had created several other monsters: Rodan, Varan and …Mothra. MOTHRA was an extremely popular film in Japan when it was made in l961. It ushered in a new era of “Kaiju Eiga” in which the films were shot in a dreamlike quality. Godzilla would star in Mothra’s next film: MOTHRA AGAINST GODZILLA (1963) and would be released in l964 in the US as GODZILLA VS. THE THING. Mothra was referred to as “Modra” as well as “The Thing” in the film simply because Columbia Pictures owned the rights to the original MOTHRA name. This film would be released by AIP. Many fans consider GODZILLA VS THE THING to be the favorite of all the first series. This version of the Godzilla suit was the most menacing and scary thus far creating a memorable hit.
In l964, Toho brought a new Kaiju into the foray: GHIDRAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER. Known in Japan as” King Ghidorah” (note the “o”) this creature was a high point in marionette techniques for Eiji Tsuburaya, Toho’s FX legend. Most of Ghidorah is not in fact a “man in a suit” but an elaborate puppet masterfully done to rival anything of Ray Harryhausen’s. Ghidorah would battle Godzilla Rodan and Mothra. Ghidorah appears from inside a meteorite and starts an attack on Japan. Sensing his presence, Godzilla and Rodan also appear and begin destructive bents. The peacemaker is Mothra, who eventually talks Godzilla and Rodan into a team up to defeat Ghidorah.
1965 would see the sequel – MONSTER ZERO, starring American Nick Adams. Adams made this film a sure fire hit for US fans, with his acting and presence. Previously, he’d starred in Toho’s FRANKENSTEIN VS BARAGON (FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD) about a giant “Frankenstein” monster. In MONSTER ZERO he played a role as Astronaut “F Glenn”. Despite some plot holes this film flies along at a terrific pace and is really a lot of fun, my favorite sequel in fact. Godzilla and Rodan are transported to another planet under the ruse that aliens need them to defeat King Ghidorah when in fact the aliens want to use them WITH Ghidorah to invade Earth. This film was quite a bit better than the previous installment despite the fact it was the first film to start using stock footage from previous films as a cost cutting measure. This was also the last film to feature the combined talents of Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsuburaya and Akira Ifukube at their height. This film however, was not seen in the US until 1970.
In l966, Toho made GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER. The film was directed by Jun Fukuda and had a more colorful palette and entirely different feel. Even the musical score was composed by Masura Sato, and featured a bouncy sometimes-jazzy feel. James Bond films were hugely popular in Japan and this film reflected that. Shipwrecked on a remote island, some castaways discover some bad guys intent on world domination and they control a huge monster-Ebirah (A giant shrimp!). Eventually, the castaways find Godzilla–sleeping in a huge cave–and figure the only way to defeat the renegades is to wake the dinosaur up as a distraction. Mothra appears, rescues the good guys and saves the day, a nuclear device is activated, the island blows up and Godzilla escapes.
Fukuda would be employed the next year in a follow up, unrelated, yet taking place on another island, called SON OF GODZILLA. (1967). In this, weather control experiments have turned a paradise island into a hell, creating mutant giant insects and helping to hatch an egg containing a toad-like dinosaur that is ascertained by scientists to be Godzilla’s son. Godzilla and Son (unnamed) create mischief for the weather team, and fight off the huge insects and eventually go into hibernation when the island is frozen. These two films are often singled out as being entirely out of the context of the other films.
By this time, the Godzilla series had a problem: It was falling off in box office returns. So Toho decides maybe the Godzilla cycle should come to one big finale and produced DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (l968). While Honda and Ifukube would return Tsuburaya only came to the set to supervise some effects, his assistant Teriyoshi Nakano took over many of the chores. This film featured Toho’s ENTIRE menagerie of monsters in another alien invasion story.
The setting was the far future of l999 when all of the earth’s monsters were held on Ogasawara Island so they could never again wreak havoc. Female alien invaders called Kilaacs take control of not only the science staff but also the monsters, and set the creatures loose on the cities of the world. Spectacular scenes of mass destruction are featured in this all-out-monster-fest. All ends happily, with the monsters back on their island, the aliens are destroyed and humanity lives happily ever after.
GODZILLA’S REVENGE was made in l969 under the Japanese title ALL MONSTERS ATTACK. FX man Eiji Tsuburaya was gravely ill at the time and could not do much so the film was made up largely of clips of some of Godzilla’s prior battles. He eventually died in l970. The film was released in l971 in the US and told a different tale entirely out of context with most of what had come before. GODZILLA’S REVENGE, one might say, is an urban fairy tale, telling the story of a rather lonely boy who, with a broken short wave radio, can dream himself to Monster Island, home of Godzilla and all the monsters. There, he befriends Minya, the size-changing (and talking) Son of Godzilla. The film is genuinely aimed at children despite its rather harsh title. The moral in the story teaches this little boy, Ichiro, to stand up to his bullies (and some bank robbers), as Minya stands up to bully monsters. Some have called this film “the Godzilla film about Godzilla films” and their effect on the young people who idolize these monsters to escape urban doldrums.
If there were ever a Godzilla “Art” film GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (l971) would be the closest, released in the US in l972. By now, Honda and Ifukube had left the series, Honda returning to work with his mentor Akira Kurosawa . Yoshimitsu Banno was given the task of pitting Godzilla against a huge creature made of pollution, a topical subject at the time in Japan. The film has strange psychedelic sequences; some animation and a quirky pace that was nothing like any previous film. It even has a “black and white” sequence. Like GODZILLA’S REVENGE, SMOG MONSTER has a young boy as its central character who also dreams of Godzilla, owns Godzilla toys and seems to will Godzilla into our reality. This film is now known by its original Japanese title GODZILLA VS HEDORA.
By the early 70’s the Japanese film industry was at a low. TV had taken over many homes and with it, the advent of the TV superhero: Ultraman and his various incarnations successful since the late 60’s were closer to kids heart’s than Godzilla. Thus, as audiences declined, so did revenues, and only meager budgets were allotted to Godzilla films. In l972, Toho would make GODZILLA VS GIGAN-a more straightforward adventure involving aliens, from “Space Hunter Nebula-M” who wish to take over earth with monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah. It’s not one of the better films, as it relied much on a stock music score, stock footage, and some rather threadbare monster suits. This was also the very last film to feature Haruo Nakajima as the man who played Godzilla since l954. This film however would not see release in the US until l978 as GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND.
1973 saw GODZILLA VS MEGALON, not released until l976 in the US. The super hero rage in Japan was at fever pitch, so Toho, in a last ditch effort, tried to cash in by introducing Jet Jaguar, a giant robot to fight along with Godzilla. A new Godzilla suit was made for the film but it was his worst! Megalon was a strange looking monster released from the earth’s crust by Seatopia, a lost civilization tired of our underground nuclear tests. Along for the ride came Gigan, the buzz-sawed, beaked monster from the last film for a return bout however, since most US fans had not seen the previous film, Gigan was a new mystery monster.
In l974, the 20th Anniversary of Godzilla, GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA was made. Aliens from “The Third Planet of The Black Hole ” build a huge metallic Godzilla, and along with Anguirus and a new monster named King Seesar, have a battle on Okinawa Island. The film, again, failed to reach an audience maybe because Godzilla had done everything he could have done already. This film was released in the US in l977 as GODZILLA VS THE COSMIC MONSTER. It was much better than the previous two entries.
Toho tried one more time with MECHAGODZILLA’S REVENGE, in l975 released in the US in 1978 under two (!) titles: THE TERROR OF GODZILLA (theatrical) and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (television) Back for the outing was director Ishiro Honda and a new music score from Ifukube. Teriyoshi Nakano had been given a slightly bigger budget for his FX. It introduced us to a new monster called Titanosaurus, who is a huge sea going dinosaur that was a much better design than previous monsters. The aliens from “The Third Planet of The Black Hole” were back, for one more attempt. Their creation, Mechagodzilla was pulled out of the water and reconstructed and with the help of renegade scientist Dr Mafune, who also controls Titanosaurus, and they try to take over the world. The film did have some terrific urban destruction sequences, with pyrotechnics not seen like this since DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. It was the best Godzilla film of the 70’s but, unfortunately this did not make it a box office hit in Japan…Godzilla walked into the sunset and…Into retirement…maybe his time had passed…or had it????….
TO BE CONTINUED….
Bob Eggleton is a writer and artist. You can learn more about him at his website