Thoughts on Godzilla: The Showa Era
A while back, Turner Classic Movies showed several of the early daikaiju (giant monster) films from Toho Studios in their original Japanese, including Gojira (Godzilla), Radon (Rodan), and Mosura (Mothra). Since then, I’ve been watching a number of other films in Toei’s kaiju series and reading about the series as a whole. There are three eras of Godzilla/kaiju films: the Shōwa, Heisei, and Millennium series. The first two are named after the titles of the Japanese emperors at the time (Hirohito was the Shōwa Emperor, Akihito is the Heisei Emperor), according to Japanese calendar conventions. The third title, of course, comes from the Western calendar. All Godzilla films accept the original 1954 film (or a variation thereon) as canonical, but branch off from it into several distinct continuities. Shōwa is one continuity, Heisei another, and Millennium was characterized as an “alternate realities” series, exploring different takes on the Godzilla legend. with only two of its six films sharing a continuity with one another (although several count at least some of the Shōwa films as part of their backstory).
The original 1954 Gojira, directed and co-written by Ishiro Honda and produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka with effects by Eiji Tsuburaya and music by Akira Ifukube, is really in a class by itself. It’s not what one would expect of a kaiju film. It’s actually a very dark, intelligent, philosophical film, an allegory for the spectre of nuclear devastation that still hung over Japan at the time, and is driven more by characters and ideas than by the spectacle of the kaiju smashing things. The memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hovers over everything that happens and gives it weight and power. And the plot is largely a rumination on the ethics of using weapons of mass destruction: can unleashing such a horror ever be justified? Gojira (“Godzilla” is an imperfect approximation of its pronunciation) is a force of nature, an ancient dinosaur of a species that (assuming the subtitles were translated accurately) had survived in the ocean depths for millions of years but had been displaced by the American nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands (the same tests that led to some giant octopus problems for San Francisco in the Ray Harryhausen classic It Came From Beneath the Sea a year later), as well as mutated so it could breathe atomic fire. Even nuclear weapons can’t kill it, so it seems nothing can. The crux of the plot is Dr. Serizawa’s (Akihiko Hirata) invention of the Oxygen Destroyer, potentially a weapon even deadlier than the atom bomb. He refuses to unleash that horror on the world even to stop Gojira. Ultimately his fiancée Emiko and her boyfriend (yep, this is a pretty adult and morally ambiguous film) persuade him to use it, but he takes drastic steps to ensure it will never be used again. At once it seems to be absolving America for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — admitting that unleashing such an evil can sometimes be an unavoidable necessity to stop a menace that can’t be stopped any other way — and chastising America for allowing that unleashed evil to propagate further after the immediate need had passed. After all, it was the continued bomb testing in the years after the war that unleashed the horror of Gojira. At the same time, the paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) argues that Gojira shouldn’t be killed — not only is it just an animal with a right to exist, but studying its regenerative abilities and resistance to radiation could be a boon to medical science, helping humanity understand how to cope with disease, injury, aging, and particularly the radiation sickness that was one of the legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All in all it’s a surprisingly thoughtful film with a lot of ethical dilemmas. Yes, the special effects are sometimes cheesy, but not intentionally so; they did the best they could with the resources and knowhow at their disposal, and a lot of the visuals of the destruction of Tokyo are actually fairly effective, particularly given that we’re shown a lot of the human cost, the terror of the populace and the despair of the survivors afterward, so that the emotional impact carries it when the visual effects don’t. This is a dark, powerful film, one of the most classic and important monster movies ever made.
The American version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters from 1956, is a mixed bag as an adaptation. It famously adds new material focusing on Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin, who hangs around the periphery of many of the film’s events and has them translated for him by another character, and sometimes talks to rough doubles of the film’s cast (facing away from the camera or hidden by equipment in front of them) to create the illusion that he’s interacting with them. It’s interesting that a lot of the Japanese dialogue was thus not overdubbed, but it also means that a lot of the substance and characterization in the film is lost. Naturally the Hiroshima/Nagasaki allegories are mostly eliminated, since they would’ve been seen as anti-American, so most of the symbolism and philosophical weight is missing too. And the cast that dubbed the main leads was pretty terrible. It’s painful to see shots of Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) emoting powerfully while the English dubber just drones on dully as if she were reciting the phone book (with a Southern accent, no less). They also alter the story a bit so that Steve is the one who convinces Emiko to come clean about the secret of the Oxygen Destroyer, undermining her arc in the original where she makes that choice on her own. G:KotM is an interesting artifact, and it does a decent job of trying to maintain the dark, apocalyptic tone of the original, but it’s a much shallower and less satisfying film.
Unfortunately, the same goes for the sequels Toho made. The success of the original film led them to rush out a sequel, Godzilla’s Counterattack, known in the West as Godzilla Raids Again. The film used a different director, writers, and composer than the original, and was far less interesting or deep. The story builds on a suggestion from the original film that Gojira was just one member of its species. Dr. Yamane is briefly brought back for bridging and exposition, and he confirms that this Godzilla, the one we’ll follow for the rest of the Shōwa series, is a second member of the same species. (This time I am certain the subtitles were correct. My Japanese-English dictionary from college confirms that Yamane says “dai-ni no Gojira,” meaning “second Godzilla.” And from this point I’ll use the Anglicized spelling for convenience, since the Gojira of the original film was an entirely different creature in more ways than one.) A second monster, Anguirus (or Angirasu, a shortening of the Japanese pronunciation of “ankylosaur”), is also featured battling Godzilla, but both are presented as threats; this is before the pattern of having a “good guy” kaiju emerged. But there’s no allegory or philosophy in this film, and the character story is rather dull. In a way, it’s interesting that the film focuses less on the battle to defeat the kaiju and more on simply getting by in a world where kaiju exist. The story is largely about the ordinary people of Osaka just trying to carry on with their lives in the face of an unavoidable threat, as people tend to do, and when it does focus on the scientists and military, their efforts in the majority of the film are more about managing Godzilla than trying to destroy him, using flares to divert him from the city lights that enrage/attract him (and it’s nice to finally get an explanation for why Godzillas smash up cities, though this explanation will not be used again as far as I know). But that idea is more interesting in concept than execution; all in all it’s kind of a dull movie. Eventually they do defeat Godzilla by burying him in an avalanche, but there’s no philosophical conundrum; it’s more just a disaster movie than the allegory the original was.
After this, Toho branched out into similar films featuring other monsters, including Radon (short for “pteranodon,” and Americanized as Rodan to avoid confusion with a brand of soap at the time, or something), Varan (whose film I’ve never seen), and Mothra. Most of these films were directed by Ishiro Honda (with music by Akira Ifukube) again, but they aren’t as deep as his original. Rodan (1956) is much like the second Godzilla film, a disaster movie that portrays the monster as a serious threat but doesn’t show the death and despair as overtly as the original film, and whose ending is more about just solving the problem without any ethical conundrums. Varan the Unbelievable (1958) sounds much the same, from what I read. The ’54 film’s frank portrayal of human death and suffering is not repeated in the later films, which focus only on buildings being destroyed after the populace has fled in terror, or at most imply deaths offscreen.
Mothra (1961) tried to mix it up a little, though, giving us the first benevolent (or at least neutral) kaiju and trying to inject a message again, though going for a lighter tone than Gojira. It’s also the most overtly spiritual of the kaiju films. I believe that Godzilla, in the original film at least, had an element of Japanese animism to him; in animist belief, everything has an embodying spirit, and if a dragon can be the spirit of a river (as in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away) or Totoro can be the spirit of the forest, then perhaps Godzilla is the embodiment of the spirit of nuclear destruction. (Okay, now I want to see Totoro vs. Godzilla…) Indeed, I’ve read that Ishiro Honda referred to Godzilla as “the sacred beast of the Apocalypse.” But Godzilla is usually portrayed more as a dinosaur, a mutated animal (although the people of Otoshima in the original had long worshipped Gojira as a sea god and made virgin sacrifices to it; this is where the name came from, and I think the film was implying that what they worshipped was the real kaiju before it was displaced from its feeding grounds, rather than a case of mistaken identity). Mothra is overtly a deity, or at least worshipped as one by the people of Infant Island. She’s also the first female kaiju, though this is often obscured in English dubs that call her “he” or “it.” Mothra has a pair of heralds, I guess you’d call them — the doll-sized Shobijin (“Small Beauties,” called fairies in English), played by a popular singing duo called the Peanuts. Having gained experience at making stuntmen in monster suits look giant, Tsuburaya now went the other way and dabbled in miniaturization.
What’s interesting about Mothra is that it’s largely a retelling of King Kong. The bad guy, Carl Nelson, is clearly based on Carl Denham. He’s from a nation called “Rolisica,” which is a stand-in for the US (Nelson speaks English with an American accent even in the Japanese-language original, and comes from New Kirk City), though it has elements of the USSR thrown in (mainly in its flag and military uniforms). Nelson captures the Shobijin and puts them on display, which draws Mothra’s wrath as she comes to rescue them. She’s not evil or predatory, but any people or cities that get in her way are in danger from her sheer power. But Nelson refuses all personal and diplomatic pressure to free the Shobijin, thus provoking devastation as Mothra comes after them, until the heroes finally free them and find a way to draw Mothra to a safe rendezvous point. Despite being a lighter film, it’s more critical of the West than any film in the franchise since the first, even though it substitutes a fake country for America (and let me tell you, it’s weird to see that done to your own country instead of somebody else’s). It’s one of the better kaiju films, and Mothra would become probably the biggest Toho daikaiju star (no pun intended) other than Godzilla.
The following year, Godzilla returned in King Kong vs. Godzilla, which was based on an idea originated by Willis O’Brien, the animator of the original King Kong. Despite being directed by Honda, it’s unfortunately not up to its predecessors’ standards. I was only able to find the American version, which is lame; it follows the Raymond Burr “reporter” route, but instead of adding a reporter as an actual eyewitness to events, it just frames the film with a series of TV-anchor segments introducing and commenting on the events of the story, which is boring as all get-out. But what I could see of the underlying film was pretty lame too. They clearly went for kid-friendly comedy this time, with broad characters mugging and doing silly things. The kaiju weren’t portrayed as particularly dangerous, and are generally kept well away from populated areas. Godzilla is a real pushover compared to previous appearances, held off by an electric-fence tactic that was totally ineffectual against the original in 1954 (why didn’t he use his atomic breath to melt the towers this time?), and while the military can’t stop him, they can at least slow him down. He’s also photographed far less impressively (and in color for the first time), looking more like a rubber-suited stuntman on a miniature set, and begins acting more comically at times, jumping around and waving his arms. It’s a harbinger of the future direction for the series.
But next came a far better film around a similar formula, Mothra vs. Godzilla in 1964. This is my second-favorite kaiju film of the Shōwa era. Godzilla is back in more menacing form again, for what will be the last time in this era/continuity. Like the first Mothra film, it has a message about exploiting and abusing nature, and some social commentary; when the heroes first have the idea to ask Mothra for help against the menace of Godzilla, the people of Infant Island refuse to help because they’re angry at how atomic tests have devastated their land; but the hero and heroine make a poignant speech about how the innocent masses shouldn’t be punished for the crimes of the few and how all nations are neighbors and fellow humans who need to help each other. The apocalyptic darkness of the original is long-gone, but this is perhaps the richest and most effective of the more kid-friendly kaiju films of this series. And the actual battles between the monsters are handled pretty well. I also really enjoy Akira Ifukube’s musical themes for this film, particularly the Shobijin’s song “Mahara Mosura,” and its melody which serves as Mothra’s leitmotif.
After this, for the rest of the ’60s, Godzilla started to become more hero than villain, beginning later in the same year with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. King Ghidorah (a Japanese approximation of “Hydra”), the triple-necked dragon from outer space, would become the greatest recurring villain of the series, allowing Godzilla to be pushed more into the role of hero — a role he first adopted reluctantly, effectively under peer pressure from the heroic Mothra, when she convinced Godzilla and Rodan to fight King Ghidorah together. And yes, this film did establish that the kaiju were intelligent beings whose thoughts and conversations could be translated by the Shobijin, and Godzilla became kind of like Marvel’s Incredible Hulk, a big guy who just wanted the mean humans to leave him alone but could occasionally be grudgingly convinced to help them or at least fight the evil monsters that threatened them. The kaiju trio drove off King Ghidorah, but the next movie, Invasion of Astro-Monster, revealed that KG has been sent by alien invaders who convinced Earth to “give” them Godzilla and Rodan (ostensibly to save them from KG) in exchange for a cure to all disease (lousy bargainers — we would’ve let them take the kaiju for free), then brainwashed the monsters into becoming their weapons against Earth. Of course, the Earth kaiju came through in the end.
This is as far as I’ve been interested in going in the Shōwa series for now. That is, I’ve seen most of the rest on TV over the years, maybe even all of them, but I’m not currently interested in revisiting them, because the series got increasingly cheap and campy from here on. The next couple of films in the series were very low-budget and kid-oriented, even giving Godzilla a cute “son” called Minya or Minilla. (Contrary to what’s often assumed, this is not the same character as the winged “Godzooky” from the ’70s Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon.) I’ve heard that the next one after those, Destroy All Monsters, could be worthwhile, but neither Netflix nor the library has it; and the one after that was horrible, the whole thing just a dream of a bullied kid who imagined becoming Minya’s friend (Minya could talk in his dream) and watching Godzilla battle a kaiju with the same name as his main bully. After that, in the ’70s, Godzilla moved beyond antihero status to a full-fledged champion of Earth and friend to children, emulating the popular Gamera series from rival studio Daiei. The series went on for a few more films until it finally ended in 1975 due to failing audience interest. It would be nine years and a change of emperors before Godzilla was rebooted in the Heisei continuity. I’ll be covering those (except for the first two, which aren’t available on DVD) in a subsequent post, and the Millennium films after that.