Godzilla: Final thoughts (Updated)
Well, it’s been an interesting journey: three eras of Godzilla films and at least seven different continuities. (My previous posts: Shōwa Era, Heisei Era, Millennium Era Pt. 1, Millennium Era Pt. 2. Updated to add: 2014 reboot.) Which would I say were the best? Well, keeping in mind that I’ve only seen about 8 of the Shōwa films in recent months (though I’ve seen most of the later Godzilla films from that era in decades past) and
only the last 5 Heisei films (edit: I’ve since been able to see all seven Heisei films), I’d say the most important and worthwhile installments are:
- Godzilla (or Gojira) (1954)
- Mothra (1961)
- Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
- The Return of Godzilla (or Gojira) (1984)
- Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992)
- Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
- Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)
- Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)
- Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (or GMK) (2001)
- Godzilla (2014)
I’d also more grudgingly recommend 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again as an important member of the Shōwa continuity. It’s a relatively boring film, and a huge letdown after the original, but it’s significant from a continuity standpoint in establishing the existence of a second Godzilla and explaining in retrospect why the original one attacked Tokyo in the first place. Similarly, 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is quite important to the Heisei continuity, though it brings in some very problematical time-travel concepts and some uncomfortably jingoistic politics (which are diametrically opposed to those of GMK).
And the first Heisei-series film, The Return of Godzilla from 1984, would certainly be an important part of the series, if only it were available on DVD.
I’d say my favorite era overall is Heisei. Certainly the original 1954 film was the best by a very wide margin, one of the most powerful, thoughtful, dark, and dramatic monster movies ever made. But if we’re talking overall eras, then Heisei was the one that had the highest percentage of strong entries, and the tightest continuity binding it together. The various Shōwa films are treated as a single continuity, but that’s largely retroactive due to popular monsters being brought back in later films, and really the whole thing doesn’t fit together all that smoothly. But Heisei had continuing human characters and a loose evolving storyline through seven films, and though it has some glaring continuity issues in a couple of movies, overall it does the best job of conveying a sense of a consistent and developing universe. It’s also perhaps the most satisfying era musically, with Akira Ifukube distilling and refining so many of his best themes from the franchise in four of the seven films.
Still, consistency isn’t everything. It’s fascinating to me how the Godzilla franchise has handled continuity overall. In Star Trek fandom, I see so many people (not the majority, but certainly a vocal minority) complaining when tie-in novels or comics aren’t consistent with each other or are superseded by later episodes or films, or crying bloody murder that the new Abrams films dared to create an alternate timeline. But I look at something like Godzilla, where the creators have intentionally embraced multiple conflicting yet partly overlapping realities and made it a feature rather than a bug, and I have to wonder what Trek fans are complaining about. If anything, they’re missing out. Remixing a fictional universe, reinventing it and giving it a new identity and approach, comparing the different ways its history and ground rules can be constructed, is a lot of fun.
And what’s particularly wild about the Godzilla/daikaiju franchise is that its separate continuities aren’t completely separate, but have certain films in common. The original Godzilla is a part of virtually, if not literally, every different universe in the franchise. Mothra, War of the Gargantuas, and possibly other non-Godzilla films are part of the Shōwa, Kiryu, and Final Wars continuities. And at the risk of offending purists, I can make a case that the 1998 American Godzilla has a place in more than one continuity (see below). And yet these aren’t simply alternate timelines, histories diverging from a shared origin; they’re wholesale reimaginings of the underlying premise of the franchise. Many of them reinterpret the very nature of Godzilla and his 1954 attack — including the same events but changing their meaning, context, and history, offering different theories of what Godzilla is, where he came from, and why he attacked. They’re different, incompatible realities from the start, but they include equivalent events. It’s an intriguing ongoing experiment in invention, and it demands flexibility and an open mind.
So since I love making lists, here are my semi-conjectural overviews of the various Godzilla continuities to date. This will not be a strictly chronological list, since some of the continuities are more closely related than others and I’ll group them together for easier comparison.
1) Shōwa universe: Includes all Toho daikaiju/tokusatsu films from 1954-1975, more or less
In this reality, many giant prehistoric animals survive to the present in remote areas of the Pacific or in dormant states. Beginning in the 1950s, atomic radiation and the spread of civilization displace or revive them, leading them to jeopardize human populations. The first attacks come in 1954-5 by two members of a giant amphibious dinosaur species named Godzillas, a name the Otoshima natives gave to one or more of the creatures which they worshipped as a sea god. The first Godzilla was killed by Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer, but the secret of the weapon was lost, so the second Godzilla could only be temporarily incapacitated or contained, usually through the intervention of other daikaiju including the island deities King Kong and Mothra. A series of alien invasions also imperiled Earth, and in time Godzilla II and other kaiju, driven by territorial instinct, became defenders of the Earth in grudging cooperation with the human military. Godzilla II mellowed further upon adopting a third, juvenile member of the species, and eventually became somewhat friendly toward humans. In time, Monster Island was established as a nature preserve for daikaiju, and they lived in relative peace with humanity.
2) Kiryu universe: Includes Godzilla (1954), Mothra (1961), The War of the Gargantuas (1966), Space Amoeba (1970), Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002), Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003), possibly other Shōwa-era non-Godzilla kaiju films
This reality is much like the Shōwa universe, except that Godzilla I’s skeleton survived the Oxygen Destroyer, Godzilla II did not emerge in 1955, and no alien invasions occurred. A second Godzilla finally emerges in 1999 and has a spiritual connection to the remains of the original. The original Mothra apparently dies in battle against some kaiju other than Godzilla, and leaves a single offspring. (To explain how Chujo could recognize an attack from a movie not part of this continuity.)
3) Final Wars universe: Includes Godzilla (1954), Mothra (1961), Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), probably Godzilla Raids Again (1955), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), and other non-Godzilla Shōwa films
Another Shōwa variant in which the alien invasions of the ’50s-’70s do not occur, but the Xilians of Planet X interbred with humanity at some point in the past, leading to the rise of a breed of superhuman mutants within the last generation. The second Godzilla did emerge, perhaps as seen in Shōwa, but without the invasions, Godzilla II never “reforms” and continues to menace Earth until he is buried in the Antarctic c. the early 1980s. Earth’s nations unite against the ongoing kaiju menace, forming the Earth Defense Force, which recruits the mutants as part of its anti-kaiju forces.
4) Heisei universe: Includes Godzilla (1954) and all films from The Return of Godzilla (1984) through Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), though G v SpaceGodzilla (1994) is dispensable
In this reality, very few prehistoric giants survive to the present. The main exception is a land-dwelling carnosaur of the Godzillasaurus species, which is mutated by American atomic tests into the much larger Godzilla, attacks Tokyo in 1954, and is defeated by the Oxygen Destroyer. Either this Godzilla regenerates or two different mutants were created the same way; reports are unclear and conflicting. (Update: the final film confirms it is a second Godzilla, so I assume the earlier films’ assumption that it was the original was an error on the part of the characters, and that new information eventually revealed the truth.) The second
or regenerated Godzilla, possessing a nuclear reactor for a heart and needing to feed on nuclear energy, emerges to attack Japan again in 1984 and periodically throughout the early ’90s. The Japanese government employs psychics to assist in its conflict with Godzilla, the most powerful of whom, Miki Saegusa, eventually joins G-Force, a UN-operated anti-Godzilla task force employing reverse-engineered technology brought back from the 22nd century. Other prehistoric survivors include unhatched Rodan and Godzillasaurus eggs which are revived by radiation, causing the former to become giant; the latter begins at normal size but is later mutated by radiation exposure after being adopted by Godzilla. All other daikaiju in this reality are created by science or mutation, except for the prehistoric Earth spirits Mothra and Battra.
5) Steve Martin universe: Includes Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), Godzilla 1985
Evidently a variant on the Heisei reality. Events of Godzilla’s 1954 and 1984 attacks occur slightly differently and may take place 1-2 years later. In this version, American reporter Steve Martin is peripherally involved in the events of the initial Godzilla attack, and plays a role in persuading Dr. Serizawa’s fiancee Emiko Yamane to reveal the existence of the Oxygen Destroyer, a decision she reaches on her own in most realities. Three decades later, Martin serves as a Pentagon consultant during the second Godzilla attack.
6) Millennium universe: Includes Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)
The vaguest of all Godzilla continuities. Godzilla exists, feeds on nuclear energy, and has been troubling Japan regularly for years, but evidently not very many years since scientists know little about him. It is not even clear whether the original 1954 attack occurred in this reality. Given Godzilla’s attraction to nuclear energy, this could hypothetically be a Heisei variant in which the psychic research program and G-Force never arose, and in which Godzilla’s more recent attacks began later or came more infrequently.
7) G-Graspers universe: Includes most or all of Godzilla (’54), Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)
In this reality, Godzilla either was not attacked by the Oxygen Destroyer at all or was incompletely destroyed and regenerated (I suspect the latter, since a character says that “this time” they must make sure nothing remains of him). Godzilla makes his second attack in 1966 when Japan’s first nuclear reactor goes online. His periodic attacks on nuclear plants lead to the outlawing of nuclear energy in Japan. Decades of alternative-energy research, and the absence of other daikaiju, produce a fairly prosperous and technologically advanced present.
8) GMK universe: Includes Godzilla (1954), Godzilla (1998), Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
Godzilla is a receptacle for the restless dead killed by the Japanese war machine in World War II, and attacks Japan in 1954 out of vengeance. After his defeat, Japan is kaiju-free for half a century, and the government suppresses many details of the original attack to avoid humiliating the Self Defense Force, leading to a world where the Japanese have little memory of Godzilla and underestimate him as a threat, with some even considering him a legend. Thus, when a similar giant lizard mutated by French nuclear tests emerges in 1998 and attacks New York City, some Japanese observers mistake it for Godzilla. Years later, the real Godzilla completes regenerating and attacks Japan again to punish its populace for forgetting the crimes of WWII, but is confronted by the ancient spiritual defenders of the land, the Yamato Monsters Mothra, Baragon, and Ghidorah.
9) H.E.A.T. universe: Includes Godzilla (1954), Godzilla (1998), Godzilla: The Series (1998-2000)
Events unfold similarly to the GMK universe, with the real Godzilla’s attack and destruction occurring in 1954 and its details being largely forgotten. The mutant lizard misidentified as Godzilla attacks New York and is killed, but its one surviving offspring imprints on biologist Nick Tatopolous, who “tames” it and calls it Godzilla as well. This namesake creature assists Tatopolous’s Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team in dealing with other giant mutant creatures that emerge around the world, as well as an alien invasion or two. Whether the real Godzilla ever returns is unknown. (Although the ’98 film fits neatly into the GMK universe, G:TS does not, since the characters in GMK were unaware of the spate of kaiju incidents in the animated series.)
10) Legendary universe: Includes Godzilla (2014) and the prequel comic Godzilla: Awakening
In this reality, Godzilla is one of many giant ancient creatures that feed on radiation (radiophages?), the alpha predator that kept the other such creatures from reproducing out of control. Falling radiation levels on the surface drove these creatures deep underground, until the human creation of atomic weapons drew some of them back to the surface. The 1954 Marshall Islands nuclear tests, rather than displacing Godzilla from his feeding grounds or mutating him into a giant, were here an attempt by the US military to destroy him — presumably injuring him enough to prevent the attack on Tokyo which is a seminal event in most other realities. The Monarch organization is founded by Douglas MacArthur to research these creatures, which are called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), although Dr. (Daisuke?) Serizawa and his son Ishiro use the name Gojira/Godzilla for the alpha predator (perhaps after the Otoshima legend?). Monarch investigates MUTO sightings such as the unearthing of a larval MUTO which subsequently causes a nuclear disaster in Japan, but Godzilla does not openly emerge until the larva pupates and hatches in 2014, drawing Godzilla into confrontations on US soil, whereupon his defeat of the MUTO and its mate leads him to be seen as a hero despite the destruction he incidentally causes.
It seems the various realities break down into three clusters: One where Godzilla is one of many giant prehistoric species that survive to the present; one where Godzilla is an atomic mutant who needs to feed on nuclear energy; and one where Godzilla is a force of spiritual vengeance and was unique in the world until around the turn of the millennium. EDIT: The Legendary universe is a blend of the first cluster (kaiju as surviving prehistoric creatures) and the second (kaiju as radiophages), although it differs from most clusters in that it lacks the seminal 1954 Tokyo attack. It could, however, be linked to the Millennium universe (#6), which also seems to imply a more recent emergence for Godzilla than 1954. Note that the MUTO incident occurs in 1999, the same year that Godzilla 2000 evidently occurs despite its title.
I’m not counting the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon in this listing since its version of Godzilla is too different from the original, breathing actual fire instead of an atomic ray and having Superman-like heat vision, as well as being quite different in appearance. It also has no sense of a backstory and no evident connection to the original film, so there’s really nothing to discuss.
I’m tempted to include the excellent 1954 American film Them! in the Heisei continuity, since it predates Godzilla by several months and was perhaps the first film to depict animals (in this case ants) being mutated to giant size by atomic radiation, a characteristic trope of the Heisei continuity. Since it ends with the lead scientist acknowledging that other giant mutant creatures may arise in the future, it makes a natural lead-in to the emergence of Godzilla. Although it treats mutation somewhat more credibly than the Heisei universe does, since its giant ants only emerge after multiple generations of mutation, as opposed to specific individual creatures actually transforming into giants. Of course there was a spate of later American giant-monster films, some of which might also be compatible with the Godzilla continuity, but I’m not well-versed in them. We might also consider 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which was a direct inspiration for Godzilla. There’s also Harryhausen’s It Came from Beneath the Seafrom 1955, featuring an irradiated giant octopus displaced from its natural feeding grounds by the very same Marshall Islands nuclear tests that led to Godzilla’s rampage the previous year. I’m unsure whether to include it, since there’s no mention of the Godzilla incident in contexts where the characters would normally be expected to bring it up; but then, the same probably goes for films like Rodan and Mothra too.
One thing the Godzilla franchise has few of are recurring human characters. For whatever reason, the tendency in the Shōwa era was to build each film around a new set of characters, even though they often reused the same actors in different roles. The Heisei era had several recurring characters but also quite a few one-time characters. Millennium only had one (briefly) continuing universe, yet replaced most of its characters between the two films. But there were several cases of “legacy” characters from early films being brought back decades later.
So here’s my attempt to create another list, in this case of recurring characters from the Godzilla/daikaiju franchise. I tried to find if something like this already existed online, to save myself the trouble, but I couldn’t find anything. So here’s my best try, which might be incomplete:
- Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura): Godzilla (’54), Godzilla Raids Again (’55): Paleontologist, the first Godzilla expert
- Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kōchi): Godzilla (’54), Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (’95): Daughter of Dr. Yamane, fiancee of Dr. Serizawa, adoptive aunt of reporter Yukari Yamane and student Kenichi Yamane
- Shinichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi): Mothra (’61), Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003): Linguist on expedition that discovered Mothra, father of Yoshito Chujo, grandfather of Shun Chujo
- Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi): Mothra vs. Godzilla (’64), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (’64): Polymath scientist (uncertain; see below)
- Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka): Godzilla vs. Biollante (’89), G v King Ghidorah (’91), Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (’92), G v Mechagodzilla II (’93), G v SpaceGodzilla (’94), G v Destoroyah (’95): Telepath and psychic instructor/researcher, government consultant, member of G-Force following its establishment in 1993
- Takayuki Segawa (Kenji Sahara): G v Mechagodzilla II, G v SpaceGodzilla, G v Destoroyah (aka the G-Force trilogy): Government minister overseeing G-Force (note: Sahara also played an Army Commander Segawa in Terror of Mechagodzilla in a different continuity)
- Commander Takaki Aso (Akira Nakao): G-Force trilogy: Commanding officer of G-Force
- General Hyodo (Koichi Ueda): G v Mechagodzilla II, G v SpaceGodzilla: Deputy commander of G-Force
- Akane Yashiro (Yumiko Shaku): G against Mechagodzilla, G: Tokyo SOS (Kiryu duology): Pilot of Kiryu/Mechagodzilla
- Lt. Togashi (Ko Takasugi): Kiryu duology: Backup Kiryu/White Heron pilot
- Lt. Hayama (Yusuke Tomoi): Kiryu duology: Backup Kiryu/White Heron pilot
- Hayato Igarashi (Akira Nakao): Kiryu duology: Prime Minister of Japan
- Chief Hitoyanagi (Takeo Nakahara): Kiryu duology: Head of JXSDF
- General Dobashi (Koichi Ueda): Kiryu duology: Member of JXSDF
- Dr. Gorou Kanno (Naomasa Musaka): Kiryu duology: JXSDF scientist
I could also include the two pairs of actresses to play Mothra’s heralds the Shobijin: Emi and Yumi Ito in Mothra, Mothra vs. Godzilla, and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and Masami Nagasawa and Chihiro Otsuka in Tokyo SOS and Final Wars. But they’re not technically human, and the latter case is across two different continuities. There’s also the borderline case of Shelley Sweeney, who’s a Mechagodzilla operator named Susan in the first G-Force film and an unnamed technician in the third; it’s unclear whether they’re meant to be the same character.
Professor Miura may not actually be a recurring character; some references list Koizumi’s character in Ghidorah as Professor Murai instead. But I get more hits from “Miura” than from “Murai,” so for the moment I’m going with that. If both of Koizumi’s consecutive professors were in fact Miura, then there are apparently three actors who’ve played two recurring characters, not just two as I said in my last post: Hiroshi Koizumi, Akira Nakao, and Koichi Ueda. And all three of them are in Tokyo SOS. So if not for Tokyo SOS, there’d be nobody who’d played two different recurring human roles in the franchise, but because of it there are three (or at least two).
But Miki Saegusa is the most frequently recurring character by a factor of two, appearing six times while the next highest number of appearances is three in the case of G-Force Commander Aso and Minister Segawa (who might have appeared four times if you count his Shōwa namesake as the same character), and the ’60s generation of Shobijin if you want to count them. (The Shobijin in SOS are explicitly different individuals.) All other recurring characters (that I know of) appeared only twice. And Miki, Chujo, and (maybe) Miura are the only ones who appear as central characters in more than one film, though that’s borderline in Chujo’s case. Generally they’re either supporting characters or characters who are featured in one film and then cameo in another.
A final note: There’s a new American version of Godzilla in production from Legendary Pictures for a 2014 release, in time for the franchise’s 60th anniversary. From the production art we’ve seen, this Godzilla will be far closer in appearance to the various Toho versions than the 1998 American Godzilla was. Reports are that it’s a reboot, but I’m hoping that it, like essentially all prior Godzilla movies, will turn out to be a sequel to the 1954 original. After all, even the Emmerich film can be implicitly interpreted to be in a universe where the original film occurred, especially since it was directly referenced as part of the GMK continuity. (“Zilla” appears in Final Wars as well, but the ’98 film could not have occurred in that daikaiju-plagued reality.) If the goal this time is to be truer to the original character and franchise, then it seems to me that a core element of what defines the franchise is that the original film is virtually always included as part of its history. And it would be nice to add a tenth universe to my list above.
EDIT: Well, we now know that my hope was not realized. Godzilla still had an origin similar to the original, involving the 1954 Marshall Islands tests, but has no history of attacking Japan — except in the prequel comic where he apparently battled a MUTO called Shinomura on Japanese soil sometime after August 1945. Still, it’s close enough that it can still be considered another continuity offshoot, hence its inclusion in my list.