The King of the Monsters battles Japan, aliens, some dinosaurs, and the changing times to secure its place in pop culture history
The first 21 years of Godzilla is a wild ride of ups and downs, risks and compromises, stone-cold seriousness, and absolute absurdity. Up until recently, my exposure to the now almost 70-year-old franchise had been spotty at best, mainly leaning towards more recent entries like the American made iterations, Hideaki Anno’s searing and pointed Shin Godzilla, and the dreary Polygon Pictures animated trilogy, with only a handful of peeks into older material. It had always been a curiosity, but a daunting one, with the franchise about to hit its 36th film later this year with Godzilla vs. Kong. So Criterion’s giant Blu-ray set celebrating their 1000th spine which includes the first 15 films, comfortably compartmentalized as the Showa era (denoting the period of the reign of Emperor Hirohito) phase of the franchise, presented the perfect opportunity to finally dive in headfirst. And it is one hell of a journey.
Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Godzilla is of course what started it all, not just the Big G itself, but Japan’s long-lived kaiju film tradition and it is not unfair to say that this is the one out and out masterpiece of the collection. Combining Honda’s firm-handed and purposeful direction, revolutionary special effects from Eiji Tsuburaya, and Akira Ikukube’s instantly iconic score, Godzilla still lands with a thundering stomp 66 years later. Tapping into post-war anxieties and a recent incident involving fishermen being exposed to American nuclear testing, Godzilla presents a towering monster that flattens buildings and breathes fire, and an existential crisis over the rise of nuclear weapons and what horrors a future arsenal could hold given form. It is a film about a nation in transition, in a place between a traumatic past that still weighs heavily and looking toward an unsure future. There are no easy answers to be found, Godzilla’s defeat by way of the Oxygen Destroyer comes at a great cost and by no means guarantees any finality. Honda recounts in an interview conducted in 1990 on the special feature disc how he approached the project, which he accepted without hesitation after his experiences in World War II and seeing a devastated Hiroshima, with the utmost seriousness and never viewed it as pulpy genre fare. And this commitment to the material keeps the film relevant even in a drastically different world. His thoughtful hand would be felt in the 7 sequels he would direct spread over the following two decades, even as he struggled to find a voice amid the machinery of Toho’s new franchise.
Though the monster dissolved into nothing but a skeleton, money was made and Godzilla Raids Again followed mere months later, with a second Godzilla loose and doing battle with the awakened dinosaur Anguirus. While unabashedly a quick and dirty sequel, Raids Again does an admirable job showing a government weary from the still fresh rampage having to now deal with two monsters with 0 Oxygen Destroyers. It’s a little weird seeing Anguirus bite the dust only halfway through (though don’t worry, by the 70s, the pair act like an old married couple that fights a lot but cares for each other deep down) but the well-worn structure of the Godzilla’s rivalries had yet to solidify. The main action moves to Osaka as Tokyo is still recovering from the previous film’s events, continuity that would not carry into any of the Showa sequels, and the film establishes the city with a workman skill as a flourishing center of industry and culture through scenes of the working class cast going about their days, that is before Godzilla and Anguirus wrestle through it. The setup and payoff here are surprisingly considered and well-realized. There is palpable weight seeing the entertainment district, full of light and life minutes earlier, being leveled. Things start to fall apart when the obvious tragedy is undercut by the cast casually laughing off the destruction of their fishing company and the city being rebuilt offscreen in the second half, but like many of Godzilla’s outings in the set, even when the films can at best be called adequate, there is some quality, be it well-staged battle or interesting spin on the expected, that can be pulled out and enjoyed. If nothing else, Raids Again establishes early on that none of these films are skippable.
While Raids Again laid the groundwork for trends that would dominate the rest of Godzilla’s life throughout the Showa period—big spectacle monster on monster brawls, lighter-handed storytelling, and less thematic complexity—it would be another 7 years before the creature returned to face off against the one and only King Kong in 1962. In that time many things changed. Godzilla had become internationally known, thanks to the original film being recut for American audiences into King of the Monsters!, Japan was going through rapid economic expansion, televisions were in more and more homes and programming exploded. King Kong vs. Godzilla not only brings big colors to fill a wider screen but comedy and a major shift in outlook. The black and white dread of the 50s had given way to a rising sense of optimism in the 60s. Sure cities will be leveled but body counts stopped being mentioned and the feeling that everything was going to be alright in the long run dominated the decade’s run of films. Honda returns with a strong satirical vein that has a cartoonishly greedy pharmaceutical executive desperately pursuing stronger ratings for his sponsored television network. He pulls a show teaching the wonders of the world of science to children and becomes at least a partial engineer of Godzilla and Kong’s overtly goofy throwdowns. Godzilla was changing with the times and hasn’t stopped since.
1964 saw two films released in a calendar year, Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and it is here that the feeling that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to blow through these back to back to back grew. It’s not that they’re particularly bad, but a sense of over-familiarity with the form and execution began to set in. To keep the momentum going on what was to become a yearly event, Toho started pulling monsters like Rodan and Mothra from their other films to establish a loosely connected universe. Tsuburaya’s team’s special effects work is on full glorious display as the beasts lumber through cities and obliterate military hardware and there is a real charm to them even 50 years later. The HD transfers may reveal even more strings and seams but really only enhance the handmade craftsmanship and clever camera work. The miniatures and suits don’t convince realism but there is character to spare. It is here that Godzilla begins to make the transition from nuclear menace to a belligerent protector of the Earth. In Ghidorah, the creature is a “late to work, all red lights, whoops forgot something at home” kind of frustration for the general populace. By the next year’s decidedly campy sci-fi romp, Invasion of Astro-Monster, it was an ally to humanity, both sympathized with and cheered on. Increasingly the films reveal themselves as balancing acts of giving parents enough to latch onto while their children get the promised monster fisticuffs. More so than the battles themselves, this invisible struggle pulled my interest during this stretch.
To cut costs for the following films, Toho set Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla on remote islands, free of expensive urban sets to blow up and the fate of the world at stake. Fortunately, new director Jun Fukuda injects a swashbuckling energy into the tropical adventures. Ebirah seeing a group of misfits washed ashore on an island hiding a paramilitary group and guarded by the giant lobster and Son introducing a newly hatched and deeply unpleasant baby Godzilla caught up in a dangerous weather-controlling experiment. At this point in my trip through the Showa films, Toho’s stable of actors had firmly become familiar faces. Like the monsters themselves, Akira Takarada, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Kubo and more repeatedly popping up were a welcome sight and gave the films a playful connectivity. On the monster side, the reuse of suits and puppets, another cost-cutting method, grew into an amusing game of wondering how hard the special effects team is going to retire the props. Why toss that Rodan puppet in the garbage when you can hastily glue some feathers on, light it on fire, and send it out with style?
More or less rolling up all of the decade’s lighter indulgences—an alien invasion plot, monsters galore, breezy super-science—into a big celebration of excess intended to send Godzilla off with a bang, Destroy All Monsters (1968) was easily my favorite 60s installment. Nearly a dozen of Toho’s beasts show up (or more accurately were dragged out of storage) to wreak havoc across the world before teaming up to send the nefarious aliens and their heavy, King Ghidorah, to their graves and it’s a blast. Monsters plays like a greatest hits version of what came before, all the fun, executed by Honda and Tsuburaya’s team at a quick pace and with panache, with none of the slower bits that often dragged down previous films. But once again, there was still money on the table and budgets ripe for slashing, so Godzilla marched on with the surprisingly intimate All Monsters Attack. While not a great movie, it is an interesting effort in leveraging the production’s dire economic situation with heavy use of stock footage cleverly used exclusively in dreams and a disarmingly sincere screenplay focusing on a child with a love for kaiju movies left largely to himself by his two working parents. Again, there’s something worth a look in every one of these movies.
The franchise’s next effort, Godzilla vs. Hedorah, is a rare jewel. Angry and weird, Hedorah opens the 1970s stretch of the franchise making sure the audience has no question of what it is about: rampant pollution will fucking end humanity. The onward and upward hope that permeated the previous decade’s mood has here soured into an embittered plea for environmental awareness. An alien lifeform that feeds off of smog and other waste, Hedorah is never just another monster waiting to get knocked down by Godzilla around the 75-minute mark. Hedorah’s rampage and the human drama that surrounds it work in tandem to contextualize each other in ways too rarely seen. Like the original film, it is an escalating crisis given form, and its evolution through increasingly dangerous forms is a constant threat throughout. Godzilla’s fruitless attempts to stop the mostly invulnerable creature through most of the runtime results in the best knockdown, drag-out fight of the entire Showa run. One time series director Yoshimitsu Banno electrifies the film with a wonderful experimental vibe, with trips into surrealism, brief animated bits, absurdism, and a return of monster antics as actual tragedy. Hedorah is still very much an extension of Toho’s assembly-line approach but Banno leans in and leverages the form into something truly special.
It’s in 1972 and ’73’s Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon, respectively, that the series hits rock bottom. Where once Godzilla was kindly gesturing towards a child audience with at least some semblance of respecting the time of anyone above middle school age, here the Big G is desperately pleading for their fading attention. It becomes impossible to ignore that there were few resources on hand and the rush was on to get something out the door. Their scope is hopelessly limited and constrained, coming off as episodes of a weekly TV show straining to hit that 80-minute runtime. But within their failings, there is charm to be found, dammit, even if you might have to strain a little to find it. The titular Gigan, with blades coming out of all of its limbs (and stomach mounted buzzsaw) is so bluntly The New Cool Big Bad Toy You Need Right Now that I couldn’t help but love it and the alien invasion plot being run out of a Godzilla theme park is just off-kilter enough to smile about. And while Megalon is the most forgettable of forgettable monsters, its film brings us the lovable Jet Jaguar, a totally not Ultraman robot that grows a conscience—and mass—when things go south. Both films play out like a stream of consciousness slapping together of sequences and ideas that don’t even particularly make sense on the first pass that only get funnier as time goes by. It’s clear the production crews were trying, but energies were not focused in any meaningful directions.
Finishing out the collection are two tussles with the iconic metal doppelganger, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and Terror of Mechagodzilla, that while not entirely successful, at least send Godzilla off into the sunset on a better note. It’s here more so than anywhere else that the differences between Fukuda and Honda’s respective direction are most visible with the first Mechagodzilla bout playing the now standard collection of beats with a jaunty glee and Terror running them largely straight to diminishing entertainment results. I don’t think anything single moment in the entire 15 film collection tops Mechagodzilla’s initial intensely funky reveal, and the beast only continues to steal every since scene it’s in with its arsenal of missiles and lasers and charismatic screen presence. Mechagodzilla just oozes style. If Godzilla had to be a big cartoon to survive, I can’t imagine a better counterpart than an evil mechanical recreation that shoots rainbows from its eyes and lightning bolts from its stomach.
The Big G’s first 15 adventures are certainly a winding road, full of drastically conflicting tones, unexpected joys, and a few times where it looked like the whole thing was going to run out of gas, but it is also a fascinating trip through the evolution of an iconic character that could influence and react to the times. From beginning as a risky gamble that awed audiences and inspired countless others to desperately struggling to maintain a place in the spotlight amid changing media and cultural trends. From atomic demon to wandering wrestler for justice, friend to children everywhere. The Showa era of Godzilla’s life is packed with filmmaking ingenuity, effects work that remains a joy to behold, and a lot of fun.