For one week, starting today, fans in America and Canada will be able to see Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla movie in twelve years. The film was a smash hit this summer in its native country, and is already proving controversial (mostly sight-unseen) with western fans for both its politics and its portrayal of the title monster. While controversy is certainly not new to the series, its existence surrounding the twenty-ninth(!) entry offers promise that there is still room to try something new as Godzilla enters his seventh decade on screen.
One area that Shin Godzilla seems to be striking new ground in the series is that it is apparently a completely fresh start, establishing its own continuity and not functioning as a sequel to any prior film. That’s right, Shin Godzilla is a reimagining/remake/hard reboot/what-have-you. It’s all the more surprising that his hasn’t happened before when you look and see that so many of the other storytelling trends that Hollywood studios have been chasing over the last fifteen years have been well covered in the Godzilla series. Godzilla wasn’t always there first, but he was usually there early, and I needn’t tell you how big those footprints are.
This one is a little obvious, but it’s worth pointing out since not only have there been a couple dozen sequels to the original Godzilla (a longevity that everyone’s chasing, and few could possibly achieve), but there have also been a variety of kinds of sequels. As we’ve discussed before on the site, the Godzilla series is actually made up of three distinct series, and each of the series takes a different approach to the idea of sequelization.
The Showa series, that ran from 1954 through 1975, features a sort of old fashioned take on sequels and continuity. The films are sequels in an extremely bare-bones way. The human characters all know about Godzilla, there are monsters that recur as Godzilla’s friends and foes, and there is an overall arc to the monster’s character, where he starts out as a destructive villain and is eventually softened and domesticated, becoming a hero, father, and friend to humanity. But there is almost no direct continuity, no real recurring human characters, and subsequent films feature no repercussions to the events of previous entries.
On the other hand, the Heisei series , which ran from 1984 through 1995, embraces elements of serialization and maintains a much greater degree of continuity. Later entries build off of elements from previous entries (both Biollante and SpaceGodzilla are created from errant Godzilla cells shed in earlier films; Mechagodzilla is developed from the future technology used to create Mecha-King Ghidorah; yeah, these movies get weird!) and there is actually a human character that appears in all but one of the films (the psychic Miki Saegusa, played by Megumi Odaka). And instead of just turning a hiatus into an ending, this series also builds to a narrative conclusion that draws elements from the original 1954 film.
The Millennium series, running from 1999 through 2004 (the series 50th anniversary), is almost an anthology series. Each entry is a sequel to the original 1954 film and disregards any other continuity as it chooses to (with the exception of Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., which forms a little diptych of continuity before the last entry, Godzilla: Final Wars, went back to the anthology approach).
Now, studious would obviously love to have a series that remains viable 29 entries in, but the number is even higher if you include Toho’s other kaiju films as part of…
The Shared Universe
That’s right, Toho was doing the shared universe thing back in the ’60s (and yes, my beloved Universal Monsters were doing it even earlier than that!). After the success of Godzilla, Toho followed up quickly with a sequel (Godzilla Raids Again in 1955), but while Godzilla spent the following seven years awaiting another appearance, the studio released two other standalone giant monster films. Rodan came out in 1956 and Mothra was released in 1961, and those successes helped lay groundwork for Godzilla’s return (and first appearance in color) in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla. When this clash of titans proved to be more popular still (it remains the most-viewed of the films theatrically), Toho decided to pit their own monster king against another of their homegrown monster stars in Mothra vs. Godzilla, and followed that up by adding Rodan to the mix and pitting all three of their stars against an even bigger and badder foe in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. By throwing their monster characters together, Toho stumbled on the shared universe concept fifty years before film studios in the U.S. would be scrambling to create their own universes out of whatever properties they owned or could lay claim to in the public domain. As the Showa series went on, there were plenty of opportunities for cameos, and the concept of Monster Island (a place that all of the kaiju that have terrorized Japan have been rounded up and contained, a concept introduced in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters) meant that the Godzilla universe included creatures from films like Varan, Atragon, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and King Kong Escapes.
The Decades Later Legacy Sequel
The Return of Godzilla, the 1984 film that would kick off the Heisei series, was something of a belated sequel if we’re just talking about the nine year gap after 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla. But since the story it tells is actually about the first time Godzilla has been seen since he attacked Japan in 1954, it functions more like the recent wave of decades-later sequels like Jurassic World, Independence Day: Resurgence, or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film takes place thirty years after the original, and utilizes that setting to tell a similar story to the original film but updated to reflect Japan’s place in the Cold War 80s.
The final film in the Heisei series also heavily features elements that would qualify it for the legacy sequel category. The film’s title, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, indicates one of the big points of connection, as the film’s monster villain is actually created as a byproduct of the Oxygen Destroyer (the weapon of mass destruction used to defeat the original Godzilla in 1954), and (years before Han Solo met Rey and Finn, or Jeff Goldblum met whoever Liam Hemsworth was supposed to be) Momoko Kochi makes her second and final appearance in a Godzilla film, reprising the role of Emiko Yamane from the original film.
The Return of Godzilla also represents another popular trend in genre filmmaking…
The Grim-n-Gritty Version
Before The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, or the upcoming Power Rangers film (and even before Tim Burton’s Batman challenged people’s memories of Adam West’s), The Return of Godzilla reclaimed Toho’s most famous monster from the campy and colorful direction the films took in the 60s and 70s. Gone were the giant robots, aliens, undersea civilizations, and fairies, and in their place was a sober and political take on just what it might be like if a giant monster showed up in 1980s Japan. The redesign of the monster for the film was meant to be more fearsome than the slimmed down and somewhat lovable appearance he’d taken on in the latter half of the Showa series. His fangs were more prominent, his eyes given a heavy-lidded malevolent cast, and the proportions were meant to emphasize his mass and power. And the film itself is literally darker, replacing the daylight fights in open fields that characterized the Showa series with dark and moody nighttime scenes of city destruction.
Of course, it wasn’t long at all into the Heisei series that audiences saw a return of more outlandish, broadly entertaining elements (subsequent films would introduce psychics, time travel, and Mothra’s fairies). And while one entry in the Millennium series would feature a similar seriousness of purpose (despite it’s unwieldy title, Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! utilizes Godzilla as a representative of Japan’s role in World War II and the story confronts the new generation’s lack of memory of that part of the country’s history), the majority of other Godzilla films in the Heisei and Millennium series feature more entertainment than metaphor.
Really, with it’s focus on Godzilla as the sole monster in the story, Shin Godzilla looks to join The Return of Godzilla as a reboot of the franchise (an even harder reboot, since it is not a sequel to the 1954 original). But with “the reboot” probably tied for the most ubiquitous goal of Hollywood studios at the moment, the Godzilla pedant in me demands that I point out that not only did they do it back in 1984, and that there’s one out this year, but that the Godzilla franchise features a series consisting almost entirely of reboots! The Millennium series, made up of six films, features five distinct continuities. The goal was to create a series of films that were only direct sequels to the original Godzilla film, allowing for different takes on the character, the mythology, and the series’ primary tropes. In practice, four of the films feel somewhat similar, with overlapping creative teams writing and directing, but there is still something bracing about jumping in each time and playing catch up to see how they use (or don’t use) the series’ history to inform the new film’s take. It’s that flexibility on Toho’s part (surprising, given how notoriously strict they are about the use of Godzilla and their other kaiju outside of the films they produce), that has allowed Godzilla to remain an icon for over sixty years, and let’s the Godzilla fan live in perpetual hope. Even when he’s gone, he could still come back. And even if you don’t like this one, well, who knows what the next one will be like?