Godzilla Primer

With a sixty year history, Japanese origins, an international audience, and a fandom as persnickety and idiosyncratic as your Batmen, your Bonds, and Stars Wars and Trek, talking about Godzilla can get confusing and nerdy pretty quickly. So in the interest of clarity in the week of Godzilla talk we’ve got ahead of us, here’s a quick G-primer.

Monster Names:

The names of all of the monsters we’ll be talking about this week are of Japanese origin. In translating them to English, we run into the fact that the Japanese and English languages each have sounds that don’t have direct corollaries in the other. As a primary example, let’s take Godzilla. Godzilla is written in Japanese as (ゴジラ). Each of the characters in this name represent a syllable, and the second and third characters include sounds that don’t have a great one-to-one translation into English. The second character () can phonetically be translated to English as “jee” or “zee” (or “dzee”). The third character () similarly can be read as “ra” or “la.” So Godzilla’s name can in fact be reasonably translated as “Godzilla” or “Gojira,” and the pronunciation is really somewhere between the two. Since Toho billed the creature as “Godzilla” when they were initially soliciting the film for international distribution, we’ll go with that. Similarly, I’ll be using the standardized international version of all monster names (which means we’re using “Mothra” instead of “Mosula” or some variation of that). But that doesn’t mean you’re wrong if you want to write “Gojira,” nerd.


The Titles:

Because of the era and manner in which these movies were distributed internationally, many of them have multiple titles. There’s the original Japanese title (and an English transliteration of the same), the English translation that Toho prefers for an international title, and whatever title they were given by their American distributor (or distributors in some cases). For instance, the sixth film, Invasion of the Astro-Monster, has had at least the following titles:

The Great Monster War (literal translation of the Japanese title Kaiju Daisenso)
Invasion of Astro-Monster (Toho’s official English title)
Monster Zero (Onscreen title in the AIP version released in America)
Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (US home video and television title)

(Another extreme example is the second film, Godzilla Raids Again, which was originally released in America under the title Gigantis, the Fire Monster.)

Again, you can use whichever title you want and still be correct, but to avoid confusion here we’ll stick with the standardized, Toho-preferred international titles unless we’re talking about one of the movies that was substantially changed in Americanization (like the way that Godzilla became Godzilla, King of the Monsters or The Return of Godzilla became Godzilla 1985).

The Series:

Gojira1954There have been 28 Japanese Godzilla films produced by Toho Studios, and these movies divide into three distinct eras. The names of the first two series, the Showa series (1954-1975) and the Heisei series (1984-1995), refer to the Japanese emperor at the time the movies were made. The third series, referred to as the Millennium series (1999-2004), is separated from the Heisei series, despite the fact that the Japanese Heisei period continues, because it disregards the Heisei timeline and takes a different approach to continuity. In addition to Toho’s Godzilla movies, they produced a number of other kaiju movies (for example, Mothra and Rodan both originated in their own features), other countries got in on the act at various times, and fellow Japanese studio, Daiei Motion Picture Company, created probably the biggest rival to the Godzilla series in the even-more-kid-friendly Gamera. Generally, these non-Godzilla films are also classified by era in the same way the Godzilla films are (there was a Heisei Mothra trilogy from 1996-1998, the Showa Gamera series from 1965-1980, a Heisei Gamera trilogy from 1995-1999, and 2006’s Gamera the Brave is basically Millennium era).

The Showa series is generally what people think of when they think Godzilla. Beyond the fact that they got the most consistent releases in America (the majority of the Heisei series made its US debut directly to VHS around the release of Tristar’s 1998 Godzilla), this is also where the process of Americanization (dubbing of wildly varying quality, recutting and rescoring, and inserting new expositional footage) became inextricably linked with the genre in the popular consciousness.

The Showa Series

DestroyAllMonstersGodzilla (1954)
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966)
Son of Godzilla (1967)
Destroy All Monsters (1968)
All Monsters Attack (1969)
Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

This series begins with the original Godzilla and continues, with loose-to-non-existent continuity, through Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975. The first sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, was also the first of the movies to introduce a second kaiju (Anguirus!) and the concept of the giant monster battles that have become synonymous with the genre. King Kong vs. Godzilla is the first of the films to be shot in color. I tend to view the Showa series as being made up of a few different movements. He’s the villain of the first four movies, is pressed into heroism for two Ghidorah movies in the mid-60s, isolated for “island movies” for the rest of the 60s (with the major exception of Destroy All Monsters), there’s the environmental freak-out of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, and then the last four “Godzilla fends off monsters sent by aliens/undersea civilization” movies. By that point ticket sales were waning and there ended up being a nine year gap before Godzilla returned in what turned out to be a new series.

The Heisei Series

HeiseiFirepowerThe Return of Godzilla (1984)
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992)
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994)
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)

Toho did not announce a formal end to the series after the poor financial and critical reception to Terror of Mechagodzilla, and in fact there were a few attempts to continue the series in the late 70s and early 80s. Scripts that were considered and then discarded include “Godzilla vs. the Devil” (presumably hoping to get some of that The Exorcist mojo), “Godzilla vs. Gargantua” (a Toho/UPA co-production that didn’t get off the ground), “Space Godzilla” (which has nothing to do with the eventual Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla), and “The Resurrection of Godzilla” (though concepts from this version apparently made their way into The Return of Godzilla). When Godzilla did finally return to screens after a nearly ten year absence (and on the thirtieth anniversary of the first film), it was in a reboot. The Return of Godzilla (which got the “King of the Monsters” treatment in the US as Godzilla 1985) is a direct sequel to the original Godzilla, with none of the other films having taken place. In this series, Godzilla attacked Japan in 1954, was defeated, and there have been no other kaiju attacks since. The new movie’s dark tone, and returned emphasis on Godzilla as a terrifying and destructive force of nature (and as a representative of the threat of nuclear weapons) act as direct spiritual links to the original film. The first sequel, Godzilla vs. Biollante, would retain some of this tone and shift the emphasis from nuclear weapons to genetics and biotechnology, but as the series progressed the tone again veered more towards the entertaining. The Heisei series (sometimes known as the VS. series) is more directly connected to Hollywood cinema. There are blatant references to The Terminator, Aliens, and the Indiana Jones movies, and there are also movies that feature riffs on the spy and gangster genres. The kaiju battles in the Heisei films are also different, with less emphasis on brawling and wrestling and more emphasis on the creatures using “beam weapons” on each other, like Godzilla’s atomic ray or Ghidorah’s gravity bolts (indeed they were criticized by some fans at the times as just featuring two monsters stand opposite each other and firing lasers at each other). Unlike the end of the Showa series, the Heisei series came to a more definitive end, with Toho announcing plans to put the series on an indefinite hiatus while the American Godzilla took the world stage. The Heisei Godzilla went out with a bang, in a film that was advertised heavily with the tagline “Godzilla Dies!” and a story that has Japan racing to figure out how to prevent Godzilla’s death and subsequent nuclear meltdown which will obliterate all life on earth.

The Millennium Series

GodzillaStompsBaragonGodzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)
Godzilla vs. Megaguiras (2000)
Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! (2001)
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

After the Devlin/Emmerich Godzilla failed to do right by the monster by almost any metric, Toho reclaimed their kaiju with Godzilla 2000: Millennium, kicking off a new series of basically stand-alone movies. Essentially a series of reboots, each of the entries ignores all other continuity and functions as a sequel to the original 1954 Godzilla (with the exception of Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. which is a sequel to the previous year’s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla). The idea is that each of them features a different take on the Godzilla archetype, creating their own version of the history between the original film and the new one (including whether their have been other kaiju attacks or not), and offering a chance to experiment with tone and the portrayal of the monster. Due to declining ticket sales, Toho once again put Godzilla on indefinite hiatus on the 50th anniversary of his first appearance and the release of Godzilla: Final Wars.

Got all that? Then let’s roll.