Japanese Cinema Blogathon: For The Love of Gojira
This is m y third contribution to the Japanese Cinema Blogathon for earthquake and tsunami relief. While I may lack experience in Japanese cinema when it comes to Miyazaki, Kurosawa, etc., I have plenty of experience with Godzilla (Gojira) films. As a kid I used to just LOVE watching these films. When I decided to write about my love of these films I thought I’d look and see just how many I’d seen. As it turns out, I have seen 15. One would think that is a lot; one would be wrong. There are actually 28 films in the series, not counting spin-offs (like 1956’s Rodan or 1961’s Mothra). Still, 15 is a pretty hefty number. And I don’t even plan on talking about the Hanna-Barbera animated series that ran from 1978-1981 (I’ve seen all of that as well).
The first thing you need to know about the Godzilla films is that they come in three distinct eras: Shōwa series from 1954 to 1975 (15 films), Heisei series (7 films) and Millennium series (6 films). I’ve seen 12 films from the original series (plus 1961’s Mothra) and one film from each of the other series. All 28 films were released by Toho Co., Ltd. The original 15 films are very much products of their era. Each film deals with concerns of the era (nuclear weapons, pollution). Also, apart from the original film, Godzilla is in a sense a hero (or anti-hero) in the Shōwa series, helping fight off other monsters. The first film of the Heisei series takes place right after the events of the original Gojira, ignoring all the other films in the Shōwa series. I have actually only seen this first film (Godzilla 1985), but I am told in the other films in the Heisei Godzilla is no longer an anti-hero, but rather a villain, along with the monsters featured in the Shōwa series. Also, apparently, the 7 films in the Heisei series follow one story arc. Lastly, you have the Millennium series which, like the Shōwa series, all serve, more or less, as stand-alone films. Of this series, I’ve only seen the penultimate film (Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.).
Another important thing to know about Godzilla is the origin of his name. The word Gojira (ゴジラ) is a combination of two Japanese words: gorira (ゴリラ) which means gorilla kujira (クジラ), which means whale. This makes sense, as prior to these films, King Kong was arguably the most famous “giant monster” in cinema. So you have a similar “giant monster” but one that comes from the ocean, thus the reference to a whale. Although, looking at Godzilla, he is clearly based on some sort of dragon or lizard, so you’d think the name would have something to do with that. Regardless, Godzilla has become just as popular around the world, if not more so, than his predecessor King Kong (the two even appear in one of the Shōwa series films, but more on that later.)
Which (finally) brings us to the films I’ve seen. 1954’s Gojira was the first in the series. Apparently the 1956 American release of the film (under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters! is heavily edited. The original film, along with several films in the series, is available streaming on Netflix. Regardless of its heavy editing, I simply adored this film as a kid. My love of this original film is what led me to watch as many of the sequels as I could. In this film a fishing boat is attacked by something mysterious, which turns out to be Gojira. The monster then destroys Tokyo, during which time scientists hypothesize that it was created by nuclear tests, that humans created the very monster that is now wreaking havoc on them. The film ends with self-sacrifice and the use of a device that could mean the beginning of an apocalyptic era for all mankind. It’s definitely an eerie reflection of Cold War-era fears.
The next film in the series is Gojira no Gyakushū (Godzilla Raids Again), which was released in the United States as Godzilla, the Fire Monster. In this second film pilots discover Godzilla in the heat of a fight with Anguirus (a monster who will later become one of his most trusted allies). In this film Godzilla is still a villain and by the end of the film he is seen being buried in snow. Although released in Japan in 1955, this film wasn’t released in the United States until 1959.
In 1962’s Kingu Kongu Tai Gojira (Godzilla Vs. King Kong) Pacific Pharmaceuticals hears of a monster (King Kong) that was discovered and decides (naturally) that they should capture it and use it for publicity. At the same time an American submarine gets caught in the same iceberg in which Godzilla had earlier been trapped. Chaos ensues, including many a battle between the monsters. In the end only one of the two survives (I’ll let you try to guess which monster prevails).
The next film, 1962’s Mosura tai Gojira (Mothra vs. Godzilla), includes my favorite of all the “giant monsters” – Mothra. Mothra is a lady monster and boy is she fabulous. While taking photos of the aftermath of a typhoon, a photographer discovers a giant egg washed up on the shore. Later it turns out this egg belongs to Mothra, as explained by twin girls known as the Shobijin. Out of nowhere Godzilla emerges from the sea (supposedly having been trapped by mud during the storm). The government asks Mothra for help, she refuses because she wouldn’t have enough power to leave her island, destroy Godzilla and then return. Luckily, and with some help in the form of singing by the Shobijin, the egg hatches and two Mothra larvae emerge. The newly born monsters lure Godzilla to Iwa Island, where they trap him in cocoon spray and send him back to the depths of the sea. Arguably, one of the silliest of the original series of films, it is still a lot of fun.
Also released in 1964 (1965 in the United States) was San Daikaijū: Chikyū Saidai no Kessen (Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster). This is the film in which Godzilla turns from villain to anti-hero. This plot is pretty complicated compared to the earlier films, so I’m just going to give you a few basics. Godzilla is fighting with Rodan (who was introduced in a non-Godzilla giant monster film in 1956), King Ghidorah, a three-headed monster, arrives from outer space and the Japanese government enlist the Shobijin to get Mothra to come and convince both Godzilla and Rodan to join their forces to defeat Ghidorah. Some really great fight scenes ensue, Ghidorah is defeated (for now) and the three monsters go their separate ways.
1965’s Kaijū Daisensō (Invasion of Astro-Monster), released in the United States in 1970, begins in, of all places, outer space – astronauts are heading to the newly discovered Planet X. The inhabitants are being attacked by King Ghidorah. The people of Planet X want to borrow Godzilla and Rodan, so the astronauts return to Earth and search for them. However, it turns out to all be a ploy by Planet X to conquer Earth, a plot that scientists are able to thwart. Having been released by Planet X, the three monsters fall into the sea and only Ghidorah emerges, leading the humans to believe that he has killed Godzilla and Rodan. The film ends with one more attempt by Earth to seek peaceful relations with Planet X.
In 1966 Gojira, Ebira, Mosura Nankai no Daikettō (Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster) was released in Japan (1967 in America). In this film civilians happen upon giant lobster monster Ebirah and enlist the help of Mothra to defeat it and in the meanwhile accidentally awaken Godzilla. The end of this film is kind of preposterous, even for a Godzilla film, but because the plot is so much simpler than a lot of the films, it is a ton of fun to watch.
1967’s Kaijū-shima no Kessen Gojira no Musuko (Son of Godzilla) is fun because it features a baby version of Godzilla named Minilla and it is so, so cute. This film includes such ridiculous things as a radioactive balloon, giant praying mantises and Kumonga, a giant spider monster.
Released in 1968 in Japan and 1969 in the United States, Kaijū Sōshingeki (Destroy All Monsters), is maybe my favorite of all the Godzilla films. Based at the end of the 20th century, all the giant monsters have been collected and confined in an area known as Monster Island, by the United Nations Science Committee. Mysteriously, communication with the island stops and the monsters begin attacking world capitals. When the island is investigated, it is discovered that the scientist have become mind-controlled slaves of a feminine alien race identifying themselves as the Kilaaks (perhaps a reaction to the growth of feminism in the 60s?). After the humans regain control of the monsters by destroying the Kilaaks lunar outpost (yeah), the Kilaaks retaliate by releasing their secret weapon: King Ghidorah (dun, dun, dun!). Eventually the monsters, working together, destroy Ghidorah, but the Kilaaks have one more card hidden up their sleeve: a seeming Fire Dragon monster. However, this turns out to be a flying saucer and is rather easily destroyed. The monsters than return to Monster Island, where they live their lives in peace.
1971’s Gojira tai Hedora (Godzilla vs. Hedorah), introduced Hedorah – the smog monster. Hedorah begins as a microscopic alien lifeform, it feeds on Earth’s pollution, growing to an enormous size. Hedorah and Godzilla have an epic battle atop Mt. Fuji, Godzilla eventually prevailing. Before returning once again to the sea, Godzilla glares at the humans, whose pollution was almost their downfall, and one wonders if something like this could happen again.
Again facing a threat from outer space, in 1972’s Chikyū Kogeki Meirei Gojira tai Gaigan (Godzilla vs. Gigan), sees giant insectoid aliens from Space Hunter Nebula-M plot to take over the earth. The aliens take the place of recently deceased humans and infiltrate a peace-themed theme park called World Children’s Land. The aliens plan to use Gigan (cybernetic monster sporting a buzzsaw) and King Ghidorah to destroy life on Earth. Godzilla and Anguirus (introduced in 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again as Godzilla’s first antagonist) work together to save the Earth from its impending doom.
Released in 1973 in Japan and 1976 in the United States, Gojira tai Megaro (Godzilla vs. Megalon) contains one of the more convoluted plots in the series. The film features an undersea civilization known as Seatopia, a humanoid robot named Jet Jaguar, the giant monster villain Megalon and the return of Gigan. In it the Earth is saved, once again, by Godzilla.
Released in 1974, Gojira Tai Mekagojira (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla) is the last of the the Shōwa series that I’ve seen. For some reason I never saw the final film in this series (1975’s Mekagojira no Gyakushū [Terror of Mechagodzilla]). This one is also pretty crazy, with the death of sometime-ally Anguirus by the hand of Godzilla, a cyborg known as Mecha-Godzilla, created by aliens of the Third Planet from the Black Hole sent to conquer Earth and the mythical monster King Caesar, protector of Okinawa. As per usual, Godzilla saves the day.
Which brings us to the first film in the Heisei series, released in 1984, it was original called The Return of Godzilla before be released as simply Gojira in Japan. The film was released a year later in the United States, where it is known as Godzilla 1985. Like I said earlier, this film is set immediately after the original Gojira film and ignores all the events in the other the Shōwa series films. This film reflects the heightened and impending end of the Cold War, complete with Russian missiles. It is a much darker film than most of the Shōwa series films and Godzilla has been re-imagined and made much more frightening. Apparently, there are many difference between the Japanese version and the American version. The later version being highly maligned by critics (Roger Ebert gave it only one star). This is the only film in the Heisei Series that I’ve seen, but from looking at the titles, it seems they brought back several of the original monsters.
So all of my original viewings of the Shōwa series and Heisei series films happened when I was a kid. However, the one film from the Millennium series I saw happened when I was in college. Some channel was showing it on television and I had no idea they were still making Godzilla films. Apparently, they were. This film features some of my favorites from the Godzilla world: The Shobijin, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla. For some reason, perhaps explained in an earlier film in the series, Mechagodzilla is now a good guy and he and Mothra join forces to defeat Godzilla (who in this series, like in the Heisei series) is a villain.
One of these days I intend to watch the 13 films in the franchise that I haven’t seen. I suggest if you’ve never seen any of these films, check out the ones that are available on Instant Netflix and see if they’re for you. And since this post wound up being extremely long, I want to remind you to think about donating toward earthquake and tsunami relief in Japan.