A Brief History Of 'Godzilla'

Godzilla has gone, in the space of one trailer, from iguana jokes to a contender for the most popular movie of the summer. But most of us aren’t familiar with one of the longest-running film franchises of all time. Here’s what you need to know about the Big G.

So, how did the Japanese first think of putting a guy in a suit and have him stomp on models?

It actually goes back to World War II. Eiji Tsuburaya, who went on to create Ultraman and was instrumental in the design of Godzilla, became the head of Toho’s special effects unit just before World War II. The Japanese didn’t send cameramen on a lot of their military missions, so part of Tsuburaya’s job was to recreate, in small scale and in exacting detail, battles as they happened for propaganda purposes. In other words, Tsuburaya was really good at making convincing models and blowing the hell out of them.

OK, so why the giant lizard?

Godzilla first came about because, essentially, Toho needed to fill in a massive hole in its schedule. Toho was planning what amounted to an Oscar-bait epic, a coproduction with Indonesia. Unfortunately for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, politics out of his control meant his movie got sunk. That presented Tanaka with a problem: He needed a flashy movie to sell tickets, and he needed it fast.

Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, and others involved have claimed that Godzilla came about for noble reasons to do with nuclear warfare and the like, but the truth is more likely that movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms were massive hits, and there are some notable similarities between that movie and Godzilla. Stop motion animation was, of course, time-consuming and expensive… but a stuntman in a lizard suit is a lot cheaper and faster.

This seems very unlikely to be a cultural phenomenon.

You’d be right, except the original Godzilla is more or less a horror movie designed to play on Japanese fears of nuclear holocaust. The original cut, which was hard for Westerners to find until extremely recently, is full of references to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as World War II. For example, there’s a moment in the movie, cut from the Western release, where Godzilla stomps a war widow and her children flat right after she reassures them they’ll be with Daddy soon.

Yeah, we’re not talking “subtle”, here. The movie also touches on the Lucky Dragon incident, where a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to staggering amounts of radiation.

Japanese critics at the time hated it, but it didn’t matter: It was a massive box-office hit, selling over nine million tickets. Thus, a franchise was assured.

Wait: Every Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen involves him fighting guys in goofy suits with wrestling movies and some annoying kid.

Yeah; the earnestness of the Godzilla franchise didn’t last very long, especially as Toho began turning them out on a semiregular basis and the series took a turn for the comedic. In America, Godzilla movies were drive-in fare and packaged for television; they were essentially supposed to be goofy creature features, and that drive in the American market, combined with the fact that in any country foreign film gets the shaft, helped turn Godzilla from scary nuclear horror to giant cuddly lizard. It really didn’t help that the movies were often brutally re-edited, rarely with an ear to what might have actually made sense.

That said, there are some pretty well-done Godzilla movies; the series had a tendency to goof on capitalism and greed, in movies like Godzilla Vs. Mothra and King Kong Vs. Godzilla, and the special effects are some of the best you’ll see for the time. Godzilla also benefited from the fact that the 1960s were a Golden Age in Japanese cinema history; attendance at theaters was enormous, some of the greatest directors in Japanese film history were putting out classic films, and Godzilla movies made Toho a fortune in overseas markets. Unfortunately, what the ’70s did to music they also did to Godzilla.

Disco killed Godzilla? DAMN YOU, BEE GEES!

No, television. Admissions dropped from 1.2 billion to 200 million in the space of a few years, among a whole host of other problems in the 1970s. Godzilla movies quickly became kiddie features because essentially only kids and young single men went to the movies consistently; it wasn’t uncommon for movie theaters to show Godzilla in the afternoon and Skinemax features at night. Combined with growing interest in Hollywood and cinema from Hong Kong, the Japanese film industry took an enormous beating.

But they kept making Godzilla movies?

No, actually. After a string of movies that were terrible even by the series’ standards, Godzilla crawled back into the sea in 1975. He came back, though, in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla. Ironically, this movie was an attempt to bring back the fire-breathing monster that terrified audiences.

It tanked in the US, partially because they insisted on cutting in Raymond Burr. But it was a surprise hit for Toho, both critically and commercially, and it touched off a new round of seven movies that wrapped up in 1995. In 1999, a round of “experimental” Godzilla films were released; essentially, each movie took off from the 1954 original; these were actually the most successful, including the surprisingly good Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah: All-Out Monsters Attack. That ended with a hilarious 50th anniversary blowout, Godzilla: Final Wars… and supposedly, that is the last Godzilla movie from Toho. So much so that they destroyed a crucial piece of Godzilla history, their water tank.

Will we ever see the man in suit again?

Good question. This style of filmmaking, generally called tokusatsu, is widely seen as on the decline; only two companies still make movies with men in suits and tiny models.

That said, as flashy as the American remake looks, and as good as the movie looks, there’s something to be said for model cities and animatronic lizard heads. Godzilla may stomp American cities flat with CGI this summer… but one suspects that sooner or later, model cities will be destroyed as well.