Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Heath Holland On...The Godzilla Challenge Part I: The Showa Era

by Heath Holland
I’m watching ALL of the Godzilla movies in chronological order. Can I survive…the Godzilla Challenge?

In the world of cinema, there are very few truly iconic characters that are recognized everywhere. There’s Mickey Mouse, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, Bugs Bunny, maybe Spider-Man and a few others…and there’s Godzilla, the favorite son of Toho studios and an icon the world over. Even people who have never seen a Godzilla movie know who Godzilla is.

Including the two American films (both the 1998 and 2014 films titled simply Godzilla), there are a total of 30 movies featuring the King of the Monsters. These 30 films are neatly divided into three separate categories: the Showa era, the Heisei era, and the Millennium era. The Showa era consists of the movies made during Japan’s Showa period, named after Emperor Hirohito, and run from 1954 to 1975. This column will focus only on the 15 movies of the Showa era, which was the most prolific and tonally disparate era of the entire Godzilla series. Born out of the fearful days following World War II when many Japanese citizens lost everything and were forced to rebuild what was left of their lives, the Showa era spans all the way to the excessive mid-‘70s, when commercialism and prosperity replaced fear and dread in the new, modern Japan.

The formula for the Godzilla series is the same in almost every single film. We begin with a human plot that takes up roughly 45 minutes to an hour of the 90 minute running time. I eventually found myself enjoying the human stories far more than the monsters. In my opinion, Godzilla works best when he exists as a force of nature rather than a deliberately heroic character. Not that there isn’t a lot of fun to be had with Godzilla as a hero for children, because the franchise couldn’t have sustained itself for as long as it has without knowing how to have fun with the characters and appeal to the widest audience. The malleable nature of the concept is proven by its longevity.

Gojira (1954)
The original film that started it all, Gojira is directed by Ishiro Honda, who helmed a stunning TEN of the original films in the Showa cycle as well as the classic kaiju flicks Rodan and Mothra. Gojira takes the title character very seriously and his appearances usually culminate in panic and widespread destruction of the Japanese way of life. The similarities between Godzilla’s (the English approximation of the name Gojira) attacks and the hydrogen bomb aren’t just implied, they’re out in the open for all to see. This begins a long tradition of Honda inserting social commentary into the monster action within his films. Each one seems to have something to say and uses its story as a metaphor for the mid-century struggles of Japan. The plot is minimal: Godzilla keeps rising out of the sea and destroying everything; the creature must be stopped. A scientist may have the means to do just that but the cost will be high. Gojirachooses to show us the devastation through the eyes of a few people at the center of the disaster, giving it weight and dramatic consequence. This is ultimately the story of survivors, not of Godzilla. It’s a classic.

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Honda sat this one out and directorial duties were passed to Motoyoshi Oda, who had worked on Japanese horror movies inspired by American films like The Invisible Man. Though he’s a competent director and capable of making a good film, he’s no Ishiro Honda, and Godzilla Raids Again suffers from some unfortunate choices, such as having many of the monster fights sped up. The commentary on the DVD explains that this was actually a mistake during production; there were quite a few novices on the production crew of the film and several of the cameras were set to run at the wrong speed by accident. Motoyoshi Oda thought it worked well enough that this is what we have in the final film. It doesn’t work at all for me, but I do like that there’s a kaiju fight within the first 10 minutes. This is a movie that knows what we want to see. The plot is secondary to the monster action and it feels very much like a reheated version of the first film without the master’s touch.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
Seven years after the sequel to the original film, Honda returns to direct the third film in the series, this time throwing King Kong into the mix. The first of the films to be shot in color and in cinemascope, all attempts to depict Godzilla as an ominous force of nature have now taken a backseat to the bright and optimistic tone of the early ‘60s. This is a movie for everyone, particularly for children. There are still some serious themes here if you’re looking for them, but it’s mostly a comedy. The American version inserts new scenes but also keeps almost the entire Japanese version; this is fortunate because the original Japanese version was largely lost when Honda recut the film in 1970 for a children’s matinee program, trimming 24 minutes from the original negative. As new elements have been found over the last 40-plus years, the film has slowly been restored back to a nearly complete version of the original.

A few things stand out to me about this film. First, it’s the worst King Kong suit I’ve ever seen. I mean, it’s REALLY awful. Yet, somehow that adds to the charm of the movie because everyone seems to know that it’s terrible. This seems to be the first time in the Godzilla franchise that the filmmakers say “we know this is silly so just have fun with it.” It’s a dramatic shift from the previous two movies and, if watching them chronologically as I did, comes as a bit of a surprise. But it works. This is also the first film with truly intricate miniature work. There are cars and buildings, construction equipment, even a miniature carnival full of tiny animatronic people. I’m not sure if it’s because King Kong vs. Godzilla is in color or if the miniature work was really amped up for this film but I love the detail. And as goofy as this movie is, it’s also refreshingly fun.

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

This film is definitely a high point in the entire series. A gigantic egg has washed up near the shore of Japan and a national debate begins about what should be done about it and what waits inside. An enterprising businessman buys the egg for his own selfish purposes and two tiny twins appear telling him not to open the egg. These twins are fairies, and are portrayed by the Peanuts, a real-life Japanese folk/jazz duo from 1964. Their musical call to Mothra (“Mo-thu-ra, Mo-thu-ra…”) it is a thing of haunting beauty and was largely cut from the English edition. Our own JB does an angelic version of the call to Mothra; pray that you may one day hear it and weep at its beauty.

Mothra herself, when she appears, seems regal and benevolent. She rules over the people of Infant Island, which has been bombarded by radiation, as its protector. The people of Japan go to Mothra and ask for her help defending their country and are refused. Those looking for social commentary will find it here.

Mothra vs. Godzilla has a feeling of importance, and it gets so many things right. First of all, we get the Godzilla theme (Akira Ifukube’s musical contributions are memorable and iconic) as soon as the film starts. I first watched the English version of Mothra vs. Godzilla and thought it was fine but a little boring. Watching it again in Japanese was a revelation; tonally it felt very different to me and there was an epic quality that I don’t feel like I got from the English version. The Japanese version features more of Ifukube’s beautiful score and gives Mothra a bit more of a push in terms of weight and importance. Technically and critically, Mothra vs. Godzilla is the high point of the Showa era.

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
A princess is possessed by a Martian entity, telling everyone that the end is near and a disaster is coming. Meanwhile a meteor, which we eventually discover is a Martian egg, crashes to Earth. The egg hatches and Ghidorah (or Ghidrah in the Japanese pronunciation) is unleashed. Godzilla must team up with Rodan to defeat the golden, three-headed space dragon. This movie is kind of boring, especially coming after the awesome Mothra vs. Godzilla. There’s nearly an hour of build up that works alright but is never overwhelmingly compelling, story-wise. Plus it retreads things that were done better in the previous movie.

We are witness to the franchise’s first team up when Godzilla and Rodan are asked to join together to defend Earth from the invaders. Godzilla, like a petulant child, shakes his head, stomps his feet, and says that they bully him and attack him, so why should he help them? It all adds to the unconvincing tone of the movie for me. Ghidorah, as a monster, is pretty awesome. He looks fearsome and striking, especially when compared to Godzilla and Rodan in this film. Rodan, particularly, doesn’t work for me at all. He looks like a dime store puppet, more rubber and wires than anything remotely resembling an actual monster. Godzilla, also, seems flimsy and wimpy when compared to the gleaming golden Ghidorah. His attitude and protests don’t help the situation; we’re expected to buy that he’s making the switch from villain to hero, but it feels like child’s play. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is not a bad movie, especially not by Godzilla standards, but it doesn’t work as well for me as I wish that it did. Ghidorah is the stand-out here, and thankfully he’ll be back LOTS of times in future films.

Invasion of the Astro Monster (1965)

A planet is discovered behind Jupiter and a two-man spacecraft is sent to explore it, manned by a Japanese and American pilot. They make contact with someone called “The Controller” who is essentially a guy wearing a shiny silver suit and sunglasses. He informs them that they are on Planet X and that the people of Planet X need Godzilla (Monster Zero-One) and Rodan (Monster Zero-Two) to defend it from Ghidorah. In exchange for the monsters, the people of Planet X are willing to give the Earthlings the cure for cancer. All is not as it seems and soon Planet X has control of all three monsters and forces them to attack Japan. Honda’s film seems to have something to say about weapons of destruction and those who control them.

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966)
Jun Fukuda takes over for Honda as director of the next two films and I think it makes for better movies. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster has a fun, adventurous tone that’s been lacking from the previous two installments and feels very much like a teen movie. The film opens with a dance competition and we get a Godzilla film that takes place in a post-Beatlemania world. Rock and roll has caught up with Japan and youth, fashions, and rebellious attitudes have taken hold. Our teenage protagonists head out to the beach for a good time and end up on a yacht, which they discover is being occupied by a squatting bank robber. Finding themselves adrift at sea, they crash upon an uncharted island that is protected by Ebirah, a gigantic sea monster. Also on the island is a shadowy military organization named the Red Bamboo (led by a bad guy with an eye patch, naturally), which appears to be covertly manufacturing weapons. The shipwrecked castaways can’t escape from the island because Ebirah will eat them and they can’t take on an entire army alone.

Oh, also, Godzilla is hibernating in a cave and could wake up at any minute. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is a lot of things, but boring isn’t one of them.

This movie feels a lot like Scooby-Doo, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s light-hearted, funny, and has a sense of mystery. The movie even employs the old “hiding-behind-a-moving-bush” gag. Godzilla doesn’t even really factor into the movie that much. He’s asleep for half the movie, gets revived by lightning, fights Ebirah for five mintues then it’s back to the Red Bamboo mystery. During the final confrontation, there’s a twangy guitar soundtrack with tons of saxophone to keep things cool. In case you can’t tell, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is one of my favorites.

Son of Godzilla (1967)

In stark contrast to Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, I’m pretty sure I hate Son of Godzilla. It’s barely a movie, and I can’t really even find a way to describe it. Some scientists are doing weather experiments on an island that happens to be plagued by man-sized praying mantises. Something happens causing the mantises to grow to gigantic (like, Godzilla size) stature. Meanwhile, an egg is discovered which hatches and out pops Godzilla’s son, Minilla. The movie seems to be about Godzilla instructing Minilla how to defend himself from the mantises and be a better monster. There’s BARELY a plot and I think I’ve said all there is to say about it. There’s just nothing there. The movie didn’t even get a theatrical release in America, instead going straight to television. Son of Godzilla has been unavailable on DVD for years and was one of the hardest of the Godzilla movies for me to get my hands on. Now I know why: it’s terrible. Show it to a kid and they may love it, but there’s also the possibility of them one day telling a therapist how you ruined their childhood.

Destroy All Monsters (1968)
Honda returns as this movie finds all the monsters that plagued Earth having been collected and placed on the island Monsterland, where they are monitored and regulated. Someone or something is trying to sabotage Monsterland from within, though, and when the power goes out causing the security systems to fail, the monsters spread across the globe and attack major cities. Jurassic Park is suddenly not quite as original a concept. Remote control devices are soon discovered in various parts of the globe, which are controlling the monsters AND the scientists who run Monsterland. As it turns out, the remote devices are the work of the Kiraku, an alien race bent on conquest. When Earth submits to the rule of the Kiraku, all monsters will be returned to Monsterland.

Destroy All Monsters has some decent monster fights and some cool new designs, but one can’t help but feel that we’ve gone to the well one too many times. The originality and sense of fun and adventure has given way to rote formula and uninspired villains. It’s all just an excuse to have monsters fight one another, but it’s not as fun as it should be. Before I delved into Godzilla movies, this is pretty much what I thought they all were. It’s just kind of boring and mostly lifeless. We’ve been there and done that.

All Monsters Attack (1969)

Ishiro Honda’s straight-up kiddie flick, All Monsters Attack (also called Godzilla’s Revenge), is the story of Ichiro Miki, a kid who spends most of his time in his own imagination because his parents work long hours. Ichiro is bullied by the other kids at school and he doesn’t have a lot of courage, but his imagination allows him to go to Monster Island and hang out with Godzilla and his son Minilla, who teach him valuable lessons about standing up for himself. If you substitute Godzilla for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ichiro is essentially that kid from Last Action Hero. There’s a sweetness that pervades this movie and cancels out a natural inclination towards cynicism. It’s goofy and really, really silly. Nevermind that the monster scenes are basically stock footage from other Godzilla movies; All Monsters Attack works because it’s a timeless message about self-worth and standing up for yourself that will always be worth hearing in a package that is still worth watching. Throw in the fact that the opening credits play like some crazy kung-fu movie and it stands out against the other Godzilla movies of this particular period.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

If bullies were a problem for Ishiro Honda, smog and the destruction of the environment was on director Yoshimitsu Banno’s mind. His sole turn at directing a Godzilla film is all about the evil that man has created in the quest for progress and industry. Hedorah’s name is derived from Hedoro, the Japanese word for slime or vomit, or in this case, chemical waste. Hedorah has four unique forms: the first form is like a large tadpole. The second form is like a reptile, walking on all fours. The third form is like a giant flying saucer, and the fourth and final form is humanoid in appearance.

I think the ideas behind Godzilla vs. Hedorah are great, but the movie doesn’t really know what to do with them. We have some human characters, but they don’t actually fit into the story that much and it feels like most of the movie consists of these monsters fighting. Seriously, there’s about 45 minutes of men in rubber suits going at it. You’d think that would be a good thing, but it serves as a lesson about moderation. The third act goes on…and on…and on…until you can’t help but wonder why the movie isn’t over yet. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is an ice cream sundae with all the toppings and extra hot fudge. It starts of tasting so good, but you’ll probably be sick to your stomach before the end.

Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972)
The producer of Godzilla vs. Gigan felt like the previous movie went too far astray, so this one thankfully gets things back on track (mostly), even if it does still devote a little too much time to the monsters.

Our main protagonist is a manga (comic book) artist named Gengo who has been tasked with designing new monsters for his publisher boss. One day he literally bumps into a girl on his way into the building to pitch ideas; she drops a data tape and runs away. When men follow her out of the building in hot pursuit, Gengo directs them into the other direction and pockets the data tape. Later the girl and her overweight hippie friend find Gengo and explain that they are part of a resistance force to defend Earth from the invading giant cockroach people who have kidnapped her brother, taken over the bodies of dead people, and now inhabit a theme park named Children’s Land which centers around a life-size statue of Godzilla and serves as their evil lair and the only proof of this is on the tape Gengo now has. Dear Godzilla vs. Gigan: I want to have your baby. Godzilla, I’ll give you one million dollars for one night with Gigan. Think about it.

It’s also worth noting that somewhere around this movie I first noticed the dubbing had shifted from American voice actors to an English studio doing their best approximation of what Americans sound like. From here on out if you watch the English dub, Godzilla is called Godziller, or Gudzilla, or sometimes even Gudziller. Rarely is his name pronounced the same way twice. It adds to the charm.

There seems to be an anti-corporation theme going on here, as the bad guys are all businessmen who have a respectable reputation for doing things that help the community. After all, their base is in the middle of Children’s Land! Yet deep down they’re all cockroaches. And they almost win, too. Godzilla gets the ever-loving tar beaten out of him by the new baddie, Gigan (by the way, it’s pronounced guy-gan), a sort of mechanical chicken monster with a rotary saw in his belly and pincers on either side of his beak. Also making a welcome return is Ghidorah, the golden three headed space dragon. Godzilla has help this time in the form of Anguirus, a spikey, four-legged little dinosaur-looking dude who we’ve seen around before but who has never been given this much screen time. These guys seriously fight to the point that blood squirts out of them and onto the camera lens. My 8-year-old partner in crime made a point to say “I’ve never seen Godzilla bleed like that before.” I think Gigan must have hit a major artery. So what if the movie loses me a little in the last 20 minutes by having the monsters fight for too long without anything really happening? I’m happy to say that this chapter begins the streak of absolutely crazy stories that runs through the next three films to the end of the Showa era.

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
Okay, so there’s this race of people that live under the sea in a place called Seatopia. They worship a kaiju called Megalon and they’re really sick of all the nuclear testing that’s going on in the surface world above. They’ve had enough of it and they decide that they’re going to send Megalon to take care of the surface dwellers once and for all. Meanwhile, there’s this inventor guy Goro who has a nephew named Rokuro and a friend named Hiroshi. Goro has invented a robot (robutt, as they say), named Jet Jaguar that the Seatopians want. Jet Jaguar becomes the MacGuffin of the whole movie because everyone wants it, and it’s in the quest to get Jet Jaguar that the action unfolds. Megalon shows up from Seatopia but he’s brought his buddy Gigan along with him for this fight. It’s too much for Godzilla to take on alone. Luckily Jet Jaguar has the ability to grow at will (he takes Cialis) and he giants himself up to help Godzilla (Gudziller) take on Megalon and Gigan in a fair fight.

I LOVE Godzilla vs. Megalon. It’s just incredibly fun; the entire tone of the film is bright and colorful and appropriate for all ages. The music is jaunty and has lots of flutes and drums; I think it’s flute jazz. There’s a scene toward the end of the movie where Megalon and Gigan have Godzilla and Jet Jaguar surrounded by a ring of fire and they do a victorious little dance to the jazz music. It’s just SO MUCH FUN. The movie even ends with a song about Jet Jaguar featuring the lyrics “we are all surprised at the courage you show/Godzilla and Jaguar, PUNCH PUNCH PUNCH/don’t cry, let’s do our best.”

And it IS the best. I want a Jet Jaguar.

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)

We are now officially knee-deep in classic exploitation cinema. These movies bring to mind images of 42nd street and midnight movies. This movie opens with an old man (who looks like a kung fu master) and his daughter at some sort of temple, offering up a prediction that destruction is near. The film cuts to a guy in a cave finding a prophecy written on the cave wall: “when a black mountain appears above the clouds, a huge monster will arise and try to destroy the world. But then when the red moon sets and the sun rises in the west, two monsters shall appear to save the people.” People who interpret the prophecy believe it to be predicting the coming of King Caesar, a being who legend says once protected the royal family long, long ago.

The threat soon reveals itself in the form of Mechagodzilla, a robotic version of Godzilla which is controlled by Kuronuma, a cigar-smoking, brandy-sipping bad guy who is, and I quote, “Commander for the conquest of Earth, from the third planet of the black hole, outer space.” He adds “outer space” so as not to be confused with third planet of the black hole, Poughkeepsie. And as it turns out, these aliens from the third planet of the black hole are really gorilla people. When you injure or kill one they revert back to their gorilla form, which looks a lot like the Fatz Geronimo, the keyboard player from Showbiz Pizza’s Rock-afire Explosion.

Meanwhile, Mechagodzilla can’t be stopped by Godzilla alone (who is once again a dominant force of nature rather than a deliberate hero), so the people of Earth summon King Caesar from his rest within a mountain. King Caesar is a great monster with a really cool design. He looks a little like the Zuul dog thing from Ghostbusters. Mechagodzilla is my real favorite, though; I absolutely love the idea and execution of a robotic Godzilla with rocket launcher fingers and a vast array of weaponry hidden everywhere. I have a feeling Mechagodzilla will get even cooler in future films. The fight at the end rocks and is full of more blood. Oh, the geysers of blood. It’s like a Red Cross blood drive.

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Because the awesomeness of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla could not be conveyed in one movie, we get this direct sequel a year later. This time, it’s PERSONAL. Well, not really, but it is bonkers. Interpol is looking for the ruins of Mechagodzilla at the bottom of the sea where Godzilla left it after the last movie. What finds them is Titanosaurus, another angry monster bent on destruction, controlled by the gorilla aliens from the last movie. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a mad scientist named Mafune and his daughter Katsura. With Titanosaurus and Mechagodzilla together as a threat, Godzilla may have finally met his match. All hope rests with Katsura, who is revealed to be a cyborg with the capability to control robotics…but can she control Mechagodzilla?

This is the end of the line for the Showa era and Ishiro Honda fittingly returns for the first time since his anti-bullying movie All Monsters Attack, taking one final turn at directing the character that he brought to life more than twenty years earlier. It’s been an interesting ride: Godzilla started as a blatant metaphor for the destruction of war and the devastation endured by the Japanese people, but quickly became something that they chose to view optimistically. In their greatest hour of need, Godzilla would always rise from the sea to save them. Once their destroyer, Godzilla had come to become their savior; a natural predator who would never turn on the people of Japan. From the bleak images in black and white of people suffering to the bright colors and happy music of 1975, the Showa era in many ways represents the plight of Japan after World War II. It starts from a place of tragedy and slowly pulls itself out of the ashes and reshapes itself into something stronger and new. You can see the Japan we know today take shape on the screen in front of you.

I also was surprised that, outside of the first couple of films, Godzilla himself is never really in any jeopardy of being harmed or killed. I figured I’d see Godzilla die a dozen times during these 15 movies, but he almost always slinks back into the sea as the victor. He’s a superhero and he can never really die; he just goes away to rest every now and then.

And like Godzilla himself, the franchise would lay dormant for a while, resting and growing stronger. When the monster finally returned in 1985, it would be to a very different world. I’ll see you here in a few weeks for part two of our three-part journey through the Godzilla franchise. In the meantime…

“PUNCH PUNCH PUNCH! Don’t cry, let’s do our best!”


  1. Ah, Godzilla! I've had so much fun with these movies over the past 2 months. With your permission and patience...

    Gojira - What is there to say, really? It's awesome.

    Godzilla Raids Again - My main problem with this movie is the best part - Godzilla's fight with Anguirus - takes place in the middle of the picture. The so-called finale is so protracted it becomes humorous (okay pilots - it's been 15 minutes and he's buried up to his navel! Keep it up!).

    Mothra vs. Godzilla - When Mothra drapes his wing around the egg...sorry, I'm tearing up here.

    Ghidorah - BORING! You call Ghidorah BORING?? How dare you! Of course I'm biased, because this is actually one of my favorites. The three-headed monster is indeed awesome, but I still think the big G is awesome as well.

    Invasion of Astro-Monster - You didn't mention the best part...Godzilla's victory dance! As a certain alien says, "A happy moment."

    Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster - I love this one as well. Another choke-in-the-throat moment is when the humans are leaving the island, and are yelling at Godzilla to jump! Jump! His leap into the sea is another in the pantheon of awesome moments.

    All Monsters Attack - Okay, this one was great until the last 5 minutes. So the ultimate message is you need to defeat your bully in order to become one yourself??

    Terror of Mechagodzilla - Best. Entrance. Ever.

    1. Ah, the victory dance from Astro-Monster. I tell you, there's more dancing in these movies than on Soul Train.

  2. I wasn't as on board with all the ridiculousness in King Kong vs Godzilla, but I do have to admit that Kong shoving an entire tree down the big guy's throat was undeniable fun. I also found that I'm a big fan of Anguirus. I'd like to see him in more stuff, and I defineitely wanted he and Godzilla to high five as they swam away at the end of the movie. I didn't get around to watching every Godzilla movie before the new one came out, but the ones I did see were a good bit of silly fun and I'm glad the franchise means so much to fans around the globe. I also think I can speak for all of us when I say that JB's Mothra call should make an appearance on the show very soon.