Sunday, 11 May 2014

60 years of Godzilla: A retrospective

When I was a small child I have a vivid memory of having two favourite toys that I would make fight each other. One was a grey/green dinosaur with large spines down it's back and the other was a golden dragon with three heads. Although I didn't know what they were, these strange creatures fascinated me and captured my imagination. Fast forward over 20 years and I had come to know these creatures as Godzilla and King Ghidorah, two of the most famous kaijus in all the world. But I still didn't fully understand the underground world of kaiju and had never seen a Japanese Godzilla film so 3 years ago I set out to watch all 28 Toho films and rekindle my fascination with the giant monster movie. This is the story of that journey as well as the 60 year legacy that Godzilla celebrates and the dawning of a new era as a new western reboot takes on one the biggest challenges in contemporary cinema...bringing the king of the monsters back from the dead.

Although it has become an overused statement in recent years it is absolutely true that the western perception of Godzilla as a rubber suited, figure of fun could not be further from the original movie released in 1954. Released during the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film was a haunting allegory warning society of the dangers of nuclear warfare and at the same time spawning an iconic movie monster in its titular character. The film was so successful that a sequel, the excellently titled Godzilla Raids Again, was rushed out the following year and introduced the concept of Godzilla grappling with other Kaiju (Anguirus in this case).

After a 7 year hiatus (mostly used to establish other popular Kaiju) the big G returned to continue what is known as the “Showa era” and faced off against the West’s most popular movie monster King Kong in a fun, if not anticlimactic, outing. This was followed in 1964 by pitting Godzilla against the 2nd most popular Kaiju at the time, Mothra, with accompanying pygmy ladies. Then followed the introduction of my favourite Kaiju King Ghidorah, with the combination of Ghidorah, the Three headed Monster (1964) and Invasion of Astro Monster (1965). Both of these films incorporated more Western alien-invasion elements whilst pushing the fight sequences to the limit of what could be achieved at that time.

After this semi-serious initial period of the Showa era, things began to morph into the more silly (but no less entertaining) antics that would come to define the character in the surf-themed lobster-starring Godzilla VS The Sea Monster (1966) and the ludicrous parenting tale of Son of Godzilla (1967). After these experiments in family friendly comedy the series would deliver one of its finest and most well-known entries in the form of Destroy All Monsters (1968). Massively upping the ante, the film featured no less than 10 Kaiju brawling their way across Tokyo and never fails to entertain, striking a perfect balance between fight sequences and a wacky sci-fi storyline.

No sooner had the series reached an impressive high point than it plummeted to a series low with the stock-rehashing, child-friendly, afterschool special that was All Monsters Attack (1969), a misleading title if there ever was one. The franchise fatigue continued as the series tried to create new foes for Godzilla but largely failed with unimaginative creatures such as Hedorah, Gigan and Megalon (a blob of pollution, robot chicken and giant cockroach respectively). However, this slump was ended with the introduction of Mechagodzilla, the high tech mirror image of Godzilla who featured in two fine entries (Godzilla VS Mechagodzilla and The Terror of Mechagodzilla) before the Showa era came to an end in 1975.

After a brief foray into the world of cartoons and comic books, the king of the Kaiju made his big screen comeback in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla (released in the US as Godzilla 1985) and so the Hesei era began. The film represented a return to the more serious side of Godzilla which was followed up with the fan favourite Godzilla VS Biollante (1989), which introduced one of the more interesting Godzilla opponents that somehow never really got a 2nd outing. Throwing King Ghidorah into the mix never fails to please, and in 1991 the series delivered one of my absolute favourites in Godzilla VS King Ghidorah. An ambitious outing that includes a new Godzilla origin story, time travel, cyborgs and an epic battle between Godzilla and Mechaghidorah (that’s right, Mechaghidorah!).

After 3 fantastic films, the Hesei era started to flag a little with lacklustre entries like Godzilla VS Mothra (1992), Godzilla VS Mechagodzilla (1993) and Godzilla VS Spacegodzilla (1994). The formers being poor attempts to recapture the Showa glory years and the latter being an absolute mess that even revives baby Godzilla. However, the Hesei era was determined to go out with a bang (literally) with the ever popular Godzilla VS Destroyah in 1995. Not only did the film feature one of the most unique Kaiju in Destroyah (essentially a super-evil-flying-devil made from the oxygen destroyer) but it also featured the iconic “Godzilla meltdown suit” and ended with Godzilla literally going supernova and bringing a close to what is certainly my favourite era in the franchise.

However, after an ill-advised American remake, Godzilla would make a swift return to kick-start the millennium series with Godzilla 2000 (1999). The film featured a pretty awesome alien kaiju called Orga who, much like Biollante would never make a 2nd appearance, and dragged the franchise into the 21st Century, albeit with some terrible CGI. The series once again took a slump, which tends to happen when Mothra turns up, with Godzilla VS Megaguirus (2000), a terrible insectoid kaiju, but would once again triumph with the very fine Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra: Giant monsters all-out attack (2001). The film returns Godzilla to his villainous roots with the oddly spiritual plot of the beast being possessed by the souls of dead Japanese soldiers and the other kaiju teaming up to defeat “Ghost Godzilla.

The next 2 films would be directly linked (a rarity in the franchise) and centred not just around Mechagodzilla but also the team pilots responsible for the robot much in the vein of Top Gun (2002). This resulted in 2 solid entries, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2003) and Tokyo S.O.S, which featured much improved special effects and engaging human characters. This only leaves one more film, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). If Destroy All Monsters upped the Ante then Final Wars went all in with upwards of ? Kaiju, a classic alien invasion storyline, martial arts action sequences and an international backdrop. Playing much like a greatest hits album, the film is a riot and reminds you of all the things that make the franchise great.

No matter what the tone, plot or technological limitations, the Godzilla franchise has always delivered the goods, and if it hadn’t it certainly wouldn’t have lasted 60 years. No matter how silly or outlandish the instalments became, Toho and the talent involved have always recognised that giant monsters smashing buildings for 90 minutes straight would just not work. At the heart of every Godzilla film are the human characters, their struggles and their relationships with science and nature. The cautionary spirit of the first film never went away, it just became lost amongst the various cinematic trends that have passed through the franchise over the years.

Gareth Edwards is on record as wanting to stick to the spirit of the original making Godzilla scary again and putting huge emphasis on the human condition. If he succeeds in this then we will have one of the finest Godzilla movies in years and the franchise will be well and truly revived. Long live the King!


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