Continuing his six-decade reign of rampage and destruction, Japan’s largest export returns to the screen this weekend to show us why he remains “The King of the Monsters.” Not just any old reptile could sustain sixty years of films, television shows and video games. Even the “zilla” affix has become a part of our everyday language — Momzillas, Bridezillas, Catzillas — implying excess and extreme qualities. But before we head to theaters to watch him wreak havoc again, it’s worth a trip back in time to chart Godzilla’s rise from cold-blooded sociopolitical supervillain to cultural phenomenon.
In 1954, when the first film was released in Japan (under the title Gojira), Godzilla arose from amid the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to play up the country’s residual fears of nuclear holocaust. Envisioned by special effects specialist Eiji Tsuburaya as a sort of “aquatic gorilla”, he stomped through Tokyo like an irritated reminder of the country’s first hand experience with radiation poisoning. His atomic roots equipped him with a suitably hot weapon: radioactive breath with which he incinerated Japanese cities. For those in theaters during its first run, images of burning buildings and broken families were not far from thought. When Godzilla brought these memories to life in less-than-subtle scenes of chaos and destruction, audiences responded with somber reverence, developing a loyalty towards the gargantuan lizard who embodied their suffering.
Even in an era of wildly popular creature-features, Godzilla stood taller than the rest and demanded the most respect. Audiences in Japan reacted so favorably to Godzilla’s atomic antics that an Americanized version of the film (with Raymond Burr) was soon developed, albeit without the heavy radioactive subplot. No longer weighed down with a sense of cinematic activism, the Godzilla films gradually became comical and light-hearted fare for families and children. Yet his mere existence continues to stir something within the heart of movie-goers — as a force of nature beyond the control of humanity, he allows us to consider all the mysteries at play within our increasingly data-driven and digitalized world.
While some — or most — of the symbolism of the earlier films was lost as the franchise continued to develop, the pure power of the monster remained. A commitment to imagination and wild special effects continued to propel Godzilla, even as he transformed from a super-sized villain to something of a defender for the planet and it’s people. The Godzilla films are typically categorized into three eras: Showa (1954-1975), Heisei (1984-1995), and Millennium (1999-2004). Each era has its own aesthetic and plotlines, and if you’re interested in really digging deep into the various corners of the Godzilla mythos, you’re in luck, as many of these films are now easily accessible to interested viewers via Netflix and Hulu and occasionally as Direct Television specials. Some films have held up better than others, but most can be appreciated at least as campy rubber-suited monster romps.
*Picture and video courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.