[Already read this part? Find the other parts of the series at: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4]
The Showa Series Part 1: The Golden Age
From a somber allegory on the threat of nuclear weaponry to an international movie star, Godzilla evolved quite dramatically in his first 15 years of existence. This period, from 1954-1968, is considered by many fans and even academic voices to be the pinnacle of giant monster special effects films in Japan. Sporting innovative special effects, fun, thoughtful scripts, and sweeping musical scores, these first nine films in the series launched a plethora of characters, images, and sounds that would embed themselves in popular culture for decades to come. At the front of it all were the combined efforts of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishiro Honda, special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, and composer Akira Ifukube. While other filmmakers would join in later in this period, it was these four that would set the tone for what would come later.
Watching this movie, you’d never get a sense that the cultural baggage the name “Godzilla” would pick up later was even coming. This first movie in the series is a somber, meditative piece of work, channeling the world’s pop culture fascination with monsters and meshing it with Japan’s cultural weight of being devastated by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the specter of nuclear war that hung over the world. Godzilla is presented here as a thing to be feared, his unseen threat quietly looming like a dark cloud. When he lands in Tokyo Bay though, we get haunting imagery a-plenty. Director Ishiro Honda;s images of destruction and human suffering come packed with power alongside Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects and Akira Ifukube’s score with its riveting military marches and somber laments. It’s a masterpiece through and through.
Though the first Godzilla was never intended to be the beginning of a franchise, Godzilla’s parent company, Toho Studios, decided to jump right on that train after the movie killed at Japan’s box office. Godzilla Raids Again stomped into Japanese theaters a mere 6 months after its predecessor, introducing elements that would become staples of the series for years to come. These included another giant-sized opponent for Godzilla to fight (the ankylosaurus-like Anguirus) and a duel between two monsters that reduced a major city to rubble (this time it’s Osaka!!). At this early point in the franchise though, Toho had a ways to go before they perfected their formula. The conflict between Godzilla and Anguirus was resolved halfway through the movie, and the rest of its run time is left to a boring human story with no dramatic momentum and poorly staged military assaults. I can never really find a reason to re-watch this movie unless I’m marathoning the series. For completists like me this movie is a valuable piece of Godzilla history, but aside from a couple bright spots with the mass destruction and monster fights, it’s kind of a dud.
Though Godzilla would take a 7 year rest after Godzilla Raids Again, Toho Studios kept busy cashing in on their new, profitable monster formula. Toho cranked out science fiction and monster films year after year, spawning famous monsters like Rodan, Varan, and Mothra in stand-alone films of their own. Most of their science fiction films from this period would end up crossing over with the Godzilla franchise and even launch a few new ones in decades to come.
In 1962, Toho would dust off Godzilla and pit him against none other than King Kong himself, the crossover of the two franchises being the end result of Toho absorbing a proposed King Kong vs. Frankenstein from the United States. King Kong vs. Godzilla is a far more enjoyable film than its predecessor, though it’s a drastic tone shift from the previous two films. It’s a comedy, for both the humans and monsters— the two colossal beasts hurl boulders at each other and Godzilla does a belly laugh. Plot-wise, it’s a loose remake of King Kong with a rampaging Godzilla added to the mix. Kong climbs up a national landmark (this time Tokyo’s Diet Building) and clutches a helpless, beautiful Japanese female in his hands as he struts through Tokyo, looking ridiculous with his horribly constructed suit.
While the fight choreography in Godzilla Raids Again very much reflected the bestial nature of the film’s two clashing titans, the monster fights here are far more reminiscent of a professional wrestling match. This style would set the direction of Toho’s monster battles for decades, and it’s a blast to watch here. It’s among the goofier entries in these early years of Godzilla, but it’s all really fun. Unfortunately, if you want to watch the superior Japanese cut, you’re going to have to go a few extra miles as that version of the film is not formally released on American soil.
Largely considered one of the better Godzilla movies, it doesn’t quite crack my personal top five, but speaking objectively it’s easy to see why it’s so loved. Not only is it notable for being the first of several clashes between the two titular beasts, but the story is one of the weightier of the series. The first 30 minutes or so revolve around a group of reporters who, aided by Mothra’s two tiny priestesses, try to stop a couple of greedy capitalists from exploiting her unearthed egg for profit. They fail, and when Godzilla shows up to wreak havoc again, humankind is forced to try and convince Mothra and her priestesses that the selfish human race is somehow worth saving. The script keeps things at an even dramatic momentum—even if the heroes can convince Mothra’s guardians to help them out against Godzilla, Mothra is old and dying anyway, and things get desperate as the military burns through plan after plan to stop Godzilla’s rampage to no avail. It’s one of the more thoughtfully written Godzilla films, and the special effects are continuously spectacular. It doesn’t quite hit my sweet spot the way it does some others, but Mothra vs. Godzilla is among the strongest examples of the best Toho had to offer in its Golden Age and a great introduction for neophytes.
This one on the other hand, is a personal favorite of mine. It’s notable for a number of things—the first multi-monster brawl, the debut of King Ghidorah (one of Godzilla’s most memorable adversaries), the introduction of Rodan into the Godzilla universe, and Godzilla’s first stint as a flat-out protagonist as he teams up with Mothra and Rodan during the film’s climax. Godzilla putting aside his quarrels with those two monsters at the end of the movie to defeat King Ghidorah would mark the beginning of his transformation from a dark nuclear menace to a hero in later movies, and while that would later give the series some of its silliest material, damned if it isn’t earnest here. The movie is tons of fun. The human and monster story-lines are interwoven better here than frankly most entries in this series, and there’s a constant sense of momentum that make them both equally fun to watch. Definitely my favorite film I’m covering in this piece.
This film completes a loose sort of trilogy that began in Mothra vs. Godzilla, with Godzilla and Rodan again teaming up against King Ghidorah, returning from the last film. This movie gives much more thought and weight to the human-centric plot, revolving around the discovery of an alien race who tries to con the Earthlings into giving them Godzilla and Rodan to control them and launch an invasion of Earth. While that brief description probably sounds campy, the plot is actually loaded with a surprising sense of weight and drama and it totally works. Not only is the human plot just as interesting to watch as the monster action, the monster brawls and city attacks themselves are among the best and most well staged of this early era.
This marks the debut of director Jun Fukuda, who would go on to helm several more Godzilla movies—many of them among the series’ campiest. I’m a personal fan of his work though, and this first entry is one of his best. It’s a definite switch-up from the previous few movies. The precise and thoughtful direction of Ishiro Honda is given up for Fukuda’s more energetic, lighthearted style. Akira Ifukube’s musical duties were taken up by Masaru Sato, most famous for his work on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro and his tones bring a sense of energy and zaniness not present before. The shift works though. Even though this film is pretty different from those before it, it’s a very fun adventure film. The plot centers on a plucky bunch of heroes who wash up on an island, find a sleeping Godzilla, and wake him up to fight a group of terrorists who have commandeered an island, a bunch of slaves, a nuclear bomb, and a giant shrimp named Ebirah. If it sounds goofy that’s because…it really, really is. But, it’s also a ton of fun. It’s well paced, packed with momentum, and full of fun monster action. A great one to crack a couple of cold ones to.
At this point, Godzilla was well on his way to becoming a cash cow for young audiences, and this movie is a big milestone on this path. The goofy tone and energy from the previous film are kept, and we see the debut of Minilla, Godzilla’s cutsey, dumpy looking adopted son whose appearances were thankfully few. It’s definitely light hearted kiddie-fare, featuring a group of scientists whose experiments to control weather end up awakening a trio of giant mantises (Kamacuras), a giant spider (Kumonga) and unearthing an egg that incidentally houses a young Godzilla, whom the bigger one comes to collect and train in the ways of being the King of the Monsters. Sequences like an escape from the nest of Kumonga and a final battle amid a flurry of snow though, carry a real sense of imagination and scale that’s missing from some of the later, kid oriented Godzilla movies. Bottom line, it’s not a highlight of the series, but it’s also a light and enjoyable adventure film I can still recommend for a dreary night.
This film really marks the end of an era. It was the last time the four fathers of Godzilla would work together on a film, and it’s the last movie for some time to have a real epic sense of scale and imagination. Eiji Tsuburaya would die shortly after this film was released, and in the wake of a changing box office landscape (covered in the next article), Toho would scale back their budgets and adjust their target demographics.
As far as endings go though, Destroy all Monsters was one hell of a send-off. The budget is clearly quite a bit bigger than it was in the past few Godzilla films, and the creative minds behind this movie really pull out all the stops. The roster of monsters is a dozen long, and the film presents a fully realized science fiction world full of aliens, space travel, wonky gizmos, and an international sensibility that hadn’t really been part of the series before. The plot again features aliens as antagonists, and has them hijacking control of all of earth’s monsters and launching an epic invasion that takes the human heroes across continents and planets. The human characters are pretty stock, but the epic sense of scale present throughout this whole movie really makes this a fun gem of a science fiction monster film.
Toho’s Golden Age of giant monster movies was truly an epic era of science fiction filmmaking with some of the best minds and pioneers in sight and sound coming together to make these films happen. The continued cultural presence of Godzilla and other Toho monsters like Mothra, Anguirus, Rodan, and King Ghidorah, their musical themes, and iconic roars really speak to how much magic and spectacle were present in these movies. From my experience, this era of Godzilla films is most often the one that turns people into fans, and for people looking to explore this series’ rich history, any one of these eight films are the place to start.
Check out the other parts of this series: