Since he first rose out of the Pacific Ocean to destroy Tokyo in 1954, Godzilla has been an icon. But he's also changed with the times, morphing from a terrifying death monster into a kid-friendly pal and back again. Here's what you need to know about the Big G's cinematic past to understand this complicated kaiju.
In some ways, Godzilla was Japan's answer to America's favorite giant monster, King Kong. That's probably why Godzilla had to fight King Kong in a 1963 movie that is only worth watching for the high cheese quotient. However the fight between those giants turned out in the movie, it's clear that Godzilla won history. Toho Studios, which launched the Godzilla franchise, created an entire stable of giant monsters to serve as Godzilla's allies and enemies. Over a fifty year period, the studio released dozens of Godzilla films — and spawned a rival franchise of Gamera films at Daiei Studios. There was even an ill-fated Hollywood Godzilla movie in 1998, and the less said about that, the better.
Shōwa Series (1954-1975)
Godzilla spawned such long-lasting adoration because he somehow came to represent many things to many people. Children and adults can see themselves in his flailing attempts to do good, even though he crushes city blocks with every step he takes.
But in the first Godzilla movie, released in 1954 and called simply Godzilla, he represents something very specific: the nightmares of people who lived through World War II, and especially the firebombing of Tokyo. Dark and terrifying, Godzilla is a force of nature who must be destroyed — and only science can save Tokyo with the strange "oxygen destroyer" weapon. Though the technology sounds silly, this is not a kid's movie. In fact, we see kids being burned by Godzilla's attack, and the movie only ends with the monster's death.
Godzilla proved so popular, however, that he came back in a series of films to fight other monsters throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. The most important movies from these "versus" tales include Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster, which introduces an evil three-headed bird from space with a lightning breath weapon (not to be confused with the pterodactyl-like Rodan, who is often a Godzilla ally). Another notable frenemy from these years is Mothra, introduced in Godzilla vs. Mothra, who represents the traditional island cultures of Japan.
A caterpillar god who is controlled by two tiny, fairy women from Infant Island, Mothra fights Godzilla but eventually transforms into a beautiful moth who allies with Godzilla in later movies. Finally, there is Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, which introduces another enemy of Godzilla — the entirely mechanical Mechagodzilla, controlled by evil aliens — who returns in many subsequent films.
If you want to see a completely awesome, all-out monster fight, you have to watch Destroy All Monsters, where pretty much every kaiju gets together to destroy everything. They're being mind-controlled by sexy alien women, who are allied with Ghidorah and want to rule the world from their moonbase. This movie also introduces the idea that the monsters have all been herded together for safekeeping by the "United Nations Science Committee." Because this was 1968 and it seemed like the U.N. could do anything.
Many of these "versus" movies are lighthearted, and feature exotic locations just to make things even more whimsical. Perhaps the most gentle of all these movies is Son of Godzilla, set mostly on Godzilla's home base of Monster Island. Here we meet Godzilla's adorable baby Minilla, who makes the noise "gwaa gwaa" and blows smoke rings instead of fire.
Finally, to get a sense of how weird Godzilla movies can get, I highly recommend the early 1970s flick Godzilla vs. Hedorah (AKA Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster). The idea came from a contest that Toho ran, asking school children what monster they wished that Godzilla would defeat. Apparently "pollution" was a very popular answer, so Toho created Hedorah, whose name is a play on "sludge."
Hedorah is a monster who feeds on Tokyo's smokestacks and industrial waste, and nearly destroys Godzilla with his oozy powers. Meanwhile, in the human plot, Japanese hippies are playing songs in natural settings and generally making this one of the most fun of the early series. It also introduces the theme of Godzilla's connection to the environment.
Heisei Series (1984-1995)
In the mid-1980s, we got our first reboot of the Godzilla franchise. Return of Godzilla (in the U.S., it was released as Godzilla 1985) is set after the original 1954 Godzilla and took the series in a slightly different direction. Here we begin to see a more "scientific" understanding of Godzilla's relationship to nukes. It's a movie that's steeped in Cold War fears, with Godzilla eating nuclear power plants and a Soviet submarine. Instead of fighting other monsters, he has his biggest battle with the Super X fighter jet, designed to defend Tokyo against nuclear attack. We also learn that Godzilla's heart is in some vague way nuclear-powered and that he seems to communicate using the same frequencies as birds.
The Heisei series brings back the crucial monsters that we meet again and again in the Godzillaverse: Ghidorah (now known as King Ghidorah in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah), Mothra, and Mechagodzilla. But their roles are very different. In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, for example, we get Godzilla's origin story and find out that there's a plot to destroy Japan's economic future. Once, Godzilla was a simple Godzillasaurus, just your average living fossil dinosaur, who rescued Japanese troops from evil Americans in 1944. Then he was hit by a bomb and became the nuke-powered kaiju of today. Now evil time-traveling Futurians (from the future!) are trying to destroy Godzilla before he's even born so that Japan will be ravaged by King Ghidorah and never become the world's dominant economic power in the 2200s.
This flick also introduces an idea that's key to the Heisei series, which is that there is a psychic woman named Miki who can communicate telepathically with the monsters. Miki also shows up in Godzilla vs. Mothra, which reimagines Mothra as a creature/biotechnology created by an ancient, advanced civilization to defend the Earth against danger. She fights Godzilla, and wins, carrying him out to sea. And of course Mechagodzilla comes back to fight Godzilla too — when the "United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Center" is established (because of course there is such a thing), their scientists build two Mechagodzillas out of the trashed remains of the ultra-awesome Mecha King Ghidorah from earlier in the series.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II also introduces "Baby" (later, "Junior") a new version of Minilla who is a lot more badass but also strangely a lot more cute. It looks basically like a small version of Godzilla, and when it hatches, it immediately imprints on a young female scientist. So the struggle in the movie is to get Godzilla and Baby to have proper family bonding, with the aid of psychic Miki.
What's important to note here is that Godzilla has once again become a problem. Most of these movies are about inventing new ways to manage Godzilla, whether that's with a psychic, a giant robot, or a giant moth created by a past advanced civilization. We really only see Godzilla-as-ally in King Ghidorah — and also in a very bizarre and wonderful entry in the series known as Godzilla vs. Biollante.
Biollante is a GMO kaiju, created when mad scientists decide it would be a great idea to splice "G cells" (Godzilla's cells) with a rose. Because what could go wrong? Godzilla has to do battle with a giant rose bush that looks like something out of Little Shop of Horrors. But remember — this rose is made from Godzilla's tissues. So it's as if he's battling himself, too! This existential weirdo movie introduced us to Miki and is often ignored by fans. But it should really be seen right alongside Godzilla vs. Hedorah to find out just how nutso this series can get.
As many critics have noted, the Heisei series is a lot more science fictional than the Shōwa series, though the science itself is intensely silly. We also learn a lot more about the various groups created by scientists and the UN to manage and study Godzilla. The kaiju is less of a mythical figure and more like an ongoing, halfway out-of-control weapons experiment. At the same time, global politics enter the picture in weird ways too, with references to Japanese economic power, conflicts in the middle east, and the Cold War. Godzilla has become a lot more sophisticated. And the humans in the movies have become a lot more interesting, embroiled as they are in covert operations and global conflicts.
Millennium Series (1999-2004)
All that sophistication and silly science that you loved in the Heisei series? That went totally out the window in the ill-fated Millennium series, which begins with Godzilla 2000 — another reboot that starts after the events of the 1954 Godzilla — and peters out into a weird mish-mash of abused anime tropes and Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers action.
Godzilla 2000 introduces us to the cunningly-named Godzilla Prediction Network, which is a version of the Godzilla management groups from the Heisei series. This is a pretty classic Godzilla film, where the Big G defends Japan against a UFO threat that steals some of Godzilla's DNA to form itself into a giant monster. So Godzilla is reclaimed as a Japanese hero, albeit one who tends to smash Tokyo accidentally from time to time.
The problem is that this series just feels a little aimless. Instead of tortured scientists, time-traveling anti-capitalists, and the psychic Miki, most of our humans are part of a fighting squad called the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) — later the Earth Defense Forces (EDF) — that in Final Wars can actually engage with kaiju and (sort of) win.
In Giant Monsters All Out Attack, Godzilla has once again become a problem that must be contained by other monsters, echoing the Heisei Mothra movie. Also, most of the science of the previous series is chucked here, as magical shrine stones are used to power up Ghidorah at one point.
I think the most noteworthy part of the Millennium series is the development of the Mechagodzilla character, now known as Kiryu. There are two Kiryu movies, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla and Tokyo S.O.S., where SDF creates a cyborg version of Godzilla which becomes a kind of Biollante-like alter-ego of the Big G. Indeed, at first Kiryu destroys Tokyo just like Godzilla.
But then after more fine-tuning by the SDF, it manages to defend Japan against Godzilla. Again, Godzilla here is a force that needs to be contained.
Toho ended the entire Godzilla franchise in 2004, fifty years after the first movie, with Final Wars. Unfortunately this is perhaps the most embarrassingly campy movie of the series, though it is also blindingly weird. We've got every damn monster you've ever seen throughout the series, plus evil aliens who want to harvest human mitochondria for food. I think this mitochondria detail is evidence that bizarro molecular biology had become a staple of the series at this point, mostly thanks to Biollante. At the end, only Godzilla's child Minilla can persuade the Big G not to destroy humanity.
So the series concludes with an ending we've seen many times before: Godzilla has been contained and returned to the sea, while Japan barely survived the attack.
In his time, Godzilla has represented nuclear bombs, natural disasters, military science run amok, and genetic experiments gone wrong. He's fought aliens, terrorists, natural forces, other monsters, and time travelers who wanted to undermine Japan's economic power. After fifty years, Godzilla was no longer truly a friend to Japan, nor to humanity. But somehow humanity came up with weapons — including other monsters — to contain him.
Of course the greatest kaiju who ever lived will never truly go away. As long as we face incomprehensibly huge disasters, we will need a metaphor as big as Godzilla to bring them to life.