One dull, rainy weekend in the early 1970s, when I was living in Latham, NY, my brother and I were bored, and my father turned on the TV and checked what was on. This didn't take long, since we could receive exactly 4 channels – Channel 13 (CBS), Channel 10 (NBC), Channel 6 (ABC), and Channel 17 (PBS).
He stopped at one and settled back in his chair. "I think you'll enjoy this."
At first we didn't get it. It was a bunch of Japanese people, occasionally with a guy I recognized as usually playing perry Mason talking. But our interest was piqued when there was a huge storm, and something roared in that storm that was not the wind. We really settled down when the scientists sent to investigate found a living trilobite.
And then a scene where an alarm was sounded, and everyone – villagers and researchers alike – ran up a hill…
… and were confronted by something monstrously beyond their imaginations, with a roar so recognizable and alien that it immediately burned itself into our minds.
That was my first encounter with Gojira-sama, AKA Godzilla, King of the Monsters. My brother Phil and I went through quite a phase of Kaiju (giant monster) fandom, often playing out monster battles between Godzilla and his various opponents; some from the actual movies (like the Smog Monster and King Ghidorah), others that we made up. At one point, I got to see both Godzilla VS the Smog Monster and Destroy All Monsters in a theater, when they had a short run at Proctor's Theater in Schenectady.
Godzilla became a huge symbol of awesome power to me – still is to this day. He was a force of nature, implacable, unstoppable, almost uncaring of anything any human agency could accomplish. The 1970s movies made him more a character, less a pure destructive force, and for my younger years that worked just fine. But as I got older, I kinda wanted to see him return to the force of nature interpretation… and in 1985, I got exactly that with Godzilla 1985.
But it wasn't until some years later that I got back into Godzilla fandom, this time from the Japanese side, and discovered that following Gojira 1984 (it was obviously released a year earlier in Japan) there were other (reasonably) serious Gojira films made; I then became a fan all over again, and still am.
Even more than King Kong, Godzilla can be credited with turning the Kaiju, or Giant Monster, genre of movies into a long-term business – and business it is. Godzilla is a multi-billion dollar franchise worldwide, and one of the most recognizable screen characters in the world. From the original Gojira in 1954 there have been nearly 30 movies starring Gojira-sama, and many comic books, video games, and countless action figures and related toys.
The movies are overall divided into three general periods: the Showa series (from 1954 through 1974), the Heisei series (1984 through 1998), and the Millennium series from 1999 through 2004, when Godzilla:Final Wars was released; at that time, Toho announced they would have a ten-year hiatus before producing a new Godzilla film.
All three series of films take the original Gojira as having occurred in their continuities, but from there they take quite different paths. The Showa series tends to imply there's a long continuity of events, although most of them have little explicit connection, and as time progressed Godzilla became more and more anthropomorphized and if not entirely friendly, at least a willing defender of the Earth against other monsters. The later Showa films – from the late 60s and early 70s – are often the ones remembered by people of my age group and a bit younger, and are the major reason for the stereotype of the "rubber suit monster" kaiju films. Godzilla in these films is a pretty obvious costume and his combats take place in obvious sets and are often milked for sight gags and jokes. There were some very fun films in this period, however, with Destroy All Monsters being perhaps the best – combining an alien invasion with a worldwide monster rampage that culminates with an all-out battle of all of Earth's monsters against the aliens' champion, King Ghidora.
The Hisei period changed all of that, rebooting the franchise so that only the original Godzilla was considered in-continuity, and making Godzilla back into a terrifying nigh-unstoppable force of nature in Gojira 1984. This continued in Gojira Tai Biollante, which produced one of the most effective visual designs for Godzilla and actually addressed logical consequences of his biology and other people's actions against him. Other movies followed in this continuity, culminating with the death of Godzilla in Gojira Tai Destroyah.
The Millennium period followed a different pattern, making several standalone movies in which only the original Gojira was in-continuity. The series ended (for now) with the bizarre Godzilla: Final Wars, which has an acid-trippy sort of alien invasion plot to serve as an excuse to have Godzilla trek across the globe and beat up, one after the other, every one of his old adversaries throughout the entire movie franchise – including the GINO ("Godzilla In Name Only") travesty from the American "Godzilla" movie, which he beats in roughly seven seconds flat.
There's a good reason for that last. The American Godzilla movie was a tremendous disappointment, mainly because the creators somehow failed to realize that Godzilla has several very clear features that make him Godzilla/Gojira:
1. The Roar. That screeching, booming semi-metallic sound is instantly recognizable and is like nothing else on Earth. Godzilla also makes a few other noises (and those are also fairly recognizable), but that noise is unique and purely Godzilla – and without it, he's not Godzilla. That roar can still send a shiver down my spine, forty years after I first heard it.
2. Majesty in Motion. Godzilla does not run. Godzilla does not hurry. Godzilla does not, really, change his pace for anything. He has the deceptively slow movement of truly immense natural forces, like an approaching tornado or a tsunami – which is appropriate, since he embodies all the great natural forces that have endangered Japan in one. He moves with a steady, dramatic, majestic pace at virtually all times.
3. Invincibility. Godzilla cares nothing for your puny weapons. He does not dodge. He does not run. He does not hide. Maybe, just maybe, he'll do some defensive actions against your last-ditch ultimate weapon in the final reel, but don't bet on it. He'll simply take whatever you can throw at him like a four hundred foot Rocky Balboa, and then come back to beat the living hell out of you.
4. Nuclear Breath Weapon. If you think you're safe because he can't reach you, think again. He can unleash a bolt of (usually) blue-white nuclear fire that has almost infinite range and vaporizes almost anything.
5. Music. Ever since the original movie, Godzilla has had a few key pieces of music which herald his appearance and follow his destruction, composed by Akira Ifukube. In the Millennium era, Michiru Oshima eventually showed it was possible to make a new and powerful Godzilla theme worthy of the name, but the shadow of Ifukube's original compositions still falls strongly over any attempt to score a Godzilla film.
6. Overall appearance. While Gojira-sama's appearance varies in detail, its general outline doesn't. He is a bipedal dinosaurian creature, with a massive lower body, a long somewhat crocodilian tail, powerful if slightly short arms, dramatic rows of multi-pointed spines up his back, and a very dinosaurian head.
The makers of the American "Godzilla" kept NONE of them. Well, they sort of kept the Roar; they made their own version which did sound somewhat similar, but it wasn't identical. And they did give him back-spines, but they weren't anything like the real designs. And then they made their "Godzilla" dodge human weapons and move like a Jurassic Park Raptor. For this reason, it became pretty much universally reviled and mocked by both American and Japanese Godzilla fans. It was an okay MONSTER movie, but a TERRIBLE Godzilla movie.
Hopefully, Legendary Films' forthcoming version will be done by people who understand what they're playing with.
The real Godzilla films, of course, have had their ups and downs. Generally, the later Showa period films are worse than the others, especially the overall execrable Gojira Tai Gigan. Besides the original Gojira, my favorite of this first era was probably Destroy All Monsters.
Aside, again, from the original Gojira, my favorite of all the Gojira films is probably Gojira Tai Megaguirus; Megaguirus features an amazing female central character and several awesome battles, along with the most awe-inspiring weapon ever put on film: the Dimension Tide or Black Hole Cannon. in addition, it features an awesome soundtrack.
Soundtracks are a strong draw for me, and the Godzilla films have produced many excellent pieces. The main Godzilla theme, composed by Akira Ifukube, is unmistakable, powerful, and dramatic, as is "Fury of Godzilla", which usually heralds his appearance or a dramatic resurgence of his power. Many other pieces (Maser March, etc.) have done excellent duty not only in Godzilla films but in other Kaiju films in Toho's various series. Michiru Oshima's score for Gojira Tai Megaguirus may be the best single Godzilla movie score, however, containing not only her new and awe-inspiring theme for the King of the Monsters, but also the theme for the Dimension Tide weapon and the combat sequences, culminating in the triumphant piece Kiriko's Decision.
For those who have never watched a Godzilla film before, or who have only seen the commonly-played late-Showa films, I urge you to at least view the original Gojira, or even Godzilla with Raymond Burr – while the original without Burr's intercut footage is, I think, superior, the recut version with Burr is not at all bad and his insertion into the film was well done; they did the same thing, deliberately, when they did the 1984 reboot (and fortunately Mr. Burr was alive and available). After that, try a couple of the Hisei and/or Millennium era films (remembering that there IS a somewhat coherent narrative in the Hisei era but that the Millennium films are pretty much independent).
And when you watch them, try to do so with the heart of a child as well as an adult… so that the awesome force of Gojira's essence can reach you, too.