What do most non-Japanese, Western or otherwise, know about Japanese films? About Japanese pop culture, period? More than they did a decade ago certainly, but let’s get real: Go to a typical family gathering in America — blue state or red, it doesn’t much matter — and ask those assembled for the name of a Japanese actor. Chances are you’ll get one: Godzilla. (Bruce Lee doesn’t count.)
Who else? Movies starring Big G and his less-famous monster friends may well be the only non-animated ones from this country they’ve ever seen. (Unless they’ve rented that lone copy of “The Seven Samurai” or “Shall We Dance?” from the neighborhood Blockbuster.) Also by now, 50 years after his debut in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 “Gojira (Godzilla — King of the Monsters),” the eponymous lizard has become detached from his mostly bad and mediocre films and entered the realm of icon-hood, like Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe. (And like them, now has his own sidewalk star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.)
Godzilla’s appeal is easy to understand, even for the very young: He’s a big, scaly reptile who roars like tortured steel, breathes atomic fire and stomps cities with ferocious glee. What’s not to like?
Back in the day, as a boy in a small Ohio town, I found him the stuff of nightmares. But I also wanted to be him. Tromping on front-yard ant hills, I was huge and powerful (and later guilt-stricken about the poor, crushed ants).
Encouraging violence in 7-year-old boys was not the intention of Honda and his collaborators at Toho, including special-effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya and composer Akira Ifukube. “Godzilla” may have been inspired by “King Kong” and “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” — a 1953 film about a prehistoric beast who is awakened from the arctic ice by a nuclear blast and terrorizes New York — but its aim was to issue a cinematic protest against the horrors of nuclear war.
The film’s opening sequence, in which Godzilla rises out of the ocean depths, was a direct reference to a hydrogen bomb test held on Bikini Atoll on July 1, 1954, of which the radiation fallout sickened 23 Japanese fishermen on a boat called the Lucky Dragon. In Japan, where memories of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings were still fresh, the reaction to the news was outrage.
Re-edited and retitled “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” for its 1956 release in the United States, with added footage of Raymond Burr as a visiting reporter, the film lost much of its antinuke message. For Americans at the time it was a strange Japanese movie with a monster that, thrillingly, ate bullets for breakfast and, to paraphrase the poster copy, made King Kong look like a midget. Godzilla died at the end — the victim of a gizmo called the oxygen destroyer — but he was a box-office winner.
Presented with the biggest international hit in its corporate history, Toho began churning out monster movies, with and without Big G. Instead of once again matching one monster against human opponents, including the hapless Self-Defense Forces, Toho pitted one monster against another, like the pro wrestling matches watched by millions on the then-new medium of television.
Also, instead of appealing to adults with high-minded sentiments, leavened with tragic romance, these films targeted kids and their dragooned parents or, as Toho flacks preferred to say, the “family market.” The most popular entry from this period was the 1962 “Kingu Kongu vs. Gojira (King Kong vs. Godzilla),” which featured a titanic battle between Godzilla and his furry senpai in the shadow of Mount Fuji.
By the mid-1970s, however, Toho was running out ideas, while its primitive “man in a suit” effects were being outclassed by Hollywood. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” with its terrifying monster from the deep, made Godzilla’s tromping of model cities look more puerile than usual. After Honda made “Mekagojira no Gyakushu (Terror of Mechagodzilla)” — a 1975 film that matched Big G against his cyborgian equivalent and a massive dinosaur, Titanosaurus — Toho retired its most famous character.
He remained in limbo until 1984, when he returned, by popular demand, for “Gojira (Godzilla 1985),” a 30th anniversary “tribute film” in which Big G once again appeared as a solo act. It earned 1.7 billion yen for Toho — the second-highest total for a domestic film — encouraging the studio to relaunch the series with bigger budgets and more realistic effects.
The Godzilla films of the late 1980s and 1990s recycled characters from the “classic” period, including King Ghidorah (1991), Mothra (1992) and Mecha-G (1993). They were also widely distributed abroad, reviving interest in the series among a new generation of foreign fans.
Toho even licensed the character for a 1998 Hollywood version directed by Roland Emmerich of “Independence Day” fame and starring Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno. The plan was to spin out a new series of American Godzilla movies that Toho would distribute domestically. Instead, Emmerich’s “Godzilla,” with a monster that looked like a leaping iguana, was loathed by many hardcore fans and was a box-office disappointment.
Toho cranked up the series again with “Gojira 2000 Mireniamu (Godzilla Millennium)” — but couldn’t stop its post-millennial slide in popularity, even by pairing G, humiliatingly, on a double bill with Hamutaro, a cartoon hamster who had spawned a popular TV series and merchandising bonanza.
Thus the announcement in March by veteran series producer Shogo Tomiyama that the 28th Godzilla film, titled “Godzilla Final Wars,” would be the last. “We could no longer make a truly new Godzilla, one that no one had ever seen before,” Tomiyama explained. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, an action specialist responsible for “Versus,” “Sky High” and “Azumi,” among others, “Final Wars” was to be the ultimate Godzilla send-off, with monsters and actors from previous installments involved to give it a “best hits” flavor.
It’s hard not to believe that Big G will remain as retired as Mike Tyson — that fan nostalgia and Toho’s bottom line will bring him raging back. At a Dec. 8 press conference Tomiyama did not entirely kill such hope. “Our aim was to make not the last Godzilla film but the best one,” he explained. “But because we made the best-ever Godzilla film, we can’t make any more, for another generation at least. When children ask me if they will ever see Godzilla again, I tell them that when they grow up they will create a new type of Godzilla film. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with.”
One seeming obstacle to a Godzilla comeback is Toho’s “man in a suit” tradition, which both defines the character — and dates it. Will the next generation, raised on 3-D animated spectacles, still thrill to the sight of a suited Big G stomping toy tanks? At the same press conference, “Final Wars” special-effects supervisor Eiichi Asada defended the tradition as one that people enjoy: “It’s made Godzilla a beloved character,” he said. He said that the suit “adds a certain flavor” that computer graphics could never duplicate. Director Kitamura seconded Asada’s claim: “Because a human being is inside [the suit] you feel a human energy.”
Toho is certainly feeling the box-office energy. “Final Wars” roared off to a fast start following its Dec. 4 release, earning 200 million yen on its opening weekend and making it likely that Toho will more than recoup its 2 billion yen production budget — twice that for the average series entry.
Meanwhile, Toho has signed distribution deals for most Asian territories, including China, South Korea and Taiwan, while negotiating with several Hollywood majors for a North American release. “Our aim is for ‘Godzilla: Final Wars’ to become No. 1 at the U.S. box office,” said Kitamura.
Given the U.S. success of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” — the latter being the first subtitled Asian film to reach the coveted No. 1 box-office slot — Kitamura’s goal isn’t as distant as it might have been a decade ago, when Asian movies in the U.S. were mostly the obsessions of a few cultists. “We’ve created a film we hope the whole world will love,” said Kitamura. Presumably fans in New York, Shanghai, Sydney and other foreign cities where the film’s monsters rage will feel a tug of civic pride — and show up at the theater.
Even though Godzilla may still be a power at the box office, here and elsewhere, the nuclear threat he once so potently symbolized has taken a different, more human form today. The builders and deliverers of dirty nukes do not have to be 10-stories tall.
And yet Godzilla’s appeal is more primal than the latest trends in terrorism. His stomp echoes down the ages, to Jack’s encounter with the Giant and Odysseus’s battle with the Cyclops. “Godzilla reminds us that we are all small, helpless beings,” said Asada. “Godzilla is far bigger than us — and shows us that our actions are small. Think of his name — there’s a “God” in ‘Godzilla.’ “