Thoughts on… GODZILLA

Introducing the King of Monsters

The Big G. He’s an acquired taste. Not everyone will find pleasure in watching a man in a rubber suit obliterating scale models of Tokyo. For me, it never gets old. And even if you don’t love or want to love Godzilla, many of them are worth watching for the spectacular visuals and influential special effects they contain, that, at-least to me, look great even today.

The Franchise

Ok. Time to geek out.

There have been a total of 28 Toho distributed films in the franchise. Geeks about the series, like myself, categorize all of the films into three eras:

Showa (1954 – 1975)

Heisei (1984 – 1995)

Millenium (1999 – 2004)

Each one has a different style. The Showa era contained many fantasy-like elements. Although these ones can get pretty cheesy, the art of the genre was really established, and several films of that era added on to important plot points in the entire franchise, like in Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster. In this film, Godzilla becomes a good guy (I won’t spoil why, but it’s pretty schlocky). In Invasion of Astro Monster, the first ‘spacey elements’ were introduced to the Showa series, which would really be important the rest of the series (the ‘aliens’ try to kill Godzilla with more monsters). The franchise was doing great until 1975, when Terror of Mechagodzilla was released. This flick was the least attended Godzilla film in Japan and only sold 970,000 tickets. Because of this, the series was put on a temporary hold. However, Toho had no intentions on permanently ending the series. The sad thing is that Terror of Mechagodzilla is actually a more far fetched but intelligent entry to the Showa series and is one of my favorites. Nonetheless, the series was put on a 9 year hold, until…

A still from Godzilla vs. Destroyah

In 1984, marking the 30th anniversary of Godzilla, Toho released a remake of the original Godzilla (The Return of Godzilla), thereby kicking off the Heisei series. The Heisei series had a completely reset story line. It improved upon the series’ craft in some places, especially regarding the acclaimed Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah and a fan favorite, Godzilla vs. Biollante. It seems to me that the fight sequences and kaiju design became much more believable than in the Showa series. I like to consider the Heisei age of all Kaiju films the ‘happy medium’ between Millenium and Showa. The series ended on Godzilla vs. Destroyah (above) in 1995.

The Millenium series kicked off in 1999 (I know, NOT the turn of the millenium) with Godzilla: 2000. This flick contained some serious camp and laugh worthy dialogue (my delight), but it made fans and most critics happy to see Godzilla back in probably the raddest costume design he’s had yet. The Millenium series tended to pick up from the original Godzilla‘s plot.  The series, sadly, tended to drop some of the original art of the films. They started to go a little more CGI heavy, story shabby and explosion happy, which wasn’t the end of the world. Why? Because many of them didn’t have a bright plot in the first place. They became less artful but more satisfying. The Millenium series ended with Godzilla: Final Wars, which got some mixed feedback. To be honest, I watched the first 10 minutes and was really upset. It was close to unwatchable. I’ll give it a chance another day. Still, people think it was a good conclusion to the franchise, as TONS of old kaiju from the Showa series have cameos.

A still from Godzilla: Final Wars

All other Kaiju films fall into one of these eras as well, like the Gamera series. I’ve seen mostly Showa and Millenium Godzilla films, as many of them are are on either Hulu+ or Crackle. That’d be a good place to start. The others are on disk and many of the Heisei films are on Amazon to watch instantly if you have a few bucks to spare.

Here’s a final list of all Toho Godzilla franchise films (as of 2014):

  • Godzilla [1954]
  • Godzilla Raids Again [1955]
  • King Kong vs. Godzilla [1962]
  • Mothra vs Godzilla [1964] (Godzilla vs. The Thing)
  • Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster [1964]
  • Invasion of Astro-Monster (Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) [1965]
  • Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster) [1966]
  • Son of Godzilla [1967]
  • Destroy All Monsters [1968]
  • All Monsters Attack (Godzilla’s Revenge) [1969]
  • Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) [1971]
  • Godzilla vs. Gigan [1972]
  • Godzilla vs. Megalon [1973]
  • Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla [1974]
  • Terror of Mechagodzilla [1975]
  • The Return of Godzilla  [1984]
  • Godzilla vs. Biollante [1989]
  • Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah [1991]
  • Godzilla vs. Mothra (Godzilla & Mothra: The Battle for Earth) [1992]
  • Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2 [1993]
  • Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla [1994]
  • Godzilla vs. Destroyah [1995]
  • Godzilla 2000 [1999]
  • Godzilla vs. Megaguirus [2000]
  • Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack [2001]
  • Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla [2002]
  • Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. [2003]
  • Godzilla: Final Wars [2004]

The Original

Around the 50s, schlock sci-fi was big. It was rare when you got a unique sci-fi flick.

Godzilla (Gojira) was one of the first Kaiju films, and would remain the most influential, and arguably the most well crafted Kaiju film to the date. America tried to rip off of the concept for years after. Heck, they even got the rights from Toho so that they could make their own Americanized cut of Godzilla, called Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Watch the Original, japanese-dubbed, Gojira!

A moody still from Gojira

Why was this film so great? It didn’t rely on schlocky concepts. The film is dark, both cinematographically and mentally. It focuses much more on H-Bomb commentary and plot, as with some solid performances and actors. The film is, probably most shockingly, melodic. It feels brutal, not because of the horrible monster the people face, but because of people’s reactions to the situation. The film portrays very real panic. I’m not surprised at all at the fact that The Criterion Collection contains this film.

If you only watch one of the Godzilla films, and forget about the name for the rest of your life, it needs to be the original, japanese-dubbed Gojira. It remains in my top 10 to the date.

The Other Flicks

If you’re not down for a pure-artsy flick, don’t worry. There are 27 more films in the franchise.

Mothra vs. Godzilla is a commonly referred to as the best. The English-dubbed and not-super-cut version, Godzilla vs. The Thing is what I have watched. It’s pretty great. It introduces Mothra, a super important Kaiju, to the franchise. The film is very colorful and fun. The thing that I especially appreciate about it is that it respects the art of the original greatly. There are these shots they used to use in the films that I’m going to call ‘Loomers’. It’s where you see a shot of people scurrying away and running towards the camera, when after a few seconds Godzilla starts looming around the corner of a building. I love these shots because it makes you feel small, and for some reason, makes your belly ‘drop’. These sorts of shots were used often in the film. I haven’t noticed the usage of those shots nearly as much in other films, so this one is definitely one to watch for it’s technical aspect. It’s not my favorite, but it’s famous.

A still from Mothra vs. Godzilla

 

Realistically, you can scan Hulu+ and watch anything  you find (besides Godzilla, King of the Monsters!). They’re all fun.

Dubbing and the American Versions

It’s understandable to refuse watching the American-Dubbed versions of the films. Honestly, I think it’s fine. It often adds on to the cheesy effect, but the more well-crafted ones are better off watched in Japanese dubbing. You usually won’t miss any plot details, but it’s a very, very good idea to look on Wikepedia and check out the differences between the Japanese and American cuts just in case. The early Showa American cuts were heavily edited in order to get rated G, so beware. All in all, if you have a Japanese dub available, watch that instead.

The Japanese dubs of Godzilla films are going to be way better than the American dubs. Even some of the worst Godzilla films, like Godzilla vs. Gigan, are enjoyable when watched in Japanese. Why? The playful intents of the Godzilla films are preserved and clear when you watch them in the language they were shot in. The dialogue in the American dubs is too serious, and therefore makes the films way worse.

When it comes to the 1998 American remake, forget about it. I haven’t watched it, but I don’t think any fans of the franchise really enjoyed it. I may post something when I watch it, but let’s hope that post will come no time soon.

And then there’s the 2014 remake…. oh boy. I’m excited. Plus, there will be some more kaiju in it; maybe Rodan. I’ll post something on it when I watch it… something tells me it’s either going to be epic or horrid. A couple of weeks left!

The Special Effects

You’ve probably figured out by now that these films use some really powerful and influential special effects. Most of it’s straight forward: a guy in a heavy costume. However, there are some details we tend to miss.

They use strings on kaiju like King Ghidorah so that his heads sort of bobble and snake around. On Godzilla, it appears they use a string to swing his tail back and forth.

Something that we lack to appreciate is how hard it is to make it look like Godzilla is huge, when he’s really only a few feet tall. They have to build a set full of a scale Tokyo. The detail put into these miniatures is breathtaking. It’s even more breathtaking to watch a giant foot obliterate those little miniatures. It looks real, and it’s a very time consuming effort on the filmmakers’ part. The scale models and special effects vary between films, but the concept lingers within them all. It gives you a greater appreciation towards the series and director Ishiro Honda, who directed most of the good Showa Godzilla films, including the original.

The usage of slow-motion is probably just as important. If they didn’t slow down many of the Kaiju Fights, they would look like Godzilla was on something. (Which he is. Nuclear radiation bro). It makes him seem more massive. It makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s ingenious, really.

What about Gamera?

Ok, I’ll admit. Gamera is pretty rad too. What’s not great about a giant flying turtle?

A still of Gamera from the Showa era.

Well, as it turns out, there might be a couple of flaws in the series. I haven’t watched enough footage from Gamera films to form a solid opinion, so I’ll list what I think about them from what I’ve seen:

  • The action sequences and kaiju, at-least in the Showa series, were more inventive than the that in the Godzilla franchise at the time. Gamera is a giant turtle, people. A giant. Flying. Turtle. One of Gamera’s opponents, Guiron, is a shark-rhino with a knife for a head. Plus, he shoots shurikens out of his nose. When it comes to the Heisei series, I can’t tell. I haven’t seen anything from them, but it appears that they were pretty great and rather moody.
  • Gamera was always one step behind Godzilla. When Godzilla became good, so did Gamera. When Godzilla got sabotaged by aliens, so did Gamera. Gamera was released to compete with Godzilla, so it’s understandable for the franchise to mimic.
  • The plots in Showa Gamera movies sucked. Bad. It seems the Heisei plots improved, but all of the Showa Gamera films were B- films. Showa Godzilla films had pretty decent plots and craft, especially when Ishiro Honda was the director.

What Makes a Good Kaiju Film?

This is my criteria:

  • A plot entertaining or interesting enough to tie us over for the next fight scene.
  • Cool looking Kaiju and inventive yet realistic fight scenes.
  • Originality and Chaos.

The Kaiju

The kaiju. Probably the best part.

The real reason you watch these films is because you want to see big lizards blow up Tokyo.

Godzilla’s appearance definitely changes throughout the series. He arguably looks the coolest in the Millenium series. It’s kind of a bummer, because he often looks fake in the Showa series, but that wasn’t the case with the other kaiju at the time. In fact, Mechagodzilla probably looked cooler in the 70’s than he did in the 90’s. Here’s a collection of photos to show you how Godzilla’s appearance changed over time.

The Godzilla franchise introduced many other important kaiju, like Mothra, King Ghidorah, and my personal favorite, Mechagodzilla.

These kaiju themselves became almost as iconic as Godzilla. Mothra is a big moth, which is hard to beat. King Ghidorah flies around and breaths lightning on everything. Mechagodzilla launches missiles from his fingers, lazers from his eyes, and lead from every crevice of his body.

Toho has been bringing you some of the most influential kaiju ever since 1954.

Final Thoughts

Godzilla is a culture. It’s not for everyone, but I feel that all film-buffs should watch a couple for the cultural impact they’ve had and special effects. Hopefully the 2014 Godzilla lives up to the hype it’s caused!

– Mason Dax

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