Father of Godzilla
Marketing the original Godzilla as a lost art film this spring was a neat trick by Film Forum, but it’s not one they can duplicate with the sequels and spin-offs in their “They Came From Toho” follow-up: A random five minutes of 1967’s risible Son of Godzilla shows just how far the series strayed from its ideological roots. Regardless, the genre did have an auteur: pulp virtuoso Ishiro Honda, who directed half of the program’s titles.
The urgency and dread in Godzilla (1954) are attributable to Honda, who served in the imperial army during World War II and spent time as a P.O.W. He claimed that a post-war detour through Hiroshima provided the impetus for Godzilla’s anti-nuke message, but its edgy awe of martial megalomania is equally potent. The big lizard’s status as a metaphor for rapacious science dominates Godzilla‘s second half, but he also serves as a manifestation of resurgent Japanese militarism.
This impulse erupts in Battle in Outer Space (1959), a fetishistic paean to military might that pivots on cornball internationalism. Its space-opera plotting is straight out of American sci-fi movies of the previous decade, but Battle‘s global cooperation in the face of an extraterrestrial threat has pass-agg wish fulfillment written all over it. (In Honda’s similarly themed 1957 The Mysterians, sadly not on the bill, the space bogeymen are overt stand-ins for sex-crazed Yank occupiers.)
If Battle showcases Honda’s hawkish id, The H-Man (1958) underscores his pacifism. The film is bookended by fiery conflagrations and features yet another allied effort against an invader (here, a deadly hydrogen-bomb-created blob with a taste for criminal lowlifes). Yet it is thoughtfully conceived rather than garishly stage-managed, and its effects—Tokyo in flames, humans flash-dissolved into mucoid puddles—are culturally loaded and frankly disturbing.
Honda was by all accounts happy to helm Toho’s giant-monster series into the 1970s, convinced that his cautionary message endured. He ended his career virtually where he’d started—as an assistant director to Akira Kurosawa—and died in 1993. MARK HOLCOMB
A field guide to Toho wildlife
If the original Godzilla served to mythologize Hiroshima trauma, then Toho’s subsequent development of a titanic bestiary of rampaging characters echoes Cold War arms proliferation—complete with shifting alliances, strategic journeys into outer space, and mutually assured destruction. Biological warfare on the macroscopic rather than microscopic level, the battles between gigantic insects, reptiles, apes, and indeterminate species envisioned audiences’ worst global-conflict fears though images of exploding landscapes and cities ablaze, but also made such carnage strangely cute by depicting it as the side effects of pro-wrestling-style smackdowns between toylike behemoths.
Two of Godzilla’s most celebrated peers premiered without him in their own movies, both of which stand in their own right as exemplary instances of the kaiju eiga genre. Rodan (1956) featured not one but two giant pteranodons, hatched from ancient earthquake-jostled eggs, who feed on Toyota-sized prehistoric bugs and cause sonic booms when airborne, leaving windswept victims in their aerodynamic wake. Appearing first in a 1961 film bearing its name, Mothra begins life as a gargantuan larva that protects the inhabitants of a mysterious tropical island, then swims to Tokyo where it metamorphoses into a colossal moth. The weird scenario of apocalyptic destruction dealt by a delicate lepidopteran, coupled with the haunting melodies sung by the island’s twin fairy princesses, tip this Toho monster movie beyond mere kitsch into eerie surrealism.
Resurrected through various means, Mothra and Rodan returned to help Godzilla battle three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, cyborg sauroid Mechagodzilla, and various other sky-scraping baddies. But Godzilla was on his own against an invader from Hollywood in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). Despite his questionable translation into a mangy-furred costume character, Kong wasn’t set loose when radioactive testing tore a hole in the fabric of international copyright law; in fact, the ape went east with RKO’s blessings. ED HALTER
The millennial resurrection
Does Godzilla matter? That’s the question that faced the custodians of the franchise as they entered the new millennium. Box office takings were paltry, and Daiei’s 1990s Gamera series had become the new king of the monsters. To make it worse, Toho killed their Godzilla in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995) to make way for Hollywood’s 1998 Godzilla, which was supposed to be the first in a U.S. trilogy. Instead it was a dino-sized stinker.
Toho’s Millennium Series of Godzilla flicks (starting in 1999 and still continuing with the upcoming Godzilla: Final Wars) was designed to erase the memory of Emmerich’s weaselly, gray reptile, and all five of these pop operas sport a nimble sense of invention. While Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) and Godzilla, Mothra, Mechagodzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003) are run-of-the-mill sci-fi slap-downs, Godzilla 2000 (1999) and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) never pause to rationalize their scientific hokum, and their plots fly by like scenery seen from a bullet train. They’re surprisingly self-aware, presenting a Japan where an Anti-Godzilla Weapon Bill provokes taxpayer outrage, where Godzilla fans track their giant god like paparazzi tracking Tom Cruise, and the prime minister cries out in frustration, “Why do giant monsters keep attacking Japan?”
If you want to convert someone to Godzilla, however, look no further than the darkly gleaming Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah (2001), helmed by Gamera‘s auteur, Shusuke Kaneko. This Godzilla is animated by the spirit of Japan’s war dead, attacking a country it no longer recognizes, stomping a toothless military and moral relativists alike into a dark red jam on the bottom of his foot. Tokyo is transformed into a burning diorama of destruction, and while the movie takes its reptilian apocalypse refreshingly seriously, it also contains the sickest joke in the Big G’s history (it involves a hospital and Godzilla’s tail).
Godzilla matters because we can’t explain his appeal. Even standard fare like Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla sports a strong emotional undertow, with its lonely female pilot, its depressed giant robot crafted from the corpse of the 1954 Godzilla, and its gargantuan lizard who is a global superpower of one. The problem with Godzilla is that he’s too powerful for this world—every-thing he touches he destroys. He matters be- cause we are all Godzilla now. GRADY HENDRIX