Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
In the Shōwa era, Godzilla evolved from nuclear nightmare to fierce defender and cuddly pal

In the Shōwa era, Godzilla evolved from nuclear nightmare to fierce defender and cuddly pal

Graphic: Allison Corr, Photo: The Criterion Collection

Author’s note: The significance of writing about a Japanese film series during a resurgence of racist violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is not lost on this writer. To love Asian pop culture, but not stand against anti-Asian racism, is cowardly and disgraceful. Asian and Asian American people belong in the United States, and deserve safety and respect. The A.V. Club sides with the AAPI community in the ongoing struggle against hate. For more information on how to help fight anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, please visit Stop AAPI Hate and Anti-Asian Violence Resources.

Beating James Bond by eight years and 11 official entries, Godzilla is the longest-running franchise in film history. After making a game-changing debut in 1954, over the decades Godzilla has evolved from an unsettling symbol of American nuclear aggression to a kitschy pop cultural icon and official tourism ambassador of Japan. But where some long-running characters cycle between campy and gritty incarnations, Godzilla only tipped toward kid-friendly goofiness once before permanently settling into shock and awe on the big screen. (Toys, cartoons, and Dr. Pepper commercials are another story.)

That change took place during the Shōwa era, which in Godzilla terms lasted from 1954 to 1975. The term “Shōwa” has nothing to do with the content of these movies, and instead refers to the fact that they were made during the Shōwa dynasty—the posthumous name given to wartime emperor Hirohito, who reigned from 1926 to 1989. While a full recounting of 20th-century Japanese history is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that the Shōwa era brought earth-shaking political and cultural changes to the once-isolated island nation. And as the devastation and deprivation of the postwar era gave way to the “economic miracle” of the ’60s, the mood of the country lightened. So, in turn, did the tone of its Godzilla movies.

There are 15 Shōwa Godzilla films, roughly divided into three groups: the original film and its sequel, more serious black-and-white pictures made in the mid-’50s; the rebirth of the franchise in the early ’60s, which brought color and humor to the Godzilla universe; and the Champion era, so named for the Toho Champion Series of kiddie matinees that debuted Godzillas nine through 15. When fans speak derisively of “rubber suit” movies, they’re probably talking about the Champion series, disdained by those who prefer their Godzilla as a force of nature rather than a sympathetic friend to lonely kids. But Godzilla’s heel-face turn (to borrow a term from professional wrestling) began several years before the series crossed the kids’-movie rubicon. And, ironically enough, it wasn’t until the Champion era that we saw Godzilla bleed.

The original Godzilla (1954) is a bleak and genuinely scary movie, in which the firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are very much present. Those who come into close contact with Godzilla become ill, and areas he razes uninhabitable. We hear screaming and see dead bodies, and Honda cuts sequences of Godzilla’s rampage to maximize the impact of the destruction. At one point, a woman pulls her children close to her as rubble falls around them, telling them not to be afraid, because they’ll be joining their father soon. Backed by Akira Ifukube’s stirring martial score, one gets the feeling of being tiny and helpless in the face of unstoppable power.

As film critic Tadao Sato points out in his analysis of the film, it wasn’t until the end of the U.S. occupation in 1952 that the Japanese public learned of the full extent of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in 1954, a crew of fishermen aboard the ship Lucky Dragon No. 5 returned home with radiation sickness after being pelted with fallout from an American H-bomb test at Bikini Atoll. Both incidents left the nation uneasy with an “invisible fear” of nuclear armageddon, as Godzilla director Honda put it. Godzilla gave this fear a face, and a name. If you put yourself into the theater seat of a typical Tokyoite in 1954, watching still-fresh war wounds being re-enacted in metaphorical terms, it’s difficult to imagine how this Godzilla and the Godzilla who played basketball with Charles Barkley are the same beast.

In the original film, Godzilla is a legendary creature (not necessarily a lizard, although he’s often described as one) who’s awakened from centuries of slumber by underwater nuclear testing. Turned radioactive by forces beyond his control, his skin thick and scaly like the keloid scars developed by victims of the Hiroshima bombing, Godzilla struggles to move forward. (Literally—the original costume weighed 220 pounds, which gave the monster his signature lumbering gait.) He is both victimized and victimizer, and Sato underlines how Japanese audiences came to identify with him, because “we were the monster for a time.” From this subconscious seed came a progression that would see Godzilla transform from a symbol of national trauma to a symbol of national pride, infused with a militaristic subtext—you may need a monster to defeat another monster, but plenty of tanks will be called in as well—that belies his war-torn origins.

The series would also mark the birth of the kaiju (the literal English translation of which is “strange beast”) genre, basically a catchall term for films about giant monsters and those who fight them. With it came “suitmation,” a technical term for the art of putting an actor in a full-body suit made of chicken wire, cotton, foam rubber, and liquid latex and having him stomp all over balsa-wood replicas of various world capitals (and maybe a sleepy fishing village or medieval castle). Suitmation was the brainchild of effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya, who—combined with director Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, and suit actor Haruo Nakajima—was one of the key creative forces behind the Godzilla franchise. Tsuburaya was enamored with RKO’s original 1933 King Kong, and used suitmation in tandem with the stop-motion and matte painting techniques that created the King of the Apes. And although suitmation seems quaint in retrospect, it does give Tsuburaya’s monsters a personality and presence that’s difficult to achieve with CGI. Once you let go of realism, you can learn to appreciate Toho’s monsters for what they are: Staggering works of skilled craftsmanship and boundless imagination that mark a high point in the art of practical analog effects.

Over the course of the Shōwa series, the Godzilla suit was tweaked to make it lighter, more expressive, and easier to move in, and Nakajima refined his performance style in turn. For the original film, Nakajima took his inspiration from the movements of bears at the zoo. But over time, Godzilla became downright playful: Just look at him sliding into a drop kick with his massive tail in Godzilla Vs. Megalon, using his atomic breath to fly in Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, and doing a little victory dance in Invasion Of Astro-Monster. Nakajima, who died in 2017, retired from the grueling work of acting inside the hot, heavy Godzilla suit after 12 films. And with suitmation now pretty much obsolete—although, it should be said, practical suit effects were still used in Japan long after the introduction of CGI—only a handful of people get to say that they’ve seen Godzilla destroying cities from the inside.

It took a while to perfect the formula, however, and some of these early missteps can be seen in the hastily made sequel Godzilla Raids Again (1955). (As in, “brought in a new director instead of waiting for Honda to finish the movie he was working on at the time” hasty.) A sequence of Godzilla destroying Osaka was accidentally shot in the wrong frame rate, but with hundreds of hours of work lying in bits on the studio floor—not to mention the lack of a backup model—the footage made it into the final film anyway. The scene where Godzilla goes all Hard Day’s Night for a minute is one of the more memorable bits of this straightforward monster drama, which is neither as impactful as the original nor as much fun as what comes next.

It took seven years for Godzilla to return to the big screen in King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962), a film that—rather like the 2021 Godzilla Vs. Kong—pulled back from the serious-minded metaphors of the first two movies for something more lighthearted. Whether the result is satirical or just plain goofy depends on what version you’re watching: King Kong Vs. Godzilla features both Japanese and American actors, and was dubbed in English for overseas release. In fact, the idea came from an American, King Kong effects artist Willis H. O’Brien, who originally envisioned Kong fighting a kaiju-size version of Frankenstein’s Monster. (Toho would take this idea and run with it in 1965, with the utterly surreal Frankenstein Conquers The World.) No American studio would fund the project. But Toho bought in, with Honda and Tsuburaya—who was thrilled to do his own version of his favorite movie monster—at the helm.

Among its many firsts, Godzilla marked the beginning of the practice of American studios buying Japanese sci-fi films, hacking them up, and dubbing the dialogue in English, often to comical effect. (A re-edited version of Godzilla starring Raymond Burr made big box office in the U.S. under the title Godzilla, King Of The Monsters in 1956.) Several of these—including Godzilla Raids Again, which was cut up and reassembled as Gigantis, The Fire Monster—have since become “bad movie” classics. Two of the less distinguished Shōwa Godzilla movies, Godzilla Vs. Megalon and Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep, were even skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

But while that’s all in good fun—some of those dubs are embarrassing—it’s important to remember that it’s the botched translation that’s risible. While no one on either side of the Pacific had any illusions about the Godzilla films of this period being fine art, they were mainstream studio genre pictures, not the bargain-basement schlock their American afterlife might lead you to believe. Think of it this way: If a foreign movie studio bought up the Jurassic Park movies, added new footage that had nothing to do with the plot, and dubbed them with funny voices that didn’t match the mouth movements, those movies might also get an overseas reputation as cheesy hack jobs.

That being said, King Kong Vs. Godzilla is very much a product of its era, and should probably come with one of those “outdated depictions and attitudes” disclaimers that send conservatives into a tizzy thanks to the pervasive use of brownface throughout. But there’s one area where the Japanese version of King Kong Vs. Godzilla is ahead of its time, and that’s the subtle touches of meta commentary Ishiro Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa work into the dialogue. Honda’s intention was to satirize the TV industry in Japan, and King Kong Vs. Godzilla is the first Godzilla movie to introduce the trope of reporters investigating a kaiju sighting as an in to the larger story.

Here, a duo of bumbling TV journalists set out for Faro Island in the South Pacific to find Kong, eventually setting up a confrontation between him and the Big G because, well, it makes for good TV. It’s still a comedic film in its original form, but more intentionally so than the English-language version—which opens with a quote from Hamlet, of all things. Both versions set up the basic formula of the Godzilla movies that were to come, opening with a curious bystander stumbling on a legendary beast and ending with the climactic monster battle that would take up the last 20 minutes of every Godzilla film for the next 13 years.

King Kong Vs. Godzilla was a hit in both the U.S. and Japan, and the golden age of Godzilla movies began in earnest, with Toho adding one new entry to the series per year between 1964 and 1975. The first of these, Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964) is a relatively straightforward film that borrows a handful of plot points from its predecessor. Godzilla is still a villain in this story—or, more accurately, an amoral force of nature, no more concerned with human life than a hurricane. Mothra, by contrast, is the benevolent defender of mankind, though she still has to be talked into helping us out by the tiny twins who serve as her heralds and translators. (A giant flying insect with beautiful colored markings who hails from a South Pacific island where she’s worshipped as a god, Mothra was introduced in an eponymous, Honda-directed feature from 1961.) Lightly humorous with a sense of sci-fi wonder and an evil CEO antagonist, Mothra Vs. Godzilla is a standout in this early section of the series.

Meanwhile, follow-up Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964) marks a major turning point: Although Godzilla and Rodan would rather throw boulders at each other like a couple of oversized 8-year-olds, this is the movie where the former begrudgingly decides that, fine, he’ll help us puny humans, after being guilt-tripped into it by the more compassionate Mothra. (Mothra’s tiny twins serve as translators between the monsters and a nearby group of awestruck humans.) This is also the movie where the threat comes from space for the first time, a recurring element throughout the rest of the Shōwa Godzilla movies.

The monsters uniting against a common threat marked the next step in Godzilla’s evolution from villain to antihero, although he’s not quite friendly at this point; he still defends Earth reluctantly, under duress. But as Godzilla protects his turf from invaders, the series sets up his role as a protector of the environment, a theme that continued up through Legendary’s King Of The Monsters in 2019. With each of these steps, the series moved away from the visceral trauma of Godzilla-as-symbol-of-nuclear-war, as the series concerned itself with themes like the influence of mass media in Japan, the series’ growing popularity with kids, and the race to the moon that captured the world’s imagination in the mid-’60s. Plus, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster brought one of Godzilla’s most durable—and coolest-looking—adversaries to the scene.

King Ghidorah returns in Invasion Of Astro-Monster (1965), a film whose analog charm impeccably embodies the atomic chic of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Godzilla would arrive late to the psychedelic era—peace, love, and far-out happenings didn’t cross his path until Gozilla Vs. Hedorah in 1971—so there’s a clean-cut, matching knitwear, Buddy Holly-glasses type of ’50s hangover to the plot, involving aliens from Planet X who use Godzilla, Rodan, and King Ghidorah to hold Earthlings hostage using a mind-control ray (another device that will return in future installments). The story is both complicated and forgettable, but Tsuburaya’s effects are outstanding, making stylish use of optical printing and matte paintings. (The clear bubble that transports a grumpy-looking Godzilla across the solar system is a highlight.)

Up to this point, with the exception of Godzilla Raids Again, the entire Godzilla series had been directed by Honda, who brought his anti-war, pro-environment, and pro-international unity beliefs to each of these films in their own small sci-fi way. His issue-driven approach to the franchise created tension between Honda and incoming director Jun Fukuda, who was of the mindset that sometimes a monster mash is just a monster mash. Along with principal series screenwriters Takeshi Kimura (a.k.a. Kaoru Mabuchi) and Shinichi Sekizawa—similarly split between darker and lighter themes—the tension between Honda’s and Fukuda’s philosophies on making kaiju movies is key to understanding the tone of the Godzilla series going forward.

Fukuda’s touch is evident in his first Godzilla movie, 1966’s Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep, whose surf guitar score makes it the closest the Godzilla series ever came to a beach party movie. “Ebi” is Japanese for “shrimp,” and indeed Godzilla does fight a shrimp monster in this movie—appropriate for Fukuda’s broader, more cartoonish approach. Ebirah and its follow-up, Son Of Godzilla (1967), take place on Monster Island, which is both a concept that sets the imaginations of monster kids on fire and a further distancing of Godzilla from his horrifying origins. There are few humans and no cities on Monster Island, which means that the only collateral damage when a kaiju decides to go for an afternoon ramble are the trees flattened in its wake. And with human suffering removed from the equation, cheering on the film’s kaiju characters as they grapple like pro wrestlers—another phenomenon that was immensely popular in Japan in the ’60s and ’70s—is suddenly innocent fun, not tacit genocide.

Fukuda and Monster Island also brought the world the abomination that is Minilla, the titular Son Of Godzilla. Minilla is a lighting rod for dissatisfaction with the more childish aspects of Godzilla movies—not to mention that he’s honestly pretty annoying. He bears little resemblance to his ferocious parent, and spends much of the movie whimpering as he’s bullied by the denizens of Monster Island, including dear old dad. Godzilla, despite his recent turn toward the heroic, is a neglectful parent and harsh disciplinarian; watching the King of the Monsters attempt to train his feckless offspring in the use of atomic breath, a human character remarks that she feels sorry for Minilla. All in all, it’s an oddly harrowing movie, up to and including its final sequence, as Godzilla and Minilla huddle together for warmth as a weather bomb freezes them solid in a kaiju re-creation of The Little Match Girl.

The Godzilla series was supposed to conclude with Destroy All Monsters (1968), for which Toho reunited Honda, Tsuburaya, and Ifukube for the ultimate kaiju brawl. As in Invasion Of Astro-Monster, here the kaiju are weaponized by hostile aliens intent on controlling the Earth; and like Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, at the end of the movie the kaiju come together to deliver a brutal curb-stomping to the series’ three-headed big bad. (Minilla, useless as always, jumps on King Ghidorah’s corpse like a trampoline after the battle is through.) Eleven monsters from throughout the Tohoverse—remember, the Godzilla movies were just one of several kaiju franchises being produced by the studio at the time—make appearances in Destroy All Monsters. By introducing each kaiju in its own film, then combining them for all-star adventures, Toho’s strategy for rolling out its shared universe presages the “phases” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by several decades.

Despite Honda’s best intentions, however, he came back the following year to direct the shameless kiddie cash grab All Monsters Attack (1969), essentially a clip show with footage from Ebirah and Son Of Godzilla held together by the story of a lonely latchkey kid who bonds with the similarly friendless Minilla in his imagination. Although not completely without its merits—the film’s stark industrial setting and feral packs of unsupervised children show, for the first time in a Godzilla movie, the downside of Japan’s rapid economic growth—the lack of original monster fights, sloppy sense of scale, and inexplicable turn into kidnapping thriller toward the end (why are bank robbers after this little boy? No clue, except maybe to make the working moms in the audience feel bad) make All Monsters Attack the weakest of the Shōwa-era Godzilla films.

With that in mind, it’s remarkable that the series came back after a year off with Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (1971), a dreamy environmental fable with psychedelic visuals, beautiful animated sequences, a James Bond-esque theme song, and a surprisingly touching family dynamic between marine biologist Dr. Toru Yano (Akira Yamauchi)—who spends much of the film bedridden after being attacked by Hedorah in the first act—and his young son, Ken. This film pits Godzilla against an intergalactic smog monster who sucks up air pollution like hits off of a titan-sized bong, and who flies around spraying unwitting passersby with sulfuric acid. This makes Godzilla, now firmly established as a protector of Earth, almost as upset as the floating trash island that’s dirtying up his ocean. And so he swoops in to save humanity from Hedorah, and themselves.

It’s a charming and visually adventurous diversion from the action-figure-friendly smash-’em-ups that would follow. And although, by this point, Godzilla movies were made explicitly with young audiences in mind, it’s also the first film since the original where people die—one scene sees a hippie jamboree on top of a mountain decimated by Hedorah. Series producer Tanaka, who was in the hospital while the film was being shot, reportedly hated it. And indeed, director Yoshimitsu Banno never made another feature film. His legacy of an eco-conscious Godzilla lives on in the Legendary series of Godzilla movies, which Banno helped launch in 2014.

In Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, Ken plays with Godzilla toys and writes an essay about Godzilla for his second-grade class, showing how far the series had come from its nightmarish nuclear origins. What was once an evocative symbol of American aggression was now a home-grown industry, producing action figures, tie-in records, board games, puzzles, and all manner of Godzilla merchandise produced for sale in Japan and abroad. And the revenue was badly needed. The series’ box office prospects had stagnated: Destroy All Monsters was the last Godzilla movie to appear on Japanese film magazine Kinema Junpo’s list of the top-grossing films of the previous year.

The early ’70s was a stagnant time for the Japanese film industry in general, as studios struggled to keep up with the growing popularity of television. Perhaps the most desperate of all was rival studio Nikkatsu, which in 1971 took the dramatic step of shifting its entire production capacity toward softcore porn. That didn’t happen with the Godzilla series, obviously, as strange and fascinating as that might have been. No, by this point, Godzilla was purely kids’ stuff, and the late-period films Godzilla Vs. Gigan (1972) and Godzilla Vs. Megalon (1973) both have the toy tie-in quality also seen in ’80s Saturday morning cartoons. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however.

Godzilla Vs. Gigan is appealingly nutty, with space cockroach antagonists who possess the bodies of dead humans à la Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and a Godzilla theme park built around a life-sized tower that shoots laser beams from its mouth. The plot revolves around an illustrator who takes a job as a concept artist for a new amusement park, only to realize that something is a little… off about his coworkers. (The fact that his math genius boss looks like a middle-school kid is clue No. 1.) This eventually leads to the reveal of Gigan, a kaiju/cyborg hybrid with hooks for hands and a spinning metal buzzsaw built into his chest. That whirring blade is nothing to mess with, and the fountain of blood that spurts out of Godzilla’s neck when Gigan attacks is a jarring first for the series.

Like the earlier Ebirah, Godzilla Vs. Megalon was not originally intended to be a Godzilla movie, and it shows: Most of the film plays as a backdoor pilot, so to speak, for the character of Jet Jaguar. Jet Jaguar was the result of a fan contest to create a new Godzilla character, which perhaps explains why he’s a heroic robot in the style of Ultramanby that point a more popular franchise than Godzilla. Compared to Jet Jaguar, Godzilla’s title adversary is underwhelming, essentially a giant cockroach with drill hands who seems rather lost on the field of kaiju battle. (If Gigan and his chest blade didn’t show up to make the fight more interesting, this would be a short movie indeed.) Watching Jet and ’Zilla team up for a tag-team-style match that culminates with a handshake of mutual respect and brotherly appreciation, the de-fanging of Godzilla as a symbol is complete.

Godzilla Vs. Megalon did not do well at the box office, but Tanaka wasn’t quite ready to give up on Godzilla. Enter Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), which goes back to the series’ roots by opening with an Indigenous Okinawan priestess being gripped by a vision of a giant monster destroying a city. That being said, there are still plenty of goofy elements in this installment: Take the half-ape, half-human assassin who accosts our human heroes on a cruise ship. Most of the film is taken up with spy intrigue and bushy ’70s mustaches, leaving the three-way confrontation between Godzilla, his alien twin Mechagodzilla, and folkloric hybrid King Caesar until the last 20 minutes of the movie. When the battle does come, however, it’s surprisingly bloody, as Mechagodzilla shoots metal darts into Godzilla’s chest.

That footage reappears in the opening credits of Terror Of Mechagodzilla (1975), the final film in the Shōwa Godzilla series. Terror Of Mechagodzilla marks the return of director Ishiro Honda, who had retired out of frustration with the direction of the series and of the Japanese film industry in general. But Honda’s earnest attempt at making a darker Godzilla movie—or, at least, one that features some serious death and destruction—is overwhelmed by the goofiness of the by-then-standard alien-invasion plot. Team Kitsch had won.

From there, Godzilla would retreat into his underwater lair and go silent, ignoring the pleas of bullied little boys and panicky world governments alike. He would stay in hibernation until 1984, when The Return Of Godzilla (released in the U.S. the following year as Godzilla 1985) brought the King of the Monsters into the Heisei era. The hiatus wasn’t entirely voluntary; several attempts were made, unsuccessfully, to launch new Godzilla movies during the break. But considering that Godzilla re-emerged with a new fierceness, perhaps it was for the best. In the interim, fans around the world continued to discover Shōwa-era Godzilla movies on TV, in 16mm loops, and eventually on home video. The series was collected in a deluxe Criterion box set in 2019, its status as a cross-cultural sci-fi movie landmark secured. That’s the thing about Godzilla: He may go quiet for a while, be he’ll always be back.

Final ranking

1. Godzilla (1954)
2. Destroy All Monsters (1968)
3. Godzilla Vs. Hedorah (1971)
4. Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964)
5. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)
6. Invasion Of Astro-Monster (1965)
7. Godzilla Vs. Gigan (1972)
8. King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1963)
9. Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
10. Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep (1966)
11. Terror Of Mechagodzilla (1975)
12. Son Of Godzilla (1967)
13. Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
14. Godzilla Vs. Megalon (1973)
15. All Monsters Attack (1969)