Godzilla – A Few Facts About Japan’s Kaiju King
I’m often asked the question, "Why did you decide to come to Japan?" or the similar analogue, "What first got you interested in Japan?"
In truth, for me, these two questions have entirely different answers.
I often cite the 1986 movie "The Karate Kid, Part 2" as being of particular inspiration to me in first wanting to live and work in Japan. I dreamed of following in the protagonist Daniel Larusso’s footsteps, coming to Japan, learning Karate and learning the language. I will also unashamedly admit that for an extended period of my childhood, I was completely smitten with the movie’s female lead, Japanese-Hawaiian actress, Tamlyn Tomita.
And yet, if you ask me what first got you interested in Japan, it was not The Karate Kid Part 2. I saw that movie for the first time when I was around 7-years-old. My actual, first experience of truly Japanese culture was a couple of years before that.
For me, Friday nights were all about one thing only. Channel 4 had a season of Godzilla movies!
The acting may have been terrible, the stories contrived and the special effects laughable, even for the 1960s time period when the movies were made, but none of that mattered. I loved them. I loved seeing the likes of Tokyo and Osaka, or at least carboard replicas of their various landmarks, being ripped apart as Godzilla duked it out with whomever the monstrous villain of the week happened to be.
For that was the beauty of those original movies. After his first, and most menacing appearance in 1954’s "Godzilla", from there on out Godzilla was almost always the protagonist, a heroic beast sent to save Earth from a far greater threat. Godzilla vs Mothra, Godzilla vs King Kong, and so on. The hits just kept on coming. At their peak there was a new movie coming out every year, some years we even got two. The Japanese public just couldn’t get enough of that lovable, giant, mutated Iguana.
Therein lies another common misconception, for Godzilla is not a dinosaur. His original origin story has him being an iguana, unfortunate enough to be caught at the epicentre of an American atomic bomb detonation. As a product of the cold war and all its nuclear fueled paranoia, Godzilla lived to embody the fear of nuclear annihilation so prevalent in the public consciousness of the day. He was every Japanese’s worst fears personified.
However, after his initial rage, he later developed into the more sympathetic character we know today. His role as a guardian, and an example of the good that can come even from the darkest of human errors. There is something distinctly zen-like and Japanese in the idea of a creature borne of destruction becoming a supreme force for good.
But then again maybe I’m reading too much into it, after all I’ve yet to read an intellectual treatise about the moralistic arguments posed by Godzilla movies. Most people just love seeing him smash up other monsters, and any buildings that happen to get in the way!
Like many of today’s great comic book heroes, Godzilla’s rogues’ gallery of villains have come to be almost as famous as he himself. Few can forget the awesome visage of King Ghidora, the multi-headed, gold-skinned flying dragon, reminiscent of the ancient Greek Hydra, or his cohort, the one-eyed, razor clawed Gigan!
My personal favourite was Megalon, a giant interpretation of that most notorious of Japanese summertime pest the suzumebachi (Japanese Hornet).
Godzilla fought all sorts of monsters throughout a career that spanned from the late 50s all the way to the early 90s.
However, as special effects advanced, "Kaiju" movies like Godzilla, Ultraman and various other imitators seemed to become less and less relevant.
Nonetheless, there was widespread controversy when the decision was taken to kill off the big guy in 1991’s Godzilla vs Destroyah. After overcoming the huge, lava-enthused beast Destroyah, Godzilla succumbed to his wounds and it seemed that this was the last we would see of him.
However, much in the same way DC comics would go on to kill off and then quickly resurrect their flagship character, Superman, just one year later, Godzilla was soon back, slapping the bad guys silly as he always had done.
Of course nobody knows how to milk a money making juggernaut quite like Hollywood, so it came as little surprise to anyone when, in 1998, Godzilla was remade for US audiences.
Unfortunately the film was an absolute disaster. Critically panned, and with characters so unlikeable you genuinely hoped the monster would swallow them all, it also committed the cardinal sin of Godzilla movies. Godzilla is supposed to be the good guy!
Thankfully, another attempt was made in 2014, this time with Godzilla as a protagonist, and whilst not perfect by any means, it was better received than that 1998 car crash.
In Japan, traditional Godzilla movies crafted in the classic "guy in a rubber suit" style continue to be made and continue to find audiences. This doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon.
Now, if the various studio execs can just get together and give us the Godzilla, Pacific Rim, Power Rangers crossover movie we've all been crying out for then everything will be great. We can but wait and hope!