August 26, 2004

Godzilla: King Of The Monsters

NEWS FLASH! A prehistoric monster has awakened from the depths of the ocean. Its slumber disturbed by a nuclear blast. The creature named ‘Gojira’ or ‘Godzilla’ by scientists, has swiftly swam to the coast of Japan, rapidly reducing Tokyo to rubble with its radioactive fire-breathing and brute force. A humanitarian disaster of great magnitude has occurred. Terror has swept across the nation, as the Self-Defense Force tries every tactic, in a desperate bid to bring the beast down. It seems that nothing can stop the invincible Godzilla! Only the tie-clad executives at Toho Studios have the power to control it.

Godzilla has become a pop cultural icon, whose presence can be found in comic and model shops the world over. His elephant-like scream and flaming breath have become as familiar as Superman’s red cloak and “S” symbol. There seems to be no waning in his popularity, as it continues to grow with each new generation who rediscovers him. Why a gigantic dinosaur, decked out with a healthy set of Tyrannosaurus Rex teeth and Stegosaurus armored plating should have so much appeal, has baffled researchers of pop culture for over 30 years. However, his place is firmly established next to Batman, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, Groucho Marx, King Kong and Elvis Presley.

Like most other enduring icons, Godzilla’s birth occurred during a period of great social upheaval. After the horrors of the Second World War, the Gothic monsters that were popular before, now seemed irrelevant. How could vampires and werewolves scare an audience, when science had created a far more frightening and very real specter in the form of nuclear weapons?

The shocking results of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, etched a social terror on a scale never before seen. The impact of these events became manifest in the concept of Godzilla, a cold destroyer of cities, with no conscience for the residing citizens far below his stomping feet.

When the first movie was released in 1954, he was an instant hit in Japan. All good horror movies work as a catharsis for facing our fears. There is an innate masochistic pleasure that can be drawn from watching the things that scare us most, such as death, deformity and loneliness. Godzilla’s initial success laid in his ability to tap into the audience’s anxieties towards the new nuclear age.

As the movie series continued into the Sixties and Seventies, the persona of Godzilla adjusted to the changes in Japanese society. Instead of a threat, he became the protector of Japan, fighting all external aggressors. The enemy had now become a friend, as had the USA, which itself had become a necessary ally for the demilitarized Japan of the post-war era. Children could sleep at night, knowing that Godzilla was there to protect them.

His popularity shifted from being an icon of horror into an icon for popular culture. The movies were distributed worldwide, in various dubbed and subtitled forms, creating a huge fan base, which enjoyed them either literally or purely for their increasing campiness, silliness and cheap special effects.

While the first movie was created for an adult audience, the later contributions to the series in the 1960s and 1970s are quite obviously aimed for children. With this shift, Toho Studios saw a gradual decline in its core audience, which led to a suspension of new Godzilla movies in 1975.

By the mid-Eighties, a large cult following had developed, in very much the same way as Star Trek. The questionable quality of the films had in themselves become an attraction. Godzilla Versus The Smog Monster (1971) was awarded a Golden Turkey in 1978, for its dreadful production values and ridiculous storyline. People responded and interest in these movies increased. Like the films of the so-called “world’s worst director”, Ed Wood, the movies have a distinctive identity that continues to endear the imagination to this day.

With the sudden resurgence of popularity in Godzilla, Toho Studios could not resist the opportunity to exploit their prehistoric patron. In 1984, they released a direct sequel to the 1954 original, ignoring the sloppy sequels of the past and returning Godzilla to his roots, as a romper-stomper killing machine. This new timeline continued on till 1995, through six more movies.

Hollywood, always good at sniffing out a trend, became aware of the potential that Godzilla would offer in a large scale American version. After several well-known directors, such as Jan De Bont, passed on the opportunity, Roland Emmerich of Independence Day fame, became attached to the project.

Hordes of avid Godzilla fans waited with high expectation to see a movie that would elevate their favorite monster out from suited-actor hell and into the modern world of CGI. However, the result was met with disdain and disappointment. The Godzilla of yore had now been replaced by a salamander-like visage, baring no resemblance to the popular creature that audiences had come to love. Gone was the chunkiness. Gone was the personality.

In response, Toho was determined to resurrect their monster again, in the hope of amending the damage caused by the Hollywood incarnation, with the release of Godzilla 2000: Millennium.

Toho continues to produce Godzilla movies, and while there may be pauses in production in the future, it seems that the green giant is here to stay.

- El-Branden Brazil
Copyright 2004 -

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