It has been 68 years since Ishiro Honda's gargantuan monster Godzilla first graced the big screen. We take a look at the iconic kaiju's cinematic history and evolution.
What's new: Kicking off Godzilla Day with a bang, Japanese production company Toho is celebrating the giant’s birthday with a huge announcement: a new Godzilla flick set to release exactly a year from today, on Godzilla’s 69th birthday.
The first live-action Godzilla feature since Toho’s Shin Godzilla in 2016, the film will be directed by Takashi Yamazaki and marks the 30th live action Godzilla film in the long-running franchise's history.
A quick look at the creature’s history and cultural impact: There is something immensely satisfying watching giant monsters wrecking havoc across a city, almost as if it taps into some primal instincts within each and every single one of us. This childlike appetite for destruction manifested itself with the popularisation of the kaiju.
A Japanese term that has only as of late come into the mainstream spotlight translates to “monster” or “giant monster”.
Though the word was previously restricted to the vocabulary of diehard monster aficionados (like myself), it has now evolved into a very specific brand of monster cinema...
The term was first used to describe Ishiro Honda’s iconic creation in Toho’s first-ever depiction of the monster in 1954.
Honda was a close friend and collaborator with the legendary Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, having acted and worked as assistant director on Kurosawa’s films such as Stray Dogs, Ran and Kagemusha prior to creating the famous monster.
The 1954 cult classic was released as Gojira - the original Japanese term that has come to be preferred by fans over its Americanised bastardisation.
Gojira originated as an enormous, destructive, prehistoric sea monster awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation. The original Gojira itself was a relatively serious attempt by Honda to create a metaphor evoking issues raised by the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident still fresh in the Japanese consciousness.
Other interpretations suggest Gojira is a metaphor for the United States, a giant beast woken from its slumber which then takes terrible vengeance on Japan and later films address themes including Japan's forgetfulness over its imperial past, natural disasters, and the human condition.
Gojira’s design consisted of attributes of a Tyrannosaurus, an Iguanodon, a Stegosaurus and an alligator. To emphasise the monster's relationship with the atomic bomb, its skin texture was inspired by the keloid scars seen on the survivors of Hiroshima. The basic design has a reptilian visage, a robust build, an upright posture, a long tail and three rows of serrated plates along the back.
Written and directed by Honda and produced by Toho, the film featured first-of-its kind special effects by Eiji Tsubaraya and starred Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, and Takashi Shimura; with with Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka as Gojira (in the suits).
The film pioneered a form of special effects that has since been used time and time again across cinema with
The Gojira suit was produced with rough materials, which only granted suit-performer Haruo Nakajima three minutes in the suit before passing out from heat and exhaustion. The miniatures were constructed at certain scales to appear smaller than the Gojira suit.
But Gojira wouldn’t be nearly as awesome without the iconic theme that accompanied it wherever he went. And we have Japanese composer Akira Ifukube to thank for that.
Not only did Ifukube have merely a week to come up with the instantly recognisable leitmotif for the kaiju, he was also responsible for coming up with the sound for Gojira’s roar.
At the time of its release, Toho’s CEO personally called Honda to congratulate him on the film’s instant blockbuster success, having set a new opening day record for any of the company’s films, selling 33,000 tickets at Toho's cinemas in Tokyo.
The kaiju went on to spawn a vast multimedia franchise, including 32 films produced by Toho, four American films and numerous video games, novels, comic books and television shows. The franchise holds the Guiness World Record for the longest-running film franchise in cinematic history.
Ever since, Godzilla has grown to become a beloved pop culture icon across the world, its influence permeating the Tokusatsu (special effects) genre of filmmaking and setting the template for a variety of franchises to come.
In 1996, Godzilla received the MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as being given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004.
In 1999, The main-belt asteroid 101781 Gojira, discovered by American astronomer Roy Tucker at the Goodricke-Pigott Observatory, was named in honour of the creature.
Director Steven Spielberg cited Godzilla as an inspiration for Jurassic Park (1993), specifically Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), which he grew up watching and the giant has also been cited as an inspiration by filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton.
As of late, the kaiju has been hailed as a non-binary icon, owing to its original gender-neutral status that was automatically made masculine following the American remakes.
In April 2015, the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo named Godzilla a special resident and official tourism ambassador to encourage tourism, though the ward has been annihilated by the monster in three separate movies.
At its best, Godzilla represents an absurdity that is hard to articulate. Be it the morbid pleasure of watching humanity being humbled by the endlessly entertaining spectacles of uncontrollable annihilation or the intrinsically socio-political and ecological undertones that it captures effortlessly, Godzilla and its timeless relevance lives on.
Long live the King.