Reign of Destruction

With deafening footfalls and an earsplitting roar, Gojira, known in the West as Godzilla, first thundered into Japan’s movie houses on November 3, 1954. Six and a half decades later, the monster presides over an international entertainment franchise, having starred in thirty-two feature films produced in Japan and three (so far) in Hollywood, and top-lining three anime features, two animated television series, comic books, TV commercials, and more. Godzilla has transformed over time from powerful atomic allegory to children’s superhero and back again, and with the dawn in 2019 of the Reiwa era, the monster’s career spans the reigns of three Japanese emperors: Hirohito, Akihito, and now Naruhito. But it is the Godzilla films made during Showa (1926–89), the era denoting the reign of Emperor Hirohito, Japan’s wartime ruler and postwar figurehead, that defined the kaiju eiga—the uniquely Japanese brand of giant-monster cinema—and the creature-on-the-loose parameters of Godzilla filmdom. Bookended by Ishiro Honda’s 1954 masterpiece, Godzilla, and Honda’s last movie, Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), the fifteen Showa-era films took Godzilla far and wide, with many of them playing theatrically not only in Japan but also across North America, Europe, Latin America, and other territories, before going into television syndication for many years, establishing Godzilla as an enduring icon in the worldwide pop-cultural landscape.

The original Godzilla is Honda’s lament for the nuclear age. It was produced amid a months-long public crisis that occurred after fishermen aboard a tuna boat christened the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) unwittingly strayed dangerously close to a U.S. hydrogen-bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific in March 1954; when they returned home, severely ill with radiation sickness, a national panic over radioactive fallout ensued. Japan had been transformed from defeated imperial power to economically resurgent young democracy (a country with a parliamentary government and a ceremonial monarchy, to be more precise) with close ties to Washington. Yet the Lucky Dragon incident seriously strained U.S.-Japan relations for the first time since the postwar occupation had ended in 1952; many citizens likened the fishermen’s fate to a third nuclear strike on Japan, and a national protest calling for a ban on nuclear testing arose. Honda’s film hints at these tensions: the opening scene, in which Godzilla invisibly attacks a salvage ship, is an unmistakable reference to the Lucky Dragon and the fear it inspired—what Honda called an “invisible fear” that nuclear annihilation could happen at any moment. Embodied by the monster, this fear haunts the movie and deftly politicizes what otherwise might have been a straight sci-fi entertainment. 

“The synergy between Godzilla’s antinuclear theme and actual events was both a coincidence and clever business.”

Akihiko Hirata and Momoko Kochi in Godzilla

Godzilla is also a Cold War movie, with an awareness of Japan’s geographic entrapment between two superpowers engaged in a deadly arms race. But Honda does not point the finger at the U.S. for having awakened the monster with its H-bomb tests (or, metaphorically, for Hiroshima and Nagasaki). In fact, the U.S. is never mentioned by name, and when Godzilla attacks, the Japan Self-Defense Forces—the real-life version of which had been established earlier in 1954—fight alone, and no representation of the thousands of U.S. military personnel actually stationed in Japan at the time, for the ostensible purpose of helping defend it, is anywhere to be seen. It’s both an aspirational view of postwar Japan reasserting its sovereignty and an acknowledgment of what many Japanese officials worried: that the mutual security treaty of 1951 gave Washington permission to use Japan as an anti-Soviet launchpad but fell short of guaranteeing Japan’s safety in return. Honda saw the nuclear threat as a global problem and expressed his concerns through two scientists, young chemist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who sacrifices himself to save Japan from Godzilla and the world from a weapon potentially worse than the H-bomb, and paleontologist Professor Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), who solemnly warns that mankind will ultimately perish if the madness persists: “If nuclear testing continues, then someday, somewhere in the world, another Godzilla may appear.”

The synergy between Godzilla’s antinuclear theme and actual events was both a coincidence and clever business. Toho Studios, originally founded in 1932 as Photo Chemical Laboratory (P.C.L.), had been a cinematic powerhouse during the war years, producing combat epics that were both entertainment blockbusters and propaganda for Japan’s imperial ambitions. During the U.S. occupation, the film industry was in disarray. American air raids during the war had damaged or destroyed studios and cinemas, and policies dictated by occupation authorities had empowered labor unions to strike and disrupt business, causing domestic film production to plummet. Toho had the worst of it, with massive strikes that nearly closed the studio and sent much of its top talent elsewhere. But by 1954, Japanese cinema was resurgent, and Toho’s fortunes had rebounded; an ambitious producer named Tomoyuki Tanaka pitched Japan’s first-ever giant-monster movie, with the idea of tying the fictional monster to the real-life nuclear drama touched off by the Lucky Dragon incident. Tanaka needed to go bold, for another blockbuster project starring Shirley Yamaguchi and Ryo Ikebe (two of Japan’s top stars) had just collapsed under his watch. Godzilla was an unproven property, but Tanaka knew that two giant-monster epics—the Hollywood film King Kong (1933), which was rereleased internationally in 1952, and the independently produced American atomic-dinosaur thriller The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), from which Godzilla borrows its basic plot—had both recently been enormous hits overseas. Godzilla would be among Japanese cinema’s most expensive and riskiest movies to date, but studio production chief Iwao Mori—long known as a driving force in the industry—gave the green light.

Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya on the set of Godzilla

Before Godzilla, Honda had made a handful of low-key dramas about young people navigating the cultural, social, and economic changes of postwar Japan. While other directors demurred when asked to take on the project, seeing Godzilla as too lowbrow or outlandish, Honda embraced the challenge because of his boyhood interest in science and his personal antiwar leanings. Though he was not Toho’s first choice, Honda was eventually selected, in part, because he had proved himself capable of delivering a blockbuster; his film Eagle of the Pacific (1953), a docudrama-style chronicle of the naval campaigns led by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, was a major commercial hit and revived the dormant war-picture genre (though the film itself evidences Honda’s own misgivings about the conflict). Eagle also marked the first significant collaboration between Honda and special-effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya, who had previously won accolades for his expertly filmed scale-model reenactments of military battles during the heyday of war epics but was then reportedly expelled from the industry by occupation authorities for having worked on such films. Tasked with creating the titular monster and its trail of destruction in Godzilla, Tsuburaya was about to reemerge as a major creative force in the industry; his tokusatsu (special filming) techniques—most notably, the innovative combination of a man-in-suit monster and miniature cityscapes—would come to define the visual aesthetics of the cinematic world inhabited by Godzilla and, later, its monster cohorts. Godzilla itself—a massive imaginary reptile that combines features of various dinosaurs and other animals—was designed by Akira Watanabe, an artist on Tsuburaya’s team; though the creature’s look would evolve over time, it would never stray far from the awe-inspiring 1954 original. And Tsuburaya’s painstakingly constructed worlds, if not always “realistic,” would give the audience a close-up view of the urban devastation caused by the kaiju, and establish a tradition of Japanese handmade special-effects filmmaking that would survive into the digital age. Tsuburaya’s techniques coalesced with Honda’s somber direction and composer Akira Ifukube’s powerful martial music and eerie dirges into a “symphony of destruction,” as film historian Stuart Galbraith IV has called it. Godzilla resonated with Japanese audiences eager for large-scale entertainment yet still haunted by the atomic bombings and the war. The film ranked eighth at the annual box office amid a field of now-classic films, including Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai at number one.

In the quickie sequel Godzilla Raids Again (1955), directed by Motoyoshi Oda, antiwar themes are largely ignored in favor of fast-paced action; this was the first “versus” film, with Godzilla facing off against the spiny Anguirus in Osaka. The film was similarly successful, but the seeds of a franchise were not yet planted. It would be seven years before Godzilla’s return, a period that coincided with the golden age of Japanese cinema (roughly the early fifties to the early sixties). All the major studios—Toho, Daiei, Shochiku, Nikkatsu, Shintoho, and Toei—were booming during this time, each specializing in one or more genres. While its rivals found success with samurai and yakuza pictures, Toho divided its output between works by Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse, and other prestige directors, and program pictures in popular genres (white-collar-salaryman comedies, war pictures, musicals) showcasing its stars. Toho also expanded the possibilities of the kaiju eiga, producing Rodan (1956), which introduced the flying monster of the same name; the alien-invasion epic The Mysterians (1957); and Mothra (1961), a game-changing hit that introduced a “good” monster, a happy ending, comedy and fantasy elements, and a family-friendly approach to the genre.

“In the early sixties, Godzilla’s return to the big screen exchanged the black-and-white pessimism of the first two films for color-and-widescreen action comedy.”

Invasion of Astro-Monster

While it was absent from Japanese cinemas in the late fifties, Godzilla became an international star. Producer Joseph E. Levine acquired the rights to the original 1954 film, and after it was famously altered with newly filmed scenes starring Raymond Burr as a reporter caught in the monster’s path, the “Americanized” Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) became a smash across the U.S. This version, distributed far more widely around the globe than the original Japanese cut, introduced the world to the transliterated name Godzilla, and, perhaps more significantly, it created a template for U.S. distributors to acquire (cheaply) Japanese genre pictures, dub them (often poorly) into English, and make other edits and deletions as they saw fit, sometimes to the films’ great detriment. In Japan, kaiju eiga were regarded as mainstream genre pictures with relatively big budgets and big stars; overseas, the films became laughable B movies, thanks largely to American distributors’ mishandling of them. (Among the most egregious cases in point is Godzilla Raids Again, which was severely reedited, dubbed, rescored with library tracks, and retitled Gigantis, the Fire Monster.)

After World War II, Japan was decimated by poverty, food shortages, crime, and a general malaise that continued into the fifties. But by 1962, the country’s “economic miracle,” a rapid recovery fueled by robust overseas trade and other factors, had changed the national mood to one of optimism. Fittingly, Godzilla’s return to the big screen exchanged the black-and-white pessimism of the first two films for  color-and-widescreen action comedy. Toho had secured the rights to star King Kong in a film and needed a worthy opponent for the big ape, and thus came King Kong vs. Godzilla (released in Japan in 1962 but presented here in its 1963 international version). It was one of Toho’s banner thirtieth-anniversary releases, and it was a blockbuster, placing fourth at the box office in an exemplary year for Japanese cinema; it remains the most highly attended Japan-made Godzilla film of all time. Honda directed the film in the vein of Toho’s popular salaryman comedies and parodied the banality of Japanese television programming, which a prominent social critic worried at the time was turning Japan into a “nation of one hundred million idiots.” Even so, Honda still viewed Godzilla as an antiwar, antinuclear symbol, and he was uncomfortable with the studio’s insistence that the monsters engage in humanized behavior and physical comedy, harbingers of future developments. The final battle has Kong—portrayed by an actor in a furry costume rather than with the stop-motion techniques of the original King Kong—and Godzilla mimicking comical professional-wrestling moves. The severely recut version that Universal-International released in the U.S. the following year was a big box-office hit as well. Following this film’s success at home and abroad, the Godzilla franchise truly began. Other studios soon produced copycat kaiju eiga, the most famous being Daiei’s films featuring the giant flying turtle Gamera, the first of which came out in 1965.

The Godzilla movies of the sixties show evidence of Japan’s continuing economic growth—a rising consumer culture, amusement parks, massive construction for the 1964 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Godzilla and its monster costars evolved from existential threats into Japan’s protectors. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) marks the last Showa appearance of a truly hostile, destructive Godzilla; later that same year, in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra begrudgingly team up to fight the titular threat. American producers now began investing in Toho’s monster films and bringing faded Hollywood stars to Japan in order to make the films even more salable abroad. Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) has Godzilla starring opposite Nick Adams of television’s The Rebel. Unburdened by war symbolism, the monsters now evince even more of a comic streak; after a skirmish in Invasion of Astro-Monster from which it emerges victorious, Godzilla does a silly jumping dance made popular by a manga character around the same time.

The Godzilla series was by now indulging in vague continuity and tonal shifts from film to film—inconsistencies that would continue throughout the remainder of the Showa series, and that reflect the influences of two principal screenwriters, each with a very different style, who wrote the majority of Toho’s kaiju eiga. The affable, young-at-heart Shinichi Sekizawa (credited on ten Godzilla films, starting with the King Kong crossover) penned more lighthearted, fantastical, and upbeat monster movies; the more pessimistic, antiauthoritarian Takeshi Kimura (a.k.a. Kaoru Mabuchi) wrote stories with darker themes (including 1968’s Destroy All Monsters and 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah). As Godzilla transformed from public menace to heroic figure, the monster was given more personal characteristics; Haruo Nakajima, the principal “suit actor” to play Godzilla from 1954 on, relished the part and gave the monster recognizable traits and tics—a menacing stare, a cocky attitude, a courageous determination—that were a big part of its appeal around the world. Nakajima would continue to play Godzilla until retiring in 1972.

By the latter half of the sixties, television viewership had exploded, and Japanese films were fast losing ground at the box office. Kaiju eiga, with their relatively big budgets, were prime targets for cutbacks. While Honda took a two-year hiatus from Godzilla films, the reins of the series went to action director Jun Fukuda, whose Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) takes cues from the James Bond series and whose Son of Godzilla (1967) combines sci-fi technology, giant insects, Godzilla’s offspring Minilla, and a female castaway living in the jungle, Tarzan-style. Both films are set on islands, eliminating the need to build costly miniature cityscapes, and with Eiji Tsuburaya now dividing his time between Toho and his own television production company, Tsuburaya Productions, the special effects were directed by his protégé, Sadamasa Arikawa. There is a fresh energy and pace to the Fukuda films that contrasts with Honda’s more reserved approach; both also feature rousing, jazzy scores by Masaru Sato, the primary composer for Akira Kurosawa. The year 1967 marked Japan’s “kaiju boom,” as all five movie studios produced at least one giant-monster feature for the first and only time. But the genre’s popularity had peaked five years earlier.

Thus, Toho soon pulled out the stops for what was expected to be the Godzilla series’s finale. Destroy All Monsters features an unprecedented eleven monsters on-screen and marks the final collaboration by the creative team behind the original Godzilla and its most popular sequels up to this point: Honda, the serious, peace-minded war veteran whose even-keeled and epic-scale direction defined the tone and themes of the kaiju eiga; Tsuburaya, now acting as special-effects supervisor, whose imagination gave life to a world of monsters and aliens unlike any other; Ifukube, the renowned classical composer whose instantly recognizable motifs, inspired by the work of Russian composers such as Igor Stravinsky as well as the music of Japan’s indigenous Ainu people, provided the genre’s pounding pulse and underscored the power and awe of Godzilla, Rodan, King Ghidorah, and their fellow monsters; and producer Tanaka, who oversaw the creative evolution of Toho’s kaiju eiga as the mass audience became younger and younger. Destroy All Monsters sees Godzilla embracing its role as king of Toho’s monster-verse; the final battle, with the monsters assembled at Mount Fuji, is among the series’s most memorable. The film placed twelfth at the Japanese box office for the year, the last of the Showa Godzillas to make the trade journal Kinema junpo’s annual rankings. Destroy All Monsters remains a fan favorite on both sides of the Pacific, and as it turned out, its success was enough to keep the series alive, though the members of the genre’s talent nucleus would not all work together again.

Godzilla’s evolution into a children’s entertainment figure had begun with King Kong vs. Godzilla and continued as Toho sought to expand the kaiju eiga audience and maintain box-office viability. By 1965, most fan mail Honda received was from primary-school students, but it was not until All Monsters Attack (1969) that a Godzilla movie was made expressly for children. Directed by Honda and written by Sekizawa as a cost-saving project that would utilize stock scenes from previous Godzilla movies, this low-low-budget affair is a gem in the Godzilla franchise, a universal growing-up story and a meta–monster movie acknowledging that kaiju are make-believe. It’s also a film about the trade-offs of Japan’s economic miracle, set in an area blighted by industrial pollution, where the rise of two-income families had left latchkey children like the movie’s protagonist unparented and lonely. It was released as part of the Toho Champion Festival, a monster-themed program of children’s entertainment that hit theaters when school was in recess; the rest of the Showa Godzillas would likewise be released this way.

“While Godzilla has evolved with the times, the Showa series as a whole is undeniably the foundation of this ever-growing pop-culture phenomenon.”

With television having supplanted film as Japan’s primary entertainment medium, the movie studios went into retrenchment. Toho’s restructurings saw longtime actors and directors—including Honda, who became dismayed by the industry’s state and retired—removed from its payroll, and its special-effects department downsized. As if acknowledging the industry’s misfortunes at the turn of the seventies, Toho produced Godzilla vs. Hedorah, which keeps the focus on negative aspects of Japan’s growth—this time, the massive industrial pollution of the air and water gives rise to a giant sludge monster. An outlier in the series that has long been pigeonholed as a classic “bad film,” Hedorah is an entertaining mix of monster action, psychedelia, and ecological awareness. It was the brainchild of rookie director Yoshimitsu Banno, two of whose inspirations for the film were Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring and the inaugural Earth Day, held in 1970.

Kaiju were immensely popular on Japanese television in the early seventies. Though Tsuburaya died in 1970, his company continued to produce television series centering around new iterations of Ultraman, the monster-battling alien superhero, and there were numerous shows featuring similar heroes and monsters. But as audiences for such programs grew, ticket sales for monster movies shrank, and so film budgets continued to decline. The final phase of the Showa Godzilla series—everything from Godzilla vs. Hedorah forward—exhibits both the effects of the industry’s economic challenges and Toho’s wholehearted embrace of the young audiences that had helped these movies remain viable. While more traditional fans might lament Godzilla’s faded glory by this point, those who were introduced to the creature through its heroic seventies exploits celebrate the films’ quirks—their heavy use of stock footage, their downscaled productions, their monster battles with flying kicks, their huge explosions!—as an essential part of their appeal. The later Showa movies also find their makers continuing to push whatever envelopes they still could, attempting to expand the kaiju universe despite dwindling resources.

Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), both directed by Fukuda, are noticeably made for an ever-younger target audience; much of Gigan takes place at a children’s theme park, and Megalon features another schoolboy protagonist, this one with a size-changing robot, Jet Jaguar, in the family. Megalon did relatively poor business in Japan, but U.S. distributor Cinema Shares had great success with its stateside release in 1976, followed by a prime-time network-TV airing of the film hosted by comedian John Belushi in a Godzilla suit. Both Megalon and Godzilla vs. Hedorah, which had likewise received a relatively wide U.S. theatrical release, have had significant influence on how viewers and critics in the West perceive the genre, even if they are hardly representative of the Showa series as a whole. The final two Showa Godzilla films, both of which pit Godzilla against a robotic doppelgänger, represent a partial return to form, with somewhat more mature themes and improved production values, though each is noticeably different from the other in tone and style. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) is also directed by Fukuda and features his signature action sequences and a rousing Masaru Sato score. Next, Honda was brought out of retirement to direct Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975); the welcome return of composer Akira Ifukube helped restore much of the sonic power and majesty that Godzilla had lacked since Destroy All Monsters.

After being reduced to a children’s matinee star, and with its box-office prospects continuing to decline, Godzilla went into forced retirement after Terror of Mechagodzilla and would not appear again until Toho’s 1984 Godzilla (a.k.a. The Return of Godzilla), a direct follow-up to the 1954 original that elides all the Showa sequels. Toho has launched several Godzilla series since then: the Heisei-era films (1984–95), of which the 1984 Godzilla, though technically made during the Showa period, is considered a part; the millennium series (1999–2004); and the postmillennial iteration, which consists so far of one film, Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla (2016), that year’s highest-grossing live-action domestic film and winner of Japan Academy Prizes for best picture and director, among several others. Films of recent decades have tended to reposition Godzilla closer to Honda’s original incarnation, as a destructive force of nature, and to incorporate contemporary issues such as the Fukushima disaster, Japanese nationalism, and the bubble economy of the nineties as themes. You won’t see Godzilla doing jump kicks or dancing in these films, nor in the recent CGI-heavy Hollywood productions by Legendary Pictures, Godzilla (2014) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019).

While Godzilla has evolved with the times, the Showa series as a whole is undeniably the foundation of this ever-growing pop-culture phenomenon. This is where Toho’s menagerie of kaiju first won the hearts and imaginations of film fans around the globe; where unforgettable battles between Godzilla and its foes flattened entire swaths of Japan, a visceral display of destruction then unparalleled in American sci-fi pictures; where the monsters became characters with personalities and heroic bravura; where the allure of an analog, handmade special-effects world forged an alternate reality that spanned cultural divides. Though largely dismissed in their time by critics and scholars in both Japan and the West, the Showa films have deservedly attracted new interest from these quarters. In the U.S., this reevaluation began in 2004, when, for the original Godzilla’s fiftieth anniversary, Honda’s director’s cut received a major art-house theatrical release across America for the first time; it was then featured at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2014. Over the past decade plus, most of the other Showa Godzilla films have been released in the West in their original Japanese cuts with subtitles on home video and in limited revival-house engagements, revealing how unjustly treated and unfairly criticized the genre was for so long. This set marks the first time the entire fifteen-film Showa series has been released in a single package. It’s a reminder that Godzilla’s influence goes well beyond the original intent of Honda’s 1954 urtext. The arc of the Showa movies represents a collection of many cinematic highs, and a few lows, that define what Godzilla and its monster cohorts have meant to generations of fans in Japan, the U.S., and worldwide.