A Look At the Enduring Popularity of Godzilla

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What is it about this giant monster that’s kept him so popular for so long? This character, created by Toho Studios over six decades ago, has often been a subject of ridicule—especially some of the later Showa entries of the 1970s—and few people will freely admit to loving Godzilla films. The image of guys wrestling in rubber monster suits and destroying miniature models of Tokyo is what most folks think of when Godzilla is mentioned. And even diehard fans like myself can wince in embarrassment at moments like the Godzilla dropkick from Godzilla vs. Megalon, or the Godzilla victory dance from Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, or Godzilla talking in Godzilla vs. Gigan, or worst of all, Godzilla flying in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. And don’t get me started on the 1998 Tristar debacle.

Yet through it all, Godzilla abides. It should be pointed out that Godzilla’s popularity has had many peaks and valleys. There were times it seemed the big guy was gone for good but like the eternal beast he is, Godzilla always manages to resurrect himself.

Godzilla started off with a bang in 1954 as the original Gojira burst on the scene (released here in America as Godzilla: King of the Monsters). It was an international phenomenon, but the 1955 sequel, Godzilla Raids Again (released here as Gigantis the Fire Monster) didn’t do as well as Toho studios had hoped. Therefore, it was another seven years until they tried again. Instead, they focused on other Kaiju films like Radon in 1965 (AKA Rodan) and 1961’s Mosura (AKA Mothra), trying to recapture the magic of the first Gojira. It was only the fact that they’d gained the rights to use King Kong that convinced Toho to do another Godzilla film at all. The idea of the two of them on screen together was too good to pass up. Coming out in 1962, King Kong vs Godzilla, was a monster hit (pun intended) and made the Godzilla franchise into the financial juggernaut it finally became.  At the time it was the highest grossing film Japan had ever released.

After that came a few more highly successful films…Mothra vs. Godzilla (AKA Mosura vs. Gojira, AKA Godzilla vs. the Thing), Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (AKA Three Giant Monsters: The Greatest Battle on Earth) and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, (AKA  The Invasion of the Astro Monster).  However, the next two films didn’t do as well as Toho hoped or expected. Both Ebirah: Horror of the Deep (AKA Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster) and The Son of Godzilla underperformed. It was therefore decided to end the Godzilla series in 1968 by uniting all of the Toho studio monsters into one epic Kaiju farewell film. Destroy All Monsters (AKA Charge of the Monsters) was extremely profitable. So much so, it inspired Toho to continue the franchise.

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Godzilla’s Revenge (AKA  All Monsters Attack) was made to transform Godzilla into a more kid-friendly character and reinvent the series as a family franchise. It’s not well regarded by fans today but it sold a lot of merchandise to kids and ensured more sequels. Godzilla was portrayed as a good guy from this point on in the Showa period. Godzilla vs. Hedora (AKA Godzilla vs the Smog Monster) in 1971, Godzilla vs. Gigan (AKA Godzilla on Monster Island) in 1972, Godzilla vs. Megalon in 1973, and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (AKA Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster, AKA Godzilla vs. the Bionic Monster) in 1974 all did fairly well, but not outstandingly. When The Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) underperformed, it was again decided to end the long-running Showa franchise after 21 years. It seemed like Godzilla was over and done.

But Godzilla never dies. Over the next few years, merchandising sales for Godzilla increased. The films were attaining cult status in America, and during an early 80s film festival, the Godzilla films got a much bigger audience attendance than the classic films of Akira Kurasawa, including the Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Rashomon. Obviously, Godzilla still had some gas in the tank.  Therefore, the decision was made to bring the King of the Monsters back once again.

In 1984, we got Godzilla Returns (Released in America the following year as Godzilla 1985), which brought Godzilla back to his city-smashing, savage roots. This was a direct sequel to the original Gojira, ignoring all the other movies since then. This began the Heisei series. The movie didn’t do as well as Toho anticipated, and also, the America film King Kong Lives flopped in 1986, making Toho lose confidence in more Kaiju flicks. Toho didn’t release a sequel for five more years, until there was enough buzz due to 1989 being the character’s 35th anniversary. They decided to take another shot at it.

Toho had a write-in contest for fans to come up with the plot to the next film. There were over 5,000 submissions, and the winner was a dentist. This idea turned into the 1989 film Godzilla vs. Biollante, which introduced a new complexity and depth to the franchise. While it took time for fans to appreciate this film—and it’s been positively reevaluated in recent years—it got a mixed reaction initially. However, it did well enough for Toho to try one more time.

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They wanted to remake King Kong vs. Godzilla, but they couldn’t work out the legalities, which led to a fan voting poll for which monster Godzilla should meet in the new movie, and Ghidorah was the hands-down winner. Thus, we got 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, which did very well at the box office, finally giving Toho the big hit they’d been waiting for since they’d rebooted Godzilla six years earlier. Next came Godzilla vs. Mothra: Battle for the Earth (1992), one of the best of the Heisei films. It also led to a trio of solo Mothra movies. After that came Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2 (1993), which reintroduced Rodan, and then Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla in 1994.

Toho chose to end the franchise once again, because it had signed a deal with Tristar Pictures for an American made Godzilla film, which they assumed would lead to a multi-film series. Since Tristar didn’t want the Toho films competing with their own, Toho decided to kill off the mighty Godzilla. They felt the publicity of such an event would be solid gold. The sad death of Godzilla came at the conclusion of 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destroyah. That ended the Heisei series.

But Godzilla never really dies. There was more to come. Unfortunately, the next thing to come was the lamentable 1998 Tristar disaster Godzilla. I could go on a long rant about this film, but I’ll just sum it up by saying this…It was bad! Very bad! Ugh! So bad that the hoped for American franchise never materialized, and that’s a good thing. It seemed that this awful film had killed Godzilla once and for all.

But Godzilla doesn’t stay dead! Since America wasn’t going to be doing any further Godzilla films (for the time being, anyway) it was time to bring the radioactive cash cow back to the big screen in Japan. 1999 saw the release of Godzilla 2000: Millennium, which was the start of what is now known as the Millennium series.

The Millennium series consisted of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000), Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monster’s All-Out Attack (2001), along with the two-part story Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla 3 (2002) and Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003). Due to increasing production costs and competition from big-budget American films, it was decided yet again to bring the Godzilla franchise to a close. Since 2004 was the 50th anniversary of Gojira, it seemed like the perfect time to bring down the curtain.

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Taking inspiration from Destroy All Monsters, Toho pulled out all the stops with Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) and gathered a who’s who of Kaiju monsters, having Godzilla battle multiple adversaries, including Rodan, Mothra, Gigan, Ebirah, Ghidora, Anguillas, and a few others, including the Tristar version, who Toho has cleverly retconned into a completely different creature, known only as Zilla. Zilla’s easy defeat shows what Toho really thinks about this cheap imitation. This was meant to be the end. After 50 years, Godzilla was done and gone.

But Godzilla won’t die!  America took another shot at making a Godzilla film. Legendary Pictures optioned the rights to adapt the King of Monsters to the big screen. This would become known as the Monsterverse. The first of the Monsterverse films was the 2014 Godzilla. A sequel is due in 2019. Legendary had also gotten the rights to King Kong, producing Kong: Skull Island (2017). The Kong film is the set up for the long-awaited remake of King Kong vs. Godzilla, which will be released in 2020, under the title Godzilla vs. Kong.

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Last November, the animated theatrical film Godzilla: Monster Planet came out, to positive reviews. It will debut on Netflix this coming Wednesday, January 17th. It’s the first of a planned trilogy. The second installment will be out later this year. Part three will be out in 2019, which is the 65th anniversary of Gojira. Reportedly, this film trilogy will feature two separate versions of Godzilla, one of whom will be the biggest, most powerful version of the character that we’ve ever seen.

Through all the highs and lows; through all the good stuff and bad stuff; through all the decades, Godzilla is still with us. And as a lifelong fan, I’m very happy about that. I’ll give my thoughts on Godzilla: Monster Planet later this week. Until then, don’t get stomped on by any Kaijus.