For a creature who's been asleep for hundreds of millions of years, Godzilla is surprisingly adept at changing with the times.
Across 60 years and 30 movies, from his first appearance in 1954's "Godzilla" to the second American reboot "Godzilla" opening this week, the Lizard King has reflected the anxieties of his times, from World War II to the War on Terror, from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to the atomic reactor disaster of Fukushima., and from Japan to the rest of the world.
Even in that first film, the linkage of the radioactive-breath monster with the atomic anxieties of the only nation ever attacked by nuclear weapons was explicit. "First Nagasaki, now this!" cries a woman in anticipation of Godzilla's imminent arrival. Less then a decade after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan's surrender in World War II, and just months after U.S. hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific had killed the crew of a Japanese fishing boat with radiation poisoning, the movie has atomic bomb blasts waking Godzilla from his ancient slumber and endowing him with nuclear breath.
Once again, an atomic-powered foreign invader lays waste to a Japanese city (in this case, Tokyo). A scientist develops a doomsday device that can destroy the beast but wonders whether or not the cure is worse than the disease. The defeat of the creature, then, is not an occasion for joy or relief but further anxiety that we will wipe ourselves out with our own technology. Not to mention the notion (in hindsight) that more apocalyptic monsters, perhaps even worse than Godzilla, are waiting to attack.
It's easy to see, then, why Godzilla captured such a strong hold on the Japanese imagination, but why did he succeed in America and elsewhere, as well? One reason is that Godzilla was inspired in part by American movie monsters. King Kong and Mighty Joe Young are apparent influences; the Japanese name "Gojira" is a combination of the words for "whale" and "gorilla." The plot of "King Kong," with the giant ape rampaging in New York, suggests a similar revenge-of-nature-against-civilization theme that would be exploited throughout the "Godzilla" series. And then there were the pioneering stop-motion monster effects of movie-creature wizard Ray Harryhausen, whose jittery, handmade creatures came to life in "Mighty Joe Young" and "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" (another "Godzilla" precursor, in which nuclear blasts awaken an amphibious dinosaur-like monster).
So Americans took to Godzilla (even with the inept introduction via the 1956 recut of "Godzilla," with footage added of Raymond Burr as a reporter superfluously explaining the action to English-speaking viewers), in part because his DNA came from American movies, and in part because our 1950s sci-fi and monster movies were imbued with similar nuclear fears. As we immersed ourselves in Cold War fears that the atomic weapons we'd dropped on Japan would be used against us, our movies worried that the nuclear monster we'd unleashed would come back to haunt us in some new and terrifying form.
Even as far away from Japan as England, Godzilla had an impact. You can see it in "Gorgo," the 1961 movie about a giant dinosaur-like creature, awakened from its slumber and captured by "Kong"-like adventurers. They turn the lizard into a sideshow exhibit in London, only to draw the wrath of the monster's 200-foot mother, resulting in a destructo-thon in a London only recently rebuilt after the devastation of the Blitz in World War II. "Gorgo" actually premiered in Tokyo and inspired a raft of new "Godzilla" sequels.
In the "Godzilla" movies of the 1960s, Godzilla became more kid-friendly, like a superhero or a pro wrestler. The lizard still wreaked havoc in Japan but also became Japan's champion, its protector against other kaiju (giant monsters). Some of the fights were nationalistic ("King Kong vs. Godzilla," the first post-"Gorgo" movie in the series, played like a World War II rematch of the U.S. vs. Japan, with the gorilla fighting Godzilla to an apparent draw).
Others saw Godzilla reunite with former foes (Anguirus, Mothra) to fight extraterrestrial threats. In the spirit of international cooperation and diplomacy, American actor Nick Adams joined the franchise for 1965's "Invasion of Astro-Monster," in which an alien race offers Earthlings a cure-all drug in return for handing over Godzilla and Rodan; it turns out they just want to use the two kaiju (along with a third that they control, three-headed dragon King Ghidorah) to conquer the planet. In 1968's "Destroy All Monsters," an effort to confine the world's kaiju in one isolated place backfires when an alien race takes control of them and has them attack major cities all over the world.
The series found topicality again with 1971's "Godzilla vs. Hedorah," in which the opponent was a smog-based monster spawned by pollution. Modern fears of mechanization were addressed in two mid-'70s installments where Godzilla fought Mechagodzilla, a robot doppelganger.
Like the monster itself, the series lay dormant for a decade, from 1974 to 1984. In an economically resurgent Japan, Godzilla found himself dwarfed by the new skyscrapers of the rebuilt Tokyo. In 1991's "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," the two monsters are pawns of a plot by the Futurians to go back in time and prevent Japan's rise to economic glory.
In 1998, we got Roland Emmerich's "Godzilla," the first all-American Godzilla movie. The beast's nuclear origins were preserved, though the nuclear explosions that awakened the creature were blamed on the French (the French!). The film came in the middle of a turn-of-the-millennium cycle of disaster movies (including Emmerich's own "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow," and "2012"), in which the coming of the millennium was accompanied by fears of apocalyptic destruction, environmental disaster, threats from space (the asteroids of "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon") and post-Cold War geopolitical instability.
With the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Emmerich's repeated destruction of New York suddenly seemed eerily prophetic. Monster movies began to use the imagery of 9/11 in resonant ways, including "War of the Worlds" (2005), "Cloverfield" (2008), and "Pacific Rim" (2013). After 50 years, the "Godzilla" franchise went out with a bang with 2004's "Godzilla: Final Wars." As with "Invasion of Astro-Monster," the final film saw Godzilla take on a variety of other kaiju set loose on Earth by a race of duplicitous aliens. (This time, it's Rodan that attacks New York.) Having saved humanity one last time, a tired Godzilla returns to the watery depths.
After another decade of hibernation, the new 2014 "Godzilla" is also a model of international cooperation, made by an American production company (Legendary) and a British director (Gareth Edwards) with a cast of American, Japanese, French, and British actors. Once again, fears of environmental disaster, nuclear catastrophe, and terrorist explosions inform the story. The family of human protagonists is named Brody, an apparent reference to "Jaws" (another classic movie about a monster from the depths). The film contains references to the atomic blasts of the 1950s and the recent nuclear-plant disaster in Fukushima. The lizard hits San Francisco this time, as if Bay Area residents didn't have enough to worry about from earthquakes. In any case, the re-emergence of the scaly-spined creature is shown to be a crisis of global proportions.
Whatever the source of the danger -- technological hubris, the revenge of nature, sinister invaders -- it's increasingly clear that, in an interdependent world, a threat to one country is a threat to all. Edwards seems to have taken this into account, telling the Huffington Post last summer, "You're never ever gonna have to worry about a giant monster ever smashing up your city or attacking your country. But you do have to worry about skyscrapers that can come falling down out of the blue or giant tsunamis can hit. The effects that a giant creature has are effects that we encounter all the time.
"And so, these monsters always end up being these metaphors for some sort of kind of vengeance of nature or something. And in our film, we definitely embraced the theme of man versus nature. It's something that reoccurs in the movie. And our abuse of the power of nature, and how that can come back to haunt us -- and that's something at the heart of this film. So, my goal was to try to make a monster movie that had some meat on the bone, you know? In terms of it wasn't just mindless spectacle -- you could enjoy it on another level if you wanted to."
Well, if there's one monster franchise that's never been just mindless spectacle, and has always "had some meat on the bone," it's "Godzilla." As long as kids identify with monsters, and as long as grown-ups seek cathartic resolution of their fears of apocalyptic disaster, "Godzilla" will continue to evolve.