FIRST AMONG THE FRANCHISE: Godzilla
Every installment of FIRST AMONG THE FRANCHISE will present an overview of one famous film series, then showcase the entry in that series that is both the best movie overall and the most representative of the themes, mood and style of that franchise. Readers can then voice their own opinion by voting for the franchise entry they think best fits that criteria in the poll at the end of the article. This installment: GODZILLA
FIRST AMONG THE FRANCHISE is a biweekly article that focuses on one movie franchise, presenting an overview of its history before showcasing the one movie in the series that is both the best film overall and best represents what the series has to offer.
Year Franchise Started: 1954
Number of Installments: 29
Year Latest Installment in the Franchise was Released: 2004
In Spring of 1954, Tomoyuki Tanaka, a producer at the Toho Motion Picture Company was in a bad spot. One of his big event movie releases for that year, IN THE SHADOW OF HONOR, had crumbled before his eyes, leaving him with a rather substantial gap to fill in Toho’s release schedule. He needed a new movie, and he needed it fast. Worse, it couldn’t be just any movie, he needed an epic.
What was it that made Tanaka think of the successful American movie from the previous year, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, and its giant reptilian quadruped zapped back into life by atomic bomb testing? We'll probably never know, but thank goodness he did, because Tanaka was inspired to create Japan's own giant monster, one that was not only resurrected by the atom bomb, but would itself act as a metaphor for that bomb. It would be a terrible beast, embodying the horrors of the radioactive holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that remained ever-present in Japan’s consciousness.
"The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the Bomb. Mankind had created the Bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind." Tanaka said, many years later.
After choosing the working title, THE GIANT MONSTER FROM 20,000 MILES BENEATH THE SEA, Tanaka met with Toho’s chief special effects man, Eiji Tsuburaya, to discuss whether making his monster movie was even possible. Tsuburaya and his team had plenty of experience with filming military battles for war movies and creating other effects more grounded in the real world, but no Japanese filmmaker had ever made a movie featuring anything as fantastical as the gigantic beast Tanaka required. Fortunately, Tsuburaya, a big fan of the 1933 KING KING, had always wanted to create his own movie monster, and was not the kind of man to turn away from a challenge. So, with Tsuburaya on board, Tanaka went in search of a director.
Ishiro Honda, who had worked on a pair of effects films with Eiji Tsuburaya, was chosen to make the film, which had its working title shortened to “Project G.” Honda had served as assistant director to legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa on the film STRAY DOG, in 1949. The two of them became close friends, and in his autobiography, Kurosawa had this to say about working with Honda:
"I had Honda do mainly second-unit shooting. Every day I told him what I wanted and he would go out into the ruins of postwar Tokyo to film it. There are few men as honest and reliable. He faithfully brought back exactly the footage I requested, so almost everything he shot was used in the final cut of the film. I'm often told that I captured the atmosphere of postwar Japan very well in STRAY DOG, and if so I owe a great deal of that success to Honda."
Tanaka next sought to add to the film’s credibility and commercial appeal by hiring popular novelist Shigeru Kayamato to write an original story that would then be adapted for the screenplay.
It was around this time that they named their monster “Gojira.” According to Toho folklore, Gojira was a nickname given to a particularly large and burly stagehand who worked on the Studio lot. A combination of the words “gorilla” and “kujira” (the Japanese word for whale), it was Anglicized as "Godzilla" by Toho's foreign-sales department. This was also when the basic form of the creature as a reptilian, dinosaur-like monster, was chosen.
Japan’s first kaiju (a word which loosely translates as “mysterious creature”), had a name.
With the name and form of their star finalized, screenwriter Takeo Murata was brought in, and his adaptation of Kayamato’s story greatly fleshed out both the structure, and the four lead characters. Working alongside Ishiro Honda, Murata and the director took three weeks to finish the final script.
Akira Ifakube was hired to score the picture, and despite a background in classical music and as a composer of dramatic films he had great enthusiasm for the project. This resulted in one of the most memorable musical scores in cinematic history. Ifakube also supervised the creation of Godzilla's incredibly distinctive roar.
A cast was assembled which included relative newcomer Akira Takarada and Takashi Shimura (who also starred in Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI), and filming began on the picture on July 5, 1954.
In the end, the films total production budget was roughly equivalent to around 1.5 million dollars in today's money. It was most expensive Japanese film ever made at that time, and three times as expensive as the previous record holder, SEVEN SAMURAI. But Toho’s gamble paid off – 9.6 million people saw GODZILLA during its theatrical run. The films total box office take was about 2.25 million dollars – a huge success.
Godzilla the monster may be utterly destroyed by the fury of Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer at the end of that first, amazing film, but Godzilla the franchise was just getting started…
The Godzilla series is typically separated into three eras. The SHOWA era begins with the first film and ends with with 1975’s TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA. The HEISEI series starts with 1984’s THE RETURN OF GODZILLA and ends with GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH in 1995. Finally, the first entry in the MILLENIUM series is GODZILLA 2000, released in 1999, and 2004’s GODZILLA: FINAL WARS is the last installment.
After Godzilla’s demise at the end of the original film, the King of Monsters reappeared the very next year in 1955’s GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. It is never explained if Godzilla somehow regenerated himself back into existence or if this is simply a different creature. Regardless, the monster would continue to wreak havoc on humanity and other, friendlier monsters until 1964’s GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER.
That film introduces what is arguably Godzilla’s most famous opponent, the triple-headed destroyer of worlds, King Ghidorah. Forced to team up with former adversaries Mothra and Rodan to defeat the alien invader, this is where Godzilla undergoes his transformation from the embodiment of atomic destruction to misunderstood defender. As the series went on, Godzilla became cuddlier and cuddlier, culminating in 1973’s silly beyond measure GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, where Godzilla teams up with size-changing robot, Jet Jaguar to defeat his opponents. After fifteen films, this Godzilla’s story ended with TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA.
1984’s THE RETURN OF GODZILLA begins the Heisei series, and acts as a direct sequel to the original film. 30 years have passed since Godzilla’s initial rampage, and when he comes back to once again devastate the cities of Japan it is the first time since the early 60’s that Godzilla is portrayed as the villain. This Godzilla would menace humanity for a total of seven films, sometimes fighting other monsters, but never becoming the “Defender of the Earth” that the Showa Godzilla ended up as. The Heisei Godzilla died at the end of GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH, when his body undergoes a sort of nuclear meltdown, and he dramatically dissolves into radioactive dust.
The Millennium series isn’t like the other two sagas, in that (for the most part) none of its movies connect to one another, acting instead as a sort of Godzilla anthology film series. The only exception are the two films GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA and GODZILLA X MOTHRA X MECHAGODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. which act as a duology. GODZILLA: FINAL WARS is the last film in the franchise, an insane romp that throws as many monsters and references as possible at the screen, then cranks the whole thing up to 11.
To recap, the Godzilla franchise contains 28 films. They are:
GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955)
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)
MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964)
GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER (1964)
MONSTER ZERO (1965)
GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966)
SON OF GODZILLA (1967)
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968)
ALL MONSTERS ATTACK (1969)
GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH (1971)
GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972)
GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973)
GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974)
TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975)
RETURN OF GODZILLA (1984)
GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989)
GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH (1991)
GODZILLA AND MOTHRA: THE BATTLE FOR EARTH (1992)
GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II (1993)
GODZILLA VS. SPACEGODZILLA (1994)
GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH (1995)
GODZILLA 2000 (1999)
GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS (2000)
GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK (2001)
GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA (2002)
GODZILLA X MOTHRA X MECHAGODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. (2003)
GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (2004)
A quick note – I grew up watching the dubbed, Americanized Godzilla films on VHS and late night television stations, so I completely understand that some people love those versions. For myself, once I discovered the uncut, subtitled Japanese versions of the Godzilla series (back when the only way to see them was by ordering bootleg copies from some underground company), and for the first time heard the actual performances of the many, many talented actors and actresses that Toho often managed to work with... Well there was no going back for me. So when I talk about these films, it is the original, uncut versions in Japanese and subtitled in English, that I am referring to.
Before I reveal which entry in the series is First Among the Franchise, and is the one Godzilla that does the best job at presenting the core concepts at its heart while also being a well made, entertaining and memorable film – here are the runner-ups.
FIRST RUNNER UP – GODZILLA
Undoubtedly the greatest film in the series, and considered by some to be the second greatest Japanese film (after SEVEN SAMURAI), period. Not selecting the original GODZILLA as the First Among the Franchise was something I had to mentally wrestle with for hours. In the end, I decided that, as being the “definitive” installment in the series is one of the deciding factors, a bleak disaster movie featuring the walking embodiment of the atomic bomb, and featuring scenes of Doctors using Geiger counters on children to see how irradiated they are (answer: a lot), just isn’t what most people think of when they hear the name Godzilla. Still an amazing, beautifully shot and tightly constructed film with some amazing performances.
SECOND RUNNER UP - GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA
One of the last films released in the series, if it’s giant monster action you want, this is one of the best places to get it. Featuring some of the most endearing characters since the early Showa films, my favorite Godzilla design, and an opponent for Godzilla that is every bit as interesting as the King of the Monsters himself, GODZILLA X MECHAGODZIILA may not have much to say, thematically, but it’s a damn fine film, nevertheless.
THIRD RUNNER UP - GODZILLA: FINAL WARS
Speaking of not having much to say thematically… GODZILLA: FINAL WARS is a somewhat divisive film among fans, who were expecting something a little different for the 50th anniversary film. Final Wars isn’t what I would call a good movie, but it is relentlessly entertaining insanity that really has to be seen by anyone with even the tiniest sense of fun. The plot is so full of crazy shit happening, that several times while watching I just had to laugh as wild event after wild event played out on the screen. The movie really does goes all out, with not just a huge assortment of monsters, but a showcase of creatures, plot points and other references to almost the entirety of Toho’s science fiction film library.
Now, at long last, I present the best that the Godzilla franchise has to offer. The film that is not only the most well crafted installment in this saga of 28 feature films, but also the single movie that best represents the ideas, style and mood of the Godzilla series. First among the Godzilla franchise is…
GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER
There are several things that make GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER the quintessential Godzilla movie, but before I get into that, let’s talk about what makes it such an awesome movie.
Direction by Ishiro Honda is as excellent as the filmmakers other films would lead you to expect it to be. Human characters and human drama intersects with and strengthens the monster mayhem, and Honda gets the most out his excellent cast. Playing out like a bit of a crime movie, the adventures of the characters are compelling enough to ensure you are interested in the film, even when the kaiju aren't on the screen.
As usual the effects by Tsubayara and his team are fantastic. The model work is among the best in cinema, with buildings that feature an astonishing level of detail. The standout is King Ghidorah, who is brought to life almost entirely with cables, but filmed with so much precision that you almost never see even a hint of them.
All of the monsters are a joy to watch in the film. Godzilla, Rodan, Larva Mothra and Ghidorah all exhibit so much character and personality, and do so without falling into the trap of anthropomorphism. However, one of the films only real flaws has to be the redesign of Rodan. It’s a real shame because Rodan is otherwise one of the movies highlights. The scene where he lures Ghidorah into an air chase, then suddenly swoops around and smashes into him, is just made of fun.
As usual, Ifakube delivers the goods with his score for the film. Whether adding excitement to an action sequence, mystery and awe to the monsters, or helping to give Godzilla a sense of power and menace with his classic theme, Akira Ifakube does it all with a masterful, resonant score.
So what makes GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER so definitive? Well, part of that is due to this being where Godzilla “switches sides,” if you will. When he first appears, Godzilla’s initial action is destroying a yacht full of people, and then he spends most of the film in a brawl with Rodan. Once Ghidorah appears, the only “friendly” kaiju at that point (comparatively), in the series is Mothra, but she’s only a Larva. Since she has no chance of defeating the three headed space demon alone, she attempts to convince Godzilla and Rodan to help her. They refuse, more interested in continuing to fight one another.
With no other choice, Larva Mothra goes it alone, and the subsequent baby bug beatdown that results actually manages to shame Rodan and Godzilla into helping her. For the first time, Godzilla teams up with other monsters to save the Earth.
So in the same film you get Godzilla the destroyer and Godzilla the protector, along with an iconic kaiju brawl between what are probably the four most famous cinematic Japanese monsters of all time. When most people think of a Godzilla movie, it’s a safe bet that what they picture looks a lot like GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER.
A well made, exciting and fun monster movie which includes everything that people expect out of a Godzilla film, GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER is first among the Godzilla franchise.
To see a gallery of images from GHIDORAH, THE THREE HEADED MONSTER, go HERE.
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Source: JAPAN'S FAVORITE MON-STAR by Steve Ryfle, THE ILLUSTRATED GODZILLA ENCYCLOPEDIA By Ed Godziszewski
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