Up From The Depths, 30 Stories High: The History of Godzilla

Photo Courtesy: Film Publicity Archive/United Archives/Getty Images

Godzilla is at it again, raging across screens worldwide in 2021's would-be blockbuster Godzilla vs. Kong. Admittedly, the creature has come a long way since his first black-and-white feature film debut back in 1954. 

From movies and TV shows to appearances in dozens of video games and an annual G-Fest convention, the skyscraper-sized creature has taken the world by storm. But Godzilla isn't all smashing buildings, gnawing on trains, and punching a giant ape. Join us for a look at the beloved character's history, from his harrowing origins to his enduring legacy as the "King of the Monsters." 

1954: Godzilla's First Cinematic Attack

Ever wonder who came up with the idea of Godzilla in the first place? The short answer is that Godzilla was first born in the mind of a Japanese producer named Tomoyuki Tanaka, who worked for Toho Company, Ltd. But to truly understand how Tanaka was inspired to create the creature, it's important to keep in mind that Godzilla was very much a product of his time.

 Photo Courtesy: Toho/IMDb

From its earliest days in the 1920s, America's Universal Studios enjoyed massive success with a stream now-classic monster movies that lasted well into the 1950s. From features helmed by Frankenstein (or, you know, Frankenstein's Monster) and Dracula to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, audiences couldn't get enough of things that went bump in the night. And, of course, King Kong had also been another heavy-hitter since his initial premiere in the 1933's aptly titled King Kong.

In short, monsters were big. So, it made sense for Tanaka to consider developing a monster film for Toho. Ultimately, it was no accident that he settled upon a terrifying creature who rose from the sea after being awakened by atomic explosions. Godzilla's atomic resurgence and his ensuing radioactive powers were a not-so-subtle reference to the horrors of the 1945 bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II. 

Moreover, during another incident in 1954, a Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon Number 5, met with disaster when it was exposed to a nuclear test that killed one crew member and sickened the rest. At the time, the fear of nuclear destruction was alive and well in the world ‚ÄĒ and, perhaps, nowhere was this anxiety felt as strongly as in Japan.

The Making of the First Godzilla

Godzilla made his premiere when his self-titled feature film debuted in Japan on November 3, 1954. While the film was met with mixed reviews from critics, it enjoyed a friendlier reception from audiences, grossing ¥183 million ($1.6 million) during its initial run.

 Photo Courtesy: Toho/IMDb

But why would Japanese audiences embrace a creature designed to symbolize these all too real fears? In essence, for the same reasons Americans were enjoying their own blend of monster movies. People have always been drawn to tragedy that's unfolding onstage. In fact, Aristotle even theorized that by arousing emotions of pity and fear, stories have a way of purging and cleansing them from their audiences.

While the original black-and-white feature may look a tad underwhelming to modern viewers, it was actually an astounding technical feat at the time. This is especially true considering that special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya wasn't able to use the same stop-motion animation techniques pioneered by American movies like King Kong. At the time, Japan simply didn't have enough people who were experienced in the technique to pull off a full-length feature film in a reasonable amount of time.

After realizing that taking the stop-motion animation route could take up to seven years due to his limited resources, Tsuburaya ended up pioneering suitimation ‚ÄĒ an innovation born out of necessity. (For those who don't know, suitmation is involves an actor dressing up in a suit and acting like the monster ‚ÄĒ in some ways, a forerunner to motion-capture performances.) The result was a success in its time;¬†Godzilla¬†went on to spawn a new genre of Japanese monster movies known as kaiju cinema.

Godzilla Arrives in the United States

Toho Studios was quick to follow up on the initial success of the first Godzilla with 1955's Godzilla Raids Again. When the studio realized they had quite a success on their hands, Toho eventually released a heavily "Americanized" version of the film called Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, in 1956. 

While Godzilla's popularity grew to match his larger-than-life status in the United States, the monster largely remained a Japanese import for decades. In fact, it wasn't until 1998 that the first American Godzilla movie was released by Tristar Pictures. 

 Photo Courtesy: Toho/IMDb

Whereas the first Godzilla¬†was a clear horror film, complete with radiation poisoning and families mourning the loss of loved ones, Godzilla Raids Again¬†introduced a new concept. While still a terrifying prospect in his own right, Godzilla also met a foe of his own size in the follow-up movie. In some ways, this situated Godzilla as a protector of sorts ‚ÄĒ taking aim at another destructive creature instead of a densely populated city.

Although Godzilla Raids Again isn't necessarily among the most celebrated of the radioactive monster lizard's films, it did pit its star against another giant monster named Anguirus. This would go on to become a recurring theme in Godzilla's later movies. Over the years, Godzilla went on to battle a number of other huge monsters including King Kong, who he first brawled with in 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla.

The Americanization of Godzilla

When American studios tried releasing a Godzilla movie in 1998, the reviews left a great deal to be desired. Largely considered a box office flop, the U.S. version of Godzilla presented a beast who, although initially awakened by a nuclear blast, largely abandoned the atomic symbolism that had hit home with earlier audiences.

Instead, the new, Americanized Godzilla went the more "massive monster destroys a city" route, counting more on CGI effects than global nuclear anxiety (or deeper meaning of any kind). In 2014, American studios decided to give Godzilla another shot with the release of a new feature by Legendary Pictures.

 Photo Courtesy: Legendary Pictures/IMDb

The 2014 version went back to the monser's radioactive roots, but also put some timely new metaphors into play. As director Gareth Edwards explained, "In our film, Godzilla represents a force of nature. The theme of man vs. nature creeps up a lot visually throughout the film." 

In the blockbuster, and its subsequent follow-up, 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla becomes less of a clear-cut symbol of destruction. Instead, he's presented as a mythical creature that restores balance to an ecosystem that humans have ravaged.

While doubtlessly still terrifying, Godzilla, who himself has been viewed as both a destroyer and protector at various times, continues to serve as a reminder that abusing everything from the environment to nuclear power can have devastating consequences. It's perhaps an unexpected legacy, but, without a doubt, one that endures.