Hail to the King: The History of Godzilla

Photo Courtesy: Toho Company, Legendary Entertainment

There’s only one King of the Monsters, and his name isn’t Kong. Godzilla proved that when he trounced that supersized ape (2 times!) in Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). As you can tell, we’re big fans of the Gray Gecko. And we’re not alone; millions of people around the globe have been fascinated with Godzilla since his black-and-white feature film debut in 1954. 

The king’s done it all since then; he’s appeared in dozens of movies, several TV shows, numerous comic books, and a cavalcade of video games. Last but not least, he’s the main attraction at the annual G-Fest convention. Today is Godzilla’s 67th birthday; 67 years of smashing buildings, punching out other monsters and cementing his place as a pop culture icon. We’re looking back at Godzilla’s harrowing origins and celebrating his enduring legacy.

1954: Godzilla’s First Cinematic Attack

Do you ever wonder who came up with the idea of Godzilla in the first place? A Japanese producer named Tomoyuki Tanaka created the creature for the Toho Company, Ltd. But monetary gain was far from Tanaka’s only inspiration; Godzilla is a product of his time… and he’s a product of World War II.

 Photo Courtesy: Toho/IMDb

From its earliest days in the 1920s, America’s Universal Studios enjoyed massive success with a stream of 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 debut in 1933.

Monsters were big, figuratively and literally, so it only made sense for Tanaka to develop a monster film for Toho. Tragedy struck Japan in August 1945, when the United States deployed two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These incidents compelled Tanaka to create a creature that embodied the destructive force of the atom bomb — one that could level cities in the blink of an eye and reduce hapless citizens to ashes. 

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 — and, perhaps, nowhere was this anxiety felt as strongly as in Japan. 

Enter Godzilla; a titanic terror covered head to toe in keloid scars and powered by radiation. From his conception, Godzilla symbolized the horrors of war and the pain, fear, and desperation that Japanese citizens experienced during World War II. 

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 the horrors of their nation’s past? In essence, for the same reasons Americans were enjoying their own blend of monster movies. People have always been drawn to tragedies that unfold onstage. In fact, Aristotle even theorized that stories are capable of purging negative emotions like pity and fear from audiences.

While the original black-and-white feature lacks modern VFX, it was 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 stop-motion animation could take up to seven years to implement due to his limited resources, Tsuburaya ended up pioneering “suitmation”. For those who don’t know, suitmation involves an actor dressing up in a suit and acting like the monster — which is, 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 — taking aim at another destructive creature instead of a densely populated city.

Godzilla Raids Again marks the first appearance of Anguirus, another giant monster who would eventually develop a friendly relationship with the Big G. New allies and dangerous enemies would become recurring elements in Godzilla’s later movies. Over the years, Godzilla would battle sentient chemical waste, supersized plants, a whole host of cybernetic beasts, and of course King Kong.

The Americanization of Godzilla

When American studios tried releasing a Godzilla movie in 1998, the end result 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 was a CGI monstrosity that spent most of its time hiding from the military. Gone was any semblance of global nuclear anxiety (or deeper meaning of any kind). In 2014, Legendary Pictures decided to give Godzilla another shot with the release of a brand new feature film.

 Photo Courtesy: Legendary Pictures/IMDb

The 2014 version went back to the monster’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.” 

The film was a blockbuster that spawned two direct sequels — Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) — and kicked off the Legendary Pictures MonsterVerse.  Godzilla is less of a clear-cut symbol of destruction in these films. 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 in his career, 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.