Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Godzilla in America

Godzilla was first conceived by Tomoyuki Tanaka, a Japanese film producer for the Toho Co. film studio. The character was imagined to be Japan’s version of King Kong as well as a metaphor for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War 2. In Japan, Godzilla is like Mickey Mouse here - iconic to the point of omnipotence. Godzilla’s success and prominence in America is symbolic of our post-war relationship with Japan. For more than fifty years now, the big guy has been stomping his way across the globe and into the hearts and minds of American audiences. 
Godzilla was introduced to America in 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. King of the Monsters was a heavily edited “Americanization” of Toho Co.’s 1954 Japanese film, Gojira. Not only was King of the Monsters dubbed into English but actor Raymond Burr, a Hollywood actor who had already worked with Alfred Hitchcock, was spliced into the film. Godzilla’s first appearance in America was noticeably lighter in tone and thematic quality than its Japanese source,which had served as a dark and serious reflection on the nuclear warfare that had decimated Japan just a decade earlier. 

For the next thirty years, Godzilla would drift towards being a novelty to American audiences. Aside from King Kong vs Godzilla, which was co-produced in a historical partnership with Universal and remains the most commercially successful in the franchise, most of the Godzilla films released in the sixties and seventies were regulated to drive-in theaters, double features, and late night showings in America. This era introduced Godzilla as a hero, was increasingly aimed at children, and saw diminishing production budgets take a toll on the quality and consistency of the films. The good guy Godzilla character started with 1964’s Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster. In all of the earlier films, Godzilla was still a villain, a dark opponent for more benevolent monsters like Mothra and King Kong. Through the late sixties and the seventies, Godzilla would transform into a full-fledged superhero, standing up for those smaller or more helpless than him and saving the world countless times.

In 1985 the franchise was rebooted to return the character to his roots as a menacing and destructive force of nature. In Godzilla 1985 he terrorizes Japan, pulverizes entire cities, and decimates military forces and civilian populations. The 1985 suit is one of the most evil and frightening of all of The Big G’s incarnations; he looks like a villain. The film received a large theatrical release and strong promotional push in America. In a way, it is the first in the series to really be made for American audiences. Raymond Burr even reprised his role from King of the Monsters, making the film a direct continuation from America’s origin story for the creature. 
Sony’s Godzilla (1998) was Hollywood’s first shot at the character and the results were disastrous. The film was maligned by fans for not capturing the spirit of the franchise. The mysterious reverence and sacred mythology established in the Japanese films was gone. Godzilla was neither an apocalyptic harbinger reflective of the danger of mankind’s ambitions or a wacky and beloved superhero caricature - he was just a dumb animal on the loose.  It was directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), featured state-of-the-art special effects, and was heavily pushed by the studio with a robust marketing campaign. All in all, Godzilla 1998 could have been an okay giant monster movie but collapsed under the expectations of its name. Perhaps it should have been billed as a remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, the 1953 American film that partially inspired Godzilla in the first place.
 Godzilla 2000 was Toho’s attempt to capitalize on the marketing blitz provided by the 1998 film. After more than a decade of entries that were only available on VHS in the United States, 2000 was the first  Japanese Godzilla movie to receive a full American theatrical run and promotional campaign since Godzilla 1985 (and one of only a handful overall). Toho’s vision managed to compile the various meanings and personalities of the beast, with Godzilla starting the film as a destructive force but eventually saving the Earth from the evil space monster Orga. Godzilla 2000 is one of the stronger installments in the long running franchise but unfortunately it under performed with American audiences who probably had a bad taste in their mouth from the Sony film

Godzilla would again recluse to his home country through the remainder of what is known as the Millennium series until Toho announced that the character would be going on hiatus following 2004’s 50th anniversary tribute Godzilla Final Wars. For a few years The Big G would lay dormant, with some wondering if the character had outlived its significance while others proclaimed that it was only a matter of time until the money train came rolling into the station for such a famous and popular property. 

In 2010, Toho confirmed that they were working in-tangent with Legendary/Warner Bros. on a blockbuster reboot of the franchise. It wasn’t until two years later that the first teaser trailer was revealed and fans immediately embraced it. It was clear that this big-budget Hollywood Godzilla was going to be true to the franchise’s roots. Soon a blitz of merchandise and advertising, from books and toys to commercials and viral campaigns, heralded the return of the world’s most famous monster.

Godzilla (2014) was a critical and commercial success, obliterating any negative residue from the 1998 film the same way The Big G demolishes skyscrapers. The film primarily draws from the heroic mythology of the character. Godzilla is a protagonist - the “savior of our city.” There are still remnants and references to his unpredictable and destructive nature, and the design ranks among the most imposing and awe-inspiring of any in the canon, but overall he is as much of a good guy now as he has ever been. For most diehard G-Fans, it was the best of both worlds and a dream-come-true to see The King of Monsters back on the big screen in all of his monumental glory, portrayed with the respect he deserves. 

This is just the beginning of a new legacy for Godzilla in America. There are already two sequels being planned (including a new King Kong vs Godzilla) and the stream of associated media and merchandise is relentless. Godzilla has already cemented his oversized foot print on American pop culture and his rampage isn’t going to end anytime soon. 

Posted by Terry Pierson, Programming Technician