With Godzilla on hiatus and Gamera’s future uncertain after a terrible 1980 film and following the bankruptcy of Daiei Films, the kaiju genre could almost be confused for a relic of a bygone era. What was next for kaiju as we entered the Heisei era?
Ironically, compared to the rapidly declining quality of films released in the final years of the Showa era, the Heisei era could be considered a renaissance and the ‘golden era’ of kaiju filmmaking. Those who worked on the original films were now standing alongside those who were shaped and grew up on the giant monster battles of Gamera and Godzilla, and now had a chance to capture what they loved about the films they grew up on in new entries in these beloved series.
To look at the Heisei and modern Reiwa eras of kaiju, kaiju films were recognition and tribute to what came before it. And while question marks remain over the future, in the 1990s and early 2000s it arguably resulted in the best films the genre has ever seen.
Godzilla’s Grand Return
By 1984, Godzilla had been off our cinema screens for 9 years, ever since Terror of Mechagodzilla brought the Showa era of Godzilla to an unceremonious end in 1975. The generally accepted view at the time was that the Showa Godzilla films had demeaned a once-powerful creature, turning a terrifying anti-war metaphor into a caricature of what it once was. It’s not entirely a wrong descriptor of particularly later Godzilla films, but it’s not like this wasn’t intentional, and time has been far kinder to finding joy in these films than the negative impressions people held at the time.
But to bring Godzilla back for its 30th anniversary and correct these perceived tonal issues, a reboot would be required. Enter The Return of Godzilla.
The Return of Godzilla is an adequate return to screens for the monster (and had strong success at the Japanese box office, raking in 1.7 billion yen), although it’s a film that gets lost in the pressure of reviving a box office titan. The film acts as a sequel to the original Godzilla set three decades after the events of that movie, which disregards later films to chart a new direction for the creature.
In the original film, Godzilla was something to be feared as he brought about disruption and destruction that those in power had no idea how to fix. Here, the ire is directed more intensely at the ineptitude of those in power. Godzilla’s return is not only poorly countered by government and military forces, but in an attempt to avoid bad press, a reporter wishing to bring the terror to light is silenced as they pretend the issue doesn’t exist.
The issue is that a dark and menacing Godzilla to be feared is one thing, but the film has little to say other than that the creature has returned, leaving a laborious and self-serious film that’s difficult to invest in. Still, it did the job: Godzilla was back.
Later Heisei Godzilla kaiju films, released in almost-yearly installments following the release of Godzilla vs Biollante in 1989, find a balance between the modern, action blockbuster tone the Heisei series was going for and the fun of the Showa era. In saying that, following the underperformance of this most unique film in the Heisei era, which disavowed a family-friendly action blockbuster for a more mature, tragic story, many of the later films rehashed characters and ideas into a modern blockbuster format.
Godzilla vs Biollante was a serious attempt to create something new. It followed a scientist fusing plant and Godzilla cells with the DNA of his dead daughter to create an immortal plant that transforms into a plant-like creature that Godzilla fights. It was new and unique and touched on themes the genre had typically shied away from. While even the movies returning to tradition were improvements over the Showa series in most aspects, with Godzilla vs Destroyah in 1995 an exception as another unique entry with an original creature that ended the Heisei series with a bang, it is unfortunate that new ideas were mostly tossed aside at a time the creature’s pop culture power gave it a chance to innovate.
Godzilla returned for a New Millenium series following a trilogy of Mothra movies that once again rebooted the character as part of Godzilla 2000. The original 1954 film was once again a point of reference, and without the continuity between movies found in the Heisei series, these were mostly anthology films featuring the same interpretation of Godzilla, continuing until 2004.
Gamera’s Heisei Kaiju Revival
Seeing the successful attempt at reviving Godzilla, the new Daiei company was looking to do a Heisei revival of their own beloved kaiju, Gamera. They did so with the release of 1995’s Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, and despite a lower budget, this new Heisei series defies the low quality of past installments to surpass Godzilla as the gold standard of kaiju filmmaking.
Gamera in the Showa era, following an ambiguous first entry designed in the vein of the 1954 Godzilla, was defined as a guardian and protector of children. It stood the character apart from its rival, but the films were ultimately lowest-common-denominator filmmaking with poor effects, stories, and an over-reliance on stock footage to save money. Gamera was beloved by those who grew up with it, but not fondly remembered.
The Heisei Gamera trilogy, directed by Shunsuke Kaneko who grew up on kaiju films and Gamera, transformed the character into something more than it ever was before, giving the famous turtle a character beyond being a wordless savior. The first film is admittedly heavily rooted in the past to evoke the love of older fans, relying on a rehash of one of the beloved classic entries as Gamera fights against Gyaos, but also evolves the series beyond this.
Gamera now had a purpose. Gamera’s existence was simply an attempt to cash in on the kaiju boom of the 1960s, and prior to this Heisei trilogy, the creature was little more than a mashing of elements instead of an original creature, even within his 1965 origin movie. Not only do the Heisei Gamera films expand on the character’s lore and give him an actual past as it’s transformed into an ancient guardian rather than a half-hearted replication of a nuclear metaphor, but the character is also now defined by the world it lives within, rather than simply existing. It’s an ecological metaphor, and an earnest attempt to take us from an audience watching a screen to a person living in fear of losing everything to kaiju destruction.
The Gamera trilogy was willing to try new things. More than kaiju films of the past, Gamera was influenced heavily by the wider science fiction genre of the time, partially thanks to bringing in Kazunori Ito of Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor fame to work on the script. There was a dedication to worldbuilding that blends spiritual and scientific elements while creating complex human characters, particularly with the link to Gamera, Asagi Kusanagi, which lifts this above anything we saw from Heisei Godzilla.
What the Gamera trilogy achieves is creating a series of films that don’t simply wish to bring back a beloved giant turtle to the big screen. This was a trilogy that took the opportunity to examine why Gamera connected with so many children in the first place. This trio of films ends with a psychological re-evaluation of the creature’s image in the eyes of the people by forcing us out of the perspective of a passionate observer to a civilian.
As the kaiju genre has grown, its legacy has defined Japanese pop culture for decades. Yet this is a trilogy that isn’t simply telling a traditional kaiju story, but one which understands the baggage of legacy and tells a story around that idea. That’s where Gamera thrives.
The Unavoidable International Legacy of Godzilla
Throughout this five-part series, I’ve mostly neglected to discuss the Western interpretations of kaiju and particularly Godzilla, to focus on the genre from a Japanese perspective. Ultimately, however, Godzilla made an impact on audiences around the world and inspired giant monster films and Western takes on Godzilla that undoubtedly influenced the Japanese releases which followed.
Ever since the release of the original Godzilla in 1954, the international market has had an unmistakable influence on the kaiju genre. At a time when releasing Japanese movies to American audiences was considered unusual, Dick Kay bid for and bought the rights for the original Godzilla, releasing the movie in a heavily edited form under the subtitle King of the Monsters, including new scenes featuring actor Raymond Burr.
This level of success inevitably resulted in later kaiju films, including later Godzilla films, being licensed for American audiences alongside copious merchandizing that included everything from toys to trading cards. But this success also led Japanese creators to take notes, beyond just releasing the re-edited King of the Monsters film to Japanese audiences in the late 1950s. Godzilla’s success allowed for other creatures to find a home in localized releases, and this included older Gamera films. Considerations of international audiences by Daiei went as far as having English-speaking actors in main roles in films like Gamera vs Viras.
The impact was larger in this modern era when the American appreciation for the giant lizard resulted in the creation of their own movies, starting with the critically panned Godzilla (1998). While the film was poor, this incarnation of Godzilla takes cues from how the creature’s image as a threat to society had been curated internationally over the decades. That’s who Godzilla was to most international audiences, sanitized of allegory, a result of its characterization in dubbed movies. Furthermore, this similar understanding of the creature held a greater sway on the worldwide modern image of Godzilla thanks to Legendary’s Monsterverse.
While Shin Godzilla may stand as a crowning achievement of Japan’s metaphorical Godzilla, the most successful Godzilla movies of recent years, even in Japan, have been these recent American movies. Whereas almost every Japanese incarnation of Godzilla until this point could be seen as a warning to the society they were released in, American Monsterverse Godzilla is a creature to be feared and combated. While it was unquestionably a critical and commercial success, this Godzilla is the modern face of the franchise, a force to be stopped without much consideration of why it exists or the people in danger.
Ultimately, the Americanization of Godzilla has helped the genre to persevere and spread around the world. Whatever you think about the Monsterverse Godzilla, 1998 Godzilla, or the various dubbed Godzilla, Gamera, and minor kaiju films over the years, consumed in theaters or on TV through late showings or Mystery Space Theater 3000, they pioneered kaiju filmmaking around the world. It’s thanks to this we have films like Guillermo del Toro’s tribute to the genre, Pacific Rim.
Shin Godzilla and the State of Modern Kaiju
We’ve seen how the genre has evolved since the release of Ishiro Honda’s revolutionary 1954 Godzilla film, how it was inspired by the monster films that came before it, and how the genre gave birth to modern tokusatsu filmmaking. So where is kaiju filmmaking today?
In a trend that can be tracked to the reset of the Godzilla franchise in 1984, the genre today is heavily influenced by the nostalgia of the past, relying on recognition rather than revolution. Rather than the 1954 Godzilla film being the origin of a genre that has continued to evolve and change, kaiju cinema has repeatedly deified and returned to this movie without moving beyond it. Arguably the only exception in kaiju cinema in recent years, other than Heisei Gamera, is Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla.
Shin Godzilla is a film that recognizes Godzilla’s metaphorical core and uses it to shake up a stale formula and modernize the monster-as-metaphor message that brought the genre to the forefront of Japanese filmmaking and bring it into the modern day. Hideaki Anno’s take on the film is a laser-focused anti-establishment critique of Japanese bureaucracy, achieved by starting the film at the moment Godzilla attacks and centering the film entirely on the attempt to scramble a response, filled with bumbling mismanagement, indecision, and lots of meetings.
Shin Godzilla is metaphorically and, thanks to featuring a version of Godzilla that evolves and adapts to the attacks of the government response, literally evolving to the times. We aren’t made to feel empathy for Godzilla, but we also never see the creature as an inexplicable evil either. It’s a force representative of the changes in society and the people left behind, and we see the destruction to the people left behind on their level by centering the camera at street level with the people as they flee the destruction of this rapidly changing Godzilla. All while the government does nothing to protect them.
While Anno may have been influenced by his nostalgic love of kaiju cinema in the creation of Shin Godzilla, he wasn’t beholden to it, and the rapid evolution of this new interpretation of Godzilla and the tantalizing possibility of what the final form of Godzilla could do to the future of the genre, if the ideas were further explored.
Looking away from Godzilla, attempts to create new kaiju creatures and films outside established genres are practically non-existent aside from del Toro’s Pacific Rim. The kaiju genre away from Godzilla is exclusively a low-budget affair, resembling something along the lines of a fan film than a modern take on a revolutionary and potentially powerful form of filmmaking.
Even if films like Monster Seafood Wars, a 2020 kaiju film that parodies genre conventions with seafood meals transforming into giant fish that attack the cities that need to be countered by the Seafood Monster Attack Team, can be a fun, mindless romp, they do nothing to bring the genre forwards. They speak to the past and a love for something that’s gone and ignore the fact that cinema has moved on.
To keep kaiju relevant, you need to move beyond the formulas of the past. While I have issues with the films, Polygon Pictures’ animated trilogy attempted to do something entirely new with the Godzilla formula in partnership with Netflix and should be respected for that, as is the upcoming Godzilla: Singular Point.
As much as I have come to love the history of kaiju and created this retrospective series as a celebration of the joy these films can bring, the future of kaiju won’t be written until we stop focusing on these films and instead evolve past them. The best kaiju films, from Shin Godzilla to the Heisei Gamera films to the original Godzilla, were each an evolution that understood what came before and charted a new path that commented on this past and moved beyond it.
What movie will kickstart the next era of kaiju? Or is this the end?
This is Part 5 of a five-part discussion on the history of Kaiju.