In 1954, Godzilla spawned the kaiju boom by blending the metaphor of the atomic bomb into the genre of monster movies. Just 13 years later, he was raising a buffoon of a child in Son of Godzilla, and scroll forward to 1975 and the creature was fighting a mechanized version of itself in a story involving aliens (and not for the first time in the franchise’s 2-decade history). That film’s mediocre success brought the Showa era of the franchise to an end as Toho vastly reduced their output of kaiju films, as did other Japanese studios that similarly hopped onto the trend.
If Godzilla spawned an era of kaiju filmmaking with its more philosophical approach to the genre of monster movies, how had the prestige and success of the genre come crashing to a halt in just 21 years? While we will hold off on discussing the biggest non-Toho kaiju creature, Gamera, for another time, this second part of our 5-part retrospective on the kaiju genre intends to look at how the genre evolved over the two decades following the release of the original Godzilla.
To understand both how Godzilla became a titan of kaiju and how the genre transformed so drastically in tone within such a short period, we need to understand the conditions within which these films were made. Essentially, Godzilla (1954) became the Toho Kaiju Cinematic Universe before it became the Godzilla franchise, and other studios did what they could to emulate Toho’s success. A lot can change in a short space of time.
The Early Sidelining of Godzilla
Godzilla’s success made it inevitable that Toho would want to produce a sequel, but without Ishido Honda at the helm, due to his initial reluctance to return to the franchise and ongoing work with another film, Motoyoshi Oda was brought on to handle Godzilla Raids Again. Having Godzilla return in such a hastily produced film that filed to give his return reason beyond the initial film’s war allegory, Toho created a relatively poor film, all being told.
Godzilla (1954)’s complete narrative gave the creature’s atomic metaphor little room for further development in future installments. Arguably, this wasn’t what much of the country initially wanted following the movie’s release, either. Throughout the 1950s and beyond, the country entered a post-war economic miracle that helped the memory of war fade from the collective memory, as economic prosperity helped the country to move forward.
To ensure the genre’s survival in the years that followed, it had to evolve, and at this early point, it’s clear Toho didn’t know just what direction they wanted to go in. Godzilla Raids Again brings Godzilla back to fight another giant creature, Anguirus, but with no thematic framing to justify Godzilla’s return, the film feels like little more than a shell of the original.
Still, it was successful enough for Toho to embark on 7 years of experimental kaiju releases that ended up defining the genre’s gradual shift into the more family-friendly good-vs-evil trope the genre devolved into by the end of the Showa era. At the time, Toho remained the main studio experimenting with kaiju production and hadn’t established a template for success at this early stage. While the identity of the kaiju genre today is inextricably linked to the giant reptile, Godzilla exists as a franchise christened in retrospect.
In fact, following the release of Godzilla Raids Again, Godzilla wouldn’t return to the big screen (bar a Japanese release of the international edit of the original film) till his fight with King Kong in 1962, by which point the genre was in a far different state. In these 7 years, Toho released Rodan, The Mysterians, Varan, The Three Treasures, and Mothra. Many were later mothballed into the Godzilla franchise established by the mid-1960s. Of these, Mothra can be seen as Ishiro Honda’s, and indeed the entire genre’s, highpoint during the Showa era.
Mothra feels like the last hurrah for kaiju films produced in the vein of the original Godzilla before a shift towards monsters as protectors of Earth began to set root in later films. If the original Godzilla succeeded by appealing to national collective grief, this movie represented a reciprocal relationship between nature and humanity that is interrupted by foreign force, in much the same way that the original King Kong did. In fact, much of the movie’s structure, from the home of Mothra on a remote island being worshipped by native followers before being abducted and showcased to a theater audience in Tokyo, holds a stark resemblance to the 1933 classic.
While it defines itself tonally through the creation of a monster that fights not out of instinct but retaliation and self-defense to solidify itself as a manifestation of our exploitation of nature and people, the film does, like many of these early kaiju films, share the negative racial politics of its early American inspirations. Blackface for the native people of the island is just one of multiple issues marring the film’s thoughtful take on the genre, and it’s not the only film to use racist stereotypes of foreigners to caricature evil.
While all these films take place within the same universe as Godzilla (1954), it’s clear that Toho never considered them to be a part of a single shared franchise at this time. Taking advantage of stunning miniature and effects work from Eiji Tsuburaya to imbue charm into these films, they aimed to create monster movies, not Godzilla films. Even when Godzilla returned with King Kong vs Godzilla, it should be noted that this was more a King Kong film than a Godzilla film, and was even initially conceptualized as a story between King Kong and Frankenstein by King Kong animator Willis H. O’Brian before being given to Toho.
If we understand Toho’s initial films in the genre as an attempt to find new meaning for kaiju films and not a vehicle to build up Godzilla’s legacy, it helps us to understand the genre’s shift as we enter the 1960s.
The Retrospective Creation of the Godzilla Franchise
By the 1960s and the return of Godzilla with King Kong vs Godzilla, we begin to see a shift in priorities for the genre from teams at Toho, with this new direction setting a template for other studios when they dipped their toes into the genre throughout this period.
If the original Godzilla and early experiments within the genre with Toho framed the destructive powers of the kaiju as a natural force beyond human comprehension and control, later kaiju films center on manmade disasters that prompt the return of Godzilla or other monsters, or require their help. As the memory of war faded from the collective consciousness, focus shifted towards new issues and failures of government policy to give these films meaning: environmental concerns regarding the exploitation of nature and fraying political conflict are just some of the issues explored within the kaiju framework.
While the series could have continued embodying Godzilla with nuclear imagery, and indeed, Daiei’s Gamera franchise does this in odes to the ongoing Cold War of the time, but without Japanese collective reconciliation with the attack, Toho’s kaiju films often used their monsters as a vessel to discuss other human-made societal issues and problems.
To achieve this goal, and recognizing the international and domestic love for the character of Godzilla above other creatures it created, the studio chose to refocus its efforts on kaiju with Godzilla becoming a poster child for their efforts and the company as a whole. Popular creatures like Mothra and Rodan were grandfathered into a retrospectively-titled Godzilla franchise, allowing them to fight in opposition or together within new films, even against new opponents like Ghidorah as introduced in Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster.
While it was a slow shift, the turning point came with Mothra vs Godzilla. With both creatures being the most popular monsters in the Toho canon, a new story taking advantage of their star power was created that justified their conflict with a new, man-made problem at the core. This film centered on corporate greed, with the actions of a businessman looking to make the most money on an egg of Mothra instead of returning it, causing quantifiable human suffering. While not completely absent of Godzilla’s old representation thanks to the portrayal of Infant Island as somewhat of a wasteland, the atomic metaphor is far less prominent here for a battle capturing an entirely human failure.
Whether capturing real problems like environmental pollution or the exploitation of workers by corporations or representing issues with hypotheticals like government ineptitude against a fictional alien force, the fights that first brought these creatures together were given purpose to make them fulfilling experiences audiences would want to return to. That didn’t last.
The Showa-Era Kaiju Decline
The kaiju genre’s decline in the late 1960s and into the 1970s came from general market declines due to the rise of TV usage turning people away from cinemas, and the declining quality in output when Ishiro Honda’s involvement mostly stopped. The transformation of Toho’s kaiju films to a new sense of purpose, which inevitably influenced those seen at other studios like Gamera and Shochiku’s The X From Outer Space, came under the watch of the genre master himself, and once he reduced his workload and other directors took the reins, this was lost in the process.
Following Honda’s departure not long after Godzilla’s mainlining and the release of Invasion of Astro-Monster, Toho’s kaiju films take a noticeable dip in quality. It’s at this time where we see the release of Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, a decent film overall that ultimately represented a major departure from what came before it by being more of an adventure film. This film mixes up the formula with an Indiana Jones-style adventure across the ocean and onto a deserted island where the entire action takes place away from any city destruction, and while certainly an entertaining popcorn film, lacks anything deeper to make audiences think about the film beyond the initial viewing.
It’s an issue many kaiju films that followed suffered from. While Son of Godzilla is unfairly derided for its introduction of Minira as a result of their admittedly stupid design, it’s still not a strong film, and one that mostly meanders for much of its runtime. In fact, with the exception of the return of Ishiro Honda with Destroy All Monsters and the sole Godzilla directorial credit for Yoshimitsu Banno (who created Godzilla vs Hedorah, the most thematically engaging Godzilla film since the original with a charged environmental thriller far darker than other late-Showa films), later Showa Godzilla films mostly lack purpose. While it can be interesting to see these films comment on Godzilla’s popularity as a hero removed from his destructive past in films like Godzilla vs Gigan, they leave an empty feeling in their wake.
Destruction feels a little monotonous if it’s repetitive and meaningless.
It’s no surprise interest waned. Whether you watch kaiju films for the monster battles or the human stories and thoughtful metaphor, later films never gave you a reason to care about what was happening on screen. Yearly releases from Toho and more from other studios, each slowly stripped of meaning for merchandizing, all in a rapidly declining cinema market, resulted in the final Showa Godzilla film (Terror of Mechagodzilla), according to official numbers from Toho, entertaining just 970,000 people compared to King Kong vs Godzilla’s 12.55 million people.
There is another explanation for the decline of the kaiju genre by the end of the Showa era that needs to be considered. The genre begun to more heavily target younger audiences at the same time core aspects of the genre were being transformed into family-friendly tokusatsu entertainment with the likes of Ultraman. But that’s a topic for another time… Before getting to that topic, however, we need to consider how Toho’s work inspired and was inspired by its most prominent rival to transform the genre during its peak in the 1960s.
This is Part 2 of a five-part discussion on the history of Kaiju.