One Complicated Lizard

Bombardier Major Thomas Ferebee opened the bomb bay of the Enola Gay B-29. Out plummeted “Little Boy,” a 9,700-pound nuclear warhead, which detonated 1,900 feet above a surgical clinic in downtown Hiroshima.

The bomb was technically inefficient. Only 1.7 percent of its uranium core underwent fission. Not that percentages mattered much to Hiroshima – within a few hours, 70,000 of its residents were dead and another 75,000 incapacitated, many suffering from burnt muscles that could be stripped off the bone like onion peels.

In Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film, Godzilla, nearly the same number of Japanese citizens perished while the fearsome amphibian sea monster rampaged across Tokyo. Americans never saw the original film. They watched an appropriately redressed 1956 edition, complete with an American protagonist. They choked on their popcorn as they guffawed and gaped at a stuntman in a sweltering rubber suit pillage a scale model of axis Tokyo.

The Japanese had a different reaction. In the diamondback skin of Godzilla, they saw the keloid scars of Hiroshima survivors. In pillaged Tokyo, they saw Nagasaki razed to the ground. This “King of Monsters” was no mere kaiju leviathan, but a rose on grandmother’s grave. They had met Godzilla and he was more monster than the screen showed. “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb,” said Toho studios producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. “Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.”

The year 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the World War II nuclear bombings and the 61th anniversary of the debut Godzilla film. The two share an inextricable link. Yet beginning with the 1956 Americanized edition, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, that connection has been overwritten by monster wrestling matches and American exploitation films. Following a successful reboot by Legendary Pictures, however, Japanese studio Toho has plans to resurrect the monster and his proper meaning. That makes 61 years of history to rewrite.

For all his international fame, Godzilla has lost at the box office more than Tom Cruise. Just one year after the lizard first lived, Toho jubilantly hashed out a sequel, Godzilla Raids Again. Gone were the political metaphors, campy ingenuity and dramatic plot arcs. Godzilla spent most of his time puttin’ a whuppin’ on the monster Anguirus, who would later in the franchise become one of his allies. This mano e mano trope would play out again, again, again, and again: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster. But the transformation of the King of Monsters had only just begun.

There were those who criticized the original film for monetizing the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So Toho adopted a different marketing strategy. Godzilla became funny, an antihero, the unwilling defender of humanity. In the eighth installment, Son of Godzilla, the monster even adopts a fun-sized doppelganger named “Minilla.” By 1968, Toho had spun out nine Godzilla films, the final one of which, Destroy All Monsters, featured 11 monsters spread out across London, Paris, Moscow and Beijing. The film was pure sugar for 10-year-old boys and action figure sales.

After the dismal performance of the eleventh-hour 1975 movie, The Terror of Mechagodzilla, Toho retired its radioactive dragonette after 15 films. Such marked the end of the golden age of kaiju, the peculiarly Japanese cinematic tradition of giant (usually flesh-eating) monster movies.

But nothing, neither Titanosaurus nor poor box office sales, could keep Godzilla down. After nine years on sabbatical, Godzilla came back for an encore performance in Toho’s The Return of Godzilla. He had lost his sense of humor. In true 1980’s spirit, the movie featured an attempted Soviet nuclear missile launch, an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), and Godzilla’s biggest tantrums yet.

Although it was the 16th installment in the franchise, The Return of Godzilla ignored all films following the original. It initiated the Heisei series, which lasted until 1995. Most of these middle-child Godzilla films were never exported directly to America. Toho sold them to B-Class American distributors, who repackaged them and often re-edited them. For anyone looking to reconnect with these forgotten classics, some of the films are available to viewers occasionally as DTV specials or via Netflix and Hulu.

Throughout, Godzilla retained his grotesque monsterliness, but he looked better. The 1991 film, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, won a Japanese special effects award in 1992 for its clever heat ray CGI, smokescreens and animatronic monster models. The plot arcs grew thicker. Most films were underpinned by the premise question: What are the unintended consequences of genetic mutation and nuclear weapons testing?

Toho resurrected the franchise again in 1999 with Godzilla: 2000. A year earlier, TriStar pictures had tried its own hand with Godzilla, only to receive a Golden Raspberry award for Worst Remake/Sequel. Like several of the other Godzilla films, Godzilla: 2000 was made in three versions: domestic, North American and International. Legend has it that Toho preferred the North American version so much that the International version was never officially released anywhere.

Toho again retired Godzilla after its 2004 best-of-Godzilla flick, Godzilla: Final Wars. It promised not to make another franchise installment for at least 10 years.

True to its word, Toho held off the trigger. Then Legendary Pictures released Godzilla in 2014, directed by Gareth Edwards. It raked in $529 million at the box office, prompting Legendary Pictures to plan a trilogy and Toho to announce a reboot. “This is very good timing after the success of the American version this year. If not now, then when? The licensing contract we have with Legendary places no restrictions on us making domestic versions.” The Toho film, slated to release in 2016, will be the 29th in the Toho franchise. The company hopes its Godzilla Strategic Conference will atone for its budget deficiencies compared to Hollywood.

The monster still represents a fearsome question. What happens when man manufactures its own Godzilla – an autoimmune virus, a racist dictator, an incalculable wealth gap – and there is no fast-forward button to escape the carnage?

If Toho has its say, Godzilla will never die. As quoted in the first Toho picture, “The recklessness of science gave birth to you, Godzilla… Godzilla is inside all of us.”

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Aspiring writer Maria Karen is interested in horror movies, comic books, and tea. Her hobbies include comic book conventions and finding hole-in-the-wall shops around the city. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She lives in Chicago with her two aquatic turtles, Roy and Franklin.

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