The Godzilla Retrospective, Episode 1: Rise of the Monsters

Welcome one and all, to a new ongoing project here at Friday Film Review!

In a move I’m sure the FTB staff will come to regret, I’ve been given leave to indulge in one of my nerdiest film passions: Godzilla! So welcome to The Godzilla Retrospective, where for your entertainment I shall be (briefly) reviewing every single Godzilla film, from the 1954 classic to the series’ current end: 2004’s Godzilla Final Wars.

Now don’t panic, this is NOT gonna be happening every week, my current plan is once every month or two. Otherwise it will be business as usual around here

So without further ado let’s get the ball rolling by starting at the beginning

Godzilla (1954)

The one that started it all, the original classic that began the franchise. For those who haven’t seen it (shame on you), the plot is relatively straightforward: nuclear detonations have awakened an ancient, unstoppable beast, named for a mythical creature from Japanese folklore: Gojira (anglicized to Godzilla in North American releases).

The beast soon arrives in Tokyo, bringing chaos and destruction with him, and all man’s military might can barely slow him down.

People often dismiss the movie, more do to exposure to the campyness of the later movies, but this is actually a solid piece of film making. Toho studios is renowned for its work in miniatures and models, and it’s easy to see why here: the scenes of destruction during Godzilla’s rampage are impressive even today.

But more important is the subtext. I could write a whole column about the subtext of Godzilla alone. Themes like the dangers of nuclear proliferation, the risk of science being perverted into weaponry, the futility of man’s struggle against nature and of evocation of the bombing of Hiroshima during World War 2.

The series may have gotten pretty silly later on, but this is serious, evocative sci-fi.

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Hot on the heels of the mega-success of the original, in which another Godzilla (Spoiler alert: the monster of the first film was eventually killed by an experimental weapon) wreaks more havoc and squares off against Anguirus, a mutated Ankylosaurus.

This entry is noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, it featured the first monster fight in the franchise’s history, though Anguirus was defeated in the second act, leaving Godzilla to kinda putter around with nothing to do for most of the third.

It also features one of the few films in the original run of films to feature a returning human character from the previous film, with Taksashi Shimura reprising his role as Dr. Yamane.

Finally this is one of very few times that Godzilla is defeated by humans without the aide of another monster or some piece of sci-fi technology. In the end, the Big Guy is taken out when a group of fighter pilots (including the main human character) bury him in an avalanche.

The film itself isn’t nearly as good as its predecessor, eschewing potent themes and imagery in favour or more action. This began the descent of the series into pure camp, but the film does still try to take itself seriously and create dramatic moments and well-rounded human characters.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

After a seven year absence from movie screens, Godzilla returns in his first wide-screen and colour movie, and facing none other than King Kong to boot! This one is actually the most successful Godzilla film to date, which is unsurprising given Kong’s popularity in Japan at the time (he was even more popular than Godzilla).

I have to admit, I have a love/hate relationship with this one.

On one hand, this is where a lot of the camp and lightness of tone that would define the series up until the 1980s really started. The film is definitely played more for laughs than the dramatic tone of the previous two films.

It definitely is more camp than the series had been before. In one unfortunate scene, native islanders are even portrayed by Japanese actors in blackface. Ouch…. This is also the point where the Godzilla suit designs started to look less scary and more comical.

On the other hand, the actual fight between the monsters are really impressive, especially the final showdown.

A big point of contention for fans is the basic issue of who really wins in the end. After King Kong is struck by lightning and develops electric powers (yeah, you heard me), the two tumble into the ocean and only Kong is seen swimming away.

Some see that as a sign of Kong’s victory (Including Toho themselves), but you know what I see? A big scared monkey swimming away with his nonexistent tail between his legs, that’s what! In my books, the Big Guy remains undefeated.

Bonus trivia: For one scene, a giant octopus was portrayed by four seperate live octopi. After filming, three of them were released. The fourth made a tasty dinner for the effects director.

Mothra vs Godzilla (1964)

This film sees the first time Godzilla would appear alongside frequent co-star Mothra, a giant moth (duh) from Infant Island, where she is worshipped by the natives (including two magical doll-sized women for some reason).

Mothra actually debuted in her film in 1961 and continued her solo career outside of the Godzilla franchise with a trilogy of films in the late 90s.  Nevertheless, she is one of the most iconic monsters of the series, and appears in all three “eras” of Godzilla movies.

The effects and rampage scenes in this one are actually really good, but where it really loses me is the ending. The elder Mothra is defeated by Godzilla, but her egg (which is a central plot point) hatches, revealing two larval Mothras (Mothrai?) who defeat the Big Guy by engulfing him in silk and dumping him in the ocean.

At the risk of overreacting: No. Freaking. WAY. You’re telling me Godzilla, the King of the Monsters, gets taken down by two giant caterpillars spraying silk at him and hiding behind rocks? Nu-uh, man, the king was robbed! I call shenanigans on this! Rematch, I demand a rematch!

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