Special Features – Watching fifteen Godzilla movies or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Monsters

David Bishop reflects on his 15 movie Godzilla marathon…

If you’ve been reading fellow Flickering Myth writer Luke Owen’s various articles, you’ll know that Luke, our partner in crime Jon Lipscombe and I undertake a movie marathon each month. For February we chose Godzilla, or, more specifically, the first fifteen Godzilla movies. As there are twenty-nine altogether, we felt that splitting the series into more manageable, bite-sized, pieces was the way to go. Although, as I’ll discuss later on, fifteen films with virtually the same plot (and in some cases the same footage) was perhaps a film or five, too many.

After watching the trailer for Del Toro’s upcoming Kaiju film, Pacific Rim, fifteen Godzilla movies, over the course of twenty-six hours, seemed like a really tantalising idea. However, as the hours ticked by, and the sight of men in rubber suits throwing rocks at each other got more and more tedious, my enthusiasm started to disappear. You can read about the various trials and tribulations of our encounter with the giant lizard from Toyko in Luke’s article here. This article is less about our struggles and more about the films themselves; a look at the ups and downs of Japan’s most famous creation.

As always, we started at the beginning. In 1954, Toho studios released a monster movie that became a monster smash. Directly inspired by the dropping of Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla was designed to play on the fears of a nation devastated by war. While subtlety may not be in abundance, the theme certainly hits home thanks to some incredibly powerful imagery. It’s hard to imagine now, due to the image we have of the creature in popular culture, but there are some powerful and shocking scenes towards the latter half of the movie; a mother clutching her children while awaiting certain death, hundreds of people suffering from radiation sickness and buildings flattened by the rampaging beast.  It’s impossible not to see the parallel with the damaged caused by the Atomic bombs.

Despite this rather sombre tone, it’s hard not to laugh at the dated effects (the model cars look like Matchbox toys), and the hysterical acting from some of the cast members. But the quality of the direction and the starkness of the imagery help to keep the film relevant. So much so that it produced twenty-seven sequels, and not one, but two, Hollywood remakes.

Perhaps predictably, the rest of the series doesn’t come close to the dizzying heights of Ishiro Honda’s classic. From this point on, the franchise would take on a softer and more childlike tone. However, that’s not to say that fun and entertainment cannot be found in the series. If you can accept the first film as being separate from the rest, there’s a lot to enjoy from the many sequels.

Unfortunately, we don’t get off to a great start with the sequels. Godzilla Raids Again, made to cash-in on the success of the first film, feels like a cheap knock-off, with a hastily put together plot and a repetitive finale. It is notable, however, for setting the template for the rest of the franchise: pitting Godzilla against another monstrous foe. This time we’re introduced to the Dinosaur Anguirus, which provides plenty of monster-fighting madness. Although, strangely, Anguirus is killed halfway through and all we’re left with is Godzilla against the rather ineffective Japanese military, a motif which would become infuriatingly familiar over the course of the series. All-in-all, Godzilla Raids Again is rather bland and little more than a minor footnote in the series.

Things start to kick into gear with the next entry: King Kong vs. Godzilla. This built on the foundation of Raids Again and solidified the format of the franchise, where human plot and emotion would become secondary to rubber-suited monsters kicking seven bells out of each other. Having said this, and while the prospect of cinema’s two most iconic creatures duking it out is an irresistible prospect, the results are mixed to say the least. There’s certainly fun to be had here, but the film is pretty lame on the whole. Endless scenes of exposition, rubbish models and Kong’s awful costume ruin what could have been diverting entertainment.

If all this negativity sounds like the franchise is complete toilet, you’ll be pleased to hear things start to pick up with Mothra vs. Godzilla. Yes, it’s another giant monster brawl and it’s pretty much the same as what’s gone before (and what’s to come), but at least Mothra is a cool monster. It’s easy to see why she’s one of the most popular from the series, as the fight scenes between her and Godzilla are a lot of fun. If you’re watching the films back-to-back, it’s at this point when you accept, and start to embrace, the absurdity of the series. And embrace you probably should, because there’s some really bizarre stuff here; a pair of miniature human twins who try and protect Mothra, and baby Mothras, who end up defeating Godzilla with their webbing, are particularly memorable moments. You had better get used to this, because things are only going to get stranger.

Next up is one of the highlights of the series: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. If you’re going to have a giant monster in your film, then a beast which blows up buildings by firing electricity from its three heads is probably the way to go. Make no mistake, the filmmakers make good use of their creation, gleefully levelling an entire city and producing one of the finest Kaiju battles in the series. This film is enormous fun and one which fully showcases what fans want to see, even if we have strayed far from the harsh realities of the original. Sadly, a lot of the battle footage would be re-used in future entries, making it rather annoying after a while.

I have to admit, at this point in our marathon viewing, I was struggling to stay awake. After five and a half uninterrupted hours of monster mayhem, my critical faculties were on the wane. From this point onwards, I struggle to tell what happens in which particular film. It would be pretty unfair for me to judge these films properly, but I will certainly try my best.

After the fun of Ghidorah, you would expect the series to struggle. But Invasion of Astro-Monster starts off really well. Ghidorah is back and this time he’s pestering aliens on another planet (yes we have finally gone into outer space, and here we will stay for the foreseeable future). Obviously, the only solution is for the aliens to ‘borrow’ Rodan and Godzilla to fight the rampaging beast terrorising their barren planet. This is all very silly of course, although saying that does seem a bit redundant at this stage, but this is great fun. Sadly, the film peaks around the halfway point and loses its way slightly. At least that’s what I vaguely remember happening before falling asleep. This is one I wouldn’t mind watching again as there’s a lot that I missed.

Being disgusted with myself for falling asleep, I made a real effort to stay awake during the next film, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. For the most part I managed it, which is surprising because nothing actually happens for the first half. Some people wash up on an Island and explore a secret base, while trying to avoid their captives. Godzilla doesn’t appear for ages and it’s a while before we get our first monster fight. It’s funny how quickly we’ve gone from ‘the sequels lack the political undercurrent and striking imagery of the first film’ to ‘why are we not seeing monster’s hit each other?’ I guess a lack of sleep, and depleting patience, will do that to a person. Having said that, the Sea Monster is actually pretty cool when it does finally turn up, and the fight scenes are enjoyable. Although things do slow back down again after the initial battle and we’re back to following those boring old humans.

While none of us particular enjoyed, or made attention to, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, we were absolutely dreading the next entry: Son of Godzilla. While the franchise was undoubtedly ridiculous, the idea of Godzilla having a son, with the prospect of father/son bonding, was a foreboding one. Would our hero’s son be the Jar Jar Binks of the series? Surprisingly, not really. There’s no doubt that Minilla (the aforementioned son of Godzilla), was created to directly appeal to kids and add a softer edge to proceedings. Luckily, it’s not as irritating as it might sound and there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments between the two creatures. Minilla being hit in the face by a rock is hilarious. Either that or we were really tired; probably the later. It also contains one of the most successful creatures so far: the giant spider, Kumonga. Giant Spiders are always good, but this one is genuinely threatening, adding a little edge to the child-friendly tone.

Following in a similar vein to Son of Godzilla, the brilliantly titled Destroy all Monsters promises much and, for the most part, delivers. There’s certainly a ton of monsters, the most of the series so far, who are all pitted against the mighty Ghidorah. Although it is strange how Godzilla managed to defeat him with two friends during their first meeting, then just one in Invasion of Astro-Monster, now fifteen of them are struggling. Annoyingly, many of the monsters sit by the wayside for the most part which is one of the film’s shortcomings. Still, the final fight is very enjoyable and there’s plenty of city destroying mayhem to marvel at.

The series then takes a bit of an odd turn with the misleadingly titled, All Monster’s Attack. It sounds great, but it’s a bizarre story of a kid being bullied at school and then daydreaming that he’s on Monster Island and best friends with Minilla. The bully in real life takes on the form of a giant monster in his dreams, which Minilla has to fight and destroy. Dad certainly won’t help, as he tries to teach his son to fight his own battles. Subtlety has rarely been on the agenda with this series, but this really does take the biscuit. It may be aimed at kids, but that isn’t an excuse for sloppy, TV-movie of the week, style writing.

Thankfully, it’s relatively short and we can move on to bigger and better things, or not as the case may be, because next we have the headache-inducing Godzilla vs. Hedorah. To give credit where credit is due, at least this attempts to be about something. If the original is a warning about the dangers of nuclear testing, then this is about the dangers of pollution. There are some problems with this however. For starters, the original contained some very evocative imagery; people suffering from radiation sickness, entire cities levelled and so on. This has, what looks like, poo being flung all over the place. I get that Hedorah is supposed to be made of garbage, but there’s no getting away from the fact that he looks like a giant poo monster. The film is slow, contains very little action and features some of the worst music ever. Surely things can only get better?

Well sort of. Godzilla vs. Gigan is standard fare, but does contain the oddity of the monsters actually talking. It’s an ok film in general, but fairly unremarkable, and, in all honesty, I don’t remember much about it; although that could be down to watching it at some ungodly hour in the morning.

During this marathon, I decided to make a few brief notes about each film, as there was no way I was going to remember each one when it came to writing this article. It turns out this was a very good idea, managing to jog my memory and help with the writing process. Too many times in the past, I’ve written one of these articles a while after the marathon and forgotten entire films. I would usually end up writing something along the lines of, “then we watched part IV-VI and all were pretty interchangeable”, which basically meant I forgot what happened and couldn’t tell the films apart.

Well, sadly, that’s going to happen again as my notes just stop and we’ve got three films to go. Godzilla vs. Megalon (noticing a pattern with the titles?) is up next, and is noticeable for not featuring Godzilla all that much. Luke reliably informs me this was meant to be a solo Jet Jaguar project (a kind of Power Rangers -esque robot), but Toho decided he couldn’t carry the film on his own and thus threw Godzilla in for marquee value. Not a bad idea in theory but the character doesn’t have much impact on the plot making the attempts to shoehorn him in very obvious. Too be honest, I’m not paying attention anymore and I’m pretty sick of this series.

This is a shame, because I was genuinely looking forward to the last two; Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and Terror of Mechagodzilla. However, my brain’s fried and even looking at, let alone paying attention to, the TV is quite painful. I won’t review these last two as, in all fairness, I can’t pass judgement until watching them properly. I will catch up with them one day though.

So there we have it; fifteen Godzilla films in over 24 hours. While I was looking forward to this, I have to say my Godzilla enthusiasm has waned slightly. Still, there are fourteen more films to go and, while we’re going to take a slight break, hopefully we can see them all before the release of Pacific Rim in July. Failing that, at least before the second American remake next year.

David Bishop