Thomas O’Connor on the three eras of the Godzilla franchise and what makes them special…
A new Japanese Godzilla movie is on the way, heralding the return of Toho’s epic franchise after over a decade of dormancy. Understandably, not everyone has the time or inclination to sit through hours upon hours of Godzilla films in preparation for Hideaki Anno and Shiji Higuchi’s Godzilla: Resurgence, and in all honesty, doing so probably isn’t necessary. But still, a solid primer on the history of the Godzilla franchise probably wouldn’t hurt for those curious to see what Japan has in response to Gareth Edwards’ stateside take on the franchise. That’s why here at Flickering Myth, we’re presenting a series dedicated to catching the rest of you up on the history of the franchise. Not just the films themselves, but the important figures behind the camera, a guide on which entries in the epic series that Godzilla neophytes should try to get the best the franchise has to offer, and more.
Welcome to Godzilla 101.
The Godzilla franchise currently includes 28 films, made over the course of half a century. While it wouldn’t be within the realm of possibility that these films present a single, unbroken line of continuity, this isn’t actually the case. The franchise is divided into three distinct periods, each with its own continuity, or lack thereof, a distinct tone, and a whole host of differences. Understanding what makes each era unique, and how each cycle draws or breaks from the others, is a good place to get started with our beginner’s guide to all things Godzilla.
In the same way that here in the West, we tend to divide or classify cultural and political eras by decade, Japan divides things somewhat similarly into two large periods: The Showa and Heisei periods. The term Showa loosely means “Period of Radiance” or “Period of Peace and Harmony”, and refers to the reign of Emperor Hirohito, from 1926 to 1989. This period ended with Hirohito’s death in 1989 and the subsequent rise of his son, Akihito. This was the beginning of the Heisei Period, which continues to this day. The origins of the term Heisei are somewhat complicated, but the loose translation or meaning is “Peace everywhere”. The distinction between the two periods is an important one in Japanese culture, and not just the parts involving men in lizard costumes trying to stave off heatstroke. As you see in other franchises, like Godzilla’s box-office rival Gamera, the Godzilla franchise is divided accordingly, between the Showa series, from 1954 to 1975, and the Heisei series, from 1984 to 1995. Yes, that means that the Heisei Godzilla series began a few years before the Heisei Era officially began. It’s important to note that this distinction isn’t solely based on the year of production, since each series has its own timeline, but more on that later.
But in the case of the Godzilla series, a third era is added to the normal Showa/Heisei divide, since the franchise’s 1995 installment had a fairly definitive ending for its titular character, and a new continuity began when the series returned. Thus in addition to the Showa and Heisei series, we also have the Millennium series, currently the final cycle in the Godzilla franchise, unless Resurgence kicks off a fourth.
Before we dive in to the nitty gritty of what makes each era distinct, a quick note on continuity:
Godzilla 1954: Showa, Heisei, AND Millennium?
Chronologically, the original 1954 Godzilla film is a product of, and set within, the Showa era of Japanese history. But one important note to consider is that in terms of series continuity, it actually belongs to all three series. Obviously the films that directly follow Godzilla 1954 follow it in terms of continuity, however when the series was restarted (reboot wasn’t a thing then and it feels weird to use the term retroactively) in 1984, every film produced in the Showa period was ignored except for the first film. More confusingly, when the Millennium series arrived, each installment basically operated on its own continuity system, with the events of the original film (or something similar) having already happened. The only Japanese film depicting man’s first encounter with Godzilla is, currently, the 1954 film. Every series and film since then has used that as a starting point, rather than wiping the slate entirely clean. Think of it like branching timelines, with Godzilla’s first attack in 1954 as a fixed historical point from which all other series or timelines stem.
This is far from the only way in which the original film is an outlier within the series, and as much as you could say that it belongs to each series, you could also say that it belongs to none. Tonally, formally, in terms of intent, Godzilla 1954 still stands more or less on its own. It’s the progenitor from which three very different series of films sprung, and even though historically it is absolutely a Showa film, bear in mind that things are a tad more complicated when you consider each series as a narrative.
The status of the first film points to the subtle distinction between “era” and “series”, two terms which are used fairly interchangeably in relation to each cycle of films. While the original film may be a Showa -era- film, it has ties and could be argued to be a part of each -series-.
The Showa Series:
Godzilla (Gojira), 1954 – Terror of Mechagodzilla (Mekagojira no Gyakushū), 1975
The Showa series of Godzilla films is the first, longest and most well-known and influential of the three series. When most people think “Godzilla”, the image they form in their mind’s eye is probably from a Showa-era film, probably a bad dub on a late-night movie marathon.
The Showa era of films began the franchise with Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film, which is a much different film than what many people would expect. Honda’s first film is as much a somber parable of war, nuclear proliferation and the weaponization of scientific discovery as it is a big, spectacular blockbuster. It draws heavily on Honda’s experiences in World War 2, as well as events such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Tokyo, and the “Lucky Dragon Incident” just six months before the film’s release. The film was a massive hit, both in Japan and in America, where an edited version was released starring Raymond Burr as an American character inserted into the narrative of the film. Around six months later, a follow-up called Godzilla Raids Again was released, to significantly lower box-office success and critical acclaim, despite introducing the “monster brawl” format that would come to define the series.
It was seven years later that an idea for a film pitting King Kong against a colossal version of Frankenstein’s monster eventually resulted in a film that would define the franchise for the next decade and change. King Kong vs Godzilla was and remains the most financially successful Godzilla film to date, a massive sensation that sold over eleven million tickets in its initial theatrical run. Accordingly, the tonal changes between the original film and Godzilla vs King Kong became the new marching order for the franchise, and the dark overtones of the first film were replaced by the lighter, more kid-friendly mood of King Kong vs Godzilla.
Which is not to say that the film is entirely toothless. Honda, still committed to using his films to spread important messages, snuck in small doses of anti-corporatism, with the real “villain” of the film being a scheming head of a pharmaceutical corporation determined to exploit Kong as the mascot of an advertising campaign. But over time Honda’s enthusiasm for the franchise waned, and the franchise fell into the hands of young directors like Jun Fukuda, who were far more eager to meet series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s edict that Godzilla films be as family-friendly and inoffensive as possible.
While it would be easy to see Tanaka as entirely misguided in his efforts, bear in mind that he was just a businessman trying to keep one of his most successful properties going. The Japanese film industry was in a massive rut, and the only films regularly drawing audiences were aimed at children, the Gamera series being a good example. Gamera actually set the trend for kaiju films aimed squarely at children, and the Godzilla franchise could either follow suit or die.
But whatever the reasons, the films suffered from Honda’s loss, growing not just more child-oriented, but flat-out dumber. Effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya had departed from Toho in the 1960s, leaving the effects in the hands of less-skilled artists working with minuscule budgets. The quality of the films suffered, and box-office returns suffered as well. Despite coaxing Honda back for one last film in 1975, the franchise officially put to pasture.
It’s films from this later Showa period that unfortunately inform most people’s picture of Japanese Godzilla movies; dumb, shoddy-looking wrestling matches between actors in rubber suits while Japanese schoolchildren egg on the combatants. Looking at the films, it’s hard to argue. Even the earlier Showa films, with glorious Tsuburaya effects and Honda trying his best to make things more “all-ages” than “kid-centric” aren’t usually given their due despite being much better films than they’re given credit for.
Click below to continue on to the second page for the Heisei Series and the Millennium Series…