Godzilla: The Showa-era (1954-1975) | I’m roaring with excitement over Criterion’s beast of a Blu-ray box set
67-years-ago, Japan’s monster movie genre, kaiju-eiga, rose out of the sea in the guise of Godzilla. Over the following decades, Toho’s terrifying symbol of nuclear annihilation has transformed into a superhero in a series of films ranging from serious sci-fi to bubblegum pop. I’ve grown up with Godzilla and his many allies and adversaries, and count Mothra, Ghidora, Hedorah and Mechagodzilla among my favourites of the Shōwa-era (1957-1975).
With Godzilla vs Kong now streaming, I thought it would be the best time to share my thoughts about Criterion’s eight-disc box-set, which I have been watching whilst in lockdown. It features a bonanza of extra content as well as a monster-sized book featuring great artwork*** and new writing about each of the films. Let the roaring begin…
Godzilla (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1954)
In June 1953, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms rampaged through New York where it unleashed a deadly prehistoric contagion before being burned alive in an inferno at Coney Island. Then, in October 1954, Japan faced another radioactive monster from the deep, Gojira.
This superior and deadly serious atomic age sci-fi is an all-time classic and looks better than ever in HD. The human story is a blunt yet purposeful metaphor for Japan’s post-war nuclear holocaust fears, and Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects and miniature sets are and still look fantastic. But what I love most about this Japanese original is Akira Ifukube’s powerful, yet melancholy score. The US version, featuring Raymond Burr, is also included.
Godzilla Raids Again (dir. Motoyoshi Oda, 1955)
Released in the US as Gigantis, the Fire Monster, this black and white sequel sees Godzilla going up against his first foe – an ankylosaurus called Anguirus. This time, Osaka’s ancient port city ends up in ruins after the two monsters do battle outside the historical caste. The human story involves a group of convicts whose escape plans go awry when the city’s subway is flooded (in one of the film’s best sequences). Meanwhile, two pilots (Hiroshi Koizumi and Minoru Chiaki) working for a tuna cannery company who end up the film’s unlikely heroes. Anguirus is no match for Godzilla, but the returning titan ends up buried in an avalanche of ice and rock.
King Kong vs Godzilla (dir. Ishiro Honda, Thomas Montgomery, 1963)
After seven years in hibernation, Godzilla rampages once more – and this time in glorious colour. This Toho-Universal co-production (based on an original idea by Willis O’Brien) opens with one of the best sequences in the entire franchise – a giant octopus attacking an island village. Kong defeats the creature, then falls fast asleep after eating some irresistible berry juice. While resting, he’s transported to Japan by a pharmaceutical company who plan to put Kong on show. But with Godzilla on the warpath, it’s not before they engage in some rock-throwing and fire-breathing; with Tokyo once more facing destruction. The wrestling titans end up in an underwater battle after destroying Atami Castle, where the final battle score is 1:1.
Mothra vs Godzilla (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1964)
In the second of 11 films and a 1990s trilogy featuring Toho’s second favourite kaiju character – another slimy entrepreneur plans to turn one of Mothra’s giant eggs into a sideshow attraction. At the same time, Godzilla emerges from his muddy to lay waste the city of Nagoya. A news reporter, a photographer and a professor then head to Infant Island to request the Shobijin (again played by The Peanuts, AKA twin sisters Emi and Yumi Itō) to send Mothra to defeat Godzilla. The duo clash, but Mothra is ultimately defeated. However, all is not lost when the egg hatches two larvae, which then spin a cocoon around Godzilla, and dump him in the sea.
I love this film, almost as much as 1961’s Mothra (check out the Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment). Yuji Koseki’s catchy Song of Mothra gets revamped by Akira Ifukube, whose The Sacred Springs, sung by The Peanuts, is the film’s standout track. In the US, American Internation Pictures released an edited version under the title Godzilla vs The Thing.
Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1964)
Released eight months after Mothra Vs. Godzilla, this monster mash-up sees the franchise getting a bit of an overhaul, with Godzilla now taking on the role of Earth’s protector. This time around, the menace is the titular lightning-emitting space monster who would go on to become Godzilla’s arch-enemy in the Showa series and beyond.
In a nod to Roman Holiday, which did big business in Japan, the story sees a princess of a remote nation (future Bond girl Akiko Wakabayashi) saved from being assassinated by an alien intelligence and used as a prophet of doom. Action star Yosuke Natsuki is the detective tasked with protecting her. While assassins try to kill her, Mothra brokers a deal with Godzilla and the irradiated Pteranodon, Rodan (one of my least favourite kaiju) to join forces to take Gihidorah down. The film’s highlight is Ghidorah’s fiery birth (overseen by an expedition wearing some fab colour-coordinated outfits), and check out the panto-worthy costumes worn by the princess’ royal courtiers.
Invasion of Astro-Monster (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1965)
In the series’ first space adventure, two astronauts – Nick Adams (a dead-ringer for Vladimir Putin) and Akira Takarada – investigate a mysterious new planet under attack from King Ghidorah (Monster Zero). The United Nations agrees to help, by lending them Godzilla and Rodan, but the evil controller of Planet X plans to invade the Earth using all three monsters under his control.
Esi Tsuburaya and his special effects team create some winning designs here (it’s all very Gerry Anderson), mostly the alien landscapes, futuristic weaponry and Planet’s X’s flying saucers (which I’d love to have as a model). And the aliens look cool in their body-hugging vinyl suits and wraparound sunglasses. The monster fight sequences are well-staged (although the wires are very noticeable on Rodan and Ghidorah). There are also some comic antics from Godzilla when he does his victory dance (inspired by Fujio Akatsuka’s manga Oso Matsu-kun, where the main character jumps up in a particular pose while shouting ‘Shie!’).
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (dir. Jun Fukuda, 1966)
In this South Seas island-set James Bondian adventure, a new team took charge of the film’s direction, score and special effects and it’s quite the colourful confection all to the strains of some jazzy guitar riffs. The story follows young Ryota (Toru Watanabe) as he goes in search for his missing brother on a stolen yacht with two companions and a stowaway (Akira Takarada). After being attacked by the titular Ebirah (a giant lobster), during a storm, they get shipwrecked on an island where The Red Bamboo (a secret army) are building atomic weapons for a planned attack on Japan. Discovering this, the foursome and a young native girl try to help the island’s captive workforce (from Mothra’s Infant Island) to escape. At the same time, Godzilla gets a rude awakening beneath the island. The film’s standout scene is an aerial attack on Godzilla, while Mothra makes a welcome return.
Son of Godzilla (dir. Jun Fukuda, 1967)
This second island adventure from Toho starts off a tad slow but pays off with some great monsters and comic turns from the lead players. A team of scientists are working on a weather control system on Sollgel Island when a mishap results in a radioactive storm, causing the island’s oversized mantises to grow to gigantic size. Godzilla then comes to the rescue when they unearth an egg that hatches a baby Godzilla. As Godzilla teaches his adopted charge, Minilla (AKA Minya), how to use its atomic ray (cue lots of humourous interplay), the scientists, reporters, and island native girls find themselves under attack by a giant spider. But guess who comes to the rescue? I loved the mantises’ design (Kamacuras – AKA Gimantis) and the spider (Kumonga AKA Spiga) here, and the jazzy music is a plus. The only downside for me was Minilla – but little kids loved him.
Destroy All Monsters (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1968)
Toho planned to end the Godzilla series with this monster mash-up and, wanting to out with a bang, reuniting the original 1954 creative team. It’s 1999, and the world’s monsters are now all housed on Monsterland island under the United Nations Science Committee’s watchful eye. But when an alien race called the Kilaaks (who wear a nice line in silver lamé) use mind control on the monsters, all hell breaks loose. Rodan attacks Moscow, Mothra Beijing, Manda London, Baragon Paris and Godzilla New York (beginning with the UN HQ). After the UNSC retaliate by destroying the Kilaaks lunar outpost, the aliens call in King Ghidorah to protect their secret base at Mount Fuji. Godzilla, Minilla, Mothra, Rodan, Gorosaurus, Anguirus, and Kumonga join forces to take down the fire-breathing serpent. But the Kilaaks have a new surprise: a Fire Dragon.
This was the first Godzilla film I saw (aged seven), and it made me a life-long fan. The action set pieces are well-orchestrated, while the primary coloured sets, costumes and special effects (courtesy of a returning Tsuburaya) are terrific, especially the Moonlight SY-3 spaceship and the Kilaaks saucers. Best scenes are the attack on Tokyo, the battle at Mount Fuji, and the climactic showdown. A massive hit in both Japan and the US (where American International Pictures distributed it), its success meant Godzilla would live to fight another day.
All Monsters Attack (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1969)
OK! This one is a bit of a dud in my book, as it uses footage from the previous films wrapped around the story of a little boy who some kids in his Kawasaki neighbourhood are bullying. At the same time, Godzilla’s annoying son Minilla has similar issues with an ogre-like creature called Gabara. Director Honda, who retired after making this film, regarded it as one of his favourites, as it directly spoke to children (its target audience). It went out under the title, Godzilla’s Revenge, in the US, initially on the same bill as the ‘underrated’ British sci-fi Night of the Big Heat starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Godzilla vs Hedorah (dir. Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971)
Yeah! One of my all-time favourites. Released internationally as Godzilla vs the Smog Monster, this 11th film in the series re-establishes Godzilla as an ecological hero as he comes up against a glowing red-eyed alien spawned from pollution. ‘Hedoro’ (which means polluted mud) is one of my favourite creature designs of the series, and quite similar to the one-eyed tentacle monsters in The Green Slime (1968). Although aimed at younger audiences, and again featuring a little boy at the centre of the action, this latest kaiju features some genuinely scary moments (all the better to highlight the very real problem of out of control pollution in Japan at the time). My fave is when a transformed flying Hedora’s toxic sludge and gas turns people into skeletons.
Set against a trippy hippie backdrop (the club scenes are ‘wild man!’, and check out the crazy paisley clobber and sealife masks!), it also features a kitschy catchy theme tune, Kaese! Taiyô wo (Return! The Sun), which was sung by Keiko Mari in the Japanese version and redone as Save The Earth, written and sung by Adryan Russ, on the US AIP edit (which is the version I first saw). Russ went on to score the Broadway hit Inside Out, and her music also features on TV shows Young Sheldon and WandaVision. It’s such a cool song; here are both versions to enjoy. It’s just a shame that the US edit isn’t included in this box set.
Godzilla vs Gigan (dir. Jun Fukuda, 1972)
Cockroach-like aliens, the Nebulans, take on human form and construct a theme park, World Children’s Land, to serve as their secret base. With their planet dying, they see a polluted Earth as the ideal place to colonise. To aid them in their plan to wipe out humanity, they electronically control two space monsters: King Ghidorah and a reptilian cyborg called Gigan. But a Manga artist stumbles on their plans and, with the help of his karate-kicking girlfriend and hippie sidekick; they alert the Japan Self Defense Forces. Meanwhile, planet protectors Godzilla and Anguirus ally to take down the space monsters and the aliens.
This 12th Godzilla film was a huge success, with returning director Jun Fukuda putting the franchise back on track after the disappointing box-office returns of Godzilla vs Hedora. Designed primarily as a marketing ploy for children’s toys, Gigan (who sports scythe-like claws, abdominal buzz-saw and pincer-like mandibles) is one of Godzilla’s most brutal adversaries, and also the first kaiju in the Toho series to make him bleed. Featuring lashings action and goofiness, and more bloodshed than any previous Godzilla film, this one also introduced a new trope to the series: monster tag teams facing off each other. It also marked Haruo Nakajima’s final performance as Godzilla, which he had played for 24 years.
Godzilla vs Megalon (dir. Jun Fukuda, 1973)
This film sees Godzilla turned into a fully-fledged monster-hero for kids, and with no female characters to speak of, it’s an entirely Boys’ Own adventure. The scenario sees Seatopia’s Emperor Antonio (The Green Slime’s Robert Dunham) retaliating against the surface dwellers nuclear testing by letting loose the underwater kingdom’s protector Megalon, a giant beetle with drillbit arms that spits napalm bombs and shoots death rays. He also calls on space monster Gigan (who looks way less sinister this time around due to the new suit) to join forces to create mass destruction.
Again, a little boy, Rokuro (Hiroyuki Kawase), is at the centre of the action along with his scientist brother Goro (Katsuhiko Sasaki) and his friend Hiroshi (Yutaka Hayashi). Meanwhile, Godzilla is shoved to the sidelines as the film-makers show off their equivalent to the many Ultraman heroes – Jet Jaguar, a flying super robot who gets his own theme tune (you can sing along with it below). Relying mostly on stock footage, it’s pretty unexciting on the SFX side, while the climactic tag-team looks like something out of a 1970s TV wrestling match. Oh, and look carefully during the big pyrotechnic scene as you can see the Godzilla suit catching fire.
Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (dir. Jun Fukuda, 1974)
This penultimate Showa-era kaiju finds Godzilla taking on his space titanium doppelganger. Created by the ape-like Black Hole Planet 3 Aliens, Mechagodzilla (with its head-spinning space beams and finger missiles) is one of my top fave Godzilla adversaries. The robotic menace proved a big hit when it made its debut and has continued to appear in films, comics and video games and is sure to garner a new generation of fans when it rises again in Godzilla vs Kong. Disguised as Godzilla, the giant robot attacks Tokyo but is soon confronted by the real Godzilla and forced to retreat to the alien’s crater base inside Mount Fuji. Much intrigue ensues involving an archaeologist, Interpol agents, and a mystical statue that awakens King Caesar – the ancient guardian of Okinawa’s royal Azumi family. Of course, Mechagodzilla is no match when King Caesar and Godzilla joins forces.
Terror of Mechagodzilla (dir. Ishiro Honda, 1975)
It’s the end of an era and what better way than to bring back the mighty Mechagodzilla. Again those simian aliens return to finish what they started – the conquest of the Earth. This time around, they rebuild their greatest weapon with living human brain cells and use a young woman, Katsura (Tomoko Ai) – who has been turned into a cyborg by her mad scientist dad – to control its circuitry. Again, Interpol is trying to stop the aliens while Godzilla battles with Mechagodzilla MK2 and one of the campest kaiju monsters of the Showa-era Titanosaurus, a pink-frilled aquatic dinosaur who uses its swishing tail to wreak destruction.
I have a soft spot for this final entry because the excellent production design (especially the alien’s base) reminded me of the early James Bond films and Thunderbirds. And as for Goro Mutsumi’s blue-shades wearing alien leader Akihiko Hirata’s crazed scientist – they are worthy of being in an Austin Powers movie. Great to see Honda back on board and Akira Ifukube composing another excellent score.
• HD digital transfers of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the 1956 US-release version of Godzilla; and the 1962 Japanese-release version of King Kong vs Godzilla (which is on disc 8)
• Audio commentaries from 2011 on Godzilla and Godzilla, King of the Monsters featuring film historian David Kalat
• International English-language dub tracks for Invasion of Astro-Monster, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla vs Megalon, Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, and Terror of Mechagodzilla
• 1990 Directors Guild of Japan interview with director Ishiro Honda
• Featurettes on the creation of Godzilla’s special effects and unused effects sequences
• New interview with Alex Cox about his admiration for the Showa-era Godzilla films
• New and archival interviews with cast and crew members, including actors Bin Furuya, Tsugutoshi Komada, Haruo Nakajima, and Akira Takarada; composer Akira Ifukube; and effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai
• Interview with critic Tadao Sato from 2011
• Illustrated audio essay from 2011 about the real-life tragedy that inspired Godzilla
• New English subtitle translations
*** THE ILLUSTRATORS
Arthur Adams, Sophie Campbell, Becky Cloonan, Jorge Coelho, Geof Darrow, Simon Gane, Robert Goodin, Benjamin Marra, Monarobot, Takashi Okazaki, Angela Rizza, Yuko Shimizu, Bill Sienkiewicz, Katsuya Terada, Ronald Wimberly and Chris Wisnia