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A Short History of Giant Monster Movies

Written by Michael Callari

After years of box office domination by zombies, vampires, werewolves, and other less-than-normal creatures of manageable size, a different kind of monster – this one so large as to scoff at the parameters of reality – seems poised to make a comeback. Godzilla, the 30th entry in cinema’s longest-running series, is due in U.S. theaters on May 16th. Populated with a surprisingly prolific cast, its previews have presented Japan’s most famous monster as an almost apocalyptic force, every natural and unnatural disaster packed into one unstoppable being. The devastation left in Godzilla’s wake is both personal and too vast to comprehend.

That’s not to say it’ll be any good, of course, but one thing is certain: Godzilla is about to drag the long-neglected and misunderstood genre of giant monster movies back into the spotlight it once held.

In 1925, the stop-motion animation of Willis O’Brien showcased in The Lost World shocked audiences with its depiction of dinosaurs surviving to the present day on a plateau in the Amazon. (A New York Times reporter present at a test reel screening famously wrote, “If fakes, they were masterpieces.”) In spite of its revolutionary special effects, The Lost World proved a mere warm-up for O’Brien’s talents – his next film would be none other than King Kong (1933). Kong’s story scarcely needs retelling, but his character is worth noting. More than a mindless menace, he is at turns curious, enraged, and tragic.

King Kong was a runaway success, but the expense of its visuals made imitations unfeasible. Its only immediate legacy was a sequel (The Son of Kong) that was thrown together as quickly as audiences forgot it, as well as a pair of Japanese rip-offs called Japanese King Kong (1933) and King Kong Appears in Edo (1938). Both of these films used miniatures and stuntmen in suits in place of stop-motion. Sadly, modern audiences will never see Japan’s first giant monster movies – both were lost at some point during the Pacific War.

The mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that concluded that war and hurtled the human race into a terrifying new age would also lead to the emergence of a new breed of monster. Following a successful 1952 re-release of King Kong, Willis O’Brien’s protégé Ray Harryhausen contributed stop-motion effects to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the story of a dinosaur that is released from suspended animation by a nuclear test and attacks New York. Its success allowed monsters of all stripes to infest American theaters for the rest of the decade, and also inspired Japan’s Toho Studios to try a more ambitious project the next year – Godzilla.

Godzilla is a Cold War film that could only have come from a still-rebuilding Japan. Though Tokyo’s agent of destruction is a skyscraper-sized, heat-ray-spewing fusion of Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, and Iguanodon, Godzilla’s rampages harken back to the conventional and atomic bombings of Japanese cities during the Pacific War, as well as a March 1954 American hydrogen bomb test with a stronger-than-anticipated detonation that irradiated both Japanese fishermen and the tuna they brought back to their markets. Godzilla himself, however, is not a stand-in for the American military; skin texture patterned after radiation burns, he too is a victim of the nuclear age, and his demise is presented as somberly as Kong’s plunge from the Empire State Building.

Made during Japan’s Golden Age of cinema and with the highest budget of any Japanese film at that time, Godzilla’s success inspired Toho to produce a succession of other giant monster movies. Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya refined the man-in-a-suit techniques used decades earlier in the Japanese Kong movies to create a time-sensitive alternative to stop-motion that also allowed his monsters a greater ability to interact with their surroundings. Godzilla himself would return in 1962 with a surprising sparring partner in King Kong vs. Godzilla. This time, the Kong character was used legally, and the venture proved successful enough for Toho to turn out Godzilla sequels at a rate of almost one a year for the next decade-plus. The films quickly departed from the dark tone of the original, with Godzilla evolving into a (somewhat cantankerous) defender of the Earth. For better or for worse, it was this lighter take on giant monsters (or as they’re known in Japan, daikaiju) that defined the genre for multiple generations of children around the world.

Naturally, other studios devised Godzilla imitators, the most successful being Daiei’s Gamera, a flying, fire-breathing turtle. While critics generally regard the 50s and early 60s as the high points of Japan’s daikaiju boom, it was the latter half of the 60s that produced the greatest volume of movies. From 1966 to 1967, four Japanese studios combined to make eleven daikaiju epics. At the same time, Tsuburaya Productions was bringing the genre to television with the Outer Limits-esque Ultra Q and the alien hero Ultraman. The movement started losing steam in the 70s, with Japan’s film industry in general having fallen on hard times, and essentially vanished by 1975. The next year saw a high-profile (if ill-advised) remake of King Kong, but few giant monsters graced screens until Godzilla’s return in 1984. His following six films did brisk business in Japan, but garnered little attention elsewhere. Toho ended the series in 1995 (coincidentally, just as a revitalized Daiei was beginning its acclaimed Gamera trilogy) to pave the way for a high-tech American Godzilla remake.

TriStar’s Godzilla (1998) proved to be a failed experiment, to put it mildly. Although buoyed by a mammoth marketing campaign, the team behind Independence Day (1996) managed to botch Godzilla’s character on nearly every conceivable level. Though not entirely unsuccessful financially, the movie’s sequels were scrapped, and Toho brought back their Godzilla just a year later. Unfortunately, it proved to be a somewhat underwhelming return, with the once-a-year entries in the franchise struggling to break even. Finally, Toho “retired” Godzilla in 2004 following his 50th anniversary film, Godzilla: Final Wars.

Since Godzilla’s hibernation, daikaiju films are still being made, but they are in general more modest, nostalgic affairs than before. The inexorable rise of computer graphics have led to a decline in technicians experienced with traditional special effects, making the logistics alone of making such films more difficult than they used to be. Now attention has shifted back to the West. Though Peter Jackson’s ambitious remake of King Kong in 2005 received only modest acclaim, better-received was Cloverfield (2008), which depicted a giant monster attack on New York City through the lens of a hand-held video camera. British director Gareth Edwards, the man behind the next Godzilla movie, first attracted attention with his independent film Monsters (2010), set in a Mexico infested with bioluminescent alien giants. Last year saw the release of Guillermo del Toro’s blockbuster Pacific Rim, which has already earned a cult following. Each has demonstrated a certain commitment to realism despite the impossible subject matter (though they each go about it in different ways), and Pacific Rim in particular does not disguise its Japanese roots.

As the new Godzilla nears its release date, Japan seems poised for a daikaiju resurgence as well. A new Gamera film has been announced for next year, as the superturtle will celebrate his 50th anniversary. Ultraman, who since his debut has evolved into a cultural icon, hits the half-century mark the following year. And Shinji Higuchi, special effects director for the 90s Gamera trilogy, has been tabbed to direct a live-action adaptation of the wildly popular manga Attack on Titan.

These are the facts of the genre – the names, the dates, the ticket sales. Next, we’ll take a look at what all of these city-shredding monsters are supposed to mean.