After a decade-long fling with Hollywood, Godzilla has emerged from the muck of Tokyo Bay to reclaim his rightful territory around Japan’s capital, and still offers a mirror on the Japanese people’s worries and fears.
The rampaging reptile is one of the most universal, enduring and recognisable symbols of Japanese popular culture and the longest running series – at more than 60 years – in film history. Only James Bond comes close as an enduring international film franchise.
Some say the new film, Godzilla Resurgence, which opened in Japan on July 29 and will open in other Asian cities throughout August, is the series’ best ever offering. It is the first totally Japanese Godzilla film since Godzilla: the Final Years in 2004, and becomes the 31st in the series, after 29 by Toho Productions and two American productions.
The most recent American version, 2014’s Godzilla by director Gareth Edwards, featured many of the familiar tropes: the monster is born out of and sustained by nuclear radiation (in this case a Japanese nuclear power plant); he stomps through cities smashing buildings right and left; and he battles with another monster, Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).
Yet somehow, it didn’t seem like the real Godzilla – the monster whose big screen debut came in 1954’s Godzilla, by director Ishiro Honda. “We had no plans for a sequel in 1954,” the late director recalled before he died. Indeed, the monster was killed off in the first movie (though this has never been an obstacle to reviving the him in subsequent productions). Toho soon changed its mind and the second film, Godzilla the Fire Monster, was released the following year.
Initial reviews were cool. Some dismissed it as “junk”. But the original is now ranked as one of the greatest Japanese movies of all time, up there with Akira Kurosawa’sSeven Samurai, released the same year.
In 2004, Godzilla achieved film immortality when his name was placed on a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
The initial judgments on this year’s releasewere enthusiastic and just a little chauvinistic. The website Cinema Today heralded the “birth of a masterpiece that boldly announces the revival of a Japanese Godzilla” while eiga.com, said: “Hollywood, even with all its money, can’t approach this kind of perfection.”
Though never a “message” film per se, the series has always been attuned to the current pulse of Japanese life. In Godzilla versus King Ghidora, from 1991, the eponymous monster turned his ire on ostentatious displays of wealth from the Bubble Economy era of the 1980s by obliterating the new 60-storey Tokyo city hall, to cheers from the audience.
The latest Godzilla film comes against the backdrop of rising concern over Chinese assertiveness and two deadly earthquakes in the past five years that have left whole areas of Honshu and Kyushu islands looking like some real-life Godzilla has stomped through their neighbourhoods, leaving a trail of death and destruction. It has a lot of talking for an action film, as officials try to cope with the monster’s re-emergence.
It reflects the chaos and confusion that accompanied the devastating earthquake and tsunami which hit the country five years ago. Viewers abroad may not catch the poignancy of the scene of a press conference headed by lead actor Hiroki Hasegawa in a light blue jump suit.
But it will send chills down the spine of anyone living in Japan who remembers the real-life press meetings in 2011 as, one by one, three nuclear power plants melted down.
The Japanese armed forces can’t subdue the monster, and neither can Americans dropping bunker buster bombs. At one point the clueless prime minister complains he is taking orders from Washington, which might be seen as a statement that America cannot be counted on to defend Japan in the face of a provocation or invasion.
The pace quickens as the beast bursts out of an underground traffic tunnel and starts rampaging through Tokyo, his huge tail destroying buildings while he brushes off missiles and air strikes with his atomic breath. At one point the government considers evacuating the city (as the real-life government briefly considered during the Fukushima nuclear crisis).
Watch: Critics say Japan hasn’t learned from Fukushima disaster
Early versions of Godzilla featured actors wearing monster suits, but the films have become much more sophisticated in using computer effects. Co-director Shinji Higuchi promised Godzilla Resurgence would be “the most terrifying Godzilla that Japan’s cutting-edge special effects can muster”.
The monster has also grown in height as Tokyo’s skyline has risen. For the series’ first 30 years, Toho publicists pegged his height at 52 metres, two metres higher than the highest Ginza buildings he attacked in the first film. Now he is a menacing 118 metres.
Although many people assume that Godzilla, the name and figure, are in the public domain, Toho is just as aggressive in defending its copyright and trademarks as Disney is in protecting Mickey Mouse.
Anyone thinking to add the suffix “-zilla” to a product name can expect to receive a cease and desist letter from the firm’s lawyers. The litigation has kept Godzilla’s brand thriving and has helped pave the way for the extremely lucrative commercial and merchandising tie-ins that will accompany the monster’s return to the big screen.