The King of the Monsters is back. In just a week’s time, Godzilla—directed by English filmmaker Gareth Edwards—has risen to number one at the box office, earning over $93 million in its opening weekend and totalling over $200 million worldwide thus far. And while it’s not being called a masterpiece, the newest Godzilla has been far better received than Hollywood’s previous attempt at adapting the big lizard in 1998 (where the eponymous beast was turned into a giant iguana).
Outside Godzilla fans and those who love the Godzilla vs. Megalon episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, most filmgoers are likely unaware that the radioactive dinosaur (Godzillasaurus, to be exact) has a long and storied history. In fact, they’d be surprised to learn that…
5. The Original Film Was A Serious Drama
Admittedly, the trailers for the newest Godzilla give off a fairly serious impression, quoting J. Robert Oppenheimer’s reaction to the first atomic bomb test (“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”) and sampling György Ligeti’s chilling choral piece Requiem. Without spoiling too much, however, the Godzilla reboot is tonally very much a summer romp in the vein of Independence Day—which was, coincidentally, directed by the same man who helmed the much maligned 1998 film.
The same cannot be said for Ishirō Honda’s original 1954 movie. Filmed and released in Japan less than a decade after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla was an intentional commentary on the horrors of nuclear warfare. Honda himself said that he “took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla,” and it shows. The 1954 Godzilla’s effects might look primitive by today’s standards—especially the newest film—but the director did not flinch from showing the innumerable victims of the monster’s rampage, including a weeping mother who holds her children close as the beast approaches, telling them they’ll be with their daddy soon.
The original movie also depicted the moral burden undertaken by those who create weapons of mass destruction, specifically in the form of young scientist Daisuke Serizawa. The doctor formulates an “oxygen destroyer” compound capable of killing Godzilla, but fears it will be put to use by the military like nuclear power before it. Realizing he cannot stand idly by why the monster destroys his country, he burns his notes and personally, administers the oxygen destroyer to Godzilla, afterwards allowing himself to drown rather than let his discovery fall into the wrong hands.
4. It Was Also Commercially And Culturally Significant
We’ve established that Godzilla was originally intended to be a metaphor for nuclear holocaust, which is pretty significant to say the least. But the first film’s success was a boon to Japan both domestically and internationally.
Admittedly, Honda’s Godzilla was not initially well-received in Japan. According to Scott Poole’s book Monsters in America, Japanese critics claimed it exploited the horrors the country had endured not even a decade before. However, the film has accumulated much more praise since then, and a survey of Japanese movie critics in the late 1990s named it the 27th best movie ever made in Japan. In its time, it also won a Japanese Movie Association award for special effects and was nominated for best film (losing out to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai). According to the Internet Movie Database, it also had the distinction of being the most expensive film made in Japan at the time.
On the other side of the Pacific, Godzilla was somewhat mishandled both through the use of English dubbing—which would become standard practice for almost every film in the series that followed—as well as the inclusion of several expository scenes featuring American reporter Steve Martin (no, not the comedian), played by Raymond Burr of Perry Mason fame. Until a rerelease of the original Japanese film in 2004, this version of the movie was the most well-known Stateside. Retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, it was quite successful for the time, grossing over $2 million (roughly $17 million today). It also has the distinction of being one of the first major Western movie releases to portray the Japanese sympathetically following World War II.
3. “Godzilla” Is Not A Mistranslation Or Mispronunciation
Blame the 1998 film for popularizing this one. Gojira—a portmanteau of gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale)—is the King of the Monster’s name in Japanese, and the big guy has been referred to as such in every one of his movies in the Land of the Rising Sun. “Godzilla” has long been rumoured to be an American invention since a significantly edited version of the first movie was released in the U.S. in 1956. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla acknowledges this by having an egotistical news anchor—played by Harry Shearer of The Simpsons fan—mispronounce the proper name of “Gojira” on the air.
But the original Godzilla’s IMDb trivia page and the official Godzilla Wiki claim that “Godzilla” was devised by Toho, the film’s studio and distributor, for a limited American release in 1954. In fact, the actual Japanese pronunciation of Gojira is quite similar to how it’s spoken in North America. Which means that most people have been mispronouncing Gojira all this time—just not the way they think, ironically.
2. He’s Tied To Some Pretty Famous People
While George Takei made his name as Mr. Sulu on Star Trek—and, more recently, as the Internet’s loveable grandfather figure—his first feature film credit was dubbing a character’s voice in English for the big monster’s second outing, Godzilla Raids Again, when it was released in the U.S. He also did similar voice work in Rodan, the first movie featuring Godzilla’s off-and-on ally.
Godzilla also has some notable Simpsons connections, beyond occasionally appearing in cartoon form on the show: Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film featured Hank Azaria (Moe, Chief Wiggum, Apu) and Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Smithers, Ned Flanders, Kent Brockman) in principal and supporting roles, respectively, and cast Nancy Cartwright (Bart, Ralph Wiggum, Nelson Muntz) in a cameo role as the latter’s secretary. And this is to say nothing of Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno, who were lead-billed in the movie and, if we can speculate based on its critical reception, probably wouldn’t mind seeing it stricken from their resumes.
And now, as of 2014, Godzilla can count Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe and Elizabeth Olsen among his cinematic collaborators. Not bad connections in the least.
1. He’s Seen As A Celebrity
Much like Kermit the Frog and the rest of the Muppets, Godzilla has grown beyond his original monster role and become a cultural figure in his own right, especially since the character developed into a hero throughout the 1960s and ’70s. While he hasn’t appeared on talk shows or Hollywood squares—due to obvious size issues—the big lizard has earned his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the MTV Movie Awards. Parodies of the creature have been featured in children’s television shows like Rugrats (in the form of Reptar) and even his roar has made cameos in everything from The Simpsons to Chappelle’s Show. There was even the time he faced off against Charles Barkley in a Nike commercial (turned into the comic book seen above!).
So ubiquitous is Godzilla that various companies have even forgotten the character is copyrighted and not part of the public domain. In the past couple decades, Toho Co., Ltd. has sent cease and desist letters to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (they named one of their boats the MV Gojira) and rapper Pharoahe Monch (his 1999 song “Simon Says” sampled Godzilla’s roar without permission). Which, all things considered, is probably preferable to being served a notice by the big guy himself.